The Queen of Spades A limousine pulled up in front of a Los Angeles skyscraper. It was nearly midnight, and the driver carried a single passenger, a well-dressed man in his mid-thirties. Although the drive from the hotel hadn’t taken long, the driver was relieved to have reached their destination. The passenger made the driver feel inexplicably nervous. The entire ride, the man had sat quietly in the backseat with a briefcase perched on his lap, staring directly ahead with steely, unblinking eyes on an expressionless face. It was evident the man was lost in thought, but the nature of those thoughts was inscrutable. The driver was an affable sort. He had tried to make conversation, but each time he spoke to the passenger, he felt as if his every word and inflection was being recorded, analyzed, and processed for purposes the driver did not understand. “We’ve arrived at the Aon Center, Sir.” The driver announced their destination in as casual a tone as he could muster given his discomfort. At the sound of the driver’s voice, the passenger briefly cast his unsettling, blue eyes on the driver before stirring into action. The man scanned the towering glass and steel structure, studying the skyscraper the way an ancient gladiator might have surveyed the Colosseum. At last, the man spoke. “There is a quarter chance I will be back in five minutes; a quarter chance I will be back in two hours; and a half chance I will not return at all. Wait two hours. If I am not back by then, you may leave.” The man finished in a quieter tone, as if he were speaking more to himself than to the driver. “I dislike fifty-fifty propositions.” The passenger handed the driver a gratuity. The driver attempted to thank the man, but the man moved so fluidly and with such ambition that he had already exited the limousine before the driver realized how generous the tip was. The AON Center was brightly illuminated with the kind of penetrating, after-hours lighting that makes tenants feel secure. The man strode across the lobby with the firm resolution of one who had just laid his cards upon the table in a game of chance. The analogy was particularly apt, for the man had spent the better part of his youth in casinos and other dens of vice and iniquity. From these excursions, he had acquired his expressionless face. A security guard rose awkwardly from behind the lobby desk. “The building is closed for a private event.” “Not for me, it isn’t.” The man replied, flashing a key card that read, “Beacon Capital Partners.” “My mistake. I wasn’t expecting anyone from Beacon Capital this late.” “The curse of being a landlord.” “The elevators are to your left,” the security guard said, gesturing helpfully in the indicated direction. “Let me know if you need anything, anything at all.” “You mentioned a private event?” “Yes, Sir, on the 59th Floor.” “Thank you.” The man headed toward the elevator bank, leaving the security guard to sink nervously back into his chair. At the elevators, the man swiped his key card and pressed the button for the 59th Floor. Twenty seconds later, the elevator doors opened to an elegantly decorated foyer. An attractive young woman in a sparkling dress stood at a receptionist’s podium. Behind her was the door to an antique bank vault, a shining sphere of burnished steel. Two large men in tuxedos were stationed as sentries on each side of the hatch. “Welcome to the Vault.” The receptionist greeted the man with a warm but uncertain smile. “Can I have your name please?” “I am afraid you will not find my name on tonight’s guest list. I am a party crasher.” The man spoke calmly and coolly, without a trace of feeling in his voice. “I’m sorry,” the receptionist replied, the sentries stiffening behind her. “Tonight’s event is not open to the general public.” As the receptionist spoke, one of the sentries stepped forward. His face was neither warm nor uncertain. The second sentry reached into his jacket and gripped what was almost assuredly the handle of a concealed carry. “I am here to visit an old friend.” The man no longer spoke to the receptionist or the sentries. He spoke directly to a video camera perched atop the vault. “After all, ‘everything that rises must converge.’” The man stared at the video camera, hoping the face behind the camera would remember the rest of the quote. “You’d better leave now.” One of the sentries insisted. Just then, the receptionist’s phone rang. At the same time, the sentry cocked his head and raised his hand to an earpiece in his right ear. The man stood motionless, his unblinking, blue eyes fixed upon the video camera. It was the receptionist who spoke next. “Welcome, Mr. Durand.” The woman’s smile had grown warm and certain. “I’m happy to say you’ve been added to the guest list for tonight’s event. If you will please come this way.” Durand followed the receptionist to the vault. One of the sentries patted him down while the other searched his briefcase. When the sentries finished, they entered a code into a keypad next to the vault. There was the sound of sliding metal bolts, and the vault’s heavy, steel door swung open. As Durand stepped inside, he could see that the large, mid-century bank vault had been repurposed into an elegant ballroom. A spread of decadent savories lined the vault’s eastern wall, and a well-stocked bar lined the western wall. In the center of the room was a circular table with six chairs and five stacks of poker chips. A small coterie of men and women milled around the table, swarmed by a legion of circulating wait staff. One of the staff was adding a seventh chair and a sixth stack of poker chips to the table. A petite woman with a thick, French accent accosted Durand. “Monsieur Durand,” the Frenchwoman said. “The buy-in for tonight is twenty-five million dollars, plus the house fee of five hundred thousand, for a total of twenty-five and a half million dollars.” Mr. Durand reached into his briefcase, removed a single sheet of thick, embroidered paper, and handed it to the Frenchwoman. “A bearer bond.” The Frenchwoman observed. “Everything appears to be in order. Thank you, Monsieur Durand, and good luck.” The Frenchwoman vanished into the bustle of activity. Durand waved off a cocktail and stepped into the fringes of the crowd surrounding the table. Just as he joined the group, an antique clock on the south wall of the vault struck midnight. The overhead lights flickered. At the last chime of midnight, the room went dark. When the lights returned, a woman in her early thirties stood beside the table. She had a slender torso rising upwards toward an angular face framed by long shocks of raven hair. At first glance, the woman looked vaguely out of place, as if she were a fairy queen transported from a forest glen into the center of a bustling metropolis. But the longer one stared at her, the more it felt like she belonged there beside the table. The sensation was not unlike that of spying a provocative painting that one grows to appreciate the longer one ponders it. The woman addressed the crowd. “My name is Lena Biro, and I am your host for this evening. Most of you know me as a seven-time World Poker Champion, but tonight, I will not be gambling. I will be providing you with the ultimate gambling experience.” Biro began to walk a slow circuit around the table. The crowd parted before her. “The rules for this evening are simple. Each of you will start with twenty-five million dollars in chips, and you will continue to play until you have either lost all your chips or won all the chips on the table. One of you will leave here tonight with one hundred and fifty million dollars. The rest of you will leave with nothing.” Biro paused for a moment in front of Durand, staring intently at his expressionless face before continuing around the table. “Each hand, one player will choose the game to be played. However, to ensure the integrity of the game, the cards will be dealt by my esteemed colleague, Monsieur Gerard.” Biro gestured by way of introduction to a grey-haired gentleman who stood beside her. “Monsieur Gerard is the former head of private gaming at the Casino de Monte Carlo.” The older gentleman nodded warmly at the crowd. “The house will closely monitor the game. Anyone caught cheating will forfeit his stake and be removed immediately from the premises. Any questions? No? Then let the game begin.” Durand sat down at the table with the other contestants and Monsieur Gerard. Durand surveyed his competition. To his left was a young man in his early twenties. He was dressed in a powder blue tuxedo and accompanied by two young women who were bursting out of tight party dresses. A playboy. He posed no threat in the game and might even be useful to Durand’s ultimate objective. Next to the playboy was a Middle Eastern man in his forties dressed in a Westmancott suit and accompanied by a hulking, Russian bodyguard. Although they’d never met, Durand recognized him as a member of the royal family of the Emirate of Dubai. If the prince were anything like his father, he was decidedly not a patient man. The third participant was a Chinese businessman, accompanied by his middle-aged wife. The businessman was dressed in a garish, Stuart Hughes suit studded with diamonds and wearing a Patek Philippe 1518, one of only four in the world. He was plainly a collector of rare items or, in this case, a rare experience. Next around the table was the head of a well-known tech company. He was a clever man in his early forties, but he would approach the game like a math problem, without any appreciation of the nuances of human psychology or the vagaries of chance. The last player was a small-time gambler from Las Vegas whom Durand knew by reputation. The gambler did not have twenty-five million dollars of his own to lose, so he must be backed by investors. He would be the most cautious. Unlike the others, he would have to explain every dollar he lost. The game was over nearly as soon as it began. Durand was as ruthless at cards as he was perceptive of people. On the first hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, he went all in after an escalating series of large bets. He won the hand with a full house, knocking the tech guru and the prince out of the game. In the process, Durand built a substantial lead over the other players, which he exploited over the next, few hands with sizable opening bets. Durand forced the other players to commit huge sums just to see if they might get a good hand. The others started to play scared. By the third hand, they folded at the outset, unwilling to risk everything they had left on cards they hadn’t seen. Only the playboy tried to match Durand, but he had little facility for cards and was quickly out of the game. Within twenty minutes, the other players had become desperate. They changed the game to Blackjack and Gin Rummy, but Durand proved equally adept at both. The Chinese businessman chose a game called Gan Deng Yan, but Durand stunned the table by correcting the businessman in perfect Cantonese as the businessman recited the rules. At first, the businessman resisted, but his wife interrupted and sided with Durand’s interpretation. Durand took the hand. Within forty minutes, the outcome was no longer subject to any doubt. Only the small-time gambler was left, and Durand used his overwhelming advantage in chips to force the small-time gambler to go all-in on every hand. At the stroke of one o’clock, Durand swept the last of the chips into his pile. The table broke into spontaneous applause. No one could begrudge Durand his victory. The best man had won, and the others felt as if they had been given an expensive master class in the art of gambling. Durand rose from the table. “Gentlemen, I thank you for the game. If I may, I have a proposition for you, or, more accurately, an invitation. I will return to each of you the twenty-five million dollars I have won. In exchange, you will be my guests at the highest stakes game of chance in history.” Durand opened his briefcase and removed a collection of documents. “This is an executed assignment of my entire investment portfolio as the stakes for a single game of chance. I enclose an appraisal and audited financial statements which establish the total value of my holdings at three billion dollars.” Durand displayed the documents to the crowd and then placed them in the pot at the center of the table. He turned toward Biro. “Lena Biro, I challenge you to a game of chance. If you win, you will gain my entire portfolio. If I win, your Vault will belong to me.” “Really, Jack.” Biro replied. “Must you be so melodramatic?” “That’s it,” cried the playboy suddenly, clapping his hands together. “It’s Jacques Durand, the only person to ever beat Lena Biro at the World Poker Championship.” Biro flashed the playboy a look of annoyance. “And I am the only person to ever beat Jacques Durand at the World Poker Championship.” “Two legends. I can’t believe our luck.” The playboy clapped his hands again. He beamed like a puppy, and his energy was contagious. He began chanting, “Game. Game. Game.” His busty entourage joined immediately, and after a few beats, the entire crowd was shouting in unison. Durand raised his hands, palms open. “The people have spoken.” Biro approached Durand and stared deeply into his impenetrable face. After what felt like an eternity, she broke her gaze and shifted her attention to the paperwork Durand had placed on the table. “So you were the one who bought the building.” Biro mused. “I wondered how you had gotten past the guard downstairs. He’s usually so reliable.” “I hope you will be lenient on him. Like all of us, the poor man answers to a higher power.” Biro returned the paperwork to the table. “I accept your challenge.” She said, taking the seat across from Durand. “You may prepare the game, Monsieur Gerard.” “Texas Hold ‘Em or Stud?” Gerard asked Durand. “Neither.” Durand replied. “Hearts.” “Excuse me?” Biro exclaimed sharply. “I choose the game of Hearts.” Durand repeated. Biro eyed Durand suspiciously. “Very well.” “Pierre shall be our third.” Durand motioned toward Gerard, who glanced in Biro’s direction. Biro nodded in approval, and Gerard dealt the hand. “I have often felt the game of Hearts is misnamed,” Durand said, as the players arranged their cards. “Each heart is worth only a single point, but the Queen of Spades is worth thirteen. The game should be called, ‘the Queen of Spades,’ for she is the key to victory.” “We are aware of the rules, Jack.” Biro snapped. Biro and Gerard each set three cards face down on the table. “There are two schools of thought on how to deal with the Queen of Spades.” Durand continued, undeterred. “Some players are frightened of her. To them, she is too dangerous to hold in their hand, so they pass her along to someone else. Others prefer to keep the Queen of Spades tightly in their grasp, so they may control where she goes.” “Do you intend to play the game?” Biro interrupted. “Or make monologues?” “To play, of course. The monologues are simply amiable conversation.” Durand lifted three cards from his hand and passed them to his left. The players paused to incorporate their new cards into their hands. “I am partial to a third approach,” Durand said, “but it is an unorthodox one.” “We’re waiting on you, Jack. You have the two of clubs.” “So I do.” Durand played the two of clubs. Biro took the opening trick with the ace of clubs, and Gerard took the next with the ace of diamonds. On the third trick, however, Durand seized the initiative. He had voided himself of clubs and was short suited in diamonds. He began to discard hearts. Gerard came to Biro’s rescue, protecting his beloved employer from Durand’s onslaught. Each time Biro was in danger of taking a heart, Gerard took the trick. It was pointedly partisan, but if it bothered Durand, it was impossible to tell from his expressionless face. The game slowed as Gerard and Biro formulated a strategy for dealing with Durand. “Whenever I play Hearts, I like to imagine how the Queen of Spades must feel.” Durand interjected. “In my mind, this Queen of Spades comes from nothing. She has no father. Her mother is a drug addict. The State places her into foster care.” “I think you should focus on the game, Jack.” Biro countered. Durand persisted. “This Queen of Spades watches her foster brothers play card games. She discovers the games they struggle to understand are simple to her. She challenges her foster brothers, but it is a disaster. They refuse to lose to her. She adapts. She starts playing local clubs. She learns how to work a room. She hires her own muscle. She learns how to collect what she has won. As soon as she can support herself, she leaves that wretched house.” “What a vivid imagination you have.” Gerard began to lead high hearts, drawing the hearts out of Durand’s hand. “But there is still more to say about this remarkable Queen of Spades.” Durand did not seem concerned by Gerard’s strategy. “She is a savant, but nothing is easy for her. She is a woman in a world dominated by men. She constantly savages the fragile egos of the men who play her. She is detested and desired at the same time. She does not fit in with the other spades. They know she is not one of them. They want to see her fail. Nor does she fit in with the rest of the hearts. She is greater than they are. So she tells herself, ‘Do not trust anyone. You must win every game you play.’ But this is a mistake. No woman is an island. Sometimes the only way to win is to expose yourself to the risk of losing.” “You know everything about this Queen of Spades, don’t you?” “I should like to think so,” Durand replied, “for I hold her in my hand.” Durand deftly flipped one of his cards, balancing it diagonally on the table with the tip of his index finger. It was the Queen of Spades. Biro appeared amused by Durand’s impudence. “Does this Queen of Spades of yours have any will of her own?” “She is nothing but will. She is like the wind or the waves. She goes wherever she likes, and no one can stop her. But this is part of the problem. She never looks backwards, even when what she has left behind is superior to what lies ahead.” “I don’t believe there is any happily ever after for your Queen of Spades, Jack. All she ever receives from her suitors are empty promises. In the end, everyone who plays the game discards her as soon as the opportunity arises. How can she possibly trust anyone?” Biro took the lead and began to bleed spades, furiously and unrelentingly. Somehow Durand had just enough to protect the Queen. The game slowed again, as the players came down to their final two cards. Biro faced a difficult choice. “It’s the moment of truth, Lena.” Durand set his remaining card face down on the table next to the Queen of Spades. “If I read the game correctly, you hold a club and the king of spades. The ace of spades has not been played. You cannot lead the club, for you know both Gerard and I are out of clubs. That leaves only the king of spades as a viable lead. I will, of course, play the queen of spades. If Pierre has the ace of spades, he will take the queen. Pierre will shoot the moon. The game between us will end in a draw. I will keep my three billion dollars, and you will keep your Vault. We will each go our separate ways.” Biro laughed. “As you say, I have the king of spades.” She flipped the card and set it upright on the table in front of her. “And, as you say, I have no choice but to play him. Before I do, though, let me tell you something about this King of Spades of mine. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. To him, everything in life is a game. He finds it thrilling to disguise himself and venture out amongst the common people. He is always undertaking the most outlandish wagers for no reason other than to collect an amusing story. This King of Spades has never truly understood the game of Hearts because he has never bet anything he was actually afraid to lose.” “You make this King of Spades sound like such a dissolute fellow. Do we not gamble every day without a second thought? For whom we choose to work? On the solvency of the government that backs our currency? Is not love itself a gamble? A man meets an intoxicating woman, and his senses impaired, he gambles on her character. Will she remain true to him? Will she continue to be lovely when she is no longer slender and supple? When her hair grows gray, when her back is stooped, when her body sags?” The man paused, glancing down at the Queen of Spades balanced beneath his forefinger. “I have found the best time to gauge a gambler’s sincerity is when he goes all in. A gambler who puts everything on the line believes in the justice of his cause.” “Or he could be bluffing. He could be a liar.” “True enough. In that moment, he either signals the strength of his hand or he bluffs. It is a fifty-fifty proposition. You have no choice but to gamble upon his character.” “So let’s see where the cards fall, Jack.” Biro lay the king of spades in the center of the table. With a flick of his left hand, Durand flipped the card lying face down in front of him on top of the king of spades. It was the ace of spades. The audience gasped. “He kept the Queen,” someone murmured. “Congratulations, Lena.” Durand said. “You have won three billion dollars.” “Why don’t I feel like I have won? You’ll pardon me for being skeptical of a gambler who gives away his fortune. Am I the victim of a long con?” “The longest con in the history of cons.” “So what happens next? Do you propose another game? Double or nothing?” “I do not wish to double my money. I only wish to recover half.” “But you are hardly in any position to gamble anymore. What do you have left to offer me as collateral for one and a half billion dollars?” “Only this.” Durand reached into his pocket and tossed an object into the air. It hung for a moment high above the table, glittering like a star, before dropping into the pot. It was a diamond ring. * * * Many years later, Durand would entertain his daughters with the most remarkable card tricks. They would bounce and titter as they marveled at his sleight of hand. Eventually, one of his raven-haired beauties would ask, “Papa, why don’t you ever play card games at the casinos like M’man?” Smiling, Durand would tell his dearest, little ones that he did not gamble anymore because he had already won the only prize worth having.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Joseph S. Klapach is an attorney who lives in Los Angeles with his Queen of Spades and their three children. His poetry has been published in Vita Brevis Press’s recent poetry anthology, Brought to Sight and Swept Away, and Epiphany literary magazine.