12 Days of Christmas #3: Sharp’s Trump

Here’s the thing.

I write a lot of strong female characters, according to my reviewers and my beta readers. Strong women captivate me in a way nothing else does. The way I see it, why would a man be interested in someone they don’t respect, unless the man doesn’t respect himself? And, on a level beyond the objectified romantic interest, women are complex characters to write, with none of the cultural confidence of a male protagonist.Women who accomplish the same feats as men have to do it through a veil of monthly inconvenience and hellish pain. 

BUT. But.

I simply adore Raymond Chandler. The intrigue of the mysterious dame, the stoic morality of a hard-boiled detective, and the scent of cigarette smoke transports me to another time. Sometimes Marlowe’s code can be chauvinist. But in a culture where everybody else behaved even worse, it illustrates the importance of having a code at all. When the world is Noir, honor is a deep red.

Sharp’s Trump is a story about just such a hard-boiled detective. Except, Luxus Non Grata lives in a world where being hard boiled is a matter of how many masks you wear.

Sharp’s Trump
A Luxus Non Grata Story 

“Mister… Non Grata, was it? An odd name,” said the dame who stood by my chipped metal desk when I walked into my office.

My gloved digits, the index and the thumb, were still on the cheap hardware store knob. It stuck in the slight humidity. Nothing was on top of the desk, except a stack of newly minted business cards and a Bakelite phone. There was one chair behind the desk, and another in front, neither of them impressive. I could see why she’d chosen to stand.

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“I read about you in the paper,” she said, now fingering one of the cards with her immaculate French manicure. As if it were a crostini bearing an interesting piece of finger food.  It had the number of the Bakelite printed on the back, and my name on the front: Luxis Non Grata, Spectral Detective. The woman took out a milled steel box and touched the glass face delicately- click! Now she had a picture of my card on her phone.

It had been a hot day, but not a drop of sweat twinkled on the woman’s brow.The dame’s hair must have been styled by the same man who did Rolls Royce grilles. A golden weave lay in a perfect bob. Her skin looked almost pale enough to be bread. It wasn’t natural, going by the color of her full lips and the small places in the lines of her eyes. Her pencil skirt lay flush beneath a loose blouse of something costly, a look that flattered as much as it advertised her immutable availability. From the chips in the manicure and the costly emeralds in her ears, I gathered someone had paid for her outfit, and more for her hair. That same person, or his lackey, was probably in the black Hummer downstairs waiting for her. 

“I seem to have better agents than I know. My advertisement is not due to be out until Thursday,” I said, moving around to my seat behind the desk. I sat, and opened the window onto the steaming alley below for what little breeze it gave. 

“You did a favor for Don Vincenzo,” the woman admitted. “I don’t know what your talents are, but he was impressed.”

“Not a favor. He paid me for the job,” I corrected. I made sure to look her in the eyes. I had a fedora on that tended to obscure my pale irises. Their sparkling gold color usually had a discomforting effect on people, and they did not fail me now.

“That may be,” the woman said, shifting her weight from foot to foot, “But the Don appreciates what help he can get, even from a player as… new… as yourself.”

“I may look like an intern in the Gazette’s mail room, but I assure you, I can get the job done… if you are here to employ me?”

I had been building to some kind of reaction, and now I saw my guess had triggered it. The woman stepped back, her mouth of maroon lipstick opening just a touch, but otherwise her composure remained steady. I decided to go easy on her and explain.

“Your nails are chipped, from typing long hours, and you’re wearing comfortable shoes under the getup. That tells me you’re used to flexing your appeal, and walking. The only jobs with that kind of description are journalist and prostitute. You should be flattered I guessed the former.”

“Who do you think you are, Sherlock?” she admitted freely, but her voice fell flat. Sherlock would not have had to use the methods I do.

“So is there a job for me, Miss Valerie Freeman?” I cut to the chase, removing my notebook from the desk drawer. She looked shocked, until I showed her the glittering rings she was flashing, spelling out her initials. There was only one journalist with those initials working at the Gazette, the only game in town. 

“A bit old-fashioned, no?” asked Valerie. 

“You’re a journalist, you should appreciate a good notebook.”

Valerie took a long moment before settling her hip on my desk. I can’t say the smooth brown thigh didn’t hold my attention. But the file she took from her shoulder bag was more important. The dame was a piece of work.

“Two days ago, my partner Gregory Hanes and I got an anonymous tip about an underground gambling operation. Hanes was my photographer, and a damn good one. We busted the illegal Slavic immigrant call girl ring a few months ago, if you remember.”

“I remember,” I said. Underneath the table, my fingers fiddled silently with a toy car that had been in my pocket. I was glad I wasn’t wearing my blazer. This sounded like a long story, and my office was stifling.

“Anyway, the tip led us to a bar in the East Side, the Dead Man’s Fingers. It wasn’t an easy place, but they let me in no trouble.” She paused, but I didn’t show her I was impressed. “We went in, I took some hidden photographs, didn’t get caught. Or so I thought. Then we tried to leave and got locked in the coat room.”

“I take it they got your camera.”

“And my cameraman.”

“The way I see it, you would have ripped up these guys’ meal tickets by ratting out the place. A lot of cops are on that gravy train.”

“And a lot of good husbands go missing when they can’t pay, or they suddenly forget how to play the piano,” Valerie said, cool as a cucumber. “If we get the evidence, we nail Andre Romanov once and for all. Judge Raymonds will issue warrants for every property associated with the Romanovs, with everything we have on him.”

“So what’s stopping you from raiding a different underground casino? ”

 

“They sent these printouts to me yesterday.”

I had been going through the file as she was talking, and now I felt the slightly sticky grip of color ink on my fingers as I leafed through. They had a lot of red. She didn’t seem too shaken up.

“Romanovs are the biggest gunrunners in the City,” I said casually, as if I was telling her which burger joint had the best onion rings. “You get this, and every gang for ten blocks is going to want a piece. Don Vincenzo gets to expand horizontally.”

I was rewarded by a vixen grin.

“You seem to be awfully cheerful for someone who just lost a coworker to a senseless mauling,” I said. That wiped the grin off her face.

“Call it the lesser of two evils,” she said. “I’d like you to get those pictures back. Will you take the job?”

“I’ll get back to you,” I answered, delivering a smile dipped in donut glaze. She looked affronted for a moment, but seemed to take it as a yes.

“Fine. But don’t take too long. The Don isn’t as patient as I am. Au revoir, Mr. Non Grata,” Valerie Freeman shut my ill-fitting office door and disappeared down the hall behind it. She had left the file with me.

I stood up and took off my fedora as soon as her footsteps disappeared down the narrow stairwell. One of her business cards was sitting next to my modest stack. The thing squatted there like a poisonous frog, decked out in bright City Gazette colors. Beneath the card, there was a promise: an envelope with a few Benjamins in it.I was living out of my beater coupe, hoping to find a dollar in my laundry. Times were hard and morals were a luxury. Not taking the case was never really a question. 

“Valerie Freeman, huh.” I tried the sound of it out loud. It was a rich name, probably not one she had grown up with, but the ‘Freeman’ had a touch of homegrown about it I liked. A doll like that didn’t get to keep on raking up the bodies if she wasn’t connected somewhere. Not with those rich white owners at the Gazette. I brought the file and put my blazer on.

Time to go to the bar. 

When I walked into the Spanked Monkey, I was glad it hadn’t changed. The mood of decades-old warehouse skylights matched their local, artisan beer to a tee. Glittering, chattering games lined the back of the building, lending a retro feel to the place that wasn’t unwelcome.My mob contact was a Vincenzo by marriage, but the bar cum arcade he ran was neutral ground. The City cracked down hard on the recruiters and dealers stupid enough to bother the yuppie kids who found their way into the Spanked Monkey. 

“Here to beg for your shifts back, Lux?” a stocky Filipino called from behind the high bar along one wall.

“Quit it, Joey, I’m here on a gig.”

“That’s a shame, I could use you back. We’ve been balls-deep in drunks trying to hog the Mrs. Pac-Man.”

Skipping the quick game, I made for one of the rear benches, and Joey took the hint. He sat down heavily with a couple of pints, the Five-Star Dark Stout foaming a rich river down frosty mugs.

“I need a line on a Romanov. Andre,” I said.

“The Monkey isn’t a chicken coop, Lux. What do you need intel on a Romanov for? You know they’ve got an eye on you for the favor you pulled for the big man.”

“Job. It was a job.”

“Heard the boss man’s little girl enjoyed it, whatever it was,” Joey said, and it didn’t take a wink to tell me the line was dirtier than the bar’s grease trap.

“Skip it. There’s a fifty in it for you if you sing.” Joey didn’t exactly belt out Ave Maria.

“One of my late nighters just quit, caught the cook feeling her goods. Make it  seventy-five and you cover her shift. Tips all yours.”

“Fine,” I agreed. Joey was doing me a favor.He knew how I was living, and tips here would cover the fee and more. 

“Okay,” Joey said, but he sure took his sweet time with the beer before continuing. “I don’t know what you want with Andre ‘Ace’ Romanov, but you’re always one with a sense of timing. The Romanovs’ boys are twittering like canaries, and not just online, either. Word is your boy has leverage on the Don, and he’s squeezing him for everything he’s got.”

“Leverage? What kind of leverage?” I thought of the pictures Valerie Freeman wanted back. They probably had nothing to do with illegal gambling. Nobody screws with the take in the City, not with good reason. Valerie had given me none. Then there was the Hummer at my office…

“That, I can’t help you with,” Joey said, shrugging. Only so much you can pick up at the Spanked Monkey, I supposed. “But, I can give you a warning. Don’t take on the Ace, Lux. You’re a good kid, and you’ve got moves, but he’s on a different level entirely.”


“I’ve been digging for gold in the mud since I failed French 2,” I pointed out, but I didn’t sneer.

“This is different, Lux. Ace plays with a loaded deck. You know Bowser Ramirez?”

“The sumo who used to run errands for the Romanovs? Didn’t he die in a loading crane accident?”

“Accident? Or Ace?”

“Brutal I can handle,” I said, but inside I wasn’t so sure. Joey shrugged, and left me to tend to a group of yuppies who had just walked in. I took a deep drink of stout, then checked my top score on Mrs Pacman before I left. 

Andre “Ace” Romanov’s lair was in the heart of the East Side. As advertised, it was sordid AF, tucked under the bridge between a strip club and a brothel. The only difference between the two a neon sign that read “Breasticles!” Advertisement, or the name of the place, I couldn’t tell you.

The Dead Man’s Fingers was a three-story tenement building, renovated and hollowed out. Judging from the blacked-out windows and the earthquake vanguard of the bass, it did well. I could feel the rumble on the street, shaking up the sidewalk and blurring the tips of the wrought iron fence. The gate must be hell on the acid trippers.

Their bouncer took one look at my suit jacket, jeans and converses before shaking his head very amiably and looking pointedly at the end of the street. I shrugged, before heading back along the queue of expensive Italian shoes and shiny dagger heels. When I rounded the block, I ducked into an alleyway, stepped up onto a closed dumpster and scrambled up the fire escape along the side of Breasticles.

It took me a few minutes to scale the side of the building, climb the ladder jutting out over the cliff of the grimy street, and make it onto the rooftop. Black tarmac stretched under the tarry City sky, making me invisible in my dark clothes. I hopped the plaster divider and arrived on the roof of the Fingers. There was a lock on the stairway door, but I kept a pick in my shoe.

Inside, the pounding of the club was much worse. Some kind of tasteless remix. There was a web of catwalks just below the first landing, and I stepped gingerly out over the pulsing strobes like a bird caught in a fireworks show. The inside of the tenements were hollowed out, but bits of rooms and corridors had been left behind to make a rude parody of Eischer. The space thrummed and beat like a living thing.

It took me a moment to get my bearings, but once I did it wasn’t hard to spot Romanov. His club was laid out with his own personal lounge on the ground floor. A choice grouping of cordoned-off couches lay strategically between the bar and the jockey. I wasn’t interested in the sharp-suited man in it. Rather, I crossed the catwalks and made my way to an area at the topmost floor. A room from the old apartment had been left untouched, walls and all, hovering over the chaos. I picked the cheap lock and sprayed Freon into the crevice where I felt the deadbolt, hitting the chisel with the heel of my boot. Nobody heard the commotion over the music.

I was still half a mind about taking Valerie on. Being a common thief was never my intent. I could still walk away. I didn’t have to leave the club with anything in hand. Maybe it was curiosity that drove me, or the ridiculously lax security that made me suspicious. I certainly wasn’t expecting the Ace to leave his prize leverage hanging around.

But instead of leaving I found myself in the Finger’s back office. It was a utilitarian crib with a clean bathroom, some file cabinets, and a lounge area. There were lockers, corkboards, and other business paraphernalia, but my main concern was the laptop carelessly tossed onto the stained couch. I set the slab of metal on the desk nearby and began the laborious task of hacking in.

“Hmmm…” I murmured, but just as I was about to wipe down the keys and shut down, the unmistakable butt of a gun struck my left temple, and down I went.

The last thing I remember, before the world faded from sepia to black, is the reflection of my attacker’s sharply cut suit in the lounge mirror, and the bouncer from outside standing just behind him, shaking his head pointedly.

“Mister Luxis Non Grata,” came the soft voice just to my right. It was a City accent. I could just hear beyond the periphery of pain. There was certainly a lot of it, rubbed around like oil pastels just above my eyebrow. A warm wetness told me he had drawn blood, a lot of it, since it was a scalp wound. Shit, my best blazer.

“Jack of All Trades.” A different voice now, deeper, Hispanic- the bouncer. Dimly, my eye fluttered open for a second, and closed as quickly. My face was covered in sweat, and the salt was brimstone acid in my eye. I was still in the office, and there were two other men in the room- Andre “Ace” Romanov, and the meathead with no appreciation for indie fashion.

“I like the card. Eggshell, Bookman in charcoal. Economical, but stylish,” Romanov said. “Stop pretending, Mr. Non Grata, we know you’re awake.”

“I don’t suppose you’re hiding an ice pick or chainsaw somewhere in this office,” I said, but my cheek was abruptly handed back to me by the bouncer’s fist. The man had biceps like a key-grip.

“Okay, okay,” I spluttered through a fresh gout of blood. My lip had split, and when I tried to reach up to touch it I realized my wrists had been tied behind me with what felt like duct tape. Comically, and to my relief, they had removed my blazer. It was draped on the couch.

“Tough crowd,” I continued, mainly to keep talking, delay whatever they had planned for me. Joey was rampaging around in my head, screaming, “I told you so!” at the top of his lungs.

“Comedy is obviously one of your many talents,” Ace was saying now. Through a haze of sting, I saw he was lounging on the couch now, unhurried, unconcerned. His hair was jet-black, but the way he touched it put him at about late middle age. Not quite up and coming, but still with a lot to prove. His fingers toyed with a smartphone, tapping in that annoying way advertisement executives have that’s meant to suggest they have somewhere better to be. 

The music still beat against the tender parts of my head, irritating, but from the quality of the song I guessed I had been passed out maybe a half hour. They hadn’t gotten to the clearing-out music yet, the soundtracks and the boy bands.

I grinned a crimson rictus full of bloodied teeth. The bouncer made to hit me again, but Andre raised a finger of protest. His goon stepped back, and my sphincter relaxed a few microns.

“I don’t want to jeopardize what might be a productive, fruitful career for a young man, so I’m probably going to break one of your arms and leave it at that. You can go back and tell Don Vincenzo he can pay me the money, or the photographs go in the Gazette.”

“Funny,” I laughed as well as I could, dribbling red down my shirt. “I was under the impression he wanted them in the Gazette.”

“Hmm,” Ace said. “I think you’ve been severely misinformed. Ricardo, break his left arm and toss him in the alley. Don’t go overboard.”

“Wait!” I said as he got up to leave. I had an idea. 

“Yes, what is it? I’ve got a club full of women with daddy issues to get back to.”

“Why do they call you Ace?” I knew it was a shit-for-brains idea, but at the time I had no other choice.

“Because I like poker,” Ace answered wryly, but a gleam of curiosity twinkled in his eye. My bright star of hope.

“Bet I can clean you out,” I said. “Bet my other arm I can take you for everything you have.” Like I said, shit for brains, but it was the best card I could play at the time. I would pay for it later. There was a tense moment of silence. 

“I like your spirit, kid,” Andre said, and stood a moment, head cocked, considering. Then, like a magician, a deck appeared in his hand. It was a movement I couldn’t even have seen if my eyes were clear, never mind the blood caking them. “I accept.”

The next few seconds hit like a sack of bricks. Ricardo cutting the ropes holding me, then shoving me along through the office door. I blinked and recoiled at the sudden flashes of light. Stumbling down the rickety stairway, expecting to be pitched forward into the crowd two stories below. Instead, I was led to a high table  in Ace’s private seating area, and given a hot towel to clean my face. I took the gift horse gladly, but I was all too clearly aware of the half dozen new goons clustered around the felt gaming table.

“Well, Mr. Non Grata? What will the game be?”  Andre said. I took his confidence in stride, even through my throbbing, puffed-up face. I spat the last of the blood into the towel and threw it over my shoulder.

“Five-card stud. Deuces wild,” I said clearly.

“Well shit, that’s the boss’ favorite,” Ricardo jeered behind me.

“Hold it,” I interrupted, even as Ace was throwing the deck to his dealer. “I’m betting my fucking arm here, what are you bringing to the table?”

“I will match the wager, of course,” Ace answered calmly. “Shall we say, 100,000 in chips each? Whoever wins the pot keeps an intact arm.” I nodded, and the chips were dealt.

Ace flicked the jokers into the audience, earning a few shrieks of joy. The dealer shuffled with fingers like spiders, I was allowed to cut, and he dealt the hole cards as elegantly. I had time to look around, get my bearings. Ace had all the periphery of a real casino here. Even the strobe lights and the music had died down, leaving us in a calm circle with a single high spotlight far in the catwalk above. I was beginning to feel like I had overstepped my bounds. Yet, I hadn’t rented out my new office, or got the ad in the paper, looking to bow out as soon as the shit hit the fan.

We played.

For a while, the two of us feinted with low antes, each looking to get a finger on the other’s strengths. More than once we folded or dipped a toe with insubstantial bets. I drew first blood, two thousand in chips, but Romanov immediately retaliated with a pair of Queens the next round. Finally, around the tenth round, Ace swept in for the kill.

Ace looked at his cards, and pushed five grand into the pot.

“Call.” I had a King of Hearts, and a shitty nine of spades. But it wasn’t the time to bow out. The first street flew like bullets from the dealer’s gloved hands. I got a ten of clubs, and Ace got the King of Spades.

“Better say goodbye to that ulna,” someone whispered behind me, but I ignored them. Ace chose to up the ante, and I followed. We could smell the other player’s hand, and my right arm seemed to ache dully. Romanov’s face was a mad lib, and mine was probably as hard to read under the cuts and swelling.

The next cards brought me the deuce of hearts, the Queen of Spades. Opposite me, royalty decided to grace Ace’s hand. The King of diamonds and the seven of clubs joined the Spade. I had to fight to keep my focus then. 

For everyone paying attention, I now had a straight: nine, ten, deuce, Queen, King.  The pot was up to twenty-five thousand, and I was even a few thousand ahead. But Romanov didn’t know that. On the surface, Romanov was winning with a pair of Kings. If I could just lull him into a false sense of security, I could take a good portion of his chips. Maybe enough to get away scot-free.

“Ah,” Romanov said, and I held my breath as his hand hovered over the table. Then, slower than molasses, he tipped not one, not two, but fifty thousand into the pot. I did cartwheels in my head. No way he could have four Kings, not when I had the Hearts in my hand! My straight would beat out his pair.

“Call,” I said triumphantly, and it must have showed, because Ace smirked and my heart fell through my indie jeans.

“Four of a kind,” he said, and flipped over two deuces.

After that, it was simply a mopping-up exercise. We feinted for a while, but the man had earned his nickname, and my confidence was broken. Along with my arm. 

At least, that’s what I hoped he’d think.

“I won’t call you a fool,” Ace said as he got up from the table, “you entertained me quite well, for a snippy little upstart.”

“And you play well for a cheat,” I said. Everyone froze around the table.

“Calling me a cheater will cost you more than your arms in this place,” Andre Romanov said in a voice that could have frozen Satan’s ass. Goons were lining up all around us, and some of them had knives.

“You have a beautiful poker face,” I continued, “and you were counting the odds that whole game, even when I was ahead. There was no need to use a Masque.”

Ace’s goons were getting ready to leap, and one of them actually had a hand on me when Romanov threw up his arms and yelled “Stop!”

The room froze, yet again. His men looked from him to each other, confused. 

“Everyone leave. I’ll take this lying son of a bitch myself,” said Romanov. Slowly, but with the immediacy of command, the goons filed out of the room. When we were the only ones left, Romanov regarded me carefully.

“I’m not lying,” I said.

“I know. What do you mean to do about it?” Ace said in a voice like icicles. 

“First, I want to meet it. The Masque. Then, I want a rematch, and this time, with the photos as a stake.”

“There is nothing you can offer me that I want.”

“Your thugs can break every bone in my body, if they like. But I want to see your Masque. Don’t you want to win a fair fight?”

Quietly, Andre sat back down at the table, grinning. Everyone else was baffled, and Ricardo was bursting at the seams of his cut abs to get at me.

I was probably the only one who understood what was going on in the Ace’s head. He wanted to win against someone who knew, truly, what he was up against. More importantly, he wanted a real gamble, a fight against a real rival. No gambler can resist a fifty-fifty match. Even odds were so rare. Especially for people with Masques. 

“Same game. Last game. And I want to see your Masque,” Ace said now, taking off his sharp suit. Underneath, he wore loose purple silk and a cologne that smelled of laurel.

“Yours first,” I said. I adjusted my threadbare sleeve, if only for appearances. I had him now, there wasn’t a question. 

Andre grunted, and gestured noncommittally. At once, a shadow filled the space behind him. It overflowed a little to one side. It was a shadow I had seen from the first glimpse of him from the catwalk, a sandy thing with many hands and fingers even more dexterous than his. Ace skipped the preliminaries and had his Masque shuffle. If the club proper could see they would have applauded at the cards flipping and crackling in mid-air. They would have thought Andre a magician. I knew better.

“Its name is The Sharp,” Andre said. “It can steal, palm, or load objects faster than the human eye can follow. I’ve built my name on wagers like the one I made with you.”

“But you’re smart enough not to use it with the Don,” I said. “People on his level know about Masques.”

“That’s why I needed leverage,” Andre said with a smile. He held up his phone. “The photos are in here. It’s the only copy. The memory card is yours should you win. Now, might I see your Masque? It’s only fair to know what I’m up against.”

The Ace opened the phone’s casing with his thumbnail, and flicked the memory card into the middle of the table. The stake. 

I shrugged, and gestured with one hand. A puff of smoke exploded suddenly at my elbow, and when it cleared, a little imp sat in its place, a surly little fucker with grimy feathers and a beak longer than its body. When it opened its mouth, a hoarse chirpy cackle came out.

“Shax,” I said simply. “He mostly plays little tricks on people, steals if given a chance.” The smell off of him was horrendous, and even Andre wrinkled his nose. “Unfortunately he is also very flatulent.” 

“Fitting. We play,” Andre said. He seemed disappointed. I cut.

The game proceeded as before, only now I was bleeding chips at a considerable rate. I knew now the shadow thing dealing the cards was palming cards and loading the deck against me. I wasn’t too worried. Now it was Andre who didn’t know what he was getting into. As he played, his poker face slipped by degrees, until finally he was positively beaming.

Finally, Ace shoved two-thirds of his stake into the table. “Royal Flush. I’d like to see you beat that!”

“Pair Jacks,” I answered, smiling. Ace had half the pot in his hands before he saw the grin. Doing a double take, he looked at his own cards, then at the little demon Shax sitting at the edge of the table, picking its nose with a bird claw. Andre looked very hard, again, at his hand, and at the croupier, and at his Masque, the Sharp.

“Ah. I see why they sent you,” Ace said finally, sitting down before his hand. It was lying there quite plainly on the table. No, not a Royal Flush. There was a seven, four, Queen, three, and a useless Ace of Spades.”How did you do it?” 

“Shax here steals, like I said,” I provided obligingly. “But not baubles or jewels. He steals the sight, hearing and understanding of any one person under the conjurer’s request. I can make you think your balls are crawling out of your pants and playing banjo with your chest hair, if I wanted.”

“Don’t think you’re getting out of here alive. Or with the photos. When everyone leaves, my men will beat you to a pulp. I don’t think your dirty chicken can trick a dozen people at once.” But his poker face had long gone. Even as he made his threat, I knew he would not violate his own game- the gamble was something sacred to him. That was the problem. Peoples’ Masques reflected the truth. “You think you can trick Andre ‘Ace’ Romanov with your filthy little Masque?”

“I never said it was my Masque,” I said, my face a mask of its own perfect innocence. I hammed it up, selling the drama. “I agreed to show you my Masque, but not when. This filthy thing, a mirror of my own soul? Never!”

“What?”

With a click of my fingers, Rex-Goetia appeared behind me, roughly corresponding to the Sharp’s position behind Ace. As always, he wore his usual red coat. The cock feather atop his head reflected his flaming golden eyes. As if on command, Shax began to prance and hop about the tall Masque’s shoulders.

“Rex-Goetia can summon demons, Mr. Romanov. Like my card says, I’m a ‘Jack of All Trades.’” But as I said this, Ace was backing his chair up, the legs scraping to get away from the dead-eye stare of my Masque. 

Even now, I could hear the effect of Rex-Goetia on the people outside. All around us, behind the walls, club goers were panicking, somehow sensing the presence of things not quite right with the world. I heard the heavy club doors swinging open, and the rush of people at coat check. People must be feeling a troop of skeletons were marching over their graves. The Sharp reared back with Ace, sensing the presence of something darker than itself. 

“Upstairs, at the office-“ said Ace. “You could have overpowered my men.” 

“I only wanted to know where the photos were. That laptop was too hard to crack.I’ll be taking those photos now,” I said, picking up the memory card and pocketing it. When I turned to walk out, nobody stopped me- nobody but Rex-Goetia.

“Aw, fuck me,” I said.

“What further humiliation do you have for me, Mr. Non Grata?” Andre said from his seat, where he had remained.

“I lost that first game, remember? I should have asked for ‘double or nothing,’” I said, even as the Sharp came up and took my arm in its many fingers. I cursed when I heard the sickening crunch of bone breaking. 

***

“That Masque of yours is a pain in the ass,” Joey said to me later, as I went through the pictures on Andre “Ace” Romanov’s phone. We were sitting behind the bar of the Spanked Monkey, waiting out the last of the night’s patrons. I was nursing my arm with a pint of bitters, and Joey was rubbing salt in the wound.

“That shift was a pain in the ass. Why did you have me run the bar with one arm in a sling?”

“Why didn’t you fix the arm with Rex?” said Joey. 

 

“It doesn’t do that kind of thing,” I said. “My Masque honors all deals, especially with another Masque. That’s why it broke my arm. I had to lose the first game so Ace would get confident and bet the pictures.”

“So let’s see the picture!” Joey pushed forward, but I got a boot on his chest just in time.

“That would defeat the point,” I insisted. “Miss Freeman is getting these back, and I’m getting the other half of my fee. Nobody else sees them.”

“Come on Lux!”

“No fucking way. Your trap leaks more than a screen door on a submarine.”

What I didn’t tell him was, he probably didn’t want to see that Don Vincenzo’s supermodel girlfriend was a transvestite. Some people are into that kind of thing. That wasn’t my business. It definitely wasn’t Joey’s.Just then a gorgeous brunette came up to us at the bar. 

“Hey Joey. Who’s the cutie?”

“Hi. Luxus Non Grata, Spectral Detective.” That there was my definitely my business.

***

 

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