They say a story can come from anywhere. This one came from the dentist. Well, sort of: more specifically, it came from my walk home from the dentist. Feeling a little sorry for myself after yet another filling, I took a shortcut along a quiet side street. Quiet doesn't even cover it - it was totally deserted, and I didn't see a soul - until I came across two men waiting outside a house. They were both middle-aged, and carrying briefcases. Each had a newspaper tucked under his arm, and each was wearing a sports coat and trilby. They just seemed odd, you know? And it got me wondering what exactly they might be doing there...
A Game For Distinguished Gentlemen
There was nothing extraordinary about the men who were gathering in the small front garden of number 32. There were four of them. They were all middle-aged, all neatly dressed in dark overcoats (buttoned), black shoes (laced, and polished to a high shine), well-pressed grey trousers and dark trilby hats. Each of them carried a black leather briefcase and had a rolled-up newspaper tucked under his arm. And although they were clearly all in the same place at the same time for the same purpose, they did not seem to know one another, and as a result they hovered about the edges of the garden like midges--keeping close to the fences and, above all, away from the front door of the house.
Nor was there anything extraordinary about number 32. It was a small and undistinguished house with three windows overlooking the front garden and street--one on the ground floor, two above--and grubby net curtains. Its once-white paint was dingy with age and the front door was warped, peeling. A couple of sheets of newspaper fluttered jauntily in the middle of a sad-looking rosebush to the left of the door. It was not a particularly welcoming looking place. The four men in the garden gave the impression of trying their hardest to notice neither their surroundings nor their companions and instead kept their eyes firmly fixed on the brims of their hats. Fortunately for all of them, perhaps, they had not been waiting for long when there was a click, and a faint scraping sound from the hallway of the house... and the door opened. An uncomfortable moment or two of "You first", "No, really, you" and the four filed inside.
The interior of the house was, not surprisingly, just as unkempt as its exterior. Gloomy blue paper hung in funereal swags on the walls of the hallway, lit by a single bulb above. And if any of the men noticed the uncomfortable atmosphere or the smell of damp, they didn't seem to care. Instead, they walked straight into the front room of the house and fell into a rough line along the wall. The room was empty of furniture, except for a round wooden table covered in green baize which stood in the very middle of the floor, and five chairs ranged around it. Directly across from the doorway was an incongruously large stone fireplace, its mantel as high as a man's shoulders. It did not belong in that room--or that house--and it hulked against the wall with its grate ablaze. And standing before it, his back to them, was a man. Like the visitors, he was smartly dressed: a black suit and neatly combed hair... but when he turned to face them, his eyes were black from lid to lid. He blinked at them thoughtfully, then gestured to the chairs. "Gentlemen. Welcome. Please take your places. I will be your dealer for this game. You may call me... Red." He looked from one to another of them as they sat down, shuffling their briefcases under the table alongside their seats, and raised an eyebrow. "I have little doubt that you have spent your time studiously avoiding one another. It's to be expected. I afford you no such dignity. Gentlemen, meet your opponents. Beginning to my left, allow me to introduce you to one another: Moth, Mr Glass, Greenfingers and lastly--but not to be forgotten--Orfeo. For the first hand, Moth will act as the small blind, and Mr Glass the big blind. You are, I presume, all aware of the rules?" There was a general grumble of assent and Red nodded, sliding into his seat and producing a deck of cards from within his suit jacket.
Mr Glass immediately coughed. "Them cards. They're not sealed. Oughtta be sealed for the game to be valid. Otherwise..."
"You're implying that I might be throwing the game?" The dealer's eyebrows raised, making his black eyes wider. Mr Glass shrugged. He was a big man, and when he shrugged there was a sense that the whole room shrugged with him; it had no choice in the matter. "Well. 's a possibility, innit? And I didn't come all this way for some bent game. I came for fair stakes. Fair."
"In that case, I'm afraid you will simply have to have a little faith. I do not used sealed cards. You may examine them before we begin, if you wish?" He held the cards, neatly stacked in his palm, out to Mr Glass who reached over and snatched them up. The other men watched curiously as he thumbed through them, turning them this way and that, running his fingers around their edges. The dealer examined his fingernails. After a few moments, Mr Glass let out a strange sound: part squeak, part gasp. He turned pale and shuffled the cards back into an untidy pile before passing them (somewhat hurriedly) back to the dealer, who took them with a sly smile. "And the cards were in order, yes?"
"Cards. Order? Oh, yes. Absolutely in order. Yesyes." Mr Glass was suddenly deeply interested in the contents of his own coat pocket and did not look up. The dealer nodded and began shuffling the deck with fingers which were--just for a moment--a little too long. With practiced ease he flicked the cards across the table to each of the players and then turned to look pointedly at the unfortunate Mr Glass and his neighbour, Moth.
Moth was a narrow little man, as meagre as Mr Glass was abundant. He had a sharp chin and a pointed nose, and small eyes which flittered back and forth between the other men in the room. His hair was mousy-brown, lank, thinning. Greying stubble was scattered across his cheeks and his jaw. Obviously nervous, he repeatedly made a strangled coughing sound in the back of his throat and smoothed his right index finger across his lips. Suddenly aware of the dealer's gaze fixed upon him, he shuffled in his seat and with another quiet cough, reached down and opened his briefcase. Among the jumble of papers, sweet wrappers and scraps of fabric which made up the majority of its contents, there was a pouch: made of black velvet and knotted round by a dark red cord, it seemed to shy away from his hand and then to shiver as his fingers closed about it. Carefully, he placed it on the table in front of him. The other three players did the same, each drawing out his own small bag and cautiously untying the string binding it closed. Moth's eyes darted anxiously about him. "Small blind, you say? Ahem. That would make it, what, three?"
"Five, Moth. Five." The dealer's hands were folded in front of him on the tabletop. He smiled broadly as he answered Moth's question. It was not a pleasant smile. Moth shuddered quietly and nodded. He reached his slender fingers into the bag and pulled out what appeared to be a single marble. Allowing it to roll down into his palm, he weighed it in his hand for a moment before holding it up between his fingers and inspecting it in what light there was to be found in the room. At first glance, it did appear to be nothing, neither more nor less than a marble; a largish one, certainly, but nothing any more out of the ordinary than that. But there was little that was ordinary about the little trinket that Moth held between his fingers--just as there was little that was ordinary about the men in the room, or the dealer, or the game which they were about to begin. For the surface of the marble rippled and shimmered and shone, even in the drear of that room and the patterns that flickered across it looked (just for a moment) like faces.
"That's five. Ahem." Moth rolled the marble into the centre of the table where it spun lazily. The other players glanced up at the dealer who nodded. "Five. A good beginning. And you, Mr Glass? What do you have for the pot?"
"I gottit. I gottit. Just wait, will you?" Mr Glass had opened his own bag and was fumbling around inside it. Muffled chattering sounds came from within as he finally pulled out two marbles of his own, just like the one already on the table. "Ten. Right there." Again, the dealer nodded. "And so we may begin." He leaned back in his chair slightly, blinking his black eyes.
The next man at the table was the man he had called Greenfingers. And improbable a name as it might be, it was the only one he had. While Mr Glass was a hulk of a man, and Moth little more than a shadow, Greenfingers was in all things somewhere between the two. Neither tall nor short, not fat nor thin, not pale nor ruddy... everything about him was distinctly indistinct. Those who passed him in the street would most likely not even notice he was there; he was by nature an inconspicuous type, average in all aspects of his appearance. Average height, average weight, average colouring. Everything about him was unmemorable; something he had long known and used to his advantage. He could not, however, avoid the dark glare of the dealer and his skin crawled under the unaccustomed attention as he looked at the cards he had been dealt. Still, as Moth and Mr Glass had done before him, he reached into his little bag. "Call. Ten." His voice, like the rest of him, did not stick in the memory.
Orfeo was the last, and as out of place in the room as the fireplace. He had more delicate features than the others, scattered with freckles, and wavy dark hair which was swept back from his face. He picked up his cards, shuffled them backwards and forwards in his hand, frowning slightly before fanning them out face down on the table. He drummed his fingertips together lightly. "Call. I suppose."
"You suppose? You... suppose?" The dealer's voice was chilly as he leant forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the table. "Do I have to remind you, Orfeo, that it is a privilege to be afforded a place at this table--not a right?"
"Not at all, Red," Orfeo shot him a wide smile. "I'm glad to be here. Grateful to be here."
"Then I suggest that you show a little deference. You are playing against men who are masters of their craft. A little respect is in order." He paused, and the room seemed to get just a little hotter, just a little more claustrophobic. "Now, you were about to call, I believe? Show us what you have for the pot."
"Absolutely." And with another glorious smile, Orfeo rolled two glittering marbles into the centre of the table. Unlike the others, which shone like milky white pearls, his were the palest of pinks. The dealer stared at them and then, in turn, at him. "Well, well. Your reputation is well-earned. I must say, I'm impressed. That's quite a contribution."
"Ten's ten, though. What ever fancy colour they might be. All equal and that..." Mr Glass said, irritably. The dealer made a movement which might have been a roll of his eyes and Mr Glass fell silent. Orfeo sniggered behind his hand. "Quality will always out, Mr Glass..." but he too fell silent as the dealer looked his way again.
The game progressed. Raises were made, hands bluffed. Gains and losses were made by each man in turn, and only the dealer kept his nightblack eyes on the ever-growing pot between the players. The more time that passed, in fact, and the more cards he dealt, the more intently he watched the shining balls with which his players bet. And the more the pot grew, the larger his eyes seemed to become and the deeper and darker they appeared. The men said nothing, other than to place their bets or occasionally to ask for another card. Orfeo won more hands than he lost, while the truculent Mr Glass lost more than he won. Moth bluffed more than the others--much good that it did him--while (predictably) no-one could remember how Greenfingers fared from hand to hand. No-one but the dealer, who saw everything and forgot very little.
Time passed, and the game continued well into the night. Moth was the first to empty his bag, and with a sigh, he stood. "Gentlemen. A good game, but one from which I must withdraw. Ahem." He sounded slightly nasal, whiney. He picked up his briefcase and his overcoat, folding it neatly over his arm, and balanced his hat upon his narrow head. He turned, with only a brief and longing glance back at the table, and was gone.
More time, and Mr Glass ran out of luck and collateral. Somewhat less graciously than Moth, he gathered his things and left the room. Only Greenfingers and Orfeo--whose betting bag had not seemed to shrink at all since the game began--remained. But the luck of the room was with Orfeo, and it was not long before Greenfingers folded his last hand, crossing his arms across his chest. "Well then. That's me done. I'm out."
"Really?" The dealer's attention snapped away from Orfeo's hand as it reached across the table, and he stood up. Greenfingers nodded. "All out. I only wish I could play for longer, but you know how these things are."
"Are you certain?"
"What, that I'm out? Well, yes." He held up the little bag, now empty. The dealer shook his head. "I know you've bet everything you came with. I wasn't talking about that. I was talking about the bets you have palmed from the table, the ones you took when you thought no-one was watching." And suddenly the dealer, who had been several feet away, was behind him and reaching around him. He brushed a speck of ash from Greenfingers' shoulder before continuing, "the ones in your jacket pocket. Here." And he placed his hand flat on Greenfingers' chest. Something beneath his palm rattled and clattered. "You see?" He stepped back again and Greenfingers realised he had never noticed how large the dealer's eyes were, nor how tightly stretched the skin across his face appeared to be... and as he thought that, he saw the dealer adjust the cuff of his shirt and extend a delicate finger in his direction.
Red the dealer slowly reached out and placed his finger in the middle of Greenfingers' forehead. There was a faint hissing sound and a brief smell of burning, but the unfortunate gambler had no time to scream, no time to move. No time even to blink. Instead, he fell where he stood and, calmly, the dealer reached into the dead man's jacket and pulled out a handful of the glowing baubles. He raised them up to his mouth (which opened wider than any mouth rightly should do) and swallowed them greedily. And then he turned to Orfeo.
Orfeo was standing beside the door, his briefcase in hand. "That was only to be expected, wasn't it?" he asked. The dealer shrugged noncommittally. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have little time for cheats. They are of no use to me in the grand scheme of things. Whereas you... you and your clever methods. You're quite another thing, aren't you?" He pointed to the briefcase. "I'll take that. And they had better all be in there."
"They are. What happens if I refuse to give them to you?"
"I don't think you're that foolish. Are you?"
"No." And Orfeo handed the briefcase over. The dealer smiled. "After all, they're rightfully mine, you know." He glanced down at the case, testing its weight. "These souls you steal: they buy you more time, but eventually you'll belong to me regardless--all of you will. In the end, even your time will run out; maybe not as soon as some of the others out there, not with what you're bringing to the table... but run out it will. And then, well, let's just say that you and I will have plenty of time to mull over the past."
"That's as maybe. Do I get to leave now or do I get the same as him?" He nodded towards Greenfingers' now-vacant body. "And what happens when I get outside? Will the same be waiting out there as was for Moth and Mr Glass?"
"You are clever, aren't you? I could certainly find a use for a man like you, you know: I can always make space for talent. Well, fair's fair. You have safe passage from here; nothing of mine will harm you. And I thank you for your winnings: let's look at them as a tithe, shall we? A down-payment? I'm feeling generous; perhaps we'll knock one little murder off the list. Not that it will make much of a difference. By the way, I'll be back here soon enough--I'll expect to see you with more of the same."
"And if I say no?"
"You won't". The dealer grinned a too-sharp grin with that too-wide mouth, and even Orfeo turned and fled.
In a street not far from where you sit now, four distinguished gentlemen are making their way towards a house with a small front garden. On the surface, there is nothing extraordinary about the house, nor is there anything extraordinary about the gentlemen. They are all middle-aged, all neatly dressed in dark overcoats, black shoes, well-pressed grey trousers and dark trilby hats. Each of them carries a black leather briefcase and has a rolled-up newspaper tucked under his arm. They are there to gamble their way out of Hell with souls they have stolen--souls just like yours, ordinary and unsuspecting. And although they are in the same place at the same time for this same purpose, they do not seem to know one another...
First published in "Encounters" vol 1 #1. Copyright Louise Morgan