(INSPIRED BY: A down-the-rabbit-hold search on the rules of BlackJack)
Stevie gleefully made his way past the whirring slot machines and blinking lights. He was feeling lucky and it took no skill to perch in a chair, insert a coin here, pull a lever there. Utterly boring without a smidge of a real challenge. Cross your fingers for good luck and be done with it.
The poor sots who let themselves get entranced at the machines were easy prey. He scoffed at the foolish women muttering prayers to the godless chrome casino as he made his way towards the tables.
Knocking back his double shot of bourbon, Stevie slid into a plush seat and winked at the dealer. The dealer greeted him with a blank stare. Unfit for customer service that one. Not even a nod to acknowledge an honest gambler’s presence. Stevie glanced over at his fellow gambler three chairs over and rolled his eyes, but only received a suspicious glare from his beady eyed table-mate. The villainous little man looked him over and proceeded to aggressively stack ten chips and push them forward towards the middle of the table.
Stevie pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and flung it across the table, narrowly missing the small tower of chips. The dealer swiftly converted the cash to chips but before he could hand them over, Stevie held up his hand to the dealer and maliciously grinned at the man across from him, hissing “I’m all in, mate. Are you?”
The dealer remained silent, shuffled the cards, and dealt.
Stevie had black jack mastered. He wasn’t counting cards, mind you, he just considered himself blessed with extraordinary luck and an affinity for math. The glossy cards just sang to him.
Hit, split, stand, double-down. Red, black, white. Suite after suite flipped past, flying back and forth between Stevie and the dealer. He was smashing the competition to bits. Stevie found it particularly entertaining to watch the man’s face across from him deepen from a blotchy red to a ghastly shade of purple.
“Breathe, mate. Lack of oxygen won’t help your game any,” Stevie mock whispered and tried to look appropriately sympathetic. He promptly abandoned the effort as another tumblr of bourbon was plunked down to his right.
Three or four drinks ago, Stevie had decided the pretty, pert waitress with curly brown hair was an angel. A complete saint! She was Mother Teresa herself with the way she kept swinging by with bourbon just for him. The kisses on the cheek didn’t hurt either. He slyly slipped her a couple of chips each time for her attentions and patted her on the bum.
Glancing down at the table, he was delighted to discover he’d accumulated more chips than he knew what to do with. He couldn’t possibly stuff the lot in his trousers and he didn’t want the shifty man across from him to get any ideas about nicking a few of his chips.
Signaling the dealer, Stevie prepared to depart from the table. As the man passed him a plastic bucket to hold his earnings, Stevie looked at him with distaste.
“My good man, do you really expect me to carry my winnings in this garish monstrosity? A coin purse or something discreet if you will!”
Stevie patted himself on the back when he thought he saw the dealer’s eye twitch before he passed him a blue coin purse. Finally a response from what he could only assume was a robot!
The man across the table sighed and stared into his drink morosely as Stevie scooped his chips into the bag, tugged the zipper shut, and tucked it under his arm. Grinning at the men, Stevie nodded to them and spun to leave, eager to track down the waitress who’d been keeping him lubricated with whiskey all night.
A man in a tailored grey suit stepped into his line of vision. Stevie had to crane his neck back to quirk an eyebrow up at the towering giant. The man’s name-tag swam in and out of Stevie’s vision, but he could make out that he was the FLOOR MANAGER.
“Could I interest you in a more challenging game, sir? You seem to be having a particularly lucky night. We only offer a buy in to our most intriguing guests.”
Stevie attempted to wave the drunken haze away from the front of his mind and squinted at the manager. He seemed blurred around the edges and the only clear thing about him were his bright eyes and shiny, white teeth.
“Not sure that I’m in top form at the moment, mate. It’s been a rather brilliant night on my part, but I think I should turn in before my luck runs out,” Stevie said. “Perhaps we can pick this back up tomorrow.”
“As you wish, sir.” The manager nodded. “We’ll extend an invitation to you tomorrow night. Please be here at half past nine and I’ll personally escort you to one of our VIP rooms.”
Stevie grinned and clapped the man’s shoulder. “It’s a date! Till tomorrow!”
As Stevie turned to go, the room started to spin and Stevie lurched forward towards the manager. The man gripped his arm to keep him upright.
Embarrassed, Stevie righted himself and and started to apologize profusely before glancing around in confusion. Gone were the plush carpets and bright lights of the casino floor. They had been replaced with a black and white linoleum floor, cracked with age. Bright fluorescent lights buzzed overhead.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re trying to pull here?” Stevie spat at the manager.
The manager smirked at him and moved towards the corner of the room and pulled open a door with a small window that was practically seamless with the surrounding grey walls.
Stevie charged after him, intent on throttling him for kidnapping him, but he wasn’t able to reach the door before the manager slammed it shut. As Stevie pounded his fists against the door and screamed obscenities and promises of retribution, the manager looked at him with pity through a small window in the door and mouthed, “Good luck.”
The small window shrunk rapidly until a small pop signaled its nonexistence and left the wall smooth and blank.
Stevie spat at the wall and cursed.
“Hello.” A gravelly voice reached Stevie’s ears.
Stevie turned around slowly, eager to vent his anger on whoever they’d foolishly locked in the room with him.
A large man sat hunched over a wooden table with a rectangular metal plate in the center of the table and a small pulsing red light. His grey beard was long and matted and his suit was wrinkled, tie askew. He looked terrible. Stevie met his red rimmed eyes with disgust.
“You have to play,” he stated in a heavy Russian accent.
“Play?! What do you--are you insane? Where the hell are we? Who the bloody hell are you?” Stevie had completely lost his patience and began to yell at the man, “You had better--”
“You have to play,” the old man interrupted. “Only one can win. Only one can leave. Sit.”
Something about the man’s tone gave Stevie pause and he crossed the room and sat in the cheap wooden chair across from the grizzled behemoth. Stevie crossed his arms and glared at the man and ground his teeth in frustration.
Two cards appeared face down in front of both men and two cards appeared next to the metal plate. They lifted their own cards discreetly and looked at each other appraisingly. Stevie licked his lips in anticipation. He already had a 20. This game was in the bag.
The old man lifted his hands to the ceiling, crossed himself and muttered a prayer.
“Place your bet here.” He indicated the metal square in between them.
Stevie looked around for his coin purse, intent on thrashing this man in whatever twisted approximation of a game he was being forced to play. He had enough to outlast the old bat. This chap was clearly on his last legs!
When he couldn’t find the coin purse he cursed. That slimy manager had probably nicked his winnings when he’d kidnapped him and spirited him away to this room. He reached into his suit coat, pulled out his wallet, and rifled through his bills.
The old man sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes. He removed a chain from his neck, laying it on the metal square reverently.
Stevie scoffed at the off color chain and removed a few hundred dollar bills and tossed them toward the metal plate. The bills settled in front of the metal. Frustrated, Stevie tried shoving the bills forward but was met with resistance.
“Your bet must match the value of mine,” the old man said as he watched Stevie.
“What? Your bloody old chain can’t be worth that much,” Stevie pointed at the dull object accusingly.
The old man shook his head and didn’t answer him.
Stevie reached into his wallet and yanked out a black card and tossed it onto the table. It slid across the wood and onto the metal. “Unlimited company card, my good man. Key to my livelihood and evidence of my good fortune and business sense. You can’t offer more value than that.”
The old man shook his head and sighed. “That was a mighty foolish move on your part. You won’t be able to take that back.”
“Don’t be daft, you mad man. It’s easy to take back with no dealer present,” Stevie hissed and reached for his card. He attempted to pick up the card but couldn’t budge it from the metal plate. It was like it was glued down and nothing he attempted could dislodge it.
Stevie pounded his fist against the table in anger. “What have you done? Magnetized the table? I’ll have to put in a request for a new card as you’ve completely ruined it. Give it back!”
“This is not my doing. I cannot remove your card even if I wished to.” The old man stroked his beard and crossed himself again and stared morosely at the table.
“The light is still red. It seems we have not bet enough.” The old man bent forward and held his head in his hands. “Forgive me,” he whispered to the ceiling. He reached into his suit and pulled out a folded piece of paper and laid it on the table, unfolding it reverently. It was a black and white picture of a woman with dark hair and a little girl grinning around her missing front teeth. Ever so gently, the old man placed the picture on the metal square and closed his eyes.
Stevie glared at him, angry that this man was able to bet a measly photograph when he couldn’t place bets in cash. That bloody floor manager. Completely illegal and ruining what could have been a fruitful night of celebration with a pretty bird.
“I must win.” The old man said and opened his eyes, determination evident in his steady gaze. “I cannot lose them. You must understand.”
Stevie felt his stomach drop and thought he might be sick. He wanted to wallop the great lump, but felt frozen in his seat. He whispered, “You’re betting your own family? How can you bet your own family?”
The light turned green and the metal plate sunk into the table and disappeared from view.
“Hold,” Stevie choked out.
“Hit,” said the old man through gritted teeth.
The card flipped. Steve stared in disbelief. 21 to his 20. Rage began to bubble up, flooding his pale face with color.
“So it is,” the old man said closing his eyes and lifting his hands towards the ceiling reverently.
Stevie’s desperation built. His chair scraped over the floor as he stood up, hands planted on either side of the table in front on him. “Come off it now, mate. This is nonsense. Let’s get that bloody floor manager back in here. He’s probably laughing his arse off that shiny-eyed monster.”
The older gentleman in front of him stood slowly, bones creaking under his weight. He opened his eyes and looked down at Stevie, eyes watering. He turned his face away and sighed heavily.
“I hope that luck is with you next time,” the old man whispered. A soft bell chimed. He turned and shuffled towards the far wall, where a door appeared and began to silently swing open.
Stevie attempted to storm after him, but his face twisted in horror as he realized his feet were stuck to the floor and wouldn’t move.
“Help me!! You have to help me!” Stevie started screaming.
The old man hunched his shoulders around his ears and moved toward, shuffling through the door.
“Wait! I don’t have anything left to bet! I can’t do this--I don’t understand” Stevie shouted at the old man.
“We always have more to lose,” the old man sighed.
The floor manager suddenly appeared to the left of the old man out in the hallway and gently laid an arm on the old man’s shoulder. He smiled at Stevie through the doorway.
“You still have your heart, your memories, your very soul.”
The door slammed shut behind him as Stevie screamed and flailed about trying to move away from the table.
The fluorescent lights overhead flickered.
A digital countdown appeared on the wall.
21 years, 21 hours to go.