Faith, Hidden in the Hands of the Blind
When his lady abandoned him, Deke left the shining lights of the Strip and wandered north and west until he reached the sea. The ocean eagerly offered to claim him, the roar of its breakers like the roar of a crowd frantic to lay their hands on a winning player. He stumbled into the surf, the frigid touch of the sea spearing through the cheap leather of his shoes, and when he fell, a wave rushed down his throat, freezing his lungs.
The ocean tried to drag him to deep water, to roll him like a cold winter stone, but an instinct—a primal response to some yet unfilled need—held him back. His hands clawed at the wet sand, anchoring him on the beach. Gradually, though the ocean took his strength, he managed to pull himself out of the surf and onto dry sand.
Lying on the beach, gasping and shivering, confused as to why he had not been able to give himself up to the water, he dimly registered a diffuse glow reflecting back from the ugly belly of the clouds. Smears of orange and yellow and blue against the blackness of the sky, they were the lights of a city, a massive sprawl of streets and buildings and suburbs. Shivering, he wrapped his arms around himself and sat up. The lights were like a fire, just beyond the next hill. A fire that meant food and shelter, bodies in motion, and coin in play.
He had thirty dollars and a handful of noisy coins in his right front pocket. It was all he had left. You aren't dead if you have money in your pockets: his bone yard daddy taught him that axiom. All it took was a deck of cards. In the turn of one hand, one bluff, or one bet: he could see her again.
There would be games in the Sprawl. In the desert, all the luck ran along the narrow river of the Strip, and his lady was chained to that single track, but the Sprawl had a different heritage, and its growth was not as focused as the Strip's. Her influence would be scattered—like single drops of rain falling on an empty plain—but it would still be there.
Old gamblers can read the streets and alleys as easily as a diner menu: dice in the shadow of container ships, three card in the shrubbery at the base of high-rise hotels, mah-jongg in tiny parlors above dim sum restaurants, and poker. There was always a poker game in the city: in empty conference rooms in skyscraper law firms, in empty operating theaters in medical centers, in the waiting rooms in tattoo parlors and in the back rooms behind posh wine bars where the ante was more than a day labor's wage. It wouldn't be hard to find a game, and in a spread of cards and the spill of chips, Deke might find an answer to the question that had kept him from the sea.
Best to be sure, he realized, best to empty my pockets before I die.
"Hold 'Em," Ralph announced as he finished shuffling the deck. "Pineapple style." He carefully kept his pinkie away from the deck as he dealt, feeling Whitcombe's eyes on his hands. The gallery owner had a reputation for cutthroat shrewdness in his deal-making—the sort of fine print avarice that made people hide their wallets—and Ralph had been to Vilmo's enough to know that a player's game could be derailed by a wanton accusation of cheating.
It's not that cheating didn't happen in the butcher's basement room; it was just that sometimes a wild eye and an angry finger were enough to drive a player out of the game—illicit card handling or not—and Ralph didn't need the forced forfeiture of his stake. Not tonight. Not when his weekly payment was due tomorrow.
It had been a shitty month, shoved on the end of a bad year. Too many of his slips were defaulting, and while he could get his own collectors, they took their cut, and that didn't help his situation. His finances looked good on paper, but the Minotaurs weren't the sort to sit down for tea and do some light reading of the books. They liked hard currency assurances, the ten-percent-waiting-for-them-in-a-paper-bag kind.
Ralph dealt three hole cards to each player—two and the pineapple—and tried to keep his focus on the table, on the game in front of him. The faster the cards fell, the more quickly the money moved around the table. Snap. Snap. Keep the cards moving. Keep the energy up.
Ralph kept an eye on the thin man with the wind-combed hair at the other end of the table. He can't help it, Ralph thought, watching the other man look at each card as it was dealt to him. But he's going to derail the game.
Forcing the Poet out of the game was going to be a priority.
Snap. Snap. Keep the cards moving.
Vilmo Verone, the game's host, thumbed the edge of his cards. He took a long look, bending the cards so far they would be permanently creased. During the course of the evening, the players went through multiple packs of cards, as Vilmo's incessant folding splintered the deck.
The weekly game took place in the basement room of the Verone family deli and butcher shop. On the corner of Blaine and Madison, halfway down the western slope of Crown Hill, the deli clung to the kinetic upheaval of the financial district. Vilmo's father had opened the shop when Heritage Haven sat on the hilltop, but the VA hospital, like its patients, had died a slow death in the decades following the War. After a few years mourning the death of the old, real estate speculators and slick contractors had moved in, rebuilding the hilltop into a chaotic mess of half-raised business towers and sprawling condominium complexes. Everyone was too busy trying to close a deal to bother with minor details like locking doors, fire-resistant insulation, or stairs that reached all the way to the top floor.
Unlike his father, Vilmo cleaned money as well as ham and beef. The change sweeping Crown Hill would have taken the deli, (and threatened to) in the wake of his father's death, but Vilmo, having seen the way his father and the other veterans were devoured by the Sprawl, opted to be part of the organic flow of the city instead of a rock around which everything must detour.
Once a week, just after sundown, Vilmo would leave five matches in a cup by the front door. Those who came to move money would take a match and descend into the basement. When the last match was taken, the door would be locked and the game would begin.
It was always poker, the age-old ritual of money laundering via the cards, and whatever loans or debts the players might have were laid aside for the duration of the game. Names were optional and stations were ignored. All seats were equal and the only allowance made was for coin: you played what you brought—no more, no less—and what you brought was what you felt comfortable carrying.
Once, as the stories go, a man who owed a Parkway banker $30,000 came to play with his last six hundred dollars, and he sat directly across from his street banker. The following day he paid off his marker with cash taken from the Parkway man through the swing of the cards. The loan shark laughed and didn't break the man's legs because the transactions of Vilmo's game were sacrosanct.
Like the thin bookie sitting on his right, Vilmo didn't mind the pineapple variant. More cards led to more money on the table. Though, getting hands like the one staring at him now were tiresome. Deuce, five, eight. All mismatched. Nothing makes nothing, he thought as he tossed his cards to the muck. "I'm out," he said.
Elliot Whitcombe, on the butcher's left, scratched at his rubbery jowls. He wore many rings, and the pale basement light reflected from the hot red stone in the center of the large one on his index finger, a moist eye winking seductively through lashes of silver filigree. "Fifteen," he said, tossing three blue chips into the pot.
On the other side of the table, sitting opposite Vilmo was the Poet. His cherubic transparency tended to confuse the other players. They expected hard masks—immobile, expressionless, stony—and the Poet's mutable face was a source of discord. The Poet's eyes were in constant motion, darting back and forth on the table, dwelling too long on exposed cards better than his and flicking over the rest. He bet carelessly as if he didn't really understand the importance of money—as if he had nothing to gain nor anything to lose. It was a gambit, they figured, a clever mirage meant to hide the true player. Vilmo knew better, and he kept these little secrets to himself.
It made up for Mistral's inscrutability.
Next to the Poet sat Clio, the woman who ran the Alibi Room downtown, and beside her was the quiet man, Mistral. Mistral was a regular. He had missed one or two games in the last six months. He always took home more than he showed up with, but he never dominated the table. It was both his circumspection in his grinding and the unsettling manner of his play that made Vilmo not mind his regular appearance. He was good, but not that good, and yet it didn't matter who else was at the table or what technique they used, he never broke.
He was Vilmo's ringer because the butcher had realized that there was money to be made in ignoring Mistral. While the other players were distracted by him, Vilmo could quietly chip away at their stacks.
The last player was a new face at the table. Named Deke, he was an out-of-towner, a shark who had swum into their harbor. He had known the game was going to happen, hours before Vilmo set the matches out. It was as if he had the scent of the cards, as if he could smell the history of play that had gone on in the basement.
Vilmo didn't normally allow strangers to sit at his table, but there was an intermingling of desperation and hope in Deke's eyes that had loosened his tongue. "Come back in three hours," he had said earlier that afternoon. "With at least two hundred dollars, if you hope to play for a while."
The man had looked destitute, and regardless of his ability to spot a game or the energy he would bring to the table, he was an unknown agent. Vilmo's superstitious reflex had kicked in. The table sat six, and seven introduced a chaotic element. The sort of influence that would give birth to strange fluctuations and odd twists of fortune that might not work in his favor.
Deke had come back, with more than the necessary amount of money, and Vilmo decided to read that as a portent of opportunity.
Clio had two threes—spades and clubs—and a red eight as the bookie finished dealing. Discarding the eight before the flop was the obvious move, leaving her with the black pair. There were five cards to be turned, though the odds were against her getting anything from them that would improve her chances with the tiny numbers. Still, the night was young, and she hadn't lost much money yet. The game was still settling as the other players sorted through the bluster and the bluff for the real clues in their opponents' play.
And there was the issue of the seventh player.
Even though this was only the third time she had come to Vilmo's game, she knew most of the men at the table, and she could read their interest in the slender stranger in the thread-worn clothing. There was something about the way he moved that seemed familiar to her, and while it was like the intermittent shiver that struck her regulars at closing time, the twitch wasn't alcohol related. The stranger was bound to some other compulsion. The cards, if she had to guess.
There was a story here, a tale she could tell at the Alibi tomorrow. The game of seven: the night when Verone invited a stranger to his table. A real gambler.
"Match and raise," she said, tossing enough chips into the pot to meet Whitcombe's opening bet and add ten dollars to it. Red daisies and blue daisies dancing on the green felt field.
Mistral always sat like a cat in his chair: watching, with inscrutable patience. He examined her face for a few seconds after she placed her bet, searching the skin around her eyes for some clue of what cards she had.
She was used to the examination. It came with the job. There was a perpetual stream of young men flowing into the Alibi, a flood of eager bodies vibrating with energy, all that pent-up desire. The boys stared at the wait staff, most of whom were sharp enough to use that relentless fascination to their advantage, but it was a different sort of hunger the men reserved for her. They knew she was unobtainable, completely and totally out of their reach, and the swift denial—even before they could try their charms on her—enflamed them all the more.
Mistral's gaze had a different sort of intensity, as if he already knew what secrets lay in her heart and wanted to dig deeper. "Twenty-five then," he said, adding chips of his own to the pot. He never even looked at his hole cards.
Elliot Montreaux Whitcombe's father had always told him to think big, to use the brains with which God had blessed four generations of Whitcombe men. His father, Pieter Cornelis Whitcombe III, had been a stowaway on a luxury liner, an escapee from De Schie Prison in Rotterdam who had spent a year hiding in coffins, cargo bins, shipping containers, and steamer trunks before finding footing again on W 48th Street in New York City. Within five years, he had built a trade empire of rail cars, steamer ships, and cargo transport. He married into polite society, donated generously to the arts, and funded schools so they could be named after him. Of his six children, four grew into positions that made Daddy proud, one died in the tragic manner that pursues all families of means and import, and then there was Elliot, who only dreamed of not working.
He was, however, not a fool, and he realized the best way to facilitate the comfortable lifestyle that filled his dreams was to traffic with the ephemeral. Daddy's empire of crates and boxes and containers was built around a clever scheme of slippery margins, and its success relied upon a vastness of scale. The juggernaut kept moving forward because it was powered by a big brain that could juggle all the thousands of minute details that made up its incomprehensibly complex network.
Elliot wanted a transactional network that had only two points: a buyer and an object to buy. The magic lay in inflating the value of the object to the buyer. The magic lay in art. Elliot, in a way that his father would never truly understand, had dreamt the biggest dream of all: the value of the something truly unobtainable.
Whitcombe watched the Poet play with his small stack of chips. The writer's writing fingers were stained, old ink smudges like slippery tattoos. Pity there wasn't more value to be squeezed out of the printed word, he thought. The Poet understood the importance of selling oneself—the stories of his behavior at dinner parties were numerous, and unlike some of the other fables he spun, probably true. It was the sort of reputation that sold art, and if the Poet had trafficked in something other than the word, Whitcombe wouldn't be here, grubbing after seed money for his next acquisition.
It'd be a lot easier if he painted himself. A lot less work than pawing through studio after studio of shitty Neo-Impressionist portraits and Pop Art that was just bad surrealism hiding beneath a pointillist veneer.
But producing the work himself was, unfortunately, not the way value was created. An artist selling their own work was desperate, not visionary. No, the voice of the gallery critic was necessary, that detached intermediary lending gravitas to the work by interpreting its meaning for the public.
He sighed as the hand ended, Ralph's two pair taking the pot. Not that there was much at stake on the table. It was a slow week at the butcher's game; the sort of money he needed hadn't showed up.
He watched Clio as she gathered the cards and started to shuffle them. At least, he thought, there was something nice to look at. She was tall and lithe, and her hands were big for her frame. Free of rings, and slightly rough—like she relied on them a great deal.
There were rumors about her, rumors of a relationship with the daughter of the world famous explorer, Alexander Urban Champlain. The sort of secret that, like art, had value in certain quarters.
The stranger, Deke, had a tendency to breathe through his mouth: his lips half-closed, his tongue touching the edge of his teeth. It made his breath whisper, and when he exhaled, Mistral heard the ocean's voice. "Where have you been?" he asked Deke as Clio flipped the cards through her fingers. "Recently."
"The desert," Deke answered. "On the Strip."
Ralph knocked over the stack of chips he was rebuilding, and Mistral heard Vilmo's throat constrict suddenly around the beer flowing down it, though no one saw the twitch of muscles in the butcher's neck.
"Professionally?" Mistral asked.
"Persistently," was the reply.
"Pretty dry out there in the desert," Mistral said. "I hear they have to pump their water in from across the mountains. All the way from the ocean."
Deke nodded. His right hand was in the pocket of his pants, and Mistral knew he was clutching a handful of change, trying to keep it from rattling. "That's right. It can get quite dry."
"A man might be inclined to go somewhere moister when he left," Mistral said. "A change of scene is what he needs, he tells himself. Maybe somewhere rainy."
"It's pretty wet here," Clio said, her hands finishing their ministrations to the deck. "Give it another month."
"Yeah, I like the rain," Deke said. "It's a nice change from sucking dust."
"Ah, the rain," the Poet said. "I love that first rain of spring, how it washes away the winter stains. That smell as the cherry blossoms start to bud, as the young ladies start to shed their layers." He tapped the table excitedly as Clio started to deal. "When the rains come, we turn to mud, and give birth to slumbering dreams."
Mistral kept watching the stranger from the Strip as Clio finished dealing. The Poet's last word echoed in his head, and he thought Deke could hear it too. Not for the same reason, but from a similar affinity, like being in love with a woman who had a twin sister. They could tell them apart—the differences were many to those who could catalogue the minutia—but to the rest of the world, the two were interchangeable.
That's how the Poet would describe it, he thought as he anted up. Two sides, practically identical. He rolled a blue chip across his knuckles. On one side, there was a small indentation, a mark left by the manufacturing process. But with subtle differences.
Deke, when he peeked at his cards, closed his mouth. Mistral didn't hear the sea anymore, but that didn't mean the echo of its roar wasn't there, reverberating throughout the man's lungs.
The Poet was enjoying himself. He had been planning on crashing a debutante's party on the Hill, some mid-week bacchanalia where his ribald poetry would have been warmly welcome, but a chance encounter with the dark-eyed stranger shortly before dinner had changed his mind.
He had spotted the gambler pulling the grifter's finger trick and had marveled that someone still practiced that old gambit. Following at a somewhat discrete distance, he had watched Deke perform the sleight of hand at the cash register twice more before he had intervened.
"You are pushing your luck," he had nonchalantly said to the dark-eyed man as they had both casually stood at an intersection, waiting to cross the street.
Deke had looked at him, a quick flick of those eyes, and the Poet knew he had been tagged as a like-minded fellow and not as an enforcer. "There's no luck here," the other man had said. "Just old habits that never quite vanish."
"Useful," the Poet had offered.
"In a pinch," had been the reply. The eyes went back to scanning the street, assessing each and every person.
Looking for easy marks, the Poet realized. Someone who had a tenuous grip on their finances. Someone who could be dazzled or distracted or misdirected with a momentary illusion.
"Can I buy you a drink?" the Poet had asked.
"Why?" the man had asked.
"Because I want to hear your story."
A moment of that rapid assessment again. "Okay, but it'll cost you."
"Two hundred bucks."
The Poet smiled and nodded absently as the bookie repeated his question: The bet is two hundred. Are you in? The loan to the gambler had taken a bite out of his ready cash, and he hadn't quite recovered it yet from the game, but the gesture still felt like the right choice. Contributing, in his own way, to the machinations of fate and fortune. Contributing to the permutations of the city.
He looked at his hole cards. But not with this hand. "I'm out," he said. If he was going to keep playing for much longer, he'd have to get a better run of cards. His luck would have to change.
Would it, or do I need to give it a contribution too?
Deke glanced at his cards again, as if he needed to consider his wager. He didn't need to look, but it was the seemingly unconscious tell he was cultivating. The others were too intent on watching him, trying to spot his idiosyncrasies, and he had to give them something so they'd stop looking. Some of them thought he was an easy mark, a cheap purse that needed to be emptied, and for the time being, he was happy to play that role.
The quiet man and the woman were familiar with each other. Deke didn't think it extended to intimacy, but they shared a rapport that went beyond casual acquaintance. The fat gallery owner wasn't as shrewd as he thought he was, and the bookie was crippled by his debts.
Deke knew that hollow-eyed look. It haunted everyone on the Strip. Players came to the desert to change their luck, to find some way out of the situation they had found themselves in, and they all thought money would be the answer. They all thought it would be easy if they could get one good hand, one good pull of the bandit's arm, one good roll of the dice. One little bit of luck.
It would have been easy to read into the meeting with the Poet, to read that encounter as lucky, but Deke hadn't felt anything when the writer had accosted him on the street. He had been spotted—it had been bound to happen, eventually—and he had turned the encounter to his advantage. The resolution was fortuitous, a result of a quick tongue and some people skills, but it wasn't lucky.
He could have raised the money via other tricks. If not the old grifter switch, then through some other methods. But the Poet offered an easy solution, and he had sworn him to secrecy and passed off the history of Freddy Redhand as his own. The Poet hung on every word, scribbling notes in the worn notebook he carried with him.
The Poet was transparent. Five minutes into the story, Deke had known he could have told the Poet anything and the man would have believed him. Now, at the card table, Deke knew what the Poet had in his hand; his eyes were as easy to read as a newspaper headline.
It's not that he doesn't believe in secrets, Deke thought, he just can't keep them.
Clio hadn't received any messages from Dee—Duke to the other members of the South American expedition, Duchess to her father (much to her mother's chagrin)—in more than three weeks. The inland push through the jungle to the reported location of the lost city was scheduled to have started two weeks ago, and Dee had warned Clio it might be up to a month—three weeks in, one week back—before they could get any messages out. Four weeks. It was a long time to wait.
Vilmo's poker game was a distraction, one of several Clio had taken up since Duke had gone on her most-recent expedition. It had been bankers and physicians the first week she had come, and the following week had been a game between accountants and musicians. Her last game had ended early, too many cops and gangsters who hadn't been able to completely lay aside their street differences. Mistral had been with her each time.
The Poet had fallen in with them on the way to the butcher's shop. He was a garrulous story-teller who often quenched his persistent thirst at her bar, working the room with his outrageous stories for glasses of whiskey. He was a gifted talker—she had heard enough stories told poorly over the years to know the sound of a golden tongue—but an inveterate liar. He was unable to speak without embellishment, unable to report a fact without coloring it with a palette of roseate hues. It was an armor of sorts, a way of protecting himself from the world.
There was a lot of similarity in her relationship with Alexander Urban Champlain's daughter. Duchess Urbania—Duke to her peers, Dee to her in the privacy of their shared bed—followed her father's footsteps only because they traced an exciting and dangerous route. Otherwise, she made her own way in the world, inventing her own routes, taking her own chances.
Invariably she was successful, a brilliant star even her father couldn't ignore. Invariably, such a super-heated trajectory required incredible armor, a impermeable shell of glazed ceramic to protect and shelter her heart. Clio knew—as was the case with her own heart—that such a sealed chamber could only be opened with inside help.
She and Duke had managed the exchange. Duke had slipped her the key in a kiss, had given her the secret combination of her hermetic vault with a touch. Clio knew—four weeks, eight weeks, a year, a decade—that Dee would send her a message, that Dee would never forget her.
Still, waiting was hard. There was too much emptiness in waiting, too many ways for an idle mind to ensnare itself. You could look inside your secret heart and wonder if it was full or empty, or if you knew the difference.
Ralph wasn't a superstitious man. He didn't have time for any of that egocentric hocus-pocus or mind-melding with the planet crap. As if he could influence the universe with a pinch of salt, or that the presence of a certain color about his person would attract a honey-eyed woman, or that spitting after using words with the letter 'x' would redirect evil energies. It was all childish bullshit, excuses held tight by those who were naive enough to not realize how they were being manipulated by the Gears.
Ralph knew who really ran the Sprawl. He wasn't so dim to think his small-time numbers game was in the same league as anything run by the Parkway Triad, or that he moved enough money to influence any of the races out at Mont Vanneir. His betting pools fleeced the neophytes and the recovering gamblers, and kept them from upsetting the statistics in the bigger game. As long as he stayed within that strata, he'd be fine.
A year ago he'd run into a squeeze, and the debt had been manageable. He kept telling himself that it would be gone in a month. Or two. Or maybe by the spring.
And then his—there was no way to say it, really, as much as he hated to use the word—his luck went bad, and that red flag in his book gained a friend. Within a month, the second one gave way to a third and, finally after trying to dodge it for most of the fall, Ralph had taken on a fourth. This last one was for twenty-five grand with ten percent on the tip, which meant clockwork visits from those fuckers who worked for the Blind Man.
After putting up with them spooking his other clients for three weeks, Ralph had decided he needed a new perspective on his situation. The old way wasn't working, and if he didn't find some release from the grind of his debt soon, the Minotaurs were going to start taking body parts instead of cash.
A week ago, Ralph had caught himself trying to figure out how many fingers he could lose and still hold a glass. Two nights later, he had started carrying a knife again. Just in case.
The same justification crept into his internal dialogue as he found himself watching for signs, for indicators of supernatural agencies and influences that might be influential. Just in case, he told himself. You can back out of it later, but for now, it can't hurt to keep an open mind.
"Three," he said, mucking the useless cards in his hand. He held up three fingers to Mistral, and the man gave him a look that said, I heard you the first time. Ralph dropped two of his fingers more quickly than the third as he reached for his draw.
The new guy, Deke, found the interchange funny, though he hid his smile behind his hand. Ralph noticed faded lines on the back of the other man's hand. Tiny scar tissue raised over an old knot of twisted flesh. It looked like a tiny diamond. Or a spade.
Mistral had given him red cards—diamonds, in fact, a whole flood of them. Ralph looked at Deke again, but new guy had put his hand down on the table and the light was all wrong now. The scar didn't look like anything.
I got them in my hand, Ralph thought, twisting in his seat in an effort to throw off the chill on his neck. Doesn't matter what I thought it saw. I got diamonds in my hand.
Ralph was trying very hard not to succumb completely to superstition because it was a fathomless hole. You could never be sure, anyway, and you were just pinning your hopes on something that didn't exist. You'd never be sure if your luck was as good as you thought the signs were telling you.
He had a flush of diamonds, though. King high. That much was true. "Hundred bucks," he said, when the bet came to him. "I'm in for a hundred."
The words felt right—saying them was good. He was in control of the table. You don't need luck if you're in control.
During the winter of his twelfth year, Vilmo fell through the ice on Lake Astrid. The Verones had been visiting family—his aunt on his mother's side—and the clan had gathered at the lake house. On the day after Christmas, Vilmo and his two cousins—Ariana and Guiseppe—had gone down to the lake to play with other displaced city children.
The lake froze over every year, and the local children all knew how to spot the thin ice. Ariana and Guiseppe had given Vilmo a brief lesson: stay where the lake is white, avoid the dark patches, spread your weight out if the ice started to speak.
Vilmo followed the rules—white, black, flat—but the ice splintered under him anyway. A hole opened beneath his feet, and the lake reached up with dark hands to pull him down.
When they revived him, the EMTs said he had been gone for nearly two hours. The water, so cold and empty, had frozen him on the cusp of death. His brain and his heart were suspended, caught between beat and thought, and every nerve center waited for the next signal. After pulling him out of the water, the medical technicians stabbed him with Epinephrine, filled his body with electricity and, finally, cracked his ribcage so one of them could reach into his chest and massage his heart. It was this touch—this human contact—that brought him back, as if his consciousness had found the EMT's hand and let it guide him back to the world.
He was lucky, they said, the luckiest kid in the whole world. He believed it until he turned sixteen, and after the summer when he nearly didn't become a man, he was more careful about cultivating luck. It had come to him—unbidden, but not unwelcome—twice now, and there was a marker on his life. A not unwelcome one, but it was a debt he owed regardless. A debt he meant to pay.
Though, repaying fortune was a delicate task. Cultivating too much random chance was like trying to influence the whim of a wildfire, and too little effort was like spitting in the ocean.
He had some control over the weekly poker game. The Wednesday night gathering wasn't just about the redistribution of illicit money; there was the touch of luck, drifting through the fingers of the players, and the illusions left in the wake of fortune. He wasn't as sensitive to these phantoms, not like some of those who came to play, but during the course of the game, he could feel something in the room. The world shifted as the cards moved around the table, like the slow birth of a whirlpool. He was a tiny raft floating in its waters, trying to stay on the outer edge. Trying to figure out a way to steer with its current.
Once, deep in the night with only the moon as a witness, Mistral had told the Poet a story. They were drunk, as solitary itinerant men tended to be at that time. Was it fear or loneliness or frustration that caused Mistral to tell his story? The Poet didn't ask. He knew better. Sometimes it was best to record a moment intent on flight. To analyze it would be to miss it.
Listen, Mistral had said, this is how it began . . .
My mother, like you, had a gift for speaking in public, though she dreamed of using it to foment revolutionary fervor. As there hadn't been a true revolution since before she was born, she diverted this energy to society luncheons and charity fund drives. We weren't part of those circles by birth, but she knew what they needed, and they, not surprisingly, knew what to do with tools that begged to be used.
And she was good at it: the clockwork scheduling of a garden party; the delicate balance in the decorations at coming-of-age luncheons, that fine line between the adoration of innocence and the presentation of worldly readiness—and what sort of hip counter-culture trappings for a party that would ensure column inches in the society pages. All of these things soothed my mother's dream for a social upheaval missing an orator.
My father had a hunch. It wasn't a congenital deformity, nor was there any psychological reason for his stoop. He sold shoes, and spent most of his day bending over women's feet. I guess he grew tired of lifting his head. His voice faded too, as a result of the permanent pressure of his chin against his chest.
This ate at my mother, as you can imagine. He was on his knees all day, serving at the beck and call of those same ladies who would never truly accept her as one of their own, regardless of how vital she was to them. They never fought in front of me, but I could feel the heat in the house. I could feel the way her anger burned the back of his neck.
"Are you going to stare at the floor for the rest of your life?" she asked him one night at dinner.
He made the effort then. He lifted his chin and looked up at her face. He stared at my mother for a long time, and then he smiled at me. "Yes," was all he said before he returned his attention to his plate.
That night, the wind started talking to me. It was winter, and the windows were all sealed tight. The radiator in my room rattled when the steam rose, and it had been my nightly companion for many years. But that night it was quiet. Out of deference to the wind, maybe. The radiator held its breath so I could hear what the wind had to say. It crept into my room and held me and said it was sorry, but there was only one person breathing in my parents' bedroom.
And then? the Poet had prompted, trying to keep the moment alive.
Everyone got what they wanted, Mistral had said, and his voice was strained with the weight of this history. She buried him on the bluff overlooking the Hammerstone, and then married a man who lived within walking distance of the cemetery. And that was it.
The Poet wrote Mistral's story down in his notebook and eventually wrote another story on the facing page. The story of the young beat cop who, fresh from the academy, young and earnest and well-meaning, was on-scene at the Humboldt fire, the four-alarm blaze at Pier 12 six years back. The cop saved five, immigrant children who had been abandoned in a shipping container deep within the decrepit building. There are still more, he had said to the firemen who had tried to restrain him, I can hear them. He went back in, and before others could follow, the flames spread and the building was lost. Everything was lost.
When the demolition crews were able to haul away enough of the wreckage to uncover the twisted shapes of the metal containers, they found corpses. Some of them were the bodies of children, some of them were older, but none of them was ever clearly identified as belonging to the young cop.
On that day when the Poet went to write this second story into his book, it opened randomly to this page, and the available space was the large enough. A happy accident, a tiny trick of fortune. This was the way every position of every story was decided, the Poet would argue, because he was nothing more than a mirror of the world around him. The stories collected in his notebook were one version of life in the Sprawl, no more or less true than what could be found in other books or even what was reported in the morning paper.
They were just stories.
The Poet finally ran out of money shortly before midnight. Ralph had been whittling away at the writer's stack for the last hour. His chips, on the other hand, were toppling over, and instead of stacking them up again, he had been making large bets. By forcing the Poet to play everything or fold, the writer had been on the defensive—ante, check, fold—for some time.
The Poet was stalling, waiting for something to happen, some bit of luck to come his way. But it's mine, Ralph thought. His fingers drummed impatiently on the table. I own this table.
He was holding a seven and a king, and after the turn, there were two sevens on the board. All that was left was the river, and even if it wasn't another king, he was still sitting on three of a kind. Enough to push him out.
The Poet was down to a tiny stack of blue chips, barely enough to ante on the next hand.
"There's no point in folding, is there?" the Poet asked Vilmo, who had already folded. "I won't be able to place another bet. Should I go all-in?"
"Might as well," the butcher replied.
The Poet rifled his blue chips. "Doesn't really seem fair that I get to skimp on my bet, and the rest of you have to meet this gentleman's wager. What is it, again?"
"Two hundred," Ralph said, liking the way the number rolled off his tongue. Pot was about a grand and a half. Game was finally getting interesting, and more so after the dandy was pushed out. The writer's play had been erratic and annoying all night, and it been hard to find any rhythm. Now, though, all that was about to change . . .
"Two zero zero. That number has been chasing me all day," the Poet said. "A pity that it comes up now, as I have is twenty—a two and a zero. One zero missing. And the zero is so close to the letter 'O,' is it not? An 'O' gone from our—" He smiled at Clio. "'Our' what? That doesn't really work, does it? The trouble with poetic language is that it collapses so quickly on you. One wrong word and—"
"Are you in or out?" Ralph interrupted.
"Ah, yes." the Poet said. "'Out.' See? That's the word I should have used." His teeth flashed as he slipped his cards under his four blue chips. "Yes, I may be able to provide you with something after all, something to give my tiny bet that extra 'O' it needs."
Reaching under his chair, he grabbed his knapsack and brought it into his lap. The bag had only one strap, and after he loosened it, he opened the flap and retrieved his notebook. He put it on the table, covering his cards and his chips, and it fell open to a random page. "Hidden within 'wonder,'" he said as he tore the page out, "there is but one 'O.' And is one enough to keep the world alight? I do wonder, yes, I do." He tossed the page toward the center of the table.
It fell slowly, like a feather dropped from the passage of a great bird, and finally settled on the pile of chips. A single white sheet, covered with the black scrawl of tiny words.
"That's a Library book," Mistral said, noting the gold paint on the notebook's spine.
"Yes," the Poet said. "Or, rather, it will be once I have finished writing it." He showed them the blank title page.
"They've already catalogued it," Mistral said.
"They're very thorough," the Poet acknowledged. He closed his notebook with a snap and slipped it back into the knapsack. "What does my assembled host think? Does this page hold any value? Is there enough wonder for it to suffice as my missing zero?"
In the wake of the Poet's question, the atmosphere in the basement room felt like the morning of the first winter frost: the world held captive beneath a thin layer of ice, held quiet by the grip of a seasonal chill. No one wanted to be the first to acknowledge the page, as if such recognition would leave a mark, forever implicating them as the catalyst for some quantum change unleashed upon the world.
Whitcombe broke the paralysis. With a quick intake of air, he leaned forward and plucked the page from the table. Eyes tracking back and forth as if he were reading a short grocery list or a series of rhyming couplets, he scanned the page. The last line transfixed him, and for a moment, his vision went white. Everything vanished from his sight but the scribbled handwriting. "I've got—" His voice cracked, and his hand trembled as he set the page down. "I've got no problem with this bet," he finally managed.
Clio looked at Mistral, whose mouth turned down as if he had swallowed a mouthful of acrid syrup, and she folded. Mistral did as well, and while their distaste for the Poet's play was clear, folding instead of stepping away from the game was tacit approval of the unorthodox bet.
Whitcombe, his upper lip vibrating, counted out two hundred dollars in poker chips, and stayed in.
"Okay," Ralph said. "That's it, then." He reached for the last card on the board. "Let's see the river."
It was the Queen of Spades.
Across from him, Deke flinched and muttered something under his breath that only Mistral seemed to hear.
Ralph read the board. "A pair of fours, three of hearts, eight of diamonds, and the Black Lady." The bookie nodded at Whitcombe. "What have you got?"
The gallery owner turned over his hole cards. "Eights. Gives me two pairs."
The Poet smiled, and turned over one of his cards. "I have the Bedpost Queen's red-hearted friend. That gives me a pair of ladies and a pair of fours."
Ralph flipped over his cards triumphantly. "Three of a kind, king high." He leaned forward, eager to claim the pot.
The Poet cleared his throat noisily, and Ralph froze, his hand almost touching the page. The bookie's eyes—as were everyone else's—were captivated by the single card next to the Poet's hand. His other hole card.
It was poor etiquette to slow roll the table like this, but Whitcombe couldn't help but admire the manner in which the Poet had focused all attention on himself. Always playing the room and never the game, he thought.
"Sorry," the Poet said. "I wasn't finished." He toyed with the edge of his remaining card for a second before turning it over. "Now, the Queen of Hearts is never alone; she always has a friend."
His other hole card was the Queen of Diamonds.
The Poet had a full house—queens over fours.
The bookie looked like a deep water fish who had been yanked out of the water: staring and gasping and shaking. He couldn't decide if he should speak, breathe, or sit down; as a result, he did nothing as the Poet swept the mass of chips away from him. What finally freed him was the lines on the page.
His eyes ceased their frantic gyrations as the Poet retrieved the piece of paper, and a small groan slipped from his mouth. Ralph sat down in a rush, his face flushed, his throat working quickly. Whatever complaint he had wanted to voice, whatever prize he thought he had won, they were no longer in his mind. He had been wiped clean by the sight of the Poet's handwriting, and all that throbbed in his brain was the afterimage of those words.
Whitcombe surreptitiously wiped his damp palms on his trousers. "Shall we, ah—" He cleared his throat and tried again. "Maybe the page can stay in the game," he said. His hands started fluttering as if their motion could strengthen his words. "As a sort of transitory marker for a bet . . . its value would be whatever was deemed . . ."
None of the other players would meet his gaze. None of them said no either.
Vilmo removed the Poet from the game an hour later when he won his first hand. It was an accident, a blustery round of misdirection and feigned slight-of-hand that went nowhere and left Vilmo's pair of tens as the high cards. The pot was $940, and when he added it to the $170 remaining in his stack, he found he was up more than hundred dollars for the evening. Just like that, luck gave him a brief kiss, arresting his descending spiral.
The Poet's page was part of the winnings, and when he read what was written there, he was so distracted he didn't realize the deal had passed to him.
Mistral felt a small tremor in the wind as the Poet placed his final bet. It whispered across the narrow mouth of the beer bottle in front of Vilmo, and it sighed as it stroked the edge of the Poet's page.
The stranger's hand stiffened suddenly as he was counting out a stack of blue chips, and he looked at Mistral. Mistral hadn't said a word, and he shook his head. Just once, but it was enough for the gambler. He let go of his chips and folded.
Ralph saw the exchange, and confused, he looked back and forth between the two men for a moment. When Deke wouldn't look up, he focused on Mistral. His eyes were dark, filled with the relentless desperation driving his play all night. Mistral gave him the same impenetrable shake of the head, but the motion meant nothing to Ralph. The bookie blinked, and his face compressed itself into a scowl as he realized he had just given away his bluff. He folded too, throwing his cards into the muck with disgust.
In another minute, the hand collapsed and the Poet was out. "Finally," he sighed as he pushed his chair back fro the table. "I can lead my horse to some water." He wandered out of the room, whistling an out-of-tune version of a popular song.
Mistral began gathering the empty bottles scattered about the table. "Anyone want anything?" he asked.
Vilmo was lost in the Poet's page and hadn't noticed Ralph leaning back in his seat so as to read over the butcher's shoulder. Whitcombe, feigning indifference to the two men reading, finished off his beer. Mistral took the bottle and looked over at Deke. The gambler nodded at his drink. "I'm okay."
Clio stood up and stretched for a second. "I'll give you a hand," she said, absently picking up the Poet's empties.
They took the glass upstairs to the recycling bins in the back storeroom, where they separated the brown imports from the yellows and greens of the local brews. They sorted quietly, and Mistral listened to the unconscious rhythm of the their breathing and the tiny clink-clink of glass-on-glass. Clio's arm brushed his, and he could feel the goose bumps on her bare skin.
"What is it?" she asked.
He shrugged. "It's just a piece of paper."
He heard the physiological change in her: her lungs tightening, her teeth grinding, her heartbeat quickening. "No," she said. "It isn't."
An ache blossomed in his chest, a sympathetic reflection of her tension, and he reached for her arm.
She pulled away. "Don't patronize me," she said. She shivered suddenly. "I want it to be news from Duke, but I'm afraid of what it will say if it is. But that doesn't stop me from wanting it." Her voice was tiny and weak.
He nodded, and the ache in his chest blossomed into a pain squeezing his heart.
"It's crazy," she said. "There probably isn't anything on it but a half-written limerick or a couple of paragraphs from some novel he'll never finish. There can't be anything of value written on the page. It's just a fucking piece of paper." She ran a hand through her short hair, and then repeated the motion as if she was trying to brush cobwebs from her skull. "It's the heartache of not knowing, isn't it? What did he say? Is there enough wonder. Holy Mother, Mistral, what kind of question is that?"
"It's just a question," Mistral said, trying to defuse her panic. "It has no value. Not unless you—"
"Unless I give it some. Right?" Her eyes were bright. "But I have. I can't stop myself. How does he do it? How can he twist me like that? It's just paper."
"It's all he is," Mistral said. "It's his life, written down. He doesn't know how to do anything else but put his blood into his ink and stain the world with it."
"What is it?" she asked him again. Her voice was hard now, no longer fearful, discovering some anger. "What do you think is on the page?"
"It doesn't matter," he said, returning his attention to the last few bottles in his hands.
She grabbed his arm. "Don't lie to me, Mistral. I know you well enough. It does matter, and you're afraid of it too. Tell me. Tell me what you think it is."
There was a sound behind them, and they turned to see Deke standing in the doorway, an empty bottle in his hand. "Ah, one more," he said. "Sorry to interrupt."
"It's alright," Mistral said, extricating himself from Clio and taking the offered beer bottle.
Deke hesitated for a second. "It might not be any of my business," he said, "But I think the lady's question wasn't answered, and—" he fought an internal battle for a second before allowing himself to finish, "—I'd like to hear the answer too. If you don't mind."
"I told the Poet a story once," Mistral said as he finished sorting the bottles. "We were drunk, and he wanted a story, so I gave him one. He might have believed me, enough so that he wrote it down."
Clio touched his arm, and this time he didn't pull away. "A dirty little secret?" she asked, some levity in her voice. Trying to defuse the tension in the room. "We all have them, Mistral. You can't hide them forever."
"No," Mistral said. "It's—what if it is true? I mean, I told him it was just a story, that it was something I made up on the spot. But what if he thought that was the lie, and the story wasn't."
"Why does it matter?" Deke asked. "If the story isn't true, then why does it matter what he thinks?"
"Because, what if I was protecting myself, if it wasn't him I was lying to, and the story really is true, then I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't—. I'll know, do you understand? I'll know something that I should never have to know, and what will that do to me?"
"It can't be that bad," Clio whispered. "Mistral, you're not making any sense. You've turned this inside out too many times, and it doesn't—"
"But why take that risk?" Mistral said. "As long as I don't look at what's written there, I don't have to know. I don't have to know if it is inside-out or outside-in or whatever reversed dimension it has become. Maybe it just won't matter, as long as I don't see it."
Clio's faced tightened. "And what? You'll just float along, never knowing? Caught in this . . . this twisted limbo forever. That's good enough for you?"
"Floating is better than sinking," Mistral said, his voice an agonized whine.
Clio slapped him. "So's swimming," she said, and her words were a metallic echo in his ears long after she stormed out of the room.
Deke waited by the door, his hands in his pockets, his tongue working along the inside of his jaw. "She's right," he said, finally. He sighed, and Mistral heard the sea rush out of him. "She's right." He ducked his head once, and went back to the game.
Mistral stood quietly in the storeroom, his hand idly rubbing the stinging skin of his cheek, wondering who Deke had been referring to with his last statement. It hadn't been Clio; he was talking about a different woman. Too many echoes in his voice, and it was hard to say if they came from the sound of the ocean or the sound of coins.
"Why did you leave me?" he asked, but there was no one to hear him. No one but the wind, who didn't answer. Who hadn't answered any of his questions since the night he had fallen into fire.
"Once upon a time," the Poet began, "there was a man who made precious stones." No longer distracted by the cards, the writer fell prey to his natural inclination.
"He wasn't a jeweler, nor did he work in a mine. He was an itinerant carpenter who traveled from village-to-village, job to job, neither restless nor restrained by the warp of wood that required his ministrations. His hands were rough and calloused from the work, and his skin had been burned dark by the sun. When pressed, he knew a few common jokes and could sing a song or two if ceremony required, but mostly he kept to the work: carts and cabinets, doors and dormers, roofs and railings. Wooden animals for the children who would watch him throughout the day.
"What no one knew about the carpenter was how his tears dried. When he cried, the tears welled up in his eyes, and as they rolled down his cheeks, they solidified into oceanic azurite. And it wasn't just his tears, it was any sort of fluid: when he spat, the liquid cracked into coarse diamonds, needing only the delicate touch of a jeweler's hammer to transform them into polished light; when he bled, it was rubies that clustered on his dark skin; and when he ejaculated, he came in a clatter of salt-water pearls."
Ralph guffawed. "I'm surprised he ever left the house." Clio gave him an icy stare, and the Poet saw a dusky flush coloring the bookie's neck.
"Anyway," the Poet continued. "The secret of his body was a secret he could not keep forever. Eventually, someone witnessed the miracle. He cut his hand on a saw, he witnessed the burial of a drowned child, he met a woman whose skin and mouth tempted him to make jewelry for her: it may have been all of these events or only one of them, but—like all secrets we try to keep—he was betrayed by his flesh.
"A feudal lord—grizzled by interminable border wars and the persistent failure of his wives to deliver suitable heirs—heard about the wondrous carpenter, and he ordered his men to bring the miracle maker to his castle.
"He imprisoned the carpenter and began to milk him for his riches. The lord made the simple man bear witness to every sort of tragedy imaginable, and his slavish jewelers harvested the blue stones that rolled off the carpenter's face. He put the man in an iron maiden and listened to rattle of rubies against the bottom of the metal case. He brought in painted whores trained since birth, and they gave him mouthfuls of silky pearls. The feudal lord grew rich from stolen fluids, and the prisoner dwindled more every day until he was a husk of a man, dry inside and out."
The Poet stopped, a sad little smile on his face.
"That's it?" the bookie asked. "That's the whole story?"
The Poet sighed and lifted his shoulders apologetically. "Not every story is finished. I'm still working on that one. I'm having a little trouble with the end."
Vilmo casually coughed into his hand to cover the response he had started. He had felt the other man's breath on his neck when he had first won the Poet's page, but he had been too busy reading the words to tell the bookie to stop crowding him. How quickly they turn, the butcher thought, shaking his head gently. An hour ago, his distaste of the Poet was palpable. Now, he can't help himself.
The page was lying face-down next to him, and when he glanced down at it, Vilmo was surprised to see a pencil sketch on the back. It was blank, he thought as he tried to make sense of the faint graphite lines, when I first looked at it. It had been . . .
A ragged picture swam across the page, a line drawing of a bearded youth hung on a cross of rough wood. Thin cuts along his ribs spewed faceted stones into large, floating cups. Two cherubs, their faces slack and dull with feigned ecstasy crouched beside the crucified man's crotch.
"You know how stories are," the Poet said softly, and Vilmo flinched as he realized the young man was watching him intently. "When they're young and free, they have an honest roughness, an unfinished texture that hasn't been burnished and buffed to a pristine shine. But when they are captured, chipped into tablets or hammered into soft metals, they lose some of their luster, don't they? Their passionate individuality, that singular ecstasy of their expression, is smoothed away, and they become cold strings of words. Dead tales, preserved for cataract-riddled academics to argue over for the next hundred years. Where's the life in that?"
Vilmo shuddered and scattered a stack of his chips across the page in an effort to obscure the image, but not because the sight frightened him.
Clio smiled at the Poet. "Tales become dead things," she said, "When they get written down." Mistral wouldn't look at her, and she realized she had wanted his approval, some sign that he, too, knew this secret. But he didn't. Their conversation in the storeroom had shown her his heart, and she had recoiled from the emptiness he had shown her. There was nothing he could give her.
Even though he knew her secret, he wasn't responsible for it. Neither was Dee. She wasn't beholden to him or the Poet, or anyone in the room. Maybe that's what he meant, she thought. Maybe what matters is what I already have.
Her smile broadened, a flower blossoming from a tight bud. Without bothering to look at her cards, she shoved her three stacks toward the pot. "I'm all in," she said. "It's somewhere in the neighborhood of six hundred dollars."
Maybe what matters is what I want.
Mistral matched her bet, and she wasn't as surprised by the move as she expected. Regardless of his own inner turmoil, he could always read other people, and his bet was the act of a man throwing himself around a rock in a stream. Grabbing an anchor so as to arrest his uncontrolled course.
Deke folded, and the bookie stayed in. The rush was on him, and even though she was on the other side of the table from him, she could feel his leg dancing.
Whitcombe wrestled with his own decision for some time, caught between the thrill of playing Clio for her last chips and the need to protect his money so as to fight for the page. He can't stop thinking about it, Clio thought, watching the unconscious movement of the gallery owner's eyes toward the chip-covered page next to him. Finally, a guttural porcine noise rising from his throat, he folded out of the hand.
Vilmo had dealt, and the variant was five card. "How many?" he asked the remaining players.
After the draws were dealt, Clio hesitated, her fingers lightly touching their slick backs. The bookie took a quick peek at his new card, a tiny flick of his thumb against the curling edge. Mistral, on the other hand, followed her lead; he slipped his two beneath the three he had kept and squared them up.
The Queen of Hearts was the one she kept, and at first, it had been an instinctive affinity for the card that had stayed its execution. But, there was more to her decision than simply feeling a kinship to the card. There was also an external influence.
The Poet. His story had seemed spontaneous and complete, regardless of how he protested its lack of a proper ending. The rest of his casual conversation had a similar ephemeral wit to it, and yet Clio found she could recall almost every word he had spoken during the course of the evening. The same couldn't be said for anyone else. His words seemed like echoes of other nights, of other conversations and other stories, and she was beginning to realize that all of these echoes were self-generated.
It wasn't her idea. The Queen of Hearts is never alone. He had planted that in her head, but she had adopted it as her own. But that is all that matters, isn't it? It belongs to me, and I can make it what I will. This is how my story unfolds.
The bookie squinted at her. "Let's see 'em," he said. "No point in being all mysterious about it. You went all in, so turn your cards over."
She bristled for a second at his tone, but then, her anger snapped, and all the rest of the tension in her broke as well. The flood of euphoria was a wave that could not drown her. Riding the swell, she slipped her fingers under the cards and flipped them face-up.
Everyone looked at the assortment of red and black pips for some time, trying to find something—anything—of worth.
"You've got . . . nothing," the bookie finally said. "Just a queen."
Clio laughed. "That's right. A queen is all I have. One regal queen." And she will come home to me, she almost said. I'm free.
Some of her exuberance was reflected in Mistral's eyes as he turned over his cards. "Full house, fives over threes."
The bookie's eyes burned, as if the cards were dream phantoms and he didn't dare blink for fear they would vanish. "Sixes and threes," he said as he revealed his cards. "I have a full house too."
"That's some pretty amazing luck you have there," Mistral said, shaking his head.
"Quite the finish," the Poet observed, and Clio laughed again.
She wanted to shout her freedom; to stand up and proclaim what she knew in her heart, and that there was nothing in the world, nothing written on any page, that could convince her otherwise. She wanted to tell them that the page was a worthless scrap of paper, and that it had no meaning. But, as the bookie stacked his chips and the gallery owner reluctantly turned his attention toward shuffling the deck, she realized they wouldn't hear her. She was out—she was invisible—and the Poet's words could no longer ensnare her.
She was free.
The game came down to Deke and Ralph, the distribution of chips fairly even between them. They were a contrast in styles: Deke, his hand tight, the guarded patience of an old pro who knew how mercurial the cards could be; and Ralph, filled with an aggressiveness that increased in keeping with the size of his stacks.
Vilmo had fallen to Whitmore, and in the last hand, Deke had led Whitcombe into a blind and surprised the gallery owner with a blaze that had burned through the fat man's two pair. The last pot was still on the table, the Poet's page resting on top, and Deke made no move to claim any of it. Least of all the page.
He didn't want to touch it, not before he felt his lady again. He had come to the game for her, not to be tempted by the Poet's mystery. She was in the room; he had seen her face on the cards several times, but she hadn't come to his hand yet.
He was on the desperate edge, balanced on the precipice between fortune and destitution. He was up enough to start a small stake, one he could roll into a season of games. If she didn't come to him tonight, then he could keep looking. Every night, if he had to, until he found her.
There was some pressure on his back, the sensation of phantom fingers pulling at him, and he knew he would never last. The sea had let go of him once, but it still wanted him. He might escape it for a few weeks, but eventually it would catch him. Each night, he was going to be that much more unbalanced, that much closer to falling off the thin track.
"I'm going all in," he said before Ralph could finish shuffling the cards. "What do you say? Should we end this now? Your deal. Your game. One last hand?"
He could take the bookie's money. He had been studying the man's play for five hours, and Deke knew Ralph's unconscious tells: why his leg twitched, why he tugged at his hair, and he knew aces always made the man breathe a little faster. Deke could tease every last chip away from the man, but it would take time.
The others waited for Ralph to answer, and each second increased their wordless fascination with how the game was going to end. Their eagerness to see who won the Poet's page was a growing pressure Ralph was trying to ignore. The bookie pretended to give Deke's suggestion some deep thought, but Deke could tell he had already made up his mind by the way his hands shook around the cards.
One last hand. Deke felt his fingers quivering too, and he pressed them against his lap. The dissolution of his faith in the desert had cut a deep gash in his heart. Deke had wondered if it was the type of wound that could ever really heal, and if it did, would the scar tissue be so thick he would never feel right again. Like an old drunk, he thought, I had to come back to the very thing that had ruined me. One last time. Just to see if it can make me feel anything.
Six weeks ago, he had been in a room very much like this one: bare walls, green felt table, a group of people he had never met but who had become like family during the intense duration of the game. The final hand had been between Deke and a Hungarian with metal in his teeth and a milky cataract in his left eye. The Hungarian had lured Deke with a false sense of panic, a trembling desperation that had lent a shake to his fingers as he had toyed with his chips. Deke had been up in the chips, and when the Hungarian had gone all in, Deke had done the same, confident that he had read the other man's secrets.
Deke had been sitting on two pair, and the extraneous card had been the Queen of Spades. He was sure the Hungarian didn't have a hand, but he traded the lady anyway for a chance at the full house. Just to be sure.
The statistics had been with him—four possible cards for the full house, two pair at worst—but statistics had nothing to do with faith. He gave up the black lady, gave himself over to the sterility of the numbers, and she had given him an unmatched card, a little red thing that made his hand worthless against the Hungarian's flush.
"Yeah," the bookie said suddenly, slapping the deck into his palm. "One hand. All in. Let's do it." He held the cards out to Deke. "Cut them."
Deke shook his head. "Let her do it," he said, nodding at Clio. "Just to keep it fair."
The bartender's last play had been the final nudge for Deke. The way she had given herself up to chance, abandoning everything to that one draw, had struck him deep, down where the wound from the desert lay. She had reminded him of what had been neglected, and the Poet's story from earlier had touched him as well.
A man couldn't live without believing in something.
Clio cut the deck, and Ralph dealt. "Five card draw," he said. "Nothing wild." The cards flew across the table, and after setting the deck aside, he toppled his towers. He committed to the hand before looking at his cards as if he might not be able to sustain his bluster if he knew what he had been dealt. He fanned his cards on the table and bent their warped edges enough to see their faces. "One," he said with little hesitation, plucking one from the spread and mucking it.
Deke glanced at his own hand. "Four," he said. The cards he gave to the muck were all red, gasping hearts that hinted and whispered seductively of the real possibility for a fifth. He gave away the flush, and felt no twinge from going against the odds. He felt . . . nothing but a spreading calm. A placid sensation rippling out from his core.
Ralph gave him four more, and he lined them up on the table. "That's it, then," he said. "We're all done."
He didn't look at the draw.
There was nearly five grand on the table. Ralph had been counting it for the last hour, mentally stacking up each player's chips as he worked towards a final total.
One week, he thought, his fingers twitching. That's what it buys me. Enough time to come back and try again, enough time to find wealthier players and take their money too. The rush would stay with him. His confidence would last.
He licked his lips, his eyes darting to the page from the Poet's notebook. Plus whatever I can get for that. What would they think? Would they take it to their master? Would he erase my debt if I gave it to him?
He checked his cards one last time, just to be sure they hadn't changed. Kings and sixes. He turned them over. "Full house." He felt his face stretch into a wide smile. A full fucking house.
The stranger nodded. "That's a good hand," he said. "Would have beat the flush I had."
Ralph's smile got stuck. "Had?" The single card the other man had kept was set apart from the ones he had drawn. His hands were resting lightly on the table, still and relaxed. In no rush to turn the cards over. Five thousand dollars on the table, Ralph thought, his smile fading into a nervous tic, and he hasn't even looked at his cards.
At first he thought it had been a signal shared among the players—this blind play—but now, facing the gambler's calm, the run of luck he had been having felt suddenly slippery. Did all of his fortune over the last hours matter if he lost this hand? He struggled to breathe as his mind started to play back the night, looking at every hand he had won in a different light. What had he missed? What clue—
"Yeah," Deke said, "Hearts." He sat forward in his chair and slowly turned over his draw cards. Ralph counted their faces. One. Two. Three. Three queens and a four.
Ralph swallowed heavily, and stared at the final card on the table. Even if it is another four, it won't take my kings and sixes. Even if he had—somehow!—managed to pull a full house, it wouldn't be enough.
The Poet laughed suddenly, the noise startling Ralph. "Suicide kings," he said, pointing. "You've got the bloody kings."
Ralph felt like he was in a vise, his ribs bending against his lungs and spleen. "What?" he gasped.
"You've got dead men," Vilmo said, and there was such a note of sadness in the butcher's voice that Ralph almost looked away from Deke's last card.
Deke closed his eyes and turned it over. "Four of a kind," he said quietly. "I think that takes your full house."
Ralph stared at the Queen of Spades, searching her benign smile for some sign of why she had betrayed him. All of them—the four ladies, red and black, red and black—they all smiled at him, their enigmatic expressions hinting at secrets he would never know.
Something snapped inside his chest, a rib maybe—weakened by the constant pressure of the money and cards—broke, and he felt a flood of heat rush through his body. He shot to his feet, and a knife appeared in his hand, a short-handled knob with a shiny three inch blade.
Deceitful bitches, was the thought in his head, I'll cut your secrets from you.
Something caught his outstretched arm, a heavy pressure that encircled his wrist and ground his bones. He gasped, the knife slipping from his senseless fingers, and he watched it tumble down. Its blade pierced the tabletop, cutting one of his cards.
Ralph heard Vilmo's knuckles pop as the butcher's fist struck his face, and then the image of the knife through the King of Diamonds vanished as his world went black.
It was raining, and a curtain of gravid clouds obscured the mosaic of the stars. Deke lifted his face to the sky and let the water caress his face. He opened his mouth and let some of the chilly rain drip onto his tongue.
"Interesting game," the Poet said, remaining along with Clio and Whitcombe under the narrow shelter of butcher shop's rolled awning. He was trying to light a cigarette from a shaky match, and Whitcombe finally offered the writer his lighter.
"Who's fault is that?" Clio asked.
The Poet's mouth crooked around the cigarette, and he sucked his cheeks in innocently as he made the lighter's flame dance.
Mistral stepped into the rain beside Deke. "Got somewhere to go?" he asked. "We can find you a place to stay if you need one."
Deke shook his head. "I'll be all right." His hand drifted to the right hand pocket of his coat. "I might treat myself to a nice room. Maybe something that looks out over the water. I think I can afford it."
He reached into the other pocket of his coat and brought out a folded piece of paper. Without opening it, he held the page out to the Poet. "This is yours," he said.
The Poet sucked on his cigarette. "Keep it."
Deke shook his head. "It isn't mine."
Whitcombe stepped forward, the shadows fleeing from his face. "I'll hang on to it," he said. "Until he changes his mind." The rain started to darken the sleeve of his coat.
Deke hadn't meant to let go prematurely, but somehow the page wasn't in his hand any more, and Whitcombe's thick fingers were closing on empty space. The wind, twisting the page away from both of them, whisked it down the street. Whitcombe, grunting and stumbling, gave chase. The page fluttered like a lost moth, losing altitude as each raindrop added to its weight. It landed in the narrow stream of the gutter where it spun for a second before being carried away, rushing downhill towards the edge of the city, towards the starless waters of the bay.
"How long you do think he'll chase after it?" Deke said, as he watched Whitcombe pursue the piece of paper.
"It'll reach the bay eventually," Mistral said. "If he doesn't catch it first."
"It'll float," Deke said, glancing at Mistral. "Unlike other things." He heard a woman's laugh, and it was just an echo but he knew from where in his heart it came.
Mistral nodded slowly. "But what keeps it afloat?"
"Does it matter?" Clio asked from the shelter of the awning. "Isn't the idea that it could enough? Is there enough wonder left in the world to keep it up?"
"No," Mistral said with some care, as if he was afraid of the consequences of the words he was about to say. "There isn't. There has to be a reason. There has to be."
The Poet was hidden in the shadows of the deli's eaves, and the red glow of his cigarette gave nothing away.
But Deke was pretty sure he was smiling.
Mark Teppo's first novel, Lightbreaker, is out now. A sequel, Heartland, will follow next year, as will Psychobabel, the resolution/remix of The Potemkin Mosaic. He is trying very hard to pretend that he still has free time. This time around he's pimping codexofsouls.com as his website.
copyright © 2008, Mark Teppo
BECCA DE LA ROSA
—The Baby is Safe
—The Fisherman's Child
—Faith, Hidden in the Hands of the Blind
—A Comic History of Bullets
—To Recover from Lightning, Etc.
A. ROSS ECKLER