Gambling. That was the one thing that Peter loved more than just about everything else in his unsatisfactory life. Sitting at the table playing poker or any other game gave him a rush of adrenaline that made him feel so alive, even if he normally felt like he already had one foot six-feet under. With gambling he at least had an honest chance, which was something he would not say about his earthly existence anymore. Life had dealt him a bad hand, but at the casino the number of deals was unlimited. As long as you had the money you could always try again. Unfortunately for Peter, though, he was quickly running short of dollars as well.
Of course, gambling wasn't only an external act of betting money and winning or losing. It was so much more. It was a psychological rollercoaster ride, alternating between tremendous highs and the deepest of depths. You could certainly not just fall asleep mid-playing, the energy of it all kept you totally immersed but at the same time sharpened all your senses. Participating in a game of chance always had its risks, and the higher the stakes, the higher the exhilarating excitement. With the turn of a card thousands of dollars could be lost in an instant. And for a man who had already lost everything else he had – for a man that was as desperate as Peter was – money didn't really matter.
”Nine-hundred-ninety-nine dollars worth of chips, please,” Peter said, throwing nine Benjamins and a few other friendly faces on the table. He didn't like even numbers and especially not full hundreds or thousands. He was the victim of the age-old ninety-nine psychology used in commerce, and he wasn't even afraid to admit it. As a result, nine was his lucky number.
”Here you go, sir,” the male clerk said emotionlessly. This was something that Peter really liked. At the casino, no one would tell him what to do with his life. Even if he was piss drunk and losing a few grand a night, all the staff did were look at him stoically. Not once had he even heard anyone say ”I'm sorry, sir.” After all, Peter needed no one's pity. Not anyone had the right to be sorry for him; it was his own prerogative, his own exclusive privilege in life.
”Twenty-one,” said the clerk, turning over a card that turned out to be the ace of diamonds.
”Fuck my life!” Peter thought, but refrained from showing any outward emotion other than blinking his eyes. ”Thanks,” he finally said in a gentlemanly style and left the table. Another 999 dollars lost. That was all the money he had. Even his bank account was empty except for some random cents.
Peter was starting to sweat, and this time it wasn't because of the gambling but lack thereof. While running out of money, he had also run out of options. His home was some 60 miles away and being a well-known professor that he was, he certainly didn't want to be seen hitch-hiking home, nor could he walk. Now was the time he regretted never getting a credit card, but why would he have? He was used to being wealthy enough to not need one. It was all gone now, though. He did still have a great house, but all his savings were now lost. He had absolutely nothing, zero, zilch, nada.
”How the fuck do I get home? I don't even have the money for the taxi,” Peter was thinking to himself. Right now, what irritated him more than not getting home, however, was the fact that he could not try winning back his money. This was a first for Peter. Normally he would quit only after he felt deceived enough by his luck running out faster than was probable. Having been a gambler for quite some time, Peter knew the age-old mantra ”you win some, you lose some” in his sleep. Being a mathematician as well, the few colleagues who knew anything about his hobby – and at times it had been painfully hard to hide – often questioned his affection with casinos. They would say to Peter that he was playing with fire. ”What a bunch of idiots,” Peter thought. That was the whole point! Those people did not understand that gambling was a delicate balance and playing with fire was, of course, very exciting in itself. Besides, in Peter's mind, gambling actually became even more interesting once he could count his odds and see how they materialized in real life.
”Excuse me, madam, is it possible for a regular patron of your casino to play now, become indebted to you, and pay later?” Peter asked a staff member at the information desk. He felt he had sunken pretty low, but he couldn't really help himself or the nagging feeling of ”must play more” in the back of his head. Also, he knew that the chances for the clerk saying yes were slim to none, but this was not the first time he had defied his odds.
”I'm sorry, sir. I'm afraid the company policy is to not accept credit or give loans.”
”Well, that's what I figured. Just asking... for a friend.”
Peter walked away from the counter with a solemn look on his face. There was a part of him that wanted to cry, but he managed to avoid it and only made a few uneasy faces. Still, this kind of outpouring of emotion was something that most customers managed to keep hidden. Such was the unspoken etiquette of the casino – everyone came in sharp-dressed, played, and eventually left with an expressionless face. Most of these people could not really be happy because of their losses, but showing vulnerability was not something you did. Select few would of course leave with winnings, too, but that was only because of the losers' contributions. At the end of each and every day and night, the casino, also known as the house, would still end up winning. This was the unbudging law of probability.
”I'm sorry, sir...” A man dressed in a suit came up to Peter and startled him. ”I overheard your conversation at the information desk, and I could not help noticing a certain desperation in your eyes.”
Peter did not like the stranger's intrusiveness. ”Not that it's any of your business, but I'm not desperate. I was just asking for a friend.”
”Look, cut the bullshit. I know what you're trying to do. That is exactly what I hate about these casinos! The web of lies that everyone keeps on spinning! Let me guess... You've lost it all and you want to get it all back – only what you want even more is keep on playing and flirt with danger a bit more!”
”Okay, okay, you got my attention!” Peter responded, reluctantly sold on what the stranger just said.
”Glad to hear that! I could see from the start that you're a man who listens to reason... You see, I've got the ultimate game for you... It's called Russian Roulette.”
Peter was stunned. He very well knew what Russian Roulette was. ”The one where you can get yourself killed?”
”Hmph... I figured you were this intelligent glass-half-empty type of pessimistic guy. Yes, the one where you can get yourself killed, but at the same time the one where you can win a hell of a lot more than at a casino like this!”
”Not that I'm interested or anything, but tell me more,” Peter said, clearly interested.
”Not far from here, we have a basement with a roulette wheel, a 9mm Smith and Wesson and a trio of gentlemen such as yourself waiting for one more player. What we normally do, though, is play in pairs. Both players put everything they have on the line, we spin the wheel, and the winner both lives and prospers. The loser... Not so much.”
”And what do you, the orchestrators of all that, get for it?”
”Hah, sick pleasure for one! But yeah, you guessed it, we take a 10% cut from the winners. Nevertheless, if you win, you still get the 90% of what they own, so it shouldn't be that bad.”
”And how do you guys count all this?”
”Hell, to be fair, we aren't that picky about these things. Our customers, if you can call them that, are usually quite wealthy, so it's more about the money than it is about the percentages, you know what I mean? Like win your game with a random businessman and give us, let's say, 50G and we probably won't even look to see if he had 500G or more. Trust me, everyone who leaves with their own two feet leaves with a smile on their face.”
”How long before I have to give you my decision?”
”Well, how about 3 minutes? The car's waiting at the back already. And hey, one more important thing: Russian Roulette is good in that even if you lose all you have, you won't have to spend your life mourning about it!”
Peter paused to think about what the stranger said. In his life situation, and still itching to play more, he actually felt a strong pull towards trying his luck. ”You know, take me to the car!”
”That's the spirit!”
A brand new black four-door Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class was indeed waiting at the back. You could tell that the stranger wasn't running just any kind of business – this vehicle must have cost top dollar. Peter did not have a lot of time to admire the car, however, as the stranger quickly ushered him in through the back door.
Only after the car was already fast on its way, the stranger, who was now driving, would finally break his silence: ”We would rather not attract too much attention near the casino. You know, we wouldn't want them to think that we're deliberately stealing their customers!”
”Which you kind of are...”
”Well, yeah, kind of. But some of them we do return... Oh, and by the way, would you kindly fill in those forms there on the backseat.”
Peter took a look at the papers neatly laid out next to him. There were questions about his credit card number and other personal information. The stranger would continue:
”You know, those are just in case you lose. Just write your info down and you can then stuff the papers in your pockets. We won't have to see them at all unless... you know.”
It didn't take long before Peter arrived in a shadowy basement where one man's dark figure was already sitting at a table sweating bullets. Only the real bullets were in the pistol, which was shiningly clean and sitting on the table. Also, next to the gun there was a genuine roulette wheel in place.
”Hey, wasn't there supposed to be three men here besides me?”
”Oh yeah, the two already played their game. This young kid called Tom won. Lucky bastard – played with just a 230G house, and got something like 480G in return from the other whatshisname. The loser was this old fellow. He'd drunk his home and lost his wife, you know, the usual stuff. We kind of did him a favor putting him out of his misery... Just don't look at that wall over there.”
Peter could not help himself. He looked right at the wall and saw splatters of blood and what were presumably parts of an old man's head.
”Dammit, I told you not to look!” the stranger said smiling to himself. ”Still, we've already cleaned most of it. That's the most awful part of this damn job.”
”You guys sure as hell ain't kidding...” Peter whispered, not knowing why; perhaps because he felt he was in the presence of the dead. Still, he had made his decision. He wasn't going to back down now. After all, playing Russian Roulette didn't really scare him all that much. He had nothing to lose. This was his chance, his great opportunity. Whatever happened, he was going to be free. Besides, in his gambling mind, conquering a game like this kind of felt like the Superbowl, the so-called big leagues. The stakes were at an all time high. It was the ultimate challenge. ”Let's get to it, shall we?”
”He-hello!” his challenger greeted him with his voice shaking. Peter could see he was barely 18 with a couple of zits here and there.
”Hey!” the stranger interrupted. ”No getting acquainted before the game!”
”Only after the game, then? Give me a break!” Peter said annoyedly. ”My name's Peter, who are you?”
”I-I'm Dylan. Nice to meet you... I guess.”
The stranger cleared his throat. ”I think it's time to start the game! It's not good for you to make friends in your position. One of you will be worm food soon enough.”
Dylan's eyes were watery. Peter could see the boy was anxious as all hell.
”Fuck it, I don't want to play against this kid!” Peter exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air.
The stranger started fuming. ”Listen, jackass, you came all this way and now you're getting all wishywashy? You already agreed to the terms!”
”This is not what I wanted...” Peter started. ”My opponent isn't a cold businessman, he's a damn kid! He probably wouldn't even get in a real casino at his age!”
”Please...” Dylan suddenly said. ”Let us play... My dad was a businessman. I do have money, really, I do! I inherited two million dollars from him when he died!”
”Really? I mean... It doesn't matter! I don't want your money! You're a kid, you should be having fun with your life, not playing fucking Russian Roulette in a moldy basement like this!”
The stranger took the pistol from the table. ”Look, we run an honest enough business here... Here's the pistol. I'll be holding it to your head, Mr. Peter... And now, as you know, there are numbers from 0 to 36. There's as many black numbers as there are red numbers. Also, there are two green numbers, 0 and double 0, which will both get you both killed. Anyway, you choose either red or black, and the color of the number that comes up will dictate whether you win or lose.”
Peter was still hesitant. ”Yeah, yeah, nice rules and all that, but as I said, I don't want to play against this boy!”
”Peter, really,” Dylan started, ”I may not be a cold businessman, but I have lost enough in my life to end up here. I've played the game of life and failed. Please, let me have this chance to perhaps turn my luck. You see, as young as I am, I have a daughter and, and...” Dylan began sobbing uncontrollably. ”She was all that I had... But, but... I... I had to be stubborn enough to lose my girlfriend and... Now they're both gone! I just cannot take it! Every night I cry, wishing I hadn't been such an idiot. But it's all gone now! Please, let me have this chance! Otherwise I'll just end up killing myself. I don't even care about the stupid money!”
Peter felt for young Dylan. He was actually in a very similar situation himself.
”Fine, kid. I'll play you.”
”That's how our Russian Roulette works,” the stranger said emotionlessly. ”People lose all they have all the time. Eventually then, they get a death wish and we give them a chance to get back at life by possibly cheating death. Why let the state have all the money left behind, when you have the ability to maybe help another lost soul?”
There was deep silence in the room. Dylan had stopped crying. Peter was waiting to make his choice. Finally, the stranger would continue:
”What color shall it be, Mr. Peter?”
Peter closed his eyes. ”Black – for death,” he said ominously, knowing that these might indeed be his last words.
”Very well. Red and you die, black and Mr. Dylan dies.”
With a sudden movement of his fingers, the stranger sent the ball in motion. The feverish spinning felt like it lasted for ages. Life was fast flashing before both Peter's and Dylan's eyes. From a gambling standpoint, this was the most perfect feeling of the most weird euphoria Peter had ever felt.
Finally, the ball would slow down, jumping from one number to another before eventually stopping – at number nine.