The Aldous Effect

Martin M. Clark

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
Albert Einstein

I stood in a darkened doorway, waiting for The Man. New Year fireworks lit up the downtown sky but I tried to ignore them. Some of the rockets looked too much like tracer for my liking and I needed no reminder of combat.

The Man slid out of the shadows, all gabardine coat and broad-brimmed hat. “Mister G, always a pleasure. What will it be this time?” He had a rich basso profundo voice that sounded like life itself was a constant source of amusement.

My palms were slick with sweat as I took a surgical transfer packet from my jacket pocket and held it out. “I have this. Fresh human liver. Still viable.”

The Man inspected my offering and ached an eyebrow. “Healthy? Since when did they trash prime rib like this?”

I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “I doctored the harvesting report to give the donor a history of alcohol abuse. After that no transplant team would touch his organs with a ten-foot pole. This was destined for the incineration chute, no nobody will miss it.” I licked my lips. “I figure it’s good for four rocks?”

“Four? That’s being a bit generous.” He laughed at my obvious nervousness. “What the hell, it is New Year, after all, and you’re a steady customer. Four it is.”

The Man pocketed the liver and held out four small packets. Not so much ‘rocks’ as small chrome yellow gelatine squares, like dishwasher tablets. He tipped his hat. “Be seeing you Mister G. Be seeing you real soon.”

And I was alone.

After my third tour I was done; invalided out of the Army due to PTSD. Just another college boy who couldn’t handle the brutal reality of combat. They shipped me home but I brought the battlefield with me; sleeping in a booby-trapped apartment, always armed, barely able to hold down a job – pretty much the poster boy for crippling anxiety. Treatment provided by the Veterans’ Association didn’t cut it so I started self-medicating - sliding from conventional narcotics to the truly esoteric in little under a month. Then I heard about ‘Hux’, a street drug that offered a whole new perspective on life.

Man, did they get that right.

The calmness I got from using Hux came at a price, but one worth paying. I was on the ebb of my previous hit, starting to feel prickly around the edges. Looking at the rocks made me shiver with anticipation, too distracted to notice that the flickering light on the wall wasn’t simply glare from a distant sky burst.

“Edward, this is so wrong. You do know that, don’t you?”

I thrust the rocks into my coat pocket and grabbed the handle of my revolver - but it was only a Tinker Bell and nothing I couldn’t handle. The fairy wafted into my field of vision, surrounded by a blue glow that stung my eyes.

“I’m so disappointed in you, I really am.”

I know how that sounds, and given the drugs I’d tried, there were times when I knew I was hallucinating - and times I hoped I was.

This was neither.

Because what Hux does is let you see Desire, Conscience and all the boys in the band – for real. Not that it reduced morality to a mere spectator sport but these were definitely the über manifestations of motivation, duking it out to see who’ll hold sway – and you can forget the ‘subconscious’ aspect.

No, really.

My personal moral gladiators presented as an eclectic mix drawn from childhood storybooks and pubescent fantasies - hence Tinker Bell. From past experience the fairy was nippy but if it came down to it my revolver was packing beehive rounds with the same spread as a shotgun. Although blowing her away would have been easy-peasy I didn’t want another dead Conscience on my conscience - and I really didn’t want a Jiminy giving me grief instead.

So I just smiled and showed my empty hands. “How’s things, doll? The Moral Majority still treating you right?”

She frowned. “This isn’t about me, Edward, it’s about your actions and the consequences they entail. I strongly advise you to turn yourself in and make a clean breast of it to the authorities. You know you’ll feel all the better for it.”

As I groped for the right platitude the shadow of a burnt-out street light began to lengthen, undulating over the tarmac towards Tinker Bell. I stepped back, hoping to draw her away from it. “Look, T, you know me, I’m the archetypal bad boy. How about we just agree to differ and go our separate ways? I’m sure there are some lost souls out there you could actually save, but me, hell, I’m way beyond help.”

But she just fluttered there; hands on tiny hips, her face the picture of earnest dedication. “Now, Edward, that’s being defeatist. Everyone has good in them, no matter how deep down, and-”

The shadow morphed into a 3-D striking serpent, jaws wide open. I closed my eyes against the horror of it all, but couldn’t block out the crunch and grinding of miniature bones. By the time I risked taking a peek the shadow was retreating back to the base of the lamp post and I was in deep shit, if only by proxy. Glancing up I knew there was now a hole in the sky with my name on it, and wondered if simply running away was a viable option. Except, of course, the one person you can’t escape from is yourself.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with getting a good head start.

So I bailed, heading in the general direction of away, but had barely gone a hundred yards when a sensual slither of movement across my shoulders pulled me up short. The serpent coiled around my neck, whispering in my ear. “You need a top-up, Eddie, you know you do. There’s no harm in that. It’s New Year, after all.”

Desire, well my Desire, sounded like Fenella Fielding, an old-school actress I’d watched on the Vintage channel. She had a husky, sexy voice that made my balls twitch and a way of derailing my train of thought. I plucked at my scaly temptress but she lengthened, encircling my chest and stomach, sliding between my legs.

“You’re not the boss of me.” I tried for dismissive arrogance but lust made my voice thick and guttural. My erection was a bar of iron.

She laughed; a throaty chuckle. “For now I am. We both know that, so why struggle? Let’s just enjoy the evening for what it is.” A forked tongue caressed my earlobe.

I shivered. “OK, OK, I’ll do it.”

“Like you ever had a choice, Eddie? Be seeing ya.”

And I was alone.

I needed a cold shower but a couple of deep breaths had to do. My hands shook as I fumbled a rock from pocket to mouth, and chewed. This one tasted of liquorice, but the effect was always the same; welcome to the high-def world, surround sound, front-row seat guaranteed.

Reality as an addiction.

I gathered my jacket around me and headed for The Quarter; stepping out, a man on a mission. Each hit of Hux had a side-effect, a real doozie; one that allowed me to fund a lifestyle way beyond that of a lowly medical technician.

For the next few hours I’d be the unluckiest man on the planet.

I’m not talking about a litany of woe, no, rather I’d be the King of Losers, sucking up good luck from those around me. It’s akin to the proverbial broken mirror – all that bad news has to come from somewhere, and the glass does it by absorbing misfortune from random individuals in the vicinity. Well, I’m the opposite, the inverse Midas touch, and casinos, man, they goddam love me.

So I hustled over to Pelham House, on Matheson, where they paid me a retainer to show up, sit in, and ruin everyone’s evening. Games where the house won by default, of course – so if I played roulette everyone else might as well flush their chips down the crapper and save themselves some time and disappointment.

I scurried along, keeping to back streets and alleyways, clinging to the shadows, avoiding the general population wherever possible. Even so I was probably responsible for two broken high heels, one set of keys down a drain and a fender-bender before reaching the casino parking lot. I stopped and sighed, feeling relatively safe amongst the field of inanimate objects.

Strike that last comment.

Doubt was waiting for me; a weasly-voiced weasel perched on the roof of a ’69 Chevy. “You do know they’re ripping you off, right? I mean, you don’t even get a percentage of what the house makes off your talent. Talk about selling yourself short.”

I sniffed. “I get by.”

“You get screwed, that’s what you get. They see you coming, put on a false smile, take you for a ride. All those suits, laughing at you behind closed doors.”

“Leave him be, he’s mine tonight.” Desire lay coiled around the hood ornament, dangling tail twitching like an angry cat.

Doubt bared his yellow teeth. “You wish! Eddie here is a born loser, and he knows it. All you do is get him into situations where failure cuts even deeper.”

“I said back off, flea-bag.”

“Bite me!”

Man, talk about the wrong choice of words. Desire not so much lunged as lengthened, surging forwards with unhinged jaws at least a foot wide. Doubt chittered at her, then back-flipped from roof to fender, from fender into the back of a Dodge pickup. His small paw appeared above the tailgate, single ‘finger’ extended – and was gone. The serpent hissed a raspberry in his direction, then slid down over the trunk and vanished into the tailpipe.

Score one for greed-fuelled self-confidence, I guess.

I shivered, wiped a slick of sweat from my face, and hustled diagonally cross the parking lot to the employee’s entrance. ‘Ready to Rumble’ Ron was on the door – a former wrestler with biceps the size of my thighs. Although he was no more than muscle in a cheap suit the contempt in his voice was obvious as he used his hand-held radio.

“Boss? This is Ron. The loser is here. He’s juiced-up, but looks like shit. What you want me to do?” There was a burble of speech in reply that I didn’t catch. Ron nodded. “I’m on it.” He looked me up and down. “Hit the showers. There’ll be a change of clothes waiting for you when you’re done. Don’t soil them or we’ll bill you for the dry cleaning.”

Ron didn’t stand aside, forcing me to squeeze past him and into the dingy service area that belied the plush splendour of the main salon. The few croupiers, hostess girls and barmen on break didn’t spare me a second glance as I sidled into the changing rooms. I rated a locker, if not an actual lock, and quickly exchanged my clothes for a semi-soiled towel fresh from the sauna. However my three remaining rocks posed a problem. I’d never brought my stash to work before and couldn’t risk hiding them while bathing. Plus I didn’t want to risk their soft shells melting under the shower.

The bravado that had brought me here without thinking things through played the ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ card. I crammed all three rocks into my mouth – and regretted the decision even before Regret had time to put in an appearance. Every hair, every skin pore, every taste bud exploded like the worst amphetamine hypersensitivity ever. I staggered to the shower and slammed the heat setting all the way up. Near-scalding water made me scream but this was the ‘pain gate’ approach to sensory overload. In any event my jaw was clenched so tight all that came out was a low burbling wail.

Agony became pain became discomfort. I emerged to a world that demanded my attention but wasn’t about to make me its bitch. What I needed was a dark, sound-proofed room and a glass of tepid water. Unfortunately Mister Morden – the ‘Boss’ – wasn’t someone a sane man wanted to annoy.

There was a suit hanging on my locker door, although no shirt and tie, and my own wouldn’t pass muster. So I scored one of the black roll neck sweaters worn by the doormen, hoping for suave and debonair with a hint of mystery. Instead what I saw in the full-length mirror was Peter Lorre slumming it as a Bond henchman. Somewhere close by I heard Doubt snigger, but I was safe behind my Hux firewall.

Time to be a living spoiler.

The main salon was all deep-pile carpets and subdued lighting, home to that distinct murmur you get when money is changing hands. Bryce, one of the floorwalkers, appeared at my elbow and hustled me aside.

His voice was a nervous whisper, which wasn’t like him at all. “Now listen up, freak, and listen good. We got some dame burning up the main wheel, big time. She’s into us for over three-hundred grand and wants to go no-limit. We can’t back down without appearing gutless, and you know that ain’t Mister Morden’s style. So called a pause, bringing in some other high-rollers, and you better get in there and fix things, yeah?”

There was a snivelling Fear on his shoulder, whispering in his ear - an indistinct twist of shadow, draining blood from his face like there was a tap running. Usually I can’t see the übers on other people but I guess my overdose had opened the doors of perception.

I shook free of his grasp. “Don’t crowd me, man! You know I got personal space issues.”

“You screw this up and your next ‘personal space’ will be a shallow grave, buster. Get me?”

Bryce was a thug, a bully, but just then he had all the menace of some hopeless dweeb at his first Senior Prom. I grinned, turned on my heel and walked off, leaving him shaking like a leaf. I felt good, confident, ready to terminate even the strongest winning streak – terminate it with extreme prejudice. Then one of those random gaps you get in crowds opened up, giving me a clear view across the room to the main roulette table.


And awe.

The woman stood out against the background like an old-school Evangelical preacher, as if outlined in neon. Not beautiful, no, but handsome, even with her strong features half-hidden behind wraparound dark glasses. She wore her hair piled high, which added to the whole ‘Classical goddess’ look fostered by a Grecian-front evening dress in pearl silk. Only as I approached the table did I notice the white cane carried in her left hand.

She was blind.

Powerful fingers dug into my shoulder, making me wince. “Glad you could join us, Ed. For a moment there I thought you weren’t going to honour our little agreement, and you know how I abhor disappointment.” It was Mister Morden in person, surrounded by the smell of bourbon and peppermints.

I half-turned my head towards him while keeping my eyes fixed on my fixation. “That’s her? That’s the mark?”

He grunted. “Damn straight. Right, I’ll set this up and let you do your thing. Your chips are waiting at the table. Nothing fancy, mind, just take her for everything she’s got.”

Morden ushered me forward and launched into the formalities, apologising for the delay. The woman listened politely then turned so that we were facing each other across the table. “My, my, Mister Edward Glass, I do declare. It is such a pleasure to meet you at last, sir.” She had a Southern Belle accent but nothing I could pin down.

I gave her a half-bow, conscious of Morden’s eyes boring into me. “I’m sure, ma’am, that the pleasure is entirely mine.”

“Place your bets, ladies and gentleman, place your bets. As per mutual agreement this is now a no-limit table.” Gibson, the croupier, looked to the lady. “Ma’am?”

She smiled, displaying perfect teeth. “How much do I have available?”

His gaze flickered over the stack in front of her. “Ah, three-hundred and twenty-five thousand.”

“Be so kind as to place everything on twenty-six, black. Thank you.”

A murmur ran through the crowd clustered around the table; players and onlookers alike. Gibson looked to Morden who nodded; a barely perceptible move of his head. The croupier slid the chips into place and stepped back smoothly. The other players around the table followed suit, until there had to be nearly three-quarters of a million in play. As this was real shit-or-bust territory I took a deep breath, placed my entire stack on ‘Even’, and…

…and I knew who she was.

The room became hazy, indistinct, leaving only the two of us. I stared at the Southern Belle. “But if you’re my Lady Luck then how can others see you, hear you?”

She laughed. “It really is a case of people making their own, Edward. They generate it, gamblers and gunmen more than others, and you gather it to yourself. I’m the result of that concentration, the focus of countless hopes and fears. After this win I’ll be no mere personification but a true Goddess, restored. After this win there’ll be no more good fortune apart from what I choose to bestow upon Humanity. You’ll be hailed as a new Zeus, Edward. Or cursed.”

Reality returned before I had time to reply, or even think of some witty rejoinder. Gibson spun the roulette wheel and flicked the ball in the other direction. “No more bets, ladies and gentlemen, no more bets.”

I felt it; I felt chance itself draining from the room into me, through me, vanishing from the world. Luck is a consequence of free will – the Universe balancing out self-determination with randomness. What brave new world would be there be without that?

The croupier cleared his throat. “Rien ne va plus.

Our spherical Damocles danced, bounced, as we held our collective breath...

...and fell.

© Martin M. Clark 2017 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 10:50 Thu 24 Aug 2017
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