House of Cards

House Of Cards

            Mick leaned against the cold cinderblock wall of the 24-hour convenience store, and peered up at the flashing red Quick Mart sign. Slipping a menthol between his lips, he flicked the card – a worn Jack of Spades – into the night sky, watching its rotation blink against the stars before pinching it out of the air and twirling it through his fingers. After rolling the card into his palm, he reached up and tucked it into the band of his black wool fedora. He pulled the collar of his leather jacket up around his ears, pushed off of the wall, and toed his cigarette.

As he entered the store, he rubbed his hands together, enjoying the blast of heat over the door.

“Yo, Eddie! I need another pack,” he called, moving towards the coffee counter.

The potbellied clerk scratched his balding head before answering. “Cards or smokes?”

“Both,” Mick replied, blowing on a brimming cup of steaming liquid.

“Out of cards. You’re the only one who buys them for months, and then some putz buys the last deck. Gotta order more,” Eddie said.

“Shit. All right. Just these then,” Mick said, waving his coffee as Eddie plopped a mint green pack of Camels on the counter.

“Sorry man,” Eddie said with a shrug, the movement jiggling his belly under the grease-stained blue polo.

Mick gave Eddie a two-finger salute as he backed out of the store into the brisk night air. As he walked back the 3 blocks to his studio apartment, he passed the old Silver Bullet Diner, a neglected Methodist consignment shop, and his favorite used bookstore, all of which were closed. As he neared the neighborhood pawn dealer, the window display caught his eye. Leo, the owner, liked to scour the local estate sales in addition to his regular acquired hock. Through the bars, Mick could see a variety of vintage items: colorful board games, action figures, glinting jewelry, hats, and pristine coins were arranged beneath flashing neon green signs advertising instant cash and guns.

Eyeing a soft gray felt fedora, he noticed a deck of playing cards fanned out below the hat stand. The cards appeared hand painted, and they contained the standard 4 suits. But upon closer look, the accompanying numbers were replaced with what Mick assumed to be runes, while the face cards were interlaced with sigils and other arcane symbols. As a teen, Mick had dabbled in the metaphysical and new age arts, finding them disappointingly void of the supernatural effects that enticed so many. He occasionally performed Cartomancy readings for friends, but it wasn’t that hard to find relatable significance in numbers and faces. Imagining the feel of them in his hands, Mick liked the idea of performing a reading with these particular cards. It would be so much more authentic. Deciding he would return in the morning, he continued home.

As he tossed his keys onto the dated but spotless blue Formica countertop, Mick felt his phone vibrate. Pulling it out, he saw it was his buddy, Jack, down at the police station. He swiped his thumb across the screen, taking the call.

“I got something for you. You asked me to keep you updated on that lady. She’s gettin’ another kid,” Jack said.

“Ah. Boy or girl?” Mick asked, hanging his hat on the hook by the door.

“A boy. Why?” Jack said.

“Doesn’t matter. You know when?”

“Looks like next week…Thursday. Why’s this so important?” Jack said.

“No reason. Knew her when I was a kid. I just like to keep tabs on certain people,” Mick said.

“Sure, sure. Listen, I can’t keep checking on this woman. People are gettin’ curious,” Jack said.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got what I need,” Mick said, running a hand through his short black curls.

“Good. You workin’ the bar tomorrow night?”

“Yeah I’ll be there.”

Ending the call, Mick walked down the threadbare hallway into the tiny bathroom. He flicked on the faucet of the stained pedestal sink and ran the water for a few moments until the spitting and hissing spray flowed into a steady stream. Leaning down, he splashed ice-cold water on his face, instantly spluttering at the memory of being forced underwater, fighting to breathe against the strong arms that had pushed him down again and again. Shaking off the thoughts, he dried his face and glared over at the bathtub in misplaced hatred. It was a wonder he even bathed, considering water was always a trigger.

Mick settled in on his patched black leather couch and reached towards the chipped glass coffee table for his current deck. A street magician had given him his first set of cards when he was 6. His social worker had taken him for ice cream, and he’d been so mesmerized by the performer’s card tricks, that he’d completely forgotten about the chocolate treat dribbling down his hands onto the curb of the sidewalk. That was two months before Her. For whatever reason, they were one of the few belongings his foster mother had let him keep. He figured she only allowed it because they had kept him quiet.

As he flipped and flourished the deck, tossing them in the air, rolling them across each other, and spinning them around, he considered what Jack had said. She was getting a boy. This would be the first time in 10 years. The first time since Andy. His death had made her cautious.

The poor kid had killed himself, unable to handle the reality of what was happening. Standing by Andy’s grave, Mick had sworn to himself, and whatever god might be listening, that he would take the Bitch out before he let her touch another boy.

She never hurt the girls. In fact, she pampered and spoiled them. They were her little queens, the untouchables that she trained to follow in her vile ways. But the boys…the boys she tortured and abused, in every way possible. To look at her, you’d never imagine a person so beautiful was capable of such evil. The first time he saw her, he’d thought he was looking at an angel. Dressed in a lacy white summer dress, with a riot of dark curls falling down around her shoulders, her pink cheeks had rounded in a brilliant smile just for him. She’d had soft gray eyes that would later bore into his soul like daggers. The day the social worker left him with her, everything changed. She’d walked him to the room he would eventually share with Andy. The tender hand on his shoulder suddenly became a claw that gripped his curls as she hissed, “Welcome home, baby!” into his ear before pushing him facedown onto the bed.

Clearing his throat and his mind, an idea slowly began to form. Pulling out pen and paper, he sketched a hasty blueprint from memory. Yes, it just might work. Pleased with himself, Mick made a mental list of items he would need to pick up the next day. He pulled the red flannel blanket from behind the couch and rolled onto his side; tugging the cover up over his head like he’d done every night since that first nightmare 22 years ago.

The next morning, in a rainy drizzle, Mick headed over to the diner for a hot breakfast of crispy bacon, fried potatoes, and eggs – sunny side up. Feeling fortified, he started towards Hill’s Hardware, but remembered he wanted to hit the pawnshop.

As Mick stepped inside, the doorbell alerted his entrance. He glanced around the room before heading towards the window. Larger than the average pawnshop, the store held the air of an antiquities dealer, rather than a high-end junk emporium. Leo had amassed a unique collection of goods that were displayed in an aesthetic manner than made one feel as though they were about to discover their most prized possession. Mahogany apothecary drawers revealed all sorts of treasures, from glass buttons, crystals, and jewelry, to vintage cars and furniture hardware. An antique candy counter held antique table linens and crisp ironed handkerchiefs interspersed with tiny perfume bottles and collectable dishes. From the ceiling floated vintage car lamps, suspended next to glass orbs, and ticking clocks. Scattered throughout the store were elements of the weird and fascinating, from eerie handcrafted dolls, to bleached animal skulls, and delicate metal contraptions that whispered of magic.

Mick was already trying to get a closer look at the cards, leaning over the high back of the green felt window display when Leo DelGarbino came out of a back room.

“Can I help you? Oh, hiya Mickey,” Leo said with a grin.

A fit man in his seventies, he reminded Mick of a taller version of Robert De Niro. Leo was one of the few people allowed to call him Mickey. He figured the old man was entitled since he’d known Mick most of his life.

“Good Morning, Mr. D. Can I see those cards in the front window?” Mick asked, removing his hat.

“Sure, sure. I thought those might interest you. Always fiddling with them cards a’ yours,” Leo said, reaching into the window display.

Mick laughed, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

“So they say. Speaking of the devil…these are some interesting cards. I think the woman I got them from thought she was a witch or somethin’,” Leo said, handing the deck to Mick.

Mick fanned them out on the counter for a better look. An odd pulling sensation tugged in his chest, then vanished. Shaking it off, he leaned down to inspect the cards. The same size and shape as an average deck, they were slightly thicker and heavier due to their handmade quality. Picking up the Queen of Hearts, he saw she was undressed and riding a rearing skeletal ram while brandishing a scepter topped with the Seal of Solomon. Something about the Queen’s face reminded him of Her. Across her belly was a symbol that he vaguely recognized as a warding sigil. With a snort of derision he scooped up the deck for a basic shuffle, and was pleasantly surprised with how smoothly they handled. Mick decided to test a few twirls and flourishes and soon had the old man smiling broadly at his performance.

“Have you ever considered going professional with those tricks a’ yours?” Leo asked, raising his bushy gray eyebrows at the scene in front of him.

Mick quickly dropped the cards onto the glass counter. “No, Sir. This is just a hobby.” More like a respite from the never-ending onslaught of memories.

“A hobby you’re damn good at. You might actually make some money,” Leo grunted.

“ I get by working the bar,” Mick said with a shrug.

“I’m sure you do,” Leo said softly before adding, “So, you want the cards or not?”

“How much?” Mick asked, running a finger over the raised paint of a black spade.

“For you, twenty bucks,” Leo said.

“These are worth way more than that, and you know it,” Mick said.

“Sure, and who else’ll appreciate ‘em the way you will? Take them. I’ve got a big box in the back full of occult type a’ stuff. I’ll get my money’s worth,” Leo said, waving it off.

“Thanks, Mr. D. I appreciate it,” Mick said, ducking his head as he pulled out his wallet.

“You’re a good boy, Mickey. Stop by more often,” Leo said, tucking the cards into a midnight blue velvet pouch.

Mick slipped the pouch into the side pocket of his jacket and returned the fedora to his head. Again, the pulling sensation tugged at his lungs. Tipping his hat to Leo, he stepped back into the street.

After picking up a few tools, and several feet of rope at the hardware store Mick made his way back to the apartment. Spilling his bags onto a small, folding green card table he shrugged off his jacket and pulled out the velvet pouch. He felt his lungs kick into gear, straining against the pull. He jerked the small bag open, and shook the cards into his hand. A small folded piece of paper fell out with them and onto the floor. Reaching down, he picked it up and flipped it open. In a delicate handwritten script he read:

House Of Cards

            An eternal house without comfort or shelter

            Unending rain, and stifling swelter

            Imprisoned forever, neither sight nor sound

            Your enemy’s blood, then burnt to the ground

            Vox Nu Iliostro Hu Lya. Vox Nu Itanda Siada.

 

            Mick stared at the words in his hand. He knew enough about spells and incantations to know that they could be surprisingly literal. The words themselves made sense, but the actual incantation was in an unfamiliar language. His curiosity raised, he sat down at his old desktop computer and pulled up Google. He copied the words into the search engine, but the results came back without any matches. He tried a few more keywords, to no avail. Frustrated, he pushed back and rose from his seat. Zero results actually lent some credibility to the spell’s legitimacy. At least, it was original and not some rose oil concoction floating around the Wiccan interweb of popular incantations. Pacing around the room, he considered his options. Time was limited; the new boy would be arriving in a matter of days. Looking towards the bag of tools, he considered his initial idea, of breaking and entering for the first time in his life, with the uncertain hope that he could overpower the Bitch. But there were a lot of doubts and concerns surrounding that plan and it would take a few days to fully flesh out. Then he would have to face the actual moment of decision. Mick pictured himself killing the woman. His large hands around her delicate throat, the corrupted life force draining from her body, and the pleasure that would course through his veins in satisfaction. But despite the fact that he had every reason in the world to want the woman dead, he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer. He wasn’t like Her.

His other option was no less complicated, but he was also no stranger to the nuances of spell casting. He could try a simple incantation attached to a deck of cards, something he held an affinity towards. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to try. These cards were in his possession for a reason and he longed to create the type of magic he had dreamed of as a boy. If it didn’t work, he’d find another alternative. Whatever his decision, he knew one thing for certain. This new boy would never know the horrors that he, Andy, and all the others before them had experienced in her clutches. If he did one thing right in his life, it would be this. He couldn’t save Andy, but he could save an innocent.

Mick opened the hall closet and dug around the top shelf until he found the old wooden cigar box that housed all the candles, crystals, and tarot cards he’d kept over the years. Underneath that, he pulled out the tattered shoebox of Andy’s belongings. Inside, was the black ballpoint pen that Andy had tried stabbing the Bitch with the first time she’d forced him to undress. He’d managed to get her in the shoulder, but didn’t do enough damage to actually stop her. When he was going through Andy’s things after his death, Mick had chosen to keep the pen as a reminder to never stop fighting. The pen was still stained with her blood.

Once his supplies were gathered, Mick set up his workspace. He smudged the room and the cards with an old bundle of sage, its heady herbal scent filling the room in a hazy fog. He then set short black candles in a wide circle on the floor around himself and the coffee table. Smoothing a layer of tin foil over the table, he set matches and a small Athame blade along the edge. After grounding himself with Black Obsidian and Charoite, he slipped the glossy stones into his pockets before picking up the deck.

Mick began shuffling the cards and then slowly allowed his mind to wander and his body to connect with the cards. With every flourish, he thought of Her. With ever snap of his wrist, he imagined her creamy white neck, now beginning to wrinkle with age. A twist with his fingers, the grip of her fist. Breathing fast, then heavy, faster, gasping an inescapable rhythm. In one sudden motion he flung the cards into the air, watching as they fell to the table. Dropping to his knees, he began to build with fervor. Balance was key, as was complexity. He constructed her prison as though it were a labor of love. Vox Nu Iliostro Hu Lya. Leaning Hearts, Diamond pillars, Club towers, and spires of Spades. Vox Nu Itanda Siada. Jacks taunted while Kings barred the way, holding the hands of their laughing Queens. Vox Nu Iliostro Hu Lya. Pulling a deep breath, Mick placed the last card, the guardian of this prison. The Jack of Spades. Vox Nu Itanda Siada.

            Mick palmed the small knife from the table’s edge and began scraping the dried blood on the pen over the house of cards. Vox Nu Iliostro Hu Lya. Vox Nu Itanda Siada. Stepping back he viewed his handiwork. It was beautiful, in an abstract way. It reminded him of an Escher house – continually turning in on itself. A thought that sent shivers of thrill down his spine.

Mick reached for the matches and struck one of the long sticks against the side of the box. Hovering over the house of cards, he touched the tip of the hissing flame to the Jack of Spades. Continuing his chant, he watched the delicate structure catch fire, flickering and twisting through the cards as though it recognized his signature. When the flame reached the last card, a blinding blaze flashed quickly before vanishing like a breathe of air had snuffed it out.

The room appeared to spin and as he struggled to blow out the candles, Mike could still hear a distant chanting. Vaguely recognizing it at his own voice, he felt the leather of the couch meet his face. As a white haze clouded his vision, he felt a wave of peace overtake his drained body before collapsing into a deep sleep.

Loud, jarring vibrations jerked Mick awake and straight up. Blinking his eyes back into awareness, he realized that someone was trying to call him. Fumbling for his phone, he answered on the last buzz.

It was Jack. “Mick? Man, where the hell have you been?”

“I was sleeping,” Mick slumped back and rubbed a hand over his face, meeting sweat and stubble. His throat felt like gravel.

“For three damn days?” Jack asked.

“What?” Mick’s head was pounding.

“Listen. I have to tell you something. That woman, the one you’ve been keeping tabs on? She’s gone,” Jack said.

“Say that again,” Mick said, sitting up straight.

“Her sister reported her missing. Says she just vanished. Apparently they were having tea one minute and the next she was just gone. Not sure I believe that bit, but the point is, no-one has seen her since.”

“When did this happen?” Mick was breathing quickly, afraid to hope.

“Three days ago. Sometime in the afternoon,” Jack replied.

Mick dropped the phone. Staring at the ashes on the coffee table, a slow smile stretched across his face.

#

© 2015 Taryn King  All Rights Reserved

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