(The following short story was originally published in The Journeyman Spring 2011)
WHEEL OF FORTUNE
'Good evening, madam,' The doorman, immaculate in a long topcoat, tipped his cap as the little old lady with a hatful of flowers shuffled her way through the entrance of the Universal Piccadilly Casino. She reached the reception desk and showed a Universal Casino's membership card.
'That's fine, Mrs Steiner,' said the attendant. 'Welcome to the Piccadilly. How are we this evening?'
Emily's face stiffened.
'Looking for a win!' she replied. She shed her coat and passed it and the hat across the counter. The cloakroom ticket caught her eye. The nought in the number shone like a big green apple ready for biting. Her face lost a little of its intensity. Any indication of a zero was a good sign, she reasoned. Tonight she needed a win. She must win. The possible consequences if she didn't weren't worth thinking about. She stuffed the ticket into her purse and continued along the red carpet, under the Spanish arch, and into the busy gaming area.
'No more bets,' called a croupier.
It was the end of a spin on table three of American roulette. Emily often favoured the third table in casinos and hurried across to watch the ball drop. Her heart skipped a beat as it bounced near zero but then it landed on the other side of the wheel.
'Twenty-three red,' called the croupier.
'Got it!' shouted someone in the crowd. The dealer cleared the table of losing chips, paid the winners, then spun the ball again.
'Place your bets, please,' he called.
'That's my lot,' said a man, standing next to Emily. He was counting his chips. 'This dealer's unlucky. I wouldn't play with him.'
Emily cocked her head to one side and viewed the man from a distance.
'I'm going to watch the run of play anyway,' she said, 'to get the feel of the table.'
'Suit yourself,' said the man. He studied her momentarily, then made off.
Emily glanced about. She saw, sitting at the end of the table, a redhead, ravishing, with a Versace diamond watch and crystal drop earrings. Next to her was a grey-haired businessman. Although they were together they sat, like two opposing bookends, propping a volume of years in between. As the winning numbers came up the businessman was noting them down on a roulette card in an effort to devise a system to beat the system. Emily peered over the heads at the card. There had hardly been any zeros. That man had been right, she thought. This croupier's unlucky. She wouldn't play while he was still dealing.
For the next half-hour she stood and wondered how one dealer could miss zero so consistently and was there, as she'd often thought, a little more to all this than met the eye. It was now eight o'clock and time for dinner. She made her way across the casino to the restaurant. With any luck, by the time she returned, the croupier would have been changed.
'Mrs Maxwell?' asked a voice.
Emily blinked, dropped her spoon into the half-finished soup, and looked up.
A plump woman, wrapped in swathes of lace and fingering a Piscean amulet dangling from her neck, stood beaming down at her.
'Huh?' said Emily.
'It's Mrs Maxwell, isn't it?' ventured the woman.
'Didn't you used to live in Wellington Mansions in Chiswick? Many years ago. I'm Mrs Waldegrave. I lived at number nineteen. I was the lady with the...' Her voice tailed off. '...the four poodles who met with that terrible accident.'
'I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about,' said Emily. 'My name's Mrs Steiner.'
The woman's face, which had been bright and cheery, became overcast.
'Oh, I am sorry. I could have sworn – well, like I said, it was a long time ago. Are you gambling tonight?'
'I shall be.'
'What do you play?'
Suddenly, the woman started. It was as if she had seen a ghost. She looked into the distance then touched her forehead gently with the back of her hand.
'Oh,' she said.
'Are you all right?' asked Emily.
'Yes, I'm fine,' said the woman. 'It's just that...well, I'm sensitive to things...people...places...vibrations...' She half-closed her eyes and reached tentatively in Emily's direction with the searching fingertips of one hand. 'I'm getting...I think...yes, I'm feeling...I'm hearing...it's...it's...a man's voice...' Her eyes popped open and she stared at Emily. 'It's someone close...was close...to you...there's an energy here...now...all around...a positive energy...you're going to be lucky...'
The cheerfulness had returned to the woman's face but it was not that that had captured Emily's attention. She was transfixed by the woman's extended hand, more specifically by her middle finger. Upon it, sitting snugly, was a ring and, embedded in that, shining in all its glory, sat a perfectly rounded green jade. It was a sign.
'Believe me,' said the woman, 'your life is about to change. I feel it strongly.' Her eyes fell on Emily's soup. 'Ah, but I must leave you to your dinner.' She conjured up a business card out of nowhere and laid it on the table beside Emily. 'There's my card,' she said, 'you never know when you might need a little help or advice.' She apologised again for disturbing Emily then bade her goodbyes and wafted from the restaurant. Emily waved limply as she watched the woman go. Her eyes settled on the card. She picked it up and read it.
Nobody dies – they merely pass through a door to which I have a key
Re-establish contact with your dearly departed through my services
Goodness! thought Emily. How strange the way life deals its hand; plays little tricks on you? What had started as a totally bizarre and unwelcome chance meeting had produced a propitious message which, if it proved correct, could save her from her financial predicament. The last instalment from the Brightlight Insurance Company was now almost spent. She'd had a lean year but perhaps her fortunes were about to change.
Her eyes drifted across the casino. One of the French roulette tables was cordoned off for a private game. According to the maitre d', Viktor Tereshchenko, the Russian oligarch, was in town and had demanded the privacy of a table to himself.
She could see him from where she sat. How dapper, he looked, she thought: tall, swarthy, poised – aristocratic in a way. If only she were thirty years younger. If only she'd had the opportunity of working her charms on someone like him – she'd be set up for life.
Sadly, it hadn't happened that way. Such lucky breaks were rarely dispensed by life's wheel of fortune. She'd had to make do with the Normans, Alberts, and Malcolms of this world.
Her thoughts returned to Mrs Waldegrave. What a shock that had been? Had the woman not approached the table, Emily doubted that she would ever have recognised her. She was a good bit older now, of course. And somewhat fatter. How lucky that she'd been able to convince her that it was a case of mistaken identity. These days, Emily cherished her anonymity. Indeed, sometimes her affairs demanded it. Insurance companies could be a bit sticky.
Emily's brow knitted. She wasn't sure if she believed in such things but if they were possible who could it have been trying to contact her? Norman? Albert? Malcolm? It was probably Norman – he was the last to go. But she couldn't be sure.
One thing she was sure about though was how much she had hated those poodles. Everyone in Wellington Mansions did. They barked incessantly. The council wouldn't do anything about them. There was only one course left and Emily felt that she'd done everyone a great favour in resolving the problem. It was such a simple solution too. Just a matter of slipping the dogs a few tasty morsels one sunny afternoon by the resident's swimming pool. They'd had the desired effect – quick, efficient, untraceable. No more yapping after that. Emily felt a twinge of excitement. She did so love perfect resolutions. The voice of the maitre d' intruded on her thoughts.
'I trust the soup was to your liking, madam. Are you ready for the main course?'
Emily smiled sweetly.
'I'm sorry. I'll have to leave it. I've got to return to the tables.
The croupier on table three had been changed. Emily peered through the heads at the businessman's card. There was a fine smattering of noughts.
'Good!' she thought. It's time for me to start playing.
She moved up alongside the wheel. An urbane young man offered her his seat and she thanked him. Then, just as she was drawing the chair in behind her, something deep inside – it may have been inspiration or it may have been that little voice that sometimes springs to the mind seemingly from nowhere – drew her attention to the wheel. The ball was just dropping and she knew, she actually knew, where it was going to land.
'Zero!' called the croupier.
A stab of excitement shot through her. The croupier cleared the table and paid the winners, one of whom was the businessman. He looked up from his card, addressing the other players.
'The last time zero came up there was a repetition,' he said. He handed a chip back to the croupier. 'Double my bet on the number please.' The croupier placed the chip on zero and spun the ball again.
Emily watched it circling in the wheel. Then a strange thing happened. Her attention drifted. She looked up at a chandelier and then beyond. The bustle of the casino fell away from her and a little hushed whisper presented itself at the back of her mind. Her body tingled and her tongue sprang to action, seemingly on its own account.
'Zero and the splits for five pounds,' she blurted.
'You have a bet, madam.' said the croupier. 'A twenty pound bet.'
As if in a dream she saw her hand pass across the money. This was insane. In her present predicament it was far too much to risk on a first bet. She sat in a trance, mesmerised by the circling ball.
'No more bets,' called the croupier. The ball dropped, bounced, and landed squarely in the little green socket.
'Zero!' he called.
'A repetition,' cried the businessman, throwing up his hands. 'What did I tell you?'
Emily felt numb. She sat and stared beyond the chandelier. The voice she had heard had only been a whisper but it sounded like Norman.
The croupier cleared the table and made up the winning bets. He pushed a stack of chips to the businessman.
'Thank you, sir,' he said. 'That's three hundred and fifty pounds.'
The redhead squeezed the businessman's arm.
'I'm so pleased for you, darling.' she purred.
He handed her a few chips. 'For you,' he said. 'For luck.'
She flashed a smile and the chips were swallowed by a hungry handbag. The croupier passed a stack of chips to Emily.
'Thank you, madam,' he said, 'That's four hundred and thirty pounds.'
She returned to reality with a bump. So much spare cash hadn't come her way in a long time. She fought to collect her thoughts. She had to be careful. It was only her rashness in recent weeks that had led her to the brink of pawning the family heirlooms. She sat back with her winnings, studying the run of play.
For a few spins nothing happened. Then suddenly, just after the croupier had completed his payout for number fifteen, the zero caught her eye and the quintessential beauty of that little, solitary green number amid the waves of reds and blacks warmed her, stirred her, and at the back of her mind, the voice spoke.
Like a greyhound spotting a hare she returned to the play. She placed her usual bet and when, upon the completion of the spin, the croupier passed across another four hundred and fifty pounds, she felt a definite link with the man who had taken out a fixed-sum insurance policy then departed, in quite some haste and not entirely under his own steam, to that celestial world she had always known about but never before had contact with.
It was Norman she was sure. But it didn't make sense. Why should he help her? Not that it mattered. She was pleased with his guidance.
And so it was. As the evening progressed, likewise did her fortunes. Whenever she felt an impulse or heard Norman's voice, she placed a bet. When there was no sign, she abstained. The signals were invariably correct. In the rare instances that she bet and lost she realised it was her own fault: in her haste to accumulate she had misinterpreted a flutter of imagination for a genuine directive. By eleven o'clock a small fortune had accrued in front of her.
'Place your bets, please,' called the croupier.
Emily felt a tingle. This time, however, she desisted from betting. She looked at the pile of one hundred pound plaques in front of her and saw in it the little thatched cottage in Dorset that she had always hankered after. There must be enough money there now for a substantial deposit on a cosy lifestyle. She would stop.
She started to count the plaques but Norman, like a Mephistophelian intimate, returned. He spoke sweet persuasion at the back of her mind and she tried to ignore him. She continued counting but his voice nagged at her, growing louder and confusing.
She looked at the wheel then back at the money. Should she have another bet? No! Emily Steiner had made up her mind. Enough is enough. The ball, circling in the corner of her eye, began to lose momentum. And Norman's voice grew stronger, compelling, urgent. Finally, he pleaded with her but now it was too late. She gazed helplessly toward the wheel, knowing the ball was going to land in...
'Zero!' called the croupier.
What a fool she'd been. She'd just given away hundreds of pounds on a certainty.
'I'm surprised you didn't have it covered,' said a voice next to her.
She turned to see a mature man, squinting at her through thick tortoiseshell glasses.
'I like to pace myself,' replied Emily.
'I can see that,' he said. 'You're very shrewd. You play just like my wife.'
'Does she play zero?'
Emily found herself looking at the man's wrists. He wore circular green agate cuff-links. She felt a tingle inside.
'Place your bets, please,' called the croupier.
'It'll be a repetition,' said the businessman. 'You mark my words.'
Emily heard a whisper. She felt a hot flush come over her. Across the casino she noticed Viktor Tereshchenko with a mountain of plaques in front of him. He had style, she thought. He punted big to win big. She knew what she must do. The croupier turned as she caught his attention.
'Is it possible to raise the limits on this table?' she asked.
The croupier spoke to the inspector who in turn summoned the assistant manager. There was a brief discussion and, after checking that it was okay with the other players, the request was granted.
The feeling inside Emily tightened. She heard Norman whisper clearly. Once again, she called the croupier's attention.
'I would like the maximum on zero,' she said.
A quiet fell over the table like the hush that descends in a theatre when, upon the lowering of the lights, the audience senses that they're about to witness a drama of no small consequence. The croupier looked to her for confirmation.
'The maximum on zero, madam?'
'The maximum on zero.'
The croupier dug into her plaques, lifting them in small piles onto the zero and its concomitant bets until the number had almost disappeared beneath their mass. A few spare ten pound chips remained in front of her. He spun the ball.
Emily looked around, glowing happily, thinking of the life of luxury to come.
Other players were glancing at her. She basked in the attention. This was her moment. The stage was set. She rose to the part, felt the space, marked her authority, became aware of a certain sense of superiority: it wasn't everyone who could aspire to such heights, reach for the unreachable. She anticipated the culmination of her finest hour and her acceptance of just desert in front of an admiring audience. The little Dorset cottage figured again in her mind.
'No more bets,' called the croupier.
Emily sat back, confident, waiting, not even looking at the wheel. She heard the click, click, clicking as the ball bounced and the dull click as it landed. She heard the collective sigh from the crowd and then the croupier's voice.
'Ten black,' he called.
The number echoed inside her head. Her brain jarred. There must be some mistake.
She looked quickly at the wheel but there it was: the little white ball, pure and innocent, sat firmly entrenched in the blackness of that satanic number.
She saw red, saw white, felt hot, felt cold, wanted to scream, heard her knuckles crack, shot a furious glance beyond the chandelier – damn, damn, damn you, Norman Steiner, may you rot in...
'I must say, I really do admire the way you play,' said the voice next to her, 'you're so adventurous.'
Emily froze. Cold reason washed over her. She turned to see a pair of kindly eyes peering through the thick spectacles.
'It's only money, of course,' she said, coolly. 'Some you win, some you don't.'
'You've got such panache,' he said, 'Just like my wife had. You've got her survivalist instinct too.'
Emily cocked her head. He looked quite debonair, she thought. With his double-breasted blazer and Clark Gable moustache.
'My,' she said, 'All this gambling has given me quite an appetite. Would you know if there's a good restaurant nearby?'
The moustache lifted slightly as it floated on a sea of assurance.
'Giovanni's,' he said. 'Just round the corner. It's my favourite. Don't think me presumptuous but could I invite you to join me for dinner? My name's Rodney, Rodney Greene.'
Emily smiled sweetly.
'That would be delightful, Rodney,' she said. She proffered her hand which he took gently.
'I'm Emily.' She gave his hand a little squeeze. 'Emily Brocklehurst.'