There was something wrong with that deck of cards.
I saw a jack of hearts sneak a look and then it slipped itself back into the dealer’s shoe. Looking at me, as if nothing was going on, the dealer said, “What’ll it be?”
“I would love to have that jack of hearts,” I grumbled, nodding in the direction of the shoe,“but it seems to have a mind of its own.” There was an ace lying face up on the green felt-covered table in front of me.
“Do you want a card?” the dealer asked again politely. “The house is showing 16.”
I was just about to open my yap, when, as I watched, the dealer’s hand shifted a queen of clubs out of the shoe. I knew it was a queen because it lifted its top right corner, winked at me and vanished back inside the shoe again. I got an eight of clubs. It slid in front of me, almost guided by the dealer’s hand—but not quite. The dealer gave himself a two of diamonds the usual way, and it lay there supine.
“I’m good,” I said. The dealer turned over a six of hearts. I had 19. He slid the winnings my way. The stack felt good in my hand. I was going to leave this town with money in my pocket for a change. But the dealer’s thumb was already sliding the next card my way. What the hell. I could afford one more hand.
He turned over the card. It was “my friend,” the jack of hearts. “Oh, so it’s you,” I mumbled. The cardboard rippled for an instant, almost like a breeze had managed to find its way into the casino, though I doubted the management allowed its players the pleasure of a breath of fresh air.
Was that a guffaw I heard? I looked down. The card wasn’t moving. I could have sworn that jack was laughing at me.
Come on, you little bugger, I thought. Come on. The little bugger sat still.
Then, suddenly, that damn jack of hearts card did it again. It peeked out at me just as the dealer was looking at a gorgeous creature in a very skimpy dress sidling by. I watched that jack manage to get back inside the shoe and I was now looking at a five of diamonds.
“Hey!” I said. “What’s going on here?! What kind of game are you playing?”
“Five for the player … and the house has a …” and the dealer brought a ten of clubs out of the shoe and laid it to rest smoothly in front of himself.
I wasn’t going to stand for that, when suddenly I saw in the mirror against the wall that a six-foot-tall penguin was crossing behind me. It morphed into a waiter, who stopped at my elbow: “Telephone call for the gentleman,” and morphing back into a penguin, it waddled away.
As I turned to head for the phone booth, I heard the musical sounds of instruments being tuned. Up on a dais was a four-piece band. Everything was fine and normal except for the horn player. He was playing an elephant’s trunk. It sounded pretty good actually.
Shaking my head, I walked to the phone booth. It was the front desk calling me. They wanted to know if I was planning to extend my stay, because they were full and there was someone wanting my room. Looking around, I noted a group of young women had vacated their bar stools and were now seated around the small wading pool in the middle of the room. Which was fine except that now they were mermaids: long hair twined with seaweed and precious jewels, seashells covered their breasts and each now sported one long silvery fin, where a moment before, they had been kicking up the water with their feet.
“I’m checking out,” I replied and hung up.
There are times when it doesn’t pay to ask questions. I returned to the card table and gazed at the elusive jack of hearts, now sitting next to my six of diamonds.
“Player is showing 16. The house has 17. What do you want to do?”
There was no guessing what would happen. I looked at the $50 chip on the table. Was I willing to just blow fifty? What the hell, I thought.
“Hit me,” I said as I put the handful of chips I had just won in my pocket.
The dealer gave me a two of spades. “18 to the player, 17 to the house.”
That was too much luck. “I’ll hold,” I said.
“The player wins,” said the dealer and turned his cards over and got rid of them. He pushed another pile of chips at me.
“I’m done here,” I said, loading the rest of my winnings into my overstuffed pockets and gave the dealer a chip. He nodded his thanks.
“You may cash in at the window,” said the dealer, using his chin for a pointer. “Or you can spend it here, if you like. There’s a very nice buffet in The Dragon’s Lair.”
Off in the corner of the room, I could just about make out a very effective carving of a black, gold, and red dragon draped around the entrance to a room. It was snorting smoke and a little bit of fire. Its eyes glowed iridescent green. They looked alive to me.
“What’s on the menu?” I asked the dealer, pretending to be nonchalant.
“Pretty much everything,” he replied in a pleasant if neutral tone.
I truly could not imagine what else this place was up to, and I didn’t have the nerve to see what was being served up as food. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry. I think I’ll pass.”
The dealer nodded.
I walked to the cashier’s window and turned in my chips. Receiving a bundle of cash, I walked quietly to the coat room, gave the girl one of the two chips I hadn’t cashed in. I wanted to keep one chip, just to prove to myself I had actually been in that place.
When I got to the front door, about quarter of a mile away down the well-carpeted corridor, I reached into my pocket to look at the chip. It was gone. But there was something in its place. I should have known. It was my friend, the jack of hearts.
I looked at the card. “Where do you want to go now?” it asked.
I didn’t answer, but I was laughing. What else could I do?