As this is the launch week for , the fourth novella in the Gambling Ghosts series, a saucy mix of fantasy, adventure and romance, I am posting chapter three today.
3 – Dead Reckoning
“Poker is a lot like sex. Everyone thinks they are the best, but most don’t have a clue what they are doing.” — Dutch Boyd
Rufus remembered the night he died. He remembered it well, on account of having to relive it every night at 11:45 p.m. precisely. Some ghosts are like that, trapped in an eternal loop.
He had been drinking with his buddies in the Scuttlebutt Bar by the harbor, celebrating a good day of business. He had managed to corner the local trade of illegal marijuana and helped organize the biker toy drive for the sick kids hospital. His life was finally getting to where he wanted it to be. Money was flowing in and he was doing good stuff. Sure, he wasn’t as squeaky clean as his sister wanted him to be, but he had bettered his ways.
High on life he headed to his house on Moby Dick Lane, which he had bought at an auction a couple months before. He called it his Victorian gingerbread house. It had lots of charm and a quirky, magical feel that appealed to him. It kind of spoke to him, but he wouldn’t admit that to anyone at the time. When he walked through the old hallway and looked at the small rooms flooded with natural light from big bay windows, he felt as if he had come home.
He only used three rooms in the rambling old house: the kitchen, his bedroom on the second floor, in which had had put a big-screen TV and music system, and a poker room, which had a card table and chairs in it. The rest of the house remained empty except for a stray, black cat that had adopted the place and liked to roam around. He planned to finish his new home room by room when he had time.
Once he moved his stuff in, he noticed the house had its own personality. The worn floorboards squeaked, a lot; sometimes without anyone walking on them, as if the building was still settling, or as if someone he couldn’t see was walking around. That thought crossed his mind often. Cold drafts appeared and disappeared at odd intervals throughout the day and night. A musty, dead odor lingered in the attic that could not be hidden no matter how much room deodorizer he sprayed around. And an odd feeling of melancholia hung in the air, more pensive than sad. Another guy might have been scared, but he didn’t feel that way. The house felt more like his home every moment he spent in it and, as strange as it would sound if he said it out loud, it became his companion.
The third day he lived there he found the black leather book in the attic. It contained photos and clippings of the house, dating back to the day it was built. One journal entry caught his attention. “The shaman said the house is built on a nexus point, a place where the mystical powers of the earth collide, a place where good and evil meet, a place of magic . . .” He had filed that information away and intended to tell his wacko sister Azalea, who claimed to be a medium, but he had died before he had the opportunity. She would find the book the day after he expired.
That night, the night he had died, was etched in his memory as if it were yesterday. That was, he supposed, his ghostly penance.
He had needed to get ready for the poker game. The fridge was filled with beer and the remnants of a take-out pizza from the night before. He cracked open a bottle and headed to the poker room with a couple bags of chips to get it ready for his company.
At ten o’clock his friends started to arrive. Most of the guys had nicknames, a tradition of serious poker players and bikers. They called him Big Dog, because his name was Rufus. He had hated his name, but what could he say? His hippie parents had chosen it when they dropped acid in the company of their pet dog. He would have preferred his friends to call him The Master, or something seriously hard ass, but they went with the canine motif. That’s life.
First to arrive at his event was his best friend, Ron Smithers, a tall, lanky biker who owned an auto shop on Third and went by the name The Flying Axel. Ben Murphy, a steroid-loving biker who spent his days fixing plane engines, came next. His handle was The Mechanic. Sam Chin, a second generation Chinese black-belt who owned the local martial arts club and went by the poker name Zen, came next, and George Addison, the local lawyer for thugs, a tall smoker with a pallid complexion, arrived on his heels. They called him Slim. The fifth man was Andy White, the coroner, who they called Death Wish. Alice Flinshaw, who owned the town beauty shop, arrived last. They called her The Stylist. After some bullshit talk, they settled into their first game.
Azalea, his sister, phoned him at 10:30, a call he would never forget. She told him to get out of the house and stay out, that danger was gunning for him. He laughed at her and hung up. His older sister was a nag, and he wasn’t in the mood to listen to her complaints. She talked to spirits and believed she could tell people their futures, but he didn’t believe in any of that shit. That was then.
There were seven of them at the table when Mad Dog arrived uninvited. He stormed into the room and stood at the end of the table.
“I want in,” he barked. Now that didn’t surprise anyone in the room. Usually strung out on some drug, the guy was unpredictable and dangerous.
Rufus had taken in Mad Dog’s appearance. His clothes were clean. It looked as if he had shaved in the last week and he couldn’t smell him. That was all good, for a junky. He could refuse to let him play, but he was part of their biker gang and leaving him out would be crossing a line Rufus didn’t want to cross. He shrugged and motioned for the man to join them at the table. What’s the worst that could happen, he had thought. The man was lousy at bluffing, never remembered the cards he played and had money.
Mad Dog sat down and the games continued. He showed more skill than Rufus remembered him having and figured the guy must have been playing online or somewhere else in town.
Rufus hadn’t had good cards for a week, so he decided to improve his odds with sleight of hand. All’s fair in love and poker. Having spent a year in Vegas, he had polished his cheating skills and almost never been caught. He had to be careful. No one likes to be cheated by a hand mucker.
The card players had drunk a lot of beer. They had all won their share of hands. So why the hell not? He slipped an ace of hearts up his sleeve and waited for a hand that could use it.
They were playing five-card stud and he was holding a ten, jack, queen, king of hearts and a deuce. Perfect. His ace would make it a royal flush. He bet a hundred and threw down one card.
Everyone but Mad Dog folded. He smiled and took a minute to stare Rufus down. “I call your hundred and raise you five.” He threw down a card.
Rufus threw in more chips.
An extra card was dealt to both of them.
Mad Dog’s smile widened.
Rufus looked at his. Another fucking deuce. Oh well, I can fix that. He slipped the ace out of his sleeve and exchanged it with the deuce. “I’ll bet a thousand,” he said, fully expecting Mad Dog to fold.
Mad Dog smiled. “I’ll call your thousand and raise you another.”
Rufus kept his features still but his gut wrenched. This was the kind of moment that made the whole night in poker. He would have to put in all his chips and count on a cheating hand. His heart rate rose and he swallowed slowly. With the ace in place he had the winning hand. Nothing beats a royal flush.
But, if by chance Mad Dog had an ace of hearts, Rufus would be in deep shit. Not only would he lose the game, but his reputation as well. Time to fold?
If Mad Dog had been any other guy, he would have folded. But there was history between them, bad history. No matter the cost, Rufus wouldn’t let Mad Dog win. Ever. The asshole was running around town with Jennifer, a woman Rufus still cared about. No one else in town would dare hook up with her, knowing she had been his woman, but Mad Dog didn’t care. He didn’t get honor between men.
“I’ll raise you another thousand,” Rufus said.
The room went quiet. Although they didn’t play with a limit, never had they had so much money on the table.
Mad Dog studied his opponent’s face and laughed. “I don’t have that much on me.”
“I understand,” said Rufus, smiling. He threw his cards on the table, face down, and reached for the pot.
Mad Dog grabbed his arm. “Will you take my bike in lieu of the cash?”
The players moaned.
F**k. If he’s willing to bet his Harley, he has to have a good hand. Another royal flush? Possibly. They would end up splitting the pot, if that were the case. Four aces? Also, possible. He gave him a sideways glance.
“So, what do you got?” Rufus said.
“I want to raise you another thousand. You know my bike’s worth it.”
Mother F’n’ Hell. Rufus snickered. “Confident asshole, aren’t ya.”
“Jennifer tells me you’re not that good in bed. Not got the balls?” His grin turned dark. “It’s your turn, buddy.”
The ugly gleam in Mad Dog’s eyes told Rufus he was fucked. The guy really believed he had the superior hand. Rufus pushed in his chips. “I’m all in. What do you got?”
Mad Dog put down his hand: A nine, ten, jack, queen and king of spades. A good hand.
Rufus laughed. “Not good enough.” He put his hand down.
Mad Dog pulled out his gun. “You motherfucker. I threw away an ace of hearts and there aren’t two in a deck.” The shot at close range had a deafening sound that hit Rufus a millisecond before the bullet hit him in the middle of his forehead.
Rufus’s world spun before his eyes, a lifetime in a second. His spirit rose from his body and floated above the scene. The Stylist screamed. Holy hell! How could his life be over, just like that! It was just one mistake.
The next couple of days were a blur as he navigated the world of the undead. Desperately he clung to the earth. He wasn’t ready to move on, and for some unfathomable reason the universe let him stay.
Now, every night, he replayed his death.
The word got out that he liked poker and before long other ghosts joined him at the table and they had a regular, nightly game that ran before and his death. Even though he died every night, Mad Dog, his murderer, was never charged. None of his poker buddies admitted to being there and the cops needed a witness.
So, every night after poker, Rufus would visit Mad Dog. He took his revenge by playing pranks, hoping he might drive the guy crazy. It was almost as much fun as the poker. This had gone on for five years, though it seemed like five minutes to him.
Life after death had been pretty good for Rufus, until Charlie turned up.
Note: For some reason I felt I had to change the f work on my blog. In the book it exists in all its glory.
Want to read the whole story? The novella launches on Friday (June 23rd)
I’ll post Chapter 4 on Wed.