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  • Cameron Hatheway

21 or Bust (Short Fiction)

The Diva
Artwork by Garett Knight

It was 4 a.m. inside the Monte Carlo Casino in Las Vegas, but no one would have known that unless they remembered to check their smart phone screen or watch. The main floor was half full, a mixture of residents with gambling addictions, and tourists trying their luck at everything from the bushels of slot machines, poker tables, and roulette wheels. The whole place had a lovely warm glow about it, as if the odds could be in anyone’s favor in the twilight hours of that morning. Servers casually strolled about with trays of domestic beers and coffees at the ready to offer to any players seated comfortably at their games of choice. There was even a handful of people in the Sports Lounge betting on games that were currently underway in Britain’s Premier League as they dined on morsels from the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. The underlying soundtrack of digital beeps and dings from the various slot machines provided a soothing effect on everyone in the zone, with the occasional excited Winner! chime sporadically blaring.

The Diva casually walked through the grand entrance of the casino, pretending she had never stepped foot in the place before. She wore a medium length black wig, large aviator sunglasses, and wrapped herself in a chic black double-breasted trench coat to conceal her sparkly dress underneath. Her look could either be labeled, “fabulous international spy,” or “just came straight from a show.” It was Vegas, and either option could work. She looked around nervously, afraid she might be recognized by fans. Lucky for her, it was so early in the morning no one did recognize her.

Walking quickly through the gaming floor, the celebrity-in-disguise passed the army of slot machines, manned by a group of elderly women all dressed in the same pink bowling shirts, as a server handed out mimosas and screwdrivers to the tired-looking bunch. Beyond the slot machines lay the poker tables and black jack tables, and the Diva searched the dozen active tables for one particular dealer. She finally spotted his dark blond curls and saw he was attending to only one person at his table. “Oh baby, baby,” she cooed to herself, and made a beeline for his section.

The man sitting at the table looked disgruntled and was probably a trucker taking some time-off from a haul to Anytown, USA. The Diva could tell he had remained planted there for several hours now, losing lord knows how much. The dealer already had a Queen of Spades face up, and the man only had a 7 of Diamonds and a Jack of Hearts in front of him. The dealer flipped his second card to reveal a 10 of Clubs.

“Apologies, sir,” announced the dealer. “My 20 beats your 17.”

The man sunk his head in defeat momentarily. He’d had enough. Taking one last swig of the watery bourbon in front of him, he slammed the glass down on the table and started to meander off to seek refuge elsewhere.

The Diva had been hovering for a moment, waiting for the man to leave before sneakily sitting down at the table unannounced. The dealer was just beginning to shuffle the deck when he noticed the new player at his table. “Good morning, ma’am, and welcome-” he caught himself once he realized who had just sat down. “Ma’am, you know I can’t be seen with you,” he continued in a quieter, nervous voice while proceeding to act normal and cut the deck. “The management is suspicious already, and it’s against the rules for employees to socialize while on the clock.”

“How was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right here?” the Diva apologized. The dealer began dealing cards to avoid suspicion from the pit boss that he knew this woman. He knew he must play it cool and keep her from possibly making a scene and ultimately costing him his job.

“Ma’am, you need chips in order to remain at the table,” the dealer said in his professional voice, not making eye contact with her but rather the table. The Diva procured her clutch purse and withdrew a measly $1,000 and placed the cash on the table in front of her. The dealer reached for the money to exchange for chips, when suddenly the Diva placed her hand on top of his.

“I shouldn’t have let you go,” she whispered, her warm brown eyes peaking over her sunglasses and into the dealers’. Feeling uncomfortable and afraid someone might notice, the dealer quickly retracted the money and gave her back ten yellow and black chips. The Diva placed the small stack of chips to her left and looked at the dealer longingly. “And now you’re out of sight,” she pined.

“Ma’am, I must insist you keep your hands on your side of the table. Any interaction with me may be seen by upstairs as cheating and I could lose my job because of it.” The dealer shuffled the cards some more before finally dealing the Diva a 3 of Spades on the bottom and a 7 of Diamonds on top. The dealer himself had a Jack of Spades and a 10 of Hearts.

The Diva examined her cards with a confused look on her face. “Show me how you want it to be,” asked the Diva, unsure of how the game was properly played. “Tell me baby, ‘cause I need to know now, oh because…” and then the dealer held up a hand, cutting her off, pointed to her chips and explained.

“You first place a wager, then attempt to make it to 21 without going over with the cards you have. Face cards count as tens, aces are elevens or ones, depending on your total. You can ask for another card, a ‘hit,’ or stay with the hand you have. You’re playing against my hand, and as you can see I already have a ten of hearts showing, so your odds are slim of winning.”

The Diva took three chips from her stack and tossed them forward, still showing no interest in actually playing the game, but rather longing for the dealer’s touch and affections like he used to show her on those lonely nights alone back in her penthouse, their bodies entwined, making such sweet natural music together. He alone made her feel young again and helped her forget why she came out to the middle of nowhere in the first place.

She flipped her bottom card over, showing that she was staying with what she had. The dealer also flipped his bottom card. It was apparent he had the winning hand, and the dealer slid her chips towards himself to deposit them.

“My 20 beats your 10. You could have ‘hit’ you know.”

Suddenly, The Diva reached for his hand that was sliding the chips away, stopping him momentarily. She dramatically removed her aviator sunglasses and looked at the dealer straight in the eyes knowing she now had his full attention. “My loneliness is killing me,” she said. “And I-” The dealer quickly yanked his hand and the chips away, cutting her off, and gave a quick alarmed glance around him to see if anyone just saw the interaction.

“You’re going to get me fired,” he said in a stern whisper, depositing the chips. He knew what he must do. She wasn’t going to leave him alone, so he would have to break it off with her yet again so she got the message. “Listen, we had our fun, but that was months ago. I’ve moved on. I don’t want to be with you anymore. I couldn’t stand the constant sneaking around and keeping our relationship a secret, as if it were a terrible thing. I thought I was the luckiest guy on Earth when you bumped into me at the club that one night and ended up and taking me back to your place. You and I come from different worlds and it will never work out between us.” He could see tears starting to form in her warm, amber eyes. “So I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in us anymore.” He immediately went back to shuffling the cards, preparing for the next game.

The Diva’s eyes drifted away from the dealer, hurt by his words, and to the cards dealt in front of her. It was a new hand, but she didn’t care. She sat there on the stool, reconsidering her new life without him in the picture. She was so sure that she could win him back upon entering the casino, but now had her hopes dashed on the jagged rocks of reality.

“Miss, kindly place your bet,” said the dealer. But the Diva did not move. The dealer noticed a larger bald man in a suit, a pit boss, begin his approach from a few tables away, whispering something to an unseen receiver in his jacket sleeve. It appeared that the security office was starting to become suspicious of the interactions between the dealer and the Diva. The dealer knew his job might be compromised if the Diva didn’t start playing her hand. “Miss, I urge you to place a bet,” he repeated once more.

Before the Diva were two cards; a 6 of Spades facing up and a 5 of Diamonds facing down. She didn’t bother checking her face down card, but simply pushed the remaining chips forward. All in. “I must confess, I still believe,” she whispered sadly to the dealer, as if everything she had ever felt for the dealer relied on the outcome of this final hand. The dealer had a King of Spades facing upwards, and a Queen of Clubs facing down. He knew she probably wouldn’t win, but hoped she would play along for his job’s sake. The bald pit boss was now stationed a table away, watching their game.

“When I’m not with you I lose my mind,” said the Diva finally looking at her bottom card. The dealer was void of all emotion, seeing two security guards now approaching from behind the Diva, but stopping short of her a few feet away. The jig was up, and the dealer felt that he would definitely be reprimanded, if not fired, for the unwanted interaction with the Diva after their game. The Diva attempted to get his attention, longing for him to look up at her and see the tears in her eyes. She wanted him to witness her pain, and still see her as the woman he fell head over sneakers for that night at the club. She was radiating sorrow and longing, wanting to start anew and make it up to him for not treating him as a human being worth a real relationship with, but rather an ongoing one-night stand.

“Give me a sign!” she roared like a wounded animal, pounding her fists on the table. The entire casino floor fell silent, with only the digital pings and beeps from the slot machines nearby filling the vacuum. The dealer was stunned, his mouth agape. At that point the pit boss and two security guards began converging in on their table.

“Miss, would you like to hit?” asked the dealer.

“Hit me, baby, one more time!” yelled the Diva, ripping off her wig and throwing it to the floor, letting her blonde hair come undone and unfurl to her shoulders. Just then the security guards had reached her, flanking her from behind. The pit boss made his way in front of her, standing beside the dealer.

“Miss Spears, I think it’s time for you to go,” said the pit boss. “Before anyone else recognizes you." The two security guards gave her a smile and gestured her away from the table and towards the closest exit. Britney’s tears continued to fall down her cheeks for a moment, before she deeply exhaled and nodded her head that she had understood. She put her sunglasses back on and allowed them to escort her away. She didn’t even look back at the dealer, or what her final card was. She was done chasing the unobtainable, and mentally prepared herself to go back to her old life and continue to perform at her residency at the casino.

As soon as she was out of earshot, the pit boss turned to the dealer and scowled at him. “Clear your table and pack your things, you’re done. You were given a warning once before, and blew it. I want you out of here in the next ten minutes.” He walked away from the table and whispered something else into his wrist receiver, confirming the situation was under control.

The dealer let out a deep sigh, accurately predicting his termination as soon as the Diva had sat down at his table five minutes prior. Before he cleared his table, curiosity got the better of him and he flipped over Britney’s card just to see what she would have had.

It was the Queen of Hearts. The dealer looked at the card in shock. She had reached 21 and beat the house. Whether it was fate, or cosmic forces beyond his control, this revelation caused the dealer to suddenly reevaluate his life, and in that fleeting moment realize what he had just lost.

He lost her. He had lost his Diva. Even though their relationship had been toxic, he was addicted to her. Undoing his tie and collar, he removed his vest and tossed it on the table, and he ran to find her.


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