He reached under the table again and brought out his own case. He flipped the latches and opened the case. An eerie golden glow emanated from the case. The lid was facing Freddy. He couldn’t see what lay within.
The man took out the two pieces of his cue and they went together with a snap. Freddy stared at it and felt like his jaw must be on the floor. The cue was now a solid piece of shining ebony inlaid with intricate patterns of ivory and precious gems.
“Wow. Never seen anything like that before. Must have set you back a bundle.”
His host favoured him with a thin smile.
“You understand what we’re doing here? One game of Nine Ball. Winner chooses. The cash or the key.”
“Yeah, about that, what is the key for?”
“The rules don’t allow me to say.”
The host nodded.
Freddy had a moment of doubt but couldn’t see what there was to lose. He wasn’t playing with his own money. The cue was impressive but in Freddy’s long experience the hustlers with the nicest cues were the weakest players. The cue was there for intimidation, and Freddy was not one to be intimidated.
They lagged for break and Freddy aced it. He grinned and chalked his cue, blowing the excess off the tip with panache. His host stood aside, stone-faced.
Freddy broke and watched the movement of the balls. Sweet. The one ball was well placed, just as he had planned. He sank it with ease and lined up the two. In it went. He glanced at his opponent. He looked bored. Freddy sank the three and four with ease and then stood back to study the table. He chalked his cue again and thought it over. The five had moved a bit too much when he sank the three. The shot was difficult but not out of his reach.
He checked the angles one more time and gave it his all. It went straight in the side pocket. Freddy stood up and grinned.
“Looks like my night.”
His opponent shrugged and said nothing. Freddy had visions of running the table. Why he got cocky he didn’t know. He was too relaxed he supposed. He put just a bit too much spin on the six and it missed the pocket by a hair.
His opponent stood and walked slowly to the table and studied it. He chalked his cue and without a word sank the six, seven and eight in less than thirty seconds. Freddy felt his heart sink. This guy was a master.
As he lined up the nine ball Freddy saw a slight smile turn up the corners of his mouth. He hesitated a long moment and then tapped the cue ball with precision. The nine ball rolled to the far left pocket but ran out of spin just as it got there. It hung on the edge as both men held their breath, the room as silent as a tomb. It did not fall in.
They both stared at it for a long moment and then Freddy broke the silence.
“Tough break pal.”
He walked to the table and tapped the nine ball in.
“Like I said, looks like my night.”
He brought the briefcase and the key out from under the table and put them in front of Freddy.
“Time to choose.”
Freddy looked from one to the other.
“Now why would I take the key without knowing what it’s good for?”
His opponent shrugged.
“Then you’ll be taking the cash. That’s all settled then.”
He reached for the key but Freddy grabbed his wrist in a flash.
“Not so fast. You really want that key, eh?”
Freddy ran through it all in his mind and made his decision.
“I won. The key is mine.”
He reached out and took it from its box and held it up under the light. It was a thing of beauty.
“So what happens now?”
The opponent smiled.
“Now, Freddy, you are master of this domain.”
He waved his hand at the room.
“And me, I am a free man at last.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m leaving Freddy. Did you not notice the name of this place? Nine Ball Redemption. I’ve been stuck here for twenty-seven years. Win or lose my opponents have always chosen the cash over the key. But then you came along.”
He chuckled and picked up the briefcase and headed for the door.
“So long Freddy. Good luck.”
“What are you on about? I’m leaving too.”
The man turned at the open door and shook his head.
“Not until you get someone else to take the key. That’s the rule.”
He walked out and closed the door behind him. Freddy ran to it and turned the handle. It was locked. He tried with all his might but the door wouldn’t open. He threw himself against it. He looked around for something to break it down with. He was trapped.
He thought about the chump that had told him about this place and he swore to himself he could hear his laughing. He went and sat down on the stool and awaited his first opponent.