The engine stops, and I savour one last breath of conditioned air, drawing it deep into my lungs as if it’s my last.
The way my luck is holding out, that may well be the case.
Got to admit, I thought I’d escaped. Getting to grips with a new routine hadn’t been easy, but it was worth the sweat and tears if it kept me away from prying eyes and meddling hands.
At least they were subtle about it. I’d just entered my apartment building, looking forward to getting started on the pile of books I’d taken from the library, when a figure stepped in front of me, blocking my way to the stairs.
I knew the procedure, it was one to which I’d bore witness many times. I placed the books on top of the mailboxes, turned around and put my hands behind my back. In silence, I was cuffed and gagged, a cloth bag placed over my head. It makes for an uncomfortable car journey, that’s for sure; my arms cramped an hour ago and my fingers have gone numb.
Still, at least I’m alive. For now.
Doors open – one, two, three – allowing stifling air to force itself inside. The car rocks as the other occupants get out. The two goons either side have been keeping me upright, so I fall to my left without their support, lying there like a fish long out of water.
It takes a couple of seconds for them to haul me out like a prize catch. I hit dirt, dusty and dry, the brightness of the day evident even through the hood.
It blinds me when they pull it off. Takes my eyes several seconds to adjust to the crystal blue sky, the Nevada sand crushed and compact, an equally dazzling reflection of the sun from up above. Sweat wicks from every pore, a combination of the oppressive heat and recognition of the brown wing tips a few feet from my face. The immaculate white spats that cover them are a startling contrast to my dusty Converse.
“Get him up.” The voice is soft, almost melodic, but the goons hurry to do as instructed, lifting me up by the armpits. I sway a little on my feet, which are the focus of my gaze as I try to orient myself, almost falling again as they remove the gag, cutting it with a switchblade that sparkles in the sunlight.
I work my jaw, up and down and side to side, but say nothing. There are moments when being discreet will keep a man alive; this is one of them. Instead, I stare down at my trainers.
The spats move closer, but the shadow stretches out to the side, as if it’s shying away from me. “Jimmy the Boy. We meet at last.”
Jimmy the Boy. I’m closing in on thirty and they’re still calling me that, as if I was the same punk kid that tried to pick Big Sal’s pocket all those years ago. Sal gave me a thick ear, then a home, followed by a life. Whenever I think of him, I wonder how he’d have felt about my running away.
I look up at the man who’s had me brought here. Immaculately dressed in designer suit, shirt and tie; even in this heat, there’s not a drop of sweat on him, as if he’s still in New York’s corridors of power. His only concession is a Stetson, which somehow shades his face in a way that makes his dark eyes seem to glow. He swipes a hand across the brim of the hat, cuff links glittering.
“You’ve taken some finding, which has incurred much expense, as well as some slight discomfort to yourself, but our employer deemed it necessary.” He leans closer, mint evident on his breath. “Now here you are.”
In the movies, right now is where the hero would say something cool. Me, it’s all I can do not to piss myself. I’ve heard of this man, who rose quickly in the organisation, graduating from henchman to right-hand in a few years. Guessing why I’ve been brought here, to the middle of nowhere, I look frantically for a shallow grave, but there’s no sign of anything except cooked, hard earth.
“We’re not here to kill you,” he says, as if he’s read my mind. “One more task, James, one that will truly free you from the Organisation, if that is what you wish.”
He reaches into his jacket, taking out two photographs. Only one is handed to me; a picture of a casino, façade covered in glittering lights.
Spats moves closer, arm over my shoulder like he’s my best friend. I don’t like contact at the best of times, so it’s an effort not to shrug him off. “I don’t know how you do what you do, son. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s some kind of Rain Man voodoo.”
“There’s a pattern in the cards,” I whisper as if I’m imparting a great secret. “Some see it everywhere, in everything, but with me it’s just the cards.”
“I’m only interested in the results.” He’s so close, that minty breath is sickening. “Let me show you this, just in case you’re not fully motivated.”
The second picture is that of a woman and a toddler, at play in a park. Sal’s niece and her son, five years old.
“Call it added incentive.” Spats steps away.
His words are unnecessary; implying the threat has always been enough. There are things words don’t have to say, whereas my acknowledgement will save lives. I may not have seen them for years, but still; family is family.
I look away, see my reflection in a goon’s mirrorshades. Unkempt, tired, not the man I used to be, nor the one I want to be. One last caper, then out. Always tempting – how many times have I told myself just one more? – but now there’s no choice.
“All right. What do you want me to do?”
Win. And win big.
That’s my only thought as I stand at the entrance to the Seers Casino. The building’s lit up like a gold Christmas tree, the dancing lights creating a discotheque reflection in my polished shoes.
I straighten my tie, roll my shoulders and shoot my cuffs as I take the deepest breath of my life. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m happy enough in these expensive clothes, wearing them like a knight would a suit of armour, but my lucky tooth and silver pen are back home, and the only routine I’ve been able to go through is the folding of the handkerchief in my jacket pocket.
Three times. First with a triangle of silk tongue poking from the pocket’s mouth. The second fluffs it out, so it blooms like a white rose against the deep navy (my lucky colour). Finally, I fold it square again, place it to form a white stripe across the top of the pocket.
There. I’m ready.
To win, as instructed. Win big, like nobody in the Seers ever has. The place prides itself that nobody’s ever hit the jackpot enough to do it any damage. It’s completely independent from any criminal control; no group takes a skim, no single person is paid to look in another direction from time to time. Clean, when there’s no such thing.
So, I tell myself, I must beat the unbeatable.
Here’s a new thought; if I don’t, people I care about will die.
That’s what’s on my mind as I step through huge sliding doors, catching the eye and the smile of a blonde in a golden bikini, a huge set of tail-feathers rising up behind her. She welcomes me to the Seers Casino; the lingering look we share makes it sound more than a customary greeting, but I’ve been fooled before.
Still, I must admit I can’t help liking what I see. Golden curls, eyes the colour of a summer sky, a brightness to them that puts the glitter and glitz of our surroundings to shame. If they’re truly the mirror to her soul, then I doubt it’s anything short of wonderful. Just as I’m feeling a mental connection, one that almost has me believing in love at first sight, a voice shatters the moment.
“Hey, Kitty! Kitty!”
Her smile slips for a fraction of a second. “It’s Katherine, dammit,” she mutters. Then, all is as before, bar the fat man in a tux with straining seams, shirt collar so tight it’s turning his round head into a purple grape. He’s a heart attack waiting to happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Katherine is wishing for right now.
She opens her mouth, but doesn’t get the chance to speak.
“What was I saying before? You can’t just stand there like a dummy. You’ve got to work it!” He sneers at me, the lascivious tilt of a time-served creep. “Am I right?”
I slip my hands in my pocket. “I was hoping this beautiful lady would accompany me to the tables. I could do with a good luck charm.” It’s no lie; being kidnapped has made this all a rush, my usual tokens foregone in favour of haste.
Katherine smirks, slipping her hand through the gap between my arm and my body. Her perfume is like a sweet narcotic, and her touch, far from unpleasant, sends a spark through me. I feel good, like I could take on the world, even turn around and walk out of here a pauper. With her at my side, I’d be satisfied.
If it wasn’t for the whole death-threat thing, maybe I’d ask her.
We walk between rows of fruit machines, their single arms raised high like worshippers praising the gods of excess. An old woman pumps coins into one of them, while an even older woman hits the jackpot, leaping out of her seat as if she’s been healed by a miracle worker, coins spewing out into a plastic cup.
Katherine leans close to be heard over the noise. “What’s your game?”
Unable to decide if she’s asking me why I’m here or what I’d like to play, I give her answers to both. “Blackjack. I’m here to beat the unbeatable.”
She smirks at this, but I sense humour rather than disdain in her voice. “How does a private table sound?”
“I’m in your capable hands.”
Katherine guides me to the table. The croupier is a man as thin as the cards he deals, his construction all joints and angles. His clothes are expensive, tailored to fit like a glove, which doesn’t do him any favours.
He watches me sit. There’s a wide grin on his face, but still I feel like I’m being interrogated, examined for any tell-tale signs or ticks. There’s a moment of pressure in my forehead, like a flash of toothache, and his grin slips, quickly replaced by a smile as he starts rattling off the house rules.
They’re the same in most of these places, and I know them by heart. Still, I listen, eyes closed to take in every nuance of his voice. Sometimes, it’s the way people talk that give them away as much as a raise of the eyebrow or a rub of the wrist.
“All right,” he announces, opening a fresh deck of cards. “Let’s play.”
I’m an hour in, a few thousand up, when I first see it.
Nothing more than a glance, an exchange for only a fraction of a second, but I kick myself for not noticing it sooner.
I’m being played. Hustled at my own game. How, I don’t know, but I suspect this beauty at my side has something to do with it. Too good to be true, and I fell for it. I don’t know who I’m annoyed with more, her or myself. People’s lives are depending on me, and I let myself get distracted by Miss Tailfeathers here.
“I need a break.” I slide out of my chair and stride away, leaving the two of them. Let them stay in cahoots; I can move on, play another game.
Except I’m already deep in this one. The patterns are forming, and I can guess which cards will be next out of the shoe. I can do this. I have to do this, or people will die.
My heart pounds against my ribcage harder than a wrongful arrest. I lean against the wall and close my eyes, but all I can see is Spats’s face in shadow under that hat, eyes aglow as if he’s the devil himself. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what he is.
“You need to clam down.” I recognise Katherine’s voice, and the sincere concern within. Opening my eyes, I see she’s handing me a glass of water. “Drink this.”
I take a sniff, making sure it’s not vodka, then pour it down my throat. It cools all the way down to my core, but that fireball of irritation refuses to be put out.
“We need to talk.”
“About what? How you and your friend are taking me for a ride?”
Katherine looks from side to side. I’ve learned to read people, and she’s panicking. Genuinely afraid. “Not here.”
She walks away, not looking over her shoulder to see if I’m following. I do, and we end up at an inconspicuous door with a small keypad above the lock. Katherine closes her eyes, then keys in five digits; a turn of the handle, a wiggle of feathers, and we’re in.
The room is small, the size of an elevator, lit by a panel that glows in the centre of the ceiling. It’s very much empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to descend into some underground lair.
“There’s something you need to know.”
If she didn’t look so sincere, I’d laugh. As it is, I summarise.
“So, you’re telling me the reason the Seers always wins is because it’s run by psychics.” Put like that, it sounds simple and rational. The rest of it, though… “And these psychics, you included, are from one of many parallel dimensions.”
Katherine rubs her forehead, eyes on me. “In a nutshell. That’s how I picked up on you, and your desperate need to win. You’re doing this for Sal; even though he’s gone, family is family, right?” She smiles now, and I swear the small room brightens. “Besides, there are some people in here who need to be taught a lesson.”
I’m disappointed. I’d thought, hoped, there’d be more to it than that. Despite my suspicions of betrayal, I still can’t help feel a certain attraction to her. I look down at my feet, saddened when I have no real right to be.
Her hand on my chin, that same frisson at her touch. She lifts, so I have no choice but to look into those summer sky eyes. “When this is all over, how about we stay together for a while, see how well we get along?”
I know how it works, that this could be an idea she’s planting inside my head like a seed, but I also know there’s more to it than that; Katherine is offering me a choice, not an ultimatum. Besides, it’s something I’ve been thinking of from the moment I clapped eyes on her.
I put my hand over hers, relishing the warmth of the contact. “Read my mind,” I say.
I’m expecting the mental equivalent of a burglar raking through drawers, but there’s no discomfort, barely any sensation at all other than a shiver up the spine, like you get when you’re being watched, only now it’s from the inside. She’s never been in here before, never manipulated me.
I push aside the relief to focus on the faith I have in her, myself, in anyone who’s willing to listen and help me save those who have been like a family to me when I deserved nothing. They had faith in me, all those years ago, and now it’s time to return the favour. What goes around comes around, a cycle of karma like the patterns I see when cards are being dealt.
Tears glisten in Katherine’s eyes. I swallow my own emotion; now that she’s not in my head anymore, there’s a void in there, one that didn’t exist until only a moment ago. It’s a mental impact that makes me sway, but she steadies me with her hands on my shoulders.
I almost don’t want it to, but I nod. “What do we have to do?”
Katherine smiles. “I’ve persuaded you to go back to the table. Given your outburst, you’ll be allowed to win. Not quite as big as you’d like, but big enough to be tempting when he says the three magic words.”
“He loves me?”
“No, but you will be screwed.” The smile becomes a grin. “That’s when I come in.”
Katherine was right. I’ve lost a few hands, but overall I’m doing well. Too well to be true, beyond even what I’d been expecting. To say I’m being hustled is an understatement; I’m close enough to a huge prize that I’ve attracted an audience of around a dozen, being willed on by each and every one.
Katherine remains at my side, thoughtful throughout. I catch her and the croupier exchanging looks now and again, but that’s to be expected.
Then, as if from out of nowhere, the croupier delivers the three words that could change my life.
“Double or nothing?”
My crowd ooh and aah, offering me conflicting advice at various volumes.
Have faith, I tell myself as I look at Katherine from the corner of my eye. I sit up, straighten my back, and smile.
“Let’s do it.”
The blue and white Mustang roared along the road, Vegas and that old life further behind with every passing second. Occasionally, the car swerved, riding the white line or the outer edge of the Tarmac that cut through the Nevada desert like an infected wound.
The driver looked in the mirror, wiping away the last of the make up with a tissue. She steered with her knees for a moment, placing a long dress over her shoulders and letting it shuck down to her waist. The bikini, she vowed, would be shed once she got to a motel.
Katherine saw the gleam of sun on metal a few minutes later. The Cadillac, exactly where James has said it would be.
Looking at the briefcase on the passenger seat, she felt a pang of regret. It faded as quickly as it had arrived; she’d done what she had to, and lies were inevitable. Such was life.
She slowed, pulling off the road so the trunk of the Mustang faced the other vehicle, drawing to a halt with a plume of dust. Ignition off, the car fell silent and the world felt bigger.
Katherine had predicted no trouble here, but it paid to be careful. Trust no one; that had been her mantra since coming to this Dimension in pursuit of a new life, one that was close around the corner.
No trouble, but it always paid to have a back up plan.
She picked up the case, along with a tyre iron she’d stowed under her seat, and opened the door. The day was a couple of hours old, so the heat was already bordering on the intense. Shoes on, she got out of the car, smoothing the dress down to her knees and cursing the high heels as she negotiated the lumpy terrain, coming to a halt at the back of the Mustang, placing the case on the trunk.
As the Cadillac’s doors swung open, Katherine let her makeshift weapon hang down, knocking it three times against the Mustang’s fender. The sound of metal on metal was reassuring, ringing out like a bell calling the faithful to prayer.
As she’d expected, the two goons came first. Men more muscle than brains, she knew they wouldn’t be the problem. No; any issues she was going to have would be with the owner of the legs that were now swinging out, spat-covered shoes planting themselves into the dust.
Their owner quickly followed, exiting the car in one fluid motion. He adjusted cuffs and tie as he approached, coming to a halt close enough so their conversation couldn’t be overheard.
“This is a surprise,” he said, lifting his head so the shadow of the hat slid from his face.
Katherine smiled as if she meant it. “It’s good to see you again, Monroe,” she lied.
No mental probe followed the untruth. Her former boss was being unusually respectful.
“You look well,” he said.
He did too, but there was no way she was going to be drawn in. Monroe was good – hell, he’d been one of the best until he’d Gone Native – and was well-versed in extracting information from even a brief conversation.
Katherine patted the briefcase, cutting to the chase. “This is what you want.”
That regret again, a weight on her shoulders, yet blessedly brief once more. “Do you care?”
Monroe lowered his chin, letting the shadow fall like a veil. He said nothing, but took a couple of steps forward, stretching out his arm. “I’ll take the money, Katherine.”
“I’ll need some guarantees first.”
He sighed, that of a teacher whose prize pupil has proved a disappointment. “Must we?”
“Very well. Take a look.”
Katherine met his gaze, pushing her ability into the void of his pupils, then further back into the mansion of his mind. There were many rooms, but Katherine knew exactly where to go. A door was opened and – in an instant – she saw it all.
The images flooded her mind, but she was adept at controlling them, sorting through them to pick out the most important. It was the reason the owners of the Seers had hired her, but now she was using the talent for herself, making it even easier to sift through and find the nuggets, the how and why of everything leading to this moment.
She saw the child, born a year after Monroe first came here almost three decades ago; the boy who had to be given away for fear he’d be killed or kidnapped by his father’s enemies; the ‘orphan’ who somehow made his way back into the fold – fate’s wheel spinning – although it would be another family that took care of him while his father looked on, knowing the truth could never be told; a young man with a gift who would make his father proud and, ultimately, make him play his own son as a pawn in his ambitious game.
Overwhelmed by it all, Katherine staggered, the tyre iron dropping to the ground. She would have fallen along with it if Monroe hadn’t taken hold of her arms, kept her upright. In that moment of weakness, she let her guard down, and a sliver of his own talent slipped through to dip into her mind. A brief invasion, but enough for him to ascertain the truth.
He could have killed her, right there and then, but all he did was laugh. “Clever girl. I’m pleased some of my lessons stayed with you. Who else knows?”
“Just you and I.”
He let her go, clapping his hands with obvious delight. “Bravo. Very well done, indeed.”
Katherine couldn’t believe it. “You’re pleased? After what I’ve done?”
“My dear, I’m pleased because of what you’ve done.” He leaned forward, whispering with minty breath. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy, but let me make a suggestion.”
He did so, and Katherine found a smile.
“Now, I’ll take what’s mine and be on my way.”
Katherine stepped aside, Monroe striding to the case and clicking it open. “Hmm,” he said, “never looks as much as it does in the movies, does it?”
“What will you do with it?”
“This will have done The Seers some damage, as predicted, and I’m sure they’ll be grateful of the added capital.” He grinned, teeth bright. “It’s a foot in the door, if nothing else.”
“And The Seers has been seen to lose. It’s possible to meet their challenge, so more will try.”
Monroe nodded, clicking the case closed. “It’s a shame to lose you, Katherine. I fear your previous employers wasted your talents somewhat.”
He moved to shake her hand, but the move was impossible due to the bundle of notes in it. “That should be enough to get you started.”
Stunned, she could only take the money and watch him walk away.
Monroe paused at the car door, looking at her over his shoulder. “Let’s be sure both our secrets stay hidden, eh?”
It took a few minutes for the Cadillac to drive out of sight, after which Katherine popped the trunk.
“We’re good?” James asked as he clambered out.
“Fifty grand good.” She offered him the bottle of water she’d taken from the glove box.
Katherine watched as he guzzled it all, letting some spill down his chin. Yes, she could see his father in him now, that same bright gleam in the eye.
“So where do we go from here?” he asked.
Katherine linked his arm in hers and they walked to the front of the Mustang. “We find a motel and get better acquainted,” she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “And after that… I’m told Monte Carlo is good this time of year.”