Three of a Kind
First-place winner (Genre: Crime/Mystery) in the Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards
"When you think about it," Jimmy said, picking up his cards from the table, "maybe it's not such a bad idea for a guy to put his wife out of her misery when she's near the end. Once he reaches the breaking point he gets his gun, takes aim, and bang, it's over. That way neither of them suffers the way my brother did when his wife died."
Intent on improving my luckless hand, I tried to ignore Jimmy's words as he studied the cards he'd been dealt. It was just like him to bring up some crazy idea to throw everyone off their guard and then make his move. I wasn't about to let him interfere with my concentration.
"I know you'll find this hard to believe coming from me," he continued when no one responded, "but I think I'd kill for love if it came to that."
Wally, my lieutenant, looked at me and rolled his eyes. With an uneasy laugh he glanced at each player in turn, gauging the reaction at the table.
"You shouldn't be saying stuff you don't mean, Jimmy," he warned. "Not with the police chief here and all, even if we are poker buddies. Mercy killing's just a fancy word for murder."
Jimmy shrugged. "I'm just trying to decide what's most humane when someone reaches the end. You know, like an old dog on its last legs. Should be the same for people."
"There's a group for that," said Ray. "The Hemlock Society, I think it's called."
George stared, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. "So what are you saying, Jimmy? Blowing Judith's brains out is the most humane thing if she gets sick?"
"Better stay healthy, Judith," I said quietly.
Jimmy's wife smiled from the sink where she was drying the supper dishes. Their dishwasher had died last year. I remembered Judith saying Jimmy figured there was no need to fix it since it was just the two of them.
"Look, I know you're just letting off steam because your brother lost his wife," Ray said, "but do you really expect us to believe that? We had no idea you were such a romantic."
Ray grinned, and we laughed.
"Sure I'd kill for love," Jimmy repeated, coughing.
I was debating whether to play the lowly pair of threes in my hand when I realized the others were staring at him. Jimmy glanced from one to the next as if we'd all grown an extra head for him to shoot off.
"What're you looking at me like that for?" he demanded.
"I've never seen you so compassionate," said George. "Have you always been that compassionate with Judith?"
Jimmy wasn't deterred by our amusement.
"It took so damn long for Lisa to die." He shook his head, his tone serious for once. "Drove Sean crazy. Cancer's the worst. Would've been easier to end it before the pain started. Makes me kind of glad Judith and I took out new life insurance policies."
"Right." Ray glanced at Judith, humor in his eyes. "You don't want to be living in poverty if anything were to happen to Judith."
Jimmy paused to study his cards, his tone relaxing a bit.
"Who knows? I might want to invest in a mail order bride. Hey, Judith's the one who wanted to buy joint policies. I'm willing to use them." He shrugged. "You just never know what's coming next. Like when we moved in here last year. We had to get used to living without things we'd had for years."
"That was a tough break, losing your house," George muttered, throwing down a pair of cards. "Give me two, Ray."
"You don't have to get used to living without your wife," Wally pointed out.
Jimmy cursed as cigarette ash dropped on the table and he brushed it to the floor. I wondered if he was cursing the cards in his hand or the reminder of his poor judgment.
"We sure did unload lots of stuff," Jimmy went on philosophically. "But you make the best of it, you know?"
Judith appeared to be making the best of it. I figured if I had a wife she probably wouldn't like it much if I'd gambled my way into debt and lost our house and we'd had to move into a trailer at middle age. Jimmy and Judith had been forced to part with a lifetime's worth of possessions to pay off his debt. But Judith had had lots of years to get used to Jimmy's ways.
As she bent over with a dustpan and brush to clean up the spilled ash I couldn't help but notice how slim she looked in those fitted pants. She still had the figure of a twenty-year-old. If Jimmy was trying to distract me from my game Judith was doing a better job of it. She deposited the ash in the wastebasket and stooped to pick up his socks from the floor. With the light from the uncovered bulb above the table shining on her dark hair it crossed my mind that he might have dropped the ashes on purpose.
"Maybe things will turn around," I suggested to Jimmy, trying to be optimistic. "Maybe your wife's paintings will bring in some money. Anyone can see she has talent. As I recall, her paintings brought in a few thousand when you sold your things. I'll bet that's as much as you made in the last three months."
As the laughs subsided I studied the paintings scattered around the walls. Judith once told us she'd hung them to make the trailer feel less empty. They were all local pictures of New Hampshire's mountains and flora and dogs, scenes we passed by every day in Cedar Valley. Judith had a knack for finding the special in the ordinary. She'd married Jimmy after all.
"Aw, it don't matter," Jimmy muttered. "When you get like us, going on half a century, you want--whadda they call it--you want to downsize anyway."
"I haven't had that problem since my wife left me," Ray said, and we laughed more out of sympathy than humor.
"If we hadn't gotten married because of the baby, who knows? We might be in a different place right now." Jimmy fell silent. "Ironic that we lost the baby. But that's how life is, ironic. We're in a pretty good place now though, don't you think, Judith? They haven't been wasted years, right?"
There was the drink talking again, spotlighting indiscretions Judith would no doubt prefer to have kept in the dark. Jimmy coughed and looked her way, but she had already left the room. With our eyes on our cards none of us answered.
"We had some good times growing up in Cedar Valley, didn't we, Kenny?" In Judith's absence Jimmy looked to me for confirmation, his bloodshot eyes anxious. "Remember the night you and me and Judith sneaked into the old Shackelford place? We were so spooked we never got drunk like that again. What a trio we were back then." He shook his head, pulling another beer out of the cooler beside the table. "Yep, we were three of a kind."
"That's us," I agreed, "three of a kind."
Privately I hoped I had turned into a different kind since our teenage years, but we kept on playing until midnight or so. Out of respect for Judith we were all ready to quit, like we always did, before Jimmy had lost all the money he started with. But this time Jimmy surprised everybody and won the pot. No one was more surprised than Judith.
On our way out Wally and I said goodnight to her and told her we'd see her for lunch tomorrow at the diner.
It had been a quiet morning, the most serious infraction being a fender bender between the town's octogenarian and its second oldest citizen. By eleven-thirty we were ready for lunch and headed over to the diner in the patrol car. Out of the blue Wally brought up the subject of the previous night.
"It's a real shame Jimmy treats Judith the way he does." He shook his head as he held the door open for me. "Even though she's got twenty years on me she's still a good-looking woman. She doesn't deserve to be talked to that way. Even the guys felt bad for her last night."
Judith waved to us from behind the counter as we walked into the diner. We sat down in our usual booth and ordered meatloaf and coffee and pie. It wasn't until she returned to refill our coffee that we settled into conversation.
"How's Jimmy's emphysema been lately?" I asked, curious. "His cough sounded pretty bad by the time we left last night."
"He's paying for it today," Judith said mildly, "with too much beer and too little sleep. And he had to be at work early."
"Was he?" I challenged.
She smiled and shook her head. "I'm not his mother. He's old enough to get himself up on time."
"I'm sorry you had to listen to all that talk last night," Wally said to her. "If you ask me, Jimmy's the one who ought to be put out of his misery."
"Oh, don't worry about me," Judith said. "I'm used to it. He's still upset about all his brother's had to go through."
"If Jimmy had to get by without you he wouldn't know where to start," I told her. "You look like you need a break. Why don't you take some time off to paint?"
I gazed up at her. Wally was right about Judith being good-looking. When she smiled her face was as delicate as a flower that's just opened. Even after years of abuse at Jimmy's hands she still had that fragile, unblemished quality about her. In spite of the harsh lighting of the diner her face was soft, just like her personality. She was as supportive a woman as any I'd known, more genuine than the bleached blonde waitress who was always making passes at Wally. Judith had a quality Jimmy had never appreciated since he had never had it, never knew what it was.
"Painting does lift my spirits, but I couldn't get by without this job, unstimulating as it is," Judith admitted. "Jimmy's gambling makes our income too unpredictable. I need that money when the bills come due. I can't stand overdue bills."
"Good thing one of you feels that way," I said, "or you'd both be in over your head. Hey, have fun on your camping trip. When are you leaving?"
"This afternoon, when Jimmy gets off work at the garage and I finish up here." Judith balanced her elbow against her hip to steady the nearly full coffee pot in her hand.
"Driving?" I asked.
"Yes, we'll take the road up the mountain." Judith's subdued enthusiasm was a shadow of the happiness she'd felt in the past. "Jimmy always liked to hike up before he had emphysema. Now he has to drive. We'll do some fishing on the way out there."
"I hope he catches a big one so you'll at least have a decent supper." I grinned and saw her smile in return.
"Yeah, not like the imaginary ones he usually tells us about," Wally said. "You know, the ones that are so big Hulk Hogan couldn't reel them in."
"It would be a lot easier if I went to the fish market and bought an eight-pound trout to begin with." Judith glanced over her shoulder as new customers came through the door. "All right, guys. See you next Friday."
"Hope you have a new painting to show us," I called after her.
I had reached Webster's Peak just after dawn and found Judith waiting. The sun was high enough now that it had begun to penetrate the dense pine forests, but it was still too early for most hikers to have climbed this far up. Judith stood less than a yard from me, far enough from the cliff's edge to be on safe footing. The wind had blown her hair across her eyes so I couldn't read her expression.
We were staring at a ridge far below. On the rocks lay Jimmy's broken body where it had fallen from the very spot where we stood. His wallet lay on the ledge beside him. Probably empty, I thought.
I didn't want to cause Judith more pain, but I needed to discuss the specifics with her at least once more.
"Tell me again, Judith. You say Jimmy was standing here when he fell?" I clarified.
"Right on this rock." She pointed to a jagged stone slanting downward. "He dropped his cigarette lighter. As he bent down to pick it up he had a coughing fit. Then he lost his balance." She leaned forward for another glance, then drew back. "From here it looked like he hit his head on those rocks down below."
I could see the gleam of the cigarette lighter where it had landed on the edge of the rock. I studied the angle of the slope, the pine needles still wet with dew, the protrusion of the ledge too many yards beneath us to have cushioned Jimmy's fall. There was no sign of a struggle. Anyone could see it was an accident. Experienced hikers know the slopes of the White Mountains can be treacherous despite their leafy cover.
Judith seemed calm but distracted. I noted how much better Jimmy's plaid shirt looked on her than on her deceased husband, her fullness giving it an appealing femininity.
"You know, Kenny," she said quietly, "it's ironic. Jimmy always liked to talk about things that were ironic."
"Jimmy talked too much."
She shook her head. "What's the next step?"
"There'll be an investigation, of course, but we all knew how bad Jimmy's cough was. Heck, he coughed so much while we were watching the game Monday night he spilled his whiskey. Couldn't even hold the glass." I looked down the mountain, judging the distance. "Same thing here. He coughed so hard it made him lose his balance."
"I did everything I could."
"I'm sure you did, Jude. There's only so much someone can do up here alone. Everybody knows Jimmy was a gambler, a risk-taker. And he loved camping. It was his passion, after gambling. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later."
She glanced at the cliff tentatively. "And now it has."
"I'm glad his last hand was a winner," I reflected, drawing her away from the cliff's edge. "You've got a lot of good years ahead of you, Judith. Now you'll have some money to enjoy them."
"It's probably a good thing we took out those life insurance policies before Jimmy was diagnosed," she mused. "He ignored all the warnings about emphysema, even told the doctor not to worry, that it was a false alarm." She shook her head with disbelief. "That's how he was. He kept playing even when his luck had run out. He'd think he could win with three of a kind when the guy sitting next to him had a royal flush."
"I think his luck just ran out for good." I was done with my assessment of the scene. I looked out over the mountains, their slopes spreading out before us along with our future. "He was right about one thing though. We really are three of a kind, don't you think?"
She managed a tight smile. "I like to think you and I aren't as bad as Jimmy was."
I shrugged. "It sure looks like an accident. You did a good job, Jude."
She breathed the first sigh of relief she'd uttered all morning. "Should I call 911 now?"
I turned toward my squad car, smiling back at her over my shoulder. "Give me fifteen minutes and then make the call. I want to be able to rush back here with the siren on."