In the Cards

Chuck’s Flash Fiction Challenge was to “smash” superhero fiction with another genre. I went with Noir and as for my “hero”, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

         The yellowing glass made the street outside look sepia, like a photograph peeling at the corners. Not that anyone would want to capture this place forever, Cas thought, leaning away from the warped window. The shop of curiosities had a stale smell—like the inside of an old tomb where the bones had crumbled into dust. The old man who ran the shop had inherited it from his father, as his father had before him. For all Cas knew, the curio shop had been there when Haven was founded. The old man was in the back sleeping. He slept a lot these days. After the mugging the only escape from the knifing headaches and waking nightmares was a healthy dose of oxy and sleep. Cas understood a thing or two about nightmares. He touched the thick, ridged scar that ran around his neck, blotched purple and red–angry, like a burn. Knotting his scarf around his neck, he retrieved his hat from the head of a dusty cat statue and stepped out into the street, locking the door behind him. Garbage clumped along the outside of the building. It was too dangerous for the so-called civil servants to make it down to the Point these days.
         Something moved on the corner, just at the edge of his sight and Cas tensed. But it was only a cat, a one eyed, ragged tom whose malevolent yellow eyes watched him as he turned his collar up against the wind. Curtains in the barred windows above twitched occasionally. You’d think everyone in the Point was blind by the way no one ever saw anything when a crime was done, but Cas knew that the Point was one of the few places where people saw everything. Cas glanced around before slipping down the stairs into the subway station. The ammoniac scent of urine made his eyes water and he waited for his eyes to adjust to the intermittent flicker of the fluorescent lights. There was no point in checking his watch. The trains stopped keeping to a schedule when half the stations were closed, the other half barely maintained. The Mayor announced new plans for an above-ground tram that would be the height of innovation and safety—“a shining beacon of what is to come for Haven”—but the rusting iron framework for a station near City Hall was the only sign of progress well into his second term. Cas pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket. He shuffled them, tapped them against his hand, and shuffled them again.
         “Hello, Lee,” he said, not bothering to turn his head.
         “One of these days you’ll tell me how you do that.” Lee’s laugh sounded nervous as he crossed the platform to stand next to Cas.
         “How about today?” Cas didn’t look up from his cards, his hands moving almost too quickly, shuffling, straightening, shuffling.
         “Yeah?” Lee’s hands shook as he lit his cigarette, throwing the spent match onto the dirty tiles where it sputtered out.
         Cas turned, meeting Lee’s eyes for the first time. “I thought we were partners, Lee. The last two guys on the force whose hands were cleaner than our consciences.”
         Lee’s eyes widened and his doughy face paled to gray above the red glow of the cigarette. “I don’t know what you mean. We were—are—what’s this about, buddy?”
         “I’m talking about you and Nico Capello. I’m talking about you and a yacht out in the bay with enough coke to sink the Titanic. I’m talking about the Mayor’s above-ground railway project that just so happens to be the perfect mode of transport for all the pies you’ve got your dirty fingers in.” The sharp snap of the cards in Cas’s hands made Lee flinch. “Drugs, human trafficking, stolen goods. You’re a damn fine cop, Lee Marlowe. The citizens of Haven will sleep soundly in their beds knowing a guy like you’s out there protecting and serving.”
         “Cas, come on,” a wheedling note crept into Lee’s voice. “You know me. You know me.”
         “I do, Lee. I know you.” Cas ran his thumb over the edges of his cards and watched his partner’s big shoulders slump in relief. “Do you know what this is?” Cas held up one of the cards.
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         Lee leaned forward, squinting. Cas smelled the rotten tang of his sweat, his barely restrained fear.
         “It’s one of those tarot cards, yeah?” Lee pronounced it like carrot.
         “Tarot. Yes. This is Le Pendu—the Hanged Man.” Cas returned the card to the deck so quickly that Lee blinked.
         “I didn’t know you were into that, whatchacallit, occult stuff,” Lee said.
         “My mother used to deal the cards and tell fortunes sometimes.” Cas said, remembering the last time she dealt for him, when she dealt the Hanged Man. It could mean anything from sacrifice to inner harmony, but for him it was all too literal.
         “You know how I got this?” Cas tugged the scarf away from his scarred neck. “Some of Nico Capello’s guys strung me up one night, left me hanging from the struts of the new construction of the good Mayor’s new railway.”
         Lee’s cigarette hung from his fleshy lips. “I didn’t…. How’d you get away?”
         “I didn’t.” Cas flipped over the next card in the deck. The skeleton with the scythe: La Mort. “I hung there until it all went dark. But, I came back.”

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         Lee’s mouth still hung open when his body crumpled, cigarette fallen to the ground when the tarot card sliced through his neck.
         “I came back, but you won’t.” Cas flicked another card onto Lee’s body. It fluttered to his chest, just below the gash that leaked black blood out onto the grimy tiles. La Justice.

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         Cas hopped down onto the rails. A tremor in the earth signaled a train approaching. He began to whistle as he walked, cards flickering in the dark. It didn’t matter if the train was on time, he thought. Lee wouldn’t need it.

Just a Little Jazz

Another smashing subgenres Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig. Two subgenres chosen at random, one story, 1500 words this week. *

        It started like any other day—the coffee was cold, the newspaper wet, and I forgot my umbrella. To be fair, the coffee was my fault—I couldn’t keep a secretary around. I’d say something to upset the dame and she’d hand in her notice, poking a red lacquered fingernail into my chest and storming out on heels several inches too high. The temp company wouldn’t send anymore—claiming that I had “unreasonable working requirements and an uncertain temper.” So, the coffee was cold and no one was there to grab the newspaper out of the rain that graced New York for the fourth day straight. All I asked was that the girls make coffee, put the newspaper on my desk, type up case notes, and answer the phone. What was unreasonable about any of that? Besides, there hadn’t been a case in weeks. I hung up my trench coat and hat and saw my umbrella sitting right where I left it yesterday. I scowled and took a gulp of the cold, tarry substance in my cup without thinking.
        I looked at the sign on my office door with disgust. Flynn Parker, P.I. Some P.I., I thought. I hadn’t had a case since the Di Giovanni fiasco last month. There are things every good P.I. knows: never get involved with a female client during a case and never get involved with the mob. No one has ever called Flynn Parker an underachiever, so damned if I didn’t go and do both at once. I didn’t know Bianca Di Giovanni had mob ties, and by the time the guy she asked me to look for turned up at the bottom of the Hudson wearing concrete shoes, it was too late. I pushed away thoughts of Bianca, the way that white silk dress felt as it slipped through my fingers, the cloud of dark hair that fell down her back.
        The office was stifling suddenly. I thought I could smell the stale scent of her perfume—gardenia. I tossed out the coffee, threw the paper in the trash, and put my wet coat and hat back on. The streets seemed grayer than usual, I thought as I shoved my hands deep in my pockets. The people that passed kept their heads down, and no one smiled. This was New York, though, people rarely did. Before I quite realized where my feet were taking me, I was outside a particularly dingy building. The gaslight above the door flickered fitfully and I knocked—three long and one short. A hidden panel in the wood slid aside and a pair of eyes peered out at me.
        “Password?” he muttered.
        “Benny be good, man,” I said back.
        The door opened and I followed the doorman down stairs as draughty and rickety as the ones outside my hole of an apartment. Another door swung open—this time the man wore white gloves and full tails. He whisked my hat and coat away. Inside, the dim lights shone on red brocade. Sweet sounds of jazz and the clink of crystal met my ears like a familiar melody. The taste of the coffee lingered and I walked up to the bar. I ordered bourbon to wash it away and looked around at the gleaming wood and brass and the shadowed faces that filled the corners. I was no stranger, but I rarely came here at this time of day. It was just past ten in the morning. The bartender noticed.
        “Third time this week,” he said, sliding my drink across the bar.
        I tipped it to him in a salute and pushed a hefty tip across the bar with my payment. I sat at a little table just off the dance floor. The band played like it was Friday night and the place was full. I never brought Bianca here. This place, at least, was still my sanctuary. I watched the way the lights from the chandeliers sparkled off the amber liquid as I tilted it back, feeling that old, familiar burn. I tried to think of the good that came out of the Di Giovanni case. I wasn’t in jail, I wasn’t dead, and they’d paid more than any other client. I was glad of the first two, but that money was still sitting in a bag shoved behind my dresser.
        “Excuse me,” a soft voice interrupted my contemplation of my bourbon and I looked up.
        A pretty dame stood next to the table, twisting her hands together. I sighed inwardly. People here might recognize me but it was bad manners to bring up business.
        “How can I help you, darlin’?” I asked, painting on a smile.
        “Could I sit at your table? A man might come here and give me some trouble if I’m alone,” she looked up at me with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.
        I gave her a quick once over. She was tall and thin, with blonde hair that hung in loose curls just to her shoulders; easy on the eyes. I stood and pulled out the chair for her.
        “How can I refuse?” I tried my smile again.
        She smiled back weakly, her eyes flickering over my shoulder towards the door. I realized then that her skin was pale underneath the rouge on her cheeks and that her bottom lip shook. I held up a hand and a tuxedoed waiter appeared out of the shadows.
        “A drink for the lady,” I waited for her to order, but she just stared, lost. “Martini, extra dry.” I said.
        “You don’t have to—” she broke off and smiled more convincingly. “Thank you, mister.”
        “Sure, darlin’. Now,” I hesitated before sliding my card across the white tablecloth. “Do you need real help?”
        She glanced at it and looked back up at me, “You’re a private investigator?”
        “I am. And I’ve helped with situations like yours before,” I paused as her martini arrived. “I can help keep you safe.”
        “Mr. Parker, it’s very kind of you, but I doubt very much you’ve handled a situation like mine before,” she took a deep drink of the martini and some of the color came back into her face.
        “No?” I was curious despite myself.
        The Di Giovanni spectacle had me in a real slump, but there was something here. I could feel it. It’s not just another pretty girl, I told myself. And it had nothing to do with the last pretty girl I helped turning up dead. The blonde dame shook her head, sending her hair swirling around her cheekbones. I leaned back in my chair and took another sip of my drink while she toyed with her glass. I noticed she still had on her coat—it looked expensive—and the watch on her wrist was gold. I also observed there was no ring on her left hand. So, the mystery man wasn’t a husband. Or, she didn’t want to think of him that way.
        “The truth is—” she broke off, her face turning white.
        I looked over my shoulder and saw two big men in suits and coats; I spotted the holsters bulging under their jackets.
        “Come quietly now, Brigitte,” the tall blonde man said, surreptitiously opening his coat so she could see the gun, too.
        I was about to reach for the gun at my side when the other thug put his meaty hand on my shoulder.
        “Not so fast, Mister,” he said.
        “What do you want with my friend, here?” I asked, trying to keep my voice friendly.
        “She’s not supposed to be here,” the first man said.
        I had to laugh at that. It was a speakeasy—none of us were supposed to be here.
        “You think that’s funny?” Blondie turned his attention to me.
        “As a matter of fact, I do,” I said. “Brigitte and I were just enjoying a quiet drink when you two fellas interrupted. I’d like to continue my conversation with her. Alone.”
        The blonde thug smiled an ugly smile, “That won’t be happening.”
        He pulled out a dark object quicker than my eyes could follow; I flinched. A white flash blinded me and set my ears ringing. I waited for the pain of the gunshot that never came. There was a terrible roaring and I landed hard on my knees on what felt like wet stones. I blinked until my sight came back. Motorcars streamed by on either side, the klaxon sounds of their horns penetrating the blazing day. Except, it wasn’t day; I could see the night sky above my head. The light came from billboards that stretched over buildings taller than any I had ever seen. They flashed like the lights of a thousand cinema marquees. The roar of voices was deafening; I clapped my hands to my ears. The blonde thug wrenched me to my feet and laughed at the look on my face. His partner held up the blonde, Brigitte, who appeared to have fainted.
        “Welcome to the year 2013, Mr. Parker.”

*I used Noir and Time Travel (obviously with more emphasis on Noir)