"What if I lose?"
"Then you continue just as you are. Forever."
Jack racked the balls again, but this time both Nick and Mark inspected it carefully before lagging for the break. Mark won the break, and though it didn't leave a cluster like before, it wasn't very good. All the balls were on one end of the table. After all the balls seemed to stop moving, the Four teetered on the edge of the corner pocket, and fell in.
"Lucky. Very lucky. Would you rather be lucky or good in this game?" sneered Nick.
Mark breathed deeply, gathered his focus, and proceeded to run four in a row, leaving himself perfect each time. On the fifth shot, though, he miscued, and the cue rolled slowly across the middle of the table and stopped, not hitting anything.
"Neither lucky *nor* good, I see. I believe that's ball in hand to me, asshole."
Mark snarled and snatched the cue ball from the table, reaching back as if to hurl it straight into Nick's face. Nicks eyes narrowed, and there seemed to be a flash of red in his pupils. Probably a reflection of the Exit sign. Mark slumped, and handed the ball to Nick.
"Chicken s***." remarked Nick, and he turned to survey the table. Mark took a long drink from his glass, and stared at it.
Nick placed the ball on the table, and chalked his cue. He leaned low over the table and placed his bridge. Then he remarked, "Now see how a real man shoots."
Nick shot, and potted, and shot, and potted. Every shot perfect, every leave optimal. A run of seven, and on each pocket Nick growled "Bing!"
Mark continued to stare at his glass, following the game by sound, hardly believing it. He noticed the red reflection of the "Exit" sign, and part of the "No Gambling" sign. In fact, the words Mark could read in his glass said "No Exit".
Before Mark knew it, Nick was facing the Eight. Well, not exactly, because although the Eight was nicely placed about six inches from a corner pocket, Mark's Three ball was blocking the direct shot. His Seven was blocking the short bank, and his Two was blocking the long bank. It looked like ball in hand for Mark, and he chalked his cue in preparation.
"Not so fast." Nick said, without turning from the table. "I'm about to win. I've got at least two shots at the eight, and I can make either one in my sleep."
Mark gaped at Nick, and then re-examined the table. Mark thought "he can't use one cushion to bank... can't use two... three cushion bank? He's nuts."
Nick chuckled, and replied, though Mark hadn't said anything aloud. "Not nuts. I've been sharking you, Mark, I can make that three cushion with no problem. But that's not what I'm going to do."
Nick addressed the cue with the butt of his stick high and the tip off center. He jabbed down as Mark recognized he was going to jump the cue ball over the Three. But the cue ball didn't jump.
It seemed that time slowed in this moment, and every detail became crystal clear. Once again the background noise had faded and so had the light, so the only reality was the table, the cone of light shining down from overhead, and the two players.
The cue ball didn't jump.
Instead, it went backwards, arced to the right, and accelerated slowly forward past the Three. It hit the Eight straight on, transferring all of its now significant momentum to it, and stopped dead. The Eight rolled toward the pocket, and Nick turned to Mark and said "My game. The jump was a scratch shot."
Mark was still staring at the table. The sound of Nick's gloating had masked the usual sound of the ball falling into the pocket. And as Mark saw and pointed out to Nick... there was no such sound anyway.
The eight ball had, against all odds, rattled on the jaws of the pocket, and ended up a fraction of an inch away from falling in. The game was not over.
Nick turned to Mark and growled, "That's impossible." His eyes had that red glint again, although this time he had his back to the Exit and No Gambling signs.
Nick fumed for a minute, and then relaxed. "I know you, I know your nerves are shot. Hands are shaking a little, haven't had enough sleep, have you? I'll get another shot, and then it'll be all over."
Mark stood, breathing slowly and deeply, taking in the table. He then walked around the table, carefully examining all three of his remaining balls from all the angles. He then turned to Nick.
"Let's double the bet."
"What? If I were to lose, which seems terribly unlikely right now, I'm just going to leave you the way you are. How can you double nothing?"
"I know who you are. There's only one being who plays pool like that, and it isn't Santa Claus. I know what you want. If I win, I get to choose my fate. If I lose... you take me straight to Hell, body and soul, to do with what you will for all Eternity."
Jack sat very still. Outside the pool of light, many eyes reflected back redly as the other patrons and the staff watched avidly. Natasha licked her lips again, but this time not provocatively, but ravenously.
"Not only are you dead inside, you're dead upstairs, Mark. You can't win. It's a lock. However, you've volunteered to give me everything, so I agree."
It seemed chilly in the pool hall, as Mark turned back to the table, and moved to address the cue ball. Cold as hell, as a matter of fact. He breathed deeply and tried to center himself. The image of Laura appeared unbidden to him, and at first he tried to ignore it, to regain his cool concentration. He heard her say "You are the best natural pool player I've ever seen. You can do this. You deserve to do this." He hardened his resolve.
"Bing, Bing, Bing! Oh, and then Bing! I suppose," jibed Nick.
Mark didn't hear him, though, as his focus was entirely on his plan.
Chalk. Lean. Pot. The Three went in the side.
Chalk. Lean. Pot. The Seven in the corner, short green.
Chalk, Lean. This was the hard one. Two in the corner, long green. The cue rolled slowly, and Mark swallowed. It hit the two, which moved even more slowly toward the corner. It seemed to be a little too far to the right, but some it was moving so slowly an irregularity in the table nudged its path back to the left. The two teetered on the rim of the pocket for an agonizing few seconds, and then fell in.
"You'll scratch on the eight, and it'll be over. And I'll have *everything*. You know, your wife and kids are with me downstairs. You'll be there soon, too. But you will never be able to see them, for all Eternity." Nick laughed triumphantly, and Jack sniggered a bit.
Mark was taken aback at the news his family was in Hell, instead of that other place, and felt suddenly unsure. "What did it matter what happened with this game, anyway?" he wondered. "I'm f***ed either way." Then he had a thought, and another thought. When he finished up the second thought, he nodded to himself, leaned over the table, and focused on the cue, and then the Eight.
It was a scratch shot, any way you look at it. A better player than Mark might have been able to use english. but he hadn't learned that yet. It looked as if he might never get the chance.
He stroked, slow and straight, with the tip below the center of the cue. The ball moved forward slowly, tapping the eight and following it toward the corner pocket. A scratch shot all right, if the eight even made it that far.
The patrons held their collective breath as the cue and the eight both slowed, slowed, slowed. It was an odd race, to see who could get there the slowest.
The cue ball stopped completely. The eight was still rolling toward the pocket, extremely slowly. It teetered on the edge of the pocket, and everyone waited a second to see what would happen. The ball stubbornly failed to fall.
Nick grinned, and walked around the table to sweep cue and eight into the pocket with his stick. "My game. Get yourself ready for a very short trip to a very tiresome destination."
As Nick swept his cue down, before he reached the cue ball, the Eight, having decided that hanging on to the cliff with its claws was silly when it didn't possess any, fell with a clack into the corner pocket. Nick froze.
"I win. I believe that means I get my choice."
Nick relaxed, and growled, "Choose away, loser. You're mine whatever you pick. Come to Hell and be with your loved ones, stay here as a soulless automaton, or just continue as you have been, in your own personal version of my domain?"
"There's no point in me going with you, Nick. I know you've been lying to me. My family isn't in your domain. Not a chance. I choose... to be free. I choose to live, with my soul, and hope for a change."
Nick roared in anger, and his face reddened. Jack himself looked a bit green, and lumpy.
"Throw. Him. Out!" Nick commanded, and the bouncer came forward. Mark shrugged on his jacket and buttoned it.
"See you, Nick. See you in Hell!"
The bouncer picked up Mark by his jacket collar and his belt, and carried him toward the door. He caught a glimpse of Natasha as he went past the bar, but her expression was unreadable. The bouncer kicked the door open, and just before he tossed Mark out, Nick yelled.
"You better believe you'll see me, Mark. Me and my crew will haunt your every step, chase you and hunt you down like the animal scum you are. Don't believe you'll be able to sleep, or have peace. Don't hope, Mark, because there isn't any." And Mark was tossed onto the sidewalk, and the door slammed behind him.
He gathered himself up, and rubbed his hands together against the cold March morning. He could just see the lightening sky of dawn over the tops of the buildings. What a night.
"S***." Mark noticed something missing on his left hand. His white gold wedding band, identical to the one worn by Laura, was gone. He could still see the crease which it had left in his skin, since it had been just a little too tight. :"S***!"
Mark, forsaking all sense of self preservation, started banging on the door "Let me in, let me in, you thieving scum! You *pound* have *pound* my *pound* ring!"
The door swung open. Mark peered inside, and gasped.
The building had been abandoned years ago, and parts of the roof had fallen. He could see the interior lit by the grey dawn skies through those holes. There was indeed a bar on one wall, but the mirror and all the brass was missing. There was no one inside, though he could hear the coo of pigeons and a scrabbling noise of tiny claws. He swung the door shut, and stood staring at it, in shock.
He then numbly turned back to get into his car. The meter was reading "Violation", and there were two pieces of paper under his windshield wipers.
The first, as expected, was a ticket from the Baltimore City Police Department for the parking violation.
The second, a hand written note in reddish brown ink, merely said "Beware!"
He crumpled both papers into a ball, and tossed it into the gutter. Then he climbed into his Fiat Spyder 2000 and drove through the city, soon seeing the familiar shield of US 40. Another day was dawning, another day closer to the end of his 40th year.