Jared woke from a euphoric ether-sleep, certain that some rough creature was still clutching him from beyond the veil of his nightmares, a force so malevolent and relentless that it refused to let go, even now. Dull flashes of memory bombarded him from distant epochs, "We have a winner!" There were blackjack tables, and beautiful server girls, and patrons dressed in tacky cowboy garb, and there were lights…wildly spinning lights.
But all that was over now. Jared found himself in a purgatory for the profanely indulgent, the place for all who refuse to go gently into the loser's bracket. These pleasure-seekers are unbound by restraint, and would risk something greater than life and limb for another spin of the wheel. Losing was only a set-back after all, a formality meant to weed out the weak at heart. But Jared was not weak. He had the fortitude, and the tenacity to take hold of the bull and shake that bastard down until it spilled all the glorious riches that life owed him.
The last card had rained down on him like a thunder god's hammer, and he had lost the biggest wad of money anyone like him had ever dared take on credit. He had taken a force majeure into the desert. Jared had no idea if anyone from the outfit had seen him, but it seemed crazy for them to suspect his recent play after being into them for so much. They would come for him soon enough, but there was no need to be sitting around when they did. He sped off into the night, watching Vegas disappear into the background like a mirage in a fever dream. "No one knows." he told himself. "I'm free and clear. I just need this little head start…" He drove into a black ocean of desert, unaware of the shark swimming so close behind.
Now there was only the halo of a small overhead light, and the gut-wrenching pain in his stomach. He was in a black leather chair, which was torn with age, the stuffing protruding from it like mange on an old hide. Jared let out a dry cough and then emptied the contents of his stomach onto the dirt floor.
"Oh, good you're awake." The person attached to the baritone voice emerged from the shadows of the wooden shack. He was an absolute beast of a man, and it was no big stretch to guess his profession. Presently he rolled up his sleeves, and the hair on his forearms suggested that of a wooly mammoth. The man's upper body bulged from his pinstriped shirt as if he had been poured into it, and over this was a gray vest pulled taut enough to blast the buttons into orbit, were he to inhale deep enough. His thinning blonde hair was combed back over the immensity of his forehead, and beads of sweat had begun to form there on his sun-reddened skin. His cold green eyes reflected an absence of empathy, and they glimmered turgidly with an evil proclivity that only the very cruel possess.
A whimper escaped Jared, and the man in the vest held up the flat of his hand in a warding gesture. "Now, now, let's have none of that. If I were you, I would save my strength."
The large man in the vest produced a wooden stand and placed it in front of Jared at arm's length. On this he set a heavy canvass roll, and whistled as he unraveled it. He removed its contents in a routine fashion, naming each of the implements as he held them up to the light. "Bone saw…falcatta…pliers…needle-nose…smelling salts…hammer…"
By this time, Jared had gone limp as a jelly fish, and began to utter the mindless de profundis of the truly desperate and unlucky. He rationalized. He side tracked. He floundered. All the while his executioner stood patiently with arms folded, nodding as if just the right combination of pleading had stirred some dormant shred of humanity from deep within the blonde colossus. In the end, the man in the vest leaned in close, placing his sweaty hands on the sides of Jared's neck. In a soothing, avuncular way he said, "At some point every man faces the inevitable. The trump of trumps knows no disparity. It simply is." With that he went to work.
The night was filled with screams so gibbous and so fantastic that even the coyotes scattered to be clear of the unholy noise. Blood ebbed into the floorboards, and soaked the ground below. Bloodied fingers fell in a neat pile next to squirming leather shoes, followed by an eyeball. The wind howled around the old shack for hours and carried the screams into the sand-blown night, and then for a long time everything went quiet.
A slumping figure emerged from the door of the shack, fumbling for his car keys. He rolled down his sleeves and spilled into the leather seat, exhausted. After exhaling a long bloodcurdling scream of his own, he drove off into the night.
The secret Jared had concealed, but never truly counted on, was the marginal talent he had possessed since childhood. Some people called it telepathy. Jared preferred to think of it as a small argumentative edge. He had entered the mind of the colossus and found a personality so full of self-loathing, so eager to be released from servitude that all it took was the slightest suggestion, an invitation to do what the beastly man had only ever desired.
"Become me, and I'll become you. Finish the job, and be free."
Jared had watched in horror as his would-be killer faced the inevitable, and chopped himself to pieces one extremity at a time. The trump of all trumps had been played, and Jared had bought another lifetime to contemplate the gift he had been given this night.
"Jared's Gift"Mark Anthony Crittenden served as Editor of Howl: Dark Tales of The Feral and Infernal (Lame Goat Press), and will edit the upcoming Potter's Field 4 (Sam's Dot Publishing). Writing credits include work in Champagne Shivers, Morpheus Tales, Twisted Dreams, and various anthologies. Keep up with him at http://www.visionprimordial.blogspot.com/
Copyright: © 2010 Mark Anthony Crittenden
Copyright: © 2010 Mark Anthony Crittenden
*This story first appears in Champagne Shivers 2009 issue.