“Life is a game,” the silhouette said. The glare of the sun in Daniel Mordakin’s eyes showed little more than an outline of the distant figure, but in his mind the bound man could see Frank Disponi standing before him: curly black hair contrasting his pale face and hands; even in the constant sun of the Nevada desert Daniel couldn’t imagine the slightest tan on Frank’s creamy skin. Daniel could see the pressed black suit the man always wore, seeming to glimmer as he walked. Image, Frank had told him, is the most important thing a man can have. People identify and judge a man by his image, and his reputation is dependent upon it. Daniel could see the man perfectly, but there was one feature that stuck out in Daniel’s mind above all the rest:
Frank’s sky blue eyes that pierced into Daniel’s soul, examining and discarding the inner workings as he saw fit. It was Frank’s eyes that had gotten him the position in the Society: no one dared to challenge him. His friends and enemies alike would take one look into those eyes and know that they would not find sympathy or forgiveness. Those eyes made Frank a killer, and even without his cold blooded reputation they were enough to inspire fear in the people he dealt with. For Daniel, the eyes told him in no uncertain terms that he would soon be dead.
A year ago, Daniel had been in desperate need of money with nowhere to turn. None of his friends had the kind of money he needed—nearly seventeen thousand—and the banks turned him away at the door under new pressure from the Federal Government to cut back on bad loans. The collapse of the housing industry had put him to the point of financial ruin, and he had turned to the last place possible to save his business and his family. How different Frank had been back then, and Daniel had even come to envy him for his clarity and decisiveness. Certainly they were never friends, but back then there was no animosity between them. There was a sureness about him that made everyone feel confident and inspired. Daniel had decided to take the money, rescue his company, and repay the loan to the Society with interest.
But it wasn’t enough. Throwing money at the sinkhole of a problem didn’t help save the company, and it barely kept him afloat for a few more months. The company was destined to fail, and now there was nothing left of the loan. The sharks had come, threatened and intimidated him, but to no avail. Frank had finally given him the ultimatum a week ago to have the money or watch his family killed in front of his eyes. Daniel had done the only logical thing.
He had run.
“A game that no one wins. Our day to day lives are comprised of details and motions. Most people eat at the same restaurants, drink at the same bars, and mate with the same people they have their entire lives. We are afraid to make choices, and this makes us weak.”
Frank paused and reached in his pocket, letting out a sigh. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Marlboro’s and shook it. One cigarette left. He slid it out and pulled a knife out of his pocket jacket pocket. Diligently, he cut the filtered end off of the cigarette and flicked it into the desert, placing the cut end between his lips to wet the tobacco. A moment later, he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and began pacing.
“There is one choice that will haunt us forever. Very few people will ever be confronted with it, and even then many of them will be unwilling to actually make it. I have made a number of decisions in my life, some of them good, some not so good but even I have never been in the position to make a real choice.”
“Time,” Daniel said, barely more than a whisper. His throat was parched and he was starting to lose the ability to think clearly from the fumes. Sweat was pouring down his face in great rivers and he tried to get some of it into his mouth. It was salty and bitter, but at least it was wet. “I’ll get the money with more time.”
“We’ve moved past this.”
Frank walked away from the car in a semi-circle to behind Daniel, and the bound man was unable to follow his movements. “You never really made a choice. You took the money, spent and lost it all, and yet never made a choice. It was all an act of necessity, and so there is no blame to place on you. I cannot judge you for it because it was an act of desperation. Desperation demands condolence.”
The voice drifted slowly around Daniel as Frank walked, first on his left and ending on his right. The voice fell silent; the only sound came from Daniel’s lips as they struggle for air. Finally, Frank spoke again, softly in Daniel’s ear from only inches away. “I envy you. Greater men then either of us have spent their entire lives never experiencing what you will experience. Be thankful.”
Daniel remained quiet, trying to keep his focus through the fumes. Frank came into view once more, stepping in front of the chair and kneeling in front of Daniel, bringing their eyes to level. “Your family is in the Rio Grand hotel, in room thirty-four and being watched by two of my men. They are awaiting my orders to eliminate both in the best way they see fit. Your daughter has attracted quite a bit of attention.”
Frank slipped the cigarette between his lips and in practiced motions flipped a Zippo lighter open, lit the cigarette, and slipped the lighter back into his pocket. He inhaled deeply and blew a puff of smoke into the air between them. Daniel coughed lightly, turning his head to the side. Frank stared at him for a long moment, waiting until Daniel turned to face him again. “You have stolen from my dearest friend, and the penalty is death.”
Frank stood up and took another drag on the cigarette to get it burning smoothly. With a quick tap of loose ashes, he slipped the cigarette between Daniel’s lips. The bound man’s eyes went wide and he clenched down on the cigarette with realization, tilting his head back a little bit. Frank turned and walked back to his black Sedan, opening the driver’s side door and turning back to face the bound man.
“Eat the cigarette, and I will forgive your crimes and kill your family, but you will walk free. Drop the cigarette onto the gasoline on the ground and your legs, and I will order my men to leave the hotel and allow your family to leave in peace. If the cigarette burns out, you all die.”
Frank climbed slowly into the car, placing one hand thoughtfully on his chin as he watched Daniel. After a few moments, he reached to the passenger seat and grabbed a pack of Marlboro Lights, pulling off the cellophane and lighting a new cigarette. “You’re paying attention, right?”
The figure in the back seat leaned forward slightly, face shadowed in the dim light. “Why did you do that?” the voice asked. “You were ordered to kill him and his family, and now you’ve given him a way out. You wouldn’t dare abide by your end of the deal, would you?”
“I will. A deal is a deal no matter what is at stake.” Frank took a long drag on the cigarette, letting the smoke curl in the air in front of him. “Watch him closely, and you can see the inner workings of what it is to be a man. He is struggling with his own existence, testing his inner mettle. Most people assume what they would do in this situation, and it is a rare select few that actually get to find out. If he chooses the heroic route, he dies alone in an unmarked grave, forgotten. If he chooses the selfish route, others have to pay the cost, yet he gets to continue living. It is a test now between the strength of his character and his ability to rationalize failure.”
Frank lowered the cigarette and brought a hand to his eyes. A small amount of moisture came away on his fingertips. “I have given him the greatest honor one man can give to another.”
“What have you given him?”
Frank took a long drag on his cigarette and started the ignition on the car. “I have given him the ability to choose his own death.”
In front of the car, the cigarette slipped from Daniel’s lips and his entire body erupted in flame. Slowly, the car drove away.