by Cathi Stoler
Fatal Flaw was a Derringer nominee for best short story a few years ago. It is also a part of Cathi’s e-book, Bad Things Happen: 6 Stories of Mystery, Murder and Intrigue, which is available on Amazon.
A FEW FATES are worse than death. I should know. I’m living one right now. In a secluded villa high in the hills somewhere in the Czech Republic. A place where no one will ever find me should anyone care to look.
So far my captors have gone easy—a black eye, split lip, sore ribs—no hanging from the ceiling or electrodes below the belt. But that could change at any moment. The leader is too calm, too patient. And that scares me. I know it’s just a matter of time then the real work will begin. He’ll expect me to fold. And why shouldn’t I? Why the hell should I care what happens to the people who put me in this cold, damp cell? They know you win some and you lose some. But me? If I lose this time, it’s my life.
I’m Nick Donahue, citizen of the world, gambler by trade. Blackjack is my game. The odds favor the player, at least slightly, or so I’ve learned over the years. I travel from casino to casino, mostly in Europe where I seem to have developed a reputation as a polished and sophisticated player. If you’re thinking James Bond, get over it. It’s not all Chemin de Fer, vodka martinis, and gorgeous women throwing themselves at me. At least it wasn’t until Marina.
“Buona Fortuna,” she purred into my ear as she leaned over my shoulder, her breast brushing my arm, and placed 500 Euros next to mine on the green baize of the high stakes table at the Palazzo Ducale Casino. I had a Jack in the hole and pulled an up card of ten. The dealer had a ten showing and flipped over a four. He had to draw. Poor guy, it was an eight, which meant I won. And so did she. “Grazie,” she licked her lips as she swept up her winnings and drifted off into the Venetian night in a cloud of perfume that made me want to inhale forever.
A few more hands and it was time to cash in. I’d had a good run and was up more than fifteen thousand Euros. “For the boys,” I said, and knocked two 100 Euro chips on the edge of the table and tossed them to the dealer, ignoring the scowl of the pit boss who tried to make me feel like I was stealing from his personal bank account. I finished the Scotch I’d been drinking and left the casino. In the lobby the lift pinged open and carried me to the penthouse suite the management had so graciously comped. A “Do Not Disturb” sign hung on the doorknob. I hadn’t placed it there. Two fingers and the door swung open. There she was, in my bed, the terry robe from the bath wrapped around her, looking even more luscious than she had in the casino.
“Ciao, bello.” Her voice was smooth as silk as she got up slowly, a flash of long, tanned legs diverting my attention. She reached for a bottle of Cristal that was already open and chilling beside her. “Per te.”
I wondered briefly if the management had comped her, too. Their way of distracting me from my game. She rose from the bed and crossed to me slowly, the robe moving with her, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the tanned body beneath. She lifted her face to mine and waited for me to kiss her. I did and all thoughts of the management were forgotten.
During the night I discovered the lady spoke perfect English, even if the words we used were not necessarily part of polite conversation. When I awoke shortly after dawn, she was gone, a folded piece of the hotel’s stationary standing in for where her head had rested on the pillow. “Meet me at 2 at Il Nino” was all it said. My favorite ristorante in Venice. Not only had she seduced me—it hadn’t been hard—but she also knew more about me than I liked. I folded the note and wondered if it was my rugged good looks or something else that was piquing her interest.
Il Nino tilted toward the water on a small, side canal in the Canereggio section where Venice’s hoards of tourists rarely ventured. An intimate place with a discreet management, it had its regulars who appreciated the privacy as much as the food. Apparently, she was now one of them, if the bevy of waiters hovering at her table like seagulls waiting for scraps were any indication.
“Hello, there. Nice to see you again.” I slid into the seat opposite hers and gave the staff my best ‘screw off’ smile.
Her soft laugh tinkled through the dining room as she cupped my chin in her hand and squeezed it the way a maiden aunt does to a small nephew. “No need to be jealous, Nick, we were just talking.”
“It seems I’m at a disadvantage,” I replied. “You know all about me.” I ticked the items off on my fingers. Who I am. Where I gamble. Where I’m staying. What I like to do in bed. Even my favorite restaurant. My eyes took in the room. “And, I on the other hand, well, I still don’t know your name.”
She lifted one eyebrow. “Oh, I think you learned a few things about me last night.” She laughed then continued, “I’m Marina. Marina Pietro.”
I sat back and gave her my best poker face while I considered the facts. I’d thought about why she’d come into my bed—I’m not that irresistible. I’d known right away that she wasn’t a hooker, but she had to have had a reason. I was trying to decide whether or not to challenge her. Pietro was as common in Italy as St. John in England, or Smith in the States. I decided to let it go for now. “Okay. Marina Pietro it is. Now that we got that out of the way, why don’t you tell me what it is you want with me?”
And she did.
It was a modern variation on the damsel in distress theme. A story with really bad guys doing very bad things with very big guns and a beautiful woman who needed rescuing. Marina filled me in over the “pasta con vongole” and a bottle of the local vino.
She was on assignment for Eurotec International, a global insurance company based in London. Her job was to track down a gang of Serbian jewel thieves, who were knocking off high-end jewelry stores all across the continent. Their latest job had involved a smash and grab on the Via Veneto at Domani’s, Rome’s most expensive and exclusive jewelry store, and making off with a king’s ransom in gems. Eurotec had gotten a hot lead and their first big break: the leader of the crew, a short, stocky fellow nicknamed “Clouseau” had been traced to Venice and linked to Guillermo Gennaro, the general manager of the Palazzo Ducale Casino, which is where I came in. Eurotec had been looking for a way to infiltrate the gang. A mutual friend in government in London who knew I was in Venice had suggested a desperate gambler losing big at the casino—me—might be just the ticket. I’d have to remember to thank him properly the next time we met.
“How did anyone come to that conclusion?” I queried. Nigel knew that for me, snorkeling was about as adventurous as it got. “I play Blackjack. I do not chase down dangerous jewel thieves. And, as you may have noticed, I’m not losing or desperate.” Didn’t she remember the chips she scooped up last night? “I’m winning.” I hoped I didn’t sound like I was bragging, or whining.
“But you will be,” Marina had replied, “once you start to lose big, and Gennaro sees the hole you’re digging for yourself. You’ll go to him for help. Act a little frantic, try to get more credit. He’ll recognize the opportunity and make you a deal. Look,” she sighed, “Gennaro is the middle-man, the one moving the goods. There’s someone bigger behind all this, and that’s who we’re after.” She shook her head. “These guys know every police force in Europe is looking for them. They’ve scored too many times. They know they have to find another way to move the gems.”
She must have caught the “Are you out of your mind?” look on my face. “Don’t worry, Nick, Eurotec security will be watching you every minute. You’ll be perfectly safe.”
Right. You can see how that turned out.
Marina leaned in close and kept up the pitch. “Eurotec has paid out a fortune.” She lowered her voice. “Honestly, one more heist like this could ruin them. They’re desperate to catch Clouseau’s crew and repatriate the gems. And so am I.” She laid her hand over mine on the snowy white tablecloth. “If I don’t close this case, I’m out.”
I told you, damsel in distress. “I need to think about this.” I didn’t want to tell her how much I hated looking like a loser. I had my reputation to think of and my pride, not to mention my life.
“Let’s go back to my hotel. There are a few things I want to show you.” She took my hand and led me from the restaurant like a lamb to the slaughter. “Please, Nick, let me convince you.”
And she did.
Three days later I was sitting in Guillermo Gennaro’s ornately decorated office humbly seeking funds to continue my losing streak. Looking around, I figured the casino must have been raking it in—or maybe it was Gennaro’s extra curricular activities that paid for the overdone splendor.
Gennaro, who was tall, thin and swarthy looking, must have fancied himself a modern day version of a Venitian Doge, the big guy in charge of the city in the old days.
He seemed to favor narrow cut black silk suits with red or purple shirts and matching print cravats. Combined with antique hand-blown glass on nearly every surface, softly glowing sconces on the walls and a king size gilded desk as the office’s centerpiece, his appearance gave the impression of being back in the fifteen hundreds, with me as the supplicant and he, as the prince dispensing favors.
It had been a whirlwind of losing thanks to my playing like a total neophyte—although losing wasn’t as simple as you might think. I had to be extremely careful about how just badly I played without creating too much suspicion. Systematically disposing of a small fortune provided by Eurotec International took skill and cunning—you’d be surprised at how quickly my chips found their way to the casino’s vault. Well, the idea was to ingratiate myself as a loser in need of credit.
The bile rose in my throat every time I had to throw a hand. I had to choose my moments carefully, double up on pairs and take too many hits, or draw on a low card when the dealer had his own low card showing—a must draw situation for him—and hopefully take his break card. I’d act out the “I had such a strong feeling I’d get the card I needed” routine then pretend to be devastated when it didn’t work out. As you can imagine, playing like a total jerk-off didn’t make me very popular with the other players at my table since my mistakes often cost them as well. Forget sympathy. They were ready to string me up.
My old friend, the pit boss, didn’t take his eyes off of me. In fact, he made it pretty obvious he thought something was going on but he couldn’t figure out exactly what—I wasn’t cheating or card counting. He kept peering down his long, Italian nose and rubbing his hands together in anticipation of catching me out. With each hand, I had to be as smooth and stealthy as a gigolo stalking his next rich widow. It was exhausting.
The only positive about the whole deal was Marina. We met in her room in the wee hours after I finished playing, and she fed me champagne and caviar, whispered encouraging words in my ear and took me to bed. After our love making, we’d talk about the next steps. I came to realize how smart and incisive she was. Nothing got by her. She had planned our strategy down to my, or Eurotec’s, last Euro.
I’d blown through about a hundred thousand of their money, and Marina thought it was time to approach Gennaro. Now, here I was.
“So, Mr. Donahue,” he inclined his head toward me, “you would like the casino to extend you credit? Hmmm. I see.”
He actually said that, the twit, putting his index finger up to his lips in what I imagined he thought of as a pensive pose.
“It is not our policy to give credit to any of the casino’s patrons.” Now, his shoulders shrugged upward like broken angel’s wings and his hands reached to the sky in an I’m so sorry gesture. “There is nothing I can do. My hands are tied.”
It was time to plead. “Signor Gennaro, please.” I let my voice crack just a little then went through the motions of pulling myself together. “I’ve been playing at your casino for years. As I explained, my personal funds are tied up right now.” Marina and Eurotec had seen to that for me. “All I want is for the casino to extend me a line of credit for fifty thousand Euros. If you check, you’ll see I’m good for it.” Bet he’d heard that one a million times. And when he did check, which I was pretty sure he would, it would appear that I was totally tapped out and probably lying through my teeth. “I’m just having a bad run at the moment. I’m sure that my luck will change, and I’ll be able to cover any credit easily.”
He’d watched me carefully the whole time I spoke. I hope I had appeared just desperate enough to get his wheels turning.
“Mr. Donahue,” he rose from behind his desk, “let me think about this. Perhaps there is a way I can help you.”
I rose as well and extended my hand.
He shook it limply. “I’ll be in touch. Good day, Mr. Donahue.”
The bastard made me wait an entire day before he got back to me. I’d hung around the casino, playing a hand or two and trying to appear anxious, which wasn’t too much of a stretch when he finally summoned me back to his office.
He had decided to help me, he said, as a personal favor. The fifty thousand Euros would be made available free and clear, if I in turn would do a personal favor for him. There was a small package that needed to be delivered to Prague in the next few days. He needed someone he could trust implicitly to carry it for him, no questions asked. It was the quid pro quo for the money. I was sure he had checked on my finances and noted that I appeared to be not only broke, but also very much in debt. If I was interested in his proposition, I was to leave on the late train from the Venizia Mestre station this evening and change in Rome for the fast train to the Czech Republic. If not, I would have to find the money elsewhere.
I cast my eyes down and slowly shook my head yes, in a what choice do I have manner. We had a deal. I went back to my room to pack. I wouldn’t be able to call Marina—I was sure Gennaro had people monitoring me but hopefully, so was the crew from Eurotec. They would let her know I was on the move.
The train ride was uneventful, if a bit bumpy. I tried to figure out which of the passengers might be my undercover shadows, but I had no luck with that and decided to get something to eat.
I had a small collision with a young mother and her child on my way through the dining car when the train lurched and her coffee spilled and wet my sleeve. The baby started crying as we swayed in the aisle and the mother wiped at my arm with a napkin trying to sop up the coffee. The conductor got into the act, as well. I waved them off and went back to my seat, patting my jacket where I’d placed Gennaro’s package in my inside pocket. I could feel it tight up against my chest, small and compact. I figured I was carrying about two and a half million Euros worth of gems and the sooner I could deliver them and have the Eurotec people move in, the better.
When I arrived in Prague, I took a taxi to the address Gennaro had given me and delivered the package. I was asked to wait while the house’s occupant, Clouseau I imagined, verified the contents. I smiled and nodded. No worries. The Eurotec guys would be showing up any minute, and I’d be out of there and on my way back to Marina.
That’s the last thing I remember until waking up in this cell. It’d taken me a while, but I finally pieced it together. Either the mother with the baby or the conductor had switched the package on the train. Or maybe they were in it together. There was no Eurotec posse coming to rescue me and never had been.
My captors had gone through my bags and stripped me naked to search me thoroughly. They left my clothes in a heap in a corner and took everything else away. After they left, I stumbled over to my clothes and started to dress. That’s when I found the scrap of paper stuck deep in my pants pocket. “I’m sorry. M.” was all it said.
It was Marina, right from the start. She may have worked for Eurotec, may even had known Nigel. But I’d been an easy mark, ready for the attention of and sex with a beautiful and captivating woman. I should have known better but I didn’t. I fell for it. And I thought Gennaro was the twit.
It’s been several days since the leader has come into my cell. I know the situation has to come to a head soon. Every footstep I hear makes me jump and break out in a cold sweat. When they open the door to leave me food, I shake all over. I know if I don’t give up Marina, they’ll kill me. It’s nothing personal to them, just business.
I’ve been looking out the small, barred window, gazing at the sky and the trees knowing I may never feel the sun on my face again. I turn as I hear the key click into the lock and watch, as the door swings open. The leader fills the doorway, backlit by the hall light so that I can’t read his expression. This is it. He’s come to kill me. I know it, yet I still can’t give him her name. I can’t fathom the thought of her warm, voluptuous body ice cold in death, her animated face as still and waxen as a statue.
“Mr. Donahue,” he says my name in a matter of fact way that makes me shudder, and shifts a small package from one hand to another. “It seems your accomplice has seen the error of her ways.”
Her? He knows about Marina? I don’t understand? Had she double-crossed Clouseau’s gang as well as Eurotec and me? I just stared at him, waiting.
“She has returned our property in exchange for you. There is no longer a reason to make an example of you. But Mr. Donahue, this is not over. Our business with her is not finished. Make no mistake about it. Should you see the lady, please let her know that. We’ll be leaving now. Once we’re gone, do the same.” There was no mistaking the menace in his voice or the promise he made.
I have no words. Marina made a deal with the devil, and he set me free. Relief floods through me, then anger. I want to strangle Marina for what she put me through. Then I think of her face and her body, the way she made me feel, and I know that while I’ll never see Marina again, part of me will always be looking for her.
She could have let me die. Or she could have let me live.
And she did.
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