The Mark

The poker game dragged on through the night. “You’re killing it, Bingham. Killing it.” Wilson waved his stogie in mock salute. “If this keeps up, I’m going to have to call it a night and go home, and I don’t want to do that. Wife’s back from visiting her mother. I’m not looking forward to seeing her, know what I mean?”

They all knew ‘what he meant’ although most of them knew he was not married; all of them except the mark. The mark, a dark man, kept his cards close to the vest, didn’t say much, dropped out of most hands, even when he was the big blind.

“You,” Wilson pointed at the mark. “You’re like a boxer, hugging the rail. Doing the old rope-a-dope to tire us all out. Be careful of Bingham. He’s on a streak. He’s likely to sucker punch you the one time you go all in.”

Bingham smiled. “You tell him, Wilson. But the way he’s playing, I think we’re just boring him or something. Never bets. What’s the matter, stakes not high enough for you?”

This was the code for the rest of the group letting them know that Bingham had a big hand and was trying to goad the mark into some action.

“What did you have in mind?” asked the stranger.

“Oh, I don’t know. Looks like I’m big stack right now. What say you and I this hand, winner take all? I win, I get what’s left of your smallish stack, you win, you get all my chips. Hm? How’s about it?” Bingham flashed that smile again, the one that said he could be trusted like a used car salesman, which he was.

“Oh, I was hoping for something a little better than that,” said the stranger. “Something with a little consequence.”

The room broke out into nervous laughter. “Hey now, this is supposed to be a friendly little game of cards. Looks like a few consequential dollars on the table already.” Wilson jabbed at the two stacks of chips.

“Well, if you’re not interested.” The stranger shrugged.

“No, go ahead,” said Bingham. “Tell us what you had in mind.”

“If you have the courage to hear it,” said the dark man. More laughter.

“What you say to that, Bingham?” Wilson directed the lit end of his cigar at Wilson. “Sound serious. You sure you man enough?”

“Oh, I’m man enough. Plenty man enough. “But only a fool agrees to terms he hasn’t heard yet.”

The dark man nodded. “It’s a simple wager, actually. I’ll bet for lives of everyone in this room. If you win, they all live. If you loose, so do they.”

Dead silence. “What are you, some kind of nut? If I don’t play, they all live anyway.” Bingham leaned in close to the table. The overhead lamp lit up his bald pate.

“Actually, that’s not true. You see, they are all dead already. They died the moment I walked into the room. I just wanted to see what kind of men you all were before I drag you down to Hell.”

The men looked at each other. With a nod from Bingham the men jumped up from their chairs and rushed the odd stranger. Or at least, that’s what they should have done. The stranger raised one finger and they found themselves stuck in their seats, unable to get up.

“Hey, what gives?” said Wilson. “What’s going on here?”

The stranger leaned back in his chair. “What do you say, Bingham? Care to play? Have a chance you’ll get up off your lazy butt and walk out of this place alive, or give up and accept your fate. I may not take you today, but I’ll take you eventually. Maybe then it won’t be under those circumstances. Maybe I’ll let you wither and die from a debilitating illness, bankrupting you and your family. Maybe I’ll arrange a little accident leaving you paralyzed and unable to talk to your family as they slowly stop coming to see your carcass, lose interest in you.

“Think carefully. I’m actually offering you a tremendous gift. You choose, Bingham, waste away, or go out like a man, or don’t choose and all those bullets that flew in from a drive-by shooting on the wrong street will finally finish tearing all of you apart.”

Bingham looked down and saw the wounds in his chest for the first time, gaping holes that pierced his heart and lungs. The recognition in the faces of the other gamblers told him they saw it too; each of them suspended on the precipice of death.

“I’m all in,” said Bingham, and he put down his cards.

“Oh, you were always ‘all in’,” said the stranger.