Ma06 little myth marker, p.1
MA06 Little Myth Marker, page 1
“Who’re you trying to kid? You got elf-high nothing!”
“All right! Raise your limit.”
“Elf-high nothing bumps you back limit.”
For those of you starting this book at the beginning (Bless you! I hate it when readers cheat by reading ahead!), this may be a little confusing. The above is the dialogue during a game of dragon poker. What is dragon poker, you ask? Well, it’s reputed to be the most complicated card game ever invented ... and here at the Bazaar at Deva, they should know.
The Bazaar is the biggest shopping maze and haggling spot in all the dimensions, and consequently gets a lot of dimension travelers (demons) passing through. In addition to the shops, stalls, and restaurants (which really doesn’t do justice to the extent or variety of the Bazaar) there is a thriving gambling community in residence here. They are always on the lookout for a new game, particularly one that involves betting, and the more complicated the better. The basic philosophy is that a complicated game is more easily won by those who devote full time to its study than by the tourists who have dabbled in it or are trying to learn it as the game goes on. Anyway, when a Deveel bookie tells me that dragon poker is the most complicated card game ever, I tend to believe him.
“Okay, Mr. Skeeve the Grater. Let’s see you beat this! Dragons full!”
He exposed his hole cards with a flourish that bordered on a challenge. Actually, I had been hoping he would drop out of the hand. This particular individual (Grunk, I think his name was) was easily two heads taller than me and had bright red eyes, canines almost as long as my forearm, and a nasty disposition. He tended to speak in an angry shout, and the fact that he had been losing steadily had not mellowed him in the slightest.
“Well? C’mon! What have you got?”
I turned over my four hole cards, spread them next to the five already face up, then leaned back and smiled.
“That’s it?” Grunk said, craning his neck and scowling at my cards. “But that’s only...”
“Wait a minute,” the player on his left chimed in. “It’s Tuesday. That makes his unicorns wild.”
“But it’s a month with an ‘M’ in it!” someone else piped up. “So his ogre is only half of face value!”
“But there’s an even number of players...”
I told you it was a complicated game. Those of you who know me from my earlier adventures (blatant plug!) may wonder how it is I understand such a complex system. That’s easy. I don’t! I just bet, then spread the cards and let the other players sort out who won.
You may wonder what I was doing sitting in on a cutthroat game of dragon poker when I didn’t even know the rules. Well, for once, I have an answer. I was enjoying myself on my own for a change.
You see, ever since Don Bruce, the Mob’s fairy godfather, supposedly hired me to watch over the Mob’s interests at the Bazaar and assigned me two body-guards, Guido and Nunzio, I’ve rarely had a moment to myself. This weekend, however, my two watchdogs were off making their yearly report to Mob Central, leaving me to fend for myself. Obviously, before they left, they made me give my solemn promise to be careful. Also obviously, as soon as they were gone, I set out to do just the opposite.
Even aside from our percentage of the Mob’s take at the Bazaar, our magic business had been booming, so money was no problem. I filched a couple thousand in gold from petty cash and was all set to go on a spree when an invitation arrived to sit in on one of the Geek’s dragon poker games at his club, the Even-Odds.
As I said before, I know absolutely nothing about dragon poker other than the fact that at the end of a hand you have five cards face up and four face down.
Anytime I’ve tried to get my partner, Aahz, to teach me more about the game, I’ve been lectured about “only playing games you know” and “don’t go looking for trouble.” Since I was already looking for mischief, the chance to defy both my bodyguards and my partner was too much to resist. I mean, I figured the worst that could happen was that I’d lose a couple thousand in gold. Right?
“You’re all overlooking something. This is the forty-third hand and Skeeve there is sitting in a chair facing north!”
I took my cue from the groans and better-censored expressions of disgust and raked in the pot.
“Say, Geek,” Grunk said, his red eyes glittering at me through half-lowered eyelids. “Are you sure this Skeeve fellow isn’t using magic?”
“Guaranteed,” responded the Deveel who was gathering the cards and shuffling for the next hand. “Any game I host here at the Even-Odds is monitored against magic and telepathy.”
“Weelll, I don’t normally play cards with magicians, and I’ve heard that Skeeve here is supposed to be pretty good in that department. Maybe he’s good enough that you just can’t catch him at it.”
I was starting to get a little nervous. I mean, I wasn’t using magic ... and even if I was going to, I wouldn’t know how to use it to rig a card game. The trouble was that Grunk looked perfectly capable of tearing my arms off if he thought I was cheating. I began racking my brain for some way to convince him without admitting to everyone at the table just how little I knew about magic.
“Relax, Grunk. Mr. Skeeve’s a good player, that’s all. Just because he wins doesn’t mean he’s cheating.”
That was Pidge, the only other human-type in the game. I shot him a grateful smile.
“I don’t mind someone winning,” Grunk muttered defensively. “But he’s been winning all night.”
“I’ve lost more than you have,” Pidge said, “and you don’t see me griping. I’m tellin’ you Mr. Skeeve is good. I’ve sat in on games with the Kid, and I should know.”
“The Kid? You’ve played against him?” Grunk was visibly impressed.
“And lost my socks doing it,” Pidge admitted wryly. “I’d say that Mr. Skeeve here is good enough to give him a run for his money, though.”
“Gentlemen? Are we here to talk or to play cards?” the Geek interrupted, tapping the deck meaningfully.
“I’m out,” Pidge said, rising to his feet. “I know when I’m outclassed—even if I have to go in the hole before I’ll admit it. My marker still good, Geek?”
“It’s good with me if nobody else objects.”
Grunk noisily slammed his fist down on the table, causing several of my stacks of chips to fall over.
“What’s this about markers?” he demanded. “I thought this was a cash-only game! Nobody said anything about playing for IOUs.”
“Pidge here’s an exception,” the Geek said. “He’s always made good on his marker before. Besides, you don’t have to worry about it, Grunk. You aren’t even getting all of your money back.”
“Yeah. But I lost it betting against somebody who’s betting markers instead of cash. It seems to me...”
“I’ll cover his marker,” I said loftily. “That makes it personal between him and me, so it doesn’t involve anyone else at the table. Right, Geek?”
“That’s right. Now shut up and play, Grunk. Or do you want us to deal you out?”
The monster grumbled a bit under his breath but leaned back and tossed in another chip to ante for the next hand.
“Thanks, Mr. Skeeve,” Pidge said. “And don’t worry. Like the Geek says, I
I winked at him and waved vaguely as he left, already intent on the next hand as I tried vainly to figure out the rules of the game.
If my grand gesture seemed a little impulsive, remember that I’d been watching him play all night, and I knew how much he had lost. Even if all of it was on IOUs, I could cover it out of my winnings and still show a profit.
You see, Grunk was right. I had been winning steadily all night ... a fact made doubly surprising by my ignorance of the game. Early on, however, I had hit on a system which seemed to be working very well: Bet the players, not the cards. On the last hand, I hadn’t been betting that I had a winning hand; I was betting that Grunk had a losing hand. Luck had been against him all night, and he was betting wild to try to make up for his losses.
Following my system, I folded the next two hands, then hit them hard on the third. Most of the other players folded rather than question my judgment. Grunk stayed until the bitter end, hoping I was bluffing. It turned out that I was (my hand wasn’t all that strong), but that his hand was even weaker. Another stack of chips tumbled into my hoard.
“That does it for me,” Grunk said, pushing his remaining chips toward the Geek. “Cash me in.”
“I should have left an hour ago. Would have saved myself a couple hundred.”
The Geek was suddenly busy converting chips back to cash as the game broke up.
Grunk loitered for a few minutes after receiving his share of the bank. Now that we were no longer facing each other over cards, he was surprisingly pleasant.
“You know, Skeeve,” he said, clapping a massive hand on my shoulder, “it’s been a long time since I’ve been whipped that bad at dragon poker. Maybe Pidge was right. You’re slumming here. You should try for a game with the Kid.”
“I was just lucky.”
“No. I’m serious. If I knew how to get in touch with him, I’d set up the game myself.”
“You won’t have to,” one of the other players put in as he started for the door. “Once word of this game gets around, the Kid will come looking for you.”
“True enough,” Grunk laughed over his shoulder. “Really, Skeeve. If that match-up happens, be sure to pass the word to me. That’s a game I’d like to see.”
“Sure, Grunk,” I said. “You’ll be one of the first to know. Catch you later.”
Actually, my mind was racing as I made my goodbyes. This was getting out of hand. I had figured on one madcap night on my own, then calling it quits without anyone else the wiser. If the other players started shooting their mouths off all over the Bazaar, there would be no hope of keeping my evening’s adventure a secret ... particularly from Aahz! The only thing that would be worse would be if I ended up with some hot-shot gambler hunting me down for a challenge match.
“Say, Geek,” I said, trying to make it sound casual. “Who is this ‘Kid’ they keep talking about?”
The Deveel almost lost his grip on the stack of chips he was counting. He gave me a long stare, then shrugged.
“You know, Skeeve, sometimes I don’t know when you’re kidding me and when you’re serious. I keep forgetting that as successful as you are, you’re still new to the Bazaar ... and to gambling specifically.”
“Terrific. Who’s the ‘Kid’?”
“The Kid’s the current king of the dragon poker circuit. His trademark is that he always includes a breath mint with his opening bet for each hand ... says that it brings him luck. That’s why they call him the ‘Sen-Sen Ante Kid.’ I’d advise you to stay away from him, though. You had a good run tonight, but the Kid is the best there is. He’d eat you alive in a head-to-head game.”
“I hear that.” I laughed. “I was only curious. Really. Just cash me in and I’ll be on my way.”
The Geek gestured at the stacks of coins on the table.
“What’s to cash?” he said. “I pulled mine out the same time I cashed the others’ out. The rest is yours.”
I looked at the money and swallowed hard. For the first time I could understand why some people found gambling so addictive. There was easily twenty thousand in gold weighing down the table. All mine. From one night of cards!
“Um ... Geek? Could you hold on to my winnings for me? I’m not wild about the idea of walking around with that much gold on me. I can drop back by later with my bodyguards to pick it up.”
“Suit yourself,” the Geek shrugged. “I can’t think of anyone at the Bazaar who would have nerve enough to jump you, with your reputation. Still, you might run into a stranger...”
“Fine,” I said, heading for the door. “Then I’ll be...”
“Wait a minute! Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Pidge’s marker. Hang on and I’ll get it.”
He disappeared before I could protest, so I leaned against the wall to wait. I had forgotten about the marker, but the Geek was a gambler and adhered more religiously to the unwritten laws of gambling than most folks obeyed civil law. I’d just have to humor him and ...
“Here’s the marker, Skeeve,” the Deveel announced. “Markie, this is Skeeve.”
I just gaped at him, unable to speak. Actually, I gaped at the little blond-headed moppet he was leading by the hand. That’s right. A girl. Nine or ten years old at the most.
I experienced an all-too-familiar sinking feeling in my stomach that meant I was in trouble ... lots of it.
THE LITTLE GIRL looked at me through eyes that glowed with trust and love. She barely stood taller than my waist and had that wholesome, healthy glow that young girls are all supposed to have but so few actually do. With her little beret and matching jumper, she looked so much like an oversized doll that I wondered if she’d say “Mama” if you turned her upside down, then right-side up again.
She was so adorable that it was obvious that anyone with a drop of paternal instinct would fall in love with her on sight. Fortunately, my partner had trained me well; any instincts I had were of a more monetary nature.
“What’s that?” I demanded.
“It’s a little girl,” the Geek responded. “Haven’t you ever seen one before?”
For a minute, I thought I was being baited. Then I remembered some of my earliest conversations with Aahz and controlled my temper.
“I realize that it’s a little girl, Geek,” I said carefully. “What I was really trying to ask is a) who is she? b) what is she doing here? and c) what has this got to do with Pidge’s marker? Do I make myself clear?”
The Deveel blinked his eyes in bewilderment.
“But I just told you. Her name is Markie. She’s Pidge’s marker ... you know, the one you said you would cover personally?”
My stomach bottomed out.
“Geek, we were talking about a piece of paper. You know, ‘IOU, etc.’? A marker! Who leaves a little girl for a marker?”
“Pidge does. Always has. C’mon, Skeeve. You know me. Would I give anyone credit for a piece of paper? I give Pidge credit on Markie here because I know he’ll be back to reclaim her.”
“Right. You give him credit. I don’t deal in little girls, Geek.”
“You do now,” he smiled. “Everyone at the table heard you say so. I’ll admit I was a little surprised at the time.”
“...But not surprised enough to warn me about what I was buying into. Thanks a lot, Geek old pal. I’ll try to remember to return the favor someday.”
In case you didn’t notice, that last part was an open threat. As has been noted, I’ve been getting quite a reputation around the Bazaar as a magician, and I didn’t really think the Geek wanted to be on my bad side.
Okay. So it was a rotten trick. I was getting desperate.
“Whoa. Hold it,” the Deveel said quickly. “No reason to get upset. If you don’t want her, I’ll give you cash to cover
“...At the usual terms, of course.”
I knew I was being suckered. Knew it, mind you. But I had to ask anyway.
“If Pidge doesn’t reclaim her in two weeks, I sell her into slavery for enough money to cover her father’s losses.”
Check and mate.
I looked at Markie. She was still holding the Geek’s hand, listening solemnly while we argued out her fate. As our eyes met, she said her first words since she had entered the room.
“Are you going to be my new daddy?”
I swallowed hard.
“No, I’m not your daddy, Markie. I just...”
“Oh, I know. It’s just that every time my real daddy leaves me with someone, he tells me that they’re going to be my pretend daddy for a while. I’m supposed to mind them and do what they tell me just as if they were my real daddy until my real daddy comes to get me. I just wanted to know if you were going to be my new pretend daddy?”
“I hope so. You’re nice. Not like some of the scumbags he’s left me with. Will you be my new daddy?”
With that, she reached out and took hold of my hand. A small thrill ran through me like an autumn shiver. She was so vulnerable, so trusting. I had been on my own for a long time, first alone, then apprenticed to Garkin, and finally teamed with Aahz. In all that time, I had never really been responsible for another person. It was a funny feeling, scary and warming at the same time.
I tore my eyes away from her and glared at the Geek again.
“Slavery’s outlawed here at the Bazaar.”
The Deveel shrugged. “There are other dimensions. As a matter of fact, I’ve had a standing offer for her for several years. That’s why I’ve been willing to accept her as collateral. I could make enough to cover the bet, the cost of the food she’s eaten over the years, and still turn a tidy profit.”
“That’s about the lowest...”
“Hey! The name’s ‘the Geek,’ not ‘the Red Cross’! I don’t do charity. Folks come to me to bet, not for handouts.”
by Robert Asprin / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes