Written by Christopher Irvin – Burn cards are those dealt from the top of the deck and discarded – of no use to anyone. Casino towns like Reno are full of people who are a bit like this – seemingly on the lowest rung, but holding onto their secrets.
Reno, known as the biggest little city in the world, was once America’s gambling capital. Now it plays a little brother role to its more infamous sibling to the south, Las Vegas. There was a time when Nevada’s lax gambling and divorce laws, coupled with its location just across the border with California, made Reno and Vegas magnets for every kind of vice. This made both cities prime locations for crime fiction. However, times have changed and Reno’s charm has waned, leaving casinos and other illicit entertainment venues crumbling.
Mirna Fowler is doing everything she can to get out of Reno. Her father, Doug, is a deadbeat gambler full of empty promises and bad debts. She always calls him by his first name – never ‘Dad’. Since her mother’s death in a car crash in Vegas, Mirna has been looking for a way out, working at a hair salon to earn money, walking home instead of catching the bus to save a few dollars. She eats at cheap diners and hides any money she earns from her father.
Then one day Antonio, an old poker friend of Doug’s and an old flame of Mirna’s, turns up at the salon looking slick and waving money around. He invites Mirna to work for him at a strip club he’s just bought. Mirna sees Antonio for what he is – an anchor that will drag her down, keeping her in Reno. She tells him where to go, but heads home shaking and livid with anger. Her father has been gone for days – not unusual. What is unusual is the fact that the front door of their small apartment is unlocked, the TV on, and the apartment has been ransacked. She finds her father dead in the bathtub, his wrists slit.
The paramedics when they arrive are unhelpful, and Mirna has the distinct feeling that one of the police officers is a hired thug – in fact she’s seen him working as a bouncer at a small dive of a casino on Reno’s main strip. Mirna knows that something is going on. Her money is missing and her father’s body is covered in mysterious bruises the paramedics won’t comment on.
When the police leave Mirna they leave her with a vague threat – her father’s debts are now his daughter’s to pay and Ms Guzman, the loan shark, expects what’s owed. She looks around their small apartment to find clues that might explain something about her father’s death – what she finds is a home video of her fourth birthday party in the VCR and a ledger full of IOUs, many of which have been scratched out, except one – a big one.
Mirna knows there’s no way she’ll ever pay the debt, but she has to do what she can. She’ll beg, borrow, blackmail and steal, hoping that something will convince the mysterious Ms Guzman to forgive her father’s debt. As she seeks out the loan shark, it feels like things can only end one way – and that’s something slightly unsatisfying about this novella. It’s well written, but it feels like it’s been written before. The stories, the themes, the characters are all pulp standards. It needs a pinch of something new.
Burn Cards is still the kind of dark pulp we’ve come to expect from indie publisher 280 Steps. It’s the sort of short, punchy hit that Christopher Irvin seems to be making his own – this is his second novella, we featured his first last year in On the Radar. He also writes short stories. While Burn Cards isn’t as explosive or original as some of the other stuff 280 Steps has put out, and ends with little surprise, it’s still a swift kick-in-the-teeth of a novella.
Burn Cards is released on 14 April.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars