Sketching from a photograph again…
Once again, I’m working on editing another fantastic, mind-bending story from Mr. Cake (cakeordeathsite) the first part of which I will share with you here. I’ve turned off comments so please visit his blog and give him some love.
There inevitably comes a point in every gambler’s career when he is compelled to call upon the aid of unseen powers. Because they instinctively follow the smart money, which these days is laid heavily against God, a gambler need only make dubious entreaties to these shadowy entities. But then a true gambler will do anything to win, consequences be damned.
So it was with Max Chasm, who in the early hours of June 23rd of an ill-starred year, was seated at the roulette table in the casino on the 33rd floor of The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton™, in Paradise, Nevada. At 1 am, when his young wife Catherine —always a Cinderella— had left him for their suite and their bed, he found himself ahead and on a streak which he was determined to pursue.
As the hours passed, the tide had slowly but perceptibly turned against him. Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? And once he started, he would have to reveal the true state of affairs, something which he was loathe to contemplate. Max had refused to acknowledge, even in passing, the utter, absolute mess he had created.
Of late, his gambling had become all-consuming, he had lost his job two weeks ago and still hadn’t dropped that bomb on Catherine, and the debts…. oh yes, the debts for which he had borrowed £15,000 from his Grannie. And bless her, the dear soul thought it was a bridging loan to help him start up a restaurant. Of course, once he had the wad in his hot hands, the idea of turning it over to Harry Diamond and all the rest of the piranhas seemed a lot less attractive than going to Vegas and winning a pile. Besides, it would be a nice treat for Catherine —it hadn’t been easy for her lately and she deserved a little spoiling.
“What was I thinking?” Max reproached himself. All his callow dreams were rapidly evaporating and soon he would be forced to confront the unavoidable reality. If Harry didn’t get his money upon Max’s return then Harry would not be best pleased…and you always wanted to stay on the right side of Harry. His experiences growing up a Jew in Belfast during the Troubles, had taught Harry the importance of making examples. This knowledge had served him well in his various careers as landlord, nightclub owner, bookmaker, debt collector and other assorted enterprises that you couldn’t put down on paper. Max knew that Harry would never abandon the tried and true methods that served him so well. Mr Diamond was the perfect embodiment of his name: flashy and very, very hard.
As he watched the croupier rack up yet more of his money, Max toyed with the idea of never returning to England. That would be, at best, a temporary solution inevitably leading to more problems, since Harry had his tentacles everywhere and undoubtedly had enough information about him —like the names and addresses of his friends and family— to make life even more difficult and dangerous than it already was.
It would also mean having to persuade Cathy to stay out here, which actually wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility, since he’d already convinced her to marry him against her beloved father’s strong objections. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an easily won argument. For a start, what would they do for money? For a moment he considered that if worst came to worst, he could put her on the game. Cathy would definitely make a killing looking the way she did. Now that was a thought, if it came to the last resort.
Max decided to sit the next few turns out to give himself time to think. He had to hit upon a strategy to come back from underneath. He ordered a gin and tonic from the kimono-clad cocktail waitress and resolved that he wouldn’t bet again until she returned.
All the while, as Max waited nervously, he fingered the lucky dice in his jacket pocket as he ran through a half-crazed litany of desperation and desire addressed to vaguely remembered deities.
“O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.”
He vowed everlasting allegiance to Chymerica and the Secret Illuminati Sisters for a taste, just a whiff of success. Hell, he was prepared to strike a bargain with the Devil Himself, if that’s what it would take.
When the waitress appeared with his drink, he tipped her with a precious chip from his diminished pile. Lighting up yet another cigarette and sipping slowly on the syrupy gin and tonic, he looked across the roulette table and studied the assortment of late night revelers, searching for some sort of omen.
“My God, what a crew,” thought Max. Shrill-voiced working girls draped themselves over the bloated bodies of middle-aged businessmen and egged them on to ever greater excesses with their childish shrieks and giggles. And that was just the winners. More numerous by far, were the sullen-faced losers —chancers with their all-nighter flesh tones illuminated by the sickly, unchanging, artificial light, who wouldn’t have been out of place in some nightmarish canvas by Grosz or Bacon or even Bosch.
Who was he to judge, though? Deep down, he knew this was where he belonged; these were his kind of people. Max briefly returned to staring into the depths of the glass before downing the rest of the viscous liquid. As he set about looking for the waitress again, he noticed that a newcomer had taken a seat at the table directly opposite him. Max blinked and looked again. Max wondered how it was possible to look so fresh at this ungodly hour, as he watched the serene figure accept chips from the croupier. No one else at the table, absorbed as they were in play, paid her the slightest bit of attention. Max, however, was entranced.
She was slender and even seated, Max could tell that she was very tall, possibly as tall or even taller than he was, measuring in at a good 6’1. Her shoulder-length, raven-black hair was the same colour as her satiny dress —a striking contrast with the lustrous porcelain of her skin. Most mesmerizing of all though, were her green, shining cat’s eyes, which matched the emerald necklace around her exquisite neck. Max guessed that she was around his own age, 35 or so, but really it was impossible to tell —she was simultaneously youthful and mature.
Max managed to attract the waitress’s attention and he ordered two gin and tonics. He needed to fortify himself for the following few moments. Because this was definitely it. His life could go one of two ways and he had to be prepared for whatever fate threw at him.
The waitress brought over the drinks. Max glanced over the top of his glass at the woman again. Never before had he seen the like. She was an angel in human form: a perfect ten. For Max, that was as good a sign as any. So, after a quick calculation of his remaining chips which amounted to a little over a thousand dollars, he thought, “screw it,” and placed the whole lot on black ten.
As the croupier placed the ball in the wheel and told the punters that no more bets were allowed, Max raised his glass and silently toasted the newcomer, hoping she was the harbinger of some much needed luck. Then, of course, he watched the wheel.
This was definitely it now —his last chance. It was now or never, do or die. With this crazy bet, it really had come to that. As the ball did its usual mad dance, he asked himself why? Why had he just risked it all with odds of exactly 37 to 1, stacked in the house’s favor?
He could barely watch, yet there was no question of turning away or closing his eyes. No way. The ball continued to bounce. Max just wanted it to land so it would be over and he could start reconciling himself to his drastically straitened circumstances. One more bounce and then it settled.
“That’s it then, I’m finished,” Max thought, not registering the fact that the ball had landed in the slot numbered ten. Ten? Ten. Yes, it was definitely ten!
“Yessssssssss, thank you, thank you Sweet Lord above or whoever controls such matters!” Max prayed, as the knowledge sank in and became a reality. It was nothing less than a miracle. He’d been saved at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.
As the croupier pushed over pile after pile of chips, Max calculated that he had over $40,000 dollars and with the current rate of exchange, it worked out to between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds. With that money, he could pay off Harry Diamond and the other loan sharks, and still have some change left over. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to pay off Gran, which was a shame, but she was hardly likely to take a baseball bat to his kneecaps or a meat cleaver to his little finger.
All things considered, this was a result and he decided to cash the chips in right then and there. But when he looked over at the blessed newcomer who had been the inspiration for his life changing win and saw a faintly ironic smile play on her deep red lips, it occurred to him that he should stay a little longer to see how everything played out. After all, why not? Why leave when the luck was starting to go his way? Who knows where it could all end? Yes, why not indeed?
Max went for the maximum of ten grand on red. That would still leave him with enough to clear his major debts. Twenty three red came up. Another result. He glanced again at the woman. She reached out with her immaculate hand, manicured nails painted the same shade of red as her lipstick, to grasp her drink. Max took his winnings and left his original bet to ride.
The ball landed in lucky number nine. Red again. “How long could this streak last?” Max thought, anxiously. With a deep breath, he decided that as long as she was there he would just roll with it. He was surprised she hadn’t noticed him staring at her. Then again, she probably had and wasn’t letting on. Elegant ladies always played it cool. When she ran her fingers though her glossy hair, he switched his bet to black. Black thirteen.
Surely morning had broken by now, but Max didn’t care as his run showed no sign of ending. Before every turn, he would watch the raven-haired angel, taking her every movement as an augury that infallibly came true.
Max’s success was generating excitement at the table as the other players, including the enigmatic stranger, who was the source of this good fortune, followed his bets. After the string of chances on red and black paid off, Max changed tack and started playing the odds and evens, taking his cues from the positioning of her hands on the baize.
As she began dreamily stroking the emerald necklace circling her throat —a throat worthy of a Mannerist masterpiece— Max didn’t hesitate and put ten thousand on zero. And after everything that had gone before, he wasn’t the least surprised when the ball nestled cosily in the green slot.
Max realized that if he carried on at this rate, it was entirely possible that he could break the bank. With his 24th consecutive win, he had amassed over $600,000 and his fellow gamblers were raking it in, too. Heady with this prospect, Max ordered half a dozen bottles of champagne for the table from the chatty, flirtatious waitress just starting her shift.
While his attention was diverted, Max failed to notice that his charm had collected her winnings and had left the table, disappearing into the recesses leading to the massed banks of slot machines. He would have liked to thank her and maybe gotten to know her better —a lot better, actually— but it was already too late. She was lost to the casino and by the time he cashed in, he knew she could be anywhere.
He gave a tip of a thousand dollars to the croupier, ignored the pleas of his fellow gamblers (for once, he was going to quit while still ahead) and headed for the elevator to take him up to his suite. He was going to wake Catherine. She would be furious that he had stayed out all night long, but at least he felt sure he could sweeten her mood.
That night marked the start of a new beginning for Max and Catherine. With the money Max had won, he paid off the loan sharks and cleared all his other debts. With that unpleasant task behind him, he vowed never to gamble again and to do something worthwhile with his life. Most importantly of all though, he vowed to start treating Catherine right.
Max lived up to his promises admirably. They put a large deposit down on an inter-bellum, three story, semi-detached in an up-and-coming borough. Then, after a few months of drawing up a business plan and searching for the ideal location, they opened a restaurant which Max, in an homage and a farewell gesture to the game that had made their dream a reality, named Noir Et Rouge.
With Max working the front of the house and Catherine crafting her unique creations in the kitchen, the restaurant was such a success that Max gave no thought to having an occasional flutter or buying a lottery ticket on a Saturday night.
As the present was just so and the future looked exceedingly bright, Max chose not to dwell on the past. Whenever a stray memory from his gambling days did surface, he instantly suppressed it. He was no longer that person — the degenerate gambler, staring ruination in the face, yet still only thinking of the next bet. What possible connection could exist between that man and the successful businessman with a beautiful, talented and loving wife?
Watch for part 2 on October 29. Header image: Andre Masson card trick 1923
By Meg Sorick. Find other parts of the story and a family tree, here.
January 2, 1913
“Hello, Ada,” Hugh said, his eyes twinkling.
I blushed. “Hello, Mr. Prentice.”
He walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. “You needn’t be so formal, Ada. Call me Hugh.”
I shrugged and continued fluffing the pillows. “All right.”
“How is your father faring?” he asked. “Any better?’
I nodded. “Yes. A little. He’s still not well enough to go back to work, I’m afraid.”
“And when he does? Will you be able to stop working here?”
I nodded again. “Papa would like me to go back to school. I’d like to train as a teacher.”
“That’s a lovely idea,” he said and was quiet for a minute.
I glanced over to see him frowning. “What is it?” I asked.
“Well, it occurred to me that most young ladies who embark upon careers don’t expect to marry…” he grinned. “I am trying to decide whether to be happy that you don’t have a young man waiting to walk you down the aisle or to worry that you have no wish to marry at all.”
I turned an even deeper shade of red, which made him laugh. “Oh, Ada. You must have realized by now that I have my eye on you. Don’t you like me just a little?”
“I can’t imagine why you’d have your eye on the likes of me,” I said keeping my eyes averted. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“Ada,” he said, standing. “You think my motives are improper.”
I shrugged again.
“I am sorry. That is not at all what I intended.” He cleared his throat. “I will admit, you caught my attention when you came up from the kitchens the day the table collapsed. I asked Mrs. Cooper about you. She told me… well, she told me you were meant for better things and that you’d only ended up working because your family had fallen on hard times. So…” he paused. “I realized that you were a young woman of good character and it made me all the more… interested in making your acquaintance.”
“Mr. Prentice,” I began, turning to face him. He looked so sincere and so very handsome that I faltered for a moment. “Mr. Prentice, you can’t seriously mean that. Surely, there is a young lady of more suitable station intended for you…” I trailed off, as he shook his head.
“No, no one,” he replied vehemently. “My father would have me marry our family into title but I want no part of it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Ada, we are nouveau riche. My grandfather made his fortune in manufacturing 40 years ago. It was a case of having a good idea and being in the right place at the right time. So you see, we are not ‘society’ in the sense that you think. Our wealth has not allowed us entry into that oh-so exclusive world of gentry and nobility. I would be reduced to marrying a penniless debutante whose family would permit it only to gain access to a fresh influx of capital.” He turned away, irritably. “It would be no better than a business transaction.”
“I see,” I said softly.
“I’ve been away at one of the best preparatory schools in the country, probably had as much, if not more wealth at my disposal than half the other boys in my class. And yet, and yet,” he balled his hands into fists. “You’d have thought I was a poor charity case, been allowed into the school on a scholarship or the altruism of a benevolent patron. And so Ada, I’ve seen first hand, how that world works. I’ve seen it and I hate it. And I never want to be a part of it.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been very difficult for you,” I offered.
He turned back to me, offered me a wry smile. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to unload my frustrations on you. What I meant to say…. The point I was getting to… “ He moved closer, took both my hands in his and said, “When I marry, Ada. I will marry for love.”
October 21, 1966 – That is the day I was born. I have completed fifty years on this earth. I can safely say I am past middle age. It would mean living to 100. Not completely out of the realm of possibility, but highly unlikely. Although, I do have a great aunt who’s still alive at 104. Anyway…
Do you know what the lead story around the world was on the day I was born? A mudslide buried a school, killing 148 people in Aberfan, Wales. The local Merthyr Vale coal mine had dumped coal waste, ash and sludge to a height of 700 feet. Heavy rains led to the slide and the subsequent burial of the Pant Glas elementary school and some nearby homes. 116 of the victims were children. Horrifying.
Fifty is hitting me hard. I’ve never minded turning another year older. The other milestones haven’t affected me the way this one is. I feel like doors are closing on me – there are things I can never go back and do again. Opportunities have been lost, the consequences of past decisions have now been fully realized. The future is no longer wide open with possibilities, it has narrowed to a dimly lit hallway with doors that have been locked or that have been stuck with paint so they are hard to open. The walls are covered with artwork displaying everything that is now out of reach.
I remind myself of these words of wise King Solomon: A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth – Ecclesiastes 7:1. And I remember that really a birthday is nothing more than a way to mark the passage of time. That, at the beginning of one’s life we have no name, no reputation, no body of work, no achievements, no experiences, no friends and no memories. After fifty years, at least I have all of those things. And though I feel like a great portion of those fifty years could’ve been better spent than they were, time unfortunately does not move in but one direction.
My only option, then, is to move forward down that dimly lit hallway, yank open the paint-stuck doors and take advantage of the opportunities left to me. It just no longer seems easy or effortless. But not impossible.
Header image from owl-cation.
I am considering participating in National Novel Writing Month this year. Why on earth would I want to subject myself to that torture? Well, here’s why…
I HAVE BOOK FIVE OF MY SERIES FULLY PLOTTED OUT AND I HAVEN’T WRITTEN A BLOODY WORD SINCE FEBRUARY BECAUSE I CAN’T SEEM TO GET OFF THIS STUPID BLOG WRITING CAROUSEL!!!!!
There. I feel better. The truth is I’ve been more caught up in “Here Lies a Soldier” than the novel universe. But I also feel like in being a series writer, the books need to appear in semi-regular fashion if they are going to keep the audience’s attention. Which is why I thought signing up for NaNoWriMo might force me to pick up the thread of the next Bucks County Novel episode. If I succeed in vomiting out 50,000 words over the 30 days of November, I can edit and proof read in December, get it to the beta readers on January first, and barring any glaring problems with the manuscript, do the final edit and publish before the end of February. Sounds like a good plan.
On the other hand, what that means for blogging is that I will have to drastically cut down on the time I spend here. In fact I was thinking of just hanging in with Lula for drinking adventurously and making that my one and only weekly contribution. And maybe just a quick hello in the comments of your lovely posts as best I can.
I’m still wavering. NaNo is a HUGE commitment. I absolutely despise deadlines. The time constraints might have the opposite effect from what I intend and I’ll just get mad and frustrated. So I don’t know…
Are any of you doing NaNoWriMo? And if you are, care to twist my arm?