Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Poker Table

            "I'm not so sure that this is a good idea," John Peter said.
            "Come on, Bulldog," Killjoy urged his friend, using his nickname. "This thing is a sure bet. Well, as sure as you can get while you're gambling."
            "That's exactly what I'm worried about," John said. "Gambling, by definition, isn't a sure thing. That's why it's called gambling."
            "I know that, but I always win," Killjoy said. "It's like taking candy from babies for me. Every time that I have ever walked into a casino or sat down at a game of cards, I have always walked away a richer man."
            "So what do you need me for, then?" John asked. He carried a blaster from the table where he had been cleaning it and hung it in the armory. "Take your money, win enough to pay yourself back and buy the core, and we're good to go."
            "I can't get into a game with high enough stakes for that," Killjoy said, "not with the pittance that I have. But I know that you have a fair amount stashed away. Your money could get me into the right game."
            "I do have some put away," John agreed, and a hell of a lot of good it's done me, he added to himself. "I have that because I saved it and didn't take it to the gambling tables."
            "I promise that I can double your money and get a new core for the Safe Haven," Killjoy said. "I just need enough money to get into the game."
            "If you're so all firing good at gambling, why do you only have 'a pittance'?” John asked as he retrieved a large weapon from the weapon vault and took it out to the armory's repair benches. His best guess was that this hunk of metal was a prototype of a heavy weapon, but he had yet to see it work. Maybe today would be the day that he figured out how to fix it.
            "Don't really remember," Killjoy answered honestly. "I guess I probably spent all of it as quickly as I could win it."
            "And what's to say that you won't spend my money as well as your winnings?" John asked. He had already decided to help out Killjoy but quite frankly enjoyed making him beg.
            "You'll be there," Killjoy answered. "Besides, I'm going to be playing for a new core for the ship. It's hard to spend that."
            "I'll help you," John finally said without even putting aside his tools. With a quick head motion, he flipped his magnifying visor down. "I do have one question, though."
            "What is it?" Killjoy asked mid-fist pump. He was so thrilled to finally have financial backing for his plan that he was willing to answer almost anything.
            "How is it that you're so good at winning?" John asked. "Do you cheat? Because as a member of the Space Corps, I'm not allowed to tolerate cheating."
            "In that case, I don't cheat," Killjoy answered. "And nobody will be able to prove otherwise."
            "Well, you know what they say," John said. "It's only cheating if you get caught. I don't subscribe to that theory, but people who gamble are just begging to have their money stolen by cheaters."
            "We also need it a lot more than they do," Killjoy said. "With the stakes that we'll be playing for, our opponents could probably lose an entire planet in a bet and not have it affect their pocket book."
            "Yeah right," John said. "People don't actually bet planets."
            "Yes they do," Killjoy disagreed. "Don't be surprised if you see a few of them changing hands tonight."
            "No joke?" John asked, still focused intently on the weapon in front of him. "After everything that I've seen, that will be a new one for me."
            "Not me," Killjoy said. He grabbed a rifle from the weapon vault and sat down at the repair bench across from John. "I actually owned one for a short while. Three hands, to be exact."
            "Three hands?" John asked, looking at his friend momentarily. "I thought you always walked away richer."
            "What's it tell you that I lost a planet and was still richer than when I started?" Killjoy shot back.
            "Either you had very little to begin with or it was a pretty crappy planet," John answered immediately.
            "A little of both, actually," Killjoy said.
            "So, when are we starting this ill-conceived plan?" John asked. He had faith in Killjoy to deliver but was still ever the pessimist, at least in speech.
            "Well, the high stakes won't start until later," Killjoy said. "By later, I mean midnight or later. I do want to hit up a few low stake games early on, though, just to dust off my skills."
            "So nine o'clock?" John asked. "We can tell Cap that we're going out to look for discount equipment for the armory."
            "I have been meaning to pick up some spare charge mags for the laser rifles," Killjoy agreed. "The blaster we have enough for but not the rifles."
            "Nine it is, then," John said. "I hear that all of the best dealers open shop then."
            "Agreed," Killjoy said, but they were not thinking about the same dealers.


******

            The tavern that Killjoy had selected was a rundown joint that John mistrusted as soon as he saw it. This was the type of place where you would be overcharged for your watered-down drinks and probably catch some awful disease from the nonexistent sanitation. The only reason that it stayed in business was because of pseudo-legal gambling hall. While gambling was not illegal per-se, it was frowned upon, and many things were illegal to wager in games. In this tavern, appropriately named the Free For All, everything was legal to play for as long as the cops didn't catch you. Planets, ship parts, illegal drugs, even people regularly traded hands on the premises. The owner only sold drinks as a cover, making most of his money from his two sons and one daughter-in-law, all of whom were professional poker players. With their skills, they were able to make a significant amount of money for their patriarch, either by winning credits straight up or by selling the goods that they won.
            Killjoy explained all of this to John on the way to the Free For All. He didn't know how many gambling halls his friend had frequented, but this one was a shock upon first arrival. Since the institution was only pseudo-legal to begin with, cheating was rampant. It was still an offense that could get you shot if you were caught or suspected, which meant that only the really good cheaters survived very long. And Jacob "Killjoy" Simmons was very good at cheating indeed.
            Though Killjoy had assured his friend that he could easily win enough money for the core, given enough time, time was a currency that they did not have, so they had settled on using creative sportsmanship. As with all of the best poker players, Killjoy needed an accomplice to successfully carry out his strategies, and despite his earlier objections to the activity, John was more than happy to help. The strategy was simple; John would roam about the bar appearing to be hitting on girls, all of the while keeping an eye on the cards of Killjoy's opponents. He would then convey the appropriate information to Killjoy who would use it to go on a winning streak.
            John had figured that this sort of collusion would be very difficult since there were fifty-two cards in a deck. Even breaking them into values and suits, seventeen signals would be required. Killjoy's system didn't require such complexity, though. There was a signal for each of the hand values in poker as well as signals for low, mid, and high. Most of the signals were self explanatory like holding up two fingers for a pair or three for three of a kind. Killjoy called the system so simple that it was stupid proof, but John knew that few things actually were.
            All cheating aside, what made the system unbeatable was the security chief's counter cheating maneuvers. He had never exactly explained to John how they worked, and he had only gathered enough to determine that it was some way to keep strategies similar to the one that they were using from working on him. It involved a lot of sleight of hand and things that John wasn't good at, so he had disregarded it. Besides, it wasn't like he had a part to play in that particular endeavor.
            They arrived at the Free For All just after nine o'clock, and Killjoy immediately hit the poker tables. John set himself up as a good patron of the establishment, buying a drink and playing a bit of pool. This was a game that he was good at so he wagered a little money on it. It was like taking money from babies, especially since he was playing against people who had had a little too much to drink. All this time, he was keeping his eye on the prize, watching the cards of Killjoy's opponents and signaling the results when necessary. Though few knew it and even fewer appreciated it, he had the vision of an eagle, something that had served him well as a sniper in the Marine Corps. Now it allowed him to distinguish cards from half way across the tavern.
            Another skill that he had learned in another life was the ability to concentrate on multiple things at one time. To show too much interest in the game across the room and not enough in the game of pool directly in front of him would have been a mistake. His attention was ostensibly focused entirely on his own wager while only his eyes occasionally flicked toward Killjoy's card game. It took a few rounds to work the kinks out of the strategy, but within an hour and a half, both of them had accumulated a substantial amount of money. Now all that remained was to keep playing until the big boys with the deep pocket books came out to play.
            "Hey, honey, you look like you could use some company."
            John looked at the scantily clad woman near his elbow. She was not a woman of the night if John was any judge of people, but that fact was not evident by her clothing. Despite that fact, she was almost certainly after his money, and that irritated John.
            "I could, actually," John played along. "Want to play a game of pool? Maybe put a small wager on it?"
            "I would love to," the woman said. She retrieved a pool cue from the wall while John recovered the balls, placed them in the triangle and located them properly. He took the cue ball and tossed it to the woman. "The name's Angie, by the way."
            "Well, Angie, why don't you break this time?" John said. He wanted to see how this woman would play. Initially he had dismissed her, but now he wasn't so sure. Was it possible that she was actually good? Fifteen moves later with all of the pool balls in the pockets of the table, he had his answer.
            "New idea," John said. "Let's team up and take on the idiots that want to put money down on this game. Together we would be unbeatable."
            "And why would I do that when I could play by myself and take all of the winnings?" Angie asked.
            "Two reasons," John said reasonably. "The first is very logical, the second is coercion. Together we could play pairs of people, and people are statistically likely to put down more than twice as much on a game of teams than one of singles. It's the idea that idiots can convince each other to do even stupider things when they are in groups."
            "And what's your coercion?" Angie asked.
            "Is it really necessary?" John said. "Was I convincing enough?"
            "Let's say you weren't," Angie answered. "What would you try to use to coerce me into playing with you?"
            "I'd could tell everyone in the place that you're a ringer and can't be beaten," John said. "That would probably have the reverse effect and make a lot of them want to play you to prove me wrong, so that's not a good move."
            "Then what exactly would your move be?" Angie asked. Sometime during the course of the conversation she had moved very close to John, though he was uncertain of exactly when she had done so. Anyone else might have been flushed and not thinking straight right now, but this was nothing new to John. Women behaved like this back in the old days when he wore his Marine uniform into bars.
            "I'd tell them that you're a nark and are trying to trick people into illegal gambling," John answered. "Just the possibility of you being with the cops and nobody would touch you with a ten foot pole."
            Well played," Angie said, straightening and moving around the pool table to reset the balls. "We'll play together and separate some suckers from their money. I do have one question before we begin, though."
            "You can ask, though I won't promise an answer," John said.
            "Why so interested in the poker game over there?" Angie asked, motioning with her head toward the table that Killjoy was playing at. "I've been watching you for an hour now and you can't seem to keep your eyes off of it."
            John laughed as he put chalk on the tip of his pool cue. This woman was certainly full of surprises. First she was a ringer at pool and now she was ridiculously perceptive as well. He had severely underestimated her initially.
            "I'll tell you later," John said. "I like to get to know a girl before I give up all my secrets!"

******

            Midnight was approaching, and John's pocketbook had never looked better. Angie was a fantastic pool player and clearly not a new comer to the sport of gaming people out of their money. She threw the right shots, even the lower stakes games, to keep up the charade that she and John were just another couple looking to gamble a few dollars on a friendly game of pool. John appreciated the fact, knowing that he would have to fly below the radar to make the next part of Killjoy's plan to work. He didn't want to make a name for himself lest he be recognized, snooping around the poker tables later.
            As the last minutes of the day slipped away, a new breed of patron began to trickle into the Free For All. These people, by their clothing and bearing, were not the rabble that Killjoy had been playing up until now. Their suits were very expensive, probably costing more than most of the people present made in a month. Their noses seemed to be constantly stuck in the air, and they didn't seem to care anything about the people around them. More importantly, John noted, each of these gentlemen had at least one body guard in tow.
            These men went into a back section of the tavern, leaving their bodyguards behind. Most of these muscled men congregated around the pool table. John gave Angie a knowing look; here was a new crop of sucker waiting to be taken advantage of. They could probably bleed a few hundred bucks out of each of them if they played things right. This was going to turn out to be a very profitable night, even if Killjoy was unable to come through with a new core for the ship. John still had questions about whether he would be able to make that work; a ship's core seemed like a pretty big wager to him.
            "So which of these suckers should we take on first?" Angie asked in a voice low enough that only John could hear her.
            "The two at the far table," John answered as he gave Killjoy the signal for two pair. "They don't seem like their looking for a fight, but that body armor they have on isn't cheap. They probably have a bit of money to blow."
            "What body armor?" Angie asked. She was sipping a drink and looking unobtrusive.
            "They have it on underneath their shirts," John answered.
            "And you could tell from here?"
            "It's up my alley," John answered. "Sometimes it's a necessary skill in my line of work."
            "You intrigue me, John," Angie said with a look of admiration. "You'll have to tell me more about yourself sometime."
            "Sometime," John agreed with a roll of his eyes. This woman was just a tool to him, a way to stay under the radar and make a few extra bucks, and he was certainly the same to her. Neither cared about the other's life.
            "So, how do you want to play this one?" Angie asked as they moved toward their target. The two bodyguards were big, John thought to himself, but nothing that he couldn't handle if necessary. Not that he actually expected things to turn sour, it was instinctive for him to evaluate people this way whenever he met them.
            "Let's go with the tipsy ploy," John answered. "We've had good luck with that one."
            Angie nodded in agreement and shortened her stride a little. She faked a stumble and caught herself on the pool table. Giving a little giggle, she looked at the two body guards, then back to John.
            "Do you think we should, honey?" she asked. She looked like she was trying to whisper but made sure that her voice could carry to the men that she was talking about.
            "Shhh," John cautioned in a slightly slurred tone. His voice also clearly carried across the table. "You don't want them to hear you, do you?"
            "They look like push-overs," Angie said, ignoring John's question. "We could beat them easy."
            "You want to challenge them?" John asked. "It should be easy money."
            John agreed and began to round the table, leaning on it heavily to maintain the charade. As he moved, he gave Killjoy the signal for a high card. Even as he played this up, he kept his eye on the prize, and that prize lay with Killjoy at the poker table.
            "We challenge you to a game of pool," John told the body guards brazenly. He swayed slightly and hiccupped before continuing. "My girlfriend thinks that we can beat you easy. I think she's right."
            "Want to put your money where your mouth is?" one of the guards asked. By the glint in his eye, John could tell that he thought this would be easy money. He smiled inwardly; these fools were walking right into his trap.
            "I wouldn't have it any other way," he slurred. "How much you think, twen'y?"
            "How about a hundred?" the second guard asked.
            A hundred would work about right, John thought, but he might be able to get some more out of them.
            "I don't know, man," he said. "Tha' seems like a lot of mullah." He laughed at the use of the funny word.
            "You just said that we would be easy to beat," the first guard said. "If you're not man enough to back up your words with your money..."
            "Fine, fine," John conceded, reaching for his wallet. "A hunerd and fity it is."
            The second guard started to say something but was stopped by his friend. If this drunk man wanted to increase the bet, they certainly weren't about to stop him.
            "Is that a hunerd and fity toat... toat... in all," John finally slurred out, "or was tha' a hunerd and fity each?"
            "Each," the first guard said immediately. This game was getting more lucrative all the time.
            "Honey, put the balls up on the table," John called to Angie. The he dug through his wallet muttering to himself. "A hunerd and fity and a hunerd and fity. That's four hunerd, right? Yep, four hunerd credits." He pulled two hundred credit bills and four fifties out of his wallet.
            "So the wager is four hundred credits on the game," the first guard said. Clearly he had no problem taking advantage of drunk people. That made John feel a lot better about taking advantage of him.
            "Yup, four hunerd buckeroos!" John said happily. "Yer goin' down. Tha' money's as good as mine!"
            "We'll see," the body guard said. "Do you want to break?"
            "Break?" John muttered. "Break? Oh! The balls. Yeah, I'll break 'em."
            John retrieved a pool cue and stumbled down to the end of the table where Angie had just finished setting the pool balls.
            "Wrong side," one of the guards said. "You're supposed to break from this end."
            "What?" John said, looking confused for a moment. He seemed to get his bearings and headed to the end of the table with the cue ball. Taking his pool stick backwards, he started to set up a shot. Then, just before he thrust it forward to hit the cue ball, he started laughing uncontrollably.
            "I'm holding it backwards!" he guffawed, pointing to the stick in his hands. He looked at the guards and said it again. His laughing increased.
            "We get it, dude," the first guard said. He was clearly getting irritated with the drunk man. "Just turn the cue around and break already."
            "Okay," John agreed, wiping his eyes. He turned his stick around and lined up the shot. With a sharp thrust, the cue ball shot across the table toward the triangle of other balls. With a sharp 'crack' the game started.

******


            Killjoy glanced at his cards and then at his watch. It was 12:30; most of the big rollers would have arrived by now. He had more than enough money now to get into one of their games, so this would be his last round at this table. It would be increasing his pool of cash a little more, he didn't even have to see Bulldog's signals to know that. Four of a kind will win just about any game of poker, particularly one of five card draw. He continued to pump money into the pot, walking the line between too much and too little. Too little and the game wouldn't hardly be worth playing; too much and he would scare off the other players. The bid was called and the cards were down. Killjoy raked in the pot and began to organize the coins and bills.
            "Well, gentlemen," he said to the other players. "It's been a pleasure playing with you, but I think it's time to take this to the next level."
            "The big rollers?" the dealer asked, motioning with his head to the rich patrons who had trickled in over the past half hour. "Do you realize what kind of stakes they play for?"
            "I do," Killjoy said. "I've lost several fortunes to them in the past. I've won several as well."
            "Good luck getting in," the dealer said as he dealt the next game. "They're kind of picky about who they play with."
            "I know," Killjoy said. He stood and walked toward the rear of the tavern. Several large men were guarding the area, but Killjoy knew how to deal with these brutes. Putting on an air of arrogance, he held his hands behind his back and strode forward with a sense of purpose. For a moment he actually thought it would work, then one of the bouncers put a beefy hand on his chest and repelled him.
            "You don't go back there," the bouncer said.
            "Really," Killjoy responded. "I'm here to play poker, just like all of the people back there."
            "I've never seen you before," the bouncer said. "How do I know you're not a cop?"
            "I'm sure that I know someone back there who could vouch for me," Killjoy said. "Hey, Andrew," he called to a man in a pinstriped suit. Andrew looked at Killjoy and the bouncer.
            "You know this man, sir?" the bouncer asked.
            "I do indeed," Andrew answered. "Lost a planet to him once. Won it back two hands later."
            "That was you?" Killjoy asked in surprise. He walked past the bouncer and toward Andrew. "I must have been really slammed because I don't even remember you being there."
            "You were pretty drunk at the time," Andrew agreed. "I almost felt bad for beating you except that practically everything that you had you won from me."
            "Hey, that's the way of the table," Killjoy said lightly. "You win some and you lose some. If you're smart, you get out before you start to lose."
            "Then you're not very smart at all," Andrew said with a laugh.
            "Not at the table, no sir," Killjoy answered. "So which of these games is the highest stake? I need to make some money and fast. It's kind of a life or death thing."
            "High stakes?" Andrew asked. "That be Mr. Jacobs' table." He pointed to a table tucked away into a corner. "That man runs the pot through the roof almost every game. Usually wins too."
            "I'm not looking for something that high stakes," Killjoy said. "You know as well as me that you can't risk everything on one game. Gambling doesn't work that way."
            "Well, the table that I play at is usually pretty moderate," Andrew said.
            "In that case, as long as you don't mind losing your money to me, I think I'll jump in with you," Killjoy said.
            "I never mind losing what I gamble," Andrew said. "Because I only gamble what I don't mind losing."
            "That, my friend, is what makes you a smart gambler if there ever was one," Killjoy said. After a moment he asked, "Out of curiosity, what exactly is it that you do? For a job, I mean."
            "I own an outfitting company," Andrew answered. They had arrived at his usual table, and he took a seat. "I sell and install all kinds of ship parts, repairs, and modifications."
            "That's interesting," Killjoy said as he took a seat. "The money pretty good in that business?"
            "As long as we stay in this war it is," Andrew answered. "Practically every ship has to be outfitted and repaired or modified every time that it comes back from a deployment. Long as they keep coming back, I keep making money."
            "So kind of like job security," Killjoy said as he picked up his cards and looked at them. He had squat.
            "So what about yourself, Jacob?" Andrew asked. "What is it that you do for a living?"
            "Old money," Killjoy answered a bit belatedly. He was taken off guard by the use of his given name. "My father used to be in the investment business. Was good at it too. He died and now I'm sitting on a fortune with nothing to do with it."
            "You ever consider investment?" one of the other players asked.
            Killjoy pretended to examine the speaker while simultaneously looking to where John was playing pool. Of the five other players at the table, there were two high cards, one pair, and a three of a kind. Andrew was positioned such that John could not see his cards. With this information in mind, Killjoy took a good look at the player who had spoken of investments. He had a greasy, conniving look about him, and Killjoy decided that he would trust him about as far as he could throw him.
            "Never considered it," Killjoy finally answered. "Known too many people to lose all of their money that way. I figure, why do that when I can just keep it in the bank and know that it's not going anywhere?"
            "Unless you lose it gambling, am I right?" Andrew said with a laugh. The bid was to Killjoy, so he threw in enough to call.
            "Amen to that, I lose enough of it there," Killjoy responded to the remark.
            New cards were dealt out now, and everyone fell silent while they reevaluated their hands. Killjoy pitched four cards, hoping for something good. The cards slid in and he picked them up slowly, one by one. Two queens, a seven, and an eight to go with the one still in his hand. Two pair; not good enough to beat the three of a kind unless...
            "Who's bid?" Killjoy asked, placing his cards face down on the table.
            "Mine," Andrew said. "I'll pass."
            "Tough luck," Killjoy said. "Not much in there? I'll bid one hundred." He cringed inwardly as the laid the money on the table for though it was a modest bid at best at this table, it was a lot to him. The bid went around the table and was raised twice.
            "Call," Killjoy indicated and threw in the appropriate amount of money. It was important for him to lose the first few games so that it wasn't obvious what he was doing. The cars went down on the table now. Two pair, three of a kind, the other three dropped their cards face down on the table and Killjoy followed suit.
            "Unless it goes away to the poker table, huh?" the winner taunted.
            "Just takes me a bit to warm up," Killjoy excused the loss. The cards were dealt again. This time he had a descent hand. Throwing some money out as an initial bid, he started the round. This would be a long night, but if he played things right, the Safe Haven would have a new core come morning.

******

            "I don't have the money to stay in," Andrew said, looking at the empty table in front of him.
            "And you don't gamble more than you can afford," Killjoy said. "I suppose that means that you're going to have to fold."
            "Now hold on a second," Andrew said. "I can afford to lose a little bit more, yet. I have full stock back at the store. What about a shield generator? I've got the Mark VII in stock."
            "Mark VII?" Killjoy said with some surprise. "That's supposed to be the latest and greatest. How much do those things retail for?"
            "Around two hundred thousand," Andrew answered matter-of-factly.
            "Two hundred thousand credits," Killjoy said with a low whistle. He seemed to consider the statement, looking around the table as he did so. Besides himself and Andrew, only one more person still had the funds to continue playing this late into the night. The money from the other four players had been redistributed among the three that remained though with the considerably largest portion going to Killjoy.
            "What do you say?" Killjoy asked, looking to the third player. "Two hundred thousand, but it's not cash. What value should we give him? One hundred?" The other player shrugged, so Killjoy turned back to Andrew. "We'll give you one hundred thousand value for the Mark VII."
            "I'll take it," Andrew said instantly, and why shouldn't he? He was sitting on a full house, kings high.
            "That means that you're in essence raising twenty five thousand," Killjoy said, pealing some bills from the stacks in front of him and placing them in the pot. He looked down at his cards; four twos stared back at him. This game was in the bag. The other player folded.
            "Read 'em and weep," Andrew said with a smile. He laid his cards on the table and began to rake the pot toward his seat.
            "So close and yet so far," Killjoy said as he placed his cards face-up. Andrew stared at the quadruple twos in disbelief as Killjoy collected his winnings.
            "Don't worry about it," he told Andrew. "I played you bankrupt because I needed your attention. Now that you owe me a Mark VII, I think I have it, yes?" Andrew nodded. "Good. I'll get us some drinks and we can find a more private booth to talk business."
            Five minutes later they were comfortably seated in a secluded booth drinking beers that both looked and tasted vaguely like urine. The place definitely wasn't known for its drinks. Killjoy's money had been placed in a duffle bag that he had brought for such a purpose and was tucked safely under his seat.
            "So you risked all of that money just to get my attention," Andrew said. "You're a persistent man."
            "Desperate is more like it," Killjoy said. "Remember how I said that winning money was a matter of life or death? Well, money alone won't get me what I want."
            "I'm confused as to what you think that I can do," Andrew said. "It sounds like you're talking about contraband; I don't deal in that sort of stuff."
            "Not contraband for you, but definitely for us," Killjoy said. "You see, I'm in a bit of a pickle. I've been assigned to an SM frigate." Andrew gave a small gasp, and Killjoy continued. "You know better than I that government regulations prevent us from buying anything for our ship except for what has already been cast off by the Space Corps. On the other hand, if we want to survive, the cast offs aren't going to cut it."
            "So you want me to sell to you?" Andrew said. "Why would I risk getting caught? Do you realize what would happen to my business? To me?"
            "I do realize that which is why I'm willing to make it worth your while," Killjoy said. "You already owe me a Mark VII which you can deliver to this hanger," he slid a card across the table, "tomorrow at your earliest convenience. Here's the deal that I have for you: if you can secure us a new core, and I mean a new one not a crappy cast off, then I will pay for the Mark VII and the core. I'll even bump up the prices to make it worthwhile for you. You know that I have the money to do that."
            "So let's say that I go along with this?" Andrew asked, clearly warming up to the idea. "The government keeps tabs on everything that goes into and out of businesses like mine. How am I supposed to cover this up?"
            "Don't play me for a fool," Killjoy said. "You gamble your parts which means that have a way to cover your tracks."
            "Busted," Andrew said. "So what, you just want the VII and the core?"
            "Anything that you have in stock would probably be appreciated," Killjoy said. "When you come to deliver the VII, bring a list of what you have, and let our mechanic look at it. We'll buy what we need at above premium price until the money runs out. "
            "You have yourself a deal," Andrew said after a few moments of consideration. "The Mark VII will arrive with the core tomorrow. I think I have just the thing; it'll have your frigate operating on overdrive."
            "I don't know what that means, but it sounds good," Killjoy said. "Convince our mechanic and you'll have yourself a sale."
            "In that case, I think that I've lost enough money for one night," Andrew said as he rose from the booth. "Time to go make some more before I hit the tables again."
            "Look forward to seeing you tomorrow," Killjoy said, or would have said if he hadn't been interrupted by a commotion near the pool tables. A large, burly man was dragging a woman toward one of the poker tables.
            "It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while, people are bet on the games," Andrew explained, seeing Killjoy's look. " I would never do it, but some people have no sense of decency."
            "It would appear so," Killjoy agreed. He retrieved his duffle bag from the floor and slung it over his shoulder. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow."
            "Agreed," Andrew said and left.
            Killjoy meandered through the tavern toward the pool tables, the cash in the duffle bag weighing him down. He adjusted the strap as he looked around for Bulldog. The two of them needed to head back to the ship before something tragic happened. Loosing this hard won money would be equivalent to signing a death warrant for the crew. Without it, they couldn't upgrade the Safe Haven and would almost certainly die in battle. As it turned out, he didn't have to find Bulldog, the ex-Marine found him.
            "We have to do something," John said. His face showed no expression, but this was as worked up as Killjoy had ever seen him.
            "Do something about what?" Killjoy asked. What his friend was so worried about he couldn't tell.
            "Angie," John got out. "She's been bet on that stupid poker game. That thug just came and dragged her off."
            "She's a slave, Bulldog," Killjoy said. "There's not a lot that we can do."
            "Go buy her," John offered.
            From Mr. Jacobs?" Killjoy asked with a humorless laugh. "Not a chance! That man has so much money you couldn't tempt him with the world. He'd refuse to sell just for the fun of it."
            "Then we kidnap her," John said. "She doesn't deserve this. She's no slave."
            "Don't be an idiot," Killjoy said. "There's no way that we could kidnap her. Jacobs has a dozen guards with him."
            "Then gamble him for her," John said, motioning to the duffle bag on Killjoy's shoulder.
            "That's money for the ship," Killjoy said. "We can't afford to lose it."
            "You said that you could win," John countered. Killjoy sighed.
            "Yes, I did say that."
            "Then win," John said. "You win, and we all walk away from here with the money that you've already won for the ship."
            "Fine," Killjoy said after several long moments, "but we're going to do this my way. You'll come as my bodyguard, but you'll keep your mouth shut. You don't like was I say, keep your mouth shut. If you see someone cheating, don't point it out. Do you understand?"
            John nodded and followed Killjoy through the tavern to where Mr. Jacobs was still seated at his poker table. Another man was leaving, recently cleaned out of funds. Killjoy wondered if the man ever lost a game. Well, if he hadn't before, he was about to. Walking up to the table, he put one foot up on a chair and looked at Jacobs.
            "You seem to be doing quite well," Killjoy said, eyeing Jacobs. "I'm not shabby at the game myself, and they say that you can't be beat."
            "Not in the last two weeks," Jacobs said. "You think that you can bring me down?"
            "I might be able to," Killjoy said as cockily as he could manage. "Care to play a round or two?"
            "I'd be happy to take your money," Mr. Jacobs said. "Jensen, a deck of cards please."
            "I'd like just one restriction," Killjoy said as he sat down.
            "And what would that be?" Mr. Jacobs asked. He dealt cards to himself and Killjoy.
            "I don't want to be betting people," Killjoy said. "I'd prefer to keep it cash if that's okay with you."
            "Why not humans?" Jacobs asked, an evil glint in his eye.
            "It's not legal," Killjoy answered. He picked up his cards and looked at them. Squat just as he had expected. If Jacobs was a cheater like he had him pegged for, he wouldn't deal his opponent anything worthwhile.
            "It also not legal to play for shield generators, but you apparently have no problem doing that," Jacobs said.
            "Touché," Killjoy said after a moment. "Bet what you want. I don't care."
            "Good," Jacobs said. He led with a ridiculous bid, one clearly designed to wipe out Killjoy's reserves. It didn't work but it came close. Killjoy took three new cards and reevaluated his hand. Two pairs stared up at him, but he figured that they wouldn't be enough to win the game. He could practically feel the man behind him signaling his hand to Jacobs.
            "I guess I get to bid first," Jacobs said. "I'll pass."
            "I'm all in, I think," Killjoy said, shoving the rest of his money to the center of the table. This was it; either he won it all back or the Safe Haven was back to square one.
            "I'll see that," Jacobs said, placing the proper amount on the table. "I'll also raise you my new slave." He jerked a thumb toward Angie who was being held by one of his body guards.
            "Okay, what do you value her at?" Killjoy said, pulling out his wallet and ruffling through it. "Two hundred? Three hundred?"
            "Five hundred thousand," Jacobs said.
            "Half a mil?" Killjoy asked, clearly shocked. "There's no way she's worth that."
            "Half a mil or you can fold," Jacobs said. A smile stood out on his face. Clearly he thought he had beaten his opponent.
            Killjoy looked at his cards, then back to the pot. He eyed Angie for a few moments, then looked back at his cards. All the debating was just for show; he knew that he could pull this one out.
            "Half a million it is, then," he said finally. "In the spirit of illegal betting, I have a ship to bet. It's worth two or three million."
            "Two," Jacobs said immediately.
            "Two and a half," Killjoy countered.
            "Two and a quarter," Jacobs offered. Killjoy smirked to himself. The Safe Haven was a piece of crap barely worth the metal it was made of. The idea that he could gamble it at a value of two and a quarter was hilarious.
            "Deal," Killjoy said. "That means I raised you 1.75 million. Do I hear you call or fold?"
            "I call," Jacobs said. "Quickly he counted out money to equal the amount and threw it into the pot. With a smile he laid down his cards: full house, sevens over threes. "How do you like that?"
            "Pretty well considering what I have," Killjoy said. He dropped his cards showing four twos and an ace. Jacobs' face was a mask of confusion and fury. He looked at his man stationed behind Killjoy, but the guard only shrugged. He had not seen anything happen. Killjoy sat back in his chair, not yet going for the money.
            "You cheated," Jacobs said.
            "That's quite the accusation," Killjoy answered. "I certainly hope that you have proof, otherwise you have just insulted me greatly."
            "Turn out your sleeves," Jacobs ordered.
            "Only if you do first."
            The two men continued to stare at each other for a long time. Killjoy was the one to finally break the silence.
            "John, come here." He could feel the ex-Marine come up behind him. Carefully, Killjoy began to sweep his winnings into his duffle bag, all of the while keeping an eye on Jacobs.
            John eyed Jacobs' guards, fully expecting them to do something. On cue, the one nearest Killjoy pulled his gun. John intercepted the weapon on its way out of the holster and smashed it into the guard's nose. At the same time, his other hand drew his own pistol and aimed it at Mr. Jacobs. The rest of the rich man's guards reached for their weapons but stopped on a signal from him.
            "It's a poker game," he said. No doubt the pistol pointed at his face helped him see reason. "This is not a shooting matter. Get the man his slave, let him collect his money, and see him on his way."
            Angie was dragged over to Killjoy who had just finished stuffing the money into his duffle bag. He motioned for John to lower his weapon and take charge of Angie. Reluctantly he did so.
            "Well, Mr. Jacobs, it's been a pleasure," Killjoy said, not being able to resist one last stab at the man. "I hope that we have the pleasure to play again someday."
            "I hope so too," Jacobs responded.
            Both men were liars.

******

            "Holy cow, did you see me!" Killjoy exclaimed when they were several blocks away from the Free For All. "The Safe Haven being worth two or three million! I can't believe that I pulled that one off with a straight face."
            "Your ship?" John asked. The tone of voice was stern, but there was a smile on his face. "Since when did you own that ship? You could have lost it, you know."
            "So what?" Killjoy asked. "If I lost it, we'd be out the biggest piece of crap in the entire world. I'd be a lot more worried about what Jacobs would have done when he actually saw the ship. Two or three mil indeed!"
            "You sure played the situation well," Angie offered. Though the look on her face during the whole ordeal had been one of terror, she had regained her confident attitude. "You play poker a lot?"
            "Hardly at all, any more," Killjoy said. " The salary of a Space Corp Chief doesn't pay well enough for me to be able to afford it. Besides, don't have the time anymore."
            "Space Corps?" Angie said, looking accusingly at John. "Then you're the cop."
            "Cop?" John laughed out loud. "That has to be the funniest thing that I've heard in a while."
            "But you're with the Space Corps," Angie said.
            "Yes, and we're assigned to an SM frigate," Killjoy countered. "Do you know what that means?" Angie shook her head.
            "It means that we're all criminals of one sort or another," John explained. "We've been court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to this duty. It's pretty much a death sentence."
            "Because of the crew?" Angie asked.
            "Because of the ship," John corrected. "SM frigates are the worst, most poorly equipped pieces of junk in the whole fleet. Pretty much they're bullet magnets that are practically counted as casualties before they ever see combat. SM stands for 'suicide mission.'"
            "So you were out gambling for one last night on the town?" Angie asked.
            "Not exactly," Killjoy said. "We may be an SM crew, but we don't exactly want to just roll over and die without a fight. The gambling we did tonight got us money to outfit and upgrade our ship."
            "You're shipping out soon, then," Angie said. It wasn't really a question.
            "Yeah, three weeks," John said. "Who knows how long our tour will be. Hopefully not too long considering the crate that we'll be on."
            "If you're leaving, what are you going to do with me?" Angie asked, turning to look at Killjoy.
            "What do you mean?" Killjoy asked just before it hit him. He cursed out loud. Angie was a slave, and he had won her in a poker game. This would certainly complicate things. He cursed again as he thought about it.
            "It's simple, isn't it?" John asked. "You set her free and give her some money. She'll be fine when we leave. After all," he added with a smile, "I've seen her rustle people at pool."
            "It won't work," Killjoy disagreed. "We left the bar without getting her bloody ownership papers. Mr. Jacobs probably still has them. Unless you want to go ask him for them, I don't think that we'll ever see them."
            "Worst case scenario, Jacobs puts out a bulletin out on me as an escaped slave," Angie said.
            "So we play it by ear, then," John said. "We can tell the captain about it."
            "It's hard to say what Cap will do," Killjoy said. "He may not want any part in the whole business."
            "Then we smuggle her off on the Safe Haven," John said. "We can't, in good conscience, leave her here to be put back into slavery."
            "Hey, we're all criminals anyway, right?" Killjoy said. "Angie, what are you good at anyway? Besides pool of course."
            "Angie's the name on my papers, but that isn't my real name," Angie answered. "Mom always called me Gabriella, and I promised myself if I ever got my freedom, I'd go by that."
            "Alright then, Gabriella," Killjoy said. "What are you good at?"
            "I was trained to do paperwork," Gabriella said. "Anything involving bureaucracy or forms of any kind, I probably know how to deal with it. My specialty was pseudo-legal deals. I can cover the tracks of anyone doing practically anything."
            "You falsify documents," Killjoy said. His mind was already working in overdrive. "What about forging documents? Could you do that?"
            "Give me the right equipment and I could forge you anything from a birth certificate to a bill of sale or a license to own and operate heavy weapons. Anything you want, I can make."
            "And the digital records?" John asked.
            "I have access, after a fashion, to every database that is necessary to forge documents," Gabriella answered. "I can cover the tracks completely."
            "A paperwork sucker and a forger," Killjoy said. "I think that's a combination that the captain can't refuse, what do you think, Bulldog?"
            "I think you might be right," John said. "Provided, of course, that it's okay with you, Ang...I mean Gabriella."
            "It's fine with me," Gabriella answered. "Anything to get me off of this hell hole is fine with me."

            "Well, let's get you to the captain and get you taken on as a crew member," John said. "I guarantee that with all of the modifications that we're going to be doing to the ship, you'll have plenty of work for the next three weeks."

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