PICK A CARD, ANY CARD!

The narrow aisles between the booths created the feeling of being in a busy, third-world marketplace as Kei wove through tourists to return to the bus.


Something was off about this place and it took a moment to figure out what: there were more white people waiting for Kei inside the bus than there were outside of the bus. And the accents of voices weaving together around him were not American in origin. Indian, African, Middle Eastern, and even Russian.


But not many Americans … or other Asians, as of yet.


Where are we? Kei thought, passing a booth selling cuckoo clocks that looked like they might have been all the rage among eccentrics in the nineteenth century. The vendor was a woman who looked to be in her early thirties, although her feathered costume with its peacock headdress made it a bit hard to focus on her face for any amount of time.


Also, Kei didn’t remember her booth being next to the bus when dismounting. Odd.


“Come closer, my dear,” the feathered woman said with a crook of her finger. “I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before.”


Creepy.


And it didn’t help that, in that exact moment, a macaw squawked in echo, “Come closer, my dear.”


Choosing not to respond at all, Kei focused on the blacked-out windows of the bus no more than ten steps away when a performer stepped into block the path to safety.


Like everyone else working in this place, the guy barring Kei’s path to safety wore a vintage costume of impressive workmanship—earth tones that glittered with inlaid gold threading. Confident he had Kei’s attention, the performer fanned out a deck of cards facing Kei to show that all the cards in the deck were different.


“Easy trick for an easy coin,” the twenty-something man said with a con man’s smile as he regrouped the cards and gave them an expert shuffle. “I’ll pick a card at random out of this deck. If you can tell me what it is, you win a coin.”


“No, thanks,” Kei replied, moving to step past the man only to have the man’s twin block him.


“How about me?” the twin asked.


Kei looked between the two men—costumes identical—and had no doubt that a contest was afoot between them. Twins were always competitive like that.


“Not interested,” Kei replied to them both.


“How about me?” a third twin asked, seeming to appear out of nowhere.


Kei looked between the three performers, impressed at the detail of their commitment to being indecipherable from each other. It probably made for impressive magic acts yet there wasn’t a costume in the world that could mask the different looks found in their eyes.


The first brother’s eyes brimmed with confidence; the second set of eyes with condescension; the third with a glint of one who liked to toy with fate.


Despite wanting to move past them and get back to the van before the shopkeeper came looking for his stolen paint, Kei couldn’t help but be intrigued as the triplet shuffled an identical deck of cards in his hands.


“Ah, c’mon,” the triplet said, riffling the cards together. “You have a 1-in-52 chance. You won’t find better odds when it comes to winning a coin around here. Give it a shot and I promise I won’t start yelling about that paint you have up your sleeves.”


The other two twins smiled like they were ready to start shouting Kei’s sins from the rooftops, too.


Kei was 99% sure they were bluffing. Tattling could not be a respectable pastime in a group like this. Yet their arrogance struck a competitive chord in Kei, making it next to impossible to walk away.


“I have nothing to bet,” Kei replied with a defeated shrug. “As you pointed out, I have no coins and I have no interest in wagering my clothing.”


“How about your belt?” the second twin asked.


“No,” Kei said even as the first twin motioned for the second twin to stop talking.


“No matter,” the first said. “If you lose, all you need do is be our assistant in our show this evening—”


“One show for each of us you lose to,” the triplet inserted.


“Of course,” the first agreed. “One show for each incorrect guess. But you’ll have a coin for every card you guess correctly!”


“Otherwise, everyone is going to know about the paint,” the second added, tsking his tongue as he thought that would be a shame.


Kei was trapped, but not exactly mad about it.


“Very well,” Kei replied. “But I don’t trust the three of you to pick the card. I want someone else to choose. Also, if I get all three guesses right, then each of you owes me two coins.”


The triplets all shared a look before nodding in eerie unison.


“Agreed,” the first one said, before looking around and spotting a young woman who looked like she’d lost a sleeve and a shoe in some sort of bet. Her eyes seemed glazed over with wonder as she wandered—like she couldn’t believe she was seeing what she was seeing as she drifted from booth to booth.


“You!” the triplet said, motioning for her to come over. “We need your help!”


Half-wary, the girl paused in her wandering and seemed hesitant to approach.


It was the second twin who stepped forward to greet her while motioning to Kei. “This contestant doesn’t have any coins and wants to try to win some from us. Mind being our assistant?”


The twin lied flawlessly. Everyone in this place probably did.


Good to know.


“I’m all out of coins,” the girl said, waving her hands as she took a step back. “I can’t play.”


“Oh, no,” the triplet set, moving in on her other side. “We just want you to pick a card—any card—then show it to us when we ask.”


“And if this player gets all three guesses right, you’ll win a coin, too!” the first twin said, earning a bit of a scowl from the other two for not being consulted first. But they got over it quickly.


After all, the odds were astronomically not her favor. If Adam were here, he’d probably know the odds off the top of his head.


Math wasn’t Kei’s thing, however. Reading people was. And it was best to stick to one’s strengths in the current situation.


“Go ahead!” the first twin said, shuffling the cards without waiting for an answer. “Pick a card. Any card.” He riffled them together. “it’s really easy. Just tell me when to stop, then pick the card on the top.”


Kei hid a smile as the girl remained wary. Given the state of her clothing, she had a right to be. Whoever took half her clothes looked like they had made a point of embarrassing her.


“I just pick a card out of the deck?” she asked, watching as the first twin carefully. “I’m not betting anything?”


“Nope!” all three performers said in unison.


The dreamy smile left her eyes as she smiled brightly. “Okay!”


“Great!” the first twin said, shuffling. “Now, pick a card—any card. But don’t show it to anyone! Your partner has to guess it.”


“Got it,” the girl said, getting into the fun as the first twin fanned the cards out in front of her.


Kei watched closely as she made her pick.


“There you have it!” the first twin said, once the card was in hand. “See? Wasn’t that easy?”


“It was!” she agreed. “Can I look at it?”


“Not yet!” the first twin said, sending a mischievous look Kei’s way. “We can’t have any cheating or sneaking looks, so we’ll have our contestant guess right away!”


Kei fought the urge to smile. “Well, this one is too easy. She is holding the Four of Hearts.”


The first twin’s poker face faltered before the girl even got a look at her card.


“Oh, my gosh!” she squealed, once she had a look. “You’re right! You totally got it!”


All three performer’s eyes flashed with suspicion before spinning and playing Kei’s victory up to the gathering crowd.


“See that?” the second twin shouted. “One coin won! See how easy it can be?”


The five people who seemed to be watching clapped politely as the girl leaned into Kei and asked, “Seriously. How did you do that?”


“Beginner’s luck, I guess,” Kei said, shrugging innocently as the second twin stepped in for his turn.


“Beginner’s luck, indeed,” he said, passing the cards from one hand to another like a showman looking to draw a larger crowd. “But you’re luck has run out.”


Again, he fanned the cards facing Kei and the girl so they could see it was a real deck. Then he raised them up higher for all the passersby to see.


“Just a regular deck of cards,” he announced in a voice that carried above the other hawkers in the area. “And this young woman will choose yet another one to see if two coins can be won this evening!”


Kei watched as the man gave the cards another expert shuffle before holding the hand with the deck face-down over his other hand. “Now I’m going to let them fall, one-by-one, into the hand on the bottom. All you need do is tell me when to stop then reach out and pick up the card on the top. Got it?”


“Got it!” the girl said, an eager participant now.


Around them, nearly a dozen onlookers pushed in to get a look or to catch a cheat.


That was good for Kei because it pressured the magician into showing off. And magicians who wanted to show off would always do the same thing.


Eyes closed, Kei made a point not to watch as his assistant yelled, “STOP!” and took the card on the top.


That way there was no way to claim foul play when Kei’s eyes re-opened. “I think I might be psychic because I know for a fact my assistant is holding the Six of Clubs.”


“Oh, my gosh, that is crazy!” the girl squealed, holding the card up for everyone to see.


This second win earned Kei a dirty look from all three performers, even as they played up the win and used it to rile up the small crowd.


“You see that?” the first twin called out. “Two coins won! See how easy it can be?”


“So easy!” the macaw from the bird-lady’s booth taunted in reply.


“So easy!” the first twin echoed. But he was livid. Kei could hear it in his voice.


At last, Kei let out smile. He loved poor losers and he was about to take down the poorest loser of them all: the triplet who liked to tempt fate. That meant Kei had a 50/50 chance of getting this card right.


The only way to change those odds was to get a better read on the man stepping up for his turn to win in competition.


Kei smiled up at him, flirting lightly and watching the man’s ever-so-subtle reaction. And when their eyes locked in a moment of attraction, Kei knew the card his assistant would be picking next.


Might as well make a show of it.


“I’ll turn my back this time,” Kei said. “I want to go three-for-three without any objections.”


“Ohhh!” the triplet said, playing to the crowd. “Over-confident much? But as you wish!”


Kei listened as the cards riffled and fanned, followed by a gasp of surprise from the audience for some reason. But they quieted quickly.


“Now,” the triplet said. “Pick a card—any card.”


Everyone around Kei snickered for some reason, as did Kei’s assistant.


“Okay,” she said, as if she was looking at a deck of identical cards and it didn’t matter which one she chose.


Even if she wasn’t, it didn’t matter. It would be the same card either way.


“All right,” she said Kei’s direction. “I picked one.”


Kei stayed facing the other direction. “Then you are holding the Queen of Hearts in your hand!”


The audience all gasped in surprise, along with the assistant.


“But … how?” she stammered as Kei turned back around—hand outstretched for the prize.


“Look at that!” Kei announced loudly. “See how easy it is to win six coins in this town? And a seventh to my assistant for helping us out!”


The three magicians were livid. They’d just been played and hadn’t yet figured out how. That would no doubt bother them for some time, but at least they had a group of new players to distract them while Kei escaped.


True to form, the three men made a show of passing off the coins—pretending to pull them from ears and pockets of their future victims.


“We’re not done with you,” the first twin whispered into Kei’s ear as he passed off the final coin.


“Of course,” Kei replied politely. “Please, feel free to come find me when you are ready to lose again. Until then, I bid you goodnight.”


Then Kei flitted past them and raced to the bus—grateful when Chad opened it just in time for Kei to walk right back in.

 

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