This week’s story was suggested by Alastair Ball, whose very excellent birthday drinks I was at last night. I was a bit worse for wear this morning, but hopefully that hasn’t affected my writing!
Happy birthday Alastair, I hope you enjoy your story about ‘A man who bets his life on a card game.’
2014 – A Year In Stories
“I’m sorry, Mr Frampton, I really am,” the doctor said to Joey. “Breaking this kind of news to someone is never easy, and it really breaks my heart to have to be the one to deliver it.”
Nice sentiment, Joey thought. It breaks your heart to be the one to deliver it. I suppose you’d be just peachy if you had palmed it off on to one of the nurses to do.
“So, what’s the prognosis, Doc?” Joey asked the man who was leaning on his desk so nonchalantly.
The doctor certainly didn’t have the demeanour of someone who was about to drop a death sentence on a kid. Though he supposed that if he had to tell people they were dying several times a day he would get quite blasé about it after a while too.
“It’s not good I’m afraid, Mr Frampton. We can operate, but if we don’t I’d say you have 6 months; a year at most.”
The doctor shifted position awkwardly, and looked as though he was about to say something that he didn’t want to have to say.
“Do you…” he began, before trailing off. “Do you have…insurance?” he managed, finally.
Joey’s shoulders sunk. “I…No.”
The doctor wrung his hands and, for the first time, gave Joey a look of genuine compassion.
Compassion with a hint of pity.
“I’m so sorry, Mr Frampton, I really am.”
“How much would the operation cost…you know, without insurance?” Joey asked speculatively.
Maybe there would be some way to raise some money fast.
The doctor picked up a clipboard from the desk and flipped through the papers on it.
“About $90,000,” he said after a moment.
Joey baulked at the figure. He was hoping it would be under $10,000. His old man might have fronted that if it meant his son didn’t buy the farm, but there wasn’t even any point in asking at that amount. His pop would have to sell the autoshop to raise that kind of cash, and Joey wasn’t willing to ask him to do that. He wasn’t willing to ask because he knew that his dad would say yes.
“If you need any information about counselling or palliative care…” the doctor said.
“Thanks,” Joey replied. “I’ll be fine.”
Joey stood at the bus stop outside the hospital as the rain lashed down on the plastic roof. He hunched his shoulders forward and stuffed his hands deep in to his jacket pockets, huddling in to keep warm.
It was strange. He had just been given the worst news of his young life, but he didn’t feel any emotion. He didn’t feel sad or angry that his life was to be cut so unexpectedly short. He didn’t feel anything at all. He was just numb.
Just as the bus pulled up to the stop a man in a sharp suit walked up and stood at the stop. The man was talking on a cellphone, quite loudly too, Joey noted as he climbed the steps of the bus. He fumbled around in his pockets, but to his dismay he didn’t have enough change on him for the ticket home.
Great, Joey thought. As if today couldn’t get any worse. He turned around to get off the bus and prepared to walk the two miles back to his house in the pissing rain.
“Yo, what’s the beef?” the guy on the cellphone asked as Joey tried to squeeze past him.
“I don’t have enough money for the ticket,” Joey explained. “So I’m getting off.”
“Are you kidding me?” the guy grinned at Joey, revealing a gold cap on one of his teeth. “I just win big, and I’m in a giving mood, so let me buy you that bus ticket.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t…” Joey began, feebly.
“I insist,” the high roller said, putting an arm around Joey. “One bus ticket for my man here please,” he announced rather louder than Joey would have liked.
The two sat down in separate seats, but it wasn’t long before the sharply dressed man had finished his conversation and had turned his attention back to Joey.
“So what’s your story, bro?” he asked. “You look gaunt, you ill or something?”
Before Joey had to chance to reply that yes, he was in fact rather ill, and that this should have been obvious given that they boarded the bus at St Catherine’s Hospital, he was cut off before he had even managed to open his mouth.
“Me,” the man continued, “I just won big, like I said. Poker. 100Gs.”
Joey’s ears pricked up. He had decided by this point to pursue a policy of ignoring the man and occasionally saying platitudes in the hope that he would go away. However, even though he was in no mood to talk to anyone right now, the sound of $100k was very appealing.
Poker too. He had been the campus poker champion back in college. It had gotten to the stage where no one would play him, because they knew he would win. Perhaps this was the solution to his problem.
“100Gs you say?” he asked as nonchalantly as possible.
Half an hour later, and a 3 mile deviation from his route home, Joey stood in front of what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse.
“2455 Hill Street,” he said to himself, looking at the scrap of paper the sharply dressed man had handed him. The address was scrawled on it, as well as a name.
The warning that the man had given him echoed through his head. These guys played rough. If you couldn’t cough up the dough, you’d be coughing up your own blood instead. At this point he didn’t have much to lose.
He rapped on the door of the warehouse. There was no response. He went to knock on the door again, but before he could connect a panel slid open at eye level.
“What chu want?” said a voice from the other side of the door.
“I’m here to see…” Joey looked at the scrap of paper. “Kurtz. I’m here to see Kurtz.”
“Who sent you?” the voice asked.
“Luca,” Joey replied.
The panel slammed shut, and a few seconds later the door swung open.
“Entrance fee is $2000. You got it?”
Joey fished the money out of the inside pocket of his jacket. Luca, the man who had the windfall, was kind enough to give him the entry fee to the game after he heard Joey’s plight.
“In you go, kid,” the man said, taking the money from Joey.
The man receded in to the shadows to let Joey pass, but before he went by he stuck out an arm, blocking his way again.
“You know how we play here, boy?”
Joey swallowed and nodded slowly.
“Then don’t forget it.”
After walking down a short corridor Joey came across a room which had served as the management office for the warehouse when it was still operational. He opened the door and enough cigarette smoke to give him emphysema billowed out.
He entered the room to find a low lit gambling den with a card table in the centre. The felt on the table was faded green, and it was surrounded by 5 people, all deeply engrossed in the card game they were playing. There was one free seat by the table, which Joey took. None of the players had even so much as looked at him or acknowledged his presence since he walked in.
“Deal him in,” one of the players said, and some cards were duly given to him.
“The game is seven card stud, aces wild, gentlemen, may the best man win…”
Joey steeled himself, and hoped his skills weren’t too rusty.
“Show ‘em,” the man in the white suit said.
Joey’s heart sank. His bluff had been called again, and this was it. He was on the last of the $2000 entry fee, and if he lost this hand, this was it. He couldn’t understand how he had played so badly. There had only been 10 or 12 hands since he sat down and he was almost out.
Reluctantly he set his cards down, and the man in the white suit smiled broadly. “Looks like you’re out, kid,” he said.
“No!” Joey protested. “You have to give me another chance. You don’t understand.”
“We understand perfectly well. You played, you lost. You win some and you lose some, and this one you lost. You’re lucky we have a policy of not extracting extra…payment from first time losers. Now get out before we change our minds. This is a game for people can afford to play, so unless you can afford to play, leave.”
“What if I pay the extra price?” Joey blurted out, before he even realised what he was saying.
The room was suddenly bathed in silence. The man in the white suit shifted his weight and flicked the ash from the end of his cigar.
“You would make that offer on your first visit?”
“My need is great.”
“What would you offer as…collateral?”
“What are my options?”
One of the men at the table howled with laughter and held up his left hand. His little finger was missing.
“This bought me an extra $10000 once,” the mutilated man said.
“What price for my life?” Joey asked hesitantly.
The man in the white suit stood up and joined his compatriot in laughing.
“I like you, boy,” he said. “Because I like you I’m going to take you up on your generous offer. I’ll spot you $50000. If you lose, I kill you.”
“$100000,” Joey said, trying to bluff the man. He had nothing to lose. If they said yes and he lost, then he would die a little earlier than expected, and his family wouldn’t have to see him degenerate before their very eyes. If he won, he was saved. “One hand of hold ‘em. If I win I take the one hundred large. If I lose, I am yours to destroy at your leisure.”
The man considered him for a second.
“Alright,” he said. “One hand. You’re on.”
They sat down and the cards were dealt. Joey looked at his hand. An ace and a Queen. The cards on the table were a Queen and a pair of twos. A two pair wasn’t bad, but the other man was unreadable.
The bets went back and forth as the other two cards went down. Neither card was favourable, and it was quite possible that the grin on the man’s face was genuine.
“Show ‘em,” the man said, smirking. The two men flipped their cards over.
A week later, Joey woke up in his hospital bed, his parents at his side. The operation had been a complete success.
“You could have asked us for the money, son,” his mother told him as he regained full consciousness.
“You never told us how you managed to pay for the operation, son…”
Joey went to respond, but stopped when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. A man in a sharp suit leaned on the wall outside his door. He pulled a cigar from his pocket and chopped the end off with a cigar cutter. The man smiled at Joey and nodded, before walking off.
“Oh, I got lucky on a bet,” Joey said. “Let’s just say a friend tipped me off to a sure thing.”