The House Always Wins
My neck hairs stood on end as I walked to the end of the small bar, picking up half-eaten olives and bent toothpicks. It’s twenty years since high school graduation and, dammit, she looks great. “I thought you ran away and joined the circus?”
Wendy settled onto the bar stool. “Weren’t you going to be a lawyer?”
I threw the cocktail detritus into a bin. “What’s your poison?”
“Since this is a martini bar… a martini?” She picked up a pistachio from a dish, examined it, and then dropped it back into the pile. “Can you make it dirty?”
I measured two ounces of gin into a metal shaker with some ice and swirled vermouth into a cocktail glass adding a dash of olive juice. “Do you know him?” I nodded at a man looking in the bar-front window. His silhouette outlined by the orange sunset as he cupped around his hands around his eyes. Ivory beads at the end of his beard left streaks in the breath-fog.
Wendy twisted on her bar stool. “How did he find me so fast?”
“Is everything okay?” I poured the iced alcohol into the glass and dropped in a tooth-picked olive.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Do you still sing?”
I added a second dash of olive juice, and placed the martini in front of her.
Wendy sipped the drink. I smiled at the pickle-face she made as she pushed the drink back to me.
“I could get you signed where I work.” She clicked a lacquered nail against the bar top. “You’ll make more money, in tips alone, than in this dump.”
I shrugged my shoulders and moved down to the other end of the bar, wiping invisible spills.
“Okay, I’ve got a flight to catch.” Wendy slid a twenty under the martini glass and left.
I finally settled onto my lumpy futon around one am. Pearl curled up in the space between my shoulder and ear and purred. I opened my laptop and clicked on the most recent email.
Come and check out Casino night at The Royal Savoy Hotel this weekend. It’s 5-Star. Ms. Savoy is very interested in hearing you sing. A car will be waiting for you at the airport.
Wendy is getting generous in her old age. I clicked on the attached ticket.
I scanned the ticket details. “Ahh, there it is, Pearl.” The ticket was one way. Of course, I’d have to finance my own way home.
I googled The Royal Savoy and found a sepia-colored picture from the 1930s. A smiling woman wearing an evening gown stood in front of a three-story turreted mansion. There were wheat fields as far as the eye could see. I zoomed in. A pendant sparkled from a black lace ribbon at the base of her neck.
“What is that, Pearl? A spider?” Pearl snuggled deeper into my neck.
A black-and-white picture, with 1950 scribbled along the border, showed a house surrounded by mountains.
“Is that the same house?” I asked Pearl. A woman waved from inside a vintage car parked in front. I zoomed in again. A man in a white shirt with a pencil-thin moustache, polished the angel hood ornament. His suspenders held up loose-fitted trousers.
“He’s quite a looker, don’t you think?” Pearl tapped at my chin with a paw. I was disturbing her beauty sleep.
An undated photo showed a house by a lake. A bearded man stared with adoring eyes at a smiling woman holding a picnic basket. A sign over the front door said The Royal Savoy.
I typed Clara Savoy into the search engine and found a scanned-in news article.
‘Miss Clara Savoy, heiress to the Savoy fortune, has not been publicly seen since her return from Egypt.’
An oval headshot of Clara, with a small smile on her youthful face was beside an article too pixilated to read.
“It’s a free holiday.” I scratched Pearl between her ears.
I would love to attend Casino Night. I am happy to sing for Ms. Savoy. I will need some kitty litter. There isn’t time to find a cat sitter.
The flight left at 9 am. Plenty of time to pack and grab a couple of hours of sleep.
One, two, three, four pairs of panties. I dropped them onto Pearl’s white head. She blinked her amber eyes and purred as she settled onto the clothes piled in my suitcase.
When the taxi arrived, I clipped Pearl’s faux-diamond collar around her neck. She scowled as I pushed her into her carrier.
“Ms. Park?” A broad-shouldered man with just enough bicep grinned at me. A red bowtie matched the suspenders stretching over his broad chest.
“My name is Mateo.” His Italian accent was delicious.
“Hi, call me Leah.” I smiled shyly. “This is Pearl.”
“I love cats.” Mateo peered through the mesh window of her carrier. She mewled a hello.
“I got suitcase already. We go now.” Our hands touched as he took Pearl’s carrier.
Automatic doors whooshed open, and the sticky fog of the east coast wrapped around us as we exited the terminal.
“The hotel is far.” His muscled back strained against his white shirt. He set the carrier onto the back seat of the grey car. He smiled, his thin mustache accenting perfect, white teeth. “But,” he opened the front passenger door, and I slid into the seat. “I know shortcut.”
Mateo darted around the front of the car. He stopped at the hood ornament and rubbed invisible dirt from the silver angel. He reminded me of the man in the old photo.
I ran my hand along the worn leather of the seat.
“1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. Not fast like my Bugatti.” Mateo sighed as he put the car into gear, easing into traffic. “Now, that was a car.”
The rugged Atlantic coastline was dark and angry as we flew along the highway.
“Business or pleasure?” Mateo asked.
“Mostly pleasure. My friend Wendy,” I caught Mateo’s scowl in the little, round side-mirror “invited me to Casino Night. I might sing for Ms. Savoy.”
Mateo frowned at me but made no comment. I changed the subject. “So, do you like driving?”
“Si. I was a race car driver when younger. I come secondo, duo times, in the Mille Miglia.” Mateo wiggled two fingers.
“Well, third time’s the charm,” I said.
We turned inland. The thickening fog made it difficult to see the road. Mateo expertly hugged the curves as we laughed and shared stories.
Mateo looked at me, concern in his soft-brown eyes. “Did you sign contract?”
“Contract? No,” I didn’t remember seeing any contract with the email.
“Good.” Mateo returned his attention to the road. “We should eat together.”
“I would love to.”
“Do you sing Rigoletto?” Mateo asked.
“No,” I laughed. “I sing country-pop.”
I sang a couple of lines from Taylor Swift’s most recent hit. “Do you know what type of music Ms. Savoy likes?”
“I do not think it is, how you say it? Country-pop?” Mateo geared down, and we curled around Exit 19.
“That could be a problem.” My shoulder pressed against his as I leaned into the turn.
“It could be good problem,” said Mateo.
“Maybe it is a problem we can solve over supper.” I replied
We entered the quaint village of Roxbury two hours later. Wispy clouds of fog floated around a diner and through a park. We paused beside a bookstore, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. I saw a man, beads in his long beard, looking out the display window. His eyebrows lifted as he studied the sky behind me.
“Do you know him?” I pointed to the man as he exited the store.
Mateo scowled at the man who hurried to a motorcycle parked behind us. He pulled a dented black helmet over his hair. Then the sleek bike flew past us.
Mateo glanced at the sky and put the car into gear. “We need to get to the Savoy before the storm comes.”
I gripped the door handle to avoid being tossed to the floor as we bumped along roads riddled with potholes. I caught a glimpse of the motorcycle’s orange taillights as we turned onto a gravel path.
Ivory fog danced in the muted light of four brass lights illuminating The Royal Savoy entranceway. The tires crunched as we stopped. I was amazed at the unkept grounds. Subtract one star.
“Is that Ms. Savoy?” I pointed at a second-floor turret window. Mateo looked up, but there was only a lacy curtain where I thought I had seen her. He frowned and again, no answer.
Mateo handed me Pearl and pointed me toward the front door. “I will take suitcase to room.”
I walked through the oak door and up to a mahogany desk. A baby-faced man, pince-nez glasses perched on his nose, spoke into a small trumpet speaker protruding through the wall.
“Yes, Ms. Savoy. No, I haven’t given it to her yet.” He turned to me with a practiced smile. I’m Ricky, the manager.”
“Leah Park.” I placed Pearl between my feet.
Opening an over-sized reservation book sitting on the desk, he ran his index finger down the long list of names, frowned and turned the page. “Ah, here you are.”
He slid a heavy, thick brass skeleton key across the desk. Room 214 was engraved on its head, shiny from years of use.
“We’re old school,” he said.
“Can you tell me where I could find Wendy?” I asked.
The insistent tinkling of a small copper bell beside the little trumpet pulled Ricky away. “Yes, Ms. Savoy?”
“Leah! Over here.” Wendy waved from a room just to my right. As I entered the room a jangle broke the air. Wendy held up a manicured index finger and smiled. She answered a white candlestick phone.
“Yes, Ms. Savoy?” She held the mouthpiece close to her bright ruby lips. “Yes, I understand.” She winked and handed me a shiny, tri-fold brochure titled Welcome to The Royal Savoy. “I know what my contract says,” she whispered and turned her back.
“Hello.” It was the man from the bookstore, his beard-beads resting against his ascot. I inhaled sharply. And, I realized, the same guy from the bar. The pamphlet fell from my fingers and landed on Pearl’s carrier.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. When Clara Savoy calls, the conversations can be lengthy,” he said.
“No, she hasn’t signed it yet.” Wendy half turned to me and mouthed ‘one sec.’
“I see Mateo got you here in one piece.” The man held out his hand. “My friends call me Tucci.”
“The fog was incredible……Tucci.” I released his hand. “I could hardly see the road.”
“Yes, but Mateo can drive here with his eyes closed.” His beard-beads clicked as he bent down to pick up the brochure. “Beautiful cat.”
“She doesn’t like strangers,” I said.
Tucci handed me the brochure. “That’s Clara Savoy.”
He pointed at a colored headshot of the woman from the news article; a little older, with pin-curls and crimson lipstick. Around her neck was a black lacy choker with a palm tree pendant.
“No, Ms. Savoy. You do not need to come down.” Wendy raised her voice looking directly at Tucci. Without a word, he scurried out the door.
“Yes, Ms. Savoy.” Wendy sighed and rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
I stood for a moment, waiting for Wendy to finish her conversation. Eventually I picked up Pearl and heading to my room. The edges of the carpeting were a vibrant red and gold filigree, but the center was dull and thin, showing bits of narrow floorboard. Down another star.
I slid the key into the lock and swung the door open. An Art Déco table sat beside a double bed with a Chantilly lace canopy. On the table was an oil lantern, a box of matches, and a white porcelain vase filled with soft-scented lilacs. Add one star.
I unzipped Pearl’s carrier. She poked her nose out, stretched her claws into the plush carpet, and jumped onto a satin pillow in the corner of an expansive bay window. The fog was thicker. An emerald glow weaved between the trees. Flashes of mauve lightning revealed the backyard was as unkept as the front grounds. Subtract the new star.
A square of bright yellow light spilled out onto the rocky ground below my window. Wendy appeared and her perfect hair broke loose in a gust of wind. A man emerged from behind a small outcrop, beads flashed in the light as he ran into her arms.
A tiny rustle drew my attention away from the window. I picked up an envelope that had been slipped under the door.
Please review and sign the enclosed contract.
Your prompt attention would be very much appreciated.
Ricky, Hotel Manager
This was what Mateo was talking about. I tossed the envelope onto the bed and returned to the window. The covert lovers had disappeared. I opened the window for a better look. Yellow lightning ripped across the horizon. The lights flickered and went out, erasing everything.
I found the lantern and carefully lit the wick, lowering the clear glass bulb over the flame.
I pulled a one-page contract out of the envelope and squinted in the dim light.
‘This contract, dated on the…blah, blah, blah’ I skimmed past the legal jargon until I saw my name.
‘Leah Park agrees to replace Wendy Bonatucci.’ I snorted. I agreed to no such thing. I continued scanning until the very end. In tiny font, it read:
‘In pertetuum sub contract unisi poetea non inveni.’
My Latin sucked, but the gist of it was ‘Forever under contract unless replacement is found.’
I tossed the sheet of paper onto the bed. “Pearl, we need to find Wendy.”
Pearl wasn’t there. I ran towards the open window. The curtains flew across my face, twisting around my neck. I pulled them away and spotted a small white blob skulking along the eave trough.
A purple flash of lightning cut across the jade sky Her bright eyes and jeweled collar briefly sparkled. Then she was gone.
I grabbed the lantern and sprinted down the hallway. Shadows crawled along the wall in front of me, clawing at the carpet and clinging to the unlit sconces.
For the next three hours, pink and purple lightning guided me over the uneven terrain as I searched for Pearl. I jumped at every strike of lightning that split the skies. But I didn’t quit. I couldn’t quit.
I navigated the rocky terrain around the hotel, while Ricky and Mateo watched from a window. Mateo said something to Ricky, who shook his head and pointed behind me. I turned, hoping to see Pearl, and gasped. The clouds had deepened into an olive-green, their edges glowing pink and orange as lightning flashed behind them. I looked back at the window. Ricky was still watching me, but Mateo had disappeared.
“I didn’t want to have dinner with you, anyway,” I mumbled. The wind whipped my damp hair across my eyes. I slipped over the lichen covered rocks, falling hard on my butt.
“Pearl!” A wave of wind sucked my voice away. Huge raindrops battered my back as I tried to catch my breath.
A strong arm wrapped around my shoulders, and another slid smoothly beneath my knees, lifting me from the ground. Mateo hugged me tight against his powerful chest and sprinted towards an open door and into the warm kitchen. He slammed the door shut with his foot and gently lowered me onto the floor.
“What are you doing out there?” he asked. “Didn’t you sign contract?”
“I was looking for Pearl.” I tried to ignore the heady smell of pipe tobacco and brandy clinging to him. “And no, I didn’t sign contract.”
I squirmed out of his arms, pushed past him, and staggered into the candle lit lobby. I filled a glass cup with lukewarm coffee from the copper urn. I wrapped my fingers around the mug to warm my hands.
Several guests sat around a felted poker table beside a large window.
“So where to this time?” A bald man dealt out cards.
“I hope somewhere warm again,” said a blond woman.
“I made minestrone soup.” The dealer smiled at me and proudly pointed towards a buffet table filled with food. “It isn’t as good as Chef made, but it’ll do.”
The others nodded in agreement.
Mateo followed me and gently steered me to the window and whispered, “You need to leave right away.”
“Not without Pearl.” I looked out into the rain. A white blotch quivered under a scrubby potentilla bush. “Pearl!” I ran back into the kaleidoscope of lightning.
I returned to the lobby with hair dripping, a wet linen napkin, and no Pearl.
“You need to leave.” Mateo wrapped a striped wool blanket around my cold shoulders. “If you don’t leave soon, you will never leave.”
“Not without Pearl,” I said.
Wendy entered the room.
“Do not sign contract.” Mateo whispered into my ear and then continued loudly. “I will find Pearl.” He nodded at Wendy and left.
The savory aroma of minestrone lured me to the buffet table. A wilted salad in a crystal bowl sat beside uninspired, egg salad sandwiches. Two stars left.
My hands shook as I ladled soup from the tureen into a bowl.
“You know, Mateo could die helping you out there. We lost Chef in a storm just like this one. He was unloading lobster tails and then ‘poof.’ He was gone.” Wendy speared a piece of cantaloupe with her fingernail.
“Poof?” I said.
“Poof,” she repeated.
The minestrone soup was lukewarm and tasteless. Another star bit the dust.
A flash of orange lightning sprinted across the dark sky. The poker players looked up from their game.
“Here we go,” said the blond.
The window pulsed in, then out, then in.
“Have you signed the contract?” Wendy asked.
“I have been looking for Pearl.”
“I am sure your cat is hunkered down somewhere.” She studied the piece of fruit.
I dropped the bowl down on the table with a clatter. “I won’t be signing anything.”
“Really.” Wendy dropped the piece of cantaloupe into my soup. “Excuse me.”
She marched down the hallway.
With a fierce crack, the window imploded, showering the players with thousands of tiny pieces of glass. Cards scattered across the table. A stream of wind, powdered with gold-flecked dust, whirled in through the window, catching the edges of the glass shards. The dealer scrambled to gather up the poker chips. The blond closed her eyes and smiled, letting the iridescent mist cover her face.
Mateo was right. I needed to find Pearl and get out of this one-star crazy house. I sprinted to my room, hoping Pearl had crawled back through the window.
Wendy and Tucci were waiting at my door. They stood in a tangle of shadows thrown across the carpet by lit candles set high on the walls. Tucci held Pearl tightly in his arms.
“Pearl.” I rushed towards them. “You found her.”
“We want to leave.” Tucci looked lovingly at Wendy.
“Then leave.” I stepped forward and reached to take Pearl. Tucci backed away. Pearl growled.
“But my beloved can’t, until she finds a replacement,” he said. “She signed the contract.”
“Can I have my cat, please?” I held out my arms. “Why don’t you sign? Then you can both stay here.”
“Stay in the Savoy forever? No TV, no nice restaurants, no thanks,” said Wendy. “So very boring. You’ll fit right in.”
A yellow ripple of flecks twisted around Wendy’s feet. The gold motes bypassed Tucci and continued down the hall. I glanced at my legs, relieved to see the glow avoided me as well.
“Besides, Clara,” Tucci began. Wendy jammed her shimmering elbow into his ribs.
“Ms. Savoy,” he wheezed, “does not approve of our relationship. She had Ricky take over my contract.”
“Ms. Savoy requested a singer,” said Wendy.
“I have, under good authority, been told Ms. Savoy does not listen to country-pop.” I made a grab for Pearl, but Tucci twisted away. Pearl snarled.
“Clara,” Tucci dodged Wendy’s effervescent elbow and started again. “Ms. Savoy didn’t specify a specific genre.” Tucci tightened his fingers around Pearl’s neck.
Pearl hissed and spit, twisting from his arms, raking her claws across his cheek as she leaped into my arms.
“I told you she doesn’t like strangers.”
I turned and ran down the stairs. To my left, the poker players were enveloped in a pulsating gold shroud. The blond was laughing and pointing at the ebony clouds. The dealer sat with his back to the broken window, stacking the chips into neat piles.
To my right, Ricky, radiating neon pink, stood between me and the front door. His thin arms stretched out like a stork getting ready to take flight. I tightened my grip on Pearl and took a deep breath. If I put my shoulder into it, I could tackle right through him.
“Over here!” Mateo waved from the kitchen doorway.
I ran to him. The glowing motes were everywhere. They clung to the walls and floor. Mateo’s powerful arms sparkled with a powder-blue sheen as he pulled me into the kitchen.
We raced past the stove and out the service doors. Mateo pushed me towards the idling Wraith. I threw myself into the front seat and tossed Pearl onto the passenger side. Mateo leaned in and kissed me.
“Drive!” He yelled over the wind.
“Come with me,” I shouted back.
“Oh, I wish I could, mio amore. But alas, I did not read the fine print.” He kissed me again and then turned and ran into the hotel. His body radiated indigo.
I heard him yell as he closed the door. “Drive. Go. Now.”
Thunder vibrated through my body as I pushed in the clutch with a shaky foot. I stalled out once, then again. I took a deep breath; third time is always the charm. The Wraith popped into first gear. I shifted into second, almost stalling out again, then third and sped down the bumpy road. A wave of brilliant white light washed across the sky. Unable to see, I slammed on the brakes. The brakes squealed, twisting the car to a stop. I bent down to check on Pearl. She was pressed under the dash as far as she could go.
When I looked out the side window the fog was gone. A full moon illuminated the scrub brush and small boulders. I frantically searched the area. In the distance, low on the horizon, I saw the lights of a plane. What the Fudge! The Royal Savoy had disappeared. Stars sparkled in the clear, crisp night.
A motorcycle pulled up beside me. Tucci’s beaded beard flew out from the bottom of his mud-spattered visor. He revved the throttle and gunned away from the Wraith. My heart pounded as I put the car back into gear and followed his taillights around the hairpin turns.
I stopped in front of the bookstore. Tucci stood beside his motorcycle.
“What the heck just happened?” My voice was an octave above normal.
“We were supposed to grow old together.” The scratches on his cheek were red and angry looking. “I may never find her again.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I threw open the car door. I needed an answer from this blubbering idiot. “Where did the Savoy go?”
“It’s a crap shoot.” Tucci’s voice quivered. “You never know how the house will land.”
“Why didn’t Wendy leave?” I stayed in my seat. “Why did Mateo stay?”
“They signed the contract,” he said. “The house always wins.”
“Every contract has a loophole,” I tried to calm my thoughts. “You just need a good lawyer.”
Tucci eyes brimmed with tears.
“Do you know one?”