Excerpt, Friends in High Places

From Chapter One
Bedazzled Ink, 2008

© 2008, Andi Marquette

He was cheating. Torri read it on his face and in the way he slumped slightly to the left in his chair. She tossed a credit disk onto the pile, raising the bet and making the three other players lower their eyes to their cards. Torri studied the cheater unobtrusively, looked past his left shoulder. Ah. His partner stood, back against the bar, some twenty paces from the gamers’ table. The cheater had seated himself in such a way that his back faced his accomplice. They were commlinked, then. Though the figure at the bar was only half human, perhaps he had transmission capability, from short distances. Even standard syn parts could do that.

Torri pretended to observe the other players. She always kept her cards on a table, face-down, and the cheater’s partner was staring hard at them. A soft whir sounded behind her, over her head. Server hoverdroid, no doubt part of the cheater’s regimen. She listened to it engage scanning capabilities–a sharp click–and she covered her cards with her hand, a lazy movement, as if done out of long habit. Her bones and blood vessels would obstruct an accurate image.

“Show?” One of the other players grunted at the cheater, the scales on his face shifting from blue to green.

The cheater drummed the fingers of his right hand nervously on the table, studying his own cards, brow ridge lifting and falling, amber eyes narrowing.

“Bet,” he growled, tossing another credit disk in. Then from his pocket he removed an opal the size of a small egg and placed it in the center of the table. Pure-color black. Colors flared within it as light tracked over its surface. The other three players sat back on cue, as if recognizing stakes too high for their cards.

Torri glanced at the cheater’s partner, who no longer leaned against the bar. Instead, he stood shifting his weight back and forth, still staring at the table, at her hand beneath which her cards remained. The droid had floated to her right, where it clicked into another scan. Torri flattened her hand against the cards, watching the cheater glance at his cards then at the droid then at his cards again. He was bluffing, but caught in some kind of bravado contest. With her free left hand, she reached for a higher denomination disk and tossed it into the pile. A few observers standing near the table muttered to each other.

“Show?” Torri raised an eyebrow and sat back, addressing the cheater in standard Empire, the language of traders and outlaws.

He grimaced and hesitated. His half-syn shill must not have offered him any insight. He looked over his cards at her, now held in both taloned hands. Torri picked up her glass in her free hand and took a sip. The liquid filled her mouth with spice and fire, ran down her throat in a smooth, hot rivulet. She set it back on the table, nonchalant. Two credit disks, both small denominations, sat within reach of the cheater’s right hand. He had counted on winning this round, though Torri doubted he’d ever won an honest hand in his life.

“Show?” the player to his left nudged. From his accent, probably a native Earthman from this region. The onlookers started whispering amongst themselves, adding pressure to the cheater, who glared hard at his cards, maybe trying to divine what Torri held. The other three players all stared at him. He had little choice and placed his cards face-up on the table’s milky translucent surface. The Earthman shook his head and Torri looked at the cheater’s cards. Half-sun. Good enough to beat some, had he been a skilled player. Eyes shifted to her. She’d been right about his bluff. She flipped her cards over with her right hand, spread them out with a quick flick of her wrist.

“Full ascendant,” one onlooker said, appreciatively.

“Well played.” Torri directed her comment to the cheater, no hint of sarcasm in her tone but in the glance she threw over his left shoulder, her meaning was clear. He scowled and pushed back from the table, bumping into observers as he headed for the door. The other players tossed their cards onto the table and drained their drinks before they, too left. Torri waited for them to go before she stood and gathered the handful of credit disks and the opal. She’d have the house override the cheater’s ID, since she had a feeling that the fool and his money weren’t easily parted. She placed the disks in the right-hand cargo pocket of her BDUs and reached for her glass.

“How did you know he was cheating?” said someone in lilting Empire.

Torri took a swallow before turning to the voice, a genderless tenor that belonged to a petite female Malrusian, the irises of her eyes the color of polished jade. Torri considered her answer. Then, “Sloppy. His opening bet was too high. The best players keep their cards–” she allowed a slow smile to pull the right side of her mouth up–“and their money on their own side of the table.”

The Malrusian smiled back. “Jindor.” She extended her left hand, palm up.

“Syl.” Torri lightly pressed her own left hand against Jindor’s.

“I have a table. And a bottle. Care to join me?”

Torri drained her glass and placed it on the table. The liquor heated her throat and gut, but the Malrusian heated something else. It has been a while. “My pleasure. Allow me to transfer proprietorship of my winnings. Where might I find you?” She quirked an eyebrow.

Jindor motioned with her chin at a table against a wall, positioned behind the seat Torri had occupied during the game. So Jindor had been watching her. She filed that observation away and nodded once before turning into the crowd and making her way to the gamblers’ counter. As she suspected, her opponent had rigged his credit disks. The attendant spent nearly ten minutes unlocking the code.

While he fussed over that, Torri examined the opal. She smiled. Had it been real, it would have come from one of the mines that spawned this dusty burrow of a city. She studied it closer. Pure-color black, mimicking Vintooth Matrix stones. A good fake, and something that might come in handy during this trip. She and her crew were here to run a shipment of real pure-color blacks, but a well-wrought synthetic could be useful. She slipped it back into her pocket and watched the attendant finished with the credit disks. Once he did, Torri programmed her own thumbprint into each. The cheater would have a rude awakening on the morrow, with his account in such a state. She transferred a tip to the attendant and returned to Jindor’s table, taking a seat on the cushioned bench opposite her.

“Problem with the disks, then?” Jindor said as she opened the bottle of spirits and poured a splash into two glasses.

“My opponent isn’t used to losing. But when he does, he prefers to hold on to his money as long as possible.” Torri picked up her glass. “To successful evenings.”

Jindor raised hers as well and tapped Torri’s. “No complaints thus far.” They both drank the contents of their glasses completely in a shot. Torri then filled each halfway.

“Care for a meal?” Torri set the bottle on the table.

“I ordered.” Jindor’s gaze lingered on Torri’s lips then descended to her chest before returning to her face.

A very successful evening. Torri settled back against the cushions as a hoverdroid arrived with a tray of small plates, each bearing a small portion of food. Jindor set the plates on the table between them. She slid a credit disk into the appropriate slot on the droid’s side then arranged herself on the cushions again. Torri watched her, enjoying the way Jindor’s fuschia hair spilled down her back, and the high set of her cheekbones, offering hints about her ethnic background. Something in her voice was familiar. Torri couldn’t place it. Probably reminded her of someone at the Academy.

“So what brings you to Newburg, then?” Jindor motioned for Torri to start.

“Layover,” Torri said, reaching for a plate of what looked like stuffed grape leaves.

“How long?”

“A few days.” Time enough to make contact with her target and plan the illicit acquisition of a shipment of opals. She bit into the grape leaf and cloves and tinnet exploded on her tongue in a cacophony of flavor. Her expression must have been obvious.

“Good food here,” Jindor said, laughing. “It’s popular with locals, too.”

“And are you one of those?”

Jindor shrugged and picked up her glass. “For now.”

Torri took another bite. Secrets. Settlements like this were built on secrets and greed. She chewed, savoring. The perfect place to do business. She caught Jindor’s eye and a familiar little throb settled between her thighs. The perfect place for a lot of other things, as well. She reached for another plate.

end

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