by Michael Kardos


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The magician’s job is to create a mystery—an unbridgeable gap between cause and effect. Michael Kardos brilliantly constructs his new novel Bluff as a magician would, delivering a perfectly calibrated performance of intrigue and, ultimately, astonishment.

At twenty-seven, magician Natalie Webb is already a has-been. A card-trick prodigy, she started touring at seventeen, took first place at the World of Magic competition at eighteen, and never reached such heights again. Shunned by the magic world after a disastrous liaison with an older magician, she now lives alone with her pigeons and a pile of overdue bills in a New Jersey apartment. In a desperate ploy to make extra cash, she follows up on an old offer to write a feature magazine article—on the art of cheating at cards. But when she meets the perfect subject for her article, what begins as a journalistic gamble brings into question everything Natalie thinks she knows about her talent, and herself. Natalie is dazzled by the poker cheat’s sleight of hand and soon finds herself facing a proposition that could radically alter her fortune—to help pull off a $1.5 million magic trick that, if done successfully, no one will ever even suspect happened. With Kardos raising the stakes chapter after chapter, Bluff is a breathtaking work of suspense from a writer at the top of his game.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802128041
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/03/2018
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Kardos is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of the novels The Three-Day Affair and Before He Finds Her and the story collection One Last Good Time. Originally from the Jersey Shore, he lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he codirects the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

Read an Excerpt



It started with that most basic of requests: Pick a card.

Though really it started before that, when I asked the woman at the nearest table, "Give me a hand, will you, please?"

She looked a little like me — long brown hair, narrow face, younger than most of the women in the room. Maybe that's why I'd approached her. Also because she'd seemed engrossed in the show. But when I spoke to her, she threw her hands up as if to prove she wasn't carrying a weapon.

"Oh ... not me," she said. "I couldn't."

"Of course you can," I said. "You'll do great!" Usually, that was all it took — a little prodding, followed by some scattered, encouraging applause from the audience.

"No, no," she said. "I'm way too wasted."

I scanned the room for another woman to help out. (Women, I'd learned over the years, were better volunteers — they generally followed directions and didn't try to show off.) But I was too slow. A man at the same table was already springing up from his chair, saying, "I'll do it!" Had my wits been more about me, his overeagerness would have put me on alert. But halfway through the show at this point, I just wanted to be done and go home. Close the door on what had been a trying day. Besides, the weather was only getting worse, and my car was half hopeless even on clear roads.

So I said, "Sure, come on up."

Immediately, people across the ballroom started in with Oooh and Oh, damn and the anxious laughter that told me now I had a problem.

Corporate shows around the holidays were usually plum gigs — good pay, good food, good spirit. And tonight's event, a holiday party for Great Nation Physical Therapy, in the Hyatt in downtown Newark, had seemed especially promising when I booked it. Who needed to be entertained more than a roomful of medical professionals during the holidays, glad to be away from illness and injury for a night?

But when I arrived, I learned that the party being thrown by the physical therapists wasn't for them. Rather, the purpose was to wine and dine the hundred or so personal injury attorneys who held the key to an endless supply of injured people in need of rehabilitation. Door prizes included a home theater system and a vacation in Aruba.

My volunteer followed me to the front of the room and stood teetering a little. Definitely dined and wined. But I was determined to push through the routine. It was the finale of the card portion of the show. Then on to the linking rings. I asked my volunteer his name.

"I'm Lou!" he said, beaming. I could picture his face, those white teeth, grinning at me from a highway billboard beneath an aggressive font. SOMEONE MUST PAY FOR YOUR INJURIES!

Within the hour, I'd learn that Lou Husk, though not yet thirty-five, was already a legend among his peers in the room — extreme climber, extreme skier, extremely not someone you want opposing you in court. But right then, standing beside him in the Grand Ballroom, I knew him only as the man who would help my show along, usher me a few minutes closer to collecting my check and going home.

I put on a smile and gave him a warm, two-handed so-glad-to-meet-you handshake. When I went to let go, he surprised me by raising my hand to his lips and kissing it.

Then he licked my knuckles.

It threw me. This wasn't some bachelor party or frat gig. And even then. In a decade of supporting myself as a working magician, I had been patted, grabbed, groped, and kissed. Even punched once ... but never licked.

No one else seemed to notice. I wiped my hand on my pants and reminded myself that on my feet were a new pair of four-inch leopard print stilettos that replaced the red leather heels I'd lovingly worn into the ground. The rest of my outfit was less flashy: pencil pants, white tuxedo shirt left open at the collar, well-tailored black jacket. But even simple clothes cost money, and tonight's show paid for a new pair of shoes and half a month's rent.

I took a breath and got the deck of cards from the table behind me. Shuffled them a few times, fanned them out.

"Pick a card, Lou," I said, predicting he would select the very top or bottom card on the off chance it would mess me up.

He chose the top card.

Not that it mattered. In fact, the trick itself was the epitome of simple: card selected, shown to the audience, returned to the deck, vanished from the deck. (In that regard, I'll admit it was a lazy trick. Five years ago, I would've been more artful with the setup, if only for my own entertainment.) But this trick was all about the reveal. I went over to my duffel bag of gear and removed a circular target made of Styrofoam, eight inches in diameter. Handed it to Lou and told him to hold the target high above his head with both hands.

I asked him to choose a number between twenty and forty.

"One hundred," he said.

This was why I preferred women volunteers. They did what I asked them to do. They understood that if they played along for a while, they might just get to see something amazing.

"You're gonna ruin the fun here, Lou," I said.

"Okay, fine," he said begrudgingly. "Twenty."

I removed a tape measure from my pocket and unspooled it until it measured twenty feet. Returned the tape measure to my pocket.

"Keep the target up high," I said. "Both hands. That's right." Then I asked him for another number between ten and twenty.

He watched me a moment. "Twenty."

I counted off cards from the deck, letting each card float to the floor. I dropped the rest of the deck. Now I was holding only the twentieth card. Slowly, I turned over the card and showed it to Lou and the audience, not looking at it myself, making a big deal out of saying, "Is this your card?"

"We both know you didn't really mess up," he said.

Right, I thought. It's called playing along. It's called a performance.

"You're saying it isn't your card?" I asked.

"I'm saying you already know it isn't."

In a moment, I was supposed to whip the card into the center of the target above his head. The card would travel fast enough to lodge in the Styrofoam, at which point my volunteer would pluck it out and show everyone that it had transformed into the selected card.

"Just hold very still, please," I said.

Lou grinned and jerked the target a full foot to the left.

"And ... that would be the opposite of holding still," I said, trying to keep things light, though I felt dampness in my armpits and along the backs of my knees.

He centered the target again.

"Much better," I said.

He jerked it to the right.

The eight-inch target was an effective stage prop, but I could've hit a target half the size from twice the distance ... provided that my volunteer stopped fucking moving it.

"Stillness, Lou," I said, struggling to remain calm. "Stillness is everything."

"You must be a real delight in the sack," he said.

A collective intake of breath from the room. They were amused, though, not aghast. This was classic Lou! They were witnessing the story they would tell tomorrow. I understood the impulse to want a story, to claim it. Still, I didn't want this diversion to be all they walked away remembering.

"Too bad you'll never know," I stage-whispered. Banter, I reminded myself. That's all this was. "Now just tell me your card," I said.

That was all Lou had to do. Then I would reconfirm that the lone card in my hand wasn't his. Then I would hurl it at the Styrofoam target and the magic would happen and we could all move on.

"Ace of spades," he said.

A lie. He had selected the three of diamonds. I knew because I had forced it on him at the start of the trick.

The audience tittered uncomfortably. They'd seen the card just after he selected it. They knew he was lying to me — they knew it wasn't banter, that he was genuinely trying to ruin my trick — but they were keeping his secret, either because I was the stranger in the room or because he'd beaten enough of them in court and they were relieved, now, not to be his adversary.

"How about you try again," I told him.

My voice must have lost any last trace of amusement, because he said, "What? What did I do?" If his two hands hadn't been holding the target over his head, one of them would have covered his heart.

I sighed. "Just try again. What was your card?"

"Okay. How about ..." More grinning. "The ace of spades?"

I knew it was my fault for letting it get this far. It was something an amateur would do, getting into it with a volunteer who wanted exactly this — to show off, to perform a little impromptu theater for the audience.

But I was off my game, and had been since before the show even began. It had started with the email I received that afternoon: You were not selected to perform at this year's World of Magic convention in New York City. Rejection is a part of life, I knew that, but as a former grand prize winner in their international close-up magic competition I had counted on being given a show. More important, it was part of the plan — hell, it was the plan — to begin rejoining the wider community of magicians after almost a decade of going it alone. Swallow my pride, let bygones be bygones, and get back in the game, was my thinking. So the rejection had cut especially deep.

And right on the heels of that, I had to drive to Newark on icy roads to perform. Of course, that's what a professional does: performs. The show must go on and all that. (In fact, I was hoping this holiday party might lift my spirits.) Except, just as I'd finished setting up and was about to switch on my lapel mic, the overeager kitchen staff had burst into the ballroom with their buffet carts nearly an hour ahead of schedule. Once the first few lawyers stood and started serving themselves, the stampede was inevitable.

So I waited, pretending to be interested in my phone but becoming increasingly irritated, minute by minute, as the sleet fell and the roads froze over. Meanwhile, the attorneys made trip after trip to the raw bar, the carving station, the sushi station. I kept glancing at all that expensive food and thinking, These aren't even the top lawyers! I could tell from their suits, the way none of them hung right. Jackets too tight in the shoulders, too long in the cuff. Trousers with front pockets so loose I could've had my pick for the stolen cell phone routine I performed only when I was certain I could get away with a clean grab.

"Actually, your card wasn't the ace of spades," I said to Lou. "If you'll remember all the way back to two minutes ago, it was the three of diamonds."

His eyes narrowed. "Are you accusing me of lying?" Mock outrage, a performance — unless I had screwed up my force at the beginning of the trick. (I hadn't.)

"Either you're lying," I said, "or your eyes aren't so good."

"My eyes are perfect, honey," he said. "I think it's your magic act that's on life support."

And that, ladies and gents, is what did it. I suppose his words hit so hard because they happened to be true. What had once, long ago, been infinite potential was now, yes, on life support. But that didn't mean I was ready for that kind of appraisal. Especially today. Especially during the act. And worst of all was hearing it from a pickled show-stealer who had read me so easily I might as well have been blinking neon.

What I'm saying is, his jab caught me at the worst possible moment. I was desperate to be done with this trick, this show, this whole day of frustration and disappointment and self-doubt, and I felt all of it harden at that exact instant into a white-hot hunk of fury.

What I'm saying is, I let the card fly.

Once, I was clocked throwing a playing card at 72 miles per hour. No, that won't get me into the Guinness Book. Still, a card flying 72 mph travels twenty feet in a fifth of a second, which isn't enough time for a volunteer to react. No time to move out of the way, or even to flinch.

So it seemed like no time at all, when really it was one-fifth of a second later, that Lou Husk dropped the target, covered his left eye with his hands, and began to howl.


What happened next happened quickly and is a bit hazy in my memory. Someone ran to the stage, then a few someones. Lou Husk's friends, or rivals, or whatever they were, started pooling their extensive knowledge of the city's urgent care clinics. Soon they were leaving the ballroom with the patient (who was still groaning, his palm shoved against his eye).

With my thinking pretty much limited to holy shit, holy shit, I hurriedly packed my gear with trembly hands. I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible and was doing my best to avoid looking at anyone (well aware that everyone was peering at me) when a representative from Great Nation Physical Therapy approached. She stopped several feet away from me as if I were feral and might decide to attack her, too. Not that I blamed her.

"You were scheduled for an hour," she said, "but you performed for less than thirty minutes and injured a guest."

I knew this already — I'd been there — and didn't know what to say. Anyway, I couldn't have said much. My mouth was dry and I felt shaky all over.

Did I just blind a man? Was I about to get arrested?

"We're going to have to hold on to your payment," she said.

"Of course," I told her. "I'm so sorry ..." But she was already walking away again.

I carried my bag and fold-up table into the elevator. As the doors were shutting, a lawyer's thick arm shot forward, causing them to fly open again. The man stepped into the elevator and flashed a close-mouthed smile as we waited for the doors to shut.

My face must have revealed my terror, because he said, "Relax. I'm not in a suing mood."

We descended to the lobby, and when the doors opened again I started to hurry away. Before I could get anywhere he blurted out, "His nickname is Lucifer."

I stopped. "Excuse me?"

"Lou? He's not a well-liked individual. I thought you should know that."

The lawyer beside me had an ill-fitting suit, jowly cheeks, and a glistening forehead. He certainly had the look down.

"What does that possibly matter?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Maybe it doesn't. Are you looking for legal representation, Natalie?"

"I have to get out of here."

But it was a bluff, and he called me on it.

"In the middle of an ice storm? No, I don't advise that." And that was without him knowing about my bald tires and screeching brakes. "Come on," he said, taking the handle of my fold-up table from me. "Let's step into my office." He scanned the lobby. "Just as soon as I can find one."

The lobby bar was bright and close to the elevators, not crowded but moderately bustling, people coming and going. But across the large lobby, in a dimly lit corner, was a much smaller spillover bar, just long enough to accommodate four bar stools. The area was closed, roped off. It was as good a place as any to hide and wait.

So that's where we sat, folded table and bag of gear beside me, while the ice continued to fall over Newark.

"I just want to say," he began, "that what you do with those cards ..." He whistled. "Not the throwing. The other stuff. Like where the queens all ended up together? It's truly amazing."

"I don't know why you're telling me this," I said.

"What? You're a hell of a magician, Natalie. That's all I'm saying. It's a compliment."

"I just blinded a man!"

"Maybe you blinded a man. It was a playing card, not a knife."

"I can pierce the rind of a watermelon with a playing card."

He winced. "Well, then, all the more important you and I are talking." He offered me a meaty hand with black hairs sprouting out from the tops of his fingers. "Brock McKnight." I was relieved when his handshake didn't crush my bones.

We were by a window, and I could see across the road to another hotel where outside, beneath the overhang, a doorman stood alone and hugged himself for warmth. I shivered. "I feel sick," I said. It was true. Long ago I had decided that nothing was worse, nothing less forgivable, than to be the cause of someone else's physical harm. In all the years since, I had subscribed to very few creeds, but always that. "I didn't really mean to hurt him."

I was relieved that the words tasted mostly true.

"Of course you didn't," Brock said. "Why would you want to sabotage your career?"

Yes, exactly, I thought. An eye is very small. My aim was good, but was it that good? I didn't remember taking aim. I had been irate and embarrassed, true, but the throw had felt automatic. Like with classical pianists, how the fingers do the thinking, not the brain. Otherwise, they could never do those lightning-fast runs up and down the keys.

But even if my hand had gone rogue, doing what my mind wouldn't have allowed it to do, did that make it any better? My hand was still part of me, wasn't it? That snapping wrist, those quick fingers, were mine.


Excerpted from "Bluff"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Michael Kardos.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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