Strong headwinds gave way under six stout propellers each ploughing the five luxury airship liners through the skies; their pace inexorable, though ponderous, and quite unlike the flurry of activity inside.
Cards fluttered from deck to hand and chips splashed in pools of red, white and blue at the centre of the green-felt table, as the 7th Annual Aces High Poker Tournament went into full swing. The table was for the best gamblers, or those who could afford to lose their $10,000 stake; and the speed of play was such that it ran on greased rails. Eyes glimpsed at cards as they fell to the table, glances took in the assembled opponents, sifting tells from bluffs, and chips appeared and disappeared in their hands, dancing through their fingers before they were thrown into the pile.
It was a quality of skill that would have made Jac Lightning smile if her stoic poker face allowed it. Thoughts of the mission and the discomfort of her disguise were ignored as her attention focused on the game. An accomplished card-sharp in her own right, The Lightning Marshal found herself on even footing in the company of hydraulic magnate, Constance Grimwheel, professional outlaw, Wiley Pete and another gentleman whose eyes had been replaced by a series of rose-coloured lenses implanted into his sockets.
Wendell Caine didn’t play poker. It was, in part, to do with his inability to read and the rest was a conviction never to lose money to duded-up city-slickers who could. With Jac focused on the game, the Mountain Marshal focused on everything else, studying the life of the ship from bartenders, to waiters, to dealers and specifically, the janitors. Wandering from his place near the table, Caine made a note of when cabins were cleaned and when they would be left unguarded.
Aboard a neighbouring airship Hans Octavius Wilhem treated the hands as more of an amusing diversion. The Iron Marshal didn’t gamble, he calculated, and a mind gifted in advanced mathematics predicted the fall of the cards as if they’d been dealt face-up. The first couple of hands saw him break away from Major Henry Klondike, William Henry Baker and the rest of the players at his table, save for the Pinkerton Detective, James Lovelace.
Lovelace, while possessed of a calculating mind in his own right, didn’t play odds– he played people. The Pinkerton could read most people like a newspaper while remaining unfathomable to the canniest scrutiny. It was a skill that resulted in his secure employment with the detective agency and it was a skill that kept him at least a couple of thousand dollars ahead of the German Marshal.
With the stakes being the opportunity to put to rest the last scheme of Bethany ‘Spokey Sampson’ Cartwright, each lawman was determined to make it aboard the fifth airship: The Colorado. Yet none of them knew what purpose the former criminal had, save that involved outrageous sums of money and a former weapons dealer named Jacque Sanchez
Jac Lightning was breaking even when the first round of the tournament was called, doing better than Wiley Pete and Constance Grimwheel. The winner, through a collection of minor victories, was the man with the rose-coloured lenses named Four-Eyed Bill. He hadn’t talked much, outside of betting vernacular, but he was shrewd enough to know when to call a bluff.
Too shrewd, Jac thought having noticed the shutter irises tightening when he regarded the other players, or rather, their cards. The Lightning Marshal had shifted her cards around, testing the scrutiny of Four-Eyed Bill, but even with her quick hands, she wasn’t able to obfuscate him for long. Wiley Pete, save for a wild cheer when fate delivered him a king-high royal flush, had spent most of the game growling at the dealer as he lost hand after hand. But under even worse luck was Constance Grimwheel, whose losing streak was bankrolling Bill, Jac and, on occasion, Pete like a paying gold claim. When the round was called, Constance kept a steady face, but a quick step as she left to her cabin.
“How’re y’doin’?” Caine asked as Jac left the table.
“There’s somethin’ strange about that four-eyed fella…” Jac replied, her refined affectation dropped like a dead horse the moment they were out of earshot.
Both of the marshals paused at Constance Grimwheel’s return, a small lacquered box clutched in trembling hands and a pale drawn look across her face. Even from across the room, Caine and Lightning could see the gleam of gold and a pool of pearls stacked within the box, when it was presented to the tournament officials. Hushed words were exchanged and the result was a collection of poker chips delivered to Grimwheel’s chair.
“Somebody’s lookin’ to stay in,” Caine muttered.
“Mighty interestin’,” Jac agreed. “But it won’t do squat if Four-Eyed Bill keeps gettin’ away with whatever he’s gettin’ away with. Can you check his room and see if you can find somethin’?”
Caine, who had continued to monitor the comings and goings of the cleaning staff, had worked out that the cabins on the left of the airship got done in the morning. The cabins on the right were cleaned in the afternoon. In the event of undertaking investigations, the Mountain Marshal hoped to time his intrusion before the cleaners arrived, relying on them to cover his tracks. It was a good plan, except that Four-Eyed Bill’s room was on the left and it was near midday.
“That’s gonna be a problem,” Caine growled. “I ain’t one for tidyin’ up after myself, and ‘sides, I don’t know what I’d be lookin’ for.”
“Well it ain’t like I can do it,” Jac hissed back. “Normally I’d just punch him out and show my badge, but you lot said to do the opposite o’ that. Well, what the fuck does a lady do?”
Caine thought about it for a moment. “Call for help?”
Jac Lightning’s jaw dropped so far it could plough the dirt several thousand feet below. Lightnings’ did not call for help. Not unless it involved writing, arithmetic or, in this case, lessons in etiquette. Not for sorting out some cheatin’ sonovabitch. They would, on occasion, form a posse, but it was clear to everyone that this was the Lightning’s show and everyone else was along for the ride.
She studied the guards. Each had the menace of sharks, circling the room with a smooth gait and showing only a fraction of their assortment of weapons. In addition, each man had one of their ears replaced with a curving horn capped with wire mesh– enhanced hearing no doubt.
Jac Lightning wrestled with the dilemma. If she whispered her suspicions, then she wouldn’t be ‘calling’ for help. She’d just make a suggestion, helping the guards out. That was a little bit more what a Lightning would do…
Caine had kept on talking, ignoring Jac’s dilemma. “…’sides, if he’s cheatin’, it ain’t like they’re gonna let him back into his cabin ‘fore he gets “dropped off”.”
The rumour about the Aces High Poker Tournament was cheaters never prospered. They weren’t too good at flying either.
“I’ll take care of it,” Jac scowled.
“I reckon I could get a look at Wiley Pete’s cabin,” Caine replied. “His ain’t been cleaned yet.”
Jac nodded in agreement and Caine stopped off by the bar for a whiskey – unaware that none of the other servants were drinking, and not caring so much either – before positioning himself by one of the entrances near the hall. When the game resumed, he’d make his move.
Jac got herself a Manhattan , raising the glass to her lips both mask her voice and to steel herself for what she was about to do.
“The gentleman in the bi-focals might be cheating,” she murmured, returning to her ladylike affectation. There, done!
A quick glance over the glass revealed nobody else had heard her whisper, but whether the guard had depended on the quality of their enhancements. None of the guards reacted. Maybe they were playing it cool. Maybe they hadn’t heard.
Jac finished her whiskey and squirmed in her bustle and corset. She hated these clothes, she hated the implication of asking for help and most of all she hated waiting for justice when she wasn’t delivering it.
Aboard Airship Two, the table had already cast off two of its players leaving James Lovelace, Hans Octavius Wilhem and, though lacking in winnings but still hanging in there, Major Henry Klondike. The old man, despite his cavalier claims to play like there was no tomorrow, kept his cards close to his vest and played like tomorrow was when he’d get around to betting more than the table bet.
One of the eliminated contestants hadn’t been bitter about the loss. William Henry Baker, who had to be reminded to return his attention to his cards on numerous occasions – distracted while talking business to other wealthy fat cats – found that the tournament got in the way of business deals regarding Ithaca’s Space Gun Project. That his Pinkerton bodyguard was winning made his removal from the contest even more graceful as the weighty industrialist clapped a plump hand on Lovelace’s shoulder.
“Looks like I picked the right man for the job,” he boomed, even though he hadn’t the slightest inclination to let his bodyguard play, and had let Wilhem’s family fortune provide the registration fee.
Tight lips stretched around his teeth approaching a the practicalities of a smile. “Thank you, Mr Baker.”
“No, thank you m’boy! Your win, gets me aboard The Colarado.”
“It does?” Lovelace asked, keeping incredulity from his face with the skill that had carried him to victory thus far.
“Indeed. The winner is allowed to invite two guests: That’s me and, I suppose, that Kraut lawman.”
The notion of how to get everyone aboard the Colorado to continue their investigation had eluded both Wilhem and Lovelace, each deciding to play to win and deal with that problem later. Now there was an answer. All the lawmen could get aboard so long so long as Jac Lightning won.
A necessity that wouldn’t matter at this table provided whether he or Wilhem won the round.
Of course, that was no reason not to go easy on the German.
With the break over and all players back at the table – including Constance Grimwheel with her fresh stack of chips and Four-Eyed Bill who seemed free to continue cheating – Wendell Caine took the opportunity to start his search Wiley Pete’s cabin. However there was the matter of a locked door barring the Mountain Marshal’s way.
No much could withstand Caine if he wanted to get somwhere but twisting the door off its hinges might leave folks suspicious. With neither German nor Limey aboard to pick the lock, the Mountain Marshal needed a new plan. Fortunately there was one other way inside.
Returning to Bethany Cartwright’s cabin, Wendell Caine walked up to a large porthole that offered a magnificent view of the landscape several thousand feet below. A quick test of the porthole revealed that it would open and, after making sure it could be done both ways, Caine climbed out onto the side of the airship.
With fingers digging into a thin ridge that ran along the hull of the gondola, Wendell Caine shuffled down the length of the ship as winds bellowed and buffeted him at every inch. It was cold, the ridge was smooth and it was a long way to the ground. To the Mountain Marshal, it was just like being back in West Virginia. Passing two other portholes – neither occupied allowing the hairy daredevil to clamber unnoticed – Caine arrived at Wiley Pete’s window. Dangling by four fingers, he popped the seal of the porthole before dragging himself inside.
Back at Jac Lightning’s table, the state of play had continued same as the last round. Four-Eyed Bill continuing his slow climb to victory, Wiley Pete whispered threats to anyone in earshot, Constance Grimwheel dolling out cash one hand after the other and the Lightning Marshal playing it more cautiously than she ever had in poker before. The guards continued their patrol, disinterested in the advice they’d been offered about Bill’s suspicious behaviour and while Bethany Cartwright maintained her composure, Jac Lightning was almost through her last nerve.
“What use is there bein’ a lady if you can’t punch a fella out?” She thought as Bill called her bluff, beating her three-of-a-kind with a full house.
With Bethany’s stony face reflected in red, the bionic-enhanced gambler reached for his winnings as two shadows fell over the collection of chips.
“Sir, could you come with us, please?”
Everyone looked up at two of the guards flanking Four-Eyed Bill. The gambler’s face turned as pale as the white thousand-dollar poker chips that tumbled from his hand.
Not waiting for a response, or perhaps sensing that he would try something desperate, the guards’ hands clamped down on Four-Eyed Bill’s shoulders and, with effortless and gear-enhanced ease, yanked the gambler out of his seat dragging him across the lounge and out the door.
The dealer appeared unperturbed. “There will be a small recess,”
Bethany Cartwright stood up and murmured something about taking the opportunity to replenish her funds. Jac Lightning, though, went out the same door as Four-Eyed Bill.
Inside Wiley Pete’s cabin, already a mess from the slovenly outlaw, Wendel Caine’s search left little evidence that he’d broken in, but it had revealed much. Distributed about the room in small hiding places were bundles of cash that, at least to Caine’s illiterate sensibilities, looked about as much as what they had found in Bethany Cartwright’s hideout. It could be that the Wiley Pete didn’t trust his luck and, given the rash of bad hands, there was evidence supporting that theory, but no outlaw could carry that much money even after a month of robbing trains and rustling cattle.
Caine had also found something else.
Contrary to the rules of the tournament, Wiley Pete had managed to smuggle a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun aboard. Small enough to hide under a stack of travel-worn and yellow-stained britches, the Mountain Marshal also spied the infamous white-phosphorous ammunition stored next to the gun in a bedside drawer.
Wendell Caine didn’t know why or how the outlaw had so much money, or whether it had anything to do with what Spokey Sampson had planned, but he did know plenty about guns. He knew guns well enough that all it would take to break it was the removal of the tiny firing pin. Doing just that, and then replacing both gun and cash to their hiding places, the Mountain Marshal popped the porthole and climbed back outside the airship.
And while he safely made it back to Bethany’s cabin, the same couldn’t be said of the firing pin.
Aboard the second airship, the game had been called to a sudden halt. Both Wilhem and Lovelace noticed the casual patrol of the guards had changed to deliberate surveillance, though they did not prevent Major Klondike from retiring to his room to obtain more funds.
They also didn’t stop James Lovelace from following him.
Hoping to keep unnoticed, Lovelace was caught off-guard as the elderly officer turned on his heel, catching the Pinkerton shadowing him.
“Something I can help you with, Mr Lovelace?” he said with caution.
The Pinkerton had been planning on keeping tabs on the Major, hoping to learn more about the inconsistencies between what Klondike said and how he acted. Sneaking, unlike poker, had never been the Pinkerton’s strong suit.
Time to turn on the old Lovelace charm, he thought. “Why Major Klondike, it’s more how I would be willing to help you.”
“Help me?” Klondike replied, suspicion thick in his voice.
“You’ve played a good game to last as long as you have,” Lovelace continued. “And while you have stated that the opportunity to participate in the tournament is reward enough, I can’t help but feel guilty depriving you, of your retirement.”
“The game’s not over yet, son.” Klondike harrumphed as blood rose to his face. “Ask anyone in the army and they’ll tell you nobody is as tenacious as I.”
“Indeed, Major; and it’s to your credit. You have been an exemplary player and it has been my pleasure to match cards with you. But my conscience ruins this joy and I had hoped, now that we’re away from the table, that you listen to my offer.”
“Should I win,” Lovelace said, hurrying to make his point as Major Klondike looked ready to interject, “it would please me to refund part of your losses in the spirit of good sportsmanship.”
Lovelace watched the Major like a hawk. He could already tell what the response would be as pride filled out Klondike’s chest. Money was far from the reason to the Major was here, so that left one other hunch.
“Of course, I’d also be willing to invite you, as my guest, aboard The Colorado as well.”
What response the Major was going to deliver stuck in his throat at the invitation. Lovelace watched, fascinated, as Henry Klondike wound back his retort, sealing his pride beneath a wide smile.
“Mr Lovelace, your generosity is faultless,” he replied.
So what’s aboard The Colorado, then? Thought the Pinkerton.
“I had my doubts about you, what with you and your other friend being from overseas, but I apologise for the snap judgement. I have clearly underestimated you, sir.” Klondike continued.
“Think nothing of it, old chap,” Lovelace smiled. “And, should your luck see you the winner instead, I do hope that you’ll make the same offer in return.”
“Of course, of course,” Klondike replied, not believing for a moment that, even if he had the luck of every Irish man, would he be victorious.
“You’ll allow me the honour of buying you a drink, sir,” Klondike smiled.
“Only if you allow me the same,” Lovelace replied as they retrieved the Major’s wallet and returned to the game.
The stakes had gotten higher now. And Jac Lightning would have to win to get herself, Caine and now Wilhem aboard the Colorado.
Jac Lightning was less focused on the game though. She was more interested in the fate of Four-Eyed Bill.
Better at sneaking than Lovelace, she had tailed the guards and the hapless gambler as they dragged him into one of the cabins down the hall. Hitching her skirts and quickening her step, the Lightning Marshal caught up and pressed her ear against the door.
“What’s goin’ on?” And such was Jac’s control that she didn’t spin on her heel and punch Wendell Caine on the spot.
Returned from his investigations, Caine had emerged from their cabin to see the Lightning Marshal listening in on something and, even more stealthy than her or Lovelace, had drawn up alongside her.
“That Four-Eyed Snake’s gettin’ what’s comin’ to him,” Jac hissed.
Caine listened in to the sounds of a wet length of cowhide getting pummelled.
“I thought we had an understanding,” said a voice between the blows. “We allowed you entry on condition your lenses were a medical requirement.”
There was the tinkling of glass and a loud moan of pain.
“Not so you could cheat your way in our tournament,” the voice continued. “You know what happens to those who cheat.”
“…no! Please!” the begging was reduced to choked sobs as another punch landed.
Both the Lightning and Mountain Marshal drew back from the door as each heard footsteps approaching it from the other side. Jac quickly spend down the hall, rounding a corner while Caine sauntered down the other way, whistling as he walked.
The door opened and a guard checked the hall, thinking to have heard something, but nothing he could confirm. With little more to worry about than some manservant slacking off, the guard closed the door and went back to his work.
Jac Lightning was expected back at the table, and so, returned to await the commencement of the game. Caine lingered a while longer, waiting for the guards to emerge with their prisoner. He didn’t have to wait long as they frog-marched Four-Eyed Bill between them, past where Caine was hidden, and into the cargo section of the gondola.
Where the baggage could be unloaded.
Across brass speaking tubes, snaking throughout the gondola, there was a voice.
“We wish to remind contestants that cheaters are not welcome aboard the airship.” And all eyes at Jac Lightning’s table focused on the empty seat.
Satisfied the matter was resolved; the dealer distributed Four-Eyed Bill’s winnings amongst Pete, Constance and Bethany and continued the game, as did Lovelace, Wilhem and Klondike.
With Klondike’s fear of missing The Colorado allayed and Four-Eyed Bill out of the tournament and, likely, the airship, the final round was heavily in the marshal’s favour. Wilhem was able to draw closer to Lovelace with a Jack-high straight. Wiley Pete bet high in the final round, going all in with Bethany Cartwright, to learn that this woman never blinked first. Constance Grimwheel’s stake had diminished yet again and when the last round was called, Jac Lightning and James Lovelace held the winning hand.
“Varmint! Miserable belly-crawlin’ varmint!” Wiley Pete spat at the dealer before storming out of the lounge.
“Well, that was rather abrupt,” said Cartwright while Jac Lightning grinned inside.
Constance Grimwheel’s departure was much more polite as she got up to leave.
“Geez, I’d feel really awful if I’d lost that much money,” said Caine a bit louder than either he or Jac would have liked.
Constance turned a furious shade of red at this and stormed out of the room. Jac, shaking her head, got up from the table and, dodging around well-wishers, followed after her.
Aboard the 2nd airship, amidst much more civilised congratulations, James Lovelace shook hands with everyone aboard. William Henry Baker and Major Henry Klondike were at either shoulder, almost for fear that he’d leave for the Colorado without them.
“Well done m’boy!” Baker boomed. “Your salary is the best damn money I’ve ever spent.”
“I’m here to look after your interests, Mr Baker,” Lovelace responded in a coy manner that managed to hide the sarcasm behind it.
“And in that manner, you have succeeded. I’ll have to write to your office.” Baker beamed.
Across the speaking tubes, the winners of each airship were announced, Lovelace breathing a sigh of relief as Bethany Cartwright’s name was called. The other contenders included Wesley Stokes, the antique dealer and owner of the prototype steam-driven pistol. Someone that Lovelace hadn’t met yet, but would have to investigate when they were both aboard The Colorado to see how desperate he was willing to get aboard. And the last winner was none other than Jacque Sanchez.
Whatever grim purpose drew these people together, it had to be aboard The Colarado, and chances were good that Lovelace would be the only person not in the know.
Which was why he was keeping three of a kind up his sleeve.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO 2ND RELOAD PART 6
Posted by Wordmobi