On the Cards Book One

The bus clattered along the uneven road, every bump shaking through my stomach, up my back, and into my clenched hands as I rested them on the warped, stained railing in front of me. My head leaned to the side, and if it weren’t for my thick dark hair between my skull and the glass, I would’ve given myself a bruise.

It wouldn’t have been the first contusion I’d ever picked up on a bus – I hadn’t had the cleanest childhood, shall we say.

I came from one of the old-school magical protection families. Some called us a mob – in reality, we were just a close-knit group who knew how to watch each other’s backs in this screwed magical world.

None of that was the point, was it? My head softly banging repetitively against the thick, bulletproof glass of the bus as it trundled down the road was the least of my troubles. And heck, old-school families like the Russos were very much the least of this city’s problems these days, too.

The bus came to a sudden stop, and reluctantly, I opened my eyes, my cheeks twitching, the move instinctual as I tightened my grip on the railing in front of me, pushed off the glass, and inclined my head toward the driver.

There was a thick, reinforced divider between her and the rest of us. One designed to prevent any attacks that could take out the passengers from compromising her and potentially leaving this large, armored bus in the hands of someone all too willing to crash it into important infrastructure.

As I squinted through the magic-protected mesh, I saw the driver as she yanked her hands off the steering wheel and gestured madly.

Far from seeing a group of terrorists assailing the bus outside, I watched two bored soldiers holding up red halogen lights as they waved the bus through a random checkpoint.

“Are they kidding me? This is the fourth checkpoint today,” I heard the driver mutter angrily from her cockpit.

Shrugging, I got back to resting my head against the glass and trying to shut out the city. If I pushed my mind back into the days of my childhood – no matter how tumultuous they’d seemed at the time – I could kid myself into believing I wasn’t all that unhappy after all.

I made the mistake of keeping my eyes open as I yanked up a handful of my hair and arranged it under my head. I couldn’t stop my gaze from sweeping out of the window and across the city. It locked on the wall. They were still building it, and when it was done, it would separate us from them. The degenerates from the wealthy. The sacrificial lambs from those worthy of being saved.

My hand naturally curled into a fist, and I fought the urge to jam it hard into the already split fabric of the seat in front of me. I had a powerful right hook, and the last thing I wanted to do was be caught for vandalizing a bus as we rattled through a security checkpoint. These soldiers might’ve been pulled from my side of the wall, but the other side paid their wages.

“Bastards,” I whispered softly as my gaze traced from right to left, following that enormous metal monstrosity as the wall rose above the city. I locked my eyes on the gap that was still being built. In a couple of months, it would be done.

Just a couple of months, and if you believed the wealthy on the other side, they’d finally have a way to combat the terrorists, criminals, and delinquents that had flooded the city since the breakdown of the Second War Magic Accords.

I curled a hand into such a tight fist, my nails dug holes in my palms. Pain tingled up my wrist and ate into my elbow, but I didn’t goddamn stop. Stop, and I’d let loose with one of those legendary right hooks and smash the railing of the seat in front of me. It would strike the single mom and her kid seated there, and though I could be a real mean bitch at times, I never directed my ire at the innocent.

Plus, the kid was playing with a set of foundational magic cards, and I had a soft spot for anyone who wanted to learn the hardest magician art of all. It was my signature skill and the only thing that had kept me alive as the bolshiest of the Russos.

I settled for resting back, pushing my legs out, crossing my arms, and closing my eyes so tightly shut, they were like doors to a crypt that would never open again.

I listened to the soft chatter around me. It dried up as the bus was directed deeper through the checkpoint. As dogs and soldiers searched outside, checking the body of the bus for terrorist devices, I stared at my closed eyelids with all the fixity of someone searching for a needle in a haystack. My cousin, Vincent Bruno – or Vinny B for short – always said the world had to watch out whenever I did this. I’d get all quiet, I’d get all stiff, and according to Vinny, at least, I’d get all violent soon after.

But here’s the thing – there was no outlet for my anger anymore. Once, my cousin Gina had made the mistake of getting antsy at a soldier patting her down, and she’d attacked the a-hole with a magical punch. She’d ended up in remand for six months with a permanent mark on her record.

“Just put them away, sweetie.” I tuned into the conversation in front of me as the harassed single mom tried to cajole her kid into putting his cards away.

I got her point. While it seemed like the soldiers were only interested in checking the outside of the bus, that could change rapidly if they figured out there were any magicians on board. Sure, that kid didn’t look any more than 10, and any reasonable person would see he’d be too young to pose any threat, but here’s the thing – since the breakdown of the Accords, reason had died in Terra City. Common sense died second, and basic human decency was still on its way out.

“Please, sweetie, just put the cards away,” the mom begged in a quiet tone that nevertheless had a growing sense of urgency pitching through it. I heard her fumble as she made a grab for the cards.

“No, mom, don’t touch that,” the kid had a chance to say, his already high-pitched voice skipping higher with fear.

My eyes blasted open. It was just in time to see a few sparks of pre-magic leap into the air and crackle along the edge of the seat.

The mom succeeded in batting the cards out of her kid’s hands. They tumbled onto the floor, a few of them still charged with magic.

Well shit. It looked like I had to get involved.

I came from a long-standing magical family. Maybe some called us troublemakers. Okay, a lot of people called us troublemakers. And in their defense, we tended to generate as much mischief as we solved. Not my point. Growing up in a magical family, I was taught from day dot how to respect magical devices. I knew the ins and outs of every single practicing stream, and importantly, I respected magic in all its forms. Maybe the wealthy on the other side of the wall thought magic was just a tool – one that should be concentrated in the hands of those they saw as worthy. Me? I understood magic was the equivalent of a gun. It was dangerous, it was powerful, it didn’t care how much you earned, and if you handed it over to someone who didn’t know what they were doing, it would end in tears.

As more magic sparked out of the cards and sank into the reinforced metal plating of the bottom of the bus, I jumped to my feet.

The mom yelped softly, her quiet scream nevertheless loud enough to echo through to the driver. “What the hell is going on back there?” the already harried driver barked. “You trying to get the soldiers to come on board?”

I brought my foot up, ready to stamp out the magical fire before it could grow.

“No, lady, don’t do that—” the kid said desperately as he leaned out over his railing and groped for his cards.

I stamped on the cards, grinding my foot down as I concentrated. I connected to them just as quickly as electricity rushing through a circuit. My life might’ve been screwed these days – heck, everybody’s lives might’ve been screwed – but I still lived for this. The moment when my mind and my magic would connect to cards, and for a brief glimpse, I’d see a world worth living for again. A world that, however briefly, reminded you anything was possible and every wall, no matter how large and imposing, could crumble in time.

A few charges of magic lapped up the sides of my sturdy boots and crackled along my blue jeans. It felt like being bitten by tiny mouths made from pure electricity.

It would’ve burnt a lesser practitioner. Me? I shrugged it off literally as I brought up a hand, patted it down my jacket as I dislodged a few last charges, and shrugged at the kid.

He stared at me with awe rounding his big brown eyes. “You’re a card magician?”

I had a chance to grin. Then the frigging doors to the bus opened and two burly soldiers barreled in.

“Oh, Jesus,” I muttered through clenched teeth. I pressed my teeth all the way down and forced my lips to curl. “There’s nothing to see here, soldiers.”

“We’ll be the judges of that,” one of them snapped. I caught sight of the guy’s face from under his thick helmet and chin strap. He looked like he was fresh out of school.

Great. The way he held his gun confirmed that assessment. His grip was protective, almost greedy, as if his firearm was the only thing that could protect him – not us.

If I hoped the other soldier with him would be a grounding force, I was fresh out of luck. The guy was a kid, too, and while he didn’t look as gung-ho as his mate, he appeared exactly like a yes-man who would shoot first and sob about it later.

Knowing the drill, I slowly spread my hands and brought them up. “There’s been a mistake.”

The first soldier actually gestured at me with his gun. Here I was, a civilian, and here he was, a soldier tasked to protect me, and he was gesturing with his rifle as wildly as my nonna gesticulating for everyone to come to the dinner table.

I spread my fingers wider. I also tried to spread out a sense of calm. “The magical fire was unintentional,” I said, slowing down each word as I tried to get these idiots to hear before the situation could escalate.

“You’re a magician? Are you a goddamn magician?” the first soldier snapped as he continued to shove his rifle into my face.

I stared at the muzzle. I might’ve been calm up until now, but if anyone had been paying enough attention to me, they would’ve seen that the skin around my eyes stiffened like sheets of concrete. I had this thing about idiots shoving weapons in my face. This thing where I wanted to wrap my hands around their necks, headbutt them, and make them go home to apologize to their mommas for growing up without manners.

I let out a sigh. “Yes, I’m a card magician.”

“What the hell are you doing practicing on this bus? You know that contravenes every single law? It’s a federal crime,” the soldier continued. “You’re coming with us.”

Sorry, every single law? Try the State Transport Regulation Act. And it wasn’t a federal crime – it was a misdemeanor. I might have technically belonged to a less-than-legal mob family, but one thing about playing with the law is knowing it in the first place – which was obviously way above these soldiers’ heads.

Plus, if these two idiots had been worth the skinny paychecks the wealthy were paying them, they would’ve appreciated that the still crackling pack of cards at my feet were literally child’s play. No adult magician would use them.

But these two soldiers seemed fresh out of diapers, sadly.

“You’re coming with us,” the first one growled, shoving the tip of his rifle closer to my face.

I tried to breathe. It wasn’t nerves that suddenly constricted my chest – just deep-bellied anger.

Screw these idiots and screw everyone like them. It was precisely because of unthinking chumps like these two that this city had slipped so far so quickly.

I could’ve pushed the scattered cards with the toe of my boot and pointed out they weren’t mine. I didn’t. One look at the huddling mom out of the corner of my eye, and it was clear I couldn’t bring her or her kid into this.

With another sigh, I brought my hands higher. “Let’s get off the bus,” I managed.

“Cuff her,” the meanest of the soldiers said, his lips curling with genuine pleasure. He looked like he’d just caught one of the faction terrorists – some scum of the earth bastard who enjoyed destroying every semblance of peace this once great city had known. He hadn’t; he’d only caught me.

A part of me wanted to smack this kid on the side of the head and spit in his ear for being such a blind numbskull. The rest of me knew that he would’ve grown up on a steady diet of propaganda that would’ve equated all magical practitioners on the south side of the wall with latent criminals.

Still, they were gonna cuff me? What a frigging waste of their time and mine.

I could’ve pointed out they were contravening several federal laws – real ones – but I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always been a mouthy person who takes pleasure in pointing out the obvious when everyone else can’t see it – but I had sharp-ass survival instincts. That kid kept waving his gun in front of my face, and though he wouldn’t be aware of it, I was all too focused on the slicks of sweat coating his trigger finger. They glistened under the harsh light of the bus as he jammed his rifle even closer to my face. “Cuff her,” he growled at his partner once more.

“They aren’t her cards,” the kid tried.

The mama locked a hand over her child’s mouth.

I spread a hand toward the kid and put one finger up. Though I wanted to press it against my lips in the universal sign to be quiet, to do that I’d have to move, and this idiot soldier was all too ready to roast me if I so much as sneezed.

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes as the other soldier reached around, fumbled with his belt, and grabbed out a set of impeno cuffs. As the short name suggested, they were meant to be impenetrable. It didn’t matter what level of magician you were – it didn’t matter what your friends practiced. If you got cuffed with those, short of the correct key code, you would not be getting out of them.

“Great,” I muttered under my breath, ensuring my voice didn’t travel.

The second soldier muscled past his buddy, grabbed me roughly by the wrist, turned me around, and shoved me hard against the seat railing right in front of the kid.

Tears shimmered in the little guy’s eyes. I watched his lips try to move from underneath his mom’s white-knuckled hand as she kept it clamped on his mouth.

I managed to shrug and shoot him a commiserating smile.

The mom mouthed, “Thank you,” just as the soldiers roughly clamped the cuffs onto my wrists.

“You think we should cuff her ankles, too?” the second soldier asked. “Card sharks can practice with their feet.”

The first soldier snorted derisively. “You really think this,” he grabbed the back of my head and locked his fingers in hard, the fabric of his combat gloves grating against my skull and snagging along my hair, “looks like the kind of card shark who can practice with her feet?”

I managed not to bristle at being referred to as this.

At least, I managed not to react externally. Inside, I promised myself that if I ever got the chance, I would punch this soldier boy out cold.

Nobody on the bus said a word as the soldiers roughly led me off. Plenty of people would’ve seen what happened, but they would all know it was better for me to go down than the kid. Though it wasn’t illegal for the kid to practice magic on the bus, they’d find some way to stick it to him or his mother. I wouldn’t let that happen, even if it meant another mark on my file. While most of this city thought the Russo family created more trouble than we solved, I’d always taken my role as a protector to heart.