"Well?" the man across from me sneered. "You gonna play?"
"Go for it, gal," my partner whispered, an icy presence behind and to the right of me. "He ainít got a snowballís hope."
I casually nodded to both of them and pushed forward twenty dollars worth of chips, then the rest of my stash. "See you and raise you... lessee, that looks like itís about two hundred."
"What?!" my partner squawked. "Thatís two twenty-three and you know it as well as I do, gal. How many times do I hafta tell you, go fer the throat! Heís a cheater and deserves it!"
I decided not to mention that while our opponent was a cheater, he wasnít a very good one. Besides, if you looked at it the right way, we were cheating too. The man I was playing against sneered, obviously thinking I was either a complete rube or idiot.
They always do.
The guy, who wore an ID tag claiming he was one Kevin Hikes, looked way too smug. Probably because of the full house he had tucked away in his sleeve. The last member of our little circle, a man who had only given his name as George, shook his head in disbelief. Heíd dropped out early, but stuck around to see what happened. He was in for a real show.
"All right," Kevin purred. "See ya, and, well," he leered at me, "How about raising the stakes a bit more?"
I gazed back blandly, despite the sudden decision that this slug was going down, and hard. "Strip poker isnít allowed in the casino," I retorted coldly. Good thing, because if it was, heíd have been walking home naked.
"Oo, baby, you know what I like."
"Just shut up and put down chips, money, or cards."
He snickered, and technically because it bothered me, but really because it allowed him to palm his cards, he reached over and snagged a passing cocktail waitress, dumping her into his lap. "Hey, sugar, she doesnít know how to celebrate. How about you and me have our own private party once I win?"
The waitress, a woman by the name of Iris who would sleep with just about anyone, gave him a cat that ate the canary and then got away with an entire pitcher of milk smile, snuggling close. George and I took advantage of her distraction to grab the drinks she was carrying around and chug them down.
"Well?" I finally asked when the snuggling (and fondling) got too nauseating.
With another smirk, he threw down the full house and reached for the pile of chips.
"Arenít you even going to wait and see what I got?"
He snorted. "Oh, come on. The odds of you beating that are...."
I held his gaze and fanned my cards, tipping them down so he could see them. Ace, king, queen, jack, and ten of clubs. Royal Flush, highest possible hand. "Pretty good, actually."
"How the hell?" he gasped. He was expecting to see a five and king of hearts, the three of clubs, eight of diamonds, and jack of spades. After all, thatís what he dealt me. "Thatís impossible!"
"Are you calling me a cheater?" I asked mildly. For a moment he hesitated, but then he realized that I knew. If he called my bluff, I could prove that he had cheated. His choices were to let me go or get caught for cheating himself.
With a snarl and muttering something my parents would be highly offended to hear, he shoved the chair back and stood, dumping Iris onto the floor with her own curse. They stormed off with myself, Jack, and George watching bemusedly.
"Wow. Congratulations. First time I saw anyone beat Kev," George commented as I collected the chips together. "Want to go for a quick two-player game?"
"Nah. Itís quarter of ten."
"And itís past your bedtime?" he asked sarcastically.
I chuckled. "No, but... Ďearly to bed, early to riseí, and all that. You play Kevin often?"
"If thatís how you win Iím gonna have to change my schedule. Well, heís my cousin and only surviving relative. Iím stuck with him a lot."
I nodded and waved. "You have my sympathy. See ya later."
"Hang on! Um... look, I donít mean to come across as a leech or anything, but... can you lend me a few bucks for the cab ride home?"
"Sure. Not like I canít spare it." I tossed him a few chips and headed off with a smile. Good deeds are underrated.
Black Jack led the way to the cashier like some strange sort of bodyguard, bitchiní the entire way about my lack of killer instinct. I ignored his babbling and promised to myself to keep an eye on his TV watching. I spent my time watching how the dealers worked and laughing at Jack. Itís funny to watch him move through the crowd. He strides along like heís still the local card sharp hero, and everyone knows him and at least pretends to respect him so theyíll move out of the way. Doesnít help his ego that they still do, but now itís more like human nature to ignore the unusual and get out of its way. All they see is a white woman, five feet with long black hair in a braid and green eyes. Just another blue collar worker out to try and make a few bucks off of her paycheck at the casino. They ignore the big black guy, six feet seven inches with bristly hair cut short and beard cut long, both dyed pure white, that looks like he should be a wrestler, particularly in the cowboy getup heís wearing. Itís probably the fact that you can see right through him that make folks avoid him. Some people, if they knew about Jack, would call him my sidekick. Personally, I think itís the other way around. Heís the real gambling expert, I just happen to be conveniently alive to be his hands. So we stick with the term partners.
Yup. Black Jackís dead. He was born in the 1840ís, son of two runaway slaves, by the name Jack Clubs. He took his name as a hint from God and moved out west to play cards. He was good, too. Around the gambling circuit, he picked up the nickname of Black Jack and was known as the cheaterís cheater. He could palm cards and con with the best of them, but he only did it to catch swindlers. He was riding high by 1868. At the time he was a decorated veteran of the Civil War and local hero for the way he got back at card cheaters. He was living in a little town called Devilís Roll in whatís now Utah. But one night, he embarrassed the wrong cheat. Walking home, he was too drunk to notice the guy heíd caught coming up behind him. Cheat killed him; three shots to the head. To add insult to injury, he stole all of Jackís money and the five commemorative gold poker chips, Ďspecially made for him, that the folks of Devilís Roll gave him as thanks. Posse hunted the man down and brought back the dead body and four of the chips. The folks of Devilís Roll gave the last chip up for lost and made Black Jack into legend. Well, a local legend.
Three years ago, I was about as far down on my luck as humanly possible. I was good at cards at home, but when I went out to Vegas to try my hand there, I got beaten but good. Eventually I ended up in Utah playing a few games here and there and just generally trying to get by. Then I headed for Devilís Roll. Itís one of those tourist traps that litter the entire west, a "reenacted city". In other words, people go around dressed in what Hollywood thinks cowboys wore and thereís Ďbank robberiesí every day at noon. And it costs to get in. But Devilís Roll had one thing most places donít; they still hold poker championships. Ya know, like in the movie Maverick. When I heard about it, I had to go and try. I was down to minimum wager, so I spent the nights under the stars on the way there. First night, when I checked for scorpions and other surprises before bedding down, I found a gold poker chip. I took it as an omen and kept it as a lucky piece. And it did help my luck. I was still several weeks from Devilís Roll and the championship, so I took my time and played at bars on the way. I kept on winning. It was like all of a sudden, I could see when and how people cheated. And I could do it too, as well as anyone. Little did I know that it was Black Jack helping me along.
To make a long story short, after trying several times to kill Jack, I won the tournament and caught a murderer and found out I was stuck with a ghost. Since then, weíve been traveling together, spending most of our time going from one casino to another, stopping for small card games here and there. Not exactly a career, but itís a hell of a way to make a living. Sure beats working. Best part is that I really do have an infallible system. So long as I donít talk back to Jack, no one knows heís there. Iím the only one who can see or hear him. Itís the ultimate in cheating methods.
Of course, most of the time he makes me play by myself. He has ethics. Right. Man cheats, plain and simple. Doesnít really matter why, he cheats. I suppose it might sound a bit weird to hear me say that, but, well, Iíve learned that getting by is all that really matters. Jack calls it being mercenary. He thinks that every person should have goals, a code that is to be adhered to or you should just give up and die. Products of our cultures - or ages, or whatever the saying is - I guess.
"Whoo hoo! Whooped Ďem again, Maria?" Dotty asked. Dottyís one of the cashiers here, and the sheís a major feminist. Thatís why she works the registers instead of passing around drinks. Kinda stupid if you ask me. You get better tips at the tables.
Well, to each his - or her - own. I shrugged and grinned while handing over the chips. "Three guesses."
Dotty whistled in amazement as she totaled up my winnings.
"Very nice. Whose butt didja kick?
I gave her another shrug. "Few of the regulars, George something-or-another, and Kevin Hikes."
The cashier developed a wicked gleam in her eyes. "Bastard finally got it, huh? Way to go, girlfriend."
"What, he refuse to lay ya?" Sometimes Jack is more an annoyance than anything. But with his mouth, itís a very good thing Iím the only one able to see/hear him.
Dotty stared past me, and for a moment I got this close to cardiac arrest, positive that somehow, impossibly, sheíd heard Jack. Instead, she glared across the room at Iris, who was picking up some more drinks. "Slut," she muttered, passing over the money. Jack rumbled his version of a chuckle as Dotty and I finished pleasantries and I headed off.
"Whatís so funny?" When fighting through casino crowds, you can talk to yourself - or a ghost - a much as you want. Everyone thinks youíre talking to somebody else in the crowd.
"Oh, the Ďwaitressí. Every time she goes by she calls Dotty somethiní along the lines of Ice Queen or queer. Is that a real insult?"
For all his TV watching, Jack just doesnít pick up on slang. Probably a good thing. "Itís fighting words."
"Ah. I jest wish sheíd take business upstairs. Thatís where it belongs, not at the tables."
"Thatís probably because prostitution is illegal. And Iíd guess that she does, on her breaks or off duty."
For once, Jack didnít have a smart reply and actually stayed reasonably quiet for the cab ride Ďhomeí; currently a little waterfront B&B. Itís at least 45 minutes away from the casino, making it inconvenient for most, but I found itís cheaper and had less traffic/noises from the next room. Breakfast is also a LOT better.
I had only a few blessed hours of sleep when pounding on the hotel door startled me out of bed. I landed on the floor with sleepy curses and several gestures that shouldnít be repeated in polite company. Somehow I managed to find the door. I wrenched it open, nearly slamming it into the wall. "What the hell is so important to wake me up at - " quick glance at the clock " - two-thirty in the morning?!" Okay, so I get cranky when I donít get enough sleep.
Then I noticed who I just insulted. I happened to be staring at a rather surprised looking man holding out a police badge.
"Would a murder be important enough.... Miss Maria Burns, I hope?" he asked mildly.
I blushed and ran a hand through my hair in an attempt to straighten it, suffering that feeling everyone gets when faced with a police visit, that mental scramble to recall what happened lately that would be against the law.
It didnít help that he didnít look like a cop.
He was average height (meaning that he towered over me) with a slight Hispanic cast to his features. With dark brown hair that was nearly black, deep brown eyes, and a wiry but well-muscled build, he did a great job of distracting me.
My brain finally made the connection. "Murder?" I repeated. Then I groaned and whacked my head against the door frame. Itís one of the down sides to having Jack around; I attract weirdness and, well, the last few years have been like an Agatha Christie marathon.
The cop blinked and took a cautious step back. I shook my head and sighed. "Donít ask. Who was it, and I take it Iím the prime suspect?"
"Uh, it was Kevin Hikes, and yes."
I sighed again and opened the door wider. "Come on in."
The cop handed me his badge as he slipped by. Apparently I was being investigated by one Detective Troy Danvers, code 6137 psy. Whatever that meant.
I shrugged and handed it back. "When, where, and how?"
"Wha- Oh. The body was found in a hotel room, time of death approximately 11:45. I hope you donít mind if I ask you a few questions."
I shrugged again and began to fumble around my jacket pockets, deliberately ignoring the fact that he stiffened slightly and his hand drifted to what was probably a shoulder holster. "Donít mind, but here." I tossed a crumpled sheet of paper at him. "Itís a receipt for my cab ride home." I made a face. "He took the scenic route, but the timeís on there. Eleven-ish to twelve-o-three."
The detective studied the slip. "Well. You just managed to convince me. Mind if I keep this?"
I shrugged again, just wanting to get back to bed. "I want some sort of documentation that you took it to flash around when other cops come sniffing around."
He raised an eyebrow in perfect Spock fashion that he must have practiced for hours in front of the mirror. "Of course. Iíd almost think youíd done this before."
I snorted and came this close to sneering. "Only in New York, San Fran, Vegas, Dallas, Atlantic City, and a heck of a lot more cities than I can name offhand. Iím guessing thatís also the reason I am - excuse me, was - the prime suspect."
Detective Danvers handed over a receipt with a noncommittal smile. I was too tired to get more than a flash of humor; a receipt for a receipt, where would the cycle end? "Sorry to have bothered you, Miss Burns. Weíll leave you alone from here on unless you end up being the only suspect left."
I flashed him a bitter smile as he stood. "Thanks so much for your support. How can I contact you?"
He stopped and turned to give me a funny look. "Through the police board, but I donít see any need for you to contact me."
"Then how can I find anything out about the murder?"
"This is a private investigation, Miss Burns. Itís done by the police. Youíll find out by reading the newspapers, like everyone else."
"Hold it," I ordered, suddenly wide awake. "Listen, buddy, donít take this as a threat, but a warning. Let me in on whatís happening. Otherwise thereís gonna be trouble."
The detective glared down at my hand, which had appeared on his arm, holding him in place. "Miss Burns," he hissed in a steel voice, "remove your hand right now or else Iím taking you in for interfering in a criminal investigation and assaulting an officer."
Reluctantly, I let go. "Iím involved in this now, Detective. This has happened before, and now that I stepped in it, Iím in up to my neck, whether you like it or not. Whatever happens, and something will, expect to see me again."
He gave me a wry, sure-you-crazy-lady-whatever-you-say smile. "I look forward to it. But if I were you, I wouldnít hold my breath." He let himself out.
The Ďsomethingí happened five days later.
"All right, one more time, miss."
I sighed. This had to be the eighth repetition.
I was board and Jack was being more of a pain than usual. "I couldnít sleep, so I decided to take a walk." I hoped it would get Jack off my back. "I hoped I could work off enough energy to get some sleep. After about twenty minutes of -" listening to Jack complain about everything except whatís really bothering him "- watching the nightlife, I had wandered down to the park. I can handle myself pretty well in a fight, so I wasnít that worried. After roughly fifteen minutes of -" waiting for Jack to come back from his snit fit after I got fed up and insulted him "- walking, I -" saw him running towards me, shouting that someone was behind me. "- heard someone behind me. Since -" Jack said something about a gun "- anyone sneaking up on you in a park after midnight probably has bad intentions, I -" pivoted around, weight on left leg, right leg coming up and around, rubber sole connecting with something that could be flesh or cloth "- fought back. ĎWhy?í Because I didnít take two and a half years of judo lessons for nothing. The attacker got off one shot -" a lightning flash from the gun muzzle, followed by the eerie sound of ripping cloth and skin as the bullet sped through the jacket and brushing flesh, then burning pain "- giving me this flesh wound. Somebody mustíve called 9-1-1 Ďcause next thing I knew -" was Jack hovering close, trying his best to slap me back from the adrenaline low and shock, telling me time and again itís barely a scratch, nothing nearly serious enough to bring us face to face for good "- I was being shoved into an ambulance. You know the rest from there."
The police captain flipped though his copy of my statement, looking for something, anything, that was different. "Well, Miss Burns, you are a very lucky person. Thereís a killer out there, and seems to being going after card players, God knows why. Youíre the fifth person to be attacked this month." His head lifted from the folder and he gave me a serious look. "You are the first to survive."
I nodded, completely unsurprised, and incapable of being anything but. The adrenaline rush earlier had left me drained. I shuffled the pack of cards an officer had thoughtfully let me have. "Which means?"
"Weíre putting you in protective custody."
"What?!" Whoa, that was a buzz. I stared at the cop in shock. "Come again?"
"Calm down, weíre this close to catching the perp. We just need to make sure the killer doesnít come after you. So weíll have someone watching you."
"Yay." I stared at the door, the cards lying on the table forgotten. Iím perfectly happy with Jack as my partner; heís unnoticeable and useful. But the instant I dragged a cop into the casino, I wouldnít be able to get near a table.
"Miss Burns, meet your shadow for the next few days; Detective Troy Danvers."
I couldnít help but to smirk as the Detective slunk in, face holding a look that could kill. "Detective," I said with a wider, satisfied smirk and a nod.
He growled softly but nodded back.
The captain coughed. "Well, I can see you two are hitting it off. Detective, you know your job. I expect to see your report on my desk in a few days."
The captain left us alone. After a few moments of very uncomfortable silence, the Detective gestured towards the door. "Címon, I got a car. Unless you want to walk."
We silently made our way through the police station, brushing past police, the occasional hysterical yuppies, and handcuffed teenagers. At the parking lot we crawled into a tiny rust bucket. Somehow the Detective got it started with the minimum of difficulty.
After ten minutes, the quiet got unbearable. "I thought you were investigating the murders, not baby-sitting card sharps." I couldnít resist twisting the knife a little. He wasnít the only one annoyed with the situation. And I had warned him.
"Itís none of your concern," he snarled through gritted teeth. "Now shut up and enjoy the ride."
Three weeks, and two murders, later, I stormed out of the B&B and down to the tiny cove that was underwater most of the time. I let out a short, relatively quiet scream. Jack materialized next to me, looking around wildly.
"What? Whatís wrong? What happened?"
"That man is insufferable!" I screeched, desperately wanting to pound something. "He has the brains of dryer lint, the deductive reasoning of a squirrel, and the personality of rotten meat!"
Jack blinked and leaned back in the face of my tirade. "Er..."
"I mean, he is obsessed with having things exactly the right way, and apparently never heard of letting things go for a few days. It has to be done right now, exactly the way he says, and done by me!" Somehow I managed to calm myself down a bit.
"Mebbe you should try goiní easy on him. He hasnít been home in nearly a month, and, well, you two arenít exactly instantly compatible."
"Thanks for the help," I snarled at Jack. He shrugged, seemingly oblivious to the sarcasm. "And by the way, what is it with you? Last few days youíve been around as much as Fat Albert at an Anorexicís convention."
The ghost stared at me. "What?"
"Never mind, just answer the question. Whatís with you?"
Jack wavered like a TV set with bad reception before fading into invisibility. "Take the lawman with ya tonight. See how he does at cards." And then he was gone.
I growled softly and shuffled a deck of cards. Itís been three years since I got stuck with Jack, and sometimes heís still impossible.
Men. Canít live with them, canít live without them, and you canít escape when they die.
Despite my doubts, I took Jackís advice and brought the Detective with me. Sometime between my outburst and returning to the room, he also had a.... readjustment of view. We both tried our best to be civil and he jumped on the chance to go somewhere. On the ride to the casino, I played with the thought that maybe he had a ghost giving him a pep talk too. I shook it away quickly enough, I mean, life is weird, but itís not a movie.
Parking was miraculously easy and close to the entrance, and crowds were thin but more than good enough for a choice of games. I decided to take it as an omen. A good one, that is. I found George sitting alone at a table with a game of solitaire and a glass of liquor to keep him company and walked over, practically dragging Troy behind me.
"Hey, up to that two-player game tonight?"
"Hey, Maria, right?"
"Sure. But doesnít your friend want to play?"
The detective chuckled. "No, not really. I can hardly play."
We shrugged and set up a game. Halfway through Jack showed up, leaning over Georgeís shoulder to look at his cards. "Oh, ouch, fold buddy. There ainít no way ya can win with that. An ferget bluffing."
I blinked. Jack never helped me unless the other guy cheated, and, as second only to Jack himself, I hadnít seen any form of cheating so far. I could have missed something, but chances of that were slim.
Out of morbid curiosity, I folded, and, true to Jackís word, George really did have a terrible hand. As I shuffled the cards, Troy leaned close.
"Hey, mind if I join in now?"
"Why not?" George answered, mostly rhetorical. I shrugged, amazed. Weíd played a few hands in the first few days we were stuck together, and he had about as much skill as the average six year old. But as the game continued, I ignored Jackís commentary, but Troy had amazing success. Eventually I sat out, watching in blatant shock as the two men played. Jack was still babbling to himself, and Troy was playing as if he heard the ghost. Every time Jack lied about something, Troy lost. As the game progressed, I became even more positive that somehow, incredibly, impossibly, the Detective could actually see Jack!
And the ghost was playing referee; as much as Troy lost, he won. The next time he won, which actually left him with the same amount he came in with, I interrupted. "Excuse me, George, but we have to go."
With a small smile and wave, we left. I stormed out the casino into the parking lot, silently fuming. When we reached the car, I whirled around and glared at Jack, who was calmly walking along behind the Detective.
"What were you doing?!" I snarled.
"Playiní poker," Jack said, calm as you please. Troy wasnít nearly as composed.
"Um... well, ya know, I thought I might give it a whack. No sense in just sitting there watching you."
"Playing poker," I repeated.
"Yup. Thatís what itís usually called. Not like the tenderfoot here would know the difference."
"Well, yeah. What else do you expect me to do? Itís not like I could just leave you alone, I mean itís my - "
"You," I hissed at the detective, "be quiet. Jack, I thought you said I was the only one."
The detective blinked and leaned back a little. I could see him mouth "the only one what?" but I ignored it. I was more concerned with Black Jack. See, in the last three years, heís always said I was the only person who could see or hear him. I guess I was a little bit jealous, that this stranger came along and either scared Jack off or could actually hear him. Sure this little ability got me in trouble before, even almost in the loony bin a time or two, but....
I guess I didnít want to share Jack. Yeah, I know itís stupid, but when have human emotions ever been rational?
Black Jack just shrugged. "Looks like I was wrong."
"It looks like you were wrong? Argh, Jack, if you werenít already dead, I swear Iíd - "
"You can see him?!?!" Ah, the proverbial light had dawned on Troy.
"No shit, Sherlock!" I growled. "Iíve only been stuck with him for three years!"
He blinked and stepped back, looking as if someone had hit him upside the head with a baseball bat.
"Jack, I mean, how?"
The ghost shrugged. "Dunno. Ask him."
I hate it when he gets reasonable. I turned back to the ashen man and gave him the Spock expression he did so often.
"I... Iíve always been able to see ghosts." He pulled out his badge. "See? The Ďpsyí? Thatís for psychic. Iím the resident mind magician."
Suddenly, a lot of things made a whole lot of sense. Such as why Jack hadnít been around lately.
"Oh," was about all I could say.
"Now that thatís all set," Jack interrupted calmly, "When are you two gonna get around to catchiní that murderer?"
It was the Detectiveís turn to glare at Jack. "We would, but Iíve been taken off the case, Mariaís supposed to be protected from the person, and we still donít know who did it."
"Sure we do. Itís George."
Troy stared at the ghost, nonplussed, while I groaned and faked slamming my head against the car. Unfortunately, I misjudged the distance and ended up actually hitting it, which set off the car alarm.
After a minor misunderstanding with security, we sat in the car, Jack in the back and both of us giving him the evil eye.
Troy started the interrogation. "How do you know George, of all people, killed Kevin. I mean, the man is - was - his cousin!"
"Exactly. Aní Georgeís so deep in debt from bad card playiní that he needed money quick."
My turn. "Come on, Jack, thatís so cliched. It doesnít happen like that in real life."
"Whoíre the prime suspects?" the ghost challenged.
"Well, Maria, of course, and George, but both of them were dropped. Then thereís the cashier Dotty. Apparently Kevin Hike made one too many passes at her in public and she threatened him. And Iris, a - "
"We know," I interrupted. "But why her?"
"Refused to pay for Ďservices renderedí and threatened to expose her activities to her bosses."
"Ouch. But címon, the poker playing cousin deep in debt? It sounds like a cheap novel idea. Next thing I expect to see is Nancy Drew hanging around." The entire thing just rubbed me the wrong way. But real life isnít a novel; thereís no simple, straightforward answer.
"Trust me Jack, you donít want to know. But we still have no evidence."
"Sure ya do! I saw him attack Maria!"
I groaned again. Trust him to keep that to himself. "You knew for that long?" the detective roared. Jack winced.
"Figures. You already made the statement that you didnít see anything, so thatís out."
I grinned at Troy and cracked my knuckles. "Well, we know who, we know the probable why, and Iíve gone on less before. Just leave things to us. You may be the psychic cop, but weíre the professionals when it comes to bluffing."
I strolled past the now somewhat quiet slot machines. While no good casino actually closes, there just arenít that many people hanging around at 2:30 in the morning. I tried to wander casually to the poker tables, but I donít do subtle very well. I thought it was obvious that I was looking for something.
"Maria? What on Earth are you doing here? Itís way past ten." Of course, sometimes fate likes me.
"George? Um, hi. Iím... just... nothing really."
"Uh huh." He crossed his arms and gave me a look that was probably meant to be brotherly disbelief, but I think he shouldíve stuck with his poker face.
I sighed and examined my feet, hoping I looked properly ashamed. "My date ditched me. ĎCourse, it was after I took on the wrong slot."
"You should stay away from the machines, girl. Stick with the skill games. Chance sucks."
"Tell me about it."
"Hey, I got an idea!" I curbed the impulse to congratulate him. "Look, why donít I give you a ride home? Iím not making a pass, but, you know, a ride between friends."
I pretended to think it over, then nodded. "Okay! But I donít want to take you out of your way or impose or anything."
"Fah!" He waved away the thought. That or at a fly. "I still owe you for that cab fare the other night. Come on."
I followed him obediently to the rear parking lot, which just coincidentally happens to be the emptiest. We got near a black Chevy, the only car there, when George snapped his fingers. "Damn, I forgot my keys. I feel so stupid. Um, you mind waiting here while I get them?" When I shook my head, he grinned. I donít think he knew how fake he sounded. "Iíll be right back. Just donít get to close to the car; the alarmís on!"
Right. Iím so sure.
Jack flared into existence next to me. "Iíll keep an eye out fer him. Donít worry, Maria. Ya got me and the lawman ta watch yer back."
I grinned my thanks and managed not to pace or pull out some cards. I donít like not being busy, but we figured I should keep my hands free in case George was as desperate as we thought he was. The wait was only five minutes, but it really did feel like an eternity.
"Here he comes, gal," Jack finally said. "Sorry, but yer on yer own. I gotta go get the lawman."
I gave him the smallest possible nod and he disappeared. When I finally heard George step from the sidewalk onto a patch of pebbles that covered the blacktop of the parking lot, I took a deep breath and turned. "George?" I asked, then swore under my breath. The man was holding a gun in my direction like we were in a shooting range and I was the target.
There are times in life when you get an adrenaline surge like no other, one that slows time to an almost funny sluggish speed. You move like greased lightning, as quickly as your thoughts and smoother than a trained athlete. Personally, I have nothing against this condition; it gives you a high like you wouldnít believe. But Iíve had this happen a few times too many lately for my personal preference, and besides, the circumstances that lead to this condition are usually unpleasant.
Such as having a gun pointed at you.
I crouched and twirled into a low spin kick, hoping to catch George in the lower legs and sending him to the ground, or at least avoid getting shot. The gun went off, missing me by a few inches before I hit him. The firing gun distracted me; instead of a clean hit, I managed to barely catch his left leg, sending him staggering aside.
"Freeze!" Troy snarled. About time he arrived.
George didnít seem in the mood to cooperate; instead he turned his stumble into a rough spin, coming around to point the gun at Troy. I swore and leaped up from my crouch, lunging towards him. Troy may be an annoying neat freak, but heís a friend. I pounded forward, praying I would make it in time. Things were still moving slowly, but in a way that was more like emphasis on futility than aid. I slammed into George, body-checking him several feet away.
Time snapped back to normal. Too late. The gun was already fired, and Troy was screaming in pain. No machismo posturing, just the sound of pure agony. With a low snarl, I darted over to George, grabbing his arm and pulling it behind his back to the point of extreme pain. I wanted to scream, curse, but I was for the first time in my life truly incoherent with rage. I never thought that was possible. "You son of a.... Why?! You killed six people, including your own cousin, tried to kill me, and God knows what condition the cop is in! Why?"
"I want my lawyer."
I twisted his arm, hearing bone creak in the socket. "Donít play with me, buddy. Iím not a cop. And at the moment, Iím really in favor of going vigilante. Donít push me. Why?"
He whimpered at the pain. "All right, all right, Iíll talk." I eased the pressure a bit. "Damm, youíre psycho, you know that?"
"Yes. But thatís not the answer."
He sighed, like I was keeping him from an appointment at the hairdresserís. "Kev was the one to inherit the family money. Not me, no, but Kevin. And the way he plays cards, he wouldíve lost it all in a week. Thatís how I ended up like this. Shouldnít lend money to family. And with him gone, I get it all."
My opinion of him just kept going down. "The others?"
He tried to shrug, a rather painful attempt. "Figured that if I made it look like a serial killer, some sort of copycat would take it up. Or some good Christian crusader against gambling. The cop got in the way."
I have never come as close to literally killing someone as I did right then. He had absolutely no conscience concerning the people he killed. They were just means to the ends of getting money. I gripped his skull in my left hand. All it took was a small twist and the world would be a better place.
"Gal." Jackís rough bass was almost tender. I looked up to see him standing over Troy, glowing with his own peculiar light. "The lawman needs ya."
Strange to think that the ghost, the paranormal being, brought me back to reality. I began to shake slightly when I realized what I had planned to do. Killing in self defense is one thing, but to do it in cold blood to someone who is technically helpless....
Instead of twisting, breaking his neck, I pushed, sending his face to kiss the pavement and hearing his nose give way in a rather satisfying crunch. "Bastard," I muttered.
I stood and hurried over to Troy to the sound of Georgeís moans of pain. "Troy? How you holding up?"
He moaned but managed to sit up somewhat. "You know, I think thatís the first time you havenít called me Detective. And Iíve definitely had better nights." I managed a small, pathetic chuckle and held out my hand. He gripped my wrist, his hand reassuringly warm. Heíd live through this.
His fingers tightened painfully on my wrist and he suddenly tumbled back and to the left. I staggered and went into a partial crouch, afraid his wound had gotten the better of him and unwilling - and unable - to let go of his wrist.
Thank God Iím short. The bullet that should have taken me in the heart hit my shoulder instead, slamming into my shoulder and going right on through. The last thing I remember was an answering roar of another gun going off near my ear.
All three of us got stuck in the hospital. Troy left early the next morning with his arm in a sling and five stitches. I was kept a week for observation and general healing. George died three hours after he was admitted. No one but the coroner seemed to find it strange that the bullet that killed George was from a Colt revolver and was never found, even though there was no exit wound. Troy carries a Beretta.
During my stay, I had a lot of time to think. I had been shockingly close to death, both mine and causing that of others. Itís not a pleasant experience to look inside and find a possible killer. And after three years of leaving behind a trail of corpses, even if I hadnít killed the people, I was more than sick of death.
"Detective! Hey, Troy!"
He turned around, a smile blooming over his features. "Maria! Youíre all right!"
I grinned and gave him half a shrug, wincing at the tug on my shoulder. It was only a few hours since I finally managed to escape the hospital. "Iím hard to get rid of."
"So whatís up?"
"Well..." I sternly ordered myself mentally to get a grip. This was just another good-bye to a friend. Thatís all. "Iím headed for the airport and then the East Coast. I heard that the local Indian tribes set up two casinos in Connecticut."
Troyís smile froze in a parody of good humor. "You arenít sticking around?"
Dammit, itís only surprise. Nothing else. "Well, the house odds catch up eventually. Gotta keep moving to keep ahead of Ďem."
"Ah," he said in a tiny voice. "Well. Thatís too bad. Iím gonna miss having you and Jack around to keep me on my toes."
I didnít think this would be that hard! Blast it all, itís been over three years! Even Jack admitted thatís the longest heís ever stuck with someone! This is perfectly logical. Ooo, way to go, Spock.
But if this makes so much sense, then why is it so hard? "Sorry about that. But, um, here." I tried to swallow down part of my lunch which apparently hadnít gone down well and held out something small and round. Troy took it and held it up to the sun, marveling at how the sun sparkled off it.
"What the... A poker chip? This... this is pure gold! Maria, I canít take this."
"Yes you can." Please, donít make this any harder than it already is! "Itís a goodbye present. Call it a remembrance."
"But - "
He hesitated a moment longer, then swept me up in an impulsive hug. "Thank you," he whispered.
"Hey, what are friends for?" Friends. Right.... I gently disentangled myself, being extra careful of our matching bullet holes, and started off towards the taxi rumbling to itself. "Sorry, but the meterís running and I have a plane to catch. Next time Iím in the area Iíll stop by!" I waved and turned away, coughing to cover a sniffle and surreptitiously wiped my eyes. Damn smog. That and the lump in my throat had gotten too big.
"Flight 657 for Las Vegas is now preparing for departure. All passengers for flight 657 for Las Vegas come to gate 4. Will all passengers for..."
I tuned out the noise out of habit. I had my flight and it was time to leave. Ten minutes more and I would be on my way, leaving all this behind.
A voice shouting my name disrupted the fragile peace I had managed to set up. "Gal!"
"Gal! Maria! Hang on one damn minute!"
"No," I groaned, tilting my head back in a silent appeal to the heavens. Then I set out for the bathrooms at a brisk pace, ignoring the ghostís pleas. I managed to find one of the unisex, handicapped accessible bathrooms empty and darted in, pausing only long enough to lock it behind me. I crossed my arms and waited.
"Gal, what in Godís good name were you thinkiní?!" Jack nearly shrieked as he stepped through the door.
"What, you expect to have this conversation in public? Iíve come too close to the loony bin before for that!"
"Ya know thatís not what I mean! I canít appear near ya, that means ya donít have the chip. Didja actually lose it?" He was angry, nearly frothing at the mouth in rage. Anger I could handle, easily. At least, normally I could. This was one of the hardest things Iíve ever done.
"No. I gave it to Troy."
Somehow all the color faded from his face and he wavered like in a bad storm. "What? Why?" he whispered.
Anger I could handle. This, the almost humorous hurt and shocked expression, I couldnít. I broke down.
"Jack, Iím sorry. He needs you more than I do, I mean, he barely knows how to play cards! He doesnít even know the difference between a straight and a flush! ĎSides, heís a detective, and he can handle the weirdness you attract a heck of a lot better then I can!"
"But yaíve had the chip fer over three years!"
"And itís time to pass it on to someone else."
"No! Yer the one chosen to carry it!"
I took a deep, shaky breath and leaned against the cool wall tiles. I stared up at the ceiling, then closed my eyes, unwilling - or unable - to look at him. "And you should know I never could accept that fate crap."
He chuckled softly, a sound eerily like a sob. "Ya always did dig in yer heels and fight tooth aní nail when ya heard it."
The muffled sound of "Flight 657 for Las Vegas will be leaving in three minutes. All passengers must be on board in three minutes" interrupted the silence.
"I have a flight to catch."
"...All right. But... Iím gonna miss ya. Soíll the lawman."
"I know." I wiped away more developing evidence of crying and mimed hugging the spirit of the man known as Jack Clubs, Black Jack. "Take care of each other, will you?"
"Sure. Ya know we will. We hafta."
With that I scurried out of the bathroom and to the gate, arriving moments before it closed. Somehow I had managed to snag a window seat and as the plane took off, I stared out at the airport.
I was probably the only one to see the ghost of the card sharp disappear like so much mist, or dreams, at dawn.
Let me out of here!!!! A.K.A. Home
I want to read more! To get back to the fic archive
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