art by Jason Stirret
Rubies and Tangled Webs
by Nicky Drayden
Anthony Nance glares at me like my hair is on fire and I've got worms coming out of my ears. I toss him a smug grin, then stir my finger around the stale ice cube melting in my glass of Bombay Sapphire and Diet Orange Shasta.
"That's an abomination," he says.
I suck my finger clean then tap it on the burgundy felt of the card table. "Just deal, Ant."
It's been a few years since I've seen him, but it's good to know that there's still nothing that'll get Ant's hackles up more than ruining perfectly good gin. I need him distracted right now, and a little bit of frustration goes a long way towards bringing out someone's tells. His forearms tense beneath the rolled-up cuffs of his shirt, the ink of his tattoos blending into his smooth, black skin. It's rare that anyone notices his ink--a horde of spiders ranging from the size of a pinhead to that of a silver dollar. No one but me has ever noticed them move.
"Last hand for me," says Brett Fleming, the new guy, former fullback for the Sale Sharks and cocky as hell. Came to Santa Barbara after marrying the heiress to a chain of sleazy budget motels. The guy's face reads easier than a fifty-foot billboard, as evidenced by the pitiful stack of poker chips spread out in front of him.
"Oh, come now, Brent," Ant says. "The night's just warming up."
"It's Brett," Brett corrects for the fifth time this evening, pale skin flushing at the cheeks. "My wife will have it in for me as it is. No need to keep her waiting up at all hours."
Fifteen thousand dollars is a lot for a guy to lose, even for an old rugby pro with a blown-out knee. Hell, fifteen thousand dollars is more than I can afford to throw away, but in the end, it's only money. From the look in Ant's eyes, though, that's all about to change.
"Well, how about we raise the stakes?" Ant says, stroking the coarse stubble of his goatee. "What do you say, Jared? This guy okay?"
Still not too late to back out of this, I remind myself. And yet I keep my calm and nod. "He's cool." A guy who used to ram his head into other people for a living has got to be up for taking a few odd risks.
Ant juts his chin across the table to Steven, our fourth. His face is a fortress. Money, memories. Makes no difference what we're wagering. He's in this to win.
"I'm down," Steven says, syllables perfectly neutral.
"Okay then." Ant pulls out a small leather satchel and sits it on the table in front of him. Brett's eyes bulge in their sockets as the zipper zags open, revealing a silver cylinder decked with blinking LED lights. Ant sets it in the middle of the table with a thud that knocks over a tower of his chips.
"What the hell is that?" Brett asks. "Looks like a rubbish disposer."
I can't help but laugh. Ant shoots me another glare. This is his show, same show he's been scamming me with since we were kids. I grit my teeth as I top off my gin, then fetch another ice cube from my basement freezer as Ant explains the device. A "memory catcher," he calls it. Takes the memories straight from your brain and implants it into someone else's. Simple as that, but Brett balks at the idea. I scurry back to my seat. Don't want to miss the demonstration.
Ant flips the toggle. The machine begins to whir. "Okay, Brent. What'd you have for breakfast this morning? Just a one word response, please."
"Pancakes," Brett says, clenching his jaw.
"All right. Now I'm going to take that memory, if that's okay with you."