by B. T. Smith
The last thing that Vincent Owens heard was a gunshot. Then there was blackness. An eerie blackness, one that would make any sane man lose his soul in fear. Yet there was nothing to fear. It was peaceful, in a way that cannot be understood.
Faintly, he began to hear noises. They were muffled, gargled at first, as if someone was speaking to him from the other side of a cotton wall. The noises soon became clearer, and… what’s this? Vincent saw a light shining brightly in the distance of this fearfully calm darkness. It grew brighter, closer. The noises too became louder and clearer. Yes, he was there, he was on the other side.
He felt a stiff slap on his cheek.
“Wakey, wakey, Vic,” said an old man standing above him. He whistled. “Oi, that was a doozy, wasn’t it? Seems you got yourself involved in the wrong crowd. Not to worry, they’re gone. Now, on your feet.”
Vincent felt the old man’s hands lift him up by his shoulders. His legs buckled for a moment, but with support, he stood up straight. Soon, Vincent’s vision became clearer, and he took in his surroundings. All around him was the commotion of gamblers cussing at slot machines, throwing their fortunes away to cards, and sacrificing their morals at the bar. Scarlet carpets lined the floor, and beige wood panels lined the walls. The old man that helped Vincent to his feet wore a white shirt with a paisley red vest and tie. His trousers were black along with his shoes, which were polished to such a sheen that they might as well have been considered white in the light. Apart from his fine clothes, the old man was rather thin. His face, with its cigar ash comb-over hair and oil black pencil-stache, was severely gaunt. Still, the old man had brusque yet genial mannerisms.
“W-what happened? Where am I?” Vincent asked, bewildered.
“The Half-Way Hotel and Casino,” the old man answered. “You were playing cards with a bunch of gangsters and lost. Then, when the time came to pay them and you didn’t have the money, one pulled out a pistol and shot your stupid ass.”
Vincent’s memories were coming back now. He remembered the gunshot, but when he looked down at his body, he could see no holes. He couldn’t find a single drop of blood. “Where did they shoot me?” he asked, alarmed.
The old man smiled. “Let’s just say they winged you. Come on, sit. Sit,” he insisted.
The old man walked Vincent to an empty poker table. A few of the chairs were overturned, chips were sprawled everywhere, and there were a couple half-empty whiskey glasses. Vincent picked up one of the chairs and sat down. Rubbing his head, he took a drink from one of the glasses.
“I take it they all left after they shot me?” Vincent asked.
“Oh, yes,” answered the old man as he took a seat at the opposite end of the table. “There wasn’t much else that they wanted from you. I’d certainly be thankful for that.”
“Believe me, I am.”
Vincent took another drink and looked around the casino. Men and women were still going about their business without a care in the world. Flashing lights were still buzzing and burning in all their glory. The bartender was serving martinis to women as their many tireless admirers tried to impress them with bad jokes about angels falling from Heaven. It all struck Vincent as normal. Too normal. Surely, if he were just shot, there would be a lot more commotion.
“Nothing phases this crowd, does it?” asked Vincent.
“Why should it?” the old man answered. “Dead men come through here every day.”
“Excuse me?” Vincent turned, and suddenly, his eyes widened, his mouth went dry, and a cold sweat trickled down his spine. The old man’s clothes had changed in an instant. No longer was he a random dealer at the casino. His shirt and vest turned into black robes, deep and dark as the deadly night. A patchy, threadbare hood fell over his face, and under the shadows of his cloak, the old man’s head thinned until it was like a skull.
“Oh my god!” Vincent cried in fear.
“No, I’m not him,” the grim old man answered.
“I don’t understand. Where am I? What am I doing here?”
“As I said before, you’re in the Half-Way Hotel, the last stop before the beyond. In terms of what you’re doing here, it should be evident enough that you’re dead.”
“You said they winged me!” Vincent yelled.
“A slight shot to the head is still a shot to the head, you fool! If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.” From beneath the table, the man pulled out a large scythe with a blade sharpened and polished to a mirror shine. He held out the blade, but when Vincent leaned back in fear, the old man scowled, “Oh, don’t be such a coward. Just look.”
Vincent leaned forward. With trembling hands, he pulled the shining scythe to himself and looked into his reflection. There, just slightly to the right of his forehead, there was a dark hole with a metallic glint deep inside. Vincent retched and pushed the scythe back.
“I can’t believe it. It’s impossible!” he muttered. He went for the whiskey glass but found it empty.
“That’s what they all say.” The old man put the scythe away and brought out a bottle of brandy. Removing the top, he then filled Vincent’s glass and told him to drink. “Take your time, Vic. We’ve got a little while until you’re due.”
“Well, yes, due. I work on a fine-tuned schedule. When someone dies, I greet them here or wherever else they may wish. I explain what’s happened to them, let them process everything, and, after that, I take them on.”
“Why are all these folks still waiting around then?” Vincent waved to the other people in the room.
The old man rolled his eyes, then snapped his bony fingers. Like a light switch, all the people in the room vanished in a puff of smoke. Eerie silence had returned.
Vincent gulped hard. “Bring them back,” he said nervously.
The old man raised an eyebrow.
“If you insist.” The old man snapped his fingers again and, in an instant, the crowds returned. The slot machines continued their mechanical roar, drinks and flirts passed over the bar again, and phantom dealers continued to pass cards.
Sweat beaded onto Vincent’s face. He took another drink from his glass.
Suddenly, the old man rose from his seat. Taking his scythe, he said, “It’s almost time to leave, anyway. Come now, you can finish your drink on the way there.”
“No!” Vincent yelled. “No, I’m not ready.”
“It’s not a matter of whether you’re ready or not, Vic. Your time has come, simple as that.”
“Please, for the love of God, I’ll do anything!”
The old man sighed. “You have nothing to offer me, young fool. Nothing that is of any value in this realm of the world, at least.”
Vincent thought for a moment. “My soul!” he blurted.
“Yes… yes, my soul. Play me,” said Vincent, wiping the table clean of all its debris. “Play me at blackjack, poker, anything. If I win, you send me back to my body. You fix my head so that by some miracle I manage to survive.”
“Very well…” the old man said with a laugh, “and if I win?”
Vincent was quiet for a moment and shuddered. “I’ll go quietly to wherever you take me.”
The old reaper stood in front of Vincent. It seemed as if he were weighing the odds of this gamble, estimating the chances of his victory. He also measured the values of this wager and found them to be fair enough. He then pulled back the sleeve of his cloak to reveal a silver watch. “I suppose there’s a little time…” he muttered to himself. “Very well,” he said to Vincent, “A game of poker to decide the fate of your soul.”
The old man then sat back down at the table. Calling over a waiter, he requested that a set of special chips be brought to the table along with a deck of cards. In a few moments, he returned. The cards were cut for both Vincent and the old man to see, and two hundred chips were given to them both. The chips were all the same color, since no monetary value could be applied to this game. Picking one up, though, Vincent thought he saw a faint glow within them and felt a pulse ushering from it and into his hand.
“Your soul,” the old man waved a hand over the chips, “evenly divided into four hundred pieces. Whoever busts, loses custody over its fate.” He then nodded his head to the dealer, and their hands were given. The old man threw two chips in the center of the table, and Vincent matched it. It was a sickening feeling to part with even those two pieces.
The game had begun.
Vincent looked at his hand and saw that he had two pairs. He had certainly hoped for better.
Looking up, Vincent analyzed the old man’s face. To his surprise, those deathly eyes had not even glanced once at their own cards. They stared at him intensely, burning and boring into Vincent’s unbeating heart.
“I-I don’t think I ever caught your name,” Vincent said with difficulty.
The old man blinked and tilted his head. “I’ve gone by many names,” he droned, “Thanatos, Azrael, The Grim Reaper… most people around here call me Terry, though.”
“Yes, Terry,” said the old man seriously. “I bet ten chips.”
Vincent watched as ten more bits of his soul were thrown into the pot. He looked at Terry and his confident expression, as if it were daring him to call it. Vincent looked back down at his pitiful hand, and then at those glowing, pulsing chips. He could not bear to part with them, not to even risk it.
“Call,” he said and threw ten more onto the pot.
The dealer asked them to show their cards. Vincent laid his two pairs onto the table with trembling hands. Then Terry followed suit to reveal one pair.
The dealer then pushed the mound of soul chips to Vincent’s side, and he let out a deep sigh of relief.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Terry said with a smile.
Two more rounds were played, and Vincent was starting to win. After a lifetime of bad hands, it seemed as if his luck was turning around. For every set of cards the dealer gave Vincent, his deadly opponent had a set of just one lesser value. Vincent had managed to pull a straight and a full house, while Terry only managed to get three of a kind and a flush. The chips were beginning to pile high on Vincent’s side, and he was becoming more relaxed. He even drank the Reaper’s brandy without a shaking hand. The taste was smooth.
“So, Vic, tell me, are you a religious man?” Terry asked, as he glanced at his cards with mild interest.
“I was wondering when you would ask me that.”
“Well, are you?”
“I died in a casino with a bullet in my head from a mob boss’s pistol. My lungs were full of cigar smoke, and my stomach full of booze. What do you think?”
“No reason to get testy,” Terry said, smiling. “I’m just rather curious, that’s all. If you do win, you’ll have a second chance at life. Knowing what you do now, I just would like to know how you would live differently?”
“I’d make sure to never play cards with gangsters again. Of that you can be damn sure.”
“Vincent… come now… you know exactly what I mean.”
Vincent shifted in his seat. Leaning on the table, he said, “Look, before I came here, I didn’t know what I believed. I still don’t. But I will say this, that this whole experience has been… enlightening.”
“Yes, enlightening. If I had known that Heaven was nothing but a giant casino instead of some castle in the sky, I would have gotten on the street corners of Vegas preaching that years ago.”
Terry laughed, beating his fist against the table. “Oh, Vic,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye, “you don’t know anything. Like I said, this is only an in-between. You don’t have a single clue about what comes after.”
Vincent’s ears burned; his hands were shaking again. “I raise you twenty.”
Another three rounds passed, and Vincent had all but fifty pieces of his soul left. He licked his lips as he saw them on the other side of the table. Resurrection was just within his grasp. Still, Terry’s eyes were steady, not showing a single ounce of fear.
The dealer gave out another hand. Vincent picked up his cards, and he allowed a smile to creep across his face. He held a winning hand, one that would surely seal his victory, a straight flush. He tried to suppress his smile as best as he could, eyeing Terry to see what he would do next. Vincent’s eyes widened as he heard the old man declare “All-in.”
The Reaper threw the rest of his chips into the pot, and Vincent’s heart leapt for joy as he himself matched it with pride.
“All-in,” Vincent cried as he shifted the rest of his soul into the center of the table.
The dealer then asked them both to show their cards.
Vincent slammed his hand onto the table showing his straight flush for both Terry and the dealer to see. With a wide smile and a joyous laugh, he then reached out for the pot.
“Ah, ah,” Terry wagged his finger. “Not so fast.” Suddenly, the old man smiled, showing each of his pearly teeth. He laid down his cards and Vincent looked in horror as he saw an ace, a ten, a jack, a queen, and a king, all bearing spades lying before him, mocking him. Terry had gotten a royal flush, the rarest, the highest, and the only unbeatable hand of poker.
Vincent sunk back into his chair and watched as Terry cleared the chips off the table. It was now official. He was dead, and not coming back. He did not say anything, but merely sat in silence, drinking the last drops of brandy from his glass until it was completely empty.
The dealer left, and with the end of the game, Terry stood up and placed a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. “It’s time,” he said.
Terry led Vincent out of the casino through a backdoor on the far side of the room. A green exit sign hung over the door, and Vincent passed under it without a qualm or fight. They were now in a dark, dank alley. Wet brick walls lined the sides of the buildings. Above their heads there was a flickering neon sign that read, “The Half-Way Hotel: Your Last Stop Before The Last Stop.” On one end of the alley Vincent saw a dumpster full of many precious things: trophies, overflowing bags of bills, crowns, wedding rings, and journals. On the other side, the alley went on infinitely into a bright white light.
Terry took Vincent by the hand and led him closer to the everlasting end of the alley. Vincent’s breath quickened, and he felt panic seizing his heart. He dragged his feet back and pulled on Terry’s arm.
“No, please… I’m afraid,” Vincent cried.
The old man looked at him with pity. He sighed. “Vic, it all has to end at some point. It’s the way things are.”
Vincent fell to his knees in despair and began to sob. “I’m not ready. I’m not ready. I was so close to living again.”
“Yes, Vic, you were. In fact, that’s why I took your wager on in the first place.”
“What do you mean?”
“This has all been in your head, Vincent, damaged as it may be. You’ve been holding on in all of this, and there was a chance for you to save yourself. But you lost. You overplayed your hand, and by doing so, you sealed your fate. I’m sorry.”
Vincent looked into the bright light and shuddered. It was silent, an eerie silence. Yet, it was also peaceful. Wiping his tear-streaked face, Vincent stood to his feet. “What will I find there?”
Terry stood by silently.
“Do you not know?”
“What is it that you believe, Vic?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, then I can’t tell you. This is the last gamble you will ever make Vic, it’s one that everyone makes at some point in their life. Who’s to truly know who was right and who was wrong? But all have to place a wager on one belief or another. I can’t make it for you.” Terry went quiet and as he looked into the white light, Vincent thought he saw a smile creep across the old man’s face. Indeed, it appeared to be a youthful smile that melted the gauntness of his face away. He looked at Vincent and gave him a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you to it,” he said. With that, Terry left and returned to the casino.
There Vincent stood on the edge of the beyond. There was no going back now, and one last gamble lied before him. As he looked into the bright space, that endless path into the light, Vincent closed his eyes and thought in his heart of hearts what he truly believed. The chips of his soul were placed upon it.
Then, with a deep breath, Vincent Owens walked out of the alley, and into the light.
B. T. Smith has always had a love for storytelling, especially how it can be used to instruct and edify society. Since youth, B. T. Smith knew that he wanted to tell stories, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he finally began to write them. His novels and short stories are always instructed by his faith, and driven by the desire to better know God, and to bring others to knowledge of Him.