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More than Meets the Eye · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Three-Card Shuffle
"Yes, I knew Mary Mulvaney," I told the detective. "She was the only person I ever met who cheated at Tarot."

He nodded neutrally as he strolled around my shop, pausing for a moment to glance through the love charms and dreamcatchers, and picking up a raccoon skull from the table of animal bones. He looked a bit like a raccoon himself—sporting a subtle figure-8 tan around his eyes, the sort you saw on skiers who applied sunscreen after putting on their goggles. The tan trenchcoat he was wearing against the winter chill enhanced the effect; all he needed was a striped tail to fully look the part.

"Sorry to hear it, ma'am," he said, strolling over to the bookcase and examining the spines on the metaphysical shelf. "How much did she take you for?"

I chuckled. "No, you misunderstand. I'm talking about my fortunetelling. I read the cards for her several times, and she paid me. Paid well, I might add."

The detective paused halfway through pulling a book from the shelf, then pushed it back in and gave me his full attention. "She cheated…while you were doing the reading? I mean, I know her reputation, but how does that even work? And why would she do it?"

"Well, now, how I figured that last one out is an interesting story," I said, waggling a rounded, modestly manicured finger. "But given that you're here to find out everything you can about her, perhaps it's better if I tell it from the beginning."

He dragged a chair from my reading table up to the counter, sprawled down on it, and laced his fingers behind his head. "Leave out no detail," he said. "I've got time."

I first met Mary—as I do most of my clients—when she visited my store a few weeks back. The front door bells jingled as I was taking inventory of the herbs and candles, and she glided in as the door swung shut. Thin, smartly dressed, piercing blue eyes. She made a beeline for my reading table and sat down, straightening the lapels of her business suit and pulling out a thin billfold as I walked over. "You've got quite a reputation," she said without preamble, and laid a crisp hundred-dollar bill down on the tablecloth.

I leaned in and slid the bill back toward her. "I'm glad to hear that word-of-mouth is good," I said. "But if you're here for professional services, then let's start this off on a professional footing. I do my Tarot readings at an hourly rate, not a flat rate, so I don't take prepays. I work by appointment, because I've also got the shop to run." I looked her dead in the eye. "And I've got enough pride in my work that I'm not going to drop everything in order to fleece a gullible hotshot looking to buy a mystical experience."

She laughed—the sort of laugh where the smile reached her eyes. "It's refreshing to meet someone who actually lives up to their reputation," she said, and took back the bill. "I'm here because, from what I've heard, you won't waste my time by cold-reading me and telling me what you think I want to hear. I apologize for testing that out of the gate, but you might be surprised by how much frustration that's already saved me. So, yes, professional is good. When's your next opening?"

I glanced around the empty store, thinking. Her reaction had done a great deal to disarm my first impression—and it was the sort of day where I was taking inventory twice just to keep myself busy. So I shrugged and made a quick gesture to set the exterior front door lock and flip the store sign to "Closed".

The detective took the bait, blinking and leaning forward. "Hold on. You're a super?"

"It doesn't take a cape to flip a door sign," I said levelly. "I learned basic psychokinesis from some tutorial videos online. You know the research—about two percent of people are sensitive enough for minor effects like that."

He opened his mouth for a moment, brow furrowing, then seemed to reconsider, facial features returning to neutral. "Must be useful in your line of work," he said instead.

"Not the way you're thinking. I've got nothing to prove to my customers." I shrugged. "But it's useful in getting items from high shelves."

He leaned back in his chair. "I'm sure it is. Go on."

"I suppose I can squeeze a reading in as a courtesy to a new customer," I told Mary as I sat.

She made a show of looking around the empty store. "I get it," she said. "Pride or no, we've all got bills to pay." Then, after a short pause: "Thank you, regardless."

I nodded. "I apologize for my own earlier bluntness. We all have our time-savers."

"Speaking of which." She leaned in over the table as I dug through the chest holding my Tarot decks. "I'm letting you know ahead of time that I'm not going to be answering any inquiries about the background or context of my question. I'm also walking out at the first sign of deliberate cold reading, but I trust you not to try. I realize that this makes your job more difficult. I am prepared, if it's not an insult to your professional pride, to double your standing rate in return, and to accept that what you tell me will be accordingly more vague and less useful."

I brought my usual deck out and extended a hand over the table. "I can work with that, so long as that last part is clear. Sounds like you've got some experience with cards, Miss…?"

She laughed again, and gripped my hand firmly, her slim fingers squeezing mine with almost painful strength. "None with Tarot cards, beyond the research that brought me here. Call me Mary."

"Oh! Well." I began shuffling as I fell into my introductory patter. "So a Tarot deck is essentially a deck of playing cards—four suits, each of which has both elemental and symbolic associations, of numbered and face cards—along with a fifth, larger suit of named cards called the 'Major Arcana'. Those twenty-two cards represent more powerful forces acting on the question at hand—"

"I'm sure most of your clients appreciate the lecture," Mary interrupted, "but as I said, I did do some research. You don't need to go through the usual 'Death actually means change, The Devil is temptation rather than evil' spiel." She held out a hand palm-up. "Also, shouldn't I be the one doing the shuffling, in order to align the cards with my question?"

I handed the deck over. "Not all readers believe that's necessary, but if it makes you more comfortable, I'm happy to work with it."

She flipped the deck up and started pulling cards from one hand to the other as she admired the art, in a sort of reverse Hindu shuffle. "These are gorgeous cards," she said conversationally, going through the deck one more time before flipping the cards back over and doing a lengthy series of extremely precise riffle shuffles. Then she cut it, squared the cards off into a pristine stack that made the deck look like it had just been deboxed, and set it on the table in front of me. "Here you go. Let's get started."

The detective snorted. "You let her touch the cards. That was your first mistake."

"I didn't know, at the time," I said. "I didn't figure it out for a while."

"Pretty smart of her, though. Practicing a new technique on a mark well away from the casinos. Working the bugs out ahead of time."

"No, sir," I said, staring him straight in the eyes. "She was cheating at Tarot."

His brow furrowed—suddenly a bit too intent, showing a bit too much interest. "But it doesn't work like that. Does it? Can you change the future by palming a card?"

"No," I said. "This is an age of superpowers, but fate is fate. The deck might have given me a similar card to bring the message across differently. Or, perhaps, she would have just made my reading wrong."

"Still, she must have believed it worked that way, if she was bothering to cheat."

I held up a finger. "I'll get to that."

"I do need to know your question first," I told Mary. "I know what you said, but I need something to go on."

Mary pursed her lips for a moment. "Let's just say," she said carefully, "I've got a big job coming up, and I need to know that nothing big will go wrong."

I stared at her for a moment, then stood up. "I'm sorry, I don't think I can help you."

Her hand leapt to my arm. "Wait."

I frowned at the grab, but paused. "Tarot doesn't work like that," I said. "I read what the cards say, and the cards aren't always pleasant. You said you didn't want me to tell you what I think you want to hear, and now that's what you're asking for."

"That's really not my intention." Mary's face grew strained. "Look—do a normal reading. Don't sugar-coat it. Don't bend your standards for me. That is what I want. But that's my question."

I sighed and reluctantly sat back down—increasingly disliking this, but mollified just enough that I wasn't looking forward to making a scene by kicking her out. Finally, I figured I might as well bite the bullet, and flipped three cards over in a line. The Ace of Shields, the Six of Capes—and the Queen of Draughts.

I stared at the Queen for a moment. That changed things.

"You're starting something new," I said, pointing at the ace. "This card represents the present, so I think it's telling us that the job you talked about isn't related to any ongoing issue. As to what it is—shields is a grounded suit, associated with earth. That can mean protecting others, working on financial issues, or reconnecting with your roots. In the near future—" I pointed at the six—"you have surmounted obstacles and are learning lessons from them. Capes are the suit of momentum, of seizing the day, of applied power, or of the intervention of outside forces."

I saw the corner of her mouth twitch at that. A lot of people think cold reading is just about making vague guesses which lead the client to volunteer specific information—but you can also read people passively just by watching the way they react, and sometimes that's even more important. But I was respecting her request, so I didn't make any attempt to follow up on that.

"The long-term outcome, the Queen," I continued, "typically represents you connecting with a specific female person. Draughts is the water suit—so she might be in your personal rather than work life, or related to communication, or mysticism. So, to answer your question, I don't see any sign in the cards of disaster—the closest would be the shift in suits as you progress, meaning a situation requiring some adaptation, but even so, the job seems to be moving past its stumbling blocks, and toward an outcome tied to whatever that woman represents."

Mary nodded, staring at the cards with a focused, thoughtful expression.

"Normally," I said, "this is where we would talk about your specific situation and begin drawing more concrete detail out. I'd be happy to add some extra cards for clarification, if there's anything you're curious about, or look at choices you might be able to make which could alter the default trajectory here."

Mary blinked, finally tore her gaze away from the cards, then leaned back and let out a breath. "No," she said, "that's perfect. Exactly what I needed. Thank you."

I stared at her for long moments, wishing I had more of an opening to press for detail. "One hundred an hour, fifteen-minute minimum," I finally said.

She peeled the hundred back out of her billfold, set it down on the table—and when I took it to the counter to make change, I heard the front door bells jingle. By the time I looked up, she was already gone.

The encounter bothered me for the rest of the day. Around closing time, I went back over to the table to stare at the three cards, still out in a crooked line next to the meticulously squared-off deck. I sighed, shuffled the deck back together, and cleaned the shop again as I brooded.

I resolved to put it out of my mind. That lasted less than 24 hours. The next day, lunch break was quiet, and I found myself pacing. I glanced over at the Tarot deck, still out on the reading table. My own shuffling had left it slightly askew. I went over to straighten the deck up—and, despite my best efforts, the cards still clumped slightly, and the edges weren't razor-straight the way she'd left them.

Suddenly, I remembered what she'd said when I asked about her prior experience. "None with Tarot cards."

I went over to my computer and opened a search engine. "Mary, card sharp," I typed, then clicked "I'm Feeling Lucky."

"So that's when you figured it out," the detective said.

"Not entirely," I said. "I was playing a hunch. And I did get lucky with it, because she'd made the news."

He chuckled. "Not that lucky. I'd have been more surprised if you hadn't found something."

"Remember, this was a few weeks ago," I said. I went over to my computer, navigated to the Las Vegas Daily's website, searched the archives, and once the article I had initially found came up, I swiveled the screen over to him:

Casino Payout Under Scrutiny After Protectors Rescue

An altercation behind Le Baroque, disrupted by the superpowered Desert Protectors team, has raised questions over both a local businesswoman's winnings and the casino's actions in response.

A few facts about the incident are undisputed. Mary Mulvaney, 26, of Summerlin North, cashed out a $2 million bankroll last night after several hours at a high-stakes blackjack table. Shortly afterward, she was attacked by several men in an alleyway behind the casino. Witnesses describe the bright flash of a stun bomb at the scene, and then seeing the Protectors subduing the men. High Card and Roulette remained on the scene to detain the attackers until police arrived, and Lady Luck flew the victim home.

But beyond that, disputes about the situation have flown hot and thick.

The supers claim that, as they arrived, they overheard the men telling Mulvaney not to cross the casino again.

"This was naked retaliation," Roulette said. "It's shocking."

But Le Baroque denied involvement and made allegations of their own.

"It is unfortunate that the Protectors have been taken in by the claims of a card sharp," spokesman Eric Hurt said. "We do not attack our customers, even those with illegal intent. Our security footage shows Mary Mulvaney engaging in card manipulation during her visit. We are fully cooperating with authorities investigating the attack, and have not ruled out legal action…"

"So it was right back at the beginning," the detective said. "Did you see her again?"

"Well," I said, "that's where the story gets interesting."

I stared at the screen. Huh, I thought.

Then I grabbed my appointment book and pulled a card off the top of the Tarot deck. Two of Fists. Two burly supers punching each other in the jaw.

That made me hesitate. The Queen of Draughts was my card, yes—and I knew this was a case where I could, and should, make a difference. But the process might not be pleasant.

I drew an additional card for clarification. A Major Arcana. Justice.

I sighed, circled the noon to one slot on Sunday—two days out—and closed the book again.

Shortly after noon on Sunday, I was reading the newspaper when the door jingled. "I was wondering when you'd show up again," I said without looking up.

Mary was still for a moment. I glanced up from my reading to find her eyeing me suspiciously. "Why?" she asked.

I shrugged disarmingly and went for a little misdirection. "The first reading seemed to leave an impression. And I think we both know that the Queen of Draughts has been gnawing at you for the past two days." I set the paper down. "A female outside of your work circles, associated with mysticism and communication? I'd certainly be wondering."

Mary chuckled, her body relaxing infinitesemally. "Well, at least I know you can be wrong. What's bugging me has been the six."

"Ah. Well, never trust anyone who promises perfection." I gave her a self-deprecating smile, then waved a hand to close up, and gestured toward the reading table. "Anyway, you've got $50 store credit, and I've got an open appointment slot."

We both sat. I handed her the deck. She did her odd dual shuffle again—flip the deck, skim through the artwork as she passed the cards from one hand to the other, then a series of precise riffles. She set the squared-off deck in front of me, then fidgeted for a bit.

"Things have gotten complicated," she said. "I need to know there are no disasters on the way, again."

That did make me hesitate. "I'm going to have to draw a line here," I said. "I can't work with that question. My job is to interpret fate. You can't pay me to create an outcome."

Irritation flickered past her features. "We went through this last time. I know your job. I'm just asking you to do it."

"And what will you do if the cards don't give you what you want?"

Mary leaned in and smiled. "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it."

At that point I was pretty sure that something was up. I thought for a moment, then started flipping cards over in a circle, arranging them like the hours on a clock. "Well, we could do a reading associated with the four elements, then, and look at four different approaches you might take, telling you which way to act to get you closest to your needs." I took a moment to scan the cards, and frowned. "Or we could talk about the fact that I just laid out the largest reading I know, and drew twelve cards in a row without a single Major Arcana. Care to tell me the odds of that, Mary?"

She went very still. The corner of her mouth twitched.

"Twenty-two cards out of seventy-eight…ballpark, a little under 2 percent," she said, voice flat. "Are you here to read, or to make accusations?"

I grabbed about fifteen more cards off the deck, flipped them, and fanned them out on the table. All minors. "That depends on whether you have enough professional respect for me to let me do my job or not."

Her face twisted as I called her bluff. "What's in the deck shouldn't matter to your job!" she snapped. "You flip over a card, you tell me what it means. If your job required randomness, you wouldn't let clients touch the cards."

Well, there was nothing for it but to ride out the Two of Fists at this point. "Not understanding my job doesn't give you the right to pass judgment on it," I said icily. "I'm not a casino, Miss Mulvaney, but like them, I have rules."

She shot to her feet at her name, slamming her hands down on the table. Her teeth bared. She closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself, then continued in a low, controlled tone.

"I'm done," she said. "We agreed no details. That was the deal."

"You said no cold reading," I replied coolly. "You didn't pay me to not read the newspaper."

"Well, it's a shame you did, because this won't work now," she said, turning to leave.

I raised my voice at her back. "Then I was right. You never understood my job. Doing the best possible reading for my clients means bringing all the context I can to bear. The cards mean nothing in themselves. It's the way they match the situation that matters."

She whirled back around at that. "Big words about not judging without understanding," she snarled, "from a woman who's already judged me based on the casino's lies."

I raised an eyebrow and flipped the deck over. All 22 Major Arcana were stacked at the bottom. "Look me in the eye and tell me you're not a card sharp."

She stormed back over and swatted the deck out of my hand before I could react. Cards sprayed around the shop. "Idiot!" she shouted. "Of course I am. But you said I broke the rules. And the only reason to believe that is if you know absolutely nothing about gambling." She took a breath and continued with slightly more control. "Do you think casinos let you come within arm's reach of a blackjack deck? Their talk of card manipulation is complete bullshit. What I did to them was all counting—using knowledge of what's already been played to choose when to bet big. Manipulating the odds in your favor. They hate card counters more than anything, but it's completely legal and legitimate."

I rubbed my wrist, staring around at the mess. "Fine," I said. "You fleeced them within the rules. Please leave now."

She whirled and made a beeline for the door. Then she hesitated a few feet short of it. Stalked back over to the table as she extracted her billfold from her inside suit pocket. "Thank you for your time," she said with poor grace, slapped a hundred down on the table, and left.

The detective rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"You know," he said, "you haven't talked much about why she was cheating. I don't think that's the whole story."

"I didn't say it was," I replied. "Because she didn't tell me until after she came back."

He paused, then leaned in. "You've seen her since then?"

"Not since her disappearance, if that's what you're getting at."

He thought, then slowly nodded. "…Continue."

That was the week, of course, that everything went straight to hell.

The detective waved dismissively. "I think we all know what's been happening around the city. Let's stick to Mary."

"I beg to differ," I said. "I just told you, doing my job well requires full context. And this story is about what I discovered about her, and how. I assure you that what I learned through the news is vital context to what you came here to hear."

He harrumphed. "Why?"

"Tell me, detective. Why is Las Vegas the only city which gives supers law enforcement status?"

"Unofficial status." He crossed his arms. "They can't make arrests, but their acts are sanctioned as long as they stick to their charter."

"You know what I meant. Who's behind that?"

The detective narrowed his eyes, but humored me. "The casinos. They pull the legislative strings. They pay the chartered teams. It benefits them to clean up the area so tourists feel safe. And having them fly around the Strip on their patrols is a tourist magnet like anyone's business."

"Exactly. So the incident with Mulvaney lit the fuse of a ticking time bomb. When the Desert Protectors accused a casino of acting above the law—and threatened to shatter their image—boom, conflict of interest."

"Yes, which is why the casinos lawyered up, went on a propaganda blitz, and de-chartered the Protectors within 24 hours." He frowned. "I really don't see how this is relevant."

"Really?" I tilted my head at him, then shrugged. "Maybe the next reading I gave her will make the situation a little clearer."

As I said, that was the week everything went to hell.

Mulvaney vanished, and the media smelled blood and started digging up her checkered past. The Protectors stuck to their story about her attackers, though—and, when new evidence turned up that seemed to counter their claims, started talking about a conspiracy going up to the top to cover up Le Baroque's misdeeds. The other casinos, who had stayed out of it at the beginning, stepped in at that accusation. The Casino Consortium promoted a new superteam, the Heat, in the Protectors' place. They quickly announced to the media that the Protectors had gone rogue to aid a criminal, and promised to bring these new "supervillains" down to restore order.

There was the big battle between the Protectors and the Heat at the construction site. High Card was captured and jailed; Roulette and Lady Luck escaped. A few of the B-list supers stepped up to say they believed the Protectors were on to something. The state Superintendent of Police held a news conference clearing Le Baroque of any involvement—which didn't stop the whisper campaign. Then charters started getting pulled left and right, and the crime rate spiked amid the chaos.

It was almost enough to make me forget about Mary. Then I came out of the bathroom on the day of the big protest to find her sitting down behind my counter.

The door had been locked at the time, mind. I'd closed the retail half of the store after a series of robberies in the area, put out a "Knock to enter" sign, and was making my living just off of pre-scheduled readings.

"You nearly gave me a heart attack," I said when I got control of myself.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly—and that change in attitude from her normal cocky self to the haunted woman in my store was the only thing that kept me from throwing her immediately out. "Look. We didn't exactly part on great terms, but I need your help. I need another Tarot reading."

"A lot of people need help right now," I said. "I should be spending my time on the ones who respect my efforts."

"Yes, but a lot of people didn't draw a card representing you as the long-term outcome."

I crossed my arms. "And why should I believe you didn't put it there?"

"Because I didn't," she said, and the almost pleading way she said it gave me pause. "Yes. I manipulated your deck. I shuffled all the Major Arcana to the bottom. But it's like I said earlier about the difference between sharking the casino and breaking the rules. I wasn't disrupting the reading. I wasn't asking you to read a fixed set of cards, because I wouldn't have needed a Tarot reader for that. I was just…" She wiggled her fingers. "Giving what you do a different emphasis."

"And you don't think that kept me from giving you an accurate reading?" I snapped.

"Are you saying it did?" She spread her hands in a half-shrug. "Because the one you gave seemed pretty accurate to me."

I frowned, and was about to respond when she added: "Besides, didn't you say the cards mean nothing in themselves? It's the way they match the situation that matters."

I couldn't help letting out a short laugh. "Touche." Then I fixed her with the iciest stare I could muster up. "But if you want a reading, we're doing this my way. That's not about whether it's accurate or not—it's about showing me the same respect I'm showing you. So how desperate are you?"

"I think you know the answer to that."

I arched an eyebrow.

She sighed. "Desperate enough. Yes, your way."

We sat down at the reading table. I rummaged for a while in the chest, finally bringing out a deck and setting it between us. Mary reached for it. My hand leapt forward to cover hers as she grabbed it.

"No, quote, 'looking at the artwork'," I said. "Keep the faces toward the table. Mix the cards up all you want, but I don't want you knowing the order so that you can consciously alter it. Got it?"

She let out a breath and nodded. I retracted my hand and let her shuffle.

"The other half of this is that you're honest with me about what's going on," I said.

She paused mid-riffle at that, looking ready to bolt.

"I'm here to help." I softened my voice. "And I don't think you have anything to fear from me worse than the trouble you're already in."

Mary laughed bitterly as she handed me the deck. "You don't know the half of it."

I squared the deck off, tapped it against the table, then stared her in the eyes as I drew a card and casually flicked the Major Arcana "The High Priestess" at her.

"I think maybe I do…Lady Luck."

I paused my story for a moment to assess the detective's reaction. Not surprised in the slightest—but staring at me with a sudden intensity. I could almost see his thoughts racing behind his eyes.

He shifted in his chair, loosely balled his fist, and tapped his knuckles to his lips. "You're taking some liberties with your story," he said slowly. "With a reveal like that, you had to have already known."

"My apologies." I smiled wryly. "I hope you'll forgive a fortune-teller her flair for the dramatic. It does tend to help in my line of work."

"When did you figure it out?"

"I started getting suspicious a few days into the chaos. That's part of why the background was relevant. It would have been quite reasonable for Mary Mulvaney to vanish if she was an exposed con artist—but as an innocent victim, with a superteam backing up her story? Not to even release a statement in her own defense was a bit odd. And if she wasn't innocent, then even odder for the Protectors to so strenuously take her side. It sure seemed like they were in this as deep as she was."

"That does make sense," he murmured. "Not a large leap from there to you wondering if Lady Luck, like many supers, was hiding a cover identity. One that had suddenly been blown with the Le Baroque job going wrong."

"And then there was the card sharp skill I'd seen with my own eyes," I said. "More to the point, what she did with them. Why shuffle the Major Arcana to the bottom of the deck?"

"She was afraid of the cards showing a major disaster," the detective said. "She told you that herself."

"Yes, but she lied," I said. "She did her research—at least, enough to name some specific Major Arcana cards and their meanings. So she knew that the Major Arcana aren't all bad. She could easily have shuffled out cards like Death, the Tower, and the Devil while leaving in positive majors like Strength, Justice, and the Magician. To remove them all…that wasn't disaster avoidance. There was something else she was afraid of."

The detective looked at me, puzzled. "Like what?"

"Smart question." I gave him a smile. "May I continue?"

Mary froze up, eyes locked on the table in front of her. To be honest, I'm not certain whether the name or the card shocked her more.

"Mary," I said levelly. "This doesn't change anything. You're a client who came here for help, and I'm going to honor that. But I need to know your story to tell you where it goes next, and there's a few things I don't understand." I reached out a hand, palm up, alongside the card. "Please. Help me help you."

She visibly swallowed, eyes flicking between me and my hand. Drew in a breath. Then lowered her head.

"Lady Luck doesn't need help," she said. "She's a cape. She's a cape with fate manipulation powers. Her entire shtick is making things go her way. I'm not feeling particularly Lady Lucky right now." Mary stared at the High Priestess again, then reached out and picked it up. "And yet I can't set her aside even when I try."

"That's the nature of fate," I said. "The power's like magnetism. You turn it on to start bending things around you, and suddenly everything's attracted to you, and it doesn't stop rushing in."

"You don't have to tell me that. I've been spending the week willing coincidences not to happen with the same intensity I usually use when I want something to fall together. I'm pretty sure that's been the only things keeping Red Queen and the Heat from stumbling into me—and even so, I'm beginning to feel like it's just a matter of time." She flicked the High Priestess across the table at me. "Like with that card. Every time I've seen you, I've shuffled the majors to the bottom of the deck just to keep unbroken strings of weighty cards from cluttering the readings and tipping you off to the fact you're talking to a cape. So of course that's the first thing to get pulled the instant I lose control."

I chuckled. "Don't feel too bad. That one's my fault, actually."

A smile twitched at the corners of her lips. "I could almost believe that. It would be just my luck."

"Speaking of which." I set the deck down again and leaned on the table. "Right now I'm working from what I've heard from news reports…and that's only half the story. I need your side of the truth. Why did you run a con on Le Baroque?"

"Long story." She let out a long breath, and her face fell by degrees. "One which you deserve. So…I guess you've figured out by now that I had a pretty checkered past when I discovered I had powers. I used them to card sharp for years before I even figured out that my luck wasn't just luck. So a year or two back, I tried pulling a con on the Strip—a big one, the sort that would have set me for life. But I got careless. Really careless, to the point where the Protectors nabbed me despite bad luck breaking against them at every step.

"The Casino Consortium pulled me into a back room—said they had enough to put me away for life before they even factored the unregistered-super charges in. And they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. They needed a luck super on their side to prevent others like me from slipping through the cracks in their security, and they were willing to set me up with just enough cover identity to look like I was a clean young idealist who'd registered right as her powers manifested. It was that or public exposure and life in prison…so of course I said yes.

"In public, I was the city's darling overnight. In private, they had me on a short leash, and we both knew it. The instant I stopped dancing for them, they'd destroy me. So every once in a while, the Consortium would call me in to do some dark ops. Play enforcer against a casino trying to get away with something that might reflect badly on the rest of them. Pay off someone stirring up trouble, in a way that gave them plausible deniability if it went south.

"So when Le Baroque's habit of hiring criminals for their supers to beat up and generate good headlines got a little too close to public exposure…there were whispers that the Consortium was going to call me in to bring them back on the reservation. And the plan almost wrote itself. Get in there under my cover identity and stab them in the bankroll. Get everyone in the Consortium believing I was doing it under someone else's orders; get Le Baroque believing the Consortium was slapping them with me as a warning. Cash out while everyone was still putting two and two together. Use the money to vanish overseas and start over." Mary sighed. "I came to you to hedge my bets, getting a second opinion on fate to make sure there wasn't anything I'd overlooked. So when you talked about me moving forward after outside intervention, I almost lost my nerve. But the way you talked about it made it sound like I'd get away with it—especially since I knew I could use my luck to wriggle out of whatever attention the casinos or law enforcement threw my way."

"You never expected the Six of Capes to mean your teammates," I said.

"There were a lot of shocks that day. I was surprised to discover Le Baroque would use their goons so blatantly. Roulette and High Card were surprised when they stumbled on what they thought was a mugging and discovered it was me. Then, when I gave them the ten-second explanation, I was surprised to find out that my teammates had a conscience, and wanted to blow the lid open on Le Baroque's lawbreaking. We were all surprised when I abandoned my original plan and stuck with them. And we were all surprised again when High Card went to the Consortium and told them we were blowing the whistle on Le Baroque, in order to help them look like heroes policing themselves against a rogue bad actor—only for them to close ranks and stab us in the back."

The detective had gone very quiet as I started relaying Mary's explanation. I paused for a moment to let him digest it.

"She never told anyone about her life before her powers," he said. "It wasn't in any of her files. Just the cover information."

"I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, then," I said.

He thought for a moment, then shook his head and refocused. "You mentioned a reading?"

"Oh! Right…"

"So what do I do now?" Mary asked after she'd given me the whole story.

I let out a breath. "It's not an easy question. You don't have a lot of leverage." I tapped the cards. "But we've got these. I'll see what I can do."

"I appreciate the effort." She smiled wryly. "So how does this work when I'm not stacking the deck?"

I dealt out three cards in a line—face down—and then set the deck alongside them. "The same way," I said. "I'll even use the same spread. The present, the immediate future, and the outcome. But this time, we let fate speak. We listen to where it wants to go. And if we want to bend it—we bend it the old-fashioned way. By making better choices when the crunch points come. Not by warping the path to avoid them in the first place."

Mary nodded. "Alright. That's never how I've worked. But let's give it a try."

I gestured at the first card. I saw her wince as she flipped it face up.

A hooded cape holding a scythe, in a vast, flat field prickled with the stubble of new seedlings.


"You know," she said weakly, "I'm a little glad I read up on that whole 'Death actually represents change' bit. Because death in the present would otherwise be a little unnerving."

"I mean, yes," I said. "But sometimes a card's more literal than we give it credit for. Mary Mulvaney is essentially dead—to the extent she existed in the first place, I mean. Your career a a super is, no offense, probably just as dead. Whatever you head into next isn't going to look much like this." I tapped the card. "But there's reason for hope. A scythe harvests the fields once they've grown a crop to fruition. Look at the new seed sprouting. These cycles are necessary."

"Not much consolation," Mary said, and flipped the second card. She did a double-take.

She looked at me accusingly. I smiled disarmingly.

"I did say the first High Priestess was my fault," I said. "That wasn't part of the reading. I palmed the card to flick at you."

"Which tells me a few things," she said in a controlled voice. "That you have multiple copies of the same deck in that box. That you can card-sharp, too. And that you're willing to pull one over on me to make a point."

Before I could respond, she dug a nail under the deck on the table and twitched upward to flip it over. Major Arcana spilled in a line across the tablecloth. Four sets of 22. Just close enough in size to a normal Tarot deck that someone not very familiar with them wouldn't notice right away.

I shrugged sheepishly—then caught her gaze and leaned in. "Do you really believe what you said?" I asked softly. "That what's in the deck doesn't matter, as long as the context is right? Or were you just throwing that back in my face earlier?"

She looked away, jaw clenched.

"Not an easy question when you're not the one stacking the deck, is it?" I collected the cards again. "Look. You agreed we'd do this my way—and right now, my way is the one you showed me. Giving the reading a different emphasis. The difference is…you wanted to keep fate at a distance. And right now, I think we could use all of it we could get on our side."

"I'll reserve judgment on that until I see the outcome," she said.

The detective paused. I took a Tarot deck from beneath my counter, and started idly cutting the cards.

"And?" he prompted.

"And what?"

"What was the card?"

I took a moment to brace myself. This was the point of no return.

"I mentioned I'd shuffled multiple Major Arcana together, yes?" I grabbed a card from somewhere near the middle of the deck and flipped it out on the counter for him—a hooded cape. "A second Death."

The detective went very still.

Then he stood up, a deep scowl stretching his face. "Miss Hart. It occurs to me that you didn't actually answer my question earlier. Are you a super?"

"If I was," I said, looking him in the eyes, "I would have a legal requirement to register. And you and I both know that, if you were an actual detective, you'd have checked the law enforcement database before you ever set foot in my shop."

His expression tightened as I called his bluff—then contorted as the rest of it sank in. I could almost see the puzzle pieces clicking together.

Recognition glinted in his eyes. "You said you hadn't seen Mary since her disappearance. But your third meeting was well after Mulvaney's disappearance—and shortly before Lady Luck's. You framed it that way to test whether I knew they were the same."

"If you're implying I used that to get your identity, Roulette, I didn't need cold reading for that," I said. "I knew that from the time you walked in the door. Word got out that Mary Mulvaney visited me, so it was a near certainty you'd drop by—and the mask tan was a dead giveaway."

"Unbelievable." His scowl turned menacing. "You played me."

I softened my voice, internal warning bells jangling. "As I told you, my job requires a good grasp of context. I've been reading you to see how you would react when it came down to this. And right now, I promise you, my only job is to try to keep you from doing something you might regret."

"You killed her." The menace contorted into rage. "You got her alone and tied up a loose end, Miss Hart." He barked out a laugh. "Holy shit—how did I miss that? Regina Hart."

"Would you believe," I said, "that occasionally, a ridiculous coincidence is just that—coincidence?"

"Oh, sure," he said acidly. "Every two percent coincidence so far has been a guaranteed thing, but by sheer chance, a woman named Regina Hart is mere poker buddies with the Red Queen."

"I'm not her," I said. "I really, legitimately am not."

"Pull the other one."

I swallowed. "Okay. Fine, you don't believe me. Hypothetically, if I was the Red Queen, what would you do?"

Roulette brought his fists up and clenched them. His hands burst into flame.

"Whoah, whoah," I said, flinging my palms out as he sank into a fighting stance and shuffled toward me. "I didn't kill anyone. Please let me explain."

"I'm pretty sure you've done enough talking," Roulette said.

"Apparently not, if you're still coming to the conclusion I killed her!" I blurted out. "Didn't you hear a thing I said? I listened to her story! I believed her! I was helping her!"

"You were telling me everything I wanted to hear while the rest of the Heat closed in," he snarled. "You murderous assholes are sweeping all this under the rug for the casinos, and I'm just another loose end. After setting up that bomb blast to frame us as terrorists, don't even try pretending you're on my side."

I scrambled backward as he rounded the corner of the counter. I could feel the heat of his fists against my exposed skin. "Wait!" I said. "Can we drop this?"

Roulette's eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Drop this," I repeated. "Drop this!"

His eyes shot open as he realized I wasn't talking to him. "F—" Roulette started, as he spun around into a face full of folding chair.

He crumpled satisfyingly. His fists extinguished as he went limp on the floor.

The air shimmered as Red Queen dropped her cloaking field. She set the bent metal chair down, knelt over Roulette, and measured his pulse. I remembered to breathe.

"Well, I think I heard enough," she said. "He really didn't bomb our headquarters."

"I t-told you," I said, struggling to get my adrenaline under control. "The casinos have been playing you both."

She nodded gravely. "I believe it now. We're going to have a very interesting conversation when he wakes up."

"W-wonderful. Would you maybe hit him a little earlier next time!?"

"Next time. Sure." She smirked, then opened my counter drawer and pulled out a set of handcuffs for Roulette. "So," Red said as she applied them, "do you play poker? Turns out my Tuesday night group needs a fourth."

I sank to the floor next to her, and let out a choked laugh.

"You know," I said, "maybe I should start."

Lady Luck was silent as I finished my story. …The parts she hadn't been there for, anyhow.

"So the Heat ambushed us because they expected us to assassinate them otherwise," she murmured.

"Framing you for the bomb was crude but effective on the casinos' part," I said. "The last thing they could afford was for your groups to compare notes."

"Which Red Queen and Roulette would never have done if we hadn't faked my suspicious disappearance."

I shrugged. "It seems so simple in hindsight. Both sides had a clear stake in investigating that, and using me as a neutral third party meant Red Queen got to hear your side of the story without being poisoned by her suspicion of you. Talking her into waiting around for Roulette's arrival was simple from there—even though she didn't fully believe me at first, it was win-win for her, no matter which way he reacted."

"Unbelievable." She clasped my hands. "I can't thank you enough."

"Hey now," I said. "You're the hero. I'm no cape. But sometimes fate needs a little extra nudge."

She squinted at me.


"No cape," she said. "A rather precise choice of words. You know, you never did answer Roulette's question."

"If I was a super," I said blandly, "I'd be legally obligated to register."

Lady Luck burst into laughter.

"Interesting thing," she said. "Those words don't mean much on their own. It's the way they match the situation that matters."

I winked at her. "I'll make you into a Tarot reader yet."
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#1 · 3
· · >>horizon
I enjoyed this story:

Until about halfway through, the third or fourth time it pulled the rug out from under me. I stopped caring about what was happening because I realized everything was only going to be revealed to be another lie within a handful of paragraphs. And when I realized that Regina had been lying to me, the reader, from the very first sentence--she knows Roulette isn't a detective, but she still calls him one in the narrative--I felt a little stab of betrayal.

A way to fix that problem would be to start the story one line earlier by having Roulette introduce himself as Detective Gil Grissom of the Las Vegas Police Department or something. You could also add more about con games at the beginning. Maybe have Roulette ask Regina what a "cold reading" is since it would give you a chance to explain it to people like me who don't know and it would let Regina wonder what kind of Las Vegas cop doesn't know what a cold reading is...

The larger problem of all those rug pulls might be helped if I was more grounded in things. Let me know as early as possible that we're in Las Vegas, for instance--another reason having Roulette introduce himself as a detective at the beginning would be helpful. And we only hear about the Heat's headquarters being bombed when the Red Queen mentions it in passing after knocking Roulette out. That would've been helpful to have known earlier in the story.

In short, I'd recommend making the story longer as well as making sure that we readers get the necessary information at the time we need it. It's a lovely world, some fun characters, and an interesting situation, but I found the way it doesn't give me a chance to get my footing after each reveal to be a little off-putting.

#2 · 1
· · >>Rao >>horizon
I like this story. Doing a mystery with supermen while treating them and tarot with rules that qualify this as SF is bold.And for the most part, you carried it off. You set the rules and you kept to them, so the tarot and the powers seemed part of the accepted physics, etc. I also admire the narrative style. To say it worked well, is an understatement. The foreshadowing, for the most part was spot-on, something in first paragraphs paying off precisely before the epilogue. Nice.

The gender of the main character isn't revealed until the end. I will agree it is meaningless in this story. Had you played with the elocution, you could have gotten away with never stating it. But when it showed up, BAM! I dropped out of the story and tried to figure out if I missed something. Maybe I did.

The story has the hallmarks of not having enough time fill in missing parts. This especially occurred for me with the relationship between the supers' groups and their employers. I felt that what I needed to know to fully understand the denouement was incomplete. I will admit, that didn't ruin my enjoyment of the story, just that I feel it could much much tighter.

That said, make it tighter and try to sell it. It has to be bullet-proof logically and following its own internal rules, but the idea and execution should win over readers after some more polishing.
#3 · 1
· · >>horizon
I think this is a classic example of trying to do too much in the space provided. Before I get into things… I heard in the Discord chat that this could be an homage to the Wild Cards series of novels, but I've never read those, so take that as a baseline for my review.

I was about halfway through this story when I realized I had totally lost the scent of what was going on. I skipped back a few pages and tried again, but the same thing happened. What this really comes down to is that the story didn't engage me. There's two possible reasons I have for this.

One has been mentioned above, that being that, despite the story's desire to tell absolutely everything that's going on, everybody's lying to each other, and all of them are lying to the reader (including the narrator!). So we really can't be expected to explain what happened. Perhaps some can do it, I'm not sure, but I unfortunately can't. I needed the protagonist to ground me in the story, but she was filling me with so much hot air I could only float…

The other issue is what made me think that too much was being done for the story provided. I'm fairly certain you knew that going into this story, author, because the method of storytelling you chose is the quickest and dirtiest there is—the characters mouthing off everything they know to each other. Even if they weren't all full of shit, it's so tell-y that I'm not allowed to connect anything myself, and I float.

Another thing, and this is a minor issue, but some of the characters' names here sound like tarot cards. Lady Luck, Roullette, etc., I wasn't even sure when they were talking about cards or about characters a lot of the time.

But I will say that, of all seven entries, this one had my favourite introductory scene and hook. I was a big fan of how you pulled me in what that strange line about "cheating at tarot cards", gave a quick overview of a scene, described the characters well, and then set up exactly what this story was going to be about. I like subtlety, but I like concrete beginnings more than subtle ones. So well done!

Thanks for writing =)
#4 · 1
· · >>horizon
My first impression while I was reading this was that I liked your style of storytelling. The way you told this story was very brisk and clean, expertly leading us from one scene to the next. Your little trick of dangling a carrot in front of the reader at the end of each scene with the detective was a clever way to keep the momentum going—though I will say I started expecting them after the first few times, and they started losing their flavor. However, you organized and paced it effectively to hold together a lot of information that would have otherwise been a tedious chore to read through. This story never felt like it held my hand, but for the most part I was nodding along, thinking "Uh-huh, with you so far."

Near the end, where exposition such as Mary being dead and the tarot reader being the Red Queen emerges, I started doubting how well I'd been following along, which I think is a sign of a well-executed mystery. On the other hand, with the amount of lies going on between each of the characters throughout the story, it feels as if a smoke bomb was thrown over the entire stage, then the ending emerges to declare "This is what really happened!" and I'm kind of left at a loss. Also, I don't read many mysteries, so I'm not exactly an authority on what makes them good.

I think the ending could use some lengthening, because to me it feels like that momentum continues through the end where I would have liked it to slow down. As we have it, the train slammed on the brakes and we were still moving when it ran out of track. That's all a condition of the word constraint, of course.

I'm impressed by the scope of information this story tried to process and distill within 8k words. To a tarot newbie like me, you did a great job of explaining how the system worked, integrating it organically into the story without using a dry tutorial. The addition of supers was interesting, but I didn't see much point to it in the end. If you were looking for ways to tighten up the story you might start there.

Those are my thoughts! Hope a few of them were helpful to you.
#5 ·
· · >>horizon
A'ight author. I love you but this story annoyed me intensely. So let's just lead with quality of prose is fine, I think the idea is workable, and such.

First of all, we can add this to the list of stories this round that I really question our viewpoint character. Stories where the protagonist is ancillary to major events occurring in the world and those intrude on their life. But the story still needs to be -about- them. Fundamentally, this is a story about Mary to which the main character is merely narrating. Which typing that sentence, in and of itself, made me even more conscious about because I honestly could not recall the lead's name. I had to look at Baal's comment to remember it. And it turns out that is for a good reason, because it actually only shows up at the end!

Regina, at least as observed for the majority of the story, does not really do a lot. It is of course revealed at the end that she is more involved, but the problem with that is not only is it a fairly tail end reveal, but it is also one that raises a lot of questions that are kind of hand-waved. Why is she so interested in helping? Why does she inherently side with Mary? How does she have contact with the other super group (and enough pull to arrange what she did). There are implications, of course, but those implications do not necessarily imply the conclusions that need to be drawn.

Speaking of supers, while you use that word early, it is actually kind of unclear that you are talking about a superhero world. The bit about watching a video to learn vague psychokinesis kinda makes it unclear, especially since that actually puts me more in the mind of espers. The cape line attempts to supplement it, but it is just working against a lot of expectations since we're talking about a world where learning psychokinesis via youtube video is a thing. So I end up picturing somehting more My Hero Academia style which ends up not quite being right either. I get that you are trying to build organically, but I feel it just doesn't really end up actually providing enough detail.

This also ends up confusing because it really muddies the concept of what a "super" is, as does Regina's weasel wording about being a super. She has a demonstrable power. What does this mean in the context of the world since apparently it is enough that she can actively use it and pretend not to be a super.

Which, in fact, is sort of my broadest, largest problem with the story. The landscape feels like it is constantly shifting, with new information arriving that requires a reimagining rather frequently. A lot of details, I think, arrive a bit too late to be useful (both world and plot) leading to a very frustrating feelings of always being one-step behind the story, but less because the author is outwitting you and more because you just lack the requisite information to actually realize what's going on. Like, small example, the mask tan is supposed to be a hint about things, but that presupposes a TON of information. Starting with "Roulette - who we never actually learn anything about in this story - wears THAT kind of mask."

There is a certain smugness to the story (mostly as filtered through Regina obviously), and that is made insufferable by that feeling of being underinformed. And don't get me wrong here. Tonally you're right on for the type of story you are telling (noir/heist style elements where the lead is the smartest character in the room) but it ends up being surprisingly irritating when I as a reader am constantly having to rebuild my understanding because of newly introduced information.

And even then, we still end up missing a bit of stuff. For example, is tarot real in this world? It definitely seems to be, but I don't actually know. Is that her actual power?

Speaking of tarot, that opening line. It is a great hook, but by the end I'm really confused by it because you seem to go back and forth a lot on whether you can cheat at tarot. I mean, you state there at the opening line. Then you have her undermine that stacking the deck matters. But then you have her get super mad about stacking the deck (Which, to sidebar, I have problems with both those scenes in that the shuffling the major arcana to the bottom thing still really doesn't make any actual sense to me - do only supers get major arcana or something) and we end up... never really addressing the opening line. Near as I can tell she didn't cheat at Tarot. All the predictions were, as far as I can recall, accurate. So what even was that bit?

I'm rambling, so I'm going to round out with the the physical structure. The way this story reads is frustrating, because it basically amounts to "relevant scene from the past" "interruption to detective to explain a thing or have him be stupid" "relevant scene from the past" over and over and over. And the scenes are short enough that they really, really, really feel like interruptions. By the end I really wanted to slap him and just say "shut up and let her tell the goddamn story."

I dunno. I think you get the gist of it. If you really want I can ramble more at you about my issues but I honestly assume you just want to punch me in the mouth. So, like I said above, the actual quality of the writing is fairly on point, the idea is perfectly servicable, etc. But this rendition really, really rubbed me the wrong way.
#6 ·
· · >>horizon
Mostly want to just echo the good everyone else has dropped here. Structurally, framing it as a retelling and sprinkling in the detective asides keeps up the mystery aspect going pretty well without every feeling like there's too much exposition dump despite there being a whole lot of chatting going on.

The bit with the bombing does feel like it comes out of nowhere (bombs being significantly different from flashbangs and smoke grenade sorts of things described during the failed 'robbery'), but with a little cleanup I think there's a really cool short story here.
The gender of the main character isn't revealed until the end

To be fair, the High Priestess card referred to the Tarot reader. Though you're right, except for the Red Queen not-bait-and-switch it doesn't matter much.
#7 · 1
Oh! Uh ... thought I had another 24 hours for commentary. Didn't look too closely at the timeline, because yesterday I literally spent a 20-hour day on Search & Rescue (got up at 6 am for training, finished a full training day, got home, and promptly got a callout for a missing Alzheimer's patient that I didn't get home from until 2:45 am). So I guess I get to respond to comments instead of writing a fake review.

First, congratulations to Miller and Andrew for their medals!

Second, how the heck did I not get universally guessed for this? An overcomplicated mess about Tarot? I mean, that's like Cold in Gardez writing a war story. ;-p

I am grateful for the general commentary here. By way of general explanation: As noted in the thread, the deadline kind of cold-cocked me. I only realized several crucial facts halfway through writing -- most notably, the fact that Lady Luck's team got accused by the casinos of bombing the Red Queen's team's headquarters, and that was the big reason for the bad blood between them -- and never got to go back and update the front half of the story for adequate foreshadowing. Detective-style mysteries are very, VERY hard to do on a Writeoff timescale, because you walk a heck of a tightrope between making the reveal too obvious and making the reader give up. The whole "smug" thing is a separate problem; it's a common pitfall of the genre, but there are certainly ways to mitigate it, which I will try to work in if I throw this on the edit queue.

>>Rao >>scifipony
Perhaps it was easy to miss, but the gender of the main character is explictly revealed three paragraphs in:
"Sorry to hear it, ma'am," [the detective] said,

Regina's name, on the other hand, was another one of those last-minute additions that I didn't get to fix on the front end. And yes, I would have loved to red-herring her as the Red Queen from much earlier on, so that Red's appearance was a surprise reveal instead of a left-field problem.

I'm not really happy with the way I managed the Roulette interludes either, but I added them when I realized I needed the framing story to set up the climax, and running short on time leads to bad decisions. :|

Running short on wordcount certainly didn't help, either. There needed to be about 1k more words to keep the pacing on track before everything collided at the end. As it is, I feel like it's a minor miracle that I was able to pull things together well enough for third place.

So, yeah, no arguments with the callout. (I will totally die on the hill of A Christmas Carl's last two sentences, though, if you want to have the obligatory silly Writeoff argument over minutiae, or something)

>>Baal Bunny
The suggestion about Roulette's introduction is wonderful - thank you!

That's about it, I think. Thanks again, everyone.
(cc: >>Rocket Lawn Chair >>Miller Minus)