Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Highest Stakes

This is being posted as if it were a Friday Flash, but since it's about 2700 words, it's much too long to be considered a piece of flash fiction. Two weeks ago, Neil Colquhoun (@necol66 on Twitter) threw out a random fact that the numbers on a roulette wheel add up to 666. I tweeted back that it could make a cool story, and he answered by challenging me to write one, and he'd write one, too. We'd make it a contest to see which one readers enjoyed more. The rules were only that we had two weeks to write a story under 3000 words, and it had to relate to the numbers on a roulette wheel totaling up to 666. The two week deadline is up, so it's time to post. Here is my story, and check back later for a link to Neil's story and the poll where you can vote for your favorite. I'll update this with both links when I have them. Until then, enjoy my story. Let me know what you think!
UPDATE: Click here to view Neil's story and to vote for your favorite. Simply scroll down for his story once you're on his site.

The Highest Stakes
by Eric J. Krause

He stared down at the roulette table, unsure why he was here. Which casino was this? When did he get here? He blinked hard and shook his head to dislodge the cobwebs. But before he could figure those out, he had to discover who he was.

There was no question that he was here to play. He had 100 chips in front of him--five stacks of twenty. And he couldn't up and walk away. Some unspoken rule reminded him he'd have to play until the end.

Though he tried, he couldn't see anything around the table. He might as well be playing in someone's dark basement, and for all he knew, he was. The dealer wore a long black robe, complete with a huge hood that kept his face from sight. Three other players sat around the table, but he couldn't focus on them. He made out their features well enough to tell they were males, but no other defining characteristics popped into his mind. It was like looking at them through a mix of dense fog and plastic wrap. He couldn't even check out their hands for hints of their ethnicity or age--the chips moved out as if pushed by telepathy.

And as far as bets went, he needed to get his out there. Though it was a standard roulette board, this wasn't a normal game. He had no clue as to who briefed him on the rules, but he knew them well. One chip needed to be placed on a single number each roll of the ball--no more and no less. 13 was his lucky number. It meant something, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember what. There was more leverage on the outside bets; at least one chip needed to be wagered with each spin, but there was no upper limit. He could choose odd or even, red or black, and 1 through 18 or 19 through 36 for even money. For two-to-one odds, he could choose the first twelve numbers, the second twelve, or the third twelve, as well as on of the three columns. The game was limiting, but as straight-forward as roulette could get. He tossed a chip on odd.

The dealer picked up the ivory ball with hands of polished white bone and flicked it around the wheel before motioning for no more bets. He tried to speak up, ask if anyone else saw the dealer's skeletal hand, but his voice wouldn't work. He took a deep breath and tried to push it from his mind. As strange as it was, that wasn't what mattered here.

The ball flew around the wheel, hypnotizing him. Hopefully it wouldn't land on the zero or double zero. If it hit the former, something dastardly would befall the player with the lowest amount of chips. If it hit the latter, that fate would be shared by the one with the second lowest. He was fine for the moment in either of those regards, but that didn't make him eager to discover the terrible secret.

No worries this round. The ball skittered around the wheel and settled on Red 7. The dealer set a new chip on top of his winner. As soon as that chip lay on the original, his head spun. His name was Clayton Briggs, though everyone called him Clay.

He pulled the winning chip off and stared at it. It looked no different from any of his others. He shrugged and placed it on 13, while keeping the one on odd in place. The game here was to have more chips than the other players, so conservative was the way to go. A quick glance at the three other piles showed him way ahead.

The next roll landed on Black 8, and the dealer slid both his chips away. He refilled 13 on the inner board, but changed his outer strategy by placing a chip on the third twelve and another on black. He was rewarded with a Black 33. Once the dealer paid his three new chips, his head swam, and he knew his about family.

Clay had a mom, dad, and younger brother, though Dad had been dead for twenty-five years, and Mom for close to ten. He hadn't talked to, or even heard from, his brother Jeff since shortly after her funeral. He felt something about a wife, but nothing stuck in his mind.

Before the call for no more bets, he picked up the chip on the third twelve but left the one on black alone. That decision paid off as the next number was Black 17. The new chip told him he did indeed have a wife, at least he used to. Maggie had stayed with him for eight years. Some of those had been good, but most had been miserable. For her, anyway. He'd had too many mistresses and one-night stands to count. After years of knowing without hard evidence, she finally caught him in the act and demanded a divorce. The only good to come from it all was that they didn't have any children to drag through the mess.

He kept his bets on 13 and black, but this time the tiny ball settled on Red 21. No win meant no memories. What would happen if he bet two different places outside and only hit one? Would he get a memory or not? He didn't want to chance it; now that he knew a win meant learning more about his life, memories were more precious than chips. He placed two--one of the obligatory 13, and the other on 19 through 36. This time the ball plopped down on Black 15.

A bright light exploded above the table. Black 15 had been one of the other players' numbers. Feelings of peace and tranquility trickled down, and the player to Clay's right rose into the air. He still couldn't see him clearly, but he couldn't miss the look of relief on the man's face. Plus the feelings of giddiness flooding off of him were contagious. When the player was gone, the good feelings lingered, and Clay didn't care that he'd lost his second roll in a row. He put his chips onto the same bets and waited. Before the dealer started the next round, a new player replaced the departed one. This guy had the same anonymous look, but the depleted chips turned into five stacks of twenty.

The ball this time landed on Red 18, just one away from making him a winner on his outer bet. The euphoric feelings left over from the ascension faded, but before he drifted into despair, he noticed he was still far ahead of the two players who'd been there when he arrived. In fact, one of them was down to just a few chips.

Before the dealer called for no more bets, Clay decided he needed to worry more about getting his chips closer to 100. He moved his outer bet chip to the third column and added another to red. He watched the ball spin around and gasped as it almost stuck in the slot for his lucky number 13. Instead it wound up one spot over on Red 36. Though the result wasn't as good as hitting his number, he still won both outside bets, bringing his chip total back up to 96. And, more importantly, the tingling feeling in his mind meant another incoming tidbit about his life.

Clay was an accountant for CRASH-GAP, a highly successful computer repair business that specialized in fixing both hardware and software issues. CRASH-GAP stood for Computer Repair And Software Healers-Gerald And Paul. Gerald and Paul were the founders and owners--Gerald Wilkins and Paul Marx. Clay got on well with both.

He focused back on the table and decided to continue his conservative play. He left a chip on red, but put the one on the third column back in his bank. The player across from him went all in with his few remaining chips. The ball stopped on Red 23, giving Clay another win. The guy on the other side of the table, though, hadn't been as lucky. As soon as the dealer swept away those final chips, an intense heat erupted from behind the player, eliciting a scream. It was the first sound Clay had heard since he got here, not counting the clicks of the chips and roulette wheel. The player's face went from terror to surprise, and he was pulled backwards out of his chair. No thud or crash came from him hitting the floor--he was simply gone. As soon as it all started, it was over, and a new player sat in that spot, five stacks of twenty chips in front of him.

Just as Clay was thinking there was no way he wanted to go out like that, the dealer paid him his winnings, and a new memory flooded his psyche. As the accountant for CRASH-GAP, he had Gerald and Paul's undying trust. And he abused it. Twice a year he'd siphon out a chunk of money for a trip to Las Vegas. He made sure the amount was small enough to go unnoticed without a thorough check of the books--which no one but him ever did--but big enough for him to have a good time.

He took his chip off red and moved it to odd. He contemplated playing a second outer bet, but didn't want to get too far behind the two newcomers if he lost both. The black-cloaked dealer spun the ball around the wheel and it landed on Black 4. Both players ahead of him won their outer bets, meaning he was further behind if the wheel stopped at a double zero. He needed to close that gap and get one of them below him.

He kept a chip on odd and played another on the second twelve. A good win here would push him back closer, especially if one or both of them lost the spin. No such luck. He sucked in a deep breath as Black 26 hit. The dealer's bone-white hand swept away all three of his chips.

He glanced at that double zero and replaced his three chips. He then dipped back into his bank and played two more, one on black and the other on the first column. Five chips, counting the obligatory one on lucky number 13. Something would have to hit, and hopefully a bunch of them. Then he could breathe easier.

Instead his heart beat faster and sweat formed on his brow. Red 30. He'd lost each one. He now sat at 86 chips, still well ahead of the guy with just under two stacks, but further behind the other guys who still had close to their starting allotment of 100. This was stupid. Unless he wanted to race to the bottom, he needed to get back to his conservative play. Let them make the mistakes. Besides, his focus should be on Black 13; that's where the true prize lay. He placed a chip on 1 through 18 and watched the dealer make the spin.

Success! Black 10. As the dealer set his winning chip down, his next memory infiltrated his mind. He did take money from CRASH-GAP, but if he came back a winner, he returned it all. No one, neither Gerald nor Paul nor anyone else, was any the wiser. What's more, he took money only for gambling. His plane ticket, his hotel room, his wining and dining of beautiful women--be them ones he met or rented--all came from his own pocket. He only needed the CRASH-GAP money for that bit of extra fun. He wasn't a compulsive gambler, so even when he lost, he often came back with some of what he took. That chunk always went back into the company's account.

Clay put his next chip on odd. There was no point in throwing chips away on more outside bets than was required. That 13 was all that mattered. He watched the ball go round and round and gasped as it landed on the single zero. All eyes, even the dealer's, shifted to the player sitting with the lowest chip amount. He screamed and struggled, but couldn't go anywhere.

The wheel came to a halt and emitted a shrill, high-pitched whistle. The zero glowed, and the numbers around it shifted. Black 2 moved into the neighboring square inhabited by Red 14 to form a 16. That 16 moved to Black 35 to make a 51. On the other side, Black 28 invaded Red 9 to create 37. The 37 shifted over into Black 26 to form a 63. This continued on both sides of the wheel until the growing numbers met at the double zero. Both pushed into the green square and morphed together, forming a big 666.

Flames shot out of the sides of the wheel, disintegrating it. The heat assaulted Clay, but though it was uncomfortable, it didn't burn him. He glanced over at the loser and saw it affected him for the worse. His skin singed black even though he was no closer to the fire than Clay. Pain echoed in the guy's voice, his pathetic moans. A large red hand with razor-sharp claws raised out of the void the wheel left and grabbed the loser. He only managed a few weak whimpers through his now crispy lips. In the blink of an eye, the arm yanked him down the hole. The flames settled and extinguished, and the wheel reappeared, as if nothing had happened. With a flick of his boney wrist, the dealer sent the wheel back in motion, ready for the next roll of the ball.

Clay looked around and took a deep breath. A new player had replaced the one dragged down to Hell or wherever. Though he wasn't far behind, Clay had the lowest chip amount. Either a zero or double zero meant he'd suffer the same fate he just witnessed. He contemplated throwing his conservative strategy to the curb, but it was likely his best bet to get out of this mess. Less chips spent meant more time for lucky number 13 to hit, and that was the only true exit from this. He slid a chip to odd.

He didn't want to look as the ball began its descent. This time it landed nowhere near either zero, settling on Black 31. He closed his eyes and waited for the incoming memory.

"Clay, I need a minute of your time."

"Sure." Crap. Paul Marx. When did he ever make it to the office so early? Two more minutes and the money would have been back in the CRASH-GAP account. "What can I do for you, Paul?"

"I'm not going to beat around the bush, Clay. We know you've been embezzling money from us."

"But . . ."

"Don't bother denying it. We have irrefutable proof." Paul sighed. "I'm sorry, but I've called security. They'll escort you out front to meet the police."

"No, Paul, you don't understand . . ."

That's as far as he got. A shock of pain sprang through his entire body, starting on his left side, and he blacked out, never to awaken. A massive heart attack took him hours after returning from the biggest gambling weekend of his life. He'd taken ten grand on Friday and turned it into a couple hundred by Sunday. Had Paul given him that extra two minutes, he'd have deposited half of that back into the books, more than enough to square them for all the years he'd been doing it. Too late now.

He kept his chip on odd. Was all of this really random, or was it a scripted process that was a surprise only to the individual player? He hoped the game was straight, otherwise, if the memories were to be believed, he knew which way he was headed. As the ball danced out of the dealers polished fingers and sped around the rim of the wheel, he ignored the fact that lucky number 13 could be his salvation. Instead he prayed that it landed on neither zero.