Monday, March 4, 2013

"Hook, Line, and Sinker"

Title: "Hook, Line, and Sinker."  
Brigit's Flame March 2013 week 1 entry 
Prompt: Cards 
Wordcount/warnings: 1490 words, rated PG (alcohol and tobacco use) 
Author: Graham Patrick Smith

The air was thick and smelled terrible.  It swirled around his head like thick soup, composed equally of cigar smoke, fried meat, heady body odor, and whiskey. 

“You, sir!” Nick cried, aiming his long, black wand, white-tipped.  “You seem like a man who knows a thing or two about a thing or two!” 

The smoke that encircled his head, Nick thought, suited the fat man.  He wore a suit, the vest and jacket of which were each straining to stay closed by one button apiece.  His white collar was upturned but completely undone, and the man had tied his pristine white bow tie across it so as to mask the faux pas.  But this was not as a man who couldn’t afford a larger suit:  this was a man who wouldn’t allow himself to believe that his schoolboy figure had ballooned so terribly since his cricket days.  No, the man before Nick had enough money to afford a suit in whatever size he wanted, and this was the one he had chosen.  Nick pictured the man’s blood seeping through his veins like the sluggish, hot air, barely oozing along from the years of congealed filth.

The cigar the man clutched in his teeth probably cost more that Nick’s suit, and the whisky in the glass was probably older.   He stared at Nick with beady black eyes above red, piggish cheeks and a freshly oiled moustache, from beneath which hung a massive bottom lip, like a bloated, pink slug. 

“A thing or two about a thing or two?” The man scoffed, just enough slur in his voice to tell that he was hiding his true inebriation.  He removed his cigar from his teeth with the same hand he used to hold the knob of his expensive walking stick. “What’s that supposed to mean, boy?”

Nick smiled inwardly to himself without breaking eye contact with the man.  “Why, I merely mean to say that you seem as though you have a set of eyes over which it is difficult to pull the wool!”  When the man blinked slowly, Nick sighed patiently and summarized, “Not as easy man to fool, are you?”

“I should say not,” said the piggy-faced man. When he took a step forward, a little of Nick’s smile crept into reality.  He finished it off to make it seem genuine.

“A man such as yourself must not find himself challenged often,” Nick cooed, silver tongue fully engaged.  “So I feel you need … no, you deserve … a challenge on a night such as tonight.”

The man looked to and fro, slowly, drunkenly.  The other attractions in the old theater begged for his attention, and the attention of the hundreds of other patrons that meandered about during intervention.  He eyes the cigarette seller, the man behind the bar, the other posh London socialites that laughed with their expensive drinks in hand, even (no, especially) the girls with the long feathers in their hats and the beckoning fingers.  But Nick’s was the only magician’s stand, and he could spot a catch when one approached.  The man was on his line now; Nick didn’t even need to reel him in.  He simply needed to be patient. 

This was one of the rare moments that made it worth standing around in the filthy, coagulated air for hours at a time.  Not the actual trick, not the looks on their faces when he baffled them, not even the payoff.  The moment when he piqued the curiosity of someone who really, genuinely deserved what was coming, and knowing that they were a ship in a whirlpool, being drawn ever closer to him and his cards.  It was an intoxicating feeling, one unequaled by drink or smoke.  

As the piggy man opened his mouth to inquire, Nick’s flew open, almost on instinct alone.  “What you see here is an ordinary deck of fifty-two cards,” Nick proclaimed as he whipped the small, rectangular box from the sleeve of his jacket and into his palm.  Two beady black eyes blinked slowly, and Nick could practically hear the gears in the man’s head turning, trying to process where it had come from.  With another flourish of his hands Nick had removed the entire deck from the box and spread them across the table in a long line, face-down.  “You will pick one card, without telling me what it is, and I shall divine your card from the deck.  I’ve never been good at maths, but I believe the odds are in your favor, sir.” 

“What’s in it for me?” The man asked, cramming the end of his cigar between that pink slug of a bottom lip and the oiled rat of a moustache.  He was clearly a man used to asking that particular question.

“Just a shilling, if I can’t choose your card,” Nick replied.  “I’m sure a shilling is nothing to a man of your stature, but who can turn down a free shilling?”

When the man nodded, Nick gave a flick of one wrist and flipped all the cards face-up, one after the other, like a string of dominos.  As the piggy man blinked slowly again, Nick proclaimed, “Now, sir, I will turn around and close my eyes, and when I do, select your card.  Please be sure to pick it up, commit it to memory.  When you’re finished, collect the cards together in whatever order you choose, making sure to conceal your choice.”  And with that, Nick turned, making sure to give a dramatic twirl of the edge of his cloak. 

Seconds passed, bringing the telltale sound of the turning of cardboard, and finally Nick heard the man clumsily collecting the deck.  When he turned around, the man had the cards clenched in fingers that strikingly resembled overstuffed sausages.  As he took the deck, Nick pictured smoky, fat-filled blood trying to pump through the swollen appendages. 

Shuffling cards, though not as satisfying as the lure, was the most enjoyable part of Nick’s job.  He could shuffle with one hand, shuffle in mid air, shuffle across the table, shuffle from one hand into the other, even off of the wall and onto the tabletop. Tonight he opted for the hand-to-hand; elegant enough to draw looky-loos, and flashy enough to completely disorient the fat, wealthy drunkard. 

Desired effect achieved: two beady eyes, nearly concealed by pudgy cheeks reddening from the now empty whiskey glass, rolled about after the flying cards.  The entire deck collected in Nick’s left hand, and with swipe of his thumb he displayed all of them on the old, wooden table.  After studying them for a few seconds, Nick mused, “Hmm. That’s peculiar.  I don’t seem to see your card here.” 

Before the man could say something idiotic, Nick leaned forward, placing one hand on the man’s vest and the other behind his right ear.  His wrist moved like a whip, and seemingly from thin air a card was clutched between his thumb and forefinger.  “Is this your card, sir?” He asked, displaying it for the man and leaning back behind the table. 

It was the king of diamonds.  Even if Nick hadn’t been able to hear exactly which card the man had picked, memorized its exact placement on the table and listened for it to be picked up, he still would have known it was the piggy man’s card.  It could not have been more obvious that such a man would pick such a card. 

But the pink slug twitched the oiled rat upward into a drunken smile.  “Wrong.  That’s not the card I picked.” 

Of course he’d lie, Nick thought.  Like you said: who can turn down a free shilling?  “You are a very crafty man, as I thought, sir,” Nick conceded.  “I can see I am no match for your wits.”  He produced a shilling from his pants pocket and laid it on the table, where the five sausages reappeared and quickly snatched it up.  “Care to make it a little more interesting?  Say, a pound?” 

The man dropped the shilling into his own pants pocket and glared victoriously back at Nick, clearly pleased with himself.  “No thank you, good sir.  Here’s the difference between you and me.  I didn’t get where I am being taken in by people like you.” 

“Clearly not, sir,” Nick replied, giving the man a slight bow and slipping the man’s wallet into the compartment beneath the table.  “A man like me could learn a thing or two from a man like you.”

“I’d say you could,” the man added before turning, with his walking stick, whiskey glass, and cigar.  “Good evening.” 

It wasn’t something Nick did often.  But when he did, he made sure it mattered.  After all, why throw out the line unless you’re going to catch a nice, fat one?  “Good evening,” he replied, folding up his table as the crowds retreated into the theater for the start of the next act.