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The Black Cards

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Estimated reading time — 10 minutes

I met Archie Palmer, for the first time in over three years about two weeks ago. Predictably enough I’d crossed paths with him as he stumbled shiftily out from a betting shop, where he assured me he had just put down a ‘deposit’ on three ‘dead certs’. Judging by Archie’s previous success on his ‘dead certs’, or rather his lack of, I was somewhat less than convinced and decided not to take him up on his tips and have a splurge myself. 

I recognised him immediately of course. With someone like Archie it is sort of hard not to, but I think it’s safe to say that I’d have recognised any of the old crew was I to pass them in the street. Not that there’s much chance of that nowadays of course. It’s not that we were family, colleagues or even what you might call close friends, but when you go to the same casino day after day, pass the same machines and tables, see the same people standing, as if mesmerised, like a snake before a charmer’s flute, by the glow of the machine or the dealer’s deft hands, you build a sort of camaraderie. 

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Personally, I had never been one for actually gambling at the casinos. I much preferred to do my gambling with the faceless distance of websites like casinopilot, or bet-on-anything, where I didn’t have to interact with an actual dealer and didn’t have the distractions of my other vices to stop me from winning. I had, however, done a long stretch working in one. 

The Mauritizia Gardens wasn’t one of the more well known casinos, but it employed all the same tricks. Removing the clocks and making sure that the place didn’t have windows, a tactic meant to disorient the punters, removing the usual indicators of hours flying by, so that they got sucked into losing track of time as well as their money. 

At first, working in such an environment drove me insane. I’d worked boring jobs before where I spent much of the day clock watching, counting minutes till my shift was over, at the time I’d thought that was bad, but now, now I’d take a place where time is actually measured over somewhere where it seems to stand still, any day of the week. It was so frustrating to not know whether you had twenty minutes or two hours left of your shift, that I eventually started to break protocol and smuggle my phone in with me, set to periodic alarms that would vibrate in my pocket and tell me the passing of each hour. 

One day, Archie noticed these strange vibrations coming from pocket and with the desperation of a prisoner who had just heard there was an escape plan, cornered me and asked me to help him.

“There’s a group of us, come in here at least three times a week. We usually arrive together but we never leave as a group because one or the other of us always loses track of time, you know what it’s like in these places”. I nodded that I did, but that I wasn’t sure what he thought I could help him with. 

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“If you could just give me a nod. Just a tap on the shoulder or a wink, nothing too over the top, just to let me know when your shift is over and then, I’ll know it’s time to stop and time to go home, I can round up the others and we’ll be off, together for once.” This was my first encounter with Archie and something about the way he asked so earnestly endeared me to him. I agreed to let him know every time I neared the end of my shift and over the next three years, I did exactly that. 

Every time I would tell him and every time he would nod back to me in acknowledgement and indicate that he’d leave after this run, or once this game was over because he was ‘on a lucky one’ or ‘about to hit the jackpot’ the machine always being ‘ready to drop’ or the correct card , that had been hiding in the pack, ready to come out. Never once did he and the others leave on time, or together. 

Seeing him that day, standing outside of the betting shop I realised that it was the first time I had seen him in the daylight. He smiled when he saw me and waved, throwing me that genuine, but always slightly apologetic smile common to all addicts. 

“Hey there! Long time no see.” he announced loudly “Must’ve been seeing you with my bad eye”, he joked. Archie, I should explain, had one glass eye, that he never seemed to be able to keep facing the same direction as the other. He often joked that he had lost his eye in a game of cards with some Russian gangster, but had confided to me once that he actually lost it in an accident at work and had been paid a pretty penny in compensation for it. A large chunk of which I was sure, he had then used as capital at the tables or on the machines. 

I told him he looked well and even made a fuss of how much weight he seemed to have put on. In truth he did seem to have gained around thirty pounds since I last saw him. His hair, for once seemed to be combed and arranged well, whilst his skin seemed to have lost the sallow, yellowish tinge it always seemed to possess when I saw him at the casino. 

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He explained that he was doing better healthwise recently and attributed it to changing his habits. He told me, as if professing to having remained sober for a year, that  hadn’t been to a casino in over six months. I’ll admit, for a moment i wondered whether he was joking with me, but then realised the time of day and the fact that in the three years I worked at the Mauritizia Gardens Archie had always been there at this hour. I patted him on the back and said that was probably for the best and jokingly asked him if all the money had run out. 

All of a sudden his smile, which only moments before had been beaming, seemed to slide downwards, as if dragged to the floor by the weight of his thoughts. He went quiet and stared at the ground. 

“No.” he mumbled “It ain’t that. It’s just, recently, well…” he took a long sigh and kicking, as if distracted, at a piece of trash that lay between us said,

“Well, recently there’s been a lot of the Black Card being dealt”.

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 He coughed after this statement, as if trying to cover up or mask the fact that he had mentioned it all. I regarded him curiously. Archie himself had been the one who, during one of his few breaks from the tables one day, had originally told me about the ‘Black Cards’. At the time I thought he’d been playing a joke on me, or having me on. It was only later when I heard the same, or at least similar versions of the  story from others that I realised it was quite a wide spread myth. Even then, I had never expected it to affect Archie quite so much and certainly not be the type of thing that would  finally get him out of the casinos. Talking to him that afternoon however, I realised that the story hadn’t just gotten to him, it had terrified him. He hadn’t left the casino because he’d wanted to, he had left out of fear. 

The black cards, I should explain, is a curious little myth that seems to circulate only amongst the denizens of various casinos up and own the country. I have tried looking it up since at the library and online and have only ever found scraps about it that never quite amounted to a full story. This is in contrast to the way it was spoken of within the halls of the casinos, where it is whispered with reverence and has been such a long established piece of folklore that it has multiple versions and variations in detail. 

The essential idea behind the myth is that the ‘black card’ which isn’t in fact black at all, but simply named that, can be dealt at any time by any dealer. The general idea is that in place of a suited card, in the traditional clubs, spades, diamonds or hearts, the player is dealt a card not from a traditional playing deck, but from the tarot. The Death card, 

Whilst I have been assured by a number of people who use the tarot and even swear by it as a diving tool, that the death card does not in fact indicate the possibility of a literal death, but rather some period of transition or change, this is not what it means to those playing in the casinos. Any person or persons dealt the death card by the dealer during a game is said to have less than a few days to live. The ‘black card’ myth essentially turns every card based game in every casino, into a game of russian roulette. Every card dealt to you could potentially be the indicator, the one emblazoned with that grinning skeletal visitor with whom there is no argument and no bargaining. 

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You would assume of course that, playing on this superstition, there  must have been many dealers over the years, who had mixed one of these fabled cards into the deck as a joke. Not so. 

According to Archie, the ‘black cards’ myth was taken seriously within the casino world and any young dealer who decided to try to be funny, would be treated with the same level of disdain as a new actor who insisted upon saying the word ‘Macbeth’ backstage at his first performance. It just wasn’t done.

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Explanations of how the cards actually ended up there in the first place varied. Some said that the dealer who dealt the cards was a witch, who having gained the power to deal these fatal cards, took revenge against the world that had shunned her by getting herself hired as a dealer and doling them out randomly at poker tables across the country. 

Others said that the dealer was death himself. That nobody at the table recognised or paid any attention to the dealer when they set down to play, but only to their cards and the dealers hands as they laid the cards out. Only once the fatal ‘black card’ had been dealt, did the others at the table realise that they could not remember the dealer’s face or give a description of what he looked like if asked, and of course once the card fell, none of them dared to look. 

According to Archie when he first told me the story, everybody knew at least one person who had seen a black card or who knew someone who had died because of it. The threat was not enough to put him or the others off going to the table, but the idea  did remain there, lurking like a shadow at the back of his mind, every time he played. Recently however, the shadow had grown bigger, heavier and far, far closer.

 

“Edna, Murial and Big Dave. All three of them are gone”. These were characters I knew and remembered well from my time at the Mauritizia Gardens. “Big Dave’ as he was sarcastically nicknamed was a little person, who, standing at only around four feet, had a special stool set up at one of the tables that he frequented almost every day. I had personally put that chair in place a few times and knew Dave, a constant joker, well. News of his passing as well as those of the two ladies made me feel strangely hollow inside. There was however, according to Archie at least, more to the story. 

“They’d all had one. All had a black card I mean. Edna was first, at the poker table. Her scream almost brought the roof in. Two days later, she was dead. After that none of the others would play cards at that casino, but a few days lanter Dave got one at another place about a quarter mile away. He tried to laugh it off and even carried it around with him, like it was some sort of joke. Had it sticking out of the breast pocket of that jacket he always used to wear. Within a week, he’d died”.

“At his funeral the rest of us agreed not to go to any of the casinos in the area, not to sit down at a card table or let anyone deal us a hand, at least for the next few months. None of us stuck to it. Even me. I could feel myself sweating every time a new card was dealt, something different to the excitement or the fear you got turning over your cards usually. Now, I was wondering whether this would be the last time. The last card I would ever be dealt. When I heard that Muriel had gotten one, I went to visit her. I’d never seen her outside of the casino before, except at Dave’s funeral. She seemed like a different person. The following day she had an aneurysm and died. That was it for me.”

“I haven’t been back to a card table since. They say it comes in sixes. Six people in a small concentration like one casino or one town. I swore I wouldn’t pick up another card until I knew six had gone. Apparently there was another one last week. Nobody I knew, but still, another black card. The fella got up and ran out screaming when he saw it, but the card itself was sold on by someone who snapped it up. Apparently, it was from a very rare deck, from the eighteen hundreds in France or Switzerland or somewhere, a proper antique. One card from a whole pack, but worth hundreds.” 

I nodded, that I understood, but as I did, my mind was racing. There were usually six. Four had gone, which meant there were two left. 

“Anyway, where did you just up and disappear to? We used to look forward to your shifts. Dave and I used to call you ‘The Timekeeper’ then one day you just stopped showing up…” I smiled and made some excuse, then wished Archie goodbye, saying that it was great to see him and that maybe he should try to see the sunlight more often, black card or no black card. In response to his question about abruptly leaving my job, I told him vaguely, that.

“I had my reasons”.

I know you probably don’t believe Archie. That this ‘Black Card’ nonsense just sounds like a load of superstitious mumbo jumbo. To me though, it sounded like a chance. 

For the past week I have visited every casino within a thirty mile radius. I have spent upwards of ten thousand dollars at the card tables, lost far more than I have won in monetary terms and never once did I care if I won or lost. I wasn’t looking for a win, I was looking for that card. Table after table, hand after hand, with every card I waited and wished, hoped that this time, this time, I would not see some brightly coloured suit, some heart or diamond, but death, in all his awful majesty, staring back at me.  It was two days ago that I finally found it. 

A dealer, whose face, even now, I could not describe and who I could not even identify as a man or a woman, swiped it out with practiced dexterity toward me and strangely, even before it was turned over, I knew. Somehow, just as I looked at the card face down, I knew what was underneath, as if someone or something were communicating with me, letting me know what was to come, before it did. 

The diagnosis had come two years ago. In the past year the pain had been almost unbearable and I had quit my job to take care of her. I had watched, helpless, as the woman I loved turned from a beautiful confident ball of energy, to a twisted, agonised shell. A husk of her former self. 

I’d campaigned for euthanasia, for changes to law, talked with lawyers about my position. I had tried to book flights and a slot at the dignitas clinic in Switzerland, only for covid and flight restrictions to snatch even that exit from us. She had asked me many times to end it for her. To use a pillow, feed her sleeping pills or even strangle her, but I couldn’t. Whether through cowardice, love or something else, I simply couldn’t bring myself to end her life, to give her the one thing she wanted more than anything. 

As I watched her turn the card, struggling as she did nowadays, to control her hands, I heard those around us shriek. One woman began to wail whilst another crossed herself and threw down her cards, pushing away from the table as if it were on fire. I, on the other hand simply stared. Stared down at the grinning death’s head, at the hollow nothing of its pit like eyes, emptier than the space within an zero and saw within the black it contained a immense and never ending well of mercy. I turned to my wife and mirroring the skull that stared up from the card, both of us broke, into a smile. 

Written by Andrew Parish

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