Friday, January 22, 2010

Story 186: Going For Broke

I feel like I'm being watched. Like my cover is blown.

In training back at the Academy they told me to trust that feeling - Pinkerton said that our senses were better than we could understand and if they wanted to tell us something we had damn well better listen. The flipside, of course, is that you never want to let on when you know someone is watching you - so when I finally see an opportunity to look around it's in character, an old man glancing down the aisles in confusion rather than a twenty-five year old checking for a tail.

The sounds of people laughing, drinking, and crying flood out anything useful I might hear - the casino is having a particularly busy night. The local Baron is in attendance, and there are more merchants than average for this time of year, their airships docked nearby at the hotel. Mirrors, chandeliers, and champagne glasses reflect the light from hundreds of gaslamps arranged around the main hall, creating a confusing jumble of colors. Even so, I can scan past a crowd and catch the information I need - the way they stand reveals them as bodyguards, spoiled upper-crust social butterflies, dedicated gamblers. Nobody stands out in particular. Nobody seems like a fellow spy - though for obvious reasons that really only rules out a spy who is bad at his job.

For that matter, I probably shouldn't even think the term 'fellow spy'; What I'm doing could hardly be called spycraft. I'm a joke, a fraud. Washed up. The last time I actually did work - real work - was five years ago. Infiltrating a mad scientist's factory and destroying it, sending the vats and the swarm of godless fanged creatures straight to hell... Of course, the actual mission was to just observe and report back, with strict orders not to make a move. It seems the fanged critters were more valuable alive, or something. It was an easy mistake to make; in the heat of the moment, watching the cracks in the vats release steaming drops of acid so close to the locks for the animal pens and knowing with absolute certainty that the fifth law of dramatic physics would kick in at any moment and release them into the city - and then seeing the self-destruct valve right there...

So they fired me. Fine. We all make choices, and I can live with mine. I'm not bitter - well, only a little bit, anyway. I find my machine easily enough, a 'one-armed minion' that sits squat and gaudy near the cashier's booth. There's someone camped out at it, feeding pennies in and pulling the lever to flush them away. Every so often a few cents will trickle back out, a tiny fraction of the wealth that was poured into it. Everyone knows they're a bad gamble, but they play anyway while hoping for a big jackpot. On a busy night like tonight the machine can make a man into a noble with a single pull, and all the regulars have seen it happen so they know it could be their turn next. At least, they believe it could be. That woman who won last time, the bespectacled merchant before her, the bearded monk before that... they all put hope into the hearts of the gamblers, because when I put on a show I do it right.

So tonight, I'm an old man. I've invented a story already, one I can let slip in the excitement of winning a jackpot. Now I'll finally be able to afford the operation, I'll say, and I'll be able to move to Mana Falls near my children. It'll be heartwarming, it will speak to all those dreams that the pathetic addicts have and make them queue up to dump their hard-earned pay into oblivion. I brush against the side of the machine and the spinning wheels click into place one by one, each showing a skull. The horse-faced lady frowns, but drops another penny in. Once more, the wheels blur and snap to a halt with a row of death's heads grinning at her and this time she stands up to look for a machine that's still "hot". My pocket watch tells me I have a ten minute window to trigger the payout on this machine. It's showtime.

Just as I'm about to sit I see him. Thirty feet away, visible in flickers as the crowd passes in front of him - someone is staring at me, eyes boring a hole through my skull. I nod and smile, keeping the old man act up, but then he slowly and deliberately peels his handlebar moustache off of his face and winks. Oh, shit. I'll have to abort, have to talk to the casino owner and find out how he wants me to proceed. This will all be okay. From just behind me I hear the cranking of gears as the machine's lever is pulled. I spin around and sure enough the red-headed woman with her hand on the lever is pressing one foot against the hidden button at the bottom of the case. I've been made, weeks ago maybe, and they've been watching me this whole time waiting for a night where they could distract me after I had shown them what machine would pay out and when. Oh, gods.

The first wheel snaps into place as I'm turning away - and I know without looking that it's displaying a golden crown. By the time the second one shows I'm hobbling down the aisle and when the third and final nail in my coffin clicks I abandon the facade entirely and fly like a madman into the night, barely ducking under the sweeping gorilla-like arms of the casino guards that flail on instinct at anyone running. The word will be out within the hour and I'll be worth more dead than alive, so there's only one way to go. I reach the hotel just before collapsing - I need to exercise more - and after making sure nobody is watching I allow myself to get back into character as I head through the lobby. Out the back, around the courtyard, through the serviceway...

Only one airship is being prepped for departure. It's a doozy, looks more like a pirate vessel than a merchant or noble ship. This might not be a good idea... but every moment I stay brings my chances of survival closer to zero. The coast is clear, I could make a run for the cargo hold right now. I look up at the cannons, the ominously scarred hull... oh well. Time to become a gambler.