The Apocalypse Stone

Pete Earley

Forge Books

Chapter One

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
 
Patrick McPherson was looking at the ten of spades and seven of clubs, a total of seventeen in blackjack. He’d bet a thousand dollars. The dealer’s up card was the ten of hearts.
 
“I think you’ve got another face card,” McPherson told the dealer. “That’ll give you twenty. So the only way I can win is if I can draw a four.”
 
The gambler on McPherson’s right snickered. The odds were against McPherson. Chances were, if he took a third card he’d bust. Just the same, he tapped a finger on top of his cards, signaling that he wanted another. The dealer slipped one from the red plastic shoe and flipped it over. It was a four. McPherson had hit twenty-one.
 
“How the hell did you know you were gonna draw a four?” the plump woman sitting on his left demanded. McPherson leaned close to her cheek, his eyes falling naturally downward into her bulging cleavage. Why did housewives from Des Moines dress like whores when they came to Las Vegas? he wondered.
 
“I can see the future,” he whispered. “You’re going to take another card and bust because it will be a queen.”
 
She glanced at her cards and then at him. She had sixteen, a lousy hand. Was he joking? No one could predict the future! Ignoring his warning, she motioned for another card. It was a queen. She’d busted just like he’d predicted. But she didn’t say anything. She suspected he was cheating or card counting and hoped, if she kept silent, that he would tell her his secret.
 
“You play a lot of blackjack?” she asked.
 
“No,” he replied. “This is my first time.”
 
She looked down into her purse, searching for a pack of cigarettes, and noticed his left hand, which he had kept hidden under the table.
 
“Oh my god!” she shrieked. “You’re bleeding!”
 
The dealer paused. Everyone stared.
 
“No,” he said calmly. “It’s a birthmark on my palm. But sometimes it looks like blood.” He jammed his left hand into the pocket of his tan cargo pants, and with his right hand, pushed every chip he owned to the woman. “Here, you take these.”
 
“That’s twenty thousand dollars!” she squealed. “Oh my god! Oh my god!”
 
McPherson moved away from the table quickly, exiting the casino through a row of clanging slot machines. How do you hide a murder? Was his secret safe? Did it matter now, really? God knew. Judgment was being made. There would be no escape, no forgiveness, no last-minute reprieve. The biblical scriptures were clear about what God was demanding. “Leave immediately,” the verses said. “Go to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities of great wickedness and debauchery. . . .”
 
“Hello?”
 
The woman’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
 
“The Federal Express driver picked up your package from the hotel a few hours ago,” she said. “It should be delivered before noon tomorrow. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
 
“No,” he answered, handing her five dollars. She hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary for a hotel concierge, but in Las Vegas you tipped everyone. It didn’t matter. Money was no longer important.
 
He walked to an elevator; at least, it would have been called an elevator in any other Las Vegas Strip resort. In the Luxor, it was called an “inclinator” because the hotel-casino was built in the shape of an Egyptian pyramid. Four inclinators traveled up and down its corners at a
 
39-degree incline. Entertainment architecture. He’d looked at the New York, New York casino, with its miniature Manhattan skyline facade, and briefly flirted with staying at the Paris resort, with its mock Eiffel Tower. But the pyramid shape of the Luxor, with its hollow center, best served his purpose. Earlier, he had eaten breakfast in the resort’s Pyramid Café and had read on the restaurant’s paper placemat that the Luxor’s atrium was one of the largest in the world, big enough to hold nine Boeing 747 airplanes stacked on top of each other. It was perfect.
 
He pressed the inclinator’s twenty-eighth-floor button, but before the doors closed, two couples and their gaggle of kids joined him. Cut-off shorts, bright yellow tube tops pulled snugly over fatty white flesh, orange Kmart fanny packs that jingled with each step, a T-shirt with the words “I’m with Stupid” printed on it. McPherson stood silently among them, listening to their twisted jumble of grammatically tortured sentences. Their words pounded inside his head. At Harvard Law, he had honed a talent. When he concentrated, he could actually see in his mind sentences that people were saying, complete with punctuation. During trials, it was useful, but in the inclinator it was maddening.Wasted lives. Shallow dreams. Nobodies, going nowhere. Spending the pitiful three hundred dollars they had put aside for their vacation gambling. McPherson was not one of them and never had been. He was the third child born to Alfred Cumberland McPherson and Alice Chaucer Hayworth of Stamford, Connecticut. Old money. And plenty of it. He’d been born into the gene pool of America’s upper crust, although the rich knew better than to acknowledge the existence of such a cultural hierarchy. Better for the minions to believe America was still a land of opportunity, a country where a peanut farmer from Georgia and a kid from an Arkansas trailer park could become president. They could, of course, but even after they’d moved into the White House, they still did not become one of them. Presidents made interesting dinner guests, but they were passers through, entertainment. You could study as much as you wished, but you would never master the social nuances and intricacies that McPherson’s ilk knew. It was in their blood and breeding. No one in his family had ever engaged him in a casual conversation. Every word he uttered had been scrutinized and, if possible, used against him. His choice of clothes, his table manners, his diction, his ideas, his every thought and every action: all had been critiqued by a horde of nannies and tutors, as well as his siblings and parents and grandparents. After all, he was a McPherson. And that meant something. He had to be molded, else he might prove inferior. After Harvard, he’d joined one of Boston’s oldest, most influential law firms. Where else would he have gone? He’d married the daughter of an equally old-money family. Whom else would he have chosen? He was forty-nine now. His hair, graying at the temples, gave him a dignified look. His life had seemed perfect. No, had been perfect. Absolutely perfect. A summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, a studio apartment in Paris, a seven-figure income. Everything was on track. And then nine months ago, he had received an unsolicited package. A gift. Or so he’d thought. A joke. Or so he’d thought. In fact, it had been the beginning of the end. It is what had led him here.
 
McPherson burst from the inclinator as soon as its doors opened. Finally, silence. The typewriter in his mind stopped pecking. Except for a discarded room service tray piled with dirty dishes, the hallway was empty. He hurried along the corridor until he reached its midway point. He stopped there and glanced over the waist-high wall that kept guests from tumbling into the atrium. From this perch, he could see a line of ticket holders twenty-eight floors below waiting patiently to enter an IMAX theater. Others had crowded around two life-size robotic camels whose computerized voices spewed out tidbits about the Luxor’s amenities. Like miniatures, still others were sitting at tables in a ceiling-free fast food restaurant.
 
McPherson climbed over the wall and rested his heels on a two-inch-wide lip that ran along its base. He leaned forward into the atrium, his arms stretched back to grip the wall’s top edge. The package was gone. Now someone else would receive the gift. There was only one final task for him to perform. He had to pay for his sins. Atonement.
 
He suddenly felt the urge to think of a happy event in his life. Something he could recall as he released his grip. It was difficult. But it finally came to him. It was summer and it was hot. He was ten. Another boy, Michael, had been visiting his grandmother and the two families had arranged an introduction. The two boys became buddies, and one afternoon, they discovered an abandoned stone quarry a few miles outside Stamford. They’d stripped to their undershorts and jumped from the quarry’s jagged ledges into the black, seemingly bottomless pool of cool water that had filled the angry scar left behind by dynamite and earth movers. After repeated jumps, they’d stretched out on the warm stone and let the July sun dry them as they chatted innocently about whose cannonball had made the biggest splash. It was Michael who had taught him how to do a swan dive. They had taken turns, springing from the ledge, stretching their arms wide at their sides, as if they were huge birds taking flight. McPherson had learned to squeeze his thighs tight, point his toes down and cock back his head, arch his back and look upward into the blinding afternoon sun. He would wait until the very last possible second—just before he was about to hit the water—before he tucked, entering the pool head first, his thin body causing barely a ripple.
 
McPherson released his grip and his body fell forward. As he dropped into the resort’s atrium, he stretched out his arms, squeezed his thighs tight, pointed his toes downward, cocked back his head and shoulders, and arched his back. He fell silently, his two-hundred-and-twenty-pound body slamming into a Formica-topped table six feet from the polished stainless-steel counter of the Luxor’s McDonald’s restaurant. He hit with such force that his body exploded, spewing bits of blood, bones, organs, and brain matter into the stunned diners’ half-eaten Big Macs and super-size french fries.
 
He was free now. He’d paid for his sins.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Pete Earley