The ride home was conducted in silence.
After predicting their doom, the Professor and Doctor had simply stood up and walked away. Tony, Matt and Ethan had sat at the table uncomfortably, unsure of what to do, until the stares and glares of the other patrons had driven them to leave. Outside they had found Prof. William's mobile home running with the cabin door open. Stunned by the revelations of the night, they had stumbled inside like mindless automata, to find a note addressed to Tony on the dining table. The ink was blood red, and bore the flowing style characteristic of an expensive fountain pen. The letter was sealed with red wax. Tony stared at it dully, then reluctantly picked it up and broke the seal. As he did so, the cabin door closed and the vehicle began to move. Tony quickly read the letter, then tossed it onto the table for Matt and Ethan to see.
It was a pleasure to see you again. We will not meet a third time.
Michael will return you to your car. You should, if you do not tarry, have just enough time to return to your home and the safety of your basement before sunrise. I would suggest you not attempt to follow Michael as this will compromise your timeline. Please forebear from attempting to find the Sanguine or making contact with us. The period for direct interaction in this experiment has expired. We will observe you from a distance. Good luck.
Prof. W. Williams
Ethan glanced through the contents, then returned to staring into space, lost in his own thoughts. After reading the letter twice, Matt carefully folded it into quarters and placed it in his jacket's inner pocket. Then, very slowly, he began levitating in his seat, a look of concentration on his face.
The motor home slowed to a stop. The door opened, revealing Michael standing at attention and Matt's Civic parked along the curb. As he climbed down the stairs, Ethan could hear Michael's heart beating wildly, belying his outward calm. He felt the faint flutter of desire die stillborn as he climbed into Matt's passenger seat. Matt sat, staring at Michael, until Tony nudged him in the back of the head to start the car. Matt drove to Tony's mechanically; the light of the false dawn was breaking across the horizon as the garage door closed.
Kick's frantic clawing at the sliding door echoed past them as they hurried down the hall toward the basement door. Trailing behind the others, Matt stopped to grab a picture frame off of the wall.
“What are you doing with the picture of my mom?” Tony asked as he opened the basement door.
“Ew, I don't think I want to know,” Ethan answered automatically.
Matt smiled at the reflexive camaraderie. “No, it's not what you think, or your mom wishes, you pervs. But do me a favor, let Kick in.”
Tony glanced at the rapidly lightening sky. “Dude, we're starting to cut it close. Being outside for the day won't hurt him.”
“Oh, it's not concern for his well being that I'm interested in. E, let him in.”
Ethan shrugged, then unlocked and opened the sliding door. Kick arrowed toward Matt, his nostrils visibly dilating.
Kick yelped as his hindquarters hit the floor and skidded on the carpet. He sat, quivering, his eyes wide with shock and his nostrils reaching for Matt's posterior. Matt smiled, and patted Kick on the head as he walked by. Kick worked to follow him, but remained rooted to the spot. Matt's smile grew wider. “Even with everything which has happened tonight, that makes this a win.” He headed for the stairs, Kick still straining to reach him.
“Dude, you can't just leave him there,” Tony said aggrievedly. “He'll mess the carpet. Put him back outside.”
Matt sighed and reached for the door. Dawn sunlight illuminated the backyard, making Matt's eyes water and his skin tingle. He threw open the door.
Kick raced into the backyard and Matt barely missed his tail closing the door. The rapidly advancing sunlight started to flood the hall, and Matt could feel his skin begin to bubble under the heat. He pulled the trench coat over his head and threw himself down the stairs, turning his fall into flight midway down. Tony's door slammed shut behind him, pulled closed by one of Tony's weekend projects: a counterweight contraption made from string and Tony's bag of excess gaming dice.
“Matt! Matt! Are you ok?”
“Yeah, Tony, I'm alright. You weren't kidding though about the sunlight being painful. I feel like I just stuck my face in a bonfire.”
“You look like it too. But don't worry, I know from experience you'll heal quick.”
Matt floated himself into the bathroom, moving as little of his body as possible. He felt his skin crumble off his finger as he flipped on the light. The face that stared back at him from the mirror was the thing of late night horror shows or B movies, only vaguely recognizable as human.
“Dude, your face looks like bubble-wrap with all these blisters,” Tony said, as he looked in the door.
“It's not permanent, right?” Matt forced the words out of crusted lips. “I'm not going to look like this forever?”
“No,” Tony held up his left hand so Matt could see it in the mirror. “My hand got exposed yesterday when I went to grab the phone from under the covers. It looked worse than your face. After a few minutes though I could see my skin healing itself. Now there's not even a mark.” He looked critically at Matt's face. “I think it's already started.”
Matt looked closely in the mirror. Tony was right, the healing had already begun. Matt watched as the cracks on his lips filled in, then the lips themselves plumped out. The blisters began to retract, then receded into his skin, leaving only faint blemishes. The blemishes themselves began to visibly fade, and Matt drifted gently to the floor as he turned to face Tony.
“So, what do we do now?”
Tony shrugged. “I don't know. I'm not tired, which is weird. I thought we were supposed to hibernate, or whatever, during the day.”
“Ugh. I'm tired of thinking about it.” Matt peeked out the door at where Ethan sat, slumped, on Tony's bed. “And I think we need to get E's mind off of this. He's really getting broody.”
Tony grinned as he snapped his fingers. “I have an idea. Back me up.”
He led Matt into the bedroom, and rummaged around his floor until he found an old army rucksack. Digging inside, he produced a trio of Crown Royal bags and a handful of large hardcover books. He tossed one of the bags to Matt, who caught it reflexively, and then dropped a second bag and the books by Ethan on the bed. “Hey, since we have some downtime, run us a game.”
Ethan looked at the books. Heavily muscled knights battling colorful dragons with the aid of scantily clad barbarian women adorned the covers. “Not now, Tony, I...I just need to think for a bit.”
Tony seemed nonchalant about the dismissal. “Hey, no problem, you get right with your head. I'll run one for Matt.” Picking up the books, he sat on the floor and gestured for Matt to join him. Matt collected a 3-ring binder with his name on it from the bookshelf, and sat opposite Tony. A menagerie of strangely shaped dice rested in his hand, and after some perusal he selected a stapled bundle of papers from the binder.
“Let's see, if I'm going solo I'm thinking I should play Naz.”
“Naz the Uncouth? Isn't he your Conan knockoff?”
“Yep, tough as nails and dumb as rocks. I figure he's got the best chance of surviving whatever you're going to throw at me.”
“Fair enough.” Tony looked through the collection of notes in his lap. “Let's see, okay, Naz is sitting in a tavern, quaffing a tankard of ale, when...”
Ethan's head perked up. “You're not really going to start off in a tavern are you?”
Tony looked defensive. “It's traditional, and you said you didn't want to GM.”
Ethan slid to the floor and grabbed Tony's notes and books. “It's stereotypical is what it is. Get your character, and give me a minute to sort through this mess.” He started flipping pages. “Gods, Big Dave lets you run games with this trope? Where's a pencil?” He absentmindedly took the pencil Matt handed him, and began savaging Tony's adventure. “Scratch this, and this, and by Zarquon if I see one more pointy-hatted princess I'm going to start rooting for the dragons.” His comments descended into mutters as Matt and Tony exchanged triumphant looks.
After several minutes of vigorous rewriting, Ethan looked up, and with a gleam in his eye said “The screaming horde of goblins charging up the canyon make you wonder if you should have followed your father's advice and stayed a farmer...”
“I did 12 points of damage.”
“The last ogre falls dead, your battle axe buried in its head. Prince Soghe, bereft of his bodyguards, cowers on the throne. Princess Anastamberlie strides up the stairs and points her spear at him. ‘You killed Father. Can you think of any reason I should spare your life?’ The prince sits up and straitens his tunic. ‘You forget, sister, as royal blood courses through my veins, you cannot harm me.’ ‘That is the law,’ the princess agrees. Then she shifts the grip on her spear and with a mighty thrust pins him through his chest to the throne. Soghe stares at her as his life blood flows out of his body. ‘But I know something you do not know: you were adopted. Father didn’t think a girl should inherit the kingdom.’ She sighs dramatically. ‘I suppose I shall just have to disappoint him again.’ She throws her spear and the body of her step-brother down the steps, then daintily sits on the bloodstained throne. Cries of ‘Hail Queen Anastamberlie!’ rise from the collected nobility.
“Good game. I’ll calculate experience later.”
“When it come time to ask for rewards, Father Toobin is going to request the cathedral be rebuilt. Who thought you could get marble to burn?”
“Naz is just going to be glad to get this duck off his head. Although I’ll miss the eggs.” Matt looked sheepishly at the others. “Speaking of eggs, I’m getting hungry. Should we go out and try again?”
Ethan stopped collecting the papers scattered around him, and his hands fell in his lap. “You guys can. I’m not going.”
Tony looked over from the bookshelf. “Dude, starving yourself isn’t going to help anything. And if you die because of this, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“I’m not going to starve myself. I’ve already shown I’m too cowardly to die. I’ll do what I have to do to survive, but after what they did to that girl!” Ethan broke into silent sobs. “I won’t be like them! I won’t!”
“We’re not asking you to be like them,” Matt said, taking Tony’s Firefly poster off the wall. “We’re asking you to be like us.” He hung the frame he had taken from the upstairs hallway; the picture of Mrs. V had been replaced by the letter Prof. Williams had written Tony. He made minute adjustments to the frame’s level. “But I’m not going to let them win. We’re going to survive, to thrive, and we’re going to do it without becoming manipulative bastards like them.” He moved back, happy with his work. “We’re going to prove them, and their precious little theory, wrong.”
“I’ll be okay. You guys go and do what you have to do. I’ll figure something out.”
Matt sighed in annoyance, and looked at Tony. “You are going to change into street clothes aren’t you?”
Tony looked down at his ninja suit in surprise. “Yeah, I guess I’d better. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed some clothes and disappeared into the bathroom.
“Hey, while we’re out do you want us to get you something?”
“What, like a half order of red blood cells and a side of platelets?” Ethan smiled wanly. “I’ll be fine. I’m just not ready to do this yet.”
The bathroom door opened to reveal Tony in jeans and a t-shirt. “Here. Are you ready to be seen in public with me?”
“I suppose.” Matt grabbed the lapels of his trench coat and assumed a mockingly haughty pose. “Remember, being seen with me lends you a certain cachet.”
“Yeah, it says kick me.” Tony started climbing the stairs, then stopped, forcing Matt to halt behind him. “I thought we’d go to Riverview Park. It’s always full of keg parties, so there’ll be lots of drunken people walking around, and it’s dark, so it’s less likely folk will see what we’re doing.”
Matt looked at Tony in surprise. “That’s a good idea. Ethan, I have my cell phone on me, so if you decide to come, call me and we’ll rendezvous.”
Ethan waved at them from his seat on the floor. Tony led the way up the stairs and out the back door. Kick slinked into his doghouse, keeping a suspicious eye on Matt. Tony noted with satisfaction the low hanging clouds. “I think we should fly. We need the practice, and it’ll leave less evidence we were there if we don’t take the car.”
Matt looked at Tony, impressed. “You’re full of good ideas tonight.”
Matt spread his arms and lifted into the air, a rising messiah. Tony followed suit, rotating slowly to orient himself. He headed into the darkness, Matt following slightly behind and beside him.
The street lamps and porch lights faded into the dark of night to create a quilt of brilliance and gloom. The barks of attentive dogs sundered the quiet of suburbia as they passed overhead. Ahead, the dark ribbon of the river was pierced by the spotlights of barges and the yellow glow of bonfires.
Matt flew closer to Tony to be heard above the wind. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
“What? Oh, yeah, the park is that way.” He pointed into the middle distance. “I spent a lot of time staring at Google Earth a few months ago figuring out how to secure the neighborhood in case of a zombie uprising.”
“Really? I came up with a plan too, but from the ground. We’ll have to compare notes.” He gestured at the subdivision below. “It’s weird. I’ve lived here since I was eight. It’s strange to think I’ll never see these streets in daylight again.”
Tony snorted derisively. “I was born in this town, and never felt what you would call ‘welcome’. I’m not going to miss much around here. And the one thing I would have missed is already gone.”
The upper limbs of the taller trees reached toward them as they flew over the woody expanse of Riverview Park. Tony steered them toward a large bonfire built on a sandspit that projected into the river. The firelight was augmented by white halogen from numerous headlights, creating an island of humanity in the woodland expanse.
“How ‘bout that one? There’s lots of people, so we’re more likely to blend in, and they’re wandering in and out of the woods, so we’re more likely to be able to find someone alone.”
Matt shrugged. “One of ‘em’s as good as another, I guess. You’ve been doing a good job so far; lead on.”
“We’ll have to be careful coming through the trees, we don’t want to get hung up in the branches.”
“Or, you know, we could just do this.” Matt headed downriver and landed on the riverbank.
“Showoff,” Tony muttered good naturedly as they entered the woods and headed toward the party.
Rustles from among the trees hinted at frenzied couplings in the underbrush. Tony and Matt moved to avoid interrupting the intimacy of the passionate pairs, wanting to avoid an outcry that would announce their presence. Tony stopped at the edge of the clearing, observing the crowd.
Country music blared from a sound system perched in the back of a pickup truck. Stetsons and cowboy boots flashed from amongst the crowd, and an impromptu line dancing competition had sprung up along the bank. A Brownian rush implied the cracking of a new keg, and drunken bellowing punctuated by meaty thuds marked where a friendly rivalry for feminine affection have turned unfriendly. The ground was littered with plastic cups and cigarette butts, the detritus of drunken excess.
Tony nudged Matt. “There, there's our targets.”
The group he indicated was standing, like themselves, on the edge of the firelight. Holding half full glasses, lacking western attire, and unaccompanied by male companionship, the two young women swayed in time to the banjo beat while staring longingly toward the crowd, hesitant moths afraid of being burned in the flame of rejection.
“Look at them! They're obviously outsiders, so they won't be missed; they're lonely, so they should be receptive to our advances; and, well, they're girls, so who knows,” Tony blushed. “We might even get lucky.”
“You mean to say, as in sex?” Matt's forehead furrowed in thought. “I don't know if that's such a good idea. I mean, what if there's an accident? I didn't bring any protection. What if she ends up pregnant?” The furrows deepened. “Can vampires get girls pregnant?”
“That'll be the first thing we look up when we get home,” Tony promised. “Now, go and talk to them.”
Matt looked panicked. “What? Go and talk to them? I don't know what to do! I don't know what to say!”
“Go ask one of them to take a walk.”
“And then what?”
“When you're alone, act like you're going to kiss her, and then bite her over the jugular.”
“I can't do it.”
“Dude, we talked about it before you became a vampire and you said you didn't have a problem with it then!”
“No, not the feeding! I can't talk to them! You know I've never been good at talking to people I don't know, especially of the female persuasion!”
“Great. This gives a new context to the phrase 'terminal shyness'. Would it help if I went up to them first and broke the ice?”
“Fine. You stay here, and I'll signal when it's safe.”
Matt stuck out his tongue at Tony's back as he walked across the clearing. Tony chatted with the women, and Matt felt the first faint stirrings of hope. Not waiting for the signal, he moved to join Tony and was therefore caught in the splash as the brunette threw her drink in Tony's face. Her blond companion pulled a can of mace out of her purse and assumed the two handed stance of a professional marksman. Without bothering to comment or apologize, Matt grabbed Tony and pulled him into the woods.
“What the hell happened?”
Tony sputtered for breath and tried to clear his eyes. In the darkness it was hard to tell if the liquid streaming down his face was beer or tears. “I don't know. I thought I was making some headway,” Tony's voice caught as he laughed back a sob. “Then I complimented the blond on her pectorals.”
“It seemed to fit! She'd mentioned she was a swimmer, and I was trying to say something nice about her!”
“And that was what you came up with?”
“Hey! At least I was able to talk to them at all!”
“I know, I know. I'm not really being critical. What do we do now? Do we find someone else?”
“No. We go home and hope Ethan has a better idea.”
Ethan sat in the dark, rolling a twenty sided die between his palms. His body ached with hunger, his mind flamed with desire. More than once he started to stand, seeking to join his friends and slake his needs. Each time, he would look at the framed letter on the wall, force himself down into a lotus position, and resume the circular motion of the die between his hands. The incessant movement became the focus of his existence, a Zen catechism to save his troubled soul. The tiny facets of the die were clear to his touch, each plane distinct and individual as a tactile fingerprint. Without thought or feeling, Ethan spun the die across his fingers, reveling in the physical contact, on the bounded randomness of the polyhedron. Until, with a badly placed rotation, the die fell from his hands into his lap and broke his concentration.
“Damn,” he muttered, digging under his crotch to find the die. He stood, only to see it slip from the folds of his lap and bounce across the room. He chased after it, finding it under Tony's bed, a plantive '1' face up. “I'm glad that wasn't a roll that counted,” Ethan thought. “A one can undo more of the GM's plot than a whole party of clever players.” He grabbed the die and tossed it toward the dice bag on the desk. It missed, spinning on one of its multitudinous points before coming to rest with the same accusing '1' facing the ceiling. “Man, two 1's in a row, I'm just not rolling lucky tonight.” Ethan picked up the die and rolled it onto the desktop. The '1' was on top. He rolled it a dozen times, and a dozen times again. Each time the epic fail '1' glared at him from the top of the die. His disbelief grew as he realized the churning emptiness that had gnawed at him throughout the evening was diminished almost beyond notice. Moving slowly, he picked up a six sided die out of the bag, and held it tightly. Relaxing his mind, he could feel the die become lifeless in his grip. Opening his hand slightly, he allowed the die to fall to the floor. A solitary pip stared up at him.
Ethan pulled Tony's keyboard toward himself, and began Googling madly.
Matt adjusted the sleeves of his jacket as he got off the shuttle bus. The doors to the casino loomed before him, flanked by giant spotlights.
“Those things can probably be seen from space,” Matt thought as he stared in awe. “I wonder if we could sneak a Bat Signal onto one of 'em.”
Matt's fellow passengers, a horde of tourists and senior citizens, were battling to pass beneath the gaudy portal of greed. Matt took a deep breath and prepared to attempt entry. Local legend said river water was pumped under the building to comply with the state's regulation that all casinos be 'on the river'. Ethan's plan hinged on a loophole in the their inability to cross running water.
“It should work,” he'd argued. “Dracula takes a boat from Transylvania to England and back again, so obviously the water restriction is, excuse me, fluid.” He waited for the groans to subside. “I think what it means is we can't go through water but we should be able to go over it.”
“But a casino, dude?” Tony had complained. “What are we going to do there?”
“Ahh, Grasshopper,” Ethan had sat at the desk and pulled out a stack of cribbed notes. “Let me teach you about the game of craps...”
The scheme made sense, mostly. They needed a long term plan, but for any plan to be viable, they would need money.
“We have an unique advantage,” Ethan had explained. “We can change the odds in our favor in a way the casino can't detect. With that and discretion, we should be able to make enough money to cover our living expenses and start our investment portfolio so in the future we can live off the interest.”
“You said the casino can't detect what we're going to do. What if you're wrong?”
“Then, Matthew, we hope they send us to night court.”
Matt stepped through the double doors into a sensory hell. High decibel whistles and bells assaulted his hearing, while colored and strobed lights rivaled the intensity of the sun. The greasy air was stale and smelled like his great-aunt Marley.
Matt's skin crawled as he passed the rows of slot machines, each with an attendant dutifully pulling the lever and staring at the screen. Only the endless repetitive motions betrayed the image of death conveyed by the blank expressions of the participants. “Rats trying to get food pellets in a lab show more interest,” he thought.
The craps tables were on a separate floor, away from the Death's Waiting Room atmosphere of the slots. The clamor of the one armed bandits was replaced by the rattle of dice, the whisper of cards and the shrieks or sobs as someone made or lost a fortune. Matt noticed Tony leave his spot as a spectator at a poker game and move toward a craps table. In another part of the room, Ethan would be doing the same, following a well rehearsed timetable.
“First research, then planning, then practice. We need to know how fast we can drain a set of dice, what games work with best for our gift, which have the biggest payoffs, and how to maximize our take while minimizing suspicion. ”
“Dude, what is this, Ethan's 11?”
“I hope not, 'cause in the end they got caught.”
Matt walked across the room to the far craps table and joined the crowd. The shooter, a young man with boozy breath, was stacking his chips as he laid his bet for his next throw. Glancing around the room, Matt made momentary eye contact with Tony across the room. The back of Ethan's head was visible at the table by the door.
A chorus of groans erupted around the table, drawing Matt's attention back to the game. The stickman was collecting the former shooter's stacks of chips; the dice lay on the table, seven pips upright. The young man swayed in shock, watching his newfound wealth disappear arm in arm with his original stake. As the dice were handed to next shooter, an middle aged woman in a conservative pants-suit, the young man wandered away weeping.
Matt laid the minimum wager on the table. The woman tossed the dice and they bounded the length of the table to ricochet off its back wall.
“Craps looks extremely complicated, but in reality the rules are fairly simple. The person throwing the dice is called the shooter, and they want to throw anything except a 2, 3 or 12 on their first throw. If they roll a 7 or 11, they automatically win. If they roll a 2, 3 or 12, they automatically lose. Anything else becomes what's called 'the point', and the goal is to reroll the point in subsequent throws before rolling a 7 or 11.”
“But you said 7 or 11 was good,” Matt protested.
“Only on the first throw,” Ethan explained. “After that it's an Epic Fail.”
“But that doesn't help us at all,” Tony said thoughtfully. “If we drain the dice, we'll never be able to win.”
“Ah, that's where the rules start to work in our favor...”
“Eleven,” the stickman announced. “Excellent throw, ma'am. New round, same shooter. Everyone please place their bets.”
Matt looked on in bemusement as one of the dealers placed an identical chip next to his original bet. The rush he felt from winning made the mindless feeding frenzy of the slot machines easier to understand. The urge to risk his new affluence was strong, but he picked the chip up and added it to the collection in his pocket. The odds weren't in his favor yet.
“In craps you're either betting with the rules or against the rules.”
“E, that doesn't make sense. I thought you were betting against the casino.”
“In games where the the casino is actively playing, Matt, like poker or blackjack, you are. But in games of chance, like craps or roulette, the casino is more like a facilitator. The random factor means they don't make their money based on how talented their dealers are, but by setting the odds and the rules.”
“So by betting against the rules, we gain an edge in craps.”
“Exactly, Tony. Normally people bet that two 1s is a losing roll. But if you chose to bet the 'dark side', then that those two 1s suddenly become a money maker. The trick for us is going to be using those low rolls unobtrusively enough that we don't get flagged but often enough to build a real stake. Then, we use that stake to win big, and get the hell out.”
“The point number is four, the shooter must roll a four before seven or eleven. Place your bets please, ladies and gentlemen. The shooter has rolled an eleven, we have a new shooter. New bets please.”
The stickman presented Matt with five dice. He selected two, and held them tightly. He could feel the tingle in his hand as he leeched their essence into his soul; the fortnight of practice made the transfer almost as automatic as it was instantaneous. He laid his stack of chips so two 1s would win. Across the room Tony and Ethan would be doing the same, laying one third of their collected fortune on the line.
“Dude, that's depressing.”
The haul from emptying their savings accounts and piggy banks was a small pile of crumpled cash and shiny silver sitting in the middle of the dining room table. Attempts to sell Matt's Civic had resulted in an offer of $50; the junkyard had offered to waive their tow-away fee for Ethan's van.
“We need to find a new way to get dice too. Big Dave is getting annoyed that we're hanging around the store fondling his dice but not buying anything.”
“He's going to be more than annoyed when all the complaints start coming in that he's selling defective dice.”
Tony shifted in his chair. “I'm just hoping, E, that he doesn't connect that to us. I don't know, maybe he'll sell 'em cheap, as gag dice or something.”
“You know Tony, with your employee discount, that little pile of cash would buy a lot of dice.”
“Yeah, Matt, but we don't need a bunch of drained dice. What we do with them?”
The gleam in Matt's eye could have given Tony and Ethan a tan. “I don't know, sell them as gag dice? Who says they'd have to be sold cheap?”
“The shooter rolls a two, congratulations sir. New round, same shooter. Place your bets, please.”
Matt pulled his winnings off the table, and shifted his wager so he was betting with the rules. He'd lose this next throw and wander off to another table so he wasn't that memorable to the dealers.
“So the idea is we drift through the tables, mostly betting against each other, so whichever one of us is throwing the dice loses but the other wins?”
“Pretty much, Matt, yeah.”
Tony was floating above the floor with his eyes closed, mentally reviewing their plan. “I think this will work, Ethan, but even with the winnings constantly offsetting the losses, it's going to be a slow way to get rich.”
“Well, we don't have to make millions, what with our 'Low Rollers' dice doing so well in the Gurps community; plus Big Dave is talking about selling the gaming store; evidently all those complaints he received about the 'defective' dice have pushed him into retirement. If we're willing to live cheap, those two revenue streams will support us until our nest egg matures.”
“Which brings us back to the problem of securing said egg without getting cracked. I can see your plan working if we could do it over several days, but every day we go back increases the chances we're going to get caught.”
“No, we're going to do it in a single night, and on a single roll of the dice.”
The butterflies caused Matt's stomach to clench as the dice rattled within his loosely clenched fist. He couldn't feel any essence leaking from them into his body. He was already jazzed from everything he'd pulled in this evening, full from the power, twitchy and hyperactive.
His stacks of chips lay on the table, towering in their glory. He'd done well, if accidentally. He'd let a bet ride while he'd daydreamed about one of the cocktail waitresses, drifting happily in a pleasantly perverted pun before an errant elbow jarred him from his reverie. He'd pulled his bet from the table in alarm. He'd had to borrow a chip tray from the table to do so; Einstein's theory of compound interest gained more credence when observed at an accelerated rate.
“The shooter is making a single roll bet, snakeeyes or nothing,” the stickman intoned in a monotone. Her voice was cool and professional, her eyes almost pitying. “Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, payoff is thirty to one.”
Tony and Ethan stood at separate points at the table. They laid their stacks on the green felt; Tony's face betrayed his eagerness, Ethan's betrayed nothing. The crowd around the table held their collective breath; the shouts and screams of the other tables seemed muted by the island of silence.
The dice left Matt's hand and soared along the table. They rebounded off the back wall and bounced once, landing in front of the boxman. Matt closed his eyes in prayer as the stickman slid the dice down the table to rest in front of him. He opened his eyes to see twin pips staring back at him. Their plan had succeeded. Their future was secured.
Lorraine sat in the dark, staring at the knife in her hand and the marks carved into her arm. As she began the first of what would be another new scar, sharp staccato knocks sounded on her door.
She glanced at the clock. It was 2 AM. No one with a desire to live answered their door in this neighborhood at this time in the morning. Grabbing her battered wooden baseball bat, Lorraine walked over to stand beside the door and called out “Who is it?”
“Uhh, it's me, Tony. From your cousin's wedding.”
A quick glance at the table showed no evidence she'd been drinking. A quick glance out the peephole confirmed that yes, against all probability, it was the bastard from that night. He was pale, his hair was tousled, and for some reason, he was wearing pajamas. It was the pajamas that convinced her to open the door. She knew if she didn't learn why he was in his pajamas it would follow her the rest of her life.
“What do you want?” Her voice cracked from emotion and cigarette smoke. The place they'd played tonight didn't bother itself with New York's smoking ban. Most of them didn't.
“Uhh, look, I just wanted to say I'm sorry for what I did to you the night of your cousin's wedding, setting you up with that guy and all.” He spoke quickly, panicky. “My buddies and I'd been drinking, and well, it seemed funny at the time, you know? I didn't mean to, you know, hurt you or anything. I didn't think anything, really, other than getting a laugh out of my friends.”
“And you're here, in your pajamas, telling me this now why?”
“I, uh, had a long talk with the guy I used and he helped me see the error of my ways.” Tony shuddered, his skin visibly whitening. “He told me how unhappy you'd become and offered me the chance to maybe make things right.” He looked down the hall, then looked her straight in the eyes. “I could tell you all about the alcohol, and peer pressure but those are excuses. The truth is I was stupid and you got hurt, and I'm sorry. That's all. I'll be going now.”
Lorraine stood in her doorway, her mind a torrent and her emotions a hurricane, as he disappeared down the stairwell. Closing her door, she walked over to the table and picked up the knife. Staring at it, she realized she no longer felt the need to overwhelm the pain in her soul with pain from her body. As she put the knife back on the table, there was another knock on her door. Moving in a haze, Lorraine reopened the door.
“May I come in?”
He was pretty much as she remembered him, geeky and gaunt, but he held himself with a touch more assurance and poise. She stepped aside, clearing the doorway for him to enter.
“Lorraine, I also came to say I'm sorry. It's just as much my fault as his. I should have known I wasn't the person you wanted to give yourself too, but I used you anyway. There is no way I can ever make up for that, but I know how unhappy you are, and I wanted to offer you a new beginning before you end yourself.”
She looked around the bare apartment, empty except for the dumpster dove table and the pill and alcohol bottles on the counter. “Yes”, she said simply.
Tony walked over to her, but she noticed he had a smooth, gliding gate, as if he had wheels for feet or wasn't touching the floor. He put his hands on both sides of her head, and kissed her on her hair. She didn't remember him being this tall. He tilted her head to one side, and she felt a sharp pain in her neck as a warm oblivion claimed her.
She awoke to darkness. Her curtainless apartment was never truly dark, being illuminated either by grimy grey sunlight eking through unwashed windows or from the sign of the Chinese takeout from across the street. She noted the feel of clean sheets and the lack of stench, and for the first time in a long time, wondered how far she'd fallen.
“Good, you're up. You need to drink this.”
A match flared, and the darkness fled before the beams of a single candle. Tony sat in an armchair next to the bed, his arm extended toward her. He was holding a small glass filled with a dark liquid. The aroma pulled her up, and she took it eagerly. The liquid was thick and warm.
“How do you feel?”
“Better. Clearer. Hungry.”
“That's why I brought this.”
He bent over in his chair. When he straightened he was holding her guitar.
“Play me something.” He held the guitar out to her.
She cradled the guitar in her arms like a lover. She ran her hands along the familiar frets, caressed the nicked and stained soundbox. The portal to her music responded with its responsive hum. She picked out a few notes, then let a slow lament flow from her fingers. As the music drifted across the room, she felt it carry part of the taint from her soul, and the burden she'd carried for so long grew lighter on her shoulders.
“That was beautiful. Now, play something else, something angry, but put your hunger into the music.”
Her fingers moved across the strings. The music that emerged was discordant, tortured, painful. She felt her body grow stronger, her desire slacken. She played until she was satiated, then, spent, laid back, hugging her guitar to her chest. She stared at Tony, dark eyes clear. “What did you do?”
“I violated a vow to myself, took a chance, and wagered your happiness,” he replied in a whisper. “I owe you a bigger apology for what I just did than for what happened at your cousin's wedding.” A boyish grin flashed across his face. “But I love it when I'm right.”
“I don't get it.”
“Think of flying.”
Lorraine cocked her head to one side and looked at him quizzically. He nodded gently in encouragement, and she imagined soaring through the clouds on a clear blue day. She felt, vaguely, the blanket slip off her legs.
“Look at me.”
His voice brought her out of her reverie. Looking in his eyes, she realized the vista had changed. The ceiling, which before had been a comfortable distance above their heads, was now brushing her hair. With a yelp, her concentration broke, and she fell, bouncing on the bed. Instinctively she cradled her guitar as she landed, using her body to cushion its fall.
“I'm sorry.” Tony's voice came from above, and as she watched he drifted down to join her on the bed. “I didn't expect that.”
“Tony, what is going on?” She grasped desperately at his hand. “Please tell me this isn't some drug fueled hallucination.”
“No, it's real. But it's a long story, and hard to believe...”
“...and so I brought him here. I'd seen how unhappy you were, and that you were slowly killing yourself. I knew how much music meant to you, so I gambled you could feed off it, and I turned you.”
The candle had burned down and been replaced by the overhead lights. Outside, daylight reigned upon a world now foreign, but little missed. Digesting the events of the night, and the sudden turn her life had taken, she absently plucked notes as she thought.
“That'd make a decent song.”
“Yeah, or short story. But who'd want to read it?”
Another random thought crossed Lorrie's mind. “This doesn't change the fact that I like girls, you know. You're still not getting any.”
“I wasn't looking to be your lover. I was hoping to become your friend.”
“Yeah. I think I'd like that.”
By an RV outside, two men stood staring at the window of the hotel room, listening to the thin thread of music that drifted to the street.
“Well Professor, it appears our experiment was a failure.”
“On the contrary, Doctor, I think it was more successful then we could have expected.”
“Really? How do you justify that statement?”
“It demonstrated that lives such as ours, although defined by darkness, can be pierced by the light of hope.”
“My, don’t you wax maudlin tonight. Shall we feed?”
“No Doctor, I believe I will stay in tonight.”
The Professor leaned over to caress a lone dandelion that had forced itself through a crack in the concrete gutter to lift its petals toward the sky. “I have decided, my good Doctor, to learn to grow flowers.”
[Thank you for joining me in this, my first public work. I hope you enjoyed reading it; I certainly enjoyed writing it. Please join me in our next odyssey, It's Not Easy Being Green, the world's first Greenpunk story. What is Greenpunk? It's a new literary genre in the spirit of Cyberpunk and Steampunk. But instead of looking at what the future could become or what the past could have been, we look at what our present can be now. Click on the tab and join me for the ride. - Wm, St. Louis, MO, 9 April 08
I have received a variety of comments about how the story seems to end, even though there seemed more to say. You're right, it does. I have more material featuring Tony, Ethan and Matt, but when I tried to incorporate it into the story it seemed to be shoehorned in, and made the story seemed 'forced'. I realized, eventually, that this was because I was trying to put the sequel in the middle of the original. Rather than give all of us a stilted and less enjoyable story, I decided instead to have a somewhat awkward ending. Think "Fellowship of the Ring": an abrupt stop, with promise of more to come. Wm, 14 April 08]