I'm too late for the opening remarks in the auditorium over in Building A, so I make my way to the exhibit halls in C, which is where all the action is going to be anyway. Poker Playground has set up hundreds of tables in the halls so that we can meet each other and play in person. People who hang out at the same tables online were given the option of being assigned to the same table IRL, and well, Jesus, isn't that the point? Why come all the way to Atlanta in the middle of summer to play poker with perfect strangers? I check my registration packet. I'm at Table 327, which according to the helpful enclosed map should be somewhere east of the Rockies. I squint at the program, turn it upside down, and finally figure out that the 300s must be in Exhibit Hall C1, because they sure as hell aren't listed anywhere else.
But first I hit the men's room and check my hair.
I admit it. In the absence of white tigers, I'm after a tigress. I really, really, really--did you get that?--really want to meet Mononoke. She is so fucking cool, and the only one at our table who can stand up to StageBeauty when she needs taking down just a smidgen. Mononoke used to be a research scientist for DuPont, but she got bored and walked. And kept walking right across America, meeting people along the way. She partied with snake handlers in West Virginia, stopped over for two months at a retirement home in Louisville to record oral history, accepted the only ride on her trip from the vice-president of Dykes on Bikes (but declined the offer to ride on to Massachusetts and connubial bliss. Mononoke said the Harley was bitchin' but there was just no spark).
My hair is still there, brown and thick, but I'm only twenty-six, for Christ's sake. A few years younger than Mononoke, but she says she likes 'em young and malleable. And as far as I can tell, I'm not bad looking.
Speaking of which, it has occurred to me, thank you, that my princess might look more like a frog. Yeah, I picture her whippet-thin, with long black hair and blood-red nails, but for all I know she's got a few pounds on her and isn't the twin with the Toni. So fucking what? I can't say I wouldn't care, but I'm at the age where personality matters. And Mononoke just blows me away.
She can change her own tires, if she has to. She never has to.
Exhibit Hall C1 is packed with people, and in my search for the right table I hear the "full house" joke at least nine times. My table is cooler than that. Even Carjack wouldn't be so obvious. Here it is, 327. Almost empty.
The only person sitting at it is a woman. I smile at her, but not the way I would at Mononoke. Not bad, really. Thirtyish, pretty in a pleasant, bland kind of way. You know, WASP-y. Shops at Nordstrom, radiates serenity. Only the bitten-down fingernails suggest that her life holds any sort of tension at all, and even there she's made an attempt to file them smooth. I'd made the same effort with my own nails, in case I get to pet me some tigress. But I just quit smoking again, so I have an excuse to bite mine. I doubt a cigarette has ever passed this lady's prim lips.
"Let me guess," I say. "Charlotte, right?"
She gives a laugh, half-awkward, half-sweet. "How did you know?"
I throw my bags into a chair, pull out another and sit down, noting the presence of her luggage under the table. She must have been running late, too. "Way too young to be StageBeauty, and I doubt Mononoke bites her nails."
A nod of agreement. "You're right--that would hardly be in character."
"So that leaves you. Unless Carjack or Twister have a little less testosterone than you'd think."
Charlotte nods. "Yes, it's me. I suppose by the law of averages, not everybody can possibly be lying about their appearance." She looks around the hall. "But I have to admit, everyone here looks so . . . normal."
"Yeah, turns out not everybody on the Internet is a child-molesting serial killer after all. And we don't all look like Comic Book Guy and live in our parents' basement. I'm Danny, by the way."
"Well, if you're not Carjack or Twister, you'd have to be, wouldn't you?" Without the help of smileys, it's hard to read whether she's razzing me or not. "You work in an insurance office, right?"
"Just until, sweetheart. Just until." I can't remember what Charlotte does, and it seems rude to ask. Truth is, she never made much of an impression on me.
We flag down some drinks from a passing hostess, ask about each other's trip here, and isn't it hot? And that about uses up the small talk. We just don't seem to have that much in common. Except the online poker table. I grab the cards from the middle of the table and start shuffling them, to give me something to do, and get the bright idea to start talking about our so-far missing comrades. The interesting ones.
"I'm really hoping to meet S.B.," I say. "She's a character."
Charlotte laughs. "She sure is. Can be kind of--" she leaned forward and whispered it "--bitchy sometimes."
"But you wouldn't believe how much she helped me when I was going through my divorce. We really got sort of close on IM there for awhile. Sweet lady."
"Umm-hmm." And so much for my problems. "How about Twister, though? Do you think he's really ex-Interpol?"
I wave my hand for another Long Island Iced Tea, and buy her another peach martini (and may I just say . . . Jesus). "Maybe he is. He talks the talk. But I heard he's not allowed to come to these things. You know, can't be recognized and all that."
"Even after being retired for so long? Oh, heck--how disappointing." She sighs, and I squirm a little. Charlotte looks mildly alarmed, like she needs to cover up a discreet belch. "Of course, it's wonderful meeting you. And I can't wait to find out if Carjack is really as tough as he comes across. I've never seen a prison tattoo close up before." From the look on her face, it's an appealing prospect. Chicks dig bad boys.
The second Iced Tea on top of all the heat is getting to me, and I guess I smirk a little.
She gives me a sideways look. "What, Danny?"
"Uh, I have it on good authority that Carjack isn't going to make it, either."
Charlotte blinks, and I see it dawn on her. She's a quick one. Physically, too. A waiter is just passing with a bottle of tequila and some shot glasses on a tray, and Charlotte whips out her hand and stops him. "That's ours," she says, and when the waiter sees the fifty being offered, he's quick to agree. Charlotte cracks the bottle and pours us each a shot, but she blows her moment by sputtering on the liquor. Once she recovers, she says it out loud. "You're Carjack. And Twister, too?"
I look at the deck of cards in my hand. "Yeah. Sorry, I hope you're not too disappointed. See, I set up three windows, and--"
"Oh, I know exactly how you do it." Her tone makes me look up, right into a cruel smile. "I just hope you weren't too eager to get it on with Mononoke."
"Mononoke?" I can't believe it. "You made up Mononoke? No fucking way. She doesn't play cards like you in the least."
She sighs. "I'm a writer. Give me credit for some imagination. If you bothered to visit a bookstore now and then, you might have recognized her as Monica Key. Heroine of the best-selling mystery series? Her aunt is a retired actress? Oh, forget it."
"Really?" My voice rises to a squeak. "I mean, I haven't read--I do read--bookstores are--oh, shit. I'm a writer, too."
"Thrillers, I presume. Interpol, hardened-but-charming criminals . . ." Charlotte recognizes the look on my face. "And no, I won't introduce you to my agent. I promised I'd never put her in that situation." I wouldn't have thought Charlotte could say "shit" if her mouth was full of it, but she whispers the word now. "I'm three weeks behind with revisions. I shouldn't have come."
I gulp some more tequila, and we sit there for a few minutes without thinking of anything else to say. Funny, isn't it? I'd maxed out my credit cards to meet the girl of my goddamn dreams--and yes, I do know that's a fucking cliché--and she's a fictional character from some lame-ass mystery series. Probably a cozy, too.
"Why Atlanta?" I say. "The whole Scarlett O'Hara thing?"
She flushes. "It's the only big city within driving distance. I hate flying."
"Great. You can get the next bottle, too." I shuffle the deck some more, and she stares at the cards.
"I guess we could play some poker."
"Just the two of us?"
We both look around. The other tables are full of laughing, chatting people. Boy, did we blow this. Each of us expecting three other people, cool, interesting people. Not just one, and another fucking writer at that. Christ, I go to Poker Playground to get a break from my writers' groups, and I bet Charlotte does too.
I hear a loud sigh. "Do you have your laptop with you?"
She reaches under the table for her own laptop case, fires up a sweet-looking Vaio. "Don't just sit there, Danny."
I start up, log on. Surf to Poker Playground.
They're already there, and it's weird, but it's nice to see them.
Welcome, Danny, says StageBeauty. Is Atlanta burning?
Too bad you couldn't make it, old lady, I type. You're one of a kind.
Three of a kind, she shoots back.
Then we're quite a pair.
Mononoke pipes up. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Is Carjack here? Good. Ante up, kids.
And I get to spend the weekend with my friends after all.
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