Ace of Trump
by John Philpin
The experience was like catching a glimpse of something from the corner of your eye.
A speck of blue floats on the soft breeze that breathes through the alleys, between the buildings. You turn quickly to see this color that is so out of place against a drab New York cityscape. A blue jay feather rises and falls with the shifting wind, then disappears, and your brittle universe is somehow different.
Under ordinary circumstances, change is a creeping thing, barely noticed. You smile at the feather — a momentary pleasure — and continue the walk to work. Over coffee you wonder if there was a feather in the wind, a solid piece of matter in blue that you captured with a snap glance. Perhaps it was your imagination, or some fragment of debris that only resembled the feather of a bird. By late morning, the incident is forgotten.
Such a chance encounter, a recent splash of color that caught my attention, altered my life and left me dazed. It is not forgotten in a morning's time. I doubt that I will ever forget.
Her name was Jorie. I should say, her online name was Jorie surrounded by numbers. I met her in an Internet game room, bridge to be exact. She said she was relatively new to the game, but she played sharply and seldom lost. She had an entourage — other players, and some who merely observed — that traveled with her from day to day, table to table. They were charmed by her, commenting on her every hand.
In a few hours, I was charmed by her.
I was a computer software designer and programmer. My company had recently released a new product, sales were brisk, and I had time on my hands until our next project. I read and reread the "Times," doodled on a note pad, and connected dozens of paper clips. I surfed the 'Net, seeking bargains on Christmas presents for my wife and daughter. That was how I discovered the bridge room.
I played the game in college. It was a challenge for a while, and I even entered a few tournaments. When I won nothing, I ignored the game. I did not share the other players' intensity.
Bridge is an exercise in memory and arithmetic skills under the grand umbrella of probability. I am a precise person, never comfortable with chance.
My fascination with the bridge room had nothing to do with the game. I joined Jorie's entourage, watched her play, and read her typed public messages. She was never overtly seductive with the men but did lead them on — a coquette, I thought. I observed, never commented, laughed to myself at how real the virtual world had become for these people. Then, late on a Friday afternoon, Jorie asked me to join her game. I felt like a kid at an eighth grade dance when the prettiest girl in school approaches and invites him to dance.
"I need a partner," Jorie typed. "Jump in."
"Sure," I answered. "Thanks."
"You do play?"
"I’m a little rusty," I said.
"I'll get you back in shape," she said.
That brief exchange opened a chapter in my life I wish now I had never penned.
For the next several weeks I played bridge with Jorie. At first our conversations were about cards — points, bidding conventions, contracts well-bid and well-made. Then we exchanged first names.
"Jean," she typed.
"Where are you?"
"Wow! Me too!"
"Whereabouts?" I asked.
There was a pause, then, "What guarantee do I have that you won’t stalk me and murder me?"
This was Jorie, witty and coy, I decided. "None," I said.
"LOL," she typed, confirming the humor in what would, in other circumstances, be considered a macabre exchange.
In time, I learned that Jorie was married to a Wall Street broker, childless, living on the Upper West Side, a lover of opera and the New York Mets, and an aficionado of Thai food. I sketched a picture in my mind, a portrait of Jorie — tall and slender, rich black hair, an aristocratically pale, fortyish woman with opalescent eyes that reflected back the brilliant flashes of color in an otherwise monochromatic world.
I fell in love with an illusion of my own design. I neglected what little work I had. I grew impatient with my daughter’s need for bedtime stories, my wife’s desire for my undivided attention. I daydreamed of meeting Jorie — "for coffee," as all virtual romantics say — of walking with her to a nearby hotel, entering an elevator, strolling a Persian-carpeted hall, sliding a card through the scanning mechanism for room forty-two, standing at the foot of a bed as we disrobed. Then, nothing. In my fantasies, we never consummated our tryst. I would sit with a rock-hard erection as my image of Jorie slowly vanished.
I knew I was hopelessly in love when, one afternoon, annoyed that Jorie was talking more to "Mike" than to me, I sent her an instant message telling her to pay attention to the game.
She did not respond, and soon after that left the table. I spent the next day lurking in the game room, waiting for her, but Jorie did not appear.
By the third day I was frantic. Perhaps I had offended her, but her insensitivity to my suffering was nothing less than cruel. When I returned from lunch, an e-mail awaited me. "I’ve been away," it said. "Bridge at three? JO."
Of course I was there at the appointed time. It was as if nothing had transpired. Jorie was free to come and go as she pleased. I was bound by my expectations of her, and my desire for her. I played in a desultory manner, waiting for her to ask what was wrong. She never did. As she signed off at the usual time, she typed, "Shitty play, Peter."
Rage roiled through me like a rampant virulence, a bile erupting from the pit of me. My hands clenched, my neck grew insanely hot, and my teeth clacked together like a lion snapping the neck of a wildebeest. I knew I would kill her. The thought of throttling the life out of her allowed me to relax, to begin the tedious but elementary process of finding Jorie.
I spent the next morning cross-checking databases — Wall Street brokers, phone directories, property transfers on the Upper West Side, bridge clubs, and charitable organizations. As I sat in a cafeteria eating lunch, I reviewed the pages I had printed. David and Jean Orient lived at a prestigious, Central Park West address. David was a founding partner of Orient, Black, and Dufresne. The couple had a summer home in Saratoga where David indulged his interest in horse racing. Jean sat on several boards of directors, and volunteered at a shelter for runaway girls.
The powerlessness I had felt in previous days vanished. Now I, not Jorie, held the ace of trump. I waited for her to ask me to join her that afternoon. When she did, I declined. When she asked Mike, I logged out. To Jorie, men were interchangeable.
I stayed away from the office in the morning, and sat on a bench opposite Jorie’s fashionable brick building. Shortly after nine, I saw her. She was just as I imagined — tall and slender, with lustrous black hair and alabaster skin. She walked briskly, power and determination in each step, snapping her thick heels on the pavement as she walked to a waiting taxi and vanished.
In the afternoon, I watched the monitor as she played her game and verbally jostled with her entourage. "C’mon, Peter," she typed. "Stop sulking and join me."
Her audience laughed. "Soon," I said.
The following day I rented a car and drove to Central Park West. I watched again as Jorie entered a waiting cab. This time I followed.
The girls’ shelter was a squat, frame building in a section of Queens that looked as if it had been precision-bombed. Some buildings were rubble — scraps of wood and concrete and steel; others seemed to be withstanding the tests of time and neglect, leaning uncertainly, but not yet gone to debris.
I waited in the doorway of a former neighborhood grocery, its faded signs still offering Polish sausage, pickled eggs, and borscht. An hour passed, then Jorie emerged and walked to the curb. No doubt a taxi was on its way. I had very little time.
I stepped onto the sidewalk and said, "Ma’am? There’s a woman here who needs help."
She did not hesitate. Jorie walked with noble purpose into my arms.
I returned the car, ate a light lunch at a pleasant bistro, leisurely scanned the newspaper, and walked to my office.
Shortly before three I logged into the game room. I intended my behavior to remain consistent, at least for a while; suddenly departing the afternoon bridge games would appear suspicious. I also wanted to gauge reaction to Jorie’s absence, and the eventual news of her murder. The "gang" gathered at the usual table, chatted, and waited. At precisely three o’clock, Jorie signed in and assumed her usual seat.
My heart thundering in my chest, hands trembling, I read the lines of the usual repartee. Then she typed, "Please join me, Peter. I miss playing with you, and I apologize if I have offended you in some way. It certainly was not my intent."
I sat opposite her, my mind tripping through possibilities. This had to be a detective, I thought. But how could they have found her body so quickly? Of course the police would investigate her virtual life. Could they progress so far in their sleuthing in a matter of a few hours at most? That morning I wrapped my gloved hands tightly around this woman’s throat and squeezed the life from her.
My instant message screen popped open. "I assume you found me out. I apologize for the lie. I don’t really live in New York. I’m Judy. I live in Idaho."
© John Philpin All Rights Reserved