Wakeland

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?”

“You bet.”

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.

 

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