The Fifth Fedora: Weird Noir and Stranger Tales in Honor of Stephen T. Vessels is now published by Borda Books and Wilder Utopia, and is available on Amazon or in our bookstore. "The King of Bones" is a wonderful part this collection of tales told in Stephen's honor. The following, for your enjoyment, is an excerpt of Eric Witchey's story.
Hitting on a seventeen is a fool’s hit, but Gerrard had a feeling. When a man has a feeling, he has to act. Reliving regrets while awake wasn’t living. Living through dark dreams of a long night of memories of losing large on a hand like his because he didn’t listen to his gut wasn’t living.
Fear of memories to come drove him to suck in a deep breath of cloying perfume and sweaty casino air before he tapped his cards, faced the dealer’s icy gaze, and nodded.
The woman, if any soulless Las Vegas dealer could be called such, covered her contempt with a professional blink and a new card on his spread.
“Three of bones,” she said. “Twenty-one.”
He was sure he’d heard her wrong. He checked the new card—three of spades.
He’d had enough Balvenie scotch and time at the table. Bones or spades, three gave him a clean 21. His gut had been right. No regrets this morning. He’d sleep until check-out time at 11 a.m.
The dealer dealt a four of hearts to her sixteen. She said, “Twenty. Gentleman wins.”
Gerrard exhaled. Of the four players at the table, only Gerrard raked in his chips before standing to leave. Out of spite, he flipped a hundred-dollar chip on the table. It was more insult than gratuity. It let the judgmental dealer know he didn’t care about a hundred bucks. By scooping it up, she showed that she did.
She picked it up, held it up for the security feeds, and slipped it into her tip box.
“Thank you, Sir,” she said. “New deal.”
He heard just the right tone of humiliation in her voice. Let her live with regret.
The other players smiled and nodded to him as he left, but it was all a lie. They might be jealous for a moment, but they were all on their way to bankruptcy. In two sips and a hand, they wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about him and his winnings.
On his way to cash out, two house shills approached him. The first, a SYT in slink, slither, and trinkets, tried to flirt him back to a table.
Not even close. His ears were ringing from the din of his all-nighter. His suit felt sticky from casino air, and his eyes hurt from hours of concentration under artificial lights.
The second, he had to admit to himself, was exactly what he liked in a professional. Light perfume that dampened the floor smells if he stood close to her, mature curves, sloe eyes, and the promise of a slight bite in her smile.
Smart enough to see he needed a break, she worked him for a drink to get him to the bar before returning him to the tables. Their exchange lasted a little longer because she carried herself with dignity.
She said, “Buy me a drink, and I’ll bring you luck.”
It was to her credit that he tested her. “Table odds on a baseline spin?”
She touched his forearm and said, “About 1.4.”
He smiled. “Luck?”
Her eyes glittered and called to him. “A girl’s gotta know the games if she wants to make a living.”
She tempted him to buy a little luck even though he hated superstitious gamblers. A man who didn’t know the odds was a man who lost his edge. Gerrard knew the odds. He knew cards better than anyone. He knew when the cards were right for him, and he knew when the cards were wrong.
Tonight, she was the wrong card from an exhausted deck.
On any other night, yes, but something about that last hand—what he’d thought the dealer said—had tugged at a half memory. A game lost once? A long time ago?
It darkened his mood in a way companionship wouldn’t change.
He took her card and a rain check.
At the cashier’s counter, he dumped his chips in the tray. A bored man behind the glass pulled the tray in, lifted the tray out, and dumped the chips into the sorter. The chips spun and flipped and stacked and slotted up into colored stacks. A readout posted his winnings amount.
He nodded to the cashier.
The cashier’s tinny voice came through the voicecom set into the glass. “Cash, Check, Cashier’s Check, House Account, or Wire?” For the voice, mechanical movements, and lack of life in the guy’s eyes, he might have been one of those old-time carnival booth fortune teller machines—more puppet than man.
“Wire.” Gerrard passed his house card through the tray.
The automaton picked it out of the tray and slipped it into the reader to one side. The machine beeped. The figure on the chip counter disappeared then showed up on the transfer readout.
Gerrard’s phone buzzed.
He checked the text. Fifty-four thousand and some change to his account. Not great, but a bread-and-butter night.
He nodded to the puppet in the booth and turned to leave.
“Sir,” the fortune teller said.
Gerrard turned back.
“You forgot your card.” The man slipped Gerrard’s card into the tray and pushed the tray through.
Gerrard swept it up.
The man nodded and pressed a button out of sight below the counter. A screen descended, covering the glass of his station. People in line behind Gerrard complained, but he ignored them.
Gerrard moved to put his card in his wallet, but a second card caught on the wallet slot. The puppet man had given him two cards. He turned back to the window, but he found only the black screen.
He put away the black house card containing his credit and bank information before examining the second card.
He needn’t have worried. It was only a playing card with a black back.
He flipped it over a couple times before examining the face, which showed a single bloody hand offering up a femur. Decaying meat still clung to the bone. Archaic letters across the bottom of the card said, “Ace of Bones.”
Okay, that could not be a coincidence. He really had heard the dealer say, “The three of bones.”
But that card had been spades.
He looked at the card again. It seemed somehow familiar, like he’d held it before, like he knew it and knew he should be afraid of it and should remember it at the same time.
No. He was tired. He wouldn’t let himself succumb to superstition.
He was a man who played the numbers and, occasionally, paid attention to his gut. That wasn’t the same as superstition. That was acknowledging that the subconscious knew more than the conscious.
Jesus. He was tired if he was splitting hairs with himself after a winning night.
It was just a card. Someone was messing with him—pranking him, but he didn’t know who would have the balls. He also didn’t know how the prank could play out. It wasn’t big and visual enough for reality TV or even YouTubers, so it had to be personal, or…
Maybe it was some new house strategy for spooking winners into playing until they lost. If that were true, he imagined there’d be another card or maybe someone in the elevator or the halls on the way to his room trying to keep him from sleeping, trying to herd him back to the tables, encouraging him to bet higher, and pushing him toward the inevitable truth of the odds.
That had to be it. He’d been around. He knew a scam when he saw one.
He slipped the card into his suit pocket and headed to his room.
No shills accosted him. No pit boss or courtesy date waited at his room.
If the house were playing him, they were playing a long con.
Gerrard showered and settled into the fresh, crisp sheets in his comped room. When he woke, he planned to check out and head to the airport. He wanted to hit a poker tournament in Chicago for the weekend. Given the players he knew about, he figured he’d end up in the top five. With a little luck and a few mistakes by his opponents, he might take the big money. Regardless, he’d leave the tables in the black....
Eric Witchey’s stories span 12 genres, and his credits include over 160 stories, including 5 novels and two collections. His work has received recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, and other organizations.