“Go ahead, Mister Duncan… pull the lever.”
FBI Special Agent Charles Duncan stared at the Lucky Sevens slot machine as the Puzzle Bomber looked intently at him.
It had finally come to this. They were standing in an old chemical factory, on a grated walkway, near a giant vat of acid, fifteen feet above which was hanging the bound-and-gagged form of Marlene Davis, Charles’s co-worker and now love interest.
It had been several months since the Puzzle Bomber had trapped Charles in an abandoned toy factory and tortured him with a giant Sudoku game. There, Charles had managed to confront his nemesis face-to-face, but the Bomber had escaped.
In the intervening months, he had tried to find the Bomber, since his real identity was known, but the Bomber proved as elusive as ever and seemed to be laying low, as he usually did. Surprisingly, however, the Bomber (real name Mark Watkins) had slipped to the back of his mind, as he took up a romance with Marlene, a co-worker who had helped him on a Bomber case before being assigned elsewhere.
Then, the previous night, he had gotten a call from the Bomber, saying that he had kidnapped Marlene from her apartment, that he was holding her hostage, and that Charles had to come to the factory alone. Suddenly all the rage, all the determination that had spurred Charles to find his nemesis returned, and there they were.
Charles scowled. “What’s the trick this time?”
The Bomber nodded. “No trick. Simply pull the lever, and we’ll decide your lover’s fate.”
Charles drew his gun and pointed it at the Bomber. “There’s no payout sign anywhere on the machine. How do I know you won’t just make up the odds?”
“Have I ever done anything like that?” The Bomber extracted a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Charles.
Charles put his gun away and looked at it. As with all slot machines, there was always a house edge. The most common payout, three cherries, meant both Marlene and Charles would die; three lemons meant just Marlene would die. Three bells meant Marlene would drop a foot and Charles could spin again. Three bars meant Marlene would go free, but so would the Bomber. Finally, three lucky sevens, the most uncommon, meant Marlene would go free and the Bomber would turn himself in. No payout meant Charles would spin again.
Odds like this made Charles’s adrenaline rush. Games and puzzles in which the outcome netted real-world consequences. The next game, the next rush… that was what had driven Charles for fifteen years. The Bomber wanted to finish their little mind-game, Charles knew it, and so the Bomber had picked a game of pure chance to taunt him with his girlfriend’s life on the line.
Charles looked up at Marlene. She stared down at him, with fear in her eyes. He took a deep breath, reached out, took the knob in his fist, and pulled the lever. The reels began to spin. Two cherries put him on edge, but a bell made him sigh relief.
“Again,” the Bomber said.
Charles pulled. Three bells. The mechanical winch rumbled; Marlene let out a muffled shriek as she lowered a foot. She was now fourteen feet above the acid.
“Again,” the Bomber said.
Three bells. Thirteen feet.
Three bells. Twelve feet.
Charles pulled out his gun again. “You rigged the machine!”
The Bomber sighed. “I haven’t rigged the machine at all.”
Charles squinted at what he could see of the reels, and then he realized the order of the payouts on the sheet did not correspond to the reels. There were mostly bells on them.
Rage filled Charles. The Bomber played by the rules, all right – his rules. Rules designed to madden, and throw you off. There was a twisted genius in the insanity.
“Pull the lever, Mr. Duncan,” the Bomber said.
Charles pulled. One seven. A second seven. The reel slowed; he could tell it would stop one symbol past the seven. He remembered something Marlene said a few months back, after the toy factory incident: “It doesn’t hurt to cheat!”
Charles fired a shot into the machine, forcing the machine to stop the reel on the third seven. The slot machine buzzed and whirred; the winch moved Marlene out from over the acid and began to lower her to the floor.
“You cheated!” The Bomber jumped up and down in anger.
“I know I did. And it’s about time.”
The Bomber backed up along the walkway. “I’m not going to turn myself in! I won’t! You cheated!”
Charles pulled the safety back. “And you don’t? All these years you fudged the rules to suit your own ends. Either you win, or if you lose, you still win. Why can’t we play one game by my rules?”
“Because I’m the master and you are the player!” The Bomber seemed to palm something. “The game’s not over till I say it is!”
Charles pulled the trigger.
The Puzzle Bomber fell over, dead.
An anti-climatic end for sure, but strangely, kind of fitting. Charles had always fantasized that the Bomber would die at the end of a climatic bare-knuckled brawl inside some strange game of his, but in the end, the Bomber had died simply and cleanly with a gunshot to the forehead. How ironic.
Charles pocketed the throwing star in the Bomber’s hand, and then shut his eyelids. He’d call in the boys to pick up the corpse soon.
Charles then walked down off the walkway and untied Marlene. She immediately hugged him tightly. “Now that he’s dead,” she whispered, “let’s get married and take a honeymoon in Las Vegas.”
Charles chuckled. “Still as funny as ever… but I think I’ll stay away from games for now. I’ve had enough to last a lifetime.” He kissed her. “Let me call the office and then we’ll go home.”
The game was now finished but, while there should a have been a hole in his life where the Bomber was, there was only peace. Now he would marry Marlene, settle down and father a child or two – his rightful reward for a game well played.
The Bomber would fade away into history, brought up in criminal justice classes once in a while, but still games would always be played, as they were indeed serious business, but not too serious, not ever again.
I ever reset and revisit this story, it’ll only be in the form of an Interactive Fiction, as it should be!