“So, how’d you meet that lovely wife of yours?” asked Henrietta Trotbinder.
Jack Barnes regarded the party’s hostess laconically, glanced around, then said in a low, conspiratorial voice, “Won her in a poker game.”
Henrietta blinked in surprise, then laughed. “Cute. But really.”
“Oh, really, I won her in a card game. Don’t believe me? Ask her yourself.” He pointed out Abby with his nose.
Abby Barnes was parked by herself against a wall sipping on a soft drink, observing the New Year’s Eve party in march with an amused smile. Henrietta, the wife of Jerry Trotbinder, Jack’s boss, was in charge of keeping things lively. She’d met Jack and Abby a number of times at social gatherings, but she knew relatively little about either of them. She had made the requisite rounds insuring that the guests were having a good time, getting enough to eat and drink, and sharing in the small talk. Jack’s reply to her question had caught her off guard, but she gamely took it as a jest and ambled over to his wife to share the joke with her . . . and perhaps get a straight answer from the woman.
She smiled at Abby, sighing. “I didn’t realize that your husband was a jokester.”
Abby raised her eyebrows, and glanced in Jack’s direction. He gave her a wink. “A jokester? How so?”
“I just asked how he met you, and he said he’d won you in a card game.” She laughed then.
Abby shook her head, smiling. “Sounds like something that rascal might say.”
“So what’s the true story?”
“Oh, that is the true story.”
Henrietta’s eyes bulged. “W-what?”
“He won me in a poker game. Nothing fancy. Five-Card Draw.”
“But this is horrible!”
“Normally, I’d agree with you one hundred percent, Henrietta, but it probably saved my life.”
“How is that possible?”
“I’ll tell you, Henrietta, but could we find a more quiet spot so we don’t have to compete with the party’s volume?
Henrietta was not about to demur. “Certainly! This way.”
She led Abby into the library and motioned her to a cushiony wing chair and sat down in another opposite her. Abby smiled at her hostess’s perturbed expression.
“Is this really true, Abby?” she said.
“It is. Jack doesn’t usually share this openly. He’s almost always more circumspect when asked, and merely says that we met at a party in Las Vegas. Which is not a lie, but just lacks the juicy details. But he must trust your discretion that he would tell you.”
“Of course I can be discrete, but that doesn’t lessen the shock. In any case, please believe me that I wasn’t trying to pry. It was just one of those inane questions asked at almost any party.”
“Oh, don’t worry a bit.”
“But what is the story between you and Jack? It sounds as though you were traded off as chattel.”
“Oh, but I was,” Abby replied mildly. “Fortunately for me, however, in that particular card game Jack’s turned out to be the winning hand.”
Henrietta gasped. “But that sounds awful!”
“It is awful. But I’m only here tonight because of it.”
“What do you mean?” Henrietta could not hide her incredulity.
Abby regarded her hostess a moment. “Henrietta, we haven’t really known each other that long, but I have a feeling that we are going to become good friends — as long as you don’t broadcast this out to all and sundry. Only my intimate friends know about this part of my past.”
“I am the silence of the lambs,” she stated solemnly.
Abby laughed at the incongruity of her oath, but reached over to squeeze the woman’s hands. “Fair enough.”
“But, honestly? Jack actually won you in a poker game?”
“He did. He even cheated to do it.”
“What! H-he cheated?”
“Mm. Let me explain, and then you be the judge if he was right or not.”
“All right, but it just seems so . . . so feudal.”
“Before Jack came along, I was already married to another man. Frank was his name. I won’t call Frank a monster exactly, because I’m pretty sure he had some deep-seated psychological problems, but in any case he was an abusive, sick bastard to me. Not in the beginning. I would never have married him otherwise. Over the first few years of our marriage things went more or less smoothly. But sometime along the way, something went wrong with him. It was gradual. I can’t say with any certainty what exactly triggered it, but he changed. And life, by degrees, became increasingly uncomfortable, then harsh, and finally cruel. Frank began to drink heavily, and around the same time he became addicted to gambling.”
“Eventually I could see where all this was leading, but I felt helpless to change its course. And to be truthful, I was too weak to bail out. I had nowhere to bail to that I could see. I had no backup plan. Not to get too Oliver Twist — or is it David Copperfield? — but I was orphaned as a child, and afterwards raised by grandparents. Alas, they did not reach a ripe old age. They lived just long enough to see me married and then were killed in an auto accident returning home from my wedding.”
“Good God! That’s terrible!”
“That it was. All I had left of family was my new husband. And little by little our marriage soured as he sank into alcoholism and gambling.”
Henrietta looked appalled.
“One day, Frank dragged me off yet again to Las Vegas, and after losing a substantial sum of money at the casino tables, he got into a private game he’d learned of through an acquaintance. Why? I have no idea. I tried to dissuade him, but by then he’d turned brutish, and his answer to my pleas was a black eye. I wanted to return to our hotel, but he said I could walk back if I wanted, a distance of about three miles, but he wasn’t going to drive me there, and he wasn’t going to pay for a taxi to take me. He said I could either wait in our car, or come inside where it was warm — my choice. It happened to be winter then, and it was freezing outside. I opted for inside. That was when I first laid eyes on Jack. He was one of the card players in the group.
“The game was already underway when we arrived. My right cheek and brow were beginning to swell by then, and some of the players and onlookers took notice, but said nothing. Frank was offered an empty seat, and the game continued. At first he won a few rounds, but as time wore on his luck changed. I encouraged him to stop, but he refused and became verbally abusive, threatening that he would attend to me later. By then the other players had folded, leaving only Frank and Jack playing against one another. I was behind Frank and could see his cards. He had a pretty fare hand, and chances of winning a sizable pot were good. However, Jack had upped the bid, and Frank had no more money to match the raise. He offered our car as collateral, producing believe it or not the ownership papers, registration, and keys to the vehicle. It still wasn’t enough to equal the raise. By then I was in a panic and begged him to stop. He lashed out at me viciously in front of all these strangers. I closed my eyes. Then he said the fateful words . . . ‘My wife. I call you with my wife.’
“The players and guests were aghast. I couldn’t even process what he’d just said. I opened my eyes and blinked. What had he just said?
“Then Jack said, ‘You would wager your wife for a card game?’
“My husband, who by now had completely lost it, replied, ‘If I win, the pot’s mine. If I lose, it’s yours, along with the car . . . and her, lock, stock and barrel. Yeah.’
“There was dead silence in the room. Jack said nothing for a moment. He looked at Frank, then at the others, and then he slowly swung his eyes to me. I must have looked a sight by then.
“‘What do you say, ma’am?’ he said softly.
“I looked back at him and, I don’t know, but there was something in his eyes, deep down, that spoke to me. I can’t even describe it. But somehow, don’t ask me why I did, but I felt absolute trust in this total stranger, that he was about to be my salvation. I knew inside that if I stuck with Frank, I might not return home alive. And so, almost imperceptibly, I nodded at Jack.
“He nodded back, then turned to my husband.
“‘You are a no-good, rotten bastard, mister, and it will be my great pleasure to beat the shit out of you once we’ve concluded this little game. With your wife’s acceptance, I agree to your disgraceful wager. Let’s see your cards.’
“Frank laid down a full house, two aces and three jacks. He looked up at Jack. What Frank and the others did not notice, however, was that Jack had in a split second manipulated his own cards to win. He then laid down, one-by-one, a two of spades, a three of spades, a three of hearts, and a three of diamonds — four of a kind.”
“I-I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means,” said Henrietta, confused.
“Four of a kind beats a full house. Frank had lost; Jack had won the pot.”
“And me — in a manner of speaking.”
“But this is bestial! What happened then?”
“Jack took my husband outside and beat the shit out of Frank — pardon my language — just like he promised, and told Frank that if he ever came near me again he would do more than just beat that out of him.”
Henrietta gaped at Abby, mute. Finally, she regained her breath, “Then what?”
Abby continued. “After Frank limped away into the night, Jack came back inside. And to everybody’s astonishment — mine included — he gallantly apologized to me over the wager he’d agreed to, presented me with the car papers and the car keys, and he returned to me all the cash that Frank had wagered and lost — several thousand dollars. Then Jack recommended that I drive back immediately to the hotel — in fact, he offered to drive me over himself, just to make sure I would be safe from Frank — check out with all my belongings, and find another place out of harm’s way. He was worried that if Frank ever found me, he might do me serious bodily injury, or perhaps far worse. Jack didn’t know whether or not I wished to press charges against Frank for my black eye, other than to assure me that Frank had been paid back in kind outside . . . with interest. I decided to follow Jack’s advice. He helped me get away from Frank. He saved me, I’m sure of it.”
“My God! My God!” whispered Henrietta Trotbinder. “But what a sweet, dear man, your Jack! What happened afterwards?”
“Afterwards?” Abby thought, then smiled. “Oh . . . well, if you were to ask Jack, he’d probably tell you that he retained me in lieu of his sacrificed pot winnings. But if you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I decided to keep him as my wild card.”
And she gave Henrietta a wink.