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 himself slightly about the mustache.
Madam Gilderiqué unscrewed one of the skull’s horns, and poured a herself large measure of rum, or tea or something brown and syrupy. She took a sip, getting several of her fake beard hairs into the cup, and then sighed a sigh of such profound refreshment that there was a rush on the bar.
Lil Trenchcoaty, the urchin collective slapped a burlap sack with a pumpkin drawn on it onto the table, and a several pieces of toffee and butterscotch tumbled out. A large bagful of candy like this was worth a lot on the underground sugar market. “I see your bets, and call. Tbyrd?” squeaked a little innocent voice, taking another big puff from it’s cigar.
Tbyrd hadn’t been paying attention, as his attention had been fully occupied with taking a baked potato and steak off of someone’s plate, and eating it whole without them noticing. He hadn’t succeeded. “Hmm?” he asked, wiping caramelized onions off his whatever birds have instead of a 5 o’clock shadow.
“If you wanna stay in the game, you gotta produce some treasure.”
Tbyrd eyeballed his cards theatrically, and thumbed through his meagre winnings. He mostly just planned to stay in the game long enough to get as much free food as possible, actually winning wasn’t something that usually happened to him. His whole life had been more of a delaying tactic, rather than a quest for success. The crowd behind him had been placing bets on who would win the card game. The card game was not the main source of gambling, it was the gamblers betting on it. Miriam could convince anyone to bet on anything, and this was so much easier than hosting a horse race on her tiny boat of a building. Horses were allowed in of course. Mules, ponies, giraffes, all ungulates were welcome. Miriam’s didn’t discriminate against species, just jerks.
Tbyrd continued to rearrange his cards, take more cards out his belt, pick other people’s pockets under the table with his feet, and roll a pair of dice no one had ever seen before, and would never see again. “Quit stalling!” His opponents demanded. They wanted to see who this turned out as much as anyone.
“Fine. I had to sell most of my pirate treasure to pay back the pirates who’s tropical island hideout resort I had stumbled upon. But they did leave me this treasure map…” Tbyrd held up a stained and ancient piece of parchment, rolled into a tight tube, and sealed with a wax in the shape of a pirate. He had made it himself a few hours ago, out of his preferred medium, napkins.
“What’s it a map to?” The goggling crowd asked in delight, cheering and spilling their drinks with excitement.
“Copper?!? That ain’t a treasure worth digging up, you break your back all day to make a penny’s worth!”
“Copper conducts electricity, in would be quite valuable if anyone invented a way to transmit electro-magnetic pulses.”
And here the members of the audience whom had strong opinions about treasure classification had some minor fisticuffs, and everyone took a break to watch and place bets on that. Eventually, the one with the most muscles won, and the other went off to lick his wounds, or perhaps pay someone else to do it for him.
Tbyrd regained his audience’s attention by climbing onto the table and making it wobble dramatically. “This is a map to the long lost in-land coral reefs of the Klamdike!”
The crowd ooh’d and ahh’d appropriately. The Klamdike was that region of land far to the north, that while technically completely within the borders of Canada, was a territory whose ownership was currently being disputed by between the United States and Mexico, both claiming to have seen it first. Their arguments were mostly being made with cannons. The region had once been part of the inland sea, and had coral reefs of the most astounding beauty, filled with the fossilized remains of a million years worth of clams. 20 foot long razorbacked dinosaur clams had produced pearls the size of cannonballs, indeed, the US Navy had been using them as cannonballs until the muck rubbed off and they realized how valuable the ammunition turned out to be. The entire Klamdike valley was inhospitable and difficult to reach. One had to climb a freezing geyser, and ski down the active volcano on the other side. If one survived unsigned, one then had to bypass three separate armies determined to claim the land for themselves. Their was also the local flora and fauna, which included Sabre-toothed Moose, and exploding needlepines.
“But Tbyrd, everyone knows where the valley is. It’s been in the papers for weeks and months since the discovery! Everyone wants to get up there, that’s not the problem!”
“Ah, but that’s the beauty of my map, it shows the secret path into the valley that bypasses all the hardships, and is also mostly downhill. With this map, a cunning miner could get wheelbarrows full of pearls out under the noses of all those navies. Navi? What's the plural of navy?”
“Where did you get this map?” Madame Gilderiqué demanded.
“The lost city of El Dorito.” Tbyrd replied smugly, sipping on someone’s beverage, and spitting it out because it wasn’t sarsaparilla.
This made sense. El Dorito totally sounded like the sort of lost city someone who claimed to be a world famous adventurer would find a long lost map to a brand new treasure at.
People in the 1800’s are dumb.
Tbyrd slapped the map on the table, just as rope holding the the chandelier above his head was cut, causing it to smash him lightly in the head, and all the candlelight in the room to snuff out, plunging everyone into darkness.
Tbyrd awoke a little while later, as the burlap sack he had been shoved into was tossed into the ocean.
TO BE CONTINUED.