Tempting Fate – Part Three

Written by Mr. Cake of cakeordeathsite, and edited by yours truly… Find part one of the story here and part two here. And be sure to visit his blog and give him some love; comments are turned off here.

Opening his eyes, Max saw that he was back in the Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel. In front of him, were two glasses and a small pile of chips. Looking around the table, he saw faces that he hadn’t forgotten nor could ever forget, as the events of that night were etched into his memory forever. Except that someone was missing.

Max picked up one of the glasses and took a drink. Definitely gin and tonic, just as he knew it would be. Confirmation —not that he really needed any— of the reality before him. He knew, though he couldn’t begin to understand why, or for that matter, how he was back at the Heavenly Hotel, but also, that he had returned to that fateful night.

Everything was the same. Everything, from the clothes he’d worn —the blue suit and the white striped shirt— to the positioning of the stack of chips and the two glasses in front of him, to the kimono-clad waitress, the balding croupier and the fat, Midwestern businessmen with their clinging hookers. Everything was the same but one detail. She wasn’t here. The chair opposite Max was empty.

Man, this was one helluva of a trip she’d laid on him. What the hell had been in that cigarette he’d smoked? He drained the rest of the glass. The drink at least was real. Real gin and real tonic. The taste on his tongue was undeniable. And if that was the case, then everything around him was real. It wasn’t just some vivid flashback or incredibly detailed hallucination. Unless, unless… but his mind reeled at the prospect. It couldn’t be… no, no it simply couldn’t be. What had already happened was happening again, but this time around the script had been re-written.

Unless, it had never happened the first time around.

That his lucky streak and all subsequent events had simply been an elaborate fantasia, spun him into abject desperation. There had never been a beautiful woman sitting across from him, whose every move signified which bet to make. There’d been no life-changing win, no celebrations with Catherine as the eerie, early morning, desert light flooded their hotel room. And if that night never happened, then there was to be no fresh start. With no extra cash in the bank, there would be no house or restaurant. No Noir Et Rouge. Only debts and Harry Diamond.

Yet, surely he couldn’t have dreamt over a year of living in between two turns of the roulette wheel. That couldn’t be the explanation. No, it had to be that he was dreaming now of the night at The Very Heaven. At this moment, he was sunk in a drug-induced sleep at the upstairs table of the Noir Et Rouge. Soon, service would begin and the tables would fill up with well-heeled couples out to enjoy their Saturday evening.

Tonight would be a good night. After initially clearing up, the weather would take a turn for the worse, encouraging to people sit out the storm while enjoying another drink. The staff would be hustling to increase the spend and in consequence, their tips. Later on, after everything was done and dusted, he would open a couple of bottles of good red and pour anyone who wanted a glass. Max could see it all so clearly. Surely, he couldn’t be imagining a life he hadn’t lived in such detail.

Yet here he was, back in Vegas.

God, he needed to think the whole thing out clearly and the last place he could do that was sitting at a roulette table in the middle of a casino. Who could achieve clarity amidst all the noise and crystal and strangers?

Yet, he didn’t dare leave the table. If this was happening, really happening —and it must be because he hadn’t yet snapped out of it, nor did it appear that he would— then he had to see it through to the end. He had to adjust to the situation and roll with it. And Max could do that at least; it was in his nature. He would always be a gambler, after all.

The chair opposite Max remained unoccupied. Where was she? Even if Catarina was just a figment of his imagination, how would this night play out in her absence? He’d taken all his cues from her. She had been the agent of fate.

When Max tried to think, tried to recall his winning wagers, he was overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo. With a shaking hand, he grabbed the other glass and sipped, hoping the gin would neutralize the foul taste of vomit in his mouth.

Ten, that was it. Ten for a perfect ten. Christ, if only he’d known. But at least she’d done the trick. Now, he was all on his lonesome. Without her, Max was clueless as to how to bet. As he hadn’t been following the action, he had no idea whether the ten had already come up. And that had been the starting point.

There was nothing to do but follow his own initiative. Max was in no mood for a massive all or nothing bet, though. He hedged and put a hundred on red. He won and again on the next turn but his hundred dollar bet on the outside third lost. History wasn’t going to repeat itself. But that reality had all been a dream anyway, an impossible illusion. Catarina wasn’t here, had never been here. She only existed as a projection of his desires, and without her, his luck wasn’t going to change for the better.

So if Noir Et Rouge and the rest wasn’t real, this was real, this was it. His world was reduced to this table with his half empty glass, the small stack of chips that comprised the remainder of the fifteen thousand pounds his Grannie Edith had lent him, and finally, only Catherine alone, upstairs in a suite, asleep and oblivious to the danger that Max was exposing them to. And Harry Diamond, of course, no doubt already planning ways to force Max to make good on what he owed.

After half an hour or so of drifting in and out of the game, Max counted his money. During that time, he clawed back some of his losses, but at such an incremental rate, he would have to play twenty-four/seven all the way into next week, just to break even. And that presumed that he wouldn’t lose his head at some point and blow it all on one number.

Max decided to cash in at the roulette table. He wasn’t feeling it, nothing was doing. Unlike in his dreams, there would be no high-rolling tonight, just the tedium of small stacks —winning a little here, losing a little there. After a while, you ended up broke. Because that’s what happens when you do the same bet over and over. House rules. Every gambler learns this the hard way.

Besides, Max was sick to the back teeth of this stretch of green baize, the spinning wheel, the bouncing ball. The hateful monotony of it all. If you let yourself get sucked in, then every turn became of supreme importance, the universe coalesced into that spot where the marker was placed on the chequered field.

Step away for a second, however, and view it from a distance and it revealed itself as nothing more than an elaborate way to fleece desperate individuals of anything of consequence. Once the extra cash, that little bit of mad money, had gone, soon followed the savings, the car and then the house. After all your own tangibles had disappeared, then you’d get resourceful with other people’s money. After that had been used up, and with it any remaining ties of friendship… well, there were other ways and means. You would always find a way.

Max did realise that for most people it wasn’t like this. But Max held no truck with those for whom gambling was just a frivolous pastime, content with an occasional flutter. He viewed such people in the same manner as a committed IV drug user viewed the casual, dinner-party, joint-smoker: with complete and utter contempt.

It was time for a change, time to try his hand at something else.

Max decided on blackjack after passing a table, which for some unknown reason, seemed promising. The only other player was an Asian woman of indeterminable age, weighed down with heavy jewelry, and with the etched features of an immovable idol. She could have been anywhere between forty and four hundred, really. She played with a total disregard for convention. Fluky winnings were rapidly followed by heavy, yet avoidable losses. Nevertheless, not once did she betray the slightest sign of emotion. Win or lose, it was obviously all the same to her.

Max didn’t have that luxury. He couldn’t afford to lose. Not this time. However this cautious, softly, softly, approach had one major drawback. Without putting down real money, he was never going to win big. So it was slow and torturous going and Max had to constantly resist the temptation to follow the Asian’s impervious punts. He managed to hold his nerve, though, and when he finally called it a night, he’d managed to recoup a third of Gran’s money. Of course that meant he’d lost nine or so thousand pounds, but at least he wasn’t completely out for the count just yet. He would live to gamble another day.

Just what that other day would bring, Max was too tired to care about right now. If he started to think about the monstrous implications that this night held for the future, then he would turn on his heels, take the lift down to the lobby and walk out of the hotel and just keep on walking along the Strip into the Mojave Desert and not stop until he reached Death Valley. In this wasted state, it wasn’t a good idea to do anything except return to his hotel suite and sleep. Besides, it was probably best to leave matters in the lap of the gods for the moment. Maybe they would have mercy on him and change his destiny for the better. Though this would undoubtedly mean changing his character. If only they would, Max thought as he left the elevator and walked towards the suite, because he certainly couldn’t. Heaven knew that he’d tried, but at the end of the day, maybe it just wasn’t within his power. Perhaps, it was as impossible to defy destiny as it was to escape gravity. No one can escape their own personal atmosphere.

After inserting the electronic key-card upside down in the little slot several times, Max finally managed to get the door open. Once inside the darkened hallway, Max shut the heavily pneumatic door with the exaggerated care of those who knew that they were more than a little drunk. He made double sure that the dead bolt was on. You can never be too careful, Max thought, as he crept slowly into the oversized bedroom that remained largely in darkness despite the hour.

If Catherine hadn’t pulled one of the impenetrable curtains too far into the middle, exposing a sliver of bay window, allowing a solitary strand of light to dimly illuminate the foot of the Californian king bed, Max wouldn’t have been able to navigate his way to the bathroom without banging into the ostentatious objets d’art that pointlessly littered the suite.

Max had gone to the bathroom only because he knew that if he’d climbed into bed, Catherine would rouse herself from her dreams into full consciousness and he wasn’t in a fit state to face her. Not at this moment anyway. He needed a little more time to reconcile himself to the lies he would have to tell, to the false promises that he would have to make. As a necessity, he would have to dissemble and every word, every gesture, would contain traces of dishonesty which, in time, would color their relationship. Max knew from experience that such games could be the source of a certain kind of sophisticated pleasure; yet, he had no desire to despoil the sacred character of his feelings for Catherine with such perversions. For Max, the love they shared was his only hope of salvation. But he desperately needed sleep. He felt like he’d been awake for a year and a day, which he supposed he had been, in a way. In his imagination, at least, if not in reality. Still, it was hard to believe that he’d managed to compress such a thoroughly detailed vision of an illusory future into a micro-nap lasting no longer than a few seconds. Even for Max, this was astonishing.

Understanding dawned on Max. Every teacher he’d ever had made the same comments. All the report cards he brought home to Gran were inevitably disappointing, yet Max was always shocked by the mediocre grades. He couldn’t understand it, he knew he was intelligent. Even the report cards acknowledged how bright he was. But after that, it was all downhill. Attendance was poor and effort in class was barely satisfactory. Of course, all these areas could be improved quite readily, but they were not the major sticking point. The trouble with Max was that he had too much imagination. Max thought such assertions were ridiculous. Was it even possible to have too much imagination? And if you did, well surely that was a good thing, wasn’t it? His father’s girlfriends seemed to think so, always telling Alex that he had a brilliant boy. It was only now that Max could clearly see what his teachers had meant by the warnings they’d given him and that he’d always so pointedly chose to ignore —that too much imagination could only lead to insanity and from there to prison, or the asylum— just a breath away from an early grave.

As he was in the bathroom, he thought might as well run himself a bath. In contrast to the bedroom, which conformed in all major details to a Louisville pimp’s idea of paradise —all skins and chrome, furs and mirrors— the bathroom held an understated elegance. That is, if you were prepared to discount the solid gold taps, of course. With the stunning trompe l’oeil mural that decorated three of the walls, and the cunning placement of mirrors, you were given the impression that you could step onto the long drive that led to the faraway chateau, set in Italianate gardens of a rare formal perfection. If only he could, Max thought, as he lowered himself into the deep bath. Perhaps, he would have felt more at home in that long, lost world in those far, distant days. Instead, he had to make do with this image, undoubtedly ripped out of the rotting hulk of some demolished mansion in the Old World and shipped over wholesale to adorn a bathroom in Vegas.

This hotel deployed such jarring eclecticism in its design policy as a matter of course, or so it seemed to Max, during their stay. For instance, the sixth floor bar was an imitation, a rather successful one admittedly, but an imitation nonetheless, of an old-style English gentleman’s club, all dark wood and heavy leather armchairs. Completing the pastiche, were the clever copies of Victorian sporting genre paintings, the assorted horses and hounds imbued with far greater personality than their lackluster riders and owners, who seemed dimly aware that their tenuous claims to immortality lay only in their connection with such magnificent specimens.

Yet, other floors had yielded to the garish aesthetics of a Tokyo love hotel, gone to seed, with various diseased hues of pink, orange and purple, all competing to overwhelm the distracted guest stumbling though the corridors. Unlike the other major Vegas hotels, which all exhibit an over-riding thematic context, regardless of how kitschy the end result, The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel lacked a single unifying principle in both initial conception and subsequent design.

Maybe that was the whole point, though. Unlike Ancient Rome, the Britain of King Arthur’s Court, or Pharaonic Egypt, it would be hard to reach a consensus as to how a hotel/casino designed to be a representation of Heaven should look. Of course, there was the common conception of cherubim scampering around on clouds while a long-bearded, white-robed Lord smiled beatifically from his gold throne. Indeed, something of that vision could be seen in the cloud-scraping, roof top restaurant, but hell, Max thought, at the end of the day, it was a casino and you could only push the heavenly overtones so far before they became a buzz kill.

Besides, Vegas was in America after all, and they at least, had to pay lip service to the democratic Dream, wherein everyone had their say and one person’s ideas held as much validity as another’s. Well, in theory anyway.

One man’s Heaven was another man’s Hell, after all.

The water in the bath was beginning to get cold. Max thought about getting out but was so comfortable, decided against it and instead turned on the taps. Unlike at home, with the whole trouble with immersions, here there was an endless supply of hot water. In the desert, no less.

Of course, Vegas sold itself on its wavering duel identity as both oasis and mirage. But as Margot would have put it, Max thought drowsily, it was an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.

God, he hadn’t thought about Margot for ages. Yet, in a way, she was the one responsible for his current situation. Indirectly, of course, but undoubtedly. Who knows where he might be in the world, if that summer at his father’s place hadn’t played out the way it had. True, the seeds had been planted, but Margot had nurtured them into fruition.

His last thought before he drifted off into the borderland between waking and dreaming, was of Margot asking him to open up wide.

The Morning After (Here Lies a Soldier part 5)

By Meg Sorick. Find other parts of the series and a family tree, here.

Meredith sat at the kitchen table, her robe belted tightly around her, sipping her coffee. The day promised to be a dreary one, not much good for sightseeing. She sighed heavily. Maybe David wouldn’t mind a day of rest. They could begin looking at the albums and scrapbooks. He seemed to be eager to get started. She laid a hand over her belly and grimaced. She felt sick and the coffee wasn’t helping. Why did she do this over and over again? It was as if she had no power over herself when Rob was around. And it always ended the same way: with Rob sweet talking her into bed and her waking up cold and alone the next morning.

She heard the door open and close down the hall and the water running in the bathroom. David was awake. She pushed her hands through her hair and pinched her cheeks to give them some color. There was no way she would let her cousin realize how dreadful she felt. By the time David had emerged from the back of the house, Meredith had composed herself.

“Good morning, David,” she greeted him brightly.

“Good morning,” he replied. He looked around, frowning. “Your… friend is gone?”

“Ha! Oh, yes,” she said. “He had to be off early. Other people to see for the holidays, you know.” She rose and went to the coffee pot. “How do you take your coffee?”

“Black with sugar,” he said. Clearing his throat, he continued, “I didn’t realize you were, um… seeing someone. You never said. I hope I didn’t make things awkward for you.”

She kept her back to him. “No, not at all. I… We… That is to say, Rob and I… well, it’s er, not a serious thing. And em, I wasn’t really expecting him, but…” she trailed off. “Anyway, here you go.” She smiled and handed him a mug.

He accepted it, studying her intently. Her smile was little too bright, like she was forcing it. The pain in her eyes was apparent, though she was obviously trying to hide it. Meredith was hurting and didn’t want him to know. Feelings of protectiveness and righteous indignation welled up inside him. She averted her gaze. He was making her uncomfortable. That was the last thing she needed right now. Mentally shaking himself, he smiled broadly. “Thanks, Meredith.”

When he smiled, she relaxed. He had a wonderful smile, full of warmth and sincerity. It bothered her that she worried what he thought of her. She realized she wouldn’t be able to bear it if she disappointed him. Where had that come from?

David sipped his coffee and sighed. “That hits the spot. So, what do you want to do today?”

“It’s not a great day for sightseeing, so I thought we could start perusing the letters and photos. What do you say?”

“That sounds perfect. If it’s all the same, though, I’d like to get a little exercise first.”

“Of course. What did you have in mind?”

“I’d like to run.  Is there a good spot for it?” he asked.

Meredith grinned. “I know just the thing. Mind some company?”

Meredith and David drove out to the coast road and parked. Then she led him to a path hidden by the bushes that ran parallel to the road. David let her set the pace and was pleasantly surprised at her athletic ability. The air was moist with the misty rain and the mild temperatures kept the ocean breeze from feeling too chilly. It was all David could do to keep his eyes on the path and off the magnificent view of the ocean below. When they returned to the car, they were both breathing heavily. Meredith unlocked the car and handed David a bottle of water. “So,” she gasped, “not bad, right?”

“It’s amazing. I could get used to this,” David said, deeply breathing in the salty air. “God, it’s pretty here.” Spontaneously, he leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Thank you, Meri.”

She wasn’t sure which thing surprised her more: his gesture of affection or his use of her nickname. She swallowed hard. “You’re welcome.”

“So, what’s next?”

“Home for a shower,” she said. “Then some breakfast?”

“Perfect.”

Meredith let him go first, figuring he wouldn’t take as long. While the water ran in the bath, she put on a fresh pot of coffee and sliced up some fruit for their breakfast. She let her mind wander back to the previous evening.

David had introduced himself to Rob as Meredith’s cousin from America before beating a hasty retreat to his room. He’d made the excuse that he was tired from the long trip and needed an early night anyway. As soon as David’s door had closed, Rob had pulled Meredith into his arms.

“I miss you, Meri,” he breathed into her ear as his hands roamed up and down her back.

She found herself responding to him the same way she always did. And now, the morning after, she hated herself for it. This was why she’d left the city – to get away from him. He wouldn’t commit to her, liked things the way they were, tried to convince her that she did too. He was like a drug she was addicted to. A drug that was slowly poisoning her. A single tear trailed down her cheek. She was so lost in her misery, she hadn’t heard the water shut off, hadn’t heard David come up behind her. “Meri,” he said softly.

When his comforting hand rested on her shoulder, the last of her defenses dissolved. She turned into him, buried her head against his chest and wept. His arms went around her and he murmured soothing noises while she sobbed. He cursed the man that did this to her and swore to himself that he’d never let the bastard hurt his cousin again.

(Image courtesy wildwomanspeaks.com)

Here Lies a Soldier ( Part 1)

By Meg Sorick. Find other parts in the series and a family tree, here.

Meredith stared at the headstone. She always stopped at this one on the way to her great-grandfather’s grave. It read: Here Lies a British Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God. She pulled a single stem from the bouquet she carried, and laid it on the grass beneath the marker.

The breeze sent a chill up her spine. It was threatening to rain. The channel crossing from Dover to Calais this morning had been rough, and her stomach was just now settling. Then she’d navigated the roads of Flanders on the side opposite of which she was used to driving. Thank God Bedford House Cemetery was deserted on this early weekday afternoon in April. It was a beautiful place, surrounded by farms, quiet, reverent, profoundly sad. She drew in a deep breath of the cool damp air and walked on, moving further into the field of white markers.

The cluster of six headstones was about halfway in, near the center aisle on the left side. They were grouped in two rows of three, back to back, facing away from each other. Meredith walked around them, reading each name. These men had all served together, died on the same day, April 24,1915. One hundred years ago today. She came to the last one, her great grandfather, Lance Corporal, Frederick Jennings, Welsh Regiment. In one month’s time, 70,000 Allied soldiers, including Freddie Jennings, had died in the Second Battle of Ypres. He had been 22 years old, married less than a year, his young wife newly pregnant with the daughter he would never know.

A tear trailed down Meredith’s cheek. That daughter, Anne, was Meredith’s grandmother. Meredith buried her face in the bouquet and inhaled. The lilies’ delicate scent filled her nostrils and made her smile. What would Freddie Jennings think of his great granddaughter laying flowers on his grave? She was the only one left to do it, Gran had made Meredith promise she would go. It had been her dying wish. She conjured the image of the young man from the wedding photograph Gran had kept on her bedside table. He’d been tall and handsome. At 22, he retained some of the lanky awkwardness of youth.

The crunch of gravel behind her made Meredith turn sharply. Another car had pulled into the parking lot. She watched as the man emerged from the vehicle and walked in her direction. He stopped and consulted the sign at the entrance that explained the history and the layout of the cemetery. Well, she thought, the solitude had been nice while its lasted. She faced the headstone once again and rested her hand on top of it. “Goodbye, Freddie,” she murmured. “See you next year.”

“Don’t go on my account,” said the voice behind her.

Meredith jumped, sucking in a breath. The man had approached more quickly than she would have expected. She turned to face him as he moved closer. He was tall, quite handsome and… familiar? She smiled, recovering her manners. “It’s all right.”

He moved closer and stood beside her, his brow furrowing in concentration. He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and studied it, mumbling under his breath.

“What was that?” Meredith asked.

“Oh, sorry.” He gestured to the headstone. “I said I found him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been researching my family history. I’m the last one. Everyone else is gone.” He hung his head, cleared his throat. “I… I have no one. I’m all alone.”

Meredith’s eyes widened. “This is your…?” she began, lifting a hand and letting it drop.

“My great-grandfather and his brother were both killed in the war. Great granddad’s body was never found but… I believe this was his brother. I’ve found my great granduncle.”

Meredith laid the lilies on the grass in front of Frederick Jennings’ grave and turned to face the man. She smiled and held out her hand. “Hello, cousin. You’re not alone anymore.”

Header Image: Bedford House Cemetery, Flanders, Belgium. Photo my own.