by Henry Wyckoff
February 3, 1996
Smoke hangs in the air like a heavy object.
It obscures me from vision.
It lets the eyes of others pass over me.
Though fire is my destroyer, I relish the glow of red as I inhale, and the thrill of the hot smoke clawing away at my lungs. I slowly breathe in, hold it in, and breathe out, spreading the wonderful smoke throughout the room.
A man walks through the door, looking around almost nervously. He is dressed well, for a man who is generally behind the times in many respects. Though he looks healthy -- albeit with a northerner's white skin -- I can see the true sickness in his soul. The sickness comes from a lack of balance.
Balance. I like that word. It fills me with awe. It shakes my soul with the implications.
It is balance and lack of it that drives the world.
He sees me, and heads straight for me. He believes he knows why, but only I know the true reason. But I also like to play games -- after all, with a work schedule like mine, I deserve a break more than the next guy. He stands at the edge of the empty table, and I pretend he disturbed my smoke dreams.
"Yes?" I ask him, my eyes looking up, but my face looking downwards.
"My name is Detective Knight," he said with an arrogant sneer, flashing a tarnished badge. "I'd like a word with you, Mr. van Schouwen."
"Have a seat," I smile grandly, pointing at the empty seat with my thick Jamaican cigar, exhaling greatly.
"Thank you," he said, sitting down. At least he had some manners.
"What is the nature of your inquiry?"
"Your whereabouts. Where were you at 3 AM yesterday?" His tone was neutral, but I could tell he thought I was guilty as sin. That was a cliche I found most intriguing.
"I was smoking cigars over a glass of Benedictine," I smiled. I could tell he didn't believe me. He thought that I was a vampire, and he "knew" that vampires only drank blood. I snorted, and he misinterpreted that. "Ask anyone at Tam O'Shanty's."
"If you love drink so much, then what are you doing here at the Raven?"
"There's a man I care to avoid. He's a regular there, so I moved on. Axer Carrick. Ever hear of him?"
That made his eyebrows rise. "I can't say that I have. Do you owe him money?"
I shook my head. "He's a man I had several disagreements with over drink. We are diametrically opposed, you might say. No, you can say. So, I avoid him, and we both breathe easily."
He shook his head quickly, with snapping motions, as if he were trying to shake off the tangent down which this conversation had shot. "Can anyone vouch for you?"
"Sure. Axer Carrick. Do you care to meet him?"
"I might just do that." He paused for a moment, his face looking inward, "How is it that you can drink alcohol and live with yourself?" The question wasn't what a mortal might think -- we both knew that.
"I prefer being on the other side. Whether the alcohol comes in blood or not, the effect is the same. You just get drunk taking a different road."
"Has anything changed?"
"No. I'm the man I always was..." I pulled out a pack of cards. "Do you play Tarot poker?"
"Excuse me?" his eyebrows raised in confusion.
"Tarot poker. It's like poker with a regular deck, but it has pretty pictures and a second arcana."
He shook his head as I dealt a hand for each of us. Confusion filled his face, but he picked up his hand, his investigation momentarily forgotten. Perhaps he felt he was trying to flow with an old man's thoughts, hoping he might get some benefit in the end. He knew poker, and he knew the Tarot, so he learned quickly.
"You lose," I smiled. "Care for another round?"
His forehead crinkled, and his eyes narrowed. "You're on."
Poor kid. He never thought about the stakes. He played and lost with me a long time ago, and never asked me what he put in the pot, and what I pulled out. He's not asking the question now, either.
Poor kid. I get what comes to me. That's the way of the balance.
Axer Carrick understands this, which is why he can dance and play on the razor's edge. He knows that the only way one can stay on the edge is to dance, rather than walk with serious intent.
Nick loses another hand. I smile and blow smoke in his face.
"Maybe next time..."