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Authors: Steve Gannon

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BOOK: Stepping Stones
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Straining with every ounce of will I possessed, I struggled to raise the gun.

I couldn’t move
my hand
. . . not even a millimeter.

Without
as
much
as a glance
in my direction, the shadowy figure moved on.

After he’d gone, I remained behind the concrete column, trembling uncontrollably. 
Why had he spared me
?
I asked myself
.
Was he toying with me, tormenting me?

Then another thought occurred. 
Had I nearly made a mistake? 
What if
he had
simply been an innocent passerby—a hotel employee, a garage attendant, a gambler leaving from a late-night stint at the tables?

No.
  I couldn’t accept that.  My vision in the TV screen had been no hallucination.  The cards at the blackjack table had proved it.

 

*       *       *

 

“How’d you sleep last night, hon?” Sarah asked at breakfast
later
that morning.  “The pills help?”

“Yeah,” I lied.  I couldn’t tell her what
I had
seen in our TV, or what had happened at the Hilton.  It was too much to grasp, even for me.  And
I had
been there.

“Going to work today?”

“No.  I think I’ll stay home,” I answered, my mind racing. 
Why did she want to know?

“Good.  You still look tired.” 
Finishing
the last of her coffee, she checked the clock over the stove.  “Jeez, I’ve gotta run.  I’ll call from the office during lunch and see how you’re doing.”  Then, bending to kiss my cheek, “I’m worried, John.  You
going to
be okay?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I love you.”

“Love you back,” I mumbled.

That night I doubled Dr. O’Brien’s dosage
again
, taking eight of the little
pills
.  Nonetheless, as usual, I found myself wide-awake after Sarah had fallen asleep.  Around midnight I got up and
made my way
to the den, going straight to a snowy channel on the TV.  Once more I saw
my multiple selves
reflected in the surface of the
television screen
, just as I had the night before.

Time passed.  My reflections started to move.  Again, I saw myself at the blackjack table.  As before, I knew each hand as if
I had
played it a hundred times.  The shadowy figure was there too, close enough to touch.  I still couldn’t see his face.  Knowing what
was coming
next, I was afraid to watch, but I couldn’t tear my eyes
away from the images in the screen
.

Death at the hands of my loathsome nemesis came suddenly this time—violent, hideous, and bloody.

I had to go back to the Hilton.

What happened next is mostly a haze.  I rec
all getting dressed, shoving
the
gun
into my belt, slipping
into my car.  Of the trip downtown I remember
nothing
.  My first clear recollection is of crossing the Hilton casino floor and approaching a five-hundred-dollar blackjack table.  As I sat, the pit boss from the night before spotted me.

“Evening, Mr. Starling,” he said,
stepping
behind the dealer.

I nodded, noting the nameplate on his coat.  Frank.  I wasn’t surprised that he knew me; it was his job to recognize the players.  And after las
t night, I was a player.  “I have
money on deposit,” I said.  “I’d like it
all
in large chips, please.”

“Certainly.”  Frank made a call on the pit phone, returning with a marker for me to sign.  Then the dealer assembled several stacks of chips before me—red-and-black hundreds, blue-and-gray thousands.

I began by betting the ten-thousand-dollar limit on hands I knew were winners, pulling back to five hundred on the losers.  When my stacks got unwieldy I switched to the five-thousand-dollar chips.  At that point the dealer closed the table to other players and security moved in to contain
a
crowd that had assembled behind me.  Soon I was playing all five positions.  On one single hand
,
when I knew the dealer was going to bust, I
raked
in fifty thousand dollars.

At the end of the shoe they changed dealers and brought out six new decks.  I counted my winnings:  nineteen stacks of five-thousand-dollar chips, ten per stack.  I did the math.  Almost a million, not counting my smaller chips.

I played on.  Then something went wrong.  I felt a prickling at the back of my neck.  I could feel him behind me.

I
glanced
over my shoulder.

It was Holden.

“What . . . what are you doing here?” I croaked, barely able to speak.

“Sarah asked me to keep an eye on you,” he answered.  A lie.  Sarah didn’t even know
I had
been going out.

“So you
followed
me?”

“Not exactly,” he answered guiltily.  “It was easy enough to track you down, though.  It’s a small town.”

“Cards, sir?” the dealer asked.

I turned back to the table, my mind spinning.  I couldn’t believe it. 
Holden
.  Numbly, I glanced at my hand.

It was all wrong, not the cards
I had
seen in the dream.

I could feel Holden’s eyes boring into my back.  I lost the next four hands.  Rising shakily, I tipped the dealer a white-and-orange five-thousand-dollar chip.  “Please credit my winnings to my account,” I said.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Starling.  And thank you.”

Determined to confront Holden, I turned.

He was gone.

A security guard accompanied me to the cashier’s office, where I was given a receipt for my winnings.  Afterward the casino manager offered me a hotel suite, along with complimentary wine, food, companionship—anything I wanted.  They didn’t want me leaving.  I didn’t blame them.  At that point I had over two million dollars of their money.

With a shrug, I accepted. 
Why not?
I thought.  I had nothing better to do.  Besides, I was in no hurry to face the next part of my vision.

A bellhop escorted me to a penthouse on the twenty-ninth floor.  The “Elvis” suite.  After he’d gone
, I locked the door and
surveyed the
well-
appointed rooms—leather couches, surround-sound stereo, fully stocked bar, a big-screen TV.  I avoided the TV.  Doors led to several bedrooms, each boasting a king-sized bed and a sweeping view of the Strip.  All were empty.  I checked.

Satisfied
that
I was alone, I stepped onto a private balcony just beneath the big red Hilton sign atop the building.  Bathed in its glow, I stood by the balcony wall, breathing in the night
air
and staring at the casino lights on the streets below. 
I had
been out there
for
some time when I heard a knock at the door.

It was Holden.

My heart tripping like a jackhammer, I let him in—never taking my eyes
off
him, not even for an instant.  My mouth went dry.  I still couldn’t believe he was the one.

“You look like
hell
,” Holden noted, lurching past me.  I could smell the reek of bourbon on his breath.

Was he drunk, or just acting that way to put me off guard?

“How ’bout a drink?” he suggested, slurring his words.

“No, thanks,” I answered, keeping my distance.

“Meant for me,” he chuckled, staggering around to the business end of the bar.

When he turned toward me again, I had the gun in my hand.

“What the hell . . .?”

“No more cat-and-mouse, Holden.  Just tell me why
.
  What did I ever do to you?”

He edged out from behind the bar.  “C’mon, John.  Quit kiddin’ around.”

“I’m not kidding, Holden.  Tell me.”

He spread his hands, trying to smile.  “Hey, pal, you never did anything to me.”  He couldn’t take his eyes off the gun.

“Then why do you want to kill me?”

“Kill you?  I just came up to ask for a loan.  Figured you could afford it, seein’ how you just won big.”  He licked his lips.  “Listen . . . forget the loan.  Just put down the gun.”

He had
started to sweat.  I saw a something in his eyes—fear, hate, maybe both.  He glanced at the door as if he were expecting someone.  Like a fool, I fell for it.  As I looked over my shoulder, he
rushed me.  And at that moment
I knew
for sure—just as
I had
known what cards
would be
coming up in the casino.  My nemesis was Holden.

I swung the pistol, connecting with the side of his head just above his left eye.  He grunted and collapsed on the carpet, splayed out like a side of beef.

He was heavy.  It took me several minutes to drag him outside and position him on the balcony wall.  It was hard work, and I nearly lost him before getting him propped
up
in the corner just right.  I was breathing hard when he came to.

“Jesus.  What the . . .”

“Don’t move,” I ordered.  “Not one inch.  I’ll shoot you right now if you do.”

“What the
hell
are you doin’?” he
said, his eyes wide
with fear.  I could tell he was about to make a move.

“Don’t,” I warned.  “I know what you’re planning.  It has to end now.  There’s no other way.”

Holden’s
eyes got even wider as I gave him his options:  a quick and painless bullet, or the long drop behind him.  His choice.  It was the least I could do.  After all,
he had
once been my friend.

He chose the bullet.  “But let me do it myself,” he begged, unable to hide the crafty
look in his eyes
.
If I’d had any lingering doubts
, that look dispelled
it
.

Holden was balanced precariously on the balcony wall, a thirty-story drop behind him.  “Sure,
pal
,” I said, handing him the gun and grabbing his ankles at the same time.

He leveled the pistol at me, just as I knew he would.  “You’re crazy!” he shouted, attempted to scoot
his butt
forward off the wall.

I lifted his ankles to keep him from moving.

“Don’t make me shoot you!”

I lifted his feet even higher.  He was close to going over.  Panic filled his face.

“No!” he pleaded.

Then he pulled the trigger.

I heard the hammer click on the empty chamber.  A live round was up next.  Before he could pull the trigger a second time, I jerked his legs over his head.  The gun clattered to the deck.  “Good-bye, Holden,” I said.

He screamed all the way down.

 

At the coroner’s inquest I testified that Holden, drunk to the gills, had come up to the penthouse to borrow money.  When I’d refused,
he had
climbed onto the balcony wall and threatened to jump.  Of course at that point
I had
agreed to help h
im, but while climbing down he
had accidentally
slipped and
fallen
to his death.

A lie, but who would’ve believed the truth?

Oddly enough, it turned out
that
Holden actually
was
in financial trouble.  That afternoon
he had
lost
ten
straight passes at the craps table.  His luck had run out.  Case closed.

Sarah convinced me to see Dr. O’Brien
one
more
time
.  He put me on different pills.  They even worked for a while, allowing me
to get
a few precious hours of sleep each night for almost a week.  Then I had to double, triple, quadruple the dose.  In the end they stopped working altogether.

Now I’m back in front of the TV again, watching my favorite show:  cosmic background ra
diation, brought to you by the Big B
ang.  Night after night I see my reflection in the screen,
watch
myself die at the hands of the shado
wy figure.

That’s right.

M
y nemesis is back.

But now I know who it is.

BOOK: Stepping Stones
13.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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