The Gamble

The perpetual stench of stale cigarette smoke had permeated into the cracked fabric chair. Renny O’Reilly dropped his jaw as he took a drag of his own cigarette letting the smoke leak out of his mouth and nostrils in a loose, unconscious exhale. Fresh air was hardly a necessity at this point. He barely missed it. Couldn’t remember it enough to miss it. His glazed eyes soaked up the slot machine screen without hesitation. They saw but they weren’t really seeing; not after five hours spent on the same point in space. Red veins crawled across the yellowed whites of his eyes and his green irises popped and spun like clovers in a summer field. He couldn’t remember the smell of grass, not now. Not in the belly of the pit.

He thumbed the shriveled three-leaf clover in the button-hole of his collar. Not ideal but sufficient for what he needed. His other hand hovered over the button with sweet anticipation. When he had began gambling, machines had levers instead of buttons. The lever took effort to pull until the machine sputtered to life but there was a corresponding level of satisfaction that accompanied the resistance of the gears. He missed the lever, but the button had its benefits. After a tap, it flashed in bopping blips like there was a glow bug under the thin plastic he’d upset. The bars on the screen whirled. Those had been real once, too. Real wheels with chipped paint and yellowed numbers. Under the skin of the wheels were the gear teeth grinding, chains winding and it all traced back to the base of that lever; a mechanical con artist profound in its own time. But even that wonder had faded and now it was numbers. Digital analogs, conversations of ones and zeros, irradiated pixels in a vacuum tube of wonder. The wheels in the electric display whirled in a binary impression of the real deal. Did the machine know it was fake? Did it even want to be real? Renny took another drag as the symbols lined themselves up: three mismatched. Even the pixelated stars were against him now.

Another token, another long drag as the symbols refused to work themselves out. There were ways to cheat the numbers but not for his type of magic. Not for him. He needed to feel in the inner workings of the thing before he could manipulate it. These digital machines, well, nothing was real about them. And even if he was in front of a mechanical machine he was too low on cash to exercise the level of magic necessary to cheat. He was broke and he was broken so he played by the same rules as his fellow gamblers even if the stakes were higher. They spent money to make money. With money came opportunity, even access to a higher quality of living, but most pursued the accumulation of wealth alone. Renny played for his soul: wealth was his religion. Every button push was an offering. Every cigarette, incense. Every mumble under his breath was a prayer for just one sliver of randomly generated happiness. His time, his health, the smell of grass, all sacrificed to the god of luck. At least, that’s what he hoped. He needed a god. He needed some semblance of an afterlife, or at least the comfort of one. His current run hadn’t gone as expected.

A screen next to his pinged in a cascade of bright notes not unlike a little bird singing to the spring morning. It could have been for all he remembered of bird songs. Why not? The sounds, however artificial, were pleasant and bore close enough resemblance to the original as far as he was concerned. A little bird sang and the figure next to him groaned with delight. Renny side-eyed him with a green envy noticing how the raw muscles of the undead man’s jaw pulled taunt exposing his teeth through his cheeks. He only turned away when a maggot pushed through the gray skin of his neighbor’s temple. After a quick glance at his watch, Renny stamped out his cigarette, slid off his chair and straightened out his pale green buttoned-up shirt.

He wandered through the casino, the drab air of the dead clinging to his rumpled collar. On occasion, other casino patrons shot him a sidewards glances and he could tell by their curious face that they were trying to categorize him. He could run his finger down their logic with ease. Not a halfling, they’d rationalize: he was wearing shoes. Too short to be a gnome. Well, what was he? He found sick pleasure in their perplexion. Machines whirled to life around him. Chirping and buzzing, bright little promises fluttering through the smoky air. He could just make out the screens of a few machines through the hazy forms of ghosts.

There were cleaner, less seedy casinos nearby but he had been banned from them all. Beyond the worn leather and the worn patrons, this casino was still beautiful in its own garish, self-worshiping way. All casinos were beautiful to him. Churches, with their steeples and the stained glass windows, were built to honor a higher power. Most would assume casinos were built to honor money but Renny knew better. What would worshipers find after the cascade of neon lights, at the bottom of the vibrant spectrum? Wealth? No. Just endless pursuit. The pursuit was all they had. It was all about the pursuit with casinos. The winners high. Far above his head, neon lights splashed across the vaulted ceiling, ricocheted off the chandelier and crystal ashtrays, bloomed in the sloshing cocktails and liquors, only to land in a soft gleam across the glazed eyes of the casino’s most dedicated patrons. They remained silent and still, suspended in their devout faith to the system of luck. Their wallets? Of course. Shoes? The clothes off their backs? No problem. They’d sacrifice it all but none was as great a saint as him. They lacked the virtue.

The tables came into view and he ducked his head. While he had yet to be banned from these tables, the action came second nature. He didn’t want to wake up bloodied in a ditch again. Just beyond the tables were the exchange booths. The counters were enclosed in iron bars bent in a decorative fashion to appear less menacing. Most monetary transactions were digital but there were piles of limbs tucked up against the wall: arms and legs lost to the house. Hardly the worst loss as he’d discovered, but a loss nonetheless. This casino, however rundown and shady behind the print, was legal so money was the main sacrifice and money was the gain. But in some circles, in backroom gatherings and hush meetings, more interesting propositions were available. Talents, curses and blessings, even lifespans could be bet. But Renny needed money, unfortunately. How long had he been here? Five hours had passed since he’d left his hotel room, yes, but how long had he been here? In this pit? In this state of desensitization? He’d grown numb to the colors and the desperation. A red nymph sauntered by him, her black stilettos burning holes in the maroon carpet. She was real, living and breathing, wasn’t she? What made her real and the glossy sheen of the screen any less tangible?

O’Connor’s was tucked in the back corner like a forgotten knick-knack destined to obscurity and dust. His shoes stuck to the dirty floor as he walked across past the empty chairs and booths. The barstool was practically taller than him but didn’t fall when climbing up. Not this time.

“Hey stranger,” said the waitress, who was incidentally a stranger. “Pick your poison.”

“Whiskey.”

The waitress smirked. “On the blarney stones?” she asked.

“What?”

“On the rocks?” she said slower.
Renny ran a hand down his face. “Just plain.”

“Anything to eat? Cook makes a mean corned beef hash and mashed potatoes and gravy that’ll stick to your ribs.”

He shook his head and dropped a few crumpled bills on the counter. Minutes later, the crystal glass was in his hand and the cheap liquor glowed like a honey promise. God, why had he agreed to meet at this pub? The gimmicks never bothered him but that mirror behind the counter; that was unavoidable. His red scruff was more salt and pepper than it had any right to be and his thin hair slicked back from greasy neglect. When had those sunspots come in? He hadn’t been broke for than long. Didn’t matter, he reminded himself. He had a job to do and money to collect.

“Hey,” said a slurred voice a few stools down. Renny stared into his glass pretending to not to notice.

“Hey,” the voice said again accompanied by a tap on the shoulder. “Are you a leprechaun?”

Renny turned to look at the drunk. After a glance over, his eyes landed on the man’s chest. “Kiss me. I’m Irish” declared the weathered t-shirt with a dark mustard stain across the “h.” He took a sip of his whiskey and said, “What do you want? Financial advice? Stop spending money at casinos.”

The drunk man twisted up his face. “I thought leprechauns were supposed to be funny.”

“Yeah, well, I thought you had to be Irish to wear a shirt that says, “I’m Irish” but you just blew that out of the water. Here’s a thought; why don’t you walk your nasty sandals-and-socks self away and let me drink in peace?”

The drunk man opened his mouth but thought better of it. Maybe he pitied Renny, his frail, wrinkled form and dull eyes. Saw himself in that desolate stare into the reflection of his drink. Maybe he had grown bored with the conversation. Even Renny had grown bored with his own existence. He’d give it all just to feel young again. Heck, just to feel. These neon lights, cheap drinks, the fellow unliving-undying gamblers. None of it was real anymore, not without the touch of magic he so desperately required. If he could just catch a break with the slots, he could turn it all around. Leave casinos behind for good. It was a pipe dream and he knew it but it got him through the slumps. Of course, there was one way to feel real but this was the last casino in town he was allowed in. He would need a hard reset after this: leave Hemlock in the dust, new town, new state even. As he stared into that honey promise of a drink, he watched his reflection ripple and sag. His face and his skin looked old but his eyes? His eyes were dead and the rest of him would follow unless his luck changed.

Reset button it was. The tables were the best place to start.

He moved through the casino bolder this time and settled at an almost full table. The dealer’s smile didn’t reach her amber eyes as she swiped the cards across the table with a wide paw. This was his game; he just knew it. Token in place, he eyed the cards (a four and a three) and waved two fingers for a hit. A six. Then another. A five. Stop. Seventeen was as close as he could get with twenty one without overshooting. God, he loved blackjack. Loved the limits and the need to cross them. Satisfied with his set, he thumbed the three leaf clover in his collar buttonhole and focused on the cards of the player next to him. With a fourteen total, the odds were with her. She should be safe with at least one hit. As the dealer touched the card, Renny tapped his heels together. The dealer flipped it over to revealing a king and his neighbor pursed her lips in frustration. Twenty-four was too far. That was the trick to his brand of cheating: focus on the other person’s cards. Sudden luck drew suspicion but the house had no reason to halt particularly unlucky gamblers from parting with their funds.

The game continued, the pool of players circulated, and Renny hunched over the table desperately holding back his enthusiasm. Each token felt like a drop in a cracked river bed. A few red tokens later, the bed grew muddier. Some blues, a trickle ran through. Black, the trickle turned into a stream and he covered his mouth with his hand to hide the smile. Like always, it happened gradually. The skin on his hands tightened up and flushed with color. His back straightened up as the aches and knobs of time melted away. He ran a hand through his hair, now full and fiery the way it was supposed to be. Impressive as it was, the real change was in his demeanor. There was a hint of arrogance in his posture, his waves and his clover eyes. This taste of magic was good but a bigger payout would bring even more magic especially when it was paid out.

A firm hand gripped his arm. Instead of twisting around in a reactionary panic, Renny paused. The hand likely didn’t belong to a jilted lover; his last breakup had been three decades prior. A loan shark? More likely and significantly preferable. He could just pay them off and continue playing. The casino guards were the ones he worried about most. After a long swig of his liquor, Renny turned slowly. Two men with doberman pinscher heads and dark tuxes towered above. The larger of the two had Renny’s arm in a vice grip. Their dark forms stood out like shadows and if he didn’t know any better, Renny would think they were out of place in this sea of light and color. But they were the cogs under the skin and they knew his whole charade was now as fake as the stars behind the screens. The guards pressed their fingers to their earpieces and looked down on him behind the sheen of their opaque sunglasses. Figures. Whether it was the rush of winning or the magic itself responsible, he had gotten stupid and he had gotten caught. Gradually, he slid off the chair and assumed position in between the guards, one arm gripped by each. They guided him throughout the public side of the casino past the indifferent patrons and the indifferent slot machines. Why should they care? This was all a part of the machine working as it should, functioning with each turn and pull and snap. They arrived at a forgettable metal door tucked away in a less-lit corner. It opened without a sound. The cluttered alley was washed with a cold street light and the ripe stench of rotting cabbage. With a heavy click, the door locked behind the group and for the first time in seven hours, Renny had left the casino but not in the way he had wanted.

The sudden chill in the air shook Renny but he didn’t feel cold; he was too angry for that. With a shove on both side, he jolted forward with enough force to fall flat. That was what the guards had expected. That was how this program played out. But Renny didn’t fall. He slammed his foot down and caught himself. In the same fluid motion, he spun around to face his challengers. The liquor hadn’t worn off yet, but neither had the magic. Fists up, teeth bared, he flashed a bright smile against his flaming red beard. His clover eyes glowed like hard emeralds against the backdrop of the filthy alley. This had transcended anger; he was manic. He may as well have been foaming at the mouth.

Anyone else in this situation would have been terrified. It was only natural to fear barking dogs. And the guards respected that fear, counted on that fear really. Better to let the prey run themselves ragged before properly roughing them up. But this reaction was unexpected especially from someone so small. Jilted by the deviation from the plan, the guards hesitated for a second. It was only a second but that was enough. Renny sprang forward and collided into the larger guard. He wrapped his arms around his waist and dug in his nails.

The guard didn’t budge and seemingly without effort, threw him off like a ragdoll. Renny landed hard on his back. The fall did it. It was as if all the fight had been knocked straight out of him. He curled up into a ball, knees to his chest, and squeezed his eyes shut. Each kick was battering ram to his spine. Each punch was a scourge. The soft tissue around his eyes swelled up until the bright emeralds were buried in purple flesh. Every exposed part of his skin was swollen and the clothed parts were even worse. The guards continued their assault until his entire body was a raw bruise on the pavement. A pitiful whimper squeaked through his fat lips as one of the guards tossed him over his shoulder. Through his swollen eyes, Renny watched his bloody spit stretch out in a drip and land on the guard’s patent leather shoes. He tried to laugh but the sound that escaped was more of a wheeze and after the sensation passed, he was grateful for narrow dodge. This night could have gone smoother but it wasn’t over yet. His luck could still turn.

Renny heard the clicking noise of a trunk opening and felt his world turn as the guard threw him in. With a slam, the alley lights snapped out of view. At least he was small. A car trunk was rather spacy, comparatively. It was dark in the trunk and while the air was a bit musty, he picked up a fresh smell of something nearby. The car jerked forward and as he rolled around, his hands fumbled for the responsible object. After a jostle here, a hard slam there, his hand landed on an old pair of tennis shoes. He ran his fingers traced the tread and as bits of dried grass flaked off, he was overwhelmed by the subtle green smell emanating off the shoes. That’s what grass smelled like. He remembered it now, the feel of sleepy, sun-baked grass in an open field as he laid on his back. The blue sky stretched overhead, clear as a marble and around the corners of the sky, the velvet branches reaching across his view as if the sky was held in place by the arms of the trees. That was it. That was what it was like to feel real.

As the memories came back, Renny let a smile rip across his swollen face. The shoes were in one hand but in the other, he had something far more precious. While he had left the tokens on the blackjack table, he hadn’t left the casino empty handed. At least not after the scuffle.

The ocean wasn’t far- just a stone’s throw really- and guards had done enough jobs like this to know the routine. The larger of the two clutched the steering wheel hard and eyed the road. The passenger gazed out the window and dreamed of how nice it would feel to have the wind run through his fur. A thumping noise broke the respected silence and both guards jolted to alert. What was that? Couldn’t be the leprechaun: he had to have passed out by now. After enough time had passed for the guards to doubt whether the interruption really happened at all, another thump shook the air. It was coming from the trunk. The passenger shot a nervous glance at the driver. He searched his dark eyes and dark muzzle for some sort of assurance but only saw cold resolution. The pounding continued and after a few minutes, the guards settled into the routine of staring forward and ignoring the disturbance. Each thump testified to the strength of the trunk lock. Each thump lessened the tension. Renny was not going anywhere.

The thumping may have become negligible, but another problem surfaced as the ride continued: the car was shaking. It was dismissable at first- probably the old road falling apart under the tires- but at a time like this? Inconvenient to say the least. The pounding continued with increased fanaticism and with each thump, the shaking escalated until it was undeniable the two were related.

“The hell?” said the driver as he fought the steering wheel.

The passenger guard twisted around and stared at the backseat skeptically. The trunk jumped with each hit and suddenly the integrity of the lock was questionable. Doubtful, even. The body of the car rocked until the driver couldn’t fight it any longer. He tore to the side of the road and turned off the ignition. As the engine died, the pounding in the trunk died away with it and both the guards paused.

“You think he’s dead?” asked the passenger.

“If he isn’t, he’s gonna be.” With a door slam and a sneer, the driver circled the car and glared at the passenger through the back windshield. He followed soon and scurried to stand behind the driver. With a raised fist and a hint of hesitation, the driver opened the trunk ready to beat it’s unlucky inhabitant.

But the trunk was empty except for a pair of old tennis shoes.

The first guard reached for his phone and tapped an empty pocket. “My phone…” he said under his breath. Dread setting in, he tapped the other pocket only to find it empty as well. “And my wallet,” he barked as he remember the body slam from their earlier fight. He slammed the trunk shut and yelled at his companion as they loaded into the company car. Had the driver paid more attention, he might have noticed something else in the trunk: pressed into the edge of the carpet was a dried out three leaf clover.

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