It was his turn to deal. The cards in his hands, and that lazy eye of his glazing over towards me, as if to say, you are done. It didn’t fill me with much confidence in myself. He was playing with me, losing to me until the last hand when he went all in. He’d been smiling the whole time, laughing each loss off as if it weren’t a big deal at all, and so I thought he just had lots to lose, which was all the better for me to win. But he knew what he was doing, and only when I saw that royal flush of his did I figure it out. I had more winnings than him in the last hand, and now I only had a little less than a quarter of it left. This was all I had left of me, my life in my own faltering hands, and only twenty minutes to get the money I owed to the man I owed it to. Things didn’t look so good. And this guy was better than me.
He dealt slowly, cigarette in his toothy grin, one card at a time slowly gliding across the table, landing perfectly where the other had landed. I waited for him to put the deck down, it was his bet, and I could tell he knew I was in a hurry. But that smiling bastard never said a word, instead he just grinned wide, and blew the smoke in his lungs out in nice little circlets. He stared at me, waiting for me to look at my cards, probably waiting to see my disappointed reaction, but I wouldn’t do it. He glanced at his a second time, leaning towards the table to secretly view his hand. He sat up again, fingered his cigarette and then shook the embers off in a tray before tapping his hand on the table to check to me.
I looked at the clock, that bastard had just wasted two minutes of my precious time. He knew it, that smiling dick, he knew exactly what he was getting me into. I reached for my cards, but at the last second, I stopped, instead clenching my fist and tapping onto the table. It was the first time all night his smile broke.
“You ain’t gonna look at your cards, Ace? A little reckless don’t ya think?”
I wanted to respond, but even I didn’t know what I was really doing.
“Just lay the cards down, Bull. I don’t have all night.”
He smiled again, “No, you don’t.” he laughed sickly, the cough of his a reminder of his years of smoking.
He nodded in near respect, and picked up the deck, and laid the first three cards down on the table. Ace of hearts, three of diamonds, and a ten of hearts. He didn’t look at his cards again, he knew what he had, and as a rule, I always think another player has an ace. Nothing else on the table could be good for me, but this had all just taken another minute from my time. Seventeen minutes left until deadline, and I still had to cash out and take the money about five miles from here. This was already cutting too close. And the worst part is that I already had all the money I needed, before that last hand. I had more than enough to pay off my debt, and to live off of for the next couple of months while I straighted out my life again.
Too many losses over too short a time period. This was the story of my life. My girlfriend was probably the best I’d ever find in my life, but I sacrificed it for money. Made a stupid bet, and I lost, so I turned to the one thing I knew might save my ass, cards. Although she didn’t know what I had done, I pushed her away, hard. I couldn’t let her get caught in the middle of all of this, not if things went sour. My friends were always worthless, a constant hold on my progress in life. When I should have been home reading, or whatever, I went out with them instead, got drunk, did drugs, pretty much the only thing I didn’t do was cheat on my girlfriend. But a couple of weeks ago I wrecked my car, pretty bad, and being drunk as I was refused to call it in until the next day, when I’d had a chance to sober up. I was a mess, and here I was sitting in a bigger one that I made for myself.
He threw out a thousand in chips. Not much, considering, but he was just baiting me in, smaller amount, keep me interested in his pair of aces. I was holding fifteen thousand still, a fair amount, but not the thirty I needed. I couldn’t lose anymore, not one bit, or I was done. Another minute and a half gone, barely fifteen minutes left, I push all in, without ever looking at my cards.
He didn’t like that one bit. That smile of his was gone, and he mashed his cigarette into the tray, snuffing it before it was half done.
“What do you think you’re doing? Look at your cards idiot!”
I just shook my head, I was already in this, all the way in. This would be my last hand no matter the outcome.
He called my hand, thirty thousand in the center. He laid down the last two cards, Jack of hearts, and a four of diamonds. Three hearts on the table, and him likely holding an ace, possibly ace/ten. I’d need two hearts as my hand to win this. This was looking even worse for me, and he knew it. That sick bastard just smiled wide, lit up another cigarette and didn’t even waste time blowing rings, he just blew the entire thing in my face. He laid his hand down, Ace of spades, and ten of spades; two pair.
“Let me see your secret hand, Ace. Show me what it looks like to lose everything.”
Ten minutes left. They would come for me soon. I flipped over my cards; a pair of jacks.
”No!,” Bull shouted as he slammed his fist on the table and threw his cigarette at a nearby spectator. “How…there is no way! You must have cheated!”
“I never even touched my cards, Bull! You dealt them, if anything this is your fault.”
“No! Somehow you cheated, playing cards like a madman, you cheating fool!”
“I had nothing to lose. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to cash out.”
“No! You must play another hand! One last hand!”
“Sorry, maybe next time, I really need to be somewhere right now.”
I get up and start collecting my chips into a carrier.
“No!” he said shoving the rest of his chips aside, letting them crash to the ground. “You will not leave this place until you tell me how you won!”
Two men came over and grabbed him by the arms, and he settled down quickly. That was the only good thing about these underground places, there was always someone with a gun in your back, and the person’s across from you.
“Bull, you dealt the cards. You saw that I never touched them. I couldn’t have cheated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”
The man settled, and shook the hands holding him off as he bent down to collect his strewn chips.
I exchanged my chips for a fat wad of cash, and left the basement with it sitting in my coat pocket.
I got to my car, quickly keyed open the door and fired up the ignition. The thing had seen better days, and screeched when it started, the belt probably rubbing against something vital. One headlight lit up the darkened road ahead of me, and I took off down the street, making my first right, and heading off toward my destination.
I check my cellphone, which had been turned to silent in my coat pocket while I played the last couple of hours. Five messages. I’ll save them for later, I don’t have time to turn my focus away from getting where I need to be and fast. I put it back in my pocket, and keep my attention as I race through red lights, and down alleyways. I take every short cut I can think of, I know this city pretty well, and to make it in time I’ll need every quick cut I can remember. I think about my girlfriend, when all of this is over, I’ll call her, try to apologize, try to get her back. I love her more than anything, it took everything I had to push her away. But I had to keep her safe. Maybe I’ll invite her out for some drinks with friends, maybe even tell her the truth. Yeah, that’s a good idea, but she deserves it, doesn’t she. I swear to myself as I pull up in front of the door that I’ll never do something so stupid again.
I race in, the firm metal door slamming behind me as I enter into the wide warehouse, a deep echo pulsing through the air all the way back to the table where a man sits, smoking a cigar.
I run to the man, and slam the wad of cash down on the table in front of him.
“You’re late.” he says without an ounce of humanity.
“Thirty seconds, the clock’s behind you, look.” I point to a large clock on the wall behind him.
“Mister Rahl don’t like late.”
“But it’s still the right time, isn’t it? I made it here on time dammit. Just take the money.”
“True, you are in the time specified, and as a courtesy, Mister Rahl will allow this, just once, you hear me. But I’m sure you’ll never keep him waiting again. Now go, before he changes his mind.”
I stare at him for a second, wondering if this is just some sick joke. But he loosens the rubber band around the cash, and counts it out, ignoring me completely. I back away slowly at first, keeping my eyes open and darting to each side of myself, and once behind just to make sure. I soon ease into it, and turn my back to him completely, my steps echoing loudly through the wide building interior. When I reach the door, I take one last look back, but he’s still counting the cash. I exit, and the door thuds closed behind me.
I made it. I can’t believe that I made it in time. I didn’t have any money left, but I could wait until I got paid again from work, it would just mean scrounging my own cabinets for food to eat for the next week or so. But I was alive. I pulled my phone out of my pocket as I opened the car door and sat inside. My heart was still beating really fast, I had thought I was dead. But I wasn’t, and I started listening to the messages in my phone as I turned the key to start my car.
The first was from George, probably my best friend, telling me to get out to the bar. I laugh it off, and then I get another couple of messages from him asking where I’m at, and then on the fourth, I hear her voice. Sweet, but sad. She’d been crying. She wants to talk, wonders why I acted the way that I did. The last message is her again, sounding much more upset, and just saying why, why did I do this to her, and then she’s gone. Doesn’t even say goodbye. I go to my missed calls and call her back. I hear it ring twice before I realize I’m actually hearing it.
I look in my back seat where the sound is coming from, and then I see those eyes, so tired from crying. Her hair the way it looked when she left, curled, beautiful. Her face frozen for eternity with the look she had when I last saw her, sadness, pain. The phone rang again and on my end I could hear her voice, the only way I’d ever hear it again as she says she can’t come to the phone right now.