The sudden thud of a heavy metal door opening and banging against
the wall scattered rats in all directions. The dark, deserted,
slime-ridden alleyway enhanced the commotion.
A huge burly bald-headed man with a body full of tattoos pulled a
small mousy type man up the metal stairs from the basement and
threw him unceremoniously onto the muck-slimed cobblestones.
The big man pointed a finger at the smaller man, who raised his
face out of the wet slime that littered the cobblestones. "I
don't want to see your ugly face in here ever again." The bouncer
clumped down the stairs and slammed the door shut behind him.
The mousy man sat up and in utter desolation, covered his face
with his hands. "Oh God, what am I going to do?"
"Well, Benny, you've gotten yourself into quite a fix this time,
Benny jerked his hands away from his face and looked in the
direction of the slow, honey-dripping southern-drawl voice. Benny
squinted at the tall shadowy figure and tried to make out the
face half hidden under a black fedora hat.
Benny stood and brushed his hands together. "Do I know you?"
The stranger ignored Benny's question.
"I've been watching you, Benny. You have a wife and two kids
waiting for you and that twenty-five hundred dollar bonus check,
but you gambled it all away. And after that sweet heartfelt
promise you made." The stranger pursed his lips and shook his
head. "Tsk, tsk, tsk."
The strange demeanor of the mystery man and the dark shadowy
alleyway made Benny nervous. He backed away slowly and turned on
his heel to walk quickly toward the sanctuary of the streetlight
"I have a deal for you, Benny." The strangers voice floated
around Benny's ears. "A deal that could get your twenty-five
Benny stopped. A deal, he thought. He would do anything if he
didn't have to go home and tell his wife they might get thrown
out of their house anyway. With that thought Benny turned around.
The stranger stood in the same spot.
"What kind of a deal?"
"Only a game. One game of draw poker."
Benny's hopes were dashed as quickly as they had come.
"I have no money." He turned to walk away.
"Money is no problem, Benny. I will loan it to you."
Benny stood for a moment then walked toward the stranger. He
stopped in front of the shadowed figure and peered into the still
"And why would you do that?"
"Like you, Benny, I have been blacklisted from all public and
private gaming rooms around. All I want is to play the game. We
have a sickness, you and I. I am compelled to gamble." He waved
his blacked gloved hand. "Money is no object, I am a rich man. So
I seek out men such as yourself and pay them to gamble with me."
It sounded logical to Benny. He did need that money. He fumbled
with his tie and brushed at his coat and pants in a hopeless
attempt to look presentable.
"All right, where?"
The stranger led Benny to the opposite end of the alley to a
dimly lit deserted street. Out of nowhere a long black stretch
limousine pulled noiselessly to the curb. A midget hopped out of
the drivers' side wearing a black tuxedo and top hat. He had to
stretch to reach the handle of the door. With an elaborate bow he
ushered the two into plush leather seats.
"Something to drink?"
A click and whir produced a decanter of bourbon and two glasses.
Benny licked his lips and looked lovingly at the bourbon.
Benny almost knocked the glasses over with his enthusiasm. His
hands shook slightly as he poured two glasses and handed one to
"To success." The stranger raised his glass and drank in one
Benny did the same and choked on the fiery liquid rushing down
his throat. Benny coughed and sputtered a bit and poured himself
another. This time he sipped.
"So, you never told me your name."
"My apologies, Benny. It's Ted H. Levi. Call me Ted, please."
Benny gazed around at the leather and gold trim, the DVD player,
the TV, the full bar and two telephones.
"Any relation to the Levi Jeans people?"
"Maybe eons ago. I made my money being a high end deal maker."
Benny nodded and took another drink. Something just under the
surface of his subconscious wriggled to get out, but the warm
liquid that spread through his body quickly quieted the nagging.
Ted removed his Fedora and placed it on the seat. Benny's breath
caught in his throat with shock and dismay. The white haired man
looked a lot like his father, who had passed away last year.
Except for the eyes. What looked at Benny were coal black
unfathomable eyes, deep-set in a craggy face. His Fathers eyes
had been light blue, always twinkling at the world around him.
Benny shivered and drowned the indefinable thought with another
slug of bourbon.
They stopped in front of a high-rise building. Benny looked at
his watch after they had exited the limousine. Three AM. The
streets were eerily quiet and devoid of any life. The limo had
pulled away as quietly as it had come.
Benny followed Ted into the building and thought maybe this
wasn't such a good idea after all. Greeted at the door by two
scantily clad blonde women who giggled and took each of Benny's
arms dispelled any hesitation he had. He glanced at the strange
night watchman as he was being led to the elevators. His face was
bubbly with bulbous bumps and small darting eyes, which watched
the entourage with unconcealed hatred every step to the
The elevator doors opened and Benny was immediately assailed with
noise and smoke. Benny felt at ease with the familiar dinging of
slot machines, laughter and occasional yelling of victory on a
win at the craps table. The outdated clothes the people wore did
not register with Benny as he was led to a poker table. The
dealer wore a traditional dealers cap, a shirt with bands around
the upper sleeves and a stubby cigar protruding from his thin
The giggling, blonde women let go his arms and he sat where Ted
indicated. Three stacks of hundred dollar bills of five bundles
each lay in front of him. His eyes widened with awe and greed. He
had never seen that much money. He could feel the women standing
behind him and always suspicious when it came to playing cards he
asked them to move. Ted gave a nod and they left. He noticed a
drink on the table that he was sure wasn't there a second ago. He
picked it up and took a quick drink anyway.
Ted smiled at him from across the table.
"Shall we get started?"
Without removing the cigar from his mouth, the dealers gruff and
gravely voice demanded to "Ante up".
An hour into the game and Benny felt confident. His four and a
half stacks looked good against Ted's one and a half stacks. His
whiskey on the rocks kept coming, as did the money.
Benny looked at his opponent in surprise. Ted shoved all his
money to the middle and leaned back to smile at Benny.
Tough cookie, Benny thought as he unfolded his ten to Ace
straight. His opponent was completely unreadable so Benny had to
rely on his ability to count cards; a trick that had gotten him
thrown out of many establishments. His brain, filled with bourbon
soaked cotton, couldn't remember the last sequence of cards. He
tried to look confident and unconcerned as he pushed his call to
Ted spread the three kings and two nines on the table. Benny
looked at the kings in dismay as Ted raked in his winnings. He
was sure a king had been out a couple of hands before, and a new
deck had not been started yet. His head spun from drink as he
looked around at the people. They seemed different now. Not happy
and carefree but angry and solemn. They sucked the very air from
Benny's lungs as they pressed in close around the table. So close
he smelled the rancid, putrid body odors that lingered around his
nostrils. The vacant slot machines whirred and dinged. Benny
needed a break to quiet the queasiness in his stomach.
He stood and had to brace himself against the table.
"Which way to the bathroom?"
"Straight back to the left."
Benny pushed through the now strangely quiet and hostile crowd as
he made his way to the bathroom.
He splashed his face with water and looked at his pointy-chinned
weak pale face in the mirror. He had to get out of here. But all
that money, his thoughts reasoned. Just one good hand and then he
would leave. He glanced at his watch. Five o'clock. Marian would
be so angry that she just might leave him this time.
He left the bathroom and was relieved to find everything back to
normal. People yelled, laughed and played their different games
once again. No one stared or pressed in as he made his way back
to the table. Maybe his illusions had been bourbon induced, Benny
thought as he looked upon normal people indulging in normal
gambling activities. Just one more hand.
Several hands later, Benny stared at his almost non-existent
stack of bills in disbelief. Two hands later there was nothing in
front of him.
Benny stood and staggered. Regaining his composure quickly, he
snugged his tie to his neck and straightened his jacket.
"I thank you, Mr. Levi, for inviting me to your game. But I have
to go. I have a divorce waiting for me at home."
"Aw, Benny, I feel so bad. Come, Come, and sit down. Let me give
you a chance to win some money, then you can leave."
Benny stared at the six stacks in front of Ted with a sense of
sadness and loss.
"Sorry, I'm fresh out."
"Wait," Ted flipped open a once folded paper. "I have a
proposition for you. I have here a contract for you. You lose;
you work for me. You win; you could win a lot of money and this
will be torn up." He sensed Benny's uncertainness. "Look at it
this way, one way you will have a job receiving a lot more than
you deserve, I assure you, the other you will have money. It's
really a win-win situation."
Benny sat and Ted pushed the paper and pen across the table.
"One hand, no ante. Just this," He tapped the paper, "Against
this." He tapped the stacks of money.
Benny's' mind whirled as he mentally calculated what he could do
with sixty thousand dollars. He stared at the contract with
blurred vision. Knowing he probably wouldn't be able to read it
he asked, "What exactly would I have to do if I lose?"
"Why, exactly what you are doing now, except with a salary of
course. As I have said before, my position is such that I have to
pay people to gamble with me."
Slowly and with shaking fingers he signed the contract. All
became silent in the room as the people pressed in once again.
"New deck." The dealer announced.
Benny was dealt four aces and a five of hearts. He kept stone
faced but his mind did joyful flips.
Ted pushed all the money to the middle and Benny pretended to
hesitate before he threw in the paper he had just signed.
Ted turned over each card slowly and methodically.
King of Hearts.
Queen of hearts.
Jack of hearts.
Ten of Hearts.
Ted held the last card and smiled with malicious glee.
Benny held his breath. He didn't bother to wipe at the drop of
sweat hanging from his brow. An unseen hand squeezed like a vise
around his heart with each turn of the card.
And finally with the turn of the nine of hearts the room suddenly
whirled in a kaleidoscope of colors. Benny was caught up inside a
demonic tornado. The patron's faces lost the joyfulness and
whirled inside with Benny and taunted him with grotesque grimaces
and shrill ugly laughter. Benny felt claws ripping at his body as
they pulled and tugged him down into a black abyss. He opened his
mouth to scream but nothing came out.
He awoke in pitch-black darkness. He felt he was sitting but
couldn't stand for some reason. A red glow popped on above his
head casting an eerie light over the table filled with poker
chips, cards and shot glasses. Benny gasped in horror at the
creature sitting across from him. What was once a man now had
rotting, worm-crawling flesh hanging from his face. Riddled with
maggots, one eye hung down the things cheekbone while the other
glared with malicious glee at Benny. His jaw and teeth were
exposed forever in a macabre grin. Benny struggled to get up but
couldn't. He looked down and gazed in horror at the stumps below
his hips where legs had once been.
The thing bent with bones cracking and splintering; retrieved
something from the floor and threw it on the table with a thump.
Terrifying disbelief froze every thought as Benny recognized his
own foot, still clad in brown argyle socks and brown leather
shoes, rocking slightly and blood oozing slowly form the severed
"Ante up." It said.