Klondike. Oracle. Sham. Chapter 1.

Chapter One

Miriam’s Freelance Nightclub, Fightclub, and Bring Your Own Buffet was the sort of underground gambling den that used to be a building, but then had sort of fallen into the river, and so now was boat. It’s clientele didn’t mind, all the leaks added to the ambiance, and the occasional fish flopping around on the gaming tables was surely good luck. They were the sort of people whose body odors and fashion choices were considered far too bizarre to be allowed entry into most land-based establishments.

In the main hall there was handful of mismatched tables running a handful of mismatched games. Sometimes you thought you were playing poker, but it turned out you had been playing mahjong the whole time. To one side was the Bring Your Own Buffet, which was filled with the finest meats and cheeses that had been in smuggled in via someone’s trouser pockets. In the corner was a lone dancing girl, dressed to the nines in frocks and feathers and lace, not doing any dancing, but sitting in a chair, with a sock on each hand, putting on a very angry puppet show. She didn’t work there, and no one was brave enough to ask her what exactly she thought she was doing. This had been going on for weeks now, but as long as she was brought fresh cigarettes every twenty minutes she didn’t get too violent. To one side, someone played piano, but not on purpose.

At the largest table, the most ridiculous card game ever conceived was happening, and almost everyone had stopped what they were doing to watch and place bets on the card players. The three professional card-sharks and the one amateur card-lobster had never enjoyed losing money so much. Their opponent, a rank amateur, had been trying to hustle them for nearly 20 minutes, was failing spectacularly, and yet winning. It was fascinating.

The game was called ‘Cheating’ and it is without a doubt the best card game never invented. There are no rules, the winner is the one who wins, and the unofficial world champion was a tall, dark, and handsome ostrich that usually went by the name of Tbyrd Fearlessness. Well, not so much handsome as interestingly lopsided, with a mixture of light and dark feathers, and some featherless portions that were a kind of medium tone. But tall, yes, definitely. Somewhere between 6’6” and 7’7” depending on how much wiggling he was doing.

“I was taught this move by the Maharaja of Mongolia, when I was a captive in her tree-fortress in Peru.” said Tbyrd casually, leaning across the table, and taking three cards out of his opponent’s hand unexpectedly. “I was researching a book I wasn’t writing, someone else did all the writing, I just did the research. I’m too busy to be a famous author, what with my numerous speaking engagements, romantic affairs, and duels. I hate these cards.” he announced with disgust, and ripped them into tiny pieces. This was of course, slight of hand, as he had been holding mainly napkins. Tbyrd reached up to scratch his scalp, and then casually pulled six aces out from underneath his crumpled and grubby stetson. He did so with a look of extreme innocence on his face. Three of the aces were aces of hearts, there was an ace of spades, an ace of hammers, and an ace of leprechauns, which looked hand-drawn.

“Vhy vould ze Maharaja of Mongolia have a base of operations in Peru?” asked one of Tbyrd’s card opponennts, finally managing to get a word in edgewise, albeit slipping in and out a fake french accent. This was the Viscount Henrique Von Hollandaise, or so it said on all his business cards. The Viscount had the most magnificent coat and collar anyone had seen, with sequins and fleur de lises, and a cape, but no pants. The Viscount was visiting nobleman, visiting from a totally not fake foreign country that no one had ever heard of, and was on a personal mission to seduce everyone in San Frandiego. He had lost two hundred dollars at cards so far, and was having a wonderful time. He would occasionally take off a large piece of silver jewelry off his coat, and hand it to someone in the audience in exchange for new cards that he liked.

Sitting kitty corner to the Viscount was a very large very beautiful very woman, who was wearing a patently false beard and speaking in a deep voice for no readily apparent reason. She went by the name Madam Gilderiqué. The Viscount had been rubbing what he thought was her leg underneath the table for twenty minutes, and had been finding it very splintery. Madam Gilderiqué had quite a lot of her lipstick smeared into her beard, as she was trying to cultivate the idea that she was a vampire, and was avoiding mirrors, and garlic, and above all, garlic mirrors. She had been playing the card game mostly with Tarot cards, so every time she laid one down, she made a grand pronouncement about how was going to drop dead any moment, or inherit a vast fortune, or in one case, inherit a vast number of people that had dropped dead.

The final card player was three small urchin children stuffed into a trench coat, all smoking large cigars, and kicking people under the table strategically.

“I raise ze bet to this miniature sculpture of the palace of Dairy I keep in my left hand pocket at all times.” said the Viscount, removing a pointy silver thing that he purported was his childhood home.”

“I see your sculpture, and raise you this skull.” said Madam Gilderiqué, plonking a great big animal onto the table, produced from who knows where about her person.

“I don’t see how that is of equal value to my beautiful sculpture.” said the Count, kissing his tiny silver box, and cutting him