Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
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Lilies for a Queen

by Julian D. Woodruff

Not much here, kid, thought Jimmy. When am I gonna get these jerks to drop their “no jokers” purity? Okay… so, two jacks. “Three.”

He warded off the ridicule from across the table as he reached for the cards. Sure, pot o’ gold… waitin’ for me. Gentleman’s trash talk, he labeled it. Whatever, I won’t lose much. Then again, not much left to lose. Take it this time, or make it.

Jimmy suppressed a smile as he looked at his draw.

“Two for me,” he chimed in, careful not to follow Cesar’s “two” too closely. Cesar’s squirmy this hand. He’s got a winner, he thinks, or he knows he’s got a loser. He ditched two, and watched the replacements slide toward him, thinking, Three jacks. That’s got a chance, at least. It was, in fact, his best chance in weeks. And after weeks, even a low bettor can feel a definite pinch.

“That’s it for me,” said Abe, folding. He swirled and downed the last of his Scotch and soda.

The easy resignation in Abe’s voice and manner irritated Jimmy. Bastard can afford to be philosophical. He reached for his cards. Better loser than anyone had a right to be. Even before Jimmy started his losing streak, Abe was in better shape than Jimmy had ever been in. Still, it was small comfort to see him fold.

Jimmy added his draw cards to the three in his hand without looking at them. Mix it up, keep ‘em guessing. He watched Cesar slowly fan his five. “Raise you fifty,” Cesar deadpanned through his cigar.

Now it’s between those guys, Jimmy mused. Hal, with his Jack Daniels, his wire rims, and his damn hunter’s plaid, versus Cesar, with his stogie and the essential g & t. He finally considered his hand. His imagination drifted off to a hastily established realm of oddsmakers. Three jacks… hell, even three eights or nines… that’d be somethin’. But this!

Frozen since fanning his cards, Jimmy failed to notice that his partners had been eying him quizzically for some time. He now came slowly to life. If I’ve got… what the hell are those two holding? His eyes all but drilled through the backs of their cards. Come to that, he asked himself, what did Abe have? Are all three of them that good, that they didn’t react, to… The draw pile! Instantly, Jimmy’s eyes slanted down to the table and measured the stack. I swear, it looks just the way it should, but…

He heard Cesar saying something. “Well, what’ll it be, Jimmy Jiffy? You may have all night, but—”

“Hold on a sec, Cesar,” Jimmy answered slowly; then, distantly, “see you.” Distractedly, he slid his cash pile toward the pot, never taking his eyes from his cards. Three or four bills slipped under the sweep of his hand. He was unaware of Cesar, who moved the stray bills into the pile with the others. Jimmy took a quick slug of his drink and loosened his collar. No point bein’ subtle now. What’s anybody gonna do?

“Straight diamonds.” Cesar’s smiling announcement and display of the five through nine, then Hal’s reaction of disgust — were all but lost on Jimmy, who said nothing. He had entered a tableau in which all was a distant blur, except for his cards. He was laying them down quietly but emphatically. Five jacks: hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs, fleurs–de–lis. The last, a two–eyed image, was staring up at him from the table with slightly crossed eyes and the hint of a grin…

* * *

It was Abe who jumped up from the table first. Mindless of the cool dampness from Jimmy’s drink through his shirtsleeve, he worked his arm underneath the stricken man’s chest and, with the other gripping the back of his jacket, pulled him up from the table. “Oh, God! Oh, God!”

Cesar turned away, breathed deeply several times, then, needing a distraction, found a roll of paper towels and started mopping up Jimmy’s spilled gin and tonic. Hal helped, collecting the drink–soaked cards and bills.

By this time Abe was on the phone to 911. “Uh, better see if there’s any contact information on him, I guess,” offered Cesar. “Jeez!”

Hal got to Jimmy’s cards last. “Sheesh—what a hand! Poor sap. Probably too much excitement for his heart. Four jacks, plus the queen of hearts! Almost, Jimmy boy, almost.”

2021 Julian D. Woodruff

A resident of western New York state, Julian D. Woodruff writes fiction and poetry for both adults and children. His speculative fiction includes “The Odd Dental Patient” (in Frostfire Worlds, 2019) and “The Line at the Bus Station” (Reedsy website, Aug. 20, 2019).

Find more by Julian D. Woodruff in the Author Index.

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