FICTION: Casino City by Steve Timms

Red and black casino tokens, isolated on white background

Success or love; if you were forced to make a choice, which would it be? When I was doing my degree, the question floated around the lecture theatres and student bars, like a litmus test of career commitment. The correct answer was always ‘success’; once I said ‘Both’, and was rudely told ‘no, it had to be one or the other.’ Because love always died; fame offered something more permanent.

This was the gospel according to John Bender. Yes, that was his real name, and bad jokes followed him like a swarm of mosquitos chasing a fat man in the jungle. Bender was heavy on his feet and lumbered into seminars like a mad scientist sidekick. He didn’t smile much; when he did, he couldn’t help looking sinister, like the cover of The Aphex Twin album, ‘I Care Because You Do.’ Everything about John Bender was strange. He liked talking about himself, a lot but his monotone voice sounded like he was being permanently sarcastic – the vocal equivalent of resting bitch face. My last memory of him was a farewell drink at the end of the final year: he wasn’t invited, but happily gate crashed the party, claiming to be skint. Like a mug, I lent him £20 for drinks, and never saw the money again.

With hindsight, he was possibly on the narcissistic spectrum. Or maybe he was just a giant bell-end. In spite of his accumulated character flaws, Bender had been gifted a pushy confidence that served him well; the last I heard, he was working for an up-and-coming film production company. A Sunday supplement claimed he was one of London’s most exciting new screenwriters.

Am I jealous? Yes, of course. I wanted to be a screenwriter. I wanted to make horror films. Two and a half years ago, it nearly happened, I was runner-up in a genre based Screenwriting Competition, ‘Terror 2000.’ A respected London agent, Dolly Tench, added me to her client list. “Big things are coming your way, Robert”, she said. Dolly began circulating my calling card script amongst the British film community. “There’s a buzz about you”, said Dolly. Today, the buzz is more of a drone. Or maybe a whine. My script disappeared into a black hole of disinterest. Dolly has stopped returning my e-mails. Whenever I call, her PA tells me she’s ‘in a meeting.’ Each morning I push against the feeling that my life is going nowhere. Close but no cigar. I continue doing what I did before. I make a modest living as a freelance journalist, writing true-life stories for Put Your Feet Up magazine, interviewing dimly remembered celebrities, and writing articles about people rebuilding their lives after tragedy. It pays reasonably well but the truth is I’m bored shitless.

“Do you want to interview the sister of a gambling addict who killed herself?” asked Cameron, assistant editor of Put Your Feet Up. I’m offered £400 to write a 1000 word piece, so I say yes. Gambling; isn’t it a man thing? You don’t see many women in betting shops. It’s always blokes, geezers, ducking and diving (whatever that means). Gamblers smoke roll ups, wear faded sheepskin coats and sovereign rings. Old school to the core.

No, I’ve got it totally wrong; since the arrival of the net, the rules have changed, gambling has moved off the street and gone on-line. Pornography and gambling are the reasons the internet was created. Around 2 million people in the UK have a gambling problem, or are at risk. Sixty per cent gamble on-line. Just under thirty per cent are women.

In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown scrapped plans for a Manchester based ‘super casino.’ Local businesses were pissed off; a dream of 2700 new jobs had gone up in smoke, along with a potential investment of £200m. The dream did not die. The super casino was built in the virtual world. The building may be devoid of three dimensions but the prizes are real enough. Each day, hundreds of thousands of gamblers from all over the world log on, armed with a mouse, an avatar and a credit card. Remote gambling. Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Baccarat, Pai Gow, High Card Flush, Crazy Four Poker. The opportunities are as high as the stakes. Some become obsessed. Winners experience an adrenaline rush, like drug addicts or drinkers; that’s what they keep chasing. Everyday life loses its lustre. Unreality becomes the new paradigm. This is how it was for Serena Pogson. Her sister, Callista, has the coolest name I’ve ever heard. Callista lives in up-market Wilmslow, one of the poshest places I’ve ever visited. Curiosity makes me check property prices for the area: a semi on the same street is selling for £650,000.

“This is a beautiful house”, is the second thing I say to her, rubbing salt in my own working class wounds.

With her ringlets and freckles, Callista looks and sounds like a pretty governess in a BBC costume drama. “Thankyou.” She tells me she’s probably going to sell up next year. “Four bedrooms is too much for one person.”

Callista Pogson acts like she’s keeping the place warm until her parents return. They won’t be coming home as they were killed in a tragic accident when Callista was nineteen. Framed photographs of them stare down from the walls. The living room is full of antiques, the sort an aesthetically inclined married couple would buy: I grew up on a council estate, but I still know a Bakelite clock and Tiffany vase when I see them. The house is a shrine to their taste and memory.

I sit on the four-seater Harris Tweed sofa. Before I know it, I’ve asked where it’s from.

“Arighi Bianci”, she says.

It’s a famous furniture store in Macclesfield. I’ve passed it a hundred times on the train to London and back, but never felt the need to jump off and go inside. Even the scatter cushions are out of my price range.

Callista offers tea and brings it in on a glassy tray, with china cups and a silver teapot. She goes back to the kitchen and returns carrying a cake stand with muffins. I feel uncomfortable, and wonder why she’s going to so much effort.

“What do you do?” I ask.

“When?”

“I mean for a job.”

She tells me she no longer needs to work; her wealthy parents left some sort of trust fund for her and her late sister. Callista volunteers part time in a local charity shop, walks her dog, and has piano lessons. Once a week, she has Reiki and a Shiatsu massage. She likes cooking and is thinking of becoming a vegan. It seems a comfortable existence but one fashioned from a Faustian pact – financial security exchanged for complete aloneness.

She asks what I would do if I didn’t work. “I’d like to travel”, I say. “And read more books. I keep buying them. The stack is getting higher and higher.”

“Yes”, she laughs. “I do that.”

“Are you sure you want to talk about all of this?” I ask. “Your sister … I mean, you can change your mind y’know, it seems quite recent …”

“No”, she says, firmly. “I need to get this story out. It might help other people.”

“Other people like who?”

“Families with a problem gambler.”

I ask if it’s okay to record the interview. Callista agrees. I put the electronic recorder next to her chair. According to recent research, gambling addicts number 0.1% of the population. Some psychiatrists believe it’s an impulse control disorder: Others think it’s a consequence of childhood trauma. I ask what sort of gambling activities Serena enjoyed.

“On-line card games mostly. Las Vegas World was her favourite. She loved going there. She’d even change her clothes before she logged on.” That seems quite ritualistic, I say. “I don’t know”, she says. “Is it? All I know is it was her way of escaping.”

“What was she trying to escape from?”

“Life. Herself. Serena was an enigma.”

“Did she ever win?”

“Once or twice.” I ask how much money a person can win from on-line gambling. “I think the most she won was £500.”

“Was she happy when she won?”

“Briefly.”

Callista tells me they argued about the money Serena was losing. “She’d shout back and say, ‘look how much I won!’ It was losing £90 and winning £10 back.” Callista tells me this behaviour went on for over eighteen months.

“Do you know the grand total? How much she lost?”

“God. It’s over fifteen thousand. The majority of her debt was on credit cards. When I took the time to sit down and add it all up …” She shakes her head slightly. “I don’t know how it got so bad.”

I’ve always wondered what happens to credit debt when the cardholder dies.

“The majority of it has been written off”, continues Callista, “though one bank are being really pushy.”

“Some of them can be fuckers”, I say, thinking about my own experiences of debt.

“I think you’ve got a point.” She looks shocked by my swearing. “I’ve passed all the paperwork to my solicitor.”

I can’t help noticing; she doesn’t say ‘a solicitor’ but rather ‘my solicitor.’

Callista shows me a photograph of Serena; doe eyed, blonde, the sort of girl who might pose for make-up tips in a glossy women’s magazine. Serena was outwardly successful: she drove a Porsche 911, and enjoyed a high-flying job in the financial sector, as a trade associate, which probably sounds impressive to people with an FT app on their phone but means rock all to a man who’s three bounced cheques away from sleeping in a skip (me, by the way). “She had everything to live for”, says Callista, a statement she probably repeats to herself with mantra-like regularity.

I help myself to a cake. “These look good.”

She tells me she made them herself. Chester the Shih Tzu pads into the room and sits in front of his mistresses’ feet.

“Normally, he stays in the kitchen when people call round”, she smiles. “You’ve been given an honour.”

I ask why he’s called Chester.

“That’s where he was born.”

I like dogs, I say. She asks if I have one of my own. “The housing association where I live don’t allow tenants to keep pets.”

Callista strokes Chester and dispassionately tells me about the day she found her sister’s body. “I’d been … away. Staying with friends.”

There’s a white spot in the history of Serena Pogson, a period of 5 days where she was alone. What pushed her over the edge? Serena took an overdose, downed with half a bottle of Gin, and then quietly slipped away from this world. Callista came back, and found her sister in the bath; she’d been there so long, “she looked like a peach stone.” The coroner ruled out foul play, recording a verdict of suicide.

Some people might want to know – why would a young woman with everything to live for decide to end her life? Addiction, like depression, is different for each person, and borne out of a very specific set of circumstances. Most addictions are an escape from intolerable pain. Had she come to terms with the death of her parents, I ask?

“She … never talked about it. She preferred to forget them.”

“Did she ever cry?”

“Never”, says Callista, emphatically. “My sister was the coldest person you could ever meet.”

____________________________________

  1. Private Island. Morning.

The island of La Splenda, located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The first of several private jets lands at the airport. Brash Texan high roller REX VALENTINE emerges from the plane, carrying a suitcase. REX wears a gaudy check suit; his shirt is open 3 or 4 buttons, revealing a hairy chest and gold medallions. Stepping onto the tarmac, REX is blinded by the sun, and puts on a pair of Ray Bans. Parked at the edge of the runway is a black limousine. Korean chauffer HANEUL holds a cardboard sign with REX’s name written on it.

HANEUL
Mr Valentine?

REX
S’what it says on my luggage label, boy.

CHAUFFER
Actually I’m 24 years old. Please don’t call me boy.

REX
Sure. What’s your name son?

CHAUFFER
Haneul.

REX
I ain’t never met nobody with a name that fancy before.

CHAUFFER
In Korean it means ‘Heaven’ or ‘Sky.’

REX
Well knock me sideways. The place I come from, most men are called either Scoot or Clovis. S’a pleasure to meet you, Haneul.

CHAUFFER
I’m here to take you to your hotel, sir.

REX
We’ll get to that. I’ve had a long flight, and I’m in need of a shot of sunshine. Y’ know what I mean? Something to … lift my spirits.

CHAUFFEUR
Where do you want to go?

REX
What I need first … is a couple of shots of Red River bourbon. Help me relax.

CHAUFFEUR
I think that can be arranged.

REX
Second, I need a pretty young lady, experienced in the art of soothing an old man’s broken heart. You get my drift, fellah?

CHAUFFEUR
Yes, I think I do. I knew just the place … and just the lady.

REX (grins)
Y’know Haneul, I think you and me are gonna get along just fine!

HANEUL picks up REX’s luggage, and puts it in the boot of the limousine.

They drive away.

FADE OUT

__________________________________________

Where do ideas come from? What does it take for the magic lightbulb to appear over a writer’s head? How much of the creative process is inspiration? How much perspiration? I thought I’d lost my mojo, and would never write again. My research on gambling addiction kick started something new. I started to write ‘Casino City’, a slasher screenplay about a group of gamblers travelling to a Pacific island, location of the world’s largest casino resort. A black gloved killer roams the island, steadily killing off each of the main characters: Agatha Christie meets Martin Scorcese, with a healthy dash of Dario Argento. I sketched out the plot and opening scenes in a few days.

The Callista article appeared in Put Your Feet Up a month after our talk. The photographer included a shot of the bathroom where Serena died. There was another of Callista, looking like a statue in her museum-exhibit living room. The sub-editor added a family photograph of Callista and Serena as children, building a sandcastle on a beach. Several helpline numbers were printed at the bottom of the page, for problem gamblers and affected family members.

The day after publication, Callista telephoned to express her appreciation. “Your article was wonderful”, she says.

“I was just doing my job”, I say.

“You’re good at your job.”

“It wasn’t hard. But I’m glad you liked it.”

Rex Valentine is the first victim of the Casino City killer, poisoned during a game of Blackjack. I’m trying to figure the next death but Callista wants to chat.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I wondered if you might like to come round for dinner one evening.”

I’m surprised by her directness. I’m also reminded of her middle class status; what I would call ‘tea’, she describes as ‘dinner.’

“I’m a good cook”, she says.

“I’m sure you are”, I say. “It’s kind of you to offer.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Another time maybe. I’m a bit busy at the moment. How about next month?”

I can tell she’s disappointed but she says yes, fine. If I sound cautious, it’s because I am. “Why are you asking me?”

“Because I liked talking to you”, says Callista.

_______________________________

The ‘Casino City’ screenplay contains 11 murders (one more than the first ‘Friday the 13th’ and one less than ‘Friday 13th Part 3.’) Victim number 2 has a one armed bandit dropped on her head. Number 3 is decapitated (their head found atop a cascading spume of water in the ornamental fountain). Number 4: throat slashed by a razor edged playing card. Number 5: electrocuted by a neon sign. I’m working on the next death when Callista sends a random text.

‘What’s your favourite film?’ I text back ‘Videodrome. What’s yours?’ She texts ‘Amelie.’ More texts wing back and forth. Favourite writer, Richard Matheson (me); Jane Austen (her). My favourite album is ‘What’s This For’ by Killing Joke; hers is something by Corinne Bailey Rae.

Haneul is revealed to be the ‘Casino City’ killer, the reasons for his revenge revealed via the traditional horror trope of a ‘5 years earlier’ flashback. Each victim was responsible for a casual cruelty that led to the ruin and demise of Haneul’s business, and the death of his family. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel; my intention is merely to scare and entertain. After 6 weeks, I have a first draught screenplay, and I send it to Dolly Tench; she e-mails back, promising to ‘read it with interest.’

Rent is due. I go back to the day job, writing up an interview with a former fashion model, famous for twenty minutes in the 1970’s. A month has passed since I last heard from Callista. I feel guilty. My gambling article wasn’t great, I forgot to ask – ‘where are you in all of this?’ She doesn’t reply to my latest batch of texts. I try calling a few times; her phone rings out.

It’s out of character but I decide to get in my car and drive to her house. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and the front room curtains are drawn. There’s no answer when I ring the bell, so I knock. Chester the dog starts barking from inside. Eventually, I hear movement from upstairs.

Callista opens the door wearing pyjama bottoms, and a baggy, shapeless top. Her hair is tangled, and there are weird, circular indentations on her left cheek, like she’s been sleeping on a newly fitted carpet.

“What do you want?” she asks.

“Did you get my messages?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well … you could have responded.”

“I didn’t feel like it, okay?”

“I was worried.”

“About what?” Chester the Dog appears behind her legs, and gives me a questioning stare.

“Worried about you.”

“You barely know me”, she half snaps. “That’s ridiculous. How can you be worried about me?!”

If Callista Pogson wants to be alone, that’s her business. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

The tears aren’t far away. Callista lets out a wail and drops to her knees. Instinct takes over; she’s small enough for me to lift up, and carry back into the house. We go into the living room and I gently put her on the sofa. I’ve never seen anybody this upset before; I wrap my arms tight around her. Our ribs press against each other. In between sobs, she adds an epilogue to my article. “I failed her”, she cries. “I should have done more to help!”

To help an addict, they first have to admit they have a problem: Serena Pogson never got to that place. “I tried to stop her but she wouldn’t listen … she was making me ill … the phone kept ringing … people she owed money to … it was too much.”

My t-shirt is growing damp from Callista’s tears. “I was nasty”, she says, “the last thing … I said to her … the last time-”

“It’s not your fault”, I tell her.

I hear the sound of the front door shutting. I realise I left it open when I carried Callista inside. For a second, I think Serena Pogson has come back from the dead. Then Chester the Dog waddles into the room.

Callista is hyperventilating, her breath rushing to keep up with her tumbling thoughts. Chester walks over to the sofa, and loyally sits at his mistress’ feet. Eventually, her tears subside. We lie next to each other on the epic four-seater sofa. “I’m sorry for getting upset”, she says.

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

Her breathing starts to slow down. Callista dozes off next to me. Chester the dog is standing guard. I’m still trying to figure out how he closed the front door. “Clever buggar, aren’t you?” He cocks his head to one side.

My mobile is in my pocket. The ring-tone is the theme to Suspiria. I answer, speaking quietly, not wanting to wake Callista.

“Robert!” trills a voice I haven’t heard in 8 months. “Dolly here. Sorry not been in touch for a while. We’ve been sooooo busy this year.”

“I got that impression.”

She asks if I’ve heard of Parallax Productions. “They’re a new independent company. They’ve made some art-house films; well received, didn’t dent the box office.” I recall ‘October, November, December’, a film about a shallow web designer diagnosed with a brain tumour whose 3 month bucket list involved taking Class A’s and sleeping with women of different nationalities.

My combat pants have hitched up an inch or two: Chester is craning upwards, licking the bare skin above my ankle.

“Now they’re looking to produce some genre pieces”, continues Dolly, “science fiction and horror. I have a contact at Parallax, and I asked if he’d be kind enough to look at Casino City.”

“What did he think?”

“He loved it. They’re genuinely interested. Want to take out an option. Great news!”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you excited, Robert?” I’m too stunned to be excited. Maybe I’ll feel it later. “Actually, it’s a funny coincidence, my friend … he says he knows you. You were at university together. Do you remember John Bender?”

I flinch, as if an invisible bat has just dive-bombed my head. “Vaguely.”

“What do you remember most about him?”

It’s a weird question, I’m not sure what she’s expecting me to say. I still remember his creepy smile, monotone voice and dinosaur-like gait. “He owes me money”, I say.

“Well, you won’t need to worry about that for a while!” she trills. Dolly shocks me by using the C word; Parallax Productions are going to write me a CHEQUE. She asks if she can pass my number to him. “John wants to arrange a meeting. He’s even willing to come to Manchester.”

I feel sick but agree to her request. I end the call and stare at the ceiling. Callista is now awake. “What are you thinking about?” she whispers.

“Has Chester been trained?” I ask.

“I used to take him for lessons. Is that what you were thinking about?”

“No. Not really.”

“What then?”

“I wonder why life has been so unkind to you.”

“I have bad days. Today’s been unkind, yes. Nobody ever tells you how hard grieving is going to be.”

“I wish I could wave my magic wand and make it all better for you, Callista.”

I don’t normally say things like this. I don’t like magicians; that David Blaine guy creeps me out, for one. I don’t do Harry Potter either. Is it magic? I’m not sure but I worry I’m starting to care.

Callista touches my cheek. “I like you, Robbie.”

The sound of my name in her mouth makes my heart skip a beat. My phone rings again; the number is unrecognised but I know who it’s going to be. The phone drops from my hand, clattering to the walnut coloured, parquet floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Chester watching; it looks like he’s smiling.

What do I have in common with Callista Pogson? She’s wealthy, and I’m poor – she’s posh, I’m working class – she likes rom-coms, I like horror – she’s five foot one, I’m five foot eleven – her entire family are dead, mine are all alive – she’s a vulnerable woman who has experienced a degree of suffering I can’t comprehend. We’re from different worlds, there’s no future in this encounter, it’s not convenient, it doesn’t fit my plans, I don’t want to be responsible for another person’s happiness, I should get up and walk away right now …

The ‘Suspiria’ ring-tone continues, and I kiss Callista for the first time.

Success or love – which do I choose?

Which do I choose?

Steve Timms

Steve Timms pic

Steve Timms studied theatre at the University of Huddersfield. He has written for publications including City Life, The Big Issue, and The Skinny. He is the author of several plays including American Beer (BBC Radio 4), Filthy Lies, Clean Breasts(Edinburgh Fringe), Detox Mansion (24-7 Festival), Temp/Casual (Contact Theatre), and The Distance Between Stars (King’s Arms, Salford). He is a recipient of the Peggy Ramsay award. In 2015, he won a New Fiction Bursary at the Northern Writer’s Awards. He can sometimes be seen performing spoken word pieces at various open-mic nights around Manchester.

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