The Coward's Crucifix
I received a package in the mail the other day - no return address, just two stamps and a Cincinnati postmark dated three days prior.
Inside was this letter rubber banded to an ornate deck of playing cards. On the back of the letter were two handwritten words in bold, black ink:
I was your next-door-neighbor eight years ago. I go by Tony these days, but when you knew me I was Jack Carlson. I’m pretty sure that name still rings a bell. You probably remember when I cut out, jumping bail rather than face the consequences. I heard that you and your wife helped Karen during the aftermath of the mess I left behind, and that’s why I wanted to reach out to you.
This isn’t a request for help or forgiveness; I know I’m beyond redemption. But it could be a way of thanking you for what you’ve done for my family.
Fair warning, what you’re about to read is pretty fucked up. Believe it, don’t believe it, that’s up to you, as is whether or not you decide to play the game for yourself. All I ask is that you take this seriously. Even though it sounds crazy, everything you’re about to read is true.
After I left, I drifted a bit before finding a permanent gig as a bartender at a hole in the wall joint in Cincinnati. It's what we used to call a dive bar, back before the granola crowd (no offense intended) co-opted the term. This wasn’t a repurposed bike shop in the gentrified part of town serving craft beer to gauge-eared hipsters with tattoos bought on Daddy’s credit card. This place was a true shithole. A place of cheap beer and watered down liquor for the low-life scum and deadbeats who lived within stumbling distance. The true dregs of humanity.
If you had food stamps, somebody here could turn those into cash, or a gun. Something better than formula for the brat you left home alone so you could tie one on in peace. And if you wanted to offload the brat entirely, fuck man, at least two guys in here could run a price check. Like I said, it’s a true shithole, a place where I could disappear and eke out the rest of my shitty existence. And that's where I would've stayed, if it wasn't for Mr. Thirteen.
He showed up about a month ago, an out of place stranger in this conclave of reprobates. He wasn’t dressed in old denim or Goodwill’s finest, not Mr. Thirteen. He was dressed in a black suit and bolo tie, dressed to stand out in any crowd.
His long white hair hung down to his shoulders like corn silk. I would have thought he was a wizard but he didn’t have a beard, and this wasn’t Harry fucking Potter.
(I don't know why I'm telling you all of this, but I feel the need to give you as much information as I can so you know what you're dealing with.)
“You lost, old timer?” I said, raising my voice over the AC/DC on the jukebox and angry voices around the pool table where vibrations of a brawl had been building. It’s been a few days, we were due for one. Our policy was to let them fight as long as no one pulled weapons or broke anything they couldn’t pay for. If someone did pull a piece or a blade, we had a shotgun under the register for conflict mediation.
“Why, you selling maps?” he asked, giving me a grin. His voice was low and raspy, but still carried over the din of the bar.
“We don’t get a lot of outsiders stopping in for a drink. The crowd here is pretty regular.”
“Every regular began as an outsider at one time, didn’t they?” he asked.
“People here tend to have a certain look, which you don’t have,” I answered. “Maybe you’d prefer a classier joint than this.”
He ignored my comment and took a seat at the far end of the bar near the jukebox, then rapped his bony knuckles against the counter.
“Bourbon, neat,” he said as he pulled a deck of cards from his inside jacket pocket. I could see the silver and turquoise aglets of his bolo tie bounce against his shirt. The clasp was a steer’s skull with an ornate symbol on the forehead.
I nodded then reached for the bottle on the counter behind me. He cleared his throat to get my attention.
“You can put that rotgut shit on the bottom shelf where it belongs,” he said. “What else you got?”
I shrugged. “There’s some Buffalo Trace the owner keeps hidden for himself. Probably the closest to top shelf around here.”
He scratched his fingers against the bar like a blackjack player asking for another hit. I retrieved the hidden bottle and poured him a heavy two fingers. He held up his glass to me before taking a swig, then returned to his cards.
I tended to another customer, a piece of shit dickhole needing a refill on his pitcher. Called himself Hot Rod, did a ten year stretch in county when he was caught soliciting minors in chat rooms back in the early days of the Internet. Called himself a pioneer of the Dark Web. I gave his pitcher a spritz of club soda from the fountain when he turned his back. Would’ve spat in it too, but he spun around and slapped a ten on the counter. I didn’t give change unless they asked for it. He didn't, so I put it in the till.
I returned to watching the old timer as he shuffled his cards and arranged them in a triangle of overlapping rows on the bar. Once he had them spread out, he’d flip a card from the remaining stack and study the cards in front of him, either using it to remove a card from the rows or putting it aside in the discard pile. Some sort of solitaire, just not the kind my grandma used to play.
I watched him play a few hands, sometimes removing all the cards into the discard pile, sometimes leaving a few rows when his draw pile ran out. Every time he pooled them back up, shuffling and re-dealing in the same manner as before.
“What’s that called?” I asked as I made a return trip with the bottle to refill his glass.
“Pyramid,” he replied, not looking up from the cards. Made sense, considering how the cards were laid out. “Kings are worth thirteen, Queens twelve, Jacks eleven, and so on. You pair cards to make thirteen and put them in the discard pile.”
He flipped his last card from the stack, looking at the arrangement of cards in front of him, shaking his head.
“Dead end,” he said, tossing the card onto the table. He gathered them back up and shuffled. “You ever play?”
I shook my head. “I don’t see the point in solitaire. Poker I get; even with a shitty hand you can still win if you bet your opponent instead of your cards. But solitaire, you’re just playing against yourself.”
“And the deck,” he added. “You have no control over how the cards are shuffled and arranged, and once they’re on the table you can only take them how they are presented. It’s a good analogy for life, if you think about it. ”
I laughed. “Jesus, only one drink and you’re waxing philosophical? Maybe I should cut you off now Mister-?”
“Thirteen,” he said, looking up at me with a wide grin. “You can call me Mr. Thirteen.”
Place like this, people are called whatever the fuck they want. The bald monster with arms like tree trunks playing pool was Big Moe, even though his mugshot on the evening news for roughing up his wife said it was Lester Townshend. The guy he was playing, Sparky, was Tommy Littleton before his meth-head mother got him hooked on the crystal and the two of them began breaking into houses to feed their fix. So if he said his name was Mr. Thirteen, that’s what I called him.
“Name’s Tony,” I said, offering mine even though he didn’t ask. “Thirteen, eh? Name like that people might think you’re bad luck to have around.”
“Perhaps I am. Do you believe in luck?”
I shrugged. “People make their own luck, so they have something to blame when shit goes bad. Easier to blame bad luck than hold yourself accountable.”
He smiled. “That’s a very astute observation for a bartender in a rundown place like this. Have you always thought this way about luck?”
“Not always,” I said. “But when you’ve seen enough people in shitty situations you realize blaming someone else is a crutch. Everyone in here would probably tell you they’re here because of bad luck. Lawyer fucked me over, parents didn’t love me, too many bad breaks, it’s all bullshit.”
“And what about you?” he asked. “Is bad luck why you’re here?”
“No,” I replied. “I know why I’m here. And it’s not because of luck.”
A smiling face popped in my mind, a glimpse of a memory tucked in the corner of my mind like a private photo stashed in the back of a wallet. I shook it off and looked back at Mr. Thirteen. His smile spread to a creepy grin.
“What would you say to playing a different game with me?” Mr. Thirteen asked. “We can test your theory on luck.”
I shrugged. “What kind of game?”
“A special game, one very few get the chance to play,” he said. “I had other plans this evening, but you’ve caught me in a gambling mood, Tony. Or should I say, Jack?”
My real name, Angela. He knew my real goddamn name! How the fuck could he know that?
I reached for that gaudy bolo tie to drag his wrinkled bag of bones out of the bar, but before I could reach him he had me by the wrist. Moved so fast I didn’t even see it. He held it tight in his cold, bony fingers, squeezing as he slowly lifted his head.
“Manners,” Mr. Thirteen said. “Don’t trifle me with nonsense.”
He let go of my hand. I massaged it, the indentions from where he grabbed it were already throbbing and turning red.
He flicked the top card from the deck. It flew in an arc behind my head, circling back to him like a boomerang. The card danced across the back of his hand before it disappeared into the deck with a nifty one-handed shuffle. His fingers were surprisingly nimble for how crooked they were. Nimble, and as I knew now, very strong.
“What the fuck is this?” I asked.
“It’s like solitaire, but the stakes are much higher. You can win big, or lose big. Even the cards are different.”
He fanned the cards in front of my face. The back of the cards erupted in a swirl of obsidian, swallowing the blue and white Bicycle logo. A bleached steer skull raised up from the field of black, its eyes glowing red, pulsing. The skull was an exact match for the one in the bolo tie hanging around Mr. Thirteen’s neck.
He shuffled and restacked the cards, then pushed the pile towards me.
“Would you like a cut?”
I looked up at Mr. Thirteen, who smiled patiently as he waited. His skin looked more pale, less wrinkled, and stretched tight over his skull. I reached out and took a small stack of cards from the top of the deck, setting it in a separate pile.
“Thin to win,” I said, an attempt at levity to lighten how creeped the fuck out I was. “You still haven’t told me what we are playing. Or what we are playing for.”
“Ah yes, what’s a card game without stakes? Think of something that you want more than anything, picture it in your mind, focus on it,” he said, closing his eyes.
I didn’t say a word, but my mind drifted back to that smiling face tucked away in my memories. It was a photo from the mantle, one I took on her second birthday as she rode her brand new tricycle down the driveway in pink saddle-shoes and a Tinkerbell dress. Worlds away from this shithole.
Mr. Thirteen opened his eyes. “Tabitha.”
My heart jumped into my throat. “How did-?”
He waved his hand, cutting me off.
“She would be twelve now, right? Just starting middle school, wearing one of those plaid jumpers on her way to that private school you and the wife picked out for her. If not for the accident, at least.”
“Stop,” my voice cracked a little, but he continued.
“You were very drunk that night. Do you remember her screams when the car hit the water, Jack? Do her cries still haunt you? Or did you block them out as you swam to shore, your daughter still buckled in her carseat?”
Daddy! Daddy help! Daddy please! Daddy help me ple-
I closed my eyes into the balls of my fists, desperate to block it out. “I don't know how the fuck you're doing this, but make it stop, please!”
“Are you still a coward, Jack? Or are you brave enough to win her back?”
My jaw dropped open as I looked up at him. “What?”
“If you win, you get her back, same as she was. Four years old, auburn hair, missing her front teeth, hugging that stuffed rabbit she called Bonny. It’ll be like nothing ever happened. You could have your old life back too. Tabitha, your wife Karen, even your old job. No more running, no more hiding. Is that what you want?”
I nodded. I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath.
Mr. Thirteen re-stacked the pile on top of my cut. He dealt the cards out in the shape of a cross - thirteen cards vertical, six horizontal. The intersection was left empty.
“The game is called The Coward’s Crucifix,” he said, offering me the stack. “Draw the first card.”
I flipped the top card. My heart skipped as I revealed the Jack of Diamonds, but instead of holding a halberd or a sword, the Jack was nailed to an upside down cross with his throat slashed. A symbol was carved in his chest, the same symbol on the steer skull hanging from Mr. Thirteen’s neck.
There was no mistaking the face on the card was mine.
Mr. Thirteen took the card and placed it in the empty spot in the center of the cross. “This card represents you.”
I felt my heartbeat thudding in my ears. “Why are you doing this?”
He winked. “With every gambit there’s risk. How much are you willing to risk to get her back?”
He flipped over the card at the top of the cross, revealing an Eight of Spades. “Ace beats King but everything else beats Aces. You need to draw a Nine or higher to move on.”
I began to flip a card from the deck, but hesitated. “Are you showing me how to play or am I playing now?” He grinned. “You know the answer to that, Jack.”
I flipped the top card. Seven of Hearts. Mr. Thirteen took the card and placed it to the side.
“Draw until you beat the Eight, then move down to the next piece of the cross.Remove the vertical row top to bottom, then the horizontal row right to left. Top card of your discard pile can also be played if it works. ” He moved his hand over his torso in the sign of the cross. “You were a good Catholic once, Jack, you remember how it goes.”
I nodded. “What happens if I run out of cards before the cross is gone?”
“You lose the game, of course.”
Looking at my card in the middle, I had a good idea of what would happen if I lost.
With my next draw I removed the Eight with a Ten of Diamonds. Mr. Thirteen took the cards and stacked them to the side. He flipped the next card down, a Three of Clubs. I used the Seven of Hearts from my discard pile to remove it.
“Looks like you got the hang of it. You win by removing all of the cards on the cross. You lose if your draw pile runs out first. But, there is a third option.”
“What is it?”
“You can replace yourself on the cross.”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
He tapped his bony fingertip on my Jack of Diamonds. “Replace yourself with another card from the deck and the hand ends. You can do that at any time before you start the last row. Once you start on that row, you have to play it out, win or lose.”
“But otherwise I can replace myself at any time, even now?”
“You can’t tempt power like this without sacrifice,” he said. “If you remove yourself, someone else will take your place. That’s why the game is called Coward’s Crucifix.”
He smiled but didn’t answer.
Nineteen cards on the cross plus the Jack for myself meant I had thirty two cards in my draw pile. Not unbeatable odds, but a series of tough beats could leave me with not enough cards to finish.
The next card flipped was a King of Diamonds that wasted nine cards from my deck before I drew an Ace. After the King, I had a four draw Queen followed by a run of low cards that I removed with a single draw or used the top card from my discard pile. I kept count of Kings and Aces in my head, mentally noting when one was removed from the game.
I had two cards to go before the final row. I flipped the next card. Seven of Spades. One draw. Next card was the Four of Clubs. Removed with one draw, but burned a King on it. I was down to the last row - six cards to go, and judging from the height of my draw pile, I had maybe twelve cards left. Not much margin for error.
Did I count correctly? I went over it again in my head, remembering every King I played or removed from the cross. Three Kings were gone, I was certain of that. One remained, and no Aces to remove it. If I turned over a King I was fucked. But if the King was in my hand, I had a slim chance of winning.
“Choices, choices, Jack,” he said, his grin growing ever wider. “What did you say earlier about making your own luck? Do you feel as strongly about that now?”
No, I most certainly fucking did not. But still, if I did win, I would get my Tabitha back. My old life. Was I ready to give that up?
I looked up from the cards. Around us, the rest of the bar patrons continued their evening as usual, drowning their shitty lives in alcohol. I hadn’t even noticed the sound had dimmed, as if someone turned down the volume on the world around us. We were still in the bar, but also separated from it, like we had become unstuck from reality. Still there, but also not there.
I don’t know how long I stood there considering my chances, time seemed to slow down in the game. I held my hand over the card, poised to flip it, but stopping myself every time.
“Tell me again how I replace myself?” My voice was just above a whisper.
“Ahh yes, the Coward’s exit,” he said. “Top card of your stack, slide it under your card to remove it. Keep it face down, no peeking.”
I did as instructed, sliding the top card under the crucified Jack on the bar. When I picked up my card, it had shifted back to the normal Jack of Diamonds holding a halberd. My face was gone, as was the symbol carved in its chest.
Mr. Thirteen took all of the cards and shuffled them back in the deck, not letting me see the card I had sacrificed or the ones I had left to beat.
As soon as the cards were back in the box, the volume of the bar seemed to pop back to normal. I heard Big Moe call Sparky a “hustling little bitch” as he slammed him against the pool table. A crowd formed around them, unsure if they should intervene or let them have it out.
“What happens now?” I asked.
Mr. Thirteen dropped a crisp twenty on the bar. “I pay for the bourbon and bid you good evening.”
“But the game, who took my place?”
He didn’t reply. He just gave me a smile and made his way to the exit.
As he walked, the fight from the pool table spilled into his path. Mr. Thirteen didn’t change his step, just walked on in his normal pace as Big Moe worked his hands around Sparky’s throat.
Then the craziest fucking thing happened. The fight just… stopped.
Big Moe stepped back from Sparky, creating a space for Mr. Thirteen to pass. Sparky picked himself up from the bar and moved his feet back. They stood still as Mr. Thirteen walked between them, their faces blank expressions. As soon as he passed, the fight started back up as if the break hadn’t happened.
The pattern continued as Mr. Thirteen made his way to the exit. Everyone just seemed to move out of his way, as if by their own choice, without acknowledging him or realizing he was there. Could anyone else even see him? The rest of the night was uneventful. The fight ended without any damage or death. Over time the energy of the bar shifted from the usual high before midnight to the self-loathing den of pity as last call approached.
By the time I closed up for the night I had all but convinced myself that the encounter with Mr. Thirteen was a daydream. Had to be; things like that don’t happen in real life. Either that or one of those fuckers at the bar slipped something into my water when I wasn’t looking. Sounds like something that dipshit Hot Rod would try, get me fucked up and then empty the till while I was tripping balls, payback for watering down his pitcher.
But if it was real, was it really cowardly to act in your own best interest? Even if I did condemn someone to take my place, Mr. Thirteen never told me who it was when I asked him. Odds were good that I would never find out.
It was all over the news the next day. A six-year-old girl was missing, taken from her home in the middle of the night while her family slept. I watched as they interviewed her mother on the television, pleading through tears for her daughter’s safe return.
When the breaking news interrupted the basketball game to announce that the girl’s body had been found, I knew all the gory details of her desecration that they left out of the broadcast.
I didn’t hear it, Angela, but I knew the pained cry her mother made when she found out that her baby was gone. I had heard that exact cry from my wife the night we lost Tabitha. The night I took her away. Could you hear her crying from your house?
The deck of cards was sitting on the bar when I got to work that day. The back design was still black with the image of the steer skull with the glowing eyes. I didn’t remember Mr. Thirteen leaving them behind, but I wasn't surprised to find them, either.
I opened the box and fanned through the deck, praying I wouldn’t find what I expected to find. I missed it on the first pass, but when I scanned the cards again just to make sure, my heart jumped into my throat when I discovered the blood stained Six of Hearts tucked in the middle. I held it up, staring at it as tears filled my eyes.
I took the deck and locked them in the safe at the bar. I knew if I looked at them long enough I would be tempted to play another hand. That’s why Mr. Thirteen left them for me to find, to tempt me, to have me try my luck again.
I want to say that I kept them locked in that safe. I want to say that if I did play again, I would resign my fate to the cards and not sacrifice another in my place. But I’ve played the game five times now. Every time I’ve taken the Coward’s exit.
Every time I sacrificed someone else, I would tell myself that was the last time. I would lock the cards in the safe, swearing never again. A few days would pass and the idea would enter my brain to play again, take another chance to make things right. Next thing I knew, I was entering the combination and retrieving the cards, swearing that if I won, not only would I get back my daughter, I’d bring back the girl who took my place on the cross.
Not girl. Girls. Five have taken my place now, all under the age of ten.
Two of the games I never even made it close to the final row before decimating my draw deck. The other two, I couldn’t commit to the cards. Too much chance, unwilling to take the risk. I feel trapped, stuck in a loop of hope, desperation, and regret.
The last game I wasn’t even using the deck Mr. Thirteen gave me. I just got home after a night of resisting the urge to pull the deck from the safe when I got the idea to play a few practice hands to get better at counting cards. When I turned over the card to represent myself on the cross, my heart jumped when I saw the same bloodied Jack of Diamonds.
I knew at that point I would never be finished with the game until I had played the game all the way to the end, win or lose. So that’s what I decided to do.
Angela, if you’ve stayed with me this far, you’re probably asking yourself what does all this have to do with you?
When this final hand is finished, I'm putting the deck and this letter in the mail for you. You and your wife were so kind and thoughtful after what happened with Tabitha. You went above and beyond neighborly duty, you were there for my wife when I couldn’t, or more truthfully, when I wouldn’t. You helped her through a very tough time, and I will always be grateful for that.
I also heard about your wife’s cancer, how it came back and took a turn for the worse last year. I wanted to reach out then, but I didn't know what I would say. I'm sorry for your loss, Angela. Truly, I am. And while the initial hurt might be gone, that deep ache inside your heart never goes away. It lingers, eats away at you. But if these cards do what Mr. Thirteen says they do, I figured you might want the opportunity to get her back. Whether I'm repaying a kindness or spreading a curse depends on your perspective, and your luck.
Whatever you choose to do, please be a better person than I was. Play your hand all the way through to the end. Don't sacrifice someone else.
After reading the letter I opened the deck. Six of the cards were disfigured with red splotches like blood on the front: Six of Hearts, Three of Clubs, Nine of Spades, Ace of Clubs, Eight of Hearts and the Jack of Diamonds.
I called my brother who’s a detective up in Michigan to ask if he could nose around, see what he could dig up about Jack. His search led to a coroner’s report of a man found dead in a railyard twenty miles North of Cincinnati. His body had been desecrated with a symbol linked to a string of missing children in the area. It was an ongoing investigation so they withheld his name, but the description and age lined up, as did the date of death - same as the postmark on my letter.
I had a thought to tell my brother about the letter and the deck of cards from Jack, but that’s where it stayed - a thought. I’m not sure I believe Jack’s story, or if the cards would work for me the same way they worked for Jack. Until I find out, the cards are locked away in a safety deposit box. Out of sight, out of mind.
For now at least.