Every Hand a Winner
Q. A haunted card deck. Is that right?
A. Yes. It was a haunted card deck.
Q. You tripped—
A. I tripped over it while I was walking down the hall. Or—more like—what happened was my foot went out from under me like, you know, like I stepped on a card and it slid off another card. It was really—I guess it was just really clear to me that I'd stepped on something and slid, not tripped on, you know, on an uneven part of the floor or something. It wasn't like a stumble. My first thought was, "who left a card deck in the hall?" You know, like, "what an asshole." I'm sorry—is it a problem for me to say that?
Q. It's not a problem. Please go on.
A. Anyway, I look back, and no card deck. But when I felt around, it was definitely a card deck.
Q. How did you know you had all the cards?
A. Fifty-four cards in a deck, right?
Q. Was it—how did you—did you feel frightened? Excited?
A. Well, it was day. I guess it could have been creepy, but I was mostly relieved I wasn't—I would have been more frightened if I'd really tripped on nothing. But since it was clearly something—I mean, a card deck isn't exactly menacing. I just put it on my bedside table and went back to doing my laundry, which is what I was headed to do when I tripped.
Q. You were telling me you live in a dorm—
A. Yeah. Not like—it's not attached to a college, or anything. It's—I guess it's technically a hotel. Backpackers come through, and stuff. I've lived there for the past two years. It's good value. I don't like to say 'hostel,' because, you know, that movie, plus it sounds, I don't know, European. So yeah, like a dorm. If you don't have much stuff, it's a good deal.
Q. Did you give any thought to where the deck might have come from?
A. You mean like try to figure out who owned it? I guess I thought about it a little bit, in terms of who would leave something in the hall that other people could trip on. These assholes—sorry about that, again. These guys. But no, mostly I figured—ghost stuff doesn't really belong to anyone, right? It's—I mean, when you're writing your will, you don't think, 'Hey…' It was more like, 'Well, that's weird.' But, I mean, I don't know how I feel about souls and stuff like that. I mean, I was baptized, but that's about the extent of it.
Q. At what point did you start your experiments with the deck?
A. Wow. That sounds really fancy. That—experiments? Wow.
Q. I'm sorry—
A. Look at me—I'm a scientist! Wow. My—experiments. My 'experiments' with the card deck—my observation of the card deck—I was—I shuffled the cards a few times. They felt really nice—the shuffle. They—you know how some card decks, when they're new, the cards are too stiff? Or they get old and kind of gummy—they stick together? This deck was, like, perfect. It was really—I'm a fidgeter. You can probably tell, right? I'm like—with your chair…I was nervous at first, taking them around, because, like, invisible cards. You look like a crazy person. But on the bus, some lady asked if I was a musician doing finger exercises, and then later somebody assumed it was, like, carpal tunnel, or something, so I didn't worry about it.
Q. How long were the cards in your possession?
A. Oh—months. I don't know how—five months?
Q. At what point did you—
A. I started noticing that the cards were different pretty fast. I mean, not immediately, because what I really liked the deck for was shuffling, and you're holding all the cards at the same time. With a regular deck, I'd maybe play these games, like that stupid—there's this stupid version of solitaire where, basically, it's a foregone conclusion. Like 'War,' you know, just, like, you are the machine finding out whether you won or not. There's no real strategy. It's just mechanical. But it's—I don't know. I play it sometimes, on the bus, to kill time, but, I mean, the cards were invisible. For all I knew, half of them could be face up, you know?
Q. But you noticed—
A. I—yeah. I would count the cards to make sure I hadn't lost any of them. I could get really paranoid about it. I stopped taking them with me for a while. But since I never lost any of them, I stopped worrying. I—maybe—I mean, this was a haunted card deck. It, like, supernaturally—it haunted together. It's like, if you took apart a haunted house, and, like, reinstalled the balcony somewhere, you're not going to get, like, just the hand of a ghost. You're going to get the whole ghost, or you're not. That's what I think. But, anyway, I would count them, and I started to notice that one card always felt a little—cinnamon. Like—artificial cinnamon flavoring, a drop of that, on the right side of my tongue. And, you know, I could shuffle the deck, and I could find that card again. It was like—it would have been the best card trick ever.
Q. Did the other cards have feelings to them?
A. Oh, gosh, yes. Do you want me to write you a list? It's like—ace of clubs was like, my knee would get warm. Two of clubs made me really sad, but specifically sad like the end of Disney's The Little Mermaid.
Q. In Hans Christian Andersen—
A. The Disney one's totally sad! She leaves her dad, and everything.
A. Three of clubs was—it made turquoise things look a little more intense. It took me a long time to figure that one out.
Q. How did you know which card was which?
A. Well, they were each—oh. I see. Oh. Yeah, the deck—the deck was—it showed up if the lights were off. At night, I mean. Like, moonlight was okay, candlelight was okay…
Q. Was exposure to moonlight enough? Or, I should say, did moonlight make the deck appear, or did electric light make the deck disappear? Did it strike you as more a banishment or a summoning?
A. Um…I'd say more like—I don't know, exactly. I know there could be at least some florescent light, because a little of the hall light comes in under my door, plus my window is right next to a street lamp. I don't think moonlight had to actually hit the cards—if it was clouded over, or something, they'd still show up. I think it's more like…they required a certain atmosphere. They had to feel welcome. Like—I guess I always thought of it as a really feminine deck, this very old-school feminine where you're maybe a little sexy but you act like you don't know, and maybe you wear a garter to cover up some cellulite—that kind of thing. That was the impression that I got.
Q. Did you have a favorite card?
A. Oh, absolutely. Jack of Hearts. It was like my elbows were made out of suede. That sounds—I don't know. That doesn't sound great. But it was really cool. It's not a feeling I know how to get another way. It's sort of like—when you were a kid, did you ever get into a hot tub and then jump into a cold swimming pool? It kind of feels horrible, but you keep doing it. I always picked at scabs, too, though. I get intrigued.
Q. And you memorized all the cards?
A. Yep. All of them. And after that, well…I kind of feel like maybe I shouldn't say. I mean, legally. Or—look. Can you be charged with an intent to commit a crime?
Q. You can be charged with conspiracy.
A. No—I mean, like, say I premeditated a murder. But then I didn't kill the guy. I don't know, I just changed my mind. Could somebody charge me with conspiracy to commit murder?
Q. I have no idea.
A. I want to be very clear that I am not saying I did that.
Q. I think it's only conspiracy if it involved more than one person.
A. Okay. What the hell anyway, right? It's not like—okay. I'm going to—my plan was, I figured out that—it seemed like I should be able to get some kind of card game going. Like, if I was playing stud poker, and I was the dealer, I would know what cards everyone had. You follow me?
A. I mean, that's kind of a shitty thing to do to somebody, but, look—nobody should be betting money they can't afford to lose, right? And I really needed money. I had all this shit. I mean, I didn't even have a car, and without a car, it was, like, impossible to find a good job, and, you know, I'd quit smoking because I couldn't afford it, but I was coughing a lot, and I was starting to think I should get it checked out. It turned out to be nothing, but that was my thinking at the time. That's not an excuse, I know, but…I mean, there was this side of me that thought it was horrible, and there was this other side that said, 'Somebody put this in your path. Somebody left this here for you to use.' I mean, you think haunted card deck, you think the Devil, right? Or a guardian angel? But I was thinking more like, you know, if you have a special talent. I don't know. I just would have felt like some kind of idiot for not taking the chance. It's like—you see a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk, are you just going to leave it there and figure somebody's going to come back for it? And how do you know it's that guy's? It's not exactly the same, I know, but it's kind of—it's that kind of situation.
Q. The perfect crime?
A. Exactly. I was, like, dreaming of being Al Capone or something.
Q. Did you go through with it?
A. It's complicated. I did go through with it.
Q. How much did you make?
A. Not very much. It is not easy to get people to put down money on a game where you brought the deck, you know? And then you add the whole moonlight/candlelight thing. It just smells like a con, which, fair enough. I mostly wound up playing drunks, and, honestly, I could probably have gotten their money even without my special deck. I bought a couple pizzas off them, probably.
Q. Would you say you were addicted to the deck at this point?
A. I wouldn't say 'addicted.' I didn't, like, feel bad if I went a day without playing. Things didn't, you know, get—it didn't escalate. But I was definitely rewarded for spending more time with the deck. It was never—I never felt like I was training it—teaching it tricks, and stuff, like a pet or something. And there was no—I never got the impression that the deck was, like, a vampire, and that it was getting stronger off me. It was more like the stuff the deck could do was always there, and once I worked with it a certain amount of time, I got promoted. I got a raise. Like, after I played enough poker, I didn't have to deal anymore. I could just feel whether my hand was strongest by how it felt in my hand—like sometimes it was warmer, and sometimes it was heavier. I could, like—nobody could bluff me. I knew. Which meant I had to get really good at bluffing, so I wouldn't give that away.
Q. What made you give up the deck?
A. Oh, man. You can't ask me something like that. It's like, if me and my boyfriend broke up—if I had a boyfriend to break up with—you wouldn't assume I broke up with him. I probably did, though, so I guess you're right. I guess that's probably a compliment, so thank you. But—okay. What happened was, there was—it had been months, okay? I'd been playing cards mostly down in the common room, because a lot of times people down there have the lights out anyway, because they want to watch a movie. So there's this new guy, and he wants to play. And I got this feeling off him. You know, I have a pretty good radar for when somebody is lying about who they are. Like, if you tried to tell me you were an accountant, I would just know you weren't telling the truth, even though you dress pretty much like an accountant.
Anyway, this guy hadn't even said anything about himself, but I knew he was lying about who he was anyway. Which to me says 'con man,' especially when somebody's hot to cut cards with you. But I'm thinking to myself, Man, you have no idea. I'm feeling really triumphant. He wants to lay down all this serious money. And I'm thinking, You are such an idiot. I mean, who tries to scam somebody for big money in a hostel, right? That's like—that's a horrible thing to do. You would have to be an idiot to look at me and think I had any money at all. I mean, normally, I would be pretty offended on top of that, because do I look stupid? Do I really look like I'm going to fall for your—you're so obviously a con man. He was way too eager, for one thing. But I just smile all big and say, 'Yeah, sure.' I'm smiling really big, and he thinks he's got me, but I'm really smiling big because I got him, which he doesn't even know.
So we're playing, and we're playing, and I'm winning real big, and he keeps playing. Which is another sign it's a con, by the way. He wants me to feel all good so I'll put more money on the table, because he figures he can sneak it later. But he starts sneaking, and I keep winning. I can just see him getting madder and madder. He should have walked away at that point, but he was too mad to, you know? He was pretty old school, you know, and sometimes they get really stupid about—sometimes they get extra mad because it's a girl, you know? It's kind of scary. And, I mean, I should probably just walk away, but I'm mad, too, now, so I keep going. I mean, I just want to clean him out. I'm not going to feel good about winning until I have his shoes, his belt—everything. But I keep getting these shitty hands, the kind of stuff you just fold on. I have enough of a lead I can wait it out, but it's—I'm really starting to hate this guy for not just, you know—for putting me in this position.
Finally, I get a good hand. Not a great hand, but a good hand. I can feel it. And even better than that, it's only a little bit better than his hand, which means he's got an okay hand, which means he's going to bid on it, especially since he's been cocky all night. I just bid the limit. I put my money up against his wallet, and all his luggage, and his room for the night, and everything. I just wanted him out. And he goes for it.
And that's when—I look over at him, and he's just smiling. And I can feel the cards in my hand—they're not winning cards anymore. I look down, and it's a totally different hand. Like, not one of the cards is the same. Maybe I even switched hands with him. I don't know. And it hits me—this is his card deck. It's been his card deck the whole time.
Q. He also had a haunted card deck?
A. No. Jesus. No. My card deck—he must have left that card deck there. It's the same card deck. My card deck is his card deck. I've been playing with his cards this whole time. Do you understand?
Q. Who was he?
A. We just sat there, looking at each other. Like, there's no reason we wouldn't just lay our cards down at that point. The betting is over. We would just show our hands. But we're just looking at each other. He's watching me, to see what I'll do. I don't think it was really about the money, for him—I've thought about it a lot, but I maintain that you wouldn't look for big marks in a hostel. He's not looking to make money—he's looking to take people down to nothing. And he's looking at me like, "you understand me?" And I'm looking at him like, "I really do." I feel like—I don't know. I hate him, I guess, but I also feel this connection, like I've just been wanting to do to him what he just did to me, and like he and I have spent the same time with this card deck, just loving it. It's like we masterminded some CIA operation together, or bred a Siberian tiger and released it into the wild.
Q. What happened when you finally laid down the cards?
A. Oh—that never happened. I got up and turned on the lights. The deck disappeared, and the man disappeared, and I picked up the money.
Q. The man was a ghost?
A. I guess.
Q. Did you see him again?
A. Nope—that was it. He did say 'Shit.'
A. Just that—'Shit'—when I turned on the lights. I would maybe have tried to start a conversation, but the movie people started asking me why I needed to have the lights on, and when I turned them back off, he was gone.
Q. Gone or disappeared?
A. Just totally gone, like he was never there.
Q. Do you think you'll find the deck again?
A. I don't think so. I mean, there's a lot of TV shows where people try to call up ghosts, and it never works. It's—going back to poker again, it's knowing the odds, right? I play poker all the time, and I've never been dealt a royal flush. I don't know anybody who's been dealt a royal flush. I also don't know anybody who's been struck by lightning, which I heard is about the same amount likely. But you can kind of predict when somebody is going to get struck by lightning. You can't induce a straight flush. Believe me. So with ghosts, is it lightning impossible or royal flush impossible? But with a bigger deck, and with not wanting to get struck by lightning.
Romie Stott's genre-bending short fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Arc, Superficial Flesh, Black Words on White Paper, New Verse News, Jerseyworks, She Nailed a Stake Through His Head, King David and the Spiders from Mars, LIT, Stupefying Stories, Dark Mountain, inkscrawl, and on the Toasted Cake podcast. As nonfiction editor and reviewer for the now-defunct e-zine Reflection's Edge, she wrote extensively about the mechanics of and possibilities for speculative fiction. Her short story "A Robot Walks Into a Bar…" won the 2012 Intel/Arc Tomorrow Project "Future Pleasures" Prize, and her historical fantasy feature screenplay Ratcatcher was a top 10 finalist in the 2012 American Zoetrope Screenplay Competition. For the last year, she has released daily copyright-free SF nanofiction at postorbital.tumblr.com.