It was a bad night, the kind of night that left me wondering why I'd turned to this profession in the first place. Jesucristo, if I wanted to starve, I could do it just as well without the miniskirt and pearls. I could feel Ernesto trembling through his shoulder pressed against my hip, and let me tell you, that's no good feeling.
"What's the damages?" I asked, digging a cigarette out of Ernesto's pocket. He had no taste for them, but it was either that or order another burgundy, and the room was already spinning.
"What?" Ernesto hated it when I talked during business--his business, of course, not mine--but I figured I had a right to know if we still had enough to pay rent for the month. Or the night.
"The damages, handsome. What'd you lose?"
"Mierde, I don't know. Money, lots of it. And the house at Plazeula de los Angeles."
I bit off the end of my cigarette. Ernesto never gambled on his houses, I mean, never. I wound up sucking little flakes of tobacco out of the cig just to keep from asking how much money "lots" involved. I knew what the pearls around my wrists had cost, and it wasn't petty cash.
"So that's it then. We're going home."
"Shut up," Ernesto said, with the glint in his right eye--the blue one, the one that made me think of ghosts and angels--that said I had better follow orders, or my eyes were going to start changing colors.
I looked up and saw a man winding through the crowd, his long leather coat about three decades out of fashion and three centuries out of my budget. Little gold-and-diamond buttons glittered as he perched himself on the stool across the table from us, and I knew it was his first time in the Gambling House at Calle de Truco.
Ernesto must have been thinking the same thing. He got a hungry snarl like he was looking to devour the whole table, wooden gambling chips and all. Smart gamblers don't wear jewelry to Truco, and our new friend certainly didn't look like anybody's chaperon.
Not that he wasn't pretty enough for it. I'd called Ernesto handsome, and I wasn't lying; his skin was a smooth Guanajuato gold, and even with the skew eyes, his face looked like some high-end artist's vision of strength and masculinity. Or something like that. Anyways, diamond-buttons looked like that same artist was trying to paint Lucifer just before the Fall. Hell-black hair, chocolate-colored eyes, lips like cherries from a Compadre and skin that made my pearls look yellow. I'm not what you'd call flighty, but if Ernesto didn't have the money to take me home tonight, I had a good guess where I might end up.
"Good evening," Diamonds said, like we were old friends meeting in some flashy restaurant instead of strangers choking on the same stale cigar smoke in Truco"s house of sin.
"I ain't here for conversation," Ernesto said. "Either give me something I can use, or go find your own party."
To my amazement--to say nothing of Ernesto's--Diamonds ignored him. "Those bracelets are exquisite," he said to me. "But, if I may be so bold, they pale beside your beauty." And then, I swear to Hell and back, he blushed.
"You read too many romances," I snorted, but I couldn't deny the little shiver that his voice sent creeping up my spine. Sure, his lines were cheaper than the House's brandy, but he seemed genuine enough.
And no, you don't need to tell me how bloody stupid that is. I figured it out for myself, thanks.
"If you're done seducing my companion…" Ernesto said, and let it hang there.
Diamonds turned to him with a smile that could have melted marble. "You've had a bad night, haven't you, Don Ernesto?"
"Mierde!" Ernesto snapped, which was as close as you could get to a yes. It didn't take an Einstein to see that he was pissed at the bouncer for handing his name out.
Diamonds leaned across the table, folding his hands in front of him like a good little boy at Sunday Mass. "What if I told you there was a way to get back everything you've lost tonight?"
"I'd say you were in with the Devil. All right, damn it, talk. How do I get it back?"
"One play," Diamonds said. "First three cards you pull. Highest sum wins."
Ernesto scowled. "I don't have anything more to bet."
"What about…" Diamonds began, and finished the sentence in English.
Mama always said my father spoke English, and I can't hear the bloody language without imagining him whispering lies in Mama's ear; so it shouldn't come as a surprise when I say I don't speak a word of it. What did surprise me was that Diamonds had noticed. I mean, I don't look like Audrey Hepburn or nothing, but out of the two of us, I could pass for States before Ernesto by a mile and a half.
So I had no idea what had tipped Diamonds off, but I wasn't worrying about that just then--or about the fact that Ernesto was keeping secrets from me, because let's face the facts, nobody takes my job because they're looking for honesty and equal share. Something else was starting to chew at me like a starving dog.
"Ernesto…" I nudged him, but he slapped my hand away.
"Ernesto, look! There's no bouncer!"
"Do I look like I care?"
If there's no bouncer, who do you think handed your name out to your new best friend? I wanted to snap at him, but my little finger was already starting to turn purple, and I didn't want to pick a fight in the middle of Truco. Not unless I had gut-solid reason.
Ernesto turned to Diamonds and said, still in Spanish because I don't think he's all the way bright enough to switch languages unless someone leads him in, "I'm in. But we play to the highest card."
Diamonds smiled and shook his head. "Highest sum."
I knew the reason Ernesto wanted to play highest card. I knew because it was digging into the skin of my thigh, warm and softened from use; the King of Spades. Ernesto liked to keep it there, caught between my leather skirt and my own hot skin, and I knew it wasn't for sentimental reasons. But I didn't know how much Diamonds knew, or how much Ernesto had guessed, and I started to wonder 'til it hurt just what Diamonds had convinced Ernesto to bet on.
"All right," Ernesto muttered. "Highest sum. You draw first."
He set his deck on the table, but Diamonds reached a hand up his flashy leather sleeve. "Actually," he said, smooth as snakeskin, "I thought we could use mine."
He slammed them out, this stack of huge fluttery cards with a putrid design on the back, like a woman wrapped around with thousands of tiny snakes. Ernesto shrugged, as if to say he didn't see the reason for it but go ahead, it's your move anyway.
Diamonds held the deck out for me to shuffle. I'm no flashy House dealer or nothing, but I got those revolting cards good and mixed up and centered on the table top. Then Diamonds stretched out his long white fingers and pulled the top card off.
Six of spades.
"Your move," he whispered, as if he thought talking too loudly would disturb the cards. Ernesto lifted the next card; two of hearts.
Diamonds nodded and flipped the next one out onto the table next to his first. I gasped, pressing my hands over my mouth at the last minute to muffle the sound. Ernesto's blue eye gleamed, his brown eye narrowed like a trap about to spring.
"Six of spades," Diamonds said lightly.
"You cheating hijo de puta!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You can't pull the same card twice! What kind of deck is this?"
Diamonds raised an eyebrow. "My deck, which you agreed to play with. You never specified that all fifty-two cards must be different."
"I don't know where you come from, carbon, but that's how we play in Calle de Truco."
The whole table shook as Diamonds leaned across it, his face composed as ever. Only his voice was different, tighter, dripping with venom. "You don't want to know where I'm from, Don Ernesto. You've made the Devil's deal, and unless you want to sign it in blood, you'll pull the next card."
With a snarl, Ernesto took out the three of spades.
"Five to twelve," Diamonds said, lifting a third six of spades. He lined them up in front of him, with his white hands resting on either side.
Five to twelve. Mierde, I thought, there's no goddamn way for us to win. Better hope to Hell a tie is good enough. I felt Ernesto's hand fumbling up my skirt and made sure to mask the motion with a good-luck kiss. Diamonds watched impassively, and whether he knew what we were doing or not…well, that doesn't matter now, does it?
Ernesto made a show of reaching for the deck, sliding his king down into his hand. They were two different decks, I realized suddenly, my heart fluttering like a drunken butterfly. How did Ernesto think he was going to pass it off?
All protest stuck in my throat as he lay the card down, face-up and smiling like the Devil.
"¡Hijo de puta!"
"Ah," Diamonds said. "The Queen of Spades."
"No," I whispered. No, it wasn't possible! I had put the King there just that morning. And this card…this wasn't Ernesto's card, with its etching of roses and bare-breasted nymphs. From the pattern on the back, the woman stared out at me from her prison of snakes.
"Eighteen to seventeen. Eighteen wins," Diamonds said. "But don't feel too poorly, Don Ernesto. You played well."
He stood, sweeping the cards from the table into a black velvet bag he had pulled from his pocket. "And now, if you'd be so kind, I'll just collect my winnings and be on my way."
On the stool beside me, Ernesto looked like he was being wrapped in snakes himself.
"Ernesto?" I leaned over. "Hey, handsome, what did he win?"
Diamonds moved around the table until he was standing on my other side. Slowly, as though he were trying to catch a wild animal, he wrapped an icy hand around my wrist. Ernesto said nothing.
"Ernesto! What did he win?" I tried to pull my hand back, but Diamonds gripped like a vise. Ernesto turned away, his shoulders shaking roughly. Then I knew.
A smile snaked across Diamond's face, splitting his red lips open around sharp white teeth. How did I ever think him beautiful?
"Ernesto, please!" But he said nothing more, only dragged himself to his feet and stumbled off into the Gambling House. No one else looked up from their game, though I was screaming at the top of my lungs, dragging and biting at Diamond's hand. I'm in a nightmare, I thought to myself, trapped in a nightmare, like all the stupid princesses in Mama's stories.
"Come on, darling," Diamonds whispered against my neck. I don't know if he was kissing me or biting me, but it burned like hellfire. He straightened up and began to drag me towards the door.
"Wait!" One last question before we're out the door, I prayed, just let him answer one question.
He turned to me with a sneer.
"I want to know your name."
Diamonds raised an eyebrow. "Haven't you guessed already?" When I shook my head, he shrugged and gestured to the gambling table, where three black marks were burned into the wood, lined up straight between the prints of his two white hands. 666.
"Jesucristo," I whispered.
"Unlikely," he said. He turned and began walking towards the door.
And I followed the devil out onto Calle de Truco.
Monday, August 11, 2014