After a particularly busy lunch, and the Saturday evening rush ahead, Max decided to clear his head with a walk around the neighborhood. Throwing on his new grey jacket, he set out with no particular destination in mind. He strode purposefully through the crowds aimlessly gathered in small clusters around the shops and boutiques along the way. The contrast he presented relative to the people around him was exceedingly apparent. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, on a journey towards bluer skies and wider horizons. Unlike the semi-hypnotized masses around him, who were perpetually rushing toward destinations unknown, with ever narrower boundaries.
Things were definitely looking up for Max. Tonight, the cash tills would brim as the increasingly in-demand tables turned over and over in the hot, new restaurant. The word, first spread by local newspapers, had been taken up by the national trade publications after several glowing reviews. If the restaurant continued on its current trajectory, they would have to start thinking seriously about expansion or perhaps even a second location.
Dreaming of the potential future that lay before him, Max failed to notice the ominous clouds gathering overhead until the skies opened and the rain poured down. Yet, the deluge only served to increase his euphoria. Smiling, Max turned up his collar and ran through the quickly emptying streets.
He was drenched by the time he arrived back at the Cafe. As he opened the door, his phone rang. By the time he had fished his mobile from his coat pocket, the caller had hung up.
‘That was me Max,’ Nina said, approaching him. ‘Catherine wanted to know how far away you were. They are waiting for you in the nook upstairs.’ Then, helping him out of his jacket she added, ‘My God, Max. You’re soaked through.’
‘I know. The storm came out of nowhere,’ he said. ‘Nina, who exactly, is waiting for me upstairs? I wasn’t aware of any appointments today. Why didn’t you warn me earlier?’
‘Sorry Max, Catherine said she reminded you earlier in the week. It’s some writer from Food and Drink magazine.’ She winced. ‘Oh god, I’ve already forgotten her first name. It’s something Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant. Catherine is with her at the moment. You better hurry.’ Then changing her mind, she put a hand on his arm. ‘Wait! You can’t go up there like that, better if you dry out a bit. Your shoelace is undone as well.’
‘Don’t panic, Nina. It will be fine. I’ll freshen up in the bathroom,’ Max replied as he bent to fix his shoelace. As he pulled, the lace broke off in his left hand.
‘Damn,’ he cursed.
‘What’s wrong?’ Nina asked anxiously.
‘Oh nothing; just broke my lace. Not to worry,’ he said, reassuringly. Tucking the dangling lace inside the tongue of the shoe, he added, ‘There. Easily fixed. Now, go and tell Catherine that I’m here and that I will be up in five minutes. Ok? Oh and Nina….?’
‘Try and find out this writer’s name, will you? I don’t want to look like a complete idiot. Discretely, though.’
‘No problem, Max,’ she said, heading for the stairs.
In the bathroom, Max ran his fingers through his damp hair and adjusted his belt. On the way to the door, he gave himself a last glance and decided that he would pass.
Nina waited anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. ‘You took your time. Her name is Catarina. Catarina Blanca. You got that?’
‘Yes, yes, I’ve got it. Catarina Blanca. Unusual name. Is she Spanish or something?’
‘I don’t know. She definitely looks exotic but her English is impeccable –not even a hint of an accent.’
‘Alright,’ he sighed. ‘I better get up there, otherwise I’ll be hearing it from Catherine later. Thanks, Nina. Can I leave you in charge of tonight’s set up?’
‘Sure, no problem Max, I’ll take care of everything on the floor for now. You get upstairs and start charming this Blanca woman. And don’t worry, I’m sure the restaurant will get a fabulous review.’
‘Hopefully. No reason not to be confident, but you never know with critics. They’re a moody bunch, in my experience. She must be staying to eat. Do you mind taking her table yourself, tonight?’ Max asked, on his way upstairs.
‘Not at all. I’m all over it,’ Nina said.
Catherine was talking animatedly to the writer as Max approached the nook. Max waved and Catherine stood. ‘Max you’ve made it at last,’ she said, relieved. ‘I would like to introduce you to Catarina Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant for the September edition of Food and Drink magazine. Isn’t that wonderful?’
As Catarina rose and faced Max, his words died on his lips. It was her —his Lady Luck from the casino in Vegas. She was dressed in black again, although instead of a cocktail dress, she wore an expertly-tailored suit with a black blouse, the top two buttons open to reveal that familiar necklace —the one that so complimented her striking emerald eyes. She probably never left home without it. Yes, it had to be her. There couldn’t be another. One was more than enough. But what were the chances they’d cross paths for a second time?
‘Pleased to meet you, Catarina,’ Max said, pulling himself together and shaking her hand. ‘Hopefully, you will be suitably impressed with what we’re trying to do here and you can share that with your readers.’
‘Oh, I’m sure that I will, Max. I have friends who’ve eaten here, and they’ve done nothing but sing your praises. And after talking to Catherine, I’m just dying to sample the menu. Such innovative use of such humble ingredients.’
Max studied her face for any sign of recognition, but there was none. Granted, it had been over a year ago and they hadn’t actually met. Yet surely some memory of that evening’s excitement must have made at least a passing impression on her mind. However, apparently it had not.
Max struggled to concentrate on the shoptalk between Catherine and Ms Blanca. How was it possible that this woman discussing their restaurant was the same woman largely responsible for its existence? What odds would a bookmaker give? He’d wager that it would be an astronomical computation, running in the millions. Yet here she was, talking with his wife about the sourcing of high end product. When Nina came in he ordered an espresso, hoping to focus his attention on the task at hand. He’d just have to chalk it up to being one of those random anomalies that occur from time to time. It is a small world, after all.
‘If you’ll excuse me, Catarina, I have to get back to the kitchen, but I’m leaving you in my husband’s capable hands. He’ll answer any more questions you may have,’ Catherine said rising. Turning to Max, she added, ‘Just make sure, darling, that you don’t go showing Ms. Blanca the skeletons in all the closets.’
‘I’ll try not to, even though there are so many of them lying around,’ he replied, raising an eyebrow. ‘You see how she has no faith in me?’ he chuckled to Catarina. ‘Anyway, you better hurry into that kitchen and start cracking the whip, otherwise we’ll never be ready for the evening service.’
‘You’ll be staying for dinner, I trust?’ Catherine asked.
‘Of course. I’m looking forward to trying the John Dory. It sounds delicious,’ Catarina answered.
‘Well, I’ll see you later then. We can enjoy a nice bottle of wine together.’
‘We will indeed.’
After Catherine left, Max drained his espresso and looked over at Catarina. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t help but be attracted to her. Her beauty was unearthly. She, in turn, was looking back at him. Max waited for her to begin the interview, but she seemed in no hurry to start and just continued to stare at him. Finally, in an effort to break the increasingly unnerving silence, he asked her about her name.
Instead of answering straight away, she reached over the table and placed her left hand over his right hand and smiled sweetly. Bewildered by her gesture, Max made no efforts to disengage from her touch.
‘Well, Max, here we are at last,’ she said, still smiling. ‘You have to tell me something. How does a man like you manage to snare a lovely creature like Catherine? I just can’t make sense of it. How does something like that happen?’
‘Pardon?’ he replied, wondering if he had heard correctly. Surely not. Her fingers were tracing intricate geometric patterns on his palm. Under normal circumstances, receiving such attention from such a splendid specimen would have been one for the ego, but these were not normal circumstances. The whole situation was out of kilter.
‘Hmmm,’ she purred. ‘You heard correctly, Max. So tell me, I’m very curious. She loves you and yet here you sit, thinking of nothing else but how to get me into bed. Isn’t that true, Max? Wouldn’t be the first time though, would it Max? You spent hours in that casino back in Vegas thinking exactly the same thing, didn’t you Max?’
That confirms it, Max thought numbly. She was the woman from Vegas. But what was this? What the hell was going on? He tried to extricate his hand from hers but she grabbed his wrist and held on tightly.
‘You’re keeping quiet there, Max. What’s wrong? Has the cat got your tongue? Rather unusual for you isn’t? You’re not one to be at a loss for words, are you Max? But then again, you can’t downright deny what is obviously true. Not to me, anyway. And I wouldn’t try if I were you, Max. You see, I know what goes on inside that head of yours. I know you. Unlike poor Catherine. She sees only the handsome exterior, the charming façade. She doesn’t know what makes you tick, has no idea of what you’re willing to do if push comes to shove. But I do, Max; I know exactly how low you’re prepared to stoop. Tell me, how do you think Catherine would feel? I know what you’re thinking; this isn’t going at all liked you’d hoped and you’re dying to tell me to get the hell out of here. However, if you do that, I might decide to speak to Catherine and tell her all about that night in the Heaven Hotel and what you considered doing. Now, she would undoubtedly tell me to go away and disappear, but I would have planted a seed of doubt in her mind and she’d begin watching you closely, so much more closely than before —a little too close for your comfort, in fact— for confirmation that you are not the man you have always appeared to be but the man she secretly feared you were, all along. I really don’t think you want that, do you now, Max?’
She relaxed her grip a little and Max managed to free his hand. He glared hard at her, trying to reconcile the contrast between her angelic features and her vicious words. What the hell had just happened? How dare she brazenly insinuate, insult and threaten him to his face in his very own restaurant? Obviously, all this was a prelude to some sort of sordid shake-down attempt; but she had a strange manner of going about it. What exactly was she driving at? It was apparent that she’d done some research and that she believed that she’d dug up some dirt. She evidently knew things about him. That alone was reason enough for treading very carefully, but when he factored in the guilt he felt over his initial attraction to Catarina —or whatever her real name was— Max concluded it would be best to avoid any kind of scene.
‘Excuse me, Ms. Blanca, but I’m not quite sure I’m following you. I was under the impression that you were a restaurant reviewer with Food and Drink magazine and that you were here to do a piece on the Noir Et Rouge. Yet, it appears from your conversation, that you have no such intention and therefore, you are here under false pretenses. So then, I’m at a loss as to what you are really after.’
He shrugged. ‘So you happened to see me win at roulette one night in Vegas, over a year ago. What of it? It isn’t any kind of secret. Catherine knows about it. She was with me in Vegas at the time. Just because you were sitting across the table from me, doesn’t mean that you can presume to know me. You know nothing at all about me.’
‘Oh, Max.’ Catarina leaned back into the banquette and let a long weary sigh before continuing. ‘If you think I don’t know you, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. First of all, I know your type. And let’s be honest, you are a rather stereotypical representative. But secondly, and more specifically, I know you, Max Edward Chasm. Everything about you. From the major facts, down to the dirtiest little details, as well.’ She paused, studying his face. ‘I can see you need some convincing. Where would you like me to start? From the beginning? That would be best, don’t you think?’ She fingered the necklace while she waited for an answer.
‘Sure why not? Though I doubt you’re going to tell me anything I don’t already know,’ Max replied, trying to inject a note of nonchalance into his wavering voice. Obviously, she had gone to great efforts, but for what purpose? The situation seemed to be spiraling out of control.
‘Ok, Max the beginning it shall be… though it can’t be said that you had a particularly auspicious start in the world.’ She sat forward again and began.
‘After an unusually difficult and painful pregnancy, which she never really recovered from, your mother, Julie Chasm nee Bateson, gave birth to you at 3:13 am, January 23rd, a Wednesday morning. You were born on a cold, rainy, winter’s night and it could be said, in a certain sense, that your mother was never to leave that place where it was always winter, always night and always raining. She was to keep on reliving the horror of that moment for the rest of her days.
Given such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that you remember little of your mother and what you do remember is so distressing, that you automatically repress it. After all, who would want to remember the visits to the clinic of the moment, the wordless Sunday afternoons spent fidgeting in a chair opposite the pale stranger who failed to acknowledge your existence? Nobody really…
At least your father was well disposed towards you, after a fashion. However, you had a great many rivals for his affection, didn’t you? Daddy’s many girlfriends made for more suitable companions, so you spent a good deal of your childhood at the home of your maternal grandmother, Edith Bateson. Now Grannie Edith, it must be said, admirably stepped up and assumed responsibility for your upbringing. Good job really, as nobody else was prepared to accept it.
A fine, upstanding woman —your grandmother. She does have one minor vice, though. Perhaps vice is too strong of a word, really more of a foible. It’s really a question of degree, don’t you think? One man’s casual time-killer is another man’s overriding obsession. Anyway, your grandmother liked to have a little flutter now and then on the gees-gees. Nothing much, a fiver here and a fiver there. No harm done, just enough to make things a little more interesting.
Nothing wrong in that, but it did mean that you spent a good many afternoons in front of the TV watching horses run in a circle around a track. Every race held you mesmerized. You readily picked up the rudiments of form and odds and you passed your intuitive understanding onto your grandmother who often followed your tips. Still, only a fiver though, for her gambling would never be more than an amusing diversion. If she won, you would get a little extra pocket money or a special treat, like ice cream or a toy that you coveted. Every gift received served to focus your attention on studying the guides, discerning the tricks and playing the angles. Even in school —when you bothered to show up— your mind was never on the blackboard. Instead, you were thinking of combinations and permutations, calculating the possibilities of the big win.
She paused and sat back again. ’My, I must say, Max, you’ve gone rather pale. Look at yourself, you’re shaking. You obviously need a drink. So do I. All that talking is thirsty work. Where has that waitress gone? Nina, isn’t it?’ She stood. ‘Probably easier if I went downstairs and got it myself. A bottle of red would suit, don’t you think?’
“Red is fine,’ Max answered in a dull voice.
Catarina slipped from the room and went down the stairs.
Usually, he would have derived great pleasure watching the retreating backside of a woman as beautiful as Catarina, but instead, he carried on staring at the space she had vacated. He wished with every nerve in his body that she would pass the bar downstairs, continue though the door onto the street and carry on walking until she was far, far away.
Max knew, however, that was a vain, idle hope. Whoever this woman really was, she was here for a reason. She had a purpose in mind and that purpose involved him. As to why he should be targeted in such a manner, he couldn’t begin to fathom. But she was targeting him, no doubt about that. She knew all about him. She knew things about him that he’d never told to anyone else, not even Catherine. She knew every, last, dirty, little secret. All of them. How was that possible? How did she know about Gran, his father and, and… His stomach knotted. Oh god, no, not that…
She even knew about all the stuff he’d buried. All those memories that he’d chosen to forget, because they were just too painful to recollect, even in passing. Max, Max, poor little orphan boy, lost and alone in the cold, cruel world. No, he hadn’t been an orphan in any legal or technical sense, not until he was seventeen, anyway, after his father had gone and done what he did. Nevertheless, that cunning bitch had clearly been insinuating as much, and he might as well have been, with parents like his.
She had stirred up those long-suppressed memories from his childhood. Dredged from the depths of his mind, they floated to the surface like pond scum…
He’s on the long bus trip with Gran. She’s brought a paper packet filled to the brim with pick-and-mix sweets. There’s a dense fog. They’re going to visit mother in her new place. It’s way out in the sticks. He spends the trip silently sucking on boiled sweets. They get off the bus and stand on the empty village street for a long time. He’s cold. He complains about it. Gran tells him that they won’t have to wait much longer, mum will be here soon to take us into her nice, warm house and make us a lovely, hot cup of tea, or maybe hot chocolate, if you prefer and she’ll also have some bourbons, biscuits, or even a piece of cake. ‘Now isn’t that something to look forward to?’ she asks, ‘and besides, I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing your mum again, aren’t you?’ Max nods his head in agreement and says, ‘Very much so.’ But he wishes she would hurry up and come, as it’s so cold out here. He feels guilty because he told a lie. He doesn’t really want to see his mother, although he knows that he should want to. She is his mother after all, but Max feels scared whenever he is with her. He wants to be back home with Gran, sitting next to the fire, drinking hot chocolate, eating biscuits and watching the horses like they usually did, instead of standing around on this eerie street in the middle of nowhere. Gran answers that she’s sure she’ll be here soon, something must be holding her up.
After waiting for what seems to be an eternity, Gran silently takes his hand and walks down the road until she sees a red, public phone box. She tells him to wait outside, but not to go anywhere, just stand right there where she can see him, and enters. He watches Gran fumbling in her purse. He knows, from the way her lips are drawn together in a thin line, that she is angry. He hopes that she is not angry with him. She picks up the receiver and puts some coins in the slot. Max stands stock still so that Gran can see where he is. After a long while, during which Max can see her talking and again, fumbling around, Gran pulls out a pencil and paper. After writing on the scrap of paper, she slams the phone down. She grabs his hand again and pulls him along, as she marches through the town into the open countryside. He doesn’t say anything. He knew all along that mum was going to let them down. She always had done, why should today be any different?
He is tired and frozen to the bone by the time they reach the small one story cottage where his mother has just moved to. Gran has to use the lion’s head knocker several times before the door finally opens. His mother, still in a dressing gown, lets them in. In the hallway, she grabs hold of Max and hugs him too tightly for too long. The house is chilly and damp. There is no hot chocolate or even tea. He sits in front of the television and drinks weak cordial that barely disguises the taste of rusty tap water. He turns up the volume on the racing to drown out the sound of arguing. Later on, he knows Gran will let him stay up late as a special treat, to make up for having to visit his mother…
Catarina returned with an uncorked bottle of Malbec and two red glasses. She had been right; he really did need a drink.
‘That waitress of yours loves to chat, doesn’t she?’ she said, as she poured two glasses and returned to the seat opposite him.
‘Yes, Nina is very vivacious. Guests love that though,’ Max answered guardedly.
‘Of course,’ she agreed. ‘And she is such a pretty little thing, you can’t help but love her.’
Max sipped the wine. He had to restrain himself from draining the glass. What game was she playing?
‘Who are you?’ he demanded, draining his glass and pouring himself another.
‘Have you already forgotten Max? Thought I made more of an impression than that,’ she said, feigning hurt. ‘I’m Catarina Blanca, restaurant critic with Food and Drink magazine. But you can call me Cat if you like.’
She was the picture of innocence. A guileless expression played upon her flawless features. Max knew he’d been had. Enough already, it was time to get to the bottom of all this.
‘Don’t give me that. I’m not stupid, you know,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t want to hear anymore of that shite about a review. We’re way past that point, don’t you think? No, what I want to know is: who are you, really, and what do you want from me? Why the hell are you here in my restaurant and how come you know so much about my past, Cat? I can see you’ve done your homework on me. You’ve snooped around and you think you’ve got something on me. So do me a favour, please, and come straight out with it, this time. Ok, Cat?’ He spat her name out like a curse.
She didn’t respond, she merely smiled. Normally, Max would have interpreted such a warm, friendly smile as expressing a degree of empathy. But under the circumstances, he wasn’t buying it for a heartbeat.
‘You know what you need right now, don’t you Max? A cigarette. I know I’m dying for one. Let me get mine,’ she said, searching in her black handbag. ‘Ah, here we are,’ she exclaimed triumphantly as she produced the pack with a flourish. She took off the clear wrapper, edged out two cigarettes and leaning her elbows against the table offered one to Max.
‘Thanks, but I’ve given up. Besides, you know you can’t smoke in a restaurant these days. It’s against the law.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want one?’ she repeated, shaking the pack slightly. ‘No? Suit yourself, I suppose, but you really look like you need one, to take the edge off. I don’t know about you, but I can never understand why people worry so much about their long-term health prospects, when they have no idea what’s coming around the very next corner. Mind you, maybe that’s just me.’
Now what was that supposed to mean? Surely there was no other way of interpreting a statement like that other than as a thinly veiled threat. ‘Thanks again, but no thanks. And if you insist on smoking, then you’ll have to go outside.’
‘Come on now, Max,’ she said, pursing her lips in a pout. ‘Are you really going to make me go outside? I do believe it’s still raining. Besides, I don’t see anyone around to complain, do you? Really, I’m surprised, but then they always say that the ones who give up are the worst. Why do you think that is, Max? Is it because they can’t stand to see other people enjoy what they can no longer enjoy themselves? Rather petty, don’t you think? Are you like that about certain other vices in which you no longer indulge? What do you feel in your heart when you pass a bookie’s or a casino? Is it rage? Or maybe envy? Disgust? Desire? Maybe a mixture of all those conflicting emotions that you’ve had to fight long and hard to overcome and master? But tell me this Max, is denying yourself like that really worth it? Deep down, I know you doubt the wisdom of such virtue. Because at the end of the day, it really isn’t you, is it? Go on now, Max, take the cigarette, you know you want to. The shame that you will force yourself to feel is nothing compared to the pleasure that you will experience. Go on and take one,’ she said, waving the pack in front of him.
She was right. There hadn’t been a day yet that hadn’t involved desperate cravings at some juncture. Since returning from Vegas, he had been determined to resist all temptations on the logic that if you surrender to one, then you’re more likely to succumb to others. But he badly needed a cigarette right now. He needed to think. And despite all the bad things you could say about tobacco, it certainly helped him concentrate.
‘Thanks, have you got a lighter then?’ he said, pulling a cigarette out of the pack and raising it to his lips.
‘Sure,’ she said, passing Max the elegant gold lighter after lighting her own cigarette.
He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. God, that was good, even better than he remembered. He’d almost forgotten that delicious, light-headed sensation. A dizzying bliss. He offered Catarina her lighter back, but she told him to keep it, just in case he needed it in the future.
They smoked in silence for a couple of minutes, using the saucer as an ashtray, as there were none in the restaurant. Max looked warily through the drifting smoke clouds at Catarina. She hadn’t answered any of his questions —she had deflected them with this whole cigarette charade. Yet with each drag, the possibility of posing questions to this creature sitting opposite him, seemed evermore unlikely. In fact, with every sharp intake of nicotine, Max felt increasingly detached from this whole unreal situation. And tired as well. Very, very, tired all of a sudden. Even stubbing out the cigarette in the saucer required an effort that took an inordinate amount of time. She had started talking again, but he paid no attention. His arm had fallen off the table and lay like a leaden weight in his lap. His whole body had become heavy and dense; the slightest movement was suddenly out of the question. All Max could do was swallow the iron-tasting saliva that flooded his mouth and close his sand-filled eyes.
The world could just go and fuck off, as far as Max was concerned. Obviously, I’m exhausted, he thought, as the sound of Catarina’s voice and the distant hum of the restaurant equipment receded into an echo-y reverb. A power nap would be just the ticket. He would awake refreshed and re-invigorated, ready for anything. Max was drifting further off when an unpleasant thought struck him. Something was wrong, everything was wrong. It wasn’t his way to nod off in the middle of the afternoon like this. He hadn’t been exhausted before this sinister little tête-à-tête. Even during the interview. The two glasses of wine that he’d drunk might have made Max a little sleepy-eyed, but certainly not this overwhelming stupor and general paralysis, this near catatonic state.
Of course… the wine…She’d slipped him a Mickey Finn or maybe spiked that cigarette she’d been so insistent he smoke. She’d given him something —some poison to contaminate his body and fuck with his head.
Max knew he had to fight against whatever substance was coursing though his blood stream. He tried opening his eyes but they were glued shut like the time he’d come down with conjunctivitis. He tried clasping his hands into fists but they remained inert. He couldn’t even move them a fraction of a millimetre.
After an indefinite period of time, Max become aware of the quiet. Even the echoes of Catarina’s voice had faded. There wasn’t a hint of sound. Instead, there was an absolute silence, the likes of which is not found anywhere in this world, in this life.
Was this what death was like? The brain continuing to function, yet in a void, divorced from the body and deprived of all necessary sensations? An after-life of absolute negation? And if so, did that mean he was already dead? Had the poison she’d given him killed him? Was this it…?
But then, sounds, distant at first, but gradually becoming louder, began to filter through to Max. Not the sounds of the Noir Et Rouge, yet sounds that were still distinctly and instantly recognizable to Max. Before he’d managed to get his eyes unstuck and opened, he knew by the incessant chiming of hungry slot machines, demanding to be fed, and the hubbub of the multitude of excited voices punctuated by the louder, dispassionate tones of number callers and croupiers, that he was in a casino.
Header image: Andre Masson card trick 1923