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watchingcards.jpg
Art by Mike and Aisling Kerins 2011

Watching the Cards

 

 

Copper Smith

 

 

First you have to find her.

 

A yoga class is a good place to look. Or maybe the gym or the vitamin section of the supermarket. She'll be the bottled blonde with the eyes that silently cry for attention. She'll be the just-divorced forty-one-year-old that spills every secret into your lap before she learns your last name. She will do this because she trusts you. She will do this because she can't see the blueprint behind that boyish grin.

 

And she will unfold in your arms at a pace that will test your patience. She's been singed before by love's white-hot pokers and she will have to distinguish you from those previous offenders. But through all the seduction and plotting and backpeddling is that smile, a guiding light into her heart. And that's what you're after, right?

 

One night, after dancing and drinking, you show her a card trick. You get her to think she's ahead of the game, like you're a novice, fumbling around with the cards for fun. She picks the seven of diamonds and the first card you raise is the five of spades.

 

"Is that it?"

 

"No." She chuckles.

 

"Nine of hearts—that's got to be your card!"

 

She shakes her head. This is kind of embarrassing.

 

"Queen of spades?" She touches your face, taunts you with another head shake.

 

"Let's try it again. Pick another card."

 

She complies, takes a card from the pack. It's the seven of diamonds.

 

"How did you—?"

 

"You were watching the cards when you should have been watching me."

 

She splatters your face with the kiss of a babysitter seconds after the kid's parents have left and the coast is clear. She melts into your arms without knowing what a lesson that card trick really was. She purrs, she giggles, she blushes, she coos. And she invites you back into her heart every night.

 

It's all very fun. Until you have to kill her.

 

You have to kill her because she has started asking questions. She wants to know more about that real estate deal you talked about briefly before you had to shuffle off to "work."

 

"And why did you need my checking account number again?"

 

"Honey, I've told you—I need quick access to the account in case these people change their minds on the deal. You know how commercial real estate people are."

 

"Actually, I don't know how they are. I don't even know who they are."

 

"Look, I don't blame you for not trusting them. But hey, I've got eleven thousand riding on this as well."

 

"Yes, but—"

 

"Jesus, is it nine already? I'm off to the bank, honey!"

 

That'll hold her for now. But what happens when she wakes up tomorrow morning to find an empty space where you once slept? What happens when she walks into the police station to describe that fast-talking stranger who slipped into the shadows with every penny she ever had?

 

You have to kill her before you find out. It's all a part of the game.

 

So you will stop back at her place before your trip to the ATM and do what needs to be done. You will load your gun and hide it at your hip as she cooks the last meal you will share as a couple. She has never looked prettier, more matronly.  But if you stare too long, you will lose your nerve, you will scurry away from the plan's final step. So you slump into the dining room, studying the carpet's pattern and pretending she doesn't have the sweetest alignment of incisors you've ever seen.

 

At dinner you talk about everything except real estate. She is radiant, erupting with sensual energy. Every laugh, every hair toss, every anecdote about her pain-in-the-ass kids seemingly offer redemption. She skips from the table, into the kitchen with dirty dishes.

 

"Did you take care of everything with the deal?"

 

Now is the time to strike. She is asking for a bullet to the back of her skull. She is taunting you with questions that you cannot answer. Do it.

 

"I'm working on it," is the best you can do.

 

"Because I was thinking. The whole thing sounds so risky, so murky. Maybe I don't want to be involved in something like that, after all."

 

She is crawling towards the truth. Giving her another day to sniff out the plan would be a mistake. The time to strike is now.

 

"I even went to the bank yesterday . . ."

 

"Did you, honey?" you ask, gun drawn, easing past your doubts and into the kitchen.

 

"Mmmm-hmm."

 

She's a stationary target now, crouched before a trash can.

 

But a kind of paralysis sets in—a yank at your conscience? You cannot act, and soon you cannot move. Her head whips around as she hears the plunk of your gun hitting the floor. She should be stunned into silence, not glowing like this. Not putting every tooth in her mouth on vivid display.

 

You follow your gun to the floor, clutching your rib cage and belly as it tries to expel the demons inside. She steps over you, keeps talking:

 

"And I withdrew all of our money. Mine and yours. Honey."

 

You reply in a staccato series of groans.

 

"That's right. I bought a few things, too. A new coat. Some lipstick. Rat poison."

 

You push out one final groan that sounds kind of like:

 

"How did you—?"

 

She stoops to your face as it stretches into a jack-o’-lantern's grimace. She whispers:

 

"You were watching the cards when you should have been watching me."

 

One final tug from the deepest region of your belly and you are gone, floating away to someplace softer. Unfinished life and all.

 

But somehow it all seems fair. It's all a part of the game.

 

 

 

massacre34thstreet.jpg

Massacre on 34th Street

 

by

 

Copper Smith

 

 

What was Santa like?

 

That's what people always want to know.

 

I always answer: "He was a real gent, sweetest guy in the room, always smiling, a kind word for everybody. And in the end, he was awfully handy with a pump-action shotgun."

 

It's a long story.

 

I first met the big guy on a gloomy Monday morning, three days after my probation officer told me I'd been approved for a work-release program. I shuddered at the thought of what kind of work would be available for a four-foot-two convicted car thief, but when the words Santa's helper hit me it seemed like I had just traded one nightmare for another. I mean, The Big House was no romp through a field of roses, but at least I had a trace of dignity in that place.

 

I scowled my way through a tour of the toy factory, got fitted for a red and green jumpsuit and just like that, I was “Skippy”—a minimum wage-earning  “seasonal recreation assistant” with a facial scar I couldn't wait to explain to the kiddies.

 

"Welcome aboard, son! Here's hoping every day here is a merry day," my new boss chuckled.

 

I was sick of him already. The laugh, the Grateful Dead T-shirt (he'd save the suit for delivery days) the bits of Cheez Whiz in his beard. Mostly I hated that joyful shine in his eyes. How could he be so damn cheery with my life spiraling down the toilet?

 

But it turned out not to be such a crappy job after all.

 

Nice benefits, decent hours and apart from the occasional dustup with one of those pricks in packaging, I got along fine with my coworkers.

 

And when things did come to a boil, the big guy could always cool us down with a belly laugh and a sedative or two. He was good people, a gentle giant in our peaceful little valley.

 

But somehow I just knew things would come crashing down. And the first step in the demolition was a visit from the consulting firm of Henderson and Rawls.

 

***

 

They were a husband and wife team, Emily and Rob. A real couple of drips. They would've needed more charisma to be accountants. But they had come to save the day:

 

"We're aware that you've been struggling lately," Emily chirped.  "Profits falling, clients lost, rising shipping costs. But we've done some research that can help."

 

Then it was Rob's turn behind the riflescope:

 

"According to our focus groups, your target market would respond more readily to a number of changes."

 

Then they unleashed a parade of stupidity designed to reel in the fast departing youth market: rapping reindeers, eco-friendly presents, Mrs. Claus's yuletide blog.

 

"This is bullshit," Santa mumbled. But they were just getting started.

 

"And then there's your Santa . . ." Rob said.

 

"Now don't get us wrong. We're all for traditional Santa Claus iconography: the red suit, the boots, the sleigh," Emily said.

 

"But it seems your Santa is skewing a little . . . older than would be ideal."

 

"The kids want a hipper, more vibrant, more . . . health conscious Santa."

 

"You want to put me on a diet?" Santa yelled.

 

Rob's eyes couldn't lift from the table.

 

Emily gave it a try: "Not exactly . . ." But she was afraid of the truth.

 

The truth was that Santa was being fired.

 

Silence hung over the room like a fog. That joyful shine in Santa's eyes had flickered out. And I could tell that Christmas would not be a silent night.

 

 

***

 

Six months later, five of us found ourselves in a van outside of FAO Schwarz. A wind whipped through the night like a samurai's sword. But inside the van, all was calm, all was bright. Mainly because we were packing some serious heat and had the plan down colder than a polar bear's balls.

 

Santa loaded his shotgun, addressed the troops:

 

"All right, fellas, we know why we're here. With old St. Nick getting the sack, we have to do some ad-libbing to get the kids their presents. I've made my list, checked it twice. Are we ready to do some shopping?"

 

Nods all around. But the boss wanted a precise breakdown. He aimed his chin at Fluffy, all scary four feet of him.

 

Fluffy answered without being asked:

 

"I get us through the security system at the back door, then I go to the doll department, make this a merry Christmas for some little girls."

 

"Thumpkins?"

 

"I secure the east wing, then I take care of the action figures, costumes, and toy helicopters."

 

"Gris-Gris?"

 

“I grab what I can from the automated car section, then stand guard at the front door?"

 

"And Skippy?"

 

"I stay in the van, keep my eyes open, honk the horn if we get company."

 

With a final pump, Santa was ready. And so were his soldiers.

 

"Let's get this done, boys."

 

They slid on their masks, emptied the van, leaving me in the creepiest quiet I'd ever endured.

 

Within seconds, I heard glass shatter. The alarm whimpered out a warning, then died a fast death. I could hear the plan snapping into motion: the determined patter of feet, more shattered glass, and whispers.

 

Then gunfire. And screaming—a desperate wail from Gris-Gris.

 

Now the place was exploding with gunfire and loudly shouted regrets. There was no plan now, only survival. I raced from the van, maybe too quickly, but fuck it—better to spring into danger than to sit around waiting for it to find me.

 

I slipped into the back door and caught enough of the scene to know the next move: the security guard turned, stunned—a fifth intruder?

 

Fuck, yes. He caught two in the chest before knowing what hit him.

 

Footsteps from the hallway, Santa turned, pumped, took off the second guard's left shoulder, sent him to the floor with a wordless cry for help. He dropped next to Gris-Gris, just another casualty. Another tax on the price of admission.

"Let's take care of business before we get more surprises," Santa said.

 

Game on again, we scrambled back into motion, taking out bags and loading up. Toy cars, robots, dolls, action figures, shit that didn't even exist when I was a kid.

 

Then the siren crept up. We froze for a second, then gathered the bags in one spot, ready to scramble for the back door.

 

But good luck scrambling home with the cavalry charging in like that. There was a team of them rushing in, enough footsteps for an army.

 

"You guys make a run for it. I'll hold them here!" Santa ordered.

 

"Are you crazy?" I yelled.

 

He wasn't crazy. It made sense to scamper out with the toys because that was what this all about, wasn't it? But this couldn't be right, letting Santa go down alone like this.

 

He waved us off, anyway.

 

As the footsteps closed in, I pried myself away and out the back door. Santa found a nook in the hallway, settled there and took aim at the charging mass of blue.

 

Fluffy had pulled the van up and we loaded the bags, shut the door ,and hoped we'd have another passenger soon. But we could hear all we needed to hear from the back door: the profanity-laced demands for surrender, the hail of gunfire, Santa's kamikaze scream—"and to all a good niiiiight!" —and we were off into the plan's next phase: delivery.

 

We missed the boss, of course, but we had to go on because what would be the point if we didn't? The kids, as always, were full of Christmas cheer. There was singing, snowball fights, and goodwill toward all. So basically it was just like any other Christmas. Except that when we got to the Henderson-Rawls residence, we grabbed a stereo on our way out.

 

Santa would have wanted it that way.

 

Copper Smith is a writer from the frozen tundra of Minneapolis. He's releasing a novella called Kitten in the Crosshairs: http://youtu.be/HIFI368Ii04]

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