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Wager

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I'm in this story, though only because I have to be, and I've taken liberties to keep my appearance to the barest minimum. The truly important people are Tony and Phil. You'll need to excuse them both, especially Phil. The poor bastard's a wreck, jittery from lack of sleep, fueled by too much coffee. He hasn't bathed, shaved, or eaten since Thursday's late afternoon breakfast, when he was chewing on a slice of rubbery bacon, commenting to Tony, his roommate and life partner, how premium quality, center-cut bacon really should not be cooked on a paper towel in a microwave.

That's when the phone rang and Phil answered.

The caller's voice was flat, cold, nonchalant to the point of sounding breezy. It was a voice right out of a Hitchcock thriller, in that moment right before some woman screams. After a brief, rather one-sided conversation full of ugly and melodramatic references to shattered bones, torn flesh, broken teeth, the caller said, "Imagine how it's going to feel to have both your eyes scooped out with a soup spoon, you deadbeat faggot!"

"Is this about the money," Phil asked.

"Yeah," replied the caller. "It's about the fucking money."


That was Thursday. Now it's Sunday, and very simply what will happen is sometime before midnight two men will arrive and cut off two of Phil's fingers—one finger for each IOU that Phil has defaulted on.

Phil is a much better piano player than he is a gambler. Playing piano is how he earns his living, affording him and Tony a low-key, cozy existence these last few years, except lately things have been slow.

At half-past five, Tony dragged an old suitcase from the storage closet and rifled through it. He changed into a black leather skirt and a crisp white blouse. He strapped on chunky open-toe heels, fixed his hair, put on makeup, then sat down to wait.

For an hour he waited, and that's how we find him, now, still waiting. His crossed legs are clean shaven and bare. He pulls a breath and puffs it out and he pushes himself to his feet. He walks quickly across the hardwood, passing Phil, clacking his heels on purpose, hyped by having had to sit, chain smoking, fully made up for the last hour, listening to Phil dialing, hearing Phil's pathetic speeches, then the long horrible silences between the sniffling sobs Phil makes while waiting for the phone to ring.

Tony sits at a mahogany vanity, an heirloom from his mother, and uses a small brush to highlight his eyes. At twenty-three he is exactly half Phil's age but appears even younger with the sharp cheekbones and long thin frame of an adolescent girl. He studies his reflection and practices his smile. His make-up is already so precise the colors appear carved.

"Wipe that pitiful look off your face," he says to Phil, who walks in, shoulders slumped, shaking his head at the floor.

"One of them still might call. It's earlier there."

"Forget them," Tony says. "Anyone going to call would have."

"Who do you mean," Phil says.

"Any of them. All of them. Jesus, Phil." Tony sighs. "Just forget it, Phil. Christ," he says, leaning toward his reflection. "The cavalry is not coming."

Phil is a large man with beefy arms and enormous hands, somewhat of a joke for a piano player, with hulking shoulders nearly as wide as Tony's vanity bench. He puts his big hands on the wing-like bones of Tony's shoulders.

"Wait thirty minutes. Please."

"Don't start up again." Tony slowly traces the thin arch of an eyebrow he penciled in an hour earlier.

"I have a bad feeling." Phil gazes in the mirror as his fingers press into the flesh of Tony's neck.

Tony's reflection frowns back. "That's not helping." Tony shimmies, trying to shake him off, but Phil's grip remains firm. Tony stops all activity until Phil lifts his hands away.

"I'm sorry. My nerves are raw," Phil says. "I'm not thinking straight."

"Well, relax. It's almost over."

"It's not over. How can you say it's over."

"I said almost. Don't worry. I'll get the money."

"Forget the money. Now it's this. How the hell can I relax. It's everything now."

"Nothing bad will happen."

"You could get arrested," Phil says. "That would be bad. Or worse. You could pick up a nut. Some psychopath. The world is a horror."

"Tell me about it," Tony says. "I made my living this way, remember?"

"I remember," Phil says.

"Never got a psychopath. Millionaires, politicians, movie actors, a couple of novelists, men with power, men with brains. Those I got, and plenty ofthem."

"I know," Phil says. "Let's not talk about it."

"I've played daddy's princess and I've played daddy's whore so don't lecture me about the horrors of the world. Okay? I'm a polished professional."

"I know. I know all that."

Tony winks, flashes a winning smile, then pouts and uses a thin pencil to darken the outline of his lips. "So, big deal. I'm back for one night. Call it my encore. My grand finale." He shakes his hair, which is jet black, straight and thick, cropped one length at the shoulders, center parted. His hair rises as it twirls. He licks his teeth, emits a low, throaty growl as he gives his shoulders a little shake. "Watch out boys, Cleopatra reporting for night patrol."

He uses the pencil to scrawl a number on the glass. "That the total?"

Phil stares then nods.

"That's the whole bundle? You're sure? Including all their crazy interest?"

Phil looks at his feet. "Let me make one more call before you go. I've got this guy in Pittsburgh. He owes me his life."

"Don't be a fool," Tony says.

"We've still got four hours."

"Less than four. Get real, Phil."

"There's still time."

"You don't know. They could be outside that door right now."

"I've thought of that," Phil says.

"They could be anywhere, listening to every word we say."

"I've thought of that too," Phil says, looking at the door. "Let me make this call. Last one. The guy could wire us the money. We'd have it within the hour."

"Stop embarrassing yourself."

"There's still my mother."

"You can not call your mother," Tony says.

"Okay. Your father, then? What about him?"

"My father?"

"You could say its a medical emergency. That you need an operation."

"Oh, that'll work. He'll think I'm having it nipped and tucked, sliced and inverted. Finally, the daughter he never had. Please dial that number for me." Tony blots his lips with a tissue as he studies the mirror. "Are you crying again? Phil? Tilt your chin up, please. Oh, good lord. One giant step back please. Go. Move. This blouse is silk. Do you know what tears do to silk?"

"I'm sorry." Phil sniffles.

"You're starting again."

"I know."

"Don't start, Philip. Not now. I've got to go to work. Take a pill or something."

"I took a pill."

"Then have a drink. Have a couple of drinks. Look at me. Focus. This is important."

Phil sniffs. "What?"

Tony pinches Phil's chin, directs his gaze. "It's simple. I'll go, and in a few hours I'll come back. I'll have the money. You'll pay what you owe. Then we'll forget this night. We'll forget I did any of this. Am I right?"

Phil nods.

"You'll pay and that will be the end of it. Then no more. You understand? You can't keep doing this."

Phil nods and paces while Tony inventories his purse.

"No more living like two rats in a cage. I should have done this days ago."

"They can have my fingers," Phil says. "As many as they want."

"What's that, Phil?"

"I said that's a lot of money in a few hours."

"That's not what you said."

"That's what I'm saying now."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying it's a lot of money for a few hours work."

Tony glares at the mirror, gets eye contact, blows a kiss at Phil who is tapping a tight fist against his thigh.

"How do I look?" Tony says, doing modeling turns.

The corners of Phil's mouth extend then quickly retract.

"Am I hot or am I hot?"

"You're lovely," Phil says.

"But am I hot? I need to hear I'm hot."

"You look very beautiful," Phil says.

Tony smirks. "Good enough." He snaps the purse shut. "I'll call when I've got the cash."

Phil nods, eyes averted, chin down. He keeps nodding all the way to the door. He watches Tony unhook the chain and slide back the bolt.

"Kiss for luck," Tony says, offering his cheek.

Phil leans, but hardly.

"Tony? I'm sorry about this."

"I know, Phil."

"This whole ugly mess." Phil sighs. "You ever feel like your life is on one side of the room and you're handcuffed to a chair on the other?"

"All the time." Tony tilts his head so that a curtain of hair slides between him and Phil. He holds the pose until Phil reaches up, sweeps the hair aside, finds Tony showing his perfect teeth. He kisses Phil's knuckle, then digs deep into his purse. "Here. Hold on to this until I see you again."

"What is that? What are you giving me—a gun?"

"Take it, Phil. I have to go."

Phil holds the pistol upside-down, pinched between his thumb and index finger. "Where did you get this?"

"I bought it."

"When?"

"What difference does it make?"

"For what?"

"Phil, please. Do me a favor. Shut up and listen. I want you to understand something. For the record. Just in case, okay?"

"In case of…?"

"In case anything should prevent me from getting back here in time. In case I'm not the hot shot hustler I used to be. Okay? I want you to know that right up until the exact moment you came into my life, I never thought I could care about anyone more than myself. I mean that, Philip. I adore you more than life itself. So you hold onto that thought, okay? And don't be afraid to point that gun at anyone who shows up at the door. Okay? Because you're right about the world being a nasty place. It's a sewer. And no one can predict what might happen to anyone going down into its mucky bottom."

Phil's nerves are shot. His hands tremble as he rights the gun, cocks the piece, stares at Tony, then aims the pistol at his right temple.

"It's not loaded," Tony says.

"But if it were," Phil says. "If it were."

Knock, knock.

And that's where I come in, me and my ruthless partner, like the punch line of a joke nobody wants to hear.

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