"Six of skulls, six of gold, and four of phalluses," said the dealer, his words slurred slightly by his tusk-like fangs. "Hit or stay?"
The player took another drag off his cigarette and said nothing. The cards lay sprawled on the table of bone in front of him. She could not recognize their symbols and wasn't sure she wanted to, but she felt reluctant to look away. "John?" She'd been watching him for the past half hour as he'd deftly traded cards away and accumulated others, bringing them all together into this hand. "What game are you playing?"
He leaned forward, blue eyes gleaming against the red light around them, and examined his cards. "Blackjack," he said after a moment.
She looked at him. He looked back, radiating innocence she could almost feel. She lifted a brow. Finally, he gave her his best charming smile and said, "'strue. Blackjack, love, Dante's rules."
"Hit or stay?" the dealer rasped.
He looked down at his cards again. Then he flicked his cigarette onto a bloody mass of entrails near his feet, leaned over to pick up one of the everburning torches of the damned, and lit a new cigarette off it. "Hit me."
The dealer looked at him expressionlessly.
"Let me guess," she said in a low voice, "the aim is three sixes."
"More complicated than that, really," he said, blowing smoke in the waiting dealer's dull black eyes, "but that's not a bad summary for a new player. I'll make a champion out of you yet."
She looked at his cards, trying not to focus too much on the symbols. A six, a six, and a four. "You're pretty close," she remarked. "What happens if you go over?"
"On this level of Hell?" He tapped ash into a broken skull. "You know the term 'nutcracker'? Like that, only with my soul. Joke's on them, there's not much in there to crack." A beat. "Also the actual nuts, too," he said with less enthusiasm. Then he grinned and looked back at the dealer. "I said hit me, mate!"
The dealer stared at him for a moment longer, then shrugged--quite an undertaking for a being of his breadth--and picked up a card. It took her a second to realize she was holding her breath.
Moments like this had made her fall in love with him. It was an almost dizzying feeling, being so close to the edge, not knowing if the ground would give out from under your feet at any moment.
And he was smiling instead of screaming.
The dealer set the card down. "Two of phalluses," he said flatly. The new card shimmered briefly, then melted into one of the others. Now he had the six of skulls, the six of gold, and the six of phalluses.
He didn't say anything for a moment, didn't even do anything. Then he exhaled (had he too been holding his breath?) a cloud of smoke in the dealer's face. "There you are, mate," he said. "Now where's that key to the next circle I was promised?"
The dealer scowled, or at least did something with his bulky brow, and flipped something slick and squirming at the player. He caught it deftly and dropped it into his pocket with a brief grimace. "Come on, love, let's go."
Her heart was beating so fast. "You know, I love you," she said.
He grinned and leaned down to kiss her.
And he thought: If the plan works, she'll be dead by this time tomorrow.
He would hurt then. Now, in the depths of Hell, he was dancing.