Tempting Fate: Part One

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Andre Masson-Card Trick  1923

I

There inevitably comes a point in every gambler’s career when he is compelled to call upon the aid of unseen powers. Because they instinctively follow the smart money, which these days is laid heavily against God, a gambler need only make dubious entreaties to these shadowy entities. But then a true gambler will do anything to win, consequences be damned.

So it was with Max Chasm, who in the early hours of June 23rd of an ill-starred year, was seated at the roulette table in the casino on the 33rd floor of The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton™ in Paradise, Nevada.  At 1 am, when his young wife Catherine —always a Cinderella— had left him for their suite and their bed, he found himself ahead and on a streak which he was determined to pursue.

As the hours passed, the tide had slowly but perceptibly turned against him. Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? And once he started, he would have to reveal the true state of affairs, something which he was loath to contemplate. Max had refused to acknowledge, even in passing, the utter, absolute mess he had created.

Of late, his gambling had become all-consuming, he had lost his job two weeks ago and still hadn’t dropped that bomb on Catherine, and the debts…. oh yes, the debts for which he had borrowed £15,000 from his Grannie. And bless her, the dear soul thought it was a bridging loan to help him start-up a restaurant. Of course, once he had the wad in his hot hands, the idea of turning it over to Harry Diamond and all the rest of the piranhas seemed a lot less attractive than going to Vegas and winning a pile. Besides, it would be a nice treat for Catherine —it hadn’t been easy for her lately and she deserved a little spoiling.

“What was I thinking?” Max reproached himself. All his callow dreams were rapidly evaporating and soon he would be forced to confront the unavoidable reality. If Harry didn’t get his money upon Max’s return then Harry would not be best pleased…and you always wanted to stay on the right side of Harry. His experiences growing up a Jew in Belfast during the Troubles, had taught Harry the importance of making examples. This knowledge had served him well in his various careers as landlord, nightclub owner, bookmaker, debt collector and other assorted enterprises that you couldn’t put down on paper. Max knew that Harry would never abandon the tried and true methods that served him so well. Mr Diamond was the perfect embodiment of his name: flashy and very, very hard.

As he watched the croupier rack up yet more of his money, Max toyed with the idea of never returning to England. That would be, at best, a temporary solution inevitably leading to more problems, since Harry had his tentacles everywhere and undoubtedly had enough information about him —like the names and addresses of his friends and family— to make life even more difficult and dangerous than it already was.

It would also mean having to persuade Cathy to stay out here, which actually wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility, since he’d already convinced her to marry him against her beloved father’s strong objections. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an easily won argument. For a start, what would they do for money? For a moment he considered that if worst came to worst, he could put her on the game. Cathy would definitely make a killing looking the way she did. Now that was a thought, if it came to the last resort.

Max decided to sit the next few turns out to give himself time to think. He had to hit upon a strategy to come back from underneath. He ordered a gin and tonic from the kimono-clad cocktail waitress and resolved that he wouldn’t bet again until she returned.

All the while, as Max waited nervously, he fingered the lucky dice in his jacket pocket as he ran through a half-crazed litany of desperation and desire addressed to vaguely remembered deities.

“O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.”

He vowed everlasting allegiance to Chymerica and the Secret Illuminati Sisters for a taste, just a whiff of success. Hell, he was prepared to strike a bargain with the Devil Himself, if that’s what it would take.

When the waitress appeared with his drink, he tipped her with a precious chip from his diminished pile. Lighting up yet another cigarette and sipping slowly on the syrupy gin and tonic, he looked across the roulette table and studied the assortment of late night revellers, searching for some sort of omen.

“My God, what a crew,” thought Max. Shrill-voiced working girls draped themselves over the bloated bodies of middle-aged businessmen and egged them on to ever greater excesses with their childish shrieks and giggles. And that was just the winners. More numerous by far, were the sullen-faced losers —chancers with their all-nighter flesh tones illuminated by the sickly, unchanging, artificial light, who wouldn’t have been out-of-place in some nightmarish canvas by Grosz or Bacon or even Bosch.

Who was he to judge, though? Deep down, he knew this was where he belonged; these were his kind of people. Max briefly returned to staring into the depths of the glass before downing the rest of the viscous liquid. As he set about looking for the waitress again, he noticed that a newcomer had taken a seat at the table directly opposite him. Max blinked and looked again. Max wondered how it was possible to look so fresh at this ungodly hour, as he watched the serene figure accept chips from the croupier. No one else at the table, absorbed as they were in play, paid her the slightest bit of attention. Max, however, was entranced.

She was slender and even seated, Max could tell that she was very tall, possibly as tall or even taller than he was, measuring in at a good 6’1. Her shoulder-length, raven-black hair was the same colour as her satiny dress —a striking contrast with the lustrous porcelain of her skin. Most mesmerizing of all though, were her green, shining cat’s eyes, which matched the emerald necklace around her exquisite neck. Max guessed that she was around his own age, 35 or so, but really it was impossible to tell —she was simultaneously youthful and mature.

Max managed to attract the waitress’s attention and he ordered two gin and tonics. He needed to fortify himself for the following few moments. Because this was definitely it. His life could go one of two ways and he had to be prepared for whatever fate threw at him.

The waitress brought over the drinks. Max glanced over the top of his glass at the woman again. Never before had he seen the like. She was an angel in human form: a perfect ten. For Max, that was as good a sign as any. So, after a quick calculation of his remaining chips which amounted to a little over a thousand dollars, he thought, “fuck it,” and placed the whole lot on black ten.

As the croupier placed the ball in the wheel and told the punters that no more bets were allowed, Max raised his glass and silently toasted the newcomer, hoping she was the harbinger of some much needed luck. Then, of course, he watched the wheel.

This was definitely it now —his last chance. It was now or never, do or die. With this crazy bet, it really had come to that. As the ball did its usual mad dance, he asked himself why? Why had he just risked it all with odds of exactly 37 to 1, stacked in the house’s favour?

He could barely watch, yet there was no question of turning away or closing his eyes. No way. The ball continued to bounce. Max just wanted it to land so it would be over and he could start reconciling himself to his drastically straitened circumstances. One more bounce and then it settled.

“That’s it then, I’m finished,” Max thought, not registering the fact that the ball had landed in the slot numbered ten. Ten? Ten. Yes, it was definitely ten!

“Yessssssssss, thank you, thank you Sweet Lord above or whoever controls such matters!” Max prayed, as the knowledge sank in and became a reality. It was nothing less than a miracle. He’d been saved at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.

As the croupier pushed over pile after pile of chips, Max calculated that he over $40,000 dollars and with the current rate of exchange, it worked out to between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds. With that money, he could pay off Harry Diamond and the other loan sharks, and still have some change left over. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to pay off Gran, which was a shame, but she was hardly likely to take a baseball bat to his kneecaps or a meat cleaver to his little finger.

All things considered, this was a result and he decided to cash the chips in right then and there. But when he looked over at the blessed newcomer who had been the inspiration for his life changing win and saw a faintly ironic smile play on her deep red lips, it occurred to him that he should stay a little longer to see how everything played out. After all, why not? Why leave when the luck was starting to go his way? Who knows where it could all end? Yes, why not indeed?

Max went for the maximum of ten grand on red. That would still leave him with enough to clear his major debts. Twenty three red came up. Another result. He glanced again at the woman. She reached out with her immaculate hand, manicured nails painted the same shade of red as her lipstick, to grasp her drink. Max took his winnings and left his original bet to ride.

The ball landed in lucky number nine. Red again. “How long could this streak last?” Max thought, anxiously. With a deep breath, he decided that as long as she was there he would just roll with it. He was surprised she hadn’t noticed him staring at her. Then again, she probably had and wasn’t letting on. Elegant ladies always played it cool. When she ran her fingers though her glossy hair, he switched his bet to black. Black thirteen.

Surely morning had broken by now, but Max didn’t care as his run showed no sign of ending. Before every turn, he would watch the raven-haired angel, taking her every movement as an augury that infallibly came true.

Max’s success was generating excitement at the table as the other players, including the enigmatic stranger, who was the source of this good fortune, followed his bets. After the string of chances on red and black paid off, Max changed tack and started playing the odds and evens, taking his cues from the positioning of her hands on the baize.

As she began dreamily stroking the emerald necklace circling her throat —a throat worthy of a Mannerist masterpiece— Max didn’t hesitate and put ten thousand on zero. And after everything that had gone before, he wasn’t the least surprised when the ball nestled cosily in the green slot.

Max realised that if he carried on at this rate, it was entirely possible that he could break the bank. With his 24th consecutive win, he had amassed over $600,000 and his fellow gamblers were raking it in, too. Heady with this prospect, Max ordered half a dozen bottles of champagne for the table from the chatty, flirtatious waitress just starting her shift.

While his attention was diverted, Max failed to notice that his charm had collected her winnings and had left the table, disappearing into the recesses leading to the massed banks of slot machines. He would have liked to thank her and maybe gotten to know her better —a lot better, actually— but it was already too late. She was lost to the casino and by the time he cashed in, he knew she could be anywhere.

He gave a tip of a thousand dollars to the croupier, ignored the pleas of his fellow gamblers (for once, he was going to quit while still ahead) and headed for the elevator to take him up to his suite. He was going to wake Catherine. She would be furious that he had stayed out all night long, but at least he felt sure he could sweeten her mood.

II

That night marked the start of a new beginning for Max and Catherine. With the money Max had won, he paid off the loan sharks and cleared all his other debts. With that unpleasant task behind him, he vowed never gamble again and to do something worthwhile with his life. Most importantly of all though, he vowed to start treating Catherine right.

Max lived up to his promises admirably. They put a large deposit down on an inter-bellum, three-story, semi-detached in an up-and-coming borough. Then, after a few months of drawing up a business plan and searching for the ideal location, they opened a restaurant which Max, in an homage and a farewell gesture to the game that had made their dream a reality, named Noir Et Rouge.

With Max working the front of the house and Catherine crafting her unique creations in the kitchen, the restaurant was such a success that Max gave no thought to having an occasional flutter or buying a lottery ticket on a Saturday night.

As the present was just so and the future looked exceedingly bright, Max chose not to dwell on the past. Whenever a stray memory from his gambling days did surface, he instantly suppressed it. He was no longer that person — the degenerate gambler, staring ruination in the face, yet still only thinking of the next bet. What possible connection could exist between that man and the successful businessman with a beautiful, talented and loving wife?

This is the revised, edited and improved version of a story/start of a novel that I have previously posted. Dr Meg Sorick  (https://drmegsorick.com/)has once  again kindly taken the time to review the material and has waved her magician’s wand and pulled a rabbit of the hat. Please visit her site. The next instalment will be next Saturday May 20th.

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83 thoughts on “Tempting Fate: Part One

  1. Hmm… story or start of a novel? There is a huge amount of potential here and the whole scenario makes for a good film, but needs work and more writing and more character development. My edits depend on whether you want this to be a novel or a short story. Have you read this? http://www.amazon.com/Blow-Up-Other-Stories-Julio-Cortazar/dp/0394728815 your work reminds me a lot of Cortazar so if you don’t know him really well I would suggest reading him or rereading him and study how he structures the balance between alternative worlds. I would probably lengthen this rather than a short story but it’s up to you. There are a lot of interesting characters we want to know more about, as well as his background story. Currently, there is too quickly an acceptance of the main character of his transition from the hotel success to back to the Vegas room, as well as maybe too much sureness of what happened. (If it were a short story, I would not return to the Vegas gambling until the very end but then cut it after he realizes what a wash up he is.) There is too much straight discourse from the woman, talking at him. There needs to be a way to chop it up in sections, or cut some of it. It reduces her mysteriousness by talking so much. I think it might help if instead of saying some or all of those words, she speaks about non-things (such as the restaurant) but meanwhile conducts a telepathic discussion with him and he is startled to read her mind and find her reading his, while she pretends on the surface that nothing is gong on, having the restaurant interview, etc.) I would also recommend this, with telepathic conversation cut up in short batches, and some back and forth from him, because it is unwieldy and tedious to have a long uninterrupted discourse from her. I’m assuming that this is part of something longer and that you were going to get into who she represents as an archetype (if she is say one of the Greek Fates or something like that). A lot of potential here.

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    1. Thank you for the thorough reading and analysis which I would mostly agree with. It is definitely meant to be the start of a novel, the second part goes back in time and explores Max’s past and the introduces Margot who is mentioned at the very end. Part three starts with Max waking up on 3.33am on the Sunday in London, the owner of a successful restaurant, half believing the whole return was a bad dream or a hallucination, but there are further twists which I don’t want to divulge as yet.
      I acknowledge that character is a weakness, I would counter in my short stories that I deal in archetypes but I realise in a novel you require character. Obviously I want to expand and develop. Also dialogue is a weakness, my characters frequently indulge in insistent droning monologues like when you are button-holed at a party by some monomaniac. However I think my strengths are atmosphere, I think I am good at invoking a oppresive sense of dread and impeding doom, conjuring the internal state of a paranoid nightmare, and also my ideas have potential. I know the prose can be a bit purple but the clipped simple minimalistic writing of a lot of writers doesn’t appeal. Anyway is this a story that needs telling? And is the mentality of a gambler convincingly portrayed and does the possible metaphysics of fate and destiny come through?

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      1. so doe mean this is like a condensed version of the three parts to he novel then? I’m not sure I see a need for another character, Margot? You’ve done other love triangles before but here that may instead be a distraction from he main conflict which is the character with himself. Yes, I think you are excellent at all of the points you mentioned (why I enjoy reading your work). Some of the writing is purple as you say and can be edited down a little without making it minimalistic necessarily…I do think if you have ea novel I think you need character development. Otherwise I would go with mastering the short story. I think the mentality of the gambler and metaphysics of fate, (biological, upbringing) are shown here. Destiny less so maybe. I think the story will be more interesting, more compelling, if it is not a love triangle but a desperate situation with a man struggling with his demons.

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      2. Hi the second part is purely set in the past and it isn’t a love triangle, just highlighting his development, also the story doesn’t end there as the Caterina character will have a major impact in the third part. Also the metaphysics will come into play there. The thing that always puzzled me about Faust is why would the Devil go to all that effort of striking a deal with a man so clearly damned anyway? It isn’t good business sense and the Devil is surely a good businessman.

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      3. I’m not sure what you are thinking in terms of lengths of parts. If I were a reader and I read this past section, I wouldn’t be inclined to read a whole novel length after it. Because you have given away so much of what has happened. Maybe rethink the length and order?

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  2. You want to find out more about his background, very dark and unsettling in places, as the reader you want him to see the errors of his ways and to take the moral path and for him to see that gambling is not the option to what he believes is the answer to all his problems, money will not remove his demons.

    I think with development this could make a very good short story.

    Carry on with the writing, look at the relationship with his wife, more narrative between the main characters.

    More shade and light.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is amazing. it’s super-polished, I love the style. It’s so YOU. I love the name Max Chasm; and I love the scene where Max is racking up the dough, it really creates excitement and tension. I can’t say anything, on this one, other than job well, WELL done.

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  4. Novel material. I absolutely want to know who Margot is and what happens next, or in the past if that’s where you’re going in three. I see this is from a few months ago… I hope you haven’t abandoned it. A full length piece will give you the time and space to fully develop your characters as well. I think you’ve got a good start. It’s difficult to get a reader to fully invest in someone they’ve only known in two chapters.

    I disagree with some of the comments you’ve received, too. The conversation between Cat and Max in the restaurant is appropriately taunting. He doesn’t really have a proper response because she is ambiguous about what she knows. The telepathic conversation? Don’t do that. And I don’t believe her “monologue” renders her less mysterious, either. She winks out of existence when he goes under. We aren’t entirely sure in which realm she exists, if she exists at all, or if she is somehow a figment of his imagination… Which reality is genuine? The restaurant or the casino? The Hotel names are brilliant, by the way.

    There. I’ve gushed enough.

    Nope. Wait, one more thing. You make me want to try writing like this.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. This one, no. This needs to be a book. I am gradually working my way through all your stories… The Promise of Paradise, the one about the lover who didn’t really exist, I loved both of those… The free writing piece, too

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  5. Great, breathless read, like an express train rushing into the tunnel at Severn Tunnel Junction and then swoosh and back out into the daylight. Lots of potential as others have said. But no, I won’t risk my pension on le noir ni le rouge et surtout pas le vert …

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  6. Wonderful turn of fate, from the unlucky to the lucky. Mr. Cake I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I’m looking forward to the second installment. I’m tempted to think things will not remain pretty, and likely to read some sort of fabulous twist. ~ Miss Cranes

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  7. Late to reading these, but just wonderful prose. My favorite sentences in this part: “Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? ” (You could almost cut the first sentence, and start with this one instead? I am no expert); and, “O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.” That has a cadence to it that I could hear almost whispered under his breath like a “Hail Mary” or other so often repeated phrase that rather than half remembered, it is almost meaningless in its automatic repetition — ? Anyway, that was how I pictured it in my head (before reading the next lines). Well, Mr. Cake! You again distract me from marking essays! (Kidding about that) Seriously, you have such a gift with language, thank you for sharing these.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Lisa…this is my attempt at a novel, a form that I have never tried before. It’s a very tricky plot, aiming to make people scratch their heads. You are too kind about my gift for language, I do think I have a tendency to be over ornate (I have read too much Decadent literature) but I am delighted you enjoyed. Please let me know what you think of the other parts.

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