THE GRAND HOUSE
The Grand House on New Samara was exactly what its name suggested. Luxurious without being ostentatious, it eschewed the garish, dancing holos or blinking neon used as advertisements by those gaming establishments that lacked its pedigree. The outer walls were plated a rich, deep green so dark as to be near-black, with only the most delicate touches of decoration here and there: a few tiny, winking lights which served merely to outline and define its bulk, tasteful uplighting on the two small balconies open to the sky and, most important of all, no visible name. The Grand House was an imposing, dark green iceberg taking up a sizeable plot of hugely valuable land in the middle of the richest district on all New Samara: if you didn’t know what it was, you didn’t belong inside.
The tower at one end, not so tall as the surrounding skyscrapers but sharing their curved aesthetics, was a hotel affordable only to the rich. There was no requirement to visit the gaming floors while staying in the hotel, of course, but few would pass up the opportunity given that 10 per cent of their bill was refunded in the form of credit chips. It did, however, explain why patrons were always charged in advance. The Grand House would not wish to see a guest suffering any complications with regard to their accommodation following an unwise flutter. After all, there were standards to be maintained.
Ichabod Drift couldn’t help but feel he was automatically lowering them simply by being present.
He more or less looked the part, of that there was no doubt. His suit, the first such item he had ever owned, was a midnight blue, his shirt was silky smooth and starched at the collar and cuffs, and he’d abandoned his long-serving military-surplus boots for a fancier, shinier pair of shoes (which nevertheless had enough grip to run and enough weight to kick, as Ichabod Drift was in many ways a cautious man). He’d even re-dyed his hair to match the suit, abandoning the violet colour he’d sported for the previous eighteen months or so, and had persuaded Jenna to polish the small amount of visible metal on his augmented eye.
It was the darnedest sensation. Here he was, in New Samara’s Grand House, a casino so posh you weren’t even allowed to call it a casino, dressed like a toff and gambling huge amounts of money . . . and not one bit of it was a lie. There was no angle, no scheme in the works, and they weren’t scoping the place to rob the vault. He and his business partner Tamara Rourke had actually done that once, but in far less opulent surroundings. Even then they’d needed to assemble a one-off team of nine specialists, which meant the payout hadn’t been that great after being split so many ways. Such a venture would be suicide in the Grand House, however, so it was just as well that he was, for once, completely honest and above board.
At least, if you ignored the fact that the money he was gambling with had come from one of the private accounts of a man named Nicolas Kelsier, former corrupt government minister turned terrorist, and now thankfully and quite definitely dead.
“So,” he asked, sighing with pleasure as he surveyed the scene of well-moneyed gambling laid out in front of him, “what do you feel like hitting tonight?”
Tamara Rourke was short where Drift was tall, her skin was the colour
of black tea instead of the golden almond tone his Mexican heritage had bestowed upon him, and her hair was an unbroken black cropped close to her skull rather than a rich, shoulder-length blue. Nevertheless, they both had a wiry build and shared a general attitude that money was better in their pockets than in other people’s. She seemed far less comfortable in this place than he did, though, because while Drift had always possessed the manner of a born showman, Rourke was happiest in the shadows, and for all its low-level lighting and relaxed atmosphere, the gaming halls of the Grand House hardly counted in that respect.
“I’d have thought you’d enjoy a chance to relax for once,” Drift said mildly, casting a sidelong glance at his business partner as a robot waiter purred past carrying a silver tray of expertly mixed cocktails.
“Watching the rest of you dress up like idiots and lose money doesn’t qualify,” Rourke snapped, shifting her shoulders slightly.
“It was your idea we come here,” Drift reminded her.
“Come here, yes; show up, get the funds, maybe find an easy job or two while we stayed out of Europan space until all the fuss died down,” Rourke replied testily. “I said nothing about gambling it away.”
“A and Kuai could do with some recovery time.”
“I’m not arguing that,” Rourke sighed. Apirana, their hulking Maori bruiser, and Kuai, the Keiko’s Chinese mechanic, had both taken recent gunshot wounds and were recuperating with stoicism and self-pity, respectively. “It’s just that . . . this isn’t our place, Ichabod. We might have the money, at the moment, but we’re out of our depth in this sort of society. Something’s going to blow up in our face, and I don’t like the feeling of being exposed.”
“Maybe you should try to fit in more, then?” Drift suggested. New Samara’s fashions favoured ostentatious outfits that sometimes bordered on the scandalous but Rourke had, typically, ignored them. She couldn’t get away with wearing one of her favoured utilitarian, skin-tight
bodysuits but had got as close as she could: knee-high black boots encased tight, dark green leggings which were nevertheless stretchy enough to allow her to run, crouch or kick someone in the head as needed, and her black shirt was free of frills and other extraneous frippery that might get in the way. She’d also refused to abandon either her wide-brimmed, flat-topped black hat or her long, enveloping coat, and she’d been mistaken for a particularly short and rather delicately built man on more than one occasion so far.
“You are not getting me into a dress, if you can even call what they wear here ‘dresses.’?” Rourke’s voice had taken on a dangerous edge which Drift had last heard when she’d been considering shooting him, so he decided not to push his teasing any further.
“Fine, fine.” His comm beeped the message he’d been waiting for, so he checked his cuffs and nodded towards the poker tables. “Back to seeing if I can relieve any heirs and heiresses of the family fortune. Enjoy whatever you decide to do.”
“I might go and join Apirana,” Rourke muttered, “at least his choices are interesting to watch.” The big Maori was usually found on the first subterranean level at the Grand House’s combat sports arena, where you could see anything from ground-based grappling contests to full-contact cage fights, along with weaponised contests such as kendo and even low-powered laser shoot-outs.
“Poker is a game of tactics and subtlety!” Drift protested.
“Not the way you play it,” Rourke sighed. “Just try not to bleed the account dry, okay?” She turned and walked away towards the elevators, scudding across the floor like a small but determined thundercloud. Drift watched her go for a couple of seconds, then shook his head and ambled towards the poker tables with an expression of affable good nature, and a slight alteration in the tone of his facial muscles to suggest the onset of drunkenness.
Drift would never have considered himself to be a professional gambler, unless trying to make a living as a freelance captain in this uncertain galaxy counted. Even so, he was well aware that the process of reading your poker opponents should start before you even got to the table. The Grand House attracted its fair share of prestige players, the men and women who would sit down, calmly bet enough money to buy a starship and make a comfortable living from it; these people would wipe the floor with him. Instead, he’d registered for one of the tables where the bored cousins of oligarchs, nephews of sheikhs and third-in-line to the family business were playing for what was, to them, pocket money.
He rejoined his likely, finely dressed group around a table near the edge of the poker area. There were eight other players, each of whom had already laid down the buy-in of 5,000 stars (the currency of the Red Star Confederate, who took a simple if unimaginative approach to naming it when they combined the yuan and the rouble). He shook some chips idly in his hand as he wandered back to them, the better to give an impression of slightly inebriated overconfidence.
“Hola,” he hailed them merrily, and slightly too loudly, “are we ready to go again?”
One of the women, a really rather good-looking brunette with a porcelain complexion, turned to regard him with sparkling eyes surgically altered to shine like diamonds. Her dress of a glistening burgundy fabric wasn’t strapless so much as mainly composed of straps, cunningly anchored to prevent “very suggestive” becoming “blatant.” She gave him a predatory smile, probably because he’d made a point to be careless in their first session and she now had him pegged as an easy mark. “Are you, sir?”
Drift smiled ruefully and raised his glass to her. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I expect.”
The sentence was technically correct. It wasn’t his fault if this group of peacocks misread it as an admission of weakness.
They sat down and got back to their play. The big blind was posted by one of the other male players, a blond-haired fop barely into his twenties judging by appearances, and using a thin mesh vest to flaunt a physique surely created at the point where narcissism met art, or possibly surgery. The small blind fell to a stunningly beautiful woman in a cream dress which Drift recognised as a fabric that became more and more transparent as the owner’s heartbeat and body temperature rose. It was designed for the hedonistic club or party scene: wearing it to a poker table was an unsubtle statement of confidence in one’s own self-control.
Drift had lost some chips in their first session, but only one of their table had been in real trouble at the break. He was an athletically built man with a narrow moustache whom Drift guessed had Chinese ancestry, and who was the only other player at the table with clothes of similar quality to Drift’s own. His suit might have got him in past the door staff but it hadn’t garnered him any respect at this table, and nor had his playing style. He was overly conservative, bleeding chips and reluctant to take any form of risk. When he did go all-in, with a desperate bid to salvage his game, he ran a pair of tens into pocket jacks from the girl in the cream dress, who wiped him out and took his chips without her dress losing a shred of opacity. Drift wasn’t sorry to see him go: the man had a dangerous air which the rich kids around them seemed to have completely missed, and if he wasn’t something like a gangland enforcer blowing his pay then Ichabod Drift was a left-handed ham sandwich.
The next player to fall by the wayside was the girl in the straps, who watched Drift bluff his way to a couple of fairly small hands in quick succession with nothing cards and then went head-to-head with him as the others folded again, perhaps sensing a trap. This time Drift didn’t need to bluff, but made sure to chew the inside of his cheek in the exact same way as he had previously. She fell for it and saw her pair of fours from the table with an ace high get utterly trounced by the three fours
Drift made using one of his hand cards. He didn’t get her completely, but her attempt to save herself in the next hand saw her lose her few remaining chips to a bald man with a narrow goatee who was wearing some modern-fashion interpretation of a twenty-first or twenty-second century military uniform, chewing some form of dried meat and smoking a genuine, hideous-smelling cigar.
The well-muscled young fop bled himself slowly dry with poorly thought-out risks, and left muttering dire imprecations at somebody. The third woman in the group, a plump blonde with a dazzling smile and pleasing cleavage, or possibly the other way around, coolly eliminated a genial old man shortly afterwards. He’d been paying too much attention to her low-cut dress of midnight purple, and the tiny lights like distant fireflies that crawled all over it but seemed to pool most often over her breasts. Drift had no doubts at all as to how coincidental that particular detail was. “Will you at least let me buy you a drink for a game well played?” the man she’d eliminated huffed jovially, heaving himself to his feet. He spoke Russian, as had most of them during the game, but Drift heard him in English thanks to the commpiece in his left ear, which provided an almost instant translation in its pleasant, neutral tone via the translation function on his pad.
“You already have,” his conqueror replied, gesturing to her pile of chips, and that was that.
They took another short break at that point, which Drift used to visit the nearest bathroom. He was making his way back when the last of their group of players, an androgynous youth of few words, fell in beside him before he’d even realised they were there. Their hair was an artfully asymmetrical mess of lengths and colours ranging from pure white to the darkest violet imaginable, and they wore a forest green sarong with what looked to be a deliberately shapeless sleeveless black top. It was probably in fashion.
“So,” they began, too casually, “whose feathers have you ruffled?”
Drift frowned sideways at them. “I beg your pardon?”
“Someone’s taken an interest in you,” his opponent said mildly. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed?”
“This is a pretty poor psychological game,” Drift snorted. “Worried about your chances?”
“I’ve seen at least two security watching you,” they told him, carelessly flicking a strand of hair back from their face, “and someone else who I’m sure is one of the House’s plain-clothes people. You’ve attracted someone’s attention.”
“The only thing I attract is the ladies,” Drift replied with mock politeness, “but thanks for your concern.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” the other player said with a faint smile, before leaving his side to resume their seat at the table. Drift returned to his own place, but despite his best efforts he couldn’t completely shake what they’d said. He made a pretence of looking around to see where the bald man in the pseudo-military uniform had got to, but in reality he was checking out the location and numbers of the nearest of the Grand House’s floor staff. He saw nothing untoward, but when he turned back to the table the youth was smiling at him.
Play restarted and Drift made an effort to resume his tipsy act, but his heart wasn’t in it. He told himself that it would be less believable now anyway given that he’d played astutely enough to avoid elimination so far, but he still would have preferred some sort of additional bluff between him and his opponents. The fact was that he was undeniably distracted by what he’d just been told, even though there was no reason for him to be. He hadn’t broken any laws here, he wasn’t trying to game the casino and he wasn’t wanted in Red Star space, so far as he was aware. Unfortunately you couldn’t skate as close to the edge of legality as he
habitually did without getting a bit paranoid about the authorities, and someone had found a way to play on that.
Well, at least the game wouldn’t be boring.
He got back into the swing of things by eliminating the blonde woman with the lights on her dress, who was aiming for two pairs with her pocket queens and the two eights on the table, but fell foul of Drift’s pocket threes that allowed him to snatch a full house. The youth in the sarong followed not long after, when their queen-high clubs flush lost out by the narrowest of margins to the cigar-smoker’s king-high. That left Drift, the bald man with the cigar (now on at least his third) and the woman in the cream dress.
It was, on the face of it, a fairly even match-up: each of them had around fifteen grand in their stack, although the automated reading on the table showed that Drift was slightly ahead of both his competitors. However, the cigar-smoker seemed as implacable as a concrete wall, and the woman in the cream dress hadn’t allowed her apparel to grow the faintest bit translucent throughout the game’s duration. This was purely a hobby for each of them, he suspected, and the stakes weren’t enough to make them blink. For Drift, on the other hand, a potential win of over 40,000 stars was enough to make him start sweating.
He was abruptly tired of the game. Cheap trick by the youth in the sarong or not, he had become convinced that the bald security guard standing against the wall opposite was watching him, and he didn’t like it. Nothing good ever came of having security interested in you. He was dealt his next cards, checked them—the ace of spades and the queen of clubs—and came to a decision.
The cigar-smoker checked his cards, as unreadable as ever, and pushed in his bet: 5,000 stars. It was a hefty opening gambit, and one probably designed to intimidate, but it didn’t work.
“All in.” The woman in cream shunted her entire stack forwards, close
on 15,000 stars. The cigar-smoker’s eyebrows climbed a little, but he said nothing.
Drift scratched the skin around his right eye for a moment, then shrugged. “Go big or go home, I guess.” He pushed his stack in too, and looked enquiringly over at the bald man. “Are you game?”
The cigar-smoker just grunted. He did, however, push his remaining chips in to match Drift as closely as he could. Everyone was in and the winner would essentially take all.
They all turned their cards over, since betting was now at an end. The woman in cream had queens in hearts and diamonds and the cigar-smoker had . . . kings in diamonds and clubs. A faint smirk crossed his face: they all knew he had the best chance of taking this hand. The woman in cream swallowed slightly, and Drift thought he caught the faintest beginnings of translucency in her clothes. A pair of queens was a strong starting point, but it looked like she’d played aggressively at the wrong time.
The dealer flopped the next three cards.
The seven of clubs, the queen of spades and the three of spades.
The woman in cream puffed her cheeks out and gave a small, semi-nervous laugh, while the cigar-smoker’s already stony expression fell a fraction. Three queens on the table suddenly made her the huge favourite, and Drift’s paltry two queens meant he could almost see his pile of chips sliding across the table in her direction.
The turn card revealed the four of spades, and suddenly Drift breathed again. Any spade for the final card would see him sweep the table with a flush, which meant the cigar-smoker had only one hope left: the king of hearts, to give him three kings without Drift getting the spade he needed. However, the woman in cream was still winning as it stood.
The dealer, with a disappointing lack of drama, turned over the river card.
The two of spades.
“Motherfucker! Seriously? On kings?” The cigar-smoker shot to his feet and stormed off without a backwards glance, his implacability finally crumbling away. The woman in cream simply smiled ruefully as the dealer pushed the pile of chips towards Drift’s waiting arms.
“Well played, sir.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “Although I think you have luck to thank for it.”
“A win’s a win,” Drift grinned at her, sliding a couple of thousand-star chips back the dealer’s way as a tip. “I admire your confidence in your wardrobe, by the way.”
“Oh, it would take more than this table can offer to get me excited,” she replied, not without a hint of mischief.
“Well, I seem to have an abundance of cash,” Drift said, getting to his feet. “How about I use some of it to buy you a drink and test that theory?” She might have quietly sneered at his clothes when they’d first met, but Drift wasn’t the sort to hold grudges. Well, not when the other person had the kind of features you’d expect to see in a fifty-foot hologram advertising make-up, anyway.
She opened her mouth as if to respond, but then something in her face changed. She composed her features and took a step backwards. “Perhaps another time.”
Drift blinked in surprise. He’d been almost sure she was going to . . .
A hand landed on his shoulder. Startled, and not a little annoyed, he looked around to see which of his crew had spotted him and come over to interrupt his flirting.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the bald Grand House security guard, two of his colleagues standing at his shoulder. “I must ask you to come with us.”