Jaden had resolved not to think about Kim as he putted the speedboat toward Key West with the sunset hanging off to his left, but the tedious aquatic journey gave him too much time to do just that. How had he misconstrued all the signals? He’d had no idea Kim had been enamored of him.
He kept replaying their conversation in his head, thinking of ways he could have kept the situation from escalating into such a heated argument.
Then he remembered something she’d said, something he’d almost forgotten with everything else going on. “Once that girl was out of the way. . . . ” Had Kim manipulated him into pink-slipping Ally just so they could date?
No, it couldn’t be. As acrimonious as Kim had been earlier, he couldn’t believe that of her—he just couldn’t.
One thing was certain, though. Jaden had made an enemy of his former mentor.
When the homing medallion glowed solid red, Jaden dropped anchor. Evidently the disgruntled boundary guard moved the opening before each trip so there wouldn’t be any kind of pattern to be traced. For this encore trip, Squeeze had given specific directions about swimming quietly between the two small islands and then straight on to Key West, but the instructions were totally extraneous. Key West glowed luridly in front of him, a beacon in the early evening darkness. He was going to have a bit of a swim once he got on the other side of the force field, but it wouldn’t be too bad with his motorized personal propulsion gauntlets, and at least the briny ocean meant he could stop searching for alligator bubbles this time.
Exhausted, Jaden clambered up the Mallory Square pier. In the shadows of the crumbling concrete pier, Jaden removed his flippers and scuba hood and tucked them in the bag he had brought along. Because it contained the contraband, Jaden kept the rest of the suit on. This time, though, he was smart enough to bring regular clothes to go over it. And bug spray, of course. He didn’t know if Key West had giant mosquitoes like in the Everglades, but if they did, he’d be ready.
He pulled on khaki pants and a light, long-sleeved shirt. He concealed his ripper gear with a bandana wrapped around his head. He’d seasoned and weathered all the clothes before he left so that he wouldn’t look like a store mannequin. Now, to find his contact.
He stole into the streets. The garish buildings oozed with people. In his classically unhelpful style, Squeeze had told him that his contact Mel was the floor boss for the Key West Casino and could be anywhere on the island. He hadn’t even offered a description. Jaden was definitely on his own. He’d just have to scour the casino. But where to start?
A cordial brunette with curly hair piled high on her head called to him. “Hi, honey. Come on in and have some fun!” She wore a slinky dress split way up her thigh with tiny shells sewn onto the material, making her clink as she walked.
“I’m looking for the boss,” Jaden said in his most cajoling voice. “Know where I can find him?”
“Who wants to know, honey?”
“A friend told me to look Mel up if I made it down this far,” Jaden said congenially.
“Fresh meat, huh?” the girl asked.
“Yeah. Just got in.” Jaden knew better than to embellish his story. From his years on the street he knew that the best lies were the simple ones, the ones that had some semblance of truth to them.
The girl slunk over to a burly guard and whispered something to him. The guard nodded and the girl sashayed back. “Earl will take you.”
“Follow me,” Earl grunted.
Earl led him through the capacious casino. An assortment of handmade gambling equipment covered every square inch. Almost everything was made of palm tree trunks, coconuts, shells, rocks, or driftwood. Every classic casino game seemed to be in play, from roulette wheels and cards to slot machines. The addicts all played calmly and relatively quietly, the only noise the occasional cry of “Jackpot!”
Jaden could handle this, at least. It was much better than slogging through a swamp filled with alligators and snakes and pirates. These people seemed to behave themselves. He was looking forward to a much easier transaction.
The bouncer Earl presented him to a short, balding, middle-aged man in a cream-colored suit and blue silk tie. “Boss, this guy’s looking for you.”
Jaden extended his hand. “I’m Jaden Emory, sir. Squeeze sent me.”
A greasy smile resplendent with avarice oozed across the man’s face as he shook Jaden’s hand. “I’m Mel, the pit boss. This glorious establishment is my Key West Casino,” he said, his arms swinging around. “Walk with me, Runner.”
“It’s quite an operation you’ve got here,” Jaden said. “Very impressive.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Mel said jubilantly.
“How do you manage all of this?”
“Creative dedication. I love to gamble, and my patrons love to gamble,” the gregarious man said. “It’s the experience we relish, not the technology. We automate as much as we can, and what we can’t, we handle manually. With enough manpower, we can do anything, and there’s no dearth of that here in the Unemployed Zone.”
Mel swung by a blackjack table as a man won a hand with large stakes. The dealer gave him a nod, and Mel clapped the man on the shoulder. “Congratulations! How about some nice steaks on the house?” he asked, handing the man two slips of paper with a grandiose flair. “Stop by Margaritaville and they’ll set you up.”
The man beamed at Mel’s largesse, but Jaden couldn’t help but notice the haggard look in his eyes. People seemed happy, but as Jaden canvassed the casino, the closer he looked, the more vacant, drawn expressions he saw, eyes locked on the tumbling dice or the whirling roulette wheel.
“Care to try your luck, Runner?” Mel asked.
“I’m not much of a gambler, but thanks,” Jaden said.
“Nonsense! Pick your poison. Everyone plays at the Key West Casino!” His grandiloquence boomed through the casino. “I want you to have a good time. I want everyone to have a good time!”
Somehow Mel’s statement didn’t induce a rush of joy and enthusiasm in his hapless patrons.
“I really just need to make my delivery and head back. I don’t have anything to gamble with anyhow,” Jaden said, still trying to sidestep the invitation.
“You’ve got your delivery,” Mel said, arching an eyebrow.
“It’s not mine to wager with.”
“Come on, a little roulette or blackjack, double or nothing.”
Jaden racked his brain for some way to dissuade the man. “I really can’t. I just need to deliver and take your shipment back.”
“I say you should gamble.” Mel raised his voice to the crowd of gambling addicts in the casino. “What do you think, folks? Should he gamble?”
“See? They all think you should do it.”
Jaden shifted from one foot to the other. If Mel couldn’t see the discrepancy between his idea of all these happy customers and the actual despair they seemed to be in under the surface, he probably didn’t have the firmest grasp on reality. “I can’t, sir. It’s not mine to gamble with.”
The floor boss remained obstinate. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law, so they say. You’re going to have to do it, Runner. In fact, I won’t finalize the deal unless you do. You want to get paid, don’t you?”
Jaden decided to try a more canny approach. “I could always take this stuff to Gaspar instead,” he said, hoping that mentioning the competition might goad Mel to uphold his end of the bargain.
“That would be . . . unwise. You see, Runner, Gaspar may have some kind of rapport with your boss Squeeze, but I do not. If you don’t gamble, I’ll have to make a wager of you and let your boss find another mule.”
Jaden gulped. “Make a wager of me?”
Mel nodded emphatically. “Oh, yes. A very creative one. Let’s see, what should it be?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “How long exactly do you think you can hold your head underwater in a tank filled with alligators?”
Jaden’s face paled.
“Do you think your head will be torn off first, or will you drown before that? I’ve got to know how to handicap the betting. Such an interesting wager, don’t you think?”
Jaden let out a resigned sigh, realizing there was no getting out of this. “If I gamble, what would I win?” he asked reluctantly.
“Ah, now that’s the spirit! You’d get your life, of course, and the payment for the contraband.”
“You agreed to pay to begin with.”
“Jaden, my boy, we’re criminals in here. You expect any of us to keep our word?”
“Then how do I know you’ll adhere to your word now, even if I do what you’re asking?”
“I’m afraid you don’t. But a wager won fairly is generally respected in my casino.”
Great, so much for this being the easier of Jaden’s two adventures. Now he had a real conundrum. He was obviously going to have to gamble, but he had to figure out some way to give himself the advantage. What game would he have the best chance at winning?
None. This was a casino, and considering its location, basically as corrupt a casino as they came. But there had to be something he could win. The automated games like slots and roulette were out. There was no chance they weren’t fixed. Maybe something with cards, something where he was playing another person. He’d always been good at reading people, since he was a kid. Just because he had relied on The Corporation’s cybernetics for so long didn’t mean that he didn’t still have his own talents. His experiences at the raves made that clear. Now if he only had some music. . . .
He surveyed the room but couldn’t see anything helpful. “I don’t have much choice, do I?” Jaden finally said.
“No, Runner, you don’t.”
“Fine. I’ll do it, but only if I get to pick the game.”
“Why, of course! My casino is your casino. Pick your poison.”
“Blackjack it is, then.” Mel clapped his hands. “Earl, the cards.”
“I’m playing against you?” Jaden asked.
“Of course! You couldn’t get me to sit this one out for anything.”
Jaden didn’t like the thought of trying to interface with Mel. The man was savvy. If Jaden reached out and tried to touch Mel’s brain, he might feel the intrusion. But there was no way he’d win on his own. The man would inevitably be better at the game than Jaden was.
Earl brought a fresh deck of cards sealed with a seaweed band. A crowd formed around them, and murmurs of side wagers filled the casino.
Jaden listened to the rhythm of the room, trying to turn the whispers into a flowing, roiling ballad.
Jaden reached out to Mel, focusing in on the sounds that the pit boss made himself—the even, calm breathing, the slight shift of anticipation as he shifted on his stool, the sound of his cards being set before him, the soft whisper of the card placed face down being slid up and revealed to its holder.
The colors radiated out from Mel. The colors became numbers, and Jaden saw a queen and a seven. Mel had a queen showing, so the face-down card had to be a seven.
Jaden peeked at his own face down card. A queen, and his face-up card was a seven.
Dammit! Had he just reached out into his own mind and gotten his own cards instead of his competitor’s?
He tried to reach out to the deck of cards. Could he tell what the next card would be? If he took a card and he went over, he could bust.
An ace, a two and a five.
Now if he only knew the order. He’d have to take a card and see. If he and Mel had identical cards, he didn’t think Mel would bow out gracefully. “Hit me,” Jaden said.
Mel flipped another card for him. An ace.
“Hit me,” Jaden repeated.
He got the two. Not much, but it would be enough.
“Stay,” Jaden said.
“Hit me,” Mel said with a malevolent grin.
His grin froze when he saw the five flip over.
“Twenty,” Jaden said.
Mel shoved the cards across the table. “Let’s just get this transaction completed.”
A murmur of shock and surprise traveled through the casino.
Jaden wiped the sweat from his forehead. The bandana covering his cybernetics itched.
“This way,” Earl said, leading Jaden away from the hubbub with an angry Mel several steps ahead. They took him to a secured room off the casino floor.
As Jaden unloaded his contraband from his wet suit, he summoned his courage. “Mel, you’re a man in the know. I’m looking for a friend of mine in here.” He told her about Ally and where Tail said she might be.
“No idea,” Mel said caustically. “Raver fresh meat doesn’t last long in here.”
Earl handed Jaden the packages he was to take back and he repacked his wet suit.
“I thought I blended in pretty well,” Jaden said, sniffing and wiping the sweat from his temples. His bandana shifted slightly and he readjusted it.
“What’s wrong with your head?” Earl asked.
Mel eyed him. “Take off that bandana.”
“I’d rather not.”
Earl snatched his bandana off, revealing the burnished metal plate on Jaden’s head.
“Squeeze was stupid enough to send a ripper into the U.Z.?” Mel asked.
“Rippers get ripped,” Earl growled, cracking his knuckles.
“We don’t abide cheaters, ripper,” Mel said.
“I didn’t cheat!” Jaden lied.
“Rippers read minds,” Earl said.
“I’m only a trainee, and I couldn’t read anyone’s mind even if I was a full ripper. It’s not what we do.”
He cocked his head at Earl. “You’re dead, ripper,” Mel said.
Earl lunged at Jaden.
Jaden ducked under his arm and bolted out of the room. He raced through the mass of slack-jawed gamblers in the casino, Earl and Mel in close pursuit.
“Stop him!” Mel shouted.
Jaden dashed through the front door, but the girl in the slinky gown stuck a high heel out and he went flying, landing on his face on the sidewalk. He scrambled up and raced into the crowd. Jaden faded into it, moving along with the thickening throng, despite the fact that it was generally moving up Duval Street, away from the ocean. He kept his head down and affected the swagger of a practiced partier. As he passed the first alley, he wobbled into it and ducked into the first darkened building he saw, hoping he had eluded his pursuers.
Unfortunately he wasn’t alone. A group of well-dressed men bent over a soft light on a lab table, focusing intensely on whatever they had on that table.
“Earl’s already been over to pick up the pills for the Runner,” one of them said, without looking up. “Tell Mel the next batch won’t be ready until day after tomorrow.”
Jaden ducked his head and backed out of the warehouse. “Will do,” he rumbled.
What the hell am I carrying? Jaden thought as he doubled back to the Mallory Square pier.
He didn’t even bother taking off his street clothes before he slipped on his flippers and dove into the cold ocean and headed back for his boat. Too blasted close.