Masque of Spades
Lord Edmond’s appearance is thirty minutes away. The windows of the exclusive, sky-high club are transitioning to deep velvet curtains.
She is sitting at the bar, swirling her glass but drinking in the room instead. The women easily outnumber the men, gliding on small feet and pretending to admire each other’s carefully chosen, identical shade of chestnut hair.
There are two people smoking in the room, both men. She watches with vague curiosity as a third enters from the thousand-story elevator and lights a thick cigar. There’s no proper ventilation for smoking in this building, but the bodyguards lining the walls don’t seem to notice.
She sips. It’s Lord E’s favorite drink: a cloying, saccharine mixture, but she lets the liquid dance in her mouth before finally swallowing. She isn’t worried about whether she catches Lord E’s eye. She is more concerned that the third smoker has spotted her.
He is tall and dark, like the other men, and must be rich; the lung enhancements that allow him to inhale cigar smoke aren’t cheap. She tries to look detached as he makes his way through the crowd.
“Good evening, madam,” he says, sitting down beside her.
“Hello,” she says, turning her back slightly.
“Another dolce, extra ice.”
“Thank you, but I’m sorry. I wouldn’t care for another.”
“A thousand pardons, my dear, but I was ordering one for myself.” He winks and takes a long drag.
“Lord E is the only man who ever drinks these.”
“Some of us have to try a bit harder to win Lord Edmond’s favor. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be a beautiful woman with flowing chestnut hair tonight. I have to work with what I’ve got.” He exhales a grey plume, but his eyes never leave hers. “Plagiarism is the best sort of flattery, or however the saying goes. Wouldn’t you agree?”
When she doesn’t respond, he cocks his head and shoots a dazzling smile. If he smokes often, his perfect white teeth wouldn’t tell. “What’s your story?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Oh. I see.” His eyes and smile are unfaltering.
“You seem to have something on your mind, Mr…?”
“Eli is a nice name, don’t you think?”
She scoffs. “Modesty is a nice virtue.”
This wins her a laugh. “That’s rather rich, coming from the beauty in the backless dress.”
Blood rushes to her cheeks, and the air on her bare back feels cold. She shouldn’t feel shame–it’s not real, not for her–but she does.
“You’re quite the gentleman,” she manages.
He waves away the acrid comment and reaches for his dolce. It’s the first time he looks away from her, but the relief she feels is shattered by the question he mumbles into his glass:
“So, did they remove the tattoo?”
He takes a long sip, then continues, “The lower back. That dress shows it off nicely, but as I recall, there was a lotus tattoo just at the base of the spine.”
He knows. Somehow, this run-of-the-mill Lord E wannabe knows.
“They have to do that, from time to time,” Eli continues. “Change prominent, memorable features. It helps to prevent people from recognizing a body they’ve used before.” He takes another drag, and the smoke falls out of his perfect teeth. “I suppose they didn’t change enough in your case, did they?”
“I’m afraid you must have me confused with someone else.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want you to be afraid on my behalf, but I knew that lotus tattoo, and how it wraps around to the stomach to become an intricate, woven Ace of Spades card. What’s more, I know the right hip birthmark, the missing molar, and the fact that the pinkie on the right hand is cybernetic. In a way, however, you’re quite right. I haven’t the slightest idea who you may be, and I am quite curious.”
His eyes sparkle as he leans over the bar, his chin in his hand, watching her, savoring her reaction.
Lord E’s appearance is ten minutes away. She knows this because she sees at a glance that the not-quite-windows are turning from velvet to a deep chocolate mahogany. The appearance is near, but nowhere near enough.
“You’ve been to the Deck too, then,” she says.
“If you can afford it, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t stop by at least once. To slip your soul into a borrowed body for a few days is the best sort of holiday.” He chuckles. “I always wanted to know what it was like to be a lovely young lady, but after a couple days as…” He gestures to the woman. “Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather stay a man whenever possible.”
“I think very few men would be so comfortable admitting they’ve spent time in a woman’s body, Mr. Eli.”
He raises an eyebrow to match the pleasant twitch of a smile. “For all I know, you may be a man yourself.”
Her disgust is palpable.
“Very well; you’re a woman, then. Let me guess. You need a promotion, or your mother is dying, or maybe you’ve just really got the hots for fat, old men.”
“This is hardly–.”
“Ah, ah, ah! You didn’t want to tell your story, so let me see if I can figure it out.” He settles on his bar stool and squints through smoke and long, dark eyelashes. “One way or another, Lord E is your ticket to greener grass. Only you don’t look the part in your real body, no offense. Most of these broads think they can cosy up to him as long as they check the boxes, but you know better. You’re certain that a man of his taste isn’t going to go for hair dye and plastic surgery, so instead, you find his perfect match at the Deck. You leave your sub-par (again, no offense) body in the Deck’s gentle care and find yourself on the guest list. Am I right?”
The woman reaches for her glass and finds it full again. “Almost.”
Eli claps. “Oh, this is fun.”
She takes a long pause, her glass at her lips, gathering herself. Her eyes brush past Eli’s quizzical face to see that the windows have changed again. The room has become thick with smoke, and she feels the inklings of panic trying to rise.
“You said yourself that Lord Edmond is rich, powerful, and surrounded by flattery. Do you want to know why that is?”
“Hardly a difficult question to answer: He’s rich and powerful.”
“Yes. Which means that when he kills, everyone looks the other way.”
Eli’s eyes are unreadable, locked with hers.
“Did he kill someone close to you?” he asks.
“He has killed someone close to everyone,” she replies. “Men like him die because they end up killing the wrong person. That’s all.”
“But you didn’t answer my question.”
“And what is that?”
“Why are you here?”
The windows change for the last time. They fill with the carefully perfected portrait of an aging, portly man, with a too-perfect smile and eyes like a shark’s in spite of the color.
The private 1000 story elevator opens onto the stage, and Lord Edmond steps out in his party livery, a Dolce in one hand and a cigar in the other. There are four more bodyguards with him.
Without meeting Eli’s eyes, the woman stands, whispering, “My brother was the wrong person.”
Her compact pistol flashes a dull glint in the thick smoke, and Lord Edmond has a hole between the eyes.
The bodyguards blink slowly. The hole in Lord Edmond’s head bleeds sparks and wires and glowing-hot metal, and the android falls down.
The woman is so shocked she nearly misses the hammer cocking behind her head and Eli’s whisper, “So was that.”
A moment later, she has a matching hole in her head, only she bleeds properly, and now the screaming begins. Someone tries to grab him, but he shoves away and lunges behind the bar, sprinting for the elevator.
Four sets of hands snatch at his clothes, and one latches firmly around his ankle.
“Get off! She had it coming, didn’t you see?”
The guests flatten themselves against the wall as the bodyguards drag the struggling man to the private elevator.
“Let go!” he screams. “What’s wrong with you? Let go of me!”
The guards toss him into the private elevator, and three go in after him as the doors close.
The chaos in the party room is instantly silenced, and the bodyguards straighten up quickly. One offers Eli a hand, and he stands, his face glowing.
“Wow,” he says, running a hand through his disheveled hair. The bodyguards flinch and duck and one says, “My lord, I’m sorry. The gun.”
“Oh. Oh,” he says, blinking. He hands the gun to one of the men.
“Are you hurt at all, milord?” another asks.
“Not a scratch, I don’t think,” he replies, then throws back his head and laughs. “Not that I’d care much, anyway. Wow,” he repeats. “What a holiday. Shame about the android; damn thing was so lifelike, I wondered for a moment who I was.”
“Milord, what about the woman?
He waves a hand. “I’ll settle up with the Dealer later.”
“But sir, she was an Ace. That body was pretty valuable.”
“I’ll replace her with someone better. There’s more than one death row on the planet. We’ll find someone spectacular to give the Deck, and if there’s no death row takers, we’ll pull some strings.”
He looks at his reflection in the elevator mirror and grins. “You know, I rather like this fellow’s cheekbones,” he says, turning the head and examining the facial structure.
“The Deck will probably have to do some reconstruction to make sure no one recognizes him after tonight,” says the bodyguard.
“Of course, of course. And I’ll be paying for that too, I suppose–my goodness, preventing my own murder is turning into an expensive ordeal, indeed–but, really, I do hope they keep the cheekbones.”
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