This challenge kept going through my mind until it jelled. Free association wins every time.
“You look like you are down on your luck.”
I looked up at the voice. It came from a dark, heavy-set man. Kind of guy you call brooding. Swarthy. “Yeah, looks that way,” I answered. I knew he had been kibitzing at the roulette table for the last hour and had watched my last dollar being raked away.
The Casino de Charlevoix an hour east of Quebec was a piece of crap place to be, but I wasn’t in Montreal. More important, I wasn’t in Trois Rivieres where my wife Jeanette was waiting with my three-year-old boy.
“My name is Grigori. Would you like to play one more game?” He smiled and a mouth full of brown teeth showed up.
“I haven’t got a buck to my name. I even spent my lucky two-dollar bill. What’re you, Russian?”
“The Ukraine. But not for some time.”
“What brings you to Charlevoix?”
He shrugged. “I am avoiding some friends. And this is a good place to avoid unpleasant people. But about the game? Take a walk with me.”
He guided me out of the casino and to a small park on a street overlooking the St. Laurent.
“I told you I’m broke. Don’t rub it in.”
“Do you see that Mercedes?” He pointed to a white convertible that gleamed under the street light. “I will bet you my car against … let me see, what do you have? I know! Your little finger!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I laughed. Nervously.
“I have a deck of cards, and we will cut. High card takes the Mercedes. Low card and you lose the tip of your little finger. Such a small price. You have nine more fingers, and I won’t take all of one. Just the tip.”
Jeanette was expecting me and I had no way to go back and tell her I had been wrong. No way else to make it up to her.
“No cards,” I said. “Not with your deck.”
“Then how can we gamble? I thought you were a gambler.”
“Simpler than cards. We play rock, paper, scissors.”
He frowned. “I do not know that game. Is it like poker?”
I showed him, making a fist. “This is rock.” I opened my hand. “This is paper.” And with two fingers, “This is scissors. Rock breaks scissors. Paper covers rock. Scissors cuts paper. Nine possible combinations.”
He bent his shaggy head back and laughed. A deep belly laugh that sounded like the devil. “Okay,” he said. “Ten times!”
“No, nine,” I said. “Ten could end in a tie.”
“One more thing,” he said. “You do not mind that I tie your hand to this picnic table. Just so you do not change your mind at some point.”
I did mind, but I also thought of Jeanette and the look in her eyes when I rolled up to our apartment in the new Mercedes. He took off his necktie and firmly pinioned my arm to the table. I felt the blood circulation stop and my hand began to go numb. He also put a set of car keys on the table and the brown teeth gleamed in a strange smile.
I took the first three plays, using rock three times in a row—a good bluff. Grigori took the fourth and fifth play. The sweat was starting to pour down my face sitting there under the street lamp. The breeze off the St. Laurent didn’t help.
Six was my win. It was four to two, and then Grigori took the lead. Each time he won he banged the table with his big hairy ham of a fist. The play continued.
“To nine you said?” I was beginning to hate this guy. “We are now four to four. The next game takes it.” He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a six-inch clasp knife. He laid it carefully on the picnic table next to the keys.
I was wondering if I had made a mistake. Would Jeanette ever understand? Perhaps she was right. I was a loser.
“One. Two. Three,” Grigori snapped. His hand shot out. “Scissors!”
But he had hesitated and my hand went up a microsecond before his. I realized my paper was a loser.”
“Ah-ha! Scissors cuts paper! I win!”
“Grigori, you bastard!” Two men walked out of the dark and came to our table. I could only look as one pulled a gun. “I have followed you from New York City to Quebec and now find you playing a game. Only you are the loser, you traitor.”
“C’mon, guys,” I said. “I’m not involved. I just met this guy. He bet me his car.” The necktie was too tight for me to move, to run. I was tied to Grigori’s destiny, whatever that was going to be.
“Vlad, I was going to pay you back.” Grigori’s voice sounded like a whore begging. “I tried to find you.”
One of the goons picked up the car keys and looked at me. “This car is not his. It is mine. Everything he owns—including his life—is mine.”
“Hey, man, I never met the guy before tonight.”
“What is this stupid game you are playing?”
“It’s rock, paper, scissors. He cheated.”
“Shut up.” He untied the necktie. “Get out of here.”
“He cheated. I won,” I insisted.
The two Russian-sounding goons looked at each other. One reached in his pocket and pulled out a roll of money the size of an apple. He peeled off ten hundred-dollar bills and threw them on the table. “Scissors cuts paper maybe, but my gun beats all of them.”
I got back to Trois Rivieres a day later, but in all the midnight confessions Jeanette and I made to each other I never told her paper can cut scissors.
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