Voletta Black is in her chambers at the bottom of the ocean, lit by three candles. Her bedroom, unlike the other couriers’, is almost empty. A small bed with no pillows, a shelf holding twelve books, a record player with a single record, and the modest dressing table where she now sits, looking at a creased, blurred photograph, running her finger along its scalloped edge. It looks to be a young boy or girl, expressionless, standing in front of a gangplank.
She takes a sip of the drink Gustav brings her every evening at 6:45, churning in its glass like a sleet-packed cloud, terrifically cold. The wall intercom buzzes and she feels the familiar tingle. She waits a moment, as usual, then presses the button and says nothing.
“Hand delivery,” Margaret Feddema says, her voice crackling with distortion.
“What and where,” Voletta says.
“Hundred thousand dollars U.S. cash from his launderer to his little parlor,” Margaret says.
“There’s only Rufus at the moment. That other one died of stupidity, remember? The Hand needs it for a carrick game tonight. Can you get it there?”
“Of course I can get it there.”
“It’s curious. The Hand is requesting you more and more.”
“That is curious.”
“I don’t want you playing that game.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’d rather you get killed doing something noble, like making money for my company.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Bring something sharp.”
“You think?” Voletta says, releasing the button. She refolds the photograph and tucks it in a drawer, then pulls out a dagger and small whetstone. She hones the knife’s edge, stands, lets her kimono fall to the floor. She looks at herself in the mirror, breathes in, sticks her chin out, turns, gathers up her hair, examines the three parallel scars running along her back, barely visible in the candlelight. She runs the dagger under her arms, across the nape of her neck, along the skin below her navel, then blows the blade clean.
“If it isn’t Rufus King, sweaty as ever.”
“Miss Black, named after her heart. What’s a dress like that doing in a place that smells like this?”
“Little birdie says you’re sweet on me. Got me a present.”
“Pfft. I ain’t need your particular brand of trouble.”
“Every time you slink in here, I thank God for making me a faggot. Here, take your present.”
“Why, a nice big pile of nice clean money. You shouldn’t have.”
“Probably the first clean thing you’ve seen in years. Outdid myself, you ask me. You should see the garbage the Hand gives me. It’s either a) covered in the worst gore you can think of, or basically a mimeograph of a c-note, just the fakest boodle of all time, like someone’s crippled little baby drew it with their foot.”
“I’m sure the Hand appreciates all your hard work.”
“Give him a good hard squeeze for me. He’s kind of the perfect man, now that I think about it.”
Voletta only takes three different cabs to Upper Street, not feeling the usual amount of secrecy is necessary on this job. She makes a handful of fake turns, doubles back, vanishes in between streetlights.
In the old days, Upper’d been the main drag through the city, a vast avenue snaking toward the ocean, described by Olin Tesoriero as
a riot, a collision, filthy vendors shouting out my Christian name, choking clouds of cinnamon and dirt, an eerie warmth to the stone, brass trinkets, cords of gingham, teeth rotten with salt
and on and on for another thirty amphetamine-fueled pages. But today, Upper only runs seven blocks, the once great market now home to collapsing apartment buildings, medical supply stores, Stargardt grope rooms (“touch but do not look”), fluorescent-lit pachinko parlors, and, tucked in between two engagement ring resellers, the Clutch.
Voletta heads to the narrow building with a hanging wooden sign featuring a carved hand with its little finger curled down, and rings the bell. The door creaks open to reveal a tired-looking woman, long black locks, low and sloping nose, top heavy, smooth brown arms dangling loosely, a patch of gauze taped to her cheek. “Voletta,” she says, voice slow and cigarette-stained.
“Delfina,” Voletta says, giving her the smallest possible nod.
The woman looks at the black leather case, says: “This the moneys?”
“Not my business.”
“You are here to playing?”
“Not your business.”
Delfina shrugs, gestures for Voletta to come in. They weave through a heavy velvet curtain and then swinging saloon doors into a dimly lit sitting room. Walls covered with ornately framed paintings of dancing women. A bookcase filled with fake-looking books. A crank organ over there on a gateleg table. Delfina gestures toward a squat stool fashioned from a saddle and Voletta gestures at her dress and remains standing.
“You want drink?” Delfina asks.
“I very much want drink,” Voletta says.
She withdraws into emptiness and Voletta turns to face the long, lanky figure stretched out on the companion saddle stool, his head lolling on his shoulders, nearly invisible in the darkness.
“Don’t be scared,” the man says.
“But you’re so frightening,” Voletta says.
“You here to play?”
“I don’t play.”
The man runs a thumb along his cheek. “I’m not making up my mind about you yet,” he says. “Can’t get far in this game if you make up your mind too early.”
“I made up my mind about you.”
“Oh yeah?” The man leans forward into the light, stretches his eyelids wide. In the right socket is an eye and in the left is a sapphire. “Got this by making up my mind too early.”
“Bet you used to be real pretty.”
“And how,” the man says. “You ever hear of Thigh Bone? Blackguard keeps nail scissors taped to his wrist, like a coward. One time we’re in the Meadows, I make a bad predict, we exchange words. I figured no one was sensitive about their momma in this day and age but he ups and goes at me with the scissors and ... pop.”
“Doesn’t sound like you’re very good at this game.”
He snorts and offers his hand. “Blue Eye’s the name.”
Voletta glances at his hand, then back at his face. “You look more like a ... a Frank. Or a Francis.”
Blue Eye’s smile fades and he eases back. “You know, I gotta hand it to ol’ Thigh for making me step things up. Nowadays I pass this around before we start.” He pulls a beaten up photograph from his coat pocket, almost identical to the one Voletta keeps in her vanity back at HQ, and hands it to her.
She looks at the picture and clenches her jaw and tries to force the image from her head but knows it’ll be there until the day she dies. She gives it back and Blue Eye laughs a little.
“That’s just one of a series,” he says. “You’ll recognize my kisser there in the background. I’m just trying to get across the point that I’m a feller who takes things serious and maybe you shouldn’t play cute with him. Me.”
Voletta pretends to pluck an errant lash from her eye. She says: “I promise I will not play cute.”
Delfina comes back holding a transparent cocktail and starts to say something but is interrupted by an arrhythmic plinking noise coming from the next room. It stops after a moment and she turns and says: “The Hand would like a word.”
Son Hillers, the Esteemed and Rightly, Etc.
Voletta moves quickly — too quickly, she thinks, cursing herself — into the deepest recesses of the Clutch, a room illuminated by gaslights, sporting wallpaper heavy with textured fleur-de-lis and a bead curtain concealing a narrow passageway off to one side. But mostly: a wide wooden table covered with a heavy leather tablecloth, a row of stitched squares running along the edges, a different ranch brand inside each one. Scattered along the cloth are playing cards — unlaminated, squared-off edges, no royalty — and a small pool of congealing blood.
At the head of the table is what looks to be a terrarium crafted out of a tickertape machine. Curved glass, fine oak base, tastefully lit. Inside is a wizened human hand, and just like on the sign it is upright with all fingers extended except the pinky which is curled against itself. A thick mass of cables flow from the wrist into the little decorative diorama at the bottom of the terrarium: a model-train landscape featuring deciduous trees, a white picket fence, cows and sheep, a one-room schoolhouse.
Voletta says: “Mister Hillers.”
The Hand twitches, then taps against the glass with its index finger. Delfina listens, then says: “He say hello, nice to seeing you.”
It taps more forcefully, and Delfina sighs and says: “He say nice to see pretty messenger lady. Very very nice.”
The Hand makes a fist, shakes it at her, then jabs its thumb to the left. The woman switches on a contraption made from a microphone, the guts of a typewriter, maybe, sundry wires and tubing. The machine starts humming and the smell of oil fills the parlor. It taps again and this time a thin strip of paper spools out.
Voletta tears it off and reads: I APOLOGIZE FOR DELFINAS WRETCHED GRASP ON THE LANGUAGE // AHEM // YOUR BEAUTY IS PARTICULARLY DEVASTATING THIS EVENING
“Thank you,” Voletta says, smelling Blue Eye skulk into the room behind her. “I have an Item here from our mutual friend, Mister King.” She places the leather case on the table.
More tapping, and Voletta takes the next strip: THANKYA KINDLY
“Evening, Hillers,” Blue Eye says.
BLUE EYE SOMETIMES A PLEASURE // GET A LOAD OF THIS // WE HAD AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT DURING THE LAST GAME AND NOW WE ARE SHORT A PLAYER
“What happened?” Voletta asks.
MALQUIADES THREATED TO KILL HERSELF IF WE DIDNT BELIEVE SHE HAD THE GARROTTE
“That ploy’s old enough to hot flash,” Blue Eye says.
“Naturally you didn’t believe her,” Voletta says.
STUCK TO HER GUNS SO TO SPEAK
Blue Eye takes a seat at one end of the table, starts gathering the cards together and then looks at his hands. “We’re gonna need a new deck, Hillers,” he says. “These is sullied with ... with Malquiades, I reckon.”
The Hand taps and the machine chugs. Voletta tears off another strip: ANYWAY THOUGHT MAYBE YOU COULD SUB // EVEN SPOT YOU SOME OF THIS NICE CLEAN MONEY BECAUSE I AM SO NICE
She crumples up the ticker tape, flicks it to a growing pile on the floor. “You’ll have to remind me of the rules,” she says, taking the chair opposite Blue Eye. “I’m not even sure what we’re playing.”
THE GAME IS CARRICK
IT WILL FUCK YOU UP BUT GOOD HA HA
Carrick is a card game for two players and a dealer. All the literature I’ve read on it mentions this old saw: “a lifetime to learn, a moment to master.” I.e., you will never fully understand the game but when you do, which you won’t, it’ll all suddenly fall into place and seem as simple as go fish or whatever. This is known as getting the wisdom and supposedly only happens on your deathbed, right in the middle of saying your last words. But until that epiphany, carrick cloaks its moronic simplicity in endless layers of complexity, primarily through the use of 366 rotating rulesets.
The thing to know is that your standard playing cards are defined by the solar year, with the four suits representing the seasons and the 52 cards representing the weeks. Carrick decks have elevens, twelves, and thirteens instead of jacks, queens, and kings — so, add up all of the hearts and clubs and spades and diamonds and you get 364, with the joker standing in as December 31 (or 1/1, or one of the solstices, or an “unnamable day,” all depending on the rules currently in use) and the “garrotte card” (which we’ll get to in a second) kicking in for Leap Day. Q.E.D., each pip stands for a specific day of the year.
Then don’t forget that each suit is associated with a season, an age (infant, child, adult, old timer — metaphorically tied to both the age of the year and the season, e.g., Old Man Winter or the sashed baby New Year), and an element (water, fire, etc.). And a cardinal direction. And their Tarot predecessors: cups, wands, staffs, pentacles. And that black suits are male and red are female. And and.
Actual gameplay is fairly straightforward, a deviation of trump games like maw or whist, but where it gets tricky is in figuring out such basics as what beats what, who plays next, how many cards can be played at once, what cards have special properties, etc. And when you’re playing for money you need to factor in the dollar value of each card, fluctuating bet percentages, impromptu swaps, false reverses, and cut auctions.
These rules are determined by four factors:
No. 1 The current date (crafty players often schedule games to begin around 11PM) and its relationship to the date represented by the “in play” pip, which is determined by Factor No. 2.
No. 2 The current time, season, and phase of the moon; the geographic location of the gaming site; the age, gender, and physical position of each player; three or four dozen other things.
No. 3 The performance of the current player during the last few hands, as compared to his/her opponent (where the number of hands and the particular player vary, and “performance” is rewarded for being either good or poor, depending).
No. 4 Local variants. (The Hand plays “hook style,” which gets its name from the city in which we find ourselves.)
So when it’s your turn, you need to run through all the variables just to determine what the rules are at that particular moment, then play accordingly. All of which would be manageable after a few years of focused study and memorization — even with the ten-second time limit that money players enforce — but what knocks carrick into scary territory is the garrotte.
The garrotte was not an original component of carrick, back when 17th C. buccaneers patched it together from an old Tarot throw for divining the location of sunken booty. Like many of the game’s traditions, it began as a desperate bluff that ended up being codified as law thanks to the bluffer disemboweling all naysayers. To paraphrase the origin myth:
—Your go, Captain Fancy.
—I say, I’ve yet to see the Garrotte.
—Keep jawing and you will.
—The Garrotte card, sirrah. O do not tell me this Deck is incomplete.
—Three score less eight. Which I believe is customary.
—The Garrotte card? Black as the sky and depicting the awful visage of the Devil himself? With hayfork and leer of Evil? Have I gone mad?
—I’m afraid so.
—Gentlemen, I am recently from civilised lands and there the Garrotte card is the very lifeblood of this game.
—Speaking of lifeblood.
—Stay your hand. I shall fashion a makeshift with this scrip.
—You’ll not. What is the function of this imaginary Card, I wonder?
—Just as when the end times come, seas will turn to blood. Thus the appearance of the Garrotte means that all Suits are to be treated as Red.
—That would certainly be convenient for you!
—Thus my consternation over its suspicious absence!
—Are you accusing me of concealing your fabulous Card?
—That pocket in your waistcoat has a curious bulge!
—I beg your pardon!
—Perhaps my cutlass will reveal the truth of its contents! And … there! Alas, in all the excitement my stroke was too powerful and my weapon has gone right through the waistcoat, and the waist, and the chair in which that sodden profligate sat and called my integrity into question. Is there another who doubts the existence of the Garrotte? Then let us find a new Opponent and play on.
The legacy of this moment was not a devil card that turned spades to diamonds but rather the tactic of introducing a wild card into a game full of wild cards. The garrotte can be played once per game, and has the power to change any rule that’s currently being enforced (so treys will suddenly best elevens, or play order will now proceed alphabetically by last name, or the moon is decreed to be waning rather than waxing, etc.).
The catch is that the garrotte does not actually exist. It is a fiction which both players pretend to believe in. So if someone proclaims “garrotte!” and pantomimes throwing down the card (which is sort of formal and corny at this point — most serious players just mutter the rule change), they need to convince their competitor that they do indeed have it.
In the old days this meant inventing compelling and detailed stories about how they came by the card and all the mystical properties it possessed. This component of the game was really more of a cute tale-telling competition than anything else. If the dealer liked your yarn better than the other guy’s, and you went through all the trouble of fabricating this thing, then fine, go ahead and make your cheater move.
But in contemporary times, the garrotte has taken a dark turn. It’s why carrick has been relegated to backstreet parlors like the Clutch and is almost exclusively played by people with an open-minded attitude toward interpersonal violence. Story-swapping has been replaced by outright threats, and the winner is typically not the one with the boldest imagination but the one who seems likeliest to kill you. The question is no longer Can I come up with a better story? but What are the odds this guy will really shoot me in the stomach?
This has resulted in a kind of arms race of terror. Pointing a pistol is no longer enough to make the modern carrick player blanch. Today, you need to dig deep. Novelty is key. Gotta keep your opponent off balance and unprepared.
A 13-year-old girl allegedly won the carrick tourney in the Meadows simply by doing nothing. Sometimes there is nothing more terrifying than a blank slate upon which your opponents can project their worst fears.
A Waxing Crescent
The shriveled finger clinks against the glass. The translation machine churns and clacks.
THE DATE IS OCTOBER 10
THE TIME IS 2123 PLEASE SYNCHRONIZE TIMEPIECES
THE MOON IS A WAXING CRESCENT
WIND OUT OF THE NW
WE ARE PLAYING HOOK STYLE
DEALER’S DECISIONS ARE FINAL
UNRESOLVED ISSUES HANDLED BY THE MANTIS, and a small gesture toward what looked like a homemade catheter hanging from a brass hook on the far wall.
“I am proxy for dealer,” Delfina says, slicing open a new deck with her thumbnail. “As is the usual.” She shuffles languidly, deals sloppily.
The first few rounds go quietly. Money is thrown in the pot and scrabbled back out. There is little eye contact and no unnecessary movement. The Hand twitches impatiently. Delfina smokes, one arm propping up the other.
Then Blue Eye throws in the seven of spades and Voletta says: “It’s quarter till. Symmetrical numbers only.”
Blue Eye gives her a long gander. “Only in the Hook,” he sighs. “Play that symmetric bull-roar at Marv’s Marvelous and you walk outta there dead. That’s stuff for homosexuals and, and atheists.”
PLAY WILL YOU
“That card is not acceptable,” Voletta says.
Blue Eye checks his watch. “It is now ... nine forty ... six,” he says. “Asymmetrical numbers are now allowed.”
Voletta shakes her head in disgust, plays the eleven of hearts. “Mister Hillers,” she says to the Hand, “it’s generous of you to invite amateur players into your parlor. Everyone’s got to start somewhere.”
I TAKE ALL COMERS LONG AS THEY SHOWER
Blue Eye fans his cards, says: “Tits, I was playing this game before you even had your first abortion.”
Voletta feels genuinely happy for the first time today. Through a stifled smile she says: “I stand corrected.”
The cards go quick. Voletta wins three hands in a row and is reaching for a fourth pot when Blue Eye lurches forward and slams a small boning knife down into the table. It sticks snugly between her middle and ring fingers, twin beads of blood now swelling. “You forget something?” he hisses.
She can’t jerk her hand away without tearing it apart, so she stays put, gives him a steady look. “I never forget anything,” she says.
He holds up his free hand, shows her the nothing he’s holding. “Did you forget about this card?”
“I don’t see anything there.”
Blue Eye laughs, suddenly full of great good cheer. “She doesn’t think I have it,” he says to the Hand.
IM NOT CONVINCED EITHER, the Hand taps.
Blue Eye sighs, gives the knife a little twist and the table squeaks, splinters. He says: “OK look. Two weeks ago there I am in Las Cruces and I’m playing with this feller who says the same thing. No faith, this guy. No God, no nothing, basically. How do you go through this life. I’m telling him, friend, I say, you gotta believe I have the garrotte here in my hand. You gotta know there’s something more in this world than what you can see. Right? World’s not as tiny as you, man.”
The Hand makes a yeah yeah get on with it gesture.
“So this guy grabs my hand, says: But I don’t feeeeeel anything neither, cause there ain’t nothing there to speak of. You believe this? So I give him a nice big hug, no hard feelings, right, and I say: Can’t you feel this, my man? Can’t you feel my soul pressing against yours? And he sits right down on the floor. Turns out he’s got this shard of glass up along one side, right in the wrong nerve—”
DOCTOR ROTHS GAME I BET
“That’s right,” Blue Eye says, his hand still locked around the hilt of the boning knife, knuckles still threatening to bust through skin. “Metal detector out front so I had to improvise. Smashed up a tumbler between my knees, kept it quiet. Probably did more damage to myself than that gent.”
Blood is pooling under Voletta’s hand but she doesn’t move. “It’s your commitment to the game that I find so inspiring,” she says.
“Oh that’s nothing, missy,” Blue Eye says. “He’s down there shivering and shaking, and I show him his wallet which I liberated while futzing around behind his back with the glass. And I start going through the pictures in there and I say something like, Oh, I’m a photographer too! Oh, who is this? The little woman? And is this Jeffrey age eight of Booker T. Washington Elementary School? And then I, aheh—” He laughs gently, shaking his head with a kind of fond nostalgia, “I look at my watch or something and say: That’s right, he’s just getting out of science class right now. Packing up his little books and about to walk the five blocks home to 2103 East Pichacho Road.”
LET ME GUESS SUDDEN CHANGE OF HEART
Blue Eye nods, not taking his eyes off Voletta, tilting his head a little, the smile dwindling. “Don’t hurt him, don’t touch my wife, please, please, you’ve got the garrotte, make your play. And I make my play and I take his money. But I don’t think Roth — the dealer — I don’t think he really believes I have it. So I pull another picture out, this one out of my coat pocket, and I show it to him. It’s of this guy’s kid, Jeffrey age eight, there at East Picacho Road that very morning, his eye all cut up just like mine, crying. And there’s me sticking my ugly mug in from the side, waving hi.”
Voletta says: “That’s a nice story, but I don’t see what it has to do with us, Franny.”
Blue Eye slams a fist down, shouts: “How do you know that name?”
“The facelift. The card dusting. The inhalants. The stuffed leopard you sleep with. The crying in the shower.”
“Now you’re just—”
“The masturbating to the picture of your mother.”
“Whoa whoa whoaaaaaaa—”
“And this woman ... Josephine?”
Blue Eye lunges across the table but stops suddenly, his neck a few inches away from Voletta’s dagger. “Sit down,” she says. “Take your knife and sit down.”
He glares at her, spittle in the corners of his mouth, vein throbbing in his forehead, then hauls himself back off the table. He pulls the boning knife from between her fingers.
HOO BOY, the Hand taps.
She examines her cuts, then slides the dagger back under her dress. She produces a folded scrap of paper, says: “This is Josephine Mejia’s current address.”
“Now who’s the amateur,” Blue Eye says. “Josephine killed herself six months ago.”
“They revived her at Forest Mercy,” Voletta says. “Pumped her stomach.”
“I was at the hospital, you dumb cunt.”
“What did the doctor tell you?”
“What did he — he told me she was dead.”
“Did you see her body?”
“I, I couldn’t, I wasn’t allowed to—”
“She left town that night. To get away from you.”
“You’re lying. You’re a liar.”
Voletta holds up the paper. “Go see her. Maybe you two lovebirds can make up. Maybe she’ll forgive you for everything you did to her. Maybe she’ll forgive herself.”
Blue Eye reaches out for it and she jerks it back. “First, tell me what it is I’m holding in my hand.”
“Just give me the goddamn address.”
“It’s not an address,” Voletta says. “What is it?”
Blue Eye slouches in his chair. He runs his thumb over the knife.
“Francis,” she says. “Tell me what I’m holding in my hand.”
He clears his throat and says: “You got the garrotte.”
“Do you believe it? Do you really believe I have it?”
“I believe it.”
“Good,” Voletta says. “Then I’m going to make treys wild. Which means I win the hand. Which means I win the game. Now get up and go to your woman, Francis. She’s forty-five minutes down the coast. She’s alone. She’s been alone for six long months.”
Blue Eye snatches the paper, spits on the table, and strides out. Voletta gathers up the cash and rolls it into a tight bundle.
GOOD GAME, the Hand taps.
“Thanks for the tip,” she says.
I ONLY GAVE YOU HIS NAME
“It’s all I need, usually.”
WHERE DID YOU SEND HIM
“Ashland Cemetery,” Voletta says. “It’s time he paid his fucking respects.”