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The Gambler

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I’ve made my living out of reading peoples’ faces…

 

Sitting in an arctic meeting room in nondescript warehouse a mile outside of Seattle, the thief known as Gambit was biding his time. The cards in his pocket itched to be withdrawn, to be fanned out between his fingers or tossed cavalierly across the table in a show of nonchalance but he had a feeling he was being observed. If they had contacted him they already knew his quirks, what was bravado and what was calculation. So instead he sat, still as the grave and allowed his burning red eyes to search the dark corners of the room while he lay in wait.

The room had one door, no windows and no discernible security features or cameras.

The only furniture was two chairs and the table, a stark metal affair that looked more like an autopsy table than proper décor for meeting room.  It was as cold as a morgue as well. Even in the dim lighting, the thief was able to see the steady progress of chrome ceiling fans circulating the frigid air. It was a sterile environment and kept pristine. This didn’t offer him many clues about the invitation that he had been given- though it did hint that there was either money to be made or he was a dead man.

A shiver went up his spine, but he held himself completely still. He was unwilling to betray his unease, of how much the cold room reminded him of the bayou in his blood and the hot creole blood than ran through his veins. There was no fooling himself, the chill made him long for the humid heat and the staccato beat of home.

If he had a heart left it would have ached.

Leaning back in the uncomfortable steel chair, he considered the hand he’d been dealt. It wouldn’t do to dwell on the past, on the sticky situation and the aborted nuptials that had been the catalyst for his fall from grace. What mattered was the now, seizing the moment and being the master of his own fate.

Laissez les bons temps rouler, eh?

Later he would have to remember to laugh bitterly at his own wit, and maybe not if his gamble went pear shaped. The fixer for this particular job was a woman known only to the Thieves Guild as Raven. The femme had a talent for moving like quicksilver through their computer systems and predicting their every movie, all while remaining as elusive as a chameleon. Now fixer wasn’t her usual job, the woman was known as a mover of information and other unpleasantness that enabled the Guild to do the finesse work without getting dirty. Informant, spy, rat- all those words could fit but it was a nice, symbiotic relationship that had been lucrative for both sides for decades.

Then she went and changed the game, and he’d always had a bit of a weakness for a wildcard. Hell, he danced in and out of danger and intrigue with the Joker card stored up his sleeve as a last resort ally. Dirty business was always the most entertaining.

He’d been operating as a freelancer, an exile from the Big Easy and the life he’d known and to put it mildly had gotten himself into a bit of a jam due to a handful of bad decisions, a haywire mutation and as always- a fille. Fresh back from misadventure in Paris, with hardly any time to lick his wounds and drown himself in wine women and song, Raven had tracked him Seattle and left her calling card at his hotel. A tiny SD card, smaller than the nail on his pinkie finger, containing the thieves’ equivalent of an ‘eyes only’ dossier hinting at challenge and great reward.

Lead me not into temptation- how was he to resist?

It was time to get back to his roots, to proper thieving and the delicate work it entailed. Crime, the less skilled kind that he had been dabbling in, had only led to heartache and the brutality offended him. It had been a long time since he’d been presented with an opportunity to showcase his skills, to use the mutant gift he’d been blessed with to burn off some energy. These days he practically radiated adrenaline, it was making him sloppy.  It was this sloppiness, this chip on his shoulder that had caused him to thieve his way into something he couldn’t escape from, something sinister. Even now he could feel the blood on his hands, hear the screams and smell the blood and sewage, he could see the shocked expression of the fille as she fell out of his grasp and to the paving stones below.

Betrayal seemed to be his secondary mutation, but it was time for a little redemption. It was time for him to be his own boss again. Even if that meant being his own crime boss, the cold was seeping into his brain. The metal room had to be a type of psychological torture and he was already cracking up. He needed a cigarette badly.

Shortly the single door opened and a man entered the room.

“Mr. LeBeau. Thank you for coming.”

The man was powerfully built, slim with wide shoulders and a stubborn jaw that projected capability and personal hardship. Eyes like steel found his, and the approximation of a polite smile twisted his thin lips. “Raven has told me that you are the best, and that you have never failed to complete a delicate operation.”

Gambit smirked, unwilling and unable to play the humble guest. The man didn’t seem to need an answer, taking the chair across from him at the sterile table. His hair was a study in silver and white, curling at the nape and around the ears but this made his age no easier to guess. He had the posture of a veteran of war and he held himself rigidly as though he were aware of everything around him. What could a man such as this, a shark in a small pond need from a thief?

The man took the chair opposite his with a certain efficiency of movement that was both graceful and unnerving. For a moment he seemed to consider his words, before laying his proverbial cards on the table. “I am looking for you to acquire a certain object for me.  A gem called the Cavorite Crystal.”

His uncanny grey gaze never faltered as he nonchalantly queried, “Perhaps you have heard of it?”

Just like that, the man tipped his hand.  

Poker face in place, Gambit considered the information presented to him and the put together the puzzle of his mysterious employer. To his knowledge there were a number of gems called Cavorite Crystals, all allegedly of alien origin and that exuded an unexplainable type of unlimited energy. There were six in known to be in existence, and of these only one that had been in public circulation in the last century.

Current owner- the mutant crime fighter called Ms. Marvel.

Current location of said superhero was a Bay area hospital where she languished in a coma after being attacked by the terrorist group known as the Brotherhood. Known Brotherhood members still at large included a Russian defector called Avalanche, the shape-shifter known as Mystique, her blind lover and her as yet unseen daughter. Unknown to the world, but known to him was that the Brotherhood was a faction funded by a higher power with an interest in igniting the tension between baseline humans and the so called homo superior mutants.

Said higher power…  The man that just so happened to be presently sitting across from him in a freezing cold, completely metal meeting room.  A powerful looking and meticulously calm man who showed no emotion, betrayed no tell with his movements or mannerism. He could only be Eric Lensherr, the mutant known as Magneto. Gambit was  willing to wager that the master of magnetism would be one hell of a poker player.

Now the décor made sense. Everything was to his advantage, Magneto held all the aces and he knew it.

“So, tell me,” Gambit asked. “Were ya able to gather de whereabouts of de crystal from  de femme before she tragically fell in t’ a coma? ”

Magneto smiled stark amusement apparent in the sardonic movement of his eyebrows and the flex of his jaw. “Very good, Mr. LeBeau. While my associates were unable to acquire the gem they were able to find the location of its current whereabouts. Have you ever been to the island of Madripoor?”

 What wasn’t said was the important clue. There was only one reason to hide something valuable in the pirate nation of Madripoor, and that was if the object in question had been acquired by HYDRA. Seemed he would have to seek out a viper, all roads in Madripoor led to Madame HYDRA.

Giving in to his restless urges, Gambit palmed the cards from his pocket and fanned them out in his hands. Magneto watched, patient as the grave and gave no hint at relaxing when Gambit gave him a lazy smile of assent.  “Was just thinking, dis thief needed a vacation anyway.”

 

You don’t count your money while you’re sitting at the table…

 

The Princess Bar was the ideal place in Lowtown to gather information without being noticed. It was dark, it was dirty, it was located on the docks and had more entrances and exits than anyone could know about other than the owner. Even then, the shabby building probably predated the lowlife who owned the place- so maybe even he wouldn’t know.

Gambit had spent a week casing the joint, and with a little pressure and a little pick pocketing he had gotten an invite to the backroom poker game with a limit that would have humbled many upstanding casinos and ruined many an honest player who tried their luck. It was his type of game.

“Ante up, stranger,” the dealer taunted, shift eyes for once still and focused. Considering the battered pile of chips, Gambit tossed another on the pot. “One thing my pere taught me ‘s dat you never bet more den you’re willing ‘t lose.”

No on at the table even raised their eyes from their cards, a sudden shift from the raucous clamor that had characterized the table thus far. Red alert. The snickt of metal being unsheathed alerted him to the danger second, and Gambit dodged to the right before he could be gutted. The razor sharp claws lodged themselves in the table, piercing the cards he had been about to play.

“Thought I smelled bad news.” Enter the Wolverine, stage right, looking exactly as he’d seem him last from the battered leather jacket to the ridiculous hairstyle. “It’s mighty fishy that you showed up after all this time.”

Of all the gin joints, eh?

“Well, ‘lo to you, too.” Dusting himself off with enough bravado to annoy, the thief smiled cockily and regarded the last person he expected to see again. Now was he a friend or a foe? “That any way t’ greet a friend?”

“I don’t got any friends, bub,” the feral Canadian growled, claws still extended. “Let alone Cajun swamp rats who poke their noses around in my bar.”

“Your bar, eh? Well, who’da guessed.” Other than the general run down atmosphere, the shady clientel, the pervasive smell of wet dog and the incongruous Labatte on draft. “Seems de Wolverine is doing ‘bout right fer himself.”

By this time all the other occupants of the back room had fled, not a single poker chip was left on the table.  Logan glared down at him, claws still a very real threat. “Last time I saw your face was Three Mile Island, and there aren’t a hell of a lotta great memories of that. Now give me one reason not to skewer you.”

“How ‘bout ‘n answer for ‘n answer, whadya say?” Carefully pulling himself up into one of the discarded chair, Gambit regained his footing. “We both win, den I take my leave.”

The claws retracted. “Feeling lucky, Cajun?”

“Always,” Gambit grinned, amused that the other man remained tense and refused to take a seat but stood over him, foul smelling cigar in his mouth. “Now were I t’say I was in the neighborhood looking for some fine jewelry?”

“I’d say that I can smell yer bullshit. You won’t find anything worth stealing in this half of the island.” Wolverine considered the cocky thief, cigar rapidly turning to shreds in his mouth. What a disgusting habit. “My turn, where did I meet you?””

“Easy one,” the thief answered glibly, he had nothing to lose.  “In de French Quarter, Bourbon Street, at my regular card game.”

“Unlikely, I’ve never been to New Orleans. Nice try.”

Rising to his feet, Gambit considered the man before him with their last meeting running through his head. “Mebbe someone’s been messin’ ‘round in your memories, my friend. Now, I can see I’m outta aces so I’ll be on m’way.”

His specialty, a gambit and Logan took the bait. “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what you know, bub.”

And now for the mutually beneficial solution… “How ‘bout a little compromise? First we go on a field trip, den I tell you everything I know about the Wolverine.”

Everything I am willing to share.

Logan considered. “If it get you the hell outta my bar and my life, why not?”

 

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealings done…

               

Considering the Princes Palace was said to be the Versailles of Southeast Asia, it took about ten minutes to infiltrate and an additional five to disable ground security. Two security guards seemed a little light for the ruling stronghold on an island of cutthroats and mercenaries.

Lucky or too lucky?

Claws still extended, Wolverine crouched low to the ground with the two former security threats neutralized at his feet. A low grow emanated from his throat, a warning.                 Gambit gave a slow clap, drawing the mans’ attention to his location in the shadows ahead. “Y’ever been told dat y’re dead sexy when y’do dat?”

Wolverine grunted, cracking his neck as he straightened up to regard the carnage he’d left behind. “Not a helluva lot of security for a high ranking member of HYDRA.” Glancing back, he added, “Yer not my type, Cajun.”

The thief grinned, the low light making his demon eyes smolder. “Gambit ‘s everybodys type, Wolvie.”

That earned him a pointed look. It was just too easy to get under his skin, ignite the berserker animal that lay beneath. Charging a card, Gambit shed light on the corridor ahead. Behind him Logan shifted, seemed to sniff the air.

“O-zone,” he growled. “Infrared sensors up ahead.”

“Think I’ll leave dis one t’ the ladies.” Gambit spread four cards in his hands, bare forefinger sending the kinetic energy to the Queen of each suit. Eyes narrowed, his let them fly with precision towards the far end of the room where he could make out the shape of the control box, which promptly burst into a flurry of magenta sparks. He could practically hear Logan roll his eyes at his actions, but it had gotten the job done.

Still, bravado aside- so far things had been too easy.

“Feeling a bit like lambs for de slaughter, ‘s suspicious.”

Unsurprisingly Logan ignored him, striding ahead confidently and expecting him to follow. Reckless and with absolutely no finesse, but compelling none the less. Gambit fell easily into step and reaching the end of the hall they found themselves at an impasse.

“Right or left?” Palming his bo-staff, Gambit watched Wolverine sniff the air again. “De lady or de tiger?”

Snickt!

Wolverine veered to the left as the room was flooded with overhead lights, blinding them both for an instant and that was all it took. The hallway echoed with the sound of a gun being cocked, the bullet sliding sinuously into the chamber as was its destiny.

“What a fitting question.”

Vision returned, they found themselves at the mercy of the lady of the house. The woman was striking in a terrifying sort of way, with a fall of dark hair and sharp emerald eyes. Snake eyes, the lady was a viper.

“Madame Hydra, I presume?” Gambit drawled, cards in hand but nonchalance in his voice. Beside him Wolverine fairly vibrated with suppressed aggression.

In a novel move, the woman kept her eyes on Logan and ignored the thief completely. Interesting.  It would have been insulting if the femme weren’t a known psychopath, but who was he to discriminate? He was a flexible guy, but he wasn’t an idiot.

“I’ve been waiting for you to show your face here, Logan. After what you did to my bodyguard, I am surprised it took you this long to come to kill me.”

“Hasn’t been worth my time, lady,” Wolverine snarled. “What happened between me‘n yer tin-can of a swordsman isn’t something I want to rehash with a psychotic bitch like you.”       

 Madame Hydra scoffed, tossing her wild hair and bringing the sight of her weapon at arms-length. “Still sore that your yakuza tramp chose Harada? I didn’t realize that wild animals had feelings, other than bloodlust.”

The feral man snarled and charged at the same time the lady shot once, dropping her gun in favor of the sword at her side. Undeterred Logan caught the blade with his claws and what was likely to be a brutal, drawn out battle commenced.

Too easy…

 

You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em…

 

Now, Gambit might play the simple Casanova but he wasn’t a fool. He wasn’t above turning tail and running to preserve his own interests. After all, it’s not like she could kill the Wolverine.

Right?

Convinced, he chose right and got the hell out of dodge. If Madame Hydra wanted the Wolverine she could have him. It was a perfect distraction. It wasn’t like he was crazy enough to go against what his main femme, Lady Luck, had given him. Ten minutes later he was where he was meant to be, with his fingers in the cookie jar.

Security called off, all threats neutralized and it was just him and a vintage safe left to spend some time together. The safe was a beautiful old girl, one of the models favored by Mississippi riverboats at the turn of the century. Low tech, but brilliant in its simplicity. Three bolt. Three number combination. No discernable weaknesses.

It was the sexiest thing he had ever seen, and like a woman she yielded herself to his touch and revealed everything to him.

The crystal was smaller than he expected, palm sized and warm to the touch. Reaching out Gambit attempted to charge the gem, but he was rebuffed as though by an opposing magnetic force. The gem itself vibrated with power, exciting the air around it into a frenzy. He could feel the adrenaline amp up in his body, tense and poised to act but something foreign tore through him, rooting him to the spot.

Fear.

What did Magneto intend to do with such power? For a moment his conscious twinged, but just as quickly he was over it. Sliding the gem into a pocket of his vest, he decided that he didn’t care. He’d done his job, he’d won. Let the world deal with Magneto, and whatever scheme the gem was sure to play a part in. It was time for him to retire on a high note. Look up a friend who owed him a favor and live the easy life.

He was getting to old for this shit.

 

Know when to run…

 

Gambit waited at the docks for the boat that would take him back to civilization. On the horizon the first rays of sunlight that signaled the dawn were already shimmering across the surface, and it was already hot as hell. The boat that Raven had arranged wasn’t due until the next morning, since it was surely a trap he wasn’t too keen to walk straight into it.

Lighting a cigarette, he leaned further into the shadows of a wooden shipping container but barely got a lungful of blessed nicotine before the little death stick was slashed into four pieces by gleaming claws that just narrowly missed his nose.

“Fuck! What was dat for?”

Logan smiled sarcastically and followed up his first assault with a solid right hook. It was like getting hit by a fucking freight train. “That’s for usin’ me as bait and leaving me with that crazy broad.”

Rubbing his jaw with one hand, Gambit fished in his pocked for another cigarette with the other. Fucking adamantium.  “Think ya broke my jaw.”

“Knew it would take more than that to shut you up. Don’t worry, I didn’t mess up your pretty face.” Gambit glared and rubbed at his jaw. “I knew de femme wouldn’t kill you and I fulfilled our bargain... Wait, ya think I’m pretty?”

“Shut up, Cajun. I got your love letter and really I’m flattered.” Logan looked half amused, which was better than the totally murderous look that he had worn before. “Going to follow up on some of those leads and see where they take me. Head up north.”

“Back into de wild, eh?” Gambit smirked just to watch the man scowl, it was an amusing reaction that for once didn’t come accompanies with unsheathed adamantium.  “Me? I’m gonna  look up a friend in de Big Apple, mebbe fight on the side of de angels for ‘while. Maybe ‘s time Gambit was a law abiding citizen, non?”

“Yeah, that’ll stick,” Logan scoffed. Patting down his battered leather jacket he produced the end of a cheap cigar. Gambit attempted to look offended. “I’m reformed as ‘f dis last job.”

He held his palms up in a conciliatory gesture, but is eyes told another story. “If you need a place to lay low, m’sure Stormy would put in a good word. Ya know, lie real nice for ya. P’haps the spook she works for could find y’memories. If ya get tired of de lone wolf shit.”

“Last thing I need is someone in my head, but thanks.”

One thing could be said about Logan, was that things were never boring when he was around. Sucker for a wildcard, every time. “Don’t be a stranger, ya hear?  Gambit knows you gonna miss ‘im.”

“Got a feeling this isn’t the last time we’ll meet, Gumbo. I’m not that lucky.” Waving a careless salute, the Wolverine exited stage left.

Gambit watched him disappear into the throng of sailors and wharf rats that swarmed around the boats that had docked that morning, and smiled. Things were looking up. Magneto had already paid him a hefty sum and he was reasonably sure he would be able to drop the gem while keeping himself alive. Terrorists weren’t known for being honest, just as thieves weren’t known for being careless. It’d be cake to grab his bike and head out to New York, leaving all the mutant bullshit behind to take up at some school and have his pick of sexy young things to put his hands on.

Gifted Youngsters?

Easy.