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When the Mad Chef of Schenectady takes the mayor, police chief, and a visiting celebrity hostage, it's up to the Maven to foil her plans and save the day.
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Friday, November 24, 2023
Al Bruno III
Your wife told me about the invitation.
Now don’t be upset. She may be an alcoholic and an embarrassment but she truly loves you. And love... love is something most people don’t appreciate until it’s too late.
And she’s afraid too. No surprises there, she’s heard the rumors about the Nedzner Festival. She knows what could happen once the two of you and your children board that private jet to Cartagena.
In my day families didn’t get involved with ways of the Old Deck. It was just a gathering of greedy fools in spartan conditions, not some entertainment complex on a private island. Of course, there were more cards in the Old Deck back then and it wasn’t called the Nedzner Festival, it was called the Poelzeg Experience.
That’s right, the Poelzeg experience. You can research it all you want, and look through all the libraries, newspapers, and websites but you won’t find a single word written about it. But just like the nightmare you’re about to blunder into for thirty years, it was where fortunes were made and legacies were lost. It was an exclusive, gathering of the elite. You had to be affluent, powerful, and a gambler to gain entry.
I was fifty-five years old when I found the mysterious, green and yellow envelope on my bedside table. Whoever had left it there must have bypassed my security with incredible ease. Most people would have thrown away the envelope out of fear or simply not knowing, but I knew exactly what this meant—this was something I had been anticipating for some time.
One week later, I found myself in Idaho. Upon my arrival at the airport, a private car awaited me just outside. The driver, who appeared to be in their sixties, had a bald head and wore a tuxedo reminiscent of the classic 1920s style. They were referred to as "Attendants," a title that still felt fitting; I couldn't picture calling them anything else. The vehicle I was guided towards was a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. When the Attendant offered to handle my luggage, I willingly passed over my suitcase but I clung tightly to the weighty metal attache case with my right hand. It had remained by my side throughout the entire journey, and my arms were starting to ache from its heft.
The Attendant had the radio playing as they drove. Since it was a Sunday morning Casey Kasem was on the radio working his way through the Top 40 hits. I tuned it out for most of the journey but once ‘Wildfire’ started playing I told the Attendant to switch it off. The song was trash. I knew trash when I heard it. With the radio silent, I had the chance to reflect on what I knew and didn't know about the Old Deck and the Engines of Creation.
I had a scrap of paper tucked into my jacket pocket, scrawled onto it were the opening lines of the third chapter of the Nine Rebel Sermons;
"In that dread and harrowing moment, Ezerhodden, the Behemoth of Tishrei, didst inscribe twelve eldritch runes, each bearing the name of one of the twelve Barishamada- Xyrlith, Zyvrathul, Ithryndra, Korvylar, Thranok, Grythar, Vyraska, Astrylith, Nyxeros, Drak'mor, Sylthara and Yorvithar. Once, their eldritch dance held dominion over the Engines of Creation, but these hallowed glyphs condemned them to the abyss of the Screaming Nowhere, a realm where their voices echoed with prophecy and genesis....”
"After half an hour, we departed from the highway, onto a rugged dirt road, flanked by forsaken farmhouses and slanting silos. Every other tree bore a no-trespassing sign. Another half hour elapsed before we ascended a winding driveway that ultimately unveiled a spacious barn. Its fresh coat of paint gleamed,encircled by diesel-fuel generators, casting light from every window.
To the left of the barn, a cluster of modest Airstream trailers huddled together, while to the right, a sizable yellow tent stood proudly. Strings of green lights adorned its exterior, endowing it with the allure of a traveling circus or a county fair.
The Attendant parked our car Rolls-Royce alongside a dozen other similar vehicles and opened the door for me. They offered to carry my suitcase but I refused.
“Just tell me where to go,” I said.
“You’ll be in trailer 29.” The Attendant handed me a key and pointed to the row of identical trailers. So, that’s where I went. It was just like Marvin described it, high stakes gambling in a low- cost environment. There were differences, of course, there were always differences. His invitation to the Poelzig Experience had brought him via chartered helicopter to an abandoned resort in the Catskill mountains. The guests however had been left sleeping in whatever rooms hadn’t been given over to wildlife and the elements. Every night shared his lodgings with the CEO of a fast-food franchise. Marvin had recounted that with every gust of wind cascading down the peak of Black Dome Mountain, the CEO had emitted soft, quivering whimpers
Naturally, the way Marvin spun the tale, it sounded comical; he insisted they were "roughing it." Just thinking of him always brought a smile to my face. I reminisced about the bars we'd shut down and the casinos we'd outwitted. Two middle-aged billionaires, hopping from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo, then off to Costa Rica and back again. Regrettably, these memories led me to ponder how it had all come to an end for him—gun in hand, and his thoughts splattered across the opulent walls of a five-star hotel room in Singapore.
The big black digits on trailer 29's door made it easy to find. I unlocked it and went inside, and what greeted me was nothing more than a bed, hallway, and bathroom. A transistor radio sat on the windowsill, emitting only static. There was no off switch, volume control, or tuning dial. That didn’t bother me, as far as I was concerned it was the best the radio had sounded to me in years. I set my overnight bag and nightmarishly heavy briefcase on the bedspread and glanced out of the window at the setting sun.
Marvin had warned me there would be a lot of waiting around so I shuffled through old memories, old dreams, and old songs. After forty minutes of waiting the static on the radio was replaced by a feminine voice with a heavy Boston accent. ”The Yellow Tent is now open," she said. "Cashiers can be found on the right and the complimentary buffet is located on the left."
I joined the well-dressed crowd that had formed a line outside the Yellow Tent. A cloud of tobacco smoke hung overhead.
Everyone in the line had a briefcase of their own, and the variety was striking. Some were sleek and made of polished metal, while others were crafted from fine leather and bulged.
Attendants in tuxedos hurried about, efficiently managing supplies and making final preparations for the Yellow Tent's lighting and sound systems. Their poised demeanor and attire contrasted sharply with the casual crowd. Not one of them looked younger than retirement age.
A Smug High Ranking Offical was standing beside me, he leaned in close, “Are you the bigwig from Harmony Records?”
“Yes.” I bristled, ever so slightly. I was the Chief Executive officer and he damn well knew it.
“What are you going to ask for?” “None of your business.”
He took a drag on his cigarillo, “Going to cash out early? No shame in that. Take the money and run.”
Eventually, I made my way through the canvas alcove that separated the cashiers from the interior of the Yellow tent. I hefted my briefcase onto the oak desk a pair of Attendants were sitting behind. I opened it and they made a quick show of smiling toothlessly at the gold bars it contained. Then they handed me a tray holding two hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of chips. Each of them was engraved with its value on one side and the current year on the other - 1975. One way or another, when this was over I would leave these behind. Anyone trying to pocket a souvenir of the Poelzig Experience would suffer accordingly.
Carrying my chips I made my way to the tent’s interior. The light was blinding, clusters of stage lamps were lashed to the top of each of the ten-foot-high tent poles. The complimentary buffet counter and wine bar occupied one side of the structure. A trio of Attendants had been posted to watch over the buffet and they eagerly served the few guests that decided to partake in the heaping amounts of pork tenderloin and fresh vegetables on display.
The rest of the tent was occupied with tables for baccarat, blackjack, craps, and poker, each one sporting an elderly Attendant standing at the ready. Naturally, I gravitated to the Baccarat table, I’d been in love with the game for over ten years. Before that, I’d preferred the craps but ever since a bad run of luck in Vegas, I’d sworn off dice.
Marvin on the other hand had excelled at poker. No surprises there, he had been a slippery-tongued grifter with an uncanny ability to read people. He could lie to you without saying a word, his eyes betraying nothing of the devious thoughts behind them. Those skills weren't just limited to the poker table. Despite looking like a legitimate businessman he was the master of small- time cons and high-stakes scams. He could spot an opportunity in any situation and had the quick wit and smooth talking needed to take advantage of it.
We started as rivals. He had outsmarted me in a real estate venture in Luxembourg, but two years later, I turned the tables
with a movie investment that left him empty-handed. Then, a crisis in Portugal forced both of us to run for our lives. For years, our paths didn't cross, and during that time, our interests shifted toward more legitimate money-making opportunities.
It was at a financial conference in France, where we both found ourselves as someone else's plus one.
Even now, I shake my head at the absurdity of our first night together. Perhaps it was the enchanting view of Paris, the lines of cocaine we indulged in, or the realization that even the most selfish and greedy people crave someone to confide in. From that moment on, we each pursued our separate paths, but we never drifted too far apart.
I pushed the memories aside as I strolled toward an empty table and took a seat. The Attendant's raspy voice interrupted my thoughts, informing me that the minimum bid to play was five hundred dollars. Without hesitation, I doubled the amount and waited for a response. A heavy silence descended, filling the air. Nothing happened. The Self-Made Millionaire and Trust Fund Baby sitting on either side of me exchanged perplexed glances. I glanced around the room and noticed that all the dealers were waiting, and the atmosphere became uncomfortably still. At a nearby blackjack table, someone requested to be dealt some cards, but the Attendant raised a white-gloved, quivering finger in a gesture that pleaded for a moment's patience.
A flap in the rear of the tent opened, and a trio of Attendants walked in, carrying a flagpole. They struggled for a few minutes to set it up in the center of the gaming tables. Then, a fourth wizened figure entered, bearing a triangle of green cloth. Slowly, they unfolded it and ran it up the flagpole. Another Attendant placed a heavy-duty fan beneath it and switched it on. Embroidered onto the flag was a pattern reminiscent of a spiral, evoking thoughts of a lamprey's mouth. It was the symbol of the Veilweaver, as depicted on the lost third suit of the Old Deck.
Suddenly, all of the dealers began talking at once. The games had begun. What followed was some of the most intense gambling of my life. Charles Poelzig's dealers might have looked like escapees from a nursing home, but they played fast and smart. A good number of my fellow guests saw their chips dwindle at a frightening speed. The Trust Fund Baby who had been sitting to my right retreated to the complimentary buffet, cringing as she gorged herself on free ham and wine. Things went better for me; I made thirty thousand dollars, but it wasn't without effort.
Typically, I relished a challenge, but the air was heavy with heat radiating from the stage lights and the cloying odor of overcooked pork from the buffet that had been sitting out for too long. The baccarat table's dealer had a blank, unchanging expression; his smile seemed carved into his aging face. I considered moving to another table or trying my luck at blackjack, but all the dealers wore similar expressions of vacant joyfulness.
At some point during the night, I became aware of a subtle rasping noise so faint it was almost maddening. At first, I thought it might be the nearby generators or fans, but this was a separate sound. It almost seemed to be coming from beneath us.
Three hours after the games had begun, they came to an end. Someone, somewhere switched off the fan centered on the flagpole, and someone else dimmed the lights. Hidden speakers crackled to life, and a feminine voice with a Boston accent said, 'The tables are now closed. Please return to your trailers and enjoy a good rest. Tomorrow, the Experience will continue.”
I picked up my tray of chips, only to have a liver-spotted hand push it back down. “No need, the Attendant said. “They will be here when you return.”
What else could I do but shrug? I made my way out of the tent and, after a moment to orient myself, started walking. Then I thought better of it and paused in the shadows to have a smoke. I contemplated my winnings again and felt a little pleased with myself.
"When the cigarette was half-gone, a Smartly-Dressed Movie Star approached me and asked if I had another. I gladly shared it and congratulated him on his recent box-office success. He ignored the compliment and said, “I'm out ten grand. I was on a hot streak, and then the dice turned cold on me.”
Exhaling smoke, I nodded understandingly. “Dice can be fickle,” I replied. “You should try cards. You have more control.”
"I came here to turn things around," he said, finishing his first cigarette in record time and asking for a second. "I'm going bankrupt—ex-wives, accountants, you know how it is. If things get any worse, I may have to take part in a television movie. Can you imagine? Me? On television?"
I could imagine but didn't say so. "I have a few good investment ideas I could share with you. Some companies that are gearing up to make it big."
"Oh yeah, and what's in it for you?" he inquired.
"I help you, you help me," I replied. "I represent some artists who would love soundtrack work. Nothing top 40 quality, but they have some good filler songs that would..." My voice trailed off as a trio of Attendants approached us.
"You need your rest," one of them interjected, toothlessly.
Another one of the Attendants held out an ashtray. We stabbed out our smokes and allowed ourselves to be led away. As I reached trailer 29, I found the Attendant who had brought me here waiting. They sat beside the trailer in a folding chair that listed ever so slightly to one side. I asked, "Is there something wrong?"
"Not at all," the Attendant stood up slowly. They opened the trailer door and waited for me to step inside. "If there is anything you need, be it food, sundries, or even narcotics, you need only ask. I will be right here."
Then the Attendant sat back down in the chair and waited for me to close the door.
After closing and locking the door, a feeling of being trapped washed over me. I opened the refrigerator door to find several cans of off-brand soda pop, a few candy bars, and a freshly made pork sandwich. It looked a thousand times more appetizing than anything the buffet had to offer, so I downed two of each. I let it all settle in my stomach and peered out the front window of the trailer. Sure enough, the Attendant was still there. They turned and looked my way. Their grin hadn’t faltered.
I backed away from the window, lay down on the lumpy bed, and slept in my clothes that night.
I was jolted from my sleep by the stifling heat that filled the trailer. I strained to recall my fading dreams but quickly gave up. A moment ago they had been vivid and disturbing but now they were gone. I sat up, shaking my head. I was never the type of person superstitious enough to read meaning into my dreams or romantic enough to consider them worthy of remembering.
The door was hot against my fingers as I tugged it open and walked out into the scorching sunshine. A new Attendant waited outside. He stood eagerly and spoke before I could get a word in. “Can I help you?” they asked.
“No, I’m just heading out.”
“Oh no. Things won’t be ready until this evening. Whatever you need, I can fetch for you.”
“I was just going to get breakfast.”
They smiled gummily, 'I’ll bring you something to eat then.'
“Can’t I just get some fresh air?”
They cocked their head, “Are your windows stuck? I can help.”
So I spent the day in the little trailer, a veritable prisoner. They brought me Pop-Tarts for breakfast and a TV dinner for lunch.
Shortly after sunset, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to see another Attendant, this one handed me a card with a seat number on it and a white carnation. I joined the crowd heading for the old Yellow Tent. There was another long line to get inside and plenty of small talk- politics, scandals, and musings about the stock market. I could hear the Trust Fund baby berating a member of Disgraced Nobility over their views on the American bombing of Cambodia. His only response was to make fun of her for being too young during that time--only fifteen years old- and thus, unable to comprehend the complexities of global politics.
When it was my turn to pass through the entryway, I paused to take in the remarkable renovations done to the inside of the Yellow Tent. Years spent in the music industry had made me an expert at identifying a poorly put-together venue, no matter how big or small, and this one was like a miniature version of Madison Square Garden.
I found my seat in the second row on the right. The stage was barren and only held a grand piano equipped with a microphone stand beside it. To either side of the stage, there were two Attendants sitting on folding chairs with stacks of placards resting on their laps.
Ten minutes passed, just long enough for all of us to get uncomfortable with waiting. Then the lights brightened and a green flag unrolled from somewhere at the top of the stage. It was dark green and stitched into it was an abstract design resembling stars interwoven into a coiled chain. This was the sigil of the Blighted Shadow, symbolized in the seventh suit of the Old Deck.
A woman walked out onto the stage, she wore a dress of the same shade of green as the flag. There was something about her that made me think of busy offices and overdue paperwork. We all clapped for her but she shushed us and in a voice heavy with a Boston accent introduced herself as the Mistress of Ceremonies. She instructed us to save our applause for our host. She then seated herself at the piano and began to play.
As soon as I heard the opening three notes of the song, I recognized it and someone started singing offstage. “It's not unusual to be loved by anyone. It's not unusual to have fun with anyone...”
A man strode out onto the stage, he wore a glittering shirt and Cuban heels. His hair was dyed jet black and greased into a pompadour. He held a microphone in his left hand that sparkled like it was made of diamonds and knowing how rich Charles Poelzig was it very well might have been.
I thought I would be ready for this part of the Experience but it took every ounce of my concentration to keep from cringing. I’m sure everyone in the family has told you that in my youth I wanted to be a singer, I think I said that before, but I just want you to understand that I didn’t just come to realize I was mediocre all by myself. Countless talent agents and producers had to tell me that over and over until it finally sunk in. I'm thankful for it now, there's more money to be made behind the scenes.
No one had ever been brave enough to stop Charles Poelzig from doing whatever he wanted. He was too wealthy, too powerful, and too strange for anyone to dare say “No” to him. Especially since he'd acquired the Old Deck.
And while he would never have a song featured on America’s Top 40 or perform on the Johnny Carson Show, every equinox Charles Poelzig played to a packed house filled with the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world.
Two hours dragged by, two hours of Easy Listening standards punctuated with a bit of soft shoe dancing. Any time there was a pause of more than a few seconds the Attendants on the left and right side of the stage would raise their placards to expose the word ‘APPLAUSE’ in tall white letters on a black background.
I played along with everyone else in the audience until our host launched into his warbling version of Michael Martin Murphey’s signature song.
“She comes down from Yellow Mountain. On a dark, flat land she rides. On a pony she named Wildfire...”
That song. That damned song. I felt a giggle rising and did my best to choke it down. The people seated on either side of me watched in horror as I buried my face in my hands. An absurd man was singing an even more absurd song in an absurd setting. What else could I do? It wasn’t until the end of the song that I managed to get myself under control.
Two encores later, the audience tossed their carnations to the stage and then were led out row by row. No one would make eye contact with me. It was a perfectly understandable reaction. Like all petty dictators, Charles Polzeig was as dangerous as he was absurd.
The Attendant that led me back to my trailer was the broken- nosed one. The friendly glitter in their eyes was gone. I tried to make small talk but my words didn’t even elicit a grunt of acknowledgement.
There were more Attendants waiting for me in the trailer. "Before I could react I was shoved through the doorway. Two of them grabbed my arms and spun me around. I struggled but they were all surprisingly strong. One punched me in the kidneys, and another hit me in the stomach. They hit me again and again until I begged them to stop. When my knees buckled they held me up, when I begged them to stop they didn’t listen. Throughout it all they never landed a single blow on my face.
Eventually, I threw up all over myself, then everything went dark.
When I woke, my head was full of a grinding mechanical ache.
I found I had been stripped down to my underwear and put to bed. They had cleaned the blood from my face, and the puke from the floor and tucked me into bed with care. Everything hurt but thankfully one of the Attendants had left some high-quality painkillers and a bottle of my favorite brand of Scotch sitting on the kitchen counter. As I waited for sunset I finished both.
When an Attendant came to lead me back to the Yellow Tent I eyed them suspiciously. Was this one of the ones that had attacked me? There was no way to tell for sure, my trailer had been dark, and aside from the broken-nosed one, all of Poelzig’s strange little servants looked alike to me. I tried to put the whole thing out of my head, I had a long night of Baccarat to worry about.
The line to get into the Yellow tent was quieter than before, no one talked about inflation or the end of the war in Vietnam. No one smoked or laughed or flirted. I could see the movie star up ahead of me, he was staring at his shoes, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists. Once I was inside and had gotten my winnings back I noticed the new flag bore a single eye-like shape, with beams radiating out from its center. That was from the eighth suit of the Old Deck, the sign of the Shivering Deciever.
Don’t worry if you don't understand; despite my studies, I still barely grasp its meaning. Marvin had been the real expert, he’d done so much research in anticipation of the Experience. Before the end, he would speak about how each of the suits of the Old Deck symbolized the scared name of one of the twelve Barishamada.
And about how the name Barishamada meant ‘Candle Barons’ in the witch language of Ezzerhoden.
And about how Korvylar and Nyxeros “...engaged in unholy copulation amidst the fervent tumult of the forsaken abyss to birth Calignox the Lord Of Masks.”
And finally, in the end, how all that information meant nothing when he sat down across the table from Poelzeg.
Then I started to notice the smell, which was sharp and sickeningly sweet all at once. I glanced over at the buffet and saw that everything left over from that had been left to rot. The vegetables had shriveled and turned brown, and the pork tenderloin writhed with maggots. The trio of Attendants that had been in charge of the buffet were still there; they watched the grubs as they seethed up over the counter to drop onto the floor with great interest.
I lit up a cigarette to mask the odor of decay and made my way back to the baccarat table where my winnings from two nights ago were waiting for me.
The games began. I played conservatively. No one else seemed to be playing it safe; they were all making desperate bets and taking chances. At the poker table, a Smug High-Ranking Official was cursing wildly, and a Woman in Expensive Furs had begun to complain that there simply must be something wrong with the dice. But it wasn't the dice, nor was it luck. They just weren't giving those wizened and toothless Attendants enough credit.
I slowly built up one stack of gold chips, then a second, and finally, a third. The man to my right, the Owner of a Regional Supermarket Chain, went completely broke and started to cry. Part of me wanted to slip him a few chips out of pity.
But that simply wasn’t done. When you were out, you were out. No favors from other players, no calls to bankers or friends. Another rule of the Poelzig Experience.
One of the Attendants approached the unlucky man, pulled a green handkerchief from the pocket of their tuxedo, and handed it over. The Attendant let him dry his eyes before leading him away. He was only the first. Over the next two hours, five more people lost the fortunes they had brought with them. Most allowed themselves to be escorted out of the tent peacefully. One tall man with an oversized nose and narrow chin made a scene. It was almost funny, watching him being swarmed by elderly people in tuxedos, hearing him curse and wheedle. They carried him out like a child having a tantrum.
After that, my luck started to turn, but I held out, bleeding chips and then recouping some of what I’d lost a hand or two later. "Don't get greedy," I told myself. "Remember what you’re here for." But there was a perverse thrill to it all, risking so much for so little. I wondered if this is how skydivers felt when they jumped out of a perfectly good plane.
By the time things closed down for the night, I was ahead of where I started. Judging by the faces of the people filing out of the Yellow Tent alongside me, I was probably one of a select few.
Despite my aches and pains, I had no problem sleeping that night. There were dreams again, but this time they were vivid and memorable. They were filled with distorted images of a grand staircase descending into the unknown, walls bending inward, and open doors leading to revealed nothing but shadows. But one hallway drew me in, its yellow curtains swaying lazily. With each step further down the hall, the curtains moved and rippled more, and I began to hear a humming that came from either behind the veil of fabric or perhaps the fabric itself. I couldn't resist the urge
to reach out and touch the curtains; the material was damp and warm to the touch. Strange yet familiar symbols flitted out from where my fingers had brushed the fabric. The static music rose up, filling my mind with names from the lost cards of the Old Deck - Zyvrathul, Grythar, Vyraska, Astrylith.
Finally, inevitably, the hallway brought me to a dead-end alcove. That was where Marvin was waiting for me. He sat at a table with a revolver in his hand.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Waiting for you,” he answered.
“Why did you do it?”
He placed the revolver to his head, “Because I won.”
Mercifully, I woke up before he pulled the trigger.
At around ten in the morning, an Attendant delivered me a paper plate covered with warm Eggo waffles and a cup of tepid water. When I asked for seconds of both, they happily brought them to me. Six hours later, I was brought a thermos of coffee, a bag lunch containing a sandwich, and an apple. I asked if there was anything to read, and they brought me Volume 71 of Reader’s Digest condensed books. It was all I needed to pass the time until sunset.
I was almost finished with the first book in the volume when the Attendant came to fetch me. This time when I entered the Yellow Tent, I was given a square of paper and a miniature pencil. One side of the paper was a tally of my baccarat winnings, the other was blank. I ended up standing in line next to the Self-Made Millionaire. “All this... nonsense,” he said. “The Old Deck is in the hands of a lunatic.”
“What’s left of the Old Deck, you mean,” someone else commented.
I kept my silence; there were Attendants everywhere, and I knew one of them must have heard. Let someone else find visitors in their trailer tonight.
And besides, in all my studies about the Old Deck, I’d never heard of a single innocent or rational soul having it in their possession. The previous owner of the Old Deck had been a ruthless harridan who made her fortune in real estate and was supposedly secretly involved in the death of Evelyn McHale and the establishment of the National Prayer Breakfast.
It was open seating in the Yellow Tent. I chose the third row of the right corner and settled in, the pencil and paper resting on one knee. This time the suit depicted hanging over the stage depicted two symbolic figures intertwined in an otherworldly dance. This was the ninth card of the Old Deck, the sign of the Tearer of Realms.
The Mistress of Ceremonies stepped onto the stage and instructed us that we would be given three minutes to make our choice, and then the slips of paper and pencils would be collected. She further explained that we could either bet nothing at all, all our winnings, or Wager for the Deck. We were also instructed to mark down our competitor of choice as clearly as possible. Then she clapped her hands twice, and six of the Attendants filed out onto the stage, each wearing a medallion with a number around their chest.
I thought of the Owner of a Regional Supermarket Chain and the other losers from last night, their fortunes lost and their futures uncertain. I imagined them traveling home, both disappointed and relieved to have been spared this choice.
Nothing at all. All my winnings. Wager for the Deck.
What would the others be deciding for? I was sure the majority would choose the first option. Some had already lost enough. Some had won enough. And I am sure a select few just wanted to see the grotesquerie to follow.
But undoubtedly greed would drive a number of the people seated around me to risk all their winnings for the chance of an 80% payout.
Only a few of us would be mad enough to Wager for the Deck.
That decision had already been made for me; it had been made for me the day I received Marvin’s posthumous letter. All I had to worry over was which of the six Attendants to choose. I stared at each of them, trying to guess who the winner would be, and was immediately frustrated. When it came to Baccarat, I had my wits and skill to get me ahead, but now all I had to rely on was luck, and as you know, I am no fan of luck.
It was then that I noticed that Attendant number five was the broken-nosed one. After a moment’s consideration, I wrote their number down. After three minutes had passed, Attendants began to file through the rows of seats and collect our bets
They made us wait a little longer before the Mistress of Ceremonies began to walk back and forth so everyone could get a good look at the revolver she was holding. She inserted five bullets into the cylinder and gave it a spin before clicking it firmly shut.
The Attendants began to sing, six dry voices keening as one,
“Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found was blind but now I see-”
We all flinched in our seats at the sound. Attendant One crumpled to the floor, a smoldering wound in the back of their head. The Mistress of Ceremonioes moved on to the next.
“T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear. The hour I first believed-“
Attendant Two made a tiny gulping sound and pitched forward. The Mistress of Ceremonies moved on.
“Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; 'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home-”
Down went Attendant Three. We had grown used the sound now. Some of the audience leaned forward in their seats, eager and terrified, others slumped back, their posture and expression betraying the depths of their loss.
“The Lord has promised good to me. His word my hope secures. He will my shield and portion be. As long as life endures-”
Attendant Four dropped. A commotion broke out in the audience as the Smug High-Ranking Official tried to make a run for it. He went down in a swarm of black tuxedos and grasping liver- spotted hands.
“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail. And mortal life shall cease. I shall possess within the veil. A life of joy and peace-”
An audible gasp went through us all. The Mistress of Ceremonioes stepped over to the last of the Attendants.
“When we've been here ten thousand years. Bright shining as the sun. We've no less days to sing God's praise. Than when we've first begun.”
The sixth Attendant dropped. The game ended.
I spent most of the next day relaxing and watching from my window as most of the guests of the Poelzig Experience left their trailers and headed home. I made a game of it, trying to guess by their posture and gait if they were leaving empty-handed or richer than before. The ones like me, the ones that had Wagered for the Deck and won were waiting for sunset, sitting in our trailers with bonbons and champagne.
And as for the ones that had wagered and lost? Their screams had been audible all morning but by my fifth glass of champagne, I had lost interest in such considerations. Time passed slowly and pleasantly, until sometime after lunch I laid my spinning head down on my pillow and imagined what Marvin had been doing at this point in the Experience. Had been drunk and relived like me or had he been worried? Was he still trying to decide what his winnings would be or did he know what he wanted? Had he wished I was there?
As I drifted off to sleep I remembered our last conversation. I’d asked him why he’d stopped gambling and he’d said, “We never had a chance. All that waits is the Screaming Nowhere at the heart of the Engines of Creation.”
The knock on my door woke me up, it was time. The Attendant that greeted me was unfamiliar, they offered me a friendly grin. I asked the for a cigarette, of course, they had one. I enjoyed it, taking my time as they led me to the Yellow Tent. I found myself at the end of the line, which was exactly where I wanted to be. I found myself standing next to the Well-Dressed Movie Star. “You made it,” he said, his voice emotionless.
“Excited?” I made a quick count of who was left. There were eleven in all, eleven mad fools waiting for a chance to take
control of the Engines of Creation, if only for a moment. No one had been allowed in yet.
“I just...” he glanced over to the side of the old barn where a trio of Attendants were hard at work digging a deep trench into the ground. Despite the dirt and the sweaty labor they still had their tuxedos on. The bodies of Attendants One, Two, Three, Four, and Six were lying nearby. “I just want this to be over.”
“Losing your nerve?” I asked. “I could lose everything.”
And that was true. The first of us was ushered inside, I didn’t recognize the player and when they left the tent some time later they were cracking with joy. “Mine mine mine!” they shouted to the stars. The next player was ushered inside and it continued. It wasn’t until the third player entered the tent that we heard a scream. A few minutes later, a lifeless body was brought out; it was the Self-Made Millionaire, still dripping with blood as they were unceremoniously deposited into the freshly dug trench.
It took over two hours for the line to simply reach its halfway point but that was to be expected. After all, there was only one Deck, there was only one Charles Poelzig and unlike previous holders of the Old Deck, he wanted to play each game personally.
When it was the Well-Dressed Movie Star's turn, six out of the eleven among us had already been placed in the trench. It was impossible not to observe that one of them had been feebly struggling as they were thrown in.
He turned to me as one of the Attendants took him by the elbow, “Pray for me.”
And I had to laugh, how could anyone hope for a merciful God at a time like this?
The minutes ticked by, and uncertainty hung heavy in the air. I wondered to myself how many of the people who had come here
truly understood what the Old Deck was, who understood that each card represented a being described in the Nine Rebel Sermons as "Exalted beyond the realm of mortals, yet humbled by mortal frailty, bearing an essence both divine and earthly."
When the Smartly-Dressed Movie Star left the tent thirty minutes later his head was held high. He flashed me a grin, “If you make it out call me.”
Then it was my turn.
I entered the tent to see the only table left standing was the one Charles Poelzig had chosen to sit at, and two chairs were placed on either side of it. The flagpole and its fan stood undisturbed. A new flag hung from it and upon the green fabric was the image of a series of overlapping, enigmatic symbols that brought to mind the image of something being torn apart. This was the suit of the Devourer of Visions the tenth card of the Old Deck In front of it were the five defeated players from last night’s game, heads shaven and mouths wired shut. They all had knives in their hands and their brand-new tuxedos were stained with the blood of the gamblers sent to the trench outside.
Near the opposite side of tent Attendant #5 sat on a makeshift throne made from three chairs stacked atop one another. They wore a paper crown on their head and ill-filling clothes that had been salvaged from one of the new Attendants. There was a metal briefcase on their lap. There was a look in their eyes that made me think of the expression a prisoner must have after being released from a long sentence.
With every step I took closer to Charles Poelzig the louder the sound of machinery became, the grinding metal being worked by a thousand gears and motors. A taste like rust filled my mouth. It was loudest when I took my seat, even now I couldn’t tell you if the sound was coming from beneath him or from him.
He glanced up from shuffling the seven remaining cards of the Old Deck. They were made of copper, and the faces of each held
a symbol from a witch language birthed in the Screaming Nowhere. On the back of each was the sign of Ezerhodden. “You want the cards?” He asked.
“Why else would I be here?” I said.
The five freshly anointed Attendants moved to stand behind me, their knives at the ready. Poelzig smiled at me, “You were Marvin Greene’s lover.”
“Suicide,” Poelzig said, “Icarus flying too close to the sun.”
“What was his prize?” I asked.
“He’s dead. Does it matter?”
I said, “It matters to me.”
Poelzeg shook his head derisively, “Is that why you’re here? All this just to win an answer to a silly little question?”
“That’s not what I want, but I’d like to know just the same.”
He waved my question away and began to shuffle the Old Deck again. “The rules are this, I draw a card, you draw a card. The higher card wins the round. You keep your card and we begin again until the cards are gone. You win you get our prize. You lose...” he pointed to the Attendants, “and they get you.”
The absurdity was almost too much to bear, the simplest of games turned into a matter of life and death. I watched his hands as they cut and recut the deck, I knew the tricks for stacking a deck. It looked like he was playing fair.
Poelzeg set the deck down between us, “I’ll begin.”
He drew the top card uncovering a divided shape that looked like two faces connected at the center, perfectly reflecting each other.
This was the fifth suit of the Old Deck, the sign of Korvylar, the Void-Harbinger.
My draw was next, the card felt cold and metallic to the touch. My fingertips tingled after I set it down, exposing a jagged, circular glyph an insectile eye. This was the first card, Zyvrathul- the Veilweaver. It was early in the game but I still felt a tremor of fear, not the fear of dying but the fear of losing.
My expression must have been obvious because Poelzig began to smirk. “Too late to turn back now.”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I said. “Tell me what he asked for.”
“Do you think it will help you?” He selected his next card from the top of the deck. It was Xyrlith, the Abbess of Murmurs, the second suit symbolized as a fluid angular mouth-like symbol.
“Are you afraid to tell me?”
Poelzeg tapped the deck, “Draw or default.”
My card was the sixth suit, Thranok, the Desolate Conflux, a series of concentric circles, each containing an arcane spiral.
“An even score in the second round,” he said. “A rarity.” “How was Marvin doing at this point?”
He chuckled, “Are you always this tenacious? No wonder you’ve come from such a lowly background to make such a fortune.”
That stung a little, I stung back. “We can’t all inherit our wealth. Such a tragedy your parents died so young.”
Despite the provocation his voice softened, “He was winning by now, a score of thirteen.”
That was Marvin all right. Always lucky until he wasn’t. “What did he ask for?”
Poelzeg smiled wickedly, “His third card.”
I mirrored his smile, “His prize. What was his prize? Maybe I want the same thing.”
“Oh,” he laughed, “I doubt that.” “Why?”
Rather than responding, he proceeded to draw his next card, unveiling the eleventh suit known as Drak'mor, the Abyssal Chariot. This card depicted a cosmic wheel with galaxies arranged as spokes. “Oh dear. That’s eighteen to seven.”
There were only two cards left, the fourth and twelfth suit. One life and one death. My hand hovered over the deck but I dropped it back, “What did he want?”
He threw up his arms, “If I tell you will you finish the game?” I nodded. The sooner this was over the better.
Poelzeg leaned in conspiratorially, “He wanted to know always know the odds.”
“The odds?” I said, “That’s all?”
He nodded solemnly. "And that is precisely what he received - complete and utter revelation. He knew the result of every coin flip, dice roll, and outcome you could imagine.”
I heard Marvin’s voice in my head, louder than the hum of the fans, louder than the rustling of the flag, louder even than the impossible machine-like roar that churned around us.
“We never had a chance. All that waits is the Screaming Nowhere at the heart of the Engines of Creation.”
I drew my final card, Sylthara Who Bleeds at the Threshold, a line, a cross, and a curve that somehow resolved itself into a peculiar and human-like shape. The twelfth card.
And just like that, I had won. Visibly disappointed, the new Attendants slunk back to the other side of the room. Poelzeg stared at me with amusement.
“Lucky, lucky. Must be how you survived in the entertainment industry.” He waited for retaliation, but I simply looked away and turned over the last card of the deck to reveal the fourth suit of the Old Deck - Ithryndra, the Conduit of Divine Grace.
"I was supposed to do that," Poelzeg remarked.
Leaning forward, I added, "They say Ithyranda’s followers gain the gift of immortality."
His eyes sparked with interest. "Is that what you desire?"
Resting my hand on my chin, I pretended to ponder. "It depends on the true meaning of immortality."
Poelzeg huffed, "Immortality means immortality."
"You must be aware of the drawbacks," I pressed, a note of accusation creeping into my words.
"I can’t say."
"Can't or won't?" I inquired.
Poelzeg's smile wavered. "What are you going on about? Claim your prize."
"Marvin loved to cheat," I explained, "cheat at cards, cheat at business, he even cheated on me."
Poelzeg snorted, "I can't imagine why."
"He believed his Prize would make everything easy, but he received more than that, didn't he?" I continued. "You mentioned that he saw everything, every possible outcome. He didn't just know the result of each poker hand; he knew the odds of the dealer getting cancer, of the player next to him cheating on their
spouse. He couldn't even walk down the street without knowing the probability of the man on the sidewalk turning left or right."
"So?" I persisted, my voice unwavering. Poelzeg sighed, "So what?"
"You could have warned him, but it amused you not to," I accused. "What will happen to the others who played tonight?" I inquired.
"I've answered enough questions," Poelzeg replied.
I leaned back in my seat, contemplating immortality, wealth, forbidden wisdom, and hidden worlds. I had the power to choose anything I desired.
But then, memories of that fateful night in Singapore flooded my mind.
Poelzeg's eyes narrowed, his patience running thin. "What. Is. Your. Prize?"
A smile spread across my face.
When it was over, I sat alone at the table with the Old Deck. The sounds of the Engines of Creation were fading now. I wondered what the Old Deck had originally been meant to do. What strange alchemy had it been meant to work? Surely nothing like the Poelzeg Experience. Even the Nine Rebel Sermons had been unclear on that point, only saying that "Each disciple of Ezerhodden reverently received their sacred card, clutching it
tightly to their bosom, and embarked upon a solemn pilgrimage into the Verge to smite the children of Mazzikin...”
I began to shuffle the deck; there was something about the feel of those cards in your hand that made you have to shuffle them. And with each motion of my fingers, the sensation became more pleasurable. In my mind's eye, I saw how each of the missing cards had been destroyed: the first during a clandestine gathering of scholars in an ancient library, the second during a midnight ritual in a desolate cemetery during the 17th century, the third during the 19th-century Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin during a desperate performance of the Rite of Edgagor, and the fifth lost in the ruins of Tunguska. I saw the Old Deck travel the world, from a temple shrine in the Babylonian city of Kish to the bedside of Cesare Borgia to the offices of Charles Poelzeg.
Then I looked up and saw the woman in the green dress standing before me. Up close, I could see the thick pancake makeup, rouge, and eyeliner she wore. Only her lips were bare of cosmetics, and they were thin and bloodless. Despite the fact that I knew her face was flesh and blood, there was still something about her that made me think she was wearing a mask.
I handed her the Old Deck and then allowed one of the Attendants to deliver me back to the airport.
From there, my life settled into a quiet monotony. I got older, I got richer. I got married, I got divorced. I committed crimes, I avoided jail. And today, I find myself in a summer home transformed into a hospice, talking to the most foolish of my nephews.
My sources tell me you’re a horrible gambler. How much of your wife’s money have you lost over the last two years? A little over a million? A little less? If you get on that plane to Columbia you’ll
lose more. The greedy stooges behind your invitation are counting on it.
The sources that mentioned your vulnerability also informed me of the colossal statue of the Seventh Barishamada positioned at the heart of the casino amusement park you're set to visit. This statue is constructed from brass and stands at a height exceeding twenty feet. During the Festival's final night, a bonfire is kindled beneath it, enveloping the air in a symphony of screams and smoke.
that there's a statue of the Seventh Barishamada at the center of this casino slash amusement park you’ll be going to. It is over twenty feet tall and made of brass. They tell me that on the last night of the Festival, a bonfire is lit beneath it and the air fills with screams and smoke.
The same sources that revealed your vulnerability also provided me with details about this upcoming venture. They mentioned the colossal statue of the Seventh Barishamada positioned at the heart of the casino slash amusement park you're set to visit. This statue is constructed from brass and stands at a height exceeding twenty feet. I've been informed that during the Festival's final night, a bonfire is kindled beneath it, enveloping the air in a symphony of screams and smoke.
Hear me out. Don’t go. Your wife and children will burn and you will be reduced to a toothless, hairless ruin aged beyond their years.
Good. If you want to win something back, aim to reclaim your heart and soul. Be more than just a swindler and a gullible gambler.
Now, it's time for you to go. I've been told I don't have much time left, and I'd rather spend it in peace in my garden with my duck pond.