Sam was deep in Spades territory when she got the call –the soft buzz in her coat pocket notifying her of the arrival of a new text. The subway car was full up of Manhattan commuters coming from or going to work. She anxiously tried to watch them all from her perch on the end of the seat. There were too many people. A man in a business suit held onto the metal pole in front of her and openly leered. When the jostling of the car caused him to sway into her, he kept his leg pressed against hers a little longer than was necessary.
That was the sort of attention that she could just ignore. Sam rolled her eyes and brushed back a lock of unruly auburn hair. She made a mental note to steal his wallet before the end of the ride.
But she was also pretty sure that two other Players had gotten onto the train at the last stop. And that was the sort of attention that could be deadly. There was that niggling in the back of her head that she had learnt to listen to –the increase in tension in the air that told her that trouble was brewing and that she wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Her phone buzzed again insistently.
“Hey, Remy… look what we got here,” Two young toughs shouldered their way through the press of people stopping right in front of her. Samantha groaned. She knew Remy. But worse than that, Remy knew her.
Remy leaned in close enough that the smell of his Axe Body spray clogged Sam’s nostrils. “You know what I feel like doing tonight, Marco?” his thin lips curled upward. “Clubbing.”
“Come on, guys,” Samantha raised a placating hand. “I’m just trying to get home. We’re all friends here, right? Our Suits are allied.”
“Our Suits?” Remy sneered, “You don’t have a Suit” he reminded her curtly. His voice dropped to a dangerous whisper. “I could kill you now and nobody would care.” The subway began to slow as it came into Fulton Street Station.
Marco raised an eyebrow at the threat. His lips pursed and he shuffled nervously. “I don’t know Remy…”
“Nobody would care,” he insisted harshly. “She’s just an Orphan.”
Samantha winced at the venom in his words. He was right though. She was an Orphan –just as she knew Remy himself had been until he’d recently been ‘paired’ by the Spades. “I know someone that would care,” she said softly looking passed the two of them and nodded. “That Transit Authority officer for one.”
The two of them turned together. And in that instant of inattention Samantha’s foot lashed out. An involuntary whimper escaped Remy’s lips but Sam didn’t pause to watch him crumple to the floor clutching himself. She was up and moving with barely time for a satisfied smirk. With a tug she pushed Mr. Business Suit into the path of a reaching Marco. They crashed together in a tangle of awkward limbs and Sam dove past them and out through the opening subway doors.
A moment later the crowd of people pushing into the car effectively cut off any pursuit. She watched Remy stand and struggle against the crowd for a moment before finally giving up. He crashed his fist ineffectually against the glass in frustration. The subway doors slid closed and Sam couldn’t resist offering a little wave to the departing train as it pulled out of the station.
Her interest shifted to the leather wallet now in her hand. She flipped it open with practiced ease and quickly removed the small wad of cash within. Mr. Business Suit would be paying for dinner tonight. Sam was proud that she’d remembered to lift it. It was important to keep the promises that she made to herself.
She dropped the wallet into the first trashcan that she passed. Only then did she remember to check her phone.
Sam’s uncle had often said that the history of the world was written in the Cards. When she was younger she’d thought it was just something that he’d liked to say. A favourite phrase no more meaningful than ‘a dime a dozen’ or ‘close but no cigar’. Now, she knew better. There was a secret history. One that ran parallel to the history she’d learnt about in school. Centuries old secrets hidden in plain sight. Written in the cards.
Uncle Dennis had played poker. Most Players did. Sam was carrying a well worn pack of Bicycles in her back pocket right now. And they all had their own superstitions seeking meaning in the flow of any game. A bad beat could be a harbinger for misfortune: A lucky River card an indication that a considered course of action would be fruitful. Who needed psychics when you had the Game? And Players would read a game like the ancient Romans had read the entrails of a sacrificed beast. They would run their mental fingers over every flop, every turn. They’d squeeze meaning from when the Big Stack got up to take a bathroom break or what everyone around the table was drinking when that Ace followed the Queen.
Little good it had done her Uncle though. “Never say anything in front of the cards that you don’t want them to remember,” he’d told her once. “The Cards are always listening.”
Samantha’s phone was an old style Nokia flip phone. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the newer smart phones. Far from it. It was just that she had the worst luck taking care of them. They slipped from her pockets with distressing ease. And they always seemed to land in such a way as to shatter the case exactly in the way that her carrier assured her was impossible. One had fallen into the toilet. And two had just disappeared. Gone so completely that the ‘Find My Phone’ app questioned whether they had ever existed at all.
“Lucky at cards, unlucky with phones,” her friend Leon had quipped. This would have been fine if it had been true but Sam wasn’t particularly lucky at cards either. She didn’t suck at them but she was sufficiently unlucky enough that her appearance at any of the dozens of floating poker games that she knew about was always welcomed with smiles and a chair.
It was Leon with his particular knack for bad timing that had texted her on the subway.
“WHT R U UP TO?” Leon texted almost exclusively in all-caps. This gave the impression that he was always shouting which made Samantha smile. Leon was a slight, unimposing figure. Years of uncomfortable stares had left him shy and introverted. His straw blond hair looked almost white on those rare occasions that he ventured out into the Sun –which was almost never given his condition. The technical term was ‘oculocutaneous albinism’ but neighbourhood children had come up with far more cruel descriptions.
“WANT 2 DO SMTHNG?”
“MEET AT KENTS?”
“?????” Even his question marks felt like they were being yelled at full volume.
Still Kent’s didn’t seem like a bad idea.
“k” she texted back.
‘Kents’ was actually a pub in Brooklyn called ‘The Black Rabbit’. It was a bit of a neighbourhood landmark with a cool Victorian-geek vibe. In theory it was safely inside Clubs territory -the owner was paired with the Clubs- but that was only a theory. The Spades had been quietly -and not so quietly- expanding their borders and influence over the past few years. There was no denying that they were the Dominant Suit and had been for more than a decade. But now they were starting to flex their muscle. And they had a lot of muscle to flex.
Of the four Great Suits the Clubs were uniformly seen as the weakest. It was true that you could look at any of the other three and tell what niche they had carved for themselves. The Diamonds had a great deal of influence in business and banking. There wasn’t a dollar that flowed through the city that they didn’t touch. The Hearts hid themselves among the social elites. They trafficked in rumour and gossip. They trafficked in celebrity and fame. And the Spades were descended from the Aristocracy. They were leaders and politicians. They were warriors.
Uncle Dennis had told her that the symbol of the ‘spade’ had once been a sword. “Or maybe a pike head,” he’d offered which had seemed silly to a much younger Samantha. Why would anyone want a fish head for a symbol?
“And what about the Clubs?” she’d asked.
“Well… in some places it was a leaf. In others, it was a hoe. It’s the symbol of the peasantry, of those that had to work the soil.”
“You don’t work the soil,” Samantha had protested. “Aunt Irene says you have the opposite of a green thumb and that every plant you look after dies.”
Uncle Dennis laughed and ruffled her hair. His fingers had smelt like tobacco. Supposedly he’d quit smoking the month before but everyone knew that he routinely snuck outside for a quick cigarette when he thought nobody was paying attention. “It’s symbolic, sweetie. Do you know what a symbol is?”
She nodded her head enthusiastically, “Something that stands for something else.”
He’d beamed proudly at her. “That’s right. If you think about it all the Royalty would starve if it wasn’t for the peasants growing their food. And they’d be naked if it wasn’t for the people that made their clothing.” He tapped a finger against his lips. “So what is it that the Clubs do that allows the others to do their thing? What is it that we grow?”
Samantha shrugged, “I don’t know.”
Uncle Dennis’ grin widened, “It’s the magic, sweetheart. Clubs grow the magic.”
‘Magic’ hadn’t stopped him from getting stabbed and bleeding out alone in a back alley in Queens so Samantha looked dubiously on any claim about how important or reliable this ‘magic’ might be.
The interior of the Black Rabbit was always on the dark side of dimly lit. In the evenings the blood red ceiling, wooden floors, and dark wood booths seemed to soak up what little light there was. Some people considered the lighting choices intimate and cozy. Samantha suspected that the staff just enjoyed watching strangers struggle to get their bearings. Tonight two of the fireplaces were lit adding their flickering flames and shadows to the mix.
There was a spattering of people inside the establishment when Sam entered and made her way toward the bar. She had no problem navigating the dim lighting. Her legs moved on learned muscle memory. From somewhere came the sound of a jenga tower collapsing and the resultant wave of groans and laughter. “Anybody here tonight?” she asked keeping her voice low.
The bartender rolled his eyes “Come on, Sam. You know the routine.”
“What’s the point in using a password, Kent? You know who I am. I’m in here at least once a week.”
Kent studiously polished the bar in front of the young girl. He would have whistled if he could have carried a tune. Instead he made a point of not meeting her eyes. He imagined they were stormy though. At least he hoped they were. When her blue eyes turned grey he knew that he had successfully gotten under her skin.
“Alright!” she exhaled in a puff of exasperation. The bar rag froze in its circular orbit of the counter. Samantha leaned in across the bar and whispered “Ploughshares into swords.” The bartender smiled and reached under the bar. There was an almost inaudible click. She would have missed it if she had not been expecting the noise “You can head down now.” He informed her with a dismissive wave.
“Send a pint of Dead Rabbit over?” she asked. Kent paused to turn and stare at her. An eyebrow arched. She caved against the weight of his smirk, “Okay… an ice tea?” After another moment of awkward silence he nodded. She retreated grateful to escape.
One of the signature features of the Black Rabbit were a series of deep closed in booths; high backed dark wood pews separated from the rest of the establishment by saloon style swinging doors. They offered a private –more intimate- experience. Sam slipped into the closest and shuffled all the way to the wall. She let her fingertips play over the wooden grain. Even knowing what she was looking for she almost missed it, a small raised club hidden in the whorls of the wood. She pressed on it and it recessed slightly. The wood panel slid open revealing a narrow passageway. Quickly she entered and closed the secret door behind her. It was dark. Darker even than the main room of the bar. And it was silent. The noise of the bar immediately cut off with the closing of the door. Cushioned against sound. She made her way by feel stepping carefully till her foot found the edge of the first stair leading down. Thirteen steps to the bottom and another door. It opened at her touch.
The ‘Clubhouse’ as it was affectionately called was a large single room Speakeasy originally opened for business back in the 1920s. Food and drink were still lowered from the ceiling on a creeky old dumbwaiter. Legend said that it was the only bar in New York City to never get raided during the Prohibition Era. And Samantha believed it. There was something about the uneven bare brick walls that said that they had never given up their secrets.
And there were a lot of secrets that they had heard over the years.
Arnold Rothstein, notorious gambler, bootlegger, and eventual crime boss was said to have imported Texas Holdem into NYC back in 1926, smuggled in along with his whiskey. It changed the Game forever and the first tournament was held here in the Clubhouse.
It was said that the ‘Jackpots Accord’ had been signed in this very room –the agreement that had cemented the alliance between the Spades and the Clubs. The Clubs had been stronger back then bolstered by the rise of Worker’s Unions. The Diamonds, hurt by the Stock Market collapse in 1929 and again by the death of their King in 1931, were in full retreat. It wasn’t long after that when the Spades became the Dominant Suit.
Now the Spades treated the Clubs like their underlings. But her Uncle had liked to remind her that hadn’t always been the case.
And it all started here.
Some patrons glanced up briefly as she entered but, suitably unimpressed by her arrival, they returned their attention to the various games of chance that they were involved in. Most of them were playing poker but the clack clack clack sound of a roulette wheel could be heard. The scattering of felt tables had the normal assortment of regulars around them with one exception.
That exception was one of the central poker tables where a small crowd had gathered to watch the play. Samantha did a double-take. That was Seven with the dealer button in front of him. It was pretty rare to see an actual Card out in public. But if Seven was here that meant…
“Jace!” she squealed racing up and throwing her arms around the back of an awkwardly lanky kid.
He stiffened slightly straightening within the circle of her arms. “Geez,” she said. “What have they been feeding you?” The last time she had seen Jace, they had been practically the same height. Now she had to crane her neck back to look up at him.
“Oh. Hey Sam,” he said turning. His smile was shy mostly showing in his dark brown eyes. “It’s the hormones.” His voice was noticeably deeper as well.
“How’s he doing?” Samantha asked nodding at Seven.
“Dad?” Jace turned back to the table. “He’s having fun. He’s been the short stack for almost an hour now.” Seven’s throaty chuckle rolled across the felt table like gathering thunder.
Jace sighed, “He’s about to double up again.”
“Wow,” grinned Sam. “That’s a hell of a tell.”
A collective groan rose up from the table as Seven raked in the chips. “It looks like you’re going to be here for awhile,” observed Sam. “Why don’t you join Leon and I at our table” she offered sympathetically.
Seven’s magic was supposedly endurance. He could drink like a fish. But Sam suspected that was probably more a product of his girth than any actual magic power. He was a good enough Player to make it to the final table in almost every tournament that he entered. Not quite good enough to win though.
Sam could see Leon standing by their table waving his hands enthusiastically to catch their attention. As though she didn’t know where their table was after all this time. She waved back just so he would stop.
Their regular table was hidden away in a corner of the room. Leon despairingly called it the Table of Misfit Toys. Sam was keenly aware of the more than occasional sidelong glances that were sent their way by people wondering just why they had been allowed into the Clubhouse at all. Sam knew that the reason she was tolerated was the same reason that she was occasionally looked at with scorn. Her Uncle had been the Two of Clubs. And that was a big deal.
There were thirteen “carded” members in each Suit. These were the people chosen by the King or Queen for their service or because they possessed a needed skill. Everyone else officially connected to the Suit was said to be ‘paired’ to that Suit or to a particular Card. There was a process for being ‘paired’ shrouded in mystery and ritual. First, you had to be sponsored. And in the case of both Leon and herself their sponsors had started that process and then had been unable to finish it leaving the two of them in a sort of legal limbo. Unable to continue. Not wanting to drop out.
Leon stood again when the two of them arrived at the table, “I wasn’t sure you were going to make it.”
“What? From across the room?” Sam chided gently.
“No. I meant…” Leon’s face flushed. Against his pale skin it looked like a painful rash. “Hey, Jace.”
“Hey,” Jace nodded sliding onto the bench.
Leon tried again, “I’m glad you made it.” He sat back down after Sam took her seat.
“It’s this or spend the evening with my parents,” she said. Both Jace and Leon gave sympathetic nods. Nobody at their table had the most ideal of family lives. Yet oddly, Sam’s was probably the most normal of the lot. Her parents had nothing to do with any of this. They didn’t know anything about Suits or Cards or the Great Game. They didn’t know about back room poker tournaments or hidden safe houses. They were painfully, remarkably, mundanely unaware. And Sam thought they were the better for it.
Sometimes she wished that she was like them but she knew that was a lie. From the day that her Uncle first began teaching her card games she knew that she’d wanted nothing else. She remembered that day -that moment- with painful clarity. Him, leaning across the dingy floral couch in their living room “Do you want to play?” he’d asked fanning the cards out between his fingers. She’d suddenly felt like she was falling off a cliff. All she could do was press her lips together and nod her head.
Of course her parents hadn’t been happy. They thought her Uncle was a shiftless gambler mixed up somehow in the more unsavory elements within New York City. “It’s just Go Fish,” he’d protested.
“Now. It’s just Go Fish.” they’d complained. “But we all know it won’t stop there.” And they’d been right.
During lunch period and after school he taught her other card games. And more. He taught her how to split deal and shuffle a card to the top. He taught her how to palm a chip and how to read a table. And he taught her how to do a bump and grab until she could pickpocket a cloud. If a cloud had pockets.
“You’re a natural, Sammie” he’d enthused tousling her hair.
It had been while sitting on that same ugly couch that her mother had told her of Uncle Dennis’ passing. “The police are treating it like a gang related murder,” she said holding Sam tightly. Even then Sam had been aware of the tone of her mother’s voice. A tone that said that something like this wasn’t as unexpected as it had seemed to Sam. As world-shattering.
He’d been found in a back alley in Queens surrounded by scattered cards and broken bottles. An illegal poker game gone wrong.
Later, sobbing into Jace’s shoulder at the Clubhouse, she’d heard that her uncle’s Card had not been on the body. Queens was deep in Heart’s territory. They’d stolen his Two of Clubs. And that made the murder something more than just a poker game gone wrong. It made the murder an act of war.
– – – – –
Sam took the pack of bicycles out of her pocket and tapped the cards into her palm. She fanned them out; a subconscious mirror of that moment so many years ago. “Pick a card,” she dared her friends.
Jace groaned, “Not this again.” Leon just shook his head smiling.
“Oh come on,” coaxed Sam. “Maybe you’ll get lucky this time.”
“I’m not betting any money,” he warned.
“Fine… if you want to be a chicken about it.”
Jace reached out but paused with his fingers an inch or so from the cards. “Aren’t you going to let me check the deck and shuffle?”
“If it’ll make you feel any better,” she allowed with a smile straightening the cards and handing the deck over. He accepted it gingerly like it might grow teeth.
Jace was the only Player that Sam knew who didn’t like to play cards. While her friend awkwardly shuffled the deck, Sam took the opportunity to glance past him and watch Seven from a distance. The man seemed so different sitting at the felt. In control. Having fun. Unconcerned by the fact that he wasn’t winning. When she looked back at Jace, he was staring at her and she could see the pain in his eyes.
“Just my luck getting a father whose magic power is stubbornness,” He offered the deck back to Sam with a half-smile.
She shook her head. “Just set it down on the table. I don’t want you complaining that I fixed the deck after you shuffled.” A sideways glance at Leon. “Are you satisfied that he shuffled the cards thoroughly?”
Leon leaned forward and tapped the top card with his knuckles. “Do your magic.”
Sam bobbled her head shoulder to shoulder cracking her neck, “Okay Jace, pick a card from anywhere in the deck.” After a moment of deliberation her friend pulled a card from the centre of the pile.
“Look at it but don’t show it to Leon. That way you know that he isn’t somehow signaling me.” She waited a moment. “You got it?”
“Yeah. I got it.” Jace frowned. “Should I put it back?”
“No. Hold onto it. But don’t let me see it.” She reached across the table and picked up the deck of cards. Sam slowed her breathing feeling the weight of the deck in her palm. She weighed it thoughtfully clearing her mind. “It’s the 2 of Hearts” she said at last.
“Get the Hell out of here!” Jace exclaimed, a mixture of surprise and consternation. “How do you do it?”
He threw the card down onto the table so that Leon could see that she had guessed right.
“It wouldn’t be a magic trick if I told you,” said Sam with a shrug. But the truth was she had no idea how it was done. About a year ago she’d noticed that she could pick up any deck of cards and tell if any were missing from it and which ones.
“There’s no denying you’ve got the Magic, Sammie.” Her Uncle had swallowed hard taking the trick far more seriously than it deserved.
“Big deal, Smokestack,” she’d teased him using his ‘poker name’. “So I can do some sort of subconscious jiggery-pokery with a deck of cards.”
“It is a big deal,” he’d insisted. “What did I tell you about not saying anything in front of the cards that you didn’t want known?”
“That the cards were listening,” she repeated dutifully.
“Well… maybe they’re not just listening. Maybe they’re also speaking. And you’ve got an ear tuned to their frequency.”
Three months later he was dead so if the cards were talking to her they weren’t saying anything worth repeating.
Sam gathered up the 2 of Hearts and put it back into the deck. She noticed that Leon was still staring at the table his mouth agape. “It’s not that impressive, Leon. You’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”
“It’s not that,” said Leon softly. “The 2 of Hearts… that’s the card my brother just got Paired with.”