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.

Tempting Fate – Part Two

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

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….?’

‘Yes Max?’

‘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.

Continue reading…

Header image: Andre Masson card trick 1923

The Neighbor (11) In 100 Words

A bit of serial fiction in 100 word installments. Here are the other parts: one, two, three, four, five, six,  seveneight. nine and ten.  

Miss Dietrich handed over a modern key, shiny and new, much to Adam’s surprise. He expected an old brass skeleton key. She told him to bring it back when he was done, as she couldn’t climb the stairs to the attic —which was really a third floor, not just a crawl space beneath the eaves.

Adam climbed slowly, his nerves unexplainably on edge. Perhaps it was the silent house, save for the creaking floorboards beneath his feet. When finally, he reached the door at the top of the staircase, he paused to listen. And he swore he heard someone crying.