The front doors of the Smokescreen Club looked drab and innocuous. They might have been the entrance to a warehouse or a storage shed except for the two burly men in expensive suits who stood beside them, like guards on duty. Which was exactly what they were, thought the Brigadier as the carriage stopped beside them and he got out. Bouncers, guarding the least secret, most infamous gambling den in the city.
Milton Street was little more than a narrow alleyway linking Noble Street with the city's Upper Quarter, the abode of the city's elite. It looked as if it should have had a gang of cutthroats loitering in the darkness, along with a couple of drunks passed out in the gutter and litter and mouldering fruit rotting in doorways and shadowed corners. Although it was dark and had a dangerous feel to it, though, it was neat and tidy and the only people to pass along it were dressed expensively and would look both ways to see if they were observed before the bouncers opened the doors for them and they ducked furtively inside. None of the patrons of the Smokescreen Club had to worry about muggers or cut purses, either coming or going. This was the one street in all the city that no criminal would dare to visit. There were more than just the two bouncers guarding this street. The other doors that opened in the tall, obsidian walls hid armed men ready to leap out and accost anyone causing trouble, either go the club itself or its customers, whether they be criminals or members of the city guard.
Nobody came here by carriage, and so the carriage in which the Brigadier came attracted instant interest from the bouncers, whose hands went to the pistols on their belts as its door opened and its passenger emerged. They glared suspiciously at the garishly dressed man as he paid the driver with a twenty crown note, many times what any possible carriage ride could possibly have cost, and then turned his back on him, strolling confidently towards the club. Behind him, the driver slapped the reins much harder than necessary, as if eager go escape from an ambush, and drove the vehicle out along the street as if pursued by demons.
The Brigadier walked up to the doors with total confidence, as if knowing that angels would open them for him, and paused with a look of surprise as the bouncers moved to bar his way. “You've come to the wrong place, My Lord,” said the first. “Best you move along.”
“This is the Smokescreen Club, is it not?” said the Brigadier, staring in astonishment as if the two men were mentally defective. “I wish to enter.”
“This is a private club,” said the other man. “Members only.”
“Well, I wish to become a member. Go tell the manager. Tell him that Brigadier Weyland James is here and wishes to increase his personal wealth at their expense.”
Both bouncers drew their pistols. “Go, now!”
The Brigadier smiled in amusement. “My dear sir, did you imagine that I came alone? I've brought friends. Some quite, er, persuasive friends.”
The bouncers looked to and down the street, as if expecting armed men to suddenly appear. The street remained empty, though. “Last warning!” the second bouncer said.
They tensed up as the Brigadier reached inside his coat, and their fingers tightened on the triggers, but instead of a weapon the Brigadier brought out a thick wad of cash. “Meet my friend the Duke of Hulburgh,” he said as he peeled off a fifty crown note which bore a picture of the long dead aristocrat. He held it out to the first bouncer, who took it hesitantly. “I also brought the Third Count of Babode” he added, peeling off a hundred crown note and handing it to the second bouncer, “and His Excellence Emperor Fobwick.” He peeled off a pair of two hundred crown notes and handed one to each man. “Now, please be so good as to allow me and my friends to enter.”
The two bouncers glanced at each other. Their employers wouldn't be happy if they allowed that much money to just walk off along the street, but they had firm instructions. This was a buck that most definitely had to be passed up to someone else. “Wait here,” the first bouncer said. He then opened the door and went in, closing it firmly behind him.
The Brigadier and the second bouncer spent the next ten minutes looking at each other, the Brigadier smiling beautifically, the bouncer frowning uncertainty, dreading that this unconventional situation would result in his being fired from his very well paying job. It was to his very great relief that the first bouncer eventually returned. “The boss says he can come in,” he said. He held the door for the Brigadier, who smiled one last time before going in.
Inside were three people. A pretty girl, a burly looking man and the Host, the official meeter and greeter. All three were dressed in green, that seeming to be the colour worn by all the casino staff. The Host was dressed in a plain suit that was technically simple but somehow managed to imbue him with importance and authority, as if the very lack of any kind of insignia or conspicuous expensiveness implied that he didn't need them. “My apologies, Sir,” he said, smiling the way a snake might have smiled at a mouse. “It is a trifle unusual for a man such as yourself to announce himself in this way, but we are pleased to accommodate you. May we take your hat and coat?” The Brigadier took off his coat and handed it across to the pretty girl. “I'd like to keep my hat, if I may,” he said, though. “It brings me luck.”
“Of course, of course,” said the Host, still smiling. He nodded to the woman, who took his coat into a side room where a great many hats and coats were hanging on hooks. “I am afraid we have to check you for weapons now. One can't be too careful, I'm sure you understand.”
“Of course,” agreed the Brigadier. The burly man searched through his clothes, including his hat, found nothing and nodded to the Host, who smiled again. “You can change your money into casino chips through there,” he said, gesturing to a side room where another pretty woman was sitting behind a counter. “One cannot take cash into the casino, of course.”
“Of course not,” said the Brigadier. “The very thought.” He took out his wallet and counted out the high value bills, drawn that morning from the embassy's account after King Leothan had wired a substantial sum of money into it in response to the Brigadier's telegraphed request. He placed them on the counter and slid them under the glass partition, where the cashier counted them out and gave him back a stack of black and gold chips, polished and gleaming and somehow managing to look more valuable than the paper money it was replacing. It had a seductive weight to it, it felt good in his hands, and the Brigadier began to understand the attraction of this place. He had used up a substantial amount of money bribing the bouncers just getting in, but he weight of the counters in his hand somehow made him feel richer, better off, than he had been before arriving. He began to understand how some weaker willed people became addicted to places like this. His heart was pounding with excitement, and he hadn't even stepped into the casino proper yet.
“Thank you, Sir,” the Host then said, smiling broadly. “If you’ll come this way...” He led the way to the large pair of doors in the opposite wall, which were opened by the smartly dressed doorkeepers standing beside it. As soon as they opened, a wave of sound came rolling out. A large crowd of people, all having a good time. The Brigadier stepped forward and paused for a moment in the doorway to look around.
The casino was vast, as large as a warehouse but decorated like a palace ballroom. Huge chandeliers hung from the ribbed and buttressed ceiling, each bearing over a hundred electric candles, but the ceiling itself was painted a matt black that soaked up every ray of light that fell on it. The walls were black too, and the floor was covered by a dark carpet in which a pattern, formed of various shades of darkness, could just barely be seen. It meant that the brightly illuminated gaming tables, and the people around them, stood out in the darkness with no extraneous details in the room to distract from them. The only thing that broke the blackness was a large mirror high up on the opposite wall. The Brigadier guessed that it was a one way mirror and that there were people on the other side of it, possibly including the manager, watching over everything that was going on in the huge room.
The casino's clientele were all dressed expensively and included equal numbers of men and women. Some were in military uniform, high in rank with gaudy epaulettes and plenty of gold trim, while the civilian men were dressed in the universal fashion of high status men everywhere, with brightly coloured long tailed jackets over skin tight breeches and with gaiters over their boots and lower legs. The women were all bare from the waist up, with their long hair hanging down their backs to the waist and with necklaces and other jewellery over their fashionably flat chests. From the waist down they wore long dresses that completely hid their legs and their high heeled shoes. The Brigadier himself had chosen to come in his military dress uniform, complete with medals, which made him a splendid sight indeed, but the effect was spoiled a little by the peaked cap he was wearing on his head, a deliberate but minor breach of etiquette. Everyone else in the room was bare headed, that being the custom of military men and civilians alike while indoors.
“If you need any help, please don’t hesitate to ask,” said the Host. “I'll always be here if you need me, or you can ask one of the Pit Bosses.” He indicated the nearest such man, standing out from the crowd in his green uniform. “Their job is to make your experience here as pleasurable as possible.”
“I'm sure I'll be fine,” replied the Brigadier. “Thank you.” The Host nodded one last time, then returned to the reception area, closing the door quietly behind him.
The Brigadier stood where he was for a few moments longer, though, just looking out across the casino. He looked at the nearest gamblers, looking for faces he recognised. He was familiar with quite a few members of the Empire's government and its highest ranking military men, having met them at official dinners held by King Leothan and other rulers and shakers, but a casual search didn't reveal anyone he recognised. He would have to circulate.
The Brigadier hadn't gambled for money since his young army days, when card games had been one of the few ways of passing the time in barracks or in the trenches waiting for the next big push against Carrow. He'd never been very fond of the habit, but the games had been an important part of bonding with his fellow soldiers, creating a camaraderie with them. Anyone who refused to take part, who wasn't willing to lose his wages to the company card shark, tended to be ostracized and excluded from the company brotherhood, and that could be bad when the bullets started flying. The Brigadier, or the fresh faced young private as he had been back then, had wanted to be able to depend on the people fighting alongside him, wanted them to be fond enough of him that they'd risk their lives for him if necessary, but he had also wanted to keep the money he was risking his life to earn, and so he'd learned to be quite good at all the most popular card games, especially those that relied on bluffing and reading the expressions of the other players. Now, therefore, forty years later, it was the card games he looked for, and he found a cluster of tables near the middle of the room. He picked the one surrounded by the richest, most important looking players and gently pushed his way through the crowd towards it.
There was no empty seat around the table, so he just stood and watched with a circle of others, looking for familiar faces, of which there were none, and then watching the game, trying to identify it. After a few hands, he thought it was a variation of vuca, one of the more popular games of bluff, but there was a wheel in the centre of the table, similar to a roulette wheel except that it only had thirteen pockets, and although each player had a pile of chips in front of them representing very large amounts of money, they seemed to be playing for numbered counters, with one being won by each winning hand. Intrigued, the Brigadier stood as close as he could and watched.
The card game was indeed similar to vuca, with each player taking turns to take a card from the deck to replace one of the cards in his hand to create a high value combination. The difference was that all the cards were face up on the table, visible to everyone. As the Brigadier watched, the woman across the table from him took one of the cards from her hand, handed it to the croupier, who dropped it down a chute by the side of the table and gave her a new card from the deck. “No advantage,” he said as the woman frowned unhappily at the new card. “Queen high. Player still needs a ten for a straight.”
A man in the uniform of a Kelvonian Colonel sitting to the woman's right then also changed a card, and was much happier with the new one as all his cards were now of the same suit. “Family of Swords, ten high,” said the croupier. “Currently the best hand at the table, unless the Duchess completes her Imperial Family.” Everyone looked at a woman sitting at the other end of the table, presumably the Duchess, whose hand was composed entirely of Shields in consecutive order, the highest being the Emperor, except for a Nine of Coins where the Queen should have been.
Play continued, with one player after another trying to improve their hand, until there were no cards left in the deck. “The Colonel wins the hand,” said the croupier, and he used his stick to push a red disc bearing the number eleven across the table to him. The Colonel beamed in delight as he added it to the three counters he already had, bearing the numbers one, two and nine. Looking around the table, the Brigadier saw that all the counters from one to eleven had now been won by one or another of the players, and that the croupier still had the twelve and thirteen beside him. The Brigadier looked at the thirteen sided roulette wheel in the centre of the table and nodded with understanding.
“Now playing for the twelve,” said the croupier when he'd finished gathering up the cards, dropped them down the reject chute and opened a new deck. He dealt cards to each of the six players around the table, announcing them as he did so, until each player had five. The players then arranged them, trying to make the best hands they could, and play recommenced as they again took turns to swap cards from the remainder of the deck, which the croupier kept beside him.
A man with fiery red hair won the twelve, and a few minutes later the thirteen was won by the Duchess, who already had the four. Tension then began to gather around the table as the game entered its final stage. “All counters have now been won,” said the croupier. “The Colonel has four, the Manager has three, the Duchess, the Widower and the Redhead have two each. The Major has no counters.” The man in the uniform of a Kelvonian Major stood in disgust and stalked away from the table as the croupier used his stick to pull his pile of chips back towards him and add them to the bank. Seeing the empty chair, the Brigadier moved around the table towards it. “Looks like we've got a new player,” a man said to his companion as the Brigadier passed him by. Everyone else made way for him, some staring at him in curiosity, and he heard speculative gossip breaking out in the crowd. That was good. That was what he wanted.
The croupier spun the wheel, and took a small ball from its pocket in the table beside him. The five remaining players leaned forward anxiously, some looking around at the piles of chips on the table. The Manager was looking particularly worried, and the Brigadier noted that his pile of chips was the biggest, larger than all the others combined. Fool, thought the Brigadier without sympathy. Would that be the company's money, by any chance?
If the croupier thought so, he didn't seem to care. He threw the ball into the wheel, where it bounced from one pocket to another for several seconds while the players craned their necks to see better. Eventually it settled, and the croupier reached out with a white gloved hand to touch the wheel's rim, slowing it to a stop. “Eight wins,” he said, and the Duchess gave a squeal of delight while the Colonel muttered a curse. The Manager was stricken with horror and could only stare fixedly at the wheel, as if he could make the ball hop into another pocket by sheer power of will. He took a handkerchief from a pocket and mopped his brow, then staggered away from the table while people made way for him without compassion or pity. The Brigadier gathered that sights like that were quite common in the Smokescreen Club.
The croupier used his stick to gather up all the chips on the table except the Duchess’, then counted out enough of them to equal four times the Duchess’ stake before pushing them back to her. The rest of the chips, a large pile, went into the bank. The Brigadier estimated that this one table had made over three thousand crowns from that one game alone. He made a mental estimate of how much money the casino as a whole made in one night and his eyebrows rose in astonishment. He'd thought he'd come with enough money to make an impression, but with the vast sums being won and lost around him all the time, would anyone even notice his contribution?
The Duchess gathered up her winnings and dropped them into a velvet purse. “New game,” the croupier then said. “Take your places at table.”
The Brigadier dropped into the chair that had been vacated by the Major before someone else could claim it. A woman in a green dress sat in the chair the Manager had been using, and a man with a huge white beard pushed his way through the crowd to take the Widower's chair as she rose to leave. The other players kept their seats to play another round, all of them examining the new arrivals with interest.
“We have some new players!” said the croupier cheerfully. “Green dress, White beard and... I'm sorry, Sir. I’m not familiar with the rank insignia of foreign countries,”
“I am a Brigadier of the Helberion army,” said the Brigadier helpfully.
“A Brigadier! Not the Brigadier, I assume.” A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd.
“I understand that my adventures have earned me a certain amount of fame,” replied the Brigadier.
Another ripple ran through the crowd, this time of astonishment and surprise. Someone called out for someone else to come over. ‘The Brigadier's here! Yes, the Brigadier! From Helberion!”
“Well, Sir, this is quite an honour!” said the croupier, examining him carefully. “None of the stories told about you say that you're a gambling man.”
“The stories leave out lots of things. I'll be happy to fill you in later, but right now we have a game to play.”
“Quite right!” said the croupier. “All places are filled. Minimum bet is one thousand crowns. Please place your bets.”
The Brigadier counted out one thousand crowns worth of chips and placed them on the table in front of him in a neat column. Around him, the others were doing the same. The Duchess placed the biggest bet, three thousand crowns, but most of the others matched the Brigadier, possibly intimidated by his reputation. The Brigadier was a legend on the battlefield, and was the hero of a dozen adventures in the far reaches of the known world. Who knew what he was capable of on the vuca table?
“First round,” said the croupier. “Playing for the one.” He opened a new deck of cards and dealt five to each player, laying them face up on the table. The Brigadier arranged his cards in order in front of him. The Three, Four and Five of Swords, the Five of Coins and the Seven of Globs. With eighteen cards remaining in the deck, they could each make three exchanges in an attempt to improve their hands. The Brigadier's strategy was obvious, he should try to make a family of swords. If he was lucky, he could make it a running family. It would be a low value one, only seven high, but even a low running family beat most other hands in the game.
He would need the Six and Seven of Swords. He looked around the table at the other cards that had been dealt and surprised himself with the relief he felt that they were not present.
He saw the other players looking at his cards and frowning unhappily. Other players had higher value cards, he saw. Especially the Colonel, who had two Emperors, but none of the others had the same potential for greatness. “Looks like the Brigadier’s luck is holding,” said the croupier for the benefit of those spectators not close enough to the table to see. “A potential running family, seven high!” A murmur of gossip ran through the crowd and, despite himself, the Brigadier felt his heart beating faster.
“The Duchess has the highest value card, the Emperor of Shields,” said the croupier, “So she starts play.” The Duchess had three other cards in the suit of Shields, she’s only had to get one more to make a family, Emperor high. A respectable hand, and easily capable of winning the round, but most of the Shields were already on the table. She would need to be lucky. She chose the odd card out, the One of Globs and discarded it, but the new card she was given to replace it was the Queen of Coins. Useless to her, and her mouth moved in a silent curse. She still had two chances left to complete her family, though, and her hope was that none of the other players would take one of the cards she needed. She eyed the man to her right, the Redhead, the next one to make a move.
The Redhead already had a family, though, in the suit of Globs, Queen high. If he was feeling lucky he might have discarded his lowest value card in an attempt to get the Emperor of Globs, but instead he put out his hand, palm outwards. “Redhead is standing,” said the croupier, and the Duchess relaxed in relief, even though it made no difference to her chances of winning. If the Redhead stood again, both times the play game back to him, three other players would have an extra chance to improve their hands, including the Brigadier, but the Duchess wouldn’t be one of them.
It was the Brigadier's turn to play, and he discarded his Five of Coins, getting the Queen of Swords in return. Not the card he'd wanted, but he now had four cards in the suit of Swords. He could hope for a family even if he failed to get a running family. The croupier pointed this out for the benefit of the spectators and the murmuring that surrounded the table intensified.
Play continued, with none of the other players managing to improve their hands, and play returned to the Duchess. She discarded the Queen of Coins and received the Five of Globs in return. Another failure. The Redhead again stood, though, and all her attention fixed on the Brigadier as he made his play.
The Brigadier discarded his Seven of Globs and received the Emperor of Globs instead, making the Redhead curse out loud and the Duchess giggle. That card would have been the Redhead's if he'd played instead of standing, giving him an Emperor high family. The Brigadier felt a surge of annoyance running through him. Why come to a gambling club if you're not willing to gamble? he thought. The man played the odds, which was a safe but boring strategy. It wasn't something the Brigadier was able to do. Not tonight.
The woman in the green dress was the next to draw a new card, and the crowd gave a collective gasp to see that it was the last remaining card in the suit of Shields. The Duchess have a loud curse, making the Redhead chuckle. Her hopes of making a family were gone. All she had now was an Emperor high, which might have been a winning hand at another time, but not this time because the Colonel had two Emperors, currently the best hand at the table. The Duchess was out of the running for this round of the game, but there were twelve more rounds to go before the croupier spun the wheel. She relaxed and leaned back in her seat, therefore, her eyes on the Brigadier, measuring him thoughtfully.
When play returned to the Brigadier his heart have a leap of excitement when he received a Seven of Swords one of the two cards he needed to complete his running family. The Six of Swords, the last card he needed, was one of the six cards still in the deck, but assuming the Redhead continued to stand, there were four players ahead of him. There were four chances in six that one of them would get it. Everyone would be struggling to remember which cards had gone down the discard chute now, trying to figure out which cards were still in the deck and whether any of them would improve their hands.
One player after another were given cards from the deck, and as each card appeared and it wasn't the Six of Swords the Brigadier's heart beat faster. It still hadn't appeared when play returned to him, and every eye around the table was now fixed on him as they watched to see what he would do. “The Brigadier still has a potential running family,” said the croupier in a voice designed to whip the crowd into new heights of excitement. “Two cards remain in the deck. Ones is the Six of Swords the one the Brigadier needs. The other is the Two of Coins. If he completes his hand, he wins the first counter. If not, the Colonel wins, with two Emperors.”
The Brigadier discarded the Queen of Swords and the croupier took his time taking it and dropping it down the discard chute, wanting to drag out the excitement. He put his finger on the almost completely depleted deck and dragged the top card towards him while everyone around the table watched in heart stopping silence. Somewhere else in the room, a cheer went up as someone won something, but nobody looked up to see who it was or what game they were playing. The card was the centre of everyone’s attention. Everything else had ceased to exist.
The croupier turned the card over, and it was the Six of Swords. A great sigh went up from the onlookers and the Brigadier felt tension he hadn’t realised he was feeling flowing out of him like an overstretched balloon being allowed to deflate at last. “The Brigadier wins the hand!” cried the croupier, and he used his stick to push the number one counter towards him. The Brigadier took it and placed it beside him on the table. The croupier then used his stick to gather all the cards back, retrieved the cards that had gone down the reject chute, and shuffled them. “Now playing for the Two!” he said, and began to deal.