Tonight her name is Columbine and she is wearing black and red, with a line of diamonds of descending size painted under her left eye. Her gloves have no fingers tonight and her nails are painted alternating red and black. She has applied little stickers for the four card suits, but her thumbs are blank. She sits at the table closest to the door, shuffling her battered pack of cards. There are gold ribbons in her hair, like a little girl’s, and she is barefoot. Tonight she is smiling and friendly to the clients who wander into the Bar, talking easily and openly, occasionally doing a neat little sleight of hand to keep them interested. From behind the bar, the Bartender watches and doesn’t say a word; he doesn’t need to. His gaze is a weighty enough thing.
“Would you like a game?” she asks to the man who enters the bar around midnight. His name is Louis and he is recently heartbroken; his job has been taken from him and his girlfriend has vanished with it. His eyes are heavy and he already smells strongly of alcohol, his suit and tie pulled into disarray long ago. He squints at the girl Columbine and he sneers, his lips pulling back from yellowed teeth.
“A game? A _game_? Everything is a game! I’m sick of those things! That’s the last thing I want. I need a drink.”
With the declaration he stumbles for the bar and leaves her. Columbine simply hums under her breath and goes back to shuffling her cards, but this seems to provoke some small piece of Louis’ brain. He turns and he narrows his bloodshot eyes.
“You know what? Why don’t we have a game. I’m sick of it. Let’s do it.”
Columbine smiles. She begins to deal, her movements smooth and fast. “Poker, sir?”
“What the hell ever.” He lumbers and drops into the chair across from her. He leans forward and braces one elbow against the table. “You’d better not cheat.”
“Sir, I never cheat. That’d be disrespectful to the cards.”
“To the cards? Hah! You can’t fool me.” He leans further forward and jabs a finger at her. It comes just short of touching her. “I know your kind. I know all of this is just a setup! But I’m nice. I’ll give it a shot, because you asked. I can’t say nice to a pretty girl, right?”
“You’re always free to say no,” she says. She sets her cards down and turns her hands over. “Shall we?”
Louis doesn’t pick up his cards, though; he remains leaning forward, squinting at her face. “You’re just humoring me.”
“I think maybe it’s the other way around, sir. I did ask you for a game.”
Louis throws himself back a little in his chair, hard enough that it skids half an inch against the floor. “And I told you, I can’t say no to a pretty girl. Aren’t I generous? You should praise me.” He picks up his hand and squints at it, then scowls. He tosses it back onto the table, careless, letting the cards flutter as they fall. Some land face-up; some don’t. There is the King of Clubs and the Two of Hearts. “Never mind. I can’t do this.”
Columbine tsks and begins to gather her cards up again. “You shouldn’t say yes if you don’t mean to follow through on things,” she says. “That’s going to make you unpopular. Even if you think it’s nice to never say no.”
“It _is_ nice,” Louis declares. He slumps further in his chair, until his chin is nearly resting on his chest. He scrubs both hands through his fine black hair, leaving it on end in strange tufted clumps. “I’m nice. That’s why I’m failing. I can’t get any farther if I’m so nice. That’s what they told me. That’s what she told me. That’s what my life’s become. I was raised to be a good person, and that’s where it’s taken me. What shit.”
She neatly stacks her desk, then puts both of her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands. Her fingers are stretched against her cheeks, spread to show off her nails. She swings her legs and tilts her head and gives him a wide-eyed look. “Has it really been that difficult?”
“Are you stupid? That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning.”
“Not everyone thinks the same things are difficult.”
“Oh god.” He rubs a hand over his face. “I don’t need this. I need a drink. Something strong. The strongest there is. I don’t care how much money it costs. It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to spend it right now.”
Columbine gets to her feet. She skirts around the table and stays just out of reach, though Louis watches her through the gaps in his fingers. He takes the tip of his tongue between his teeth, lips parted. He watches the long thin line of her legs, and how they reach up into her short skirt and then flare gently out to her hips. She goes to the bar and the Bartender puts down a cup for her. The contents of the glass are a livid green in color, swirled around two perfectly square cubes of ice. Columbine brings this back to the table and sets it down in front of Louis, again staying just out of reach. He stretches out an arm to test it, but she has judged the distance well. His fingers brush against a fold of her skirt before his arm falls to the table. “What’s this?”
“Something to drink,” she says. “Something strong.”
He eyes it. “It looks like plant shit.”
“It’s the strongest thing we’ve got,” she says. “It’s on the house. You’ll forget everything if you drink that.”
“Will I? That’s rich.” He hauls himself to a more upright position, a rough staccatto of laughs rattling deep in his throat. “I don’t believe you.” He takes the cup in both hands and pulls it close, as if it was in danger of being snatched away. “I don’t believe any of it.”
In the morning, Louis’ girlfriend, remorseful over their fight, goes to his apartment. She knocks on the door and calls his name, but there’s no answer. Later she gets the landlord, who unlocks the door and finds the apartment empty, stripped bare and clean. There is an empty glass in the center of the room, and under it is the Joker card. There is no sign of Louis anywhere.