Chapter 1: Luck
"Poker is a man's game," Josh's Daddy used to say, "because it isn't fair."
He played every Saturday afternoon on the verandah behind the Ford mansion. Late in the afternoon on most Saturdays, when the sun began to fall into the Gulf of Mexico, Joshua Cane got the job of fetching his father home for supper. Mrs. Ford always let him in and asked him how his mother was doing, and whether business at the pharmacy was good. When he had answered to her satisfaction, she sent him back to the cavernous kitchen, where Gloria the black cook would give him a treat. When his mother found out about the treats, she started sending along three yellow ibuprofen for Gloria's arthritis. Gloria said she didn't want to be paid and Josh explained it was a gift. Gloria said his momma just didn't want to feel in debt. Josh figured she pretty much had the right of it.
April 12, 2015 was the hottest day of the spring yet. Josh waved to the Mexican gardener working in the flowerbed beside the porch. He knocked on the door and a housemaid let him in. "Master Cane," she said, her curtsey mostly lost under an armful of purple drapes. "I'm just taking these up to be mended. Your dad's on the back porch. Can you find your way?" Josh nodded and she headed upstairs. As Josh stepped into the cool air-conditioned hallway, sweat started up on his skin like water beading on a cold glass. A pair of housemaids sat at the dining room table polishing silver. They paused and bobbed their heads as he went by. Back in the kitchen, Gloria had a pot of crawdads boiling on the gas range. Clouds of mud-scented steam rose from it, blown apart by the slow chop of the ceiling fan overhead. Gloria was cutting garlic into a skillet full of hissing butter, and there was a chess pie in the oven. Josh was almost too old to lick the beaters, but not quite.
Gloria frowned into the Fords'
massive refrigerator. It had been eleven years since the Flood of 2004 had
ended the industrial world, and with no spare parts available, refrigerators
were becoming more precious
"Well, Joshua, try you one of those," Gloria said, pulling out a crockery dish in which a few dozen shrimps lay nestled in crushed ice.
"Thank you, ma'am," Josh said. He took a shrimp, pulled off its legs, and split its shell with practiced fingernails. It was pleasantly cold and firm in his mouth. Munching happily he stood peeking through the kitchen blind at the back porch. He liked watching the menfolk play cards and lie to one another and laugh. It was as if there were two wholly different worlds, one for women like Mrs. Ford and Gloria and even his mom back at home in the pharmacy, and another one for men, who worried less and laughed more as they sat outside under the Gulf of Mexico sunset and drank rice beer from recycled Mexican beer bottles, Corona and Tecate and Dos Equis.
Except nobody was laughing tonight. Of all the men on the verandah only his father seemed really comfortable. It was his turn to deal. The sleeves of his cotton shirt were rolled up, and Josh could see the delicate ripples of the muscles in his forearms as he shuffled and passed the cards back to be cut. Sam Cane was a notoriously lucky man. The others wouldn't have played with him if he didn't fold so often that there were still pots for the rest of them. Sam sipped from a glass of ice water. He never touched liquor when there was money on the table.
Sam's poker face was an easy smile. Josh's was a worried little scowl, and he still had a lot of tells. His hands shook when he was nervous on his bets, and his eyes tended to widen when he liked his cards. He knew the odds as well as his father did, now; he was smart and good at games and could beat his daddy at chess maybe one time in three. But when they picked up a pack of cards it was as if Josh were sitting there naked as a jay bird, while he never could see past his father's smile.
Around the table men picked up their cards. The game would be five card draw, jacks or better. His father always said a man was a fool who didn't take advantage of being dealer by choosing a game where he got last choice to open. Directly across from his father sat Jim Ford. He had a big pile of chips at his place and looked nearly miserable. Josh couldn't figure it.
"You'd like to be out there playing, wouldn't you?" Gloria said, washing up a mixing bowl. Josh didn't answer. "Well, go on anyway. Your momma's waiting on you."
"All right." Josh dropped the shrimp head in the slops bucket and pushed the back door open.
Outside the air was warm and sweet. Two hens were in the yard, each followed by a little peeping crowd of chicks, scuffling through the yard for seeds and doodlebugs. Bumblebees drowsed and hummed among the rosebeds and oleanders, which were all out in blossoms, pink and white. The sun was setting and the shadow of the Fords' big Victorian mansion lay deeply over the verandah and the yard beyond. Josh quickly closed the kitchen door behind him, mindful not to let the cool out. Six men turned to look at him. They looked relieved.
"There you are, Josh," Jim Ford said, running his hand back through his hair. "I was about to figure you got eaten by wild dogs."
"Or carried off by hungry niggers," Carl Banks said. Carl was black. "Sam, your boy's here."
In all the years since Colonel Denton, a hero of the Confederate army, came to Galveston to make his living cheating cotton farmers, there had never been a civil Denton. Of the three great Galveston families, the Gardners were as gracious as could be, the Fords differed each from the next, but the Dentons always had that air of thinking a good thrashing was about what you deserved. Travis Denton was a mass of tells. His voice changed when he was under stress and he sat leaning over the table with his shoulders high and tight. He even ordered his cards in his hand, red black red black, right where everyone could watch him doing it. Josh despised a man who couldn't hold his cards.
Travis said, "If you want to bet it, Sam, put it on the table."
It was then Josh realized his dad was out of chips.
Sam Cane didn't say a word. Just looked at Travis, eyebrows up a mite, smiling. He had learned that trick from Josh's mom, that way of cutting out a joke in poor taste or a badly chosen phrase and putting a big fence of silence around it so that everyone had time to look it over. Men known to bluster and rage through any kind of argument ended up wriggling like perch on the hook of that silence.
Jim Ford took a swallow of rice beer from his Dos Equis bottle without meeting anybody's eyes. "Don't worry, Travis. He's good for it."
Josh's dad deliberately wrote
out a chit on the back of a piece of paper and placed it in the pot. Looking
around the table, Joshua saw there were scraps of paper in Carl's winnings,
and Vinny's, and Travis Denton's. A feeling jumped in his stomach as if he
were walking by a yard with a big dog unchained inside. His father always
brought a bankroll of fifty times the minimum bet. "You can't win playing
with scared money," he said. "Quit when you've lost forty-five times the
minimum bet. Either you've got no luck, or the other players are way better
than you, or the game is crooked. Any one of those is a good reason not to
be there. So
"Two hundred twenty-five dollars," Josh had said. He had always been good at math.
But something was wrong tonight. Either his father hadn't brought a big enough bankroll, or he hadn't quit when he was supposed to. The betting went around the table as Josh walked over to stand behind his father's chair. Sam Cane closed his hand.
"Won't even let the kid see your cards, Sam?" Carl Banks laughed. He had big white teeth and was vain about them. He had paid a big sum to Josh's mother to set aside her store of Rembrandt Extra Whitening toothpaste for him. They'd sold him the last tube a week ago. In another year they would have sold every tube of the real toothpaste from before the Flood. Josh's mother was already experimenting with making their own from instructions in a book of herbal medicine. He had spent the morning chopping sage leaves fine and baking them together with milled sea salt and then grinding the mixture into powder. Josh thought the new tooth powder tasted weird and salty but his mother said they didn't have a choice.
Josh's father turned and reached up to tousle his hair. "He's a good boy."
"I don't want to see his cards. I still got tells," Josh explained to Carl. "I don't want to give away his hand."
"That's my boy. How many, Mr. Denton?"
Travis Denton took a card. Josh's dad only allowed one draw when he dealt. No sense letting chance run rampant, he said. Jim Ford took three cards, Vince took two. Josh's dad drew one card. It was possible he was drawing to a straight or flush, but without a lot more money in the pot to make it worth the gamble those were poor percentage draws. Josh put him on two pair, drawing for a chance at a full house. "Any fool can play his own cards," his father used to say. "The trick is putting the other fellow on a hand."
Sam Cane took a sip of his ice water. "Any bets?"
Vincent Tranh bet. He had a leathery, lined Vietnamese face and spoke in a soft South Texas drawl. He always smelled of raw shrimp and chili paste. The KKK out of Beaumont had blown up his parents' shrimp boat in 1978, three years after they came to the states from Viet Nam. Claimed they were setting illegal trot lines, which they probably were. They sold their house, bought another boat on the proceeds and moved to Galveston while Vincent was still a boy.
Vince was the kind of player Josh's dad called a Rock; usually he only stayed in with very good cards. If Vince was drawing two cards and betting, Josh put him on trips. If Vince didn't have three of a kind, he would at least be holding aces and a paint off. Nine times out of ten Sam would fold his hand if Vince was betting after the draw. He folded more hands by far than any of the other players.
This time he stayed in.
Travis Denton agonized; put his cards down; picked them up and stayed in. Jim Ford folded. Josh's dad called Vince's bet, but did not raise. If he was bluffing he'd have raised, trying to drive Vinny out. Vinny was a conservative player. Then again, if he was dead sure of his cards, he would have raised moderately, trying to suck a little more juice into the pot. Josh judged the call to mean his father thought he could win, but wasn't sure. Two pair, most likely, hoping Vince hadn't been dealt trips. "Show 'em, Vince."
The shrimper laid down three queens. "They looked pretty good to me, Ace."
Travis Denton brought his own pre-Flood bourbon to the game and never shared. He knocked back a slug of it. "Fuck me."
Sam Cane smiled and laid his cards face down on the table. "Vince, you always did have a way with women."
Vince hadn't so much as held a woman's hand since the Flood took his wife. She had been in hospital delivering their first child when it hit. He had just gone home to sleep for the first time in thirty-six hours. When he woke up, the world had changed. Magic coalesced everywhere in the Flood, clotting around strong emotions, taking on flesh and will. Creatures born of survivor's joy and sufferer's pain, the relief of loved ones and pre-surgical dread had warred throughout the University of Texas Medical Branch, leaving the hospital a shattered ruin. Vince had barely survived himself, joining the Krewe of Thalassar parade while minotaurs stalked the Island's streets.
Vincent Tranh sorted his winnings. He stalled for a second over Sam's IOU before tucking it under a stack of blue chips.
Jim Ford stood back from the table, wiping the sweat from his forehead again and swiping at a mosquito. Sunset was fading to dusk in the rose garden out beyond the verandah. Darkening blue sky closed around the fronds of the tall palm trees behind Jim's mansion. A last burst of animal noise saluted the end of the day: roosters crowed, a pig squealed, cicadas boomed and buzzed. The blue-white lights in the swimming pool came on, making the water glow. The gulf breeze rustled among the oleanders.
Jim Ford faked a smile for Josh. "You come to fetch your daddy home for dinner?"
"I ain't quite ready to quit," Sam Cane said. "Just one more hand."
Men studied the roses, or the sky. Carl Banks looked down at the table, not meeting Sam's eye. "I keep my wife waiting, there's hell to pay."
Josh knew this wasn't well calculated to get his father out of the game.
"I'm in," Travis Denton said, picking up the deck and shuffling. "Seven card stud. Sit down if you want to play."
Vincent Tranh stood up. "I can't afford to stay in another hand. Sam's too lucky to keep losing. I don't want to be at the table when Ace finds his touch again."
"That's for damn sure," said Carl.
Little slips of paper were fluttering under chips all around the table. Josh counted seven of them. Something was terribly wrong. "Dad?"
"I'm right here," Sam said. "Jim? I'd hate to sit at your table without you having a piece of the action."
"Dad. Dad, Mom said
Jim fidgeted. "Hell, Sam. You're going to get the boy in trouble. Why not pack it up?"
"Because I feel lucky." Sam was still smiling his easy smile, but there was something else behind it, an edge. He did feel lucky, Josh was sure of it. So lucky, so confident that even those slips of paper weren't unnerving him. Sam turned around and fully met his boy's eyes. "Josh, I'm going to play another hand. I'd be happy for you to stay and be my good luck charm. But if you're worried about getting in trouble, you scoot along home to your mother. I'll be there directly."
Josh looked at his father, calm and easy sitting there, his pale blue eyes that trusted him, trusted his son. He had a frog in his throat that made it hard to speak. "I can wait out a hand," he said.
Travis Denton banged the cards on the table to square them and made a show of shuffling. "You in, Jim?"
Jim sighed. "Yeah, why not. Hell yes. Deal the damn cards."
Three of them in the hand, Travis and Jim and Josh's father. Vince and Carl and Uwe all made as if to leave, gathering up wallets and keys and caps, but as the two hole cards went down they stilled, standing around the table. The sky was darkening fast. It would have been hard to read the cards if not for the light that fell through the kitchen blinds to lie in bars across the table. One by one the city's roosters fell silent. The air seemed to sigh the day's last breath, rich with cicada song and the smell of magnolia. Night coming.
Josh couldn't help peeking when his father checked his hole cards. Four of clubs, ace of clubs. Travis dealt Third Street, the third card in the hand and the first one to be placed face-up in plain view. Four of hearts for Josh's dad. Josh's heart hammered in his chest. One pair by Third Street, with an Ace for the sidecard. A playable hand. Jack of diamonds to Jim Ford. Dealer showed a seven of hearts.
"Jack to bet."
"Oh. I'll go in twenty, I reckon. Pass me that notebook of yours, would you, Carl?" He took the notebook from Carl and a pencil and wrote out an IOU.
"I'll see your twenty and raise you twenty more," Travis said. He bit another finger off the hand of bourbon in his shot glass.
"Shit," Jim Ford said, looking at Josh and his dad. He shovelled forty dollars in chips across the table.
Joshua's father wrote out another IOU.
It is a cold fact that after the great hurricane of 1900, the Galveston Relief Committee asked the Dentons to give temporary shelter to a group of orphans and the Dentons turned them down. They said they had no space or food or water to spare. A week later, when Will Denton Jr. told the Colonel that business was bound to suffer from the exodus of survivors from the island, the old man uttered one of the most famous comments in Island history. "Good," he said. "Remember, we both love to hunt and fish. The fewer people on the Island, the better the hunting and fishing will be." Two weeks after the hurricane, Will Denton Jr. purchased a thirty room mansion at 2618 Broadway for ten cents on the dollar.
The Colonel's great-great-great-grandson dealt out another round. "Nine of spades for Jim, no help there." He laid the five of diamonds in front of Josh's dad. "Possible straight. Dealer gets a king of hearts. And that'll cost you forty," he added, pushing four blue chips out into the middle of the table. Travis was trying to scare his dad's money. This was his way of putting the screws into Sam, trying to back him down or make him gamble everything not because he had the cards, but because he had to win.
"Forty?" Jim said. "With only four cards dealt?"
"What's it matter to you? Pay up or shut up, Jim. You aren't busted."
"I'll see your forty," Josh's father said. "And I'll raise you another."
Josh's mouth went dry. They
always played a $5-$10 game, but somehow things had escalated and they were
playing $20-$40. "Dad, what about putting borders on a game? You said
"Hush up, Josh."
Josh bit his lip until it hurt. He deserved it. What a horrible tell. He had just given away that his Dad didn't have a monster hand.
"I'll see your raise and reraise again," Travis said. He pushed eight blue chips into the middle of the table. No more raises allowed on Fourth Street.
"Great blue Christ, Travis!"
"Jim, are you in or out? If you're in, put up your money. If you're out, shut the fuck up."
Jim Ford scooped up his cards. "I'm out, god dammit." He grabbed up his glass of beer and drank it down and set it back on the table, hard. "Sam, fold up for God's sake. You think you're having trouble with Mandy now? Christ, what the hell do you think is going to happen after this?"
Josh's dad looked up. "I'll ask you not to speak that way in front of the boy, Jim."
Jim Ford looked out into the rose garden that had filled up with darkness. "Sorry, Sam. I just . . . " A little green lizard about the length and heft of a man's finger slipped along the stone verandah and up the wall, watching for bugs drawn to the light that slivered through the kitchen blinds. Jim's eyes dropped down to the stone flags of his verandah. "I'll step in and see if supper's ready."
Josh's dad wrote out another IOU. Travis Denton said, "Feeling lucky, Sam?"
"The whole night, if you'll believe it."
Josh was staring at that lizard. It froze as a mosquito bumped up against the kitchen shutters. Bump, bump, bump.
Travis laughed. "But you just keep losing."
Snap. The tongue shot out faster than Josh could ever hope to see. Sloane Gardner's mom, the Grand Duchess, still had a dandy computer from before the Flood and plenty of power to run it; they had a picture of a lizard's tongue snapping out to catch a fly on their CD-ROM encyclopedia. Curling out like a whiplash, no chance for the bug. You had to play it in slow motion, frame by frame, to see it at all.
Please, Josh said. Please, Dad. Don't do this. But the words wouldn't come out. He licked his lips, dry despite the sultry Texas night.
"Come on, Sam," Carl Banks muttered. "Come on, Ace."
Travis Denton dealt the Fifth Street card: a deuce of diamonds for Josh's father, a six of hearts for himself. "Still working on a possible straight over there. Dealer has three hearts showing."
Betting. More chips in the center of the table. More little slips of paper.
Josh's dad was sitting with a pair of fours, ace high. All he lacked for a straight was a three. Travis might be sitting on a pair, two pair, or possibly a flush. If he was holding pairs, a four in the draw would win it for Josh's dad with three of a kind. A three would give him a straight; still not good enough to beat Travis's flush if he did get two more hearts. Another ace or five for Sam would give him two pair. It was a good hand, a good situation, except there was too much money in the pot. There was way too much money in the pot. If Sam didn't get a favorable draw, he'd have a pair of fours ace high. You might win with that in seven card stud, but you sure couldn't bet this high on it. Not as fast as Travis was laying down his bets.
Maybe he had nothing, maybe he was bluffing. "It's easier to bluff a good player than a bad one," Sam always said. "A bad player only thinks about winning. A good player is willing to throw in and wait for a better hand. He doesn't get embarrassed about being bluffed. He doesn't let it get personal."
But this was personal. It's me, Josh thought. He doesn't want to be shown up in front of his boy.
Why hadn't he waited in the kitchen with Gloria just a few more minutes? Just enough to let his Dad take a licking and then get out while there was still time. Dad and Mom would fight about it later, of course. Even Jim Ford knew that. There had been fights before. But now . . . Josh tried to imagine how much was written on all those little slips of paper, those little white flags fluttering under chips all around the table in the dark south Texas breeze.
Their Sixth Street card was a nine of clubs. Another rag, no use at all.
A mosquito settled on Sam Cane's neck. He ignored it. Josh watched it dip its head and begin to drink.
Travis bet. Josh's father called. "Let's get this done," he said. He never said things like that. He never showed himself anxious to see his last card.
A dove broke up from somewhere in the dim grounds, nothing but a sound of wings slapping until it got high enough to be silhouetted against the last blue ashes of light in the west. Josh prayed. Please God, let my dad draw a three or a four. An ace or a deuce or a five would be okay, but a three or four would be better. I will be very, very, very good if you do this for me.
The last hole card came. Josh's
father let it lie there what seemed like forever, then drew it smoothly into
his hand, close to his chest, almost too fast for Josh to see
Josh looked up and saw Travis staring at him. He couldn't put on his poker face. He just stood there, transfixed, knowing every line of his body must scream that they had nothing in the hole, nothing nothing nothing.
"Like my boy, Travis?" Sam said easily. "You're looking at him awful hard. You weren't peeking, were you Josh?"
"No, sir. I didn't see the last cards there, sir."
"I promise. I couldn't see a thing."
Travis Denton raised his glass of bourbon to hide his face. His hand was shaking. "Looking right through him, Sam. Thinking hard. Seems like a fine boy, though."
Maybe he doesn't know, Josh thought. So what if I looked scared? I ought to look scared with this much money on the table.
"I think so." Josh's father wrote something on a slip of paper and tore it neatly from the notebook. It looked too long to be a number. "I wonder if you'll oblige me and take my bet." He passed the piece of paper over.
Travis picked it up. He stared. "I . . . I don't know, Sam."
"That's my wager," Josh's father said, with just a hint of steel behind his smile. "You aren't a Banks or a Ford, are you, Travis? You're a Denton. You can take that bet."
Josh felt Travis's eyes return to him. He looked away, staring hard at the lizard clinging to the wall. Another dove went up and time seemed to open out forever, years and years of it between each slapping wingbeat.
Travis took the piece of paper and laid it in the pot. "I call," he said.
Josh burst out crying. He hated himself for it, he grabbed a hand across his mouth and held it there, as if he could shove the sobs back down his own throat, but they tore out, sudden water blurring the stars above him. Tears spilled down his face as his father turned over his cards one by one.
"Pair of fours, you bastard!" Travis Denton whooped. "By god you were bluffing after all, you son of a bitch! Three fat sevens over here, my friend. Read 'em and weep."
The air came out of the three men watching. Carl Banks leaned over and gave Joshua a hug. His arm was big and he smelled like a black man. Josh cried helplessly against his chest. It had been his tell that gave it away. His eyes that doomed his daddy's bluff.
"Sweet Jesus," said Vinny Tranh. He was holding Sam's last IOU.
Jim Ford was standing at the back door. "What's on it?"
For the first time Joshua's father wasn't smiling. His blue eyes were bewildered. "My address," he said.
Travis Denton gave Josh and his family two weeks to move out.
A thin ribbon of sand only thirty miles long and less than three miles from the Texas coast, Galveston Island had been baptised twice: twice thrust under and twice born again, gasping, into a new life.
The Island's first rough cleansing of the modern era came on the evening of September 7, 1900, when a hurricane that seemed destined for the Louisiana coast veered suddenly to the west and caught Galveston square. At that time the island's highest point was eight feet above sea level. The storm surge crested at twenty. Sustained winds in excess of one hundred fifteen miles an hour ripped roofing slates off the houses and sent them screaming through the air like saw blades. The sea and the wind obliterated everything near the beach, gathered the debris and smashed it into the next line of buildings, over and over. The grinding thresher of rubble, twenty feet tall, scoured 1,500 acres bare, including nearly one third of the city. Where it had passed nothing remained standing: no house, no building, no dock, no tree, no shrub.
One out of every six Islanders died in the hurricane. Thirty-six hundred houses were destroyed. One man counted forty-three bodies left dangling among the trestles of an unfinished railroad bridge. Of the ninety-seven children in St. Mary's Orphanage, three survived. The bodies of nine, still roped with clothesline to a drowned nun, were found washed up miles down the beach. By sundown on September 8th, it had become clear that there were far, far too many dead to bury. Casualty estimates went from fifty, to three hundred, to a thousand, to six thousand killed. Bands of Negroes were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to load the dead and the pieces of the dead onto barges. By the time they got to open water it was too dark to work, so the blacks were forced to spend the night with the stinking corpses. When morning came they tied stones to the bodies and heaved them into the sea.
The next day the dead came back, floating up all along the beach. The stones had not held them and they had slipped their ropes. After that the bodies were cremated on pyres that smoldered for weeks. The island reeked with the smell of corpses burning.
The Island's second baptism came in 2004, during the week of Mardi Gras. This time Galveston drowned not under water, but magic. It had been rising since the end of the second world war, a little more every year. When enough magic gathered at a certain time and place, it could be catalyzed by strong emotion. From that reaction a precipitate would fall, a 'minotaur': a secret lover for the lonely, or, for the bitter or the dispossessed, a nightmare made flesh.
In the spring of 2004 a cascade reaction began, magic kindling magic, the world awash in dreams. The bright rational day of the twentieth century was eclipsed, passing into a long night of spirits, where ghosts walked and a house or tree or road might wake to find its voice and will. In Texas, where people still knew their Bible, they called this cataclysm the Flood.
Over the seven days of Galveston's Mardi Gras, seventy percent of her population was lost. Hundreds died trying to flee when the sea threw down the causeway that linked the island to the mainland. The Mayor put out his own eyes to stop from seeing the ghost of his oldest son, killed years before in a car crash. The sound of screeching metal and shattering glass followed him into his blindness, stopping only when he blew out his brains with a Colt .45 he had grabbed from a policeman detailed to guard him. Hundreds of others followed his example, killing themselves with guns or pills or gas leaks, or running off the long jetties to drop, arms windmilling, into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The citizens of Galveston were hunted by more than memories. Terror and madness birthed scores of minotaurs: scorpions the size of dogs, the Crying Clown and the Glass Eater and the Widow in her black dress, whose touch was death and who ate her victims.
However many died, more still fell into the Endless Carnival, where it was always Mardi Gras and always night, where revellers danced on with bloody feet and the singing never stopped. It was a wonderful, glorious riot of a party, thrown by cruel moon-headed Momus, and of the thousands and thousands who wandered into his dominion, only a handful ever came back to the real world again.
Each Mardi Gras Krewe sponsored a different event during Galveston's busiest tourist season, a dance or beer garden or concert. The Krewe of Harlequins were marching in their parade when the Flood hit. They were the first to see the magic jump from reveller to reveller, setting the drunks and drug-users off like roman candles. When the carnival streets mazed up and the clowns went mad and the ghosts of Galveston's dead floated through the Strand on a chest-high tide, it was the Krewe of Harlequins, still marching in costume or gripping their floats, white-knuckled, who were of the magic enough to ride its wave, apart from it enough not to be rolled under and drowned. Lucky Samuel Cane had been marching in that parade.
Just as minotaurs were forming out of fear and pain, the strongest Krewes brought their own gods into existence. The drowsing sea, on waking, crystallized around the Krewe of Thalassar. From the hopes and fears of sailors and fishermen she took her form and character, and she gave to the members of her Krewe some measure of protection. As people realized what was happening, they joined any Krewe they could, hoping that the demons of Mardi Gras would spare them. Some Krewes made it, others were broken. The Krewe of Brewe, for instance, was a gang of UT frat-boys and party animals who thought of the Galveston Mardi Gras as a cut-rate Daytona Beach scene. If any god formed around their drunken fear, it had no use for them, and their Krewe shredded like wet newsprint in the Flood.
In the end, five major Krewes came through with their people intact: the Harlequins, the women of the Krewe of Venus, the socially active Krewe of Togetherness, the Krewe of Thalassar (originally the Texas A & M boat club), and the ancient and honorable Krewe of the Knights of Momus, which had been celebrating Mardi Gras in Galveston since the 1860s, and was ably directed by their Grand Duchess, Jane Gardner.
Two women saved the island, Jane Gardner and Odessa Gibbons. Cool, practical, and resourceful, Jane Gardner took advantage of her family name and position as the leader of the most powerful Krewe to direct her fellow citizens after the first tide of magic had receded. She formed work crews and volunteer fire brigades, set survivors to work tapping the natural gas lines that ran in from the Gulf of Mexico for power, and rationed water until the pumping stations could be repaired.
Odessa Gibbons was an angel, a person with a talent for feeling and using magic. She could move back and forth between the real Galveston and the endless party of Momus's Mardi Gras. Her job was to push all magical things into Mardi Gras: to stand in Galveston like the little Dutch boy with her fingers in the dike, holding the magic back. In the beginning the magic spilled everywhere, but after the first wild years Odessa had wrestled her little island back to some semblance of the world as it once had been. She was merciless in her duties. Islanders came to think of her as a witch; The Recluse, they called her, and their gratitude for her work in the Flood was gradually replaced with fear. Should a child begin to hear the speech of birds, or a woman gain a gift for healing beyond what medicine could explain, sooner or later The Recluse would hear of it. In a day or a week or a month thereafter, the person stained by magic would disappear. Taken into Mardi Gras, or "gone to Krewes," as the saying was.
Josh had often wondered if his lucky father would some day go that way.
Samuel Cane's wife Amanda had been one of only two pharmacists to come through the Flood unscathed and with her full stock undamaged. She was a respected member of the Krewe of Togetherness right up to the day Sam lost their house and their luck began to turn.
Galveston after the Flood was a bad place and a hard time to be unlucky. Josh's mom never for a moment tried to welch on her husband's bet. After the Flood, luck was omen, not chance, and you took it in deadly earnest. But you didn't risk your family's future on it, either, she said. The words Josh always remembered were, "Your father and I have decided it would be best if we stayed apart."
"Is that it?" Josh had said, turning on his dad, furious, tears in his eyes. "Aren't you even going to, to, to fight it?"
But Sam Cane said, "Sometimes you have to cut your losses."
Two weeks later, Travis Denton brought his wife and three children to inspect their new property. The kids were playing in the attic when the conjunction of a gas leak and an electrical short blew the house to splinters. Travis and his wife died instantly. Two of the children perished in the fire; the third died a week later from his burns.
"You see, Mandy?" Sam Cane said, standing drunk and exultant in the doorway of the smelly little rental house where she and Josh were staying. "We can be together. God, it's a hell of a thing, it's a tragedy, but it was going to happen, you see? That's why I had to keep playing. That's why I had to keep losing. If I don't lose the house, that's us down there, it's our teeth they're picking out of the street."
"No, Sam." Josh's mother sounded very tired. "I still love you. But no."
"Don't you understand, Mandy? I've still got it. I still have my luck!"
"I know," Joshua's mother said. "But you don't have us anymore."