Nothing worth doing was ever without risk. I wasn't sure who had spoken those wise words, but out of all the fortune cookie pieces of wisdom, that was perhaps the one that rang with the most truth. At least, that's what I thought as I reached out and tapped on the red felt table.
"Split," I said, eyeing my two tens on the table. The dealer offered a polite smile and a nod while she reached over to pull two cards from the automatic shuffler. My gaze swept over the cards currently displayed on the table - two kings, a queen, various numerical cards. The dealer also had an Ace up.
A five and a three were my given cards. Meaning that the next two would be…
I knew my math was correct. It had to be, because I was betting it all.
"Hit," I voiced, my heart pounding in my chest as the dealer pulled out one card. A five, putting one half of the split at twenty. There were a few sighs of relief around the table as I played, a handful of people that had already cut their losses watching the game for fun. Five others sat at the table, their piles of chips were significantly bigger than mine. I nodded, showing that I wanted to hit for my second pair.
A six, as predicted, giving me nineteen on my other half of the split. Twenty and nineteen. Good hands. But, if the dealer had a ten, or the cards to make a ten, then I would lose it all. But she didn't. Or, at the very least, I was nearly certain she didn't.
The dealer grabbed a card from the top of the deck - a four, bringing her total to fifteen. The dealer had a soft base of seventeen, so she would pull another card.
It would be a nine of hearts.
The dealer set the card on the table, flipping it over to reveal a nine of hearts.
The naked relief on my face couldn't be faked as I let out a deep breath, seeing that my math had been exactly right. A handful of factors made it possible to count cards - every fresh deck came in a predetermined arrangement, and the automatic shuffler had a predetermined way to shuffle the cards. By paying close attention to the cards around you, what the dealer had, and what you had, it became possible to predict what cards you would next see. It was just math and probabilities - the more cards you saw on the table, the more factors you had to work with at the risk of doing more math, which increased the chance to make a mistake. But, if you did it right, then you would never have a bad hand.
The big risk was in some places, the house liked to stack the deck in their favor. It was hard to cheat when the house was already cheating.
"Bust," the dealer stated while a few people patted me on the back, trying to rub some of my luck off for themselves. If only they knew the truth.
"And I'd like to cash out while I still have the chance," I said, giving the dealer a nervous grin as she shoved over a mountain of chips my way. There were a few chuckles from those that had watched since the beginning, when I had first sat down at the table. Of the dozen rounds I played, my buy-in amount of ten thousand had been whittled away until I had only about five thousand left, which I bet in the last round. With the split, my bet would have seen a three times multiplier rather than a singular one and a half, bringing my bet of five thousand to twenty thousand.
I would be leaving the casino with more money than I came in with and that's all that mattered.
The dealer started to gather up my chips, only to pause when she apparently got a message. She turned to the side, a finger pressed against her earpiece before she quickly muttered a confirmation. Then she turned to me, another practiced smile on her face. "Mr. Song, you've been invited to the backroom."
Alarm bells started ringing in my head while my eyes drifted over the casino I found myself in. It was a hole-in-the-wall place, yet it was upper class. Marble floors, various tables with games such as poker, texas hold 'em, and blackjack. Every dealer and waiter was sharply dressed, wearing uniform white dress shirts, black vests, slacks, and business shoes. The scene was complete with smooth jazz playing over the speakers.
My eyes were drawn to the backroom. A simple door framed with red curtains and two beefy guys standing in front of it. It was a place that only VIPs got invited to, or whales. I was some nobody, and I certainly wasn't a whale.
"...Why?" I questioned, turning to the dealer, not trusting the offer in the slightest.
"You've been noticed by a regular," she answered. "Your buy-in has been covered." That… sounded way too good to be true. Way too good. This was Gotham City, and nothing good happened to anyone in Gotham City. I should absolutely turn down the offer and scamper off with my winnings while I still could.
I should refuse. I really should.
Swallowing thickly, I offered a curt nod before the dealer pushed twenty black and white chips towards me - the house special, each chip valuing at a thousand dollars at payout. The case they were in easily fit in my pocket, and I took in a bracing breath. I shouldn't push my luck, I thought to myself as I headed towards the backroom door. I always had rotten luck. If anything could go wrong around me, then it would. That was just a fact of life - water was wet, fire was hot, and I had shit luck.
I should just take my money and leave. I've made enough. I tried to convince myself. Twenty thousand with a five thousand bet, thanks to winning the split.
It wasn't enough. Nowhere near enough. Not even close.
And a golden ticket was just pushed into my hand. I knew, deep down, that I was making a mistake as stepped through the doors, but it was a mistake I couldn't afford to pass up. If there was even the slightest possibility that it was real… In one afternoon, I could make every penny that I needed. I just needed the chance and this could be it.
The backroom was a singular room. The walls were covered in red velvet, a single table at the far wall. An attractive blonde woman smiled warmly at me, the dealer for the private game. Sitting at the table were five men, one of which looked up at me. Asian, like me - dark hair gelled back, thin-rim square glasses, and cleanly shaven.
He offered a nod, "Song, is it?" He questioned, standing up as I hesitantly walked into the room.
I offered a nod, going to offer my hand, only to dip my head in a bow when I saw him begin the motion. "I am. Ren Song," I confirmed, "are you the one that sponsored me?" I questioned, noting that the other three men finally bothered to take notice of me. I wasn't sure if I should say my name backward or not - it was always a problem growing up in America, but never leaving Little Asia in Gotham.
He nodded, raising his head, and I bowed deeper before raising mine to show my gratitude. "I am. I have an eye for talent, Song, and you have talent." He said, offering a friendly smile that made me assume that he was planning to harvest my kidneys. "I suppose I should introduce myself - I am Bao Lei, a professional gambler of sorts."
That caught my attention and it must have shown on my face, because Lei continued. "I moonlight in casinos like these to find people with a little more luck than most, and see if they have what it takes to reach a professional level." He explained, and my heart pounded in my chest.
A scout. I had been noticed by a talent scout. Oh, I'm sure he would get something out of this. He wouldn't be doing this if he didn't. If I had to guess, he wanted a percentage of my earnings so long as whatever contract I signed was in effect. And if I lost, then none of that would reflect on him. He could dress it up how he liked, but it was clear that he was looking for talent to make money for him - an employee, just one that could make him a few hundred thousand dollars a game with a rush of good luck. And the moment my luck ran dry, he'd cut me loose.
This was exactly what I needed.
"Thank you for noticing me. I'll make sure that you find you were right to," I said, offering another bow. I heard Lei chuckle warmly at that.
"I would hope so. Come, sit," Lei instructed, gesturing to the table and an empty chair. Raising my head, I offered a curt nod before walking over, looking at the other men sitting at the table. I noticed that they were all Asian - each was dressed in a sharp suit, which made me stand out that much more because I was dressed in my lucky blue jeans and an old jacket.
Even still, I took a seat at the table while the dealer pushed over my chips, before taking out a new deck and sliding it into the shuffling machine. I tried not to gape at the hundred thousand buy-in, but I heard one of the men next to me chuckle at my expression. I looked over at him to find that the amusement wasn't exactly mean-spirited, but in doing so, I noticed a pin on his jacket. One depicting a snake coiled around a rose.
I was sitting down and playing Blackjack with members of the Triad.
Turning away, I looked down at the cards that were being dealt to me, trying to use my peripheral vision to see if anyone else had a matching pin at their lapel. I sat at the lip of the half-circle table, so I could easily see that of the four men at the table, the only person that wasn't wearing a pin was me. Okay. This was fine. I was totally fine.
Still, it made more warning bells ring in my mind as I hesitantly made a small bet, much to the amusement of everyone at the table. They were all Triad - in Little Asia, there were a handful of Asian gangs that operated in their little section of Gotham City. The Snake-Flower Triad was an all-Chinese gang that, according to rumors, mainly dealt in heroin and arms dealing.
More importantly, it was an all-Chinese gang. Full-blooded. You couldn't be 'tainted' by foreign blood like I was.
So, on account that I was only half Chinese, that should be reason enough for them to never touch me. Or come near me. Much less give me an opportunity like this.
"You aren't going to make any money playing like that, Song." The man on my right remarked as I busted after taking a hit that I shouldn't have, losing me about five thousand dollars on my opening hand. I looked at him, his dark eyes looking into my blue - the trait that singled me out as only being half Chinese. He didn't seem like he was mocking me. "Don't be so nervous. Just treat the chips like chips, instead of money."
Another man let out a sound of amusement, "That's why you always lose money when you gamble, Xin." He pointed out, earning a laugh from Xin as we were dealt another round of cards. My heart still pounded in my chest, a knot of tension between my shoulder blades that was almost painful. I glanced over to Lei to find him watching me, our eyes meeting briefly before I looked away.
They bantered back and forth, giving me names. Jianguo, Liang on my left while Xin and Lei were on my right.
I couldn't let this slip between my fingers, no matter how nervous and suspicious I was. Even if they were planning something… the Snake-Flower Triad didn't control this casino. So long as I escaped with my chips and my life, I could cash in. Right now, I just needed to focus and get my head in the game… and win.
Taking in a slow breath, my eyes flickered down to my cards. A King and a three, bringing my total to thirteen. I needed to hit regardless, but my gaze flickered to the card that the dealer had up. A five. Of the four others - a Queen and a Jack, two fives, a seven and a four, lastly a Queen and a two. The cards were being dealt from left to right, with me being in the center.
Jianguo wouldn't hit, but Liang might take a split. It was a fresh deck. There were six players counting the dealer. Meaning that Liang's next two cards would be… an eight and a four. If he hit, then he would be looking at a bust with a King, and a fourteen with a five. Meaning that my cards could range from a King, a five, or an eight when it was my turn to hit. An eight would bring me to twenty-one, giving me blackjack… but if I got anything above, I'd go bust. A five would put me at eighteen.
Continuing the train of thought, I mapped out the next two hands, which brought me to the dealer. She had a six in play, and her next card would give her a ten, putting her at sixteen. The card after that was a three, giving her nineteen.
So, how much I bet would be determined by what Liang did. As I expected, he did split, but he pulled back at the hand so my card when I hit with was a five. I put ten thousand down on the table, and it felt terrifying to do so because I knew I would lose the hand.
That much was confirmed when the dealer placed down a card, giving her nineteen to beat my eighteen.
I was already down fifteen thousand dollars. The numbers made it more frightening, but the formula didn't change. Lose a few hands, win a few hands. So long as you won more and you left the building with more money than you entered… that's all that matters.
"Hit," I said, another ten thousand on the line, getting a seventeen. The hand played out, my mind doing the math and predicting the hand exactly. It was for that reason that fifteen thousand dollars in chips were pushed back to me, meaning that I was only ten thousand dollars behind.
I had a few years to learn how not to get caught cheating. In the end, the biggest giveaway was an unwillingness to take a huge loss and then work your way back up to baseline. It was stressful, and all the math was murder on the brain and nerves - but so long as you kept calm and were patient, you could earn back that big loss and that threw any suspicion of foul-play off. When you won, it was either a big hand, or you won in small increments.
A dozen hands later, despite my losses, I was up twenty thousand dollars. Some had won more. Others had lost more. I was in the middle of the pack, and because of it, I didn't stand out.
The story of my life.
My gaze flickered to Lei, who was up about a hundred thousand. He seemed pretty satisfied with himself, but I couldn't tell if it was because of the money or that I was up. His eyes went to me, our gazes meeting. He opened his mouth to say something, only to close it when the door opened behind us.
I looked over my shoulder to see three men stride into the room. The Triad around me had more of a reaction than me, all of them rising to their feet around me, leaving me bewildered at what was going on. The friendly air in the room vanished without a trace, and it was really telling that the dealer ducked behind the table to use it as cover.
"Huh? There's five of you?" A voice questioned before walking into the room. My heart plummeted to my shoes when I saw who it was. The voice had a rough, gravelly quality to it, one that I had heard on the news before.
Black Mask stepped into the back room. As the name implied, his face was covered by a black mask, only it wasn't one that could be removed. No one knew the real story, but a black mask had bonded itself to his face, giving his skin the texture of burnt leather. He wore a suit, white and black. His face twisted into a mockery of a smile, "Eh, who cares. The more the merrier."
I slowly raised my hand, catching Black Mask's attention. He cocked his head at me, "We aren't in school, punk. You have something to say, then say it."
"I'm completely uninvolved in whatever the hell this is. I didn't see anything about this either, so can I leave?" I tried, noticing how the Triad shifted at that. I wasn't sure why. Playing a handful of hands of Blackjack together didn't mean I was going to risk getting in a shootout with them. The five men that stood across from us were armed, and even if the Triad were armed with guns, they were worthless unless they were in their hands.
Black Mask let out a chuckle, "Nice try, but no cigar kid."
To my surprise, Lei spoke up. "He is telling the truth, Black Mask. He is ignorant of our dealings here. I was merely impressed that a child could slip through your security." I winced ever so slightly, becoming keenly aware of the eyes on me. That was something I had hoped would never see the light of day.
This place didn't card you, but it didn't let kids in on account of the fact that kids had loose lips. I was sixteen, but I suffered from Resting-Bitch-Face syndrome, so most people assumed that I was older than what I was.
Black Mask shrugged, and my heart soared in hope that I would get out of this situation. Then he leveled a gun at me. "Doesn't matter to me," he said before a loud bang filled the room and I felt something hit me in the head. I blinked once… or I blacked out, because a second later, I was laying on the ground without any memory of falling over.
My hands felt numb, but I groped to my face, my heartbeat thundering in my ears. I distinctly heard more loud bangs, but they sounded like they were coming from underneath water. Which made sense because my face felt wet, I noticed. Pulling my hand back, I saw it was covered in blood. A terrible realization flooded me before I felt myself get kicked over and I found myself looking up at Black Mask.
"Wrong place, wrong time kid. Nothing personal about it," he said before he leveled the gun at my face again. I think I saw the muzzle flash, but I couldn't be sure. I guess it didn't really matter, because everything went dark a second later.
Here is Risk It All, my first commission story. It's on a bi-weekly schedule - the second chapter will be posted immediately, but chapter 3 will go up on the 16th. As such, there are no chapters. Hope you all enjoyed the opening chapter!