It was almost Christmas, but you’d never know it from Lois Stover’s window. It wasn’t even ten in the morning and it was already sixty-eight in the shade; even the plastic Santa in the yard across the street was wearing sunglasses. Two girls walked down the street talking and laughing, wearing shorts that might as well have been underwear.

Once it had been revolutionary for a young woman to take control of her sexuality and reject being viewed solely as an object. Now it was 1985, a year after Big Brother failed to arrive, and girls wanted to be viewed as objects, but on their own terms. It was progress, she supposed, sort of.

Where was a drink when you needed one?

Lois closed the curtain, sat down on the sofa, and began to deal the cards on her coffee table. Black queen on the red king. King of hearts.

Suicide king.

Of course, if you looked at the card closely, it wasn’t suicide at all. There was someone hiding behind the bastard, thrusting the sword through his skull. You just had to know how to look at the card right.

Lois looked up at the mantle, at the picture of her daughter’s wedding. Lettice, no longer her baby girl, but wife to that private investigator boy. Nice boy. A bit wet, though. Such an ordinary name, too. What was it again? Peter? David? James? Something bland and biblical.

She wondered what was taking the two of them so long. They said they’d only be an hour.

Black five on the red six. They were probably off shopping for presents. She would have to think of something nice for them. Maybe a season pass to Knott’s Berry Farm, then they’d have to come visit more often.

The sound of something flat smacking the floor came from the kitchen. One of the pancakes must have dropped. She’d clean it up later.

She flipped the card on top of the deck and placed the ace of diamonds on a black deuce. Lettice’s comic book—or graphic novel as she insisted on calling it—lay next to the card deck. She’d only glanced through the pages so far. Very noir, like one of her sister’s old films. In fact, the heroine looked a little bit like Mona, even though it was supposed to be Lettice. And she’d certainly butched up her husband, Paul or Saul or whoever he was. The drawn version had a jaw square enough to use as a right angle ruler.

It was wonderful that they were back, even if it was only for Christmas. And Mona said she would be here as well. But she always dropped by, to make sure Lois was taking her medicine. Why wouldn’t she? Lois didn’t want to be sick with her daughter in town. She didn’t want to drive her away again.

Red jack on black queen. Suicide king. Deception knave. When you think about it, the jack has to be the one hiding behind the king. The one murdering him in plain sight, making everyone think it was suicide. Who drives a sword through his own head? No one, that’s who.

Another pancake dropped in the kitchen and it occurred to Lois that she might have forgotten to take her pill today. But she was afraid of taking too much if she hadn’t. Better to play it safe and just wait until tomorrow. She’d be fine. Or if Lettice started to look worried, she’d know something was wrong and could take it then. Maybe. Or tomorrow. Tomorrow was good. She didn’t like the pills. Tomorrow would be better.

The phone rang. That had to be Lettice, calling to say they’d be another couple of hours. Shopping has that effect on people.

Lois picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Daddy’s gone. Can you help me?”

A child’s voice. A girl. She’d been crying. “I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.” The girl sounded like she was only five or six at the most. She couldn’t just hang up. “Is there someone there taking care of you? Do you need help contacting the police?”

“I can’t call the police. The bad men said not to.”

Lois felt a knot in her stomach at those words. “I don’t understand. Who are you trying to call? Maybe I can help.”

Lois concentrated as the girl rattled off an area code and phone number—hers. The girl hadn’t misdialed. She must know the father. “What’s your father’s name?”

“Daddy.” There was a pause before she added, “Harry.”

Lois felt cold. Harry. Harold. Her husband. But he’d been gone for over fifteen years. The king of hearts. The suicide king.

“What’s your name?”

The five year old said, “Lettice.”

“L... Lettice?”

“Is this my mommy?”

Lois dropped the receiver and fainted dead away.