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Fiction

Second Hand

Wyoming Territory, Circa 1874

Dead Man's Hand

This story also appears in the new anthology DEAD MAN’S HAND, edited by John Joseph Adams. It’s available now from Titan Books.

Quentin Ketterly stood in the Gold Star Saloon and lit his cheroot with one hand, the other resting lightly on his hip, very close to his waistcoat pocket. He stared across the room at the five men playing poker at a nearby table. His eyes tracked the movement of the cards that they held and played, though his mind was on another set of Cards entirely.

The lion’s share of his attention was focused on one Hiram Tetch—an itinerant and idiot, who happened to be Quentin’s charge. Not for the first time, Quentin cursed the promise that had led him to become . . . what? Hiram’s teacher? His chaperone?

Whatever the title, he had promised the old man that he would look after the lad, and without the old man, Quentin wouldn’t have become a Card Sharp and wouldn’t have discovered the Cards. Taking care of Hiram was payment for that debt. That the old man had a halfwit for a son was just part of the price.

The dealer dealt out a fresh hand and Hiram looked surreptitiously at the cards, then tugged at the brim of his bowler hat. Quentin recognized it as one of Hiram’s tells. It meant he had a good hand. Unfortunately, the money in front of him was meager. He could have gone all in, but that likely would have scared off the skittish players at the table. Hiram liked to draw out the play, reel in the others, then clean up.

Hiram reached into the inside pocket of his dusty black coat and removed a gold cigarette case. He held it down in his lap and fitted a cigarette to his lips. As he struck the match on the underside of the table, Quentin saw two lights flare—one from the match, the other from inside the case. Quentin stifled a curse and his hand moved closer to his waistcoat pocket.

Quentin couldn’t see the Card Hiram had just Played, the one that had come from inside the cigarette case, but he would bet it all that it had been a Diamond. Diamonds were associated not only with wealth, but with trickery. Illusion. What in the damned Hell was the boy playing at?

A moment later, Hiram reached into his coat pocket (an outside one this time) and removed a small pouch of clinking coins. Quentin knew with certainty that the pouch had been empty just moments before. “My emergency supply,” Hiram said and spilled shining coins onto the table. The other men grunted, but seemed pacified. They had no reason to know of Hiram’s notorious lack of foresight, his inability to look even an hour into the future.

The hand continued.

Hiram reeled them in.

When all was said and done, Hiram had more than tripled the money he’d started with. He sat back, a wide grin etched on his face. He looked at Quentin and winked. Quentin frowned back. It was an expression all too familiar to him these days.

A cry went up from one of the other men at the table. While Hiram had won back most of his “emergency supply,” some of the coins had made their way into the others’ piles, and the man who had cried out held one of these between two grimy fingers, his face puckered into a grimace. The coin flexed between his fingers, to the astonishment of everyone except Quentin and Hiram.

Then the room erupted into chaos.

Hiram swiped at the paper money in front of him, scooping up as much as he could, then ran for the front door of the saloon as his fellow players reached for their guns.

Quentin cursed and tossed the cheroot, his hand reaching to his waistcoat pocket and his Deck. It was a reflex action in times of stress, but he would be damned if he would waste one of his Cards on that fool of a boy.

Still, his hand stayed near his pocket.

The men ran after Hiram, and Quentin chased after them. Hiram bolted across the street and around the side of the tailor’s shop, running for the fringe of scrub that rimmed the town of Stillwell like thinning hair. Quentin winced as a shot rang out. It would serve the kid right to get a bullet in the ass as a result of his play. And for generally being a burr in the seat of everyone’s pants.

Quentin pulled out the Five of Spades, held it tightly between his fingers. Ahead, Hiram dove for a small bush, and Quentin saw a flash between the sparsely filled branches.

The two pursuers held their guns out, but as they prepared to shoot, the gun barrels twisted, curving until they were black and silver snakes in the men’s hands. Both men screamed and dropped the snakes to the ground. Then, with a look at each other, they bolted.

Quentin waited a moment, then strode to where Hiram was hiding. “I don’t know where to begin,” he said. “With your damn fool decision to cheat or with your poor job in doing so.” He pulled the young man up by his collar.

Hiram’s expression turned serious. “I don’t cheat,” he said. “Conjurin’ up more coins don’t mean I cheat at cards.”

Quentin rolled his eyes. “You couldn’t hold the Play.”

Hiram flushed. “Just a moment longer and it would have been fine.” He shrugged off Quentin’s touch and brushed the bramble from his coat. “Only, well, I used a Four.”

“How many coins did you conjure?”

“Forty-nine. I mean, I know that the numbers should match, but, well, it was still in the range of four . . .”

Quentin slapped the back of Hiram’s head. “Idiot,” he said. “I taught you better than that. Never mind. We need to get off this street in case those men come back.”

Quentin grabbed Hiram’s arm and pulled him down the street. “When are you going to learn some sense?” Quentin said. “Wasting Cards on a card game?”

“What do you care?” Hiram asked. “They’re my Cards. You can’t use ’em.”

You should care,” Quentin said. “Once they’re gone, there are no more.”

“But I did good with those pistols, right?” Hiram asked.

Quentin spit. He would have liked to say the Play was no good. Instead, he admitted, “Yeah, kid. That was good.”

Hiram pulled away from Quentin and went back to where the altercation had taken place. When he returned, he was tucking one of the six-shooters, now reverted to its original form, into his belt.

“What you going to do with that?” Quentin asked.

Hiram shrugged. “Maybe next time I won’t need to use my Cards.”

Quentin shook his head. “We’re not here to start useless fights. And we’re not here to win money at cards.”

“I know,” Hiram said. “We’re here for the list, but we need money to keep us going, right?”

Quentin gritted his teeth. The boy was right. They’d been chasing down a list of names that the old man had kept inside his battered traveling case. So far, it had yielded little but had eaten through a lot of their resources—Cards and cash both. The last name had brought them to Stillwell, but they’d only had enough money to pay for one night in the hotel.

“You head back to the room,” Quentin said. “I want you lying low in case those card players are still about.”

“What are you going to do?”

Quentin narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to see if we can’t turn this hand around.”

• • •

The last name on their list was just “Gunsmith.” Quentin asked about, as discretely as he could. The boy at the stables turned his luck. “Don’t know no Gunsmith, but there is a gun shop in town.”

It sounded right to Quentin. If this were a card game, it would be enough for him to bluff. He returned to the hotel, grabbed Hiram, and dragged him to the gun shop. They stood outside looking for a moment at the plain, wooden building.

“Guess we should go inside,” Hiram said. Before Quentin could stop him, he bounded up the steps leading to the shop door and burst inside.

Mumbling curses, Quentin followed.

The store wasn’t very different from other gun stores that Quentin had been to, though he had only seen a few. Sleek, oiled pistols and rifles lined glass cases, with a few models mounted on the walls.

Standing behind the counter, wearing a leather apron, was a woman. Her sandy hair was streaked with gray and pulled back into a ponytail. Her eyes were a startling blue, but tired. She raised an eyebrow at Quentin. “You looking for a gun?” she said.

“No,” Quentin said. “I’m actually looking for someone who might go by the name of Gunsmith. You know anyone like that?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “And what might you be wanting with this Gunsmith?”

“Just to talk,” Quentin said. “We think he might have known a friend of ours.”

“My father,” Hiram said. “Though he was never no friend to me.”

One of the woman’s hands came up with a black revolver. “Well, there’s no Gunsmith here. And unless you’re looking to buy a gun, I think you’d better just leave now.” She eased the hammer back with her thumb.

Quentin’s hand jumped to his waistcoat pocket. “Now hold on,” he said. “No need to get jumpy.”

Hiram reached for his Cards, too, in their cigarette case, and the woman swiveled the pistol toward him.

Quentin pulled the Five of Spades.

The woman’s eyes flashed between the two of them, then she thumbed the hammer back into place and lowered the revolver. “Wasn’t expecting you to be slinging Cards,” she said.

Quentin’s eyes widened. “You know about the Cards?”

The woman nodded. “I’m Gunsmith.”

Quentin nodded and slid the Five of Spades back into his pocket. He moved forward, excited. “I’m Quentin Ketterly. And this is Hiram Tetch.”

“Real names, huh? You must be greenhorns. Most seasoned Cardslingers use nicknames.”

“Oh,” Quentin said.

Hiram elbowed Quentin lightly in the ribs. “I’m going to call myself the King of Aces.”

“No,” Quentin said. “You’re definitely not.” He turned to Gunsmith. “We’ve been looking for you.”

Her eyes narrowed again. “I get that. Why?”

“To learn more about the Cards,” Quentin said.

“And you expect me to learn you? Why would I do that?”

Quentin paused, taken aback. “I just thought . . .”

“That we’re all one happy family? You do have a lot to learn. There are some that would kill you just for showing your hand. Hell, I almost killed you myself.”

“Why?” Quentin said.

“I made a lot of enemies in my time with the Cards,” Gunsmith said.

“You’re using a six-shooter, though,” Hiram said. “Reckon that’s so you can save your Cards?”

“In a way,” Gunsmith said. She held up the pistol and, without it being pointed at him, Quentin saw that it was one of the finest revolvers he’d ever set eyes on. “This here’s a Colt Peacemaker,” Gunsmith said. “In the right hands, a Peacemaker’ll kill a man dead. But this here Colt will kill anyone dead with just one shot. Anywhere. Graze a man on the ear, and he’ll die. Guaranteed.”

“How?”

Gunsmith smiled. “The Six of Spades. I infused the power into the revolver. Good for six shots. And, well, you know Spades . . .”

She held up another six-shooter made from a darker metal. “This one was the Six of Clubs. Each shot is a small explosion. First pistol won’t hurt anything other than a person. But this one can blow in doors.”

“You have them for the Six of Diamonds and Six of Hearts, too?” Hiram said.

“I used to,” Gunsmith said.

“So you harness the power of the Card,” Quentin said, “but defer the effect until later.”

“Exactly,” Gunsmith said.

“Can I do that?” Quentin asked.

“Well, not without practice,” Gunsmith said. “It took me years to master it.”

Quentin shook his head. There was so much he didn’t know about the Cards. So much he hadn’t even considered. He certainly had never imagined being able to infuse their power into other objects.

“I don’t usually go heeled,” Quentin said, “but a gun like that . . .”

Gunsmith raised an eyebrow. “You in need of killing someone?”

Quentin looked at his boots. “Not anymore.”

She let this pass. She looked at Hiram. “So I guess your father was Jeb Tetch?”

Hiram nodded.

“When I met him, he was going by the name ‘Hoyle,’” Quentin said.

“Hoyle?” Gunsmith said. “The nerve of that man. He used to go by Cannonball. As in ‘all the subtlety of.’ The man was a brute, but—” Her eyes squinted in recollection. “—boy, could he dance.”

Quentin looked at Hiram, who shrugged.

“So, I take it you’re now teaching this one.” She indicated Hiram.

“As much as I know,” Quentin said.

“And how is that going?” she asked Hiram.

“Well, ma’am,” Hiram said, “he’s about as fun as a bucket of mud, but I think he’s learning me just fine.”

Gunsmith eyed them both, shaking her head. “I should send you both packing.”

“But you’re not,” Quentin said, picking up on her reticence.

Gunsmith sighed. “No. Against my better judgment, I’m not.” She looked at Hiram. “As a favor to your father. He wasn’t all bad.”

Hiram shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Besides,” she continued. “You remind me of better times, of my own apprentice.” Her face darkened for a moment. Then she smiled. “Why don’t you boys come by tomorrow. We can have lunch. Will that suit?”

“Yes,” Quentin said. “Thank you. We’ll see you then.”

• • •

Quentin couldn’t deny something like a thrill as he dressed the next morning. He couldn’t wait to meet with Gunsmith, couldn’t wait to hear more about the Cards. He had twenty-six left, but he hoped to learn a way to use them more wisely. Or even just learn more about where they came from. How they worked. He had promised the old man that he would teach Hiram. This would help. And then, when he was done, he could start using the Cards to help people. To do good instead of violence. Hell, maybe they both could.

He went outside for a quick smoke, then went to fetch Hiram, who was already two drinks deep at the bar. “Isn’t it a bit early?” Quentin said.

“Just needed a little fortification,” Hiram said. “I’m good now.”

“Good. Because we have an appointment today.”

“I know,” Hiram said. “The old lady.”

“You be respectful,” Quentin said. “We could learn a lot from her. You’d do well to pay attention.”

“I’d love to get my hands on one of those Colts,” Hiram said. “D’ya think she’d give us some kind of discount?”

“No. And no asking her neither. Be polite.”

They stopped by the fancy store up the street, the one that carried imported goods, and walked out with some tea from back east and some biscuits. Then they went over to Gunsmith’s.

There was no answer when Quentin knocked, so he knocked again. Then again.

“Do you smell smoke?” Hiram said.

Quentin sniffed the air, then kicked in the door.

The interior of Gunsmith’s shop was in disarray, glass cases broken into shards, pistols and rifles and instruments strewn across the place, curtains torn down, tables overturned.

“What do you think—?” Hiram said.

Quentin shushed him, his Deck already out in his hands. Hiram followed suit. They crouched down and stalked through the store. The place was silent save for the sound of their own steps, and whatever had been burning had been doused already, so there was no immediate danger.

At the back of the shop, they found Gunsmith. She lay on the ground, stiff, her arms and legs contorted, her face twisted in a permanent expression of complete pain.

“Good god,” Hiram said, and turned away.

Quentin crouched by the body. Touched one claw of a hand. It wouldn’t budge. Then he searched the woman’s pockets, her apron.

“God, man, be decent,” Hiram said.

“I’m checking for her Cards,” Quentin said.

“Why?”

“Because I can’t imagine she would let this happen. And—” He didn’t finish the sentence. He needed to be sure.

His search turned up nothing. No Cards. None even littered the ground. As an afterthought, he checked her boots. Hiram’s father had taught Quentin to keep his Jokers there, since their uses were unpredictable. Quentin had taught Hiram to do the same.

Gunsmith’s boots were empty.

“Maybe she didn’t carry them with her,” Hiram said.

“You know what the Cards are. How special they are. Would you keep yours anywhere but on your person?”

“No,” Hiram said. “But . . . maybe she was empty. Dry. No more.”

The thought chilled Quentin. “She did use the power in her guns. Maybe she had run out.”

“Shit,” Hiram said. “What do we do now?”

Quentin clenched his jaw. He knew that they should just move on. Someone good enough to take out Gunsmith, to make this kind of Play, might be more than they could handle. But this was the end of their trail. If they walked away now, they might never find another person who knew the Cards.

“I don’t want to spend too much time here, but I say we do some quick exploring. Might be something here that could help us out.”

Hiram nodded. Quentin gritted his teeth. He hated going through the woman’s things—it felt too much like looting—but anything that would help them, any more information on the cards, would be a boon.

This wasn’t what I bargained for, he thought. Skulking around like a criminal. Yet, the Cards are too important.

He closed Gunsmith’s eyelids and rose to search her shop.

• • •

They found the Spades revolver in one corner of the room, and the cylinder had only two bullets left in it. “She used this,” Quentin said.

“But it didn’t help her,” Hiram said.

“No. And since there’s no other body here, we’ll have to assume she didn’t hit anyone.”

Hiram took the pistol and tucked it into his belt. “No use leaving this behind,” he said. “Not with the magic in it.”

Quentin winced at the word. He hated thinking of it like that. But Hiram always named it so.

Quentin ran his fingers along the edge of his Deck. He could rustle up something to help track the killer, but it would use up a Card. He’d dealt out half of them while pursuing revenge against his uncle—payback for the death of his father. He’d hoped to honor his father by doing something better with the Cards afterward. And he would, once he’d finished schooling Hiram.

He could ask Hiram to make a Play. The boy would put up a fuss, but in the end he’d probably do it. But that idea left a bad taste behind it.

That was the thing about the Cards. As wondrous as they were, they made one a miser. Like an old man clinging to a dwindling fortune.

“I don’t like this,” Quentin said. “Whoever killed her didn’t seem to take much. Most of the weapons are still where they belong. Save for those that got knocked over.”

“And it weren’t no gunfight,” Hiram said. “Not with that smell in the air. If it weren’t her Cards, then maybe someone else made the Play?”

Could that be it? Quentin thought. She had said she’d made enemies. Did one come back to kill her? “Let’s go upstairs and see if we can find anything.”

They moved through Gunsmith’s rooms, pulling open drawers and pawing through chests and bureaus.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” Hiram said.

“I don’t know,” Quentin replied. “Something to give us direction.”

In the end, they found nothing beyond what a woman of Gunsmith’s age might have in her house—clothing, some toiletries, and linens—plus an assortment of tools in an old chest. But nothing about the Cards. No notebooks or diaries, either.

“Let’s get out of here,” Quentin said.

“Okay,” Hiram said. “Just give me a minute. I want to check on something.”

Quentin descended the stairs . . . and froze when he saw a woman standing in the room beside Gunsmith’s body. She was young, blonde, with piercing blue eyes; she wore traveling clothes and held a deck of cards (he had to assume they were Cards) in her hand.

Suddenly, she noticed him. “Who the hell are you?” she said. She stepped back.

Quentin’s eyes flicked to her Deck. “Now hold on,” he said.

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “D’you kill her?”

“What? Me?” Quentin said. “No, I—”

She pulled a Card from the top of her deck, though Quentin could only see the red back of it. He raised his own Card. But something held him back.

“Let’s not be hasty,” he said, moving slowly forward. “This could all be a misunderstanding.”

“What isn’t a misunderstanding,” she said, “is that my mother’s dead. Murdered. And I find you robbing her house. No, there ain’t no misunderstanding.”

“Wait, your mother?” Quentin said. “She never said she had a kid.”

“Oh, and you knew her so well, did you?” She still held the Card out in her shaking hand. All it would take was some concentration and she could rain fire down on him. Or something else. He could try to counter, but there was no knowing what card she held. Quentin would either have to Play one of his highest or risk going down.

Hiram’s arrival broke the moment down into pieces. The woman’s eyes jumped to him. Quentin moved. He pumped his legs, closing the gap, and tackled the woman to the ground. He placed one hand across the woman’s eyes, hoping it would momentarily break her concentration. Then he hissed in her ear, “We didn’t kill your ma.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth? Why should I believe you?”

“We came here to meet with her. She was going to talk to us. About the Cards.”

“What about them?”

“We’re . . . we’re new to this. We thought she could teach us something.”

The woman looked from Quentin to Hiram. She narrowed her eyes. “That does sound like her.”

Quentin let go of the woman and got to his feet, offering his hand to her. “I’m awful sorry about your mother. If there’s anything we can do to help, we’ll try.”

Her face softened, then she took his hand and he helped her to her feet. She turned back to where her mother still lay and took a moment to compose herself. “When did you get your Deck?” she asked, brushing off her skirt.

“His father gave it to me.” Quentin indicated Hiram. “As a favor.”

“That’s some favor.”

“Well, it wasn’t all kindness. He asked me to train this one.”

“Hey!” Hiram said.

“My ma gave me mine,” the woman said. She extended her hand. “I’m Clarice.”

“Quentin.” He shook her hand. She had a good grip. “This here is Hiram.”

Hiram tipped his bowler hat. “Ma’am.”

“Do you know who might have wanted to hurt your ma?” Quentin asked.

“I know she’d made enemies,” Clarice said. “I’d heard tell that someone was gunning for her. One of her friends down in Abilene got word to me. I just . . . got here too late.”

All of them turned when they heard the loud voices outside the front door. Quentin peeked through the curtained windows. “The Law,” he said and grabbed Hiram’s arm. “We have to go. Looks like someone heard something. Clarice, if you need us, you can find us at the Sovereign Hotel.”

“No,” Clarice said. “I’m going with you.”

“Why?”

“The sheriff’s not going to believe my ma was killed by a deck of playing cards. And I can’t waste time here with those dullwits while her killer is still out there. I’ll go with you now and deal with the law later.”

Quentin nodded. “Okay. If that’s how you want to play it. Let’s go.”

They slipped out the back and made their way to the hotel. Quentin had to stop himself from barraging Clarice with questions. He’d thought his hopes for more knowledge about the Cards had died with Gunsmith. But now he’d found someone else. Only there were more important things to focus on now. But once they were done . . .

He pushed the thoughts away. They entered the hotel, and Quentin turned to Clarice. “Why don’t you stay down here, maybe get a drink, and we’ll head up to our room for a minute, then we’ll come back down and join you.”

“I’ll come with you,” she said.

“But—” Quentin said, exchanging a glance with Hiram. Surely she would be concerned about propriety.

“My ma just died,” she said. “I need to do something.”

He shrugged and the three of them walked up the stairs to the room the two men shared.

Clarice sat on the bed, and Hiram, without being asked, poured her some whisky from the bottle they kept in the room. Clarice took a long draught. Quentin took off his hat, poured some water into the basin, and threw it over his face and neck. Dust and grit colored the water.

“How many do you have left?” Hiram said behind him.

“Not enough,” Clarice said, and left it at that. Curiosity burned brightly in Quentin’s mind. Was that part of the etiquette? Don’t let others know what you have? It certainly would be safer.

“Did your mother have any Cards left?” Quentin said, toweling off his face.

“I . . . I don’t know,” she said. “She did last time I saw her, but . . .” She shrugged. “I guess she either’d run out or she used what she had left trying to fight off her killer. If we’re lucky, that means he will have used a few Cards of his own.”

“There could have been more than one of them,” Hiram said. “If I wanted to take down a veteran Card Sharp, I’d have sent a few men after her.”

“We don’t know enough,” Quentin said. “If the killer just came here to kill Gunsmith, he might already be on his way out of town.”

“Then we should be checking and maybe asking around to see who might be new in town,” Hiram said.

“I’ll do that,” Quentin said. “I don’t want to chance you running into your friends from the Gold Star Saloon.”

“What should I do, then?” Hiram said.

“You and Clarice see what you can turn up. Maybe ask around here? It might even make sense to talk to the sheriff.”

Hiram grimaced, but Clarice nodded.

Quentin gave Hiram a pat on the back, a pat that the younger man seemed to find uncomfortable, then he left.

The bright light of Stillwell’s main road brought second thoughts. What are you doing, Quentin? Risking your life and maybe your Cards for something that doesn’t concern you?

But he had wanted to do good with the Cards. Wasn’t stopping a killer doing good? Wasn’t righting injustice worth the risk?

He stopped first at the other side of Stillwell, at the Alder Hotel where the stagecoach departed from. The next stage wasn’t for at least an hour, and no one was there waiting.

Next, he stopped by the town stables and asked around if anyone had left in a hurry. No one seemed to have done so. Quentin hung around the stables for a spell nevertheless, until he felt stupid watching for someone who might never come.

On his way back to the Sovereign, he detoured past Gunsmith’s place. Outside of it, he pulled his Deck from his waistcoat pocket and flipped through it. Hiram had wanted a special case for his—the cigarette case—but Quentin liked to have his pressing up against him, easily accessible.

Of all the Cards in his deck, he had more Diamonds than anything else. Cards from the other three suits had been burned up in his vendetta against his uncle.

He found he suddenly wished for a pistol like the one Hiram had picked up. Perhaps the boy had it right. Maybe it was a way to hold on to the Cards a little longer. No wonder Gunsmith survived for as long as she did. Finding a way to make the Cards last was a miracle. Once they were gone, they were gone. It was the one absolute truth he knew about them.

The lawmen had left Gunsmith’s house some time ago by the looks of it, probably to cart off the body to the undertaker. He wondered what they would think of her death; there were no real wounds on the body—whatever had killed her had been from the Card Sharp’s Play.

Quentin reached for his Diamonds. He hadn’t been intending to use a Card for this—it wasn’t even his business, any of this. But finding out what happened to Gunsmith felt right. And Clarice might be more willing to exchange information if he helped find her mother’s killer.

Making a Play was tricky and never a guaranteed thing. If you tried for something beyond the value of the Card, it wouldn’t work. And you would waste the Card nonetheless. So he thought carefully.

He needed to sharpen his senses. He flipped to the Five of Diamonds. It seemed right—five senses, after all. But before he drew it, he flipped ahead to the Six and pulled that out. Five normal senses, sure, but there was that elusive sixth. And Diamonds was the suit of vision and also of earth, of buried secrets.

He entered the house through the open back door and sat down where they’d found Gunsmith’s body. Then he focused on the Six of Diamonds, shaping his desire, feeling the power gather as it always did, and he willed the Card to life. It flared in his hand, burning away to nothing.

He gasped as his vision swam and the room around him seemed to thicken, as if he were underwater. A shape, like dark smoke, coalesced before him. As he stepped back, it sharpened into Gunsmith. Or at least an approximation of her. Her features were muddied, unclear. But he knew it was her.

The vision went beyond sight, though. He could feel her boots upon the wooden floor. Could smell the scent of her—oil and leather and something herbaceous.

She was bending down, lining up some pistols in a glass case. The door opened. She rose and reached for the Spades pistol. The figure in the doorway was black smoke.

Quentin caught the momentary image of a Card in the figure’s hand. Then a charge ran through the room and the glass case in front of Gunsmith shattered, throwing glass around like sparks from a fire. Gunsmith rose, firing—once, twice, then the pistol went flying from her grasp.

She reached down to a holster beneath her apron, coming up with a Card.

The vision blurred as intense energies filled the room. Though he was removed by the veil of time, Quentin thought he could feel Gunsmith’s attack raise the hairs on his arms.

Gunsmith reached for another Card, but maybe she was injured, or just too slow. Whatever the reason, she never used it. An unseen force gripped her, arching her back and contorting her face, and then she toppled to the ground, still in the same awkward position.

The attacker moved into the room. And as she neared, as the room saw her, felt her, her features resolved so that Quentin could see who it was. His skin went cold.

Clarice.

As he watched, she bent down over the dead form of Gunsmith and removed the Card from the still-clutching hand, then retrieved the rest from the holster at the dead woman’s side. It was a thin stack, but she took them, and put them in her own coat pocket.

I’ve been a damned fool, Quentin thought.

He ran upstairs, back into the bedroom. He remembered a photograph from before, in a tarnished silver frame. He picked it up. There was a younger Gunsmith and Clarice, no more than a girl. Why would she kill her own mother?

He was just leaving the bedroom when a gunshot rang out downstairs.

Quentin ran down the stairs and barreled into the shop. Clarice stood over a limp, dark figure on the ground, holding a still-smoking pistol. Gunsmith’s Spades pistol. Quentin recognized Hiram’s bowler hat rolling away on the floor. Clarice held Hiram’s Deck of Cards in her free hand.

Clarice turned and leveled the pistol at him. Quentin’s Cards were still in his pocket.

“Why?” Quentin gasped, reeling as he spoke the words. I’m sorry, old man—I failed you. I let your son die.

“For these,” she said, holding up the Deck.

Quentin shook his head. “But you can’t use another man’s Cards!”

Clarice grinned with one side of her mouth. “Are you certain of that fact?” she said. Quentin began to move, but she cocked back the hammer of the pistol. “Uh-uh.”

“Do you really think you can make them work?”

“Oh, I know it to be true,” she said. “It’s clear you’re milling about on the ignorant side of the fence—and to be fair, most of us are—but there are ways out there, secret ways, that only a few know. One trick lets you take another’s Cards and make them your own.”

Quentin gasped. The old man had taught him that there was only ever the one Deck. Once you used that up, the power was gone. Never to return. To be able to get more . . .

“Why kill him?” he said through clenched teeth.

“Don’t you understand how it works? The Cards are linked to us when we take them. When we use them. I can’t take these if the owner is still breathing. The ritual that tethers them wouldn’t work otherwise.”

“Ritual?”

“Yes,” she said, her smile widening. “Once I find it, I’ll—”

“You don’t even have it yet?” Quentin said, incredulous. Without even meaning to, he moved forward, and then stopped when Clarice took a step toward him, gun arm fully outstretched, violence sparking in her eyes.

“No,” she said, the smile now gone. “Not yet, but I will. Ma got it from one of her old pals. Only I had to kill him when I made my escape. Believe me, every day I spent chained up in her cellar . . . I don’t regret it one bit. Though it did make this part more difficult. The sad thing is that the cost, in Cards, is high. But with your two Decks, and Ma’s, I should have plenty leftover after.”

Quentin shook his head. “She tried to take your Cards?”

“I was so happy when she told me about them, when she made me my Deck. I was adopted, you see. I felt like this was her passing on her legacy to me. Only I don’t know if she did it because she wanted to share them, or if she knew this is how it would end. I think she gave them to me just so she could take them back again.”

“My God,” Quentin said. “Why?”

“Why?” she repeated, a wild gleam in her eyes. “You know why. So much power, but always fleeting. She spent most of her life trying to make them last longer. Putting their strength into objects. But, as you know, they dwindle. They go. She started getting weird in the head. Paranoid. She kept saying that old enemies were coming for her. She needed more. I guess . . . I guess I made things easier, unsuspecting as I was.”

Quentin thought back to the old man training him. If he knew barely anything now, he’d known literally nothing then. The old man could have easily killed him and taken the Cards back. “How did you manage to survive?”

The smile returned. “She had to learn me something,” she said. “I think that’s how the magic works. She couldn’t just take them from me right away. Even so, it wasn’t easy. I used one of my Jokers and that gave me an opportunity. I ran away and never came back. ’Til now.”

It made sense. Jokers, as Wild Cards, had unpredictable results. He’d in fact used one to similar advantage.

“Thing was,” Clarice said, “I was really gunning for you and your friend. I picked up on the two of you going around to some of the old-timers, asking questions. I figured you’d be easy marks. I never expected you’d lead me back here. I ought to thank you. Lucky I got to you before she did.”

Realization dawned in Quentin’s mind. If she was right, Gunsmith wouldn’t have taught them about the Cards. She would have taken them. Still, it didn’t matter much. Clarice was going to do the same.

She smiled. “Now, toss your Cards to me.”

“No,” Quentin said. “You’re going to kill me anyway. I’m not gonna make this easy for you.”

“Fair enough,” she said. The gunshot rang out even as Quentin felt the slug strike his left shoulder. He fell backward, his chest erupting into pain.

This was it, then, he thought. Death at last. Still with some Cards remaining. The Cards she would take from him. From his corpse.

He fell to the ground, the impact hard against his body. He’d been expecting a quick death, thought that’s how the gun would work, but it was taking its sweet time. He hurt too much—it was sadistic.

Clarice moved toward him.

Quentin found himself wishing that the bullet would take effect, would kill him before she took his Deck away. To have to watch . . .

She stood above him now, her eyes greedy.

Then the room exploded into a flurry of butterflies—fluttering, delicate wings of every possible color flitting and flying through the space.

Clarice turned in surprise and started swatting at them as they flew at her.

Quentin pushed aside his astonishment and moved. Whatever the reason, the bullet had yet to take him, and he still had his Cards. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, he rose to his feet and took out the next Card from his deck, the Seven of Diamonds. His perceptions from the previous card were still lingering, and he reached out through them, feeling roots tangling beneath the wooden floor, coiling through the earth there. The Card flared in his hand and with a creaking, then a cracking, the roots shot up through the wooden floor, suddenly animated, wrapping around Clarice’s legs.

The pistol went tumbling from her hands, and she reached for her own Deck, drawing a Card, which quickly burned away in her hands. The roots that gripped her suddenly took fire, sizzling away into blackish smoke that blew across the flying butterflies.

Quentin flipped out another Card, the Eight of Spades this time, and focused his thoughts, throwing a thunderbolt across the store’s space. It flared bright blue-white, incinerating a wide swath of butterflies in its path as it arced toward Clarice.

But the light from a Card in Clarice’s hand was already fading, throwing up a reddish, transparent shield, and Quentin’s thunderbolt danced across its surface without reaching her. It crackled, trying to penetrate it, but she held it back, her Play at least as powerful as his own.

They stood like that for a moment, him pushing his power, Clarice holding it back.

Quentin fumbled for another Card even as Clarice reached for her own, but his wound made his arm tremble and blood had run down onto his hand. He grabbed for one, any one, staring at it so that he could focus on a meaning. Something, anything to take Clarice down.

He drew the Seven of Hearts, and his mind reached out desperately for the first meaning that appeared. The heart. Life energy. He grabbed it and seized it and in his mind pictured Clarice’s heart, willing his fear and anger at it.

She had already drawn her Card, but then the hand holding it dropped and her other hand went to her chest, her eyes wide in fear and shock.

He pushed with all of his willpower, carrying the Play through to its end.

Clarice fell to the ground, terrible gasping sounds coming from her throat.

He ran to her, crouched down over her. She looked up at him, tears spilling from her eyes. Then she was still.

Quentin went to Hiram, who stirred on the ground. “How are you not dead?” Quentin asked. “How am I not dead? Did Gunsmith’s pistol fail?”

Hiram, clutching at a wound in his thigh, shook his head. He pointed across the room to what looked like Gunsmith’s Colt lying in a corner.

“But—” Quentin said.

“I laid a glamour on it,” Hiram said. “Made the plain one look like the special one and vice versa.”

“Didn’t trust her?”

Hiram smiled. “I just wanted to keep it for myself.” He crawled his way over to Clarice’s body, wincing in pain, and roughly retrieved his Deck. “Bitch,” he said. “Luckily, I remembered the Jokers in my boots.”

“Butterflies.” Quentin shook his head. “Unpredictable.”

With his Cards returned, Hiram pulled out one of his own Hearts and fixed up the wound in his leg. Then, in a rare moment of generosity, he used one on Quentin’s wound as well.

They left the body where it lay, though Quentin removed Clarice’s Cards. It would be up to the sheriff to figure out what had happened, if he could. Quentin knew that they would have to gather their things and move on. Both of them with their Decks lighter than they’d been when they arrived in Stillwell.

Using a key they found on her body, they visited Clarice’s room at the Avery Hotel. Quentin wanted to open her suitcase, but in a rare moment of insight, Hiram thought it might be trapped. “Gunsmith could put a Play inside a pistol, why not one inside a bag?”

So it was one more Play each (a Diamond to detect and identify the protection and one of Hiram’s Spades to counteract it) before they could safely open it. Inside, they found six Decks of varying sizes. These they carefully placed into their own bags.

Quentin also found a journal filled with names and locations in a feminine scrawl. “Another list?” Hiram said.

Quentin shrugged. “Got to play the hand that we’ve been dealt.”

• • •

Quentin fingered Clarice’s journal as they sat on the train heading west. Dusty brown land dotted with scrub passed by outside the window.

“Did you believe what she said?” Hiram asked. “That you could get more Cards by taking them away from a person?”

Quentin looked at his hands. “I don’t know,” he said. “It seems an awful horrific thing to do.” And yet, he thought, the Cards flee so quickly.

“In any case,” he said, “none of us know the secret. And I think that’s for the best.”

“Oh, most certainly,” Hiram said, an odd note in his voice.

They looked at each other uneasily. The rest of the ride passed in silence.

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Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is an author, blogger, reviewer, podcaster, and narrator. His post-apocalyptic airship series starting with Falling Sky and Rising Tide concluded in July 2017 with Raining Fire. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed. Rajan cohosts the Spirited Discourse podcast (with co-host Devin Poore). He lives in Brooklyn where he’s a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. He tweets, @rajanyk.