Choices (Horror)

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“Another card, sir?”

Robert didn’t hear the question, his eyes were on the cards on the felt before him.

A ten, a two, and now a four. He checked the cards again, they didn’t change.

“Sir, a card?”

He blinked and looked up. The dealer was still smiling at him. They always smiled, it was somewhere in the universal dealer handbook. He hated them for that, smiling while they sucked you dry.

Did he want a card? That was the question. He was trying to think back, to sort through the hands that had come and gone. How many queens and kings had flipped past him across the green topped table. Enough? Too many? He was having a hard time concentrating.

His glass was empty before him on the table, even the ice long slurped away, and there were none of those girls in the mini-skirts in sight. Never there when he needed one.

The dealer was still looking at him, patience leaving his eyes while the smile stayed firmly in place. Robert licked his lips. That drink would help to calm his thoughts, but he was going to have to do without.

Did he want a card? He certainly wanted something, and not even for himself this time.

There were no chips left before him. The last of his stack was already out on the table, and they weren’t worth much. He didn’t remember shoving them out, but he’d been too busy focusing to the cards to pay much attention.

He had to decide. There was so much riding on this. The words floated into his ear as if from the haze of smoke around him. He licked his lips again.

Her voice on the phone, Jenny. His Jenny.

“Dad, I need some money.”

A long pause, on his end.

“What for?” He shouldn’t have had to ask, his daughter should get what she needed, but it wasn’t like twenties were spilling from his pockets.

“For school. For tuition.”

School meant university now. An expensive university.

His throat was dry. “What about the scholarship?”

“It’s gone.” Her voice almost broke. “Funding cuts, lack of donors, I don’t know. They... they pulled it.”

More silence from him, he was good at that.

“Dad? Dad, I really need the money.”

“How much?” Not that he had it, but the words spilled out.

“Two thousand, by Monday. Or I miss the semester.”

And it was Thursday night. He squeezed the phone hard. If only those damn Yankees would have pulled through in the eighth, then he would have had the money. First the cold cards, and then the cold bats from the boys in pinstripes.

“Dad, I’m really sorry to call you, but mom doesn’t have the money, and I don’t know who else to call.” Her voice did crack then. It was a knife through his temple. The stuffing in his skull from the night before wasn’t helping.

He tried to think. He still had a few bills stuffed somewhere, but not enough. Not even close.

His mouth started working on its own again. “Okay. Let me see what I can do.”

“Dad, really? You can help me out?”

The hope in her voice was almost worse than the crying. His heart took the brunt this time. He hadn’t helped out much. He knew that, maybe this time would be different.

“I’ll talk to you on Monday,” he said, and hung up.

That click sounded like the dealer’s fingernail on the chips before him.

“Sir?” Even the smile was slipping now.

Robert swallowed hard. “Hit me,” he said.

The jack landed staring at him with one eye. As if he were winking, a final screw you from the world.

His shoulders slumped, the sounds of casino broke over him like the tide. He tried to ignore the sound of the dealer pulling his daughter’s future away.

Damn cards.

He slid off the stool and stumbled outside. The air was even hotter as traffic slid by. Never quiet or cool here. 107 at midnight, and just as many cars on the strip.

Lights flashed across him, but didn’t touch him. He was dark, inside and out. Empty, and dark, and hopeless. He shoved his hands in his pockets and scuffed his way along the sidewalk.

Now what, Bob? Now what the hell are you going to do?

His hands balled up into fists, clutching only lint. Not a damn dime to his name. Not a red cent.

A group of girls swept past him laughing. One looked so much like Jenny he had turned halfway before he caught himself. Even if it was her, he didn’t want to see her. Not her, and not then. He took a random turn off the strip. The lights faded, and night slipped in around him.

Eventually he looked up. The street was dark around him, not just dark, but black. It looked like he’d stumbled into an alley, which was impossible as there were no alleys into this city. Can’t funnel tourists with dead end alleyways.

He heard a step ahead of him in the dark. Suddenly he felt cold.

“Hello?” he ventured.

Something about this felt wrong. Even wronger than his night, than his life.

A figure emerged from the darkness. He was tall, and thin, slicked back hair, dressed in black. No, not black, a very dark red. A red beyond crimson, like deep blood.

“Hello, Robert,” the man said with a pearly smile.

Robert licked his lips. He might be one of Sonny’s men. He couldn’t remember how much he owed that shark.

“Who’re you?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m not with Sonny,” the man said. “Though you might say we’re in the same business. Just on a different scale.”

Robert’s stomach clenched. He’d been followed, but why? He didn’t have anything.

“What do you want?” His eyes flicked around. He couldn’t even see the walls anymore, much less a way out.

“It’s more a question of what you want, Robert. Or what your daughter wants. That’s more appropriate isn’t it.”

Hair stood up so hard along his neck that the skin hurt.

“Who are you?” he asked again.

“That’s not so important as what I can do for you. I can help your Jenny. Get her through school, clear sailing, no problems.”

It was a trick, had to be. But Monday was so close, just hours away now. He could feel the hands of the clock closing on his throat, already strangling him.

He licked his lips, they were still dry.

“What do I have to do?”

“Do? Why nothing Robert, nothing at all. We’d just need to come to an arrangement, make a deal as it were.”

The man smiled again and his eyes lit in the dark. Lit from within with an eerie light that looked to Robert like flames in the darkness.

His chest ached, like something was being tugged free. Like his heart was leaving his body. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Jenny.

“Okay,” he said.

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