The House of Spades and Sorrows

On her original mortgage application, they ask her for a last name. At first, she writes nothing all, sitting back with her arms crossed over her chest and an expression somewhere between confusion and petulance plastered on her face.

After being told she must provide a last name, she writes out Rebecca Smith-Jones of Sunny-Brookside & Belle Lark with a quill pen that she pulls from her red leather purse. They ask her for employment information. She writes in Chief Birch-Bark Reader in service to the Dream King of the Deep Woods. They ask for the property address. She writes “The House of Spades and Sorrows” and underlines it twice. All with that same quill pen, silver nib and swan feather, that looks like it came out of the Dark Ages.

And Richland National Bank still approves her loan. Because it’s pre-2008 and the greasy mortgage broker who throws her application in a stack with fifty others is working on commission.

• • •

Rebecca loses her job as the Chief Birch-Bark Reader to the Dream King of the Deep Woods. It’s really not her fault — market forces, the whims of capitalism, hurricanes from hell, and all that.

Rebecca’s payments to the bank dry up. She has some gold stored away, from an old deal with a Spanish conquistador that worked in her favor. But the bank won’t accept 16th century Aztec gold in its original form, so she has to exchange it at a pawn shop for paper currency. She makes the exchange, despite the hassle. When the gold runs out, she decides to try sparrow bones that have been marinating in mason jars filled with Coptic holy water for the past thousand or so years, which would buy her a 5th (maybe even 6th) dimension mansion in Belle Lark, but oh no. Apparently, Richland National Bank’s insistence on “U.S. funds in paper currency only” isn’t a mere suggestion.

Foreclosure proceedings are commenced without delay.

• • •

The final pre-sale foreclosure conference for The House of Spades and Sorrows, otherwise known at 18 Bay Street, takes place in a small, square room at the County Courthouse, which is adorned with eggshell-colored walls and a brown, close-cut carpet. There are no windows and the fluorescent light turns everything a little muddy. Rebecca has never understood how people can work under these shades-of-beige conditions.

The interior of the House of Spades and Sorrows is painted top to bottom in dramatic hues of scarlet, indigo and deep-plum-violet. She stenciled silver stars in a feathered spray that spans the entire ballroom ceiling, spilling out into the archways of the front hall. All her guests compliment the decor with oohs and ahhhs.

“Well, let’s start with the bank’s position. Where are we, Lucius?” the court clerk is writing the date and the caption of the case on the first line of his yellow ledger. Rebecca is watching the scratch, scratch, scratch of his pen with some interest.

His penmanship has an otherworldly slant that would make him a competitive Birch-Bark Writer. Not everyone can do it and there’s a fine line between the appropriate level of otherworldly and plain old John-Hancock-style vanity. But Rebecca has been around for … a while, and she’s seen enough to know that he’s got the gift. She considers telling him so but Lucius Islay, the bank’s attorney, speaks up before she has a chance.

“Ms. Smith-Jones has not made a full payment in over a year,” Lucius consults his notes. “This is our third conference in six months. The current indebtedness is at $314,159.26, plus interest and fees. Ms. Smith-Jones has indicated that she has no income and no funds with which to pay back the loan.”

“Ms. Smith-Jones? Or Mr. Tarrigan, would you like to speak on behalf of your client?” the clerk doesn’t bother to look up as he addresses both Rebecca and Doug Tarrigan, the court-appointed attorney sitting beside her, by name. Douglas is a slouched young man who’s currently picking at the underside of his fingernails and wondering why he went to law school in the first place. “Is that all correct?”

“More or less,” Rebecca answers vaguely. “My last employer died during a rough snowstorm. His replacement is a woman who has abhorred my family for a thousand years. There’s bad blood between us. And when I say ‘bad blood’, I mean like Judith-with-a-carving-knife and Holofernes-bleeding-out-into-a-bowl levels of impasse. Though I’m still an excellent Birch-Bark Reader, one of the best, if you know anyone who’s looking?”

“Birch-Bark … reader?” Lucius repeats back, unsure on the term. As an old-fashioned attorney, he still depends on his fax machine heavily and doesn’t know what the letters IT actually stand for. At this point, he’s too afraid to ask. “Is that some sort of programming?”

“More like translation,” Rebecca replies, understatedly. “The Dream King was very old school. Studied for his finals by candlelight in the Library at Alexandria, if you can believe it. He never trusted telegrams or other modern forms of communication. He couldn’t stand typewriter noise. Said it sounded too much like gnashing of teeth.”

The court clerk doesn’t stop his scratch, scratch, scratching. Doug merely shakes his head, having become desensitized to Rebecca’s more off-the-wall comments for over half a year now.

“Ms. Smith-Jones, have you listed the house? If you can’t afford the mortgage payment, it would probably be in your best interest to sell and pay off the outstanding balance from the proceeds,” the clerk mentions, helpfully.

“Oh, I can’t sell it!” Rebecca answers firmly, pressing her hand against her chest dramatically, aghast at the suggestion. “There’s a first option on the house. Azazel has a right of first refusal and he would absolutely jump at the chance to get it back in his hot, little hands, believe me.”

“Azazel who?” the clerk requests clarification, after scanning the court papers piled beside his ledger. “I don’t see a right of first refusal in the title report?”

“No, there’s none recorded in the chain of title,” Lucius confirms.

Rebecca shrugs, merely relaying what she’d been told all through childhood, “My grandfather bought the house from Azazel during the Byzantine housing boom and that was one of the conditions. It has to stay in the family or Azazel gets it back.”

“What’s Azazel’s last name?” the clerk asks, always careful to take thorough notes for the judge’s later review. Or not. The judge is fairly busy. Golf season has just started.

“He doesn’t have one,” she sighs, frustrated — these people and their obsession with last names.

“You mean you don’t know it?” he clarifies, in a semi-patronizing tone.

“Well, I suppose you could write down ‘Scourge of the Wilderness’?” she answers with snark.

“And his address?”

“5th floor of Hell, beside the vending machines and the entrance to the Ravenous Hanging Gardens. You can’t miss it.”

• • •

They don’t notify Azazel because, to be honest, they don’t believe he exists. Demons typically are placed in the same column as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. As expected, the foreclosure goes ahead as planned. A referee is appointed and the house is sold at auction to a contractor who has plans to modernize the intense (we’re talking gargoyles everywhere) Gothic architecture and flip it for a healthy profit.

“He has no idea what he’s getting himself into,” Rebecca mentions under her breath, standing at the back of the courthouse lobby, where she lingers after the auction. She watches the contractor sign the initial paperwork, noting his accepted bid and down payment, with a grimace. Rebecca’s stance wavers between sour grapes and indignant disbelief. This is who they sell the House of Spades and Sorrows to? The contractor has a blunt signature that’s little more than a scribble, with no flourishes and no flair. It’s a beige-flavored signature. She wrinkles up her nose, unimpressed.

“Mmhmm.” Her attorney, Doug Tarrigan, is standing next to her and not listening to a word she says. He just nods and mumbles along while scrolling through local “help wanted” ads on his phone.

• • •

The contractor disappears very soon after the auction, never to be heard from again. The house sits vacant for many years. The bank doesn’t care, as it’s recouped its losses (twice over because of private mortgage insurance) and is now busy with calculating end-of-the-year bonuses.

Rebecca knows what she’s talking about regarding the right of first refusal but honestly, it’s not as doom-and-gloom as you might expect. Sure, Azazel confronts the contractor as soon as he enters the house, in all his hellish glory. He explains the first option agreement and shows him the contract. It’s sealed with shadow blood, iron teeth, old bones and grim-dead ivy. All appears to be in order and the contractor decides to cut his losses and let Azazel keep the house without a fight.

“But listen, man, I feel bad about all this,” Azazel says, as he itches the horns on his head and then sharpens his tail spikes with a whetstone. “We’re all victims of a system of easy credit and unbridled greed, shoddy legal-work and financial fraud. And look, I’ve been trying to remodel the 5th floor of Hell for about six hundred years without finding anyone who shares my vision. So, if you’re interested … how about a job?”

Oh, the contractor’s interested. He likes a challenge. And Hell has always been good about fair pay. Weighing of scales and giving what’s owed. The 5th floor of Hell gets a complete makeover, complete with some gorgeous, Michelangelo-style ceiling art depicting the Most Glorious Sea Battle of the Seven Sons of Lucifer. Visitors say the krakens, in particular, are astonishingly lifelike.

So, in the end, all parties are satisfied. Including Rebecca, who sneaks back into the House of Spades and Sorrows while Azazel and his new contractor are busy finalizing masonry plans and picking out color schemes. She changes the locks and buys some of that anti-demon spray that you can get down by the harbor in Belle Lark. They sell anti-tooth fairy chewing gum for $0.50 a stick. It’s really a bargain, all things considered. Rebecca paints the front door the same color as the pulp of a blood-orange under a blood-moon and then adds black letters in flourishing script that spell out, “No Trespassing.”

If she were to paint the whole house beige instead, she’d probably get away with it. No one from Valhalla to Sheol would ever find the house again, as it would melt into the landscape like a drop of ink in the ocean. Or a House of Beige on Bay Street.

But anything is better than beige — whether death, maiming or inevitable eviction — so she’ll take her chances.


Gretchen Tessmer is a writer based in the U.S./Canadian borderlands. She writes both short fiction and poetry, with work appearing in over forty publications, including Nature, Strange Horizons and F&SF, as well as a previous appearance in Bourbon Penn.