The Free Fiction feature is back! I’ve been moving house over the last couple months and this was one of the things that fell by the wayside during the madness, but the madness has ended (at least, the logistical madness. Hopefully my personal madness will continue for a good long while).
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.
So he hung around, hoping he’d catch another show.
The crowd filed away. Some buying cards, some not. Before long Peter was alone with the magician-cum-vendor.
“What,” Peter asked, incensed on the magician’s behalf. “They just gonna all leave you like that?”
“Show’s over,” he said with a shrug. “Why are you still here?”
“Well I…uh…I guess I just gots to know.”
“Know what? Twenty five…good..that’s…” He was counting the loot against his inventory.
“How you did that.”
“What? Sold twelve packs of cards? With a magic show.”
“No, the trick.”
“Oh, that. Years and years of practice, kid. Started working on it when I was about…I’d say ten years younger than you.”
“Oh yeah,” Peter crossed his arms over his chest. “And how old was that? You know, exactly?”
“Seven.” The magician didn’t even look up.
“How’d you know that?”
“Tricks of the trade kid.”
“Come on. I did my first force when I was five. There wasn’t any way you coulda done that—she coulda lied and screwed it all up. They do sometimes,” like those kids at the birthday party Peter had done last summer before he swore off birthday parties forever. “and there weren’t no way it was multiple outs. That ending was too good. So how’d you do it?”
“Squawk all you want, Pete. I’m not telling.”
“What? Wait. How’d you know my name?”
The magician didn’t even look up. He just kept counting his money.“Same way I know that you’re having a hell of a time keeping your grades up while your Grandpa is dying at that sick shack down the road over there,” he pointed down past the pawn shop, toward the mountain rising out of the desert five miles distant. Gramp’s hospital was dead on that line, another three blocks down. “And your girlfriend is getting sick of you canceling dates on her. She’s gonna dump you next week, by the way. Figured it’s only fair to warn you.”
Peter puffed up his chest. “Hey, man, you been following me?” He wasn’t the type to pick fights, but sometimes being tall did most of the trick. Looking badass was almost as good as being a badass in front of someone who didn’t know you from anywhere.
He shook his head.
“So what gives?”
“It’s all in the cards.” He tossed a deck to Pete while he started packing the contents of the table into a valise living below the fold-em-up rig.
Peter caught the deck, looked at it. For as beat-up as it was—and it was, with white frayed paper spots showing through the threadbare ink anywhere there was so much as the suggestion of a corner in the card-paper box—whoever designed it hadn’t exactly skimped on the style. It was all line-art and decco whorls, the kind of over-ornate stuff you’d expect to see in the New Yorker downtown, if they hadn’t let the place go to pot with the plaster falling off the fixtures.
“Wow. These must be, like, a hundred years old.”
“Where’d you get ’em all?”
“The boss bought a big load of them off someone, clearing out an estate. He had a collection. The valuable ones go under glass. The ones that just look cool, he hired me in to move.” He started collapsing the table.
“Wait, you haven’t sold ’em all yet…”
“Have you seen the cops in this town, kid?”
“Stop calling me kid.”
“Sorry, Pete.” The table broke in half, snapped down on itself, like the magician had released some kind of spring. He set it down on its edge, reached in between two of the folded panels, and pulled out a black plastic handle. “Gotta get going.”
One bit of luggage in each hand, he started toward the parking lot on the far side of the building.
Peter paced him. “Wait, wait, come on, wait.”
The magician didn’t wait. Just walked all the way to a broken-down Dodge turned paste-red by years of the desert’s merciless sun.
Finally the magician said “What? Look, kid, I got places to be. I gotta drop the loot to the boss and get on to this birthday party…”
“Ugh. I’ve done birthday parties. They suck.”
“Yeah, well,” the magician heaved the table into his back seat. It barely fit, and took a bit of maneuvering to fit through the door that, to be perfectly fair, was too small for any reasonably-sized human to get into without some serious appendage origami. “When you’re doing this for a living, you don’t get to turn down a gig just cause it sucks. Look.” He slammed the door shut, leaned on the car, looked Pete up and down. “Pete. You seem like a good kid. But I don’t got time worth shit even for bad kids. My boss is waiting. Your grandpa’s waiting. So bottom line it for me, then you and me can both go get on with our lives and pretend this was just a pleasant little chat.”
Peter felt that cold terror grip his heart again, as all the other parts of him flushed hot. Having someone look at him like that, having someone act like something wrong was his fault? That was the kind of look that got followed by fists, and sometimes beer bottles, and long nights hiding up in the tree in the back yard.
And this guy wanted a bottom line? There were about a thousand. Like, how’d he do the trick, and where could Peter learn to do tricks like that? And what about everything he knew about Peter? Stuff he couldn’t have gotten from mentalist tricks or cold reads, not in a kazillion years. Peter’d read all the books, practiced it himself. He wasn’t very good yet, but that kinda thing took decades and that was okay, but…
“I want to do tricks like that. Like the dove. And that whole cold read thing you did.”
“Ah.” A mischievous twitch fluttered at the edge of the magician’s mouth. He nodded at the deck he’d thrown Peter. “That deck there?”
“The trick’s in that deck. That very one. Deal yourself a flush, make a wish. It’s gotta be a small wish. Big wishes go south fast, don’t ask me why. And it’s gotta be an honest flush, too. And it only works on red. And it only works once per suit. Two to a customer.”
“Oh really. And you wished for master mentalism?”
“Oh hell no.” He held up his right hand, showed it empty. Pulled his sleeve up. Pinned his left hand behind his back. Then he snapped his fingers, and fire sprouted from his palm like he’d been holding flash paper—and then the glow cleared, and a rat sat in his just-empty hand. “I asked for real magic. For shows only.”
“That was your first wish?”
“No. That was my second.”
“What was your first one?”
“Too big.” The magician closed his hand. Blood trickled from his fist. Then he opened it again, and his palm was completely clean. “Have fun, kid. And good luck.”
If Peter hadn’t seen that last demonstration, with his own eyes, and known what to look for, and not been able to see it, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
But he’d been doing magic—real magic, illusions, not the fairy-tale stuff you read about in story books—since he’d seen his first card trick when he was three. He started out with the rings and matchbox drawers, then moved into cards as soon as his hands were big enough to manipulate them.
And he’d never seen anything like that. Never even read about it in a book.
Maybe it was worth a shot.
It had to be a natural deal, the man said, but he could try dealing a stacked deck just to be sure.
It’d give him something to do while he was with Gramp this afternoon.
Good thing too, since Gramp was asleep when he got there and had been since ten this morning.
Boring puke green room up to about three feet, then white up to the ceiling. Cheap linoleum tile on the floor—easy to clean up—two torchiers for mood lighting. An IV tree, an adjustable hospital bed, two folding chairs. The place couldn’t have felt more institutional if it had the word Institute in its name.
And Gramp snoring away softly right in the middle of it all.
Peter wasn’t sure which was worse—Gramp being asleep, or Gramp being awake. When he was asleep, he looked a lot like he was dead, which he would be soon, no matter what anybody did. But when he was awake, he was pale and weak and always frustrated. He knew how tied down he was, and he tried like hell not to look like it bothered him, but Gramp had been the only man Peter had ever known who had any real sense of dignity. Gramp had taught Peter what the word meant, and that had kept Peter out of a lot of trouble when all his other friends from the neighborhood got all out of hand and into running guns and drugs and trying to make a quick buck.
All the other men Peter had ever known were part of the same world. His Dad, who was dead now. His older brother. His Mom’s boyfriends. About the only one who wasn’t anymore was his cousin Wendell, and Wendell had gone to work for the casinos because, in his words, he was “too much a chicken shit to strap one on and go fight the man.”
And Gramp held onto his dignity even here, even when other people had to wipe for him, and they had him pissing into a bag, and he could barely lift his own arms on bad days. But it cost him, and Peter could see that cost in the red rims around his blind eyes, and the shame they showed anytime he realized that he’d mis-guessed where to look while he was talking to Peter.
It was like watching the Statue of Liberty rusting itself to death. And there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Just watch it fall down.
But, even if no one else would do it, maybe especially if no one else would do it, he figured he owed it to Gramp to come and hang out with him. Gramp could sleep, and tell stories. Peter could do his homework, as much as he could stand, and avoid whatever loser-of-the-week Mom was following around.
Peter used Gramp’s stainless steel tray table, lowered so that it was a comfortable height for the folding chair he sat on, as his desk. But today, instead of homework, he dealt cards.
First he fanned them through, stacked them up, and dealt himself a royal flush of hearts.
Now he had to wish for something. He didn’t have any idea what to wish for. But if he actually had two wishes in this pack of cards, he could afford to waste one on a test. Two wishes were like two lottery tickets—twice the chance to lose a buck for no good reason, so why not have fun with it?
Peter held up the pinky finger on his left hand. “I wish this finger was green.”
So maybe it did have to be an honest hand.
Or maybe it was just a way for a jerk in a leather jacket to give him the brush-off.
Only one way to find out.
For the next hour, he dealt poker hands. One hand to himself, one into a blind. Then he played both sides of the table, so he made sure he didn’t miss out.
He played against himself for points, just so the cards would think there was a real game going.
What the cards would think? What kind of shit am I thinking?
Still, better safe than sorry.
When Gramp actually woke up enough to say something, Peter’s back was to him. He just about jumped out of his own skin.
“Practicing your cards, Rocky?” Gramp always called Peter “Rocky.” Said it was from the Bible, and also a damn good movie. Peter didn’t mind—it sounded cooler than his real name, at any rate.
“Yeah.” Peter was in the middle of a deal. Moved back to the more sociable side of the table where he could see Gramp.
“Got any new card tricks?” Gramp smiled. It was a warm smile, and a warm voice, but when he thought he was looking at Peter he was actually looking at the wall behind and to Peter’s right. Hadn’t been so long ago when those eyes had smiled at Peter for real, and actually seen what they were smiling at. Before the strokes, and the heart attacks, and the cancer going everywhere.
“Been working on a new one,” he kept dealing. “The multiple outs is getting me, though. I can’t remember which ending goes with which twist.”
“Show me.” Gramp smiled the kind of smile that someone with no poker face smiles when they hope you’ll believe them.
“Sure,” Pete choked. God I wish you could really see, Gramp. You’d be impressed. “Okay…let’s see…just give me a sec here…” Pete fumbled with scraping up the unplayed hands. He turned them over to fold them back into the pack and get a proper shuffle going. He had to shuffle upside down for this one to work, at least at this point. He hadn’t figured out a better way to keep track of the seven cards he needed to track for this one yet—that came at a later stage. He’d need to learn tactile marking to get the trick down exactly. But for practicing the routine, this was good enough.
“Oh hell.” He noticed, after he folded them in, that he’d dealt himself a natural diamond flush. He could’ve tried his test wish. He’d just have to do it again, at home, sometime. Gramp was awake now, and actually alert, and that didn’t happen very often anymore.
“Okay, pick any two cards.” Peter fanned them out in front of his grandfather.
Gramps reached for them. Found them first try. Confidently picked one out. Then another.
“I got ’em.”
“Okay, memorize them. Do you need me to read them for you?”
“No,” he squinted, making a show of it. “No, I got ’em fine, I think.”
“Don’t tell me what they are. Slip them back into the pile here…” Peter accepted them into the deck, and didn’t do any special tactile positioning or marking on them. There were only six cards they could actually be, because of the way he’d handled the shuffle. The technique amounted to a narrow-field force. Really hard to pull off, but really impressive when you did.
He’d been watching as he stacked the deck. He was pretty sure that Gramp had the queen of spades and the three of hearts. Now all he had to do was lose all six of the forced cards in a very calculated way, and hide them on himself. That required some sleight of hand that he was still working on.
Good thing Gramp couldn’t see. If he dropped a card on the floor he’d be able to sneak down and pick it up.
“Hey, hey what’s that move there? You just dropped a card into your lap!”
Peter stopped shuffling. He just about dropped the whole deck.
“You can see me?” Peter looked into his grandfather’s eyes.
His grandfather looked right back. “Well, yeah. It comes and goes.”
“But it’s been gone for two weeks.” Peter’s vision was getting blurry. He felt pressure building up behind his sinuses. Don’t lose it, man. Don’t start crying like a pussy. Just roll with it. Poker face time. Be cool. It’s all part of the show.
“Has it really? Doesn’t seem like that long.”
“They’ve had you asleep for a lot of it.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess they would. God I hate this bed.”
“You mean it really worked?”
“Oh, uh…” Peter flushed hot again. God, he hated having no nerve. Every single stupid time any adrenaline hit his system, he just froze up like that.
But he wasn’t going to lie to Gramp, even with a story as stupid as “a strange guy gave me magic cards and I wished your sight back.”
Gramp listened the whole time. Really listened. Eye contact, everything. That made it worth the adrenaline. To see Gramp was still really there, and that he really still cared and…and that he could see again.
Almost like everything was gonna be all right.
When Peter was done, Gramp just said: “Show me another trick.”
So he did. He showed Gramp every trick he knew.
And then they played poker. Used to be they’d play for M&Ms, but Gramp wasn’t allowed to eat M&Ms, so they played for imaginary M&Ms. Peter kept track of them with a pencil and paper.
Almost until visiting hours ran out. Because God only knew whether Gramp would still be able to see Peter tomorrow afternoon.
“I gots time for one more hand, Gramp, then I gotta go. They’re gonna kick me out of here.”
“Okay. Deal ’em up, Rocky. Let’s see if I can’t get your whole pile this time.”
Peter dealt. Texas Hold-em. Five up. Two down. No reason to draw things out with card buys when they didn’t have anything real to buy with. This kind of game was all about the final showdown anyway.
Pete dealt the table five face up. A ten of hearts, an ace of hearts, a ten of spades, a jack of hearts, and a six of diamonds. One natural pair on the table, a lot of other chances for some mischief, especially playing aces high.
Then he dealt the hole cards, set the deck aside, and picked up his two cards.
And his breath caught.
His hand showed a king and queen.
Those, plus the hearts on the table, made for his second and final red royal flush.
He panicked. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t even remember his name. He didn’t want to have to pick a wish, right here in front of Gramp. He didn’t even know what he wanted that counted as “small.” And there were no takebacks on this. If he wished for something big and it turned nasty, he would never be able to wish it away, or modify it, or anything.
“What’s wrong, Rocky? You just turned white.”
“I, uh…” Peter put his cards down face up. Looked at Gramp.
“Your other wish?”
“Well, come on, son, make the wish.”
“I don’t know what to wish for.” He looked at Gramp blankly.
“New car? College tuition? Come on, boy, if this really works, think big!”
“I can’t. It has to be small. That’s what the guy said…”
“Ah. Small’s hard. The small decisions, they’re the hardest in life.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m getting that.” Peter thought for a minute. Tried to get his head in order. Everything he wanted was big. The only things he understood were big things. Because all the small things in life sucked, and he just wanted to get away from them, and the only way to do that was to wait another year until he was old enough to move out and work for a living, and then hold on till he was old enough to work in the casinos.
He didn’t have anything he wanted that was small…
But maybe Gramp did.
Gramp’s world was small now. Maybe a small thing would make a huge difference.
“Gramp? I…um…what would you wish for?”
“That’s not the point son, it’s not my wish.”
“It is. I’m giving it to you.”
Gramp looked at Peter for a long time. “You sure?”
“Yeah. I’m sure. Anything you want, as long as it’s small. Tell me what it is. I’ll wish for it.”
“I…” Gramp tried to protest. His eyes were leaking down the sides of his face. Then he breathed deep, and collapsed. “You really will?”
“Yes. Whatever you want.”
Gramp nodded. “Okay. I want you to wish that, tonight, Nurse Emerson forgets to turn my monitors on.”
“What? But then if you have another heart attack…”
“Then they won’t know till it’s too late.”
Peter couldn’t say anything. He just stared at his grandpa.
“I…I’d be killing you.”
“Son, Rocky.” Gramp grabbed Peter’s hand. “It hurts. Everything hurts. And it’s never gonna get any better. Please do this for me.”
Peter tried to find some way to protest.
But he couldn’t.
So he stood up, wrapped his arms around Gramp, and said, “I love you, Gramp.”
“I love you too, Rocky. Go out and kick some ass with your magic.”
“I will. I wish Nurse Emerson would forget to turn your monitors on tonight.”
“Thanks, son. You’d better go now.”
Peter let his grandpa go, gathered up his cards, packed them into the box, slipped the whole pack in his pocket. He gave the old man’s delicate, papery hands one last, loving squeeze, then slung his backpack over his shoulder, shuffled out of the room, and closed the door behind him.
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