by Caroline Spector
A lean man wearing a rumpled suit opened the door to Sal’s Place, letting a gust of air conditioning out into the Vegas night. He looked tired and dejected.
Sal’s Place wasn’t crowded. Sitting alone at one end of the front bar was a statuesque older woman of indeterminant age. She had a dancer’s posture. Her red hair was shot with silver.
At the other end of the bar was a pretty joker whose only deformity appeared to be a beak for a nose and bright blue feathers instead of hair. In one dark corner, a young couple were playing Twister with their tongues.
He slid onto a stool in the middle of the front bar halfway between the two women.
“What’ll be?” the bartender asked.
“Do you have any decent bourbon? Whatever you have that’s top shelf.”
The bartender nodded, then retrieved a bottle of Maker’s Mark Private Select and held it out for inspection. The man nodded.
“Make it a double,” he said.
“This stuff has a kick like a mule.”
“Just what I need,” the man replied.
“Rough night?” the older woman asked.
“Rough life,” he replied.
“Are you sure you should be putting that Maker’s Mark away so fast?” the older woman asked. “It’s supposed to be sipped.”
“Oh, hell yeah. There’s nothing better to numb your pain than a really good bourbon,” he replied, feeling a pleasant buzz. “Hey, what’s your name? Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’m Susie,” she replied, propping her elbow up on the bar. She tucked her hand under her chin and considered him. She smiled at him as if she were indulging a child. “At the moment, I’m fine with what I’m drinking.”
“I’m not trying to pick you up,” he said. “Though you are really pretty for your age. I’m Toby.”
She gave him a wry smile. “High praise, indeed.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said, taking another sip of the bourbon. It had honey undertones and slid down his throat like fire. Normally, he might have stopped to appreciate it, but not this evening. “I just lack a filter. It isn’t a wild card or anything like that. Just the way I’m built.”
Susie took a sip of her drink. “And would being a wild card be so terrible?”
“Depends,” he replied. “On what you got. I mean, you definitely don’t want a Black Queen because that’s a hard way to die. So that’s pretty obvious.”
“Yes, it is a hard way to die,” chirped the bird-lady. “But having a wild card doesn’t mean your life is over.”
“But, it does doesn’t it,” the man said. “What you thought was your life is over. Would you really prefer to be like that?” He gestured in her general direction. “Or be what you were before you changed?”
The bird lady glared at him.
“You’re an ass,” she said. She chirped as she dug into her bag and fished out a twenty, holding it out to the bartender.
“Nah,” the bartender said. “This one is on the house.”
“I’ll pay for hers,” Toby said. “I really am an ass. Hard to argue with that.”
“Is this a one-time thing, or really a ongoing condition?” Susie asked. She gave the bird woman a sympathetic smile. The bird woman gave Toby one last glower and left.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My best friend turned and now he’s a joker. And not a pretty one like her.” He gestured to the doorway where the bird lady had left. “Nope. He’s got suckers all over his body. Like the kind that attach to windows. Like suction cups.”
“Sounds pretty bad. Can you still talk to him?”
“Yeah, except people keep sticking him to windows and leaving him there. Then tourists come by and take pictures of him until someone – usually me – shows up and takes him down. And it hurts him when he gets popped off the glass. Makes an awful sound.”
“That’s pretty bad,” Susie said, taking a sip of her drink.
“Yeah, it’s fuc…fricking horrible. That’s why I say, if you have to have a wild card, being a deuce is the way to go.”
Susie looked surprised. “Not an ace?”
“Oh, hell no,” he said fervently. “There’s no way I’d want to be an ace. Look at what happened to those people who were on American Hero.”
“Well, I never much cared for that show,” she said. “Too many people running around being cruel to one another.”
“Hate the game — not the player,” Toby said. He took a healthy slug from his glass. The bartender looked dismayed as if it hurt him to see fine bourbon tossed back like it was a Jello-shot at a frat party. “Anyway, that girl who could grow anything? Gardner? She ended up going to work for the Committee and that didn’t end well for her.”
“What about Golden Boy?” Susie asked.
“Okay, I’ll give you that one. Guy’s invincible far as anyone knows. Chicks dig him. He’s rich. And if my sister is to be believed, ‘still hotter than an F-1 engine going at top speed.’ She likes Formula One racing. Oh, and he doesn’t age. Yeah, give me some of that action. But for every Golden Boy there’s some ace who just has to use their power for good or bad. And no matter what, people get hurt. Regular people.”
“Doesn’t that make some of them heroic?” Susie asked.
“Heroic is bullshit,” Toby said, abusing the bourbon once again. “It’s for chumps. No, if I have to go with a wild card, I want to be a deuce.”
Susie smiled at him. He moved down a couple of stools until there was one seat between them. He didn’t want to get too close and give her the wrong idea. Though she was beginning to look like a great idea.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Susie said. “Why a deuce and not an ace.”
“Like I said, no one bothers you if you’re a deuce. You have a useless ability that, if you’re careful, no one will know you have. You can pass as a nat.”
The bartender put another drink in front of Susie as if this was a well-worn ritual. “Snacks coming, Susie,” the bartender said.
“Bring him a plate, he’s going to need it.” She turned back to Toby who was staring at the bottom of his shot glass as if it had answers. Maybe for him it did. “What’s so great about passing?” she asked.
“Are you kidding? It’s by far the best Get Out of Jail Free wild card there is. I mean, if you don’t mind being pretty much useless.”
“You think deuces are useless?”
“You certainly have a lot of opinions about wild cards,” she said. The bartender put a plate with stuffed mushroom caps in front of her. She bit into one and smiled. “The cook is on tonight.”
“Who doesn’t have an opinion?” he replied. “You can’t get away from them. Almost eighty years since Wild Cards day. And they’re everywhere.”
“So, you’re okay with wild carders as long as you don’t have to know about them”
“Hey, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Susie gave him an indulgent smile. “I’m sure you didn’t.”
Toby shook his head. “Like I said, I got no filter.”
“You stay here, Toby,” she said, getting up from her stool. Suddenly, she began to glow. Her skin glistened and Toby began to sweat. “Have a drink on me. Looks like you need it.”
“You’re . . . you’re an ace,” Toby stuttered. “Oh my God, I never . . .”
“Nope,” she said, standing. Then she smoothed out her trousers. “Just a deuce. But it served me well when I wanted or needed it to. You’d be surprised how useful a deuce can be.”
She walked to the kitchen doorway, and as she vanished through it, the room was cast back into its low blue light.
Toby stared at the door.
“She . . . I mean . . .”
The bartender poured a shot into Toby’s glass. “I was such an asshole. I didn’t know she worked here.”
“Doesn’t work here, kid,” the bartender said despite the fact that Toby was anything but a kid. “She owns the joint. Used to be a featured dancer back in the day. Her trademark was that glow. Always had it when she was featured in a show. Moved away then came back to Vegas to retire.”
“I . . .” Toby stammered. “I never meant to . . .”
“It’s okay, kid,” the bartender said. “You’re pretty drunk. I’m going to call you a cab.”
“Okay,” Toby said meekly. “I really am sorry. It was a rough day.”
“Yeah, got fired from my job.”
“That is rough. Whaddya do?”
The bartender let that sit for a moment.
“I think you need a different line of work,” the bartender said.
For more about Wild Card deuces, check out DEUCES DOWN, a stand-alone collection of stories set in the Wild Card universe. Want to wet your whistle with more about jokers? FORT FREAK and JOKER MOON will be right up your alley. And if you’re into dark stories about the price of power, you should definitely get into Wild Cards. We’re here waiting for you to join us.