“It’s quite simple, Jason,” Walker smiled. “You know I’d never lie to you.”
Jason tried to focus but it was hard to think. Blood was pounding in his ears and his heart felt like it was in his throat. If running had been an option he knew he wouldn’t have got far, even seated his legs felt weak. Spots swam in front of his eyes and he wanted to throw up again. There was nothing but bile left in his stomach, the back of his throat and nose stung from the residue of the splattered mess down his front.
“You need to concentrate,” Walker sounded kind as he bent to look Jason in the eyes. “Now isn’t the time for nerves,” he retrieved the pistol from the floor and put it back into Jason’s slack fingers, holding it in place until he was sure the younger man was grasping it. “You need to be decisive. The clock is ticking.”
“You can’t mean it,” Jason choked, aware he was clutching at straws. “You can’t.”
“You’ve known from the start we play for high stakes, Jason. You know I mean every word I say. I am the piper, it is time to pay me.”
Jason squeezed his eyes shut, tears pooling around his lashes and falling free but he didn’t drop the gun again. Snapshots from his past played out, the packed stadiums cheering as he hammered in goal after goal, carrying his team to league and cup victories. At the peak of his career, of his life, he had even carried the national team into the World Cup semis. He had been a celebrity, a star. The papers had chased him as relentlessly as the wannabe wags and autograph hunters. All of it was a decade ago and he was forgotten now, there were new idols to worship and the disintegration of his life not dramatic or public enough for anyone to care.
“Please,” he said, finally looking up again. Walker was a hulking blur behind his tears. “I can pay you, I promise I can. Anything. Please? I just need more time.”
“You made the bet, Jason,” Walker replied. “The stakes were set, they aren’t negotiable. You know it doesn’t work like that. It never has.”
A sliding tackle had ruined Jason’s career when he was twenty-seven, in the best form of his life. The season had been ending and the team they were playing against were fighting to avoid relegation, needing just a draw from the game to keep their hopes alive. At one all and five minutes to play, Jason had skipped through their defences until he was alone with yards of space and just a nervous goalkeeper between him and glory. He’d taken a touch with his left foot, popping the ball to where it needed to be to drill the decider in.
The tackle came in from behind, a bruiser who already knew his career was over doing whatever it took to keep the score level. Both feet were off the ground, studs showing and Jason was taken either side of his right knee. Even know, sitting in this plush office with a terrible choice to make, Jason could feel the way the tackle shattered his kneecap and broke his shin. He remembered how it had felt to fall and slide across the immaculate grass, limbs entwining with the defender as they tumbled to a halt. He could remember the screams tearing from his own throat as the defender rose and started to walk towards the sidelines—he hadn’t needed to see the referee’s red card to know his career was over.
“Time’s wasting,” Walker said, moving to stand behind Jason again now he was sure the former star wasn’t going to drop the gun again. “You’ve got a decision to make, boy.”
The defender was banned from the beautiful game for life after that, barred from coaching and shunned by the pundit shows. He didn’t care, he’d already made millions by then and his family were safe—punditry had never appealed to him. For a while the press clamoured for him to face criminal charges, the illegal tackle surely had to count as GBH, but the fuss died down and was forgotten by the start of the next season. The penalty awarded after the foul was scored and his team went down a league whilst Jason’s claimed their fourth league trophy in five years. Other than adding to the hostility between the rival supporters the incident was forgotten, just one of many to be included in clip shows.
Jason spent a week in hospital, his shattered leg hanging in a sling, and two months on crutches. At first he was optimistic, telling himself that his body would heal and he would play again, but it didn’t last. The doctors were honest with him from the start, told him that he’d never play again and would probably walk with a limp, if not a cane, for the rest of his life. He’d tried to ride it out, force the world to conform to what he wanted, but it didn’t happen, there was no way it could have. He wasn’t a cripple, not exactly, but he wasn’t who he had been.
“It’s your choice, Jason,” Walker said, he sounded remote although Jason knew he was only a foot or two behind. From the corner of his eye, he could see the two goons, guns held by their crotches. With one bullet he knew he couldn’t take them all. He didn’t want to look at what was in front of him. Walker spoke again. “You agreed the terms, Jason. You placed the bet. You lost. It’s time for you to decide what to save.”
Gambling had been a part of Jason’s life since he was born. Before the fool died, his father had gambled on anything and everything—he died rich and drunk on the bets he placed on his teenage son’s performance. Jason promised his mother that he’d never follow that path, managed to keep the promise until after she died when he was twenty-two. After her funeral he had kept the promise for another year or two but, knowing what he could do, the vice had crept in. He’d needed someone like Walker to take his bets and, before the injury, the arrangement had worked just fine.
Gentle and avuncular, Walker had been a frequent visitor when Jason was in hospital and the visits had continued after he returned home. With his children away at school and his wife globe trotting after her music career, Jason had welcomed the visits from Walker. It had been a fun diversion to play poker and place bets. They both had too much money for it to matter so they had gambled with other things—rare artworks, the lives of others. Whatever took their fancy.
As time went by they abandoned items and went to forfeits. It was thanks to Walker that Jason had been the first to violate the thirteen year old daughter of his gardener, a group crime kept quiet with money. In return, Jason had watched one of Walker’s goons strip naked and enter a contraption that allowed a horse to mount him. The goon’s corpse, the innards torn and split, was never found after it was thrown from a cliff, his family back in Romania left in the poverty he’d thought thuggery would save them from.
Nothing had been off limits, and Jason had never seen how he was being suckered. How he was being led to his own end. To this moment.
“Five minutes,” Walker said. He sounded bored. “Do you want to forfeit?”
“No!” Jason shouted, finally wiping away his tears. He didn’t look up but he gripped the gun tighter, he knew what he needed to do. What he had to do. “Please, let me pay? I promise, I can pay. Anything you want. Please?”
“You know you can’t, Jason,” Walker replied. “Everything you have left is chump change. You played for high stakes, and you lost. Do what you agreed, or forfeit and I’ll do what I must. The choice is yours, boy.”
It was a long time since Jason had been rich. He still lived in a mansion, went everywhere in sports cars he drove himself or limousines driven by resentful underlings, but everything was mortgaged to the hilt and the banks wanted their loan repayments. In between the forfeits, the things Jason had done to children and naive models, Walker had stripped everything. All the accounts were empty, even the one he had promised his wife was hers to keep and pay for the music. If she had a voice better than a harpy—not even autotune could save her wails—things might have been different.
They weren’t and he was flat broke—it was why he made the final all or nothing bet.
“Please, don’t do this,” he was weeping again, his voice emerging broken and high-pitched. Snot poured from his nose, the tears his eyes had no room for finding a way out. “Please, just kill me. Don’t do this. Please, anything. Please.”
“A bet is a bet, Jason. You know that. You lost. Do you think that, if I had lost, I’d hesitate to pay up? I’m being kind, kinder than I’ve ever been before, by giving you this choice. You can blame luck, or fate, whatever you like, but you can’t blame me. You lost the game and now you can either pay the price or I can take the forfeit. It’s your choice.”
“What do you get from this? Why are you doing this?” Jason screamed, but he didn’t rise, didn’t try to do anything with the single bullet in the gun he held. The goons on his periphery tensed, ready to defend their boss. Please, I’m begging you!”
“No, Jason. A bet is a bet. Make your choice. You have two minutes left.”
It had seemed like a good bet when he made it, the cards in his hand had been strong and he had known that he was going to win. He was the one who had made the proposal—all his money back and an escape from the hell he’d been drawn into in exchange for whatever Walker wanted. Looking back, his mind tearing apart as he watched the tears drip from the ridges of his nose onto the textured black grip of the gun, Jason couldn’t believe he’d made the bet, that he hadn’t really heard the terms Walker suggested. Like his father, he had felt the buzz of certainty. He’d known that it couldn’t go wrong.
“You’ve got a minute left,” Walker said, as blandly as if he were announcing the arrival of a train. “If the clock expires, you automatically forfeit.”
Three feet in front of Jason, innocuously innocent, a baby was sleeping in a sturdy plastic and metal carry cot. The cushions of the cot were decorated with whimsical pictures of Whinny and Piglet, holding hands and balloons. The handle was folded back but Jason knew that, when it was up, there were three small soft toys dangling for the child to play with—Eeyore joining Pooh and Piglet. Wispy tufts of orange hair sprouted from the child’s scalp, radiating out from the fontanelle. Bucking the trend, the onesie was adorned with Tinkerbells. It had been chosen by Jason’s eldest child, his seven year old daughter.
“Thirty seconds,” Walker said, his voice rising a little as the crunch moment approached. “Choose, or forfeit.”
“Please, no…” Jason looked at the gun, knew what he had to do. He looked at his youngest daughter, sleeping soundly in front of him. “Please, anything, please.”
Jason had a wife and two other children. They were in a private jet, somewhere in the air between Paris and London. It was a chartered jet but it belonged to Walker, he didn’t doubt that it carried the bomb his gambling partner said it did. He didn’t doubt that the device he’d been shown when they brought him here was real—that all Walker had to do was press the button and the plane, Jason’s family, would fall into the water of the English Channel as specks and chunks of flaming debris.
“Ten seconds, Jason. Choose, or forfeit.”
The winning hand hadn’t been so good after all. Jason knew that he wasn’t as good at poker as he thought he was but he only remembered the fact after he laid down what he thought was an unbeatable hand. When he was upping the ante, pushing his luck, it felt almost the same as it had felt when he danced past defenders and found himself in front of an open goal – he knew that the ball would hit the inside of the nets and he’d be applauded. The stats didn’t support it, he knew that, but in the heat of the moment he always felt sure, knew that this was going to be a moment of glory, something that people would remember.
It was why he’d taken Walker’s bet—all his money and properties back against an unstated dilemma. There had be no doubt in his mind, he was going to win and everything would be good again.
“Five seconds,” Walker said. “Or do you forfeit? Do I win it all?”
“No!” Jason screamed, rising and pulling the trigger. “No!”
“He’s ours now,” Walker said, leading his goons from the room as the former hero sobbed over the bleeding mess of his youngest child, almost torn in half by the bullet through her abdomen. “Let him grieve.”
Twenty minutes later, as it was coming in to land, the private jet from Paris lost control and crashed in a field. There were no survivors. It hadn’t been planned, Walker had wanted them to live, but it broke the fledgling desire for revenge in Jason’s heart.
It was years before he finally died, alone in a ditch.
“It’s quite simple, Jason,” Walker smiled. “You know I’d never lie to you.”