Once again, I am very happy to host the lovely, talented Sara Brooke on my blog. Her latest book, Cursed Casino is a fabulous read and I hope many of my readers will go and check her and her book out. So, without further ado - here's a wonderful excerpt from Cursed Casino.
August 21 – 5:00pm
He wasn’t going to do it.
He didn’t care what the news was reporting. He wasn’t going to do it. Hell, they always tried to panic people anyway. Twenty four hours of nonstop reporting on the skies or the puff of wind that happened to blow through.
It was ridiculous.
Despite the storm, the Van Vincent Hotel was at half capacity. Numerous flights out of Biloxi and New Orleans had been canceled due to the hurricane and many people were stranded.
It all happened so quickly.
Hurricane Jill had come out of nowhere. Several days prior it had been a simple storm system churning out in the Atlantic Ocean. But a sudden change in the water temperature and wind direction baffled the National Hurricane Center and created a strengthening storm that was heading straight for the Gulf Coast.
Many people evacuated, but others like the tourists, were hesitant to leave. The projected storm track had been so unpredictable that people were questioning the validity of the reports. They’d spent so much money to stay at one of the luxury hotels along the Biloxi coastline that the idea of leaving was unappealing. They wanted their dream vacation.
So, when the corporate office called him, Richard Windler, the general manager of the Van Vincent Hotel, decided that he was going to recommend they keep the hotel open and allow stranded tourists to find refuge from the storm.
And gamble while waiting it out.
The Van Vincent was known for its lavish and sprawling casino. A floating barge of nearly 100,000 square feet, it was connected to the primary hotel structure and constituted a vast array of twinkling lights, music, and luxury mahogany tables surrounded by gamblers of every type. Thousands of people tread through the brightly carpeted floors and tried their hands at lady luck.
Richard looked out of his office window at the gray skies overhead.
It doesn’t even look that bad outside, he thought.
Sighing, he picked up the phone and contacted his primary night manager to inform him that the hotel would remain open throughout the storm.
Sandra Sheehan was running low. She had agreed with her husband that she would only spend $200 on the slot machines while he tried his luck at the $20 blackjack table, but the machine she was on hadn’t been good to her. Once in a while, she would hit, but instead of stopping, she would continue gambling and lose all of her winnings.
Come on, come on, she thought.
Watching the dials on the screen spin in an almost hypnotic fashion, Sandra became aware of a sound in the distance. It sounded like the white noise made by a TV that had lost its signal. The storm outside had begun.
Glad I’m in here, she thought.
Sandra and Jake Sheehan lived in Lake Worth, Florida and were not accustomed to vacations. With a combined household income of $60,000 and a few children to take care of, they spent most of their time working and taking brief excursions to the movie theater or the nearby water park. But they rarely traveled anywhere farther than the state line.
So, they were extremely excited when a friend recommended the Van Vincent Hotel. Due to the recent recession, the hotel was offering numerous specials for Florida residents. The one Sandra and Jake took advantage of was offering a 3-night stay at $100 a night. That included coupons for the buffet and a reduced rate to take a day-trip to New Orleans.
But soon after they arrived in Biloxi, the news started talking about the Hurricane and how the trek of the storm might take it straight up through either New Orleans or the nearby cities.
Instead of trying to find a flight home, the Sheehans decided to take their chances and thankfully, the Van Vincent wasn’t kicking them out.
On the other side of the casino, Jake wasn’t doing much better than his wife. After winning several hands initially, the house changed dealers and now he had a woman who clearly wasn’t interested in giving him some extra cash. She stared straight ahead, unsmiling and proceeded to take his money over and over again.
Finally, Jake sighed and decided to grab his chips and cash out. They still needed spending money after all, and the trip to New Orleans promised to be a fun day of drinking and general debauchery.
If the fucking storm doesn’t hit first, he thought grumpily.
Stepping away from the table, Jake slowly made his way across the casino towards his wife. He’d been drinking for several hours, so figured that the ground underneath his feet wasn’t shaking, it was just the alcohol.
But when the shaking started to get really bad, he realized that it wasn’t his alcohol consumption. The barge was vibrating.
Some of the gamblers on the slot machines didn’t pay attention. They simply held on to their machines to steady themselves and continued pressing the “SPIN” button over and over again. What finally caught their attention was the loud roar that suddenly filled the casino.
Jake felt it almost immediately. He was several feet away from his wife when he felt an invisible force suddenly suck him backwards. He barely had time to scream, when his body was suddenly pulled through the air and yanked into a hole that was now growing in the middle of the casino’s back wall.
Sandra screamed and shouted for her husband, but the sound of her shrieking disappeared into the howling winds. Chaos erupted around her as air rushed out and water rushed in.
People charged in a mad stampede towards the casino exit, but were caught by the rushing of water as waves tore through the barge and began filling any available space. Some were killed instantly as they were pushed down and trampled, their heads caught underneath the salty torrents of water.
The hole quickly began to enlarge from the force of the waves, while the freestanding tables and chairs floated in the water for an instant and were then sucked back by the wind, piling up against each other as they flew backwards in a tumbling motion of mahogany, water, and screaming people.
Sandra held on to the slot machine that had taken all of her money, no longer caring that it had cheated her. It was the only thing left between life and death. And as her hands began to slip and she felt her body being pulled backward as the barge disconnected itself from the hotel, she thought about her relatives safe and sound in Florida.
We should have gone to Disneyworld…
Two years later
The landscape flew by in a quick, shimmering flash as the SUV sped across the highway, just slightly above the speed limit. Darla Carlson rested her head against the window, watching the view and thinking about all of the faces she would come in contact with. The idea wasn’t entirely appealing, given how difficult high school had been.
And the people who made it difficult, she thought.
Venturing to Biloxi, Mississippi for her 20th high school reunion had been Jackson’s idea. Her former teenage sweetheart, turned husband was pretty adamant that they attend and see all of their former friends and teachers. He had been popular in high school; a star athlete on the football team, entirely too good-looking, and sporting a confident personality that made most girls swoon within minutes of a ‘hello’.
Darla wasn’t sure how she’d snagged him but somehow Jackson had been taken in by her calm, quiet manner. They’d also dated throughout college and tied the knot shortly after graduation. Things were good, despite her fears that she wasn’t good enough for him. It was insecurity that haunted her regularly, but one she tried to isolate and minimize. Her handsome husband never really noticed this tendency, and she wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. His inability to understand her deepest weaknesses worried her and she wondered if perhaps he was a bit shallow.
There was no question in her mind that the people they were meeting up with were definitely shallow. At Jackson’s insistence, she had agreed to come to the reunion a few days early to meet up with his high school friends Ryan, Anthony, and Anthony’s wife Sherry. Darla could recall being dragged to numerous parties where she had to listen to Ryan and Anthony talk about the women they’d slept with, telling fart jokes, and laughing together as if the punch line was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.
She was pleased that over the years, Jackson’s friendships had changed to people who were more mature and settled. They knew numerous couples who they could spend time with and who were a bit…classier….more her type of people.
But now, they were heading towards a weekend filled with fart jokes, loud people…fake people. And Darla just wasn’t sure how she would handle all of it.
I’ll just get really drunk and make sure we win lots of money, she smiled.
The only positive aspect about the upcoming reunion week and the planned activities was that Ryan had somehow secured a gig as the General Manager of the upscale Van Vincent Hotel. Darla was familiar with the hotel, as were many others, thanks in large part to the evening news that had conducted significant coverage about Hurricane Jill and her attack. Hundreds of people perished in the storm, as the surge from the hurricane tore the casino to shreds, destroying millions of dollars worth of property. Lawsuits and bad press had nearly bankrupt the Van Vincent, but a handful of investors had come forward and funded a historic two-year renovation that had been meticulously detailed on all of the local Louisiana news channels.
Darla wasn’t sure how he had pulled it off but somehow, Ryan had been hired to lead the re-opening of the hotel as well as oversee all daily operations.
As a gift to his closest friends, he was inviting a handful of them to stay at the Van Vincent a few days before the grand opening, granting them the opportunity to test out all of the hotel amenities, including the casino. Darla had to admit that even though the idea of spending time with Ryan and the others was less than appealing, she was definitely looking forward to living like royalty for a week.
Suddenly, Jackson whistled as they pulled up to the front of the hotel.
“Good lord, would you look at that. This place looks even better than it did before! They must have just finished an amazing renovation.”
The Van Vincent was as regal as its name. A large flowing fountain greeted their arrival as they pulled around to the front glass doors backlit against the grand entranceway. The sprawling hotel was in the center of a vast compound that included an emerald golf course, gardens, and private cottages nestled deep within the surrounding woods. The vast Gulf of Mexico cradled the back half of the hotel, offering picture-perfect oceanic views. The Van Vincent was also home to numerous shops and amenities that were encapsulated deep within the building and served as an indoor shopping mall. Indoor theaters offered off-Broadway plays and comedic acts, while themed restaurants tempted the taste buds with everything from Asian-Fusion to basic roadside grill fare.
Darla and Jackson stared wide-eyed as they walked into the luxurious lobby. The renovation was truly remarkable, with every small detail…from the bright marble floors….to the golden crown molding…meticulously applied and arranged. They waited together for Ryan to come greet them and relaxed as the silence was calming and strange.
“Well, hello there!” bellowed Ryan as he swept into the room.
Ryan Bard was a handsome, careless spirit. Standing 6’4, he smiled regularly and had a mischievous glint to his eye that usually meant he’d done something troublesome. In high school and college, he’d been relentlessly pursued by a bevy of attractive women, but never settled on one specific catch. Instead, he would spend short periods of time with one female, and after he had his fill, would move on to the next victim. Still, despite his careless attitude and lack of concern for the emotions he was playing with, the women he left were never really mad at him. All it took was a grin and a selfless shrug and he was excused as being ‘one of those guys who never gets serious’.
Despite his easy manner, Ryan was sharp. His intellect extended far beyond what his friends realized so when graduation approached, it wasn’t difficult for him to land one good job after another. And when the owners of the Van Vincent had contacted him about what they called “the opportunity of a lifetime”, he knew that it was something he simply couldn’t pass up.
The reopening had been stressful. Ryan spent many months overseeing the different aspects of the architectural and design stages of the renovation. Carpeting, color matching, materials selection...it had been overwhelming – but with the help of several qualified consultants, the finished product had finally been approved by corporate.
And now, it was time to share the new hotel with the world.
“So, did you find it ok?” Ryan asked as he led Darla and Jackson through the lobby into the myriad of shops and restaurants that lined the large snakelike pathways.
“Yeah,” Jackson said eyeing the shops. “It was an easy route. This stuff looks expensive. You probably get some rich tourists staying here.”
Ryan chuckled. “Yes, the Van Vincent caters to all types but the upper echelon definitely has stayed here in the past.” Then, his countenance changed and grew serious. “That is, before the storm rolled through. We aren’t sure how it’s going to go now. The media was crawling all over this place after the storm and the images weren’t pretty.”
Darla nodded and recalled what she’d seen on the news. The body count had been so high that some of the stations had broadcast video of rubble washing up on shore with shoes and purses still lodged within the stones – reminders of the gamblers who’d been caught up in the storm. She shivered as a chill traveled through her bones.
What an awful way to die, she thought.
The trio passed by another cluster of shops and entered a large atrium filled with plants and waterfalls. A large outdoor restaurant sat in the center, with silver chairs and tables surrounding it, offering a way to relax and watch the flow of people.
Just beyond the restaurant, a large expansive set of floor-to-ceiling French doors drew their attention.
“That…is the casino. Want to take a look?”
The answer was obvious and they made their way across the brightly lit atrium and stood in front of the doors. On the wall, a magnetic black rectangle was affixed near the hinges.
Ryan paused and pointed to the sensor. “Since the storm, we decided that instead of allowing people to pass through in and out, we’re going to monitor our capacity. It’s one of the ways we can keep track of who is leaving the structure and moving into the barge. Most people don’t realize that they’re not actually on solid ground when they walk into the casino, but we’re always keeping track.”
He slid a card out of his pocket and placed it in front of the device. A short “beep” emitted, followed by the sound of metal gears shifting into place. Ryan waited for a telltale clicking sound and pushed the large center doors open.
“This is amazing!” exclaimed Jackson.
Darla had to agree. Despite her initial reservations about the trip, she was beginning to warm up to the idea of spending the next week at the hotel. The accommodations were definitely high end, but the casino made it even more appealing.
It was vast, spreading out in many different directions. In the center, rows of mahogany gaming tables waited for cards and gamblers. Lights flashed from every direction as virtually thousands of slot machines sang and glittered. On the outer edges of the casino, restaurants and buffets stations sat and waited for the throngs of hungry to arrive.
Standing amidst all of the glitter and blatant gauche décor, Darla suddenly felt a bit strange. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she felt like there was something phony and even…dangerous in the air. The space was large and animated, but it also felt desolate.
“Hey Darla, wake up,” Ryan joked as he led them around, providing descriptions of each nook and cranny.
“So, is the bar stocked? I mean, are you gonna make sure we’re well fed?” Jackson joked.
Ryan grinned and walked over to a nearby bar. He motioned for Darla and Jackson to come over just in time to see him flip on a light that illuminated rows of liquor. Then, he motioned to several stainless steel refrigerators that were hidden underneath the countertops. “Check it out. You’re going to eat and drink more this weekend than ever before. We’ve got each bar stocked and there’s a ton of food in the kitchen. After some of the overnight chefs cook and serve dinner, we’re on our own as I’ve given the staff the rest of the night off. But tomorrow you’ll be treated like rock stars.” He laughed and grabbed a beer out of one of the refrigerators and looked at his watch.
“It’s getting close to dinner. Why don’t we go back so you can unpack in your room and then we’ll meet down here for some grub? Sound good?”
Jackson and Darla agreed. As the three made their way out of the casino, Darla felt the need to use the bathroom.
“Ryan, do you mind if I use the ladies room before we leave?”
“No problem.” He motioned in the opposite direction. “The bathrooms are in the back, to the right. We’ll wait here for you.”
Darla nodded and quickly walked past rows of singing slot machines. In honor of their arrival, Ryan had turned on all of the power in the casino and she could imagine how each machine waited anxiously to spin its wheels and gobble up a gambler’s livelihood. Still, the pull to play and potentially win was undeniable.
This was going to be fun. But, there were other things to take care of first.
Finding the bathroom, she pushed open the silver door and gasped as soon as it swung open.
It was pitch black inside.
Flustered and a bit frightened, Darla felt along the wall for the light switch. Her fingertips passed over smooth tiles that lined the walls, until she finally felt the telltale ridge of the plate. Just as her fingers connected with the switch, she felt something soft gently rub against her arm.
Shrieking, she jumped back and rushed out. The door swung shut and she stood in the hallway for a moment. Backing up, she felt herself bump into someone and screamed just as Jackson put his arms around her.
“Hey, are you ok? I figured I’d use the men’s room before we head back out.”
Darla tried to calm her frayed nerves and smiled. “Yes, I’m fine. I was just looking for my cell phone.”
Jackson gave her a weird look and then headed to the door marked “Men”. She watched as he pushed the door open, expecting to see it dark inside, but the men’s room was brightly lit from a set of mini chandeliers that hung overhead.
As he disappeared within the bathroom, she decided to try again. Pushing open the door slightly, she was prepared to quickly flip on the switch and run in.
The light inside was on.
How is that possible? She thought. It was just dark a second ago. Maybe I hit the switch after all.
Moving quickly to an empty stall, she finished up and washed her hands, glancing nervously at her reflection in the mirror. Silence surrounded her, but she felt the little hairs on the back of her neck shivering as if someone was watching her.
Feeling a bit braver, she threw open each bathroom stall door and looked inside. Convinced she was alone, she headed outside to meet Jackson.