I hadn’t seen Mac for a while. He worked at a small satellite station on the outskirts of town for one thing, so our paths only used to cross occasionally at the hospital. Plus he’d had some kind of health scare lately. So all in all it was a nice surprise when I saw him with a cup of coffee outside A&E one night.
I leaned back against the railings, and we caught up on all the gossip.
‘Not smoking?’ I said.
‘Given up. Bad for your health, apparently.’
It seemed as good a chance as any.
‘How’ve you been?’
‘Oh. You know. I had a heart attack.’
‘A heart attack? Really?’
‘Only a small one, but that stent seems to have done the trick. Yeah – I’m having to watch a few things now. Smoking, my weight...’
His nickname was Big Mac, so it was probably a good idea if he slimmed down a bit. Mac had been in the job almost forty years, and just lately he’d been struggling to get up once he sat down. By rights he should’ve retired, but there was some issue with his pension.
We talked about this and that, but I could tell there was something on his mind. Eventually, he got round to it.
‘I was on the car when it happened. First on scene at an old people’s home, one of those very new places that looked like it was flat pack. Soulless, you know. Migraine carpets. Anyway, the job itself wasn’t all that. An abdo, no rush. She needed to go in so I ordered up a truck. The staff said they wanted to put some clean clothes on her, so I said fine, I’d finish writing it up next door. They told me to use the games room across the corridor, because it was late at night and everyone had gone to bed. I said fine.
‘When I went in, it wasn’t empty at all. There were three old men sitting at the round table in the middle of the room playing cards. “Sorry” I said. “Whatsername said it was empty”. “Shows you what she knows” said one of the fellows, and they all laughed. That was when I clocked their gear. I thought it must have been some kind of fancy dress night, because they were all done up very strangely, one in a highwayman’s coat, one in a Victorian actor’s cloak and felt hat, and the other like an engineer on an old steam train, in a pair of overalls and a little red neckerchief. All of them covered in dust and cobwebs. They’ve really made an effort, I thought.
‘But then I had to sit down, because to be honest I wasn’t feeling all that great. I’d been having raging indigestion all week, and I felt kind of puffed. “I’d take the weight off if I were you, mate,’ said the highwayman. “Or we’ll have to call a paramedic – no, wait! You’re here already!” And they all laughed again. I thought they were a strange bunch but harmless enough, so I sat down and put the clipboard on the arm of the chair ready to start writing. But I just couldn’t take my eyes off the three old geezers. There was something – odd about them. Not just their clothes, but the way they were, in themselves. D’you know what I’m saying?’
‘I think I do.’
‘I put it down to me not feeling right, because sometimes your eyes can play tricks – late at night, when you’re tired and not the whole ticket. But it seemed to me that when they turned their heads to look at each other, or at me, their faces blurred a little, like in old photos, when the person moves when they shouldn’t, and leaves their features behind on the glass. It was very disconcerting, and made me feel a bit dizzy. “Watch out! I think he’s going!” said the Engineer. “Hold on!” cried the Actor. “We haven’t finished our game yet.”
“What game’s that, then?” I asked, struggling to my feet again. I did feel weird, but I wanted to take my mind off it, and anyway, I like cards. I wandered over to the table.
‘They were playing poker with a set of cards that had seen better days. What a bunch of characters, I thought. “A nice little set up here,” I said. “Your own little club.”
“Something like that,” said the Highwayman. “We do all right.”
‘It was then I noticed what they were betting with. Little plastic figures. At first I thought they were toy soldiers, because they were in all these different poses, leaning over, throwing grenades, pointing rifles and whatnot. But when I leaned over to get a closer look, I saw they weren’t toy soldiers at all, but people, doing things like begging on their knees, pointing, running away, or lying on the ground.
“I’ve never seen chips like them before” I said to them.
“So you know the acronym?” said the Engineer. “CHIPS. The Chosen Host in Purgatory. That’s good, Mac. I’m impressed.”
‘And he looked right at me. And it was only then that the smell came on really strong. I’d smelt it as soon as I came in the room, but I put it down to a mixture of something caught in the kitchen earlier on, like burned sugar for toffee apples, and bleach to clean the floor.
“Who are you?” I said, taking a step back.
“I’m Pythius, that’s Astoroth, and he’s Belial. Pleased to meet you.”
“So what are you, then?” I said, brazening it out. “Demons?”
“He’s good” said Astoroth, snapping down another card. “He’s very good. Raise you a bent parson”
“Almost done here” said Pythius, smiling at me with all his fishy teeth.
‘Well I have to say I was more than a little scared. But you know what it’s like. You find yourself in a dodgy situation, and the best thing you can do is keep calm, act like there’s nothing wrong, and buy yourself some thinking time. So that’s what I did.
“Mind if I play?” I said to them, pulling over a chair.
“I told you you’d like Mac” said Pythius. “Of course. Belial – deal him some cards.”
‘Even though Belial’s hands were pretty much bones, he flicked me over five.
“What are we playing?” I said.
“First Circle” said Astoroth, yawning, then smacking his lips disgustingly.
“Don’t worry. It’s a bit like Lowball, only the Joker is the Horned One and you burst into flames!”
“Only kidding,” laughed Pythius. “Look at his face! Priceless. No – Mac. Seriously, it’s exactly the same as Lowball.”
“Then let’s play.”
‘I did all right. In fact, more than all right. Straight off I could tell these demons didn’t know much about poker, for all their smart talk. I got quite in to it. Pythius had stood me some chips. When I held one up to the light it looked like a tiny little dictator, complete with medals. He seemed to wriggle a bit in my hand, so I put him down again. Well, it wasn’t long before I had a whole load of others, and the demons were looking restless. I made conversation, to put them a bit more at their ease.
“So how come you play here?” I asked them. “A bit modern for you, isn’t it?”
“This new building is, yes. Ghastly. But you have to take a longer view.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Well the nursing home hasn’t always stood here, has it?”
“It was a laundry before that,” said Astoroth.
“A row of labourer’s cottages before that,” said Belial.
“Nothing but ice for a while. A long while. Dullsville. I remember there was a family of hunter gatherers before that, wasn’t there, Pythius? You remember that guy? Used to make those patterns in the ground and wave those lighted sticks in the air to keep us out? He was funny.”
‘Pythius chuckled. “Oh yes,” he said. “And then do you remember that business with the sabre-tooth?”
“Before my time,” said Belial. “Four of a kind.” And he lay his cards down.
“Straight flush,” said Pythius, spreading out his cards with a proud little nod of his head.
“I’ve got nothing,” said Astoroth, chucking in. And they all looked at me.
‘Well I’ve had some great moments in my time, but I have to say this next one was the very best. I looked from demon to demon, then laid out what I had. “Royal straight,” I said. “So put that in your cauldron and smoke it.”
‘It didn’t go down well. Astoroth and Belial both jumped up, knocking their chairs back with a crash. “You little fucker!” said Astoroth.
“Cheat!” said Belial. And they both waved their arms about, making growling and snapping noises that I have to admit were pretty scary.
‘Pythius just stared at me, and in a funny way that was worse.
“Mac,” he said after a moment, waving for the others to be quiet. “I think we’ve underestimated you. Many congratulations.” He smiled at me in that fishy way he had, but his eyes were glittering hard, goat’s eyes, you know? With the vertical slit? “Come, brethren. Let’s leave Big Mac here to enjoy his winnings. And who knows? Maybe we’ll have the pleasure again sometime soon.”
‘And with that, the lights dimmed, the windows slammed open, and suddenly I was alone in the games room. I don’t mind telling you my hands were shaking as I swept all the chips into a medication bag. I thought I’d figure out what to do with them later.
‘Just at that moment, the door opened and one of the nurses came in.
“Your crew mates have arrived,” she said. And then “Are you okay? You’re all sweaty and pale.” And before I knew it I was in the back of the ambulance that was meant for the old woman, being blue lighted into hospital with an MI.
‘It was some days later, when I was sitting up in CCU after the angio, when I thought I’d have a sneaky peak at my winnings from the card game. They’d put all my property in the little locker by the side of the bed, so when no-one was looking I had a root around for the medications bag. But it wasn’t there. So I called the nurse over and asked her about it.
“Oh that?” she said “What was that? It was just a black mess, like little slimy mushrooms when they’ve gone off. We threw them away. Why? You didn’t want them, did you?”
“No, not really” I said. “But someone else might be wondering where they are.” And I lay back down to sleep.