Black Jack

Maria Burns trudged along the dusty road with a single wistful look back at the town. Sure, it barely qualified for the name, and it was in the middle of nowhere, but it had a hotel. To actually spend the night in a real bed.... She sighed at the reminder of the rather pitiful condition of her wallet and walked on, readjusting her backpack. It was all she had left. Hah! To think she actually had a chance at the professional card sharks of Las Vegas... that was sheer stupidity. But like the saying, hindsight was perfectly clear. She was a good card player on the amateur level, well able to hold her own back East, but that was about it. To the professionals, she was just fresh meat. Now all she had was a sleeping bag, some food, a canteen, a backpack, a hundred and fifteen dollars (barely enough for a single night at a hotel room), and little more.

She sighed again and picked out a rock formation somewhat off the road. If there werenít any critters living on/around it, it would be the perfect place for the night. She cautiously checked but to her surprise there wasnít a single sign of anything ever living nearby. She yelped as a lizard scuttled across her foot with a blatant lack of fear. When she calmed down, she glared at it.

"Blasted little...." Well, at least it wasnít poisonous. From what little she could recall of wildlife in Utah, it was prey for snakes and other beasties she wanted to avoid, so it shouldnít be a bad roommate. "Great," she muttered in its direction. Looked like she had a place for the night.

It only took a few minutes to set up her Ďcampí. It barely qualified for the name; it was just a tiny fire and her sleeping bag. She checked the ground for the third time and sat down, jumping up with a yelp a second later.

"Oh, god, please donít let that be poisonous!" She twisted around to check the seat of her pants, fervently hoping it wasnít a scorpion that got her. Or, heaven forbid, a snake.

There wasnít a puncture wound. So whatever it was hadnít managed to go through her jeans. With a slight sigh of relief, she stirred up the fire and fumbled in her backpack for her flashlight. Somehow she managed to get the light on and wave it near where she sat.

Nothing moved. Maria gasped and froze when something glittered in the light. She knew from experience that many creaturesí eyes reflected light like that.

A few panicked seconds passed before her mind registered that it was too low to the ground to be anything other then a lizard or scorpion, and those didnít glitter. She grabbed a stick and tentatively poked at it. When nothing happened, she picked it up.

The... whatever was round and a bit larger then a silver dollar. It had a raised decoration on both sides, impossible to make out by flashlight. Maria puzzled over it for a minute then sank down onto her sleeping bag with a near hysterical giggle. Out in the middle of nowhere, she had managed to get Ďbittení by a poker chip. Unbelievable. This was definitely a sign, but whether it was good or bad would have to wait until morning.

Maria rose with the sun and a complaining stomach. Last nightís discovery was momentarily shelved compare to the more immediate concerns of food. She downed a tiny box of cereal and wished for a tiny carton of milk to go with it. Water and Rice Crispies just didnít go together.

After eating and packing up, she continued down the road onto the next town. Hopefully sheíd reach Devilís Roll before the weekend. She pulled the pamphlet out of her pocket to triple check the time. No such thing as being too paranoid.

Something small and glittering fell out onto the ground and rolled to a stop centimeters from her sneaker. Thoughts of last nightís encounter brought forth a chuckle as she picked the object up. It was indeed a poker chip. On one side was the raised pattern of two cards; the ten of spades and the jack of clubs. Blackjack. On the other was an inscription of "Devilís Roll". The entire thing was solid gold.

She stared in shock at the chip. Normally she wasnít superstitious, but this was enough of a sign for even her. In the entire desert she managed to find a poker chip - made out of gold, no less! - from the exact casino/town she was heading to for a poker championship. This had to be fate.

Somehow Maria managed to drag her attention from the chip to the pamphlet. In the right hand corner was a printed replica of the coin. Underneath was an advertisement for a poker tournament "just like in the Old West!!" on Saturday and Sunday. She had five days to go and about a hundred miles to travel.

She grinned and stuffed the poker chip and pamphlet back into her pocket. Things were starting to look up.

By the time she reached the next town, a quaint little place called Purgatory, her spirits were slightly dampened. As she passed a store window, she winced. The dust had covered her so completely that she was a uniform brown. The only occasional spots of color were parts of her hair which showed as black and her eyes, which retained their deep green. It was hardly an inspiring condition. She sighed and moved on to stop in front of the local bar. There was sure to be a poker game going on somewhere... she shrugged as a fatalistic instinct in her gut urged her to go in. Why not?

An hour later, she left town a hundred dollars richer and backpack several pounds heavier with food. Her luck really was changing.

By noon Saturday, she arrived at Devilís Roll with more then enough money to see her through the entire tournament as well as a new awareness of how to cheat and catch others at it. It didnít make much sense when she thought about it, but she simply shrugged it off as exposure; itíd happened to her so often she finally learned what was going on.

Devilís Roll was once a town, but had been remodeled into a theme park atmosphere. Maria had no doubt that during the real inhabitation, the streets had never been this clean. And it had the advantage of never being overrun by bratty children tugging bored parents from cheap attraction to souvenir vender and back.

She followed the signs to the Saloon where the competition was held, handed over her money, and signed form after form. She finally escaped to a line that circled nine tables crammed with people - every type of person from teenagers to white-haired grandmothers clutching their purses close - and cards. "Wow," she whispered.

"Pretty impressive, huh? This your first time?" The speaker was the young man in front of her. He was her image of a computer geek; gangly, tousled brown hair, glasses that hid blue eyes.

"Yeah. To both. What... uh, whatís going on?"

"You didnít read the literature, did you? The line goes on to the tables. First come, first seated. Once the round finishes, the people at a table go to the end of the line. Everyone gets $500 worth of chips, but they work as points instead until the last game. Pretty much you play until you run out of points or want to quit. Tonight, the number of points slash chips gets totaled, and the six highest go on to the final round. Sometimes though if thereís a major gap between a few people and the rest of the pack, itíll just be them. Then you have to pay for chips, but you get a ten percent bonus from the chips from today. Normal rules from there."

"Ah." Maria nodded, trying not to look as bewildered as she felt.

"Donít worry, youíll catch on real fast. By the way, my nameís Lyle Gravlac."

"Iíll take your word for it. Iím Maria Burns."

"Itís easy. This is my third year. Last year I made it to the final round. Nearly won."

"Who did win?"

He scowled. "See the blonde guy over there? Leather jacket, pierced everything, acts like Godís gift to poker and women?" She nodded. "Nameís Rex Niles. He did. I really hope I kick his butt this time."

"Sounds like more then just ordinary rivalry going on."

He shrugged. "My girlfriend came with me that time. Guess who she left with."

The tables cleared and they moved to begin the game.

At the end of the day, it was clear to most that there were only three that were going on to the final round; Rex, Lyle, and Maria.

Maria settled into her hotel room with a contented sigh. Finally, a real bed. She made sure to put her lucky poker chip on the dresser next to her, silently thanking whatever higher power that had decided to send it her way. She grinned as she turned off the lights. Sometimes superstitions had their place.

Unused to the luxuries of the soft bed and silence of the hotel room, it was rather difficult for Maria to get to sleep. A muffled whump startled her awake near midnight. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling for a few puzzled seconds. Since when did coyotes make whump noises? Where were the stars, and how was the ground so soft? Reality reasserted itself when something in the hall thudded, like someone stumbled over something in the dark. Maria cautiously got up and padded over to the door. Silence. Some perverse instinct made her crack open the door.

"Shut the door and stay quiet," a menacing baritone rumbled. When she started to ask why, the voice hissed at her, "Gal, if ya want to live ta see morniní, shut the door and stay quiet. Comprende?"

She bit her lip, unwilling to take on the owner of the voice. She peered out the crack, catching a quick glimpse of a tall man with white hair and a long bristly beard. She had to look far up to see even that, which decided her. Karate training aside, she wasnít about to face off with anyone that big. She nodded and shut the door.

"Quietly!" the man hissed seconds before it shut. She obeyed, then tiptoed back to bed. Too weird. She tried to shrug it off as a late night tryst of some sort, but somehow, deep inside, there was the disquieting feeling that it was something much worse, and much more sinister.

Maria rolled over with a groan. Maybe the person pounding on the door would just go away. No such luck. The pounding continued and even intensified. Finally, with a growl of disgust, she rolled out of bed and jerked the door open. "What?" she snarled. At least the coyotes had the decency to wait until a reasonable hour to see if she was dead or just pretending.

The pounder was Lyle Gravlac. She vaguely recalled him as the man sheíd flirted with last night and a rather smooth card player, one of the two sheíd be facing off with later on. He stumbled slightly as he leaned forward, ready to knock again. "Oh. Maria. Youíre - Um." He blushed and studied the carpet. "Sorry for, uh, disturbing you, but um, I just wanted to make sure you were all right."

Why on earth was he acting so embarrassed? She blinked and looked down. Oh. Maybe she should have grabbed the bathrobe. Well, if the man couldnít handle her in an oversized T-shirt, maybe she should try wearing something really revealing for their match. She shook the thought away. "Thanks Lyle, but Iím fine. Really. Why the excitement, anyway?"

"You havenít heard?" His eyes widened as he tried - unsuccessfully - to look her in the face. "Thereíss been a murder."

She sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose. God help her, today looked like it sucked already. She left the door open and retreated to the safety of the bed, drawing the covers to a more discrete level. "Look, Iím not giving you any mercy on our match today. No matter what stories you come up with."

"No, seriously. Um, can I come in?" At her shrug, he closed the door and sat in the chair. "You remember Rex Niles?"

"The guy who was kicking everyoneís butts last night? Who weíre facing off against later?"

"Yeah. Well, this morning, when the maid went in to clean his room, she found him shot in the head. Heís been dead for awhile. The police are everywhere looking for the gun or the killer."

Maria shrugged. "Iím sorry for him and all, but this concerns me how?"

"Iím trying to help the cops out as much as possible. Did you hear or see anything last night?"

"Gal, donít say a word." She bit back a yelp. The man was back! He was standing in the corner (how did he get in?) and looming over Lyle. Like last nightís rather vague impression, he was tall; at least over six feet and looking like it might have been closer to seven. His skin was a tone similar to dark chocolate, contrasting sharply with his crewcut white hair and long white beard. Despite his hair coloring, he looked to be in the prime of his life with a wrestlerís physique and a cowboyís getup. "Just tell Ďim you slept the night through."

"I didnít see anything. Slept like a rock." She kept a wary eye on the stranger. He nodded in satisfaction.

"Oh. You sure you didnít hear anything suspicious? Youíre right next door, and probably the only one who couldíve heard anything." Strange, Lyle didnít even seem to notice the man, let alone hear him. After all, sheíd parroted his words right back. How could he miss that?

"Positive." This time she didnít even need the strangerís cue. "If I remember anything, youíll be the first to know. Now, um, could you please go? I need to wash up."

If Lyle had been pink before, he was now positively lobster red. "Sure. Sorry to have bothered you." She escorted him to the door, despite his fervent protests. When she was sure the door was securely closed and Lyle wouldnít be able to hear anything, she turned to glare at the man. "Just what the hell is... going on?"

He was gone.

"Great." Maria ran a hand through her hair in a frustrated, helpless gesture. "Thereís been a murder and now thereís a wacko running in and out of my room whenever he wants. I should have stayed in Rhode Island."

After a rather nervous shower and general grooming, Maria grabbed her lucky poker chip and bounced downstairs. After last night and this morning, things could only go up.

She apparently wasnít the only early riser; a tour guide was already showing around a pack of tourists. Out of curiosity and lack of hunger, Maria joined the crowd.

The tour guide stopped in front of a glass case. Maria craned to see what was inside, but a bulky man in a garish Hawaiian shirt kept moving in front of her to take photos. "Devilís Roll was home of one of the greatest card sharps in the west. While Black Jack isnít as famous as some like the outlaws like Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy, this is because he was known as the ĎCheaterís Cheaterí. Whenever he played cards, it was fair unless you started to try and con him or the other players. Then Black Jack would beat you using the same method of cheating. He was rewarded by the locals with five poker chips, four of which are here."

There was increased activity and picture taking by the man ahead of Maria. She sighed and resigned herself to having to wait to see the wonderful poker chips. She snickered. And how many similar chips had been stolen over the years?

"Black Jack was killed in 1868 when a vengeful card shark shot him in the back one night when he was going home, apparently because he was caught by Jack the night before. The killer stole the five chips along with everything else Jack was carrying and ran off. A posse was formed to avenge the local hero and eventually the man was hunted down. But only these four chips that you see- "

"I wish," Maria muttered with a glare at Mr. Hawaiian Shirt.

" - were recovered. Itís said that Black Jack haunts the desert with the last chip and even today hunts down those who cheat at cards. Hopefully heíll be watching todayís tournament, which was created in his memory. If youíll walk this way, youíll see-"

Maria tuned out the womanís chatter as she hung back. She wasnít really interested in viewing the tourist traps of the town, but the Ďlegendaryí poker player fascinated her. There were so many gun slingers and card sharps running around the Old West that to be remembered, you either had to be really bad, really good, or really strange.

As the last tourist left the room, she finally saw the poker chips. Suspended in a glass case hanging on the wall were four gold poker chips, embossed with either the design of two cards; a the ten of spades and the jack of clubs, or the words ĎDevilís Rollí. Her hand instinctively went to the lucky chip in her pocket. Still there.

"So I got the last one. Huh. Wasnít so lucky for you, though, was it, Black Jack?"


She whirled around, going into a defensive crouch. "You again?! What is it with you? Who are you and why are you stalking me?"

"Ainít stalking ya. As fer who...." He nodded back at the case. "Ya didnít look far enough." He saw her hesitation to look, and guessed her fear. "Donít worry, Iíll still be here. Go on, look."

Reluctantly, she obeyed. This time, she noticed the small, grainy photograph hanging beside the case. Underneath was a plaque that read "Jack ĎBlack Jackí Clubs 184? - 1868". Despite its age and poor clarity, it was quite obviously the man behind her. "How - " she gasped, giving him an incredulous look.

"Come on, gal, havenít ya ever heard of ghosts?"

For a shocked moment, she just stared at him. A ghost. Of course. Why not? It made perfect sense. Then common sense kicked in and her temper flared. "Oh, so I picked you up when I got the poker chip."

"Right!" He beamed, looking insufferably pleased and obviously not noticing the silky, menacing tone that would have sent a wiser man - or ghost - running away as fast as possible.

"The hell I did!" Maria roared, stalking close to the startled man. "Listen, mister, you can think Iím as stupid as you want, but I am not dumb. I am not about to be taken in by any twit who thinks that by dressing up as a dead guy will keep me from going to the police. Hel-lo! There are Ďbank robberiesí here every day at noon, and guess what? the robber always gets shot and always does the same thing the next day. If you try to scam me, at least do it originally!"

She swept past the man and out of the room, inwardly fuming. He raced after her. "Gal, now just wait a minute, please."

"Go. Away," she snarled.

"No, listen, you canít go to the police with this. If ya do, then theyíll be after the actors-"

"After you, you mean."

" - no, they wonít be goiní fer the real killer."

"Like I said."

"Maria? Who are you talking to?"

She groaned. Having Lyle show up with this loony around wasnít a good thing. "This nutcase." She jerked a thumb in "Black Jackís" direction. "Iím trying to get away from him."

Lyle looked around, then exaggerated searching behind her. "Who? There isnít anyone here."

"Um. I kinda fergot to mention that part. Yer the only one who can see or hear me," Black Jack ventured.

"I donít believe this!" She threw up her hands in disgust. "You two were in on this the entire time. Our match is still on, Lyle, and Iím still gonna win. Later." Maria power-walked to the stairs in hopes of losing her Ďghostí.

"Yeah. Sure. See you later," Lyle mumbled with a weak wave.

"Gal, listen to me!"

She growled softly and raced up the stairs, taking them two or three at a time. She ran down the hall to her room and slammed the door, leaning up against it. Made it. Safe at last.

"Will you please stop trying to get away and listen?"

Maria yelped and her eyes snapped open. The black man was standing in front of her, arms crossed and giving her a look halfway between exasperated and pleading.

"How did you - A secret door. Where is it?"

"Argh! I told ya. Iím a ghost."

She favored him with a scornful look. "Do you still expect me to believe that?"

He didnít bother to respond; instead he lurched forward and launched a clumsy punch at her head. Maria was expecting something like this. She ducked and pivoted on her left foot, snapping her right leg forward into a kick that would catch him in the chest and send him sprawling.

Instead she staggered against the door as her foot met no resistance. She blinked, unwilling to believe that sheíd just seen her sneaker pass through the manís ribcage.

He saw her shell shocked look and smirked. "See?" he demanded, drawing back.

"See what?" she managed to whisper.

He brought his hand around in a slap that should have knocked her silly, but only created a slight chill as his hand went right through her face. "That."

"My god." She cautiously moved past him to sink down onto the bed. "You really are a ghost."

"Yeah. You okay with that or are ya gonna explode on me again?"

She couldnít stop a laugh. "It takes a bit of getting used to, but Iím not gonna explode."

"Good. ĎCause I need yer help catching the murder."

"What?! Hang on. Just back up here. How? Why me?"

"íCause you got the poker chip. And I saw who did it."

She didnít bother to hide her scorn. "Sure. ĎExcuse me, officer, but Iíd like to turn in the murderer. How do I know who did it? Well, this ghost follows me around and he told me.í Come on, theyíd lock me up in the funny farm."

"Well.... tell Ďem you saw him leaving the room." Even he didnít look that convinced in his own theory.

She snorted. "After telling Lyle I didnít? Then theyíd convict me. We shot down that idea when you had me say I saw nothing."

"Well, heís the killer! Whatíd you expect me to do?"

Maria just stared. Lyle was the killer? "No way...." But it certainly explained his interest. "Iíll need your help."

"Hey, whatís a ghost fer?"

Maria shuffled a deck, glaring across the table at Lyle. Her usual per-game tenseness was gone, replaced with a cool clarity of thought that gave her an eerie feeling of dislocation; of watching everything on the TV instead of actually taking part of the events. Even the faint murmur of the crowd had faded to inconsequential.

"Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, the game is about to start," the arbitrator called. She nodded and put the cards into her pocket.

As the crowd quieted, the arbitrator continued. She tuned out until he nearly finished. "- and lastly, anyone caught cheating will be instantly declared loser. Remember, best two out of three games wins. Any money won during that time will be kept. Ms. Burns, Mr. Gravlac, whenever youíre ready. Cut the deck to see who deals."

Lyle grandly gestured to her. "Ladies first."

She nodded and managed a smile, then lifted part of the deck. Please let this be low, she silently prayed. If itís high we are so screwed. She winced. Ten of hearts.

Lyle winced. "Ouch. Not much to beat that." He almost casually reached out and turned several cards over. Jack of clubs. "Well, looks like the house ghost likes me."

"You have no idea," Black Jack muttered from the corner.

Maria breathed a sigh of relief. This was going to work.

The arbitrator handed Lyle a new deck. He shuffled it, then handed it to her. She took it and started to shuffle. A few seconds later, she twitched and sneezed into the deck. There was a collective "eww" from the audience.

"Um. Could we use a different deck? I donít think either of us wants to use this one now."

"Yuck. You can say that again," Lyle added.

"No problem, unless I have to touch it," the man told her with a grin. He grabbed a new pack straight from the ghost.

With the marked deck, it was childís play to lose the first round. During the second, Lyle began to feel the need to chat.

"Sorry you lost one."

She shrugged and flicked a $20 chip into the pot. "Itís just a pity Rex canít be here."

He almost sneered as he put in his own $20. "Things wouldíve been much more interesting if he had. But guess what? I heard that the police are getting close to the killer." He handed over two cards.

"Really. Did you know I saw someone leaving his room last night?" She passed over a single card.

"No, I didnít. The police found the gun, you know." He put forth $200 dollars worth of chips.

"Oh." She met the raise and looked him in the eye. "You mean the service pistol the killer placed in my room."

"What? No, the stage... that is, I thought he was killed by one of the reenactment cast."

"No. The killer used one of their revolvers that normally shoots blanks." She grinned thinly, then put down her cards. Nothing of a kind. "Are your low cards normally this dog eared?" she asked the arbitrator, her gaze never leaving Lyle.

The man frowned. "No, theyíre not. Sir, I thought youíd know better then to try cheating now."

He leapt to his feet. "I didnít! Iím not!"

Maria leaned back and shrugged. "Well, what can you expect from a killer? Honesty?"

For a second, Lyle stared at her. Then he turned and bolted through the crowd. Somehow in the confusion, he tripped over a chair and skidded to the feet of the police.

Jack gave Maria a thumbs-up. She just grinned and winked back.

After the trial, in which Lyle was found guilty, Maria trudged out of Devilís Roll with little more then she came in with. Only her pocketbook was heavier. She grinned to herself as the now familiar image of Black Jack shimmered into existence next to her like a mirage.

"Not stickiní around?" he asked, matching pace with her.

"Nope. Pokerís fun here, but I think the locals are trying to make me a reincarnation of you."

"Yer white and yer female. How the hell wouldja be me?"

"I catch cheats."

"Try killers, gal."

She shrugged. "Close enough. What about you? Going on to your eternal rest, sticking around Devilís Roll, what?"

He grinned down at her. "Gal, whether ya like it or not, yer stuck with me. Get used to it."

"Depends. You still gonna make me catch cheaters?"


"Hmm. Well, I guess that means weíre partners then."

He held out his hand. "Partners."

She mimed shaking hands, ignoring the chill and the slightly solid feeling from his hand. It was her imagination, thatís all.

Just a little note: to my knowledge, Black Jack isn't real. He and his history are just wild figments of my imagination. If he is real.... well, then it's time to shoot the writing program and take up religion.

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