The cards fly in this excerpt from Michael Kardos’ sleight-of-hand thriller, Bluff

April 12, 2018

In Michael Kardos‘ new book, Bluff, a down-on-her-luck magician reluctantly teams up with a career criminal to cheat their way to victory in a dangerous private poker tournament. 

The book has all the twists and turns you’d expect out of a caper thriller, but what makes Bluff special is the effort Kardos has clearly put into capturing the minutiae of performance magic and sleight-of-hand. It’s not so much a whodunit as a howtheydunit, with a refreshing focus on the mechanics of cheating at Poker. We’ve managed to get hold of the book’s first chapter, in which our not-so-plucky heroine makes a terrible mistake when dealing with a rowdy audience member.

It started with that most basic of requests: Pick a card.

Though really it started before that, when I asked the woman at the nearest table, “Give me a hand, will you, please?”

She looked a little like me—long brown hair, narrow face, younger than most of the women in the room. Maybe that’s why I’d approached her. Also because she’d seemed engrossed in the show. But when I spoke to her, she threw her hands up as if to prove she wasn’t carrying a weapon.

“Oh . . . not me,” she said. “I couldn’t.”

“Of course you can,” I said. “You’ll do great!” Usually, that was all it took—a little prodding, followed by some scattered, encouraging applause from the audience.

“No, no,” she said. “I’m way too wasted.”

I scanned the room for another woman to help out. (Women, I’d learned over the years, were better volunteers—they generally followed directions and didn’t try to show off.) But I was too slow. A man at the same table was already springing up from his chair, saying, “I’ll do it!”

Had my wits been more about me, his overeagerness would have put me on alert. But halfway through the show at this point, I just wanted to be done and go home. Close the door on what had been a trying day. Besides, the weather was only getting worse, and my car was half hopeless even on clear roads.

So I said, “Sure, come on up.”

Immediately, people across the ballroom started in with Oooh and Oh, damn and the anxious laughter that told me now I had a problem.

Corporate shows around the holidays were usually plum gigs—good pay, good food, good spirit. And tonight’s event, a holiday party for Great Nation Physical Therapy, in the Hyatt in downtown Newark, had seemed especially promising when I booked it. Who needed to be entertained more than a roomful of medical professionals during the holidays, glad to be away from illness and injury for a night?

But when I arrived, I learned that the party being thrown by the physical therapists wasn’t for them. Rather, the purpose was to wine and dine the hundred or so personal injury attorneys who held the key to an endless supply of injured people in need of rehabilitation. Door prizes included a home theater system and a vacation in Aruba.

My volunteer followed me to the front of the room and stood teetering a little. Definitely dined and wined. But I was determined to push through the routine. It was the finale of the card portion of the show. Then on to the linking rings. I asked my volunteer his name.

“I’m Lou!” he said, beaming. I could picture his face, those white teeth, grinning at me from a highway billboard beneath an aggressive font. SOMEONE MUST PAY FOR YOUR INJURIES!

Within the hour, I’d learn that Lou Husk, though not yet thirty-five, was already a legend among his peers in the room— extreme climber, extreme skier, extremely not someone you want opposing you in court. But right then, standing beside him in the Grand Ballroom, I knew him only as the man who would help my show along, usher me a few minutes closer to collecting my check and going home.

I put on a smile and gave him a warm, two-handed so-glad-to-meet-you handshake. When I went to let go, he surprised me by raising my hand to his lips and kissing it.

Then he licked my knuckles.

It threw me. This wasn’t some bachelor party or frat gig. And even then. In a decade of supporting myself as a working magician, I had been patted, grabbed, groped, and kissed. Even punched once . . . but never licked.

No one else seemed to notice. I wiped my hand on my pants and reminded myself that on my feet were a new pair of four-inch leopard print stilettos that replaced the red leather heels I’d lovingly worn into the ground. The rest of my outfit was less flashy: pencil pants, white tuxedo shirt left open at the collar, well-tailored black jacket. But even simple clothes cost money, and tonight’s show paid for a new pair of shoes and half a month’s rent.

I took a breath and got the deck of cards from the table behind me. Shuffled them a few times, fanned them out.

“Pick a card, Lou,” I said, predicting he would select the very top or bottom card on the off chance it would mess me up.

He chose the top card.

Not that it mattered. In fact, the trick itself was the epitome of simple: card selected, shown to the audience, returned to the deck, vanished from the deck. (In that regard, I’ll admit it was a lazy trick. Five years ago, I would’ve been more artful with the setup, if only for my own entertainment.) But this trick was all about the reveal. I went over to my duffel bag of gear and removed a circular target made of Styrofoam, eight inches in diameter, handed it to Lou and told him to hold the target high above his head with both hands.

I asked him to choose a number between twenty and forty.

“One hundred,” he said.

This was why I preferred women volunteers. They did what I asked them to do. They understood that if they played along for a while, they might just get to see something amazing.

“You’re gonna ruin the fun here, Lou,” I said.

“Okay, fine,” he said begrudgingly. “Twenty.”

I removed a tape measure from my pocket and unspooled it until it measured twenty feet. Returned the tape measure to my pocket.

“Keep the target up high,” I said. “Both hands. That’s right.” Then I asked him for another number between ten and twenty.

He watched me a moment. “Twenty.”

I counted off cards from the deck, letting each card float to the floor. I dropped the rest of the deck. Now I was holding only the twentieth card. Slowly, I turned over the card and showed it to Lou and the audience, not looking at it myself, making a big deal out of saying, “Is this your card?”

“We both know you didn’t really mess up,” he said.

Right, I thought. It’s called playing along. It’s called a performance.

“You’re saying it isn’t your card?” I asked.

“I’m saying you already know it isn’t.”

In a moment, I was supposed to whip the card into the center of the target above his head. The card would travel fast enough to lodge in the Styrofoam, at which point my volunteer would pluck it out and show everyone that it had transformed into the selected card.

“Just hold very still, please,” I said. Lou grinned and jerked the target a full foot to the left.

“And . . . that would be the opposite of holding still,” I said, trying to keep things light, though I felt dampness in my armpits and along the backs of my knees.

He centered the target again.

“Much better,” I said.

He jerked it to the right.

The eight-inch target was an effective stage prop, but I could’ve hit a target half the size from twice the distance . . . provided that my volunteer stopped fucking moving it.

“Stillness, Lou,” I said, struggling to remain calm. “Stillness is everything.”

“You must be a real delight in the sack,” he said.

A collective intake of breath from the room. They were amused, though, not aghast. This was classic Lou! They were witnessing the story they would tell tomorrow. I understood the impulse to want a story, to claim it. Still, I didn’t want this diversion to be all they walked away remembering.

“Too bad you’ll never know,” I stage-whispered. Banter, I reminded myself. That’s all this was. “Now just tell me your card,” I said.

That was all Lou had to do. Then I would reconfirm that the lone card in my hand wasn’t his. Then I would hurl it at the Styrofoam target and the magic would happen and we could all move on.

“Ace of spades,” he said.

A lie. He had selected the three of diamonds. I knew because I had forced it on him at the start of the trick.

The audience tittered uncomfortably. They’d seen the card just after he selected it. They knew he was lying to me—they knew it wasn’t banter, that he was genuinely trying to ruin my trick—but they were keeping his secret, either because I was the stranger in the room or because he’d beaten enough of them in court and they were relieved, now, not to be his adversary.

“How about you try again,” I told him.

My voice must have lost any last trace of amusement, because he said, “What? What did I do?” If his two hands hadn’t been holding the target over his head, one of them would have covered his heart.

I sighed. “Just try again. What was your card?”

“Okay. How about . . .” More grinning. “The ace of spades?”

I knew it was my fault for letting it get this far. It was something an amateur would do, getting into it with a volunteer who wanted exactly this—to show off, to perform a little impromptu theater for the audience.

But I was off my game, and had been since before the show even began. It had started with the email I received that afternoon: You were not selected to perform at this year’s World of Magic convention in New York City. Rejection is a part of life, I knew that, but as a former grand prize winner in their international close-up magic competition I had counted on being given a show. More important, it was part of the plan—hell, it was the plan—to begin rejoining the wider community of magicians after almost a decade of going it alone. Swallow my pride, let bygones be bygones, and get back in the game, was my thinking. So the rejection had cut especially deep.

And right on the heels of that, I had to drive to Newark on icy roads to perform. Of course, that’s what a professional does: performs. The show must go on and all that. (In fact, I was hoping this holiday party might lift my spirits.) Except, just as I’d finished setting up and was about to switch on my lapel mic, the overeager kitchen staff had burst into the ballroom with their buffet carts nearly an hour ahead of schedule. Once the first few lawyers stood and started serving themselves, the stampede was inevitable.

So I waited, pretending to be interested in my phone but becoming increasingly irritated, minute by minute, as the sleet fell and the roads froze over. Meanwhile, the attorneys made trip after trip to the raw bar, the carving station, the sushi station. I kept glancing at all that expensive food and thinking, These aren’t even the top lawyers! I could tell from their suits, the way none of them hung right. Jackets too tight in the shoulders, too long in the cuff. Trousers with front pockets so loose I could’ve had my pick for the stolen cell phone routine I performed only when I was certain I could get away with a clean grab.

“Actually, your card wasn’t the ace of spades,” I said to Lou.

“If you’ll remember all the way back to two minutes ago, it was the three of diamonds.”

His eyes narrowed. “Are you accusing me of lying?” Mock outrage, a performance—unless I had screwed up my force at the beginning of the trick. (I hadn’t.)

“Either you’re lying,” I said, “or your eyes aren’t so good.”

“My eyes are perfect, honey,” he said. “I think it’s your magic act that’s on life support.”

And that, ladies and gents, is what did it. I suppose his words hit so hard because they happened to be true. What had once, long ago, been infinite potential was now, yes, on life support. But that didn’t mean I was ready for that kind of appraisal. Especially today. Especially during the act. And worst of all was hearing it from a pickled show-stealer who had read me so easily I might as well have been blinking neon. What I’m saying is, his jab caught me at the worst possible moment. I was desperate to be done with this trick, this show, this whole day of frustration and disappointment and self-doubt, and I felt all of it harden at that exact instant into a white-hot hunk of fury.

What I’m saying is, I let the card fly.

Once, I was clocked throwing a playing card at 72 miles per hour. No, that won’t get me into the Guinness Book. Still, a card flying 72 mph travels twenty feet in a fifth of a second, which isn’t enough time for a volunteer to react. No time to move out of the way, or even to flinch.

So it seemed like no time at all, when really it was one-fifth of a second later, that Lou Husk dropped the target, covered his left eye with his hands, and began to howl. 

Excerpted from BLUFF © 2018 by Michael Kardos. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. 

Bluff is available now, both in print and ebook formats.