|......Surely, this could not be the place. This part of the city was rundown and decayed; the buildings had once been imposing but were now boarded up and neglected, waiting to be pulled down. Like its neighbours, the building he stood in front of must once have been grand; now it looked forlorn and deserted, as if it had not been used for many years. Yet above the litter-strewn doorway, carved into the stone lintel was the name Mark Tyler had been searching for: Duville House.|
......Six worn steps led to a battered but solid wooden door; he walked up them and paused with his hand on the tarnished brass knob. As he hesitated he heard a shuffling behind him, he turned to find himself being observed slyly by a tramp as derelict as the surrounding buildings. There were bound to be all manner of lowlife in such a locality, and now dusk was descending they would be slinking from their various lairs. This was not a safe place for a well-dressed, apparently affluent person to linger.
......Should he knock, or go straight in? He doubted his fist would make much impression on the heavy door and there was no bell. He turned the knob. Somehow he was not surprised to find the door unlocked, though it needed some effort to push it open on its old hinges and he was curiously disappointed it did not emit an eerie creak as in all the worst horror movies. He knew without looking that the tramp was still watching him; he could feel calculating eyes boring into his back. It was the height of folly to be in this kind of neighbourhood alone and unarmed; better to turn around and return to the more salubrious part of town. Yet he had come this far, and though Mark was not the most courageous of men, he was no coward. However, he was desperate. Why else would he be here? Moreover, it was his preparedness to take risks that, at least until recently, furnished him the highly satisfactory lifestyle he enjoyed.
......Taking a deep breath, he stepped inside, closing the door on the still staring tramp. As he did so, something dark and furtive insinuated itself through the narrowing gap and wound itself round his legs. Startled, he defensively kicked out, his foot encountering a soft and furry body. There was a protesting howl and a vicious hiss followed by the scrabbling of small clawed feet as a swarthy shape shot across the tiled floor and raced up a flight of stairs immediately in front of him.
......A cat, as black as night. There was an omen, if ever he saw one.
......The animal had come to rest halfway up the stairs and was sitting glaring at him, its green eyes glistening malignantly. Its piercing stare was unsettling; his nerves were already taut. Mark took a step towards it; the creature snarled, turned and sped the rest of the way up the stairs. Good riddance! He detested cats: nasty, slinky things. These old buildings were probably swarming with strays, living wild and feral and breeding like wildfire. A black one though - that was a bad sign.
......Attempting to shake off his superstitious dread, he looked about his surroundings. He was standing in the dingy foyer of what had obviously once been a small hotel. To his right was a reception area; a diminutive enclosure containing a set of empty pigeonholes, a board of numbered hooks for keys, also empty, a desk and little else. A wooden counter on which lay a thick coating of dust fronted this arrangement. Beyond, a short passage contained three doors, which presumably gave access to kitchens and private quarters. The only other feature of the foyer was the staircase, which Mark assumed must lead to rooms.
......Despite its size and its desolate air, Duville House must formally have been quietly opulent. The walls were panelled in rich, dark mahogany, the banisters of the staircase were finely turned from the same material and the ceiling was high and covered with decorative plasterwork. Overall, there was an aspect of faded luxury. There was no doubt, however, that it would take little work to restore its former glory. Charlie King had made yet another astute investment.
......Mark took another glance around, inhaled a deep breath and walked to the staircase. It was time he got on with the task he was there to perform.
......Since closing the door behind him he had managed to take control of his trepidation, now, as he began to ascend the stairs, he was suddenly overwhelmed with apprehension once more. To heighten his anxiety the stairs, unlike the door, creaked harshly as he stepped upon them making him aware for the first time of how deathly silent the place was. Not so silent though, for then there came a scratching and a scurrying sound from somewhere above him that made his heart miss a beat. That damned cat, no doubt, chasing a mouse or a rat; they were probably rife. He cursed himself for a frightened fool. Why, he had almost rushed back down and out into the street. This was no good; he must get a grip.
......Grasping tightly to the banister, Mark continued upwards.
......The staircase was longer than it had appeared from the bottom; he had begun to wonder if he would ever reach the top when he finally arrived at a landing. Looking down into the steep stairwell into the gloomy foyer far below he felt a touch of vertigo. Turning, he found himself confronted by a long corridor lined on both sides with closed doors, each bearing a number.
......Walking slowly down the corridor, Mark paused at each door until he came to the one he was looking for. Upon the door in brass figures was the number thirteen. Like all gamblers, Mark was highly superstitious and that number was particularly portentous to him of late. It was not without some misgivings that he opened the door and stepped into the room. He closed the door and flicked the switch by the side of it; it came as no surprise to find that the light did not work. However, sufficient illumination filtered through a large window to enable him to distinguish the features of the room.
......Like the rest of the building, the room suggested a former splendour. It was spacious, plushly decorated and well appointed with expensive, if old-fashioned furniture. A vast mahogany wardrobe dominated one wall; a large fireplace surmounted by a gilt-framed, flyblown mirror, its grate bearing the remains of a long-dead fire occupied another. Two massive armchairs filled the centre of the thickly carpeted floor; a generously sized table and two wooden chairs stood to one side and an ornate cocktail cabinet to the other. By far the most predominant item in the room was an enormous four-poster bed, at each corner of which hung heavy brocade drapes tied back with thick ropes. Here was luxury indeed.
......Nonetheless, the atmosphere of sumptuousness was marred by abandonment and long disuse. Every surface was heavily layered by dust, and the air was dense with a musty, fetid smell. As Mark investigated further he saw that the richly patterned, now faded and damp-stained wallpaper was peeling in several places and the furniture bore obvious traces of woodworm infestation. The curtains at the window were disintegrating from the effects of sunlight, as too were the drapes and the coverings of the bed, and the carpet felt damp underfoot. The room depressed and saddened him: he felt as if he were intruding upon its decline; as if were an interloper at a private demise.
......There was also still his very real fear of the actual number of the room to combat. What he most desired at that moment was to leave this room and this building, to return to the lights and the life from where he came. He could not though, not if he wanted to keep that life. All Mark had to do was last out for just one night and his troubles would be over. But could he do it? It had all seemed too good to be true when Charlie King made him his offer.
......Mark Tyler was by profession a gambler. He customarily made a very lucrative living from it. However, in the past two months he had hit a run of bad luck that threatened to bring that living to an abrupt and painful end. He was heavily in debt to Charlie King, the proprietor of The King of Diamonds Club, which Mark frequented nightly. King was also the intimidating head of the local criminal fraternity. Mark's unlucky streak had originated with small losses that he could easily cope with; alas those losses started to mount up. Night after night, the cards went against him. Foolishly and against all his experience, to compensate he began to play for higher and higher stakes. Predictably, his losses increased accordingly. Being a regular patron of the club, King allowed him credit and this permitted Mark to continue playing. Unfortunately, he also continued to lose - by ever escalating amounts. Despite borrowing from friends and selling his more valuable possessions, the situation had now reached the stage where Mark's indebtedness to Charlie King amounted to several thousand pounds. Worse, King had become impatient for his money.
......Charlie King was not a big man physically; he had no need to be, if he required muscle he had employees who were adequately enough endowed to undertake any strong-arm work he deemed necessary. King's menace lay in his nature, which was sadistically evil. Rumours abounded of the treatment meted out to those who offended him; that these rumours could not be substantiated was testament to King's cleverness. Nevertheless, no one who knew King doubted the veracity of such stories. Therefore, when the club owner began to firmly pursue him regarding his liabilities Mark had much cause for concern.
......King had been gentle enough to start with, confining himself to a friendly hand on the shoulder and a, "Now then, Tyler, my boy, you're stretching your credit a little aren't you?" or a, "Don't you think it's time we were settling our bill?" However, as Mark got ever deeper into debt, so King got ever more threatening.
......Things had finally come to a head the previous night. King had taken to standing over Mark as he played, his hooded, lizard eyes intently watching as Mark lost game after game. Aware of the trouble he was in and conscious of King's penetrating gaze, Mark in his desperation became careless. He bet recklessly without regard to the strength of his cards, hoping to bluff his way to success. All to no avail: every hand dealt to him was poor, and his opponents would not be bluffed. Inevitably, the point came when his funds were exhausted but for one low-value chip too small to allow him to play further.
......He looked round at King appealingly, hoping for further credit, but met only a cold, hard stare. Resignedly, he rose from the card table picking up his last remaining chip. From the expression on the club owner's face Mark knew his time had come. He walked across the club in the direction of the bar, King silently following him; perhaps he would be allowed a last drink before his fate was decided. As he passed the other gaming tables, he paused at the roulette wheel where the croupier was taking the final bets. Mark's game was poker; he considered roulette unskilful and too reliant on luck. Nevertheless, he was struck by a sudden impulse and he placed his last chip blindly on the table. He watched dejectedly as the wheel was spun and the silver ball whirled round. The ball rattled to a halt and he was about to walk away, when to his disbelief he realised it had stopped on his number. He had won!
......Thinking it merely a fluke, he left his original stake and his winnings where they were and waited for the wheel to spin again and for his chips to be taken away. Incredibly, the ball came to rest a second time on the very same number. This was amazing; his luck must have changed at last. A big grin on his face, he looked to King who was still behind him. The little man was smiling too, as if he shared Mark's joy. In his delight, he failed to notice the sinister quality to King's smile; neither did he notice the slight nod he gave to the croupier.
......Mark looked at the pile of chips on the table; only then did it register upon him what number they rested on. It was a number he would never consciously consider placing any kind of bet on, a number of great superstitious portent. His chips lay on black thirteen. Lady Luck must have indeed blessed him. Despite that, there was no chance of the same number coming up three times in succession, to bet on it again would be to push his newly acquired good fortune too far. He could not stop now though; not when there was a possibility of digging himself out of the hole he was in. He reached across the table and moved his chips to the number nine. That had always been a lucky number for him.
......Announcing, "No more bets," the croupier spun the wheel. It seemed it revolved for an eternity, but at last, it began to slow, the ball rattling loudly over the numbered sections. It bounced and jumped from one number to another even after the wheel had stopped, as if it were selecting exactly where to land. There was a gasp from those assembled round the table. It could not be! The odds must be astronomical. For the third time in a row the ball rested in the slot of black thirteen.
......Dazed and dumbfounded, Mark watched in dismay as the croupier raked in his pile of chips. His revived optimism was dashed. How could he repay what he owed now? Tonight had been his last chance to recoup his losses; there was no way he was able to raise more finance. A heavy weight descended on his heart - then as heavy a hand grasped his arm. He turned to find himself in the grip of one of Charlie King's mountainous aides, his employer at his side. "I think it's time we had a little word, Tyler my boy," said King.
......Mark was led off through the club and taken to King's private office. The door was closed and the aide stood blocking it with his imposing bulk. King seated himself behind a desk so massive it dwarfed him while Mark was left to stand in front of it like a naughty schoolboy before the headmaster.
......"Now, what are we going to do with you, Tyler?" asked the club boss coldly. "You owe me rather a lot, and you don't seem to be trying too hard to repay me. Something tells me I've been much too lenient with you, my boy. I think you're trying to take advantage of my generosity."
......"No, honestly Mr King, I wouldn't do that. Really, I will pay you back. I just need a bit more time. It's just that..."
......"I don't want to hear any excuses, my boy. You've had all the time I can give you."
......"Please, Mr King," begged Mark, "Just another couple of weeks, and I promise I'll give you everything I owe."
......"I really can't do it, my boy, I've a reputation to consider. If I were to make an exception for you - why, then everybody would think they could walk all over me. We couldn't have that, could we? You wouldn't want people to think I'd gone soft, now would you?"
......"Of course not, Mr King, but..."
......"No buts, Tyler my boy. You'll be telling me next you can't pay me."
......"Well, you see - the thing is..."
......"No more!" snapped King, "I've heard enough."
......At this point the aide stepped up behind Mark and grasped him roughly by the shoulders.
......"Take him into the back room, Vince, and have a bit of fun with him while I decide what is to become of him."
......Mark was ashamed to recall how he had pleaded, how he had promised to do anything if only he could be given just one more chance. He knew only too well that whatever fate King decided for him it would not be pleasant. However, his pleas fell on deaf ears, and he was propelled forcefully to a door at the rear of the office. Then, just as he was about to be pushed into the other room and he was preparing himself for the painful experience to come, King threw out a lifeline:
......"Just a moment, Vince - perhaps there is a way you can redeem yourself, Tyler my boy..."
......"Anything, Mr King - anything. Just name it, and I'll do it..."
......"Alright, there's no need to grovel, it's very unbecoming. You might just be the very man for the job I have in mind.
......Charlie King then went on to relate how he had recently acquired yet another property to add to his ever-expanding empire. That property was Duville House; he had bought it at a giveaway price and he had plans for its development, which included purchasing its neighbouring buildings. What those plans were, King would not say, but they doubtless involved a means of legitimising one of his more shady enterprises. However, he had encountered an obstacle:
......"You see, Tyler my boy," King explained, "I can't get anybody to go near the place. You wouldn't believe it in this day and age, but it's got a very bad reputation. Things happen there - bad things. You may laugh, but it's supposed to be haunted. There, I said you wouldn't believe it. Apparently - and you'll find this the funniest of all - many years ago a gambler down on his luck hung himself in one of the rooms. Quite ironic, isn't it, given your situation?"
......Mark said nothing; he could only wonder what game King was playing.
......"Here's a bit more irony for you, considering recent events: the room this unfortunate fellow hung himself in was number thirteen. Asking for trouble, wasn't it? We all know how unlucky that number can be," King smiled a nasty smile and the mountainous Vince sniggered. "Now I could tell you some of the many stories about Duville House, but I don't want to frighten you. I know how sensitive you are. The thing is, I can't get on with my plans because I can't persuade any of my men to go there for love or money."
......Mark stared blankly at the little club owner. He couldn't understand what all this was leading up to. King was renowned for his sadistic sense of humour and his love of practical jokes. That must be what this was: a joke.
......"You're probably wondering why I'm telling you this," King continued, as if reading Mark's mind. "Now it strikes me you're in a bit of a predicament and you've already told me you'll do anything to get out of it. You are a gambling man, so what I'm about to say should appeal to you. I want to make a little bet with you. If you win, then I'll wipe your slate clean. You will owe me nothing and you'll carry on walking about. If you lose - well, the consequences don't bear thinking about. The bet is this: you spend just one night in room thirteen of Duville House and you get off the hook. I get to prove to my men that there's nothing to be frightened of, so I win too. Everybody's happy! Of course, if you don't last the night out, then that's a different story."
......Mark could still not believe his luck. Of course, he had agreed. What else could he do? He still believed Charlie King must be playing some kind of trick; yet here he was the following evening, in one piece and with a chance of remaining so. When he had left the club, still in a daze, it had passed through his mind that he could simply run away, go somewhere far away. He had quickly discounted the thought, though. Where could he go? He had no money, and King's arm was long. Besides, King had said his people would be watching him and he did not doubt it.
......Strange though that he had not seen any of the gang leader's thugs. Mark went to the window and looked out. The tramp that he had met on his arrival was still out there. He was in a doorway across the road and had been joined by two more of his kind. They were smoking and passing around a bottle of something. They could not be King's men; they would have no need to disguise themselves, they would make themselves very obvious. One of the tramps looked up and Mark quickly backed away from the window. No point in advertising his presence.
......The odd thing was that now he had become accustomed to the room, Mark did not feel at all frightened any more. It was just a room like any other, despite its unfortunate number. Notwithstanding his superstitious nature, he did not really believe in the existence of ghosts; his fear of King was the predominant factor. Ghosts were for talking about around cosy firesides; King was very real and so was the threat he posed. The question now was how to get through the night. He had until ten o'clock the next morning, when King had promised that he would come in person to ensure that Mark had kept to his side of the deal and to free him from his obligation.
......He looked around the room again. There was no way he could consider sleeping; his nerves were much too strung-out. Besides, the bed looked decidedly damp; likewise the armchairs. For the first time, he noticed a small cabinet beside the massive bed and he went over to it. On the top of it was a single candle in a holder and a polished wooden box about twelve inches square. Blowing away the dust, Mark lifted the lid. Inside were several partitioned sections containing variously coloured gaming chips and a pack of playing cards. What luck! Now he knew how to spend his time.
......Carrying the box and the candle, Mark went to the table and seated himself facing the door. Dare he light the candle? It was already very gloomy in the room and soon it would be totally dark. He needed light for what he wanted to do and besides, he did not relish sitting here in pitch-blackness all night. He was concerned about attracting the attention of the tramps, but if King's men where about, as they must be, then they should keep them at bay. He decided to chance it. Taking out his cigarette lighter, he lit the candle. He then removed the playing cards from the box, shuffled them and laid them one by one on the table. He would while away the night by playing solitaire.
......He gradually became so engrossed in his game that he forgot his surroundings and all his fears. The only incident came at one point when, as he was dealing a new game, there came a scratching at the door. He jumped up in alarm, his heart pounding, then subsided as he remembered the cat he had encountered earlier. He took one of the chips from the box and threw it at the door. The scratching ceased; he settled himself down and went on with his game.
......Time passed and it became increasingly dark, but the candle flickered comfortingly at his side and he played on. Gradually, as the night passed his eyes became heavy and more than once he caught himself dozing off. He must not fall asleep, who knew what might happen if he did? He kept shaking his head to clear it and forcing his eyes to focus on the cards. In spite of his efforts, however, eventually he succumbed. He slumped forward, his eyes gratefully closed and Mark slept.
......He did not know what woke him. It was not a sound, because it was eerily quiet. It must have been the change in temperature, for the room was icily cold. It took a moment for the sleep to clear from his eyes, when it did; he could not believe what they were seeing. For, sitting facing him at the opposite side of the table was a man. Mark stared wide-eyed at the other: he could not imagine how he had got there. He was certain he had not been so deeply asleep that he could have failed to hear someone enter the room. "Who are you?" he asked, tremulously, "What are you doing here?"
......The man said nothing; he merely stared at Mark from penetrating cold blue eyes. He was very thin and dressed in an outdated evening suit. His flesh was fish-white and there seemed to be something wrong with his neck, as he held his head at an odd angle. His gaze was extremely unnerving; it was as if he saw from a great distance away.
......"Who are you?" Mark asked again, more forcefully. Still the white-faced man made no reply. "Why are you here?" Again, there was silence.
......Then Mark was struck by an idea, "Did King send you, is that it?" That must be the explanation for the man's presence. He remembered the gang leader saying, "I might send one of my boys to keep you company for a while - if I can persuade one of them to pluck up the guts." Yes, that was it. This was one of King's 'boys'. Why would he not speak, though?
......"Cat got you tongue?" Mark said, in an effort to be flippant, the stony stare of the other was unsettling him. If only he would say something. An alternative explanation of the man's identity was fighting for recognition in his mind - one he did not care to consider. Was this the ghost of room thirteen?
......Just as this thought came to him, the man at last took his eyes from Mark and looked down at the cards spread on the table. Without a word he reached out, gathered them together, and commenced to shuffle the pack. Mark watched in puzzlement as the strange man then placed the cards to one side and reached for the wooden box. He then emptied its contents onto the table and proceeded to share out the gaming chips equally between himself and Mark. This done, he again picked up the cards and dealt five each to the pair of them.
......Relief flooded Mark. Poker - the man wanted to play poker. He could not be a ghost. To his knowledge, ghosts were insubstantial, ethereal beings; they did not have the ability to manipulate solid objects like cards and chips. The man opposite him was solid and real; he handled the cards with the easy skill of long practice. No, this was no ghost.
......He was further reassured by recalling that Charlie King employed some very odd people. He also recalled that he had heard it rumoured that one of his men, a mysterious man with certain ruthless qualities, who King used when he required a more nefarious deed performing, was totally dumb. Rumour also had it that this man had no tongue. Was this that man? It would certainly account for him not speaking. It would also settle the niggling point that, except for the uncomfortable feeling he had experienced ever since leaving the club last night that he was being covertly observed, Mark had seen no sign of King's men. Yes, King must have sent this man to see that Mark was keeping to the deal.
......It was paradoxical that Mark should feel reassured to be in the company of, if the rumours were true, such an evil man; but he much preferred it to the alternative. The man was again giving him the same intent stare. Mark felt compelled to pick up the five cards in front of him and to place one of his chips in the middle of the table as an ante. The pallid man did the same, and they began to play poker.
......It was the strangest game Mark had ever taken part in. Conducted in absolute silence, the other making it clear when he wished to fold, raise or call by his actions: placing more chips in the centre, throwing in or revealing his cards as appropriate. All the while, Mark's partner maintained his relentless stare. For a long time neither player achieved the upper hand, each one of them winning or losing in equal measure and their respective pile of chips remaining much the same as at the outset.
......Absorbed in the game, Mark was heedless of the night passing except by the slowly shrinking candle. Comfortable with the familiar procedure of the game he loved, his mind emptied of thoughts of ghosts and evil henchmen. He was even able to ignore the constant stare of his partner. All was silent, except for the click and rattle of chips and the slap of cards on the table. It was some time in the early hours of the morning that the atmosphere of the game changed. For a long period Mark had been steadily losing. It did not concern him at first, until he became aware of an alteration in his opponent's play. The silent man began to place higher and higher stakes, forcing Mark to follow suit or abandon his cards. Each hand that Mark received was worse than the last, obliging him to attempt to bluff with the weakest cards. The implacable white-faced man was impossible to bluff, and he relentlessly forced the stakes ever higher.
......There was too, a subtle change in the other's demeanour that became more pronounced as Mark continued to lose. It was not a change in his expression, for that had remained the same throughout; his rigid stare was unaltered. His was the original 'poker face'. It was something that emanated from him: a defiance, a challenge. It was as if the game had become more serious, as if much more was at stake than a few plastic chips. Something, he knew not what, told Mark he could not, must not lose. More - it was imperative that he win.
......Mark's stock of chips continued to dwindle. He played ever more recklessly. Then at last it seemed his luck changed. He had a full house, one of the highest hands possible. He controlled the joy that came to his face and put more chips into the pot, raising the stakes. His opponent matched him and placed more chips in, increasing the stake further. He must be bluffing! Mark raised again, and so did the other. Back and forth it went.
......Then at last, Mark threw the last of his chips into the middle and slapped his cards triumphantly face up on the table, calling his adversary. With a wide grin, he waited for the other to show his own cards. His expression as unperturbed as ever, the pale man slowly placed his cards one by one in front of him. Mark's grin slowly faded as each card was revealed. This was impossible!
......Laid out in an orderly row were the nine, ten, Jack, Queen, and King of Diamonds. A straight flush! Mark had lost.
......He looked helplessly across the table. For the first time, the blank face opposite him wore a sign of emotion. The white-faced man was smiling. Slowly, without seeming to move at all, he stood, until he towered over Mark. Mark felt rooted to his chair. Then, in a fluid motion, as if he floated across the floor, the man moved around the table until he stood behind Mark. He placed his hands on Mark's shoulders. They felt like blocks of ice. Impelled by a force he was incapable of withstanding, Mark rose from the table. Guided by the man's cold grip, he walked stumblingly towards the bed.
......Promptly at ten o'clock in the morning Charlie King, accompanied by two large associates, stepped into room thirteen of Duville House. On a table were a gutted candle, an empty wooden box, a pile of scattered gaming chips and a pack of playing cards. Five of the cards were spread out in a poker hand. From the cross member of a large four-poster bed, hanging by a rope, which had tied a drape to one of the bedposts, was the body of Mark Tyler.
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