I’d seen Chiang Tao cheat with the Tarot pack. As I lay awake in bed I realised I’d been taken for a ride. We’d dined together at the Modern Pantry; then we’d gone to Browns at the top of Hackney Road. The strip club was packed with sweaty gweilos and the heat was insufferable.
“Let’s get outta here,” Tao suggested almost as soon as we were through the door. “The crush is too much.” I agreed and we left.
We both owned ghost flats in The Denizen, a set of luxury apartments on Golden Lane designed by the architectural practice Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. Tao had a business in Shanghai and I had one in Shenzhen; we’d both made a number of property investments in London and used these as an excuse to get away from our wives and have a bit of fun. My flat was beneath and one along from Tao’s third floor apartment. I followed him into the communal games room.
“What about a game of Tarot?” he asked. “It will be better than going to bed at this early hour.”
I agreed. At first we gambled for small stakes. I’d already drunk a lot. At Tao’s invitation I quaffed more booze, which he got the concierge to fetch. The Aberlour single malt was wasted on me because I was drunk, a blend would have done just as well in the circumstances. We increased the stakes. I lost and kept on losing. Tao recorded in his notebook the extent of my indebtedness. When he announced the final sum, I was amazed to learn that it was very much more than I imagined, nearly a million US dollars.
“Nine hundred and ninety thousand dollars, Tao! It can’t be as much as that!”
“My dear chap, here are the figures, look for yourself.”
Tao handed me the notebook. His manner of arranging the amounts I found obtuse, but as I hadn’t kept count myself I wasn’t in a position to dispute their accuracy. Added up the figures came to the sum he stated. Still I was certain there was a mistake somewhere, although what it was I didn’t know.
“Look here,” Tao said. “Be a sportsman for once in your life! I’ll give you a chance, double or quits!”
I didn’t wanna. I’d be gambling for almost as much as I’d spent on my ghost flat. But Tao urged me on and I yielded; I must have been very much more under the influence of drink than I imagined. I cut first and drew The Queen of Coins. As the highest card would win I would have seen it as a good pick had the royal not come out reversed. In an occult Tarot deck this was The Queen of Pentacles and upside down as I’d drawn it she indicated fear of failure. It was a bad omen.
I watched Tao as he cut, and saw he dropped at least one card from the lot he picked up; and that gave him an opportunity to see its value. He did the same thing a second time. The card he ultimately held against mine was Death, one of the trumps.
“But that was not the card you first cut, you dropped one.”
“What do you mean? I didn’t! If I did it must have been by the sheerest accident. What are you looking at me like that for? Don’t lose your rag because you lost.”
The insinuation was gratuitous and uncalled for. The card might have been dropped by accident, and he might not have noticed what had happened. I got up from my chair, conceding the point.
“That makes one million and eight hundred thousand bucks you owe me, Feng. Better luck next time.”
I mentally resolved I would not play Tarot with Chiang Tao again, or at any rate not when we were alone.
I was in a curious state of mind when I returned to my apartment. The events of the evening buzzed in my head. I am very far from being a multi-billionaire, and two million dollars, less twenty thousand, is not a sum to be lightly thrown away. Was the man who I’d began to regard as a friend actually a financial and psychic vampire? Was it possible that he had manipulated those figures to his own advantage and deliberately dropped that card? The more closely I reviewed the events of the evening, the less I liked the conclusion I reached.
When I went to bed my thoughts went with me. I could not shake them off. I tossed and tumbled in pursuit of sleep. And when slumber did come, my sleeping experiences were even more disturbing than my waking ones had been.
My repose is generally untroubled. I am seldom visited by dreams. But that night I had a most extraordinary nightmare; so extraordinary that I am still haunted by it. In appearance of reality it was little less than supernatural. Indeed, I do not mind admitting that I have been, and still am, at a loss to determine whether I was not an actual, sentient spectator, and not merely the subject of a vision of the night.
I had only just closed my eyes, when something caused me to get out of bed. I have no recollection of putting anything on in the shape of clothes. I did not switch on the light. I had an uncontrollable impulse to go to Tao. I left the room completely naked. Reaching Tao’s door, I tapped. There was no answer. I hesitated before knocking again and as I considered my next move I heard a strange noise coming from the apartment.
It was as if some furious wild beast was inside the flat. Yelling, snarling, screeching. Then there was a horrid, gasping noise. These sounds followed hard upon each other. Mingled with them were faint cries of someone in the extremities of pain and terror. At that sound I pushed the door. It opened. I stepped inside.
Tao was frantically struggling with a creature whose shape I couldn’t make out. It was a mass of whirling movement and hideous sounds. Every part of it seemed to be in motion at once; and with its whole force it was assailing Tao. He was staggering about like a dying man. Presently he fell headlong to the floor. The creature, stooping, rained blows on to his motionless body.
There was something semi-human about the witch-like assailant. He or she appeared to be covered with a flowing robe of some shining, silken stuff, whose voluminous skirts whirled hither and thither as it writhed and twisted. Then using a blade the ghoul slit Tao’s throat and wrote the following in his blood on the wall of the apartment:
Shake in your shoes bureaucrats, the international power of the workers councils will soon wipe you out! Humanity won’t be happy until the last bureaucrat is hung by the guts of the last capitalist! Long live the factory occupations! Long live the great Chinese proletarian revolution of 1927 betrayed by the Stalinist bureaucrats! Long live the proletarians of Canton and Xinjiang who have taken up arms against the so-called People’s Army! Long live the Chinese workers and students who have attacked the so-called cultural revolution and the bureaucratic Maoist order! Long live the Wiccan revolution! Down with the state!
I am neither a nervous subject nor a coward. But at the sight of those words I turned and fled. And not the least strange part of the whole business was that immediately after, I woke up. I had certainly been asleep for I was sitting up in bed covered with sweat and trembling in every limb.
I looked about me. The blind was up. The moon was shining through. All at once a sound caught my anxious ear. I started forward to learn from whence it came. From the window! I was wide-awake now. In the moonlight I could see someone was standing on the other side of the pane, a faint, mysterious figure. The latch raised itself, the balcony door was pushed open. Out of the moonbeams, like some spectral visitant, a woman stepped into the room.