Joules didn't look like a smuggler, if anything she looked like the girlfriend of a smuggler. More likely the trophy girlfriend of a very successful smuggler, and most likely the type of smuggler who had their own army and jealously protected their property. It was one of the reasons she stuck out in the large room.
She certainly didn't look like the sort of woman who would spend hours swimming upstream through a sea of gamblers in an illegal poker competition in the industrial back end of Cairo, Egypt. Unless she had been sent here by someone else, someone with a lot of power over her. But that was part of the reason she threw everyone she went up against. Who would waste such a valuable prize, risking them to compete in this environment, for a currency useless outside the region?
But then her petite frame, shapely curves, short-cropped raven-black hair and wry smile frequently got her out of as much trouble as they led her into.
Certainly they were a reason none of the people in these games had given her credit for a sharp mind. Even though she spoke their difficult tongue with a flawless accent while separating five tables worth of career gamblers from their winnings.
But then they hadn't known they were playing against someone on the hunt. Someone on a quest that had brought her to the far end of her world because no one else on the planet seemed to have what she wanted.
And she had come to this building because everyone in Cairo said they'd have to place the order for her. Eventually she tracked down whom they'd be ordering from. She shuddered a moment remembering some of the things she'd had to do to get that intel but Joules hated paying go-betweens, particularly on the big ticket items, so she decided to deal directly with the source: El Bazaar.
The problem was this supplier only dealt with pre-existing contacts and he was a notoriously difficult person to meet. She'd almost given up and left when she found out about this game. A monthly orgy of gambling where hundreds came and played until only a few remained, and only one took the massive pot.
With the bodyguard behind her, eclipsing her light except for a faint halo around her crown, she stood near the table, watching the final moments of the hand in play, waiting for acknowledgement, waiting to join the biggest game on the planet. She clutched ten thousand Bob in her hands; it was the only sign of nerves.
Joules didn't know that “Bob” was slang for the primary currency in the Arabian League. She didn't know the name was a variation of “Bauble” and had been used by the League for only twenty-three years. She didn't know because she didn't care.
What she knew was there were no exchange options for the currency, no way to convert her Geo-Bucks into or out of it. The only way to get enough of this local currency to buy into the game was through trade.
It had taken weeks of dealing to get to this spot. Weeks to scrape up the ten grand buy in for this game. She'd accumulated more than sixty thousand Bob since arriving, but it was still far short of what she needed.
She had no interest in the pot but they didn't know that. As she joined the game, taking over the seat from a frail old man who'd just lost his life's savings, she was smiling because she'd accomplished phase one of a plan that had taken almost 21 days to implement. Phase two would rely on her skill, her opponents, and the luck of the draw.
And phase two wouldn't be the end of it because she couldn't win what she wanted here. She wasn't playing for stock, or anything on a shelf. She sat at this table, buying into this game, because the only person who could give her what she wanted sat opposite her.
She'd been told his name was Cyrius El Bazaar. She doubted that was true, but everyone knew him by it. El Bazaar stewed on the far side of the table, never once looking up, unconcerned with the players around the table. He sat there, sweating, almost creating his own gravy in the heady humid air around him.
Joules was thankful once again she'd thought to put on her Phendo™ summer gear. It worked hard to keep her cool, even circulating a refreshing current of chilled air through the micro-fibres. It gave her the appearance of nonchalance, an illusion as the fact she was finally in sight of her target had her heart racing.
Now it was Joules' turn to look down, focus on the cards and the pot. Think hard about what was happening. She controlled her breathing, brought herself back under control and then proceeded. Thankfully this wasn't a chessmatch; there was no time limit on her moves.
There was, of course, no talking. No one wore a name tag either, so Joules, as she had done each table before now, watched for tells and assigned each player a nick-name to fit them as another part of her mind tracked the game, evaluated her hands and kept tabs on the size of each bet.
She'd come to this building with ten grand, she won sixty by this table, but even assuming she could make a straight transaction and get what she wanted from El Bazaar she was still only half way to the bare essentials of what she wanted. The full package was going to set her back a minimum of one twenty. She could see it being higher than that.
The guy to her right was obviously upwind of her and his odour was distracting. That was being polite. In deference to a classic childhood story she named him “Tulip”. The guy on the other side never met a razor he liked and seemed to represent some sort of regression in evolution. She named him “Badger”, although in hindsight it occurred to her that could be offensive.
The guy on the right of El Bazaar was too clean and prim. His clothes were immaculate and every hair on his head was carefully quaffed. She named him “Dapper”.
The guy on the left of El Bazaar was unmemorable; he had no distinguishing features or behaviours. In fact every time Joules closed her eyes she failed to recall what he looked like. For reason best left unexplained at the time of this writing she called him “Walter”.
That left El Bazaar. There was no need to rename him. He was the focus of the game.
And apparently not just for her. Joules noticed a very high rate of early hand folding by the four players between them, as though they were more concerned with offending their host than losing their cash. It was an unusual dynamic for the final round of a gambling competition like this.
Joules frowned at this. It probably looked like a pout and would've been misinterpreted as relating to her hand. Without planning it Joules threw off the other players, causing many of them to fold early. With two pairs she took the pot.
The next round it was her turn to fold early. After the buy in, and even with three cards going back to the deck, Joules' hand just wasn't viable. It wasn't easy but it was the smartest thing to do. Unfortunately a series of bad hands caused this to repeat, too often for her liking, and Joules found herself losing ground quickly.
After losing almost two thirds of her previous take Joules peered at her cards and nearly smiled; she had four kings and a nine of clubs. This was more like it. Without looking up she tried to spy on each of her opponents. How were they reacting? What would they do with their hands?
Tulip folded immediately. Walter rose the pot a hundred, El Bazaar took it up ten notches to a grand. Dapper hesitated before carefully matching the raise. Badger sat there, already this was beyond what he felt comfortable playing but he didn't fold. That told Joules he had a pretty good hand.
When he finally put in he did so tactically. He saw the bet and raised again another grand. Joules caught a look out of the corner of his eye, a challenge to scare her off. But she liked the odds of what she had and saw the new challenge so without a flinch she raised it another grand.
Walter folded. He had nothing and the pot got too rich for him immediately after his last turn. El Bazaar licked his fat lips while exhaling. A sound that reminded Joules of the final breath of the last dying man she beheld. El Bazaar looked up at the remaining players and only then seemed to notice Joules. He licked his lips again and then raised the bet another grand.
Dapper folded. He'd lost twenty-two hundred on that hand but wasn't willing to push it the extra three it would take to continue.
Badger swallowed hard. Hard enough for Joules to hear it. His lips parted, he was growing dry with panic. He'd already gone in thirty-one hundred, he must have had a good hand because after an eternity he slid three more into the pot. In his worry he allowed a flicker of a glance towards Joules, perhaps hoping she'd fold.
This was the same hand she'd beaten the last table with. The same call, but this time with better cards. Once again the odds flew through her mind. Only two combinations could beat this. The pot had swollen to twenty thousand five hundred Bob but making a play for it would require her to see another two grand. Such a loss would drop her dangerously low, but the win would vault her a lot closer to her goal.
After a deep inhalation of stale air Joules come to the conclusion that she didn't come here for money she couldn't take with her. She saw the stakes and then raised them another four grand.
Badger gasped at that.
El Bazaar licked his lips. It must have been in such a way so as to communicate a need because suddenly a lackey was beside him with a freshly cut and lit cigar. It wasn't like the space around them wasn't bad enough. El Bazaar began to puff on the stogie, clogging the air surrounding the table with a blue cloud of sickening smoke.
Joules couldn't help blinking now, not because of the game but because of the atmosphere. This was getting down right hazardous. In a single motion El Bazaar met her raise and doubled it. It would cost her another eight grand to call this hand and that was only if Badger didn't raise the stakes further.
Fortunately the fuzzball beside her must've decided his hand wasn't bullet-proof. He met the bar while weakly “calling” the hand.
Joules still had to decide to meet the call amount, a further eight grand. She had to, for all she knew the host was bluffing, he could afford to. She slid the eight thousand forward and placed her cards face up.
They beat the Badger's hand. He blanched at that realization. Only El Bazaar was in a position to beat her and she didn't think he was that lucky.
She was wrong. El Bazaar put his cards on the table and Joules came face-to-face with a Straight Flush, Queen high. In a second most of her previous winnings were gone and she was left with only two thousand Bob. It was enough to buy into the next hand but not enough to get anywhere.
Oh well, she thought as she prepared to depart. In another couple weeks she could return with more goods, trade enough for another buy in and try again, but as she slid her chair back Cyrius El Bazaar spoke to her in his faltering English.
“Don't go.” He said, almost mockingly. “There must be something you can use as a marker to continue.”
She looked at him. He was eyeing her mischievously. This must be how he entertained himself, not in winning money. His businesses surely provided enough of that, but in beating people and then getting them to cross whatever lines they had.
The only marker Joules had to offer was her space craft. A well-maintained STARBUS. It was her home, her business and her world. It had taken six years of solid dealing and back-breaking hardwork to acquire and it was her pride and joy.
“No thanks,” she said with a flawless West Cairo accent, “nothing I'm willing to part with is left to offer.”
El Bazaar leaned back nonchalantly as he shuffled the deck ready for the next round. He spoke without looking up from the cards, “I have a hard time believing someone of your beauty and resolve isn't practical enough to bargain.”
She wouldn't risk her ship but as she stood there a moment Joules Capulet wondered if she was desperate enough to risk herself.
El Bazaar saw her hesitation and continued, “You must have come here for something other than the game, there are plenty of those in the Network.”
So, he'd done his homework and knew she wasn't from around here, as though her lack of headdress wasn't a hint. He continued, “You've been all around Cairo asking about me. I'm curious enough to want to know why?”
“Curious enough,” Joules ventured, “to accept my answer as the cost of buy in?”
El Bazaar paused a moment and then nodded. Joules pulled the chair out and sat back down as he began shuffling.
“I own a RIGEL Starbus. I've been wanting to augment it some. A friend said some 180 Quarkboosters would give me the extra edge I need.”
Despite the fact his fortune came from the buying and selling of merchandise El Bazaar didn't have a clue what Joules was referring to. He looked over at the lackey who rushed forward with his portable display, an old Mark 19, and showed him the items she mentioned.
“I have those?” El Bazaar was impressed. “What am I charging for them?”
“Sixty grand a piece.” Joules responded before the lackey could, “I need a minimum of two although four would be great.”
El Bazaar resumed dealing the cards, “Four would require extra power. You're ship isn't built for that.”
So he wasn't ignorant of the units after all. “No,” she replied, “With four I'd have to get a micro-generator, Cobalt 45 or maybe a 50.”
El Bazaar didn't stop dealing as he spoke, “A 90 would be better.”
“They're too big.” Joules replied flatly.
The lackey spoke without thinking; it earned him a visual rebuke from El Bazaar. “Not the 90 E, it's smaller than the 45 and more stable.”
That was interesting Joules thought. She didn't know about the 90 E. El Bazaar placed the deck on the table and looked at her plainly. “These items would cost upward of three hundred grand. Did you think you'd win that today?”
Joules hadn't thought that much about it, she shook her head, “I'd settle for the pair of Quarks.”
El Bazaar leaned back as he picked up his cards and began to inspect them. “But wouldn't it be nicer to get the lot?”
Joules still didn't know how she was going to play with only two grand left. She waited for El Bazaar to offer some explanation. She didn't have to wait long.