When the Lion Feeds

John Lambshead

Lady Trouble, that was how Hawthorn always remembered her.

The Kit Kat Klub was the sort of place considered sophisticated by the sort of people who considered themselves sophisticated. Anything unchromed was plastered in plushly padded leather in a particularly repellent shade of purple.

In one corner a female singer in a shimmering dress slashed so low that you could see her fundamentals crooned about the evils of wealth. Behind her three bored looking young men in evening dress variously beat, blew and stroked musical instruments as if they were filling in time while waiting for the main feature.

Hawthorn lost a little money and won a little in return on the gaming tables while waiting for a contact who never arrived. The enigmatic message that had brought him to this den of lethargy was a bust. He finished his drink and disposed of his glass onto a tray carried in an overhead grip by a waitress in a spangled leotard.

Then she walked in.

Walk is a simple verb implying one foot placed in front of the other in steady sequence. Such a definition did not even begin to adequately describe her progress. She glided across the room on heels higher than the mark up on the club’s drinks.

Hawthorn watched her, not something that caused him undue pain. Hair fashionably styled in sea-green waves flowed over her bare shoulders matching the color she had chosen for eyes nestling deep within the maroon mask perched on her nose.

She slowed when she reached the roulette wheel. Spectators moved aside—but she hesitated before taking a place at the table. Although she might have seemed serene to the unobservant, Hawthorn noticed an infinitesimal tremble when she placed a handful of coins on spin-positive. A spin bet gave only a one third chance of a win, less the House’s zero, worse than the fifty-fifty of even-odd but better than the one fifth chance of a color and much, much better than the probability of choosing a number.

“No more bets.”

The croupier tossed a silver ball with a practiced flick of the wrist. It slid around against the spin of the plate until descending far enough to hit the grid with a protesting rattle. He damped the wheel with the edge of his hand.

“Twenty-two wins, evens, green and spin-positive.”

The croupier pushed the lady’s winnings onto the table and she let them ride: spin-positive won again. She bit a finger in indecision before transferring the pile to spin negative.

“Forty-seven wins, odd, blue and spin-negative,” said the croupier, after the little ball of destiny had finished bouncing.

He replaced the lady’s winnings with a few high-denomination coins as her impressive heap of loot threatened to spill over onto neighboring bets.

She let the money ride.

Hawthorn pursed his lips. She had won three times on a one third probability. The chance of winning and losing was exactly the same on each spin of the wheel and she had no greater chance of disaster on the fourth try than the first but letting a bet run changed the odds perniciously. Sooner or later the gambler would lose and a quick mental calculation suggested to Hawthorn that she now had less than a one percent chance.

The ball rattled. When it dropped into the slot a collective groan arose from the table.

“Zero,” the croupier said unemotionally, raking in all the cash.

He could afford to be phlegmatic. Win or lose, it wasn’t his money.

The lady took it well. Perhaps there was the merest hint of a quiver of her lips and a glistening in her eyes but she walked across the room to the bar with her nose in the air. Behind her the roulette wheel rattled into life once more.

She selected a stool two seats up from Hawthorn and ordered a drink. When the barman brought the heavily diluted offering she fiddled in her purse. A sneer formed slowly on the barman’s face like a fungal infection.

“I believe it is my turn to pick up the tab,” Hawthorn said, flipping a coin on the bar. “And I’ll have what the lady is drinking.”

“Thank you,” she said, after the barman had left. She drank deeply. “Who’re you?”

“Knight,” Hawthorn said, taking the stool beside her. “Jeb Knight.”

The name Hawthorn was not entirely unknown in certain circles and he wasn’t looking for trouble. He was never looking for trouble—but trouble had a way of seeking him out, nonetheless.

“Well you saved my blushes tonight, Jeb Knight,” she said, holding her glass up in salute before taking a generous gulp. “I doubt I’d enough cash left to pay.”

“And you are?”

She gave a small bow.

“Desole Frawline, at your service, sar.”

She spoke precisely with an accent hinting at a genteel upbringing but her voice had a brittle edge that intrigued Hawthorn. She sounded like someone clinging by the fingertips to normality.

“I admire your bravery.” Hawthorn shook his head. “It takes guts or stupidity to let your winnings run like that, and you don’t seem foolish.”

She laughed over-brightly and finished the rest of her drink in a single gulp.

“Not bravery or stupidity but desperation. I’m no worse off for losing.” She shrugged. “But you don’t want to hear my sob story.”

“On the contrary, I like stories,” Hawthorn replied.

He signaled the barman for refills. Hawthorn could be a surprisingly good listener when someone interested him—and he found her very interesting. Her story was not unusual in itself, merely the details varied, her parents dead, no siblings just a beloved grandfather with a nasty wasting disease needing complex, regular and very expensive genosurgery. Eventually the money ran out. Many of the ‘Stream’s population carried molecular time bombs in their DNA from the biowars. Every so often something unpleasant erupted and doomed an individual.

Naturally nobody would lend money to a dying man, but a bank would to his granddaughter. Her contract as an indentured servant was very sellable should she default. And of course, default she duly had.

“And someone has bought your contract?” Hawthorn asked.

She nodded, blinking back tears.

“The bastard who owns this club,” she said bitterly. “That’s why I chose to gamble here. It would’ve been sweet to have bought back my contract with his own money. I guess it won’t be too bad working here. I’ll just have to get use to wearing spangled leotards.”

Hawthorn thought she might have to get used to a lot more than that.

She fished a miniaturized datapad out of her grip and slid off the stool.

“Excuse me for a second,” she said, heading for the lady’s convenience.

Hawthorn ordered another round and considered. He hauled his own battered heavy duty pad out of an inside pocket and dropped it on the bar. A smile flickered across Hawthorn’s face when it gave a little chime and flashed a message. So she was not as naive as she looked, checking him out by interrogating his pad with her own.

He grinned. Knight was an old and favored alias so his pad would insist that it belonged to an entirely respectable and solvent gentleman of that name no matter how deep she looked. However, her search was entirely superficial, merely the behavior of a sensible woman confirming the identity of a strange man who approached her in a bar.

Still, one check deserved another. He opened her slim grip bag and examined the contents. There was little of a personal nature, just the usual grooming devices without which no lady can pass through her front door.

A quick check via his datapad confirmed that an indentured service contract had been taken on a Mistress DS Frawline which would activate within the week unless redeemed. He tapped the pad with his thumb to dig deeper and it slipped. He made a grab but for it and dropped her bag in the process

It fell onto the foot rail with a clang ejecting a cosmetic tube. The top flipped off but fortunately the container was unbroken. Hawthorn retrieved both and was replacing the cap when he was struck by the most unusual nozzle on the perfume dispenser. For some reason it was fashioned to look like the business end of an ion pistol.

He inserted a nail into a small slit in the tube and flipped open a cover exposing a button. Hawthorn was a curious man who was inclined to trip switches and depress buttons just to see what happened but in this case he restrained his natural impulses. Before he replaced the top he sniffed the nozzle. It didn’t smell of anything much.

When she returned, Desole discovered Hawthorn flipping through some files on his pad. “The owner of this club is a certain Ramos Neddard and he’s sitting over there.”

Hawthorn inclined his head.

“No don’t look. He might recognize you.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” she replied. “We’ve never met.”

Actually, Neddard didn’t seem particularly interested in Desole, which was odd since Hawthorn assumed that he had at least looked at her picture before buying her. Not everyone looked good in a leotard, especially not the spangled variety.

“What happened to your grandfather?” Hawthorn asked.

“He died anyway,” she replied.

Hawthorn nodded, half expecting the answer.

“Maybe I can help,” he said.

“I don’t want your money,” she cut in quickly.

“I wasn’t going to offer you any,” Hawthorn replied truthfully.

He had an aversion to handing stacks of coin to young woman he’d just met in a bar, no matter how fair their countenance or unfortunate their life history. But he was bored, she was interesting and her countenance was fair.

The club owner on the other hand was not fair. He looked like the product from a biowar experiment to cross a man with a yeti. His compatriots sat around the same table were no more prepossessing. An anthropologist might have waxed lyrical at their resemblance to an early stage of human evolution but Hawthorn doubted if even their mothers loved them.

“Perhaps I might persuade Master Neddard to release you.”

“And why would he do that?” she asked.

“Possibly I could appeal to his better nature,” Hawthorn replied, piously.

Desole looked skeptical. Across the room Neddard laughed coarsely at some witticism from one of the gorillas sat at his table, slapping a passing spangled leotard across the bottom by way of emphasis.

“Or perhaps not,” Hawthorn said.

A couple of nights later a new punter strolled into the Kit Kat Klub. He was about the same build as Hawthorn but there the resemblance ended. His hair was brown and his skin olive brown, matching dark brown eyes not at all like Hawthorn’s blond hair and blue eyes.

Rather more unusually, the punter wore clothes far more fashionable, which is to say far more expensive, than either Hawthorn or most of his fellow ‘Streamers. But what really marked the punter was the expression of credulous imbecility that he wore on his face like a badge of honor.

Hawthorn was very attached to that look. It had served him well over the years. When he opened his wallet to buy a drink he made sure the barman saw a clip of purple Manzanita sovereigns that would have choked a fleek.

He wandered around the tables, making the odd wager, usually losing. He bet according to whim or whether he discerned some lucky omen in the crease of a card or the play of light. Such a punter warms the cockles of the club owner’s heart. The odds are shaved to favor the house even against the most able players but a gambler who believes in lucky omens is a gift from the gods.

Hawthorn returned to the bar for a refill of distilled water contaminated with the merest trace of plum brandy. He expressed his disappointment at the lack of action in the club in an accent so refined that it would have made a Brasilian Senator brush up his vowels.

“The real players meet in a back room,” the barman ventured.

“And how does one obtain entry to said back room?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The barman painted an ingratiating smile across his mouth. At least,Hawthorn chose to believe it was a smile rather than acid indigestion. The man looked over Hawthorn’s shoulder and nodded. Hawthorn had a good view of the gaming room in the mirror behind the bar and so noticed Neddard and some cronies sliding out of a side door.

Only a few minutes passed before a spangled leotard arrived to conduct Hawthorn into the inner sanctum. The Kit Kat back room decor was utterly Spartan in comparison to the public areas. Paint uncurled from the walls and the ceiling showed the residue of thousands of cigarettes. In one corner stood a desk, and spare gambling equipment was stacked around suggesting that the room doubled both as office and store.

A light cluster hanging from a flexible arm lit a low table in the center of the room. Hawthorn suspected that table was normally where they counted up the night’s takings and that the cluster included cameras.

Three of the four chairs around the table were taken, the club owner sitting on the left.

“I’m Neddard. Understand you want to play a real game?”

“If the stakes are high enough,” Hawthorn said, boldly.

“Siddown,” Neddard pointed to the empty chair.

“This is Eddy and that’s Frog,” Neddard said indicating his companions with his thumb without taking his eyes off Hawthorn.

“Peebleford,” Hawthorn replied, “Quinton Peebleford.”

He held out his hand but received only sneers in reply.

“Bring us some drinks in an hour or so, honey,” Neddard slapped the girl’s rump, apparently his normal way of communicating with the female staff.

The girl shuffled out.

“We’re playing Chase The Lady, Eddy’s in the chair.”

The aforesaid Eddy produced three cards and turned them over to show the Queen of Spades and the two red knaves. He picked one of the knaves up with his left hand and the other two cards with his right, queen under the knave, before placing them face down on the table and sliding them slowly in what appeared to be a futile attempt to randomize their position.

“Lay your bets,” Eddy said.

Hawthorn sighed. They took him for a complete mug. Chase The Lady was the oldest con in the world. Eddy had probably switched the positions of knave and queen by dealing the bottom card first. Hawthorn couldn’t win. That was the point.

“Sorry gentlemen, I’m out,” Hawthorn said.

“Now wait a moment….,” Neddard half rose.

Hawthorn held up a hand, palm out.

“My dear old nanny made me promise never to play Chase since her father lost his potting shed in a game. Can’t go against poor old nanny, eh?”

Neddard took a deep breath.

“Okay, how about Landsknight?”

“Don’t think I know the rules.”

“No worries, we’ll teach you.”

“I like to play with new cards. Nanny was very particular about germs.”

Neddard turned an interesting shade of purple. He stomped over to the desk and retrieved a handful of sealed packs from an unlocked drawer.

“Happy now?” Neddard snarled, throwing the packs down. “Nanny have anything else to say?”

Hawthorn shook his head.

“Well, apart from sorting out the table limit in advance.”

Landsknight turned out to be another Faro variant. The banker dealt a card clockwise to each player face up finishing with himself, discarding any matches until each player had a card of unique value. He then placed a bet. Each player running anticlockwise matched or raised the bet placed immediately to his right or dropped out. Betting continued in circuits until all but the dealer was out, the pot limit had been reached, or there were no more raises. The dealer then turned over cards from the deck and the first match to a player’s card scooped the pot.

Faro depends entirely on luck so win and lose tends to balance out over the course of an evening’s play. Neddard won the first hand but he dealt Hawthorn the ace of spades on the second.

“My lucky card,” Hawthorn informed the group.

He bet heavily to the table limit, scooping a decent pot when everyone else dropped out. Hawthorn had a lucky night and was a fair way up when the girl came back with a tray of drinks.

“You took your time,” Neddard snarled.

“The coms are down,” the girl replied, defensively. “I didn’t get your signal.”

Neddard glowered at the waitress, who shut up.

“Well, ring Gary in the morning and tell him to get round here and fix them like bloody quick.”

“You can’t get the staff these days,” Hawthorn said, sorrowfully.

Neddard treated him to a suspicious glower that Hawthorn deflected with a smile of sublime innocence.

Gary would have a job finding the fault because the cause of the room’s isolation was a very powerful and very illegal processor in Hawthorn’s datapad.

Then the girl dropped the tray.

Dropped as a verb barely covered the situation, she flung the tray across the table as if she’d been goosed by a cattle prod. All was instant mayhem with much jumping up and swearing and knocking over of chairs. Hawthorn enthusiastically added to the confusion, patting spilled liquid off the girl with a monogrammed handkerchief sporting the initials QP. It’s the little things that matter when you set up a legend.

“I’ll get more drinks,” said the girl and disappeared.

The other men sat back down, but Hawthorn remained standing

“Thank you for an instructive evening,” he said, scooping up his winnings.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Neddard shouted.

“Where indeed,” Hawthorn replied, sonorously. “Personally, I expect to go to Heaven. How about you?”

“What about giving us a chance to win back our money? Frog asked.

“I haven’t got all night,” Hawthorn replied, pointedly.

“One round,” Eddy said. “No limit.”

“Yeah, no limit,” Neddard repeated.

He spoke quietly but his eyes glittered like a broken blade.

Hawthorn pretended to consider.

“Okay, one round,” he said.

Hawthorn had won the last hand so it was his turn to deal. He dealt himself the ace of spades and whooped with delight.

The pot accumulated quickly.

“Too rich for me, I’m out,” Neddard said leaning back in his chair after Hawthorn had bumped the bet by fifty sovereigns.

“Me too,” Eddy turned over his card face down in the time honored tradition.

“Just you and me then,” Hawthorn said to Frog.

Frog matched the bet, which took pretty much all he had left, so Hawthorn raised by a thousand crowns.

“Lend me a stake, mates,” Frog asked.

After a little deliberation, just enough to look convincing, Eddy and Neddard slid the necessary funds across to Frog who pushed them into the center of the table.

Hawthorn smiled.

“I believe we said no limit.”

His eyes never left Frog’s face.

Very slowly Hawthorn took a clip out of an inside pocket of his jacket and opened it to reveal ten one-thousand sovereign coins.

The room went very silent.

He slid the coins onto the stake pile. “Raise you.”

Frog’s eyes bulged with emotion. Either his name was an exceedingly unlikely and unhappy coincidence or it had been bestowed late in life by ill-mannered acquaintances.

“I’ll write you a note,” Frog said, voice hoarse with emotion.

“I only take cash,” Hawthorn replied.

He started to pile up his winnings. “As I said earlier, gentlemen, thank you for an instructive evening.”

“Wait,” Neddard replied.

He went to his desk and pulled out a fake drawer to reveal a safe which he unlocked by tapping it with a key while wiping his hand across a pad to activate a DNA reader. Inside among various papers were wads of coins. Neddard quickly sorted out high value sovereigns and crowns and dumped them on the table.

“That do as a match?”

“Why not?”

Neddard grinned like a man who had just heard his rich old uncle Arthur was dead.

Hawthorn slowly peeled a card off the deck—the ace of hearts.

Neddard looked at Eddy.

“That wasn’t the hand I gave you,” Eddy said. “You palmed a new deck.”

Hawthorn looked puzzled, “but you were teaching me the game so when you palmed a hand I assumed it was allowed.”

Eddy snarled wordlessly and leaned forward.

The men had failed to notice that Hawthorn had a foot resting on the edge of the table. He straightened his leg, smashing the table edge into Eddy’s knees. The man screamed and pitched forward. Hawthorn seized Eddy’s head in both hands and thrust his forehead down until it and the table top made violent contact. After that, Eddy lost interest in the proceedings.

Frog rushed Hawthorn, apparently keen to take up matters on Eddy’s behalf. It might have been wiser if he had timed his move to coincide with his larger accomplice but he hesitated just a microsecond too long. Frog ran straight into a croupier’s rake that Hawthorn had found stacked beside his chair. The butt of the handle caught Frog right on the Adam’s apple like the point of a spear.

Hawthorn just saw Neddard’s fist on the edge of his peripheral vision. He flung himself up and to one side. It was just far enough that Neddard struck his shoulder rather than his head. The man had a punch like a hydraulic ram. The impact spun Hawthorn back against the wall and numbed his left arm.

Neddard closed with a triumphant if inarticulate roar. If his fighting style had a fault it was that it ran along predictable lines. He drew his fist back and launched a tremendous blow. Hawthorn had honed his skills at the Wagener Gentleman’s Sporting Club, taking the Fisticuffs Cup three years running. He tilted his head to the right and Neddard’s blow skimmed his ear on its way into the syncrete wall.

Fortunately, Hawthorn had also learnt to fight in places of entertainment other than a gentleman’s club, places where the clientele had never heard of sportsmanship and would have mugged a gentleman on sight. He gave Neddard a Clearwater Kiss, so named after the drinking dives in Port Clearwater where sailors and dockworkers gathered to exchange philosophical opinions.

Hawthorn brought his forehead down on the bridge of Neddard’s nose, producing a sharp crack of breaking cartilage. Neddard staggered back, blood streaming between his fingers in red splatters looking for all the world like avant-garde artwork. Hawthorn took a step forward, kneed Neddard in the balls and rabbit punched the back of his neck as he folded.

“The bigger they are…,” Hawthorn said, rubbing his shoulder and arm to get the circulation going.

He checked out the room. Eddy still snoozed face down across the table. Frog gurgled strange sounds. He was on his knees with both hands around his throat. Hawthorn searched the desk until he found a standard coin clip which he stuffed with high denomination coins from the safe. Then he went back to the table and quickly retrieved hundred and thousand crowns scattered amongst the debris.

Frog gurgled and wheezed the whole time. For some reason this began to irritate so Hawthorn shut the goon up by kicking him in the head. There was still loot among the carnage when Hawthorn regretfully decided he had to go before he outstayed his welcome. Greed could kill.

On the way back down the corridor he bumped into the waitress carrying a tray of drinks. He helped himself to one.

“The boss is in a relaxed mood. You can have the rest of the night off,” he said to the girl, who gaped at him as if he was talking in tongues.

Hawthorn downed the brandy and replaced the glass. He shot the cuffs on his jacket and strolled off whistling a popular song about a girl from Port Trent who was no better than she should be.

He met Lady Trouble in an upmarket bar the next day. She drank tea and he drank brandy. Hawthorn took out the money clip and casually flipped it onto the table.

“Not a bad haul even after I’ve removed my original stake.”

“Wonderful,” Desole said, gazing at Hawthorn with adoring eyes.

She snatched up the money clip. She obviously believed in keeping her valuables close to her heart because she hugged it to an ample chest.

“Now I can pay off my contract.”

“Or on the other hand, I could do it for you.”

Hawthorn dexterously retrieved the clip, ignoring Desole’s squeak of protest at the intimacy of his touch.

“I couldn’t possibly put you to the trouble,” she said, trying to grab his hand.

Her eyes flashed and her accent slipped a bit.

“Helping a lady is never a problem for a gentleman,” Hawthorn said, adopting a noble look.

He avoided her hand and slipped the clip back into his pocket.

“Perhaps you’re right,” she said. “Gosh I must look a frightful mess.”

She opened her bag, found a comb and pulled it through her hair. Next out came the tube of perfume. She took off the top, casually lifted the flap with a manicured nail, pointed the nozzle at Hawthorn and pressed the button.

Nothing happened.

“I don’t think your perfume would suit me,” Hawthorn said.

She frantically repressed the button again. Still nothing happened. Hawthorn took the tube from her unresisting fingers.

“The thing about ion pistols, Judy,” he said, turning the tube around to show her a tiny hole in the base, “is that they are delicate. One little prick with a needle is all it takes to put them out of action, especially miniaturized weapons disguised as something else.”

For a moment she gazed at him blankly then to his surprise she threw her head back and laughed.

“You knew,” she said accusingly, reverting to her natural Port Trent dock accent. “You knew all along who I was.”

“Oh come off it, Judy,” he said. “You have form from Manzanita to Oxford. As for the heart wrenching sob story, the dead grandfather was a tad too much. And your name—Desole Frawline—damsel in distress. Puhleese!”

“Perhaps so,” she said. “But I could never resist a joke.”

Hawthorn sipped his brandy.

“What I can’t work out is why you thought a complete stranger in a bar would be able to rob Neddard’s mob on your behalf?” Hawthorn asked.

“Hardly a complete stranger.” She grinned. “Everyone knows that Jeb Knight is really Jeb Hawthorn. So all I had to do was float the right bait to get you to the club that night.”

Hawthorn sighed. So she was the behind the contact that never showed. Clearly it was time to retire his favorite alias.

She stood up to go. “Oh well, win some, lose some.”

He rose as too, as a gentleman should. Impulsively she hugged him and kissed him long and hard on the mouth.

“Until the next time Jeb,” she said, walking out of his life.

Hawthorn ordered another brandy and stayed to finish it. After downing the last drop he got up to leave. He automatically checked for the clip in his pocket.

It wasn’t there.

He remembered the hug and kiss. Classic misdirection while she picked his pocket. His face darkened with anger. No one treated Jeb Hawthorn like a mug, no one. He went after her.

The doorman stopped him, holding out an envelope. “A lady said to give you this, sar.”

Inside Hawthorn found the money clip and a note. He opened it and read.

“I took out half for my share as it didn’t seem fair that I should get nothing for pointing you at Neddard. The ion gun would only have incapacitated you, incidentally, and as a mark of respect I have added a ten crown coin of my own money to your share. I have always believed that when you lunch with the lion you let him have the lion’s share.

Judy Grady.

Hawthorn burst out laughing. Maybe she had earned her share. He almost gave the ten crowns to the doorman as a tip but he changed his mind and gave that astonished worthy a hundred crown coin instead.

He kept the ten crown bit and had it made into a ring.

Copyright © 2015 John Lambshead

Dr. John Lambshead is a retired senior research scientist in marine biodiversity at the Natural History Museum, London. He writes military history and designs computer and fantasy games.  He is the author of swashbuckling fantasy Lucy’s Blade, contemporary urban fantasy Wolf in Shadow, and coauthor, with nationally best-selling author David Drake, of the science fiction Citizen series, including Into the Hinterlands and Into the Maelstrom, in which universe this story takes place.