Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 4: Lucky and Listless in a Sea of Loathing

Reminder that some of my work is now available in ebook and paperback form on Amazon. If you like what you read and are interested in supporting my efforts, I would greatly appreciate a purchase and/or review!

For most of his life, Bennett Fontaine had no more luck than he made himself.  Back in San Francisco, he nearly even slipped through the cracks.  This was both literal and figurative: He was the youngest of eleven siblings, and due to space constraints in the family’s tiny, sub-basement apartment, he was forced to sleep in what should have been a utility closet.  The floor of the room was in perpetually poor repair, the foundation beneath it was similarly crumbled, and the number of times he almost fell into a hole in the floorboards to be unceremoniously swallowed by darkness, mortar rot, and the pooling stench of the sewer line beneath them, well, he had lost count before he was seven years old.

Then the figuring: The plague hit in 1900.  His brothers brought it home from the sweatshop, and within the week, the whole family had it.  His father died.  His brothers died.  Two of his sisters struck out too.  In the end it was his mother, his four oldest sisters, and him.  They hadn’t started out on top of the world, but suddenly even more destitute and overwhelmed, his mother reached out for help.  She still had some family in Brooklyn.  With the last of her savings, she moved the family there.

It proved to be a good choice–Bennett considered it luck she made, and it changed the way he saw the world forever.  He resolved to his ten-year-old self that he would take advantage of everything the world gave him, and he would never stop looking for a “lucky” opportunity, even when it was swimming in an ocean of dead ends.

Through a family connection, he got a job as a busboy at Carl’s Pub on the first floor of their building.  His wages went toward the family bills, of course, but his tips went toward…education, of sorts.  At the end of each day, he would take them to the table in the corner, where the same old women–Claudine, Lettie, and Adeline–played cards all night, every night.  And whether it was cruelty or just a lesson in hard knocks, they took every single nickel he had, every single time.

When he was old enough, he bid his mother and sisters a fond farewell and set out to find his own fortune, hopping from town to town all the way down to New Orleans, trying on hat after hat, apprenticeships, sales gigs, a short stint in shipping.  The only thing that took was card playing on his residual wages, but that didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing.  Bennett realized fairly quickly that the old bats at Carl’s must have been the sharpest card sharks east of the Mississippi, and now that he wasn’t playing with them, he was winning a lot.

He wasn’t especially lucky–he could play his way out of his money easily enough if he got sloppy–but he made his own luck.  And when he buckled down, that luck made him enough money to live comfortably if not luxuriously.

Then about two years ago, something weird happened: He became actually lucky.  Aces would crop up in his hand in pairs and threes every other deal.  Throwaway draws would turn into straight flushes.  He would win without even trying, and he wasn’t the only one to notice.  After getting banned from a casino in St. Louis, he learned to tone it down, but now that every low-stakes poker table in the country was just passive income to him, he found himself with a different problem.  His whole life, he’d built himself up as a man who made the best of the odds he was given, but now that he nearly always had the best odds for free, there wasn’t really anything to making the best of them.  There wasn’t any thrill in it.  More importantly, there wasn’t any meaning.

He started looking for higher stakes, partly in desperation, to bring back some of the risk and thrill, partly because, he noticed, his strangely augmented luck seemed less and less present the more he had to lose.  But this was a dangerous game, and he knew it.  Before he burned himself out, losing everything, getting on the wrong side of some riverboat powerbroker, or whichever fate waited on that spectrum, he decided to take a step back.  Think about his life.  Check in with the family and reconsider what was important.

So he came back home, and after a tearful reunion with his mother and fancy brunch with his youngest sister and her husband, he headed to Carl’s to reconnect with his old haunt.  Just across the street, he made a strange mistake: He mistimed a traffic signal and was struck by a car.  Given that the impact propelled him nearly twenty feet into a sprawl on the pavement, he counted himself lucky–go figure–that his injuries were limited to a bruised pelvis, scuffed boots, a small tear in the elbow of his jacket, and a prideful sense of shock.  All told, though, the experience wasn’t entirely negative.  The gentleman driving the car, an off-duty Army Major by his explanation, was quick to apologize, to help Bennett to his feet, to offer him transport to a hospital, which Bennett politely declined.  However, the man–Major Castaigne, he said–insisted that he must make it up to Bennett in some way.  He invited him to lunch, which Benentt accepted despite being in no way hungry, and it was there, over conversation with Castaigne and his friend–a banker named Harold–that it came up that Bennett was a poker player.

“Well, now,” Castaigne had said.  “I would reckon I still owe you for today’s mishap, and it happens that I’m scheduled to play in a somewhat spectacular game this coming weekend.  If you can manage to clear your schedule for the week following, I would be delighted to offer you my spot.”

Bennett was intrigued, of course, but he found his eyes widening to the point of impropriety as Castaigne shared the details.

The next day, the embellished invitation arrived at his door, prompting a nigh-hysterical battery of questions from his mother.  A short few days later of frenzied suit shopping and fretful reading into the respective scenes of New York’s movers and shakers, he found himself aboard The Prince’s Emblazoned, the largest civilian ocean liner ever built, the papers said, watching the hypnotic wave crests of the Atlantic overtake the receding Manhattan skyline, backlit by the setting sun.

Bennett was, he was beginning to realize, out of his element to an almost comical degree.  Despite the care he’d put into planning his wardrobe for the trip, he found that his suit was a season out of style and at least two rungs of formality below the dress of his fellow guests.  He’d shown up to dinner to find himself dizzied by the altogether unnecessary multiplicity of plates, glasses, and silverware–a dizziness which he ameliorated by meekly stealing back to his cabin with a plateful of hors d’oeuvres.  And then there was the discomfort of the scale itself.  Bennett had been on his share of boats before, but The Prince’s Emblazoned was more town than boat.  And the Atlantic was just more than the Mississippi.  He decided to tackle that queasiness head-on.  Take a walk.  Take in the scale of it.  That walk led him to this admittedly breathtaking sunset vista.  It also led him to a certain hint of fascinating malcontent in the form of the two other travelers taking in the view just down the deck.

They were an odd pair, Bennett noticed, instinctively drawing closer.  One of them, dressed in a flawless tuxedo, slouched cartoonishly over the rail, swirling a half-full martini precariously over the deck below.  The other appeared to be a crewman, though perhaps he was on a break.  His jacket was unbuttoned, and he was leaning against the wall opposite the rail, expressively trilling a tune on a clarinet.  The gusts blowing over the upper decks had drowned out the music from Bennett’s earlier vantage, but as he approached, he liked what he heard.  He didn’t recognize the song, but the man was good–really good.  As the musician brought his melody to a dramatic, mournful finish, Bennett’s uncertainty as to the decorum of the situation was all that stopped him from applauding.  Meanwhile, the man in the tuxedo straightened momentarily, taking another sip of his martini.

“It’s a good one, Ira,” he said over his shoulder.  “It’s not going to fix my problems, but it’s a hit for sure.”

“Well, thanks, Monty,” the musician said, “but if you don’t mind me askin’, what’s going on with you?  I tried that one in the club last week, and every hardboiled stiff in the place was cryin’ by the end.  But you’re just shruggin’–oh, sorry, are we in your way?”  Bennett almost jumped, realizing the question was for him.

“Oh, no, not at all,” he answered.  “But I did want to say that was beautiful.”

“Aw, thanks!” Ira said.  “I’ll be here all week.  Literally: I’ll be playing in the dining room every other night, but since tonight’s quartet night…”  His explanation stretched on as the other man turned, adjusting his twisted posture to balance himself on the rail by his elbows.

“Who are you?” he asked, cutting Ira off.  There was a dull intensity to his expression that Bennett found vaguely predatory.  He didn’t love it, but he was intrigued nonetheless.

“Bennett Fontaine!” he replied, mustering a surge of entrepreneurial vigor and offering his hand.  The man eased himself off the rail and took it.

“Lamont Sterling.”  His hand was clammy, but his grip was almost threateningly firm.  “This is Ira.”

“Ira Soskin,” the musician added, grabbing his hand with much more enthusiasm.  “Good to meetcha, sir!”

“So are you the one Louis hit with his car?” Lamont asked dryly.  Bennett scratched his chin.

“I didn’t realize that knowledge was quite so common.”

“Perhaps it isn’t.”  Lamont speared the olive in his drink with a toothpick and popped it into his mouth.  “Louis is a friend of mine, though, and he tells me Uncle Harold was there as well.”

“Oh, Harold,” Bennett recalled.  “And wait, Lamont Sterling–aren’t you Dick Sterling’s son?  He was my brothers’ hero when I was a child.”  He stopped himself as he registered the sour expression falling over Lamont’s face.

“Do you want an autograph?” he sneered.

“It’s a touchy subject,” Ira explained.

“Sorry,” Bennett said.  “And no thank you–they’re all dead anyway.”  Lamont cracked a smirk.  It was a deeply inappropriate gesture.  But somehow, the malice had drained from it, and Bennett found himself more confused than offended.

“If only we could all be so lucky.”  With any other read on the man, Bennett would have thrown a punch, but he kept his reaction confined to a raised eyebrow.

“Monty!” Ira scolded.  “What is wrong with you?”

“It’s…okay, I think,” Bennett said.  “It was a long time ago, and there’s no real story to the plague, far as I can tell.  Sometimes you just get unlucky, and bad stuff happens.”  Lamont snorted.

“You believe in luck?” he asked.

“Well yes, I suppose I do.  For more than one reason.”

“I’ve found that when you look at things closely, luck is never a part of it.  It’s always one thing causing another thing.  Which means when bad things happen, it’s always someone’s fault.  Even if you don’t blame them, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.”

Bennett frowned, pulling a flask from his jacket pocket.  He’d snagged a cocktail before dinner, but he had a feeling a little more haze would make this a better conversation.

“What about the good things?” he asked, taking a sip.

“Those are someone’s fault too,” Lamont replied, downing the rest of his martini.  “And they usually cause more bad things down the line.  I’ve seen much more bad than good, and I’ve seen a lot.”  Bennett offered him the flask.  Lamont eyed him warily but accepted nonetheless.  “Are you trying to cause something of your own here?” he asked, pouring a portion of whiskey into his martini glass.

“Actually, I’m placing a bet,” Bennett replied, he hoped, suitably ironically, taking the flask from Lamont’s outstretched hand and passing it to Ira.

“That’s a good one,” Lamont admitted.  “A bet on what?”

“That you’ll tell me something interesting.  Like what you’ve seen to come to that conclusion.”  Lamont laughed.  The sound was hollow, nauseous, practically the opposite of Ira’s emotional evocation on the clarinet.

“Well, I’ll let you split the pot,” he said at last.  “You see, I spent some time in Manchuria near the end of the war, and I’ve told a whole bunch of people a whole bunch of things about what happened there.  Tonight, I’m going to tell you a new one: Every one of those stories is a lie.  I won’t repeat them now–you can go ask anyone inside, they’ll tell you.  And I’m not going to tell you what really happened, except that it was hell, and none of it was random.  It was always horrible for a reason.  Then those reasons went and became someone else’s reason, and a whole lot more people died than anyone dares repeat over here.”

“Monty, I think your problem–” Ira interjected, taking a swig from the flask, oddly unbothered by Lamont’s macabre allusions, “I think your problem is that you’re wafflin’ between the side of you that says you deserve what happened and the side that says everyone else is to blame.  But nobody is to blame, and it’s nobody’s fault.  It’s like Mr. Fontaine said: Sometimes things just happen.”

“And I thought my booze was the strong stuff,” Lamont mused, sniffing the whiskey before taking a tepid sip.  “You’re right about the two sides, Ira, except they work together.  I am to blame.  And so are all of them, and really, being honest, the rest of you aren’t innocent either.  We’re all fucking connected, and shame it is that New York isn’t quite bubbled enough to let me forget it.”

“Bubbled?” Ira exclaimed.  “What are you talking about?  New York might be the most connected city in the world!”

“I’ve been around the country a fair bit, and I can’t say I disagree,” Bennett added.  “There wasn’t a lot out there the city didn’t prepare me for.”

“Well of course it’s not a real bubble,” Lamont said.  “It’s an illusion.  It’s so many connections that you’ve lost the ability to follow them all.  And since you can’t see ‘em anymore, that makes you think they don’t matter.  But you’re still in the system, and it’s still your fault.”

Silence stretched between them, punctuated by a gust of wind as Bennett contemplated whether the thread had grown too morbid to rescue.  Lamont looked over his shoulder at the rolling waves, much more ominous now in the ship’s white floodlights, with the sun disappeared over the horizon.

“Fontaine,” he said idly.  “Do you know how much a submarine costs?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“Well, guess then.  You’re a betting man, right?”  Bennett thought about it a moment.

“Two million?”  Lamont smiled.

“I see why you believe in luck.  Yes: Bill told me his contracts run between one and three million per vessel.  So for an average of two million dollars, you can seal yourself in a military-grade bubble under the sea.  Occasionally, you can surface to get some sun, recycle your air, distill some fresh water.  With the right horticultural strategy, you can grow your own food and even do some of that air recycling below the surface.  Excepting the need for fuel, it’s about as cordoned off from the world as you can be.”

“That’s pretty expensive,” Bennett remarked.  “And why would you want it?”  A look flashed across Lamont’s face that, Bennett thought, almost seemed peaceful.

“Think of it in small bites,” Lamont replied wistfully.  “I’ve found few things in my life as good as flying.  Hanging there in the sky where no one can touch you.  You can do anything, go anywhere, but for a little while, you don’t even have to make a choice.  But gravity’s a jealous bitch, and she drags you back down eventually.

“Or you can think of it like the rest of high society does.”  He gestured broadly to the boat beneath them.  “Always escaping to the cabin in the mountains, the cottage in the countryside, the pleasure cruise at sea.  Everyone wants out of society a little.  But every escape is temporary by design or because we can’t stand permanence–a little of both?  You’ll probably tell me it’s because we get tired of the isolation and need the connection, but I say it’s because we’re bad at math and too afraid to cut our losses.”

“Bad at math?” Ira asked.  “What are you talking about?”

“I mean a lot of things.  I mean that if we were paying attention, we would notice that the long-term prospects of any old thing we do are straight shit, and any comfort that comes along may as well be opium, keeping us on fuckin’ course and forgetful as hell.”

“Come on, you don’t really believe that!”

“I believe it because I’ve seen it, Ira.  But most never do see it, seeing as we’re all shit with money, too.”  Bennett accepted his flask from Ira and took a gulp.  This had taken a turn.  The sense of Lamont’s argument seemed to be disappearing rapidly into his drink, but given the nature of the argument, that was more entertaining than bothersome.

“I’ll have you know my finances are a work of art, wiseguy!” Ira shouted.  His outburst gave Lamont pause, as he took a momentary glance between Ira and, head-to-toe, Bennett.

“Perhaps you two aren’t the best audience for that accusation,” he admitted, to Bennett’s bewilderment.  “But anyway, my point isn’t about how you spend your money–it’s about how you don’t.  Neither of you have tried two-million-dollar exile before because you don’t have two million dollars–hell, I don’t even have two million dollars to spare.  But you don’t really need an armored hull, a torpedo weapons system, you could probably even save some money on the radar.  All told, the crap you would need to staple together for a seaworthy submersible probably costs less than twenty thousand dollars.  And for that price tag, I’m sure you’d get more takers.”

Lamont stood up and looked out over the water, finally adopting the posture of a normal human being, if only for just a moment.

“Bill wants me to help him design a plane,” he remarked with a dead chuckle.  “I wonder if I could sell him on one that goes underwater.”

“You know, the Lethal Chamber they put up downtown is way cheaper than twenty thousand,” Bennett prodded.

“Dammit, Fontain, I don’t want to die!” Lamont exclaimed.  “I’m just tired of it.  Tired of the people and tired of the guilt.  Guilt for just being part of it–Jesus, it’s madness.”

“Monty…” Ira said.  “Maybe you should get to bed.”

“Maybe after another drink,” Lamont slurred.  Ira rolled his eyes and grabbed him by the sleeve.  Begrudgingly, he acquiesced, and the musician began to lead him away down the deck.

“Goodnight, Mr. Fontaine!” Ira called back.  “It was good meetin’ ya!”

“The pot tomorrow is much more than twenty thousand,” Lamont added.  “Maybe if you win you can try disappearing.  If you’re brave enough…”  His voice trailed off into the sea wind.

“I don’t think I will do that,” Bennett muttered, well out of earshot for Lamont.  But as he stared down at the deep-gray waves, he second-guessed himself.

Whatever guilt Lamont felt, Bennett was a stranger to it.  In his life, he was pretty sure he’d done right by the folks who deserved it, and the folks he’d burned had it coming.  But there was still some logic to the man’s ramblings.  It didn’t seem all that crazy to suppose that every event in his life was connected to something someone had done, and damned if he could keep track of it all.  Maybe if he paid more attention, maybe if his accounting was better, he’d feel differently.  The ocean, the deep wilderness, up in the sky–those places simplified things, and maybe that combination of novelty and simplicity was exactly what he needed, now that his life of hustling for luck had grown too easy.

Lamont was right about another thing too: Before any of that matter, he had a poker game to play, and despite the awkward start to the voyage, he was feeling good about his odds.

He made to retire, following the now-distant pair down the deck and toward the stairs, but he paused mid-stride, taking one last glance at the sea.  No, he thought.  If he were to acquire a submarine, he would definitely spend more than twenty thousand dollars on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s