Ace of Hearts
BY: ETHAN THIBAULT
She started her day by incinerating her alarm clock with a spell. She cast another to make breakfast, burning a three of spades, and another with a ten of hearts to conjure a cute outfit. The cards burnt themselves in a puff of smoke, and Mars noticed she was almost through this deck, and had no idea what cards she had left. She was getting sloppy.
She checked her phone on the counter and through the cracked screen, saw she had no notifications. No messages, nothing from him. She burned a few more cards making the apartment clean itself and changing her hair color a few times before settling on a ruby red that complimented her outfit and the crusted blood on her boots. She looked at herself in the mirror. She was lanky but sharp in her high-waisted shorts and flowy top, haircut to follow her jawline; right between chic and dangerous. She was also already starting to feel the itch to cast another spell. Problem was she only had one card left. It was a four of diamonds, just strong enough to get across town and get more. Mars tried to breathe deeply as a cold sweat started to break out over her, quickly enough that she knew she was on a short fuse.
She grabbed her phone and threw the card at the brick wall; it turned to ash mid-air and opened a portal. Mars stepped through and onto the loud streets of the market district—miles of stands and booths and stores thrown together with scrap metal and neon signs. It was the usual foggy gray day and the clouds hung low enough that she couldn’t see the tops of the skyscrapers, or the cars flying between them.
Mars made a straight line into Dave’s densely-packed bazaar booth. It was a cave of corrugated steel, bursting with tokens and talismans, basic shaman shit to get the tourists conjuring and hooked. The good stuff was behind the counter, and in front of the counter was Dave. He was skinny like a stick of jerky, wearing a filthy baja hoodie and cut-off khaki shorts with sandals. From the neck-up he had the head of a condor, with beady black eyes and bald, leathery skin. Out of his sharp beak came a clipped, deep voice. “Oh goodie, it’s you,” Dave said.
“Way to welcome a customer,” Mars replied. She was in no mood for pleasantries or sparring.
Already having no cards was making her shiver despite the heat, and her head felt like it was full of drunk goblins driving bumper cars
“I only gotta respect the customers if I don’t know they’re gonna buy something. I know you’re good for the sale and the cash. I don’t gotta worry about you, Mars. I know you need it more than I do.”
She hated to prove him right. Dave knew better than anybody how people needed to channel their magic through something, something specific, and he made it his business to have what they needed. She hadn’t chosen the deck of cards as her medium, it had chosen her. In this day and age decks of cards were a bizarre anachronism, and she was pretty sure Dave was getting his wares from archaeologists.
“I’ve got a good set for you, too,” he continued. “Lanselle, 1960, all paper, just a bit of mileage.”
The deck was in good condition, soft to the touch. She held it in her palm for a moment before it was hot to the touch, sending heat waves off of her. Her hair gently levitated, and she stopped shivering. She felt better than she had in days, like she’d been plugged into a gasoline explosion—all sorts of power, threatening to tear her apart from the inside, ready to go. She couldn’t help but grin manically. Dave noticed.
“When’d you burn your last card?” he asked. “On the way here,” she replied.
“Fucking hell, Mars. I didn’t know you were stretched that thin.”
“I’m fine. How much for the fifty-two?”
“Bullshit! It’s usually three hundred.”
“Yeah well, a little tax for selling to the unhinged. If you blow up a city block I gotta know I made a bit more off the top to sleep at night. Take it or leave it.”
Mars begrudgingly offered her wrist, and the barcode etched into her skin, for his cybernetic left eye, and a second later half of her recent paycheck was gone. That put a bit of a damper on her high. She checked her phone—still nothing.
“Hey Dave, you uhh, wouldn’t have happened to have seen Will around, would you?” she asked, trying to be casual.
“No. No one’s seen him since the heist,” Dave replied.
“Yeah, he’s not been picking up my calls, so-”
“I’m not exactly surprised. You fucked up.”
Mars felt another wave of heat roll over her; her hair levitated further into the air. Dave’s bottomless eyes betrayed no emotion. Another customer walked into the booth, a couple of half-mink tourists with straw hats and twitchy noses. Mars shuffled the deck in her pocket with one hand, dreaming of pulling a good card and whatever the hell would happen if she did.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. She tilted the cracked screen and just barely made out a message from Will: You looking for me? She shot Dave a look. He clicked his beak at her then launched into a sales pitch for the tourists, turning his back on her.
Once she arrived at Will’s hideout she realized she should have known where it was all along. He sometimes rented a room above Tippy Tapp’s Comedy Bar, in the objectively worst part of the city, for peace and quiet or to plan his next big heist. It’s where they had spent a few evenings quietly learning about each other, and where he brought people to deal out their slice of the score and buy them a drink. It was the refurbished deck of a cargo ship, dropped inexplicably in the dives far away from the water, with some murky yellow lights and nothing but a sludgy beer on tap. It was called a comedy club, but the funniest thing Mars had ever seen there was a bar fight after a girl with a scorpion’s tail stabbed a guy in the ass for catcalling. Mars had quietly burned a card and made sure a stool fell over so he tripped and broke his nose on a bulkhead. Those were the days.
Then she had met Will, and he had shown her how to make her magic more than just a source of parlor tricks and small-time steals. He was a criminal mastermind, orchestrating some of the largest heists against the mega-corps across the river, where they had stolen millions of credits and passed them back out to those who needed them the most. Stepping into his private room, formerly the bridge of the twenty-first century vessel, she was reminded of how handsome and quiet he was. He wore leather boat shoes, salmon slacks, a gingham button-down and a navy cardigan, and was half walrus. His tusks were dull and elegantly polished, his mustache of vibrissae neatly trimmed, and a pair of trendy transparent glasses magnified his small, observant eyes. He was like a well-maintained rock garden or a water feature in a hospital—so well put together you’d never suspect something sinister underneath. But sinister he could be, and that was what had always attracted her to him.
“Hi there,” he said smoothly. She felt the anger bubble up in her again, and she shuffled the cards faster in her pocket with one hand, while fussing with her hair with the other. “You changed your hair color again.” Will added flatly. So he noticed, but he wasn’t being cute about it. Not good.
“Where have you been?” she asked. “I’ve been trying to find you since the heist, you blew us all off. You blew me off.”
“You know why I did.” he replied so calmly it made her want to explode.
“You’re not seriously back on this shit are you? I thought we settled this after we stole the three and a half MILLION credits with barely any trouble.” she retorted.
“What you call ‘barely’ any trouble I call you breaking your promise. Your one promise on the job, the one thing I needed you to do. No magic, just for one job. It wasn’t arbitrary, Mars—you know I ask this stuff for a reason. Magic means an energy spike and that gives us away,—“
“Corps send guards, guards mean a tussle. Yeah I know, you’ve told me thirty freaking times, and I tried, but there were guards anyways and I can’t not cast a spell or two when things go south!”
“Cast a spell or two?” Will’s voice finally rose, a rare occasion. “You separated one guy’s soul from his body. You melted another’s face off. You blew up three stories of the building, causing it to partially collapse!” His voice echoed in the metal room.
“You can live with your face melted off.” Mars said sheepishly.
“Do you think that is remotely the point?” Will asked. His eyes looked pained behind the lenses, and he stayed far away across the room. “I asked from you one thing. Not just for the job, but for us. You couldn’t do that. You’re a raw nerve. You don’t talk, you don’t tell me what’s wrong.
You just wait and then you explode when it’s least convenient. Oh and did I mention you were addicted to magic? Because you’re addicted to magic, for all the wrong reasons.”
“I can’t help it!” Mars shouted. “I was born with this! I have to! I have to get it out of my system, I have to use all this energy or it’ll break me on the inside! You never understood that!”
Will had come back to being totally calm, which only irritated her more. “Because I don’t believe that. I dare you, put that deck of cards on the table.”
She held the warm deck in her pocket. It completed her like an electrical circuit. She wanted to ask if that would get him to take her back, but she couldn’t.
“Fine. No magic.” She slammed the deck onto the table. She immediately felt exhausted, burnt out. Her hair lost some luster, and her outfit became wrinkled instantly as if it hadn’t been washed in days, never mind conjured only hours before. “No magic,” she repeated. “But no me either.”
She walked out and slammed the door behind her.
Storming out of Tippy Tapp’s she waded into the crowd of the bustling slum district. The crowd pushed back—Mars was trying to remember how even to get home from here. She was hot and flustered and overwhelmed, no mental space left to deal with this terrible cluster of people. She looked down at the single card she had palmed out of the deck as she slammed it on the table. She simply couldn’t resist. It was a king of clubs, enough to get her out of here right now.
A deep breath, eyes closed, and the card went up in a bright spout of flames. Reality tore itself open right in front of her—no need to anchor the portal with magic this strong—and she stepped through right as she started to hear some people screaming in pain.
Stepping out of the portal into her apartment, all energy left her and she collapsed onto the hardwood floor, filled with self-loathing. At least a million idiotic decisions had been made between now and when she woke up this morning, and now she didn’t even have a way to magically fix it all. Minutes later the chills set in, and Mars curled up in bed with as many blankets as she could find. Evening rush hour traffic was starting and the flying cars outside made her one-hundred and forty-second-story windows shake violently. She felt her body start to disassociate from itself: minutes stretched into hours, hours flew by in seconds. The clothes she had conjured that morning became tattered and gray; every object in her apartment that came from magic (most of them) started to crack or weather and fall apart. She threw up a couple of times, but couldn’t remember when or where and just hoped she wasn’t lying in it like it was college all over again. It would’ve been a great time for reflection, but all she could think about was the shuddering of her windows and how she desperately wanted to blow the entire planet up. In her mind’s eye, the royals from a deck of cards laughed and laughed and then the doorbell rang.
“I have a doorbell? Who the fuck has a doorbell anymore?” Mars asked nobody. She tripped her way over to the door, wearing her blankets like the cape of a dying king, and opened the door. She was promptly tackled by a mostly-rhinoceros cop in full riot gear, shouting her Miranda rights at her. He pinned her with his gigantic arms against his tactical vest while another cop, this one mostly human but with a mechanical arm in the shape of an assault rifle, barged in and looked around the apartment, which now looked like a tornado had torn through it.
“Fuck off, fascists!” Mars shouted. “Get out of my shit, let me have a nice withdrawal in peace until I die!”
“No more magic eh?” the human cop said. “You hear ‘dat? Well that makes our shit a whole lot easier. Toss her.” The rhino-cop grunted and promptly threw Mars out the window, which hurt a lot less than it should have, and she fell maybe thirty stories before landing in the back of a flying riot van. Four more cops of various species stared at her, armed to the teeth, their faces covered in masks. They must have assumed they were going to get a fight when they went to pick up a Witch. “Lucky day, y’all. I’m not feeling great,” she mumbled. One cop chuckled haughtily; the rest stared blankly. They proba- 79 bly would have preferred the fight. “What am I gonna be in for?” Mars asked.
“You blew up some civies outside Tippy Tapp’s with yer most recent portal,” one of the cops said. “Took us a couple days to find you, but we saw an energy spike in your building and—“
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Will would be so glib.” Thinking of Will made her go cold with sadness. She really had disappointed him, all the way to the end. The magic inside her was destructive in every way; maybe she was never meant to find balance, or be with a good, nice guy like Will, the kind of guy who didn’t immolate security guards and tipped waiters even when they didn’t deserve it. The one time Will had gotten arrested he didn’t even struggle—he went, nice and calm, and did a year of time before someone set off explosives around the island prison and sunk the entire thing into the ocean. He got away and ten days later he met Mars. Their crime career had been a runaway success, but his personal life had gone to crap, and it was all her fault.
So Mars went limp in the riot van and didn’t struggle. She went, nice and calm, and when she got to her cell she welcomed it into her life then properly threw up in the corner. Who knew if she’d ever be able to calm the magic that was currently trying to tear her insides apart, but if she could then she could make everything else work too, maybe.
On the third day of imprisonment, as she shook and shivered in her cot, a dove landed outside on the ground-level window above her. It dropped a little envelope into her cell, then took off as soon as it caught the scent of her recent lifestyle. In the envelope was a little note: Well, we tried no magic and look where it got you. Maybe we can try the flip- side?—Will. Behind the note was a single card, strong enough to do anything she wanted.
“You bastard,” Mars whispered. After all that talking down to her, he wanted her to do what, blow a hole in the wall and maim her way out? Was this him saying he wanted her back, or just a play because he couldn’t have her kind of talents locked away? This is what Will did—he pulled her one way then doubled back, always changing the rules because for him rules were completely malleable, but everyone had to be living up to a code only he knew. The card was boiling in her hand, the magic in her trying to tear the skin from her bones and break free. It burned like liquid nitrogen was in between the muscles, it made her vision double in ecstasy. “Not this time, Will,” she said quietly.
She tore the card in half, then in half again a few more times. The plastic melted and dripped like lava, and puffs of red, acrid smoke fell out of the tears. The shreds screamed at her as they fell to the floor. She looked at what remained of the ace of hearts and felt more turbulent inside than ever. “Oh, shit. This is going to hurt,” she said. Hope it’s worth it.