“No, absolutely not!” Flynn said.
The hulking boggart facing him grinned. “You need the information. I have the information. You give me what I want and I’ll give you what you want.” The grin widened. “And what can go wrong with a game of cards?”
“You’re planning on playing poker with the Rev Darren King,” Flynn said. “He’s an exorcist. He’s a vicar. He’s used to facing demons. I’m not sure he even knows the rules, Vernon.” He looked around the cavernous warehouse at the watching boggarts and wondered if facing demons would be easier.
“That’s what I thought,” Vernon said smugly.
“I know the rules,” Darren said, irritation rolling from him in waves. “What are the stakes. I won’t stake my soul or anything that will affect my mission.”
Vernon hunkered down on one side of the kitchen table pulled to the centre of the hall. “It’s easy. We both start with equal chips. If you win, I tell you all I know about Mercury. If I win, I still tell you about Mercury, but you owe me a favour. And I won’t breathe a word about anything if you don’t play.”
“You really need to see someone about your gambling addiction,” Darren said as he sat on the hard kitchen chair opposite Vernon. “What are the rules?”
“I thought you knew the rules.” Vernon scoffed.
“I mean, is it the Texas game that I’ve heard about?” Darren said. “And is it played with a standard deck or is it like piquet where some cards are removed?”
Vernon’s grin couldn’t get wider, but he looked a happy boggart as he picked up the cards. “It’s a standard deck, draw poker. Bring over the drink, boys.”
“I’m just on water,” Darren said. “You know what I face. And I’m always on call.”
“That’s fair enough,” Vernon begrudgingly agreed.
“Let me play instead,” Flynn said as he watched Vernon expertly riffle shuffle. “I can give you a good game.”
“But then I don’t get to boast that I played cards with Darren King,” Vernon said. He handed the cards over to Darren. “Deal.”
Darren shuffled the cards with a loose, overhand shuffle and frowned at Vernon. “This is a waste of time.”
“Not if you want that information,” Vernon said, watching a young boggart in a mini skirt and heels stack the chips in front of the players. She poured a large whisky for him and placed a bottle of water next to Darren. “Go on, padre, let’s play cards.”
Flynn didn’t want to look. Darren wasn’t exactly wholesome. He had what looked like a good relationship with his girlfriend, and was a working minister as well as an exorcist, but he wasn’t exactly a little ray of sunshine. Darren had no tolerance for fools, no time for idiots and was ruthlessly determined. He also lost the first two hands. He wasn’t the sort of man who played cards. He would be more likely to read an improving book. Why couldn’t he have taken Darren’s place? Of course, if Darren just lost the games then at least they would get the information quicker. They would still owe Vernon a favour, though, and he wasn’t a nice boggart. The rotting warehouse was cold and damp but Flynn could feel a trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades and his stomach was churning. He straightened up. He was an immortal elfen that could deal with any amount of boggarts and was not in the mood for nonsense. On the other hand, Darren was mortal and comparatively fragile. He helped himself to a glass of the cheap whiskey.
“This place is a mess,” Darren said as Vernon dealt the next hand. He unscrewed the cap on the water bottle. “You should get yourself a decent place.” He took a mouthful from the bottle and grimaced. “Really? You had to use cheap vodka? You could have at least used the decent stuff.”
Vernon’s eyes narrowed. “I thought vodka didn’t taste of anything,” he said.
“Neat vodka is hard to miss,” Darren said, picking up the cards and looking around. “Do you have rats here?”
“Do rats bother you?” Vernon asked hopefully.
Darren stared at him. “I wouldn’t last long as an exorcist if they did. I just thought I saw one.” He threw in a chip.
Vernon glanced down at his cards. “We don’t usually get them in. Perhaps they followed the scent of fresh meat?” His heart wasn’t in it, though, and Darren’s mocking smile wasn’t help. “And I’ll raise.”
Darren grunted. “I’m sure a lot of your boys would be better in somewhere warm out of the draughts,” he said, tossing in another chip. “Just halfway decent chairs would make a difference.”
“What, and all nice covers and that?” Vernon sneered. “These are street boggarts. What sort of boggarts are you used to?” He threw in another chip.
“I used to have Mr and Mrs Appuck in my parish, and I see quite a bit of Mrs Tuesday,” Darren said, throwing his chip in. “Their houses were immaculate.”
Vernon grunted as he tried to ignore the reference to some of the most feared boggarts in the country. “That’s the old ways, though. We don’t need any of that.” He checked the diminished stack of chips and his hand. “I call.”
Flynn kept his face carefully neutral as Darren’s flush beat Vernon’s two pair. A suspicion started to grow as Darren bickered over the water that was brought to replace the vodka. Darren wasn’t paying that much attention to his cards, apparently, just throwing in the chips as he grumbled. Vernon was insisting that the water was fine and suddenly found himself once again running his decent full house into a straight that Darren had given no sign of holding.
“I suppose I do have the advantage,” Vernon said, ignoring his dwindling stack of chips and dealing the next hand. “Normals can’t read boggarts. It’s a well known fact.”
“Fold,” Darren said after a glance, pushing his cards away from him and taking a drink of the water. “That’s better, and nice and cold. I don’t suppose you need a fridge down here.”
“There is nothing wrong with this place,” Vernon said, scowling as he pulled in the tiny stake. “And it’s discreet.”
Darren sighed as he took the cards and shuffled. “Did you never think that activity in an abandoned warehouse would look suspicious?” He dealt the cards. “You’re going to get more attention here than a nice bar or restaurant where you expect to see people coming or going.”
“A restaurant?” Vernon stared at Darren in disbelief, then checked his cards. He glanced at the small pile of chips at his hand. “I raise.”
Darren pushed in his chips. “And you get a nice bit of cash from the business. Of course, you have to have a bit about you to do the wages and all that, but it’s surprising how it can work. You could even open a casino. The bank always wins.”
“I know my way around a poker table,” Vernon said. “All in.” He pushed the last of his chips towards the centre.
Darren pushed his chips in. “You would be better off supervising,” he said.
“Full house,” Vernon said, placing down his cards.
“Straight flush,” Darren said, placing his own cards down. “Now, tell me all about Mercury.”
Flynn was uneasily aware of the boggarts crowding around. It was an odd atmosphere. On one hand, this cocky vicar had just beaten their leader without apparently paying attention. On the other hand, Flynn got a sense that the gambling was becoming a problem. He breathed a little easier. They were probably going to get out of here in one piece.
Vernon smiled ruefully at Darren and held out his hand. “I’ve got it all typed up and I’ll send it to the usual email,” he said. “Thank you for the game.”
“Thanks,” Darren said. He hesitated. “What favour were you going to ask?”
Vernon shrugged. “My youngest is getting married in a few months, and it would have looked good to have someone like yourself tying the knot.”
Darren stared at him for a moment and then laughed. “I love doing weddings. Let me know and I’ll see what I can do. I hardly ever get to do weddings.”
Vernon nodded. “I guess you get too many funerals.”
“More than you can imagine,” Darren said with a grimace. “But that’s the nature of the work.”
Flynn interrupted. “We need to get on,” he said. He nodded to Vernon. “Good game to watch.”
Vernon snorted. “Watch me get beat. I’ll get the info to you.” He thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Mercury is a bastard. I’m not saying I’m helping out an elfen and a normal, but give us a call if you need some back up. Just don’t tell anyone.” There were nods around the room. Mercury had no friends here.
They had driven a few miles before Flynn turned to Darren. “Where did you learn to play cards like that?”
Darren didn’t glance from the road. “I used to be in the Navy, remember, in the Royal Marines. I learned to play cards there. And it came in very useful when I sat up with Mrs Tuesday for a week when she had pneumonia. She really knows how to play cards.” He flicked a quick glance at Flynn and then turned back to driving. “Mrs Tuesday is an elderly boggart with an evil sense of humour and makes Vernon looks like a toothless pussycat. She’d have had those boggarts cleaning so that you could eat your dinner off any surface in the place and left them grateful to her. After that, Vernon wasn’t so tough.”
“You learned to play like that from an old lady?” Flynn asked sceptically.
“From an older boggart card sharp with a dirty mind,” Darren said. A notification rang from his phone. “It sounds like Vernon has kept his word. Let’s see how close we can get to Mercury now.”