A Night at the Empire Club
by Joshua Corbeil-Stoodley
The streets of Nouveau Vietnam, located in the north-east corner of Fort City pulsed with life like maggots on a corpse. A teeming, endless horde of mouflon, sheep and Naga surged over the streets slick with the last hour’s rain. The neon lights that hung from the grimstone imitations of real Vietnamese architecture cast eerie haloes of colours not found anywhere outside of the Hollywood dream machine on the huddled masses, turning the already unnatural variety of hair colours they sported into a truly alien spectacle. Trouble boys and dames leaned against the door jambs of various establishments, making sure that everybody knew who had paid their protection money this month. Broadcasting it to the cops, too; that many buildings infested with the parasites meant I would have to come in and clean this place up soon. And we’d just chased out these ringworms six months ago, too. It never ends.
Dead-eyed dames, some as young as fourteen others as old as sixty, pushed strollers filled with grimly laughing babies down the rain-slicked streets, one hand on the stroller the other buried in their purse, most likely caressing the little snub-nosed irons they carried in a vain attempt at protection. Even in a neighbourhood as old and as rich as Nouveau Vietnam you could still get chilled off, and the gats at least gave you the illusion of being able to protect yourself. It wouldn’t work if somebody really want you dead, of course, but it was comforting nonetheless. Like thinking your vote actually matters in an election.
I watched all of this from a window seat at the back of the bus that was fighting its way through the congested, twisting roads like a salmon trying to head upstream. Beside me, a little old frail with a face like she eaten nothing but sour apples her entire life in a ratty blue cardigan chatted away about how her son was a doctor and how she didn’t like this new generation and what was with all the cop hating anyway? I made the appropriate noises at the appropriate places while I kept an eye on the crooked streets. The Empire Club was on the southern corner of Satelite Road and Laughter Avenue and it could be easy to miss. Especially as it seemed that the driver had busted the little announcement thingie that was supposed to tell you what street you were on again.
Eventually, the bus driver missed the stop on Portage Avenue, the last one before the Empire Club stop. A skirt, arms overladen with groceries, a face as sharp as a tack and long black hair done up in a bun got up to argue with the driver. Her tan flogger was soaked through from the rain; rivulets from the coat ran down her gams encased in threadbare hose and landed with a wet thump near her worn out pumps. I pulled on the stop-line and started to get up. The sour-faced frail shifted to one side to let me pass through, never stopping her chatter. I made my way up to the front of the bus, noting as I did that the driver had stopped due to a red light. As I passed down the aisle, one of the passengers, a boy of about sixteen in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and jeans with hair that would have made any anime protagonist jealous and with a face that had more piercings than skin recognized me, grinning as I passed. Off-hand, I didn’t recognize the kid, but then I wasn’t really paying attention. My focus was on the driver.
The driver resembled nothing so much as melting snowman wrapped up in a shirt that might have been white once and pants that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine since around the time Jackson died. Andrew, not Michael. A thin nose, red with burst blood vessels, stuck out of his melting ice-cream face like one of those chocolate straws they sometimes put in your cones. Eyes yellow with fat blinked slowly at the skirt as he leaned over the side of his seat, speaking loudly and slowly enunciating his words, as though his dance partner couldn’t understand English. The skirt, for her part, continued to speak in perfect Yank English, asking to be let out please as the driver had missed her stop.
“Stop here,” I said as I walked up behind the skirt. She jumped up like a scared rabbit. The driver simply looked over at me, his yellow eyes blinking in what I figured was surprise. Could be he just couldn’t see. His blood churned sluggishly through his cholesterol-infected veins and for a second there I wondered if he wasn’t going to drop dead of a heart attack on me. Not that it would be any particular loss from what I could see, but I didn’t want to have to deal with the paperwork of a bus driver dropping dead at my feet. And I’m sure everybody here would like to get to their stop at some point in time tonight, too. Just a hunch.
“What’d you say?” he asked. His stale, fetid breath washed over me. I fought hard not empty the contents of my stomach all over him. There are days when having the enhanced senses of a vampire are a real drag.
“Get the fat out of your ears, blimp. I said stop here and let her out,” I said, jerking my head in the skirt’s direction. She blinked at me, her long eyelashes acting like windshield wipers on her razor-sharp cheekbones. Her perfume was faint from the day’s use, even for a vampire, and was slightly overpowered by the smell of the rain she’d walked through. Her heartbeat had matched tempo with her anger and her cheeks were pale with fury.
“I heard you, I heard you. What’d you care about this chippy, eh?” he said, jerking his head in the same direction. “She didn’t pull the line, and now she’s whining about how I missed a stop I didn’t even know about. Damn immigrants anyway. What, they don’t have buses in Afghanistan?” he added with a leer at the skirt.
“I’m impressed, mac. You’re the only person I’ve met stupid enough to confuse an Afghani with an East Asian,” I said sourly.
“You lousy motherfucker!” the skirt said. Clearly, she was less impressed than I was. “My family’s been here for over a hundred years! And I’m fucking Vietnamese!”
“Yeah, sure, honey. Whatever you say,” the driver said. Turning back to me, he asked again: “So what’s any of this to ya? I’m just trying to drive my bus; it’s the chippy here who screwed up.”
“Well, seeing as you are the poor man’s version of Trump and almost certainly can’t read,” I said as I reached for my buzzer hidden in the inside pocket of my coat. I pulled it out and continued: “this probably won’t help you any, will it?”
The driver scowled as soon as he saw the buzzer. “Oh, so you’re Standard Tech. I should have figured. Always protecting these immigrants what want to take jobs from honest Americans, aren’t you?”
“If you’re the holotype of an ‘honest’ American mac,” I said as I put my buzzer back in my coat pocket, “then it’d be my personal pleasure to take your job away from you. Your name, dingus. I need to have a long chat with your boss. One you aren’t going to like.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” he said with a sneer. “Now get out! Get out and take that chippy with you before I call the real cops!”
“Thanks for your co-operation, mac,” I said. “I’m sure your bosses will be very impressed with your attitude.” Glowering, the snow-cone slammed open the bus door and jabbed one of his sausage-with-dried-grease-hanging-off-of-it fingers at us, presumably to encourage us to leave. The skirt and I didn’t wait around to ask him; we walked out of the bus, around a couple of the cars that had been stopped cold by the multi-headed monstrosity that is the Fort’s traffic, and stopped on the west sidewalk.
“Thanks,” the skirt said as she swept a hair that had come loose from the bun out of her eyes.
“No sweat,” I said, as I shoved my hands in my coat pockets. “You got a name, honey? I feel kind of bad calling you ‘the skirt’ all the time.”
She smiled, a quick one that was gone as fast a mouse hiding from a cat. “Anna,” she said. “Just Anna, if you don’t mind.”
“Well, just Anna–” I stopped as I heard the deadlocked vehicles start to rev up again. I turned from Anna to catch the bus number flashing out of its back window. Once I’d memorized the number, I turned back to Anna and continued: “Are you going to be all right to get home? I can walk you back if you want.”
“Uh, no. No, it’s okay,” she said as she readjusted the bags of groceries she was carrying. “I-I don’t live very far from here.”
“Are you sure? It’s no skin off of my nose,” I said. I didn’t really expect trouble in Nouveau Vietnam, but it was the Fort. You could get mugged in your apartment in this town and no one would think twice. Or bother to help. And as the chief supernatural cop in Fort City, I had to ask. Something about this gig being a life-saving gig, you know what I mean?
“I’m sure,” she said. The smile lasted a little longer this time. “Besides, I’m sure you have much better things to do with your time, anyway.”
“Hmm, let’s see. Loose yet more money to the Empress or escort a lovely dame home?” I said as I pulled my hands out of my pockets and pretended to weigh the two options. “I wonder which is more important?”
Anna actually let out a little laugh this time. “No, i-it’s good. I’m good. But thanks. I do appreciate it.”
“You sure?” I asked again, just to be sure.
“I’m sure,” she said. “It’s all white.”
“All right. ‘Night, Anna. Have a safe trip,” I said, as I dropped my hands back into my pockets.
“Yeah, you too. And good luck against the Empress,” she said as she turned back down the sidewalk and walked home. I watched her go for a few seconds and then turned around and made my way north to the Empire Club. First, though, I dug my cell out of my coat pocket and called the Transit Authority’s Complaints Department. A tired old voice that sounded like somebody squeezed all the life out of like they were a sponge answered. I told them what happened and gave them the bus number. The voice promised that they would look into it with less enthusiasm than most people would have for cleaning up backed-up sewage. I thanked them for their help and hung up.
The Empire Club was in the basement of this grimstone, Art-Deco skyscraper on the corner of Satelite Road and Laughter Avenue called ‘the Fleur-de-lis Building.’ Allegedly, the owner of the Club, the so-called ‘Emperor’, owned the entire building and the business that operated within in it. Certainly, the paperwork got murky enough when you started looking at who owned what in that building that it was plausible. However, there were a couple of problems: one, nobody had ever seen this alleged ‘Emperor.’ Not once in the two hundred years that the Club has been there. The other problem was that the Empire Club had changed hands and styles several times in the last two centuries. When the Club was built, back when Nouveau Vietnam was known as Nouveau Marseilles, it had been a French-style salon. For a while there in early twentieth it had been more a British style gentleman’s club. The Empire Club wouldn’t become it’s current incarnation of a gambling house/restaurant with Vietnamese trappings until the late fifties, when Vietnamese refugees fleeing the double threat of Saigon and Hanoi flooded the crumbling and long-dead neighbourhood of Nouveau Marseilles, revitalizing it and turning it into Nouveau Vietnam. And for a cherry on top of this sundae, the Empress had certainly changed since I started playing here in eighty-three. None of that meant that the Emperor didn’t own the Fleur-de-lis and every business in it of course; but if I were a betting vampire, I’d say the Emperor didn’t exist or hadn’t for the better part of two centuries. Never mind some kind of immortal exiled from Vietnam who used the Club and the Fleur-de-lis as staging grounds for whatever nefarious plan that the particular conspiracy theorist who was spouting that malarkey at the time favoured. Not that the Club didn’t profit from the legends surrounding their founder, and I would have bet my left pinkie toe that the Club’s management, whoever they may have been at the time, spread the rumours and legends deliberately. No press is bad press, right?
All of this occupied my thoughts as I made my way down to the southeast corner of Satelite Road and Laughter Avenue. There, in all it’s Art-Deco glory, stood the Fleur-de-lis building. At the south-west corner of the building was a staircase with iron railings heading down into the basement. I walked down the stairs and stopped at a wooden door carved in a Vietnamese style. A second later, the door opened to reveal a short egg with a face like a boiled potato dressed in a silk tuxedo that probably cost more than the average Yank’s car. He smelled of faintly expensive aftershave but not overpoweringly so. His heart beat was the steady rhythm of someone in comfortable, even homey circumstances. He knew me, knew why was I here and was less afraid of me than most people are of their own dogs.
“Can I help you, sir?” the egg said, in a voice that had clearly spent several decades in a polyamorous relationship with cigarettes and booze.
I nodded, amused as always by the formulaic formality of the Club. Though this particular egg had steadfastly refused to give me his name, we had done this dance often over the last thirty-two years and knew each other fairly well. That didn’t stop this little ritual from playing out every time I came here. “I’m here to see the Empress, mac,” I said.
The egg didn’t raise an eyebrow. “The password, sir?”
The Empire Club was a private club, which under Zion State law meant that it was by invitation only. Didn’t matter how big your bank account was or who you knew; if the Empress didn’t want you in, you didn’t get in. It was that simple. The password changed monthly and was hand-delivered by couriers to the members of the Club. If you didn’t like it, well that was your lookout, not the Club’s. I told the egg the password and he gave a shallow bow and pulled open the door to let me through.
“The coat check is to your right, sir,” the egg said.
“I’m glad you’re here to remind me of these things,” I said. “After thirty years, I might have forgotten.”
“I live to serve sir,” the egg said. A bush whose species I didn’t recognize towered over him from the alcove the bush was nestled in. In front of me was a long wall that had been painted red over stucco, letting the paint artfully flake in strategic places. It was a pattern that was repeated throughout the Club. I turned left to the coat check, which sat behind a cherry-wood desk adorned with large ornamental figures out of Vietnamese myth constructed out of real gold. Behind the counter stood a slender dame with high cheekbones and a narrow chin whose down-curved eyes stared right at me without expression. She wore a low-cut black vest over a white pleated shirt with a bow-tie that matched her vest. Her hair was done up in a bun held together by two hair sticks. It would be easy to dismiss her as eye-candy, especially with the way her tight collar emphasized her neck and how good she smelled, like fresh roses. It would be a mistake, however. Mademoiselle Ngô was the coat check for a reason: sitting underneath the desk was a submachine gun and Ngô was a good enough shot to ruin even a vampire’s night. And those hair sticks were weapons, too; thin needles more than capable of penetrating a vampire’s skin and putting a permanent end to the bloodsucker in question. One messed with Mademoiselle Ngô at one’s peril. Her heart beat was that of the cold professional, capable of killing without so much as an increase in tempo.
I approached the coat check and said: “Mademoiselle.”
“Monsieur,” she said. “If monsieur would be so kind as to take of nirs coat?”
“Monsieur would be delighted,” I said, and undid my trench and handed it to her. Underneath the jacket I wore a black-on-black tuxedo with black lace-ups. Mademoiselle Ngô took the coat, carefully inspected each pocket to ensure that there was nothing there that could be a weapon. Then she carefully hung the coat up. Next, she clicked her fingers and the door egg came over to give me the pat down. I spread my arms and resisted the urge to make any smart comments. After a few seconds of getting felt up by an egg with a boiled potato for a face, which is exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds, the door egg stepped away from me and nodded to Mademoiselle Ngô, apparently satisfied that I wasn’t carrying any steel. Mademoiselle Ngô nodded in turn and flashed me a smile so fake it could only come from someone who worked in customer service.
“Merci, Monsieur. Madame asked me to tell you that the game will commence in one hour and that there is a new player this evening.”
“Fresh blood? Who’s retiring?” I asked, raising my eyebrow in surprise. If the Club was invitation only, than the game was even more exclusive than that.
“Monsieur Capaldi, monsieur. I believe he wishes to enjoy what remaining wealth he still has,” Ngô answered with a conspiratorial grin that had at least had the value of being more real than the last smile she’d tried on me.
“That makes him smarter than me,” I said, and Ngô demurred with the standard line of how she couldn’t comment on such things. I continued: “What do you know about the freshie? Skirt, egg, pantsuit? Something a little weirder?”
“Madame has not told me anything about your new competition, monsieur,” Ngô demurred. And I was the President-elect of the Yanks.
“Right,” I said. “Simpler question, then. What’s for dinner?”
“Italian, monsieur,” Ngô answered promptly. “With fresh ingredients flown straight from Italy.”
“Sounds lovely,” I said. “Good evening, Mademoiselle.”
“Good evening, monsieur,” Ngô replied with a short bow. I turned and walked down the short corridor that stretched northwards from the coat check into the dining room of the Empire Club. The dining room was roughly rectangular; wider than it was long. At the north end of the dining room sat a thick curtain that separated the dining room from the gaming room. Along the eastern wall sat a buffet overflowing with dishes whose delicious smell wafted over towards me like memories on a lazy afternoon. Dotted throughout the rest of the room where a handful of tables. Some of the tables were populated by couples, a few by larger groups. None, however, were in singles.
From my left a gent approached. He wore the same low-cut-vest-and-pleated-shirt-with-bow-tie combination that Mademoiselle Ngô had, along with a pair of black pleated pants and black patent leather shoes that Ngô had probably worn but that I didn’t get to see. Though it was fun to imagine her serving the Club’s patrons without pants.
Like Ngô, it would be easy to mistake this gent for the club’s eye candy. He was certainly dishy enough: his strong, square face was framed by neatly parted black hair, while he looked at you with guileless black eyes that were perched over a nose that had been broken just enough times to make him look cute and not at all dangerous. His outfit served to outline the hours he spent at the gym, and it was easy to imagine getting a few hours of mindless, blood-draining entertainment out of him. But there was something in the way he moved, a deadly lupine grace that was entirely too vampiric for my liking, that suggested he was an altogether different kind of egg. He smelled of fresh leather and his heartbeat, while not as steady as Ngô’s, was still as calm as a lake on a day with no breeze.
“Monsieur Bianco?” the gent asked.
“That’s what it says on my government papers,” I answered. “And you are?”
“I am Monsieur Tran. I am the new usher. I just wanted to inform you that your table is ready, sir,” he answered, pointing to a table in the north-west corner of the dining room that would allow me to watch everybody else in the Club.
“Wow, they train you guys right the first time, don’t they? Merci, monsieur. I appreciate it,” I said, and Monsieur Tran bowed slightly. I tipped him generously and then ambled over to the buffet. The Club’s chefs had outdone themselves this time. Instead of the usual cheap, Americanized fair that comprised most ‘Italian’ cooking in this town, you got actual dishes from Italy, like spaghetti alla carbonara, pizza Margherita and brasato all’amarone. As I still had an hour before the game started, I loaded up on carpaccio and a bottle of O+ of rare vintage. I then made my way over to my table.
I had been eating for about twenty minutes, along with many return trips to the buffet table, when there was a commotion at the entrance. No, commotion was the wrong word. More like, every person in the Club turned their heads at the exact same time to the exact same place. Looking up from my plate, I could see why.
She was a tiger in a red silk qipao with gold trimmings; all smooth predatory grace wrapped up in a package that only served to enhance the fluid nature of her movements. Her hair, as black as the river bed of the Nile, had been done up in an elegant chignon, letting it frame a face that was rounded and soft without being spoiled or arrogant. Tattoos flowed down her arms in a masterful imitation of Ancient Chinese paintings: one a Chinese tiger and the other a coiled dragon. The qipao, like the turned down collars of the Empire Club staff greatly emphasized her neck; her veins above the collar pulsed with a mesmerizing regularity. Her mouth was just broad and sensual enough to incite thoughts of being bitten back. Above it sat a nose that was comfortably halfway between pointed and rounded, adding a certain distinctness to her facial character. But it was the eyes that killed you. Eyes that were alert, lively, intelligent and as predatory as her movements. Eyes that scanned the room, sized everyone up and came back without a hint of the judgement of the predator’s brain behind those eyes. This was someone who moved with authority and commanded respect where ever she went; no mere sheep was she. Beside her walked Monsieur Tran, who suddenly looked like a little puppy dog tailing an older, better-bred mutt beside this beauty. He guided her through the tables and into a seat at the north-east corner, opposite mine. It wasn’t as good a position as mine, as its view was obstructed by the buffet tables but it offered more or less the same benefits. The tiger thanked Monsieur Tran and left to go the buffet table. Heads continued to turn to watch her as she made her way through the buffet line.
I leaned back in my chair, intrigued by this new development. The tiger was new to the Club, that much was certain. I would have remembered her had she appeared here before. Mademoiselle Ngô’s mysterious new player, perhaps? That seemed the most likely option. But who the devil was she? She was nobody I had ever seen before in my life, that was sure. And the way she moved! Not the clumsy, marionette-being-jerked-about-on-their-strings that characterized how the mouflon walked. A fellow therianthrope, perhaps? A hu li jing? Or maybe she had gotten upgrades from somewhere. The Maid, Mother and Crone were supposed to be able to imbue humans with portions of their power through the use of tattoos, so that could explain both her natural grace and the tattoos that decorated her arms. She certainly wasn’t a part of the Flock; her eyes had lacked the tell-tale colouring that came from ingesting vampire blood.
I checked my watch. Forty minutes until the game. More than enough time to try and figure out this tiger. She had finished picking up her appetizers and had settled down in her seat. I settled back in my chair and continued to watch her out of the corner of my eye. I was certain she did the same. And we killed time in that fashion for the next forty minutes when Monsieur Tran and another of his fellow ushers approached us to escort us to our date with the Empress.
Monsieur Tran and his fellow usher escorted the tiger and I through the gambling room of the Empire Club to a door in the corner at the very back of the chamber. There he rapped on the door in a pre-arranged code that had changed every time I came here. The door was opened by another usher, this time a doll in the same get-up as Monsieur Tran and his cohort. The doll gave us the once-over, decided that we were presentable enough to be brought into her Imperial Highness’ presence and opened the door wide enough to let us through.
The Empress’ private gaming room was another rectangle, longer than it was wide this time. It was painted that same cracked red that was the Empire Club’s favourite motif. In the middle sat a poker table large enough to seat twelve people. A bar ran along the north well, staffed by an ample-chested doll in the same get-up as the ushers. But it wasn’t either of the dolls that we were interested in, oh know.
Monsieur Tran sat the two of us down at the table. The tiger he sat down at what was traditionally the junior seat in this house, to the immediate left of the dealer. Me he seated opposite the dealer, in what had been Capaldi’s seat. I was moving up in the world. Monsieur Tran gave a short bow to the both of us and to the Empress, who had arrived early and was calmly shuffling the cards. I thanked Monsieur Tran and turned my attention to the Empress.
She wore a light green ao dai this week, with the high collar exposing the front of her neck and all the lovely veins that carried her rich life’s blood therein. Her face was subtly square-ish, with a stronger jaw and chin than you normally saw on dames but not so strong that you noticed it at first. You’d have to replay your memory of her face several times before you caught it, something you’d be inclined to do anyway. Her hair had been drawn up and away from her face in a French braid that hung comfortably down her back like a tame snake. Her lips were as red as a fresh artery to contrast with the ao dai, and the rest of her makeup subtly emphasized her naturally dark skin. Well-manicured hands shuffled the deck with practiced ease. She smelled strongly of sandalwood and the spaghetti alla carbonara she’d just finished eating. Something else, too. Apparently, she’d been enjoying some personal time before she joined us, because the scent of arousal was still fresh and heavy in the air, but I couldn’t smell anybody else on her. Her heart beat a steady tattoo against her chest. Beside her to her left sat a bowl of nuts, untouched. Those were for the game.
The Empress didn’t even look up as she said: “Chuck those cheaters, Deadman.”
“I forgot,” I said as my pulled them off. “You like to look your victims in the eye as you fleece them.” I set my cheaters down on the table in front of me.
“If I’m fleecing you,” the Empress said, again without looking up, “then why do you come back every week?”
“Perhaps it’s the company he’s after,” the tiger said. I turned my head slightly to get a better look at her. Her lips were painted an even darker red than the Empress’, which only served to emphasize their lush sensuality. Her nose scrunched up slightly whenever she spoke, undermining her aura of sophisticated beauty ever so slightly, but which I found immensely fascinating. She smelled strongly of roses, with an undercurrent of something else. It wasn’t the food she just ate, although I could smell that too. No, it was something else. Almost industrial. Her heartbeat was a little slower than the Empress’, with a cool, even tempo.
“Well with company such as this, who can blame me?” I said gesturing to the two ladies. They both smiled politely at that. I continued: “And you are?”
“Heaven,” she answered. “Heaven Chiao.”
“What a fitting name,” I said. “I can see why you’ve been giving our good mayor such conniptions.”
“Aren’t you the charmer,” she said.
“My saving grace, madam,” I replied.
“Don’t believe nem, Chiao,” Empress said. She looked up from her cards this time to send an amused glance at the younger dame. “Nirs only saving grace is nirs ability to survive whatever hell ne’s managed to get into this time. And if ne’s charming you, it’s only because ne wants information.”
“Such a flattering portrait of me you paint, my dear Empress,” I said. “You should quit your day job and start doing PR.” The Empress smiled at me; a smile so cold and frozen it could have been the glacier that sunk the Titanic.
“Well, seeing as your on Stranger’s hit list as much as I am,” Chiao said as she rested her arms on the table, “perhaps we should get together sometime and… swap information?”
“Perhaps we should,” I said. Just then, Monsieur Tran walked in with two more players for our little game: Timothy Grace and Simon Robinson. Timothy Grace was a gent built like a beach ball that somebody had managed to stuff inside an admittedly well-tailored tux. His woolly hair shone with sweat as he sat down at his customary place nearest the door and he took out a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat from his leather-brown skin. His husband had him on another diet; he fairly stunk of fresh vegetables. It seemed the diet was working this time; his heartbeat wasn’t nearly so laboured as it used to be. Simon Robinson, on the other hand, was a lean, scarecrow-like egg who walked around permanently hunched over. A hooked nose without sufficient to character or strength to be called a beak hung over a lipless mouth. He smelled, as he always did, of sweat and rage and desperate hatred of everyone he met. His heart beat was thin and reedy and contained the flutter that would kill one day but that he refused to get looked at. He sat down opposite Timothy, snapped a thank you at Monsieur Tran and then his beady little eyes searched me out and he snapped:
“You’ve been picking on one of my drivers, cheapie.”
I sighed. That didn’t take long make it’s way up the food chain. “He refused to let a passenger out after she pulled the string and he missed the stop,” I answered. “He’s also a racist, Simon, so I expect him to be gone by tomorrow night. Else I’m going to have to come after him.”
“I can’t afford to drop a driver just because he ain’t worth the oxygen he breathes,” Simon said harshly. “It’s just not gonna happen.”
“So we’re pressing charges,” I said. “Awesome. I’ll see you in court, Simon.”
“Don’t you have enough on your plate as it is?” Simon demanded.
“Too much,” I answered. “On the other hand, if you’d actually deal with your people, Simon, then I wouldn’t have to clean up your messes.”
Simon glared at me. I held his gaze. Finally he said: “The union won’t like this.”
“Too bad,” I said. “He made racist comments, he refused to stop when the bell was rung. He goes, Simon or I run him out of town.” The truth was, the driver was already long gone, gone the second Simon had heard about our little confrontation. But Simon couldn’t be seen as rolling over for anybody, especially not for me. So we did this little-song-and-dance routine where Simon pretended to defend his people and I pretended to snarl at him like an angry dog. Politics, aren’t they a joy?
“If you two are quite finished your little cock-sizing contest,” the Empress put in, “Perhaps we could play? If it’s not too much trouble, that is.”
“Pardon, Empress,” Simon said. I looked around at the four players and the Empress and asked: “This is it, then?”
“Unfortunately,” the Empress answered as she dealt the cards. “Capaldi has retired, and the others had ‘pressing engagements.’ So it’s just the four of us tonight. Why? Missing some of our regulars are we?”
“You know me, Empress,” I said. “I so enjoy a large audience for my spectacular defeats at your hands.”
The Empress gave me a cool little half-smile at that. Timothy looking up from his cards and said: “But it seems we have that have a new player this evening. And you are, my dear?”
“Where are my manners?” the Empress answered. “Timothy, Simon, please meet Mademoiselle Heaven Chao. She will be our new regular, replacing Monsieur Capaldi. I assume there are no objections?” She looked around at the three of us, all of whom shook our heads. Like I said, entrance to the Club and this table were invitation only. If any of us objected to any of the invitees, we could swiftly find ourselves banned.
“Excellent,” the Empress said. Turning to Chao, she added: “I believe you’re the big bind, my dear.” Chao nodded and threw a pair of chips into the middle of the table. With that, the game was begun.
We played for another four hours straight. Timothy actually did all right this evening, though he sat out three hands and was eliminated first. Chao played like a demon, but in the end her aggressiveness allowed me to set a trap for her and wipe her out second. Timothy chuckled at that, as it had been Chao’s aggressiveness that had sunk him early on. Simon was too cautious as always, allowing the Empress and I to bleed him of chips slowly. Finally, it came down to just me and the Empress.
“Well, my friend. It seems you might actually win this time,” she said as she sipped on her trademark Manhattan. The sour stench of rotten rye wafted over to me and I fought the urge to crinkle my nose. Not that Simon or Timothy were any better: Simon was drinking a whisky sour and Timothy had ordered a White Russian. I didn’t envy the state of their livers. Only Chao had not ordered a drink, instead focusing on the game with a laser-like intensity. I had ordered a sasparilla and another bottle of blood and nursed them slowly over the last four hours.
“Now where have I heard that before, Empress?” I said as I stared at my cards intently. We had about the same amount of chips, the Empress and I, and we’d been chasing this pot for a while, so now the pot was effectively all in whether we liked it or not. I checked my cards and said: “All in,” and pushed the few chips I had left in towards the middle.
The Empress cocked her head to one side and stared at her cards. She had a choice now: fold or match me and put all her chips in. Finally she nodded and said: “All right. Why not? All in.” And then she pushed her chips in too.
I checked my cards again and then laid them out. With the cards on the table, I had a classic dead man’s hand: the eights of spades and clubs, and the aces of the same suit, plus a two of hearts. It was a decent hand, but the question was, was it decent enough?
The Empress looked at the cards on the table and laughed. “Oh, that is very fitting,” she said. “That is very fitting indeed.” And then she laid out her cards.
It was a pair. Of threes. For the first time in some thirty years, I had won.
“Congratulations, Monsieur. Quite the accomplishment,” the Empress said.
“Merci,” I said and snapped my fingers for the usher. She arrived and I told her that I wanted the chips cashed in. She nodded and said that they would be ready by the time I left.
“Well, that was very interesting,” Heaven Chao said as she leaned back from the table.
“Wasn’t it? A very enjoyable game all around,” Timothy agreed as he stretched. “A very enjoyable game indeed. But I think I should be getting home. Dan will be wondering about me.”
“Yeah, and I got paperwork I gotta catch up on,” Simon said. He got up and marched towards the door, yanked it open and walked outside. I just shook my head. Timothy chuckled at Simon’s antics and then got up and left himself. That left me, Chao and the Empress.
“Well, I had best be going myself,” Chao said as she stood up from her chair. Then she paused and said: “Would you be so kind as to escort me to my car, monsieur Bianco? It’s very late and I don’t know the streets in this part of the city very well. I’d hate for something to happen to me.” She turned those razor-sharp eyes on me and tried to make them as soft and helpless as possible. It didn’t quite work, but I had my own reasons for wanting to say yes.
“And maybe do a little of the information swapping we talked about earlier?” I asked with a leer. “Sure, why not? I’ll meet you at the front door.”
Chao smiled tightly, and then turned and bowed to the Empress. Then she walked out the door. I got up out of my chair and made my own bow to the Empress. Then a thought struck me. Had the Empress let me win? Was this victory a payment of sorts for setting me up with Chao? I looked into those cool brown eyes and found myself desperately wishing that reading minds was a vampire power. I thought about asking her about it, decided against it, and left.
Just another night at the Empire Club.