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The answer to every query since I’d been hired at the Gray Ring was the same: Bug did it.

The other man who’d been hired to refill chips and packs wore a rumpled uniform, wire frame glasses that’d clearly seen some abuse and sat crookedly on his nose, and was graying about the temples and hairline. For many men a bit of gray lent dignity or - for a lucky few - a distinguished air, but such was not Bug’s lot in life. His was an uneven sign of aging that grouped badly among the sandy, short curls. His nickname, too, was a product of that gray - a pair of particularly sturdy wires refused to stay swept back and oiled with the rest of the herd, instead curving out and down to point at his eyes like a curious ant’s antennae.

The hiring manager had taken one look at him, dubbed him “Bug,” and the moniker sat well with the oblivious stocking stiff as a sign of immediate acceptance.

None of us had the stones tell him otherwise. We would look the other way while some aspiring card shark bled out in the back alley behind the casino or a high roller’s hands got a little fresh with one of the cocktail waitresses, but none among the stiffs could deprive the squat, fumbling, bright-eyed little cork of his illusion.

His name had also become our default response whenever something in the stockroom wasn’t labeled correctly, or when a wastebasket on the floor hadn’t been emptied, or if the fresh packs of cards hadn’t been stacked label-out on the shelves behind the blackjack and poker tables. He didn’t have the heart to argue, the hiring manager didn’t have the heart to fire him, so the blame for most of the mistakes around the place went to Bug.

He took credit for our fuck-ups. He also never paid for a drink in our company or lacked for a crowd to pal around with on Friday.

We’d pitched in for a hooker last weekend. Three hours had been hell on all our wallets, but she’d spent the first two hanging on every word of his bullshit gangster stories and had followed him from the bar for a “private tour” of his place later. All of us had nodded appreciatively and clapped him on the shoulder the next evening, congratulating him on his success. None of us had bitched among each other about the cost.

I guess “Bug” was an endearment, after all.

The Ladykiller himself aimed an attempted conspiratorial smile at me as I hefted the last box of chips up to the rolling shelf. “Hey, Tick! You want an early start to the night?”

He reached beneath his coat and withdrew a dented flask from the pocket, swinging it so the liquor inside sloshed. “Place is empty but for us, and I’ll never tell! They could drive hot iron up my ass and I’d keep it secret, swear!”

His artless enthusiasm wrung a grin out of me. “Yeah, Bug, I’ll take a nip. Gotta see the Big Guy after this. Little liquid nerve sounds like just the ticket.” I accepted the flask, spinning the top off and welcoming the grainy burn of bad whiskey.

His hand closed around the flask when I handed it back, but his eyes were all for me. “The Boss? Hey, you do good work around here. He’d better not fire you, or I’ll tell Sl-”

“Shut your head, Bug.” I sighed. “Never the name, remember?”

“Right, right.” He grimaced, then brightened. “Want me to stick around for the meetin’? I can be your witness! You don’t layabout in here. I’ll say it right to his face.”

I shook my head at him. “Nah, Bug.” His expression was so sincere that I bit off the dismissal. “Besides, you need to kick those new wheels. Another weekend, another woman, right?”

He grinned then, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with a stubby finger. “Hey, yeah! Time for a new girl. Haven’t heard from that redhead since last week. She musta been plumb wore out after I was done with her!” He ran a hand down the front of the wrinkled coat. “Maybe I can help nudge one of the ladies your way after your meetin’, huh?”

Thanks, Bug, but there isn’t a dame out there I want. Rather than share the fact, I pointed at him. “They’re all yours tonight, Bug. Don’t know how long this’ll take and I’m pretty beat. You charm the knickers off an extra one for me, all right?”

Bug straightened his squat little frame, still smiling. “I will, Tick!” He pocketed the flask and turned to leave, then turned back again. “Hey, should I take another look around before heading out?”

I shook my head again. “Don’t sweat it. Just tell the rest of those ugly mugs at the bar they’ll see me Saturday night. I’ll do the last pass and lock up.”

Still beaming, he clapped my arm. “Right! Good luck with the Big Guy. Promotion for Tick, that’s what I say!”

He turned, all cheer and pants sagging around the ass, and trotted out of the stockroom. I rolled the mobile shelves up to the wall and listened to the bell jingle as the front door opened and closed.

Alone. Finally.

...and minutes away from a private meeting with the man the local rag once described as being “the cleverest figure in organized crime.”

What the hell did Sliske want with me? I was hired help, not exactly in the upper echelons of whatever this casino secreted away in its bowels. I’d ignored everything and gone well out of my way to avoid information hazardous to my health. Short of my tying back the unfashionably long hair rather than trimming it and allowing a bit of the beard to grow, I didn’t really stick out in a crowd.

I liked it that way.

It hadn’t been enough, obviously. If I’d fucked up, running away wouldn’t prolong my life by more than an hour. The only real hope was to meet the mystery man and brazen it out.

Bug did it.

No, fuck that. I wasn’t a hero by anyone’s standards, but the thought was low even for me. I could face things without resorting to that. There was cowardice in my makeup, but not enough to toss Bug at every shadow that happened across my path.

“Promotion for Tick, that’s what I say!”

Maybe, Bug.

Sliding the last of the rolling shelves into place, I brushed at my jacket and adjusted my tie. If a promotion was in the works, it wouldn’t do to let the man making the decision see evidence of my steadily decreasing attention to self-care.

Neat and clean. I checked for errant strands of hair below the brim of my hat and made my way out to the floor.

The casino was impressive. It was easy to imagine some Warner Brothers film crew in here, cameras aimed at the roulette wheel while a pair of ridiculously-accented actors in suits gesticulated in the air and placed their bets. The carpet softening my steps was a soft blue-black peppered with white palmettes. Stained wood underlaid the tables, chrome accents reflecting yellow light from the chandeliers above. The chandeliers themselves were massive and ornate enough to be tacky.

Every so often, you’d catch a subtler bit of decoration - comedy/tragedy masks of inlaid silver along the base of a table or just below a sign reading “cash-ins here.” The masks had become a kind of calling card for the casino as well as Sliske himself. Nobody knew what it meant, but speculation among the stiffs had amounted to it being an obscure reference to the mysterious owner’s more private preferences.

Stupid, but there was nothing for it. I’d learned long ago to laugh along with the disheartening jokes and to divert topic when questions rolled around to my own private business - better to be thought a man a little down on his love luck than a man’s man in the other sense - but I knew better than to think theatre appreciation heralded anything in that vein.

Settling on a stool at the blackjack table and pulling an ashtray toward myself, I lit a nail and blew smoke skyward, resting my free hand on the green felt and thinking. Had I given myself away? Probably not. I hadn’t been in this little burg long enough for the rumor mill to start turning. Even if I had, there were less complicated methods of disposing of someone unwanted than a meeting with the guy in charge.

The hamburger-and-rot stench in the alleys behind the Gray Ring testified well enough to the options. No, it wasn’t that. I hadn’t given myself away.

“That face of yours gives an awful lot away.”

Starting, I watched as a man - no, not a man, one of those Mahjarrat that’d started showing up ten or so years ago - emerge from behind the mirrored backdrop of the blackjack stand and grin at me.

He wore a smile that wanted to put me at ease and did anything but. It was too keen, that smile, made worse by a pair of canines among the other neatly even, white teeth that amplified the sharpness in his smile. His skin was an oddly healthy-looking medium gray, jawline and other features accented in lighter gray lines, and the terrain of his bald head was interrupted by a pair of bony ridges that extended back along either side of his skull. His ears ended in subtle points - something better fit for a wolf than a human - that seemed appropriate for the Mahjarrat face between them.

His dress did little to offset his not-human qualities. The crisp white shirt, black slacks and belt, black bow tie, and the visor that sat above the bony ridges where eyebrows normally lived seemed almost absurd on him… and yet fit something about his expression.

He was alien as hell but wore a card shark’s uniform with a real shark’s predatory air.

Strangest of all were the eyes, and such eyes. “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” I understood nothing in the yellow irises or the black backdrop in which they were set.

I swallowed and missed the ashtray by a mile. Cicero needed to meet a Mahjarrat.

He came to stand behind the counter, reaching down and withdrawing a still-wrapped card pack. It was necessary for him to bend a little farther than normal at the waist; the man was tall even by tall’s own measure, but the movement was graceful. He watched me while a clawed finger tip slid through the plastic as though it offered no resistance.

His voice was polished, smooth. “Before today, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so frightened and yet so utterly bored as you.” The wrap slid off the deck, and he tossed it to the floor behind him and opened the box. “A strange pair, you might say.”

I swept my ash off the felt, tapping into the ashtray this time and trying to keep my voice steady. “Just a long night tonight. I’m supposed to see the boss in a few minutes.”

“Ah, I see, I see.” Pianist’s slender fingers pulled the cards from the box, and he began to shuffle them in a casual slide after discarding the jokers to the floor. “A bit of nerves. Understandable, really; I hear the boss employs some rather unorthodox negotiation methods.”

I nodded, wishing I’d asked Bug for another sip before he’d scuttled out. “Guess so, if he’s got one of you on the payroll.”

I had a moment to regret my words but he laughed then, an oily sound that lubricated his amusement and delivered it to my ear. “Oh, dove, I’m not on anyone’s payroll.”

Dove. He wasn’t… “You?”

One of his hands made a small, artificially humble gesture before continuing with the cards. “Sliske. Proprietor of this establishment and very much the man you were to meet tonight. Care for a drink?”

I stared at him, and he set the pile of cards neatly on the table, staring back with a carnivore’s grin. He reached behind the counter again and a bottle of whiskey and a square tumbler joined the cards atop the felt. My silence didn’t seem to bother him. “Come, now. I’ve kept my eye on all the new hires, and you’re not a man to turn down a glass of Glenlivet when it’s offered you. Or cheap swill, when it comes to that.”

A clawed thumb spun the cap and flicked it away, and he poured into the tumbler before sliding it to me. I mumbled a “mersi” at him and turned the glass up, halving the liquid contents in a hard swallow and setting it back down.

Refilling my glass, he chuckled. “So, is it ‘Tick,’ or do you prefer P-”

“‘Tick’ works for me.”

He offered a hand and I took it, shaking. As he pulled it away, a claw tip stroked the inside of my palm twice.

He knew.

His smile was less intense now, more playful and thoughtful. “Seeing as I’ve deprived you of your usual Friday night activities, can I interest you in a game of chance?”

I blinked. “I don’t really gamble.”

He tilted his head down as though to chuckle, sulfurous eyes meeting mine from just below the brim of his visor. “I suspect you’re not being honest with me, Tick. That’s a terrible start to a partnership, don’t you think?”

Partnership? I cleared my throat. “Might’ve understated that a little.” I watched as he set a card down face-up in front of each of us. “I’ll play.”

His grin widened slightly. “I thought you might. Music to my ears, Tick, and much better. Honesty is the very best of policies, particularly between us.”

I took another swig of whiskey. Sliske refilled my glass.

“You know,” he set the deck down and eyed me curiously, “I do simply adore a bit of risk. Probably has something to do with my choices in entrepreneurship.” He tapped the table with a claw. “What’s say we make this game a bit more interesting, add a little spice to an otherwise simple game. You in?”

I rotated the tumbler with my fingers, hearing the glass slide along the fuzz on the table. “I don’t exactly have a bankroll on me.”

His hand waved dismissively in the air before settling on the felt again. “Not money, dove. Something a bit more immediate.”

The hand on the felt moved closer to mine, one of his fingers resting atop one of the ones I held curled around the glass.

Oh.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was thinking, but the whiskey and Sliske’s finger seemed insistent that I not think too much. “Sure.”

My answer must’ve been the right one. He sounded delighted.  “I’m so pleased you’re willing.” He tapped my finger with his before touching a claw to the top of the deck. “Each lost hand can be an article of clothing lost or a small service done for me. Trouble is, dove… which worries you more?”

Oh. “Service?”

“Mmmhmm.” He nodded. “Just small things at first. Nothing that falls outside your tolerances or your preferences, I promise you that.”

Preferences. I drank. Sliske refilled and I drank again. “And if I win?”

He chuckled again. “Let’s say that, for every hand you win, you earn a promotion. Five of those and you become full partner. Does that sound adequate?”

Fucking hell. This had to be a dream. Partner?

I was floored, but my years of survival couldn’t be credited to hesitation. “Deal.”

Deal he did, pairing my card with another one. Fourteen total. His new card summed with the first at fifteen.

He raised an eyebrow ridge at me.

“Hit me.”

His voice was velvet. “Gladly.”

He doled out another card. An eight.

Fuck.

He took the cards, righting and shuffling them. “The jacket.”

I unbuttoned the jacket and hung it over the barstool next to me.

He dealt again. I lost, and my hat went.

Again, and the tie joined the hat and jacket on the empty barstool.

I won the next hand, and Sliske bowed a little at the waist. “Congratulations, stock lead.”

I muttered a curt thank-you and proceeded to lose the next two hands. My vest was forfeit, and Sliske’s amber eyes studied me for a moment.

“Your hairband. I’d very much like to see you undo it.”

I did, feeling the dark brown weight fall around my shoulders with the loss of the little leather strip.

Sliske sighed, his gaze appreciative. “Much better. The styles most of you humans wear don’t allow for this.” He studied me, puzzled. “You go to such great lengths to blend in, Tick. Why the hair?”

I shrugged, not sure how to answer. “I like it. Don’t really give a fuck what’s in fashion.”

He laughed at that. “How charmingly crude. May I?” He reached forward as though to touch the hair, stopping just before his fingers found a lock of it.

“Yeah.” I stilled and felt fingers sluice through the almost-curls before he pulled back. The contact was brief, but it and the whiskey had spurred my mind into imagining more and I shifted on the stool.

He noticed, his eyes too strange to read but his expression clear as he dealt another hand.

I won the next round and became a shift manager. I lost another hand and my shirt. Two more hands saw my position elevated to floor host and then front manager.

Fourteen again. A seven.

Sliske’s hand found mine and tugged gently. “Join me, Tick. A welcome befitting a partner is due and I insist on paying my debts.”

Sliding off the stool and painfully aware of the ravages of a largely whiskey diet on my frame, I walked around the table and stood in front of Sliske. The end of a fourth cigarette burned down to the filter in the ashtray, the scent acrid and bitter. Neither of us paid it any mind.

“I’m a terrible hand with these things.” He gestured to his bowtie. “Would you?”

I reached up, tuck-sliding an end back through its loop and unwinding it until both ends hung draped at either side of his collar. While initiative hadn’t always been my strong suit, I reached for the button that’d been hidden behind the tie and worked the little pearl bead through its hole.

This is fucking insane.

I didn’t care. The front door wasn’t locked and the door itself was glass, but I didn’t care about that, either. Here was hoping partnership came with an encompassing clause of immunity if anyone glanced through or walked in. The whiskey was good and my head felt light, unencumbered by the kind of worry the situation warranted. More buttons ceased holding the shirt together as I made my way down.

Sliske’s hands slid over my shoulders and into my hair, meeting behind me as he undid his cuffs. The hands fell away long enough for him to shrug off the shirt, tugging the tails out from beneath his pants and letting it fall to the floor.

He was narrow of body. Not in the half-starved way I was but lean, the lighter gray stripes on his skin rippled and irregular as the first rays of sunlight through Venetian blinds.

Fuck, this is stupid. Stupid and dangerous and risky.

I acknowledged the thought by reaching for Sliske’s belt. Following my better judgment wasn’t a strong suit, either.

His hands clasped my wrists before I could work the end free of the belt loop. I looked up to Sliske’s face, those too-bright and too-dark eyes still refusing to tell me anything I understood.

“Wait here.” Thumbs stroked the tops of my hands once before he let them go, and he walked around to the barstool where I’d abandoned most of my clothes and picked up the tie I’d been wearing. He pulled the cheap silk over the palm of a hand as though entranced by the texture.

Clawed fingers patted the surface of the table. “I need your hands here, dove.”

Sliske wasn’t ignorant of our height difference or the position required for my hands to rest where he’d put his.

I wasn’t, either, nor did I care. Reaching over the table had me bending at the waist, a proposition made slightly less awkward by the elevated step behind the bar. The half-crawl - hand-over-hand and an unsubtle act of willful submission on its own - did something for the man across the table.

Sliske stilled. No breathing, no movement, only the sense of coiled tension that tickled the hindbrain of every vulnerable creature when a predator’s entire focus trained on them. I didn’t stop. My hands reached his fingers and I curled mine inward, offering my wrists.

His sudden return to life was as disconcerting as his reptilian absence of movement earlier. My own tie wound about my wrists, under then over and around and over again, and Sliske’s fingers tucked and pulled the ends until he seemed satisfied.

“Test them.”

Twisting my wrists did little. Pulling and shuffling did less, and my forearm nudged the still half-filled tumbler and set the whiskey swaying. I eyed it briefly before the feel of Sliske working the makeshift restraint returned my attention to him.

He’d kept the bowtie I’d undone handy. He’d looped it through the middle of the restraints and over the edge of the table, and I realized what he was doing.

The chrome accents. Loops and whorls protruded along the underside of the bar on the outside, and he’d bound me to one.

His hands braced the outside of the table as he stood, leaning forward slightly. I tested the bonds. Whatever else Sliske was, he wasn’t a stranger to tying someone up. The restraints held true, not cutting off circulation but depriving me of freedom.

I didn’t mind.

As he strode next to and back around the edge of the table my eyes followed him, and the glimmer of something from the direction of the front door stole my gaze.

A little flash, light sliding over brass door handles or across the surface of glass doors separating the low illumination inside from the darkness beyond it. My heart sped up and my fingers clenched tighter together, the whiskey’s ability to subjugate worry draining away as fast as I’d drunk it in earlier. A wholly invested thrill did away with lingering doubts and I kept an eye on the door for any more signs of entry.

Nothing. I turned my head this way and that hoping to reproduce the little streak of light, but it didn’t recur. I watched the entrance warily.

Sliske voiced my concern even as his tone dismissed it. “Worried someone might see us, dove?” His low chuckle confirmed it, as did his words. “Let them.”

Let them. Let them get an eyeful. Wasn't them getting the assful.

Leather pulled, caught, then pulled against fabric as I listened. A muted click of metal preceded the leather-over-material sound again, and a sharp SNAP distracted me from my guardianship of the door.

My own hair obscured much of the view, but not enough to entirely deprive me of the sight of a shirtless Sliske straightening a folded-over belt in his hands and stretching it taut. The hands relaxed and pulled, another SNAP making me jerk and knocking the whiskey glass a little farther away.

“I promised to avoid exceeding your tolerances, Pin.” Sliske’s voice was deceptively soft, like the felt under me. “However, you should know that I’m a man of my very literal word.”

Leather slid over his hand and slapped my back. I pulled at the restraints in an effort to constrict against it, the impact a solid stripe of pain that became needles and stinging. I hissed through my teeth.

Sliske laughed. “Yes, dove. Resist it.” Leather slid over his palm again. “I love your pride almost as much as I’m going to love driving it out of you.”

I snarled. I lifted a finger and tugged against the bind long enough to curl it in a beckon - come on, keep going - at the same time spitting irritation. "Fuck you." Taking your sweet fucking time.

SNAP.

“What was that? I’m afraid I missed the last bit.” Leather slid.

“I said, ‘fuck y-’”

SNAP.

I moaned, wriggling, shifting with the empty hope of dispersing the hot-cold sting. My fingers found the strip of cotton tethering my wrists to the edge of the table and braided themselves around the knot.

Sliske’s voice was still velvet even as my back complained. “Say it again.”

“Fuck off.”

Another whip of the belt answered me. The middle of my back felt stripped of several layers of skin and two spots farther up were alight with heat. One of my feet slid back and bucked against the shelf where spare cards and chip boxes sat. I heard heavy rattling.

Fingertips and claws explored the abused and spare flesh on my back, tracing the most sensitive spots carefully. I breathed too fast and eyed the whiskey next to my arm. Sliske pressed himself in against me, his body curling partially along my back as claw tips dug and traced more forcefully than before. It felt deliberate, as though something were being drawn or written, and I would’ve sworn I felt skin breaking.

It was torture and I absolutely needed it to continue.

Sliske seemed inclined to agree, and the pressure against my back assured me he was enjoying this as much as I was. My hair shifted and shifted again, and an irregular almost-pattern of lips, tongue, and teeth made their way along my shoulder up to my neck.

He bit. Those carnivore’s teeth sank, earning a drawn, hissing exhale out of me. Shoulder and neck shrieked as I nearly did, squirming beneath Sliske’s weight.

Satisfied, he withdrew the teeth and licked where he’d bitten. His breath moved my hair and brushed my ear. “Now, dove. What was that you wanted to say?”

My shoulders ached, my back both welcomed and cursed Sliske’s upper body pressed against it, and the spot where he’d bitten me screamed in bitter waves.

I’d had it. “Fuck me.”

It earned a laugh from him, one I felt in the body pressed against mine. “That’s more like it.”

Sounds of clothing hitting the floor came first. Then came pleas, then pain, then…

If anyone looked through the front door, neither of us knew it. Strained moans and curses became louder, then softer, then louder and unintelligible. The foot that’d discovered the shelf moved - or was moved - and poker chips scattered in a hard metallic rain on the floor. Time was measured in breaths, strikes, jerks of the hips. Claws dug into my shoulder, then fingers wound in my hair and a hand wrapped around my neck.

I cursed him. Begged him. He whispered strange endearments and I gasped something back in response. He didn’t sweat, but the skin pressed against mine became slick anyway.

Sometime between “fuck me” and Sliske reaching to slice through the tie binding my wrists, I’d said too much. I'd been handed some and asked for it all. Some things I'd done before, others bursting from the imagination newly-formed and wrapped in glittering potential.

Nothing I said was met with disgust. Even the darkest and most dangerous fantasies were met with interest, and a strangely informed interest.

Tie gone and most of our clothes returned, my boss - no, partner - chuckled as I tried to button my collar over his bite marks. “I suppose a good citizen can’t go bearing the marks you do so brazenly. Still, dove, don’t harbor any illusions that the signs aren’t there for those with eyes to see.” Sliske buttoned his shirt as he spoke. "The evidence of it is something even your capacity for clever deception can’t avoid. The scratches and bites, perhaps, can be hidden beneath artfully arranged clothing.”

He reached out and stroked the side of my face. “But alas, my dear, there's nothing you can do about your eyes. Your gaze will seek me out and submit every bit as much as your body does."

I looked down at the table. The tumbler of whiskey rested on one square side, the felt flat and dark where spilled liquor stained it. The knotted and shredded tie sat discarded between deep, overlapping claw marks that furrowed the green on either side.

Apparently I hadn’t been the only one to lose control.

His voice interrupted my inventorying of damages. “Leave this mess, dove. Cleanup isn’t the province of partners, is it?”

I looked up at Sliske, whose smirk was both satisfied… and still hungry. “Bug can handle it.”

His grin widened and he wound an arm around to my now shirt-clad lower back. “I’m sure he can.” He pulled me in and I went, meeting his kiss and cursing inwardly for the renewed spark of interest that defied the beaten and worn state of my body.

Sliske pulled from the kiss first, chuckling and turning away. Stepping down from the dealer’s area behind the table, he spoke a final time before he left.

“Clean yourself up a bit, Tick. And do have something a bit more substantial than whiskey tonight, hmm?”

 

…………

 

I stood in my little apartment, the diner below blessedly quiet. Kicking off my shoes and gingerly removing my shirt, I took a swig from a cheap bottle of whiskey that found itself wanting after the stuff Sliske had poured for me and made my way to the bathroom. The only sounds were the harsh, rust-choked ticks of a clock above the bed and the worn carpet whispering beneath my feet.

Pausing in front of the mirror, I turned and examined my back.

Red and pink striped the skin. Punctures dotted my shoulder near my neck. On the right side, the lines thin but contrasting more starkly than the belt marks, was the design Sliske had drawn with care on my back as I’d writhed beneath him.

A rose.