Dublin, the capital of Ireland.
This old yet distinctly modern city has displayed some the most remarkable economic development in Europe in recent years.
This land was covered by glaciers over 10,000 years ago, but with the influences of sea currents the cold of winter is not so sever…
…or so that is how it was supposed to be.
“You liar, Shen.”
“I told you it wasn’t that cold, Ash.”
Dressed in a tight-fitting coat, Ash continued to shiver slightly.
This city, no matter how genial the climate was said to be, was still on almost the same latitude as Moscow and Hokkaido.
The two turned off Grafton Street into an alley.
Ireland is filled with pubs, and a few in that alley are marked with small signs. They chose one of them and opened the door.
Over 10 counter or table seats were open. There were a few customers in the establishment although the time at this time one would still not call evening.
It was your typical Irish pub whose customers were most likely neighborhood regulars.
A middle-aged gentleman sat at one of the tables.
“Hey, Ash, isn’t that the guy?”
“Uh, excuse me, sir… ‘Are the shamrocks in bloom?’”
The middle-aged man playing solitaire stops his game and looks over at Shen.
“…You must be waiting for someone, right?”
The old gentlemen struck a puzzled look.
“Psh, guess not. Sorry to have troubled you, mister.”
Ash was already sitting at a seat at the counter.
“Let’s see, I’m in the mood for a stout, but do you have anything that’d warm me up?”
The proprietor mashing potatoes on the other side of the counter responded with a friendly smile.
“A mug of Irish coffee is just the ticket for bone-chilling times like these. Are you a traveler, then? Welcome to Dublin.”
“Yeah, I’ll take one of those, too.”
Their hot cocktail included sugar, fresh cream and coffee to a base of Irish whiskey. The aroma of the skillfully prepared concoction spread throughout the pub.
“How about a hand since you appear to have the time?”
The old gentleman they had approached earlier invited the two while shuffling his deck of cards.
A second look at the man proved he was of considerable height. Although his hands and feet were slim, he by no means could be referred to as frail.
“Heh, heh, heh, sounds good. I’m up for a hand!”
“Oh, brother. You’re really are a sucker for games of chance.”
“A game of poker, perchance? Or would the game, judging from the location, be bridge?”
“That would be England. Poker would be just fine for me. Well then….”
Dealt one by one in precise intervals, neat stacks of five cards lay before the two.
“It’s okay to place bets for each card dealt, but let’s take it slow to begin. …Shall I open?”
Shen’s expression became focused. He smirked to reveal what he had wished to keep hidden. Ash giggled, but, then again, he always did. Compared to the model poker face of the middle-aged gentleman, their faces revealed more stories than the front page of today’s newspaper.
“Naturally I’m in.”
“Already? No one folds after the first deal!”
The unhappily tossed cards all fell face up: a king, a five, king, five, five.
“Tough break. Maybe the next hand.”
“The middle-aged gentleman skillfully snatched up the cards without making a sound.
“You know what “poker face” means, don’t you?”
“Are you messing with me? Of course I’ve heard of it.”
“Well, OK then.”
The gentleman, after displaying a shuffle with dexterity of a magician, had Ash cut the cards.
The snap of the cards was delightfully crisp.
“Your card-handling is impressive. I should be paying for the honor to see such a display.”
He began to deal the cards again.
“By the way… ‘Are the shamrocks in bloom?’”
“Hey, Ash, been there, done that already.”
“‘They will be, if you wait until spring.’”
“Wh-…Hey. What was that little drama before?”
“Open the game.”
Shen grumbled with dissatisfaction, checked his cards and grew more irritated.
“Yeah, I know, ‘poker face,’ right? But more than that…”
“Later, later. First, let’s play this hand. I’m in.”
“Hmph. This is bogus! I fold.”
The middle-aged gentleman requested a raise in the wager. But there was no indication of any money, not even a tip, on top of the table. His colored glasses reflected the lighting inside the pub so the movement of his eyes remained a mystery. Or perhaps the tilt of his head was calculated that way on purpose.
“Hmm. OK, I raise, too.”
“I raise again.”
“That’s the second raise for this hand, right? Well, I raise again.”
The two continued to up their ante, but there was still no indication of money or a tip being placed on the table.
At this point, the middle-aged gentleman brought the small whiskey glass placed on the edge of the table to his lips.
“Hey, Ash, just what are you betting on?”
“Whether this guy will fight alongside us in the upcoming KOF. Didn’t I tell you that?
“No, you didn’t. And if you lose, what happens?”
“I pay him with no catch. Of course, if I win I’ll still pay him but he participates in KOF.”
“Then you’re out of luck no matter the outcome.”
“I’ll be bringing a long-retired Karnöffel master back into action; that’s about it.”
Karnöffel? Shen asks again about the unfamiliar term, but he misses his chance owing to the advance of the gentleman’s game.
“All set, then? Showdown time! I call.”
Shen thrusts forward to observe Ash’s hand.
Jack, queen, seven, seven, seven. Three of a kind.
“…Somehow it looks like I lose.”
With his hand still face down on the table, as the expression of the middle-aged gentleman changes for the first time, he tilts the glass back and finishes off whiskey.
“The name’s Oswald. As for this undertaking, I accept.”
Both Ash and the disapproving Shen clasp Oswald’s extended hand and shake to conclude the negotiations.
“Well, we should discuss the particulars…. Let’s change our venue, shall we?”
As the three rise from their seats, the owner, idle up till now, rushes over to clean up.
Ash places a few bills on the table.
“Thank you for your hospitality, my good man. It was impeccable. Merci. ♪”
Oswald’s hand still lay face down on the table.
Oswald puts his coat on at the door, and is already in the middle of making his exit.
Once the three leave, the tension in the pub eases and things return back to normal.
The owner turns over Oswald’s hand, which had been left face down on the table. Spade, club, heart. And three aces.
When the owner turns around while incredulously tilting his head, Oswald is standing there.
“Excuse me, I forgot my hat.”
Oswald removes his hat from the coat hook, places it on his head, and fixes his gaze on the owner over the top of his glasses as he adjusts them with a middle finger. Beads of sweat run down the owner’s back.
“Well, then, cheerio!