Monday, February 20, 2012
Read 'em and Weep
“Okay, gennulmen—and lady,” Louie said with a nod and a smile for Miss Elly—“prepare to lose your shirts. Except you, Gil. You’re too scrawny for my tastes.”
“Just deal.” Gil, in human form for once with the full moon five days past, wrinkled up a nose still decidedly squirrellish. “And not from the bottom of the deck this time.”
“Are you implying I cheat? I’m shocked, I tell youse.”
Vern MacMahon leaned across the table, one forearm resting on Miss Elly’s pretty checkered tablecloth. “Do you cheat? No offense, but you being a rat from New Jersey, questions do arise.”
“Well, yeah, of course I cheat. It’s second nature. Just not tonight.” Again he nodded toward Miss Elly. “This here woman, she scares me.”
“Are we gonna play cards or what?” Gil said.
“Not everybody’s here,” Miss Elly said. “We’re waiting for—”
The diner’s door swung open. An enormous form in a slouch hat and black trench coat ducked to clear the jamb. Sergei regarded the astonished, wary shifters staring at him. “I am late?” he said.
“You’re right on time,” Miss Elly said. “Pull out your wallet and pull up a chair. You boys all know Sergei, right?"
“I know tigers don’t come into herbie places,” Vern said. He edged his chair closer to Elly’s and angled his body protectively toward her. “Unless they’re hunting.”
“No hunt,” Sergei said. He tossed his hat onto another table and took the empty chair beside Gil. “I would not harm Mrs. Ewing. She makes excellent latkes.”
Vern frowned. “Latkes?”
“Potato pancakes,” Louie said, and snorted. “Mine are better.”
“It’s flapjacks,” Miss Elly said firmly. “We don’t use the P-word in my place.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Gil said. “We gonna play cards or what?”
Sergei peered down at him. His nose worked briefly. “You are squirrel.”
“Sometimes.” Gil scrunched down on his chair in an attempt to get rodent-sized. “That a problem?”
“There is squirrel at my employer’s compound. It doesn’t act like squirrel. It sits and tree and watches, all night long.”
Gil looked uncomfortable. “Maybe it’s sick.”
“Yap yap yap,” Vernon said. “I didn’t take the night off to talk.”
Eager to shift attention elsewhere, Gil said, “Business slow at your place too?”
“Yeah. It’s Dante’s new supperclub. It’s digging into the customer base.”
“Yours, maybe.” Louie shuffled the deck and started to deal. “We ain’t seen much of a drop at Rattigan’s. Tuesdays was always slow anyway. Look, Gil. I’m dealing off the top.”
“Rah rah.” Gil reached for one of the sandwiches Vern had brought over from his own diner. Elly, the only strict herbivore at the table, had provided a veggie tray and cookies. Louie had brought a case of beer from Lex’s microbrewery, and fresh coffee perked behind the counter.
Gil studied his hand, then tossed a matchstick onto the center of the table. “I’m in.”
Three hands passed without incident, though the men watched Sergei warily. The pile of matches in front of the white tiger started to grow, second only to Miss Elly’s. “And I thought I had a poker face,” Vern grumbled.
Sergei flicked a glance at him, then laid his cards on the table. He had another straight, this one king high. Gil threw down his own rotten hand in disgust. “You’re all against me,” he complained. “It’s because I’m a squirrel, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s because you suck at poker.” Louie gathered the cards together. “Beer break,” he announced.
Gil hopped up and snagged a beer. Sergei accepted a cup of herbal tea. Vern and Elly went behind the counter for coffee. Vern leaned in close and slid his arm around her waist. “Careful there, wolfie,” Elly murmured. “We’re in public, sort of.”
Vern growled into her ear, “Why’s the tiger here? Do you know who he works for?”
Elly glanced at Sergei, who had commandeered the plate of cookies. “C’mon, Vern. I’m not stupid. You and Lance talk all the time, and I’m right over here. Well, I’ve got my own connections. Mary set this up. She’s friends with Gypsy from Dante’s club, and Gypsy’s been dating the tiger. She says Sergei’s balanced on the edge of something, and whichever way he tips could depend on the people around him. So this is us, tipping.” Elly poured them coffee. “Wouldn’t you rather know where he is and what he’s up to, Mr. Could Be the Mayor Someday?”
“You sly ewe.” Vern nuzzled her neck. “You sure there’s no fox in your family tree?”
“Those rumors about Uncle Freddy have never been proved.”
The game resumed. One hand had to be scrapped because five aces turned up. Elly shot Louie a tsk-tsk and got a fresh deck out of a drawer behind the counter. “Sorry,” Louie said. “Force of habit.”
“Yeah, right,” Vern said. “I’m going to sic the health inspector on your ass. Your place has rats in the kitchen.”
“Yours has wolf hairs in the turkey club.”
“Gentlemen.” Sergei displayed his cards. “This wins pot, correct?”
“Nope.” Elly spread her inside straight on the table. “This does.”
“That’s it.” Gil got up. “The Russian ringer I can live with, but a woman who wins at poker? That goes against nature.”
“Careful there, squirrelly,” Miss Elly said. “You could wind up losing your nuts.”
Sergei also stood. “I should be going. People question my whereabouts.” He picked up his hat and tipped it to Miss Elly. “I had good time tonight. You are good people.” He stepped out into the night.
“Good time?” Louie scoffed. “I don’t think that albino bozo cracked a smile all night. I’d hate to see his idea of a bad time.”
“I hope we don’t.” Miss Elly gathered up matches and started to count them. “I’m not Gypsy, and I don’t have her ESP, but I’ve got a positive feeling about tonight. I think our tipping may have worked.”
“Even though you won?” Vern said.
“Especially since I won. Tigers like a challenge, and they don’t like unfinished business. He’ll be back, and we’ll be here, and I’ll keep on beating his ass for as long as it takes to win him over. Feeding him my flapjacks shouldn’t hurt, either.”
“Nice,” Louie said. “Where’d you learn so much about tigers?”
“Hey. Herbivore. Studying predators comes under self-preservation.”
“Is that why you’re dating the wolf?”
“No, I just think Vern’s a cutie. Well, lookie here. Gil, you came up shortest tonight. You owe me a mocha at the coffee shop. Gentlemen, shall we adjorn?”
“Until next Tuesday,” Vern agreed. “And that’s mochas all around, squirrel boy.”
“Nuts,” said Gil.