My hotel was in fact one where Americans stayed, and as Valentin predicted, it therefore had very good vodka. I don’t drink very much, as a rule, especially when I’m in company where keeping a clear head is a good idea, but Valentin insisted, and very quickly I realized I was actually drunk. When I pushed my glass away he laughed. “Too much for you?”
“Too much for me. Another one and I won’t be able to walk in a straight line.” I felt numb and edgy at the same time. The drinks made a soft wall between me and the noise of the hotel bar, packed with tourists and business travelers, but that wall was a danger to someone who needs their eyes and ears kept always open. I was sure Valentin knew that, and while I didn’t think he meant me any harm – not yet, at least – he must have had some reason for softening me up like this. Making a point about whose turf we were on? Testing me to see if I would get myself into trouble?
“Kurganov!” somebody shouted. I didn’t look up, and in my condition it took me a moment to notice that Valentin had. His expression was annoyed and wary and bored into a spot over my shoulder. I turned around to see a man in a charcoal-gray pinstriped suit pushing his way through the bar toward our table. He was on the short side, white, perhaps in his early thirties, with the kind of easy good looks vain men pay money to maintain. He was smiling, thought I couldn’t tell how genuine it was.
I turned back to Valentin. “Friend of yours?”
“Someone who does business from time to time,” he said. “Not a friend.”
“Is he knowledgeable?” I found that I had to spend particular effort on pronouncing that word clearly, which I didn’t like at all.
“A dabbler. He thinks he knows more than he does. You’ll see.”
The man had reached our table by this time. Valentin got to his feet in time to give the proffered hand a perfunctory shake. “Long time no see,” the man said in English. “How’ve you been?”
“Good enough,” Valentin said. He turned to me. “This is Ian Wakeland. We’ve done business together.”
I rose, a bit unsteadily, to shake his hand. He had that slightly too-firm, too-hearty grip that you find in businessmen who are trying to convince you how trustworthy they are. “A pleasure to meet you,” I said.
“Likewise,” said Wakeland. “So what’s your name?”
If Valentin had a low opinion of him already, I knew he would lower it even more, as would anyone of our kind within earshot. Asking for another’s name is the sign of a rank amateur, or a grave threat from someone who doesn’t care what you think of them. I smiled and let it pass. It’s one of the many things I hate about English, that phrasing; it’s certainly not the only language to use that form instead of the more circumspect what are you called?, but these days it seems you can’t throw a stone without hitting somebody who will shout at you in English. I admit it, English is flexible and versatile, but then so is a plumber’s snake. I wouldn’t speak it as much as I do if the world were different than it is.
“I’ve been called a lot of things,” I told him. “I’ve been around a while; you know how it is. Things change.”
“But I need to call you something other than ‘hey you’, right?”
Valentin put a friendly-seeming hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you join us at our table. We have a bottle of vodka that my friend isn’t damaging much, and you are welcome to share it.”
“Thanks,” Wakeland said, distracted from the puzzling question of my name, at least for the moment. He pulled up an empty chair from a nearby table and moved it so that he was sitting roughly between Valentin and me. Wakeland was already just on the other side of drunk, it seemed, and another toast from Valentin – which I accepted, but only sipped – seemed as though it would tip him over the edge.
“Good stuff,” he said. “Valentin, damn it, I haven’t seen you in months. What have you been up to?”
I let my attention wander, only half-listening as he and Valentin traded carefully armored stories about what the two of them had been doing since they’d last met, which was some time ago and had involved several countries and a lot of business in between. Even drunk as I was, some part of my mind was watching Wakeland, measuring what he said and how he acted, and almost before I was really aware of it I had pulled out a set of cards and started fiddling with them. The disinterested part of me that wasn’t wrapped in vodka observed that I had already pegged him: mark.
That same part of me calmly noted that Valentin, too, had seen me take out the cards, and was waiting to see what I did next.
Wakeland broke off in mid-story to see that I was running through cards the way a piano player runs through scales; shuffling, fanning, drawing the deck back together. “You play cards?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “It’s a hobby of mine.”
He studied the backs of the cards. “Those look pretty old.”
“Some of them are. It depends on what you mean by old, though.”
“Do you want to play something? Poker? I don’t think they allow gambling in here.”
“Relax,” Valentin said. “It’s so crowded I doubt the bartender would even notice, as long as we keep it quiet.”
“Even easier than poker,” I said. “Bonneteau. I think you have a variation in America.”
“I’m Canadian,” he said, looking annoyed.
“Sorry. In Canada, then, too.” I dealt out three cards very quickly and arranged them in a row. They were a bit larger and less regular than ordinary playing cards, their backs printed with intricate cross-hatching that made your eyes water to look at them. I flipped over two of the cards: the three and five of coins, their colors faded and the gold leaf that once illuminated their borders mostly gone.
Wakeland looked down at the cards, surprised. “Are these Tarot cards? I don’t recognize the art.”
“You probably wouldn’t, but yes, they are. Now watch.” I flipped over the third card.
Wakeland’s eyes widened. “The Lovers,” he said. He reached his hand out as if to touch the card, but caught himself before I had to interfere. I turned the card around so that it was right-ways up from his perspective: an angel, its face hidden, entwined with a woman, the sun high above them and a grotesque shadow falling long behind them. The Aramaic letters on the card were so faint even I could barely make them out. Valentin studied the card as well; I could not make out the expression on his face.
I scooped up all three cards one-handed and then shuffled them back and forth, flipping them from hand to hand. I stopped and spread them out in a row on the table in front of me. “First try is free,” I said.
Wakeland stared blankly at me for several seconds. Then he laughed. “Three-card monte?” he said. “Really?”
“If you like. It has a lot of names. Does that mean you’re refusing to play?”
He didn’t like the sound of that, even if he didn’t know quite what it would mean. He glared at me in a way I’m sure he thought looked threatening; I would bet he told his friends it was his ‘Aleister Crowley glare’. “Of course I’m not refusing to play. I just wasn’t ready, so I wasn’t watching you.”
“This round is free anyway. What does it matter?”
He looked down at the cards, then pointed to the one in the center. I flipped it over: five of coins. “Not this time,” I said. I turned over the card on my left: the Lovers. “But as you say, you weren’t watching closely. One more for practice?”
“Sure,” he said.
I picked the cards up, shuffled them, spread them out, and waited. His forehead wrinkled in a way that I was sure would worry him, later, when he saw the lines in his mirror. He pointed to the card in the center again. I turned it over: the Lovers. He smirked, wide enough to show teeth dyed as white as milk. Valentin gave a half-smile and shook his head. I doubted he’d been able to follow the movement of my hands, but he knew damn well that the only reason Wakeland had picked the right card was that I had put it there for him.
“Think you have the idea now?”
I swept up the cards and waited. He looked at me, puzzled, then remembered what I had told him about the first round. “Okay,” he said. He pulled a brown calfskin billfold out of his pants pocket. From somewhere in the billfold he fished out several long, colorful rectangles and lay them on the table in front of me: Canadian hundred-dollar bills.
I picked one of them up and held it up to the light. “Really?” I said.
He blinked, annoyed. “What do you mean, ‘really’? Got a problem with Canadian money? It’s just as good as American.”
“No problem with Canadian dollars,” I said. “I have a problem with fairy gold.” I blew gently on the bill between my fingers. It twisted and shrank as if my breath were a flame. In a moment it was a torn scrap of blank brown paper.
Wakeland snatched it out of my hand. Valentin laughed, low and harsh, loud enough to attract curious glances from nearby tables. Wakeland picked up the rest of the money and stuffed it back into the billfold. “All right, you do know what you’re doing. I have real money if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t need money,” I said. “I can get money. Let’s do it like this. I’ll throw the cards three times. If you can find the Lovers once, I’ll let you keep the card. If you don’t, you owe me a forfeit.”
“What do you mean, a forfeit?”
“A debt. You lose a bet, you owe me.”
“So what’s the forfeit?”
I looked him up and down, slowly, not much liking what I saw. He probably had little of value, at least nothing that he would really recognize. He probably did have real money on him, but I had told him the truth when I said I didn’t need money. That, at least, was easy to find when I needed it.
Valentin broke in. “The tradition is, you owe a favor. How big, depends on the size of the debt.”
“What is this, a Godfather movie? Someday you’ll call on me for a favor?”
“You think an American movie invented that?” I said. “Favors, giri, they’re nothing new. If you don’t want to owe me, fine. Put something up.” I swept up the cards. Wakeland’s greedy eyes followed my hands as if they were full of gold.
“Wait,” he said.
I paused in the act of tucking the cards away. “Changed your mind?”
He fumbled with his belt buckle. There was a soft clink and he opened his hands. From some hidden stash he produced an irregular coin, slightly larger than his thumbnail, so worn that even its tarnish was rubbed thin. I could see the remains of Greek letter incised around the face.
“Funerary coin,” he said. “Parthian, I’m pretty sure.”
Valentin looked at it, unimpressed. “Payment for the dead, yes? To cross over. Why is this valuable? I don’t plan on needing it.”
I looked at the coin, too, though I didn’t see it so much as feel it. Ancient coins are common; metal survives its handlers. This was no common coin. It distorted the air around it. Even halfway across the table, I felt the extra weight it brought into the world.
“That didn’t come off a corpse,” I said.
Wakeland looked smug. “It did, actually. A guy I do business with, he’s an archaeologist…you know. So he’s on a dig somewhere out in Iran and they find a minor burial site. Looks like a family plot, somebody with a lot of money with his servants buried nearby. One of the servants, at least, wasn’t dead when she was buried.”
Valentin shrugged. “So? Your friend took it from a woman who was buried alive?”
“No,” I said. I hadn’t taken my eyes off the coin; I wanted to keep it where I could see it. The air was heavy, weighted, as if a storm was building. “He took it off a woman who was buried, and died, and came back. She kept her coin.”
“Really?” said Wakeland. He looked genuinely surprised. “I thought it was just that she died in a grave. You know, maybe it was a death-curse or something.”
“Oh, it’s a death-curse, though not in the way that you mean.”
“So, what, it’s not good enough?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Just put it away for now. You carry it around in a cage of some kind, I hope.”
“Just my money belt,” Wakeland said. He looked at me oddly, perhaps thinking I was playing it up to unnerve him. If only he’d known that I was, if anything, playing down the dangers of that coin. He tucked it back into his belt. “So are we ready?”
When he put it away the air lightened. I shuffled the cards again, spread them one-handed into a row of three. Wakeland pointed to the card on my right: the five. Without saying anything I picked them back up, shuffled again, this time a little slower to create the illusion that he could see what I was doing with my hands. I spread them out a second time. Without hesitating he pointed to the center card: the five again.
“You sure you want to do this?” I asked. I knew what his answer would be; I wasn’t listening to him, just watching to make sure he’d noticed that one of the cards, on the far left, had a tiny fold in the upper left corner.
He glanced up, doing his best to appear nonchalant, excited and so obviously hoping that I hadn’t seen the mark on the card. Certainly I gave no indication that I had. This time I shuffled the cards too fast to watch, as if I were fearful of his sharp eyes, and I flicked my wrist to sent the cards sliding across the table into a neat row of three.
The card in the center had a tiny fold in the upper left corner. Wakeland was sweating now, too eager to hide his excitement. “The middle,” he said.
“Are you positive?”
“Turn over the goddamn card,” he said.
I turned it over: the three.
While he stared, I slowly turned over the other two cards, the five on my left and the Lovers on my right. “Unlucky for you,” I said. “You made a good showing, though.”
He leaned across the table suddenly and grabbed my shoulder, leaning toward me as if we were nothing more than two drunks sharing a confidence. Under the table, he jabbed something very hard into my leg. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was a gun. Nobody at the tables around us seemed to notice or pay us any attention.
Valentin knew it too, even though all he could see was the side of Wakeland’s head. He started to rise; I shook my head slightly and he sat back down. He watched the other man with the same demeanor as cat watching a sparrow.
“Don’t worry, I’m not a thief,” he said. “I’ll pay you. I’m not a thief. But I’m not going to pay what you asked. You must think I’m an idiot, offering something that valuable for a card game.”
“It’s a valuable card.”
“It sure is,” he said. “I’ll take it with me, and you won’t follow me or I’ll shoot you somewhere you’ll feel for the rest of your life. Tell Valentin not to do anything dumb.”
“He won’t,” I said. “Just leave your payment on the table and get out of here.”
Wakeland slowly released my shoulder, watching me to see if I would lunge for the gun. I stayed put. With his free hand he awkwardly got his wallet out again, dropped it on the table and pincered out a thick pile of money. Russian rubles, this time; he lay the stack on the table in front of me, stuffed his wallet back into his pocket, and then picked up the Lovers.
The smug look on his face is one I have seen perhaps a thousand times; so sure that he had gotten something for nothing, or very close to it. He had persuaded himself that after only a few decades of life he was the next best thing to Solomon ben David, able to outfox even the immortal spirits given half a chance. There was a time, long ago, when I would have longed to strike that look from his face; but the inevitability of his downfall had played with others like him a hundred times before. It was as dull as it was predictable.
“The card’s worth much more than that to me, but I still think I was pretty generous,” he said. “I could have just followed you back to your hotel room and taken it off you.”
“Is that what you think?” I asked mildly. Caught off-guard, he looked into my eyes. He held my gaze for a moment that must have seemed much longer to him; he abruptly turned away and shoved the little gun into his belt, underneath his suit jacket. Wakeland pushed his chair back, warily, turning his body to keep both Valentin and me in sight. He took a few steps away from the table, then turned around and walked briskly away. He glanced back at us just before he reached the entrance to the hotel; then he disappeared through the automatic glass doors and was gone.
Valentin let out his breath in a long, disgusted sigh. “Amateur. I knew he was stupid, but not that stupid.”
“Maybe this was the first time he saw something that made him stupid.”
“Maybe. Did you paint that yourself?”
“Yes. It is a real Tarot card, from the same set as the others. I just improved on it and aged it a little bit.”
“What was it before?”
“Marseilles deck,” I said. “The Tower.”
Valentin roared. Now people at the other tables did turn to stare at us; it was impossible to ignore Valentin’s laughter. Tears ran from his eyes and hid themselves in his neat beard. He shook his head and downed another long swallow of vodka.
“The Tower,” he said. “A shame we won’t be there when he tries to cast with it.”
“If he makes it that far. Did you see that thing he was carrying around?”
“I’m tone deaf for that sort of thing. It was bad?”
“Very bad,” I said. “He doesn’t have it pacified or neutralized at all, as far as I can tell. Just a thin layer of gold between it and the world, and he carries it around his damned waist.”
“Good thing he got clever at the last minute then, hm?” said Valentin.
I peeled some of the rubles off the stack and pushed them across the table. “Finder’s fee.”
“Well. I was going to apologize for introducing him, but you did all right out of him.”
“So did you, but we should go in case he comes back,” I said. “I don’t want to waste energy dealing with him and his gun. Also, I think I need to lie down.”
Valentin smiled. “No head for vodka? As long as you’ve been around, one would think you would have built up more tolerance.”
“Don’t I wish,” I said.
We shook hands and staggered off to our respective beds, mine several floors up, Valentin’s somewhere else in the city, assuming he lived nearby and didn’t ride a mortar and pestle or a magical chestnut horse back to his hut in the forest. I shook my head at the silly notion and reminded myself that this kind of fuzzy thinking was why I didn’t drink often, and why I should avoid trying to keep up with Valentin, even out of politeness.
That was the state of mind I was in when I opened the door to my hotel room; first I smelled the smoke, rich and dense as a fogbank, and then saw Nasreen sitting in an armchair, a long cigarette holder between her fingers.
“Close the door,” she said, and I did.