The Reflexive Engine III

[Chapter List]


The windows were shuttered against the daylight, absolute silence prevailing within. Half a dozen men sat around the table, brooding over their cards.

“Your deal, Beau,” said the man with the pointed goatee.

Beau smiled. Unnaturally beautiful, immaculately dressed and, to see the pile of coins in front of him, improbably lucky. He gathered the cards with his perfect hands and began to shuffle.

“Wait,” Goatee said, holding out a hand. “You're quick. I'll give you that.”

Beau tried to look puzzled. “What do you mean?”

The other men at the table glanced at one another. Hands began to slide quietly towards belts that held pistols and daggers.

“I know what you are,” Goatee continued. He tapped a finger to the side of one eye. “I am too. I'd see what you were doing even if you weren't always winning when you dealt the hand.”

“A cheater?” one of the other players snarled.

“We have something very special in store for cheaters,” another added.

“I don't want any trouble,” Beau said, setting down the cards and holding out his hands.

The largest man at the table threw back his chair and leapt to his feet, towering over the others. “Well, you've got it anyway.”

With a sudden jerk of his arms, Beau held a small pistol in each hand. Firing both at the same time, he dispatched two of his opponents in one blast of gunpowder, sliding down from his chair and beneath the table just as the giant's fist ploughed through the space previously occupied by his handsome face.

The next blow overturned the table, clearing the line of fire for the two pistols he had pulled from the back of his belt, one bullet smashing the giant's lantern jaw, the other sending Goatee tumbling through the shuttered window.

The last two men raised their weapons. A fellow with a jagged scar across his face aimed his pistol and fired, only for his target to roll forward at the last moment, dodging the bullet and pulling another pair of pistols from his expensive shoes. As the scarred man wrestled with the pouches of shot and powder in his jacket, the only other man standing was shot through the heart in the act of throwing his knife.

Beau got to his feet and dusted down his breeches, watching the scarred man struggle to reload. “I still have a pistol I haven't fired, you know.”

The scarred man dropped his gun and held up his hands. “Take the money. I won't stop you.”

“Of course I'll take the money,” Beau said. “But I can't get a reputation as a cheater, however deserved it might be. One can only cheat the ignorant, don't you agree?”

The scarred man nodded frantically. “I won't tell anyone.”

Beau sighed and waved his pistol back and forth. “But I'm far too trusting. It's my chief flaw. I really should shoot you.”

“I have something else,” the scarred man said, reaching a trembling hand into his waistcoat.

Beau tutted. “It had better not be a pistol. I really have the advantage here.”

But the scarred man produced several folded sheets of paper and handed them, shakily, to the man holding him at gunpoint.

“Blank,” Beau said. “And full of holes. You have a most peculiar sense of humour.”

“I was playing against a professor of some sort, really down on his luck. He lost everything, and this was all he had to put on the table to try and win it back. He said it was worth a fortune.”

Beau raised a slender eyebrow. “Really? Maybe you're the one who's too trusting. Look, toddle off. And we'll both forget we ever knew one another.”

The scarred man blinked, and then took off like a rocket.

Beau dropped the blank sheets of paper on the floor and righted the table, before sweeping his ill-gotten gains into a large purse. One by one he returned his pistols to his belt, sleeves and shoes.

He sighed. Reloading them all would be such a chore.

About to leave, he stooped down on a whim and picked up the blank pages, holding them up to the light that poured in through the broken shutters. The holes in the pages were neat and orderly: some square, some rectangular.

“A fortune,” he mused.

He half made to throw the pages down again, then stuffed them into his riding coat and strolled outside, pockets jangling.


georgek said...

I like where this is going.

Casual Practitioner said...

The first thing I thought of was punch cards for storing data.

Pacian said...

@George: Oh really?

@Casual Practitioner: You may be onto something...

Tinker said...

Hmm...punch cards? Or else, some very fancy player piano music?