For a moment–for one brief, breathtaking moment–it felt as if someone had hit the ‘PAUSE’ button on some nearby remote control.
Those who had been standing around the edge of the roulette table were now pressing themselves against it, their torsos bent forward, their gazes riveted on the colorful, whirling wheel at one end.
A few minutes earlier, they had all been chatting festively with one another, or chuckling at someone’s clever quip. An elegantly coiffed woman in a ruffled white blouse and slim black slacks had been rotating in midair the glass that held her gin and tonic, causing the cubes to clink . . . clink . . . clink . . . clink. Opposite her, a younger man with vaguely Russian features had been rapidly drumming the edge of the table with his fists and whispering a plaintive prayer to some deity above.
But now, no one seemed to be blinking (or even breathing) as the wheel’s rotation began to slow, and the nylon ball skittered first toward one pocket, then another, like a hummingbird flitting from one flower to the next.
The expression on every face around the table signaled one thought, and one thought only:
Where is the ball going to drop?
Discreetly seated behind the first row of spectators, Jocelyn Cheng was studying not the ball’s trajectory but the looks of anticipation on the faces all around her. Taking in the vibe of one of the seven gaming rooms she oversaw–whatever that vibe happened to be–was one of the greatest pleasures she derived from her job as CEO of the Lucky Fortune Casino Group.
Her predecessor had always been bored by the action on the floor, preferring instead to burrow into the databases and revenue reports that came with being the company’s chief executive. But she had always been more energized by the emotion of it all, enough so that she would sneak onto one of the casino floors now and then to bask in the energy of those hoping to hit it big.
The looks worn by the many gamblers around her brought a subtle smile to her lips. She knew, of course, that even if someone standing next to her did beat the dealer, roll a seven, or watch the wheel land on whatever square they’d bet heavily upon, they’d likely lose it all (and then some) within the next twenty-four hours.
She loved knowing the odds were always in her favor. That no matter what, the house always wins.
The room’s reverie suddenly broke; the crowd began to murmur and clap. The wheel was about to stop altogether, so the ball was not so much ricocheting now as drifting from the edge of one pocket on the wheel to the next.
She wasn’t intrigued with the ball, however, for she knew exactly where it was programmed to land–on number thirty-four, one of the numbers gamblers rarely seemed to bet on.
Tourism was down in Macau, so the house was needing to be more cautious with its payouts.
A hand extended over her right shoulder and set in front of her a chilled martini glass, cleanly accessorized with a tiny lemon twist. “Compliments of the lady in the velvet pantsuit,” the server whispered before dashing off as quickly as she’d arrived.
The owner of the casino scanned the perimeter of the table until she noticed a tall blonde (American? Australian?) nodding in her direction. She sorted through her internal contact list, trying to summon up the woman’s identity from the vast network she’d assembled over time. She came up blank, nodded back at the blonde to be polite, then took a quick sip of the drink.
Instantly, she could tell it contained a premium Russian vodka with a hint of vermouth. And vanilla. Precisely the way she liked her martinis. Who is that woman? How do I know her? she wondered. Were we on the region’s economic development committee together, or on the capital campaign for Macau Mercy Hospital? She took another, longer sip of the martini, studied the woman more closely.
Maybe she was in one of my MBA classes at Oxford . . .
She tried once more to signal to the woman her appreciation for the cocktail, but the blonde was now locked on the ball’s final destination. Any second now, the orb would be completing its journey, breaking more than a few hearts in the process.
“Thirty-six!” the croupier announced. “Number thirty-six!”
Jocelyn Cheng started, then whirled in the direction of her employee, who was casually clearing the board of the chips stacked upon all the other squares.
All the other squares except number thirty-four. The pocket the ball was supposed to land on. The only square that no one usually bet on.
Only this time, someone had.
Something’s not right here, she thought. What’s going on?
Flinging over her shoulder the gold-chain handle of her pink, Chanel purse, she slid off her seat and dashed toward the elevators.
The very last sound Jocelyn Cheng heard before the darkness descended, before her legs went rigid and collapsed beneath her, was the crowd still reacting to the result of the spin. Followed by a woman’s voice, shrieking in horror.
But as several bystanders rushed toward Jocelyn Cheng’s already stiffening corpse, the blonde woman in the velvet pantsuit casually leaned across the rail and raked in the tall stack of chips the croupier had just pushed her way.