Story:

Jack of Spades

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It was one of those nights. You know the ones I mean. When the sky gets filled with clouds, heavy with rain like poppy with seeds, and distant rumble of thunder keeps on threatening, but the rain just never comes. People get drowsy and nervous, animal instincts in them still alive but too distant to know what to do. The kind of nights when suicide rates soar, and traffic accidents happen twice every minute. My kind of night.


Now I'm a gambler. A professional, you understand. Not a sweaty amateur who could lose his family heirlooms just because Fortune happens to look the other way. Also, not the kind of person you want to have around while your kids are growing up. At least that was what my ex-wife thought when she divorced me. But that's beside the point. I just mentioned it so that you wouldn't get any false ideas. I'm not a conman. I'm not a criminal. I never cheat when I play. But I'm good. Damn good. And on a night like that, when half the population goes off the rocker out of sheer atavism, a good gambler can pay his next year's bills. Which was exactly what I'd been hoping to do when I went to Tony's, that evening. Very little excitement comes from doing anything for a living. After a while, even stuntmen and police officers get bored with their jobs. So was I, that night. Not so bored to look for something else. Just enough to start thinking about such a possibility. But I needed the money - doesn't everybody? - and I knew I was good at what I do, so why complicate matters unduly? And besides, it was one of those nights.


When I got to the bar, the usual crowd was, as usual, already there. But, also as usual, there were about half a dozen new faces. I scanned them from the door, trying to pick out the richest ones. Tony's is the kind of small, out-of-the-way place that gets to be heard about and attracts people from other parts of the city in search of excitement. But tourists aren't all alike, and a good professional has to know how to choose the ones worth his while. I ordered a drink, "my usual" - which in reality meant an orange juice with just so much vodka in it to make it smell like the real thing - and took a seat in one of the booths opposite the bar, scattering a few half-hearted nods to the familiar faces. It doesn't do to go for your victims. You have to wait for them to come to you. The trick is, of course, in learning how to make them come, and still leave them thinking they chose you and not the other way around.

The night was young, and there was a small group around the end of the bar, chattering in high, excited voices. The females had real jewellery on their fingers and ears, and not too much of it - that's always a bad sign - and the males flashed watches that could buy you a house from beneath sleeves of suits that could buy you a car. Six of them, two definite couples and one obviously just introduced pair. They seemed to be my best bet for the night. Money oozed from them in the way that suggested there was an enormous lot of it, and they bore it with the ease that showed there had been for centuries. The newly gained money is always hardest to part with. Those who were born into it can't see it go fast enough. I checked the bar one more time, just in case, and decided they were to be it, definitively. All that was left now was to snare them. I exchanged looks with the bartender, branding the lot in the corner as mine. If any of my colleagues decided to try for them, they would be gently persuaded to give it up. I took a sip of my juice and leaned into the corner of the booth. I had to give them time.


I took a packet of cigarettes out of my pocket and lit one. I don't really like smoking, but it's expected of a professional gambler, and one has to do what his audience expects him to. They pay dearly enough for the show. By the time I finished the juice, I judged them to be just about ready to fall into my lap. I leaned on the table and caught the light on my signet ring. It's another trademark, and it's really rather handy when one wants to attract attention without showing it. But before I could turn the flash from my ring towards the group at the bar, somebody sat next to me.


Now this is a very tricky situation. It's very difficult to get out of a game you don't want to play without ruining the chances of the game you do want. Very difficult, but not altogether impossible. I turned my head very slowly, gathering my tactics. And stopped. For the man next to me was no cow looking to be milked. He was wearing an inconspicuous dark suit, ebony white shirt and a loose tie. His hair was jet black, eyes hidden behind a pair of sun-glasses. He had a cigarette in his left hand, I could see the well-manicured nails, long fine fingers and a signet-ring on the last one. A colleague.
"Yes?" I said, letting a fraction of the irritation I felt creep into my voice. He was new to the territory, I would have known him otherwise, and I didn't want him to think I would tolerate such intrusions, though I had no reason to be particularly hostile. If he was any good, he would understand both.


"I apologise," he replied calmly. He was good. "But I would like to join your game."


I didn't bother denying that there was going to be a game. Like I said, he had passed the first test. But just how good was he?


"They wouldn't take on both of us."


Not even a flicker of the earlobes showed that he knew who we were talking about. He sighed softly, without answering. What I said was totally untrue, of course: people who had gone so far out of their way to find real live gamblers wouldn't be frightened by a crowd of two. Or even if they would, they'd enjoy it. He knew it, and he let me know he did without wasting his breath. He was very good.


"What's in it for me?"


This may sound as a stereotype, but I had to ask it. For several reasons. One, it was another test. Only art critics can afford to sneer at stereotypes, and only fools will take them seriously. And, two, like I said, I was a professional. It was my livelihood we were discussing. Though discussing might be too big a word for our conversation. The man's reply consisted of one word: "Spoils." That was all. And it meant he would give his winnings to me. I was baffled. But I would be an idiot not to accept it. Also, I would be an idiot to try and figure out his reasons, so I didn't. I just nodded.


The man let out a long, slow breath. He was bloody good. By the way he removed his sunglasses, I could tell he had felt as if his life had depended on my answer. And yet, I hadn't noticed it earlier, not even when he had offered me all he could gain in the night. A faint wail of a police siren came from outside, followed shortly by the slightly different song of an ambulance. Another accident, on this not-yet-stormy night. If I had made a mistake, it was too late to back out of it now. And, frankly, I was intrigued. It's not often one meets a mystery in a job where the ability to read people in and out is compulsory. And, apart from that sigh that I took to be a thanks to me more than an unguarded moment, my new partner was a complete blank.


"My name's Gordon," I said.


"Jack."


We didn't shake hands. If we wanted to take the group at the bar, we couldn't afford to show that we'd just met. We exchanged looks. His eyes were appropriately dark and slightly slanted, if it weren't for his long, fine jaw I'd have given him some Asian blood; even like this, he seemed somehow foreign. But not any sort of foreign I could place. He lowered his eyelids and leaned back, letting me run the show. And so the game began.


It went more than good. It went the only way it could have gone, with the two of us pitched against half a dozen rich, pampered kids. The only way it could have gone on a night like that. The only way it could have gone, period. Jack dealt the cards with a dreamy expression of a lover caressing his mistress' arm in a public place, but played with the stone concentration of a man trying to win his soul back from the devil. He was more than just good. He was unbelievable. He seemed in his thirties, the blank face was smooth and uncreased, the fingers that handled the cards so tenderly were unmistakably a young man's. Yet there was so much experience in every one of his movements that he couldn't have accumulated it in less than half a century. Unless, of course, he played every day of his life, every waking hour.

Which may well have been true, I realised after a while. Winning meant nothing to him, absolutely nothing. When the time came to let the cows win a little, he discarded aces in pairs without a twinge of regret. It seemed that, if it weren't for me, he wouldn't be trying to win at all. Only the playing itself was important. Only the game. It made sense: why else would he offer me to double my winnings without taking any of it for himself? He must be a card freak, I decided about halfway through the game. A dreadfully rich car freak, who needed the... I was about to say, the excitement, but that couldn't be it, could it? I mean, where's the thrill in a game you don't particularly care to win? Playing cards isn't like heroin, so that after a while you need it but not enjoy it. Those who can't live without playing keep on getting high on it. Or low. Jack didn't do either. And yet, I could almost see his adrenaline rise every time the cards were dealt... and then immediately disappear again, no matter what the outcome. It was as if he was hoping something would happen, and kept on getting disappointed. Though, what it was that he expected, I couldn't imagine.


Finally, the cows were milked to the bone. And pleased about it, too. It's usually like that: people who don't know how to spend their money like losing it almost as much as they like winning, provided they believe to be having a good time of it. And, between Jack and myself, these had to believe it. On opposite ends of the table, in our dark suits, our signets flashing, we seemed like priests closing some sort of magic circle. At least that was what one of the women told me on leaving. She was the one freshly introduced to her escort, and her lashes were fluttering invitingly to both Jack and me, but we politely declined the offer. It doesn't do to mix business with pleasure, especially an uncertain one. She left her card on the table, anyway, and when they were finally gone, I picked it up.


"D'you want this?" I asked. Jack shook his head, and I tore the card in two and threw it away. It was near dawn, the sky was beginning to fight its way through the blinds, not yet sunlit but already cleared of the night's inkiness. Heavy clouds were still hanging around like late guests on a lousy party, in small, slowly decreasing groups. It was going to be a nice day, I almost regretted I would spend most of it sleeping. But gamblers need their rest like other people, and I was beginning to need mine very badly. It isn't as easy as it sounds, keeping your concentration sharp and all of your muscles under control for a long time. I finished my juice, frowned at the trace of vodka I could taste in it and looked at Jack.


"Shall we go?"


He nodded wordlessly. The night was showing on him, too, his hair fell over his forehead and there were creases on his suit. Suddenly, he seemed so strange, I couldn't and still can't explain it, he seemed too young, fragile, tender, and at the same time old and tired. A bit like those starved children you see on TV. A very little bit, mind you. I found my hand rising to touch his shoulder, confused into offering comfort. And he put his face in his hands and started crying like a baby.


"Ohmygod" was my first, unoriginal reaction. I withdrew my arm, half-afraid I may have hurt him somehow (ridiculous, and I knew it, but still) and sat on the edge of the table, trying to think of something better to say. Nothing came up, so I resorted to touching again and put a very gentle hand on his head.


"What...?" I tried at first, but realised his despair must be much too deep to bear explaining. "Is there anything I can do?" I amended, more out of embarrassment, I'm afraid, than any more virtuous sentiment.


Slowly, Jack raised his eyes and looked at me. For a very long time, it seemed. Then he sighed.


"Maybe," he murmured. "Maybe there is."


"What?"


He wiped his face with the back of his hand, like a boy. "You can play with me."


For a second, I was confused, uncertain whether it was possible that I had understood him correctly.


"You mean the cards?"


"That's exactly what I mean."


"But... why?"


Maybe it wasn't the gentlest way of putting it. But I simply couldn't find another one. Jack's lips spread in a suggestion of a smile.


"You won't believe me if I tell you."


I glanced at the window, for no good reason. The room became abnormally clear in my mind, even the parts of it I couldn't see. The empty champagne bottles, the scattered cards, the juice-smeared glasses, the overflowing ashtrays, the shabby blinds, patches of dirt in the high corners of the walls, ash on the floor, the lingering aroma of perfumes gone stale on somebody's skin, everything seemed sharp and mysterious at the same time. It's not such a strange phenomenon: stay up long enough and you'll see it happen. I could smell the morning air creeping in through the closed windows, and it hurt my lungs. It was the kind of moment when hearts open like shirts. Perhaps that was why I said, feeling confident, "I'll believe you."


Jack frowned, unconvinced. There were traces of tears on his cheeks still, and they glittered like plastic.


"I need to go back," he said at last.


"Back where?"


"Back home. Don't ask me where it is, because I can't tell you in any words you'd understand."


"What have the cards got to do with it? D'you want to try and win my spoils from me?"

"I don't need the money. I just need the cards."

"The cards? You want to take them with you?"

He shook his head. "I need them to take me home."

He had been right. I didn't believe him. Hell, I couldn't even understand him. "What do you mean?"


"Just what I said. I'm... from someplace else." The way in which he said it made it clear he didn't mean Lithuania, or even Venus. "To return there, I need to mould Chance."

"Sorry?"

"I mean chance as in probability. I need to twist it a certain way."

"Like cheating?"

"There's no way you can cheat probability. You just have to wait for it to happen."

"What?"

"A certain disposition of cards."

"And that's why you play? To get a specific hand?"

"Not just me. Two more hands are required."

"And then what? You chant and disappear in a wisp of smoke?"

"You don't believe me."

Of course I didn't. But his despair was genuine enough. I sighed and tried to lose the sarcasm.

"Alright. You don't trust me, you don't want to tell me. It's okay by me."

"But I am telling you!"

"You're a Zelazny fan, aren't you?"

"What's a zelazny?"

"You don't know?"

"No."

It was the truth. Don't ask me how I knew it - professional secret. But know it I did. He was, actually, telling the truth. I hated to admit it, but I believed him. I had no choice. And if I believed that, I had to believe the other part, too. After all, it was six in the morning. Nobody lies convincingly at six in the morning, after a sleepless night. My head wanted to ache very badly, but it had no force. I sat on a chair and took a deep breath hoping I'd wake up. I didn't, of course.

"Fine," was all I could say.

"I'm sorry."

It was a ridiculous thing to say, only I didn't laugh. I was too busy thinking.

"Why play?"

"What?"

"Why not just deal the hands you need? You know what they are, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Then why not deal them and go?"

"It wouldn't work. I told you, they have to happen. Just like that. Chance."

Something else was bothering me, too.

"Can they happen at all?"

"Oh, yes."

"Then they must have happened before. There must have been at least one single game in the history of mankind where the hands you need had been dealt. Why didn't the people in it disappear without a trace, or whatever is supposed to happen to you?"

"Holding the hand isn't enough. You have to know how to use it."

"So you wanted to come here?"

"Yes."

"Only?"

"Only I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know you didn't know how to use Chance. I didn't know I'd end up depending on the cards."

"So you didn't come by cards?"

"No."

I didn't want to know any more.

"Been waiting for the hand long?"

"Too long."

"Okay."

I got up and went towards the front room of the bar. Jack looked at me worriedly.
"Where are you going?"

"To get your third hand. Brian!"

Brian is the owner of "Tony's." Well, you can't very well imagine an interesting bar called "Brian's", can you?

"What?" came the sleepy answer.

"I need you to do me a favour."

"Now?"

"'Fraid so."

Brian is a nice person. He shuffled over to us and landed into an empty chair. "What?"

"Play with us."

He laughed. "You crazy? I wouldn't play against you for a million."

"Not against. With."

"Meaning?"

"No bets, no nothing. Just playing."

"For fun?"

"Sort of."

"Now?"

"Yes."

If we didn't start now, the morning would come and I was afraid I'd stop believing Jack, I was afraid we'd all go up in smoke, I didn't know what I was afraid of but I was afraid anyway. Slowly, Brian's eyes made a turn of the room and stopped on Jack's face.

"You in this too?"

Jack nodded. His expression was again the same blank it had been while the game had been on. Brian shifted his gaze to me.

"This isn't some kind of a trick or something."

It wasn't a question, so I didn't answer it. Brian took off his barman's jacket and put his elbows on the table.

"You deal," he said, and I did.

 

There are fifty-two cards in a pack. Fifteen cards are dealt every time. From each hand of five, one to five cards can be changed, twice. You feel like knowing the number of possible different hands, you figure it out. But I'll give you a hint: it takes a very, very long time to play them all. Plus, you have to take into account the laws of probability. You know, that thing with the monkey who types out Hamlet in the first try. Or eventually. Or anything in between.

Anyway, Brian made us sandwiches five or six times, I don't remember. We all made coffee, in turns, dozens of times. Eliott, who's the daytime bartender, brought us cigarettes a few times. I'd said I don't really like to smoke, but habit is a strong force. Anyway, we played. If it had been for money, somebody would have been rich today. Brian's not all that bad, for all that he pretends he can hardly keep the cards in his hand.

To keep the things as normal as possible, we played for toothpicks. There was an enormous lot of them on the table, later, and some on the floor. I know I chewed on one for a while, trying to live down the nauseating feeling that comes after the third pack you've smoked on an empty stomach. I drank an awful lot of orange juice, and a whole bottle of vodka as well. Brian's drink is bloody mary, and he must have used his week's supply. Jack drank three coffees and a bottle of mineral water. We ate some chocolate, too, I knew by the empty papers when I helped Brian to clear up. But that was when it was all over. When Jack had gone.

For he did go. After I don't know how long, it happened. And so quickly we almost didn't notice it. He changed two, I remember that. I was dealing again, and I slid them to him over the table almost without looking: my hands were so used to their movements they didn't need my control. I looked at my own hand for a while, then decided I'd keep it. I thought it might not be the best thing to do, but it could have been worse, too. Brian took three, then one, and put two toothpicks on the heap in the middle. Jack followed and raised two. We followed. With toothpicks, who cares?

I'm lying. I did care. Professional reflex. But I was curious, too. The blank expression on Jack's face wasn't all that blank any more. It was worried, and I wanted to see why. And then, it was there. Our hands were all open. Jack looked at them and reached out for the toothpicks. And then he smiled, the way people smile who have just been granted pardon from an abominable death.

"Thank you," he whispered. And then he was gone. That was all.

Brian and I sat there for a while, wordlessly. Then he got up.

"Well," he said, just a trifle uncertainly, "I guess this is it."

"Yes."

"We better do something about this place - it's a mess."

He bent and started picking up the papers on the floor. I went to the front and came back with a tray to take the glasses away. Automatically, I gathered the cards together. Jack's hand was still lying as he had left it. I'm not going to tell you what was in it. But there was a jack of spades. And no, he wasn't smiling. Yet, somehow, he seemed content.