A Perfect HusbandBy: Hilary Boyd
Freddy gazed unseeingly at the pretty Chinese girl in the sleeveless black dress on the other side of the roulette table, aware that he was doing so only when she smiled at him, giving a coy wave with a delicate, manicured hand. He smiled back, although it was a purely reflexive twitch of his mouth, never reaching his eyes. He was in the zone.
He’d been feeling sick all day, his nerves wired to the point where he felt as if he’d been flayed, the skin literally scraped from his flesh. His body smarted each time someone bumped into him, brushed against him or ran into him – heads down on their screens – on the narrow, crowded Soho pavements near the recording studio he owned. Every sound, even Lily’s worried goodbye this morning, had set his teeth on edge so that he was barely able to respond with the grace he knew she deserved. She wasn’t stupid: she knew something was up. But there was a way out of this crisis – he never questioned it. It had just eluded him recently, a run of bad luck – which he sensed would change tonight.
Now he sat in his favourite casino, embraced by the elegance of another era: warm wood-panelled walls, high ceilings, solid chandeliers, long windows looking out towards the darkness of the night-time park. It was a hushed, padded, cosseting environment, the croupiers and pit bosses polite and well trained, the clientele rich – or, at least, having the appearance of wealth. As had Freddy, of course. Most importantly, the club still used the European wheel, only one zero, not the American version so popular these days in the London gambling clubs. Popular because of the added double-zero pocket, giving a house advantage – small though it was at five and a quarter per cent – on straight bets of almost double the European system. Which mattered to Freddy. Although Fish, his cynical, world-weary American gambling crony, laughed every time he mentioned his preference, saying, ‘It’s not the house you have to worry about, buddy.’ Fish was in California tonight, thank goodness. He would only have been a distraction.
Numbers flashed through his mind like a mantra as he silently chanted the clockwise sequence: 0, 32, 15, 19, 4, 21, 2, 25 . . . He sat and watched the ivory ball’s trajectory through one, two, three and more spins of the wheel, scrutinizing the frets between the pockets to check for nicks or irregularities, assessing the twist in the croupier’s throw, before finally placing his first bet. He gave in to the mounting anticipation. His hands, meanwhile, played with the piles of black one-hundred-pound chips in front of him, the smooth clay surface like worry beads through his fingers. The satisfying click as they fell back on each other was reassuringly familiar. And, of course, a tantalizing precursor to the hit.
He selected five from the stack, placed two on 23 red, straight up, two on a ‘street’, laying his chips at the end of the line containing 7, 8 and 9, and the last on 0. The croupier was a tall, olive-skinned man, in his late thirties, Freddy judged, with dark, blank eyes and slicked-back hair, maroon waistcoat, white shirt, black tie – Eastern European would be a predictable guess despite the ‘Tom’ on his name-tag. He called, ‘Rien ne va plus,’ in a bored monotone and Freddy’s heart closed down, his breath held, his mind still, completely without thought.
This was the hit. Unconnected to the outcome, it existed entirely in and of itself, a silent, intimate realm of intense, glorious, terrifying anticipation that sent shivers up his spine and wound his body to fever pitch. No drug he’d ever taken came anywhere close, and he’d tried a few. Mere seconds it lasted as the wheel spun, the ball careened around the top space in the opposite direction, dropped, bounced the frets, dropped again, found the pocket. But it was no less powerful for its brevity. And this was only the first time: there would be more, always more . . . minutes away, anywhere, anytime.
‘Nine, red,’ the croupier intoned, placing the chunky, bevelled glass dolly on the winning square with a flourish, then quickly sweeping the losing chips from the green baize with his shiny gold-metal rake, stacking them deftly and with awesome speed in their allocated space on the table beside his station.
Freddy came out of his trance. He’d won. He took a deep breath as he watched Tom stack the round flat black chips on top of the two he’d put down, then start a new column, and a third, all even in height, sliding them towards him with his rake, barely glancing at him, uninvolved. The Chinese girl across the table raised an elegant eyebrow at him, nodded her congratulations. He clicked automatically through his chips, calculating his win. No big deal – less than two and a half thousand, not even a minute dent in the mess – but a start nonetheless, a real start, a feel for things to come. It was definitely his lucky night.