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Jesse awoke in a place he didn’t immediately recognize. Though it was hard to tell, the dimly lit room gave away few secrets. There were a few things he could tell however, he was seated in a rather comfortable, tall chair. The upholstery, despite its apparent weathering was still enough to catch the eye. It’s bright crimson colored fabric almost seemed to draw you in, and the wood was heavy and natural. The age seemed to do little in regard to that part of his seat, it’s deep stain made it seem timeless and untouchable. What he noticed next began to set his grasping mind at ease. He was seated at a table, but this wasn’t just any old table, this was a poker table. The green felt with its black and red outlines and markings had an instant soothing effect on him. If there was any sense of calm however, it was quickly shattered by a booming voice ordering him to ante’ up. He looked down and saw his pile of chips neatly stacked in denominations ranging from low to high. He didn’t recall anyone else sitting at the table with him when he first woke up, but now as he surveyed the room he noticed one other player. Seated directly across from him, hanging back in the shadows. Taking a deep breath, he put his chips in the betting circle. Jesse wasn’t sure what they were playing for, but he had a feeling it was important.

***********

“Really asshole?!? There’s literally nobody behind me,” Jesse cursed at the car that had pulled out in front of him, going slower than he’d have liked. 

He always seemed to have such an even temper, even in situations where it could be quite easy to lose your cool. The car however, that was a danger zone. The minute Jesse stepped in and started down the road, it would be fairly easy for him to hurl a dozen insults in a matter of blocks. He wouldn’t consider himself a rude person by any means, maybe a little jagged around the edges, to some though he could be downright sharp. That came with the territory he figured, being a self-made man gave you a few entitlements, especially if you were a risk taker like him. Being a semi-pro poker player meant that he had to take calculated risks on a daily basis, some paid off and some didn’t. That was all part of playing the game, the opportunity to take a chance that may put you two, five or even ten steps ahead in life. It was this aspect of his chosen profession that intrigued him more than any jackpot ever could. Looking and listening to people and situations, trying to find the exploit that would give him the advantage going forward. Sometimes this could get him in trouble, he’d been threatened before sure, but nothing he couldn’t talk himself out of.

After passing this Sunday driver on a Friday afternoon, Jesse could return to the rest of his guilty pleasures. The open road, loud music and most definitely a joint or two. For him, the three were so complimentary he couldn’t imagine one without the other. It would be like trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the bread. Finding a good place to start on his custom playlist he turned the dial up a little bit and set it to shuffle. Pulling out his pack of cigarettes he slid out one of the pre-rolled joints he’d brought along, and lit it up. With a deep inhale and his focus on the road amplified by the music, his thoughts began to settle on the task at hand. He was on his way to Atlantic City for some invite only poker tournament. The buy in was fifteen grand, but Jesse had sensed an easy pay day. The invite had been poorly made, and the hosting establishment was some tattered hole in the wall. Not to be confused with an actual casino, this was going to be a back-room game. It was games like these that were Jesse’s bread and butter, he usually placed so well that he considered them free money. He had developed an uncanny ability to read people like a book. Tell, or no tell, in just a few seconds study Jesse knew whether or not he could beat you. It was a gift really, one he had used on more occasions then he could count. Not just in his professional setting, but with people he knew on a day to day basis. He could use it to manipulate people and situations until he got the outcome he wanted, it came rather easily to him. In the beginning, he would feel guilty about using his powers for “evil”, but if he wasn’t supposed to use them then why did the universe gift them to him?

Some guitar and harmonica blues piece blared through the speakers of Jesse’s moderately expensive sports coupe. The smoke was streaming from the windows like the exhaust on a coal powered locomotive, and Jesse had never been more relaxed. With Atlantic City no more than an hour away, he began to contemplate what he would spend his winnings on this time. A smile crossed his face as he began to think of the poor saps about to be taken to the cleaners, he inhaled, chuckled and cruised toward his destination. He was completely unaware that this time, was going to be unlike any other time that had come before, ever.

********

Jesse looked at the stranger, who was still cloaked in shadow, and then back down to his chips. What had begun as towers of white, red, green and black had dwindled down to little more than small outposts. The safety that he had felt with them had waned the more he lost. He wouldn’t last much longer if things kept going this way. Playing close to the chest, he was only betting on hands he knew he had a shot at winning. It would seem however, that lady luck was not on his side tonight, no matter how good his had was the stranger was better. Even Jesse’s full house, aces over kings, didn’t hold up to the stranger’s four of a kind. As if to rub it in his face it was comprised of nothing but two’s. Jesse decided that if he didn’t do it now, he may not get a chance to make his move. No more tip-toeing through the tulips and walking on eggshells. He was going to use every trick in the book and even a few that he invented, and he hoped that he could get a little help from his gift. Almost on cue, he heard the stranger laugh, it was not like anything he had ever heard before. Low and guttural it was like a laugh being played back on a slowed down tape, it was unnatural. And with that the stranger began to lean forward.

*********

Jesse had made it to the final table in his little back room adventure. He had faired pretty well for most of the evening, giving him a decent chip count going into the final table. Here, six other gentleman were also seated, all wanting to claim that top prize. If Jesse could hold out and win here, he was looking at a cool hundred grand pay-out. The first few rounds went just as expected, he didn’t play to many hands, but on those he did he raked it in. After the second blind increase though, something in him felt different. He felt slightly sick, and he couldn’t focus long enough on the cards to formulate a plan. It didn’t take very long for his marginal lead to landslide down to almost nothing. But Jesse, being the professional that he was still had a few tricks up his sleeve, quite literally. He had another skill that he believed all poker players should possess, he was a master at close up card magic. The dealers had just been switched, so Jesse knew he had some time to work with. On one of the first throwbacks to the dealer, he palmed an ace and slid it in his sleeve. After a few more hands and credit almost at the breaking point, he palmed another and waited. It wouldn’t be long until on the flop of the next hand an ace came out. He covered his chips, counting, make it seem like a life or death decision was about to be made. Unknown to Jesse at the time, he had set that path in motion quite some time ago. 

“All in,” he declared. As the opponents at the table were occupied with the spectacle occurring on the table, Jesse switched the pair in his hand for the one in his sleeve. 

He had a few people bite on what was looking to be a move that would at least triple his money. As the rest of the hand played out, the turn a jack of spades and the river a two of diamonds helped no one, Jesse knew he had won. As he gave his cards back to the dealer, he made sure that all four of them were flush, so that they appeared to be one card. He took the cards from Jesse and began to shuffle, and the electricity had sparked in the air. He had gotten away with it, and he was going to make a run at that grand prize. As the dealer was dealing out the cards for the next round, she skipped Jesse, twice. As he was about to object and complain, he felt a sharp snap on the back of his head and everything went dark.

************

In the blackened room, where light seemed to be a precious resource, it took forever for the stranger to reveal his face. Though, in all seriousness, you couldn’t really call it a face. Bare, naked the stranger wore a skull where his head should be, teeth exposed in a permanently ghastly grin. Instead of being the ivory white one would expect, the skull was stained an almost nicotine yellow giving it an ageless quality. In place of eyes, two embers glowed fiercely, unblinking Jesse could feel the heat as they stared at him. He knew that he should be afraid, more than afraid, in abject terror. Then he felt it, first in the pit of his stomach as just a tingle. Then it was like a bomb went off, as it grew exponentially feeling it rush up his throat he wouldn’t be able to control it. The laughter burst out and seemed to fill the endless room.

“Oooh boy, you had me goin there for a minute”, he said as he regained control, “I thought we were playing an honest game friend, take the mask off.”

There was no reply, only silence and with Jesse’s laughter dissipated the silence seemed to carry a weight with it. He could feel it all around him, slowly squeezing his rib cage and cutting off his air. It was almost if he were going to drown in a room full of air. Then the realization dawned on him, this was the horror that he hadn’t initially felt. But it was more than that, it felt like he was a rabbit cornered by a cunning fox biding his time before the kill.

“This is no mask, Jesse, and I suggest you regard your situation a bit more serious.”, it spoke without moving its mouth. Nonetheless Jesse heard every word loud and clear in his head. “My name is Azrael, better known in your world as the angel of death. The game we’ve been playing here is for your very life, and I’m afraid you’re not fairing very well. I thought with poker being your game of choice, you’d have done a bit better. I’m disappointed really. However, I must warn you, time is not on your side. Even with how slow it moves here, we’re speeding toward your obliteration. So again, I suggest that you buckle down, and if you’re going to make a move you better do it quick.”

“Well then,” looking at his chip stacks Jesse smiled and replied, “I guess let’s get to it.”

**********

When Jesse came to, he found himself in a rather unique high-backed chair. The uniqueness did not come from antiquity or some other unmeasurable quality. It was quite simple actually, it was designed to accommodate straps, one for the neck and one for both wrists and ankles. There was no room in the design for any slack, they were tight and unforgiving. He also suddenly became aware of the pain that radiated out from his face and head. He was pretty sure his left eye was swollen shut, his vision was blurry and distorted. He couldn’t quite make out any distinct details but he did see shapes, which he assumed were his captors. The wet slightly sticky substance on the back of his neck told him they probably clubbed him at the table and drug him back here. Where ever here was. 

“Good morning sunshine,” one of the shapes growled at him. That’s when the gun went off, just mere inches from Jesse’s head. The sound was shattering, literally as he could feel faint trickles of blood drip from his one ear.

There was some more talking, but nothing that Jesse could understand. To him it all sounded like the grown-ups from Charlie Brown. He could make out one thing though, and only because of the sound it made. Laughter. Whoever these people were it sounded as if they were enjoying themselves. The more he struggled, the more pain they inflicted and the more they laughed. He guessed with all the stunts he had pulled over the years, this was his way of paying them back. Karmic justice in a nutshell. Though as much as he felt he deserved it, he couldn’t help not wanting to die, strapped to that chair, in some dirty warehouse who knows where. With the laughter reaching a fever pitch and dominating every part of his being, there was only one thing he could think of. He wasn’t sure why, but it started out as a whisper and gradually got louder. Eventually, with one giant shout from inside his mind (All-In) he banished all their laughter, and everything fell silent

**************

Jan was in the back of the bank, preparing for her shift like she did every day. Counting her drawer, filling out paperwork and making sure her cube was stocked for the day. It was early enough in the day that she was still the only one there, and would be for the next half an hour. Usually they didn’t open with only one employee on staff, but being the branch manager, she decided to open anyway. She was in front of the store with her back to the door, finishing up some of her paperwork when she heard the buzzer for the door chime.

“Be with you in just a moment”, Jan sounded out, routinely from her place behind the counter.

When she finally turned around to help her first customer of the day, she thought she was going to vomit. In fact, later that day she would not be able to keep herself from up-chucking uncontrollably for hours. The shock however was enough to keep everything in place. In front of her stood a man that had no business being where he was. Her eyes were immediately pulled to the gaping hole in the middle of the mans forehead. Maggots crawled and squirmed their way around deep inside the wound. Jan was almost positive that she could see straight through to the doors behind him, but that couldn’t be right. Then from a mouth that looked like it had several teeth knocked out with a hammer, a simple request was asked.

“Can I make a deposit? Just won the biggest poker game of my life.”