This “Hell’s Casino” excerpt is from the 20,000-word ebook available for the Amazon Kindle.
The dealer dropped a card in front of Matt Cahill.
“Twenty-one,” she said. “We have a winner. Luck is on your side tonight, sir.”
Matt raked in the chips and stacked them slowly on his growing pile. He would have been amused, except that he was sure something horrible would happen before dawn. He’d read it in a book.
Which was ironic because he never read much. At least before he was buried in an avalanche and presumed dead. Pulled out after three months, he discovered he had the ability to see the rotting corruption in people’s souls. He had also acquired an enemy in Mr. Dark, who delighted in making Matt’s new life a hell on earth. Carrying his grandfather’s axe, Matt roamed the country on a quest to destroy his supernatural nemesis. Hundreds of people had died; more would have if he hadn’t thwarted Mr. Dark’s schemes. Or so he told himself.
One side-effect of his second life was that it left him plenty of time to read. Mostly paperbacks, found abandoned in Laundromats, bars, abandoned homes or trash cans, their spines cracked and covers missing. He haunted used bookstores or library sales, but those books he read to pass the time. In his pursuit of Mr. Dark, Matt learned that the signs and clues that would lead him to his dark nemesis came of their own will.
Which is why, at 3 a.m. on a ball-freezing February night, Matt was riding a stool at the Rock of Ages Casino, Hotel and Conference Center. He had been playing for several hours, looking for the next holocaust like a man waiting for a bus. A line from “Casino Royale” floated through his head, about the smoke and sweat of a casino being nauseating in the middle of the night, and Matt quietly nodded. Ian Fleming nailed the feeling, half a century after Bond played chemin de fer at a Monte Carlo casino. Tobacco was still allowed around the slots, but the smoke and sweat that nauseated Bond was replaced by the smell of highly processed cool air. Industrial cleansers wiped away the rest.
Entering the Rock mesmerized him. The music was deafening, the large rooms gave the impression of entering a cathedral, and the moving crowds of gamblers, the buzz of their conversations and cheers for the winners and losers promised that there was a great party going on. Come play, he heard, luxury, glamour and wealth were just a dice throw away.
After he got used to the lights and noise, Matt began to see the illusion. The casino’s high ceilings concealed in black paint the conduits and duct ways and ever-watching security cameras. The swirls and geometric shapes of reds, yellows, blues and blacks in the carpet hid the stains and kept the gamblers stimulated. High-def televisions on the walls and pillars broadcast concerts and sporting events. Everywhere you looked blinking and beeping monitors stared back, keeping you alert for everything except the odds of the game you were losing at. The elegantly dressed men and women of Monaco had been replaced with tattooed guys and dolls in T-shirts, hoodies, shorts and trucker caps. The best-dressed people were the pit bosses, the grey-jacketed security and the brown-shirted tenders of the slot machines.
Matt was playing blackjack at a table in the center of a five-story hall. Over the dealer’s shoulder, he could see against the far wall the bronze statue of Elvis, on one knee, pointing toward heaven and sweeping his cape back, a dramatic gesture symbolizing the ecstasy and agony of his music. Beneath him, at the entrance to a buffet reserved for high rollers, an employee in a white, high-buttoned jacket, his hair hanging over his face like one of the Ramones, shaved the finishing touches into an ice sculpture of the same pose. Stepping back to view his work, he nodded in satisfaction and took his tray of knives and chisels into the Plankhouse restaurant behind him.
Matt was dealt two tens. He split them, and while waiting for his turn thought about what had drawn him to the Rock. He had driven across Pennsylvania in a late ‘70s Chevy Nova whose heater had crapped out about the time Clinton was having fun in the White House. He had been restless and looking for a reason to stop. Something big was brewing. He could feel it in his belly like there were hornets there. “Casino Royale” lay face-down on the seat next to him. He had found it at a diner in Columbus. It was open to where Vesper Lynd and Bond were being shadowed by SMERSH, and she realizes her past was catching up to her. Matt was curious about what happened next.
He found his sign on the highway to Harrisburg. Billboards featuring a beautifully dressed couple cheering at the roulette table announced that he was approaching the Rock of Ages casino. A ripple of dread fluttered through him, and he knew where he had to go. By midnight, he had pulled into the city, driving south with the dark runway of the Susquehanna on his right. Following the directions, he turned onto the bridge and got off on an island in the middle of the river, and pulled into the vast, mostly empty parking lot. He found a spot on the rim, near the truckers who had parked their big rigs, their engines still running.
There in the silence, the Nova clicking and cooling, Matt stretched his legs and rubbed his face. It had been a long day, but he decided to check out the casino, then crash in his car. Tomorrow, assuming he didn’t freeze to death, he’ll cross the bridge on foot and haunt the city’s restaurants for work. There was always one that was short a man to do the busing and washing, willing to pay in cash and leftover food. If nothing happens here, he’ll fuel up and get back on the road.
Matt got out of the car. The wind cut through his denim jacket, and he pulled his wool cap down over his ears. Off in the distance, the hot lights of the Rock blinked its come-on. Turning around, he walked to the edge of the lot. Beyond the ring of trees and the wide Susquehanna squatted the buildings of Harrisburg. The fluorescent lights hummed in the buildings. Green spotlights bathed the capitol dome in the color of money. Its people had spent the day’s worth of heartbeats working the levers of power for their own benefit. Then they hit the bars and restaurants, pairing off, wanting to pair off, or regretting who they paired up with. Sadness washed over him. Losing his wife Janey to cancer was a blow he thought he couldn’t outlive. Many men died within a year of their partner’s passing, as if they wanted to follow their love to the undiscovered country, a phrase Matt picked up last year in a half-torn copy of “Macbeth.”
In a way, he was one of those men. Except that he was chosen to come back, on a quest to defeat Mr. Dark. That was hard enough. To do it without his Janey was torture. Before him the dark river seemed still, like he was standing at the edge of the world, preventing him from reaching the promised land. He never felt more alone.
A scraping noise, like card brushing the nap of a gaming table, caught his ear. He turned. A crumpled piece of paper rolled like a tumbleweed across the asphalt in front of Matt. A piece of paper that looked like money.
He walked over, picked it up and unfolded it. He expected to be disappointed, that the bill would turn out to be fake, a disguise to lure the desperate to read a religious tract.
It was a fifty-dollar bill.
Matt turned it over underneath a light pole, alternating between Ulysses S. Grant and the Capitol building. He climbed into the Nova and held it up to the dome light that glowed like a dying firefly.
Matt blew heat into his hands and thought. He could use the money for gas. Or, he could walk to the Rock and try his luck. If he won, he would take a room at the hotel. A warm bed and a shower would be a welcome change from the freezing cold, dirty blankets and whore’s baths in the sinks at McDonalds’.
Since he died and came back, Matt didn’t believe in luck. He saw patterns in the world. A sudden decision to take a job, to stop at a place, to walk down this road instead of that path. Remembering a line from a spy novel. Everything came with consequences. If someone wants him to draw a card, he’ll pull it.
He slammed shut the door and headed for the light.
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