Cold River, Vermont
Time stood still in the stark white chamber. It could’ve been midnight or morning for all they knew. There was no way of telling in the windowless room. There were no clocks, and no sound except the roaring in their ears—white noise. It was as if they were in a vacuum—suspended by deadly anticipation, afraid to breathe, afraid to move. All eyes in the room were on one man, because it was his play—if he dared.
He looked around at the four others seated at the big, round oak table. As if he were seeking their approval, he gave each a slow and deliberate look. He was deciding if he dared to cross the line between sanity and a world they knew little about. Small beads of sweat formed on his forehead while his prominent Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. His tongue darted, snake-like, over his dry lips. His bloodshot eyes searched again and caught each of the others for a brief second. At that precise moment, they all knew what he was going to do. Chance Hartigan was probably going to kill himself. He was going to pull the trigger of that big, ugly .357 Magnum and pray the odds fell in his favor. If the hammer fell upon an empty cylinder, he would walk away with the five million dollars. If his seemingly uncanny good luck ran out, he would be leaving in a body bag, and all the others could do was to sit and watch. He could hear the strained breathing of those around him as they watched him stare once again at the large black handgun that the host had placed precisely in the center of the table. They had all witnessed their host, Sebastian Black, insert one bullet into the chamber, spin the cylinder and then snap the chamber closed. None of them had ever been at a place where the stakes were this high. This was the ultimate game of Russian Roulette. It had all built up to this.
They watched Chance with a mix of fear and macabre fascination as Black, the man they all had come to fear so much, stood by the door with his usual expression of haughty amusement. His arms were crossed and his thick eyebrows were raised in expectation as he watched the game unfold. He loved the game—it was what he lived for and he honestly didn’t care which way the pendulum swung—win or lose, it didn’t matter. It was all about the game.
They had been told that the prize was in the five gleaming aluminum cases, which were filled with stacks of banded money. The stainless steel cart on which they sat loomed large, very much a presence next to the wall. There was little else in the room with the exception of the monolith—the solid round oak table with the high-backed chairs where the players sat. It was five of them against Black. The way it had been since the game began. They never had a prayer, because their host held all the cards.
All eyes moved back to the gun as Chance reached for it. They could see the rapid rise and fall of his chest, and how his hand trembled as his fingers curled tightly around its polished wooden grip. He looked closely at the weapon in his hand, turning it over, inspecting each minute detail and then unexpectedly, he turned slowly and raised it to bear upon their tormentor, their master of ceremony, Sebastian Black. Black didn’t move a muscle as he stood there with his raven-like eyes locked on Chance’s—not on the gun. He knew Hartigan wouldn’t pull the trigger—it wasn’t in the rules.
Everyone knew it was too late for words. The cards had been dealt; the stakes were set and the consequences known. Chance had waited for this moment all his miserable life—it was all or nothing, the ultimate high, the game of games. It was the dream, or more appropriately, the sealed fate of the consummate gambler. The woman next to him sucked in a short breath. Chance looked over at her again as if to ask her blessing and she just shook her head as he turned the gun slowly away from Sebastian and pointed it toward himself. The end of the barrel loomed like a big black hole, an abyss with the power of death waiting patiently to be called upon with a mere squeeze of the finger. The woman, whom he had slept with, cried out for him to stop, pleading, but she seemed like she was far away in some long, dark tunnel and he paid her no mind. He brought the gun up to the side of his head, pressed it hard into the skin on his temple, and held it there for what seemed like an eternity. His hand began to shake, and sweat ran down his forehead as he held his breath—one long, sweet breath that he knew could be his last. Then he yelled, wide-eyed, piercing the heavy air with a scream that came from the depths of hell as he closed his eyes and tightened his finger on the trigger. They all watched in paralyzing horror as the hammer fell with precision upon the waiting cylinder.
North Truro, Cape Cod
When Chris first mentioned the fact that her Uncle Skyler was missing, I honestly didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. Uncle Skyler was an enigma. He was the family’s black sheep, a toothache from hell, but Chris loved him to death. She was all he had, and Chris had promised on her mother’s deathbed that she’d look after him no matter what. Skyler was a creature that only another drunk could understand and appreciate. He’d venture off into thin air with the swagger and ease of a cat and then show up broke and battered weeks later with his tail between his legs and a story that would make Hemmingway proud. In the meantime, Chris would be frantic; the police would smile and assure her they were doing all they could, while dear old Uncle Skyler was shacked up with some exotic dancer in a drunken blackout. Skyler liked to gamble, and at one fuzzy point in his checkered past he had the money to do it. You see, Uncle Skyler had been rich for a brief period of time. He’d invented a hand-held laser device that could measure distances accurately for the construction and home building industry and had made a fortune overnight, which was not a good thing for an alcoholic and a gambler. To make a very long, ugly, story short; he lost it as quickly as he’d made it—actually quicker. He’d found the ponies, three-card Monty, basketball, baseball, football, and then the crowning blow came when the Indians in Connecticut started building casinos. I think the Pequot Indians named a wing after him, or at least they ought to. Skyler found ways to lose money that nobody had ever heard of. He was a gambler through and through, and gamblers usually met with some pathetic fate. Just like alcoholics, if they don’t surrender to it—unfortunately, he was blessed with both afflictions. Skyler was prone to bizarre behavior, and that’s why I didn’t pay much attention when Chris said he was missing. In retrospect, I was wrong this time.
It was a breezy April afternoon and I was up on my deck looking out over my kingdom, which was Cape Cod Bay at Provincetown Harbor. I was slouched contentedly in my Adirondack chair, bare feet up on the railing, with a hot mug of coffee and some drafts of the new book I was working on. I’d stopped red-penning for a moment, and watched some fool try to navigate a small sailboat through the swirling wind and choppy water in the bay with very little success. Not that I could’ve done any better—a sailor I’m not.
April is the start of nice spring weather and my deck up on the roof was where I went for solitude and serenity. I’m Nick Thomas. I’m forty-ish, which I’m told is the new 25. I am a moderately successful mystery writer who lives in a cottage on the beach. I drive a temperamental old MG, have and adore a vintage Harley Police Special, and have a very diverse love of music. My blue jeans seem to be shrinking and my hair is getting gray around the temples, but I’m happy with life. I’m also a recovering alcoholic. I tell you that up front, because it’s a fact I’m proud of. The key word here is recovering. That means I don’t drink anymore, I go to meetings in smoky church basements, and I try to live a better life. It’s not the scarlet letter or something you whisper to your kids after I’ve left the room. It’s a disease, it’s life and it was hell, but I’ve fought my way back and I’m able to walk with my head up again. It’s been eight hard, self-discovering years, but I’ve done it sober. However, it seems that every time I try to settle back and enjoy the life I’ve worked so hard for, or attempt to write that serious Pulitzer Prize winning novel that is rolling around inside my head, something happens. Most people call it bad luck; some call it fate, and the adjusted few call it life. I’ve come to believe that there is a reason for all that happens, and that there is a master plan that we may never be privy to and don’t really need to understand. However, I really hate it when life rears its ugly head and messes with my happy little world. There are days that I think I’d love to write the script for my own life. At least I think I would, but God doesn’t allow us that luxury. Someone told me once that life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. Isn’t that the truth?
Chris, my ladylove, called me earlier in the day and said that she still hadn’t heard from Skyler, and that she wanted me to drive down to Boston with her to look for him if he didn’t turn up by morning. Skyler loved the city: bright lights, cheap booze, stripper bars and derelicts. He was at home there and it was usually where he headed after he got his monthly check, which was a miracle in itself. I don’t know how, but when he did have money he managed to put some away in an annuity that gave him a modest monthly income now that he was “retired”. However, after he got his check in the mail—watch out! It was like watching a dog chase a rabbit. Then a week later he’d be at Chris’ asking for a loan till his next check.
In spite of my better instincts, I told her I’d help her find Skyler once again, and that I’d pick her up the following morning in the MG. We would check his room in Hyannis first, but I seriously doubted we would find him there. He rented a small room in a house off the main drag in Hyannis for three hundred a month. His landlady, Abby Pierce, would feel sorry for him and feed him when she could pin him down. They fought like they were married which was why I thought there was some type of love-hate relationship between them. She’d scold him on the evils of drinking and gambling and he’d give her this million-dollar smile that could melt stone. He told me that he gave her flowers once but she threw them out the window at him. Mrs. Pierce later informed me that he did indeed give her flowers once but that it was two-o’clock in the morning; he was drunk, and that the flowers came from her carefully manicured garden. I always secretly hoped they would pair up. Abby Pierce would be good for Skyler.
I knew Skyler wouldn’t be in Hyannis. Chris had already talked with Abby and even she sounded worried. He never had the resources to stay gone long. It was the call of the wild that lured him and I was sure that’s where he’d be found if he wanted to be found. The thing I didn’t like was the growing feeling of apprehension in the air, hanging like a dark cloud.
It was supposed to be a nice day and with any luck we could put the top down and enjoy the ride. Spring on the Cape is incredible: the sun is always brighter, the wind always a bit sweeter and the sky definitely a lot bluer. Besides, Chris and I have fun together no matter what we do and can make an adventure out of anything. So I said, what the hell, packed a small bag and made reservations at a bed and breakfast that I knew in Cambridge. I figured we could have a nice, romantic dinner in some out of the way nook downtown and then locate Skyler. It sounds easy, doesn’t it?