"Playing for the high one, dancing with the devil
Going with the flow, it's all a game to me
Seven or eleven, snake eyes watching you" – Ace of Spades, Motorhead
I shuffled the deck of cards, fanned them out on the sticky tabletop in front of me, picture side down. Hooked my fingernail under one edge and flipped so that the familiar images faced upright. Then shove them back into a pile. Took a gulp of coffee from a paper cup. Tapped the toe of my knee-high boots on the floor, the four-inch heels clicking.
"Would you like anything else?" a waitress asked in a bored voice, chewing gum noisily.
I was shuffling the cards again – dovetail shuffle this time. I glanced up at her. Gave her a small smile. "No thanks," I said.
She rolled her eyes, wandering off, collecting a pair of dirty cups from the table next to me as she went.
The door to the café opened. A breeze rolled in, along with the hushed chatter of male voices. My eyes zeroed in on them. There were four men. One was short and stocky, with bright green hair and tattoos covering his muscular arms; another was fairly tall, slim, with slick black hair and glasses perched on the edge of his nose. His clothes were smart, expensive. The youngest of the four was tall and gangly, his hair black and curly and his eyes cheerful.
The final one was also tall and, in my opinion, the best looking guy in the group. His broad shoulders were wrapped in dark grey wool, and his jeans fit his long legs perfectly. He walked with confidence, at the front of the group, choosing a table for all of them to sit at.
I looked back down at my deck of cards just as the disinterested waitress sidled over to ask if they wanted anything. I snorted, hearing the obvious note of flirtation in her voice.
I gave it a few minutes, ran my hand through my hair and pulled on the electric blue plait hanging on one side of my face. Collecting my cards together, I stood. Downed the rest of my coffee in one, crushing the paper cup and dropping it into the bin next to my table.
I sauntered towards their table. It was the confident one that saw me first, looking up from their intense conversation. His eyes trailed over me in a way that made me feel incredibly smug. A smirk settled on his mouth. I made my judgement then.
"Hello boys," I said, toeing a chair from another table towards theirs. Making sure that the back was facing them, I straddled it. "Wanna see a magic trick?"
The one with expensive clothes pushed a hand through his hair. "Sorry, miss, but not right now."
"Aw, come on." I picked up a small selection of the cards, let them drop back down into the deck. "Please. You guys look like you could use some fun, and I won't take up too much time. I just want a little practise."
"We're trying –" The one with green hair began, but the confident one held up his hand and he fell silent.
"Hang on, Wes. Maybe she can help us out," he suggested.
I didn't like the sound of it, but I shrugged. "Depends on what you're after."
"Do you know this city well?" the confident man asked.
"Like the back of my hand," I replied. "Why?"
"We're looking for someone and we were given false information, told he lived in this part of town. We went to the address but it's empty, no one's lived there for years…"
"Astyanax," the one with green hair hissed.
"Sounds like a problem," I said smoothly. "Who is it you're looking for?"
Astyanax, I assumed his name to be, reached into the pocket of his jeans and slid out a photograph. He pushed it across the table towards me. It was a slightly blurry shot, clearly taken from some distance, but I recognised the dark-haired man in the photograph.
"His name is Jebediah Marlowe," Astyanax added. "If that helps any."
"Sure I know who he is," I agreed. "There ain't a soul in this city who don't know who Jebediah Marlowe is."
Astyanax smiled. "Do you know where he lives?"
I didknow where he lived, as a matter of fact. I weighed up the options in my head. Grassing on Jebediah Marlowe was worth two broken legs and a few lost teeth, but helping him out was worth a couple of favours when you needed it.
"I'll tell you where he lives if you watch my card trick," I said.
The one with expensive clothes laughed, although their was no humour in it. "This is a joke."
"Well?" I looked Astyanax in the eye. "C'mon. It won't take more than five minutes, I promise."
"Deal," Astyanax said, smirking. He leaned back in his seat, elbow resting on the back of his chair.
I shuffled the cards. "How familiar are you lot with playing cards?" I questioned.
"I know the names," the youngest one said eagerly. "What do you want us to do?"
I fanned out the cards and stretched them out. "I want each of you to choose a card," I said. "Don't show me. Don't show each other. Just pick one."
I held them out towards the one with the green hair, sat closest to me. With a reluctant sigh, he pulled one card from the deck. He kept his hand carefully cupped around it, and then laid it face down on the tabletop.
"You next," I said, to Astyanax. He was sat on the opposite side of the table to me, and even with stretching his arms out he couldn't quite reach the cards. "You might have to stand up to reach," I suggested helpfully.
He rolled his eyes, but did get to his feet and leaned across the table towards me. Just as he slid a card out of the deck, a girl brushed past him, knocking him forwards.
"Watch where you're going!" I barked.
The girl, clad in a maroon woolly hat and a padded brown raincoat, ignored me and carried on her way.
"Sorry about that," I apologised. "Some people are so rude. You've picked a card?"
Astyanax nodded, eyes fixed on the card he had chosen.
I moved my hand towards the one with expensive clothes. For a minute or so I thought he wasn't going to play along but his hand twitched and then fully raised to choose a card.
The youngest one didn't even hesitate before plucking a card right from the middle of the deck. I smiled.
"Get a proper look at your cards," I said. "Just remember what your card is, okay? Now, just slide them back into the deck. Careful, don't show me what it is."
They all put the cards back, just as I asked. "I'm just going to shuffle them again so they're nice and mixed up," I said.
I considered doing some flashy shuffle, but I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could, so I did a dovetail shuffle and an ordinary shuffle, fanned out the cards and flicked them over, pushed them all back together so they weren't in the same order they had been before. One more dovetail shuffle, and then I packed all the cards back together in a neat block.
"How long have you been doing things like this?" Astyanax asked.
"Since I was a kid," I said shortly. "I like to practise whenever I can."
"On unsuspecting punters in cheap cafes?" the one with expensive clothes said dryly.
I lifted one shoulder. "Or miserable sods who look like they need a laugh once in a while," I said. "You fit the bill perfectly."
Astyanax laughed. I glanced up at him. A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth.
"Are you satisfied that the cards are nice and mixed up?" I asked the one with green hair.
He nodded. "Sure."
I held out the deck of cards on my left palm. Pushed them slightly to one side with my other hand. I clicked the finger and thumb together on my right hand. Crooked my index finger. One card more or less flew into my grip.
"Shit," the youngest one said. "How did you do that?"
I spared him a smile, but didn't answer. The card was tucked between my fingers. I flicked it around to face him, taking in what card it was as I did so. "Four of spades for you," I said. "That is your card?"
He took it, turned it over. "Yeah," he said. "That's my card."
"Hold out your hand," I instructed Astyanax. He did as he was asked. I placed the deck of cards on his palm. I then placed my hand next to his, palm also facing upwards. Clicked my thumb, crooked my index finger. Like the other one, his card flew out of the deck onto my palm. "Eight of diamonds," I said. "Right?"
"Right," he echoed, voice slow.
I swapped the deck for his one card. Placed them back on the table.
"Your card, I suspect, is the six of spades," I said, to the one with expensive clothes. His face remained impassive. "Shall we check?"
He inclined his head. I sat up slightly, reached into the back pocket on my denim shorts. I slid his card out and put it on the desk, slid it towards him. He didn't touch it.
"That wasyour card, wasn't it?" I pressed.
"Yes," he said, that one word clipped. "Yes, that is the card I chose."
"And what was my card?" the youngest one demanded.
"What wasyour card," I said. "That's a good question." I lifted the deck back into my hands. "I don't know if I can find this one. I might just make the rest disappear."
I slapped my other hand down on top of the deck. It vanished. Only one card was left. I turned it over. "Ace of diamonds," I said. "That was your card, wasn't it?"
The youngest one looked confused. "How do you do it?" he said. "I mean, where did the other cards go?"
I winked. "Magic."
I collected the other cards back off them and slid them back into my pocket. "Thanks for watching," I said. "I hope you enjoyed it."
Adjusting my leather jacket, I stood up. I walked around the table, my eyes on the door.
A hand wrapped around my wrist. "Not so fast," Astyanax said. "Youpromised me some information on Jebediah Marlowe."
He was being too loud for my liking. The disinterested waitress was looking over at us, along with the two other customers in the café. I wrenched my wrist out of his grip and leaned down.
"Keep your voice down," I hissed.
"You promised," he said stubbornly.
"Fine," I snapped. "What is it you want to know again?"
"Where he lives," Astyanax prompted. "You said you knew."
My nose wrinkled. "Wrong side of the city. You need to head towards Loweswater Hill. You'll know it when everyone is driving Land Rovers and Bentleys. You want the house called Windrush. Can't miss it. The gateposts have lions on them. They're painted gold. It's the biggest house there."
Astyanax levelled me with a pointed stare, as if trying to work out if I was lying or not. I didn't blink or look away. Couldn't show I was lying.
There is a house in Loweswater Hill called Windrush, and it did have lions on the gateposts that were painted gold. And it is the biggest house. But Jebediah Marlowe moved out of the house three years ago. His wife didn't like it. I knew that. I was confident that Astyanax couldn't read all of that in my eyes.
He looked away first, towards his friends. "Thanks," he said.
I bared my teeth at him in a mock of a grin. "Glad to be of help," I said, and then strode away. I weaved in and out of the tables. I shoved the door open.
I paused as I went out onto the street. I took in the people. Obvious drunks wandered amongst elderly shoppers. Teenage girls who should have been in school skulked about. A collection of young men on bikes had collected around a lamp post. The wares of a poundshop had spilled out onto the street, flourescent toys and balls and frisbees. Litter fluttered along the ground.
I put my hands in my pockets and turned right, heading towards the road that would take me to the tram station and then home. I relaxed into my walk. I ignored the wolf whistles from the young men on bikes, the bawdy offers of the men outside the pub.
I focused my attention on the girl that had fallen into step beside me. She had on a maroon woolly hat and a padded brown raincoat. She also had on dark green boots and black fingerless gloves. Her nails were painted red but they were mostly chipped.
"Did you get it?" I said out of the corner of my mouth.
Silently, she handed me a plain black wallet. I took a hand out my pocket to accept it, and flipped it open.
With my other hand I pulled out the selection of notes inside. I whistled. Three crisp fifty pound notes stared back, along with two twenties and four tenners. "Nice job, Billie," I said. "Actually, that's one of the best we've had in a long time."
"Yeah, around two hundred and thirty quid isn't bad," Billie agreed. "And in the café, no less."
I shoved the notes back into the wallet. "I didn't think they were going to bite," I admitted. "And I guess I was lucky he would stand up. I'm surprised he had so much money on him."
I slid out a plastic card from one of the pockets in the wallet. Astyanax's face stared back from a tiny photograph. He wasn't smiling.
"Astyanax Refoveo," I read out loud. "What the fuck is that name?"
"Let's see," Billie demanded. I ignored her.
"Funny," I said. I frowned. "There's no town or anything on this adress. Just a street. And it's an SGP card, whatever that means."
The card was slipped back into my pocket.
"We'll sort the money out at yours, okay?" I handed the wallet back to Billie.
She put it in the front pocket of her raincoat.
That raincoat. She's had that raincoat for nearly four years now. It's ratty and old and it's four sizes too big for her. The hat is a new addition. She knitted it herself. Billie is my oldest friend. We're not very similar. She'll only speak to two people. One of them is me and the other is her boyfriend, Theo. The only bold thing she does is pickpocketing. But she is very good at it. She's as good at pickpocketing as I am at distracting people with card tricks.
Three hours later, I left the maisonette where Billie lives and walked down to the tram station. My pockets were weighed down a with a hundred and fifteen quid, plus the wallet. Something in me wouldn't let Billie throw it away.
As I arrived, the tram wheezed to a stop. I stepped straight on, gripping the hand rail and then leaning against it. People got on around me. I ignored them. They were mostly elderly, but there were a few scroats I'd bet the hundred and fifteen quid in my pocket hadn't paid for a ticket.
The doors closed with a click, and the cool female voice announced the next stop. With a shudder, the tram began to move. Being stood up let me fall into the rocking movement of the tram. Truth is, I get motion sickness when I sit down and I'd rather stand anyway.
The sky outside was already a rich dark blue as night fell. I sighed. I tucked my free hand into one of the pockets on my jacket. My fingertips brushed against the leather wallet. I resisted the urge to pull it out and flip it open again.
Eight stops later, and I'd arrived at my destination. No one else got off at my stop but a couple of people got on and it left the platform empty. It was much colder now. I could actually see the breath in front of my face. I carefully manouevered the steps to get off the platform, onto the pavement. I took the left, onto the quiet but well-lit footpath that ran down the side of the canal.
I passed one person walking their dog on the way home. Up a set of steps flanked on either side by bushes, and I was home. More or less.
I live with my brother and his wife in a semi-detached house. It has a white front door with a stained glass window, and there was a collection of different flowers and bushes in the garden. I knew that someone was in because the light was shining through the bay window.
I knew I didn't have my key on me. It was probably in my college bag. Musing over this, I opened the gate. Rapped my knuckles on the door.
I saw the blinds in the window twitch, and about thirty seconds later, the door swung open.
My sister-in-law, Lucy, was stood there. She wore a white vest top straining over her pregnant tummy, with a beige cardigan over the top. She wore black leggings and her feet were bare.
"Finally decided to show up?" she said, rolling her eyes and stepping to one side. "I assume you stayed at Billie's last night."
"Yeah," I said. Not strictly true. I stayed at her boyfriend's, but it was more or less the same thing.
I could hear the TV blaring away; probably some kind of cooking programme, because that was what Lucy liked to watch. I could also smell food being cooked around the house.
"Why don't you have your key?" Lucy demanded, shutting the door.
"Forgot it," I said. "What's for tea?"
Lucy's eyes narrowed. Her arms folded over her chest. "You didn't go to college today," she said. "They phoned home. Jack won't be pleased."
"Well, then, Jacksoncan tell me that himself when he gets home," I countered. "Tea?"
"It's a pasta bake," Lucy said, sounding more than a little exasperated. "And that's not relevant!"
I was on the first step of the stairs, hands on the banister. "Look, I just didn't feel like going in today," I said. "Is that such a crime? I don't think it is. I'm nineteen years old and college isn't compulsory anyway."
"We just want what's best," Lucy sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Why do you have to make things so hard?"
"I don't," I answered. "I just didn't want to go in. Maybe I should have phoned up and told them –"
"Told them what? You were skipping their lessons to get high with your friends?" Lucy said snidely.
I raised one eyebrow. "I don't get high," I said, honestly. "I don't even drink. You know that."
Lucy's face softened slightly. "Ilisa, I'm sorry. I shouldn't…"
I turned away and waved a dismissive hand over my shoulder. "I can't be arsed, Lucy," I said honestly. "I'm going to lie down. I'm tired."
I reached the top of the stairs and heard the door to the living room open and then close. I reached down to unzip my boots and slide them off my legs. Tucking them under my arm, I pushed open the door to my bedroom.
It was dark in there but there was some light coming in through the window. I slammed the door shut behind me and dropped my shoes onto the floor, not caring how much noise I was making and fell back onto my bed.
I stared up at the ceiling. The darkness flickered and swirled above me and I let my mind wander to the group of men in the café, and to one incredibly confident man in particular.
I shrugged out of my jacket and pulled the wallet out of the pocket. Flicked it open and slid out the card with Astyanax's photograph on it.
I couldn't see it properly, but just enough. I remembered his voice and the way his hand felt as it wrapped around my arm to stop me from leaving the café. I never normally thought about them like this, the people we stole from. I liked to forget their faces as soon as I'd walked away. I'd managed every time apart from this one.
Sighing, I threw the card to one side and closed my eyes.
Author's Note: I'm so sorry that this is late! It took me ages to plan this one but it's all ready to go. I hope that this is okay…I tried to write it like how Ilisa would speak, kind of. I don't know if it works lol.
Oh yeah, and there'll be a song at the start of every chapter. Or most of them. I know that she doesn't play poker but the general attitude of the song fits her (in my opinion) and the pickpocketing thing is more of a game to her than something she actually takes seriously.
Random Fact: Ilisa's pickpocketing routine with Billie was inspired partly by Penn & Teller and my brother. Not that my brother's a pickpocket. It was just an idea he had.
Please please please review! I love to hear from anyone who reads my stories, whether it's good or bad :)