The noggle – who had just made much too big a bet – peeled back the corner of his hole card, and glanced down at it for the third time in as many minutes.
From his seat across the table, Crooktail felt like smiling, but didn’t.
That impulse to grin became even harder to resist a moment later, when – after fiddling with his collar, and glancing nervously down at his chips – the noggle peeked at his card a fourth time.
It’s still a trey, Crooktail thought to himself, grinning on the inside even as his face remained blank. Same as the last time you looked.
The noggle, meanwhile, did smile, as three players folded in rapid succession. Then he leaned forward a bit in his seat, and steepled his hands together in front of his chest.
A gesture like that was supposed to be a sign of strength – or, at least, that’s what it said in the ubiquitous pamphlets, which street hawkers pushed on the tourists from Dayko. But Crooktail had been in the game for long enough to know the difference between a player who was strong, and a player who was weak but was trying to look strong. And the nog was weak. Steepling his hands like that was a tell – it just wasn’t the tell the noggle thought it was.
By the time the action made it back around to Crooktail, the fox already had the chips counted-out.
“Call,” he said, as he slid the stack into the middle of the table.
The noggle’s smile disappeared. So did his steepled fingers.
The dealer – a tired-looking minotaur, who the noggle tipped every time he won a hand – gave the nog a second to collect himself, before clearing her throat and saying: “One call. Show down, sir?”
Wordlessly, the noggle flipped over his hole card, revealing the three of hooves.
The dealer slid that card to the center of the table, along with the two other threes already face-up in the noggle’s hand.
“Three-of-a-kind, treys,” the dealer said.
When the dealer looked at him, Crooktail turned over his own hole card, to reveal the nine of horns.
“Two pair, queens and fives,” the dealer said, gesturing to Crooktail’s four other cards, and brushing the meaningless nine away. “Two pair is the low hand – two pair wins.”
The noggle looked sick as the dealer collected the pot and pushed the chips across the table to Crooktail. But whatever momentary indigestion the noggle had suffered from getting caught bluffing didn’t last, because, even as Crooktail was stacking his winnings, the nog had his billfold out, and was waving to catch the attention of the pit boss.
The noggle was a genuine angel. This was the fourth time he had called for more chips, and he was showing no signs of slowing down.
And, given that Crooktail had so far been the main recipient of the noggle’s largesse, well, that was just fine by him.
Rubbing his eyes, Crooktail wondered where the waitress had gotten to. The next time she came around, he would order a second cup of chicory.
If he was lucky, Crooktail reckoned, then he was in for a long night. This one nog was going to settle a very large tab.
“Where are your manners, Crooktail?” came a soft, sibilant voice from somewhere just behind Crooktail’s shoulder. “Aren’t you going to tip the dealer?”
For a moment, then, Crooktail seemed frozen in place, with one hand in mid-air, where it had been stacking his chips.
Without turning around – almost without daring to breathe – the fox slid a single, high-value chip from the top of his stack, and he offered it to the dealer.
“For your trouble,” he said to the minotaur, who quietly pocketed the chip.
Then, as fast as he could, Crooktail stood up from the table, and he ran.
He ignored the dealer’s surprised cry from behind him, ignored the startled looks and indignant grunts all around him as he elbowed his way through the crowd, running pell-mell in the opposite direction from which the voice had come. The waitress who Crooktail had been looking for just a minute earlier stepped into his path as he made a beeline for the street, and he all but bowled her over, sending her tray of centaur wine flying end-over-end.
He was close to the exit, at least – Crooktail always played at the table closest to the exit – and, as he burst headlong through the double-doors out into the heat of the Jakkard night, he allowed himself to hope that maybe – just maybe – he had gotten away.
Then something hit Crooktail across the back of the head – hard – and all he saw were stars.
* * *
Crooktail swallowed, and, as he felt the barrel of a gun dig into the space between his ribs, he tried to sound braver than he felt.
“I don’t sharp anymore, Salina,” he said. “And that’s the honest truth.”
From behind him, Crooktail heard a sibilant laugh.
“The honest truth?” asked a voice that sent shivers down his spine. “Cross your heart, and hope to die?”
The gun jabbed deeper into Crooktail’s ribs.
“Yes,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said the voice. “And, Crooktail? You can call me Snake Eyes. All my friends do.”
Crooktail swallowed involuntarily as Snake Eyes – who was not his friend – slithered into view. She was a rattler – a big one – with dusty brown scales, and a red diamond pattern than ran down the length of her long back. She wore an expensive basilisk-hide coat – hand-stitched, Crooktail could tell, and hand-dyed, too – and, beneath the sloping brim of her sharply-pitched hat, her slit-pupiled eyes were hard, and flinty.
“You’ll have to forgive my reticence, Snake Eyes,” Crooktail said. “But, the last time I saw you, I got the distinct impression that, if you ever saw my face again, you’d kill me.”
Looking down at Crooktail, Snake Eyes smiled, in that terrible, reptilian way that only snakes really could.
“Times change, Crooktail,” Snake Eyes said. “I’ve come to offer you the chance to pay off your debt.”
Crooktail fidgeted in his seat, trying somehow to get the gun to not press so hard between his ribs – the way it was now, it really hurt.
“I thought we were square,” he said.
“Oh, no,” the rattler hissed. “We’re not square. Not by a longshot.”
Crooktail fidgeted again, which earned him a sharp poke from the gun.
“He keeps moving,” came a different voice from behind him, this one cold and officious. “Should I tie him up?”
The snake shook her head.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Miss Houndstooth,” Snake Eyes said. Then, after tilting her head a bit to one side, and flicking her tongue in the air just in front of Crooktail’s face, the rattler smiled. “But then where are my manners, Crooktail? I haven’t introduced you to Miss Houndstooth yet.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the officious voice said, before driving the tip of the pistol even deeper between Crooktail’s ribs.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Crooktail said, between winces.
“You two actually met earlier tonight,” Snake Eyes said, adjusting the brim of her hat. “But I don’t think you saw Miss Houndstooth, then, seeing as she cold-cocked you from behind.”
“I’m shy like that,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“I always like making new friends,” Crooktail said.
“That’s good to hear,” Snake Eyes said. “Because you’re going to do a job for me. And, until it’s done, Miss Houndstooth here is going to stick closer to you than your shadow.” The snake’s tongue flicked. “Just to make sure there aren’t any… misunderstandings.”
“I hate misunderstandings,” Miss Houndstooth said, and the gun barrel jammed Crooktail so hard that he yelped.
Snake Eyes hissed.
“Delicately, Miss Houndstooth. Delicately.” The rattler’s eyes narrowed. “For now.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Miss Houndstooth said, and the gun withdrew from Crooktail’s ribs.
The fox sighed with relief, and he rubbed his sore side.
“I guess I should say ‘thanks,’” he said.
“You should,” the rattler said. “Normally, Miss Houndstooth likes to break fingers, when she feels like she doesn’t have someone’s full attention. But I told her that you need your hands to play cards.”
Crooktail stopped rubbing his side, and started rubbing the back of his head, where he could feel a lump forming.
“I told you,” he said, “I don’t sharp anymore.”
The rattler laughed, but it was a laugh without humor.
“It’s so funny to hear you say that,” she said.
Slithering across the floor – Crooktail thought they were in his room, but his head was swimming, and he wasn’t quite sure – Snake Eyes picked up a chair from a far corner, and carried it back. She set it down, just in front of Crooktail, and coiled herself around it more than she really sat on it.
Then, looking over Crooktail’s head, Snake Eyes addressed her next comment to the unseen Miss Houndstooth:
“You see, Miss Houndstooth, back when I first met my good friend, Crooktail—,” and she glanced down at the fox, “—two years ago, I believe? Is my math correct?”
Crooktail nodded his head. That date was not one he was likely to forget.
Snake Eyes nodded back, before looking up again.
“Two years ago,” she continued, “when I first met my dear friend, Crooktail, he was the finest bottom-dealer in the whole western Waste.” The snake smiled. “I mean, I’ve met some very good card sharps in my time, Miss Houndstooth, but Crooktail here was the sharpest.” Her smile widened. “Of course, he wasn’t called Crooktail back then. Do you know how he got that name, Miss Houndstooth?”
“No,” Miss Houndstooth said. “But I am overwhelmed by curiosity.”
“Well, it’s a funny story,” Snake Eyes said. “You see, old Crooktail, here, he got himself invited to a game of mine. And, at just the most inopportune moment you could possibly imagine, he dealt me an ace off the bottom of the deck.”
“That’s bad, I take it?” the voice asked.
Snake Eyes smiled.
“I always forget,” she said to Crooktail. “Miss Houndstooth here isn’t much for cards.”
“I have other interests,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“Yes,” Snake Eyes said. “Well, to clarify, Miss Houndstooth, that ace was a very expensive card for me.” The rattler inched closer to Crooktail, so that he could feel the dryness of her breath on his face. “But old Crooktail here dealt it to me so smooth, I didn’t even realize he was grifting me at the time. Not a lot of people are stupid enough to try to grift me, after all.”
Crooktail opened his mouth to speak, but Snake Eyes silenced him with a glance.
“So, when I did find out that my friend here had sharped me,” she said, “I tracked him down, and, by way of saying thanks, I gave him something to remember me by.”
Then, faster than Crooktail could react, Snake Eyes reached around behind him, and grabbed hold of his tail. But, when he tried to stand up, to wrestle himself free, he felt the gun poke him in the ribs again, so he forced himself to stay still, even as the rattler his tail up in the air, displaying it like a kind of trophy.
Crooktail’s tail was thick and bushy – like a bottle brush, almost.
Except for the spot, about halfway along its length, where it bent sharply to one side, at an almost ninety-degree angle.
“Snapped it clean in half,” Snake Eyes said, with a hint of morbid satisfaction in her voice. “Which is why everyone calls him Crooktail.”
“I’d say he got off lightly,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“So would I,” Snake Eyes said. She let go of Crooktail’s tail. “Which is why the time has come for my friend Crooktail to settle the remainder of his debt.”
Crooktail craned his neck backwards, and tried to nod in the direction of where he thought his bed might be.
“My valise is under the mattress,” he said, feeling cold sweat start to bead on his forehead. “If you peel back the lining, there’s fifty gold boks sewn inside. You want my money? Take it – it’s yours.”
“Oh, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Snake Eyes said. “Not even if I throw in your winnings from tonight.”
The rattler extracted a purse from her coat, and dropped it into Crooktail’s lap, where it landed with a clink.
“I had Miss Houndstooth cash in your chips for you,” she said. “You were in such a hurry to leave, you seemed to have forgotten.”
“Mighty nice of you,” Crooktail said.
“I’m a real humanitarian,” Miss Houndstooth said.
Crooktail glanced down at the purse.
When he looked back up again, he found that the rattler was staring him square in the eyes.
“You did awful well tonight,” she said. “For someone who doesn’t sharp anymore.”
For a second, Crooktail felt a flash of indignation that overwhelmed his fear.
“I don’t have to sharp to win,” he said. “I can play, too, you know? I can win just fine dealing straight from the top.”
“That’s good to hear,” the rattler said, and smiled. “Because that’s exactly what you’re going to do for me. You’re going to win at cards.”
Crooktail blinked, and shook his head.
“I don’t follow,” he said.
“There’s a high-stakes card game that meets once a month, in the club car of the Dayko Limited,” Snake Eyes said. “Very high stakes. The game is on the train precisely so that people like me can’t hit it. Security’s tighter than a bad hat. So I’m not going to hit the game.”
The rattler tapped a finger between Crooktail’s eyes.
“I’m going to stake you in the game,” she said. “And you’re going to win it for me.”
“If I do?” he said.
“Then you and me are square,” Snake Eyes said.
A moment passed in silence.
“And if I don’t?” Crooktail asked.
“Then I’m going to break so much more than your tail.”
Crooktail swallowed again.
“What if I can’t win?”
“That, right there, is negative thinking,” the rattler said. “And I seem to recall reading somewhere that negative thinking can be very deleterious for your heath. Isn’t that right, Miss Houndstooth?”
“Very deleterious,” Miss Houndstooth said.
Crooktail closed his eyes tight, and, for a moment, he considered his options, such as they were.
“I guess I’d better just win, then,” he said.
“I’m so glad that we are of one mind,” Snake Eyes said. Then, nodding to the unseen Miss Houndstooth, she added: “You can put the gun away. We’re going to need to get going, if Mister Crooktail here is going to catch his train.”
Crooktail felt the pistol withdraw from his ribs. He tried to stand up, and, this time, no one stopped him.
“I meant what I said,” he told Snake Eyes, as he scooped up the purse from where it had fallen on the floor. “I don’t sharp anymore. I play fair-and-square now, and I’m going to win that way, too.”
Uncoiling herself from the chair, the rattler cocked her head in his direction.
“And just why is that?” she asked. “Why don’t you sharp anymore?”
As he answered her question, Crooktail kept his face blank.
“If I told you that I found religion,” he said, “would you believe me?”
“No,” Snake Eyes said. “I wouldn’t.”
Then the rattler motioned to Miss Houndstooth, and, for the second time that night, Crooktail felt something hard crash down on his head, and everything went black.
* * *
Miss Houndstooth, it transpired, was a stone-faced human in a knee-length coat of the selfsame pattern, who bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the schoolmarm who had once slammed Crooktail’s paw in a drawer after she’d caught him cheating at dice.
Even her voice was similar. It gave Crooktail the shakes.
So the fact that Miss Houndstooth never seemed to take her eyes off Crooktail left him feeling distinctly ill-at-ease.
The trouble was, there was nowhere to run. Crooktail was stuck, and he knew it.
He had come-to inside Snake Eyes’s compartment aboard the Dayko Limited. Outside, the hazy, rust-red Waste was rushing by at speeds which would have made jumping suicidal – even if Crooktail could have somehow managed to open the window and fling himself out without getting grabbed, which seemed unlikely. And Miss Houndstooth sat perched between him and the door.
Between himself and the human, Crooktail was not sure who was faster, but he had a guess, which he felt no desire to test.
Presently, the door to the compartment opened, and Snake Eyes slithered inside.
“You are confirmed for the game,” she said, handing a paper chit to Crooktail, which the fox took with no small measure of trepidation. Then, turning to the human, she said: “Miss Houndstooth, give him the case.”
Miss Houndstooth rose from her seat and pulled down a patterned leather valise from the rack above the bunk. She handed the case to Crooktail, who nearly toppled forward from the weight of it.
“What’s in here?” he asked. “An anvil?”
“Your buy-in,” Snake Eyes said. The rattler snapped open the catches on the valise to reveal more gold than Crooktail had ever seen in his life.
“Blazes,” he whispered, as he stared down at the stacks of coins.
“There’s ten thousand boks in that case,” Snake Eyes said. “That’s your ticket into the big game.”
Then the rattler’s smile disappeared, and she snapped the case shut, nearly catching Crooktail’s fingers.
“Understand something now, Crooktail,” Snake Eyes said, her voice a low, dangerous hiss. “Every single bok in that case has just been added to your tab. If I don’t have that money back by the time we reach Dayko – and plenty more besides – I’m going to take every last bit you owe me out of your hide.” The rattler’s tongue flicked, making Crooktail flinch. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Luxite,” Crooktail said.
“Marvelous,” Snake Eyes said. “In that case, Miss Houndstooth will escort you to the club car. I’d hate for anything to happen to you along the way.”
Miss Houndstooth took a step towards Crooktail, but he held his hands up for her to stop.
“Hold on,” he said to Snake Eyes. “Before I sit down at that table, there’s a couple things I need to know.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Snake Eyes said, but, after a moment’s tense silence, the rattler nodded her head. “Fine. You have questions? Ask them.”
Crooktail gave a quick nod of his own.
“Okay,” he said. “For starters, I need to know about the decks. What sort of decks do they use?”
The big rattler’s head tilted a bit further to one side, and the corners of her mouth turned upward into a distinctly reptilian grin.
“Now why would you need to know that,” Snake Eyes said, “if you weren’t planning to sharp the game?”
“Just because I’m not planning to sharp the game doesn’t mean that one of the other players won’t,” he said. “So I need to know how hard it would be to cheat, and how.”
Snake Eyes seemed to consider that, before nodding.
“The railroad provides the decks,” she said. “Arrowbacks. Blue and black. Brand new, each game, and still in the pack.” The snake shook her head. “There’s no chance for anyone to tamper with the cards – the conductor checks the seals.”
“Any chance someone tampered with the conductor?”
“If I could have just bought the conductor,” Snake Eyes said to Crooktail, with an edge in her voice, “then why would I need you?”
Crooktail swallowed, but said nothing. His collar felt tight.
“Anything else you wanted to know?” Snake Eyes asked, getting impatient.
“Yes,” Crooktail said. “Why am I really here?”
The rattler’s posture shifted, subtly, and her pupils narrowed.
“I thought that was clear enough,” Snake Eyes said. “You’re here to take down a card game.”
“Except that doesn’t make sense,” Crooktail said. “If this was just about making money? Well, you’re hardly short of that – or of easier ways to get more, for that matter.” He nodded at the heavy valise he was carrying. “And I daresay the Waste is full of card games you could knock over without having to put ten thousand boks on the line.” Crooktail shook his head. “No, this isn’t about taking down a card game. It’s something to do with this card game, specifically. And that means it’s not really the game you’re after – it’s one of the players.”
Snake Eyes slithered closer to Crooktail, before drawing herself up to her full height, so that the fox had to crane his neck up to look at her.
“Question time is over,” the rattler said, looming over him. “You are not here to probe my motives. You are here to play cards.”
“And that’s another thing,” Crooktail said, even as he fought to keep his knees from shaking. “You’re a quick hand at fox’s run yourself. You don’t need to stake me – if this was just about winning, you could take the whole thing down yourself. So the fact that it’s me playing, and not you, has to mean that, whoever it is at that table that you really want beat, you can’t do it yourself, without tipping your hand in some larger game. Right?”
When the rattler didn’t reply, Crooktail cleared his throat.
“I am right,” he said. “Aren’t I?”
The rattler just kept staring at him.
“Even if you were,” Snake Eyes said, “and I’m not saying that you are, but, even if you were? It would be no business of yours.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong,” Crooktail said. “Because, if what you really care about isn’t taking down the game, but stacking one particular player? Well, then I need to know about that, because it will change the way I play.” The fox cleared his throat. “If you’re sending me into that room specifically to wipe someone out? Then I need to know who.”
For a second, it was dead silent inside the compartment. The second stretched into a minute, and, from the thundercloud look forming on Snake Eyes’s face, Crooktail began to wonder if he had overplayed his hand.
Miss Houndstooth had slipped around behind him, and Crooktail braced himself for another blow on the head – or worse.
But the stars didn’t come. Instead, the rattler blinked.
“Bruggle,” Snake Eyes finally said. “He’ll be sitting in sixth position – a fox, name of Bruggle.”
Crooktail exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
“And what did this fox – Bruggle? What did he do to deserve you?” Crooktail asked. “He cheat you at cards, too?”
“Near enough,” Snake Eyes said. “He worked for the land bureau, out in Dayko, and he’s as crooked as your tail.”
A momentary grin flashed across the rattler’s face, and she glanced down at Crooktail’s ruined tail. But it didn’t last.
“There’s a parcel of land, up near Weeping Rocks, that I’ve been meaning to buy,” Snake Eyes said. “A mining concession. So I made a deal with Bruggle to buy it – quietly, off the books. You see, I make it my business to find out about new crystal veins before anyone else, so, if word gets out that I’m interested in a particular tract? Well, the price has a nasty habit of going up. Which is why I prefer to make my deals through a cut-out.”
The rattler’s eyes narrowed, and her tongue flicked.
“Only, this time, the nog I hired to act as my cut-out? He double-crossed me, sold the parcel on to someone else,” Snake Eyes said. “Then he tried to take it on the run, but Miss Houndstooth caught up with him.”
“He and I had a frank and honest discussion,” Miss Houndstooth said. “A real heart-to-heart.”
Snake Eyes hissed.
“The nog said that Bruggle sold the land to him, and that he sold it right back to Bruggle,” she said.
“After that, the nog didn’t say much else,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“And now Bruggle is here, on the train,” Snake Eyes said. “Seems he fancies himself a bit of a gambler, and he bought into today’s game, using my land as security for his stake.”
As the bigger picture came into focus, Crooktail nodded his head.
“So, if I clean this Bruggle out?” he said.
“Then the only way for him to cover his marker is to sell the land,” Snake Eyes said. “To me.”
“But why not just kill him?” Crooktail asked. “That seems more like your style.”
“I need his signature on the bill of sale, to make everything nice and legal,” Snake Eyes said. “If he’s dead, who knows what happens to the land? I don’t feel like taking my chances with probate, and I positively loathe lawyers.”
“Then why not just force him to sign?” Crooktail said. “I’m sure that Miss Houndstooth can be persuasive.”
“Very persuasive,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“All of this is beside the point,” Snake Eyes said, with a sharpness which indicated that the matter was closed. “My reasons are my own, and you’re not here to be my partner. You’re here to do a job, and I’ve told you everything that you need to know in order to do it.”
The rattler slid over to the compartment door, turned the bolt, and opened it.
“So how about you go play some cards,” she hissed, “before I am forced to conclude that your services are no longer required?”
Crooktail swallowed, and nodded.
Then he picked up the case – Seven Hells, but it really was heavy – and stepped out into the corridor, with Miss Houndstooth following close behind.
“If I have to choose between taking a chance to stack Bruggle, or positioning myself to win the whole game,” Crooktail asked the rattler, “which do you want me to do?”
“Both,” Snake Eyes said, and she closed the door.
* * *
Crooktail’s mind raced as he made his way down the length of the speeding train to the club car.
As he walked, the fox tried to focus his thoughts, to take stock of just how tight a bind he was in. But the weight of ten thousand boks bumping against his right knee did not help. Nor did the company of Miss Houndstooth, who followed him like a specter – always present, always silent, and always close enough that she could have put a knife in his back had he tried to make a run for it.
Granted, Crooktail had not actually seen a knife on Miss Houndstooth. But he took its presence as a mortal certainty.
And then there was the matter of Snake Eyes – which was a whole other bind, and a tighter one still. Because the problem was not that the rattler had lied to Crooktail – although she almost certainly had. As good at disguising her tells as Snake Eyes was, Crooktail was fairly certain that the story she had told him was – at most – maybe half true.
What worried Crooktail was that Snake Eyes had told him anything that was true at all. Because Snake Eyes was not the sort to trust anyone else with the particulars of her affairs.
So the fact that she had answered his nakedly-probing questions with even half-truths meant only one of two things.
Either Snake Eyes didn’t care that Crooktail was horning-in on her business because she had nothing to conceal.
Which was unlikely.
Or Snake Eyes didn’t care that Crooktail was horning-in on her business because she didn’t plan for him to live long enough for it to matter.
Which was much more likely.
Idly, Crooktail wondered whether a hole had already been dug for him, somewhere in the dry, red clay on the outskirts of Dayko, or whether Snake Eyes would make him dig the hole himself, before she settled his debt with a bullet.
The latter, Crooktail guessed.
Still, Crooktail was an optimist by nature. All gamblers are. So he took it as given that there was a line of play somewhere that would see him safely through to Dayko.
The trick was staying alive for long enough to figure out what it was.
As they came to the end of the train, there was a noggle standing guard outside the club car. He wore a Bowlerton Detective Agency badge, and he looked twitchy.
Crooktail produced the chit which Snake Eyes had given him, and he offered it to the noggle.
“My name is VanCleef,” Crooktail said, using the name that no one called him by. “I have a seat at the game.”
The noggle glanced down at the chit, then up at Crooktail, then back at the chit again, before folding up the piece of paper, and slipping it inside his waistcoat.
“I’m required to inspect your security,” the noggle said. “I trust you have it with you?”
Crooktail held up the valise – he still couldn’t believe how much ten thousand boks weighed – and he opened the lid, so that the noggle could glimpse the gold inside.
The noggle took one of the coins out from the case and bit down on it with his teeth. Apparently satisfied by what he felt, the Bowlerton nog dropped the coin back into the case, and nodded his head.
“No weapons are permitted,” he said. “I’ll have to frisk you before you enter.”
Crooktail shrugged his shoulders. He set the valise down on the ground, and held up his arms. The Bowlerton man patted him down, and he was nothing if not thorough.
“Okay,” the noggle said, after motioning for Crooktail to put his arms down. “You can go in. Enjoy your game, Mister VanCleef.”
“Thank you,” Crooktail said. “I’m sure that I will.”
Crooktail picked up the case and stepped through the opened door.
Miss Houndstooth made to follow him, but the Bowlerton blocked her path.
“Players only,” the guard said. “Plus invited guests.”
Crooktail glanced back, to see Miss Houndstooth looking expectantly at him.
He hesitated for just a moment, before clearing his throat.
“It’s okay,” he said. “She’s with me.”
Again, Miss Houndstooth made to advance, and, again, the noggle moved to block her.
“I’ll have to search you, too, ma’am,” the nog said. “No weapons inside the club car.”
Crooktail felt himself tense, and he was trying to decide which way he would run, in the event that things turned violent, when – to his complete and utter surprise – Miss Houndstooth held her arms up in the air, and waited for the guard to frisk her.
The noggle was no less scrupulous than he had been with Crooktail, but apparently his search turned up nothing, because he stepped to one side, and allowed Miss Houndstooth to pass.
Although he was careful not to show it, Crooktail felt stunned. Maybe he had been wrong about the knife?
But then Crooktail caught just the faintest ghost of a grin on Miss Houndstooth’s face, as the two of them moved into the club car, and he felt his stomach tighten again.
The club car’s interior reminded Crooktail of a fancy Verkell hotel. The walls were paneled with dark, lacquered ironwood, and the tall, wingback chairs were upholstered in crushed red velvet. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, where they swayed back-and-forth in time with the motion of the train, and the air smelled like whiskey and smoke. A generously-stocked bar ran along the length of one wall, and a uniformed barman stood at attention.
Crooktail had barely set foot inside the car when a minotaur in a train conductor’s uniform hurried over and took the patterned leather valise from his hands. The conductor carried the suitcase over to a gilded safe that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. After dialing the combination – which Crooktail was careful to observe – and placing the valise inside the vault – which Crooktail assumed contained all the players’ security deposits, including – presumably – the land grant which Snake Eyes was determined to get her claws on – the minotaur closed the vault door and gave the dial a final spin, before turning to usher Crooktail towards the center of the room.
“We have been eagerly awaiting your arrival, Mister VanCleef,” the conductor said. “Now that you are here, we can begin.”
At the center of the room stood an oval-shaped table, covered in green baize, with six backless chairs circled around it.
Five of the chairs were already filled. There was just one empty seat.
The conductor pulled the sixth chair away from the table, and invited Crooktail to sit.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the conductor said, as Crooktail settled into his seat, “the game is set. Play will take place in three sessions, with short breaks in between, and will continue until only one player remains, or until the train arrives in Dayko. Until then, the barman and I are at your disposal.”
Then the minotaur reached into his pocket, and produced a fresh pack of arrowback cards. He paused for a moment to check the seal, before slicing through the paper with his fingernail, extracting the deck, and fanning it out across the green baize.
“Shuffle-up and deal,” he said.
* * *
For the first two hours, Crooktail didn’t play a hand.
He marked time on the clock above the bar, watching it count out each railroad-standard minute as he mucked hand after hand. Even when he was dealt a deuce in the hole with a trey face-up, Crooktail tossed his opening hand into the muck with the exact same motion with which he folded every other card that came his way, and with which he would keep right on folding until the two hours were out.
The strategy was one which Crooktail had worked before, and to good effect. It came at a price – he was burning antes with each hand – but that was a price worth paying to study the other players at the game, without having to devote even a fraction of his mind to finding the correct play. The stacks were deep, and – for the time being, at least – information was worth more than antes.
Later, after Crooktail had taken the measure of each player, the time would come for separating them from their chips.
Crooktail himself was seated in the second chair, along one of the longer sides of the table. It was a position he was not particularly happy about – he would have preferred either the first or fourth seat, at one of the short sides of the table, since that would have given him a clear view of the other five players without ever having to turn his neck. As it was, Crooktail had to look right to see the human in chair number one, and he had to look left to see the vash in chair number three.
The human in seat one was an older gentleman, with a ruddy complexion, and a salt-and-pepper mustache. From what Crooktail had seen so far, he was aggressive to the point of recklessness, so Crooktail was happy to be sitting to his left. The human chatted incessantly as he played, in what struck Crooktail as a fairly naked attempt to extract tells from his fellow players, and he had an annoying habit of making his bets with a little too much force, so that his chips toppled over as he pushed them to the center of the table. He was up in the early going, having taken down a sizeable pot with a nine-high in a three-way showdown, but Crooktail could already detect a pattern in the human’s betting. He would raise to open with a small card showing and another small card in the hole, and, if his third card helped, he would follow with a continuation bet that was just a little too large – the human was scaring action away, when he should have been inviting it. But, if the third card hurt him – by pairing his hole card, say – then the human tended to fire an even larger stack at the pot, in an effort to take the hand down by force rather than surrender his initial bet.
So far, that strategy had mostly worked – the other players either hadn’t had the courage or the cards to snap-off too many of the human’s bluffs. But it was a tactic which had the potential to get the human into trouble, and Crooktail made a note of it for later.
The vash in seat three, by contrast, was playing tighter than a bad hat. Snub-nosed and broad-tailed, and wearing a bowler hat which didn’t quite seem to fit, he was folding almost as devotedly as Crooktail. On those rare occasions when he did deign to open, he did so only with quality hands, and, if the next card to come didn’t help him, he mucked his hand without visible emotion.
With so little to go on, it was hard to get much of a read on the vash.
The noggle in the fourth seat was a syndicate player who Crooktail recognized from the circuit down south. He had played against her once before, in a gambling hall just outside of Crytsal Lick, and he knew that she played exactly the sort of boring, mistake-free game that syndicated players were supposed to play. She would sit in the fourth chair like a rock, making correct decisions and grinding tiny, mathematical advantages all night, and Crooktail knew that the smartest way to play her would be to do so as little as possible.
Of course, getting lucky also works just fine, Crooktail thought to himself, as the mustached human in seat one caught a miraculous deuce to take down a big pot against the noggle. The syndicate player had had the human beat all the way to the final card – the odds of him catching his deuce had been ten-to-one against.
But ten-to-one dogs sometimes won. That was the luck of the draw.
The noggle’s face was one of bland equanimity as the human raked nearly a third of her chips into his own pile. Syndicated players understood the breaks of the game. They also played with other people’s money.
To the noggle’s left was a second human. This one was younger than the first, and sharp-dressed, with oiled-back hair, and wire-rimmed spectacles. He took notes after each hand, writing down who had bet how much, and with what, in a little notebook which he kept on the table next to his chips, along with a silver pencil. Crooktail had played against men like him before, and, as a rule, they tended to be poor players, vulnerable to ambush by opponents whose patterns they thought they had cracked. But the human in seat five was acquitting himself well at the table – he had snapped-off a handful of bluffs, and, when he had good cards to play, he got value from them.
Of course, that was largely down to the fact that he was cheating, but, for the time being, Crooktail put that knowledge aside.
So, as Crooktail’s two hours of forced inactivity drew to a close, he increasingly focused his attentions on the fox seated directly opposite from him in chair number six – the one named Bruggle, who Snake Eyes wanted him to bust. Bruggle was fancy, even for a fox – he certainly was not dressed like a man living on a land bureau salary – and he carried himself with the sort of convivial ease that made Crooktail dislike him instinctively. He wore a white linen suit with a black bolo tie, and he made pleasant, if trivial, conversation with the other players as the deal passed around the table. But his cheerful banter ceased when he had cards in front of him, and, even when he did speak, there was nothing in his choice of words or tone of voice that gave anything away.
Snake Eyes had said that Bruggle fancied himself a bit of a card player. Well, Crooktail had decided that Bruggle was right.
The aggressive human in seat one had established the early chip lead, thanks largely to a handful of big pots, but Bruggle was not far behind, having snaffled antes remorselessly whenever anyone else displayed a hint of weakness. Bruggle had also won a few fair-sized hands in which he had actively been looking for action. He was tight, but he was aggressive, too, and he did a good job of mixing up his play.
Crooktail sighed inwardly, as he folded another hand. Bruggle was going to be difficult to beat.
The deal passed to Crooktail, then, and the reformed sharp felt that same tingle of the old excitement that he felt whenever the deck was in his hands. He studied each player’s face in turn as they looked at their cards, as they considered their bets, and, almost against his own volition, Crooktail found himself thinking about which card he would have bottom-dealt to each of them in order to gain the maximal advantage.
But Crooktail’s instinct for dishonestly never made it past idle speculation. Instead, when the action came around to him, he executed the same, robotic fold as ever, and, when it came time for him to deal fresh cards to the remaining players, Crooktail made a show of sliding each card neatly from the top of the deck and onto the baize before turning it over, so that there could be no question as to where it had come from.
The clock on the wall chimed twice, just as the hand drew to a close.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our first session of play,” the conductor announced, to a chorus of low exhalations from the seated players.
The minotaur extracted a gold watch from his pocket and flipped it open, and he made a little show checking it against the clock on the wall.
“We will now take a thirty minute break,” he said, “for rest and refreshment. Drinks are available at the bar, and private compartments are available in the carriage behind this one, should you require privacy.”
The minotaur flipped his watch closed, and returned it to his pocket.
“Any player not seated at this table in thirty minutes’ time will forfeit their remaining stake,” he said. “So please be punctual.”
Crooktail took out his own watch, and made doubly sure it agreed with the railroad clock. There was no sense ending up in a hole in the Waste because his watch ran a minute slow.
As he made a minute adjustment to the time, Crooktail felt a vice-like hand grip his shoulder.
“Get up,” he heard Miss Houndstooth say. “Now. You’re coming with me.”
The tone in her voice made it clear that Crooktail had no choice but to comply, so he did.
Once he was on his feet, Miss Houndstooth marched Crooktail quickly past the bar, where the other players were congregating, and out the back of the club car into the private carriage beyond. The private car was the rearmost one on the train. It was lined with compartments on both sides, and, without saying a word, Miss Houndstooth opened the nearest compartment door, and stuffed Crooktail brusquely inside.
“You have ten seconds to explain to me what in the Seven Hells you are doing,” she said, closing the door and latching it behind her, before rounding on the startled fox. “And your explanation had better be a good one, or else I will be informing our mutual employer that you are losing, on purpose.”
As she spoke, Miss Houndstooth’s face was as impassive as ever, but the anger in her voice was plain.
“I am not losing,” Crooktail said, feeling a twinge of anger himself as he straightened the lapels on his jacket. “As a matter of fact, I am figuring out how to win.”
“That’s funny,” Miss Houndstooth said. “Because, from where I sat, ‘figuring out how to win’ looked an awful lot like losing.”
Crooktail felt another surge of indignation.
“Yeah, well, you’re not much for cards,” he said.
“Educate me,” Miss Houndstooth said.
Crooktail sighed, and sat down on the bench.
“I’m studying the other players,” he said.
“By not playing?”
“By watching them play. By watching when they bet, and with what, and how much. By watching how they play when they win, how they react to a bad beat. Do they tighten-up for the next hand, or do they splash out, try to get their chips back?” He shrugged his shoulders. “That sort of thing.”
Miss Houndstooth looked unimpressed.
“And ‘that sort of thing’ was worth throwing away a quarter of your stack?” she said.
“Yes,” Crooktail said.
“Then tell me about the other players. Tell me what you learned.”
“Well, the human in seat one is going to be my angel,” Crooktail said. “He’s the one who’s going to feed me the most chips.”
Miss Houndstooth raised an eyebrow.
“The human in seat one appeared to be winning, last I checked,” she said. “I may not be much for cards, but I can count chips.”
“Sure,” Crooktail said. “He’s winning, for now. But he’s winning because he’s been getting lucky. At some point tonight, his luck’s going to break the other way, and, when it does? Well, now I know how to stack him. I don’t even have to trap him – I just have to let him fire at me, and he’ll trap himself.”
“Fine,” Miss Houndstooth said. “What about the vash? Tell me about him.”
“The vash… is a puzzle,” Crooktail admitted. “He was waiting for something, just like I was. Holding back for some reason.”
“Maybe he was ‘figuring out how to win,’ too?”
“No,” Crooktail said. “Something else.”
His expression turned thoughtful.
“At first, I figured the vash might be cheating,” he said. “I figured he might be marking the deck, maybe nicking the deuces and treys with his claws, or something like that. But I’ve been checking the card backs on each deal, and they’re clean.” He shook his head. “No. It’s actually the human in seat five who’s cheating. Not the vash.”
That got Miss Houndstooth’s attention.
“Cheating?” she said.
“Oh, definitely,” Crooktail said.
“Remember his pencil? His shiny, silver pencil?”
Miss Houndstooth nodded.
“It’s a shiner,” Crooktail said. “I almost didn’t believe it at first, it’s such an old trick. But it’s a shiner.”
Miss Houndstooth just stared at him. Crooktail sighed.
“A shiner is anything with a reflective surface – like a money clip, say, or a gold watch, or, in this case, a silver pencil – which you can put on the table, and use to see the reflections of the cards as you deal them out. It only works when it’s your deal, and you have to be subtle about it, but, if you do it right, you can see everyone else’s hole card reflected in the surface.”
Almost reflexively, Crooktail found himself smiling.
“Don’t see a lot of shiners these days,” he said. “Usually, they’re too obvious. But this is a good one. A pencil’s much more subtle than something big like a money clip, and the human is good, too. You almost never catch him glancing down when he deals, and he’s smart enough to lose a couple hands on purpose, too, so that it isn’t obvious what he’s doing.”
“But you noticed,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“Yes,” Crooktail said. “And so did Bruggle. He stopped playing hands that the human dealt almost an hour ago.”
“If Bruggle noticed that the human was cheating,” Miss Houndstooth said, “then why didn’t he say anything?”
“Probably the same reason that I didn’t,” Crooktail said. “He’s thinking he can use it to his advantage.”
Miss Houndstooth was quiet for a moment.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “You wait here.”
Then, before Crooktail could say another word, she slipped out of the compartment, and closed the door behind her.
A couple minutes passed in silence as Crooktail waited for his captor to return. Every ten seconds or so, he would glance anxiously at his watch. The thirty-minute break was nearly over.
When the compartment door finally opened again, Miss Houndstooth was not alone. She had brought the human from seat five with her.
The human stepped into the compartment, and he seemed to be about to say something to Miss Houndstooth, when he noticed that Crooktail was there, too, and the look on his face turned sour.
“What’s he doing here?” the human said, pointing at Crooktail and sounding peevish. He reached up to wipe something from his glasses. “You didn’t say anything about—”
“—I need you to do me a favor, please,” Miss Houndstooth said to the human, interrupting his complaint. “I need you to take a close look at this.”
Miss Houndstooth held a closed hand in front of the human’s face, for him to inspect. But, when she opened her fingers, her palm was empty.
“What in blazes are you on about?” the human started to say. “There’s nothing—”
Crooktail heard a sound that reminded him of a cork popping.
Then the human’s head snapped backwards, and he seemed to teeter strangely on his feet for one second, before his knees buckled, and he fell.
Crooktail – who was still seated on the bench – practically climbed halfway up the wall as the human’s body tipped over backwards and landed heavily on the floor.
A thin stream of blood was trickling out from a neat, clean hole in the space just between the human’s eyes. The expression on the dead man’s face was one of shock.
Crooktail felt his own mouth go slack as he stared down at the dead man’s startled face. Then he glanced up at Miss Houndstooth.
A thin trail of smoke was twisting up from the barrel of the tiny holdout pistol that was now in Miss Houndstooth’s hand. Blood was spattered across her face, and the cuff of her black-and-white jacket was stained red.
“Seven Hells,” Crooktail said.
“Open the window,” Miss Houndstooth said, as the pistol, which was clipped to a thin lattice of telescoping metal, withdrew back into her sleeve.
“What in blazes did you do that for?” Crooktail stammered, his back still pressed against the wall.
“My instructions are to eliminate anyone who threatens to disrupt the game,” Miss Houndstooth said. Kneeling down, she slipped her arms beneath the dead human’s shoulders, and started dragging his body across the compartment. “Open the window,” she repeated.
Feeling too shocked to argue, Crooktail climbed down from the bench and crossed to the window, which he unlocked and slid down, so that the deafening rumble of the speeding train filled the tiny room.
“But did you really have to do that?” Crooktail said, yelling to be heard over the sound of the train, and the rush of the passing wind.
“No,” Miss Houndstooth said, as she hoisted the dead human’s body up over her shoulder, before dropping it unceremoniously out the window. “Not really.”
“Then why kill him?” Crooktail demanded, his words barely audible above the din from outside.
Miss Houndstooth slid the window closed again, and, suddenly, the compartment was dead silent.
“You said that he was cheating, and that Bruggle knew it,” she said.
Extracting a handkerchief from her pocket, Miss Houndstooth wiped away the blood from her face and sleeve. Somehow, when she was finished, her black-and-white jacket looked as clean as the day it had been made – there was not even the trace of a stain.
“So?” Crooktail asked, his voice suddenly sounding very loud in his own ears.
“You said that Bruggle could have used that to his advantage,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“So could I!” Crooktail said.
“Maybe,” Miss Houndstooth said. “And you might even have convinced me, if I’d seen you do anything but lose for the last two hours.” The human shrugged her shoulders. “But the point is now moot.”
The woman opened the door out into the hallway. Inside the compartment, there was no sign left that the dead human had ever existed.
“You need to return to your seat,” Miss Houndstooth said, gesturing for Crooktail to leave. “Play resumes in four minutes. I will be along shortly.”
Mutely, Crooktail nodded his head, and he made his way back to the club car in silence.
When the thirty-minute break expired, and seat five remained empty, Crooktail had to bite his tongue while the conductor called for the Bowlerton guard, who searched up and down the train for the missing player.
“There’s no sign of him,” the guard reported back, some five or ten minutes later. “One of the compartments is locked from the inside, but no one answers when I knock.”
“Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well?” suggested Miss Houndstooth, who was now seated by the bar.
The conductor just shrugged his shoulders.
“No matter,” he said, as he began dividing the missing human’s chips. “The rules are simple – absentee players forfeit their stakes.”
Crooktail’s share of the dead human’s chips more or less made him whole from all his earlier folding, and he was adding the new chips to his stack when Miss Houndstooth appeared briefly at his side, and pressed a napkin with a glass of whiskey into his hand.
Glancing down, Crooktail could see that three words had been written on the napkin.
“START WINNING,” it said. “NOW.”
Crooktail folded the napkin and slipped it into his pocket. Then he downed the drink.
* * *
The next strange turn came on the remaining human’s deal.
Crooktail – who was first to act – looked down to find himself with the five of silvers up, and the four of scales in the hole. A legitimate hand.
For the first time that day, Crooktail separated the correct number of chips from his stack, and slid them across the baize.
“Bet,” he said.
From the seat to Crooktail’s right, the human slapped his thigh.
“At last, he speaks!” the man said, and he flashed Crooktail what he probably hoped was a good-natured grin.
Crooktail just looked at his cards.
“Did that drink loosen you up?” the human asked, still staring at him. “Or maybe your friend did, when she hustled you back into that other car, hmm?”
Crooktail just looked at his cards. He was not a good talker, and he knew it, so, when he was at the table, he made it a point not to say more than he had to.
The human in seat one smiled, as though Crooktail’s reticence had revealed something. Crooktail was happy to let the human draw whatever conclusions he liked.
To Crooktail’s left, the vash in the bowler hat – who was showing the seven of scales – smooth-called. That took Crooktail by surprise, since it was the first call he’d seen from the vash all night. In the few hands he’d played, the vash had raised, or folded, but never called.
Next, the syndicate player mucked, as did Bruggle. Then, after an unnecessary show of pretending to consider his options – really, Crooktail thought, the human in seat one could’ve been a much better player, if he wasn’t trying so hard to be clever – the human folded, too, leaving Crooktail heads-up against the vash.
The next cards to come were the four of hooves for Crooktail, pairing his hole card, and the seven of horns for the vash, pairing his up card – bad draws, both of them, but less visibly so on Crooktail’s part. The problem, though, was how obviously bad the vash’s hand now was – there was really no chance that the vash could think he was best, so getting any action from him would be tough.
Crooktail counted out a stack equal to half the size of the pot, and slid the chips across the baize. It was, he thought, rather nakedly a value bet, but he figured there wasn’t much point in hiding it. If the vash was in his right mind, then he was not coming along. And Crooktail did not believe in giving out free cards – that was spitting in the eyes of fate.
So Crooktail’s confusion only deepened when the vash smooth-called yet again.
What can he possibly have me on? Crooktail wondered to himself, only to draw a blank for an answer.
The human in seat one must have been puzzling over the same question himself, because he paused for a moment before dealing the next pair of cards: the six of horns to Crooktail – just fine – and the seven of silvers to the vash – downright brutal.
Crooktail shuffled two small stacks of chips together, as he looked down at his cards, and he went briefly into the tank.
On the one hand, there was essentially no bet he could make that the vash ought to call, if anything about this hand made sense.
On the other hand, nothing about this hand did make sense, and the vash had already smooth-called twice, and clearly with the worst of it.
Crooktail’s remaining chips were arrayed before him in four equal stacks. He separated one of those stacks from the rest, and slid it to the center of the table.
For the third time, the vash smooth-called.
Although Crooktail’s face did not show it, inwardly, his thoughts raced. The question of whether the vash might be cheating – which he had earlier dismissed – came surging back to the forefront of his mind, but even that couldn’t explain what was going on. Even if the vash and the human in seat one were somehow in cahoots, there was no card in the deck which the human could bottom-deal to Crooktail to get the vash ahead in the hand. With trips already on the board, the vash was drawing dead.
But the card which the human dealt to Crooktail next came from the top of the deck, anyway – and it was the eight of horns, besides, which left Crooktail with just his pair of fours. The deuce which rounded-out the vash’s hand was wholly beside the point.
Crooktail’s mind whirred. Literally, the seven of hooves was the only card in the deck that the vash could have him on that would have made the vash’s line of play anything less than suicidal. In which case, the vash would now figure he had come good, since Crooktail’s eight would have straightened him out, and taken the vash from worst to best at a stroke.
But how insane would the vash have to be to have chased after that? Crooktail wondered. After all, the vash already had three of the four sevens sitting right in front of him.
Feeling a sudden twinge of paranoia, Crooktail checked his hole card, to make sure that it was still the four of scales, which it was. No one had slipped him a new card when he wasn’t looking – which would have been impossible, anyway, because Crooktail was always looking.
Just to be safe, though, Crooktail rested a clawed finger atop his hole card, from where he resolved not to move it.
The only remaining question was what to do about it all. After a minute spent in contemplation, Crooktail opted for the simplest possible strategy.
“All-in,” he said.
Without blinking, the vash called.
Wordlessly, Crooktail flipped over the four of scales.
The vash – who had sat dormant for hours, before calling away all his chips on a single, terrible hand – didn’t even bother to turn over his card.
“Had you on a straight,” he said, in response to the question which no one had asked.
Then, after standing up, the vash gave a curt bow to the table, and he walked away. Simple as that.
The human in seat one let out a low whistle.
“Well now,” he said.
Crooktail – who had just inexplicably doubled-up – added the vash’s chips to his own.
The human passed the deck to Crooktail. Crooktail shuffled, the human cut, and Crooktail dealt.
Once the cards were out, Crooktail caught Miss Houndstooth’s eye.
Miss Houndstooth was at her seat by the bar, from where she had observed the strange proceedings. But her face, as ever, was a stoic blank.
Crooktail motioned for her to come over, which she did.
Craning his head to one side, so that he could whisper into Miss Houndstooth’s ear, Crooktail hissed: “Why did you ask me about the vash, earlier, if you already knew he was a plant?”
Miss Houndstooth bent down, so that she could whisper back.
“I don’t follow,” she said.
“The vash,” Crooktail said, sounding annoyed, but taking care not to show it. “He doesn’t play all night, then, suddenly, the first hand I’m in, he calls off his entire stack to me, drawing dead the whole way?”
Crooktail wanted to shake his head, but didn’t.
“There’s only one way that makes any lick of sense,” he said, “and that’s if the vash was a plant. If he was working for Snake Eyes the whole time, and his instructions were to lose to me, to juice my stack.” Crooktail felt himself growing even more annoyed. “And, by the way, if the vash was a plant, then he did a lousy job of it. He couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d tried.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“Then maybe you had better have a chat with your employer,” Crooktail said.
From across the table, Bruggle cleared his throat.
“One player to a hand, please?” the other fox said.
Crooktail glanced down, and saw that the action had come around to him.
“Just ordering a drink,” he said, and mucked his cards without looking.
“Oh, really?” Bruggle said, raising an eyebrow. “I hadn’t realized the barman was hard of hearing.” He nodded at the noggle who stood idly behind the bar, and looked perfectly capable of taking an order. “How tragic.”
For a second, Miss Houndstooth stared at Bruggle.
Then, nodding tersely in Crooktail’s direction, she said, “I’ll get you that whiskey,” before disappearing out the door.
A few more hands passed mostly in silence before she came back. Slipping over to the bar, she collected a tumbler of whiskey from the bemused-looking noggle, before pressing the glass – and a napkin – into Crooktail’s paw.
“TALKED TO S.E.,” Crooktail read through the bottom of the glass. “VASH NOT HERS.”
Crooktail wadded up the napkin, which he stuffed into his pocket. Then – for appearance’s sake – he drank the whiskey.
Crooktail found himself wondering briefly whether the vash had shared the same fate as the human with the silver pencil. But it was more likely, he figured, that Snake Eyes was working the lizard over. Crooktail did not envy the vash.
As he handed the empty glass back to Miss Houndstooth, Crooktail could tell that Bruggle was watching him.
Four-handed play moved fast. The human took a nice pot off of Bruggle, only to give the chips back a hand later. The noggle from the syndicate got bad-beat again. Crooktail, for his part, mostly played small pots. One time he managed to get his chips in with an eight-high, but he couldn’t get any action.
The four players became three just before the next break. The syndicate player – who had been catching terrible cards all night, and had been short-stacked since the word go – made her first and only real mistake. Thinking she was getting in good against a pair, she turned out to be a dog against Bruggle’s jack-high, and the final card didn’t save her.
The noggle was philosophical in defeat – she shook hands, didn’t grouse. She just smiled the smile of a gambler who knew that fate had stacked the deck against her as she stood up and left the table.
She would live to fight another day, Crooktail thought. That made her one better than some other gamblers he could name.
With the noggle gone, that left just Bruggle, Crooktail, and the human seated around the green baize, all with roughly equal stacks. Before a single hand was dealt, though, the railroad clock above the bar chimed.
“Gentlemen, that marks the end of our second session of play,” the conductor said, as he collected the deck for safekeeping. “We will take a thirty-minute break, then reconvene on the hour – I trust I needn’t remind you all to be punctual?”
After taking a precise count of his chips, and committing the number to memory, Crooktail rose, and moved to sit at the end of the bar. From the corner of his eye, he saw Miss Houndstooth making for the seat next to him.
But Bruggle beat her to the spot.
“Mister VanCleef, is it?” the fox asked, as he settled onto the stool next to Crooktail. He did not make eye contact, instead motioning for the barman.
“It is,” Crooktail said.
There was a dish of bitterroot seeds on the bar. Crooktail didn’t much care for bitterroot seeds, but he took one anyway, and chewed it.
“Funny thing, that,” Bruggle said. “I figure I know most of the gamblers around these parts. In fact, I like to think that I know all the gamblers who could scrape together ten thousand boks.” The fox adjusted his bolo tie. “But I’ve never heard of you.”
“It’s a big Waste,” he said.
“That it is,” Bruggle said. “Here’s the other funny thing, though – I do seem to recall hearing about an old cheat who used to work up north.” He glanced sideways at Crooktail. “A fox with a busted tail, if I remember correct.”
The barman brought Bruggle his drink. Bruggle nodded, and sipped.
“Or something like that, anyway,” he said.
Crooktail said nothing. From the corner of his eye, he could see that Miss Houndstooth had seated herself on the other side of Bruggle. Without being too obvious about it, he tried to wave her away.
Bruggle took another sip.
“Must be nice, having friends,” he said.
Crooktail chewed on his seed.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said.
“Oh, don’t be modest,” Bruggle said. “That vash must’ve been a great friend, to help you out the way he did. Must be nice.”
“I’m no cheat,” Crooktail said.
“I didn’t say you were,” Bruggle said, swirling his whiskey. “Just like I didn’t say anything when our friend with the shiner went off with your friend in the handsome coat, and then didn’t come back.”
Bruggle sipped at his drink, and he smiled.
“Like I said,” he continued, “it must be nice to have so many friends.”
“I’m just here to play cards,” Crooktail said.
“Glad to hear it,” Bruggle said. “Because I have friends, too. Friends who don’t share my cheerful disposition.” He finished his drink. “Or my sense of fair play.”
Bruggle looked over at Crooktail. His smile was gone.
“You don’t want to meet my friends, Mister VanCleef,” Bruggle said. “Take my word for it.”
Crooktail nodded, slowly.
“Good,” Bruggle said. “Then I pray that the remainder of our little game will be uneventful, and that you will know to quit when you are ahead. For your sake.”
Then Bruggle patted Crooktail on the back, and he returned to his seat at the table.
As Crooktail stared at the rows of bottles arrayed behind the bar, Miss Houndstooth slid over into the seat that Bruggle had vacated.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“He threatened to kill me,” Crooktail said, not turning to look at Miss Houndstooth. He shrugged his shoulders. “Kill me, or worse. I don’t know. We didn’t get into particulars.”
“Why?” Miss Houndstooth said.
Crooktail shrugged again.
“I don’t know,” Crooktail said. “Everyone else has been threatening to kill me. Maybe he felt left out? Or maybe he just doesn’t like losing.”
Miss Houndstooth looked daggers at Crooktail. With a sigh, the fox turned to face her.
“Sorry,” he said, and he placed a paw on her wrist, which she did not immediately brush away.
“If you think you’re the only person here with something to lose,” Miss Houndstooth said, “then you are sorely mistaken.”
“Yeah,” Crooktail said. He picked up the empty glass from the bar, where Bruggle had left it, and used it to catch his bitterroot seed. “So I’ve gathered.”
“In that case, let me ask you again: What did Bruggle want?”
“He wanted to know why someone is trying to tip the game in my favor,” Crooktail said. “And I didn’t know what to tell him, because I have been wondering much the same thing.”
“Snake Eyes says it wasn’t her,” Miss Houndstooth said.
“And you believe her?” Crooktail said.
“Yes,” Miss Houndstooth said.
Crooktail studied Miss Houndstooth’s face, as he tried to decide whether he believed her or not. But the human’s eyes gave nothing away.
She should have been a card player.
* * *
When play resumed three-handed, the human’s aggression finally caught up with him.
The human had been forcing the action all night, wielding his chip lead like a cudgel, using his big stack to bully the other players out of hands. And, on those occasions when he’d been caught out, good luck had come to his rescue, and he’d turned the cards he needed to escape.
The trouble with luck, Crooktail knew, was that it had a bad habit of running out, and usually at the worst possible moment.
And, sure enough, when the human’s luck turned, it turned hard.
Bruggle was the first beneficiary of the human’s munificence. Bruggle had opened with a trey, only to have the human – who was showing a five – raise back. Bruggle had called, and the next two cards came an eight for Bruggle, and a deuce for the human. Again, Bruggle had bet, and, again, the human had raised. But the human’s raise had been a little too large – nearly a third of his stack – and Bruggle had immediately fired back, declaring himself all-in.
The human – who just barely had Bruggle covered – had then hemmed and hawed for what felt like ages – hamming it up worse than a dinner theater hack – before mucking his cards in disgust.
“Crazy,” he’d muttered to himself, as he watched Bruggle stack his chips. “Don’t know how you can make that bet right there – had you dead-to-rights – just crazy…”
But, of course, Bruggle was not crazy. He had picked up on the same pattern that Crooktail had earlier spotted. An opening raise from the human usually meant a deuce in the hole, and an overbet after the next card made it all but a mortal certainty that the human had paired. The fact that he’d folded to Bruggle’s trey-eight rather than risking the rest of his chips all but confirmed it.
As the human steamed volubly in his seat, Crooktail felt his own sense of annoyance. Bruggle had just done to the human what Crooktail himself had hoped to do.
But Crooktail didn’t have to wait long for a second chance to come his way.
The human – who was still shaking his head, still visibly steaming about the outcome of the previous hand – dealt. Crooktail found himself holding the seven of horns, with the five of hooves in the hole, and he opened. Bruggle folded a queen, but the human – who was showing the nine of scales – raised.
The next two cards came the six of scales for Crooktail, and the trey of silvers for the human. Crooktail, who was best on board, made a bet about half the size of the pot, which the human snap-called.
Mentally, Crooktail put the human on a deuce in the hole.
The next deal brought the king of horns for Crooktail, and the four of scales for the human. Those ought to have been marvelous cards for the human in seat one, but, as each card was revealed, Crooktail kept watching the human’s face, and he noted that the mustached man hardly seemed to breathe. And that was interesting – that was very interesting, indeed – because, over the course of the night, Crooktail had noticed that the human tended to give little tells when he drew a card which pleased him. Tiny things, really – like a twitch of his mustache, or a crinkle in his skin, just around the corners of his eyes.
When the human was excited, he tended to show it.
When the human was unhappy, by contrast, he kept stone still. He consciously tried to suppress his reaction to any card which upset him, so that the very absence of a tell became a tell in its own right.
Reaching for his stack, Crooktail – who had revised his assessment of the human, and now put him on a four in the hole, instead of a deuce – tried to decide how to bait the hook. He wanted to bet enough so that the human – who was representing a nine-high – would be tempted to steal, but not so much that he couldn’t get off the hand himself if he suddenly got the sense that his read was wrong, and that the human really was best.
Crooktail’s eyes flitted from his own stack to the human’s much shorter stack, and then back again.
“Bet the pot,” Crooktail said, and he started to count out chips.
“All-in,” the human said, and he shoved his stack forward so fast that he practically beat Crooktail to the pot.
For a moment, Crooktail was silent, and he replayed the hand over in his head. Did the human have the four, or could he possibly have a deuce?
How confident was Crooktail about his read? Could he put the human on a hand?
If the human was bluffing, then it was the exact same bluff he had tried and failed at on the hand before. And making the same bluff two hands in a row was a fairly reckless thing to do.
But players on tilt tended to do reckless things, Crooktail reckoned.
“Call,” Crooktail said.
“Seven Hells,” the human swore, standing up from his seat even as he flipped over the four of horns in disgust. Crooktail exhaled as he turned over his own five.
“If there’s any justice,” the human muttered, as he picked up the deck, “you’ll catch another king right here,” and he dealt Crooktail his last card.
It was the ace of hooves, and the human was bust.
The human did not shake hands, or wish his opponents luck. He just turned on his heel, and walked out the door.
“Thanks for playing,” a smirking Bruggle called out towards the departing human’s back. “Enjoyed your company.”
The human slammed the door behind him.
Crooktail picked up the deck where the human had dropped it, and began shuffling. After several crisp riffles, he offered the cards to Bruggle to cut.
Bruggle picked up the deck, then leaned back in his chair.
“You know, I’m not sure I want to play with you, Mister VanCleef,” he said, grinning.
“Cut?” he said.
Bruggle shook his head.
“By my count, we’re roughly even,” he said, motioning to their similarly-sized stacks. “So what do you say we come to a gentleman’s agreement, and settle on an even chop?”
“We’re not even,” Crooktail said, not needing to count. “I’m three hundred up.”
“Naturally, I will buy out the difference,” Bruggle said.
Crooktail glanced up at Miss Houndstooth, who was staring bullets at him.
“I think we’d better play it out,” Crooktail said. He pointed to the deck in Bruggle’s hand. “Care to cut?”
“Oh, come now,” Bruggle said, making no move to cut the deck, or to do anything else. “We are, at most—,” and he paused to consult his watch, “—an hour from Dayko. There is no guarantee that our impasse will be resolved by then. Besides, in two-handed play? Anything can happen – as you well know.” The fox cocked his head a bit to one side, and smiled. “So why don’t we settle things now, to both our advantages? A man can have an awful good time in Dayko with thirty thousand boks in his pocket.” Bruggle’s smile widened. “Unless you have other things in mind besides money, of course.”
Crooktail’s gaze flitted to Miss Houndstooth again, whose mouth was pursed into a thin, bloodless line.
“I think we’d better play it out,” Crooktail said, and, again, he pointed to the deck, which Bruggle held loosely in one hand.
“Cut, please?” he said.
Bruggle’s smile vanished.
“As you wish,” he said, in a tone which made it clear that the matter was far from settled.
But Bruggle cut the deck, and the two of them played cards.
* * *
Two-handed, the game settled quickly into a monotonous cycle of ante-raise-fold, repeated ad infinitum. The two foxes were evenly-matched, both in chips and ability, and neither wanted to give the other an opening. Worse still, Crooktail got the sense that Bruggle would have been satisfied to fold his way to Dayko, and to walk away from the game still in possession of the deed that he’d staked, plus a tremendous amount of gold besides.
Under different circumstances, that would have suited Crooktail just fine. But, with each passing minute, Crooktail could feel Miss Houndstooth’s presence bearing down heavier upon him, and he knew that, like it or not, he was going to have to force the action.
So Crooktail shifted gears. He stopped surrendering antes. On Bruggle’s deals, he charged at each pot. On his own deals, if Bruggle deigned to open, Crooktail raised him sharply back.
In every case, Crooktail made the exact same bet, regardless of his hand. He knew that, if he waited for good cards to come, then Bruggle would just run out the clock. So, Crooktail reasoned, if he was stuck playing marginal hands, then he could at least play the bad ones exactly the same as the good, so that Bruggle had no chance to outthink him.
Bruggle – who was growing visibly frustrated by Crooktail’s relentless aggression – occasionally fired back, snapping off bets when he had premium cards. But, for every pot that Crooktail surrendered, he scooped many more in return, and he was slowly making inroads into Bruggle’s chip stack.
After this had gone on for some time, Crooktail noticed that Bruggle – who had stopped chatting, and had gone deathly quiet – was taking longer and longer to shuffle the cards between deals. So Crooktail called for the conductor, and he asked the minotaur to put Bruggle on the clock.
That really set Bruggle off.
“Now you’re being childish,” the fox snapped.
Crooktail ignored Bruggle, and motioned for the minotaur.
“How much time does he have to act, under the rules?” Crooktail asked.
“Strictly speaking? Each player has thirty seconds to act,” the minotaur said.
“Then I’d like you to put him on the clock, please,” Crooktail repeated, and he pointed at Bruggle.
“Oh, really,” Bruggle protested.
The minotaur took out his pocket watch.
Whiskers visibly shaking, Bruggle shuffled and dealt.
As the hour wore away, so did Bruggle’s chips, until his stack threatened to drop below the ten thousand boks he had started out with. But as agitated as Bruggle was getting, Crooktail too found himself increasingly ill-at-ease – particularly when he felt the train lurch beneath him, and heard the whistle blow.
Glancing up, Crooktail noticed that Miss Houndstooth was no longer at the bar. He did not have to turn around to know that she was standing behind him.
Then – just as Crooktail felt the train start to slow, marking its arrival into Dayko – it happened.
It happened so smooth, and so subtle, that Crooktail almost didn’t notice it. And he wouldn’t have noticed it, either, if he hadn’t been watching each of Bruggle’s deals, to make sure that the fox didn’t take longer than thirty seconds.
But Crooktail saw what he saw, and there was no mistaking it: Bruggle dealt him two cards off the bottom of the deck.
Crooktail glanced up at the conductor, to see if the minotaur had noticed. But the minotaur’s eyes were glued to his watch.
Crooktail presumed that Miss Houndstooth – who wasn’t much for cards – hadn’t noticed, either. And, even if she had noticed, he wasn’t sure what she would have done – and he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out.
So Crooktail said nothing. He just peeked at his hole card.
It was the deuce of horns, with the trey of horns up.
Crooktail glanced up. Bruggle – who was showing the five of scales – was looking at him expectantly.
“Do I need to put you on the clock?” Bruggle asked.
“Bet,” Crooktail said, and he opened for the same amount he had been wagering for the past hour.
“Call,” Bruggle said. “Heads-up.”
The next two cards were the four of horns for Crooktail, and the deuce of silvers for Bruggle. They, too, came from the bottom of the deck.
Seven Hells, Crooktail thought to himself, but he’s good. Maybe even better than me. He almost felt a sense of professional admiration for the other fox.
Crooktail counted out chips, equal to about half of Bruggle’s stack. “Bet,” he said.
“Call,” Bruggle answered, and he dealt the next cards.
The five of horns joined Crooktail’s hand, giving him deuce-trey-four-five, all suited. Bruggle dealt himself the five of hooves, pairing his board.
Crooktail could hear wheels screeching, could hear porters shouting outside. He could practically feel Miss Houndstooth looming behind him.
“All-in,” Crooktail said.
“Call,” Bruggle said, grinning. “Show down, please?”
Crooktail shook his head.
“It’s still a live hand,” he said. “One more card to come.”
Bruggle’s grin only widened as he dealt Crooktail the six of horns, and himself the seven of scales.
Bruggle set the deck down on the baize, and spread the remaining cards out in a line across the table, taking great care to show that the postilion was still at the bottom of the deck.
“Show down, please?” Bruggle repeated.
With a shrug, Crooktail flipped over his hole card.
“Ace-high,” Crooktail said, tapping his claw against the ace of silvers.
Bruggle was out of his chair like a shot.
“You crook-tailed, cheating, son-of-a-snake,” he snarled, “you palmed that ace!”
Bruggle’s arm shot out, grabbing Crooktail by the wrist.
“Roll up your damn sleeves,” he demanded, teeth bared. “Or I’ll roll them up for you.”
Crooktail heard glass shatter – from the corner of his eye, he saw that the minotaur had dropped his watch.
“Mister Br—” the conductor started to say.
“You, get the damn guard!” Bruggle shouted at the minotaur, before bearing down on Crooktail again. “You, roll up your damn sleeve!”
The minotaur ran off.
Bruggle clawed at Crooktail’s wrist.
A houndstooth-sleeved arm appeared in front of Bruggle’s face.
“Mister Bruggle,” a calm voice said, “I need you to look at this, please?”
Bruggle looked up. Miss Houndstooth flipped her wrist.
Instead of a bullet, though, it was nearly a deck’s worth of arrowback playing cards that came flying out of Miss Houndstooth’s sleeve, and right into Bruggle’s face.
Crooktail wasn’t sure who looked more surprised about that – Bruggle, or Miss Houndstooth.
And that was when, inside the club car of the Dayko Limited, all Seven Hells broke loose.
Bruggle let go of Crooktail, and took a wild swing at Miss Houndstooth. Miss Houndstooth ducked the punch and stepped behind Bruggle, where she wrapped an arm around his throat, and started dragging him backwards. The conductor returned, with the Bowlerton guard in tow. The Bowlerton guard had his revolver out, and was yelling at Miss Houndstooth. Miss Houndstooth threw Bruggle into the Bowlerton, and, while the two men were tangled together, she shivered the Bowlerton in the neck with a forearm, and snatched the revolver from his hand.
When the conductor rushed at her, she shot him in the knee.
When Bruggle came at her next, she shot him, too.
It was only then, after she’d shot the Bowlerton guard, too, that Miss Houndstooth noticed that the wall safe was open, and that Crooktail was gone.
* * *
He ran from Snake Eyes.
He ran from Bruggle.
He ran from Miss Houndstooth.
He ran from the sound of gunshots, which he heard behind him in the distance.
He ran as fast as a fox carrying a patterned leather valise with ten thousand boks inside it could run.
It was the middle of the day, and the Dayko Eastern Terminus was buzzing. Passengers thronged the platforms. Baloths lowed from the stockyard. Mana engines thrummed atop their leylines.
Crooktail ran past it all.
From the direction he had come, Crooktail thought he could hear someone yelling his name. But he did not turn around.
Instead, on the platform just ahead of him, Crooktail heard a whistle blow and saw wheels turning, and he clambered aboard the departing train just as it gathered speed.
His heart was still racing as he collapsed into a seat far away from any window, and, once there, Crooktail wrapped his arms tight around the heavy valise, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to breathe.
As the train whistled again, and began to pull away from the station, Crooktail permitted himself a moment to take stock of his conscience.
Yes, he had palmed the ace to beat Bruggle. But then Bruggle had sharped him first. Sometimes, two wrongs did make a right, and, when it came to Bruggle, Crooktail felt like he was on solid ground with the angels.
Next, there was the matter of Snake Eyes’s money, which was less clear cut, but Crooktail justified taking the ten thousand boks by thinking of it as his fee for services rendered. After all, Snake Eyes had given him a job to do, and he had done it. Syndicated players typically kept a quarter of their own action. By that comparison, Snake Eyes had gotten off cheap.
As for swapping his ringer deck with Miss Houndstooth’s holdout pistol, while the two of them had sat together at the bar? Well, that was hardly a fair trade for Miss Houndstooth. But the deck was the only thing Crooktail had had on him that was about the right size and weight, and he had justified the exchange on grounds of self-preservation.
The holdout pistol was still in his pocket. Maybe, Crooktail figured, whenever he got wherever it was he was going – which hopefully was someplace far, far away from Miss Houndstooth – he could mail the gun back to her.
But, mostly, Crooktail was just hoping to never see either Snake Eyes or Miss Houndstooth again.
At least, that’s what Crooktail was thinking about, when someone nudged him in the shoulder.
Crooktail’s eyes shot open, and he was ready to run, when he saw a noggle in a conductor’s uniform, looking down at him with a curious expression.
“Ticket?” the noggle said.
Crooktail swallowed his heart, which had lodged somewhere in his throat.
“Don’t have one,” he managed to say.
The noggle sighed.
“I’ll have to sell you one,” he said, and he turned the crank on a little machine at his belt. The machine rang a bell, and spit out a paper ticket, which the noggle punched.
“Five bits,” the noggle said.
Crooktail opened his valise just enough to fish out a coin, which he gave to the noggle, who looked annoyed about having to make change.
“You know, the ticket’s two bits cheaper if you buy it at the station,” the noggle said, as he handed some silver back to Crooktail.
“Thanks,” Crooktail said, as he pocketed the coins. “I’ll try to remember that.”
The noggle was about to brush past, when Crooktail grabbed at his sleeve.
“Hey, where’s this train going?” he said.
The noggle looked at Crooktail like he was stupid.
“This is the Wasteward Express,” he said, “making local stops at New Progress, Hickle Gully, and Wumpus Flats.” The noggle adjusted his cap. “This train then terminates at Aureg. Change trains at Aureg for continuing Wasteward service.”
“Continuing service?” Crooktail said. “Continuing to where?”
The Noggle fixed his sleeve.
“To World’s End,” he said.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
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