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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Wednesday, 20 June 2012 15:18

The Fool

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Image from the Darkana Tarot Deck - http://dandonche.co/store Image from the Darkana Tarot Deck - http://dandonche.co/store Dan Donche

Leaving the subway at night, I take one step before the first bum asks me for a dollar.  In my coat pocket, I flip through a deck of cards and pull out a Three of Cups.  I toss him a five.  The next block, another person reaches out from the shadows of gray buildings and asks for a dollar.

He sees my darkened face.  Backing away, he says, "Never mind, man.  Just forget it."

I pull out a card.  Major Arcana.  The Wheel of Fortune.  Luck.  I crumple up a twenty and throw it at him.  It bounces off his chest and onto the ground.  The wind blows it away.  His eyes, dark and dry, like cocoa powder, don't leave mine as he retreats.

"Pick it up," I say.

He has dusty dark skin.  His lips are prominent and pink.  He tracks the money rolling in the traffic breeze. 

"Get it now," I say.

His movement is slow, like a lie.  He steps on the twenty.  His clothes are the mishmash of secondhand stores and alley garbage.  Plastic bags wrap his feet for socks.  He wears three jackets.  The outer one is olive green so that, I suppose, he can pass for a vet for the tourists.

He picks up the bill and edges back toward his spot on the wall.  "Thank you," he says.

"What's your name?" I ask.

"Billy, sir," he says.  Cars rush by, litter floats in the airstream, lit by the headlights. 

"Well, Billy Sir, I'm gonna call you Lucky, because today is your lucky day.  Change is about to happen.  You and I are going to become the best of friends."

Lucky doesn't seem to trust me.  His head turns to the left and he darts to the right.

I grab him by his innermost jacket and pull him up close.  His fight or flight has turned to freeze.  Fitted tightly into the jugular notch of his throat is a thin 6-inch triangular blade.  This knife is designed for slipping between ribs from behind or for perforating the diaphragm, and cutting open the heart.  But I don't want Lucky dead.

"Don't swallow, or you might cut your own throat," I say.  "And don't nod." 

My blue eyes bulge.  I've always look bug-eyed.  My forehead is forward, flat, and broad.  My smile is lipless.  My nose is fat.  I barely have a chin.

Right now, Lucky is looking at a very ugly person.  I'm wearing a ten-thousand dollar jacket, a thousand dollar shirt, five-hundred dollar tie.  My pants and boots cost double that.  Everything I wear has a complicated Italian name I don't know. 

This knife hangs like St. Peter's cross on my chest, always ready.

"Now, Lucky," I say.  "I'm gonna take this knife away from your throat and you're going to do what I say.  Because today is your lucky day, Lucky.  That's what I think.  The cards say so."

I pull the knife away. Lucky swallows.  He doesn't reach for his throat.

"What 'd you want, sir?"  His pupils reflect my face.

"There isn't any use in asking," I say.  I flip the knife over in my hand and present it, hilt first, to Lucky.  He doesn't move. 

"Take the knife.  Here," I take off the necklace with the sheath.  "Put it on, but be careful because that blade is incredibly illegal.  Look, I'll sheath it for you.  Don't move.  I'm just slipping it over your head.  See, now you've got the weapon.  I've got your attention."

There's no doubt about either of those facts.  He nods, "Sir."

I turn and point to up the street.  "That's where we're going, Lucky.  I've got business to do, and  you're coming with me.  So follow me, try not to step on my feet, and for God's sake, don't pull that pig sticker out if you can help it."

I keep him close as I turn up a street and walk past the tiny shops and restaurants of Little Asia.  Not even enough people of one nationality to call it China Town.  Lucky stays close.

We arrive at a storefront with swords on display next to kimonos and chopsticks and bootleg Bruce Lee DVDs.  Advertising Massage and Acupuncture.  It has a picture of a Sherpa climbing Everest on a yellowed hardback book.  I push open the door and let Lucky in first.

Nobody shoots him; nobody stabs him. 

"Hu?" I call.

"What?" Lucky says.

"If this turns into an Abbot and Costello bit, I swear to god I will stab you in the face," I say.

An old man comes out from behind beaded curtains that tinkle with the sound of spring rain on a tin roof.  He appears ancient and frail.  Ha. 

I pull out the Ace of Cups.  "Hu, this is Lucky.  Take care of him."

Hu yells in Mandarin for his oldest 'daughter', which is a polite way of saying it.  With the curtains still swaying, a young girl in a red kimono walks down the stairs behind the beads.  A supine crimson dragon curves around the girl's dress.

"Go with her," I say.  She parts the curtains and holds out hands too small to belong to an adult.  Her fingernails match the color of the dragon.  Her black hair is in a knot on her head.  From across the room, her scent of ginger and pussy seduces me.  Lucky reaches out to hers.

She giggles and pulls Lucky through the curtain.

"Over here, Mr. Tear," Hu says.  He motions me to a door behind the counter.  The store is packed with cheap bullshit.  The Kama Sutra in full color and illustrated with photographs of almost underage Chinese couples, an ornamental katana next to a deck of I-Ching cards.  Books of Oriental religions, foods, and rugs.  Everything priced double what would be considered outrageous.

I walk past a thigh-high golden Buddha and around the counter to the small room.  A stack of money rests  next to a gun on a desk in the middle of the glorified closet.  The gun points toward the door.  "I owe you," Hu says pointing to the money or the gun or both.

"No charge," I say.  "That wasn't a job."

"Nothing free," Hu says.  He speaks without 'be' verbs, unless he forgets himself and that English is his first language.  "I pay you.  Girl?  Money?  Sword?"

I put my hand in my pocket.  The card is the Five of Pentacles.  No reward.  "No." 

Hu's eyes go from narrow into slits.  If I won't take payment from him, he thinks I've already taken payment from some other source.  I can see this in his stance as clearly as I can watch him measure his distance to the gun. 

I can read bodies.  I can read cards.  I can't read faces.  "Don't try it, Hu.  There's no problem.  There's no contract."

"You wouldn't lie to an old friend just to make his death easier, would you?" he asks without even a hint of accent.

"Do I seem like the guy who cares?"

"No," he admits.  He's still wavering.  His lips purse and nostrils flare.  His eyebrows work themselves up and down, but his hands don't jitter.  He's got no nerve for action.

"I'll be in the bar," I say.  "Send my friend in when he's done."

"Friend?" Hu says. 

"Whatever he is, send him down when he's done."

I leave the room without watching Hu.  He's got it worked out now, or he's given up working it out.  His card is the Two of Swords.  We're even.

The second door in Hu's little shop leads to the the restaurant next door.  American Chinese food.  Not a bit authentic.  Just reheated frozen food.  Cook some pork fried rice, maybe add a long black hair from a 'daughter'.  But beneath that restaurant is a bar that doesn't have a name.  It has one way in.  The door doesn't open inward.

I knock.  Say a name, "Mr. Nail."  The door opens, smoke pours out.  It's sour and sweet and cloying.  Tobacco and chocolate and sage and sandlewood.  Small multicolored spotlights illuminate the room, tracing beams of blue, red, yellow, orange, green through the smoke.  Tables are set up for four.  The bar is fifteen feet long and made from a single slab of jade.  There isn't anything with a label I can understand behind the bar.  The only beer on tap is PBR.  The place is empty except for the bartender and the bouncer

The bartender asks me what I want. 

"That brown bottle."

"Fifty bucks a shot."

I nod  He puts it in front of me, and sidles away.

Opium rice wine tastes like dirt and rubbing alcohol and sugar.  Thin and acidic, it burns my throat as quickly as it numbs it.  The second drink, I inhale.  My lungs spasm to push the liquid out, and it takes all my will to stop this involuntary action.  I want to drown in a drop of water.  I pull out a card.  Five of Wands.  Strife.

I keep drinking.  The bartender stands in the shadows at the end of the bar.  The bottle sits in front of me like an icon.  Lights pass, smoke flows through the room, the music changes from the  sounds of a zither and slow drums to 70's rock.

"Sir?" I hear Lucky say behind me.  "Sir, you okay?"

"You're done?"

"Yes, sir,” Lucky sits next to me.  "Is that your name?  Mr. Tear?"

"No," I say. 

"What should I call you?"

I pull out a card and place it face up on the counter.  Death.

“What's that mean?” Lucky says.

“Change,” I say.  “Probably a good thing.  Change from whatever you were before this.  From a bum to something else.”

“But it's death,” he says.

I take another drink.  “It's symbolic.”

Lucky lights a cigarette.  Small scabs cover the back of his hands.  His fingernails are yellowed and thick.  "What are we doing here?" he finally asks.

“Good question.”  I put Death away, flip through the deck in my pocket, pull out another.  The Hanged Man.

I don't say anything.  I turn to look at him and he is much changed.  The cake of dirt that dotted his face has disappeared under the care of Hu's "daughter".  His clothes have been pressed while he was with her.

Across the room, there is an empty stage three feet high.  Smoke belches from a fog machine beneath it, so it's hard to make out the bodies that are starting to emerge.  Crouched low.  I take the bottle from Lucky and take another sip.

"You don't talk much, do you?" he says just before a bullet passes through his head and emerges from the space between his eyebrows.  The back of his head blows open as his body lurches past me.

The sound is muffled, but a silencer is only partially effective.  I yank the necklace over what's left of Lucky's head before leaping over the bar.  The brown bottle explodes.  Shards hit me in the back.  The gunfire sounds electric. 

I duck walk quickly behind the bar.  The bartender at the other end is pointing at me and waving his hands.  I step into him, digging the blade deep into his crotch.  He drops in pain, but the slicing of his femoral artery keeps him down.  Blood slicks the floor. 

I stay crouched behind the edge of the bar.  Smoke swirls around the corner.  I reach out and grab hair.  My fingers wrap around long tangles.  I yank and slam the triangular blade into the open mouth of the face that comes into view.  His tongue licks against my wrist.

I pull my hand out and the warmth of blood follows with a delicate spurt.  I pull out a card.  The Fool.  Smiling, I take the gun out of the dead man's grasp.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 20 June 2012 15:39
Bryan Howie

Bryan Howie always wanted to be either Batman or a writer.  Since he doesn't have the legs for tights, he started writing.  He now lives in the American Inland Northwest, where he has been searching for a muse to amuse in the trees and rivers. He loves photography and motorcycle riding, but has a hard time doing both simultaneously.

His short story "Your Mother's Smile" was featured in Volume 6 of The Best of Carve Magazine.  More of his work can be found at Solarcide.com and Redfez.net. 

Website: bryanhowie.com

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