This story is ancient. I take no responsibility (now) for its many errors of grammar, style, punctuation, and spelling. Read my childhood works and despair.
This story is ancient. I take no responsibility (now) for its many errors of grammar, style, punctuation, and spelling. Read my childhood works and despair.
This was the first story I ever had published — in a bespoke book produced for the Alternate Reality Game Perplexcity. I make no claims to fame on that basis, I am pretty sure they accepted everything that was submitted, without question, and that copies were only available to the contributors and other game players. Certainly this wouldn't pass my own standards now.
I also had a card/puzzle accepted for Perplexcity: I'm So Sorry.
The dice are cold in my clenched fist, three of them together. I can feel their rounded corners biting into my flesh, and in my mind's eye I can see them; red and glittering like rubies, with white pips set into their glossy faces. If I throw them now, they will clatter down and come to rest just so, all the pips upward, six and six and six again; the devil's number.
Around me, in the bright lights and noisy darkness of the casino, I can hear the voices cheering, egging me on, shouting "Roll 'em! Roll 'em!" This is the day, the hour, the minute I have lived my life for, the day I can take my revenge.
One, two, three — I shake the dice back and forth in my fist, staring at the black baize of the table in front of me. Staring at the white lines and the red numbers, at the heaps of chips, at the one great heap of chips, right there on the number eighteen. One roll away from victory, one roll away from fortune, one roll away from breaking Castro and his God dam casino for ever. And all I have to do is roll an eighteen.
Only if I do, my soul will be the price.
Lights flash in my mind's eye, drawing me back three days, three long days, into the past. For a moment the faces of the crowd in the dark, the bright green of the baize, the heat of the light blazing down on me and the shadowy croupier, all go spiralling away like a tunnel; taking me away from the moment back to the table, in the Blue Lagoon bar that Wednesday night.
I was drinking away my last rotten ten dollars in gulps of cheap tequila, fingering the last few coins in one hand and a glass in the other. Across the bar, in the window over the road, the blue neon buzzed on and off intermittently, like a bug catcher full of flies. I watched the bright lights of the traffic outside, swishing past in the hot summer rain, out towards the lake, and the backs of the men and women at the bar, drowning their thoughts in liquor.
I didn't really take in any of it. All I could hear was Castro's voice, drawling over the polished expanse of his desk while his two oafs held me down in the chair with one heavy hand on my shoulder. "Please please," I begged, "Give me another chance Mr Castro sir, I'll make it back, I know I can. All I need is one lucky day, one lucky day sir!" Pathetic.
And then Castro's heavy tones, "No it won't do Billy boy, no it won't do at all. There ain't no more credit for you. Your all bum out of it Billy boy, there's not a cent left for you. You're a loser Billy, you lost it all." He shook his head. "There's no place for you here any more."
Desperately I fumbled at the papers I'd brought with me. "No look Mr Castro, I've got the deeds to my house, the papers for my car, you can have 'em, everything, just let me play!" I stumbled on the words, but Castro only shook his head sadly, knowing as well as I did that the car had been towed already, and that the house had gone to Alice for alimony.
"Boys," he said with a sigh, "Show Billy out — and don't let him back in."
So there I was in the Blue Lagoon the next night, with my last ten dollars in a glass in front of me and all the rest of my belongings in a case at my feet. The day before was lost in a haze of drink and anger. I can just recall trying to break my way in through the line of bouncers at the casino door, and being thrown back, down the steps, into the rain. Tumbling over and over into the gutter; lying there until I crawled off to find a bottle to drown myself in.
I was broken out of my reverie by the realisation that someone had just spoken to me. I looked up and saw a man standing over the table, dapper and slick as you like. His black hair was gelled back over his scalp, leaving a pair of arching pencil eyebrows over dark eyes. He had a little moustache, like a French waiter, and an elegant angular chin. His suit was all red silk and black, with shiny buttons and creases you could cut yourself on. I took for a pimp or a hustler, a professional card shark just like me — only still in the big time.
"William Smith?" the hustler asked in a smooth south-western accent. His voice was like sweet molasses, slow and smooth and black as night. I peered up from under bleary brows and gruffed out "Who wants to know? You come collecting debts? 'Cause I ain't got a thing more than what I'm wearin' here." I tried for a chuckle and ended up coughing instead.
"No no Mr Smith," the hustler replied, "I've come with an offer for you, an offer you won't want to refuse."
I leant back and pushed the other chair out from the table with one foot. "Well in that case, call me Billy."
The hustler sat down at the second chair, his red suit rustling with the whisper of silk as he settled down. He called over a waitress to order a Hellfire, and then rested his elbows on the table top, swirling the drink in one long pale hand. "A Hellfire eh?" I said at last, when the silence started to drag, "That's a new one on me, mister—" I let the pause ask the question.
"You can call me Mr Mephistopheles." He smiled "And it's a Prairie Fire with a dash of Hot Damn thrown in; tequila, tabasco and cinnamon sauce."
I raised one eyebrow and put by empty glass back on the table. "Mr Mephistopheles eh? Like the devil in the comic?"
The hustler leaned forward and fixed me with his dancing black eyes. "Oh exactly like the devil mister Billy, exactly like him."
I felt suddenly more sober and thought to myself 'look out, it's a crazy one'. I felt down for the bag at my feet and prepared to leave, but the hustler, Mr Mephistopheles, lifted up a hand and flashed a fifty to catch the waitress' eye. "Let me buy you a drink at least" he said in a reasonable tone, and, over his shoulder, "A glass of your most expensive for my friend, and keep it coming!" I let go of my bag and sank back into my seat. Crazy, but crazy with money. "Sure thing boss." I smiled my best smile and took the drink when it came, feeling it warm between my hands. "Gotta hand it to a guy who'll spare a drink for a gambler down on his luck."
The hustler smiled a smile full of perfect white teeth and asked "How would you like it if I could turn that luck around?" Something about the tone of his voice caught me with the glass half way to my lips. I knew he had some crazy plan for me, some gambler's get rich quick scheme, and damn me if I didn't want to hear it anyway. I was halfway to crazy town myself, and all the way to the gutter. Suddenly there was only me and him in that place, sitting where the neon light buzzed and the rain drummed. The rest of the Blue Lagoon blurred out in the corners of my vision, and all I could see was that white smile gleaming under a curve of cruel lips and neat black hair.
His lips parted and he said "What is it that you want the most, right now."
Without even knowing exactly why I found myself saying "Revenge. What I really want is revenge. I want to crush that fucking Castro and his fucking casino. I want to go in there and bust the house, bust it wide open! I want to take the dice in my hands and take everything he has, every penny on the million to one shot, on the final roll!" The words all came pouring out in a rush, till I took a gulp of the tequila to stop them, and I realised dimly that I was trembling from head to toe.
"And what would you say," asked Mr Mephistopheles, "If I told you I could give you just that?"
I let out the breath I was holding with a throaty chuckle. "I'd say where do I sign mister." I snorted. "But it ain't going to happen, is it? Must be a hundred bums like me up and down the Strip who dream the same thing. Break the bank, bust the casino, roll it out with more money than you can carry. I wish!" I waited for him to laugh or go back to his drink, but his perfect smile never wavered.
"No need to wish," the hustler said, "I'm the devil after all Billy boy, all you need to do is sign on the dotted line." With a flourish of his left hand he produced a sheet of paper from somewhere and slapped it down on the table in front of me, like a stage magician saying 'here's your card!'. With his right hand he slipped a red pen from his breast pocket and laid on the paper, pushing both of them towards me across the table. I reached out and slid it closer. There was a logo I didn't recognise at the top of the page, and under it 'Delaney Entertainment and Vanity Institute Limited', and then a paragraph of legal jumbo starting 'I the undersigned do hereby agree to the following terms and conditions ...'. A contract. My eyes skipped to the end and took in the last words, "... at the following cost to myself, my soul."
I jerked back in my chair, away from the contract and him. What the hell! It really was a devil's contract, a contract for my soul! The only thought in my head was getting out of there, away from him, but then a warm hand closed on mine, pressing something into my clammy palm, something hard, and square, and smooth. Dice. I tried to shake my hand free, but the hustler held me, half out of his own chair, folding my fingers around the dice. "Look what I'm offering you Billy boy!" he purred, "Just roll 'em and see."
I thought, what the hell, but I made to roll them anyway, if only to get his hand off mine, but he stopped me, gripping my sweating fist with fingers as strong as steel. "Tell me first," he said, "What are you going to roll?"
"How the hell should I know!" I snapped, but his perfect smile never wavered. "Just tell me Billy boy."
I plucked a number from the air, snarling "Snake eyes" as I tried to yank my hand from his grip, and suddenly I was free and the dice were free too, tumbling from my hand, clattering across the table top, till they bounced off the devil's glass and came to rest, pips upwards, one and one; snake eyes.
"Well I'll be—"
I looked back at the hustler, who was smiling at me over the rim of his glass again, and shook off the chill that danced up my spine. "Its just co-incidence," I muttered, "It could happen to anyone!" The hustler never said a thing, but I could read his silence loud as words, it said, well pick 'em up and try again. My hand hesitated for a moment, hovering over the dice, and then I grabbed them and tossed them on the table picking 'six' out of the air as I let them fly. Five and one.
I snatched them back and threw them again, and again, a different number each time, and always just the one I wanted! The third time I felt that old familiar feeling come rushing up over me, like I'm on the crest of the wave and no one can stop me! Better than booze, better than sex; you're a winner again Billy boy!
I sank back down in my chair, the dice still in my hand, and stared at the light that reflected off the hustler's ice as he tilted the cubes round and round the circle of his empty glass. "How'd you—" I started, "How'd I? What the heck are these dice made of?"
The hustler smiled his perfect smile and told me it wasn't the dice it was me. All I had to do was sign on the dotted line and the power would be mine. Heck, I didn't even need to sign in blood! Just as soon as I put my scrawl to the contract I could walk out of the Strip a made man. I could break any game in town. I could break Castro!
I picked up the contract again and read it through, twice, trying to concentrate on the words, and not the voice in the back of my head clamouring for me to sign already and go show old man Castro that no one throws Billy the kid out of their casino. "So let me get this straight. I sign this bit of paper and you give me the power to always throw the winning hand. And all you want in return is my soul but only, only, if I throw an eighteen? Only then?"
He smiled and shrugged, his hands wide open. "Well what can I do," he chuckled, "It is the devil's number, after all."
"But if I sign this contract I'll never roll a number I don't want to roll! I'll never toss an eighteen if I don't want too, never!"
"You got me, its true. That's the deal I'm offering you."
"But why?" I took a swig of the tequila, feeling the warm fire flood through my already burning veins, like a live wire. "I wasn't born yesterday Mr M, I know a thing or too. Ain't no way in Hell you gonna offer me a sweet ass deal like that unless you got an angle for yourself, ain't no way. So what's in it for you? What's the catch?"
The hustler laughed and slapped the table top, sending the fancy red pen rolling across the contract till I caught it. "Well sure enough that's true Billy boy," he said, "I guess I can't pull the wool over your eyes. The truth is this. You hate Miguel fucking Castro, well so do I!" He leaned across the table, resting his silk covered elbows on the polished wood and went on. "I've got interests in this town, Billy boy, I've got arrangements!" I nodded to myself, yeah, the Devil owns the Strip, go figure. "I've made deals with people, and I expect my deals to be kept, call it a thing with me, its just the way I am. Nobody pulls a fast one on Mr Mephistopheles. Nobody except Miguel Castro." I had to laugh at that. If anyone in this town was going to cheat the devil it would be him.
"So you understand now? Yeah, I know you do Billy. You've got your reasons to want Castro taken down, well so do I. You and I got a common enemy Billy, and that makes us friends. What's a million dollars or a no-catch deal between friends, Billy?"
A million dollars, he had me there. "Nothing," I said, "Nothing."
So I took the pen and signed.
I didn't see Mr Mephistopheles again after that, I didn't need to. I'd crept into the Blue Lagoon a bum and I walked out of there a prince of the world, clutching those dice in my hand and knowing nothing, nothing, was going to stop me. And there they are now, the dice, still there in my hands, rattling as I shake them over the black expanse of the table. One roll away from victory, one more roll that will break the bank, crack the casino, thrown Castro out on the street, into the rain, on his fucking ass.
And all I need is an eighteen. An eighteen to win it all.
Behind me I can feel bodies craning to look over my shoulder, to see the table in front of me. Carrie, Lauren, Stevie Mick, they all know I can do it, they all know its going to break the bank, it's a done deal. They've been following me all the way these past few days, and what a roller coaster ride its been for them, and now, here we are, the final throw of the dice.
Back then, on Wednesday night in the rain, I stood outside the door of the Blue Lagoon and knew I needed a plan. Half of me was all for rushing to Castro's place as fast as my legs could carry me, demanding to be let in, demanding to play, but the rest of me knew his boys would never let me in, it wouldn't matter how lucky I was. I needed an angle, I needed a plan. I needed to make sure that no one would turn me away when I came calling, that no one would close my table before the final throw. For a moment I stood there in the warm western rain, watching the limousines roll past in the night, and I realised I knew just what to do.
I needed one of those limousines. I needed a sharp suit like the hustler's. I needed enough money and class that no one going to turn me away from a casino door, not even Castro's goons, and I needed it by Saturday night, when the cage was full, when the week's winnings were about to be banked. When I could break the casino.
I started small. Walking away from the Blue Lagoon I picked a small casino, one where they didn't know my face, and where a day's worth of stubble and the stink of booze wasn't a barrier to entry. All I had was a few dollar bills and a pocket full of change, but if the Devil's gift wasn't all in my head that was sure to be enough.
Inside the casino I stopped a moment on the entrance to the game floor and drank in the smell of money. I could hear coins clattering in the slot machine rows, and the staccato rattle of the roulette balls. I still had the hustler's dice in my pocket and I fingered them now, thinking, Lady Luck, you got a date with me tonight! I paced the floor looking for a low stakes game of craps. It wasn't easy, guys with just a few bucks usually head for the slot machines, but it was a small casino filled with small time hustlers and weekend gamblers; I took 'em all.
The first time, with my pitiful few chips all heaped safely on the number ten, I still wasn't quite sure this was going to work. My stomach was rumbling, and those chips could buy me a meal at least, but a meal wasn't going to get me revenge. Then, when my hand closed on the cold cubes of the casino dice, I knew, I knew it was going to work. Lucky Ten, I called it in my head, and down they went along the table. Five and Five.
After that I was like a man possessed. I worked that joint for all it was worth, going up the tables. First bucks, then tens, then hundreds, then thousands. Man I was on fire! By the time I ran out of steam, surrounded by brand new friends and drunk on complimentary booze, I had a pile of chips I struggled to get to the cage. I dropped them all in the tray, grinning at the heap of plastic, and drawled "Get me a room, all the works!"
Needless to say I woke late the next day, with a pounding headache that still couldn't wipe the grin off my face. I took a swig of aqua seltzer from the mini-bar and sank back on the rumpled bed, looking down at the strips of light from the Venetian, falling across the expensive hotel sheets and my own legs. Welcome to the high life, Billy boy! After a lifetime of trying I knew I'd finally made it. This wasn't a flash in the pan. I was never going to have to pack my bags and go back home. I was never going to run out of good times! It was a goddam infernal miracle, that's what it was!
And I realised too that it didn't have to stop. I could stroll down to the Strip and make a little more, spend it, make it, and spend it again. I could be comfortable, spoiled and rich, like any millionaire of your choice. I didn't have to go back to the gutter, and I didn't have to break the bank either. I could leave Castro stewing in his pot and walk away. Why should I care about him anyway? Let him bar me out, there were other casinos, other owners. There wasn't a debt now I couldn't pay. I could make it up with Alice, sweep her off her feet and into the high life, get her back. We could live the comfortable life, settle down, have kids. If I broke the bank I'd never play the Strip again, but I didn't have to. Who cared if the Devil wanted a piece of Castro? He'd signed the same contract I had; let him get another fall guy!
Only — what gambler never dreamed of being that guy, the guy who turned the casino over its head, the guy who broke the rule that the house always wins? And this wasn't just a dream, this was personal! Castro had laughed as his men had bundled me to the door, laughed at me! No one laughs at Billy the Kid! He'd be laughing on the other side of his face when his money was mine!
When my head started to clear I buzzed reception on the phone and told them to send me in a tailor, expensive as they liked, who could get me a new suit. And while they were at it, to send me up their best breakfast, with their prettiest maid, and a bottle of whatever the high rollers drunk. It was all costing a bomb, of course, but I didn't bother. As long as I had a couple of thousand left over I knew I was sweet.
I walked out of that place that afternoon like I was walking on clouds. I had on a suit of green silk and snakeskin boots on my feet. I looked at my reflection in the mirror of a window and thought 'Hot damn, Billy! You look sweet!". I let those shiny new boots carry me up onto the Strip proper, towards the doors of the Majestic, and the Palace, and behind them, Castro's Grand, with the lights still sparkling over the doors even in the glare of the afternoon sun. I knew I wasn't ready for that place though, not yet. First I had to build a story, get the word on the street, let Castro hear that he'd made a mistake, that Billy the Kid was back, with money from somewhere, and spending it freely. I needed time to let Castro kick himself that I wasn't spending in his joint, that I wouldn't be on his floor when it all came crashing down and I lost it all, as I always did. Not this time Castro.
So I worked the other joints all that day and the next, winning big, spending big, even loosing big too, sometimes, to make it look convincing, and God did that hurt! I tried my luck at a few other games too, like Blackjack and Roulette, but it seemed the hustler's gift only worked on the dice. Soon I had my old entourage back, the casino hostesses and the sharks, old friends like Stevie Mick; all flocking to the scent of money, eager to get a share before it was gone. Everywhere we went, then, I was safe in the middle of them, like a King surrounded by his courtiers.
Even with my magic touch it took me a while to get where I wanted; enough money that I needed to hire a man with a tux and shoulders like an ox to carry the case. Even on the Strip it takes a while to turn a couple of thousand into a couple of million, especially when you have to keep betting, and moving, and spending, till no one knows exactly how much you've got. It all seems like a blur now, a fever dream of gold and chrome and neon lights flashing in the hot summer blackness. I remember Stevie Mick in mid air, arms whirling as he threw himself into a rooftop pool, and Lauren or Carrie or Jean-Anne, giggling and fawning at my side as I gave the waiter a hundred dollar tip for a glass of water. And always the buzz, the gambler's high, burning through me like wildfire.
Till finally, on Saturday, today, I knew I was ready. We were in the Palace, I think, the lot of us. The girls were cheering as Stevie Mick blew a stack of borrowed chips at the craps table, whooping and laughing at yet another bum dice roll. Then I raised my voice and said "Come on people, we're moving, we're going to the Grand."
Stevie Mick said "I heard Boss Castro had you barred from the Grand Billy?"
I gave him a shrug of the silk jacket that said it all. "Ain't no one gonna bar me now Mickey. Castro will be kissin the ground I walk on just to have me in there."
"But Billy," he protested, "Why do you want to go in there anyway? Castro ain't got nothing this place don't. He don't deserve your money Billy, just forget about him."
I got angry then, and told him that no one was going to tell me what to do not, not Castro, not him. "Castro made me look stupid Mickey!" I shouted , "Castro called me a looser! No one calls Billy the Kid a loser! I'm gonna go over there and fucking collect, Mickey! You hear me?"
"Sure thing Billy!" He was all smiles then. "Sure, lets go."
So here I am in the Grand, in Castro's place, and it all comes down to this. I blew in here like the King of fucking England, with the busboys running to open the doors for me! Rags to riches in three days, where else but the Strip I ask you? After all that its no surprise the goons at the gate didn't say a word as I brushed through, just stood aside and showed me to the floor. "Drinks Mr Smith?" they said, and, "Chairs Mr Smith?" You should have seen the cashier's face when I bought the chips, enough money to buy her, enough to make everybody sit up and take notice. Even Castro.
I know he was watching me. They must have told him the moment I breezed in through the door and started flashing that cash. Even if that wasn't enough to make him sit up and take notice I know he did when I hit the tables and started to win, and win, and win. I can almost feel his face, glued to the monitors, up there in his office, watching me win and win, and laugh. I'm sure he had every one of his security men with their cameras on my hands, trying to work out how I was doing it. No such luck Castro, I laughed to myself, as they changed the dice, and changed the croupiers, and changed the tables. No such luck. Whatch'a going to do Castro? Kick me out, cash me up? And you must be wondering, do we have the funds? How much has he won? Should we wait till he looses it?
Till finally, I am on the top table, the high rollers table, playing three dice craps, and I know, there's no way he can let me go any further. He must be calling his floor manager right now, ordering him to shut the table, to shut me down before I can break the bank, and I think 'This is it Billy', so I push the chips out there, half my stack, more, and I loose it all. I rack it out on number ten, and nine, and eleven, and evens, spread around, safe as houses, and think to myself as the dice are falling 'give me a seven', and they do.
You can almost feel the shock as the croupier rakes it in, rippling through the crowd. They've been watching the golden boy, living the dream in glorious Technicolor, and suddenly its over. "Jesus Fucking Christ!" Stevie breathes into the silence, "That must have been five million dollars in chips, six million, I can't even count it Boss!" All around me the entourage is falling in on itself, jostling, talking, standing in shock! Stevie Mick's still babbling on, but I don't even listen, instead I say, loud enough that everyone can hear me "Well heck! Lady Luck must have felt that was a little mean. What say we raise the limit?"
There was an explosion of noise, whoops and swearing from every side. The croupier looked like he's going to fall out of his seat as he stammers "Raise the limit?!" His voice broke on the last word, squeaking, and he shuts up gratefully as his manager pushes through to his shoulder and takes over. "Sure," I said, "I still got a whole lot of chips here. I'm not out of luck yet. You tell your boss, you tell Castro, I want to raise the limit, I want to bet it all on one roll!"
I sat back to admire the commotion thinking, what are you going to do now Castro? You must have been wiping your face in relief a moment ago, laughing to your cronies, knowing you were safe and out of it all in one go, and now I want to raise the limit? You've made your losses back, you know you're safe, there's no need, but you know my luck has run out too. You know my streak is over and you can see a fortune sitting right there in front of me, ready for the taking. You can see my eyes on your screen, you know I'm a loser, you know I'm crazy. Go on! Go on! Take the deal!
Down on the floor the manager consulted with his walkie-talkie, listened, nodded, and said "The Boss says yes. Take your throw, no limit." And he smirked, because he knows a loser when he sees one.
The crowd went wild, and it was a moment before the croupier, sweat staining his uniform, managed to push his way out through the crowd, following in the wake of the floor manager, to let a new croupier, with new chips and, of course, new dice, take his place. Everyone in the place was watching me now. Stevie Mick, the croupier, the manager, the crowd; even the slot ladies were turned half round on their stools, cups full of quarters clutched to their chests, torn for a moment between the glittering reels and the shouting and cheers. And Castro too, I'm sure, was glued to his screens.
Without hesitation I pushed all the chips out on the table, five to one, and won! Pushed them out again and won again. Everything I'd lost I'd made back on the first throw, now it was new ground, no limits ground. On every side the crowd fell silent, as the whisper ran through they and they realised what was happening. This was it. I'd won and won again, no one had ever seen so many chips. They knew I could do it, was going to do it, I was going to break the casino! All of a sudden they broke out, cheering, whistling, clapping, and then the rising chant, even from people whop had never seen me before; "Billy! Billy! Billy!"
With trembling hands I pushed the whole stack of chips out on the table, towards the big numbers. I could see the floor manager trying to push is way back to the table out of the corner of my eye, shouting something that no one could hear over the noise of the crowd. Any croupier with a brain in his head would have hesitated then, would have stalled at least until someone could get there and call this off, but this one just said "Place your bets" so I shoved out the chips and snatched up the dice before anyone could tell me different.
And I looked at the table for the number I had to roll, saw it at the very same moment that the croupier drawled out of the darkness, "All the sixes, lucky eighteen!"
So here I am now, with the dice cold in my clenched fist, and a simple choice. Roll an eighteen and win the game, or roll something else and keep my soul. This was the big score. Roll an eighteen now and no one will ever forget me. I'll be Billy the kid, the legend, the man who broke the Grand, the man who walked in poor and walked out owning the casino. No one will ever forget me! Fuck Castro, fuck the Strip, fuck every man who ever called William Smith a loser!
And the other way? Then I'd be just another loser. Castro would have been right! I'd walk out alone and he'd sit back in his chair, smug as shit, thinking about all the money I'd just made him! I look up and realise that everything has vanished around me. The cheering crowd have faded to a murmur, the only thing I can clearly see is the black baize of the table and the huge stack of chips, such a stack of chips! Even the croupier has half faded into the shadows, waiting for the throw.
I mean, what would you do?
Without a thought I open my hand and the dice arc out into the light, glittering in the bright light, spinning down onto the darkness of the table, bouncing and coming to rest; and then there is just me, and the table, and the dice — and the devil for a croupier.