High Stakes

by Jeff Strand

After losing his entire gambling, hotel room, nudie show, and food budget in just under three hours, Jeremy was down to his last quarter. He stood in front of the slot machine, silently cursing Margaret for making him leave the credit cards at home with her.

He wiped the sweat off his palms and began breathing deeply, in and out, in and out, prepping himself for the mission ahead. He had to win. It didn't have to be a big payoff--two quarters could turn into four, four could turn into eight, eight could turn into sixteen, and then he'd be well on his way to not having to sleep outside amidst the pornography distributors for the next three nights.

Jeremy inserted the quarter into the slot and cracked his knuckles. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to become one with the machine. Jackpot...jackpot...jackpot...he thought, hoping that sheer force of will or some previously-unlocked psychic abilities would encourage the machine to give up its bounty.

He pulled down the arm.

Cherry. Bar. Bar.

Meaning he just got his quarter back.

He reached into the coin return and frowned. Instead of his quarter there was a red token, with "One Free Try At High Stakes" engraved upon it. The address was written on the back. Great. Just great. Now he had to go and find this stupid place, and probably just lose the token for his efforts. Next vacation he was going someplace where he could shoot animals and relax.

*

High Stakes was off the main Vegas strip, a comparatively tiny, non-descript place without all the flashing lights and gimmicks of the other casinos. Jeremy walked into the main entrance and found himself amongst a fairly typical display of slot machines, though there couldn't be more than twenty or so. There were no other patrons, just an elderly man in a suit and tie who sprung to attention as he entered.


Photo courtesy L.A. Slot Machine Co., Inc.

"Good evening, sir," said the man. "Welcome to High Stakes. First I must ask if you have one of our special tokens."

Jeremy nodded and held it up for him to see.

"Ah, excellent. Then feel free to use it in any machine you wish, and good luck to you."

Jeremy began to stroll around, checking out the machines. They all looked about the same to him, though he noticed that all of the displays read bar, bar, bar. Maybe that was a good sign. He stopped at one on the far end, inserted the coin, sucked in a deep breath, and pulled down the arm.

Bar. Bar. Bar.

A soft bell began ringing as dozens of dollar coins fell into the coin return. "Nice place you've got here," Jeremy told the man, smiling.

The man smiled back. "Definitely."

Jeremy dropped one of the coins into the slot and pulled the arm. Bar. Bar. Bar. Another big payoff. "Yes!" This was what gambling was all about!

He cracked his knuckles, kissed the coin for luck, and tried again.

Bar. Bar.

And a picture of a finger.

He leaned forward to look at the display more closely. Finger? What was that supposed to mean?

An iron claw swung out from a hidden panel on the side of the machine, latching firmly onto his left wrist. "What the hell--?"

He began tugging as hard as he could, but his wrist wasn't going anywhere. Another claw swung out of the machine, attached itself to his little finger, and neatly pinched it off. Jeremy shrieked as the claws swung back into the hidden panels, taking his finger along.

The man stepped over to him, balancing a tray. "Would you care for a drink before you try again?"

"Are you crazy?" Jeremy demanded, falling to his knees in pain. "That thing ripped my finger off!"

"Well, sir, perhaps some white wine would dull the pain. We have a splendid Zinfandel."

"Are you some kind of sick freak?" Jeremy wailed. "Why would you possibly think I'd ever want to play again?"

"Why, to win your finger back, of course. We're living in the age of laser surgery, my friend. It can be reattached."

Jeremy stood up shakily, his right hand clenched over the stump where his finger had been. "No way."

"The stakes are high, but the odds are good. You don't want to walk out of here having lost a finger for good, do you?"

No, he didn't.

But this was insane.

Still, in the time it would take to call the police and have them raid the place, it might be too late to reattach his finger. He'd be permanently disfigured.

Jeremy thought for a long moment, then dropped another coin into the slot and pulled down the arm.

Bar. Bar. Finger.

He turned and began sprinting down the aisle, but the claw telescoped forward and snatched his wrist. As it pulled him back to the machine, the second claw pinched off his index finger. Jeremy screamed.

"You can still win them back," said the man. "The odds are in your favor. Your life will be much harder with two missing fingers, don't you think?"

Jeremy gritted his teeth, forced the pain out of his mind, and tried again.

Bar. Bar. Hand.

He almost quit after that.


This story originally appeared in Planet Relish (www.planetrelish.com).

2002 by Jeff Strand. All rights reserved.

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