Introducing Card Shark and The Lady
Andrew sits on a velvet chair in one of the most exclusive poker rooms in the city. It’s the kind of room that does not look as it should. To get here, he had to slink past split bin bags and down worn, plasticky steps. Now that he is here, everything glitters in red and gold.
It’s not exclusive because you have to have a lot of money to play. In fact, quite the opposite. No, you can only gain entry to this poker house when you really, really wantsomething. It’s the kind of place where you have to put your soul up for stakes.
There are five men arrayed across from him, separated only by a swathe of green felt and a deck of cards. Whilst these men are the ones he’s playing against, they are not the ones he’s interested in. These men, and this arbitrary game of poker, are not the reasons he braved the journey tonight. The man Andrew came to see is sitting off to the side, away from the table.
They don’t let Shark play poker anymore.
He cheats. Or, at least, he calls himself Card Shark and he never loses. So he must cheat, despite the fact that no one’s ever caught him.
Shark, much like the building itself, does not look as though he belongs here with these city men and suits. He leans back with his head against the wall, the hood of his jumper pulled low over his eyes, and surveys the room with a distinct air of disinterest.
“We should get started,” he growls, voice rasping like gravel.
One of the men opposite Andrew sighs, discarding his cards on the table.
“I fold,” he announces before turning his attention to Shark. “Where’s The Lady?” He asks. “We can’t start if we’re short.”
“You can’t rely on The Lady until you’ve paid her,” Shark replies. “If she gets here, she gets here.”
The rest of the men drop their cards and Andrew warily follows suit. There’s over ten grand on the table but they’ve just abandoned the game like they’re playing for pennies.
“That’s not how this works,” a different player announces. “We don’t start without The Lady.”
Andrew’s too busy concentrating on whether or not he’ll get his money back when Shark’s head snaps round.
“Relax,” he commands, “Stevens won already. You’ve lost. Stop worrying about the poker, we’ve moved on.”
Andrew flinches, shying back from the power of Shark’s glare, but the assassin’s attention has already moved on.
“As for The Lady,” he says, “you can stop your fretting about that too. She’s about to walk through that door…” he pauses for a second, smiling slightly. “…now.”
The door handle turns. The Lady walks in.
She’s everything a man could ask for in a queen of the underworld. She strides past the table, wearing nothing more than a pair of tiny denim shorts, a tight tank top, and a leather jacket. Her red hair flows down around her shoulders and, as she throws herself onto a stool at Shark’s side, a set of holstered pistols flash into sight before returning to the dark obscurity behind her jacket.
“Sorry I’m late, gentlemen.” She smiles as she speaks, no remorse in her voice to match the words.
“Nice of you to join us,” Sharks drawls, turning to look at her. He sounds so comfortable in her presence but it’s obvious that he’s the only one that feels this way. Andrew’s not sure what terrifies him more: her or her guns.
The Lady laughs, a bright, crystalline sound, and leans back against the wall, resting her arm jauntily on Shark’s shoulder.
Shark snorts dismissively, removing her hand.
The Lady rolls her eyes.
“You’re the representative?” Shark clarifies, pinning Andrew with his gaze. “Your boss: he’s still willing?”
“I’ll be in the van,” Andrew supplies, “and my instructions are clear. I’ll be stopping on the corner of Ducal place and Albion street as planned.”
Shark sucks in a sudden breath through his teeth, tossing The Lady a quick look. Her expression darkens before they both turn back to Andrew.
“You’re the driver?” The Lady asks.
“And he sent you here three days before we try to pull this off?” She shakes her head. “What was he thinking? We’re supposed to have a go between. What if people associate us?”
Shark says nothing, folding his arms. The Lady stands, clearly agitated.
“Shark,” she says, “I’m not sure if we should go ahead with this anymore.”
Shark taps his fingers on his bicep, thinking.
“I think that’s up to our sponsors,” he says, sweeping his gaze across Andrew’s fellow poker players.
“Shark,” The Lady complains, “I don’t want to hang my safety on whether or not these men are willing to risk their money.”
Shark laughs darkly, continuing to stare at the rest of the room.
“Trust me, Lady,” he says, “these men harbour twice as much care for their money as you do for your life.”
The man called Stevens has been slowly stacking his chips throughout the entirety of this conversation. He looks up now, flipping one of the blue discs of plastic through his fingers.
“What difference does it make?” He asks, shrugging. “No one saw either of you coming here. Who even knows about this place?”
“People know about this place.” The Lady growls.
“I still think we’re probably safe,” someone else continues. “Besides, you’re not going to get caught. I’ve seen what you can do. Worst case scenario, you can fight off an ambush easy.”
“Worst case scenario?” The Lady’s eyebrows shoot upwards in fury. Almost casually, as if he can read her mind, Shark reaches up from where he’s sitting, placing a hand on her wrist. It’s only at this point that Andrew realises she’s halfway through drawing a pistol. She’s moving too fast for him to even see but Shark acts as if this is beyond predictable, fighting with her slightly before she eventually relaxes, dropping her arm back to her side. “It’s not exactly that simple,” she says. “If they know we’re coming, they’ll have Sapient+.”
Stevens shrugs. “I’m willing to risk it,” he says.
The Lady’s eyes narrow dangerously but Shark just continues to look thoughtful.
“Alright then,” he says eventually, as if it’s decided.
The Lady has other ideas.
“No,” she says, “I get a say in this too and I’m not willing to risk it.”
“Lady,” Shark warns, “we need this.”
“No we don’t,” she says and Andrew has to agree. Card Shark and The Lady, a set of names that’s familiar to anyone who ever needed anything. They’re known across the whole country. They’re the best. They can get anything, as this endeavour is about to prove… if it goes ahead. And they don’t just specialise in obtaining the impossible: there are a thousand rumours, every mysterious demise seems to somehow come back to these two, every terrorist action, every gang war. Andrew doesn’t exactly know how much their services cost but he’s quite certain they’re not in need of cash.
“Lady… we need this for the cause.”
“Screw the cause, Shark. I’m not a martyr.”
“I don’t know why we’re bothering to have this discussion,” he says. “I know you’re going to agree to it eventually. You just like kicking up a fuss.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. You like the idea of a challenge. You’ll be disappointed if there aren’t extra guards now.”
“Stop reading my mind, Shark,” The Lady spits in warning.
Shark laughs. “I just know you too well,” he says, a sly smile spreading out across his lips.
The Lady stares at him for just a second longer, pursing her own lips in fury.
“Fine,” she agrees eventually, snapping in anger. “We’ll go ahead with it.”
She turns rapidly, making to stalk out the room, and Andrew’s so engrossed in the sight of her pale legs that’s it’s only when he hears the soft click of a cocking gun that he realises she has stopped in front of him. Andrew swallows nervously, running his gaze first along the barrel of her pistol and then up into her eyes.
The Lady’s finger hovers over the trigger but Andrew was given just one instruction for this night - not to show fear - and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let her see what she’s doing to him. After what seems like an eternity of stillness, she moves forward, forcing the tip of her pistol up against his cheekbone.
“Don’t get us killed, kid. Do you understand me?”
Andrew just nods, not trusting himself to speak.
The metal pushes in further, grating against bone.
“I said: Do you understand?”
The Lady treats the rest of the room to one final sweep of her bitter gaze before reluctantly returning the weapon to its holster.
“I think we’re done here,” she says.
Shark throws his arms up in despair.
“We haven’t talked through any of the details, Lady.”
“That’s your job,” she says dismissively, “I’m sick of this already.”
“It’s for the cause,” he reminds her gently, although they’re the only ones in the room who have any idea what this mysterious cause may be.
The Lady just gives him a look. She says nothing more as she marches from the room, slamming the door unceremoniously behind herself.
Shark waits a few seconds, until he’s absolutely certain she’s gone, before he allows a massive grin to spread out across his face.
“I told you not to worry about The Lady,” he says with a smirk. He stands, slamming a hand down on Andrew’s shoulder. “Good job not pissing yourself though, driver. You are aware that she was quite willing to pull that trigger, right?”
Andrew nods and Shark laughs, clapping his hands together in expectation. “Shall we get this started properly then?” He asks. There’s a unanimous round of nodding and Shark’s grin spreads. “Fantastic. Can I tempt anyone with a hand of poker while we talk?”