Card Sharp — Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in (or are forthcoming from) Shimmer Magazine, Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Steampunk Tales, Shadows of the Emerald City, and Dreams of Decadence. He also writes about a variety of geeky topics for Tor.com, and about wine, beer, and spirits for FermentedAdventures.com. His writing has received Honorable Mentions in the prestigious anthology series The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and he is a graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop. In addition to writing, he has also narrated stories for the podcasts PodCastle and Starship Sofa. Learn more at www.rajankhanna.com.

Our next story takes us to the American south, a land of riverboats, muddy water, and playing cards.

Whether it’s card tricks and sleight of hand, telling the future or constructing a house of cards—since their invention, playing cards have been put to uses that transcend the simple games they were created for. Once, only the wealthy and powerful owned them—each deck a hand-painted commission, a sign of their status. In Quentin Ketterly’s world, however, it is the possession of a deck of cards that makes a person powerful in the first place.

Quentin is a gambler with a very special deck of cards and an appetite for vengeance. But, as the author says, we all deal with limitations, in whatever worlds we inhabit, and in particular, the choice between serving yourself and serving others can be a struggle. And when you’re caught between love, loyalty, and revenge, making the wrong decision can be a deadly one.

Here we give you a new take on the wizard’s spellbook, in which a single ace can beat a royal flush—if it’s the right ace, played at the right time.

CARD SHARP

by Rajan Khanna

By the time Quentin reached the Ketterly Riverboat, he was down to thirty-seven cards, not counting the two Jokers. He ran his index finger along the edge of the deck, tucked securely in his waistcoat pocket.

He was unarmed, not the kind of man who ever felt comfortable with a pistol, though he had once regularly carried a knife on his hip. Back then, his playing cards had been as disposable as everything else in his life: his women, his possessions, his inheritance.

But he mourned the loss of each of these cards. Eight had been lost to his training—the Twos and the Threes. He lost two during the trouble in Missoula when he’d been caught with that Ace—a normal Ace, mind you—up his sleeve. Another went escaping a mudslide. And in Odessa, Texas he’d lost three fending off thieves.

But that had been all prelude. To this. The riverboat.

He reached into his pocket and withdrew the Seven of Diamonds. The card flared like phosphorous in his hand, then disappeared in a wisp of smoke. He felt an ephemeral film coat his body. He moved from his hiding place behind some trees and moved down the walkway and to the ramp leading up to the riverboat.

He could feel the stares of the riverboat guards on him, even though he knew they could not see him. Using the Seven of Diamonds might have been overkill, but better safe than sorry. Still, his neck hair prickled at the idea that at the moment, their rifles could be trained on him, preparing to fire.

He made for a small washroom near the center of the main deck. As he approached it, the riverboat’s great paddlewheel began to move, churning the water in a great roar. With a lurch, the riverboat began to move, taking Roland Ketterly and his men down the Mississippi.

Quentin slipped through the washroom door, taking care to close it quietly and minimize his noise. Whatever concealment the first card had provided was visual alone.

He drew the next two cards in his pocket. They were at the front, exactly how he’d arranged them. He removed the Jack of Diamonds and the Jack of Hearts, cupping them in his hands as if in a card game. It pained him to have to play two face cards, especially a Heart that could be used for healing, but he needed to ensure that the card he played had enough power to hold and convince the boat’s occupants. Quentin threw down the pair of Jacks.

He stifled a moan as his face seemed to turn to wax. The Diamond alone would have given him the disguise he wanted, but that wouldn’t have fooled anyone, especially with his voice and manner of walking unchanged. The Heart ensured the change was physiological, and though it disgusted Quentin to assume that hateful form, it was his best chance to move freely aboard the riverboat.

When the transformation was completed, he looked into the mirror, noting how eerily alike he looked to Roland Ketterly, the man he had come to kill.

***

Quentin could still remember the hands he’d played in that game in Tombstone. He had been having a glorious ride, the majority of the table’s chips arranged in a jagged mass in front of him. The old man he was playing against, however, was clearly irritated and with each hand—and each lost ridge of chips from the once great reef in front of him—his bitter scowl deepened.

Feeling flushed from his winnings and surrounded by ladies, Quentin had started showing off, demonstrating his legerdemain with the cards and chips, making them dart and dance and disappear. With each trick the women cooed and leaned closer. With every flourish, the old man’s displeasure grew.

In the end, he had taken almost everything. He packed away his winnings and retired to his room, leaving it unlocked should any of the ladies wish to join him. The old man, however, appeared, uninvited.

“What do you want?” Quentin said, thinking of the knife that now rested next to the room’s wash basin.

“I need that money,” the old man said.

“I won it fair.”

“I know. But I can offer you something for it. Something more important. Something more valuable.”

“What’s more valuable than money?”

The old man flashed a smile. “Power.”

***

Quentin kept his gait regular and his senses alert as he climbed the riverboat’s stairs to the upper decks. He’d long ago realized that anxiety and panic could be bigger threats than anything external. He’d managed to overcome them in card games and sleight of hand, but this, this was still relatively new to him.

The chatter from the crew below was swallowed by the roar of the paddlewheel. The sickly sweet mushroom smell of the Mississippi filled the air.

On the staircase he passed a member of the riverboat’s crew heading down. The man tipped his hat to him. Quentin grunted back in Roland’s voice, the way he had seen Roland do many times before. His heart beat faster in his chest. The man continued on his way, paying him no mind.

He thought of Roland on the highest deck, in his private rooms. The rest of the riverboat was given over to business—to passengers or cargo, traditional operations. But the top of the boat was Roland’s domain, it was from there he ran his empire. The empire that had once belonged to Quentin’s father.

Between shuddering breaths he reached the top deck, one hand on the polished wooden banister, the other, fingers outstretched, hovering over his waistcoat pocket. A man came out of one of the rooms, bearded, wearing a white coat. “Ah, there you are, Mr. Ketterly,” he said. “I wonder if you could come with me for a moment.”

Quentin could hear his pulse pound in his ears. “I’m in a hurry,” he said, in Roland’s voice.

“Please,” the man said. “It’s your wife.”

At this, a river of ice flooded his blood. “Very well,” he said, and followed the man into one of the rooms.

And there, on a bed, covered in blankets, her face damp and drawn, lay Quentin’s mother.

***

“It’s a very old tradition,” the old man said. “As old as the cards.”

“But why cards?” Quentin asked.

“Because you need a way to focus the energy, a way to shape it. I guess some people use words written down on paper. We use the cards. They work well—numbers and symbols all tied up together. And they’re portable. Light. They travel well.”

“I guess that makes a kind of sense,” Quentin said.

“There are two main things you need to know,” the old man said. “The suit of the card determines the effect—so Hearts are good for anything involving the body, Diamonds are good for things involving money, and ways to fool the eye, and so forth. The number of the card determines the size or power of the effect. The higher the number, the more powerful the effect will be.”

Quentin frowned. “Then why not just use the highest cards all the time?”

The old man gave a wicked grin. “Oh, didn’t I mention that already? Because you can only use each card once.”

“What?”

“That’s right. Each card is one-time only. Once you burn through your deck, you’re done.”

Quentin sank into a wooden chair. “Well that takes some of the fun out of it,” he said.

“Don’t it just?”

“How do you know what number to use, then?”

“Ah, y’see that’s the trick,” the old man said, holding up his index finger. “It’s a kind of gamble. You just have to lay it all out there and hope that you figured right. You’ll get a feel for it after a while.”

“But by then I’ll have lost those cards.”

“That’s the truth of it, yes.”

Quentin flipped through the cards of the deck in front of him. “What about the Jokers?” he asked. “Do those count, too?”

“Of course they do,” the old man said, smiling wider, his face shining. “The Jokers are wild.”

***

Quentin stared at his mother, pained by the way she drew in shallow breaths, by the wispiness of her. She used to be so solid. But that was back when she was married to his father. Before she had taken up with Roland Ketterly.

He reached for her dry and thin hand and held it. “How is she doing?” he asked the doctor.

“Frankly, not good,” the doctor said, wiping his forehead with one of his sleeves. “Her illness is progressing. She falls in and out of lucidity. There’s not much I can do except keep giving her the morphine.”

Quentin held back tears. He wouldn’t cry for her now, not with Roland’s eyes. He acutely felt the weight of the cards in his pocket. He flipped through them until the found the card he wanted. He pulled the Queen of Hearts and held it between shaking fingers. The card could heal her. He pinched it tight. One thought, and it would come to life. One thought. The card vibrated, but did not burn.

At last, he tucked it back into his pocket. He was here, on Roland’s doorstep. That card might be the difference between him winning, or dying.

And she had stayed with Roland, after all.

He turned away from her, letting her hand drop. “Do what you can,” he told the doctor, then left to find Roland.

He would wash away his guilt in blood and fire.

***

Quentin wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had just played his first card, throwing the Two of Clubs, creating a small flame and making it dance in the air before him. “How do you know which number to use? How do you know how long the play will last or if it will do what you want it to do?”

“You don’t,” the old man said, shaking his head. “They’re cards. It’s all a gamble. Sometimes, it’s a bluff. But as with everything else, you learn to feel out the cards and you’ll get better at all of that.”

The old man held up another card, the Two of Diamonds, in his arthritic hands. “Now, another one.”

Quentin took it, still unsure of the old man and his motives. He still didn’t know the man’s name, not after two weeks of training, of poring over books and flipping through cards and learning the histories and associations of them all. The man had said to call him Hoyle, though Quentin doubted that was his real name.

Quentin looked at his nearly but not quite full deck, face down on the table. The maroon backs bore the image of a circle, or wheel. He had started with fifty-four. Now he was down to fifty-three. He looked at the old man. “How many?” he said.

“What?”

“How many cards do you have left?”

The old man blinked and lowered his eyes. “Only five.”

Quentin saw the regret, the loss in the old man’s eyes. But he pushed that aside. He had almost a full deck, and when he was finished learning how to use them, he would go after Roland.

Yet as he lifted the next card, he winced as he willed it to life, knowing that it would forever be lost to him thereafter. Diamonds was the suit of illusion, of trickery, and Quentin conjured up an image of the old man, as if it had stepped from a mirror to stand next to him. But despite his concentration, the image never took on lifelike proportions. It appeared, hazy and flat, indistinct. A ghost and nothing more.

“What happened?” he asked.

“You tried for something beyond the value of the card,” the old man said. Even as he spoke, the image faded away to nothingness.

“This is horseshit,” Quentin said. “I just wasted a card. I don’t see why I have to keep doing this.”

“That’s precisely why you need to get the feel for the cards. There are those who don’t practice. They go out with full decks, don’t want to waste none. They always get smoked sooner or later. They don’t have the feel for the cards. You gotta learn to judge. You don’t just sit down at a card game and start bluffing seasoned players before you know the game, do you? You have to learn how to order them in the deck, know what to draw and when to draw it. Hell, we haven’t even talked about combining cards yet.”

Quentin sighed, but he could see the old man’s point. All of this was preparation. The practice would be worth it, because it would give him Roland.

“What about the Jokers, though? Can you feel them out?”

Hoyle shrugged. “They’re unpredictable. No suit, no value. We call the red one The Magician. The black one’s The Fool.” Quentin was becoming used to the names some cards had—the Death Card for the Ace of Spades, the Laughing Boy for the Jack of Diamonds, The False King, the King of Hearts.

“If I were you, I’d put them Jokers somewhere out of the way where they can’t muck things up for you. I keep mine tucked into my boots. One in my left, one in my right. They’re there if you need them, but me, I don’t trust anything I can’t predict.”

“And you can predict me?”

“Maybe not in a card game,” Hoyle said, “but in everything else you’re a bull seeing red. Ain’t nothing to predict.”

He held up the next card.

***

Quentin headed for the inner rooms of the upper level, where he knew Roland would be. He ignored the riverboat crew, striding forward with purpose. He reached for the door to the inner rooms, pulled it open, and stared into the face of Roland Ketterly.

They looked at each other for a moment, both surprised. Then, as Quentin reached for a card, Roland yelled and ducked behind the wall. Men, heavily armed, appeared behind him.

Quentin ducked behind the wall, away from the door and fished in his pocket for another card. Fingers trembling, he pulled out the Nine of Spades and visualized the shield taking shape around him. Moments later, a hail of bullets bounced off of it, and Quentin exhaled.

He could barely see through the gunsmoke and muzzle flare, but he pulled cards from his pocket, Spades and Clubs, Diamonds and Hearts, each one sparking to life before it felled one of the men. He used all of the meanings he could call up, all of the effects he had practiced—fire for Clubs, earth for Diamonds, water for Hearts, air for Spades. And then the other meanings, Spades for offense, Hearts to affect the body. Card after card after card.

With each one, another man fell. But not the right man. Not Roland Ketterly.

Not Quentin’s uncle.

***

Quentin stood by the old man’s bed and mopped perspiration from his brow with a cloth. “I need you to do something for me,” Hoyle said.

Quentin had been expecting that. The old man was going to ask him to use one of his Hearts. He’d thought long and hard on that and decided that it was worth it. The old man had given him the deck, after all.

“Go on.”

“I have a son. One I haven’t seen in a while. We’re not . . . we’re not close. This kinda life don’t lend itself well to family.”

“You want me to give him some money?”

The old man shook his head. “I been giving him money. That’s what I needed it for in the first place. No, I want you to give him his own cards.”

“What?”

“I don’t want him to have the life that I did. Boy’s in a spot of trouble. Comes from not having anyone around to teach him. But they can help him. You can show him how.”

“But I don’t even know how to make the deck,” Quentin said.

“I made it already,” Hoyle said. “You just have to give it to him and show him how it works.”

“Hoyle-”

“Please. I haven’t been able to face him. Not after all that’s happened. But you can. You can give him all I have left to give. Please, say you’ll do it.”

Quentin thought about his own father, and about all the trouble he’d gotten into running away from the family business. He would give anything for a connection to the man, something passed down that wasn’t a stake in the family empire. Something that didn’t stink of Roland.

“Okay, I’ll do it. But you needn’t die. I have cards. I can help fix you up.”

Hoyle shook his head. “I done that before. Fixed myself up so much I’ve outlived my life. Only I’m all dried up now. Worn out. It’s time for me to go. Do what I asked,” he said. “Please.”

Later, after Quentin had said goodbye, he’d taken the new deck of cards, so full and fresh, and placed them in his case. They wouldn’t work for him—he knew that—but he would try to pass them on.

But first there would be a reckoning.

***

The smell of smoke and gunpowder filled Quentin’s nostrils. Bodies littered the floor. But his attention was fixed on the door at the end of the hall, where Roland had fled. The deck felt thin between his fingers as he drew the next card. But he was close to Roland. That had to be worth the loss of the cards.

He flexed the card between his fingers, then walked up to the door and kicked it open. He felt a thrill as the impact ran up his shin and thigh. He paused for a moment.

Nothing.

Then he caught a glimpse of a large form through the door. The card burned away in his hand and six glittering blades flew through the air. He felt the smile curl his lips as he moved forward.

But the man, tall and corpulent, still stood. And it was his turn to smile, playing cards fanned out in his hands.

Quentin reached for another card, for one that was higher—in duels the high card won. He pulled out the Queen of Hearts. A potent card, but then he remembered his mother, and hesitated.

A card flashed in the fat man’s hand. Invisible fists pushed at Quentin until his back slammed against the wall of the room. And he couldn’t move. He couldn’t reach his cards.

The fat man moved forward. Behind him, Roland sat in a chair, one leg crossed over the other.

“You have your own cards,” Quentin said.

The other card sharp smiled. “You think you’re the only one?”

Quentin gritted his teeth.

“Course my deck is a bit thinner than it used to be,” the fat man said. “That’s the rub, ain’t it? The more you use it, the shorter it gets. It’s a good thing cocks ain’t like that.” He smiled again and Quentin longed to punch the man’s yellowed teeth in. Quentin flexed at his invisible bonds but they didn’t give.

The fat man withdrew a partially smoked cigar from his pocket and lit it with a brass lighter, puffing on the end until it glowed red. “He’s all yours, Ketterly.”

Roland stepped forward until he was just a few paces before Quentin. He had aged some, was a little thinner, but he still stood rod straight.

“So you came for me,” Roland said. “I have to admit I didn’t think you had it in you. I figured you to be as toothless as your father.”

“Better toothless than fanged”

“Well,” Roland said. “We know which your mother preferred.”

Quentin snarled and tried to move. “She may have swallowed your lies. But I didn’t.”

Roland’s eyes widened. “Such fire. You really are a changed man. But you’ve failed.”

“I made short work of your men,” Quentin said.

“Men are replaceable.” He smiled, showing all of his teeth.

Quentin reflexively tried to curl his hands into fists and was thwarted by the fat man’s play. But this time, the tips of his fingers wavered in the air. Quentin blinked. Was the play weakening? If the fat man had only a limited deck, then maybe the power of his cards was limited. Or maybe he misjudged?

“You bought yourself some time, is all,” Quentin said. “I will kill you.”

“Ha,” Roland said. “You do believe that, don’t you? You are caught. Like a fish, floundering in a bucket. And my earlier generosity is all dried up. Soon, Lacroix here will kill you and nothing will change. Your momma already considers you dead. All I can say is you had your chance. I was happy to let you leave, have a life, find your own happiness. But you couldn’t let go, could you?”

Roland walked away, then turned back. “You know, I said that you took after your father before. And maybe you do, in your blundering. But . . . I was thinking that if your father had the power you had, the . . . the magic, he wouldn’t have spent it on blood, on violence. He would have tried to help people. Used it for one of his saintly pursuits.” He stepped forward and cupped Quentin’s face. Quentin couldn’t flinch away. “No, Quentin. The truth is, in that respect at least, you’re more like me.”

Quentin wanted to scream, to grab Roland and claw out his eyes. But the play held him tight. All except for his fingers, which he could now wiggle. Just a little longer.

Roland smiled serenely. “I think it’s time to say goodbye now, Quentin.” He slapped Quentin’s cheek. “Say hello to my brother for me.” He stepped away and drew a pistol from his belt.

Quentin could now move his whole fingers and part of his hand.

Roland cocked back the hammer.

Quentin’s wrist flexed.

And the Ace up his sleeve flipped into his hand.

Clubs, the suit of fire.

As it flared to life, so did Lacroix, catching fire like a sheaf of kindling. The fat man’s cards, held tight in his hands, fluttered to the floor.

Lacroix screamed and Quentin felt the force holding him drop away. Roland fired, but Quentin was already moving, skirting the burning man, the card in his right sleeve, the Ace of Spades, falling into his hand.

The gun flashed again and burning streaks of pain speared through Quentin as the air filled with thunder. He fell backward and to the floor, the Ace falling from his hand as the world fragmented and blurred.

Roland stepped on the card, then bent over him and pulled the rest of the deck from his vest. He tossed them behind him. “I didn’t think you’d get the drop on Lacroix,” he said. “But it didn’t help you in the end.”

Quentin clutched at his wounds. He had none of the cards in his waistcoat, and had lost the two he’d had up his sleeves.

Roland raised the pistol. “You fool.”

Memory flared, as brightly as one of the cards. Quentin reached for the card clipped into his right boot.

The Black Joker.

The Fool.

He pulled it out.

Roland’s finger jerked back on the trigger.

The card flared in front of him, dazzling his eyes.

The sound of the world cracking reverberated in his ears.

And the moment passed. Quentin was unharmed. The Joker remained in his hand, but the bullet lay in two pieces, cut in two by the card.

Quentin batted the pistol away, and punched Roland in the groin. As his uncle reeled, Quentin reached for the card still lying on the ground.

The Ace of Spades.

The card blazed in his hand.

***

Quentin sat in the sleeper car, looking at the road ahead. In his left waistcoat pocket was his deck, or what was left of it, twenty-something. After all of the cards he had used at the hotel, he’d been forced to use another, the Seven of Hearts, to heal his gunshot wounds. Then the Queen of Hearts, on his mother. He didn’t know if it would work, if the magic was that strong, but he left her in the doctor’s care. He couldn’t face her after everything he’d done.

His reason for learning how to use the cards was now gone. Half of them had been spent on justice. But he still had the other half left.

All the way from the hotel, Roland’s words had echoed in his head. About his father. And how he would have used the cards. And how right that was.

But first he had a promise to keep. A new card sharp to bring in to the fold. Maybe he would choose the right path.

Quentin had played the Fool and luck had carried him through.

Now was his time to make a new play.

Now he would be the Magician.