By David Evan Harris
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of David Evan Harris and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
John Sherman tipped his Forty-Niners cap back so he could press his face against the window, tilting his eyes downward. The cliff-face was not quite sheer, so that it was barely visible past the tracks, plunging at least two-hundred feet to a rocky base. His belly tightened as he thought of her, the way that fury could suddenly transform that beautiful face.
He wondered what the odds were that the California Zephyr might choose this moment to jump its tracks.
For a lucky guy, John Sherman was nervous a lot of the time.
John sat back, straightening the bill of his lucky cap, as if to reassure himself. John thought about tamping someone. There were only six people on this car. Five were neutral or slightly down, but one emitted a soft orange glow. John gathered himself for a gentle tamp, but swiftly let it go. He would need his strength for the job. Besides, he thought of the first lesson he’d ever gotten on his strange ability. Tamping is a zero sum game, another Stacker had once told him. A seesaw. Can’t push the other guy down without you going up, or vice versa. The last thing John needed was an unlucky passenger on his train.
For this trip, the odds were what they were, whether she had set them or not.
Twenty minutes to Reno, the intercom announced. John tried to calm himself, focus on the task at hand. He checked his watch. 1:51. Plenty of time to get to the café, maybe have lunch, do the rube, then get out. Or maybe he’d see Eddie first, say hello… but he rejected that idea, remembering with a flash of embarrassment that Eddie had sat on Veronica’s side that day.
Best steer clear of him. Of anyone who might say something to Ronnie.
John realized with a jolt that he had no idea how long that list might be. She had lived here for six years before they met, had a lot of friends in town, and he had none. He had heard that she had since gone to Vegas, then back east somewhere, after the casinos had banned any Stacker not on the payroll. But she might still be in touch with people here.
Or, he thought, she might have moved back here. Might be waiting at the station Jesus, why did I take this job?
Because you need the money, he answered himself. Two years and he’d blown all he had, which wasn’t much. He’d gotten by for awhile on poker games, tamping only when he had to, until a Sniffer pointed him out one night and six of them had beaten the hell out of John. They’d taken back all their money and more, cleaning out his wallet, which was pretty much everything he had. John smiled ruefully at his own ineptitude. Even with the stacking he’d been a mediocre poker player, afraid to win too much, not sure sometimes whether he had the winning hand even when he’d tamped the guy who’d made the bet.
Besides, there were too many Stackers on the poker circuit, and a lot of them knew Ronnie. Some liked her, and the rest were afraid of her, and every one of them would have given John up to her in a heartbeat if they knew she was looking.
Casinos were out. The beating John had received would be literally nothing compared to what they’d do to him if he so much as strolled by the entrance. Apparently one of them had been hit big on a slot, first pull, and somehow the Stacker had gotten away with the cash. Supposedly they now had Sniffers enhanced with technology that not only helped them spot the Stackers, but also countered any stacking effects. Not many were crazy enough to mess with the people that ran those places.
Ronnie would, though, he thought. He’d never met anyone so confident, so utterly unafraid of the world. Opposites attract, he thought.
Lotteries were out, too. The Feds had their own Sniffers, had probably invented the technology now utilized by the casinos. Other Stackers would enhance the luck of the investigators set to catch anyone messing with the system. The Feds were reputedly just as ruthless in protecting their interests as any mobster. Twice, John had heard that a lottery winner had gotten a push from a Stacker. There were no arrests or trials. Just unlucky accidents, both the winner and the Stacker, and somehow they made sure that every Stacker knew the endgame.
So all the easy money was out of his reach.
That left what he was doing now.
Five minutes from the station he hit a speed dial button on the cell phone they’d given him. “Yes?” Max had an accent that John could never place, maybe South African.
“Pulling into Reno now,” said John.
“And… nothing. Just keeping you informed, is all.”
There was an extended pause. John could almost feel the man covering the receiver with his hand, squeezing the phone while he kept his temper in check. John reddened when Max resumed speaking, his voice quietly furious.
“You’re giving me a progress report,” Max said. “Keeping me involved in the process. Like this is a homework assignment. Is that it?”
“Creating links between you and me, just before you do your work,” Max continued. “Like pointing a finger at me. So you won’t be lonely when they catch you. Yes?”
John bowed his head, feeling like a fool, waiting to speak until he was sure the man was finished.
“Sorry,” he managed. “I’ll call you when it’s done.”
“No. What are you, retarded? You call me only if the sky is falling. Yes? Only if there is no way in this universe you can do the job without help. Otherwise you come see me when you get back.” Max disconnected before John could respond.
The train was slowing now, having left the Sierras for the outskirts of the biggest little city, gliding under the freeway, along West Fourth into downtown. The familiar casinos loomed out of nowhere – Circus Circus, the El Dorado, Gold’s Mine, Harrah’s, the Silver Legacy. A bolt of dread coursed through him as he recalled with perfect clarity the voice that had warned him not to come within 200 yards of any casino in the country. He wondered how close the tracks came to the casinos, wondered whether Sniffers could ferret him out on the train.
John watched the platform as the train slid to a halt. He saw no obviously suspicious characters, no one he recognized. He trotted downstairs, tugged once on his lucky cap, and stepped off the train and into the oppressive heat of a Nevada summer.
John had never felt more self-conscious as he walked quickly down the largely deserted sidewalks of downtown Reno. He took a circuitous route to the café, trying to be unobtrusive as he scanned the rubes. He saw no particularly ominous auras. Nearly everyone was hovering right around neutral, though he knew that would change if he neared the casinos. He tried to blend as best he could, just another rube in t-shirt and jeans, anxious to fund the casinos.
John was very aware of the cap on his head, knowing it marked him, especially for her, but could not bear to take it from his head.
His shirt was slicked to his spine by the time he reached the café. There were four tables crammed together on a patio in front of the restaurant, each draped with a green and white plastic tablecloth that hung nearly to the ground. There was one other patron outside, a bearded, middle aged man in tennis whites. A waitress spotted John through the glass door, gave him a high sign when he pointed at a table, and John slipped into a chair that was shaded by an awning.
Max had told him that the rube walked by here nearly every Wednesday at 3:05 sharp, as though daring someone to take him out. It was twenty-five till. John had seen his picture, knew that he always wore a bow tie, and that he walked with a cane. The head of the cane was carved into the head of an elephant. John had remarked that at least the man would be easy to spot.
“Don’t count on the costuming,” Max had told him. “Don’t count on the café, either. He may know he’s been marked, so he may have altered his routines. Meaning you might have to go look for him. And he may have even hired some protection.”
John sat facing west, from which the rube should come. He ordered a coffee and some nachos and tried taking deep, slow breaths. Mostly he tried not to think about what he had to do.
John had never tamped anyone into the black before. He had seen Ronnie do it, twice. The first had been a young guy on a motorcycle, maybe nineteen or twenty. John could never figure out who would have wanted him killed. He was wearing leathers but no helmet. The target was neutral, a pale green glow surrounding him as he motored down Virginia Street, not six blocks from here, moving fairly slowly, though his bike was roaring like he was doing eighty. Veronica had tucked her long black hair behind her ears, then focused on the target, seeming to use no effort to alter the man’s probability field. The green glow had darkened quickly, Ronnie’s brightening in response, reaching a brilliant gold as her victim’s sank to black. Zero sum game, John had thought. The kid had looked right at them, a puzzled look on his face, sweat suddenly pooling on his forehead, and then something had come out of the bed of a pickup heading the other way, something small and sharp that struck the kid squarely in his left eye.
For a second it seemed he would keep the bike from toppling, even as his hand flew to his face. Then he lost it, not even laying the bike down, a skid morphing into a tumble, and John thought or imagined he could hear his neck snap when he hit the pavement. Veronica, utterly calm, her aura dimmed to green, had looked at John, who was open mouthed and shaking.
“So now you’ve seen,” she’d said, and they had never spoken of it again.
Still, things might have been all right, might have worked out between them after all, if John had not been there, coincidentally, at the private airport, had not seen her tamp a man into the black just before he’d boarded his twin-engine plane. He’d been carrying his daughter, who may have been six. They had paused to turn and wave at a young woman, presumably the little girl’s mother and the rube’s wife. Then he had swung her onto the plane, stepping lightly through the doorway, wiping a sudden sweat from his forehead.
The plane had lifted off, turned sideways, and cartwheeled before it fell.
Ronnie, whose aura had faded with the crash, had casually tamped a woman rushing towards the wreckage, then stopped at four slot machines on the way out, the probability waves surrounding her dimming each time a machine paid her off.
That was two years ago, four days before the wedding. Four days before John decided that he had to go. And even though John knew he needed to get far away, that he needed to move as fast as possible, knew that he should make himself lucky and get on the first plane he could, in the end he had decided that he would take the train, and had never flown again.
By 3:15, John was officially panicked.
The nachos were long gone and he was on his third cup of coffee. No target. No one who could possibly be mistaken for the target. No one who paid any attention to John, or who had a distinctive glow of any kind.
John dreaded the thought of having to look for the rube, dreaded even more the thought of calling Max. John needed the target to come by the café, and soon, needed whatever had delayed or diverted the target to end. He needed fate to send him here.
All John needed, he thought, was a little luck.
John had no idea whether he was bright or dark at that moment. Like all Stackers, the probability field of every person he saw was plainly visible to him, except his own. He had to assume he was neutral, that a solid tamp would make him lucky.
The auras of the immediate public were not encouraging. A parade of green, some bright and some pale, but all very close to neutral. One dusky gray who, thankfully, was walking on the other side of the street. A couple of pale amber auras, a cool violet in a passing cab. No one he could safely tamp.
Then John spotted a tall blonde in a business suit with a healthy orange glow. She walked right by the café, maybe four feet away from him, and John immediately focused, feeling the pressure build in his face, like when he was a kid and he and his brother drove their mother crazy by making their faces turn red. Straining, he reached for her and tamped.
He tried to tamp her to neutral, but he was pumped and nervous, adrenaline screwing up his already fickle touch. In a snap she had plunged to a dangerous cobalt blue. Her high heel immediately snapped, a startled cry erupting from her as her knee whacked the sidewalk. John reeled a bit, blinking rapidly, feeling the pressure drain away. The woman climbed painfully to her feet, wiping blood from her knee and limping away. John stared after her, feeling dirty, and wondered whether he could the job after all.
Then a man turned a nearby corner and headed his way, wearing a bow tie and using a cane. Shocked that it had apparently worked, John remembered to check for protection, and saw a tall, platinum blond emerge from the corner just behind him, scanning the other side of the street. Both of them were very bright, so bright their faces were hard to look at.
Not natural, John thought. No way.
John snatched sunglasses from the brim of his cap and shook them open. The glasses slipped from his fingers, bounced off and under the table. Keeping his eyes on the rube and the woman, John reached down, and as he felt around under the table, a light breeze ruffled his t-shirt, and something floated into his fingers. John ducked his head to look. It was a hundred dollar bill.
John grunted, wondering how much luck it had cost him.
He could hear the soft thump of the cane now, getting closer, and it occurred to him that maybe he should stay down, out of sight, while he did the job.
The target’s right shoe stepped into the small view afforded between the bottom of the tablecloth and the pavement. The tip of the cane smacked the sidewalk, followed by the man’s other shoe. John gathered himself, feeling again the pressure in his face, focusing on the bright glow surrounding the man’s leg. Then the woman’s high heel appeared, now in step with the target, and John saw on her ankle the tattoo of the Queen of Diamonds, only this queen held not a rose, but rather a sword like that held by the King.
John’s heart seemed to freeze in his chest. He tried to hold his breath for fear that she would hear him. He was sure that she would stop, draw the edge of the tablecloth back slowly, and smile down at him before grinding his luck to a fatal quagmire.
But her attention must have been focused on protecting the target, and not on him, for they both continued walking without pause.
He cowered under the table for perhaps five minutes, afraid to stay and afraid to move, picturing the waitress asking loudly if he was all right. John tried to peer down the street from under the tablecloth, yelped as a chair at his table scraped back and someone plopped into it.
“You gonna hide under there all day?”
John blew out his breath and sat up. Eddie Cantella regarded him with folded arms and a huge grin. He looked, as always, fit and immaculate. Eddie’s head was shaved, and there was a ragged scar along the left side of his nose. John waved the c-note at him.
“I dropped my money,” said John.
“Took a helluva long time to find it,” Eddie commented, still grinning. “She looked great, didn’t she? I like her as a blonde. Better as a brunette, but either way, huh?”
“You want something? Some coffee?”
“I’m good, thanks. Just wanted to stop and say hello.”
John peered through the glass door, caught the waitress’ eye, and made a motion as though he were scribbling on a pad. The waitress gave another high sign. John hoped that his heart would slow and considered just dropping the hundred on the table and heading for the train.
“So what are you doing here, John? Seems… bold of you.”
“I didn’t know she was back.”
“I bet. You’re not by chance here to whack Mr. Temple there, are you, John?”
“What?” John tried a chuckle as he shook his head, and Eddie laughed, slapping his hands on his thighs.
“Hey, it’s okay by me. Everybody knows what he did, and everybody knows what’s gonna happen to him. Including Mr. Temple. But maybe not, if your girl is watching out for him. You think it’s just luck that he hired her, or what?”
“She’s not my girl,” John muttered, and Eddie nodded seriously.
“No, I guess not,” he said. “What was it, fourteen minutes before the ceremony?”
John felt himself redden, stared through the glass again, willing the waitress to bring the check. He could not believe that he had considered seeking Eddie out.
“Bam!” Eddie said happily. “Gone like a shot, the Runaway Groom. Been hiding ever since, I bet? I would. Nice disguise, by the way, the hat. Why not just paint a bulls eye?”
“My lucky hat,” John muttered, and Eddie grinned again.
“Stackers,” he said. “Most superstitious people I know. They wear charms, won’t work on the thirteenth, avoid black cats… you’d think you people would know better.”
“My dad gave me this hat,” John said, almost to himself.
“You know the only one I ever heard that makes any sense? Superstitions, I mean? Throwing salt. Turns out when your luck goes real bad, you start to sweat. You ever seen that?”
John had a mental flash of Ronnie’s victims, sweating profusely, but said nothing.
“People used to think the salt would absorb the moisture, improve their luck,” Eddie said. “Interesting, huh? Maybe you’d better slip a shaker into your pocket, there.”
“Listen, Eddie, I’ve got to get going,” said John, starting to rise and laying the hundred on the table, but Eddie put a restraining hand on his arm.
“All right, John,” he said. “Better for both of us if you get going. Get yourself way gone. Fair warning, okay?”
“I know,” said John. “Nowhere close to the casinos. I heard.”
“You’re not listening,” said Eddie. “Gone. Out of town. Out of the state.”
“Not your state.”
“The hell it isn’t,” said Eddie. “Look, you already had your warning on the casinos. The minute you walk in the door of any casino, well, you won’t be walking out. That goes for you, Ronnie, every Stacker who doesn’t work for us. Unless you’re looking for work? You want a job, John? Gold’s Mine could use you.”
“I didn’t think so. But you should think about it, seeing as hit man didn’t work out so well.” He laughed again. “We’re offering good pay. Good benefits, too. Like not getting killed by your ex, for instance.”
“Like you could stop her,” said John, lifting his cap and running a hand through his hair.
“Oh, we could,” said Eddie. “She’s the goods, strongest I’ve ever seen, and she’s brassy enough, I give you that. Hell, when I told her to stay out of the casinos, she told me she’d go anywhere she pleased, and that if I threatened her again I’d drown in my eggs or something. You believe that?”
“Yeah, I believe it.”
“But even she’d have no chance inside our place, John. None. And she’s too… unstable to hire, so for her, it’s shoot on sight.”
“Let’s hope she feels like a night of blackjack, then.”
“But you we could work with,” said Eddie. “Come on, John. We need guys like you. You work for us and we’ll protect you.”
“Thanks anyway, Eddie.” The man shrugged, held up his hands in blessing.
“You let me know, you change your mind. Lunch was on me.” Eddie drew some bills out of his pocket, but John dropped his hundred on the table. Eddie tapped his own money on the table and put it back in his pocket.
“You know, you’re not an easy guy to like, John,” Eddie said, and then he paused. “You shouldn’t have left her like that. Not like that.”
“My business, Eddie.”
“Dumbest thing I ever heard of, you ask me,” said Eddie. “And no class. You don’t want to get married, hey, that’s up to you. But leaving her in the church like that? With what she can do? Take the job, John. You need us more than we need you.”
“Are we done?”
“Yeah, we’re done,” said Eddie, menace in his voice. “You be out of town in an hour, or I swear to God, I’ll call her and let her know you’re here.”
John walked away quickly, opposite to the direction Ronnie had gone. Eddie called out after him. “I think maybe I’ll go ahead and make that call, John! You come see me when she comes after you!”
John slipped his sunglasses on, pulled the cap low on his head, and kept walking. When he had made a few turns, he pulled the cell phone from his pocket. He walked for several blocks, thinking, trying to stay calm. He ducked behind a drug store and crouched behind a large blue trash bin. He waited for his hand to steady, then hit the speed dial.
“The sky is falling,” said John. There was a considered pause.
“Tell me,” said Max.
“Protection. Another Stacker. Far more powerful than me.”
“Your former fiancé?” Max asked calmly. John held the phone from his ear and stared at it. Of course they would have researched him, would know about Ronnie.
“Yes,” he said finally.
“I see.” Another considered pause. “You’re aborting?” Now it was John’s turn to pause, knowing his next words could get him killed.
“I don’t see a choice,” said John finally, cringing at the small crack in his voice.
After a pause, Max said, “Neither do I. All right. Do what you have to do. Get out. Return your advance and there will be no repercussions. We’ll find another way.”
“Thank you,” said John, but the phone was already dead.
John lifted his cap off his head, wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his shirt, and headed for the train station.
John took it as a bad sign that the train was delayed.
More than an hour, the ticket agent said, delayed by some paving stones that had fallen from a truck while it crossed the tracks. He debated the wisdom of waiting here rather than wandering around the city. He decided it didn’t make too much difference if Ronnie was really looking for him, so he bought a newspaper and picked a shady spot on the platform to wait.
Attempting to read was useless. John raised his head at every sound, and even when it was quiet he looked up randomly, checking the entrances from the station to the platform, scanning every angle from which she might conceivably approach. Of course, if she had made herself lucky, and wanted to come at him unseen, something would likely block his view in any case, but he could not keep himself from looking.
Inexplicably, he found himself thinking of their trip to Cancun, the best time they had ever had together. She had learned Spanish, seemingly without effort, just for this trip, and had planned and paid for the entire vacation. She had seemed to shine with something other than luck, for a change, and had never looked more beautiful. At every beach and restaurant and shop, he constantly noticed other men noticing her, had realized with something of a shock that she paid no attention in return.
They were, for that brief time, an ordinary, blissfully happy couple. Snorkeling and hiking and eating and joking and dancing – three of the happiest weeks of his life, at the end of which he had asked her to marry him.
Her look had been more expectant than anything else when he asked her, and he wondered now if she had made herself lucky, and had simply wished for him to propose.
Six months later the plane, and their future together, had plunged, and he had run like a coward. Had continued running, it seemed, in a gigantic circle.
“When Eddie said you were wearing the hat, I didn’t believe him,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder, and his image of her had been so perfect in his mind that he didn’t even jump. She sat on the bench a few feet from him, sweeping her newly-platinum hair behind her shoulders and smiling at him. To John’s eyes she emitted a soft orange glow. She crossed her legs, the Queen of Diamonds facing him once more.
“I was thinking about Mexico,” said John, removing his glasses and placing them back on his cap.
“I’ve thought about that trip often,” she said. “Wondering if something happened down there. Wondering if I said something, or did something, to drive you away.” She looked at him expectantly, a brave little smile on her face that John did not believe for a heartbeat.
“I wish I had a better explanation,” John said after a while. “A better excuse.”
“I’ll hear the lame one, then.” John tilted his head back, resting his neck on the back of the bench, and closed his eyes, nodding to her.
“I just got overwhelmed, Ronnie. Scared out of my mind. I couldn’t breathe, all of a sudden, like a panic attack. I walked outside, and then I was in the parking lot, and then I was… gone. Just had to go.” He opened his eyes, sat up, looked into hers. “I’m so sorry, Ronnie. From the bottom of my heart. I never should have…”
“Was there another woman?” she asked calmly.
“No,” he said quickly. “Not at all. Not even since. I swear.” She nodded.
“I believe you, John,” she said, and in the space of that short sentence, a storm brewed in her eyes. “It all fits, with you. Too spineless to go through with it, too spineless to tell me to my face, too spineless to touch another woman, too spineless to do anything but hide for two years. The real mystery is why I ever expected anything different.”
“You were there at the airport that day, weren’t you?”
John reeled, and she snickered at his expression.
“I knew it,” she said. “That little mousey look, the one you have now, it started right after that. I looked around after the crash and thought I saw that stupid hat of yours. You were never the same after that.”
In the distance, John thought he heard the whistle of a train.
“I couldn’t handle it, Ronnie. I’m sorry.”
“You knew what I did for a living before we went to Mexico,” she said, and there was a dangerous edge to her voice. “My work paid for that trip. You knew that.”
“He had a little girl in his arms, Ronnie,” said John quietly, knowing as he said it that it was a mistake to do so, and the rage that she had somehow suppressed boiled its way into her face.
“You hypocritical, wormy little bastard,” she hissed. “So that hit offended you? And just what are you doing up here in beautiful Reno, John? Oh, that’s right, you came to kill a man. Came to try your hand at tamping someone into the black. But you were too spineless to do even that. Saw me protecting him, and ran again?”
“Who’s protecting him now, Ronnie?” said John. “My employer knows I’m off the hit. He’ll send someone else. Shouldn’t you be doing your job?” The train whistle blew again, but it gave him no hope. Even if he kept her talking long enough, he would not escape her by boarding the train. But he could think of nothing else to do.
“Max?” she asked, triumph now glittering in her eyes. “Oh, Max and I already spoke, John. Right after Eddie called. Turns out Max isn’t all that impressed with you. So we worked out a trade. I gave them Mr. Temple, for free, for a clear shot at you.”
“Temple’s dead?” John asked stupidly, and she laughed bitterly.
“He was unlucky,” she said. “Depending on how you look at it, of course. Compared to you, he was really lucky.”
“Don’t do this, Ronnie,” he said, his voice surprisingly strong. “Please.”
Her hand reached out, gripped his. “I think some bad things are about to happen to you, Johnny. Some painful things. Maybe something catastrophic, before anything final.”
The probability waves around her began to brighten, turning quickly from orange to red, the red beginning to yellow. John felt a trickle of sweat slip down his neck, and wondered what colors Ronnie was seeing around him.
“Not into the black,” she said softly. “Not right away.”
Knowing it was useless, he tightened his grip on her hand, focused, and pushed back as hard as he could.
The aura swirling around her seemed to flicker, and for just an instant began to darken, hints of orange invading the red and yellow. Then her smile broadened, wickedly, and the probability waves around her began to brighten again, more slowly than before, but steadily.
John heard a caw not far overhead, and flinched as some bird droppings hit his shoulder. She burst out with a laugh, still gripping his hand.
“Oh, that was priceless,” she said. “But I think we can do better.” Her aura, which had dimmed a bit when the droppings hit John, brightened anew.
The train whistle blew again, much closer, and the ticket agent’s voice announced over the loudspeaker the arrival of Train 417 to Los Angeles.
The pressure in John’s face was enormous, the beginnings of a headache swelling at the base of his skull. He was breathing deeply and finding it difficult to focus. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.
Veronica showed no signs of effort at all.
No one was as yet paying any attention to them. A man in a sweat suit, hurrying behind their bench, banged his elbow on a sign. Hot coffee slopped from the mug he was carrying and onto John’s neck. John grimaced but did not cry out, and the man, apparently unaware, continued without stopping, flicking spilled coffee from his thumb as he rushed towards the approaching train.
“Think you’ll make your train, John?” she asked. “Think it will be a safe trip?”
The glow around her, which had dimmed again when the coffee had hit, was now bright yellow. John felt his nose start to bleed as he fought with fading strength.
The whistle blasted repeatedly as the train pulled into the station, so no one heard the light fixture explode not six feet from John’s head. Shards raked his burnt neck, and a long sliver of glass lodged itself in his shoulder. John cried out, turned Veronica’s wrist sharply, and threw her from the bench with all his strength. Just as he released her, a man emerged from behind a pillar, just in time to catch her before she fell. The aura around her dimmed some more.
“Hey!” a conductor shouted, striding in their direction, shaking a finger at John. But John was already running, hearing Veronica cry out behind him “How far will you get, John? How far?” And sure enough, a big man who had tilted a wooden chair back on its hind legs settled forward just as John ran past. The front right foot of the chair settled neatly on John’s shoelace, which had come untied and slapped the cement. The lace tore free of the chair as John stumbled uncontrollably, crashing into and over an unoccupied bench.
John lay on the pavement, clutching his ribs where the bench had struck him. His left thigh and right hand radiated pain as well. Blood flowed from his nose and the cuts on his neck. He pulled himself to his knees, removed the glass sliver from his shoulder, then pushed off the toppled bench to stand. When he turned his head, he saw that she was striding towards him, beautiful and deadly and brightening again.
There was a ramp behind him, at the end of which were several carts stacked with luggage, but there seemed to be no way out that way. John looked around desperately, seeking a nearby exit, a way out of her sight. Sweat formed again on his brow and under his arms. Seconds later, a luggage cart, which had been immobile for the last few hours, shifted imperceptibly, then rolled down the ramp, gathering speed, and smashed into his already battered knee.
She wants to immobilize me, he thought as he lay clutching his knee. She made herself lucky, wished for it, and got it.
“What the hell is going on?” roared the conductor who had shaken his finger at John. He was a big man with dark skin and a big paunch. He gripped John’s bicep and hauled him to his feet. John cried out as his foot touched ground. The conductor’s face, incredulous at the sight of blood and burns evident on John, grew even more bewildered. “What are you, high? Your nose is bleeding.”
Behind him, Veronica grinned and winked.
John wondered how much bad luck he had bled off when the cart hit him, then realized it didn’t matter. Though her field must have dimmed when the cart hit him, she had clearly already tamped him again, had perhaps tamped others as well, for now she was golden and brilliant, a malevolent star.
He could see in her face that she was done with him, done playing, that she was ready now to tamp him into the black. He was, he knew, about to die. His vision blurred and he felt himself sway.
“Mister?” the conductor said, his grip tightening. John was sure he would fall if the man let go. “You hear me?” Others were drifting into a rough semicircle around them, keeping their distance but trying to get a look. John’s eyes were riveted on Ronnie, and he straightened, resolved that he would show no fear.
Veronica frowned. The probability waves surrounding her maintained their brilliance, and John realized suddenly that they were as bright as they were going to be.
Zero sum, John thought.
Veronica’s strength was unlimited, but her fortune was not. She could not tamp John down because she could not brighten her own aura, now shining at its limit. She’s frowning because she’s using all her strength, and my aura isn’t darkening a bit.
“Sir?” the conductor said, clearly alarmed.
She’ll have to push someone up, John realized. Make someone lucky, bleed away some of her own good fortune so she can rob mine again.
The same thought seemed to occur to Veronica, for her head suddenly swiveled, fixing her gaze on an elderly woman whose aura was a dull brown. Immediately, the probability field brightened around the old woman, passing green and orange and into the yellow, while Veronica’s dimmed to a dark green, the lowest John had ever seen it.
Without thinking, John tamped her, as hard as he could. Veronica must have sensed something, perhaps felt a sudden outbreak of sweat, for her gaze suddenly whipped back to John. Her aura was now the color of cherry cola, and John thought he saw a trace of fear when she regarded his own.
Wincing when his foot touched the ground, John wrenched free of the conductor and hobbled towards the exit as fast as he could.
John heard several thuds, heard Veronica cry out in pain, but he did not stop to look at what had happened to her. Doing a shuffling skip, he made it to the exit and emerged once again into the punishing Nevada sunshine.
He knew he had only moments. He had to lose himself in a crowd, prevent her from getting a clear fix on his field, but the rubes veered away at the sight of his bloodied face and exaggerated limp. He turned at the first opportunity, thought he saw platinum hair well behind him, surrounded by a bright orange glow. He struggled to increase his pace, grunting at every step.
John struggled past a liquor store and a pawn shop, cried out and nearly fell when he collided with a homeless man whose aura was a dull gray. John spent precious seconds with his hands on his knees, fighting against the pain in his knee and head. He dared another glance back and was sure he saw her, not fifty yards away, identifiable only by her probability field, now yellow and growing brighter. He heard a bang and a cry, sure that it came from someone whose fortune she had just robbed. He figured she must be gathering luck to find and corner him, then would bleed herself again when it was time to finish him off. This time she would be careful not to let him ambush her. John forced himself to begin his shuffling hop-skip, biting his lip every time his right foot touched the ground.
He found himself on Virginia Street, the casinos glittering even in the sunshine. Surprisingly, the sidewalk was suddenly crammed, forcing John to slow his pace but giving him some cover. He saw the probability field of a sprightly old woman suddenly darken, and she immediately tripped and fell with an almost whispered “Oh!” John sidled past the small crowd that gathered to help her, hoping the wall of auras would shield him, and then he saw the comparatively sedate marquee for “Gold’s Mine” yawning in front of him. The thought struck him that he was within the 200 yard limit, that a scoped rifle might be lining up on his chest.
The entrance was through a tunnel, made of faux stone and shaped to look like an entrance to a mine. John hobbled to it, looked back once more, and saw Ronnie staring at him, further away than she had been but still not far enough. Her fists were clenched. There was a bruise on the left side of her forehead, and absolute murder in her eyes. John yanked open the door to the tunnel and hurried inside.
Pale yellow lights, shaped like torches, wooden rafters, and a steady breeze completed the illusion of entering a mine. The tunnel branched – another street entrance to the left, and the casino to the right. There was a montage of photographs of “Lucky Prospectors” on the wall to the casino, and he could hear the bells and bongs of the slot machines.
John leaned against a wall, breathing hard, pulled a handkerchief and wiped the blood from his face. He quickly scanned the rubes going in and coming out. Most going in were neutral, though a few had a healthy glow that they would soon spend without profit. Most coming out were dark, though a few, unknowing, were leaving just when their luck was beginning to shine.
Knowing he had only a minute, if that, John still hesitated. Eddie had said that John could come to him, but he had also said that any Stacker would be dead the minute they walked in the door. Should he simply blunder in, shouting Eddie’s name?
John considered taking the left branch, trying to lose her on the street, but knew that her luck would lead her to him. To his right lay protection, but at an unbearable cost, for he knew that once he went to work for Eddie he would never leave, and that his duties would likely extend well beyond tamping the occasional high roller.
Provided he lived long enough to even get the job.
Trust to luck, he thought. John picked the brightest aura around him, a rube just entering from behind him, surrounded by a faded red field. John did not bother to look at the person who generated it, concentrating only on the probability field, and with the last of his strength he tamped, wishing only for a way out.
Not knowing what effect he’d managed, John looked back at the entrance through which he had come, expecting Ronnie to emerge, but she did not. Perhaps even she had hesitated at Eddie’s threat. He found himself unable to move, knowing that even when one was lucky, one had to act to take advantage, but here he did not know which act was right.
Then, from the other street entrance, a rube appeared, the same age and build as John, wearing exactly the same t-shirt and jeans.
“Nice hat,” the rube said. “Go Niners!”
John noted that they seemed to be exactly the same height.
“It’s yours,” John said, taking it from his head.
“My lucky hat. Four jackpots in two days. I’ve got to head back home, but somebody should get to use it.”
“Cool!” The rube took the hat, snugged it on his head. It fit perfectly. The rube gave John a little salute and headed to the casino entrance.
John hobbled down the other branch, pressing flat against the wall just as Ronnie came down the first. She saw the rube, raised a hand towards his retreating back, lowered it as he pulled open the door to the casino and stepped inside.
For nearly a minute that seemed like ten, she stood rigid, her back to John. He tried to make himself part of the wall, sure that she would turn and see him if he stayed, but too afraid to complete his escape.
The rigidness slipped from Ronnie’s frame, and somehow, even without moving, even with her back turned, she radiated grace and poise, and, John sensed, utter confidence. The aura around her had faded slightly, now a beautiful amber, and John wondered if the rubes could sense it on some level, for every one of them let their gaze linger on her as they passed.
He noticed a small camera on the ceiling of the tunnel, swiveling to follow Ronnie’s every step. He imagined Eddie waiting for her just inside. John almost called to her as she neared the casino entrance, but backed down the other tunnel, watching her. When she reached for the door handle to the casino entrance, his eyes brimmed. An exiting rube opened and held the door for her, smiling. She stepped lithely past him, and then her brilliant aura melded in a sea of changing fortunes, and was gone.
New author David Evan Harris sets up a whole new system of magic in “The Mudslinger” that tells a story of self-sacrifice and the human drive to prove one’s worth. Harris has the makings of an epic fantasy in the world of “The Mudslinger.” Harris thought between the lines of traditional concepts in fantasy, while still retaining many of the important elements of epic or sword and sorcery style fantasies. I look forward to more.
About himself, David says:
Even after all these years, writing fantasy is still more fun than writing legal briefs, and readers, including judges, often have trouble determining which genre I have submitted. One kid in college now, another starting soon, another starting just when the debt is starting to decline from the first two — my plan of retiring on short story royalties may need to be revisited.