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play for keeps

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Billy lifts the gun to his head, presses the barrel against his temple. His eyes are fixed on Sean’s the whole time. He doesn’t blink as he pulls the trigger. The click reverberates through the silent room. Sean lets out a breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.

‘Billy,’ he mutters, for no real reason.

‘Bang,’ Billy says, and passes the gun back to Sullivan. The rat’s sweating now, face flushed. Sean can see a drop of moisture roll down his neck.

Good. Let him sweat.

He looks down at the gun in his hand and Billy sinks forward, resting his forehead in his palms, breathing heavily. Sean takes a step forward.

‘Don’t even think about it,’ Costello grunts from across the room. Sean stops. Billy’s head snaps back up. Sullivan’s eyes are still on the gun.

‘Can I at least check on him?’ Sean asks bitterly. Costello stares him down for a moment before speaking again.


Billy looks at him.

‘How are you son?’

Sean sees, pretty much hears, Billy swallow.

‘I’m good, Mr. Costello, I’m just fine.’

Costello sneers at Sean. ‘You hear that, you piece of shit rat? He’s just fine. Back off.’

Sean looks at Billy and waits until he nods to move back. Sullivan spins the cylinder, and all eyes snap back to him.


Friday, 9:12

It’s way too early for this shit, Sean thinks as he practically knocks back his cup of coffee (black, two sugars, Billy had it waiting on the table for him).

‘We don’t have to do this, Bill,’ he says again when he’s put the mug down. Billy paces back and forth in front of the table, not listening. ‘Bill, I mean it, you said this would be a last resort...’

‘And I think we’re pretty much fucking there, don’t you, Sean?’ He stops pacing and rounds on Sean, staring him down and gesturing wildly. ‘How far are we from the last resort now? A day, two days? This is the last day we’ve got, the game’s tomorrow night. We sign up today, have a last hurrah tonight, go out with a bang tomorrow.’

‘Don’t you fucking say that...’

‘Or not, Sean, don’t you get it? There’s no guarantee we come out of this, sure, but there’s still a chance. A tiny slim fucking hair’s width of a chance is better than where we stand right now. This time on Sunday it’ll have been a week and we’re fucked, he’s coming for our fingers, our toes, our cocks, our throats, we don’t fucking know! We sign up today or we start saying goodbye to our digits.’

Sean looks down at his coffee. ‘We don’t have anything to bet.’

‘We bet the debt.’

Sean, with his mug halfway to his mouth, breaks at that. The mug hits the dirty linoleum, and doesn’t quite smash. It’s anticlimactic, but he still swears at the spillage.

‘Fuck!’ Then to Billy, ‘fuck, no, we aren’t doing that.’


‘Look nothing, alright, we are not doing that. You think he’ll go for that? He’ll blow our brains out where we stand if we suggest that to him. It’s bad enough we incurred a debt against him, you want to bet it against him too?’

‘I think he’d take it.’

‘What the fuck makes you think that could possibly happen?’

‘He’s a risk taker,’ Billy says, ‘and he likes other risk takers. He might want our digits but he’ll jump at another opportunity for us to humiliate ourselves further. And I bet he’d love to see you pull the trigger and smear the side of your head against a wall yourself.’

‘That’s comforting.’

‘Rather than having French do it, I mean.’

‘So you want me to do it? And you’ll bet, yeah?’

Billy almost opens his mouth to say yes, but he looks at Sean, sat at their lopsided table in their grimy linoleum kitchen, cold coffee staining his socks, his hair ruffled and his eyes red from lack of sleep, dark circles under his eyes, his fingernails bitten down to the quick and wearing Billy’s shirt and what he actually says is -

‘No.’ Sean stares at him, but Billy knows he’s saying the right thing, making the right decision. ‘No, I’ll do it. We need me to do it, you need me to do it. It’s more my debt than yours, anyway. I’ll play, and you bet.’

‘It’s as much my debt, Bill...’

‘No, it’s fucking not, alright? I’m the one saying we should play, so I’m going to be the one who plays.’ He pauses, and then before he can stop himself; ‘I don’t want you anywhere near that fucking gun.’


Thursday, 13:37

It’s Delahunt that meets them at the door and takes them inside the bar, passing them off to Fitz, who greets them with a sneer and a strong Irish accent.

‘I don’t see any money on yous, boys. He won’t like that, you’d’a been better off runnin’.’

‘We aren’t going anywhere,’ Billy says, right as Sean growls, ‘we don’t run.’

Fitz just keeps sneering, leading them into the back and leaving them. Costello himself is nowhere to be seen, for which, French says when he looks up and sees them standing there, they should be grateful.

‘You can’t be fucking serious,’ French says when Billy tells him why they’ve come. ‘You know how the game works, and if you’ve got nothing to bet, you can’t fucking play. And I know you’ve got nothing to bet because you’ve incurred a debt upwards of three thousand dollars to Mr Costello. If you had any money to bet, you wouldn’t be here fucking betting it.’

‘We want to bet the debt.’ Billy’s voice doesn’t shake, even as French stares at him, even as the door behind them opens and closes again. Neither of them look back as the tension in the room grows.

‘You what?’

‘You heard,’ Sean snaps. ‘We win, the debt’s wiped. We lose, it doubles.’

‘You think Mr Costello’s going to take that bet?’ French asks, as though he's not standing right behind them.

‘We figured it was worth the risk,’ Billy replies calmly.

‘I ought to kill the both of you right here,’ Costello says as he passes Billy. Sean sees him barely resist shuddering. Costello’s hands are red, and he stinks of sweat and booze and smoke. Sean looks him in the eye.

‘Well we’re here, aren’t we?’ Billy asks. ‘Why don’t you go ahead?’

There’s a long pause. Costello looks at them for a long time, and then slowly starts to laugh. French chuckles along. Sean and Billy know better than to relax.

‘You want to put three hundred grand that you don’t have on the table and risk your lives on it?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Yes sir.’

Costello laughs again. ‘Well you’ve certainly piqued my interest. But it won’t be as simple as double or nothing, and you should know better than to come in here expecting that.’

‘We figured that was the best case scenario,’ Sean says drily.

‘You play with us, you play for keeps,’ French says, no illusion of smalltalk here. Sean nods.

‘Play to keep our lives, you mean?’

Billy looks at Sean and thinks, play to keep you.


Saturday, 16:23

It isn’t until Billy pulls the trigger the first time and the empty chamber clicks that Sean realises where the are and what they’re doing and the real gravity of it all. If Billy dies here, they’re both fucked, the debt’s unpaid, and they’re both going to hell… But it’s more than that, because if Billy dies here, then he’s dead, and Sean’s just stood and watched him shoot himself. Billy Costigan, his best friend… the love of his fucking life. Sean’s wagering money on Billy’s life. Sean wants to be sick.

What a time for that realisation to hit, here and now, passing a loaded gun around the table. They either win today, or they die. Sean just hopes the other players blow their brains out soon, because he’s not sure he can stay standing for much longer. His legs feel weak, his skin feels too hot. His stomach churns and he thinks he’s swaying-

He’s torn from his reverie by a great bang, a gunshot that rattles the door and goes right through him. He’s wheeling to face Billy immediately, although he knows it can’t really be him, he just had his turn and he’s fine…

Sure enough, he’s still alive, though hardly fine. He’s staring at Mr Delahunt, collapsed on the table. Blood is running from the gaping wound on the side of his head, a hole Sean can pretty much see straight through, towards Billy’s fingers, white and clenched around the edge of the table. His face is pale and shiny, mouth and eyes both wide open. Across the room, Costello clicks his tongue.

‘Shame,’ he says, and waves his hand. French gets up from his seat and grabs the back of Delahunt’s chair, pulling it away from the table to the back wall. Then he takes the cloth Costello offers him and begins to wipe the table.

‘I think I’m gonna be sick,’ Billy mutters, and before he can stop himself, Sean’s speaking up.

‘Mr Costello, I’d like a moment to check on my friend?’ Costello barely looks up before waving his hand dismissively, and Sean hurries to Billy’s side. ‘Bill, pal, are you okay? Holy shit, this is fucking intense, huh? Are you holding up alright?’ He pauses. ‘Do you want… We can forfeit, you know, if we need to, or I could play instead...’

‘No fucking way,’ Billy grits out. He’s shaking under Sean’s hands when Sean holds his arms. ‘I am not walking away from this, we need it. I’m not gonna leave this table 'til they drag my chair away like they did him.’

French returns to his seat, dropping into it heavily, and picking up the gun in front of him, fishing another bullet out of his pocket and reloading it. It’ll be his turn next, and everyone’s resigned. French never loses a game.

Sean swallows. ‘Bill...’

The hammer clicks back, and Sean looks up to find himself staring down the barrel. Everyone looks at him, and he realises with a flash of dread that he’s holding up the game.

Billy gives him a weak smile. ‘I’ll be fine, Sean. I’m fine. You’re right there, you’ve got my back, I know you do. Go on. I’m fine.’

Sean hesitates, before nodding, squeezing Billy’s biceps as he straightens back up and returns to his spot as spectator at the edge of the room. His eyes flick over to the recently deceased Delahunt without his permission. He thinks he might have known the guy, from somewhere. He’s not sure where. He tries to ignore it, recover his thoughts from before the first death of the game… but then he remembers what he was thinking, wishing someone would hurry up and die so they could get the whole thing over with, and he feels sick again.


Friday, 22:56

‘We should go to bed,’ Billy says, stubbing out his cigarette. Sean keeps staring into the bottom of his bottle. ‘Sean, did you hear me, I said...’

‘Yeah, I heard you.’ He tips the bottle back and shuts his eyes at the burn. Billy watches him sadly.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much tonight.’

‘What, so I can watch you die with a clear head?’

Billy scowls. ‘Stop acting like it’s a certainty!’

‘You stop acting like there’s no way in hell it’s going to happen, then!’ Sean is suddenly furious, gesturing angrily with the bottle and not seeming to notice that he’s spilling whiskey on himself. ‘Stop acting like everything’s going to be okay! You’re probably going to fucking die tomorrow!’

‘It’s only a one in six chance, Sean...’

‘So they say. You don’t think there’s a chance they’ll rig it? We aren’t the people for this, Bill. We can’t go into this game with crooks like these, it’s the fucking mob.’

‘And we can’t hold up a debt for three fucking grand to the goddamn mob, Sean, this is the only chance we’ve got. We’re in the game now, no ifs and no buts, and no amount of whiskey is going to change that.’


Saturday, 17:01

Sullivan passes the gun to French, and the cylinder spins. Billy’s stopped looking at Sean now; his gaze is constantly fixed on Sullivan. They’re the last three standing, and he doesn’t seem so scared anymore. He’s practically lazing in his chair, smirking every time the trigger clicks on an empty chamber, sliding the gun across the table towards Sullivan’s shaking sweating form and waving his hands to say, it’s all yours, pal. Sean wants to kiss him and throttle him. He does neither. He stays standing where he is.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do if they lose.

There’s a loud bang and everyone jumps in shock and horror, because of all the deaths so far, this is the least expected, this is the one nobody thought to account for - least of all Costello, who jumps to his feet and practically roars.

French had never lost a game before.

Billy and Sullivan stare as his limp body finally overbalances and topples out of the chair. Nobody goes to move him. There’s two players left.


Saturday, 17:35

‘Costigan? How are you son?’

Billy swallows, smiles a fake smile. ‘I’m good, Mr. Costello, I’m just fine.’

He nods at Sean, and Sean steps backwards. Opposite him, the cylinder stops spinning and Sullivan presses the barrel to his head. He holds Billy’s gaze while he inhales, but on the exhale his eyes squeeze shut. His finger squeezes at the same time.


A collective sigh passes through the room. Sean hates this, doesn’t even really know Sullivan and wishes the prick would just blow his brains out already, end it, let him and Billy go.

Billy, in contrast, wants to drag this out as much as possible. He wouldn’t say he’s enjoying himself, but the thrill is new. Horrible, but unfamiliar, and exciting. He knows the toll it’s taking on Sean, but he also knows that the sooner the game ends, the more bored Costello feels by the events, the less likely they are to leave with their lives after all.

He takes the gun from Sullivan, winks at him, and looks briefly at Sean for the first time in just over an hour. Sean looks paler than usual and his familiar scowl seems more worried than pissed. Billy smiles at him, gives him a brief nod, and hopes he isn’t imagining the softness in Sean’s eyes. Once they get out of this, once they’re free, there’s so much he’s going to do with this man…

He looks back at Sullivan and holds his gaze when he pulls the trigger, the way Sullivan couldn’t during his turns.

The loud bang sends Sean reeling backwards.


Saturday, 17:36

Billy’s blood is bright red and spills in an endless rush from the the wound the other side of his head, the side pressed to the table, the side Sean can’t see. Sean can see the side the bullet entered, and above and beyond that, he can see Billy’s face, eyes open, mouth smiling ever so slightly.

He’s seen a lot of death today, but none makes him retch like this.

He bends double, hacking and coughing, but nothing comes out and he comes back to himself in time to see Costello approach Billy’s chair to drag him to the other side of the room.

‘Don’t you fucking dare,’ he spits. Costello looks at him.

‘He played his game and he lost,’ Costello growls. ‘It happens. That’s how it works. He was lucky to get this far.’ He pauses. ‘He beat Mr French.’

‘I don’t give a fuck about Mr fucking French!’ Sean roars, and the footsteps in the bar above them pause momentarily in a way they never did when the gun went off. Clearly, someone shouting at Mr Costello is a stranger phenomenon than gunfire coming from the basement.

‘You watch your tone,’ Sullivan snaps, coming to Costello’s defence.

‘It’s alright Colin,’ Costello says, but Sean talks over him.

‘Shut the fuck up you piece of shit,’ Sean snarls, then he wheels around, staring down Costello and pointing at him in a way nobody would ever dare to do. ‘Don’t you touch William fucking Costigan. Back the fuck away.’

To Sean's surprise, Costello seems to recognise what’s going on inside him right now - the pain and fear and grief and rage - and lifts his hands, taking two steps back. Sean steps forward and sinks to his knees next to Billy’s chair, taking the gun out of his limp hand and pressing his palm to Billy’s cheek. He’s cold. The blood continues to pump.

Sullivan’s chair makes a squealing noise as he stands up and pushes it back and Sean’s on his feet in an instant.

‘Sit back down.’

‘I won,’ Sullivan says, like that matters.

‘Like that fucking matters, sit the fuck back down.’

Sullivan looks at the hand Sean’s still got pressed to Billy’s cheek and smirks, dropping into his seat like he wasn’t sweating and shitting himself only a few minutes before.

‘I’m sorry for your loss, I hadn’t realised you two were homos. I’m sorry you had to lose him like this.’ He seems almost sincere and Sean laughs, spinning the cylinder. Sullivan’s eyes widen minutely. ‘What are you doing? The game’s over, I won.’

‘The game’s over when the last man is standing,’ Sean replies, still spinning. The chambers rolls through one after another. ‘There’s still three men standing.’

‘You two aren’t fucking players,’ Sullivan protests, but he shuts up when Sean points the gun at him.

‘My debt’s still on the table,’ he says. ‘The game’s not over til I say so.’ He glances at Costello. ‘You in, Francis?’

Costello eyes the gun and then looks at Sean with a slimy smile. ‘I’m all in.’

Sean pulls the trigger, and swears when he hears the click. The sooner this is over and done with, the better. He hands it to Sullivan, who, he’s pleased to notice, is shaking again. He hates the fucker.

Spin, hammer, trigger. Click.

‘Fucking prick,’ Sean spits immediately. ‘You fucking asshole, I should kill you with my own fucking hands.’

‘Go fuck yourself, faggot,’ Sullivan sneers back.

‘Will you both just shut the fuck up,’ Costello growls, taking the gun from Sullivan. ‘Like tiny fucking babies, the pair of you.’

Spin, hammer, trigger.


Frank Costello hits the ground with a thud and Sullivan’s out of his seat immediately, backing away, staring and shaking his head.

‘Motherfucker,’ Sean says, and Sullivan rounds on him.

‘It’s your fault.’

‘He played his game and he lost,’ Sean replies, mirroring Costello’s words with a smirk. ‘That’s how it works.’ He pauses. ‘Do you forfeit?’

Sullivan, coward that he is, is hooked on that. ‘What happens if I forfeit?’

‘I blow your brains out right here, right now.’ He shrugs. ‘Either way, one of us isn’t leaving this room. Don’t you want to take the chance?’

He spins the cylinder, presses the barrel to his head, cocks the hammer.

‘Fine,’ Sullivan snaps. Sean pulls the trigger.


‘This is fucking ridiculous,’ he mutters, and hands the gun over. Sullivan points it at him immediately. Sean rolls his eyes. ‘You're fucking kidding me? I thought you might keep the game up, but this… How fucking predictable,’ he sneers, and goes down hard.