Humans could put beasts and their base natures to shame. Arete leaned against the wall, red lips wrapped around an unlit cigarette. She enjoyed the ugliness of it all. Being part of it. The garish lights, lampposts tainted by coloured paper, somehow left the world darker, full of shadows.
But there were some things that could only exist in shadows. Thrill rarely lived elsewhere.
Her regular trade flourished alongside it, but work could make anything dull. She wondered if any of the sharks dealing in drugs, dice, and cards found the rush of chance tedious. It seemed impossible to her, but then, some might find her job glamorous. Or demeaning.
The world was no longer divided into men and women. Not for the majority of them. Not for Arete. They were only players, throwing dice, drawing cards, snorting powder and begging for needles. Shooting up in one way or another.
They hugged walls and street corners in groups, lining the network like clusters of ants on sugar cubes. Some were playing Impresario or Dusk, but her game was Port of Call. Arete held the cigarette as though it contained something less polite than tobacco, then flicked it away.
She followed the clicking of dice on metal sheets. As it grew louder, the tingling in her fingers grew to an answering rattle all through her spine. It was no wonder that the game’s jargon for throwing dice was casting bones. It was your bones the game occupied.
There was always room in any given game for a woman in a red dress. Especially a woman who could make a pair of overalls attain the same effect. The dice came her way immediately. She blew on the dice. Arete didn’t believe in luck, but it never hurt. She cast the bones.
The dice came up Leery Fingers. Not a losing spread, but a poor start. A few murmurs went up, but she tossed her head. There was enough strategy to the game that she could recover or even win with subsequent spreads. She tossed in another fivepence and waited for the dice to return to her. If she could roll the same combination, the second spread would be Heavy Thinkers. Combining Leery Fingers with Heavy Thinkers would give her Faithful Band, a rare spread. An almost guaranteed win.
The dice slapped the metal sheet positioned over the cobblestones. Two dice knocked against one another. The collision changed the roll, and left her with Skeleton Crew, a losing spread with no salvation.
The man nearest her jostled her with a jovial menace. “Oh, bad luck, my lovely,” he said as he scooped up the dice. “But as long you’ve your body, you’ve money in the bank.”
Irritation knotted her stomach. She reached up to rearrange her hair, affecting disinterest. It wasn’t difficult. “Oh aye. Is that what the ante is now?”
Whoops and catcalls reduced the tastefulness quotient in the atmosphere below zero. Arete nearly turned up her nose. Never mind ants and sugar. They were cockroaches feasting on dirt. The one who had spoken, a malodorous spectre with no muscle and plenty of coarse hair, twisted his spotty face into a revolting grin. “Will ye call?”
She looked him up and down with cruel thoroughness. “I don’t play for stakes so low as that.”
The rattle of dice was the first sign of trouble. Skinny No-Muscles was still looking at her, but the dice had passed to the next player. The game was going on without her. Without either of them.
It didn’t take a veteran of the seedy underbelly to guess what she was up against. But Arete was exactly that, and it gave her an edge. She moved her dress to draw the revolver from the hidden holster on her thigh.
He raised his fists. She fired.
The bullet sang through the air, and came to a discordant end right between the skinny man’s eyes. He swayed like a bug-eyed and unnatural dancer. Then he dropped.
No one paid any mind to the report of the gun or the slumped corpse. Arete shook her head at the foolishness of it all. Then, she turned and started back to the pleasure quarter.
She was going to have to find somewhere else to play next week.