/ A TALE OF GHOSTS AND GUARDIANS /
Two cards slid face down on the felt clad table before her. She hovered her fingertips above them for a moment. Jack of Spades, Ace of Spades, she thought to herself. She folded the edge of the cards up slightly with her thumb; an Eight of Diamonds and a Six of Clubs. Another failure. She slowly laid the edges back down and floated her fingers over to the waiting cigarette. Betraying nothing of her hand, Beth Winter lifted the cigarette to her red lips and inhaled.
The two players to her right--young, naive World Series hopefuls--checked and raised, respectively, giving her only one choice, the hard way. Beth picked out two thousand dollars of the total eighteen she had gathered through the night and tossed the chips into the pot.
Fluttering her teal shadowed eyelids, Beth watched the other players make their decisions. She hated the feel of foundation, eye shadow, blush, and lipstick on her skin. Beth much preferred feigning professional and sexual confidence with her wardrobe, a three-quarter sleeve blue top with a scoop neck, size sixteen pleated black pants, and open-toed, two-inch heels, but at a table of self-indulgent men, clothes are not enough to make the woman.
She played by their rules to begin, knowing she could always change them at a moment’s notice, hoping she wouldn’t have to.
Of the two players to her left--a middle aged man who recently left his career in real estate to pursue an acting career, and a talkative man with a distinctive tell of shifting his eyes slightly to the left when he bluffed--only one called to stay in. The flop was dealt. Six of Hearts, Ace of Spades, and Jack of Spades. Hilarious, Beth cursed to herself as she stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray. Still, however small it may be, she had a chance to win.
Two checks to her right. Beth threw another two thousand dollars to the middle of the table, enough to scare off the smart and hook the desperate.
"I’m going all in," announced the shifty-eyed player across the table from her wearing a tailored charcoal suit with no tie. His raise would only cost her another thousand. At the thirty-six thousand dollar table, she’d have the opportunity to win it all in the next two hands if she came away with this one. If she lost this one, she’d no longer be the leader and could quickly fall to her doom.
Seeking insurance, Beth snatched up her silver plated cigarette holder, plucked out a specially rolled stick, and snapped the case shut.
"That’s an interesting symbol," commented the player opposite her, referring to the pentagram engraved on the case.
"Thanks. I found it on the cheap at one of those New Age shops," Beth lied. She flipped the stick into her lips and lit it with her zippo.
As they spoke, the first player chose to fold. The second player took some time to decide, as he would be forced to go all in to call.
Throughout the night, Beth had coated all fifty-two cards in the deck with a light, virtually undetectable powder. As she inhaled the smoke from her cigarette, Beth’s eyesight began to alter, allowing her to see all of the cards on the table. The second player threw away a Queen of Diamonds and a Nine of Diamonds.
"That’s a symbol for witchcraft, isn’t it?" asked the man. Beth glanced at his cards, hoping to see his bluff.
They were completely blank.
"What?" The word fell from her shocked lips. Impossible.
"The pentagram. It’s associated with spell casting, curses, and devil worship, right?" With a stern countenance he said, "You’re not a witch, are you?"
How could he..? No. It’s not him. The spell failed. Nothing more.
Beth tried to mask the blood that had rushed to her plump cheeks by downing the rest of her rum and Coke.
"Yeah, and after I take all of your money I’m going to fly my broomstick to my gingerbread house where I’ve got a couple of kids boiling in my cauldron."
The other players chuckled at her response. The notion seemed preposterous.
Her opponent revealed a set of brilliant white teeth under his silver goatee. "Sure. Just joking. I’m at the end of my rope. Trying a little psych out. Do you call, or..."
This man was lying, and worse, he was making sure Beth knew it by deliberately shifting his eyes. She couldn’t walk away now. It was all or nothing.
"Of course I call."
He flipped his cards over to reveal a Seven of Clubs and a Five of Hearts.
That’s what he went all in with!? What is this guy’s angle?
The turn arrived: Seven of Hearts.
Rage boiled in Beth and she shot out of her chair. The man was cheating, she was certain of it. He knew her tricks, while Beth could only guess at his strategy. Would he modestly stick with the pair of Sevens, or annihilate her with triple Sevens or two pair, Sevens and Fives?
He sat calmly in his seat as Beth stood as tall as she could at only five foot, four inches, with her round belly hanging over the table, waiting for the river to be dealt. Her knees trembled under the table. Upon sight of the river she nearly fainted; a Six of Spades stared back at her.
The odds. Outstanding.
Her legs weakened and she fell back into her chair.
"Well, isn’t that just... magical," the man spurted with a false smile. He quickly collected his things and Beth gathered up her winnings. "I’d offer the rest of you good luck, but I think the last of it was just used up."
The man left the room and seven hands later so did Beth with thirty-six thousand dollars packed into her bag.
The late night air in New York City blanketed Beth as she skipped out of the warehouse that hid the poker room. Cooler than usual, she tightened her long leather coat around her tubby waist. Beth pulled her MP3 player out of her purse, popped in the earbuds, and blasted the first upbeat song she found. With eight days to spare, Beth had surpassed her monetary goal: a thirty-thousand dollar debt owed to Deirdre Hansard, art collector and loan shark operating out of Chelsea.
The games left her with six thousand dollars to blow. A third of it would be set aside for the next month’s rent. The rest she would take to SoHo to start building her winter wardrobe.
But, the first order of business would be a celebratory drink.
She located a suitable patch of darkness just off the sidewalk and stepped in. When no one else walked nearby she slid on a pair of dark sunglasses, cleared her mind of everything but the one place she wanted to be, and with great intensity, yelled, "Teleport!"
For anyone who had seen Beth from the corner of their eye, they would have, at one moment, noticed a rotund, black figure standing still as a statue, and, the next moment, seen nothing but an evaporating fog.
For Beth, the world swelled around her as buildings ballooned, the streets became like the waves of the ocean, and the lights blazed with such power. Air poured into her lungs and her muscles burned with the ferocity of having just swam fifteen hundred meters at a world record pace. Had Beth not been listening to the song on her MP3 player, the sounds of the city would have caused a ringing in her ears that would not go away for hours. Her body shuddered twice, before she was standing, with her bag still cradled tightly in her arm, in front of her favorite bar in New York City, The Wetstone. The first time she successfully performed this trick, Beth convulsed and vomited the entire contents of her stomach. Her strength and appetite did not return for three days. She had since become a seasoned veteran and was at the moment thinking about ordering some house fries with her first drink.
The song on her MP3 player came to an end, and she slid the device and her sunglasses into the side pocket of her purse.
Then, as if knowing her hand was nearby, her cell phone began to rumble in her bag. She pulled the phone out and read the caller ID: APARTMENT. Overly curious about who was phoning from her own home, Beth answered. The voice on the other end was almost as unexpected as the appearance of the Six of Spades.
"It’s Hardy. I’m at your apartment."
"You’re in my apartment." Beth didn’t ask how he got past the triple locked door. "At least tell me you knocked before sending in Kara."
"We’ve run into a problem and I don’t have time to search New York for you. We’ve come to cash in our favor."
Perfect timing. Beth had the opportunity to pay off two big debts in one night. She threw her arms up in delight and let out a cheer that attracted attention that she no longer needed to avoid.
"I just got to The Wetstone. If you can make it here by last call, I’ll buy you a drink."
"We’re not looking for a drink."
"Of course you aren’t. Either way, I’ll be here," Beth said. "Don’t forget to lock the door when you leave."
The Wetstone was no more special than any other dive bar in New York, sporting a number of different liquor, ever crumbling brick walls, wooden stools with bowing legs, and a large mirror behind the bar with enough cracks to cause centuries of bad luck. The patrons all had stories to tell of lost loves, hard times, and wild drunken adventures. One of the bar’s greater appeals was knowing that if Beth’s refined parents ever got lost in the neighborhood, they would travel three more blocks before stepping foot in The Wetstone to ask for directions. It was entirely hers.
"I’ll take a rum and Coke with a basket of loaded fries."
"Going on your tab?" the bartender asked as a formality. Beth stunned him with her response.
"No, I’ll be paying in cash tonight." She snapped open her bag and reached in for some bills. "In fact, I’d like to pay off my tab."
"A good night for once?"
Beth fumbled through her bag. To her great surprise, no cash was there. Cursing, she threw open the bag and shoved aside keys, cell phone, cigarettes, lip balm, ibuprofen, tampons, a pack of playing cards, and emergency magical charms. Not a single dollar bill could be found.
The bartender chuckled at Beth. "That’s all right, Beth. I’ll add it to your tab. I know you’re good for it."
"But it was right here! It couldn’t have just--"
"Put the drink on my tab." The command came from three stools down. Beth’s blood boiled upon seeing the familiar silver framed smile atop the tailored charcoal suit with no tie. "I owe her one."
Her mind whirled around the sight. He had her money; this she did not have to guess. Now, she tried to determine whether he had followed her, which would’ve been quite the accomplishment; or he had been waiting for her, the more likely, yet creepier possibility. She would have been blacklisted from most of the high stakes games in the city if she had walked from the poker table at such a crucial point in the game, but Beth had no such concerns at The Wetstone. She spun on the stool and headed for the exit.
"You’re not even going to try to get your money back? You won it fairly." He sipped his scotch. "Didn’t you?"
Alarms blared in her head, warning her that this man was trouble. But trouble promised by Deirdre Hansard waited outside the bar. Deirdre promised misery, and this man had yet to make his offer.
Turning around, Beth sat in the stool next to the old man, and fingered her rum and Coke. "What do you want?"
"For you to try."
"All right. May I please have my money back?"
Beth squeezed her glass so tight it nearly cracked in her palm. "What game are you playing, old man?"
"Same as you. Employing magic in the unending quest to get paid. Only, I’m better at it."
The insult drove Beth to quickly develop a plan and change tactics. "Well, sure, you’ve clearly had centuries of practice."
"I’m sixty-six." He smiled again, proudly displaying the crow’s feet around his pale green eyes. "You’ll get nowhere by resorting to petty insults."
Beth briefly considered the idea of smashing her glass into the man’s face, wondering how well that would work. The thought of it actually succeeding made her smile, but she could not go through with it. Instead, she took a long drink.
"Do you know the story of the Salem Witch Trials?" the man asked. "I mean, the real story."
"Never had much interest in history, but I’m all ears if it means I get my money back."
"You can look the manufactured story up in a book sometime. My story is one every witch should know." He winked at her, took a sip of his scotch, and continued, "Of the eighteen people executed in the trials, three of them were actual witches; amateurs incapable of the magic they were accused of, but, nonetheless, witches of great potential. Dozens upon dozens of people were involved in the trials; magistrates, jurors, and accusers. Eleven were actual witches.
"The true story begins before William Griggs was coerced into diagnosing the strangely symptomatic young daughters of Samuel Parris with bewitchment. Events were already in motion before the Parris family even came to Salem.
"Five prominent families of Salem gained their wealth and power through the practice of witchcraft. Not the devil worshiping blood rituals that history tells of, but the primal reality-bending energy that you and I utilize every day. One day the eleven witches of these families viewed three young novice practitioners of magic as a threat to their established way of life, a fear that would spread throughout all of the Massachusetts countryside. They developed a plan to rid themselves of these three witches and frighten any others from their territory forever.
"Not everything went according to plan," he said without gravity. "Things rarely do, but the results were exactly what they wished for."
The man sipped the remainder of his scotch while Beth connected the dots. "So, you’re some sort of magical mob boss. I’m trespassing on your turf and you’re here to deliver the message."
The man laughed heartily. "Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. Don’t get me wrong; you are embarrassingly amateur. Any witch worth her weight in charms should be able to perform a spell without the use of words, and you, despite your size, have no charm. I’m surprised no one has come after you. But, then, you show very little initiative outside of the hustle. I swear, I’d have no hope for you if it weren’t for your devotion to the skill of poker." He revealed a business card from his breast pocket and handed it to Beth. "My name is Patrick Jacobs, and I’d like to help you become a witch."
She looked over the card. In shiny gold letters it stated his name, phone number, and a job description containing the phrase Business Futures that she didn’t quite understand. The sound of it ripping in half was so pleasing to her ears that she felt compelled to do it two more times.
"Let me tell you a story about a thirty-thousand dollar debt that I’ve got to pay by the end of the week." Patrick waited to hear more, so she continued, "That’s it! End of story! Or, it would be if some old douche bag hadn’t stolen all of the money I was going to use to repay that debt. I never let a debt go unpaid. There’s not much in my life that I take a lot of pride in, but being able to pay back a debt is number one.
"I’m not a witch; I don’t want to be a witch; I just happen to know a few useful spells that help me to get by. Now, unless you’re going to give me back my money, I need to find another poker game to rebuild my funds."
Patrick clicked his tongue. "You can have all of your money back... if you can take it from me."
Beth slid the remainder of the rum and Coke across the bar. "Thanks for nothing."
As she walked away, Patrick called to her, "There are more important things in the world than money, Beth!"
She refused to look back. "Not tonight."
"It’s a shame you feel that way."
Before Beth could get through the door, two large men walked in to block her way. She recognized them as employees of Deirdre Hansard. Their sudden appearance was more than a coincidence. Beth spun to cast an accusing glare on Patrick, but he had vanished. She turned back to the two men.
"Miss Winter, how are you this evening?" The wider chested man looked down at her with beady eyes.
"On an emotional roller coaster that is falling fast."
"I’m sorry to hear that. Miss Hansard would like to see you."
"You can tell her she will have that chance before the week is out."
"She has received some distressing news in regard to your business arrangement and she would like to discuss the terms with you. Tonight." He stepped aside to allow her through the door. "We have a car waiting outside."
"Of course you do," Beth said as she stepped forward. Both men followed close behind. "So, does Patrick Jacobs work for Miss Hansard or does Miss Hansard work for him?"
"I’m afraid I have no idea who you are talking about."
For once that night, Beth was not surprised.