Asian Steve's Barbershop

Lissajous pushes the door of Asian Steve's open into a vestibule, a small dark hallway made smaller by the large men standing there.  They're wearing stretched tuxedos, buttons fastened though they strain over large bellies, sleeves that have weighted cuffs to keep them down by wrists (and not-so-coincidentally to make a casual cuff round the back of the head something meaningful) and collars starched to the point of lethality.  There's a feeling of tension in the hallway, more than just tortured thread, warp and woof trapped in dynamic opposition.  Lissa stops and waits.  One by one, heads turns, eyes narrow, and the security guards eyeball him.  The door clicks shut behind him and the noise and smell of Wesson Street fades, almost overpowered by the hum of air-conditioning and a smell of fresh barbecue.  Lissa's hunger, curbed a moment ago by the street food, returns with a growl.

Something crunches and the sharp, numbing scent of cloves wafts past; Lissa sniffs, but stays still.  Finally one of the behemoths before him nudges himself forward, small feet moving silently on plush burgundy carpet.

"Do you know Steve?"  The question is asked softly, the words drawn out with a northern accent; the speaker not stupid, but easy to underappreciate.

"Steve knows bull."  Lissa's been here before, he knows the catechism.  There's a slow nod that somehow doesn't break eye contact, and then the massed ranks of flesh pull softly apart to let Lissa though.  He slips through edgily, twisting his slender frame to avoid brushing against anyone, his feet dancing into the gaps the guards leave on the carpet.  He keeps his hands open, hanging lightly by his sides where they can be seen at all times, and when he's run the gauntlet he pauses at the door at the other end.  There's a soft chuckle behind him, and then the same voice says,

"The doorkeeper's on an extended vacation kid.  You'll have to do the honours yourself."  Lissa pushes the door open and it reveals an iron gantry and a staircase that's steep enough to be a ladder.  It descends twenty-five feet to the tiled, mosaic floor of a gaming hall.  From the top most of it can be seen: there are mini-bars staffed by bartenders scattered amongst the tables and a troupe of waiters and hostesses can be seen from this height streaming between the tables, threading their way to important or interesting customers, tending to their refreshment needs.  There are roulette tables, clustered round with the better dressed, none of whom will have come in the back way like Lissa; there are blackjack tables that are busier, with a better mix of clientele, and there are craps tables where hollow, hungry men stand, their eyes pursuing the dice like jealous lovers, their hands clenched white into fists, beseeching whatever gods or goddesses they've tried to bring with them.

From here Lissa can see the gigantic number eight that the mosaic forms, and pick out that the most popular tables are those with red baize or red trim.  There are always eight tables grouped around a bar, and eight groups per column running across the floor.  The numerology isn't subtle, but it's appreciated by many of the gamers.  He doesn't care so much, he dances down the staircase, a hand gripping each of the bannisters, his feet slipping out from underneath him with each narrow tread.  He cannot stop, this is a trick of balance and speed, and when he lands on the floor at last there's just a slightly louder stamp than he'd hoped for.  No-one looks up though.

The less conventional gaming tables are over on the left-side of the hall; there's chessboards and backgammon sets (two of the backgammon sets are Hilsinger Sets and they fuzz up as he looks at them, their bizarre and carefully crafted geometry balancing them on the cusp of unreality), there's snakes and ladders and eight-dimensional tic-tac-toe, and at the end, just before the three unoccupied barber's chairs, the Go tables.

Asian Steve, a short, mousey-blonde man with a porn-star moustache and bad teeth, is sat at one of the tables with a stack of used notes in front of him.  The board is mid-game, black and white stones lying on the lines in shapes that have yet to eventuate their destiny and form up into a whole, demarking territories and disputing no-man's-lands.  Steve is smiling, and might be winning, but Lissa can see that whoever is playing white is building up for a counter strike.  The white-player has their back to Lissa and doesn't turn, even when Asian Steve raises a lassitudinous hand by way of greeting.  Lissa bows back, respect is important.  He scans the other boards, and sees that there is a woman waiting to play.  She has the white pieces in front of her, the box sealed and upside down.  The lines of the board seem to hover slightly above the surface, and light reflects oddly from it.  She is waiting to play Psychic Go.  Lissa goes to her table, inclines his head with the smallest amount of politneness requires, and asks her if she knows what she's playing.

"One game," she says, her eyelids twitching, her ill-lipsticked mouth hanging slightly slack when she's not speaking.  "No food, no drink, no drugs."

Lissa pauses, evaluating her.  Easy enough to say no drugs when you're already high, and she's not looking normal.  But her breathing is easy and her face isn't flushed; though her eyelids are twitching her hands aren't trembling.  He inhales deeply as discretely and slowly as he can but there's no tell-tale liquorice or aniseed odours around.

"The stakes?" he says, already seating himself.

"If I win, you have to answer a question," she says.  "The answer may be verbal, or it may not."  Lissa fritzes again, the answer to the question isn't verbal, and unless his instincts are off, will involve something physical.

"And if I win?"  She seems to have forgotten that both sides have a stake in the game.

"If you win..." she sighs and looks unhappy.  "I'll tell you what question you should be asking."

The End

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