The big poker game was being held at Rick’s family’s ostentatious mansion on the outskirts of town. Gray was adamant from the beginning that he would be the one to pick the location. He didn’t trust me as far as he could throw me, basically, so he didn’t want it to be at my house or Ian’s, and I guess he wanted to avoid his own house since I had already managed to cheat them there. So Rick’s place it was.
Rick lived up the hill from Ian and was pretty much the only guy I knew who was even more affluent than my best friend. Back when he was in school, people always wondered why he didn’t hang out with other kids in his own tax bracket, but I understood. Those people saw Rick as a dorky, scrawny, wannabe football player. He didn’t belong with them. So Gray and his friends on the team took him under their wing. I had always thought that was cool of them—that their charity in Rick’s case meant that they were, in fact, kind people. Lately I had started to question that theory.
I was both extremely nervous and hopeful as I approached the front door. After tonight I might be able to get this onerous burden of guilt off my back. Not to mention the even more onerous debt. Or, of course, I might end up dead at the bottom of a ditch somewhere when Gray and his friends realized that, even if they won, I had no way to pay them back.
What the hell am I doing? I wondered, holding my breath. I felt like I was standing on the doorstep to hell. But still, for some reason, I reached out and rang the bell.
Rick came to the door a few moments later. He grinned when he saw me standing there.
“Mike Riley! How you doing, man?” he asked.
It was amazing how, even after everything that had happened, Rick’s attitude toward me hadn’t changed at all. It was as if he was proud to welcome me into his house.
“Oh, no problem,” I said, stepping over a drop cloth. A towering ladder was propped up against the two-story-high wall and the chandelier above was covered with another cloth. Half the ornate wallpaper had been stripped down and the walls beneath were bare and dotted with spackle.
“We’re playing in the dining room,” he said, his voice echoing off the high walls as he led me through a door to the right. “They’re already done in there, so it’s a little less cluttered. Though I have to apologize for the décor. The artisan they hired got a little zealous with the Native American theme.”
Like I cared even the slightest bit about the décor. I was worried for my life, here.
Rick pushed open a pair of heavy double doors and together we stepped into the opulent dining room. He was certainly right about his parents going over the top. They had definitely not gone for an austere look. The sideboard and counters around the table were crammed with Native American artifacts, everything from headdresses and beads to a bow and arrow to what appeared to be a buffalo skull. The color palette was all browns, oranges, and reds, and the chandelier of the freshly burnished wooden table was decorated with feathers and dream-catchers. I could have stared at this stuff all day if it wasn’t for the small crowd of people at the far end of the huge table. A crowd that included not only Gray, Ogre, and Lenny, but also Winter and Ian.
“What are you guys doing here?” I blurted.
They looked so serious that I briefly thought Lenny and Ogre had abducted them or something, to use them as collateral if I lost.
Okay, so I watch too many movies. But seeing them there was that unexpected.
“They came to play,” Gray said as Rick and I joined them.
“What do you mean?” I asked Ian. “Are you gonna be my surrogate or something?” I asked with a nervous laugh. “Play in my place in case something happens to me?”
I glanced nervously at Ogre and Lenny, who were standing behind Gray like a couple of sentries, acting all aloof. Their expressions didn’t change at all. Apparently they didn’t think I was funny, which put me even more on edge.
“No. We’re going to play with you,” Winter said, glancing at her brother. “These guys have agreed to a game of three on three. Whichever team ends up with the most chips at the end of five hands, wins. Evens the playing ground a little bit, right, Gray?” she added pointedly.
Ogre and Lenny exchanged a look and Gray nodded resolutely. I could tell none of these guys were very happy about the new rules, but apparently Winter had somehow persuaded her brother into this fairer course of action. I couldn’t believe she had stuck her neck out there on my behalf in this way. Apparently she really did love me. I could have kissed her right then and there if I didn’t think her brother would instantly tear me to shreds.
“This way we won’t be here all night,” Gray said, cracking his knuckles. “We all have better things to do than watching you squirm.”
“I don’t,” Lenny said, clenching his jaw. Clearly he really just wanted me to suffer.
“You guys don’t have to do this,” I told Ian and Winter, even though I felt buoyed by the way in which they had cleaved themselves to me. It felt so much better with them backing me up. Although I had no idea whether Winter could actually play. Of course, this didn’t seem like the appropriate time to quiz her about that.
“All right. Just so we’re all clear, here’s the deal,” Gray said, looking around at all of us. “Me, Ogre, and Lenny are playing Mike, Ian, and Winter in five hands.”
“You’re not playing?” I asked Rick.
He shrugged. “We figured I should sit out since it’s my house.”
I nodded. Yeah, right. More like he should sit out because he was their least effective player.
“Whichever team ends with the most chips, wins,” Gray continued. “If you guys win, Mike’s debt is wiped clean.”
Lenny grumbled at this point, and Gray shot him a silencing glare.
“If we win, you guys not only owe us all the money we win tonight, but also all the money Mike won from us after he cheated the other night,” Gray finished, saying the last few words through his teeth.
I felt sick to my stomach. That was so much money I could barely even fathom it. “Can I talk to my friends for a second?” I asked.
Gray nodded. “You have one minute.”
I pulled Winter and Ian aside and lowered my voice. “Listen, I appreciate you guys being so solicitous, believe me, but where the hell are we going to get that kind of money?”
Ian looked me in the eye, his expression firm. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
My heart dropped. “Dude, I can’t let you put up all that cash. I can’t advocate that.”
“You don’t have a choice, man,” Ian said. “I’m doing it. If we lose—which we will not—I’ll just have to cut back on my lifestyle a little bit.”
“I hear a life of privation is good for the soul,” Winter interrupted with a smile.
“Totally,” Ian said, grinning as well. “Come on, man. We have no other choice. Let’s just get this over with.”
I was so grateful at that moment I could have hugged him, but I didn’t. I knew Gray and the other guys would mock me for the rest of the night if I did, and I was going to be under enough strain as it was.
“You tools ready yet?” Gray asked.
“Thanks, buddy,” I said to Ian. “I owe you big time.”
“You better believe it,” he said.
I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. “All right,” I said to Gray. “Let’s do this.”
Gray offered his hand and we shook, sealing the deal. There was no turning back now. After just five hands of poker, my fate would be sealed.