Fantasy

A Game of Cards

By A.C. Wise · Sep 3, 2018
8,645 words · 32-minute reading time



Times like this, it’s like I never left the ring. The crack of fist to jaw, spitting blood, and that first bitter-sweet pulse of heat that’ll be a beautiful bruise by morning. Except there are no spotlights, no crowds shouting my name, and it’s a lucky elbow thrown with a wild prayer rather than a punch thrown with skill that catches me.

One thing is the same: It hurts like a motherfucker.

The blow lands in just the right spot to send pain along an old fault line, the one that ended my career. Now I’m pissed.

I’ve got at least ten pounds on this guy, all muscle. He’s skinny as a rag soaked in kerosene; wiry is one thing, if you know how to use it, but he doesn’t. He’s flailing, cornered. He got one lucky shot. He won’t get two.

The nice thing about working the door at The Lucky Bitch (named in honor the boss’ ex-wife, if you’re wondering) is no one cares if I get a little rough in the line of duty. Why hire a former IFBA Middleweight Champion if you don’t want her to crack few skulls?

I drop the punk, and it’s a thing of beauty. Precision, clock-work tight. All the guy needs is a love-tap, and he folds, stick limbs going loose. A rare summer rain left the strip slick with neon glow, and he manages to land right in a puddle, shattering all that pretty reflected light.

Even if they aren’t chanting my name, there’s still a crowd gathered at the velvet rope outside the casino. I flip my braids over my shoulder, beads clacking, and pop my knuckles for dramatic flair.

“Didn’t your momma ever teach you not to hit girls?”

I can’t help grinning at the smattering of applause. Damn, it still feels good. But the punk rolls onto his side, looking up at me. Despite his grimace, he gathers his stick-limbs under him, like he’s ready to go one more round.

“You don’t want to do that,” I say.

He licks his lips, gaze darting past me, like he’s weighing his options. I nod at Sal and Vinnie, and tilt my head toward the mess at my feet. I’m hoping once he sees my clean-up detail, the slabs of beef who keep me company on the Lucky Bitch’s doors, the punk’ll make the smart choice and stay down.

Just as Sal and Vinnie draw even with me, the punk does just that, but it’s wrong. He glances at his watch, of all things, then slumps back, jaws clacking together even though his head never hits the pavement. His body jerks, heels drumming the sidewalk, as his breathing turns erratic.

“What the shit?” I drop to my knees beside him. “Someone call 9-1-1. He must have swallowed something.”

I reach for him, but my arm freezes. It lasts only a second, long enough for the soft sound of displaced air, which shouldn’t be audible over the crowd erupting into chaos, but is. It’s like a door opening. An electric charge trips the length of my spine, knowledge chasing it. Something just stepped through, something big; the man convulsing on the sidewalk is a decoy, a distraction from the real shit that’s about to go down.

I’m on my feet, moving toward the Lucky Bitch’s doors, already knowing I’m too late.

“Athena? Where are you going?”

I touch Sal’s shoulder as I pass, his confusion falling away behind me. “Take care of him,” I shout, but it’s too late for the man on the sidewalk, too.

I burst through the casino doors, into the world of oxygen-enhanced air, no clocks, and glittering bright machines dispensing just enough coins to keep the junkies hungry for one more spin. I see him immediately – a man in a suit so black it seems to suck in the light. Shadows buzz around him, thick as flies, making him hard to see. Everything about him wants to resist my gaze, make it slide away. I clench my jaw, ignoring fresh pain flaring through the bone.

The man hefts an axe from his back – heavy, ornamental, impossible, and definitely not there a moment ago. My legs won’t move fast enough. My voice is gone. All I can do watch as the man swings the axe and beheads a slick-looking customer in an Armani suit, standing at the nearest craps table.

The world snaps back into true all at once, time resuming its normal course. Armani’s body, minus its head, crumples. The woman standing nearest him screams. The head itself rolls to a stop against a bank of slot machines, the man’s wrap-around sunglasses askew over his shock-wide eyes. Fresh chaos erupts, the scene outside merging with the scene inside. Sirens wail and everywhere, everything is panic.

Except for the man in black, who slings his axe over his shoulder, turns to face me, and winks. He reaches into the pocket of his immaculately-tailored jacket and flicks something toward the fallen body. Then he vanishes. Not metaphorically, literally. The displacement of air, the door opening and closing in reverse, and he’s gone.

My knees fold, but it isn’t weakness. It’s gut instinct, and before my conscious mind has caught up, I’m crawling toward the body, taking advantage of the general chaos to retrieve the object the axe-man threw. A playing card.

Shit.

I slip the card into my pocket, standing before anyone notices. It’s time to call in a favor, and go see an old friend.

#

As soon as the cops are done taking statements, I’m back outside in the neon-tinted desert air. My jaw is starting to stiffen up. There’s a coppery ache behind my left ear, ground zero for the fault line opened by Mayflower Jones during the ’03 title bout, which currently sits just under the not-quite-yet-bruise delivered courtesy of the punk being carted away from the Lucky Bitch in a body bag. 

I need a drink like nobody’s business, but instead of heading back to the Pink Flamingo and the bottle of Jack waiting in the room rented semi-permanently under my name, I walk further down the seedy side of the strip. I manage to ignore the siren call of several bars that’d be willing to sell me a bit of relief at the friends and family rate, heading away from the brightest lights, down the slickest alleys, to where the lowest of the low games of chance play out in the shadows cast by Vegas’ bright-bright glare. Dice rattle in tin cups; dominoes clack, head-to-tail; cards snap, oddly crisp for all that they’ve been worn down by greasy palms.

I stop at the mouth of an alleyway sandwiched between two non-descript buildings. Ahmed’s maintaining his usual post at the far end. I hang back, allowing myself the luxury of watching a pro at work. Ahmed’s hands are a blur. I almost feel sorry for the sucker whose money is on the three cards shuffling into one and splitting off again. The eagerness in the mark’s expression is painful, like his last hope is pinned to that lost queen, which it probably is.

My pulse kicks. I know how he feels.

It’s tempting to warn the man, but anyone stupid enough to bet their last dime on three card monte gets what they deserve. Even if Ahmed wasn’t cheating. Which he probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing.

On the surface, Ahmed is a small time con man with a knack for making the cards go his way. But there’s a ghost beneath his skin, shadows even Vegas’ brightest lights can’t chase away. Ahmed is one of Lady Luck’s children, one of Her oldest. A long time ago, he walked away from the game, went into hiding, so deep sometimes even he doesn’t remember what he used to be. Like right now, he probably doesn’t even notice the pale glow tripping his long fingers as he shuffles the cards. It’s there and gone and so is the mark’s money and the last of his hopes. The house always wins.

The mark slinks away, and I slide in to take his place. Ahmed’s halfway to dealing out the cards before he looks up.

“Athena.”

“I need your help. I’m calling in a favor.” I tap the table for emphasis. His shoulders hunch, as if expecting a blow.

Luck is a tricky thing. Despite everything Ahmed’s done to walk away, to forget, he’s still here, in Vegas out of all the places he could have gone when he ran away. Luck can quit you anytime, but it doesn’t work both ways. As long as the Lady still wants him in the game, he’ll never be able to fully let go.

Still, I pull my punch, uncertain how much he remembers and how much he’s forgotten. I don’t mention the word sibling, or say anything about the game.

Instead, I say, “I just watched a man beheaded by a spooky motherfucker with an axe.”

Ahmed’s mouth actually drops open; I can’t help the edge of a grin. “Come on, let’s get a drink.”

Ahmed’s shoulders hunch further, resigned, and he runs a hand through his dark, wavy hair.

“Fine, but you’re buying.”

He sweeps up his cards, disappearing them into one of many pockets, and leaves the table squatting at the dim end of the alley like some ancient riddling beast. I steer us to a bar called Blue. Friends and family rate also means non-watered-down drinks. I try not to send my vodka and cranberry the same route as Ahmed’s cards - disappearing it down my throat - and force myself to suck through the dinky plastic straw.

Trying to trip Ahmed’s memory gently, and not send him running scared, I say. “The man with the axe wasn’t human. But he was working with a human accomplice, someone he paid or threatened into causing a distraction – one that ended up getting him killed. So that’s two murders, I guess.”

“Athena. Stop.”

The expression of sorrow in Ahmed’s eyes when I look up nearly takes my breath away. In some lights, those eyes are almost gold, time-burnished, worn. Just like an old coin.

“I remember. I’ll help you. But I can’t make any promises.” Ahmed pulls out his deck, not the one he uses to grift, but one worn just as soft at the edges.

The glow comes back to outline his fingers, stronger now. He plucks a card from the deck, flipping it front to back. I’ve seen him do it a dozen times, just a warm up exercise, but this time it drops my heart into my shoes. The card’s face changes from the Queen of Spades to the Queen of Hearts, blink-quick, then both vanish back into the deck.

Just like that, my own ghost - the shadow hidden under my skin - jumps up and smacks me in the face. Mel, her angles sharp against Las Vegas’s glare. Her hair the color and smell of honey; her lips the taste and shade of cherries. Her cheekbones dusted with glitter, her lids rimmed with smoke and kohl. There’s nothing real about her on the surface, but behind the doll-bright gleam in her eyes when she dances – danced – up on the Gold Dust Lounge’s bright-lit stage, she was there. Mel. My Mel.

A memory, sudden and sharp, follows on the heels of the image - Mel sitting amidst rumpled sheets, clumsily shuffling a desk of cards. Concentrating, she bites her lower lip – already bitten and tasting of tequila and lime, her lipstick faded and all but gone.

“Pick a card, any card,” she says, holding them out to me. I comply. Despite my best efforts, glitter still dusts the curve of her breasts, the pink of her nipples; it’s impossible not to stare.

“Don’t show me,” she says. “Now put it back in the deck.”

I comply with this, too, watching her shuffle, watching the light from the window move across her bare shoulders. She pauses to snag the bottle of tequila from the dresser, necking it for the last sip.

“Is this your card?” She holds out the Queen of Spades, closing one eye to squint at me.

I shake my head, trying not to look at the empty bottle now resting against her knee. She turns it around, looking between it and me, one eye still closed. Her voice slurs, more sleepy than drunk, a smile tugging her smudged lips.

“Of course it is, see?” She holds it next to my face, as if comparing a photograph. “Athena is another name for the Queen of Spades. Didn’t you know?”

I shake my head again, and she smiles, rising up on her knees and twisting around. “Athena is the Queen of Spades, and I’m the Queen of Hearts.”

She tugs at the waistband of her pink, cotton panties, the only thing she’s wearing. I see the double-heart tattoo at the base of her spine, one above the other, mirrored.

“If you say so, your highness.” I keep my tone light, because something tingles in sympathy at the base of my spine, a shiver of electricity I want to ignore. I lean forward, nipping lightly at the tattoo and Mel giggles, twisting away. I catch her, pin her down, the electric feeling is replaced by another, making it easy to forget.

Ahmed sets the worn deck on the bar, keeping his attention on it, while busying his hands with a single gold coin. He runs it over the backs of his fingers, making it vanish, making the image stamped on its face change. The tightness eases in my chest, but only somewhat. I concentrate on Ahmed, trying not to think about what I saw in the deck, what I thought I saw.

The air around Ahmed brightens, making the rest of the bar dim in comparison. Ahmed is hard to look at, like the man with the axe, but bright where the other was shadowed. Sometimes, it seems as though Ahmed’s hands vanish with the coin, slipping into another space before coming back again. My eyes water.

A thin sheen of sweat beads Ahmed’s forehead. Under the stubble darkening his cheeks, there are shadows that have nothing to do with the light in the bar. Lines of shimmering gold surround him, threads of luck, which he traces through the city, back to their source.

“The dead man outside the casino was named Sonny Malone.” Ahmed’s voice is husked, low, but it makes me jump nonetheless. “He had a two of diamonds sewed inside his jacket pocket when he died.”

“A token of allegiance?” I say, but Ahmed ignores me.

His lids are half-lowered, seeing elsewhere than the bar, following a map of luck through Las Vegas.

“The dead man inside the casino was Carmen Estavez. He was just about to hit the jackpot. High stakes poker.”

The coin in Ahmed’s hand flickers fast, blurring like a succession of tiny moons rolling across his knuckles.

“Estavez had cards on him, too. A full deck, brand new, no box. It’s gone.”

“Where?” Again, Ahmed doesn’t answer, maybe doesn’t even hear me.

“There was another card,” he says.

I tense. I haven’t told him about the card thrown by the axe-man, the one tucked inside my pocket. Maybe I should have, but if Ahmed comes to the same conclusion I did, then it’s independent verification.

Ahmed reaches for the deck squared on the bar, and I try not to flinch. He turns the top card over, the King of Diamonds, the only king holding an axe instead of a sword.

“Let me guess, was this his card?” The coin stills in Ahmed’s hand, the hum of power fading. I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.

Without a word, I reach into my pocket and lay the card thrown by the killer beside Ahmed’s on the bar. The King of Diamonds, one corner stained with the dead man’s blood.

“Were Sonny and Carmen…” I gesture at the deck, but Ahmed shakes his head.

“I don’t think so. I think someone was using them.”

“You can’t tell who?”

“I can’t see far enough back.”

“Then we need to find Carmen Estavez’s deck,” I say.

Ahmed doesn’t answer. He’s still looking at the deck – hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs – Lady Luck’s family. His family.

Most people think playing cards evolved from the Tarot, but it’s the other way around. And before there were cards of either kind, there was Ahmed and his extended family. The symbols changed over time - coins, cups, wands, leaves, spades – but the game continued. Some suits were forgotten, some walked away.

But now two men are dead, and the King of Diamonds is uneasy on his throne, which makes me think maybe not everyone is as happy to be out of the game as Ahmed.

“We need better luck,” I say.

Ahmed startles. His pupils are wide, chasing the coin-colored ring of his irises into oblivion. But slowly, he comes back, his gaze focusing on me. This goes way beyond the favor he owes me. I wouldn’t blame him for telling me to go fuck myself, forgetting himself again, crawling back to his grifter games, fleecing tourists and desperate junkies for the last of their cash.

The tilt of Ahmed’s shoulder changes ever so slightly - resignation. He already knows what I’m going to ask him, because he knows me. I push. One more round, one more match, one more championship, one day I’ll make it big and lay down the gloves for good. But instead of a swan song, I did a dead-duck dive. I burnt up all my luck, and there was Mayflower Jones, waiting for her shot at the spotlight, and I went down.

Now all I’m left with is a ghost; I can still feel the luck, but I can’t twist it my way. Ahmed on the other hand, no matter how much luck he uses up in his little scams, there’s always more. Maybe that’s what comes from being one of the eldest of Lady Luck’s children, instead of a washed-up boxer/ex-supplicant, hanging out in her periphery. Or maybe She just isn’t a ladies dame.

“Come on,” I say. “It’s time to go to the Temple.”

#

Like proper penitents, we enter the Temple Casino dressed in the physical manifestation of our humility and willingness to sacrifice for our cause. What else could you possibly call four inch heels thin as needles that send a spike of pain up my back with every step? It’s not just a temple in name, it’s one of the Lady’s holy places. We have to dress the part.

“I still say the sequins would look better on you.” I lean toward Ahmed, murmuring low. Not that it matters. The snap of cards, the tick of the roulette wheel, the constant electronic clatter of slot machines and the general susurrus of laughter and hope overwhelm all other sounds. Every bet laid is a prayer in the Lady’s name. Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades, every win and loss adds or takes power away from them, tipping the balance a little more, shifting the tides of the game within the game.

The base of my spine itches; I can only imagine how Ahmed feels.

“What do you need me to do?” I ask.

My heels sink precariously in the deep pattern of the carpeted floor. I resist the urge to hike up my dress to give my legs more range of motion. The fabric hisses with every step – all beads and gleam, uncomfortable as fuck. Thankfully, no one from the Lucky Bitch ever makes it to this side of the strip. I’d never live it down.

With the heels, I tower over Ahmed. He smirks, but he doesn’t look any more comfortable in his rented tux than I do in my slit-high, cut-low dress.

“Over there.” He points at a bank of slot machines, handing me a white plastic card stamped with the casino’s logo, loaded with the credits that have replaced coins in modern machines.

“I hate these things,” I say.

Ahmed shrugs. I wonder about what he’s not saying; the less people use coins in casinos, the less his symbol changes hands in a temple of Luck, the less the balance of power tips his way. And the more chance he has of being forgotten. I also wonder why I’m trying to goad him. Ahmed’s a friend, and he’s going above and beyond for me. Maybe it’s because this whole thing has me spooked, because it’s got my skin itching and it’s got me thinking about Mel again. Or maybe it’s just the high heels and sequins putting me in a bad mood.

I bite down on the words good luck as Ahmed walks away. I almost call after him; my presence here is pointless as best, and maybe a detriment at worse. The Lady doesn’t want to hear from me. Whatever luck I had, I burned it up in that last fight with Mayflower Jones. In the eighth round, I was hurting. Bad. My left eye was swollen shut. I was dead on my feet. But I wouldn’t quit. Only luck got me through to the next round. I could have taken a dive in the ninth. There was good money riding on me doing just that; I could have even gotten a cut. I could have walked away proud, a graceful exit for a boxer at the end of her career. But I pushed. I called on the Lady one last time. And she shut me out.

I felt it. Whatever scraps of luck I’d been able to pull throughout my career to get me this far – gone, snuffed, like a flame. Then there was Mayflower’s fist, setting off a supernova in my jaw and I was down. For the count and for good.

Shaking off the memories, I totter to the nearest slot machine, parking myself as Ahmed blends in, one of a dozen men in tuxedoes and suits so sharp they could cut. Luck can be capricious, I remind myself. Maybe after all these years, the Lady’s changed her mind. At very least, maybe she won’t scorn Ahmed to spite me. My button-press spins add to the luck in the room, and I watch him do his work.

A craps table is his first stop. The glow is faint as he shakes dice, bouncing the bones lightly off the green felt background so they land just where he wants them. Just enough to keep him in the game. He loses his fourth roll, exactly when he means to, and passes the dice to the next guest, expression intent. In the instant before the dice leave the man’s hand, Ahmed plucks at the air near the man’s sleeve, as if catching an invisible thread. Then he’s gone, bowing out so smoothly, none of the other players remember he was there.

A waitress deems me worthy of a free drink, and I do my best not to suck it down. Ahmed’s moving around the room, the shine around him growing stronger, threads of luck shimmering behind him like a web. He plucks one from a man playing video poker, another from a woman at the roulette wheel. I’m entranced, forgetting the animated spin of my slot machine.

This time, the displacement of air is a physical force – a sudden drop in cabin pressure, stealing my breath and making the lights dim. Ahmed goes still. The space behind him is empty, and then it’s full. Even though it’s precisely what I was hoping for, it still startles when the Lady appears.

Coins and poker chips spill from her hair. A flurry of playing cards swirls around her feet. A roulette wheel, all blinking lights at its rim, rises behind her like wings, or a glorious crown. The Lady places her hands on Ahmed’s shoulders, then catches my eye. All the breath leaves my body again. Lady Luck winks at me. Then she’s gone.

A waitress touches my elbow, breaking the spell. The room snaps back into focus, suddenly over-loud with the chime of slot machines.

“From the lady.”

I blink at the waitress as she lifts an envelope from her tray and holds it out to me. At first I think she means the Lady, but she gestures with the envelope I still haven’t taken.

“Over there.” All I catch is a flash of silk – a harlequin pattern of black and red disappearing around the corner.

“Thank you.” I take the envelope and hurry to collect Ahmed. Looks like Lady Luck hasn’t forsaken me after all.

The elevator doors are just sliding closed as I pull Ahmed into the lobby. The lighted numbers count all the way to the top.

“What’s that?”

I slit the envelope open as Ahmed asks, using one of the fake nails done up in gold glitter to match my ridiculous dress. At least they’re good for something. Inside, there’s a plastic keycard for the penthouse floor. I grin and stab the button for the elevator.

“Our lucky break.”

There’s no number next to the slit in the shiny brass plate in the elevator, but the keycard fits and we’re going up. It’s not until the elevator starts to rise that I realize how tired Ahmed looks. He leans his head against the rich wood paneling, closing his eyes. His normally dark skin looks pale, cheeks hollow and sunken.

“Hey.” I touch his wrist. “Are you okay?”

Ahmed opens one lid, the gold coin of his eye turning to me, but he doesn’t answer.

“Thank you for what you did back there. I couldn’t do this on my own.”

The faintest of smiles touches Ahmed’s lips, but they’re pale, too – startling against the stubble thickening into a beard.

“I do have some professional pride.” He pushes himself upright as the elevator doors open, and I know he’s not talking about grifting. His shoulders are straight as we reach the penthouse door, but I can see the tension.

Just as I’m wondering whether to knock, the penthouse doors open and a bouncer bigger than any I’ve met in my years working the strip frowns down at me – not an easy feat in my four inch heels. I flash my best smile, holding the don’t-fuck-with-me stance in reserve in case things go south. I flash the keycard after the smile. The bouncer scowls, but lets us inside.

It’s like stepping into a different world. Winter, to be precise. Long tables covered in elegant beds of ice hold frosted bottles of vodka and champagne, alongside glittering pyramids of glasses. There are oysters and caviar and delicate sorbets. Scattered between the tables are long, winter-stripped branches set artfully in oversized vases.

“Whoa,” Ahmed says. “Swanky.”

Where we blended before, we look gaudy now, but it’s too late. The woman in the harlequin-patterned dress catches my eye, leaning against a luminous bar the color of freshwater pearls, lined with more bottles and glasses. Amidst the ice, she’s the one spot of color, toying with a cherry from a drink of the same shade. I tug Ahmed’s sleeve, pulling him after me.

“I see you got my invitation,” the woman says without preamble.

Her gaze flicks to Ahmed for a moment, and I can’t tell if it’s discomfort or dismissal when her attention comes back to me. She takes my measure with an amused glance, lingering on my feet with a mischievous grin.

“No one would think you’re gauche if you slip those things off. It’s already clear you don’t fit in.”

She touches my cheek, runs her finger along my jaw where I’ve done my clumsy best using make-up to cover the bruise. My pulse does something complicated, and I remember how long it’s been since I last got laid. Then I’m thinking about how much longer it’s been since I kissed a woman. Not since Mel. And my pulse kicks into a different rhythm.

“Jo.” The woman holds out her hand, breaking my reverie. Her nails are evenly divided between the same cherry red as her beverage and black. It takes me a moment to realize she’s holding a card – a playing card, of course.

“The Lady hates doing her own dirty work,” Jo says. I glance at the card. The motley fool keeping a quartet of suit-symbols circling through the air. Jo. The Joker. Of course.

“Maybe she’s getting old.” Jo’s lips quirk upward again; behind me, I feel Ahmed stiffen.

Jo’s still looking at me, though, ignoring him. I snag one of the glasses on the bar, chilled to perfection, and pour from an expensive-looking bottle that refuses to do anything so crass as advertise its brand.

“So how do you fit into all this?” I ask. I’m trying to play it cool, too cool, and from the expression in Jo’s eyes, I can tell she sees right through me. At least I didn’t offer to light her cigarette, or ask what a classy dame like her is doing in a joint like this.

“I’m an agent of chaos.” Jo taps the card in my hand with one perfectly manicured nail. “I don’t owe allegiance to any suit. And for you, I’m your lucky break.”

“Oh?”

“Carmen Estavez had a pack of cards on him when died, one that was no longer with him by the time his body found its way to the morgue.”

I don’t bother to ask how she knows. Jo reaches into a beaded clutch bag, red and black, like her dress, like her nails. As she rummages, I notice there are bells woven into her long, blonde hair.

“Ta da!” She produces a square package, wrapped in a black silk handkerchief. I stare at the deck without unwrapping it. Jo frowns; it’s slight, only mock serious.

“Aren’t you going to thank me?”

Without saying anything, Ahmed shifts his weight, drawing my attention. I’d almost forgotten he was there. The back of my neck prickles. For just an instant, Jo’s frown deepens, becoming more than mock-serious, then her expression clears like quick-silver.

“Well, maybe some other time,” she says. “You have my card.”

Her fingers trail across my arm as she sweeps past me. Despite myself, the flesh puckers tight, every one of my hairs standing on end.

“Are you done flirting?” Ahmed’s voice is low, strained.

“Just about.” I down the rest of my drink, ignoring the burn.

“Let’s get out of here.” Ahmed steers me toward the door, and once we’re through asks, “You really didn’t feel it?”

“What?”

“It’s not just Jo. That place was crawling with cards.”

The way he’s looking at me makes my skin prickle in a whole new way, about one hundred and eighty degrees opposite from the effect produced by Jo. It’s more than incredulous; it’s expectant. After a moment though, Ahmed shakes his head and moves toward the elevator.

I weigh the wrapped deck of cards, oddly reluctant to open it.

“That was too easy,” Ahmed says, breaking the silence. I tuck the deck into my bad, trying not to be relieved by the distraction.

“Yeah. Luck is one thing, but the whole thing doesn’t add up. If the King of Diamonds could just pop in and out of the casino without using the door, why bother to use Sonny Malone as a distraction? Unless he was flexing his muscles, proving that he could get one of his minions to off himself?”

I look to Ahmed for confirmation. The strange expression is back on his face – looking at and through me.

“Or, someone wanted to get your attention.”

“Why would the King of Diamonds want my attention?”

“Who said it was him?”

#

The thing about Las Vegas is, it’s a city of illusion. It makes you think you’re about to hit the jackpot when you’re really on the cusp of losing it all. It makes you think the night is still young when it’s almost dawn, and you’ve spent it all laying bets against money you don’t have. It’s a magic show, a city where you can rent luxury cars by the hour to feel like a big shot, where they keep lions in hotels, and run a roller coaster through a replica of Manhattan, where you can dine under the Eiffel Tower and visit the pyramids in a single day without setting foot on a plane.

But all that glitz can be blinding. That’s the real magic trick: It makes you want to believe. Maybe the magician really did cut his lovely assistant in two. Maybe the stripper really did fall in love with the boxer and ask her to take her away from it all.

I work the bag over, sweat slicking skin, muscles burning. Idina, the gym’s owner, has a framed poster up on the wall: Athena Washington, back in her glory days. Back before I hit the mat because I refused to take a fall. Idina lets me use the place whenever I want, free of charge. But tonight, no amount of punching lessens the ache in my jaw – the ghost of Mayflower Jones, written along the bone. It does fuck all for the tension between my shoulder blades, or the low-grade headache squatting in my skull. It does nothing for the fact that I want a drink so bad I’m almost shaking, and nothing to kill the nagging feeling prickling at the back of my neck.

I think about Ahmed’s words, about someone wanting me in game. But who? Not the King of Diamonds, surely. Someone in his court? Maybe Sonny Malone was in over his head and picked a fight hoping I would save his life, and when things went south, he bit down on a poison capsule rather than facing the King’s wrath. But that doesn’t add up either.

And where does Carmen Estavez fit? I still haven’t unwrapped his deck. I’ve been avoiding it, and I’m not sure why. Scratch that. Yes I do. It’s because of Mel. It’s because I can’t shake the idea all this has something to do with her, and I can’t shake the idea that Ahmed’s right. Sonny Malone died for no other reason than the make me sit up and take notice.

The rhythm of glove against bag falters.

 “Shit.” I pull off the gloves, unwinding the tape from my knuckles.

My duffel slouches in the corner of the ring, and I slump down beside it, toweling off and retrieving my water bottle. The wrapped deck of cards lies beneath it. I retrieve it, feeling its weight in my hand.

I don’t remember the night Mel disappeared, not clearly. Chances are I was drunk. What I do remember is waking up alone, the blinds rucked high, throwing blade-sharp sunlight all over the messy bed. I remember cursing, knowing I would never leave the blinds that wide open - I’m not a morning person – thinking it must have been Mel’s form of revenge for something I did the night before.

It was a moment before it hit, and then it hit all at once. No smell of coffee from the small, cramped kitchen; the indent in Mel’s pillow, the perfect shape of absence. Her boots weren’t by the door, her jacket not on the hook. The closet was still half full of her clothes, but I knew she wouldn’t be coming back for them. No note on the refrigerator, just a single playing card, the Queen of Hearts, wedged under the light switch plate by the door. Just that, and a cold feeling, a sluggish beat to my pulse, and the memory of alcohol still thick on my tongue.

I wish I could remember the day we met as clearly, or any of the moments in-between. But they’re like snapshots, blurred, the focus just a hair off, so I can’t quite see whether the pattern on her high-heeled shoes is snake-skin or alligator, whether her nails are silver with white stars, or the reverse, whether her eyes are green or blue.  

What I do remember is her lying on her stomach, with her head pillowed on her arm – Vegas’ bright-bright spilling through the window illuminating her double heart tattoo.

“What do you dream about, Athena?” she asked me. I remember, because it’s a variation on a conversation we must have had a dozen times.

I could have said something profound. I could have even told her something true, like how sometimes my dreams put me back in the ring, re-living that last fight with Mayflower Jones. It’s what she was asking for, just a little piece of me. Her make-up was slightly smeared; she hadn’t wiped it off before we’d tumbled into bed. I don’t remember what I did tell her, then or any other time she asked, something stupid probably, because she punched me lightly in the shoulder before propping herself up on one elbow.

“I’m serious. Don’t you ever wonder what else is out there?” She waved her hand, indicating the room, the window, the glow of Vegas beyond.

“I don’t want to strip forever,” she said. “I’m sure you don’t always want to bounce.”

There was something in her eyes. Something that frightened me. The shine I saw there, I was afraid it included me, locking me into Mel’s vision of the future; I was afraid it excluded me, shutting me out.

“I have everything I want right here.” I grinned, traced the curve of her hip, but she slapped my hand away, frowning and looking toward the window.

“Sometimes I think we’re living just on the skin of the world and underneath there’s so much more. I just have to find a way through.”

I don’t remember what I said to that, if I said anything at all. I do remember it made my skin itch like there was something trying to rise up inside me, like I could feel the truth of what she was saying wound between my bones.

Here and now, aloud in the empty gym, I say, “Fuck it.”

It’s time to stop being a coward. I unwrap Carmen Estavez’s cards.

It looks like any standard 52, but there’s a hum, a buzz that reminds me of Ahmed’s deck. I turn the cards over, one by one. Nothing out of the ordinary at first, then I freeze. The three of cups. That isn’t right. I keep going, flipping faster. Seven of cups. Jack. Ace. And there isn’t a single diamond in the deck.

“Shit.”

No wonder the King of Diamonds was pissed enough to carry out the hit himself. One of the old suits is making a power play, trying to slip back into the game.

#

“We’re going to Camelot,” I say, skipping hello.

Ahmed looks up from his drink. His eyes are faintly bloodshot, but I don’t think it’s the alcohol.

I set Estavez’s deck on the bar. Ahmed leans away slightly.

“They’re cups,” I say. “It’s a custom-made deck, at least partially. You said Estavez was about to hit it big when he was killed. I’m guessing he was trying to build luck around the cups, tip the balance of power. And I think you’re right, someone put him up to it.”

“And you think we’ll find that out at Excalibur?”

I flip over the top card in the deck, the Ace of Cups, and tap it with one finger.

“The Holy Grail.”

Ahmed looks skeptical, and I shrug.

“Call it a hunch,” I say. “So far, luck’s been on our side.”

The Excalibur Hotel and Casino looks as gaudy as ever, but like the Temple, for our purposes, it’ll do. In Vegas, the city of illusion, the symbol can become the thing in the blink of an eye if you want it hard enough, if you believe. It’s what Carmen Estavez was betting on.

Ahmed has his coin out. Flip. Palm. Vanish. It changes from gold to silver, shrinks and grows in size. For just a moment, I swear the face on its side is his. We enter the casino and it takes me a moment to realize it should be bustling, but it isn’t. It’s empty. Eerily so. We’re completely alone.

Banks of slot machines glow in silence. Posed among them, mannequin knights in shining armor lift lances atop horses frozen in mid-prance, while heralds in brightly-colored robes hold trumpets forever to their lips.

The coin moves faster over Ahmed’s fingers. A glow crackles around him; Excalibur’s lights dim. I don’t know whether to thank him, or try to snap him out of it. In the end, I hold my tongue. With the amount of luck he’s calling, I’m better off if I shut up and follow. He’s leading us exactly where we need to be.

Which, as it turns out, is the throne room. Like the icy penthouse atop the Temple, I’m not sure the room is on Excalibur’s maps, for all that it’s done up in Vegas’ finest faux-medieval style. Tapestries and shields, swords and banners, adorn the wall. Under a pair of crossed lances, there’s throne painted in gaudy red and gold. The man sitting on it even wears a crown, though it doesn’t entirely fit him, and it’s clear he’s no king. A cup, just like the Ace in Carmen Estavez’s deck, sits on the arm of his throne.

“Who the hell are you?” The man looks up, startled. The crown slips at the sudden movement, and he nearly knocks the cup to the ground.

This is the man who put Carmen up to his stunt in the casino? The man who has the King of Diamonds scared enough to carry out a personal assassination? It doesn’t add up; he looks like he’s one step away from wetting himself in terror.

He stands, then his eyes go wide and he takes a step back, banging into the throne, which makes a hollow, wooden sound.

Turning, I see Jo standing in the door behind us.

“Surprise.”

The air in the throne room crackles. Between Jo and Ahmed, it’s like a localized storm. The lights flicker, dim, but stay on.

“Finally decided to stop pretending?” A smile slides across Jo’s lips. She steps close to Ahmed and plucks a card from the pocket of his jacket, like a thief deliberately showing her hand.

Like the cups, in Carmen Estavez’s deck, it’s nothing found in a standard 52. The figure on the card’s face holds a handful of coins. Or maybe it’s just the artist’s interpretation of a man playing sleight-of-hand games, rolling a single coin so fast it multiplies before vanishing completely. The resemblance is uncanny – down to the cheeks hollowed by shadows and the hunted look in the man’s eyes.

Before I can reach for the card, Jo snaps her fingers and it vanishes, back into Ahmed’s pocket or into some otherwhere I can’t reach. If Jo’s trying to get a reaction out of Ahmed, it doesn’t work. He’s still rolling the coin, his expression trance-like. I wonder if he’s really here, or if part of him is off in whatever space his coins and cards disappear to.

It hits me then; the power crackling off Jo and Ahmed – there’s nothing like that surrounding the man beside the throne. He’s not one of Lady Luck’s children.

“He’s only human,” I say. “You put him up to this?”

Jo’s smile is slow this time, not cruel, but something about it makes my skin prickle. Like there’s a joke, and everyone in the room gets it except me. Habit shifts my body closer to a fighting stance, but I resist the urge to let my fingers curl.

“He has ambition, but not much imagination. All I did was give him a deck of cards and a nudge. The game was getting boring, I wanted to make things more interesting.”

“Two men are dead,” I say. “Is that interesting enough for you, or are you trying to start a war?”

“You said…” the man starts, but Jo holds up a hand, silencing him.

She turns away from Ahmed, facing me. Her eyes are mis-matched, motley, like the rest of her. I wonder how I didn’t notice it before. I clench my teeth, ignoring the ache in my jaw, ignoring the way the power humming off Jo raises ghost sensations under my skin. But mostly I’m trying to ignore the way she’s looking at me.

“What do you want?” The words are strained; I force my aching jaw to relax.

“You really don’t know what you are, do you? What you could be.”

Jo shakes her head and the bells in her hair chime. Something in her expression reminds me of Ahmed, a kind of pity. She reaches out a hand, and at first I think she’s about to caress my bruised cheek again, but her fingertips brush my ear and she comes back with a card in her hand.

“This is your card.” Her voice is soft, the emphasis in it itching at the back of my skull.

It’s a simple playing card, just the Queen of Spades. But when I take it from her, the plasticized paper hums, lightning racing beneath my skin.

“Oh.” The face on the card is mine, braids and bruised jaw and all.

The illusion lasts only a moment, then it’s an ordinary playing card again. But the breath has already left my body, and in my mind’s eye, I see Mel sitting with a pair of scissors, diligently cutting something to glue into her scrapbook. When I look over her shoulder – when I looked over her shoulder - I see she’s cutting up playing cards, a Queen of Hearts and a Queen of Spades.

“It’s us. See?” She lays the cards against a backdrop of Vegas’ glittering bright-bright, already glued together from glossy magazine ads. There’s more though – a flyer from the Gold Dust Lounge, a ticket stub from one of my old fights, a postcard from Paris, where we always talked about going.

Or rather, Mel talked, and I listened. But I didn’t hear. She always wanted to run away; she finally got sick of waiting for me to run with her.

“It works both ways,” Jo says, cutting into my thoughts.

The Queen of Hearts, wedged under a corner of the light switch by the door, where I couldn’t fail to see. Mel was asking me to come with her, one last time; I just never understood where she was asking me to go.

“She’s…” I can’t complete the sentence; my throat is too tight.

“The game always needs new blood,” Jo says. “Someone like him,” she points at Ahmed, “drops out, and someone new rises to take his place. It doesn’t matter to the Lady whether it’s a cup, or a coin, a diamond or a spade. As long as the game is played in her name.”

Mel with her dreams, Mel wanting something more from life. She found a way through to the place she could feel, just under the city’s skin. The place we could both feel, though I refused to acknowledge it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I turn on Ahmed, fingers curling now, but more to hold myself together than to strike.

The gold coins of his eyes fix on me. His smile is sorrow-touched, the shadows heavy under his skin.

“Why don’t you always remind me when I forget?”

His words steal my breath all over again.

“All of you shut up!” The wanna-be king lurches to one of the walls, grabbing at the nearest sword and pulling it down.

He staggers under its weight, but manages to right himself, swinging wildly. I take a step toward the wall, reaching, but Ahmed’s voice stops me.

“Careful, Athena. You don’t want to accidentally declare an allegiance without meaning to.”

Cups, swords, lances – everything here is double-edged. I take a step back. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jo watching, amused. Is all this her doing, or is there more to it than that? Maybe Jo gave the wanna-be king his custom deck of cards, and his ideas about power, and maybe she whispered in the King of Diamond’s ear, giving him the idea of using a decoy. But maybe there was someone else whispering in her ear, someone else who wanted me in the game. Jo said the Lady doesn’t like to get her hands dirty. Is this her way of giving me a second chance? Or is it Mel’s? Or is it just Vegas, the city of illusion, blinding me with its lights and making me want to believe?

The possibilities make my head spin. But I can’t sort through them all right now, because the wanna-be king’s crown slips a little further as he takes another swing. He has the same wild-eyed look as the Sonny Malone outside The Lucky Bitch. If I drop him, will he bite down on a back-up suicide pill tucked in his jaw, too?

I glance over my shoulder at Jo and Ahmed. Jo’s eyes are shining, drinking in the chaos. Light still flickers around Ahmed’s fingers, holding the rest of the world at bay, but his cheeks look even more hollowed-out than ever, the gold in his eyes worn-thin. I can understand why he walked away. Humans who play the game end up dead, like Sonny and Carmen, and even Lady Luck’s born children can burn out sometimes. If I accept the invitation to play, what am I getting myself into?

But that’s me, isn’t it? Even when I don’t know what I’m getting into, I push.

I can feel it, building like a storm, the tingle of electricity when I touched the Queen of Spades. I think about Mel’s scrapbook – her and me, two Queens framed against the Vegas night. I reach, snapping my fingers against the empty air. The thickness of a card appears between them, and even though it’s turned to face the man with the crown, I don’t have to look to know the Queen looks an awful lot like me.

I take a step toward him. His grip is uneven on the sword. I doubt he knows how to use it, but the ache in my jaw reminds me anyone can get a lucky shot.

“You don’t want do that,” I tell the man who would be king. “Seriously.”

I don’t look to see whether there’s a glow surrounding my hand. I can feel it all through me, suffusing my skin. The sword clatters to the floor, the crown behind it a moment later as the man makes a break for it. The door slams behind him.

There’s that sensation again, the whump of displaced air. It comes with sudden light and sound – the life of Excalibur popping back into existence around us. Ahmed sags, and I move to catch him. When I look up, Jo is gone.

“Are you okay?” I ask. Ahmed nods, but the strain is clear.

“Come on.” I keep my arm around his waist, helping him toward the door. “We’re getting you a drink. I’m buying.”

He doesn’t protest, lets me lead him to the door. But before we step back into the bright-bright of the casino, Ahmed pauses.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Athena?”

My mind is still catching up with everything that just happened, and I know it’s just the beginning. I can’t help myself, I grin.

“I haven’t the faintest idea, but it’s too late to turn back now. I’m all in.”

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

This story originally appeared in Streets of Shadows.