‘How You Make the Straight’, RJ Astruc

Illustrations © 2010 Eric Asaris

(story originally podcast at Cossmass Infinities)



 [ House-cleaning, © 2010 Eric Asaris ] The cop was bluffing—you didn’t have to be a psyche to work that out. With three spades already on the table, she was trying to fake a flush, but her eyes betrayed her: too manic, too desperate. Mink sensed the cards she clutched were a nine of hearts and an ace, probably a spade. That’d get her a pair of nines—an okay hand, sure, but not when Mink’s employer could make the straight.

Mink smiled and slid a hand under the table, pressing her knuckles twice against Sampson’s upper thigh. It was a prearranged signal, something she’d worked out with the conman months ago; it meant: Break her.

‘I’m feeling lucky,’ said Sampson. ‘Maybe I’ll call you.’

Mink felt the cop’s fear like a heat-wave, a sudden shriek of please-please-please-no that erupted from her implant and buried itself, smoldering, into the pith of her brain. She caught the edge of the table to stop herself from swaying. On an adjacent chair, Zemaneka, a small-time pirate Mink knew vaguely from the hangar, reached out to steady her, his warm brown hands a small comfort against the wail of the cop’s psychic screams.

‘No. I’m feeling really lucky,’ Sampson decided, pursing his lips. ‘Maybe I’ll raise you again.’

‘I can match you.’ The cop was sweating.

‘That’s a worry in and of itself. How does a policewoman like yourself come by so much money? And why, more importantly, did you bring your fortune to a hangar in international airspace? Sky-pirates aren’t known to be the most trustworthy of people. Many a land-rat like yourself has come to a bad end up here, and I don’t just mean on the poker tables.’

‘I know how to handle myself.’

‘But not your money, it seems.’ Sampson pushed a tower of credits into the pile. ‘That’s fifteen hundred. Count them if you like.’

The cop’s cheeks flushed, and in that moment Mink hated Sampson—vain, cruel Rodrigue Sampson, who always won but seemed to revel in making things worse for the loser. She’d met Sampson six months ago in the hangar’s So-Watt ghetto. He’d been trying to sell her cheap scalpel work at a fake plastic surgeon until he noticed her implant, the gleaming silver runnel in her left arm that marked her as a psyche. Work for me? he’d asked, and dumbly she’d agreed. He was older—forty, forty-one—and attractive in a strangely debonair way, his face square-jawed like the men on the covers of old romance books. Horrible but charming.

By the time she’d worked out he was bad news it was too late. She’d lost her old alliances on the hangar and until she made new ones, she was stuck with Sampson. Except no one wanted to take on someone Sampson had adopted—Sampson’s reputation for con-games made her untrustworthy by association.

Not that anyone ever really trusted a psyche.

She looked away from the table, hiding her anger in a little simpering giggle she’d picked up from the club-boys in the Palais district. Aside from a handful of automatons, the rest of the hi-house casino was empty. The place had been crowded earlier in the night, with barely elbowing room between tables, but now only four die-hard players remained. The cop had arrived late and lost hard, hopelessly, betting too quickly on short odds, and cursing too loudly when the cards didn’t come. An easy mark for an old con like Sampson. If it had just been Sampson and the cop, and maybe Zemaneka—who could be persuaded to do just about anything, if the price was right—the cop would have been bankrupt within the hour.

But they had a complication: the fourth player, an unknown who called herself Boo. A slender Atalantik pirate, the woman’s pokerface was so inscrutable Mink wondered if she even bothered to look at her cards before she placed her bets. She’d caught Boo staring at her a few times from under the peaked rim of her cap, and each time Mink had been the first to look away—those deep-set, dark eyes were too intense to bear. Did Boo know who Mink was, what she was? Some people could sense the psyche in her, the same way she could sense their emotions: a two-way telepathy Mink was powerless to stop.

‘I need a drink,’ said the cop.

‘I bet you do,’ said Sampson. ‘Raise me or show me, sister.’

The cop’s eyes got wide and round and Mink realized she didn’t want to see this, couldn’t bear to watch this poor dumb land-rat lose her cash like so many other poor dumb land-rats before her. Sampson, that twisted bastard of a man, could enjoy this victory on his own. She rose from her chair and pressed her fingertips together in a small bow of apology.

‘Too much excitement for me, sir,’ she whispered into Sampson’s ear. ‘Need to get a breath of fresh air. I’ll be on the balcony.’

Sampson shrugged, his eyes never leaving the cop’s. He didn’t need her any more; the game was already won. His mouth was twisted up like he was trying not to smirk, and failing—an expression Mink privately called the pure-bastard. She’d seen it on the face of more than one small-time crook who’d bested (or was about to best) someone richer, or stronger, or better connected, or more powerful than they were...

Her implant surged with the smugness bubbling out of Sampson’s body, and Mink hated him again, hated him passionately and completely. Rodrigue Sampson, the man who’d ruined her reputation and her life. If it wasn’t for his interference, she expected she’d be working on a trade airship somewhere in Atalantik, or tending bar at one of the high-class Ottoman digs in Palais. Or working as a psyche for real: identifying mutineers in pirate crews, spotting dodgy traders before they could open their mouths. Maybe even have herself a real mentor, a teacher, instead of playing consort to a dissolute conman she couldn’t stand.

As she turned to go, her eye caught Boo’s. The woman’s face was more mask-like than ever, but under it Mink felt just the faintest hint of... of pity, that was it.

Pity, from a pirate.

Unable to bear it—the indignity, the shame, and Sampson—Mink left.


Outside the moon lay low on the horizon, round and pale as the hangar’s thousand interlocked hi-houses. Mink leant against the balcony’s railing and looked down at the ocean some fifty or so feet below. A handful of small shuttle-craft twisted and tricked above the water; a lone multi-passenger airship thrummed away from the hangar, its shadow on the waves as big and dark as a whale. Far away, miles away perhaps, she could make out the lights of a mainland coast—maybe New Zealand, maybe Australia—twinkling above the shoreline.

‘Hallo. Nice night, you think?’

Mink turned. It was Boo. Mink shivered. The woman was just as unreadable now as she’d been at the table; as if she were constantly wearing some kind of mental poker-face.

‘I don’t know. All nights are pretty much the same to me.’

‘Don’t speak too soon. This one might not be.’ Boo joined her against the railing, the peak of her cap tilted toward the sky. She was long and skinny in jeans and a baggy jacket, and with her close-cropped hair she looked more like a teenage boy than a grown woman. ‘How’d you like to escape all this?’

‘Es-escape?’

‘I’ve the means if you have the will.’

Mink stared at her. Her implant told her that the woman was legit—well, at least she wasn’t lying. But she’d learnt the hard way that there were ways to hide the truth without telling a lie. The implant had read Sampson as legit when he’d said he could change her life; pity it hadn’t told her he’d change it for the worse.

‘I don’t need to be rescued,’ she said evenly.

‘But you’d like to be,’ said Boo. ‘Well, not rescued. That’s the wrong word. What you’d like is an opportunity to move on. A free do-over. It can’t be a good life, reading minds for a bottom feeder like Rodrigue Sampson.’

‘Look, I don’t—hey!’

Boo had grabbed her wrist and was yanking up Mink’s sleeve, ripping the sheer material in her haste. Mink writhed, pulled—but slight as she was, the Atalantik pirate was taller, stronger, her dark fingers a vice.

‘Hah!’ cried Boo. The runnel of the implant was visible even in the dim light, a tell-tale shadow along the inside of Mink’s forearm.

‘Please. Please. I didn’t—’

But the pirate wasn’t listening. ‘Nice hardware,’ she murmured. ‘What is it exactly? Pre-spec tech, I reckon. No neuron blockers. No brain barriers. Just a hundred thousand foreign emotions running their unnatural course from A-to-B.’ Boo ran her thumb across the implant, softly, very softly, like she was stroking a scared cat. ‘You know this psyche stuff drives you mad, right? Implants like these eat into the brain tissue. Might as well gargle prions, they say...’

‘I’m not mad!’

‘Yet. How many years do you have left before the brainworms set in? Four? Five?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t care.’

‘If you say so.’

She let Mink’s arm go, finally, and Mink—sobbing, twitching—cradled it against her chest. The memory of the pirate’s touch still burned her skin, a violation. Why didn’t the implant pick anything up? she wondered miserably. Surely you couldn’t hide your intents that well from a psyche...

Surely you couldn’t. But of course, Mink realized, you could bring along some tech of your own to counter the implant, jumble the signal, make it seem like you were simply flat instead of cruel...

‘Who are you?’ she whispered.

‘I’m what you might call a talent scout,’ said Boo, and for an instant Mink saw a flash of silver at her temples, tucked into the brim of the cap. ‘Now, Mink, I can bring you back into that room if you like. I can show your cop friend exactly why she’s been losing so much money on the tables. I can tell your mate Rodrigue that you confessed everything to me, because you want out. And I can tell him that you plan to take that out with Zemaneka. In fact, I can make a pretty big mess of your life.’

Mink cowered. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘I want to rescue you,’ said Boo. ‘So walk with me. Trust me, Mink, it’s the best offer you’ll get all night.’


They walked the hangar in silence, through the dark ghettos of Ishi and Laughingman, and on along the creaking metal walkways that led to the bright lights of Palais. Palais! The rich end of the city, the territory of the most powerful pirate crews—the Patholos, the Bradleys, the Ottomans, the Padmes. While the poorer areas had closed up for the night hours ago, rolling down metal shutters and locking bars into place, the party was still in full swing in Palais. Well-dressed, beautiful people stood on the railings smoking and talking, sipping glasses of fine champagne; neo-pop anthems thrummed from inside hi-house clubs.

It was all fascinating, of course, their clothes and their perfumes and their painted faces, but Mink felt immediately like an outsider—plain and even dowdy in the simple black dress Sampson had chosen for her. She half-hid behind Boo as the pirate navigated the walkways, bumping through the crowds as if the beautiful people weren’t that special at all.

Boo stopped outside a beautiful, two-storey hi-house, its windows round and clean, its carapace painted the soft, creamy white of a pearl. With its diamond shaped portholes and silvery sheen, it made Mink think of old fashioned Christmas tree decorations. The pirate laid her hand against a hatch, half-hidden by the smooth curve of the hi-house’s walls.

‘Where are you taking me?’ Mink whispered.

Boo frowned. ‘In here.’

The hatch opened into a huge, open-plan penthouse: thick white carpet and green walls, with the furniture gilt-edged and curvy-legged. A spa bath bubbled in the middle of the room like a centerpiece. Two people stood nearby: a muscular Pasifika with his arms folded—a body guard, Mink thought—and a plump Negro boy wearing a pair of huge mirrorshades. Beside him was an open tray of what looked like surgical implements: hooked metal and strange wires and a tiny computer with what might have been a sanding tool attached to its keyboard.

Mink took a step back. ‘What are you going to do to me?’

‘Honey, it’s make over time,’ said the boy, and waved a pair of scissors.

Mink almost giggled in relief. ‘What? Really?’

‘Sure thing, baby.’ The boy spun out a chair for her, one of those twisty-ones they had in mainland offices. ‘Take a seat, Mink.’

She thought then of Sampson, of his bully-boy ways, of the way he’d made her change herself to suit his image... But she went over and sat down anyway.

‘How did you know my na—’

‘You’ve got lovely hair,’ said the boy appreciatively. ‘Pity it has to come off.’

The big Pasifika and Boo watched television feeds while the black boy cut her hair. Mink felt a twist in her stomach as she watched the carpet disappear beneath a sheath of her long, dark hair. Sampson had always said her hair was her crown, that it was a sort of power, something she could wield to her advantage. Well, mainly to his advantage. But now it was gone—or going—and Mink already missed its familiar weight. The way she could hide behind it when everything was going bad, or whenever she recognized her old self in the mirror, the girl she’d been before Sampson.

‘We’re going to make you a blonde,’ said the boy, cutting. ‘I’ll be fixing the colour of your eyes, too—and possibly reworking your lids and nose. We’d like to cut you Caucasian-style. If you get recognized as Sampson’s old psyche girl, our game is up.’

‘But—’

‘The self is on the inside, sweetie. It’s the heart and the head, not the colour of your skin or the shape of your eyes.’ He lowered the scissors and reached across her lap for a bottle of liquid gel. ‘It won’t make you a different person anywhere it really matters. You got to think of it like a mask, the face of the character you’ll be playing.’

‘Will it... hurt?’

‘I will fill you so full of morphine and di-hydra you won’t even remember what pain is,’ said the boy. ‘Afterwards, maybe, a little—like a headache, I suppose. But I’m very good at what I do. You’ll be fine.’

He gave her pills to pop and after that everything was warm and cool and she lay back and let him work her face into a more pleasing arrangement. At some point she must have passed out because the next thing she knew was the sensation of faux-leather against her bare arms, and the faint smell of perfumes.

She could hear Boo talking to someone nearby: ‘You don’t know her? Look, she’s a tech-head from one of the hangars up North. One of Jean’s old women. They were tight years ago, then she fell out of favour, buggered off, and now—well, I guess she must’ve missed you all.’

‘I don’t know her.’

‘Guess she probably don’t know you either, then. So why don’t you go be a stranger somewhere else?’

Then a grunt, and the light changing, and Boo’s face: a blurred black oval above her. Mink felt her new contact lenses slowly adjust to fit her eyes. She was in a new place: the closed booth of a card-lounge—one of the posh uptown casinos with kaleidoscopic paintings and dim, yellow lighting. Through a crack in the booth’s door she saw a crush of bodies circling the gaming tables. Less beautiful people, here: the locals seemed to be a mix of heavily tattooed pirates and mainlander suits.

‘Where am I?’ she whispered, raising her hands reflexively to her face. The shape of it, its bumps and furrows, was unfamiliar terrain. She shuddered. ‘Wh-who am I?’

‘Who are you now? You’re Jenny Gosling, a member of Jean Ottoman’s crew,’ said Boo. ‘Also, you’re in the O Casino. Very trendy, isn’t it?’

‘Wait, what? The Ottomans?’ Mink sat up. ‘But why? They’re so—they’re so important. Why would they want me?’

‘Jean Ottoman hired me and my boys because he needs information. Specifically he needs a psyche, and a psyche without a rep. Someone who no one will see coming. Someone who can lie like a conman—and spot a fellow liar at twenty paces. Which is you, in case you missed my point.’ Boo yawned and stretched, all wiry black muscle. ‘You’re going to help Jean find a rat.’

‘But I—’

‘Best you start putting your little psyche-brain to good use while you still have it,’ said Boo, tapping the bare skin of her wrist, an imaginary watch. ‘We’re running to a tight schedule: this is a one-night-only deal. And the night’s nearly over. We’ve got two hours, tops.’


O Casino was huge—a real palace of a place, decorated with glitzy American furniture and lights. Flashing slot machines lined the walls, old-fashioned metal ones with pull-levers and rolling cylinders of unmatchable apples and stars. Pretty men in togas walked about carrying platters of grapes and fine wines. Women with crimped hair—crimped hair was the style on the mainland right now—danced by the bar, their faces cut to perfection. An elderly pianist played jazz tunes on a piano made of glass. Everywhere there were people, the mainlanders sipping green cocktails out of tall glasses, the Ottoman thugs knocking back vodka.

It was like being on a tv-show; it was Hollywood-magic; and Mink couldn’t stop grinning as Boo led her on. She’d dreamed of places like this. She’d aspired to places like this. It was the sort of place Sampson would have loved, she thought—if he’d ever been able to get through the doors.

‘Put your game face on, sweetheart,’ murmured Boo, squeezing her elbow. ‘You’re Jenny Gosling now, and you see this sort of shit all the time.’

Mink gulped and shifted her new face into what she hoped was an expression of disdain. ‘Where are we going?’ she asked. ‘Are we meeting someone?’

‘I hear that the best time to read anyone is when they’re playing cards,’ said Boo. ‘People are just so focused on their poker-face that they forget all about the other stuff they’re meant to be hiding. The dirty thoughts. The preoccupations. It all comes bubbling out... Ah—there they are.’ She was looking up at a gaming area on a raised platform, a semi-circle cordoned off with white silk ropes. On the platform was a single glass card table, with an automatic dealer set in the middle like a centerpiece; above it swung four fluorescent star-lights. Two armed Pasifika guards stood on either side of the platform’s steps; beside them stood a pair of handsome male attendants in white togas.

There were three men at the table now: a skinny pretty-boy who couldn’t have been more than twenty, a flat-faced Caucasian and a big man in a sleeveless suit jacket. Mink could see they had all been branded with traditional Ottoman tattoos, a swirl of pirate-Creole symbols that covered their skin from their toes to collarbones. Her implant twitched as she scanned them. The big man was focused. The Caucasian was horny. The pretty-boy was depressed.

‘Around the table: that’s Toshi, Hudson and Plakar,’ whispered Boo, linking her arm through Mink’s. ‘They’re Jean’s rat-shortlist. They think he’s coming to meet them here later. And he will. After we’ve done our job.’

‘I just have to find the liar, right? You’ll ask the questions, won’t you...’

But Boo ignored her. ‘Just the two of us, Lito,’ she told one of the Pasifika guards, who unfastened the silk rope to let them through.

They were half-way up the steps when the pretty-boy noticed them. He stood up and glared, his round chin raised in the haughty way Mink always associated with rich mainlander traders—people who felt they were too good for the flying city. ‘No!’ he yelped. ‘Get out. Ottoman only up here. Ottoman only in the entire casino, too, I might add.’

‘I’m a guest of the house, Toshi,’ Boo said, sliding into a chair on the opposite side of the table. ‘Here on business.’

Toshi looked suspicious. ‘Jean invited you? What about her?’

‘She wishes she was a guest of the house,’ said Boo, smirking, and cinched her arm around Mink’s slight waist. ‘She’s an Ottoman, old-school style. But for now, Jenny is my consort.’

She pulled Mink closer—a rough, possessive move, a move that reminded Mink immediately of Sampson. Sampson had always treated her dismissively in public, pushing her around, giving her orders, because (so he told Mink) if he treated her as if she was unimportant, disposable, overlookable, then other people would think of her that way too. Overlook her, overlook her implant: it was what Sampson called misdirection.

‘Hi,’ said Mink shyly, and felt her new face flushing.

‘We’re in the middle of a game,’ said the Caucasian—the only man at the table Mink recognized. She’d seen him before on the hangar’s docks, arguing trade with mainlanders. ‘You can’t just barge in here—’

‘Suck my dick, Hudson,’ said Boo, and clicked her fingers in front of the automatic dealer. ‘Deal me in for my usual. Take the chips off my tab.’

The dealer coughed out a roll of silver hundred-credit chips, then spat five cards across the slick glass surface. Boo grinned and tilted them up slightly to check them.

‘Oh, let her,’ said the big man—Plakar. ‘Who cares.’

‘I do,’ snapped Toshi. ‘How do we know your chick is an Ottoman? She doesn’t have the tattoos.’

‘She’s older than the tattoos. The girl signed out of Ottoman ranks long before Jean came up with the bright idea of scribbling Creole crap all over his best mates.’ Boo didn’t look up from her cards. ‘Anyway, would you want to scribble on skin like hers? Like milk, isn’t it?’

‘Excuse me a moment,’ Mink burst out. ‘I’ve got to—’

‘Yeah, whatever, babe,’ said Boo, biting her nails. Acting nervous, Mink knew; her implant told her that under the fidgeting and twitching, Boo was just bored. Mink wondered who Boo was, Boo and her two-man crew, the body-guard and the boy. Contract spies, she guessed. The big crews often brought in outside help to find traitors in their midst.

‘I’ll be back in a moment,’ Mink said, and tottered away down the steps.


This is what you’ve always wanted, Mink reminded herself in the casino’s bathroom. Well, one of the things you’ve always wanted. To be a real psyche. To smell out the liars and cheats. To expose people like Sampson and bring them to justice—if a lawless pirate place like the hangar could ever know real justice.

Her new face was pale and flatly pretty—more Eurasian than Caucasian, really, although her eyes (blue, now) were startling. Soft fair hair haloed her head, wispy and much thinner than it had seemed when black. The face in the bathroom mirror was not her but it was also not... unpleasant. Mink thought: I can get turned back into me once this is over, once Boo lets me go. It’s not a big deal, right? Everyone gets cut these days.

She searched the underside of her nose and her cheeks for scars, and found none. She was in the middle of playing with her hair when two women burst in.

‘Are you Jenny?’ one asked, a thin Pasifika with horn-rimmed glasses.

Mink swallowed. ‘Who’s asking?’

The Pasifika shrugged. ‘No one. We just heard about you. Jean said you messed up pretty bad. Don’t know why you’re here.’

‘Come to apologise?’ asked her friend, fluffing her curly brown hair in the mirror. Mink recognised her as one of Sampson’s associates, Vovoitz, a high-flying pirate he’d managed to bully into helping him with rent-scams. But she clearly didn’t recognise Mink in her new face. Her reflected expression was bratty, pouting. ‘I heard that Jean doesn’t want anything to do with you.’

‘I heard that Jean needs some real friends,’ said Mink, sliding into the role. If Sampson had taught her anything, it was how to snap quickly into character—whether he needed her to play a saucy club-girl or a mainland trader. She wasn’t sure who Jenny was—or even if there really had been a real Jenny—but she figured any woman who’d worked directly with a member of the Ottoman family had to be tough. Tough and arrogant. Mink looked down her new nose at them. ‘Maybe I heard that he needed someone he could trust.’

Vovoitz giggled nervously, guiltily, and Mink sensed there was something she was hiding. Nothing mutineer bad—just a crush, probably, or a little white lie. ‘Sure, whatever,’ she said.

‘If that’s all, then...’ And Mink swept haughtily past them, back into the gaming area.

She could do this, she knew now. Fooling Vovoitz had made it more real, somehow. She would do this, and maybe when it was over, when she’d found the rat, Jean Ottoman might ask her to join his crew for real. Well, miracles could happen, couldn’t they? And Boo had promised her a do-over...

Back at the table, she took a seat by Boo—who was already losing heavily but didn’t seem particularly bothered by it. Toshi was losing too; the kid was a poor player, and sweating for it. Way out of his depth, Mink thought, turning her attention to Plakar and Hudson. Both of them had great poker faces. Plakar was smoking a cigar, his lips rubbery and pale pink like a plunger. Hudson nursed a glass of whiskey. Mink scanned him and discovered he was still horny.

Horny and thinking about Boo. And Mink.

And various combinations of Boo and Mink.

‘How’s business, Hudson?’ Boo asked. ‘You still cheating landlubbers?’

‘You won’t get a rise out of me,’ Husdon replied placidly.

‘I hear Jean’s having problems with stock. Shit going missing. Important shit.’ Boo grinned, and folded as she grinned. ‘You don’t know anything about that, do you?’

Hudson didn’t reply. Didn’t move a muscle. Mink read him: he was annoyed, angry, ready-to-punch-Boo, but not guilty. There was no sense of fear in him, no worry. But what did that mean? She’d never looked for guilt before. And would someone really feel guilty about cheating Jean Ottoman? Jean Ottoman was power-mad and cruel (if his reputation was true), and if you screwed with someone like Jean, wouldn’t you feel—well, good about it? Perhaps she should be searching the men for positive feelings, for self-congratulations, for pride.

She wrapped her arm around the back of Boo’s chair and dropped her head against the woman’s shoulder, her eyelids falling to half-mast, like all this poker stuff bored her. Her implant, tucked against her side, thrummed with other people’s emotions.

Boo said, ‘Toshi, if Hudson won’t talk, I know you will. You heard anything about stock?’

‘Geez, Boo, just play the damn game,’ Toshi hissed.

‘I like your crew, I got no problem with the Ottomans. Jean is good people. But if there’s a mutiny on the, hah, cards... well, I need to know whose side I want to take.’

‘We know you,’ said Plakar coldly. ‘You take the side of the highest bidder every time.’

Mink read: Hudson’s amusement, Toshi’s discomfort, and Plakar—who wasn’t angry so much as he was disgusted, like Boo was a fly, an insect, her voice an insistent but meaningless buzzing. Mink was getting a sense of them now, the way they thought. She doubted it was Toshi; if Toshi couldn’t even bluff a bad hand convincingly, he sure couldn’t have stood up to Jean’s questioning. But Hudson’s mind was too murky with sex for his intents to be clear, and Plakar... Plakar was simply cold, almost pathologically cold, in a way that reminded her of Sampson.

Toshi said, his pretty face all scrunched up like he was about to cry, ‘Why are you talking about this? Why is this so important?’

‘She’s running a con,’ said Plakar. ‘Swanning up to our table, one of Jean’s old girlfriends on her arm, playing dumb on easy bluffs. She wants something.’

‘I always want something.’

Mink felt Hudson’s mind drifting, away from the cards, away from the game, and over to the chest of a buxom Ottoman woman with Creole tattoos that snaked between her breasts. She suspected crude, libertine Hudson could easily be a rat—the man didn’t know the meaning of loyalty—but probably only if it meant short term gains...

‘You got to understand that this isn’t a game,’ Plakar was saying, running a sausage of a thumb along the tops of his cards. ‘You need to understand your damn place. You act like we can’t touch you, Boo. Well let me tell you, we could take you outside and break you any time. You’re in Ottoman territory, and we—’

‘Oh, don’t bet that,’ Mink burst out, her eyes on Boo’s cards. Two kings, two queens and an ace—not that it mattered at all. ‘Boo, you can’t...’

‘She already has,’ said Hudson, and laughed until he coughed.

‘What the hell, Jenny?’ Boo snapped.

‘I can’t sit here and see you lose money all night!’ Mink continued. Playing the neglected consort, which came to her easier with Boo than it ever had with Sampson. ‘They’re robbing you.’

‘Woman,’ Boo said, ‘Shut up.’

‘If you don’t know how to play poker, then go lose your money on the bloody roulette wheel.’ Mink raised her hands in mock exasperation. Like women-can-be-so-stubborn-sometimes. And while Boo puffed and the men snickered and smirked, Mink shot a final look around the table at her three suspects.

Boo was right: for an empath, the best time to read anyone was when they were playing cards. But that wasn’t because people forgot to hide their other feelings.

It was because when you saw someone playing cards, you saw how they won.

Plakar had said nothing, but Mink recognized his expression. It was pure-bastard. The look of a man like Sampson, a look that said he’d bested (or was about to best) someone richer, or stronger, or better connected, or more powerful than he was... And Mink realized then that she wasn’t looking for an admission of guilt, nothing so concrete as that; all she needed was to find the capability for a con. Plakar was just like Sampson, hell, he was Rodrigue Sampson: he didn’t care whose lives he ruined, which loyalties he betrayed in the course of his own self-advancement.

It had to be him. It could only be him.

Under the table she touched Boo’s thigh, lightly, lightly, two fingers curling around and over. Boo looked down through the glass, and Mink pointed at the big man.

Boo sighed. ‘Lito,’ she said, signaling to the Pasifika guard. ‘Give us your gun.’

Toshi blinked. ‘Boo? What’s going—’

‘House-cleaning,’ said Boo, shrugged, and then shot Plakar in the face. The big man went down; blood went everywhere. Mink thought she heard herself screaming.

Boo said, rising, hauling Mink up with her, ‘Sorry, Toshi. But it’s always business.’


Outside the casino Mink vomited into a pot plant while Boo checked her watch. The Palais crowds had begun to clear; and to the east the first yellow rays of dawn laddered the waves. A nearby club was playing bad neo-pop too loud; Mink could see the silhouettes of dancers moving there, twisting and writhing like dervishes.

‘Nice work, Miss Gosling,’ Boo said. ‘That took half the time I thought it would. You’ve got a real talent there.’

‘I just killed a man,’ Mink said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. The implant in her arm felt as heavy as an anchor. ‘Or as near to it as makes no difference. I’ve never...’

‘You get used to it. I did, anyway.’

Boo shrugged and stepped away along the walkway, strewn now with the detritus of the night—empty bottles, shattered glasses, lost scarves and broken heels. There was the pearl-coloured hi-house from last night, looking shabbier now in the half-light of morning. Mink pushed back her wispy yellow hair and followed, her legs still wobbly. She could still remember the disbelief on Plakar’s face before Boo pulled the trigger; that image was going to be etched into her memory forever...

‘What happens next?’ she asked, as Boo fiddled with the hi-house’s hatch. ‘Do we go to see Jean Ottoman? Or do we have another—’

‘No.’

‘No? We aren’t going to see Jean?’

Boo turned. ‘I don’t think you get it,’ she said. ‘We’re done here.’

‘What?’

‘I mean you’re out. You’ve done your thing. You’ve solved my problem, and I’ve solved yours. Now, get gone.’

‘Solved my... wait, what?’

Boo stepped into the hi-house and shut the hatch. Just like that. Mink stared it blankly.

No, she thought. No. No! This can’t end like—You promised!

‘Hey, lady.’

The voice came from behind her. She turned around, hoping it was one of Boo’s friends, come to say that Boo was joking, and that Jean Ottoman really did want to see her—but instead it was Zemaneka, sly, dark Zemaneka. Probably in Palais to try his hand at ripping off a better class of mainlander. It felt like years instead of hours since she’d seen him, and he looked somehow so young now, so small, so insignificant...

Then she remembered Sampson, and her old life, her real life, and the trouble she’d have to go back to. Instinctively she took a step backwards. ‘Hi, er. Look, I can explain—’

 [ New face, © 2010 Eric Asaris ] The con grinned—casual, cool. Overly friendly. ‘Girl, you don’t have to explain anything to me,’ he drawled, opening his palms to her in a shrug. ‘You don’t need a name here, you don’t need anything, but if you like, maybe I can show you around a bit, give you a few tips on where the fun happens—’

Mink gaped. ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ she said.

‘‘Fraid not, girl. You’ve got the advantage over me.’

He didn’t see her. Didn’t see her for her at least. But then, Mink remembered that Vovitz hadn’t really seen her either. And then there was what the plump boy had said: You got to think of it like a mask, the face of the character you’ll be playing. I’m no longer Mink, she thought. I’m no longer the consort of Rodrigue Sampson. I’m someone else now. I’ve got a new face and a free do-over. A free do-over and my freedom.

Which was all and everything that Boo had promised.

‘Thanks,’ she said to Zemaneka, ‘but no thanks.’

With a new smile in her new face, Mink walked out into the waking city.


© 2010, RJ Astruc

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