STACKING THE CARDS
Another dark alley, another body. Always on the ground, never up in the high-rises or the elevated roads and parks that formed the heart of New London. It was as if the demons that caused the violence came up from the Earth itself. The morning sun had yet to rise high enough to cleanse the place of shadows, adding an extra eeriness to the scene.
The dead man had been murdered, that was sure; the slash across his neck proved it. There were also bruises on the man’s forehead, suggesting he had been grabbed from behind. He was in his early forties, maybe, and well-dressed—the sort of clothes that suggested he didn’t belong in this place.
Storm Hamilton didn’t know which was worse, having to sort out another murder or having to take the handoff from Detective Snide.
“How is it, Hamilton,” Snide said, raising a finger in Storm’s direction, “that ever since you became a detective, the murder rate has continued to rise?” The man’s long, slate-grey alien face was all bitterness, his high, slanted eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I don’t know. You’re a detective,” Storm retorted. “You figure it out. Maybe discontent takes a while to build up.”
“I can’t see what you humans have to be disgruntled about. You would’ve killed yourselves off it weren’t for us. Seems you should be grateful.”
It was a routine argument between the two. Storm had failed on numerous occasions to explain to Snide that it was possible for humans to be both grateful for the salvation of their planet from nuclear annihilation on the one hand, and angry about the heavy-handed treatment of the new Seraphim government on the other. It was possible to feel two different emotions at once. At least for a human it was. Seraphim like Snide tended to be rather dry when it came to emotions.
Snide. Storm found it humorous that the alien did not realize his chosen name had once been a common word. A word that, as if by fate, seemed to perfectly embody the sour man.
“Can’t we do this peacefully?” Storm’s partner Drake said, kneeling beside the body. “For once?”
“Don’t you feel any shame, having to follow this human around?” Snide asked Drake. “Being subordinate to this…this…he doesn’t even wear the proper uniform.”
Detective Drake was also a Seraphim—a moniker given to the aliens by a cult who viewed the saviors as literal angels—though he was slightly taller than Snide and his skin tone was a lighter grey. Both Drake and Snide were dressed in the official white tunic of the New London detective force. Contrarily, Storm was dressed in an old-fashioned brown suit and matching fedora. Storm liked the way it made him look, like one of those hard-boiled detectives that featured prominently in the old books he often read.
“Why are you even here, Snide?” Storm asked. “What does Vice Section have to do with this. We’re the homicide detectives.”
“And you’ve become quite experienced, haven’t you?” Snide said. “Before you, we didn’t have any need separate divisions.”
“What can I say? I’m good at my job. How about you tell us what this has to do with you.”
Snide narrowed his eyes at Storm then turned back to the body. “This man has connections to a local gambling house. We’ve been watching them for some time. He was a regular, though I cannot say why. Our records suggest he was unemployed.”
“Well, the murder is the priority now,” Storm said. “So, we’ll take over from here.”
Snide scowled and let out a sigh that sounded almost like a hiss. “Good luck, detective,” he said, the last word laced with venom, as he passed around Storm and Drake to meet another alien in white.
Storm didn’t even glance back. He stepped over to one of the yellow-tunicked crime scene technicians and asked, “What’s this gambling house Snide mentioned?”
The tech looked up from the bright screen of a tablet in his alien hands. “A local pub called Old Ben. But they have not been caught doing anything illegal. There have been some rumors that the games are being fixed. Gambling is not illegal, per se, but cheating players out of their money would be considered a form a fraud.”
“Yes, I am familiar with the idea,” Storm said. “What’s the victim’s name?”
“No cameras here?”
“No. If I were to guess, I would say the killer knows this location well.”
“And Mr. Wright has no other connection to the pub?”
“None that we have found in our databases.”
The tech paused, then his face went wide as if remembering something important. “We did find something interesting in his pocket.”
The tech handed Storm what looked like a regular playing card. A three of hearts. Storm felt it between his fingers, bent it to feel its elasticity. He was left confused as to the importance of the clue.
“Let me show you something,” the tech said, snatching the card. He rubbed the corner of it against his tablet and the card suddenly changed into an ace of spades.
“Now that is interesting,” Storm said.
“This is actually a digital screen designed to look and feel like a regular playing card. But by running a charge through it, you can change the image. I guess the person using this would put some kind of charged patch on their thumb, or something similar, to control the effect.”
“So, Mr. Wright was cheating at the card table? Is that what got him killed? What do you think, partner?” He looked over at Drake. The alien was squeezing his cheek between thumb and forefinger, as sign that he was mulling something over.
“It is possible, for sure,” Drake said after a moment. “I think we should visit this pub.”
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
* * *
Old Ben was located on the ground floor of a squat, squarish, unmodernized building about a half-mile from the alley. The area was on the outskirts of the city, and while the buildings were far from condemned and derelict, they were not to the same pristine standard of the silver towers at the center of New London. The Seraphim government chose to invest its time and focus on that shiny part of town, the part that best radiated proof of their benevolence. In the far, dark corners, they let nature take its own course.
old wooden door
squeaked as it slid open, revealing a drinking hole that would have fit
before the war. The walls were covered with pictures of the giant
that had been demolished when Old London had been nuked, clearly the
inspiration for the pub’s name. It was the sort of place Storm might
appreciate, were he not investigating a murder.
Music played in a far corner, as a man in a white t-shirt wiped down the bar. When the detectives entered the empty pub, the man shouted, “We’re closed.” Storm stepped over and dropped his badge on the counter. “Oh, alright. What do you want?” the barman asked.
“Gregory Wright,” Storm said, watching the man’s eyes.
“What about him?”
“Do you know where he is?” Storm said, deciding to hold his cards close for the moment.
“No, probably home. Why? What’d he do? He should be in shortly. We open in a couple hours for lunch.”
“He eats lunch here?”
“No. He works here.”
“We have no record of his employment here,” Drake added.
“Okay, that’s not exactly what I meant,” the barman said. “He’s an owner. Me and him, we own this place.”
“And you are?” Storm asked.
“Mike. Mike Davies.”
“If Gregory is a co-owner of this establishment,” Drake said, “why is his name not on the records?”
“Look,” Mike replied. “He and I have an arrangement. We’ve been best friends since primary school. But Greg…got into some trouble a while back. Lost everything at the tables. Now his credit is, well, let’s just say he doesn’t have any credit. So I put the place in my name. But we run it together.”
“At the tables? He was a gambler?” Storm asked.
“Yeah, a bad one.”
“No. No way. He doesn’t touch the tables other than to make sure everyone plays fair.”
“Plays fair…” Storm said to the air, thinking. He took the fake playing card from his pocket and set it on the bar. “I don’t know how to tell you this without it being hard—”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Mike asked, his face frozen.
“Yes. He is. We found this on his body.” Storm pointed to the card.
Mike picked it up. “This is one of those…” he said quietly.
“It’s a fake,” Storm said. “You can change the image with an electrical charge.”
“So this is what he was on about last night.”
“What do you mean?”
Mike looked at the floor, as if collecting his thoughts. “Greg called me last night. After closing. I had to leave early, you see, and he said he found something while cleaning up. Something he needed to show me right away. But I said I couldn’t, that I’d meet him here in the morning.”
“What do you think he was planning to do?” Storm asked.
“Greg could never abide cheaters. He would have called them out. Even shut down the tables.”
“Do you think he knew who was cheating?” Drake asked.
Mike looked at the alien detective for a long moment before saying, “No. But I think I might.”
* * *
The two detectives spent the afternoon at the police station, where Storm had a technician modify the electronic card. The tech was able to get the card to change from a three of hearts to a three of spades, rather than an ace. He showed Storm how to make the change using a small tablet.
They returned to the pub in the early evening, as business was just starting to pick up. The music was louder now, and it filled the entire place with drum beats and guitar riffs. For the sake of the operation, Storm had convinced his partner to put on civilian clothes, but the alien, and his bald head, still stood out in the crowd of mostly humans.
Storm walked casually to the empty card table, pulling the deck of playing cards from the small crevice under it. He took it to a corner booth and went through the cards, one by one, finding all the fakes. In total, about fifteen false cards. He used his tablet to change each of them so they would all shift to threes of spades. Then he replaced the deck, just in time to see a rough looking group of men enter the bar and head his way. His target—the one Mike had suggested—at the lead of the pack.
“Looking for a game?” the man asked.
“Unfortunately, I have no money,” Storm replied. “Mind if I watch?”
“As long as you sit over there,” the man said, pointing at a bench that was near the opposite end of the table from the seat he now dropped into. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Drake,” Storm said, offering his hand.
“William,” the big man replied, taking Storm’s hand softly.
Storm gripped hard, and William tugged his hand free. As his hand slipped through Storm’s, the detective felt an unnatural roughness on the big man’s thumb. William glowered at him for a moment before returning to his seat. Storm sat on the bench, waiting for the show to start.
It took a while for the game to get into full, cuss-shouting swing. William won the first couple hands on his own merit, then lost the next two. During the fifth round, a wide smile crossed his face as he looked at his cards. Storm saw the man rub his thumb on the corner of a card. William’s expression dropped. His breathing grew heavy and he glanced around, frantic.
“Show us your cards, Will,” one of the other players shouted in agitation.
“Yeah, Will,” Storm said, rising to his feet. “Show us your cards.”
William’s face twisted with rage. He flipped the table towards the detective and ran off. At first he headed for the door, but when Drake also rose to his feet, blocking the exit, William turned and leapt over the bar. The big man made his escape through the kitchen. Storm bounded after him.
There was a crash, as metal pans hit the floor. Storm skipped over each as if he were running an obstacle course. The pub’s back door broke open with a thud. It came slamming back as Storm reached it, forcing him to kick his leg out to push it back around.
The detective burst into the back alley, fully expecting to see William’s backside gaining distance down the road. Instead he saw the glint of a knife flying towards his face. He rolled across the concrete. The blade hissed as it cut through the air just above Storm’s head. He spun to his feet, squaring off against William, who held the knife like he knew how to use it.
The big man slashed twice with the blade, forcing Storm to jump back each time. The detective side-stepped around his opponent. The suit Storm was wearing did not offer enough flexibility for a proper fight, so the detective knew he had to use his wits. William lunged. Storm jumped back again.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” William shouted. “I’m gonna kill you.”
“By all means, come on then.”
The big man slashed again, and once again Storm dodged back. William growled in frustration. Then his head cocked to one side as a metal object slammed into it with a clang. The big man fell to the ground, dropping the knife. Drake stood in the doorway, holding a steel frying pan in one hand. He was wearing Storm’s brown fedora.
“I was wondering when you were going to show up,” Storm said with a smirk. “Can I have my hat back?”
“You dropped it when you went over the bar.”
The alien paused with his hand on the brim, attempting to look dashing. He watched Storm without moving. It was as if Drake was trying to antagonize him, trying to make a joke. Storm almost laughed, but instead snapped his fingers impatiently. Drake let out an airy laugh and handed it over.
Drawing the brim of his fedora down to his eyes, Storm looked down on William’s motionless body. “How much you want to bet that this knife will match the wound patterns on Gregory Wright’s neck?” he asked.
“I do not gamble,” Drake replied dryly.
“It’s not a gamble if you know you’ll win.”
* * *
Back at the police station, after securing William Johnson and confirming his hunting knife was indeed the murder weapon, Storm strutted over to Detective Snide’s desk. The alien man’s face turned even more sour than normal, but he did not look up.
“Just thought you’d like to know we caught the killer,” Storm said.
“That is good news,” Snide said, frowning.
“We also shut down that cheating operation at Old Ben. For good measure.”
Storm could see Snide’s brain boiling in his bald, oval head, the steam ready to burst out of the alien’s thin eyes. Storm relished the image for a moment, before turning away and heading for his own desk. There would be a lot of paperwork tonight.
JM Williams writes science fiction and fantasy. He has published five book-length works and more than thirty short fiction pieces for a wide range of publishers. He currently works for Fiction Vortex as the head of the "Of Metal and Magic" StoryVerse, where he manages five other writers and is drafting his third series.
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