Story by Gary Priest
Illustration by John Waltrip
There were four aces in the deck. I couldn’t remember the last time I played it that straight. No side deals, no feather plays, no sleights or graveyard shuffles. Just four aces and one hand to play.
The ace of hearts appeared wearing lipstick applied as if it were a newspaper headline. I think they called that shade ‘slaughter red’. It left smudges. She had a mess of raven locks and smiled pearls from the treacherous depths of the ocean.
“Ruin and rocks,” she said with a purr full of feathers and claws.
I poured the drink and she hitched her perfect outline onto a bar stool. She wore a black dress split so far up the side that it quit asking for trouble three inches before it stopped and was then just plain demanding it.
She placed a finger on the bar and a black-bordered rectangular card about two inches by four. “Know anything about this?” she asked, tapping a pink fingernail on the card.
I picked it up and read. “You got the right place,” I replied, as she downed the Ruin and nodded for a second.
“That all you got, friend?” she asked.
I poured and she gave me a two dollar appraisal with eyes green as apples pinched from paradise.
The ace of diamonds rolled in next and boy did he roll. His suit cost about the same as it took to have five made guys rubbed, and that kind of rub does not come cheap. His mouth was rimmed with gold. His fingers were drenched in diamonds, natch. Once he had taken a quick inventory of all the fixtures and fittings (including the lady and me) he sauntered up to the bar.
He dismissed me with a hundred to find ‘something not utterly unpalatable’ to drink. I gave him something overpriced enough to be acceptable. He began his slow ascent of the ace of hearts. She was casting smoky halos into the ceiling fan.
“I am not a man to be summoned lightly,” he said, all puffing pomposity and placed an identical black-bordered card on the bar. “But I know class when I see it.” He ran his finger across the embossed card all the while lingering over the vitals of the lady who was ignoring him with perfect poise.
“Honey, keep your eyes off my class, and tell me if you know what this shindig is all about?” She didn’t look at him. She let out a plume of smoke and nodded to me for another drink.
“What the hell kind of asshole sends a fancy framed invite to a shithole like this?”
We all turned to see the bulky arrival of the ace of clubs. He cast a shadow laced with two-fisted threat across the barroom. He wore a trilby hat, munched a cigar and wore a short sleeved shirt with wide black braces, holding up pinstripe trousers.
Neither heart nor diamond showed any hint of apprehension or fear. Why would they? They used the ace of clubs the same way everyone else did. An opening gambit to get the other players to fold. Maybe he had something behind him, maybe he was empty as a skid row conscience, but he played a role.
He hit the bar with a thump, eyed the diamond, leered the heart and held up two fingers to me. I gave him two fingers of rye. He did not offer any coin. He was used to taking what he wanted.
“What’s the fucking deal, boniface?” he asked me, leaning into his booze and spitting his cigar into an ashtray.
I glanced at the old grandfather clock in the corner. It was close enough to midnight to deal.
“You are all aces. What I need to know is, if you are the right kind.” As I spoke, the front door, the back door, and the emergency exit all clicked shut with soft assurance.
Eyes were on me now. I removed the barkeep stoop and stood straight and looked them over one by one. I met green, blue and grey of the heart, the diamond, and the club.
“You know who I am,” I said. I saw it in their eyes. A small speck of the void in mine reflected back at me.
“No way are you real,” said the tough guy club. I saw his hand twitching for a shoulder holster that he didn’t have.
The invite said no weapons and it was written in coal script which meant that this was the straightest deal that any of these aces had ever played. It was a hair before midnight by the grandfather and time for them to ante up.
“You know I am real. You know who I am. I am no gangland gab. Now, lady and gentlemen, the question is simple. Do you want to be dealt in for the high stakes or do you want to fold?”
“In,” said the heart.
“Of course, in,” said the diamond.
“Fuck you, in,” said the club.
The grandfather groaned twelve times.
“The game is high stakes, twenty-four hours, one card.”
“I cannot possibly spend twenty-four hours on one game,” said the diamond.
“Fold?” I asked.
“My boy, I have never folded in my life. Time is money, I have deals, I have enterprises.”
“I have nations. I am money. I own time,” I replied.
He coughed. I saw the slight softness in the corner of his mouth. He remained silent.
“This is how it works. I have been watching you all build your empires, forge your particular miseries into money and power and I have been more or less impressed. “
“Oh, the boniface is fucking impressed,” said the ace of clubs. His pockmarked face screwed into an angry red.
“Tell me why you came here?” I asked him, cutting off his tornado formation.
“I came here because…” He stopped. He reddened.
“None of you know why you came here,” I said. “You are not easily intimidated or tempted. You are not curious or foolhardy by nature and yet you came.” I did not explain how coal script and dominion quills had summoned them. I wanted them on edge. I wanted them to be unsure of themselves because uncertainty would unmask their true nature. It would show just what kind of ace they were. Bottom of the deck, clinging to the deuce for dear life or riding the king and everything beneath him. Pulling the strings of the monarchs, the highs and the lows. It would show me if they were what I needed.
“So you have some voodoo juice, some narcotic persuasion or whatever. Ok fine. We all fell. So tell me and these, let’s be kind and call them gentlemen, what you want with us for twenty fours hours and what we get at the end?” Menthol cool. Jazz singer syncopation. Her voice would peel back most men to the bone.
I wasn’t most men, but I admired her and I enjoyed the lust that spun through me for other things take a little detour as I took in her smooth contours, her slaughter red mouth and her hair that was black as the midnight that had just been struck.
I gave her a courteous smile and I got down to business.
“Twenty fours hours because I want to make you work and see how you sweat. I want you to gnaw away at those insides you have all tarmacked over and find your pulse and when you do I want you to draw that beat across your lives and find that one thing you cannot bury, that you cannot forget. That you cannot escape.”
“Good Lord. Are you looking for us to repent or something? You sound like a third rate padre in a poverty row picture.” The diamond had regained his composure and was now attempting to regain control.
I squared him. Eye to eye. He did not flinch. I liked that.
“Repentance is for those who fear. No, what I want is a pitch. I want you to unearth the worst thing you have done, the absolute of treachery and ignominy and sell it to me like a brand new frigidaire. Tell me why you did it, how good it felt, how it made you the merciless, mercurial ace of your empire. I want the meanest, cruelest, and most heinous act you ever committed and I want you to revel in it, not for show, not because you want to sell me a frigidaire, but because you damn well loved it.”
I looked at each ace in turn. I poured them each a drink. “And to answer the lady’s question, what you get at the end if you sell your sin well enough, is a quarter share.”
They looked at each other. They looked at me. No more doubts. They knew who I was. “So, are we all in?” I asked.
“Sure, In,” said the cool heart.
“I am in,” said the deliberate diamond.
“Fuck you, in,” said the ever reliable club.
I had a table set up at the back with cold cuts and the like. There were three booths on the side wall, a few chairs in disarray by the tiny stage. I gave them each a bottle of their own brand of alcoholic smoothness and told them to make themselves comfortable and prepare a pitch, which I would hear from quarter to twelve the following night.
The club scanned the cold cuts and grabbed a fist of baloney and settled down in a booth by himself. The heart and the diamond circled the table and each other. Looking for the leanest cuts. I heard whispers, but of course, I heard everything.
I told the ace of diamonds that I owned time, but I did not control it and so I sat there and watched them through that twenty-three and change hours. I saw them crowd in a single booth. Heard their plans to unseat me.
I saw the heart and the diamond join against the club and bring me the counter offer of thirds, which I turned down and made it clear that is was quarters or nothing.
They argued, cursed, flirted, and skirted threats and plots and after a few hours, they got down to the job at hand. They all took their own booth. They dug, they drank, at one point I heard sobbing from the ace of clubs and snoring from the ace of diamonds.
Time passed. It was jagged, it was smooth, it was tormented, it was cruel and I saw it bear down on them all as they unpicked their lives and worked their pitches and dreamed of a quarter share.
Time began to dry up. There was no night or day here except that defined by the grandfather groaning out the hours, the halves and the quarters. I watched them sweat. I saw them burn. I saw them delight as they found that pulse as it led them back to what made them.
As the grandfather struck eleven-thirty, I got up from my seat behind the bar and set up four chairs in front of the stage. One by one they joined me. It felt right, us all side by side. Four quarters of a whole. It felt good. But I needed proof. I needed the pitch to show me I had chosen well.
The grandfather griped a quarter to twelve. I nodded to the ace of clubs and he took the stage. He shuffled and sweated, took off his hat then put it on again and then he lit a cigar and puffed and spoke:
“I killed plenty. Most because I was a button or because I was a boss who liked to show the buttons he could still swing his own cleaver. But there was this one time a few years ago. I was trying to take over the east side numbers from King Reggie and it was a real blood match. We ambushed runners, pulled teeth, broke fingers and sent them back and they torched racket houses, acid dropped dancing girls from my joints and all that knock and knock back.”
He stopped. He looked at me. I nodded.
“But however fierce we got, there were still rules. No civilians. No family. The old code. Then one day when I was staring at three dead gunsels of mine, throat cut and their faces mashed like cottage cheese, I thought to myself, this won’t end. This skirmish way. This knock and knock back. It had to be all out. No code. It had to be war and I seen war, the big one. I seen what war is.”
Then it came. That smile. That relish.
“So I took the King’s two princes. Their names were Reggie junior and Roy. I grabbed them up from the schoolyard and I scooped out their insides and I sent them back to King Reggie, in laundry sacks with their stomachs full of his numbers and that was the last of him and any thoughts of a code. There is no code. There is only war. There is no violence that is not justified. There is no life that isn’t for the taking. There is nothing that will stop me.”
His face was red. His mouth was wide and smiling. I had one-quarter. I nodded and his smile almost split his gums as he sat down on his chair.
I gave the nod to the ace of diamonds and he sauntered on stage, no hint of nerves or apprehension.
“I love opulence. Glitter and show. I love money and the feel of something expensive, be it a rich silk scarf or a countess. I revel in it and I want to show it off in its best light and what shows off white better than black.”
He swaggered across the stage, doing his accounting of the room again. I hid my smile.
“The problem is that no matter how rich you can be, there will always be someone richer than you or with a similar amount. White on white. You fade into the mass of monied morons and that would not do for me. It was very frustrating until one day I was out for a spin in the Bentley and we hit a red and this awful little guttersnipe rapped at the window begging for a coin. I cuffed him away of course, but that pleading little face, those ragged tear-filled eyes, that absolute famine of hope was the black to my white. So instead of driving on I took the boy to the police, got him locked away, had his family evicted, and ruined the whole cursed lineage into a life of miserable penury.
That was my answer. Reverse philanthropy. I build the worst slums, I run the cruelest sweatshops, I make them as close to scratch zero as I can and all that poverty makes me shine. It is simply wonderful. I am rich, they are poor. I am the glutton they are the famished. White against black. Divine!”
The ace of clubs applauded and the diamond took a bow and acknowledged my nod. Two quarters down.
She did not wait for my nod. She stood center stage and owned it.
“I believe everything is a narcotic to someone. I sell desire. I harvest need. But it is not for money. Money is the apple in Eden, and I am always the snake. I am the poison that corrupts the bloodstream. I am the sly hiss in the big bosses’ boudoir as I steal his empire away from under his paunch with a purr and a pout.”
She did a slow twist as she lit a cigarette and we all delighted in geometry.
“They all think of me as the ultimate conquest. The “It “ girl. The one they want to fuck, to own, to use, to make beg and fall in love with their bloated beneficence. But I turned that table around and every man who ever fucked me, every senator whose arm I adorned, every president I blew in an oval, became mine. My conquest, my victim, because when they taste me, they taste poison, they taste disease, they just don’t know what pestilence is, so they call it love.”
She dropped her cigarette to the stage and heeled it out.
“I had a kid sister. Prettier, more popular, and always the darling. I put caustic soda in her strawberry milkshake when I was twelve. She was nine. She died. I’ve been poisoning ever since.”
The ace of clubs clapped again. The ace of diamonds smiled. She sat down. Three quarters. It was three minutes to midnight. I stood up and took the stage.
“You all did well. I am proud to call you my partners. It all begins at midnight.”
I had them all. The heart, the diamond, and the club. Three aces.
But I told you at the start that there were four aces in the deck. Remember?
I am the ace of spades.
I have many other names and now I have three partners. They don’t have names, as such. What they have is purpose. What they have is intent and what is coming will be their glory and mine. It comes at midnight, which has another name too.
— ♦♦♦ —
Next week is the next exciting installment of “In the Newspaper”. Continue reading this tale of deceit, betrayal, corruption, and yes…murder. In this installment we find out how brutal the sport of boxing can be, both in and out of the ring. What lengths will people go to when enough money is on the line? How far will people go to protect their reputation? If you need to refresh your memory or if you haven’t yet started reading “In the Newspaper”, you can read the first three installments at the links below.