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Quentin Ketterly could tell that the cards weren’t special when the fortune teller held out the deck to him. Real Cards, like those he carried in the case around his neck, didn’t show wear like Madame Serena’s did. And when he touched the deck, as she instructed him to, they were warm with the midday heat of the tent, not cold to the touch like the Cards always seemed to be. He didn’t know why—neither he nor Hiram knew much about the Cards at all, save for how to use them some.

He shook his head as Madame Serena lay down the cards, nine of them, in three rows of three.

“Why nine?” Hiram asked from his seat beside Quentin.

“Left to right—beginning, middle and end. Top to bottom—past, present, and future. Nine cards tell the story of a life.”

Quentin shook his head again. He considered walking out, but he’d paid for the telling and didn’t want to be rude. She laid out his past: the Five of Diamonds, Ace of Spades, and Jack of Clubs. She waved her hand over the cards. “A seed, from a strong tree, swallowed by a carrion bird as the tree falls. It survives fire and storms, to take root in a new forest, with another sapling at its side.”

It was a fair summation of his past, Quentin thought. His happy family fractured by his father’s death at his uncle’s hands, his revenge on his uncle, and his mentoring of the young man at his side. But the first part could apply to many people, and the last part could be inferred since he and Hiram had arrived together.

Madam Serena flipped over three more cards, laying them below the first three: a Joker, Four of Hearts, Two of Clubs. “A ship on a grand voyage, seeking to map the unmapped, but the wind has dropped from your sails.”

Again, it could be seen as true. Their search, months spent tracking down names from another Card Sharp’s book, had been fruitless. When they did find someone who knew one of the names, the person had always moved on, or died. Madame Serena, near the last location they had looked, was their last lead.

“Now your future.” She put down the last three cards in the bottom row: Jack of Diamonds, Eight of Spades, Nine of Spades. She looked up furtively at Quentin, then Hiram, then back down at the cards. “The arrow you loosed will come back to strike you. The tree you helped nurture will bear poisoned fruit.”

Quentin frowned. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but it didn’t sound good.

“Of course these things can be changed,” Madame Serena said. “The future is a galloping stallion, but it can be steered.”

Quentin was taking this all in when a man entered the tent, disheveled and stinking of liquor. He held a revolver, pointed at Madame Serena. Quentin’s hand went to his Cards.

“What do you want?” Serena asked, her eyes wide, hands shaking.

“It’s all your fault,” the man said, spitting, his voice thick. “You said she would leave. And she did. She left me.”

“I’m just the reader of the cards,” Serena said. “I don’t make the future happen.”

“You shut your mouth!” He waved the gun at her.

Quentin exchanged a glance with Hiram, then stood up, his hands up, palms facing the man. “Hold up there, friend,” he said. “No need to go waving your pistol around. We can talk this out like gentlemen.”

The gunman swiveled to Quentin, the revolver moving with him. “You shut the fuck up and sit down. This is between me and the witch.”

Quentin had memorized the value, suit, and position of each of the Cards in his Deck and already he was mentally flipping through them to find a Play.

First Card, an Ace—too valuable and too powerful for this kind of situation.

“Well,” Quentin said, “you interrupted my fortune, which I paid for, and I’m not inclined to yield my time.”

The second card, the Ten of Diamonds, also not right unless he wanted to fill the man’s pocket with coins.

The intruder looked Quentin up and down, glanced over at Hiram, then back to Quentin. “You got a big mouth for someone who doesn’t go heeled.”

The third Card, the Six of Hearts. Perfect. Control over the body, and probably strong enough to work. He could stop the man’s breath, render him unconscious. But still, a Card. One of an ever-dwindling number.

“Don’t need to go heeled to deal with the likes of you,” Quentin said.

The man was swaying, unsteady. Quentin was beginning to think he might not need a Card at all. If he could find a way to distract the man, he could grab for the gun and knock the man down. He looked to Hiram to signal for a distraction and caught sight of a flash of light coming from just below the table.

Hiram had made the Play already.

Quentin heard a rushing sound and then the gunman’s head jerked back, as if struck by an invisible hand, and he wavered on his feet before collapsing back out of the tent.

Quentin moved forward, grabbing for the man’s revolver and checking to make sure he was unconscious and still alive. Hiram must have used a Spade, forming some kind of blunt attack with air. It hadn’t been visible, but what would Madame Serena think?

“He’s had a lot to drink,” Quentin said quickly. “It must have caught up with him.” Then, noting the bloody nose and lip the man sported, he added, “He must have hit his face when he fell.” He looked up anxiously at Madame Serena’s face but she seemed to have bought the explanation.

He sent Hiram to fetch one of the Bitter Springs deputies while he stewed in his own disappointment. Not only had the fortune telling been a waste of time, but Hiram had been forced to use a Card. Quentin couldn’t contain a feeling of relief that it hadn’t been one of his.

After the deputy had done his job, escorting the still-groggy man to the local jail, Madame Serena thanked Quentin for standing up to the attacker.

Quentin said nothing, and exited the tent, not waiting for Hiram to join him.

• • • •

Quentin stormed into the Sixth Bullet Saloon and straight to the bar. He tossed a coin onto the worn surface. “Whiskey. A bottle,” he said to the woman behind it.

“That bad?” She placed the bottle down in front of him along with a glass.

Quentin thumbed off the corked top, poured himself a full glass, drained it, and placed it back on the bar. Only then did he face the woman. “Yes,” he said. “That bad.”

She poured herself a full glass, from the same bottle, and raised it to Quentin. “Well, then, here’s to better days,” she said, before draining the whole thing.

Quentin smiled at her brashness. He had met her on his arrival, the daughter of the saloon owner. She practically ran it, he remembered, though he couldn’t recall her name. She was attractive in a rather rough-edged sort of way.

He filled his glass again, then hers. “We should toast it proper.” He lifted the glass. She lifted hers in response. “To better days,” he repeated. Then he swallowed the whiskey in one gulp.

“You want to talk about it?” she asked.

Quentin wiped his lip with the back of his thumb. How to explain to her? Well, miss, my friend and I have been combing the West, using this notebook of names we found, trying to find other Card Sharps like us. See, we have these special Cards, with powers, but we don’t really know how they work. And we heard tell of this reader of cards near one of the locations in our notebook and we assumed, after coming up empty, that this might be our last shot. But she was just what she appeared to be—a fortune teller.

Instead he smiled, humorlessly, at her and said, “No.”

“Well, then. There’s always drink.”

“Amen to that,” Quentin said, filling his glass again.

“Where’s your friend?” the woman asked.

Hiram. Quentin had sent him to deal with the horses, needing a moment alone. How many months had they spent together, searching? How much time wasted in that pursuit? He had only agreed to teach Hiram about the Cards as a thank you to the boy’s father, and he had done so. He’d always planned on doing good with the Cards. That was what they were supposed to be for. He’d had his revenge on his uncle; he needed to balance the scales.

Most of the Cards he had left now were Hearts, which seemed fitting. He’d imagined walking into a hospital and pulling free a Seven of Hearts, saving seven lives in a quick flash, letting the power of the Card knit together flesh and bone. He’d pictured using a Diamond to locate gold, using the proceeds to help fund schools and social causes. And yet, it was always in the future, ever tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

The arrow you loosed will come back to strike you. The tree you helped nurture will bear poisoned fruit.

The words haunted him. He knew they were probably nonsense, but his mind had immediately run to Hiram. Who else had he nurtured, set on a path?

As if summoned, Hiram appeared, still dusty from the trail. Without asking, he reached for the bottle and took a swig from its neck. Then, catching sight of the woman behind the bar, Quentin hastily put down the bottle, doffed his hat, and said, “Hullo, Miss Ives.”

That was it, Quentin thought. Her name was Rachel Ives. She’d introduced herself when they first came in.

Rachel set another glass in front of Hiram and he filled it. One hand curled tightly around the brim of his hat as he looked at Quentin. “I thought . . .”

“Yeah,” Quentin said.

“That was the last.”

“Yeah.”

“What do we—”

“I don’t know,” Quentin said, perhaps louder than he’d intended. He swiveled on his stool to face Hiram. “I’m tired,” he said. “Tired of traveling, tired of making decisions, tired of . . . just tired.” He’d almost said “tired of you” but stopped himself before it came out. Quentin sighed. “We’ve been looking for a mouse in a haystack, but only finding its turds.”

“But the turds mean it’s there,” Hiram said.

“No,” Quentin said. “They only mean it once was.”

“Depends on how fresh the—”

“Hiram,” Quentin said. “Please. Just . . . go amuse yourself somewhere. I’d like some peace and quiet.”

For a moment, a hurt expression washed over Hiram’s face, but he quickly covered it. “Sure thing,” he said. “I’ll see you later.” He tipped his hat to Rachel. “Miss Ives.”

“He your kin?” Rachel asked after Hiram left. “Brother?”

Quentin shook his head. “Nothing that close.” He poured himself another glass. “I knew his father.”

“Ah,” Rachel said, nodding.

“His pa, he . . . he helped me out. When I needed it.” The words seemed poor—the old man had given him his Cards. They now seemed part of him. At least for as long as they lasted.

“The old man was sick,” Quentin said. “So he asked me to look after Hiram.” Asked me to give him his Cards, teach him how to use them.

“Makes sense,” Rachel said.

“I thought it did,” Quentin said. “It did for a time. But now?”

“You thinking about cutting him loose?”

Quentin looked at his empty glass. “The cord that binds us is already so frayed. I might not need to cut.”

Rachel poured herself another glass. “In my experience, you always need to cut.”

• • • •

Quentin and Rachel drank half of the bottle, a development that he’d hoped would put him at ease, but which in fact only made him more ornery. So much time wasted. So many Cards spent, never to return. “What are you doing, Quentin?” he asked himself as he stumbled outside for a smoke.

His first match splintered and fell to the dirt. The second flared and then instantly blew out from the wind. Always the spark, never the fire. He imagined pulling one of his Cards out from the case he kept around his neck, against his chest. He could pull out one of his remaining Clubs, even one of the lower value ones, feel it flare away to nothing in his hand, like the match. Only it would create a conflagration. He could set whole buildings on fire with that power. The Six of Clubs could ignite six buildings up the main thoroughfare.

But he didn’t draw the Card. And the time for fire, and blood, was over now. He moved over where the wind wasn’t so fierce and lit his cigarette.

A man sitting cross-legged on the ground nearby looked up at him. “You look like you’ve seen better days.”

“Excuse me?” Quentin asked. The man’s hair was wild, his clothes dirty, his skin no better.

“Begging your pardon,” the man said, tipping a battered hat. “You just look like you lost your last friend.”

There’s that word again, Quentin thought. Friend. “What business is it of yours?”

“None, I’ll give you that,” the older man said. “Just making polite conversation.”

Quentin looked away from the man.

“Just that you have that look.”

Quentin turned back to the man. “What look?”

The man shrugged. “Like everything’s slipped away from you.” He cackled. “Look at me. I know that look well.”

Quentin shook his head. “I’ve got plenty,” he said. Then he walked away.

Quentin wandered in from his smoke and, thinking better of his desire to return to the bar, headed up to the room he shared with Hiram. He walked in expecting to find Hiram there, but the bed and room were empty. Quentin shrugged, glad for the peace, and climbed into bed, staring up at the ceiling and thinking about what he would do next. He tried to let sleep take him but his thoughts wriggled round his head like greased snakes.

Their quest had come to an end. They’d get no more learning about the Cards. All that remained were Quentin’s plans to use them. And what of Hiram? Quentin could enlist him or discharge him. Frankly, the latter seemed like it might be better for both of them. Hiram was impulsive. Reckless. He no longer had the patience.

He also couldn’t escape the unease he’d felt since their time in Stillwell. He’d been taught that the Cards were limited. That you started with fifty-four, and each Play depleted one, never to return. Only in Stillwell they had heard that it was possible, or at least some thought it was, to steal another’s Cards. Only it required killing the original owner.

It was a distasteful thought, but in quiet moments he thought of the sense of loss every time he used a Card, the looming pull of the inevitable. He could almost see the temptation.

His case contained six Decks they had discovered in Stillwell, decks that the Card Sharp there had taken off of other dead Sharps. Both he and Hiram had tried to use them, but they refused to work. There was clearly more to the process that they didn’t know, assuming it was even possible. It was clear now that they would never know.

Quentin eventually succumbed to sleep, though its grip was weak, and he kept slipping from it. When he woke, he felt raw. He rolled over to see Hiram’s bed still untouched. Where was that blasted kid?

He washed and dressed and went to get some food in the hotel’s dining room and that’s where he saw Hiram sitting in a chair, one shirt tail loose, his hair mussed. Sitting next to him, her hand in his, was a blonde girl, rosy-cheeked and smiling.

Hiram stood as Quentin approached, his companion rising with him. “Quentin!” Hiram smiled. “I want you to meet Betty Legrand.”

Betty offered her hand and Quentin took it.

“We met last night,” Hiram said. He leaned in conspiratorially and said, “We’re in love.”

Quentin only just stopped from rolling his eyes. “You didn’t come up to the room to sleep.”

“Well . . .” Hiram hung his head and blushed. “We were talking.”

“All night?”

Hiram got the indignant look he got when he asserted that he didn’t cheat at cards. “Yes. Nothing else.”

“And what would your parents think of that?” Quentin asked Betty.

Then it was her turn to flush. “My father trusts me, Mr. Ketterly. I have no fears on that account.”

Quentin almost shook his head, but kept it steady.

“I thought,” Hiram said, hesitantly. “I know we have no reason to stay in town. Not after yesterday. But . . . I thought that maybe we could at least spend a few days here. Figure out our next move, so to speak.”

Quentin ran a hand across the bristle of his jaw. “Can I talk to you, Hiram?” he asked. “In private.”

Hiram nodded and rose, walking off to one corner of the room. Quentin walked with him. “We have no more business here. This Betty seems like a nice girl, but it’s time for us to move on.”

“Move on where?” Hiram said.

“I don’t know,” Quentin said. “Back east? We still have our Cards. We should be using them. Helping people.”

“I fully intend to,” Hiram said. “I do. But this . . . this is special. I never met anyone like Betty. What’s the hurry, anyway?”

“I have things I want to do,” Quentin said. “You expect me to wait for you? Cool my heels in the bar while you carry on with a girl you just met?”

“Why are you getting so bent out of shape?” Hiram asked.

“Because you only think about yourself,” Quentin said. “I’ve spent the better part of the last year helping to teach you the Cards. And what do I have to show for it? I’ve lost a few more of my own and I know nothing that I didn’t already know.”

Hiram set his jaw. “That’s not my fault.”

“No,” Quentin said. “It isn’t. But you’ve done nothing to help. I’ve had to go out of my way to dig your ass out of so many scrapes I can’t keep them straight. I’m tired, Hiram. I want to move on with my life.”

Hiram stared at him. “I’m not stopping you.”

Quentin paused for a moment. Then he nodded slowly. “I suppose you’re not.”

“You discharged your duty,” Hiram said, his face suddenly emotionless. “You fulfilled your promise to my pa. And you taught me the Cards. I can’t argue with that.”

The moment stretched out into silence. Quentin nodded, then nodded again. The boy was right. The promise was fulfilled. The transaction was complete. “Have fun with your girl,” he said. “I think it’s time I moved on.”

Hiram looked away. “If you think that’s right.”

Quentin started walking away. “I do,” he said.

• • • •

Quentin smoked a cigarette and fumed along with it.

“Doesn’t appear a night’s sleep helped you any,” came a voice. Quentin turned to see the dirty man from the day before.

“Who the Hell are you?” Quentin asked.

“My name’s Cuthbert,” the man said. “I’m something of a fixture here in Bitter Springs.”

“Look, Cuthbert, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m in no mood to talk to you right now.”

“That’s fair,” Cuthbert said. “I’ll leave you alone, only . . . would you mind sharing some of your tobacco with me?”

Quentin spared another look at the wretch of a man. You’ve been wanting to do some good, he thought. Surely that includes charity, doesn’t it? He moved to the man and rolled him a cigarette, passing it to him and then lighting it with one of his matches.

“I thank you kindly,” Cuthbert said.

“How did you end up here?” Quentin asked.

The man shrugged and exhaled a long ribbon of smoke. “I came here looking for something,” he said. “Then I never left.”

“What were you were looking for?” Quentin asked.

“I thought you didn’t want to talk.”

“I changed my mind.”

“A better future,” Cuthbert said. “Everything runs out after a time, don’t it? I thought I could find a way to make it last longer.”

“I know how you feel,” Quentin said.

“I thought you might. Like I said, you have that look.” Cuthbert took another deep breath of his cigarette. “I thought, toward the end, that I’d put my life in the hands of Fortune. I started using what I had left to play cards.”

“Oh yeah?”

The man nodded. “Only I was always better at games like chess.”

“You play chess?” Quentin asked.

The man nodded. “Sure do. I’m quite good. Thing is, in games like that, it’s all about the long view. Not just what the next move will be, but the one after that, and the one after that and beyond still. You try to save all of your pieces, but sometimes sacrificing a piece now is worth it if you know it will give you the advantage later. Poker, Faro, well, it’s not quite the same.”

“So you lost everything?”

“Pretty much,” Cuthbert said.

Quentin shook his head. “I suppose you should have taken the long view of your life.”

“Maybe I still am.” Then he cackled.

Quentin laughed with him. He nodded to the man, then tipped his hat. “Thank you for the conversation,” he said.

“Thank you for the kindness,” Cuthbert said, holding up the cigarette.

Back at the hotel, Quentin found Hiram’s things already gone. He started to wonder where the boy had ended up but then stopped himself. It was none of his business. It was better this way, for everyone.

That night, Quentin sat down at the bar, his last night in Bitter Springs. Rachel poured him his first two whiskeys, then he waved her off. “No point in overdoing it tonight. I leave in the morning.”

“You don’t say,” Rachel said, her tone disappointed.

“That cord we were talking about? I hacked it loose,” he said. “I’m going to make my way back east, try to do some good for people.”

“Why back east?” She poured herself a drink and tossed it back. “There are people here you could do some good for.”

Quentin noticed something in her eyes, a kind of wild, daring glint that enticed him. He beckoned to her to fill his glass again. “I suppose I don’t have to go rushing off right away.”

She smiled as she poured. “Good.” She topped her own glass off. “Let me show you the sights our small town has to offer.”

So Quentin went about relaxing and enjoying a few more days in Bitter Springs. He played cards in the local saloons, ate at the town’s best restaurants, flirted with Rachel Ives, and stopped from time to time to jaw with Cuthbert. Once or twice they even played chess using an old set that had seen better days. Cuthbert won every time.

A few days later, as he was walking back to the hotel, Quentin caught sight of Hiram sitting together with Betty Legrand. It was the first Quentin had seen of him since they’d parted.

As Quentin watched, Hiram removed the cigarette case where he kept his Cards. Quentin’s eyes widened as Hiram removed the Deck and handed it to Betty, allowing her to flip through it, running her fingers across their faces.

Filled with a kind of wild anger, Quentin waited until Hiram parted from “his love” and walked over to him. “You told her about the Cards?” Quentin stared at Hiram, incredulous.

“Of course I did,” Hiram said. “I told you. We’re in love. I want to share everything important with her. And what are the Cards if not important?”

“You barely know her,” Quentin said. He could feel his forehead throbbing.

“I know her well enough.” Hiram’s voice was rising. “I ain’t never felt this way before. I know it’s true.”

Quentin put his face in his hands. Had the kid learned nothing? He looked Hiram in the eyes. “So that’s it? You’re just going to stay with this girl. Use your Cards on flowers and picnics and pearls?”

Hiram frowned. “I don’t know that I’m gonna do with the Cards. But that’s really none of your concern.”

“None of my concern? You wouldn’t have them if not for me. If not for me you would have pissed them all away by now.”

“I had nothing to do with the promise you made my pa,” Hiram said. “And I didn’t even hold you to it. You did that yourself. And that’s because he helped you get what you wanted. I’m grateful for your help, surely I am. But I done dug your ass out of a few scrapes as well.”

Some voice in Quentin’s head called it true but his anger drowned it.

“You ever think that maybe you’re not really mad at me at all?” Hiram asked. “Maybe you’re just mad at yourself and the choices you’ve made.”

Quentin felt rage surge inside him but he held up a hand, palm out toward Hiram. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Our paths have diverged. You have your new love. You’re happy. Do what you will with the Cards. You’re right, it’s none of my concern.”

“Quentin,” Hiram said. He looked down at his boots. “I wish you well in your endeavors.”

“You, too,” Quentin said.

Hiram met his eyes. “And thank you. For teaching me the Cards. For doing what my father couldn’t or wouldn’t.”

Something caught in Quentin’s throat. “You’re welcome. Good luck, Hiram. Have a good life.”

He found himself back at the bar. Rachel stood behind it, wiping it down with a cloth. She smiled as he walked up. “My shift is almost done, but you can be my last customer.”

Quentin smiled back. “Whiskey.”

Rachel’s smile took on a wicked curve. “Can I join you?”

Quentin felt something wild surge inside of him. “Only if you join me proper.” He beckoned to one of the tables.

Rachel, still smiling, grabbed a bottle and two glasses and followed him to the table. Quentin poured them each a glass and raised his. “To the future.” Rachel clinked his glass and tossed the whiskey back.

Rachel poured them each another glass. “To freedom,” she said, raising her glass. Quentin toasted with her.

The toasts continued, along with the whiskey, and Quentin found himself back in his bed, with Rachel next to him, fumbling at her bodice with clumsy fingers. She tugged at his shirt and pants, then paused when she saw the cards in their pouch, hanging around his neck. “What are these?” She reached for them.

Quentin grabbed her wrist before she could touch them. “Leave them,” he said.

She raised her eyebrows and pulled her hand away. “Okay,” she said meekly.

He rolled atop her, and moved the pouch to his back. “I promise. They won’t get in the way.”

“They better not,” she said.

• • • •

He awoke a short time later, with the urgent need to piss. He staggered to the outhouse, trying to ignore the growing pain in his head, focusing instead on the idea that tomorrow was going to be the day. He would leave Bitter Springs and head east. Maybe he would ask Rachel to go with him. She certainly seemed to want a way out of town. It might be fun for a while.

He was exiting the outhouse, fumbling with his suspenders, when something rough and dark covered his face. He reached up to pull it away, but something struck his head. His hands fell away as he felt confusion, then pain, then nothing.

• • • •

When Quentin awoke, he was strung up like a Christmas goose. He hung, suspended in the air, his arms chained above him, his feet barely touching the ground. Pain streaked through his arms and back, but he bit back the scream bubbling up from his body. He was helpless—he couldn’t reach the Cards in their pouch around his neck. He couldn’t reach the Joker he kept in his boot.

Powerless.

He tried to swing himself, work himself free of the bar above him, maybe pull it free, but the chain barely moved and the pain in his body only grew until he surrendered a sound—part growl, part anguished cry—and went limp once more.

The pain now seemed to vibrate through him, like sound through a guitar string. One close to snapping. Surely his body couldn’t take much more of this.

The door to the room opened and Hiram walked in.

“Thank God,” Quentin gasped. “Quick, let me down.”

Hiram shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry it has to be this way,” Hiram said. “After all we’ve done together. But I know you were getting set to go and . . . well, I need your Cards.” He moved forward and grabbed the pouch containing Quentin’s Deck, cut it free with a short-bladed knife.

“You miserable turncoat!” Quentin growled. “I taught you everything I knew.”

Hiram nodded. “That’s right. Including the lesson that sometimes you need to take what you need. Like you took your revenge.” He tucked the pouch into his jacket pocket. “I promise to use some of them the way you’d want. That’s the least I can do.”

“I’ll kill you!”

“No,” Hiram said. “You won’t. You’re not going to live long enough.”

Quentin’s mind raced. “You don’t even know how to make them work for you,” he said. “You don’t know the ritual.”

Hiram smiled. “Are you sure about that?” He turned and walked toward the door.

“Hiram!”

Hiram paused, then walked back to Quentin. His face softened and he nodded. “You did do right by me,” he said. “Here.” He pushed a few cards back into Quentin’s pocket. “You can take these to the grave with you.”

Then Hiram left, leaving Quentin to shake with rage until the pain made him pass out again.

• • • •

Quentin awoke to someone slapping his face. It took him a moment to recognize Cuthbert. “I need to get you down.”

Cuthbert gripped Quentin’s legs and pushed him up, relieving the slack on the chains enough so that Quentin could loop them off the rack. The effort made him cry out in pain, but he managed to get them off and Cuthbert helped lower him to the ground.

“Can you walk?” Cuthbert asked.

“I’m not sure,” Quentin said.

“You’ll have to do your best. C’mon. There’s a cellar door near here. That’s how I got in.”

“Wait,” Quentin said. “My Cards.”

“You’re delirious,” Cuthbert said. “I need to get you out of here before your friend comes back. I didn’t like the look of that smoke pole he got on him.”

Cuthbert slung Quentin’s arm around his shoulder and began moving him to the door, half dragging Quentin’s injured body.

“You don’t understand,” Quentin cried. “The Cards.”

“There’s no time,” Cuthbert said. “We need to get out of here.”

Cuthbert pushed him up the stairs and out the cellar door and into sunlight. Quentin blinked against the fresh pain of brightness in his eyes.

Then he was next to a horse and Cuthbert was boosting him up and then they were riding away.

Somewhere along the way, Quentin lost consciousness.

• • • •

Quentin awoke in bed, in his hotel room, his body screaming in pain. But he was at rest, and already the worst of it seemed to have passed. He looked up to see Cuthbert sitting in a chair looking freshly scrubbed.

“Thank you,” Quentin said. “How did you find me?”

“You know me,” Cuthbert said. “Always around. Always sticking my nose into other people’s business. I saw that friend of yours come and take you. I tried to get the Law to help, but they wouldn’t heed me. I thought I’d lost you until I saw that same son of a bitch the next day. I waited until he left town then followed him.”

“How’d you get a horse?”

Cuthbert flushed. “I stole it.” He held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Don’t worry, I returned it. With none the wiser.”

Quentin couldn’t care less about the crime. It helped get him free of that place. But his Cards . . . He tried to push himself up in bed and his body responded with pain.

“Easy now,” Cuthbert said, moving toward the bed. “You’re still recovering.”

“You don’t understand,” Quentin gasped. “He took something important to me.”

Cuthbert looked at Quentin sadly, then nodded. “The Cards.”

Quentin nodded. “They’re special.”

“I know,” Cuthbert said.

Quentin gaped. “You do?”

Cuthbert shrugged. “I told you I lost everything, didn’t I? Was the Cards I meant.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I thought you had the look about you,” Cuthbert said. “Once you’ve used them a bit you get to kind of sense it in others. I suspect they draw us together. And then I found these on you.” He held up the pitiful few Cards that Hiram had left Quentin.

Quentin reached for them, felt how thin the stack was. He counted ten. Ten Cards from what had once been fifty-four. He felt like weeping. He looked up at Cuthbert. “What happened? To you, I mean.”

“I came here, to Bitter Springs, looking for answers. Looking for . . . something. I found Old Man Legrand.”

Quentin recognized the surname. Same as Hiram’s new love.

“The old man’s a recluse,” Cuthbert said. “And a Sharp. He sits up in his fancy house, hoarding them away. Trying to find ways to stretch them out, or some such. I thought he might teach me about them. I was already down to half my deck. I petitioned him to take me on as a kind of apprentice.”

“And did he?”

“He appeared to, but . . . he was never interested in training me. Have you heard of blood decks?”

Quentin shook his head.

“The old man knew of a way to take another’s Cards. Add them to your own.”

“Oh, that,” Quentin said. He’d never heard them named such but it seemed apt.

“Then you know. The old man wanted my Cards. Only I escaped him. Thing is, it took pretty much all of my remaining Cards to get away. To not get killed.” Cuthbert held his hands out, fingers splayed. “It left me with nothing.”

“Why did you stay?” Quentin asked.

“Without my Cards, I had no use to him. He had no need to come after me.” He sniffed. “But I had cause to stay.”

“What cause?”

“What else? Revenge.” He looked up, eyes burning with a sudden intensity. “I’ve been waiting all this time to find an opening.”

Quentin shook his head. “I don’t understand. He’s Betty’s father, right? Was he after my Cards all the time?”

Cuthbert shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe he sent the boy to get them from you. Or maybe he just gave the boy the information he needed to take yours. I don’t know. But it’s clear he has his hooks in your friend.”

“Not the old man . . .” Quentin began. The girl. The girl Hiram claimed to be in love with could easily work him like a marionette. It was Hiram’s way.

Cuthbert grabbed Quentin’s arm. “There’s still a chance. To be able to use your Cards they have to kill you. That’s the only way the connection can be broken. And you’re not dead.”

“No,” Quentin said. “I’m not.”

“I know the ritual. The old man explained it to me when he thought I was in his clutches. You have to have some of the other Sharp’s Cards, and you gamble your own. Then you kill the Sharp. If it works, his Cards get added to your own.”

Quentin’s hands curled until they were clenched fists. His whole body shook with anger. After all he’d done for Hiram. After he’d wasted so much time on the boy, so many Cards on their adventures. And now left with . . . what? He cursed the boy. Cursed the old man that had saddled him with the responsibility.

He stopped short of cursing the Cards.

Quentin began to get out of bed.

“Hold on now,” Cuthbert said. “What are you doing?”

“I need to get out of here,” Quentin said, gritting through the pain.

“You’re safe here. Especially with that bartender that’s sweet on you. He won’t be able to get to you here. We need to talk this through some more. Strategize.”

“He’s going to come for me. What more do I need to know? I can take him. I taught him everything he knows. He may have the edge in power, but I know how he thinks. He draws the first thought that comes to him. I can take him. But not in bed, not bent by this pain.”

Cuthbert nodded. “That much is true.” He removed a card from his pocket, held it up with the back (a red diamond pattern) facing Quentin.

Quentin gaped.

“I wasn’t completely honest with you before,” Cuthbert said. “I saved a few. Less than a handful. Didn’t help much. Almost made the sting worse, knowing how few I had left, weighing every choice I made, whether that day was the day I used one of the last. I often wondered what I would use them on.” A moment later the Card flared away to nothing, and Quentin gasped as heat suffused his body. As it dissipated, his pain left with it. Suddenly he could sit up straighter. Freedom of movement returned. It was like being hot and parchment-dry in the desert and having someone hand you a glass of cool, clear water.

He stared in wonder at Cuthbert. “Thank you. But why?”

“Because you need it,” Cuthbert said. “And because maybe you can strike back at your friend and, through him, help me find what I’ve been looking for.”

Quentin looked away, overcome.

“I just ask that you reward this act of kindness by caring for the body I just helped knit back together. Don’t let that kid kill you.” Cuthbert met his eyes. “You kill him first.”

“I’ll do my best,” Quentin said.

• • • •

Quentin stalked toward the Legrand estate with determination, bringing to mind the first of his adventures, the way he had hunted his uncle and taken revenge for his father’s death. The cards had brought him full circle, then. Always through clouds of death and destruction.

It ended tonight—one way or another. He was only going for his Cards. Despite everything Cuthbert had told him, they were his only goal. If he got them back, he could walk away, back onto the path that had been calling to him.

That Hiram had taken all of his face cards didn’t surprise him. They were the ones he’d been saving in reserve, the most powerful of the cards: two Jacks, three Queens, four Kings, and two Aces. What remained wasn’t very inspiring: two Fours, two Fives, two Sixes, an Eight, two Nines, and a Ten. And of those, all but two were red. But it was something.

And maybe, just maybe, he could get some more.

He felt a flush of guilt at the thought. The idea of stealing another’s cards was still abhorrent to him, but what if they were trying to kill you? If you were defending yourself, and could take another’s cards as a prize, surely that would be understandable? Where was the harm in that?

He stood outside the grounds of the Legrand house. It was large compared to the others in town, with a well-kept lawn and a few trees around it for privacy and shade. It would be staffed, too, Quentin thought. He hoped no more than a few servants as he drew the Ten of Diamonds. He had used the trick once before and focused on fading from the sight of others as the card flared in his hand. His Play was that the Card would keep him hidden from up to ten people. He double-checked his reflection in his pocketwatch. It wasn’t there. It had worked.

He crept around the house, peering in the windows. The Legrand homestead was impressive, full of rich furnishings, but Quentin only saw a couple of servants moving around the house.

He opened a side door and slipped inside, being careful to close the door as quietly as possible behind him. The Card masked his appearance, not his noise. His fingers lightly rested on another of his meager Deck, if it could be called that, but no one seemed to be around.

He walked carefully through large, elegant rooms until he found the staircase leading up. Taking the utmost care, he removed his boots. As he did, he caught sight of a card clipped into the right boot. Of course. His remaining Joker. It wasn’t of use to him—Jokers were wild, their results unpredictable, they were as likely to hinder as they were to help. Still, it was odd that Hiram hadn’t taken that one. Quentin had taught him that trick after all. Could he have forgotten? No matter—it was yet another Card, and Quentin tucked it away, down inside the waistband of his britches.

At the top of the stairs he replaced his boots. A hallway led off to the right and the left. He chose left and padded down its length. The first door he came to was closed. He passed it and continued on. The second was slightly ajar and he slipped into it.

The room beyond was large and accented with ruffles and lace. A four-poster bed dominated one end, while a sitting desk and a chaise lounge stood on the other. An elaborate chess set perched on a small table next to the lounge, with pieces of ivory and jade. Quentin walked to it and realized that the set was paused, mid-game. Thinking of the games he’d played with Cuthbert, he moved one of the jade pieces.

He heard an intake of breath behind him and whirled, reaching for his next Card. As he did, his invisibility fell away from him.

Betty Legrand stood in the doorway, dressed in a ruffled dress befitting the daughter of the richest man in town. A hat, carefully pinned to her curled hair, completed the picture. She held a fanned Hand of Cards. Had Hiram given them to her? Or did she have them already?

“I don’t believe you were invited,” Betty said.

“I’m only here for my Cards,” Quentin said. “If you know where they are, give them to me and I’ll leave you in peace. You and Hiram can do whatever you want. Your father, too. But I’m not leaving without them.”

Betty smiled sweetly at him. “That is where our opinions differ.” She lifted one of her Cards.

Quentin drew the Five of Spades as he’d planned, though he’d been expecting to use it on Hiram. He envisioned an invisible chamber taking shape around Betty, formed of air, the element of Spades, of invisible force. Five sides to cover her. He wanted her contained, immobilized, while he searched the house.

But Betty’s Card was already coming to life, flame-bright in her hand. As the walls of his prison came down around her, the card flared and fire erupted in front of her.

It licked out toward him, but then coiled within the cage he’d created, deflected by the walls. The flames and smoke rolled back on Betty and she screamed as her clothes and skin began to burn.

“No!” Quentin screamed. He dismissed the cage in horror, but it was too late. Betty fell to the ground, blackened and hairless. The remaining flames spilled out into the room, catching hold of the bedding and floor with a roar.

“Betty!” came an answering shout. Hiram, calling for his love.

Quentin ran. He had been prepared to face Hiram, to confront him. But that was before everything had gone all wrong, had bucked from beneath him like a spooked horse.

He heard Hiram’s screams at his back as he raced out into the night.

• • • •

“What happened?” Cuthbert asked when Quentin burst through the door of his room, blackened and reeking of smoke.

“It all went to shit,” Quentin said, hearing the rising hysteria in his own voice. “I just wanted my Cards but she drew on me.”

Cuthbert grabbed his shoulders and made Quentin meet his gaze. “What happened?” he repeated.

“Betty,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt her, but . . . she drew on me. I didn’t . . . She’s dead.”

Cuthbert’s eyes went wide and he dropped his hands from Quentin’s shoulders and looked away. He walked to the window, his head hanging, his hands slack and trembling at his side.

“It was an accident,” Quentin pleaded. “I didn’t mean her any harm.”

Cuthbert remained still. Then he started nodding, slowly at first, then more emphatically. “You had no choice,” he said softly. “It was her or you.”

Quentin couldn’t still the rampant beating of his heart. “Hiram will definitely come for me now. I know him. He’ll be het up like a wolf scenting blood.”

I still have Cards, he told himself. Down to eight, though. Nine, if he counted the Joker. But was it enough?

“There’s no turning back now,” Cuthbert said, his voice shaky. “It’s either him or you. You’re going to have to kill him.”

Quentin felt something in him wither and die.

“You’re going to have to take his Cards,” Cuthbert said.

“What?”

“How many do you have now?” the old man said. “How many will you use to defend yourself? You’ll end up like me.” He shook his head. “You’re telling me you’re going to kill him and not take them? Not use them for something good?”

Quentin turned away, running a hand through his sweat-soaked hair.

“You can turn this calamity into something worthwhile,” Cuthbert said. “You have a chance to turn this shit into gold.”

Quentin’s hands curled into fists at his sides. “What do I have to do?”

“I’ll teach you the ritual I learned from Old Man Legrand. You’ll have to take his Cards, and it will likely require you to risk all of your remaining Cards to make the Play. Assuming that pans out, then you kill him, severing his connection to them.”

“What if I kill him first?”

Cuthbert looked at him hard. “You have to do your best not to. Not until you get the Cards and make the Play. I can assist in guiding you through it.”

Quentin looked sharply at Cuthbert. “You’re with me in this?”

“I used a Card on you, boy. Of course I’m in this with you.”

“Okay.” Quentin nodded. “Then I have to get ready. But not here. There are too many people around.”

“I know a place,” Cuthbert said. “A cave up in the hills. It’s far enough away from town and you can get your back up against a wall. He has to come to you, after all.”

Quentin nodded. Knowing Hiram, the boy would charge in, all piss and vinegar, while Quentin could prepare and tip the odds even more in his favor.

“Take me there,” he said. “But first I’m going to need a gun.”

• • • •

Having little more than a hand’s worth of Cards gave Quentin less options, but it also allowed him to plan his moves more carefully. Of the remaining eight Cards, he used the Six of Hearts as soon as they reached the cave. It was a trick he’d learned from another Sharp, infusing the power into a revolver. A Six for six chambers. The Hearts meant that he could give the bullets power over the body. He shaped his intent as he Played the Card, willing the bullets to stun, to paralyze without killing.

He hoped it would work. He’d never tried that particular kind of Play before and had never actually seen it done.

The rest was just waiting. Quentin had told Rachel that he going to the cave, told her to let Hiram know. She’d asked him why. “That cord I cut seems fit to hang me,” he said. “I’m going to burn it this time.”

“Just don’t leave without me,” she said.

Leave, Quentin thought. Yes, as soon as this is done. “Next time you see me, make sure your bags are packed,” he said. “We’ll make a fresh start. Somewhere far away from here.” A fresh start, hopefully with his Cards.

When Hiram appeared, it was with fire. Literally. As soon as he entered the cave mouth, it appeared in his hands, as if igniting from the Card.

“Why?” he screamed into the cave mouth. “At least tell me that.”

Quentin’s answer was the Five of Diamonds. As it flashed, the cave mouth collapsed around Hiram, rock and stone dropping with a precipitous crash. As the kid scrambled madly away from the falling rocks, Quentin drew and fired the revolver.

His first shot went wide, the crack echoing off the surrounding rock. The second was lost in a cloud of earth and grit.

The third punched a hole in Hiram’s leg and Quentin was rewarded with a pained yelp.

Then fire billowed down the cave.

Quentin already had the Four of Diamonds out, and drawing on its power over earth, he raised a wall of rock between him and the flame. The fire licked at the edges of the barrier, but didn’t penetrate, though the heat still slammed into him like a solid force, sucking the air from his lungs.

He had no time to think, though. Using the shield as cover, he fired two more shots and at least one of them hit.

Hiram was weaving now, weak from the bullets. Go down. Down, damn you.

Hiram stepped forward and drew another Card.

Then pitched over onto the cave floor.

Quentin kept his Cards out, and moved cautiously forward.

Hiram didn’t move.

Quentin inched forward, the gun with its one bullet left in one hand, his Cards in the other.

Hiram remained motionless.

Then Quentin was standing over Hiram, who was sweating, his face contorted in pain or frustration or both. His eyes met Quentin’s. “Why?” he gasped.

“It was an accident,” Quentin said, softly. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Why were you even there?” Hiram forced the question out through gritted teeth.

“You know why,” Quentin said. “It was either you or me.”

He bent down and took away Hiram’s Cards, including the one still clutched in his hand.

“You keep saying it’s me,” Hiram wheezed. “That I’m . . . holding you from your good works.”

Quentin stood up and turned away.

“But you could have done them if you really wanted to,” Hiram continued. “I’ve only ever been an excuse. All you’ve ever really cared about is the Cards.”

Quentin went to summon Cuthbert.

• • • •

They tied up Hiram, though it didn’t seem necessary. He’d passed out shortly after his Cards were taken. Still alive.

They made the preparations. Placed Hiram’s cards down on the cave floor. Placed Quentin’s opposite them. Only five now, not counting the Joker. They would all need to go for this to work. It was all in.

Quentin begged a moment from Cuthbert and went outside, lit a cheroot. After a few puffs, it began to rain. Too late to quench all the fire. Such a fucking mess. If only he hadn’t moved that chess piece. It was like Cuthbert was always saying—he only looked to the next move. He never played the long game. Maybe Hiram was right, too. He threw the cheroot on the ground and returned inside.

“I feel dirty,” Quentin said.

“You know it’s the only thing to do,” Cuthbert said. “And the boy’s got some fine Cards left, too. Only fair to replace the ones you lost. Two Aces is a hard loss.”

Quentin felt his skin tighten around him. “I never told you which Cards Hiram took.”

“You must have,” Cuthbert said. “When you were in pain.”

“No,” Quentin said. “I didn’t.” It was one of the first lessons he’d learned—you didn’t let on what you had left, you didn’t tell the value of your Cards.

Cuthbert shook his head and tutted. “See? All this preparation, all this planning, and a small touch of eagerness gives the game away.”

“You’ve been playing me,” Quentin said.

“And so well, too,” Cuthbert said, a pitying grin on his face.

Quentin’s hand automatically moved to where he usually keep his Cards, but they were all on the cave floor, beyond Cuthbert. The man was old, but he still seemed vital beneath the grime and rough appearance. And who knew how many Cards he really had left.

“But you used one of your Cards on me,” Quentin said.

“Sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece to win the game.”

“What game?”

Cuthbert’s face grew serious. “The only one that matters.”

“You planned all of this?” Quentin asked.

Cuthbert nodded, a wicked smile on his face. “All of this. Well, Betty and me. Oh, yes. We worked together.” The smile faded and his eyes welled with tears. “She was my daughter.”

“You’re Old Man Legrand.”

Cuthbert shrugged. “Guilty. Most of what I told you was true, save for there was no Cuthbert.” He held up his meager Cards. “I used them all up, you see. Then I discovered that there was a way to get more. Only . . . it wasn’t reliable. I had the instructions, of course, but I’d never seen it done. And I’d heard it was tenuous at best. So Betty and I decided we needed someone to go first.

“We spread tale of the fortune teller. Made sure people knew she was a wonder with a deck of cards. Figured it would draw a Sharp or two to us eventually. Like I told you, the Cards eventually bring us together. When you and Hiram asked to see Madame Serena, we thought we might have fish wriggling on the line. When we sent in the drunk—and yes, wasn’t that a nice bit of theater—it confirmed it for us.

“Betty chose to work your friend over there. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a choice. She knew a wiggle of her hips would lock him right up. Still, I had high hopes for you. You wanted to learn about the Cards, were so frustrated you were begging for someone to guide you. And the cracks between you and your friend . . . they were so easy to widen. Betty used a Card to masquerade as Hiram when she took your Cards. Then I used that Heart.”

“To heal me.”

Cuthbert shook his head like he was talking to a stupid child. “So many things you don’t know. I used it to heal you, yes, but also to push a little. At the anger. At the loss. At the self-hatred. Do you know how much you talk about helping others? Yet do you know how little you do about it?”

Despair surged through Quentin. “What would have happened if I had taken Hiram’s Cards? If the ritual worked?”

“Then I would have known that it worked. And I would have taken yours. Now, though, I’m going to have to do it differently, use Hiram instead. I don’t have Betty’s feminine wiles, but the boy seems to respond well to father figures.”

“You’re sick,” Quentin said. “Your daughter died for this.”

Cuthbert’s face grew rigid. “Don’t you talk about my daughter. You’re the one who killed her. And I grieve for her. But this was always about the Cards and, well, she got too eager. I told her to be patient, let things proceed as planned, but she wanted . . . she wanted to win. It cost her her life. But don’t worry. I will get my revenge.” Cuthbert raised his Cards.

Quentin’s still lay on the cave floor behind Cuthbert, and his Joker was buried in his britches.

Cuthbert noticed Quentin’s gaze. He smiled. “I hold all the cards.”

Quentin drew the six-gun and shot him in the stomach.

Cuthbert toppled backward, the Cards fluttering from his hand.

Quentin was atop him in a moment, punching the man in the face. “Where are my Cards?” he yelled.

“I burned them,” Cuthbert said between broken teeth.

Quentin struck him again. “Where are they?”

“I fed them to some pigs.”

Again.

Cuthbert smiled a bloody smile. “You’ll never find them.”

Quentin exhaled. “Then I’ll just have to take yours.”

He gathered up Cuthbert’s fallen Cards and placed them where Hiram’s had sat. Then he followed the ritual as Cuthbert had explained it, arranging the Cards just the way he’d been told, using the Nine of Diamonds, his highest remaining Card, as the trigger, using all of his will to make the Play work. The Nine of Diamonds glowed with a dark, almost orange light, which then spread to his remaining Cards and then to Cuthbert’s. When the glow faded, the Cards still remained, but there was no way to tell if the ritual had worked.

There was still one last step in the process, though.

Quentin knelt over Cuthbert, meeting the old man’s eyes. Then he gripped the Cuthbert’s throat and tightened his hands, squeezing until the old man stopped breathing.

All that remained was to test the Cards. Together with Cuthbert’s, there were ten, the same number the Legrands had left him with. He drew the Nine of Hearts, one of his original Cards, and brought it to the unconscious and shivering Hiram. Holding it firmly in his hand, Quentin closed his eyes and willed it to life, willed it to reach out and heal Hiram’s wounds, to undo at least some of the damage he had done. For a moment he thought of what Cuthbert . . . Old Man Legrand had said, thought about pushing at the feelings within Hiram, trying to swell his compassion and forgiveness, trying to brighten the friendship they once had. But in the end he didn’t. He had crossed many lines that night, but this wouldn’t be one of them.

When he opened his eyes again, Hiram’s wounds had sealed over and he’d stopped shivering. It had worked.

I should feel happy, Quentin thought. Or at least relieved. But the Cards felt stained. And he felt soiled. He wondered if that feeling would ever go away.

He removed Hiram’s bonds and curled the kid’s hands around his Cards. Then Quentin left the cave and returned to town. There, he found a young boy who worked the stables and paid him to bring his belongings from the hotel. He couldn’t face Rachel. Not now.

Quentin still had some Cards, but he had lost everything else. Friendship. Integrity. His self-respect.

He had started out The Fool, then became the Magician. What was he now? He was a betrayer, a thief, and a murderer. He felt the Joker in the band of his britches, pulled it out and stared at its face. The Cards had made a joke of him. Could he even use them again? Maybe one day. But not yet.

Nine Cards. He thought back to his reading at the fortune teller’s. Nine cards tell the story of a life. Would they be enough to tell a new one?

He decided to find out.

Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is an author, reviewer, podcaster, musician, and narrator. His three novels, Falling Sky, Rising Tide, and Raining Fire take place in a post-apocalyptic world of airships and floating cities. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Analog Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and multiple 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 Magazine. Rajan cohosts the Spirited Discourse podcast with Devin Poore. He lives in Brooklyn where he’s a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is http://www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.