Fueled by the cocktails, the evening began with quite a swing. After we had all been introduced, there was a certain amount of giggling conversation between Leena and Gemma, with much nudging and frequent glances at me. Meanwhile I talked with Abigail who was, I already knew, a strong-willed and ambitious individual. We skirted around work topics - too boring - so I asked what was wrong with Gemma.

"Oh, she's lonely and fed up," Abigail replied, "Her, um, boyfriend has had to leave the country for a while, go home to Germany. So she's a bit depressed."

"I'm sure we'll cheer her up," I replied gallantly.

Abigail nodded, licking her red lips just one time.

Once Gemma and Leena had caught up with each other's gossip and another round of drinks had been delivered, we began a four-way conversation which led through a roundabout route to the subject of one's real personality, and how one's deepest and most honest traits are only brought out under stress.

"We all have secrets," Abigail went on, "Some we are conscious of, and others perhaps less so. And we hide threse secrets, easily, when social pressures are low. We only really share them when things are tense, exciting."

"But the whole idea of places like this," I objected, waving my hand to indicate the entire bar, "Is to induce a feeling of relaxation and a lack of tension. Are you saying we can't really get to know each other while we're here?"

"Perhaps not," Abigail grinned, "Maybe we should introduce some artificial tensions into the situation."

"Like what?"

"How about a gambling game?" she suggested, "Poker. Strip poker."

Gemma's eyes lit up at this prospect and she grinned widely, while Leena through back her head and laughed aloud at the thought.

"Well, Okay," I said, thinking to call Abigail's bluff, "I'll get some cards from Alex at the bar. And another round of drinks. And I'll see if we can use one of the private rooms. How about that?"

I stood up while I speaking and swung around to face Abigail as I finished. She glanced at the other two women. Gemma giggled and Leena displayed the dirtiest smirk I had seen in a long time. Then Abigail looked me straight in the eye.

"It's a deal," she said.

*

I know Alex and Sandy's Bar very well. Alex is an old friend of mine, one I've known since High School. I helped him financially when he set this bar up and I do what I can to encourage my acquaintances and colleagues to frequent the place. These days, the bar is quite a money-spinner - it had returned my investment several times over - and it requires only a modest expenditure of time and effort on my part. Alex is the senior partner and handles all the day-to-day business; I help out with advertising and marketing, and some of the negotiations with suppliers.

I stepped over to the bar and bargained successfully with Alex. He handed me a new pack of cards with the wrapping still intact, and a couple of small keys attached to a large rectangular plastic tag. He started putting together a second round of drinks, but this time I asked him to put them on a tray.

By the way, the reason I drink Long Island Iced Tea on these occasions is because it is visually indistinguishable from Coke. I don't really drink a lot of alcohol, despite being the part-owner of a bar, and I prefer to keep a clear head. Alex knew that all of my drinks after the first one should be alcohol-free, while he put his usual generous measures in the other three cocktails.

I picked up the tray with one hand, put the keys in my pocket and then held the pack of cards in my other hand. I went back to our booth and presented the cards to Abigail with a flourish.

"So, ladies," I said, gesturing politely in the direction of the private rooms, "Fancy a game of cards?"

Something to my surprise, all three girls eased themselves from the booth seating without hesitation. Abigail collected my suit jacket with hers, then took me by the free arm - I was still holding the tray of drinks with the other. I steered her across the room towards the door to the private area on the far side of the bar. Behind me, Leena and Gemma also linked arms and followed us closely.

I unlocked the door and ushered the ladies inside, flicked the lights to a low setting, slid the tray of drinks onto the corner of the tiny bar that was wedged into one corner of the room, and casually locked the door behind us from the inside.

The back room at the bar - actually, the smaller of the two rooms we set aside for private functions - is deliberately designed to be a comfortable and relaxing area. There are several large couches in pale leather are set around in facing pairs, each with a low table between them. At one side, curtained french windows overlook the distant mountains and a private outside terrace that is itself not overlooked by neighbors.

I distributed the fresh drinks over one of the low tables. Leena and Gemma had already settled themselves in one of the couches, and Abigail planted herself in the other. As I watched, she picked up the new deck and peeled off the cellophane with a practiced ease, then split and shuffled the cards with slightly worrying competence. Not that I was particularly interested in winning this game, at least in this company.

"So, boys and girls," Abigail said, sounding very much like a professional croupier in a fancy casino, "The game is Five-Card Draw. One round, everyone can draw up to two cards. Every hand ends with a showdown, and everyone except the winner gets to remove an item of clothing. Jewelry and watches don't count. Shoes, socks and stockings count as one item for the pair. Okay?"

She sounded very much like it was not the first time she had played this particular game.

"Oh, that wouldn't be fair," Leena pouted, "You're all wearing more clothes than I am."

Gemma tugged at her friend's arm.

"We'll leave our jackets off, won't we," she said, glancing at myself and Abigail in turn.

"Of course," Abigail answered promptly, pushing her jacket and mine off the arm of the couch onto the floor.

"And I'll take off my tie right now," I added, moving to tug the offending item from around my neck and tossing it onto the pile of garments Abigail had just created. I sat down next to Abigail, facing Gemma.

Leena's face was now a picture of excitement and delight.

"Let's play cards," she said.

Part 1 Part 3