Don't Fear the Shadows
© 2016, Daijha Ravenblood All Rights Reserved.
Chapter 2 – Only Checkers
Right now the gaming corner tucked by the kitchen was quite silent. Some were off on day jobs. Others had faded out to hunt down a cheap dinner. One did not live by Jack's cheese sticks alone. Some went home to family, others would be back hoping for a few of the night time security and escort jobs. This was quiet time between shifts.
Near 5pm, despite the ruckus dancing around the corner, it was quite silent here. Chairs scuffed and pieces clicked. The afternoon residents of serious gamers were intent on finishing their free-play games.
From the kitchen, the smells of the tantalizing toppings and sauces for their potato skins and cheese sticks snacks teased the players.
Dai stomach threatened to grumble. She slowly moved her arm up and pressed her middle hoping to quiet down its emptiness. Another breath, seeking quietness. That was her job today. Practice quiet. Be still. Observe.
Hank's requirements were something like the meditation her mother had taught her. Both needed her to quiet mind and body. Instead of looking inward, here she needed to look outward. Look around her, but with a stillness so that others would not notice her intense scrutiny. Remember everything. Analyze everything around her. Her green tinted eyes traveled slowly around the bar from the chess and checker games to their players and back to the bar again. Motion was minimal, but she was retaining more than even last week. She had learned patterns and now sought differences.
She noticed the wait staff signing in early and picking up their order/pay pads and tying on their little black serving aprons. Heavy crowd expected? Early for a Saturday. Hummm.
Their server uniform consisted of a white button long sleeve shirt worn partially open, black trousers, and finished with sensible shoes. The only thing that distinguished them from the other servers of other bars was the option of a vest or under-bust corset. Both were a bright green that glowed slightly making them more visible in the crowded evenings. Black cording laid down in ancient Celtic designs decorated both. While the ladies had an option, most of the evening servers wore the little corset. Tips, of course were the motivation though some claimed it was for back support and no one argued. While One-Eyed Jack's paid a good wage, tips never fell completely out of style. Many of the gals opted for the busty look.
She counted, five servers in front of the bar grabbing trays getting ready to move out. There would be two more in the gambling room this early, she thought. Maybe two more around the corner in the dance area but realized she had not watched. Ooops. Hank would not tolerate her not paying attention, not for something so simple.
Her eyes drifted back across to the far end of the bar and then to the wall beyond. The saloon's west side held the main entrance door just offset a bit from the end of the bar so both bartenders and dance hostesses could see who entered though the swinging saloon doors. While a customer entering from the street on the Blue Line bus route could hear the music and the cheer from the outside, the electro-screen keep the street dust, noises and bugs out. It let the light steam in naturally. What most customers did not notice was the security system that scanned who entered and blocked undesirables. The sudden switch from the natural light into the bar caused most customers to pause and let their eyes adjust. Any bartender could push a button and "lock down" the door from where they stood when needed. Unwanted customers would be caught in the second security screen. Regulars just
walked far enough forward to avoid the area, trusting the security in the saloon proper.
Music paused for a few moments. From around the corner Maisie's voice rang out in its rich Irish brogue. "Slow dance up next, folks. Pick your partners." Two of the wait staff scurried around the corner. Fast dances were not a good time to try to work the tables in that section when crowded, but they knew to hustle now.
Dai smiled for a moment. She had never served a table in her life and never paid wait staff much attention until now. Spending afternoons at One-Eyed Jack's playing Hank's observing game she really grew to appreciate their skill, memory, and timing. Oh, and stamina. They must walk miles a night delivering those drink filled trays to thirsty customers. They smiled while they did.
She had been thinking of them just as their function, a cog. They were something more. People. Yup, her crusty upbringing needed peeling away. Maybe Hank wanted her to see the people too, not just as a use.
Hank wanted her to learn people. These small things counted, she guessed, but she still did not understand completely. Individuals made up the groups, and she really could not know really know the group without knowing the people. She sighed silently. She would have questions tonight.
She had trusted Hank these last months. They might be flat broke. Yet, life felt better than it had in quite a while. They were safer among these people. True, almost anything was better than being a slave in that rustic Fix-it Carnival, but even beyond that, she had begun to believe that her future could be more than just running or getting out of scrapes. Hank inspired hope. It did not matter she wore second hand clothing when three years ago she had worn layers of silk. It did not matter that they slept in the shell of that small Pillbug transport that even after all their scrubbing still stank. She would not trade a night at her grandfather's opulent estate for the freedom she had now. She did not have to fear that Hank
would marry her off like grandfather has tried.
Beyond that, she was starting to realize that One-Eyed Jack's was a haven, too. This place sheltered while she tried to drop old ways. She could learn here, shape her new self. Throw off the last bits of childhood. Throw off her upper-crusty attitudes. She could finally really create her own life out among real people.
Maybe this was not a little thing at all.
Then again, maybe she was just overthinking.
She breathed in deeply again. Center.
The piano started up again, this time with a sweet melody. While Dai could not see around the corner, she recognized Maisie's playing again. Even played softer, Maisie's energy poured through.
Dai closed her eyes down to slits to listen closer. Hank could estimate how many folks by the sound. She did not have a clue beyond it being a bit busy this early in the evening. She tried listening harder. Maybe Hank just kept track of who went in and out. Did he just lump them all as customers, or… the thought was exhausting. Could she learn to be that observant? He said it had saved his life more than once.
She realized her mind had been wanderings and quickly snapped her attention to her immediate surroundings.
She had not been as unreadable as she thought. Her mind had drifted. She looked down at the bench. While players around her seemed to just study their board, a hand snaked towards her boots. Dai knew this trick. Hank had caught her wool gathering twice already. He had quickly wrapped his arm around her legs and dumped her unceremoniously onto the bench. There had been quiet chuckles from the players but they kept their eyes on the boards. This might be a training ritual, but it also was good natured hazing.
This time it was not Hank. The weathered hand belonged to Sidney, first mate of an all gal ship.
Another slow breath. Interesting. Time felt like it slowed a bit. This gave her a moment to put Hank's tips into practice.
Find your options.
Acknowledge the challenges.
Choose your path.
She just had seconds. Last time she had avoided the yank down she had just jumped out on to the floor. This time the tables were just in bad spots. She could not jump clear of the bench without taking out two game tables. Too much noise. And, more importantly damage to her dignity.
She analyzed. What was the point? Not to embarrass. Just to keep her aware. OK. That changed the problem. Escape was not needed. Just acknowledgment.
If she reached to tap Sid on the shoulder she would be off balance. She knew what that would mean. No mercy.
She made her decision. Simultaneous she put one foot out to balance and her other foot just kicked lightly at Sid's hand before the older woman could get it around her ankle. She was ready for a fight response, in case that was also part of this training surprise.
Sid just withdrew her hand and favored Dai with a light smile and then her eyes went back to her own board.
Some of the group had slight smiles as recognizing her improvement, but eyes stayed mainly on their boards.
OK. She had passed again. She felt a smidge of satisfaction. She WAS learning.
She looked down at Hank's scraggy grey head bent over a checkers board. He looked oblivious to the test. She knew better. But he was busy.
Hank slowly played his fifth, no sixth game of checkers with a stingy haired guy who constantly twisted the fringe of his ratty green scarf. He was not a regular. She detected annoyance from the players around them.
Green-scarf-guy had played a few rounds earlier with Big Tom and talked him into playing for money before the others could stop him. Big Tom was literally a gentle giant and had never recovered from war trauma. He had his pride so the others knew they could not interfere once the transaction was shook on. Big Tom paid up when he was trounced by the stranger.
It did not matter to Green-scarf-guy that it was Tom's meal money for next week. He had even cackled a bit and muttered about beating the dummy. Two others played him afterwards but played checkers to a draw. He was good but could not be tempted into the chess games. The stranger might be a jerk, but knew his own limits.
Eventually Green-scarf-guy noticed a quiet straggled scar-faced old guy losing some games. He had not notice Hank switch from chess to checkers. He had no idea that the regulars around him had been setting him up to play Hank. He drew Hank into a game, letting Hank win. Then he proposed playing for stakes.
Emboldened by the other players not interfering, and having no clue why they had not with Big Tom, he worked to spin Hank in. Just barely win a game. Just barely lose a game. Double or nothing stakes climbed quickly. This last game went long.
Dai studied the board. It looked like Green-scarf-guy was setting up a big win for himself, but you had to understand the complexities of the game to see that. At a glance, it would be Hank's game.
Web within webs.
Hank mumbled to himself as he studied the board and tapped his head just so. It looked like a nervous habit of an old man. Hanks fingers knocked on the plate in his head creating quite a hollow sound. More subterfuge.
Green-scarf-guy smiled and pushed the stakes up one more time, mid-game to include a side bet of pieces cleared at one time.
Dai studied the board closer realizing that Hank was setting the board to turn the guy's stratagem against him.
Around them, Dai noticed people shifting. A lot of people were really aware of the game reaching its climax. They only watched out of the corner of their eye. The pros did not think it would end well. Scammers were never happy losers.
Seated across the way but with a clear line of sight, an old soldier still wearing reminders that he had been an Alliance man shifted a bit and let his coat drop to his side. In his holster he carried an electro-needler, much like Dai's. Non-lethal, but at this distance he would have no trouble putting the guy on the floor if he turned out to be a sore loser. Hank only packed lethal and Green-scarf-guy's coat had not moved enough to reveal if and what he carried. Sid could have taken him down, but that would be noisy, and could be messy. Rude.
Hank gave a slight side nod to Dai. She casually flattened herself against the window and ignored the buzzing of the security shield. Her job now was to stay perfectly still and let the professionals handle the next few moments. She had been hit by a needler before. That power burst froze you for a moment and pumped up your heart action. The trank knocked you out before you got your motion back. The hangover screamed at you once you woke up. She had no desire to repeat the experience.
Hank hung his head over the board, pretending to study his move options. His fingers drifted to the piece that Green-scarf-guy expected him to move and doom his game. A grin broke out on Green-scarf-guy's face and he twisted the abused fringe some more and leaned forward in anticipation.
Dai liked him even less now. That scammer relished picking on the weak. Cretins like him deserved to be brought low.
Hank moved a piece on the side of the board – a seemingly stupid and useless move. However, the move forced Green-scarf-guy to move a piece to counter. The man did it with little thought since the pieces were away from the main setup.
Hank paused again over the piece he was expected to move. Then he quickly shifted his hand to the corner of the board and started his checker jumping, and jumping, and jumping. In a moment more, Hank had cleared the board completely.
Green-scarf-guy pushed back his chair in anger. "Cheater!" he proclaimed snatching the paper money from the side of the board. He turned on his heel and ran smack into the bulk of one of the saloon's red-headed bouncers who had his massive arms folded doing a beautiful imitation of a brick wall.
"Trouble?" the bouncer queried with a bit too much of a grin on his face.
"Excuse me, sir." Hank's voice held none of the slow blurred drawl that he had spoken with during the last hour. "Before you go, recon you own me for the bonus jumps as well as that game money in your hand."
Green-scarf-guy bristled, turned red, looked like he might try to push the bouncer away. He looked the bouncer in the eye, having to crane his neck up to do that. He reevaluated the stance of the people around him. He had grifted for long enough he recognized he would lose if he did anything. He slowly counted money into Hanks outstretched hand.
Hank kept his hand out and cleared his throat.
Green-scarf-guy pulled out a few more bills.
Another throat clearing and he counted out more.
Hank's hand did not retract until full payment. The bouncer did not move until a nod from Hank.
Green-scarf-guy melted out the door. He would not be back anytime soon.
Everyone in their corner laughed, quietly, but definitely at the scammer's expense.
With this, Dai understood a bit more. It did not matter in this moment if the folks here had fought on different sides back in the war, or even if they had fought any battles. They were afternoon companions and no one would cheat any one of them. They had used tiny moves. Little things. It turns out can be better than actual force.
Hank tried to give Big Tom back the money he had lost. Tom would not accept it since to him he had lost it fair, or at least fair to his way of thinking.
A couple of the men called it quits at that point and convinced Tom to go with them for dinner.
Hank tried to slip them Tom's money but they refused.
Dai knew that sometime before their evening finished, money would be back in Tom's wallet via the guys taking him to dinner. By the morning Tom would not remember the money had ever been gone. These folks, despite their staunch claims of independence, did look after each other.
The game show had broken up the silence. Folks went back to low chatting. A waitress took a new round of orders.