During the first week every month, you will find a new free short story here for your reading pleasure–after which, it will diminish to a sample. For March 2017, I’m proud to present you with Pick A Card, my newest Lombard Alchemist tale. Creepy, dark, and filled with macabre laughs and doses of unexpected wonder, these stories are for all of you who loved The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, or the short fiction of Ray Bradbury.
So join me now as we follow Peter, an amateur illusionist running an errand on his way home from school, minding his own business when he hears a voice crying…
“Pick a card. Any card you like. Don’t let anyone else see it.” The street performer’s carnival-barker-style presentation drew Peter, backpack and all, from the well-worn rut in the concrete that stretched from Rock Island High School to the Hot Zone Convalescent Hospital at the far end of town.
Peters feet had worn that rut all by themselves. Every day, they got a little heavier.
A small colony had gathered around the performer—a magician—on the cold crumbling concrete. The crowd was thick enough that Peter—despite his height—couldn’t see well enough to follow the unusual act.
It was a gambler’s town. Card games and magicians came with the territory, but normally both things stayed behind the mirrored plate glass of one of the city’s aging casinos. The town’s pride and sin out here on the sidewalk for everyone else to see? Not normal. Maybe even abnormal. The cops usually busted these scenes up. Peter was never sure if the shows were actually illegal, or if the casino owners—who owned the police department, too—just didn’t like the competition.
Kids in school universally held to the latter story.
“That’s it, that’s it,” rang the magician’s ragged voice, “now slip the card back into the deck.”
Since the magicians all worked in the clubs, and you had to be twenty-one to get in to see a show, this was a chance to get a good look at another magician up close and personal, instead of having to try to catch them on TV specials, where you never could trust that they weren’t using editing tricks.
Trying to be as delicate as he could—because the last thing he wanted was to get punched in the face or accused of trying to pick someone’s pocket—he found the little empty spaces between the tight-pressed flannel and nylon, and pushed his way in, a bit at a time, till he reached the second row of onlookers.
The magician wasn’t one of those crusty gray-haired suit-and-tie white mofos. He had close-shorn woolly hair, the kind of face that looked like he had ancestors from half the countries on earth, and he wore a smart brown leather jacket with orange piping over a slate-blue button-up shirt. Nothing that would claw your eyes out, but the kind of clothes that said Look here. I know my business, brother, so you’d better take me seriously, or you’ll bring the fury.
The man stood behind a plain table with a Three-Card Monte setup, two stacks of well-worn antique card decks still in their original packaging, and the kind of confident panache that made him seem to glow, like he was a card-god stepped through from a neighboring universe, and not quite human at all.
But the showman wasn’t tossing the Monte cards. He was making a show of shuffling the deck, then stopped and said, “Hold on a minute, how are any of you going to believe this if I’m the one who does it? We need a volunteer…you.”
The magician pointed at Peter with the deck.
Peter flushed hot. Suddenly wished he could hide—something his six-foot-three-inch frame never let him do, no matter how much he tried. All those eyes on him, they made him feel as if he wasn’t wearing a stitch and looked like a plague victim besides.
Two deep breaths. A couple nervous gulps. Peter stretched out his spindly brown hand and took the deck.
“Fantastic,” said the magician.
“So what do I do?’
“Whatever you want.”
“Um..that’s not very helpful.”
“This woman here has chosen a card. Make sure I can’t find it.”
“But I don’t know which card it is and…oh.” Peter flushed again, felt like an idiot. But he did know how to shuffle. He’d been into card magic for years. And since last summer he’d been practicing every day. He needed a deft hand at a shuffle for the day when he was old enough to get a job as a dealer at the casinos. Best paying work in town—with all the tips, if he was popular, he could do well enough to pay for a car, and then for college, with just a couple years work. If he was careful and didn’t blow it all on the tables himself (an occupational hazard his cousin Wendell had learned about the hard way and never stopped warning him off about).
Peter held the cards in his right, threw little piles of them into his left. Then, with a feel for them, he risked a tent-shuffle, then a one-handed cut, then another tent-shuffle, then another toss-shuffle, then a final tent-shuffle.
“All right, all right,” the magician said with a laugh, “enough showing off. Hand them here.”
The magician pushed both his sleeves up, showing bare arms below the elbows, then flashed both sides of his splayed hands to the audience, before gingerly accepting the deck from Peter, touching it with his fingertips only.
“Now, ma’am, do you remember what your card was?”
A woman standing in front of Peter, and slightly to his left, whose face he couldn’t see, spoke up:
“Yes, I do.”
The magician squared the deck off and set it in his open, left palm, all cards face down. He swept his hand under the noses of all those in the front row, so they could get a good look at them. They had taupe backs, weathered-looking, like parchment, with a dove perched on an olive branch.
As he did this, the magician dropped his right arm down to his side.
“Now, loud enough for everyone to hear, can you tell me the name of your card, please?”
“The two of diamonds.”
“The two of diamonds you say?”
“Okay, I don’t know if this is going to work, but…” The magician’s right hand leapt up from his side. Faster than Peter could track, it clapped hard into the left hand, and the two of them pushed forward, as if to scatter confetti into the crowd.
Confetti did, in fact, scatter into the crowd.
Along with a full-sized, properly grown dove, which unfurled its wings and flapped at the crowd, hovering more or less in place, revealing one red diamond on the underside of each wing’s pinfeathers.
“Is that your card?”
The woman squealed with delight. The crowd cheered. Peter found himself clapping—he hadn’t expected a street performer to be that good, especially this close up.
“Thank you, thank you. And if you liked that, please buy one of these lovely decks of cards. Perfect for all occasions. All vintage. We just got a big load of them and there just isn’t any room back in the warehouse…”
Peter looked at his watch. He really did have to get going. He was supposed to hang with Gramp this afternoon, like he did every afternoon.
But every day it was getting harder to make himself go.
And besides, Gramp couldn’t tell time anyway. Not with the way his eyes were. He’d have to ask somebody. He wouldn’t notice if Peter was five extra minutes late. Or ten.