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House of Cards
Staring blindly into the darkness that hung like morning dew over the room, Ginger Pearson wasn’t surprised when candles flickered to life all around her, lit by an unseen spark.
She probably should have been scared, nervous, startled. Anything would have suited the occasion better than cool acceptance.
Then again, after finding a body brutally massacred in a home that had been abandoned since the Civil War, not much would surprise her.
Not for a long time.
Lingering for another minute in the doorway, Ginger examined the room with a quick sweep of her surroundings. Once, it had been a lavish ballroom. Fanciful Victorian parties had been held here, the wealthy in the North had celebrated while their brothers, cousins, uncles died in a bloody and inhospitable war miles away. It had been a place of decadence and bittersweet pleasures. Now it was an accessory to murder.
Ghostly white sheets covered tables and chairs, the chandelier casting an ominous shadow on the dimly lit floor below. Ginger noticed something sparkling out of the corner of her eye and took a small, echoing step into the enormous room. Tipped to one side, porcelain skin standing stark against the dust and charred black walls laid an unassuming china doll.
Bending down, Ginger lifted the doll with tenderness, brushing centuries of dust from the cherubic white face, while her blue eyes stared unblinkingly at the twenty two year old detective who had invaded her home. A small crack marred the doll’s once beautiful face, and a small black spider crept out timidly, sending a revolted shiver down Ginger’s spine. Placing the doll gently on the ground, she watched as the spider crawled across the face and scuttled away into the shadows, hopefully never to bother her again. She hated spiders. All those legs, those beady black eyes…she felt nauseous just thinking about them.
Turning around, the innocence of the doll suddenly became a disturbing turn of events. On one of the cloaked tables, a trio of china dolls sat in a circle, tiny tea cups placed delicately at their feet. In the center a tea pot loomed unsuspectingly, and a sliver of unease crawled up Ginger’s spine, slow and deliberate. At the foot of the table another doll lay flopped on its back, brown eyes staring at the ceiling above.
Involuntarily rubbing her shoulders, Ginger moved forward into the room, unable to shake the lifeless stare of the china dolls. It was really just a coincidence. Maybe a little girl had lived here, and left all her belongings.
But why would a child leave her dolls, especially in the ballroom, so haphazardly? It was almost as if she hadn’t expected to leave.
Something rolled against the floor and Ginger froze, looking down to see a small golden ornament lying at her feet. Upon closer inspection, she realized that it was a music box. The hinges were probably rusted with age, just as the exterior, so Ginger didn’t bother trying to open it.
She did notice, though, that the back was stained with something dark and red, a stark contrast against the brown of age and rust.
How had the last family left this house?
Weighting the music box gently in her hands, Ginger looked up to find a small cabinet uncovered. Twelve pairs of porcelain eyes gazed at her quietly, studying her, watching. Each of them was in perfect condition.
At the far edge of the cabinet, a large red ribbon, faded with time, still remained. Curiosity overcame the sense of foreboding as Ginger drew nearer, lifting the ribbon just enough to read the faded ink of the letter captured just beneath.
For your seventh birthday, Lilith, with love,
Either the ink had faded or the note simply ended there. Lillian had clearly been the little girl who last called this house a home.
Why would these dolls have been kept intact, even through the countless official inspections that determined this house would be preserved as a memento of our country’s history?
For that matter, why had the furniture been kept covered? No one would set foot in here, not for a long time. Except, it seemed, to perform an act of murder so horrendous and vile that the police department couldn’t fathom what creature had done it.
“I’ve been expecting you, Miss Pearson.”
Whirling around, Ginger tried to find the source of that voice. Hesitating, she took a step forward into the deep darkness that still encased most of the ballroom. One hand drifted towards her holster, in the event that the murderer was still lingering here and searching for his next victim.
“Who are you?” No answer. Fingers grasping at the comforting feel of metal, Ginger stopped, struggling to adjust to the lack of light. “Don’t move. I can and will place you under arrest if you try any d*** parlor tricks. Show yourself.”
“Ah. You don’t like the dark? I suppose, for you, I will oblige. You seem to be very serious.” More candles flickered to life, but the shift left her vision unfocused, and for a moment she was forced to close her eyes. “I think you need to lighten up, Miss Pearson. I have just the thing.”
Something snapped in the new light, the sound of a leaf crackling underfoot.
“Shall we play a game?”
Harmonic and sinister, the cool voice that rippled towards Ginger reminded her that she was faced with a potential threat, although he sounded almost harmless. In the center of the ballroom, a single table stood surrounded by elevated candles that cast an eerie glow on the sedentary stranger. He was young, probably a few years older than her, skin ghostly pale, eyes deep violet orbs framed by dark lashes and mirrored beneath by a cryptic smile. In one hand, he loosely held a deck of cards.
“I didn’t come here for a game of chance,” Ginger scowled deeply, although her heart was throbbing painfully against her ribs at the sight of this stranger. “Put the cards down and place both hands over your head, sir. You’re under arrest.”
As she lifted her gun, one hand moved towards her cell phone. Reinforcements might be needed with this one.
Just as her fingers brushed the pocket, they froze, coaxed into stillness by a pleasantly numbing sensation. Slowly, her trigger finger began to ache with cold, and the gun dropped easily from her lifeless fingers.
“Please,” the young man iterated, his smile dipping a fraction as Ginger’s arms fell heavily to her side. “I insist.”
Behind her, the large oak doors closed with an echoing groan. Whatever force had frozen her limbs now compelled them forward until she was standing beside the chair opposite the stranger. The man laid the deck of cards on the table and rose from his seat, pulling her chair out and watching coolly as she sank with deliberate sluggishness into her seat. With a satisfied smirk, the man returned to his seat and gently patted the deck of cards, his unnerving gaze never leaving her.
“I would not advise trying to escape or call reinforcements, Miss Pearson. It will end badly for you, and I would hate to see this situation become a grim one.” At this, the mysterious smile reappeared. Ginger regarded him coolly, doubting that the force which had drawn her into her seat would allow her to leave so easily. “Are you ready to begin?”
Two cards snapped crisply in front of each player, rendering Ginger’s answer null and void, even if one had been forthcoming. Deciding that she would be better suited to play this man’s game for a while, Ginger glanced at her hand—the King and Queen of Spades.
“What do you gain by holding me hostage here?” Eyes flickering upwards towards the stranger, she noted that he had yet to look at his cards. Refusing to back down, she pressed onward. Everyone had a breaking point. Maybe if she probed long enough, she could find his. “And what do you know about the murder that recently occurred in this house? Does it have something to do with the family who used to live here?”
“So many questions, and so little time,” he shook his head disdainfully, running a hand through his thick dark hair. “For each card on the flop, I will award you three questions. It would be in your best interest to interrogate me on much less pressing matters, I would think. After all, it will do you no good if I lie about each question and you learn nothing of my origin or heritage. Is that a deal, Investigator?”
“Fair enough,” Ginger kept her voice level, but something in the man’s tone was beginning to unnerve her. He seemed far too calm about this, and it worried her that he knew her name. “You do strike a hard bargain. I wonder. Did you plan this little meeting all along? Rehearse your lines, no matter what my response?”
“Were those two of your questions?”
“No. I was only thinking out loud.”
“To say that I didn’t anticipate your arrival would be lying,” he grinned mischievously, as one card, the Ace of Diamonds, snapped to attention against the oak surface. Pools of violet glimmered with a Cheshire grin as his gaze shifted to Ginger expectantly. “And I do hate lying, Miss Pearson.”
“I’m sure you do,” Ginger snorted derisively, unable to control a small smirk that crept onto her features. Recognizing that this game had been rigged from the beginning, she almost didn’t bother to look at the first card. “Who are you?”
The second card clapped against the table, the Jack of Spades, and Ginger glanced at Damian expectantly. He remained silent, hands clasped in front of him, watching her carefully. So he was waiting for her question.
He was a character, she had to admit.
“What are you doing here, Damian? According to all city records, this house has been abandoned and uninhabited for nearly two centuries. I doubt that you are a common tourist who just happened by. And I also doubt,” raising a hand to gesture to the cloaked furniture, Ginger continued quizzically, “that you actually live here. The 19th century still claims this house, and I think you would have died from dust exposure by now.”
“This home has been part of my family for generations.” Black humor delicately laced his words, matching the coy grin that spread across his pale features. “It’s only natural that I uphold the inheritance.”
“But this place has been empty for years.” A laugh choked through her otherwise calm exterior, panic flooding through her briefly before receding, a tumultuous ocean threatening to destroy the peaceful coastal homes within seconds. “I know for a fact that no one lived here.”
“Do you?” Extending a hand to catch the few specks of dust that drifted onto his hand, Damian smirked while the last card of the flop fell, the Ten of Clubs. “Somehow, Miss Pearson, I think that you know very little of this house. Its history may seem certain, but I am the only one that holds that key. I am the last remnant of this house’s past, and the only one who can read its future. But that is beside the point. You have one question left.”
Thoughts racing, Ginger opened her mouth to ask him if he was the murderer, but her voice betrayed her.
“Who was Lilith?”
Damian hesitated, his smile faltering for a split second before he regained his composure.
“I don’t know.” It was a lie. That fact was written so clearly across his features. But Ginger didn’t have the courage to call him out. The river card hung suspended in midair, Damian’s gaze catching Ginger’s with sharp captivation. “I don’t think that was your original question, Miss Pearson. Continue. I’m feeling generous.”
Regaining some sensibility, Ginger took a deep breath and asked her final question, throat tightening.
“Did you murder Sam Masters?”
“No.” His response was curt and harsh, an acrid bite of cool wind against her cheek, as if he had physically slapped her.
“You could be lying.”
“I have no reason to lie to you, Miss Pearson. No reason at all.” The river card fell, Ten of Diamonds. Laughing bitterly, he shook his head, one hand gently touching the deck of cards. “Luck favors me this night, it seems.”
His hand flipped over, the Jack and King of Diamonds, but Ginger wasn’t surprised. Yet another thing she probably should have felt some emotion over.
“You planned this,” she whispered faintly, her voice catching as Damian’s violet gaze found hers. “I couldn’t win.”
“Unfortunately, you are correct,” Damian shrugged nonchalantly, not bothering to ask for her hand. It was obvious that he had won, because he had rigged the entire game. It had been a death trap from the beginning. “You didn’t ask the stakes of the game, Miss Pearson.”
“I had more pressing matters.”
“It seems so. Allow me to explain.” Gathering her cards and drawing them slowly towards him, he rose from his seat, leaning towards her. “In losing this game, you promise to tell no one the details of our encounter. Tell your associates the body was merely hidden here, that there was no evidence of foul play within the building. Lead them to believe that they were mistaken.”
“Is there?” Blinking rapidly, Ginger felt her breath quicken as Damian threw the cards into the air, distracting her for a split second as they fluttered slowly to the ground. Fifty two pick up was not a game she wanted to play in this house of murder. His silence was answer enough. “Then you expect me to lie?”
“Yes. And you have very little choice in the matter.”
“I’m a free spirit,” Ginger shot back, realizing that, again, she was unable to move. “I’ll do as I please.”
“Regrettably, that is not the case,” Damian gently took her hand and that same force brought her to her feet, “Because I’ve already branded you, Miss Pearson. You are mine.”
Lifting her hand towards his mouth, he caressed the soft skin of her palm, cool breath crawling against her skin, reminding her of the spider and the china doll. Delicate patterns danced across her skin, blue veins shimmering briefly as an ache pulsed momentarily against her skin before fading away.
Heart, Diamond, Club, Spade—they were all reflected against her skin.
Sucking in a harsh breath, Ginger stared at Damian, uncomprehending, as he laid a soft kiss on the tattoo.
“Miss Pearson," he breathed solemnly, "welcome to the House of Cards.”