A day later, the stage was set. The sun was dying in the sky when the dozen players arrived at the Angelov mansion. Sofia had spent the day thinking a lot about the death of Georgi. 

There was no random element to his death. He was a strong swimmer. He worked deep in the city, miles away from the place where his body was found. He knew everyone in the circle of family and friends that Sofia did. She didn’t know how, but Georgi must have made an enemy. 

It had to be murder. 

Sofia was early to the poker night, and there was already an odd atmosphere upon her arrival. Ivan Angelov had summoned everyone to the house, in order to pay their respects to Georgi the way he would have wanted – together. 

‘Sofia – you’re early.’ Said Ivan as he welcomed his daughter. The grief and pain of the previous night seemed to have floated up into the high ceilings. Tonight there was a practical air about her father. 

‘Good evening, father. Has anyone said they will not be here?’

‘No one tells me they don’t arrive on this of all nights,’ said Ivan. ‘Everyone who I have told to be here has replied letting me know that they will. And who is this?’ 

Ivan extended one of his meaty hands to Saskia, Sofia’s friend from the hairdressers, who gazed up at the ceiling in wonder. 

‘What a place!’ she exclaimed, momentarily ignoring the reason they were there.’ I’m so sorry for your loss.’ She shook Ivan’s hand, leaving her own hand a little too long in his for Sofia. 

‘Please, follow me upstairs. I need a drink.’ Ivan replied, letting go of her hand. Saskia went to the left staircase and climbed it with the same energy and awe as a child would have walking through the door of a sweet shop. Ivan and Sofia followed behind her. 

‘Father, I want to be sat at Dimitar’s table. He was Georgi’s closest friend in Bulgaria.’ 

‘If you don’t count his little sister.’

‘I was not with him on the day he died.’

‘You must forgive yourself. Travel is a part of your life I encouraged. 

‘I’ve no need to forgive myself. I mean that Dimitar was around Georgi. Georgi’s last movements were to visit each of his businesses – and get a haircut.’

‘He came here, too.’ Said Ivan. ‘But I didn’t see him.’ 

‘Why weren’t you here? And why was he?’ 

‘Silvana told me he came looking for me when he arrived, but she said I wasn’t here. He came bursting in the house demanding to see me.’

‘Did you talk to him afterwards?’

‘No,’ Ivan said, but there was a hint of doubt in his eyes. Sofia wondered if it was really true. Establishing who was telling the truth would be important if she was to work out what had happened to her dead brother. Her instinct was to trust nobody.

When they arrived upstairs, Ivan made a point of serving Saskia first. Sofia hated this side of him, the seedy heart of her father. It was as if he had abandoned all morals and ethics when her mother died. Until death do us part, as they had sworn in holy matrimony. Death had parted them, and he was not the same man. As he smooth-talked Saskia while making her a cocktail, Sofia wandered into the next room, which was where the poker game would take place. Gilt lined most of the walls, doorframes, and the frames of several paintings that were dotted around the room. At one of the tables, Silvana was crouching over the dealer’s chair, checking that the deck of cards was ready. 

‘What are you doing?’ Sofia asked. 

‘Making sure everything is ready for Ivan.’

‘I’m sure.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘It means when did you ever do anything for somebody other than yourself. You’ll be playing tonight?’

‘Ivan wants me to. I am happy to serve too. We have only one member of staff to fetch the drinks. That may not be enough for your father.’ 

Sofia thought back to Barcelona when one waitress was enough for a six-handed cash game. Over a dozen players would be here tonight, but this was Ivan Angelov’s house – everything was on a grander scale. 

‘I know this has something to do with you.’ 

‘What do you mean?’

‘What do you think I mean? My brother’s death. You wanted him out of the way for the will, didn’t you? So father would leave it all to you, his mistress.’

‘His wife of many years,’ Silvana spat back. Her back was up, like a cobra readying for a strike. 

‘You don’t deny it, then?’ 

‘I do deny it. I have only ever loved Ivan. I do not want his money, no matter what you may think of me.’ 

‘I think you had the kind of upbringing that others see only in their nightmares.’

‘This is true. But I am grateful for the life we lead now. Together. You are looking in the wrong place, Sofia.’ 

Silvana stalked off in the direction of the kitchen, her plaited hair bouncing against her neck as she went. Sofia walked around the card tables. They had been handmade from mahogany by a Bulgarian artist Ivan had found on Facebook. For his age, he had always enjoyed technological advancement and Sofia glanced up at the pinhole cameras she knew were dotted around the old room. One in the base of a light fitting, another in the pelmet of a curtain. Several in the molded edges of the high ceiling, twelve feet up so they could capture everything. 

For the first time, Sofia wondered whether her father could see the action while they played poker. Would he do that – cheat at cards, like Goldfinger when James Bond caught him cheating at the start of the film? Ivan Angelov loved that movie. He’d made her watch it as a child, pausing the videotape if she left the room for any reason so that she didn’t miss something clever. Maybe he didn’t miss a thing. She thought it unlikely despite the obvious possibility of it.  

Pretty soon, the other players arrived, all of them at the invitation of Ivan Angelov. They all commiserated with Ivan on the loss of his son. Dimitar, Georgi’s closest male friend arrived, looking like he hadn’t slept in a month. His eyes were pink and bloodshot as if he had been crying over the loss of his friend. Or up all night planting his body next to the water.

Several other employees of the Glitter nightclub Georgi managed were there. Elena Petrova, one of the club hostesses, arrived in a black dress that left little to the imagination, covering as it was, about 30% of her upper body at best. She looked devastated as she cried on Sofia’s shoulder, but then Sofia watched her walk off to Ivan and perform exactly the same routine. Shaking hands, tears rolling down her cheeks, an embrace that fell right into a hug and a squeeze at the base of his back. It was like a practiced dance routine – step for step what she’d done with Sofia. 

Was she faking it or were those her feelings coming out naturally to them both? Several of the hostesses were there, along with the predominantly male bar staff. They were usually a rowdy bunch, the life and soul of any party. Tonight, however, the tone was somber and everyone had read the literal memo from Ivan. Dark shades of clothing were worn. Inscrutable expressions of sorrow or shock were painted on the faces. Sofia couldn’t yet tell if any of them were genuine. She made a mental note to be sure to keep everyone’s drinks topped up, via Silvana or the staff. 

One of the players caught Sofia’s attention as she had never seen him before even though she was sure that she knew all of her father’s poker friends. Even if he was an outsider, the chances of someone from the capital being unknown to her were rare and she’d never set eyes on the man before. Tall and rakish, he looked over 50, perhaps as old as 60. His smooth, tanned skin and relaxed, slim body alerted her to the fact that he was extremely comfortable in his own skin. Or a genius at pretending to be so.  

Sofia got the perfect chance to speak with him when she was drawn to play at the same table as him. She introduced herself as he joined her at the closest table to the small mobile bar that was staffed by the waitress in the corner of the room. 

‘I’m Sofia.’ 

‘’Ivan’s daughter? I can’t tell you how sorry I am,’ said the man, giving her hand a soft but strong shake. ‘I didn’t know Georgi well, but I know Ivan. It’s a shock to us all.’ 

‘Thank you.’ Sofia said, barely holding it together. Something about the cut-glass English accent of the man both appealed to her but made what he was saying terribly final. She had spent much of her time in Barcelona with an American who lived in London – Sam Houston – but this man was the real deal, and he sounded as English as crumpets and tea. 

‘Do you live in Bulgaria?’ Sofia asked. 

‘We do. My wife and I moved here after the recession and grew a travel business.’ 

‘Your wife doesn’t play poker?’ 

‘Not tonight. I’m Peter. Peter Serf.’ 

‘Nice to meet you,’ Sofia replied. 

She wanted to watch his face for any signs that he might be showing a mistruth. The face could be read a hundred different ways, but something in his eyes caught her like a laser beam would distract a cat. She wasn’t attracted to him. It was something else, but she didn’t understand it. Whatever it was passed across his face like a shadow and was gone.

Ivan Angelov stood up and addressed all the players. There were four tables of eight. Sofia turned in synchronization with Peter Serf to face her Dad.

‘Good evening, everyone.’ Ivan said, swaying a little with the palm of one hand curled around the half full bowl of a brandy glass. ‘My son… Georgi. He died last night and was found by the river. Evidently, he drowned. I would like you all to raise a glass to him. He will be missed so much by us all, but especially by my daughter Sofia. Both Silvana and I are devastated that we will never see his smile again.’

Ivan looked choked. He could barely speak but took a swig of the brandy. Downed it in one swallow and felt the burn hit his throat. He carried on. 

‘I want us all to play in his memory tonight. Drinking, without fear, and for fun. Whoever wins tonight will win money for Georgi’s favorite charity, the Children’s hospital in Sofia. I will double the top prize. Last week, it was…’ 

Silvana chirped up from behind Ivan, her hands tight to her sides. 

‘Three thousand Euros.’

‘Acceptable.’ Ivan said, sitting back down with a mumbled ‘Shuffle up and deal.’

Sofia looked around the room, almost dizzy with the sick feeling that Georgi should have been there. More than ever, she was convinced that someone else in the room was the reason he was not.

She was right.

Chapter 2                                  Chapter 4

About the Author: Paul Seaton has written about poker for over 10 years, interviewing some of the best players ever to play the game such as Daniel Negreanu, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Over the years, Paul has reported live from tournaments such as the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and the European Poker Tour. He has also written for other poker brands where he was Head of Media, as well as BLUFF magazine, where he was Editor.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.