And here we are at the end of the week, and with any kind of luck at all, this post will actually appear on Friday. My old friend Jonathan Lennox thinks that a modern myth discussing the scheduling daemons that actually put the posts up at their appointed times is in order, to perhaps mollify said spirits and give them the recognition they deserve. I’m pretty sure he’s right. It’s generally a mistake to get those guys angry at you. Think about how many scheduled events you have in your life on a day to day basis.
But, that’s not for today. Today we’ve got the second Trey post this week, getting us caught back up. Hope you like it!
Day and night had very little meaning in Dispater’s Vault. I may have overemphasized the point, but you have to understand just how surreal it felt. There was no way to see the outside world, no matter where you went. There was no television, no internet — nothing that gave you references points. The casino floor was packed every time I saw it, and it was always just as dim and dingy, no matter what. I didn’t have a watch, either, and I can’t remember seeing any clocks. It was like the whole place was just made up of ‘now,’ and it went on most of forever.
So, it caught me a bit off guard when Trey looked over at me. “How long have you been awake, anyway? You look like Hell.”
“I hear that a lot,” I said. We were back on the crew floor, and she’d commendeered one of the generic offices, where she’d been writing up moves for what I assumed was the audition piece she’d be using to winnow out her potential partners. “And you tell me — it wasn’t that long before Mister River brought me into the lounge where the Jack saddled you with me.”
“Though it’s worth noting I’d apparently been sedated and then had a bomb stuck in my head before that, and I don’t know how long I was out. Which reminds me — what date is it?”
She half-smiled, but didn’t answer that question. “All right. I’ll give you some wussiness. I’m going to assume we need to keep you rested. You’ve had food and you’ve asked a bunch of dumbass questions. Do you remember your room number?”
“I… have no idea what my room number is.”
Trey rolled her eyes. “Of course you don’t. Hang on.” She grabbed the phone and punched in a number. “Hello? Yeah, hey Baccarat. Hey — Todd Chapman. Yeah, I’m — uh huh? Yeah, I’m stuck with him. Anyway, can you get me his room number? Oh. Oh yeah.” She laughed. “Yeah, but think how much the ointment would cost! Right. Right. Okay! Thank you!” She hung up. “Twenty-three nineteen. Not bad. Twenty-three’s pricy.”
“I wouldn’t know. It looked like a pretty standard hotel room to me.”
“Well, we’ll see in a few minutes. Right now I’ve got to go talk to staff services — can you endure being in this office for five minutes without me?”
I laughed weakly. “I think I’ll survive,” I said, though truth be told there was room for doubt. I felt sick, and I was exhausted, and neither one of those things was very pleasant.
“Good. Back in a few.” She sauntered out the door, pulling it shut. I heard an automatic lock ‘thunk’ as she did so. I guess I didn’t have a choice but to endure, since I wasn’t going anywhere.
The voice was a whisper, directly into my ear. “It’s a pretty good view when she leaves, isn’t it?”
I half-shrieked, tumbling out of the chair.
The Jack O’Knaves was leaning in, and bent over to where I’d hit the floor. He was wearing charcoal grey slacks and the same color vest, with a white handkerchief in his vest pocket, and a blood red silk shirt. “Who-hoah, chief. You’ll want to be careful. Those chairs are just waiting to dump you out onto the floor.”
“How… how long were you there? Did Trey know you were in the room?”
“What? No. No, our Trey is a lovely girl and not bad with a sponge-ball hand-pass but ‘observant’ wasn’t really what I hired her for.” He laughed. “So, has she been keeping good care of you?”
“Eventually. She was pretty pissed you left to go do… um… villain things without her.”
“Yeah, she’s pretty clingy. That’s okay. She makes it kind of work for her — like it’s her schtick. So, you say ‘eventually.’ Let me guess. A lot of yelling, maybe some physical pain, and then she had to defend you like you were home-base in a game of capture the flag?”
“That’s… almost unreal. Were you watching us? Did you set this all up with Sharp Top?”
“Oh, you met Sharp Top? That’s… almost unfortunate. He’s so affected. It’s like — you don’t always have to be on, Sharpy,” but there’s no getting through to him. I’d cut out his tongue but given his schtick he might go mime, and oh no. I’m not doing that again. Did he threaten to kill you?”
“Not really.” I pushed myself back up to my feet. “Do you actually like any of the people who work for you?”
The Jack looked thoughtful. “You know, that’s a really good question. I’m fond of Mister River and Madam Bank. Fortunate, really — they’d be insufferable if I didn’t. Between you and me Nickel’s a total pill, but if I killed her I’d lose my butler and my accountant, and that’s just too crappy a weekend to contemplate. But don’t tell them that, or I’d have to kill all three of them just to keep the mystery alive.”
“What about Trey?”
“Do I like Trey? Mm. I try not to get too close. I mean, okay. I did name her, and that’s always a mistake. If you name them, you need to feed them. If you feed them, you’re accepting responsibility for them. Makes the killshot bittersweet.”
“Do you plan to kill her? Or is it just inevitable?” Part of me couldn’t believe I was asking him about murder so casually. On the other hand… it was the Jack of Knaves. If I avoided the subject of murder, it would be like getting to interview Clapton and then not bringing up the guitar.
“Death is inevitable, Chapman. She’s going to die. You’re going to die. Paragon’s going to die. Well can all ignore it or pretend it won’t be happening, but it doesn’t care either way. Death’s coming. Sooner or later…” he fanned out a set of five cards in his hand. Two pair—aces over eights — both clubs and spades — with a jack of hearts kicker sitting right in the middle. “…we all have our card come up. Whether that’s dear Trey…” he snapped the hand flat, then refanned it, a 3 of hearts in place of the jack…” or maybe Sharp Top…” he passed his other hand over it, the 3 becoming a 4. “Or Madam Bank…” he turned the hand around then back, replacing the 4 with a 10 of diamonds. “Or maybe even…” he looked at the hand, then raised an eyebrow. “Wait… I’m confused.” He turned it back. The aces and eights were still there, but the center card had been replaced with the ‘How To Play Poker’ that came in Bicycle decks. “Who the Hell is that supposed to be? Man, I hate belabored metaphors.”
“Do you think their deaths serve a purpose?”
The Jack laughed. “Everything intentional serves a purpose, Todd M’laddo. Everything. So the obvious question is — what’s intentional?” He slid back, leaning on the desk. “What’s been intentional in our dealings, so far?”
I arched an eyebrow. “Everything.”
“What? Everything everything?”
“That’s silly. How could everything be intentional? Wouldn’t that require some kind of celestial power? Some kind of overriding capacity to control one’s environment? Wouldn’t that make me God?”
“Or just really well prepared.”
He half-grinned. “How do we know God isn’t just really well prepared? I mean, it’s easy to be omniscient if you’re cheating.” He cocked his head. “Besides, there’s always one major problem with intentionality, isn’t there? One thing that can just muck the Hell out of a given purpose. One thing that can blow a trick, mess up an illusion, ruin everything. Can you guess what that is?”
I shrugged. “Fate?”
He made a dismissive snort, rolling his eyes.
“I… hm. I dunno. Destiny? Kismet?”
“Two words that mean ‘fate,’ more or less.” He smirked. “Don’t strain yourself. The answer is ‘the audience.'” He leaned closer. “You can spend months working on an illusion — years, even — and then one snotty little kid three rows back to the right thinks he sees a wire and announces that fact, and bam, you lose the whole effect. This despite the fact that not only isn’t there a wire, you were doing an oversized card trick, no levitation involved in the first place.” He shook his head. “I hate that little shit. If I were God, I’d spend all my time just smiting the Hell out of those kids.”
“As opposed to?”
I shrugged again. “Don’t you essentially spend all your time right now smiting the Hell out of you audience?”
The Jack didn’t look surprised. His smile grew a bit, though. “So you are paying attention! Hah hah hah hah!” He got up. “I should motor. A whole lot to do if we’re going to get things ready for tomorrow’s work.”
“What’s tomorrow’s work?”
“The logical progression of today’s work, naturally.”
I repressed any look of impatience. At least, I sure as Hell hope I repressed any look of impatience. Trust me, I didn’t want to die, and I knew full well I could, at any moment, if the Jack decided he wanted to kill me. Though… despite that, I found myself relaxed around him. Something about the situation had me more at my ease than I’d been the other times we were in the room together. I’m not sure what.
Well, no. I’m actually pretty sure what. See, I was working now. We’d gone from him declaring I was going to be interviewing him and writing a book to me actually interviewing people. I was actually reporting, now. And that always seems to kick something in my brain. I’m not sure what that something is, mind, but it doesn’t seem to have any part of a survival instinct.
Regardless, I hope I repressed my impatience. “So, what was today’s work, then.”
He grinned. “We blew up ‘Green Choice Gasoline and Convenience’ in the Brattleboro Heights suburb of Greystone City.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Didn’t I make ‘what’ clear? What did that beanpole hussy you used to hang with — what was her name, again? Corduroy? — call it? I announced myself. I gave the full on business. I worked loud. God, spending time with her must have been like hanging around a Carney twenty-four seven.”
“You… blew up a gas station?”
“Damn right. One of those french-fry oil refineries, too. Which is a good thing, I suppose, since that means the carbon footprint of the explosion was essentially nil. I know that’s a big deal to you.”
“Why… why would you do that?”
He shrugged. “Does everything have to have a reason, chief?”
“Yes. Everything’s intentional. That’s my new mantra around here.”
He grinned again, leaning close. “Hah hah hah hah,” he said, softly, then clapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t you and Trey stay up too late, now. I know how you kids like to stay up and play Scattergories.”
I opened my mouth to answer, but there was a rasp of metal on metal to the side, and I looked — it was the sound of keys. I could see shadows through the translucent panels on either side of the door — shadows which resolved into the shapely, if slightly annoyed form of Trey as she walked into the room. “—stupid Staff Services. Filled all that out years ago, stupid idiots. Hey, you ready to go?”
“I—” I paused, looking around.
There was no sign of the Jack O’Knaves. If he hadn’t actually clapped me on the shoulder, I’d have wondered if it was some kind of hologram, or other ‘trick of the light,’ as they used to call them.
“…nothing,” I said. “Yeah, I’m ready to go.” I started to walk—
“Careful! You dropped something.” She leaned down, doing that straight-legged waist bend pickup she did back in the parking garage. I wondered if that’s just how she picked things up now — designed to make people stare at her as she did it. She stood back up, fluidly, looking at a card in her hand. “…how to play Poker? The Hell?”
I felt my face flush, growing warmer. “In a place like this, I need all the help I can get, right?”
She snorted. “Damn straight.” She handed me the card. “Let’s go.”