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.

Going Pro Versus Going It Alone

Adventures in editing.

As I begin editing Breaking Bread, I can’t help but think about how I fumbled through the process with Book One: Three Empty Frames. As a first time, unpublished author, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of hiring a professional editor. Professional editing can get expensive. Depending on the length of your document and the level of editing you choose, it can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars. And though I knew an editor could take a good manuscript and make it great, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t so naive as to think I could do this alone. I had to get objective feedback before I published the book. Sure I loved the story, the couple of friends I let read it were enthusiastic about it too. But kind words from a few people close to me were not going to be enough. I needed beta readers: non-professional readers who will carefully read your manuscript with an eye to finding plot holes, disruptions in continuity, grammar and spelling mistakes and possibly highlighting aspects of the story that might be unbelievable.

When choosing beta readers, make sure they aren’t just going to tell you what you want to hear because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. You NEED constructive criticism. That’s why your mom and dad, husband or wife, or beloved aunt are not the best choices. So what now? Are you in a book club? Ask your group to beta read for you. How about an online writer’s group? Other writers are usually willing to help you out. Ask your blogging friends here on WordPress to read for you. Just be sure to choose people who will give you an honest opinion and some thoughtful feedback. Make sure to attach a copyright warning to anything you send out, too.

And for heaven’s sake don’t be thin skinned! Take the feedback and learn from it.

At the time I had completed Three Empty Frames, I belonged to a book club and asked some of the other members to read for me. Even though the group has since broken up, I can still count on the same folks to read my unpublished work. I also recruited my friend Brett, who is an English teacher to read it. I know I said don’t ask your friends, however, I know the teacher in him won’t let me put a foot wrong. If you have kids in school, perhaps you could approach their English teachers for help. But maybe wait until summer…

These days, I do use a professional editor. Formerly of Simon and Schuster in New York, my editor Kevin (now good friend) quit the rat race and works for himself. Often, he comes over with his wife and baby and hangs out with me in the pool. I ply him with beer and pick his brain. I have him cleaning up my first two books, the ones I published without professional help. Why do that? Because when I publish Breaking Bread, one of the older books might be part of a deal to market the new novel. I want it to be the best it can possibly be. The point in telling you all of this is that in handing Kevin my older work, his feedback assured me that I and my beta team had done a good job. The manuscript was ‘very clean’ in his words.

So for you first time writers, if you are meticulous with your process, AND if you find people with sharp eyes to spot your mistakes, give you good insights, and offer constructive criticism, you may be able to forgo the services of a professional editor.

Survived By a Daughter (Here Lies a Soldier part 7)

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

The fire, which had offered such comfort from the damp and cold of the deteriorating afternoon, now felt oppressively warm.  David pulled the collar of his shirt, swallowing hard.  He must have read it wrong.  For a second time, he squinted at the scrap of paper Meredith had handed him. An obituary — his great grandmother’s. He reached into the pocket of his shirt for his glasses and read the words again. “Survived by a daughter, Gladys and a son, Hayden…” he murmured.

“Cousin?” Meredith asked gently.

“That can’t be right,” he said, handing the clipping back to her. “Could it be a mistake?”

“Do you really think there’s another Ada Henry Jennings that lived and died at that exact same time, in that exact same place? Besides, why would it be in my Gran’s scrapbook, if it wasn’t your great-grandmother?” she asked. She re-read the clipping for herself. “1918…The influenza?”

He nodded. “Leaving behind a baby —or two, apparently— to grow up without either parent.” He frowned. “According to Dad, the great-greats took Hayden in. They raised him as their own.  But I really don’t know much about his childhood. I was hoping perhaps your Gran’s collection would shed some light on it. But now…”

“We have another mystery on our hands.”

He removed his glasses and set them on the table. Then, after taking a healthy swallow of his tea, he said, “You know what this means, don’t you?”

She nodded. “You might have a great-aunt, second cousins. Relatives closer than me.”

“And,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This… Gladys would have been born before…”

“William and Ada were married,” she finished for him. “How positively scandalous.” She laughed softly. “It happened, you know, even back then.”

“It would have been so hard for them, though.”

“Of course,” she replied. “David, your grandfather, Hayden, never mentioned that he had a sister?”

“He died when I was little. And he didn’t share much with my father.” He paused, took a deep breath. “My father didn’t like talking about it, but I have the impression that he and my grandfather had a… difficult…. relationship.” He sipped again and returned the cup to the table in front of him. “They weren’t on speaking terms when Grandfather died. Dad left home when he was seventeen, joined the army, went to college on the GI Bill and never looked back.”

“But your father never said anything? That he had aunt somewhere?”

David stared at his hands. “No.  He mustn’t have known.  He would have told me.  His mother gave him what little memorabilia Grandfather had saved.  He made sure to pass it on to me.”

“Family was important to him, despite his … difficult relationship with his father?”

“Perhaps, because of it. He always wished for a large family. Mom had a tough pregnancy. They couldn’t have more children after me… He was a good father…” He lifted his hands, let them drop. “I think he really wanted some kind of connection to his own ancestors.  That’s why I started compiling the family history. For my father. I was trying to finish it before my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. It would have been my gift to them.”  He paused, then said quietly, “If they had made it.”

Meredith didn’t say anything. David had told her the story the first time they had met. How his parents had been driving south like they did every winter to their house in Florida. Thomas Jennings had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel and drifted into the path of an oncoming truck. He and his wife Ellen had been killed instantly.

“Anyway,” David sighed. “I can’t understand why there was no mention of this Gladys in William’s letters.”

“And why did they wait to get married?”

David’s eyes widened. “You’re right. Why didn’t they marry as soon as they learned Ada was pregnant? Surely, it would have saved them both a little humiliation.”

“You’re sure there’s nothing in the letters? Something you might have overlooked or not recognized for what it was?”

“We’ll have to look again.” He turned in his seat to face her. “Suddenly, I’m no longer so tired.”

Meredith rolled her eyes. “Well, I am. I’m the one who had … um, very little sleep last night.”

“Oh, right. Forgot about that.” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe we finished that conversation.”

She stood and reached for their teacups. “Just leave it, David. I don’t want to talk about my abysmal love life and my weakness for charming, intellectual assholes.” She continued over her shoulder, “Let’s start dinner and make it an early night. I promise we can spend the entire day working on it, tomorrow. But for now, let’s talk about something else.”

“Fine,” he said following her into the kitchen. “What else would you like to talk about?”

“Well, since we’re on the subject,” she said, grinning wickedly. “You can tell me about your abysmal love life, instead.”

He laughed. “Now, I’m going to need something stronger!”

***

Thanks to some wonderful suggestions in the comments of my post on writing different timelines, I now have the ideas as to how to proceed.  Special thanks to Meritings, Jack Binding and JS Malpas!