-A tale of moral hazard-


Though still a young man, Rebus had a lot of people depending on him. He lived with his wife and five kids in a big house in Edinburgh. His mortgage was hefty, as was his bill for school fees and housekeeping.

But Rebus was well on top of things; prospering. He had a good job, and was earning good money. The job brought responsibility, but this sat easily on Rebus’s shoulders. He was a confident, capable guy. He was good looking and good company. He had charisma. The people who worked for him liked him. They knew he had his job on merit, not just because his Dad owned the company.

But while Rebus presented the image of a respectable family man and business leader he also had a secret side to his life. Twice a week, after the kids were in bed, he would leave his big house in its leafy suburban avenue, and meet up with his friend Dave. Together, Rebus and Dave would go to an unlicensed gambling club in the city centre.

Rebus enjoyed his day job well enough, but the truth is he found it a little dull. He loved his family, and appreciated his comfortable life. But at the club, well, that’s where he really felt alive. It was a single room, behind a nondescript heavy black door. And Rebus and Dave had become the Kings of the room.

They had a plan, a system. And it never failed them. Dave had a Maths degree and he’d figured out the game that was played in the club. He had worked out the odds and devised a strategy that meant they always won. Not every hand. But every night, no matter how their fortunes fluctuated over the hours they spent round the table, they always walked out as winners.

Sometimes they would hit their profit target after an hour, get up and leave. Discipline was essential. Other times they would need to play on into the wee small hours, but always the cards would turn their way eventually. It was a matter of probability and patience. Rebus played the hands, while Dave sat behind him, the man with the plan.

At first Rebus played for small stakes, just pocket money of a few hundred pounds. But as his confidence in Dave’s plan grew he upped the stakes. Before long he was playing with the mortgage money. But it was fine. They never lost. And the more you put in, the more you got out.

After a few months Rebus had become the club’s biggest player and they gave him credit to play. Rebus was good for their business. Players were drawn to the big money action that he generated, wanting their shot at bringing down the King of the room.

The staff at the club treated him right. The doorman who opened that big black door met him with an ‘evening sir’ and took his jacket. They had his seat ready for him at the table. The waitresses brought his drinks in big, heavy cut crystal glasses. On the house. Those waitresses must be models by day, thought Rebus. He wondered where they went after the club closed.

Rebus was now making real money at the club. His gambling winnings were dwarfing his salary. He wasn’t a particularly materialistic man, but he did like the things he could do with his money. The kids got presents, his wife got an extension on the house and the AGA cooker. Rebus got himself a debenture at Murrayfield, sponsored local teams and gave to charities. He treated himself to one proper indulgence – a red Ferrari California Convertible. He loved his cars.

Life was good for Rebus.

Rebus’s Dad was a pillar of his community. A long career in business had seen him run and sell several companies. He’s built up a considerable personal wealth. In semi retirement he had a seat on the local council. He knew the value of things, so when he saw the Ferrari in his son’s driveway he knew his salary hadn’t bought it. He brought it up over a pint one Sunday afternoon.

With trepidation Rebus told his Dad about his visits to the gambling club. His Dad was initially alarmed, outraged even at his irresponsibility. But eventually Rebus talked him round. Rebus’s Dad wasn’t a betting man himself, but he understood numbers. He had to admit the record of profitability that Rebus showed him on the spreadsheet he kept was rock solid. And he’d met Dave. There was no doubt the guy was a real genius with figures.

Rebus’s Dad had to admit, it was a good business. And it meant his son wasn’t financially dependent on him anymore. Rebus was making more a month than he ever did. He liked the way it meant his grandkids got special treats. And Rebus was paying the mortgage and the school fees. He got past his initial reservations. He was proud of his son. And if Rebus was doing his day job well, then he figured he didn’t have the right to interfere.

Rebus lived his ‘double life’ for two years. At work he found himself counting down the hours until he could get back to the club. On those nights, as he walked in through the big black door he felt seven feet tall. His usual place at the table was reserved, a drink ready in front of him. An unlimited line of credit was his.

He knew the guys who ran the club had a reputation for breaking kneecaps to retrieve debts if they had to. But he and Dave were treated with nothing but respect. Dave drank, and chatted to the waitresses more than he watched the cards these days. But he was a reassuring presence. Rebus felt safe with Dave at his back.

Then one day it all went wrong.

Rebus and Dave arrived at the club in the Ferrari. They strode in through the big black door and Rebus took his usual seat at the table.

At first it was like a normal night, like any of the hundreds of sessions at the table that had come before. But then Rebus got a run of bad cards unlike anything he’d ever seen. Card after card was bad. It was incredible. Rebus called Dave to stand beside him. But Dave just smiled, and told Rebus not to worry. It was just a bad run. It didn’t change anything. Things would revert to the mean. Trust in the system. Trust in the maths. The cards would turn.

But they didn’t. The bad cards kept coming.

Rebus felt his back getting clammy with sweat. He wiped his brow with a napkin. He shifted in his seat. He looked at Dave, who now looked awfully pale. Dave’s mouth was drawn tight, his brow furrowed, but he gave Rebus a reassuring nod.

Soon Rebus was in way deeper than he’d ever been before. Dave’s system involved increasing the stakes as a losing run happened. That way one win recovered all the previous losses. Rebus’s credit was good, which was just as well. He was now betting more in a single hand than he’d won in all his time playing at the club. The numbers were dizzying, unreal.

Still the cards didn’t turn. Rebus could feel sweat running down his back. Beads of sweat dropped off his nose onto the table. There was a rushing sound in his ears. He turned to look at Dave. Dave forced a smile and nodded. He put his arm round Rebus, leaning in close, his voice low and urgent, ‘Don’t worry. Trust the system. It’s alright’.

And then the end came. The final turn of the last card. Rebus was all in. This was it. Everything rode on this last card. The last card of the last hand. Rebus had lost track of how much he’d bet, how much money was riding on the last card. It was more money then he could get his head round. It was everything.

Time slowed down.

Rebus turned to Dave. And the bastard was smiling! Dave’s face was ghostly pale, but his eyes were steady, staring at the cards on the table, a grim smile fixed. ‘It’s fine’ he said to Rebus, without breaking his gaze on the table . ‘Any card will do. We can’t lose. We’re alright.’.

And Rebus realised in that moment that he didn’t really understand the game. In all this time playing at the club, he’d never really understood it. Not properly anyway. Not the way Dave did. Dave understood the Maths. But that wasn’t Rebus’ thing. He was the game player.

Thank God Dave knew what he was doing. Thank God that no matter what card got turned over now they were safe. He was going to win back everything he’d lost in the last couple of hours, and could walk out level, his head above water.

He knew then for certain that this was his very last card. He didn’t ever want to go through this again. He couldn’t. No amount of money was worth the sick feeling that was engulfing, suffocating him. They’d turn the card. He’d win and get back to even. And he’d walk out of the club and he wouldn’t ever, ever go back. He was done.

The dealer reached out to the last face down card. The eyes of the whole room were trained on this little rectangle of card. Dave was standing, arm resting on Rebus’ shoulder, staring too. Dave’s face white and moist with sweat. His jaw was set but still he had that grim smile playing at the edges of his mouth.

The dealer turned over the card.

Rebus blinked. He wasn’t sure what he was looking at. The card didn’t look familiar. Was the sweat from his forehead blurring his vision? He rubbed at his eyes, and stared at the card. It had a single shape in the middle. In black. The shape of a bird. A swan. A black swan. Rebus had never seen a black swan card before. He didn’t know what it meant.

But Dave had said any card would be fine. He turned to look at Dave, and instantly he knew that something was wrong. It wasn’t fine.

Dave started to back away, his mouth open and his eyes wide in shock. His hands moved to his head in a silent scream. ‘Dave?’. But Dave kept moving backwards. His back hit the wall, and he turned, scrambling for the handle to the black door. He found it, pulled the door open. And he was gone.

Rebus turned back to the table. Everything had gone fuzzy, blurred. He couldn’t hear properly, there was a buzzing in his ears. He was aware of somebody standing next to him briefly, then moving away. There was a piece of paper on the table, with numbers on it that made no sense to Rebus.

It was like a dream, a bad dream. Rebus couldn’t focus, couldn’t get his head around what had just happened. Where he was, what he should do.

Without knowing how he got there, he found himself standing outside in the lane, in front of the big black door.

And then it hit him. Realisation broke over him like a wave of icy water. He’d just lost everything! Not just everything he owned, but everything he would ever earn and own.

It was all gone. He was done. He was broken.

His mind raced through images. He pictured his wife crying inconsolably. He saw his car being driven away by a stranger. He pictured himself walking away from his house, never to return.

But then he saw much worse things. His kids. Sickening images raced through his mind. His kids in rags, hands out begging for food. Sitting, dressed in rags, knees drawn up to their chests, sobbing. He saw a picture of his little girl, emaciated, lying dead on a dirty floor. Her eyes still open, frozen in a blank stare.

‘Oh my fucking God!’.

He vomited, and pitched forward. The sick splattered the pavement. He was sobbing, retching, heaving. Tears, sweat and vomit merged to form slimy dribbles that dangled from his mouth and chin.

He stared around for something, anything. A gun, a knife or a cliff to jump off. Death must feel better than this. He tried to pull himself together. Why would there be a gun? There are no cliffs here. Get a grip of yourself Rebus, Christ!

He started moving as if in a trance, he didn’t know where. His legs were working independently of his brain. He was stumbling, staggering through the night, bouncing off walls, trees and bins like a blind drunk man. His legs carried him away from the club. Away from the scene of his devastation.

Rebus didn’t know how long he had been moving; minutes or hours? He awoke from his fug with a start. Suddenly he was very aware of his body, his breathing, his heart beating. He was standing at a gate, at the top of a driveway to a house he knew well. Without moving consciously, without knowing how he got here, Rebus found himself standing outside his Dad’s house.

It was late, very late. The small hours of the morning. But he knew this couldn’t wait.

Ten minutes later he was sitting in his Dad’s kitchen, telling him everything. Unable to meet his Dad’s eye he gave him the whole story, with his head bowed. He recounted the events of the night mechanically like it was someone else’s bad dream. Rebus passed his Dad the piece of paper, the one with the incomprehensible numbers on it. Rebus sat in the kitchen with his hands round a mug of coffee, staring at the floor.

His Dad embarked on a light-speed rollercoaster of emotions, processing the information his son had just dropped on him. Shock and disbelief spun into anger, which twisted into a cold fury. Then came the disappointment, which for Rebus was the worst. Rebus managed to raise his eyes to look into his father’s face and the expression of such utter disappointment he saw there was truly awful. Rebus broke down into wild, uncontrolled, heaving sobs.

It didn’t take long for Rebus’s Dad’s mind to clear. He saw what had to be done. There was no question of him cutting his son loose, seeing him get his legs broken or his family out on the street. Beyond the shock, anger and disappointment lay cold realities. Rebus was the person who looked after his grandkids. He needed Rebus to run the business. He loved his son.

And, lurking at the back of his mind, Rebus’s Dad knew he couldn’t totally absolve himself of blame here. He had known about the gambling club. He could have stopped it if he’d wanted to. As his boss if not his Dad he could have pulled Rebus away from the club. But he’d been drawn in too, seduced by the winning record, by Dave. By the rewards that came from Rebus’s glorious winning run. It had all seemed so good, so perfect. And now it had all gone so terribly wrong. But it was a mess he could fix. He had to fix it.

He spelled out to Rebus what was to be done. He would pay off the gambling club for him. It was more money than he had in the bank, but he could raise it, borrow if necessary. The Ferrari and the debenture would have to go. But Rebus could keep his job and his house. He would take 80% of the equity of Rebus’s house.

And Rebus was to swear, on his kids’ lives that he was never, ever to go anywhere near the gambling club again. He was to concentrate on his job. On being a husband and father.

Rebus agreed without hesitation. The gratitude and relief he felt was overwhelming. He walked out of his Dad’s house, down the drive and out into the street. He headed for home feeling numb, like the last few hours had been a surreal dream. The little ball in the pit of his stomach was still there, but it emitted a faint glow of warmth. He was still alive. He was ok. His family was going to be alright.

Rebus pulled himself together. He sold the Ferrari and the debenture, and did the paperwork on the house. He went to work, and he worked hard. He spent more time at home, did more things with his kids.

The relief of his bail-out dominated his thoughts for several months. The actual events of the night faded over time, becoming less and less real. More like vague images from on old movie. Only sometimes the little knot in his stomach would tighten and burn, a remnant, a piece of shrapnel left over from the night he nearly died. The night he stared into the abyss, and was only just dragged back in time.

But the knot faded. The glow receded. After a while everything felt normal and safe again. His life slipped back into a routine, a mundane ritual of work and home.

He missed his car and the seat in Murrayfield’s West stand.

One Friday evening, ten months after his big loss in the club, Rebus had some drinks in the pub with the guys from the office after work. He made his excuses around ten and took a stroll through the city, in no real rush to catch a cab home.

He found himself, for the first time in months, in the Edinburgh street which led to the lane with the club. At the top of the lane he stopped. He turned and walked down the lane, past the big black door. There was no-one to be seen, and no noise was audible. But he knew what was going on behind the door, he could picture clearly the table, the dealer, the waitresses, the cards.

There was a little bar in the lane, opposite the door to the club. Rebus went in and bought himself a pint. He took a seat at the window and pulled out his phone. He sent a text to his wife saying he’d be home soon. He checked Facebook and Twitter. But his eyes kept flicking from the screen to the big black door.

He put his phone away, took a sip of his drink and stared properly at the door. That big black door. Like a black hole in space, he could feel its pull. Its gravity was powerful. He pulled his eyes away. He looked up and down the lane at the cars parked by the kerb. A BMW 7 series. A Porsche Cayenne SUV. An Aston Martin Vanquish.

Rebus knew the owners of the cars weren’t among the handful of other drinkers in the bar. They were behind that black door. Gambling at the table. Being brought drinks on the house, in those heavy cut crystal glasses. Being called ‘Sir’ by the dealer and the staff. Stacking and fingering piles of chips.

Gambling. Living. Really living.

Rebus finished his pint and stepped outside. He walked a few paces towards the black door. Then he stopped, in the middle of the lane.

His palms were sweaty. His breathing was now quick and shallow. His heart was thumping in his chest. The black hole was tugging at him, trying to drag him forward. He stood there, gazing at the door.

A voice in his head spoke clearly; ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t, you mustn’t!’. Rebus knew the voice was right, it was crazy to even contemplate going through that door. But still he stood, a frantic debate between the bad, and his better angel raging in his brain. What would happen? What would happen if I went through the door?

His better angel was telling him; ‘You would win. You always won. Except that one time.’ But Rebus couldn’t risk that happening again. That was unthinkable. Or was it?

I’m here, after all, thought Rebus. I’m still standing. I’m ok. The kids are fine, sound asleep in their beds at home. My wife is waiting for me, in that big house. I survived. The worst thing that could happen, happened. And I survived. If it happened again the kids wouldn’t die, wouldn’t really become homeless. The old man was always there, he would always be there if I really, really need him.

His Dad. He realised now that he’d always known, deep down, that his Dad would be there. He couldn’t let his grandkids starve, could he? His Dad loved him and would always have been there for him if something had gone wrong at the club. He knew that. Deep down he’d always known.

That look of disappointment? That was tough at the time no doubt. But it wasn’t like he hadn’t told his Dad what he was doing. He’d told his Dad about the club. If he’d been so disapproving he should have said something then. Not after the event. Always easy to be wise after the event.

And Rebus felt a surge of resentment at his Dad for making him feel so bad, for that look of disappointment. Who the hell did he think he was?

A car turned into the lane and Rebus had to move quickly back onto the pavement. He raised his hand to the driver in apology. He gave his head a shake, woken from his thoughts. What the hell was he thinking?

Rebus pictured his Dad’s face from that night, the mask of disappointment. And now he felt hot shame flush up through his body into his face. How could he even have let those thoughts get into his head?

He turned away from the door and walked up the lane, turning onto the street in search of a cab.

After just a few yards Rebus saw a taxi with its orange light on, parked at the kerb. He got a thumbs-up from the driver and climbed in, gave his address and sat back in the seat. He tipped his head backwards, closed his eyes and blew out a huge lungful of air.

The taxi pulled away and rumbled over the cobbles. Rebus opened his eyes just as the cab reached the top of the lane. He caught a glimpse of the black door.

That black door.

The fleeting image was burned in his mind.

That big black door.

Its relentless, inexorable, irresistible pull.

The wonders that lay behind it. Excitement. Money. Feeling alive, really alive.

All men die, but not all men truly live.

And Rebus knew.

Knew now for certain that he would walk through that door again.

Not today.

But one day.

One day soon.


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