Today marks the publication of the third of our top five stories in the 9th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, and our third place finalist, Katarina Hrazdina’s “Wolf’s Den.” The theme of this year’s contest was “A Roll of the Dice,” and Katt’s story utilized a sneaky plot twist to embrace it. In fact, this story submerges you in the game so much that it’s only at the end that you see it. According to our judge Laurin Jefferson, “Plot twists seem to be one of the greatest strengths for this year’s group of writers and “Wolf’s Den” is no exception.” We hope you enjoy it!
There wasn’t a lot that was illegal in Nevada, yet here they were: a small group of masked people clustered around a dimly-lit blackjack table in a dubious underground casino.
Tora, fidgety but not anxious, eyed the empty seat next to her warily. “Where’s the Ox? “
The dealer grinned under the mask and shrugged. “Gone. Couldn’t pay the penalty.”
Tora frowned, then schooled her mouth into a neutral expression. “I presume we’ve a new player, then.”
The dealer chuckled and nodded, motioning behind Tora. “Speak of the devil.”
From the shadows emerged a large, buff man whose face was concealed by an ornately sculpted mask in the form of a rodent. He tugged the edges uncomfortably as he moved toward the seat, and his skin gleamed with sweat.
“Welcome, Ratte,” said the dealer.
Ratte wheezed slightly as he pulled out the chair. His hand snaked up to the mask again, brushing over the ribbon that held it in place.
The dealer’s tongue clicked in warning, and Ratte jerked his arm back. “Masks stay on,” said the dealer. “No exceptions.”
Ratte’s lips twitched, but he held himself back.
From the dimmest portion of the table, someone drummed their fingers along the green felt. It thudded dully in the silence.
Tora looked to the source of the sound, then contorted her lips into a slight sneer. “How kind of you to finally join us, Lapin.” She spat the name as though it were bitter cough medicine.
The man called Lapin hardly shifted, only tilting his head as he spoke. “I’m not surprised you didn’t see me sooner. Disappointed, but not surprised.” He wore a Venetian rabbit half-mask, tall ears glinting in the poor lighting. What little could be seen of his face was gaunt and angular.
The dealer coughed and the players’ eyes swiveled like wolves seeking prey.
The players were unimpressed. Ratte saw Tora tense up as if she wanted to hit someone, be it the dealer or Lapin. He couldn’t quite tell.
“Welcome to the Wolf’s Den,” the dealer continued, arms extended dramatically. “I am Volk, your dealer for the night.” Volk paused, locking eyes with Tora. “…Or longer, if you can keep up.”
Tora flinched, barely perceptible, before recovering her composure. Volk carried on.
“The rules are simple: there are none. Rather, this is not Blackjack like those places in Vegas. No, if you were content with losing, you wouldn’t be here. This is how Blackjack was meant to be played.”
Tora’s eye twitched with excitement as Volk continued, and Lapin’s face twisted into a grin.
“Your hand exceeds 21 points, you lose the round,” Volk explained, holding up the deck. “All strategies are fair game. Choose wisely, however…”
Tora’s lip curled in disgust as Volk pointedly stared at her.
“…Because some strategies have a high cost. A penalty, if you will. And-”, the dealer continued, almost gleefully, “-should you find yourself unable to pay said penalty…”
Lapin and Tora glared at each other while Volk slid a thumb menacingly toward the door, where large, shadowy figures, presumably other employees, lurked outside.
“Watching you fail will be so entertaining,” hissed Tora, and Lapin smirked in response.
Volk, eyes rolling at the players’ behavior, tapped the table to return attention to the rules. “Save your animosity for the game, dear Tiger. I have yet to finish explaining the ropes to our new friend, the Rat.”
Ratte shivered slightly. He did not like the term, nor the moniker he’d been given when he got the invitation to this shady casino’s address, but he forced his discomfort back. For your daughter, he told himself. Remember Elsie.
Volk turned to face Ratte directly and smiled an unnerving grin. “You may leave the table at any time, and return freely when we hold our next game. However,” the dealer’s voice took on an unmistakably disturbing tone, “If you fail to pay the penalty, there will be no ‘next’. Your title, your mask, all gone.”
As if to emphasize, Volk’s hands shot outwards, miming an explosion. Laughing, the dealer pulled out the card deck and began to shuffle while Ratte stared off in a stupor.
Tora leaned over, causing Ratte to flinch. “You’ll get used to it,” she whispered, roughly patting Ratte’s back. Ratte turned to respond, but Tora had already repositioned herself as though she’d never spoken at all. He watched as she and Lapin pushed their chips onto the table before slowly following suit.
Start small, he decided. It would be best to get his bearings before going all in… after all, he only had so much of his paycheck he could expend before his wife grew suspicious, even if it was to pay for his daughter’s medical treatments. She and him had never really agreed on the whole “gambling” thing, which, in hindsight, was probably why he’d been so elated to discover an off-records place like Wolf’s Den existed. She’ll never have to know, Ratte smiled.
“Your cards, ladies and gentlemen,” Volk smiled as one by one, the hands were dealt.
Tora clicked her tongue when she saw hers. “Volk, did you really shuffle these?”
She held a two and a three of the same suit.
Volk shrugged. “Are you insinuating I am cheating so early in our game? You wound me, Tiger.”
Tora snorted with annoyance and looked over to Ratte’s hand. “Oh, come on!”
Lapin, though far less obvious than Tora, also stole a glance. His mouth twitched downwards but he remained quiet.
In front of Ratte was a queen and an ace. A natural blackjack.
Volk clapped in approval while retrieving Ratte’s winnings. “As per house rules, your three-to-five winnings.”
Tora eyed the small pile. “Pity you didn’t bet more,” she whispered, fingers twitching longingly.
Volk turned to Lapin, awaiting his first move.
The Rabbit passed a hand over the table. A hold.
The dealer nodded and moved to Tora, who tapped her cards. Volk obligingly handed her another, which she flipped eagerly.
Her mouth fell and she cursed, tossing the card onto the table. It was an eight, making her total 13.
When the cards in Volk’s hand were revealed she cursed more, even while pushing her chips toward the dealer. Volk held a total of eighteen, enough to crush her by a large margin.
Ratte craned his neck to try to get a better look at Lapin’s hand. He was the only remaining player in that round. Had he beat the dealer?
Volk silently slid a pile of chips toward Lapin.
Ah, thought Ratte. Yes, yes he had.
The game continued.
It didn’t take long for Ratte to get into the swing of things- he soon found himself placing higher and higher bets as he raced to keep up with the speed of the Rabbit and the ferocity of the Tiger.
Tora was confident. Every move she made, every tap and pass and smile radiated a power so strong Ratte almost wanted to move away. Perhaps “confident” was the wrong word. Tora was, in no weaker terms, downright intimidating.
Lapin, for his part, was quick and efficient. He hardly spoke, preferring hand gestures instead to signal his intentions. For someone so quiet, the dealer was keeping awfully close tabs on him.
Ratte shrugged and tapped the table for another card, which he soon received. A motion to his left caught his eye and he turned just in time to see Tora swap a card from her sleeve with the one she’d been dealt. His eyes widened and Tora raised a finger to her lips before returning to her neutral stance.
Volk, who’d been looking at Lapin during the exchange, sighed. “Tora,” warned the dealer.
Tora stuck out her tongue. “Ugh. You’re no fun, Volk. You ought to let us get away with cheating some of the time.”
Volk stuck out a gloved hand. “Pay up. $150.”
Tora sucked in a breath as she dug for her purse. “Stingy, aren’t you? That’s higher than last time.”
Volk shrugged. “Inflation. Boss’s orders.” Tora placed the money in front of her, and Volk quickly snatched it up. “Thank you for your patronage.”
“Please,” Tora snorted, “Spare the flattery. We both know it’s a farce.”
Volk’s smile dropped, replaced by a cruel, twisted grin. “As the lady wishes.”
Ratte looked from the dealer to the Tiger with confusion. “She gets off scot-free?”
Tora flashed her wallet at him, annoyed. “Of course not.”
“But she’s still allowed to play?” Ratte continued, pressing Volk.
The dealer smirked. “This is not normal blackjack, my dear Rat. As long as you can pay the penalty, anything -and I do mean anything- goes.”
Ratte frowned and sat back as the round continued. $150 wasn’t a lot in terms of betting, but it certainly would put a dent in what he’d set aside to come here. Then again, if he could cheat, it wouldn’t matter how much he put down so long as he made it up in his winnings.
He clapped his hands excitedly and pushed half his chips onto the table. Volk raised an eyebrow, but did not comment as the round began anew.
Lapin was characteristically silent, the only indication of his poor hand being a slight twinge of his jaw visible under the rabbit mask.
Tora was also quiet, lips pursed as she debated to hold or ask for another card.
It was only Ratte who entered that round with confidence, strongly tapping on the table to signal for another card. Volk handed it to him, but the Rat could feel the eyes of the other players boring into him like hungry wolves. He suppressed a shudder and waited for Tora to make her move before swapping his new card with an ace, such that the king, queen, and “new” card would equal 21.
No sooner had he done so than Volk’s hand flew into his view, palm outstretched and waiting. “Pay up. $150,” said the dealer.
Ratte handed the money over, then smiled as the game continued. Volk’s third card hadn’t tied with his, so he could still collect double the bet. He’d put down $1000, which meant he’d get $2000 back. Even minus the $150 penalty, it was enough to make him giddy. That extra thousand would do wonders at home… it would help pay for at least a month’s worth of Elsie’s medications. It might even allow him to continue this little… pastime. Ratte could hardly contain his glee.
Tora side-eyed him while she flipped her card. A bust. She groaned, but as she went to give Volk the chips she skimmed a few off the top.
The dealer sighed again, almost disappointed. “Really, Tora… twice in two rounds? I thought you were more collected than that…”
Tora shrugged, pocketing the chips. “Look, a girl’s gotta save where she can. I’m going to the bar after this, and I want to at least guarantee one drink.”
Lapin, breaking his silence, spoke at last from the other side of the table. “Whatever happened to going sober?”
Tora’s eyes darkened and she did not respond.
Volk tapped the table in front of her patiently. “Penalty, my dear Tiger. We don’t have all night.”
Tora cursed, then shook her head. “Right. Sorry. What do I owe this time?”
Volk gave her a once-over, then said, “Your ring.”
The Tiger slid a beautiful golden ring off her middle finger and passed it to the dealer, who smiled and bowed politely.
Ratte tilted his head. So the penalty changes, he thought, looking at his own hands. He too wore a ring (several, in fact) which he’d been thinking of pawning. They were cheap, and losing them here would almost certainly bring in more money than anything a shop would give him.
In the next round, he decided to strike. When betting, he had placed an expensive chip underneath a cheap chip of a similar color and waited. This was all in- the total was all the money he had left. Luck, it would seem, smiled upon him, for Ratte was dealt an excellent hand and Volk busted. While Volk was busy passing the others their winnings, Ratte swapped the cheap chip for the more expensive one.
It was a swift move, one that ideally would have worked without a hitch, except that Ratte’s fingers seized up at the last moment and the expensive chip clattered to the table.
Volk’s mask slowly swiveled around, and Tora’s eyes widened.
What? thought Ratte. It was just cheating, wasn’t it?
Again, in a flash, Volk stood before him demanding the penalty.
Ratte slid a ring off his finger and held it out, but Volk’s head shook.
“That is not your penalty, dear Rat,” said the dealer, and Ratte’s brow furrowed. Volk’s eyes glinted menacingly in response.
“Then what is?”
The dealer’s shoulders quivered with excitement. “An excellent question, Sir,” Volk exclaimed, reaching ever-so-slowly out to Ratte before poking a long, boney finger into his breast pocket.
Ratte recoiled. “I’m afraid I can’t give that to you.”
He heard Tora suck in a sharp breath.
Volk’s tongue clicked in dismay. “You shouldn’t cheat if you cannot pay the price. It’s poor decorum, you know.”
Ratte’s hand flew protectively over the pocket, ensuring its contents were still there. He let out a small sigh of relief upon feeling the familiar outline of his daughter’s medication bottle, tiny and expensive and precious.
“What else do you want?” he asked, hoping to bargain. “Someone I love very deeply needs what you want, which is why you cannot have it. I may be able to offer something else, though-”
He was cut off by a joyous snarl. “Penalties cannot be substituted, dear Rat. I’m afraid if you cannot pay, you’re out of the game.”
Ratte’s eyes widened. “What? No! We just started-”
“-And you made your decisions,” Volk grinned maniacally, letting out a sharp whistle.
The door to the dark betting room opened, and several masked employees entered. Ratte was by no means a small man, but the newcomers stood a solid head above even him. Wordlessly, they grabbed him by the shoulders and collar and began to drag him ungraciously toward the exit.
The former Rat began to panic, hands clawing at his neck as he dug his heels into the ground. “But the money-”
Volk waved a hand dismissively and returned attention to the remaining players, seemingly restarting the round.
“Tora!” the man once called Ratte yelled in a last ditch effort.
Tora did not turn, did not so much as flinch when the rodent mask fell from the man’s horrified face as he was pulled from the room, screaming all the way. She barely even batted an eye when the door at last clicked shut, leaving her, the Rabbit, and the dealer in an ominous silence with Ratte’s screams echoing in their heads.
“I would have thought he’d last longer,” Tora nonchalantly commented, placing her bets for the next round. “Your employers really ought to be more careful about who they send out invitations to, Volk. One of these days I’d like to see a regular that isn’t this cursed rabbit.”
Volk chuckled while Lapin pushed a pile of chips forward. “Not seeing me is quite simple, really,” the Rabbit commented. “Just stop coming here.”
Tora looked aghast. “And lose my source of income? Or worse, let you take all the money? Absolutely not!”
“Now, now,” Volk cautioned, passing out the cards. “I’d focus on the game if I were you.”
Tora crinkled her lip but held back her barrage of insults. It truly was a pity she didn’t know Lapin’s real identity, or she could have given him a piece of her mind long ago without the dealer interrupting them. Lapin was a completely insufferable man, so perhaps it was a good thing she only saw him in the gambling den.
The absence of a player did little to hamper their thrill of the hunt. If anything, with the Rat gone, Lapin seemed to be enjoying himself even more. He was cruel and methodical in his choices, grinning all the while.
It was enough to make Tora retch.
“You’ve had a good streak of fortune, haven’t you?” she commented snidely as Volk delt Lapin yet more chips.
“Not really,” the Rabbit shrugged. “I’m just better at being discreet than you.”
“You-” Tora growled, poised to leap, but Volk stopped her with a single glare.
“Believe me,” said the dealer. “I’ve been watching our dear Rabbit for some time now. He’ll get his dues soon enough.”
Tora rolled her eyes and motioned for another card. “It can’t come soon enough,” she muttered.
Lapin chuckled darkly. “Are you sure you don’t want to hold?” he asked, eyeing her cards.
Tora’s eyes snapped up. “Oh, are you giving me advice? Now that’s rich.” She snatched her third card with renewed vigor, then grinned. It was high, a solid 18.
Lapin motioned to draw as well, a dangerous smile playing across his face. His added values tied him with Tora… Now all that was left was for Volk to flip the last card.
Tora let out a loud groan. Natural blackjack. House wins.
“Penalty. $150,” came Volk’s voice for the third time that night.
“What?” Tora blinked, only to realize the voice was not directed at her.
Lapin clicked his tongue. “And here I thought I was being slick about it,” he said mockingly as he forked over the money.”
Tora looked from the dealer to the Rabbit, confused. “What did he do?”
Volk grinned another spine-chilling grin. “He tried to swap his chips, my dear Tiger. With far better technique than our prior guest, I might add.”
Lapin smirked. “Oh, you flatter me. Simple sleight of hand is all it is, really.”
Tora shook her head and continued the game. She really hated that man, with his terrible little smirk and barbed tongue. As she played she tried to avoid looking in the corner he sulked in, because every time her eyes wandered, he’d start some sort of visual commentary on her plays with that horrible expressive mouth. It pissed her off so much.
She’d rather quit drinking altogether than follow his advice, but then again, he knew that and was likely trying to steer her into a bad call. Trust the devil or fall into hell, those were her two options.
There is a third, whispered a dark voice in the back of her mind. Cheat.
Tora shook her head quickly to dispel the thought. No, she could not. The Wolf’s Den always took high penalties, and the more times per night you paid them the steeper the price each time. She’d seen some terrifying things happen to former regulars who couldn’t pay their penalties, and she knew the Den liked making the penalties very personal. Hence her ring, which her estranged mother had given her. Hence Ratte’s medication. She needed the money, but she could not afford to find out what the third penalty would be.
“Hold,” she said, and Lapin hissed. She pointedly ignored him.
Volk nodded and continued the round. “Ah, my condolences, dear Tiger. It seems I’ve won this round.”
Tora sighed and passed her chips toward the center. Under the table, her foot began to tap anxiously.
Lapin saw and smiled venomously. “Are you alright? Feeling as though you need to quit?”
“No!” Tora snapped, earning a glare from Volk. She hurriedly placed her remaining chips into the betting pool. “All in,” she told the dealer.
“As you wish,” was Volk’s response.
Lapin grinned widely as the cards were dealt, wider even still when Tora saw her cards’ totals.
Hold, he motioned, while Tora tapped the table, rattled. Volk handed her another card before flipping his own, and the blood drained from Tora’s face. Volk’s cards were higher than her own. She had lost.
She stared blankly into the table while Volk collected her chips.
“You can still play,” the dealer advised. “…as long as you have something of value to bet. Will you continue?”
Tora was silent, her mind racing.
Money… She needed the money, but-
But she had little of value left to give, and she could not afford to pay any more penalties. At least if she left now, she could return the next week with more money to try to regain what she had lost. Besides, she was a regular at the bar, so surely they could put tonight’s drinks on her tab… If she continued playing now, she would lose not just her pride, but her access to the Wolf’s Den. She could feel it in her gut.
“…I’m leaving,” she said quietly, all the roar taken from the great Tiger’s breath.
“Very well then. See you next time,” Volk nodded before returning to shuffle the deck.
Lapin snorted as he watched Tora exit. “Good riddance,” he muttered. “Now we can have some real fun.”
The scent of the Tiger had masked the strength of the Rabbit.
Volk merely smiled and handed Lapin his cards.
“Say, Wolf,” Lapin began, flipping the cards over in his hands. “Are the masks really necessary when it’s just us two?”
Volk did not bat an eye. “You may remove yours should you like, Mr. Dorian.”
Lapin, or rather, the man known as Roy Dorian, slid off the rabbit half-mask and combed a hand through his hair. “And you, Wolf? Don’t be shy, we’ve known each other for so long now.”
“You know that is against my contract, Mr. Dorian,” Volk responded evenly.
Dorian huffed and tossed the mask toward Volk, who caught it before it could fall off the table. “You and your ‘trade secrets’,” he hissed. “God, I hate it here.”
“And yet, you keep coming back.”
Dorian grinned and tapped the table for another card. “How can I not, when winning is so easy?”
Volk’s eyes rolled. “Might I remind you you are on thin ice, dear Rabbit,” warned the dealer, but handed him the card anyway.
Dorian eyed the card pile with great interest and a bloodlust so strong Volk would’ve been blind to miss it. Quietly, the dealer reached into a drawer under the table to withdraw something before revealing the final hand.
Dorian cackled maniacally as he swept down upon the chip pile, but Volk remained silent.
“What’s the holdup?” asked Dorian, drunk off winning.
Volk did not respond immediately, instead sliding a knife across the table. It spun slowly to a stop in front of the Rabbit.
“Mr. Dorian, it took some time, but I figured out your cheat. Ergo, penalty. Remove your contact or remove the other eye.”
Dorian paused, then burst into uproarious laughter. “I was wondering how long it’d take for you to catch on!” he exclaimed, leaning closer to the dealer. “I’ve wanted to mark your deck for ages. What tipped you off? Was it one of your fancy casino cameras?”
Volk’s head shook. “Your eyes, Mr. Dorian. One’s an off color from usual. Which dye did you use, if you don’t mind telling me?”
Dorian’s shoulders shook with excitement. “Trade secret, my dear Wolf. But I’ll have you know it’s all over each of those cards. Anyone with the same contact can spot the marks from a mile away.”
“Cards are disposable,” Volk smiled. “Though I thank you for the information. Now, if you please, your penalty.”
“Fine, fine,” Dorian grumbled, popping the contact out and crushing it between his fingers. “I’ll have you know that was an expensive one, too.”
Volk was quiet as the game continued.
Dealer, Rabbit, dealer, Rabbit, the winners went on and on. Dorian, who prided himself on his memory, could not even keep count of the scores.
At long last, late into the night, he held his hand over the table for the final time. Hold. He was already at 20- a very good hand to be dealt.
Volk flipped the last of the cards and sighed before pushing Dorian’s winnings forward.
The aforementioned cackled in joy as he piled the chips into his arms, pushing his chair back to stand.
“What a great night!” Dorian yelled to no-one in particular. Waving over his shoulder as he left, he called “I’ll be back!” before slamming the door, leaving Volk alone in the poorly lit room.
Volk, for having just lost the house a great deal of money, did not seem particularly put out. Underneath the table lay a large pile of chips, chips Volk had quietly pawned each time someone won a bet. The Rabbit boasted of his cheating, but it was the dealer who was the best of all.
A small, dangerous smile played across Volk’s face while locking up.
Lapin would return, of course. They all would return. Like moths to a flame, each player grew closer to burning with every game, every flip of a card, every roll of the dice.
Their tragedies were inevitable, these hares and hounds. They were trapped, bound by addiction, doomed to haunt the Wolf’s Den until their minds gave out or their pockets gave way.
After all, nobody, not even the dealer, could escape the thrill of the game.