Blood Casino – Nina Walker

Only two types of people frequent the blood casino: gamblers and their children. Standing outside on the steps of The Alabaster Heart, I can safely say that hate isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I feel about this place. And okay, maybe there aren’t that many of my peers trying to drag their parents out of here, but I’ve seen plenty over the last few years. Enough to know that once gambling sucks someone in, it’s pretty much impossible to get them to stop. New Orleans Canal Street traffic bustles by in a cacophony of irate drivers. They honk at the slow-moving tourists, who, like slugs on pavement, are too stifled by the humidity to care. The famous street cuts the city in half. On one side is the well-known French Quarter and on the other is the post-colonial builds. I prefer the newer part, even though the older is far more beautiful. Something about the newness feels safer to me, like maybe it’s not crawling with centuries-old evil. That’s probably wishful thinking. Guess which side of the street the casino is on? I clench my hands into fists and sigh. I should be used to going in there by now, but I can’t help the nerves from firing in my belly. Out of habit, I check to make sure I’m wearing my crucifix necklace. The dainty thing rests against the hollow in my throat, warm from the sunlight.

It’s superstitious, I know, but it helps me breathe. In this city, it’s better to be superstitious than sorry. I force myself to ascend the steps. The hotel and casino’s late 1800s architecture mirrors many of the buildings down here by the French Quarter with towering white columns, weathered red brick, and ornate metalwork. Since it’s the only land casino in the area that has gaming tables, I know my mom will be saddled up to one of them. She’s never been keen on the slot machines. “They favor the house,” she always says, “doubling down at the tables is the only way to make any real money.” Yeah, like money is the biggest worry in a vampire-run casino. I wipe my sweaty palms on my jean shorts and open the door. I have to pass through two vestibules to get inside.

It’s the vamps way of keeping the light out. It could be worse, though. Mom could be on the riverboat casino again. It runs weekend nights and once someone gets on, they can’t get off until it docks in the early morning hours. I’m not old enough to step foot on that thing so I hate when she does. I hate feeling helpless. It’s something I’ve experienced a lot lately. The stale odor of old cigarette smoke hits me like a wall. I blink as my eyes adjust and then I begin weaving through the rows of flashing slot machines. I swear those things are programmed to attract toddlers.

Ding, ding, ding! Winner every hour! Jackpot! That’s casino speak for, Give me your money. So far I’m under the radar, but my heart rate only skyrockets as I edge closer to the gaming tables. No matter how many times I save her from herself, she always comes back for one more bet . It’s not all about money. It’s the game. The addiction. The thumping roll of the dice, the chance of a win, the dopamine release with each turn of the cards. It’s the euphoric feeling of chips being pushed her way. It’s taking those chips to the cashier at the end of the night and trading them in for cold hard cash she can slip into her purse, making her feel invincible. Valuable.

Loved. It’s too good and it sucks her in every single time. And I always follow, ready to pull her away when her body can’t take another drop. I don’t trust them to care, even though it’s the law. They promise not to bring the gamblers to the brink, but they have ways of covering their tracks. I am not my mother’s daughter in that way, I can’t handle those odds. I find her at the Texas Hold’em table, her drug of choice. It’s only four o’clock on a Tuesday and all the seats are filled. Gamblers are cozied up together, talking shop like war heroes. They may look different––different sizes, ages, ethnicities––but their eyes each have the same glossy sheen, their movements the same practiced calm.

“Mom.” I approach her from behind, talking low in her ear. “It’s time to go.” She doesn’t respond right away, but her bony shoulders still. The middle-aged human dealer shoots me an aloof glance. He deals the hands from the deck, the sound of redemption to these people. I look away. I don’t want to be carded. The staff won’t get too fussy if I’m in and out fast, but at only eighteen years old, they can boot me in a heartbeat. It happens all the time to those of us under twenty-one who are constantly trying to rescue our parents.

Not that the age will stay twenty-one much longer. The vampires are lobbying hard to lower it to eighteen. It’s all over the news. I wait for the hand to finish. Mom drags a pile of winnings toward her and straightens triumphantly, like a fisherman with a tugging line. I cringe. This will only make it harder to get her out of here. She thinks she’s the one reeling them in, but really, it’s the other way around. “Mom,” I try again, “please, let’s go. You’ve played enough.

” “Shh–none of that, Evangeline. I’m on a winning streak,” she says, brushing me away as she leans over her cards, the IV in her hand tugging at the vein. My heart drops, but the dealer is quick to push more cards at the players, so I step back again. The cards are thick and gold and shiny, with the swirly heart pattern embossed on the back. The casino’s logo. I look away, focusing on the metal drip stand next to us. The plastic bag hangs heavy with blood. I can practically smell the metallic stench of it. She’s been playing far too long but the more it fills up, the more chips the house gives her to keep her going. We don’t have a lot of money to our name so this is Mom’s way of increasing her odds.

Another thing she always says, “You have to play big to win big.” That and, “The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.” I hate all her little gambling ramblings because the reverse is also true. I study the other five players: two of them have a blood bag slowly filling drip by drip as well, but none are as full as Mom’s. Hers is practically bursting at the seams. She needs to stop. Panic is a beast of claws and teeth, ripping me open and spilling fear out right there on the ugly swirl-patterned carpet. Finally the hand is over, and once again, more chips come clanking toward her. “See, baby,” she says, turning to face me, “I’m on a roll.” She’s as bright as Sunday morning, despite the blood loss.

It won’t last. Underneath her immaculate makeup, a ghost smiles back at me. “Nice,” I try again, sweet as honey this time. “Let’s cash out while you’re up, huh? Go shopping or something.” When she turns back to lay yet another bet, I nearly scream. This is ridiculous. I should just leave her and let her deal with her own consequences. I twist my foot into the carpet, readying to go. But instead of leaving, I remind myself that this isn’t entirely her fault. The vampires are to blame, too.

They’re feeding on her addiction, and I have no doubt, compelling her to come back at the soonest opportunity. I glare at the dealer. Sure, he’s human, but he’s still part of the problem. The guy is the definition of forgettable. He has a bulbous red face and beady little eyes. One look and I know he won’t help me. They don’t call him a “dealer” for nothing. He’s a mouse enslaved to the serpent. Speaking of––the pit boss glides toward us. I tell myself it’s the casino’s air conditioning that causes a chill to run down the back of my neck, not the presence of a vampire.

He comes to stand behind the dealer, observing as gamblers move chips forward like they mean nothing, like they don’t amount to mortgages and bills and food in their children’s bellies. Everything about this vamp lacks empathy. His humanity is nothing but a relic of an abandoned past. His eyes flash cold when he catches my hard gaze. When he tilts his head, his white-blond hair shines under the neon casino lights. He whispers something to the dealer and stands back. “Can I see your ID, please?” the dealer asks, looking up at me grim-faced. The whole table turns to stare now, and anger fills me up. “I’m not playing.” “There’s no loitering allowed around tables if you’re under twenty-one.

” Right, like we haven’t all seen the news talking about how the vampires are lobbying hard to get the gambling age lowered to eighteen. It will be another in a long line of laws changed to get humans addicted young. “We were just leaving.” I tug on mom’s shoulder. It really is time to go. “You go’on out and wait for me, okay, Evangeline?” Mom says, “I’m just going to play a few more hands, then I’ll go find the nurse and turn this thing in.” She motions to her blood bag. I don’t move. We’re both staring at it now. It’s stupid full.

If a fly landed on it, I swear it would pop. My hands are still clenched into fists and begin to sting as my fingernails bite into my palms. Why haven’t they cut her off? Of course she thinks she can last a little longer, she always thinks that. I know better. At only five-foot-one and barely a hundred pounds, she can’t handle this much blood loss. She’s a tiny woman. Simply getting the needle taken out of her hand will exhaust her, and that’s if we leave now. I glare at the pit boss, meeting his hollow gaze eye-for-eye. My brain is not fully developed, so we both know I’m too young to be influenced by his vampiric compulsion. He raises an eyebrow as if to warn, Not much longer, little girl.

“She’s going to pass out,” I growl between gritted teeth, leaning over Mom to talk directly to the vampire. Immaculately groomed, he looks to be in his mid-thirties. He’s more than likely much older than that. “If you don’t cut her off before that happens, you’ll break the law.” I add, “And I’m here to witness it.” He gives me a sickly smile, fangs extended, and actually sniffs the air. My stomach churns. “She smells fine to me.” “Yeah, well, I know her better than you. She’s not fine.

” Meanwhile, the dealer has started another hand. The slap, slap, slap of cards is followed by Mom pushing out several hundred dollars in chips. In the space of time it takes for me to follow what she’s doing, she doubles down. I swallow a gasp and step back. All in. Fifteen hundred dollars. The exact amount I know we have to turn in to Mrs. Maybee tomorrow for our rent. Whatever she’s earned from her blood donation, whatever she’s brought along with her, whatever she’s won on her streak––she’s just bet it all. “You had enough, already,” I hiss.

“Why did you do that?” “I have three aces, Angel.” Mom turns to me with a chastized whisper, swiping her auburn curls out of her brown eyes. Her complexion is even worse than it was minutes ago. The longer she plays, the longer she’s hooked up to that stupid life-draining thing, the closer she gets to an accident. Drip, by drip, by drip, she plays her game and they collect their blood and the risks grow. When the dealer flips over his cards, we’re as still as the eye of a storm. A straight flush. Everyone around the table deflates, Mom the most. She lost. “I can win it back,” she mutters as she reaches for the zipper of the purse strung over her bone-thin arm.

Enough. I yank her up, and she squeals. Shame prickles through me as I pull her away, the drip stand rolling right along with us. But it’s no use, Mom’s knees buckle and she collapses in my arms. Not much bigger than she is, I’m only able to hold her weight for a moment. Falling to my knees, I lay her on the floor. The drip stand falls and the blood bag bounces against the carpet. It’s a miracle it didn’t break. Mom’s brown eyes lose focus and flutter closed. Oh, hell no! “I told you she would pass out,” I yell at the pit boss.

“Now what, huh? Should I call the police?” He seems unaffected, still back behind his table, but I know better. This is a fireable offense. This is the kind of thing that will get him in trouble with the vampires higher up in their royal hierarchy. There are treaties, laws, and rules for a reason. A team of nurses swoop in moments later. I won’t leave Mom. I shift back onto my butt and watch her carefully as they get to work. “She’s lost a lot of blood,” one of them says. “Virginia’s lost a lot before,” another adds, “she’ll be okay.” The fact that the nurses know my mom by name makes me even madder.

And they’re probably right, she’ll probably be okay, but I’m about ready to burn this place to the ground anyway. The pit boss jumps over the table, the players, and the crowd of gawkers, landing softly to survey the scene. He practically flew, he moved so fast. Maybe he did fly. I’ve heard some of the suckers can do that. I roll my eyes, unimpressed. The laws on this kind of thing are clear. Vampires are not allowed to take “donations” to the point that a human passes out and absolutely no bleeding anyone dry. For as much as they need our blood, they need us alive, more. Vampires use blood bags because feeding directly on human flesh isn’t allowed unless there is written consent from the human and permission from vamp royalty, which as far as I know, never ever happens.

The bloodsuckers have chosen to keep that kind of feeding to a minimum for their own secretive reasons, thank heavens. And when I say secretive, I mean secretive. I’ve done a ton of research on this subject and haven’t found a plausible reason as to why they don’t feed directly from us. Sure, there are a zillion theories floating around out there, but the vampires won’t confirm anything. So it’s blood bags for feedings, and those nasty creatures like to bite into them when they’re as fresh and warm as puppies. Casinos are one of the best places vampires can use human vices against us, and they own them all. So take a seat, but first, you’d better stick out your arm and open a vein. The chance of winning money is too enticing for some people, add that to a nice dose of compulsion layered on each visit to “come again soon,” and voila, you have yourself a herd of willing blood donors. The whole thing makes me sick. Luckily, I’m not twenty-five, the age that compulsion begins to work.

My brain is still developing, which means my prefrontal cortex doesn’t rule my decision making, so the vamps can’t get inside there quite yet. Note to self, get away from here before the big day. When that happens, I don’t want to be anywhere near vampires. Too bad they’re in every urban city now and I never pictured myself living in the sticks. I hate bugs and I love fresh sushi. What’s a girl to do? Eyes watering, I lean forward to brush the hair from Mom’s forehead. The nurses have been quick to administer their treatment. They must sense the anger still roaring in me because they don’t ask me to move. I can’t wait to report this. “Adrian has requested to speak with you.

He wishes to apologize in person,” someone is saying. I look up to meet the dealer’s beady little eyes. The pit boss is behind him, talking on a cellphone; his voice is muffled and calm, but his expression is mighty strained. Hello consequences, meet vampire, I hope you two get to know each other very well… “Who’s Adrian?” I ask the dealer, confused why someone would think for a second that I’d be willing to stick around. I’m getting Mom out of here at the first possible second and then we’re filing a police report. That alone almost makes the fact that we can’t make rent worth what happened. Almost. At the end of the day, we still can’t make rent, and Mrs. Maybee isn’t the nicest landlady. We’ve been late too many times in the past.

She’ll only give us three days this time. That’s it. And then what? Go to a shelter? Those places are cesspools for evil to prey on the weak. The world isn’t what it used to be. Ever since the vampires crawled out of the shadows seventeen years ago, nobody is safe anymore. I’ve never known a world without them. I was a chubby little one year old when it all went down. “Adrian runs this place,” the dealer explains in a rush. “We’ll make sure your mom is okay. But trust me, you’d better go, Adrian is not someone you want to say no to.

” “And why’s that?” I grumble, my mind already out of here and onto the next thing I’m going to have to do to clean up this mess. Maybe I can ask my boss for an advance? Ugh, that’s not going to work. I just started at Pops and they’re a place of business, not a charity. Mom’s eyes flutter open. I sink farther into the ground with a sigh. One of the nurses has switched her IV to fluids and she’s already starting to look alive again. “You’re going to keep a meticulous record of how much she donated, right?” I press the nurse. “So she doesn’t donate again before she’s safe?” “Of course,” the nurse replies as if that’s a given, but I don’t know if I believe her. She’s human but she still works for them. The dealer waves his hand in my face.

“Hey, I’m still talking to you. This is important.” I roll my eyes at him. “What?” “You really don’t know who Adrian is?” The dealer frowns at me like I’m a complete idiot, like I should know everything that goes on in this casino, including who this Adrian guy is. “Whatever, I’m only eighteen.” I shake my head. The fact that I’m even here is total crap, and I blame it on the vamps. They were buying up places like this for decades before they ever went public, all part of their master plan. Places where they could convince humans to trade blood for addiction. And it’s as easy as it sounds.

The dealer squats down next to me, getting right up in my face. He stinks of cigarette smoke just as bad as the carpet does. It makes my eyes burn. Another vice, cigarettes. I don’t care what it is, if it’s an addiction, I don’t want any part. “Adrian’s one of the North American princes. He doesn’t just run The Alabaster Heart, he runs New Orleans and most of the southern United States.” “A prince, you say?” I snort. The idea of this Adrian character is a spark that settles into me, an answer to a problem. I decide to pour gasoline on that idea.

Yes, this vampire has the kind of power that could squash me. Yes, he could murder me in a second if he chose. But I’m the one in the power position here. I’m the girl he needs to convince to shut up. My idea started as a spark but it’s a full-on inferno now. Will it work? I only have to strike a deal with the devil to find out.

.

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