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The Card House Falls: Part One


by appaloosa500

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"The Card House." It's a club. A sort of sleaze-bar, filled with the town's sleaziest criminals and slyest delinquents. The bartenders, waitresses, and bouncers all have unknown, secret pasts, likely full of treachery, deals gone wrong, and the bad side of Neopia Central. It's nearly impossible to get in without the right connections. But once within, anyone is guaranteed a drink free of the NCA (Neopian Central Authorities) and hidden mikes.

     A handful of possibly honest businessmen make it inside, as does the odd P.I. and stockbroker. Why? Because this is where people go to purchase the muscle man as a cheap substitute for the professional bodyguard. The Card House is "the place" for the absolute latest in street-gossip and B.D. tips. But it's not for everyone, obviously.

     The regulars and employees have special code-names, and their true identities are secret to all, except Black Jack, the owner, who knows everyone and everything that goes on in his club. People see him as a cool, suave, handsome brown Wocky dressed in an expensive all-black suit, with the type of quiet, dangerously reasonable voice you'd automatically associate with mastermind criminals and gang leaders. Let's just say he takes care of important matters and problems very quickly and efficiently and in such a way that no one knows how he does it. But, really, he's not so bad-not nearly the worst you'll find if you hang out in there.

     Black Jack has only two friends that he can trust with anything from his life to a snot-nosed Baby Chombie: the Queen of Spades, and the Ten of Clubs.

     The Ten of Clubs, or 10C, is his numero-uno bartender who works full-time as a bouncer when things get a little too rough. (Just between you and me, often he is the reason things get rough and out-of-hand.) A tough, loyal, street born Red Kougra that will and can do practically anything, from a triple-flip to a roundhouse left spin-kick pretty much sums 10C up. This dude can be completely relied on to handle anything and anyone. Maybe he never trained with the Techo Master-his methods can be a tad unorthodox-but he sure makes up for it in sheer strength and flexibility of strategies. He's head and shoulders over all but Mutant Grundos: nuff said.

     The Queen of Spades, or Queenie, is a little different. She's a green Wocky with a dangerously sly attitude. In P.I. circles she's known as Khargana, ace Detective, famous for her unpredictable methods and a natural knack for drawing trouble. At the Card House, she's the toughest gal in the underground and is known to prefer to be left alone as she sips her Neocola in a corner at the bar, listening to the clubbies and gossiping with 10C.

     Unfortunately for the newbies who think they're just so tough, 10C and Queenie can pack quite a punch, especially together. Let's just say it'd take, at very least, 11 highly skilled fighters to take out the two of them. (Five so-called experts for each and one to hatch a way to trip them up.) Well, when everyone fights fair anyway.

     ******

     Detective Khargana slouched at her personal desk, club-reporter style: rear paws crossed on top of the medium-sized cherry wood desk. Her huge, executive seat was tilted back, with her front paws crossed behind and supporting her head. A black faux-leather kauboy hat with a twisted silver band fell over her face in front, and the length of her famous brown-suede vest draped over the chair arms. The sun was just setting outside, and the bright orange rays shone through the average windows. This green Wocky was having one pleasant nap.

     Then her door buzzer rang. Jolting awake, she angrily jabbed at a red button attached to her desk. Man, the last thing she needed was a customer. She was already putting off a good four or five jobs. Hey, she was being paid by the day: she could take her time. Money is no object to billionaires. The snobs could afford to lose a couple thousand.

     Black Jack, an old buddy who saved her tail dozens of times, entered. Good thing it was that handsome ol' Brown Wocky anyhow. She'd forgotten about the sharp-looking hat, which was part of her secret Card House outfit. If it'd be anyone else she would've had to make up some silly off-the-top-of-the-head lie.

     "Yo, B.J. What's up?" She took the hat in her green right paw and gave it a backwards flip to show her utter carelessness in whatever he had to say. The black kauboy hat landed perfectly between her erect Wocky ears.

     Black Jack shuddered at the atrocious nickname. "It's Black Jack, Khargana. Or should I say Queenie? I need help, girl... And BOY do I hate to admit it!" He glanced over towards the windows apprehensively.

     Khargana glanced at him from the corner of her clever slanted brown eyes and walked to a wooden pirate chest nearly hidden in a corner of her office. She flipped open the lid to reveal the rest of her gangster-looking Card House outfit, meanwhile asking why on Neopia he'd need help with 10C and the other guys and gals around.

     "They're, umm, 'incapacitated' right now..." The brown Wocky flicked his luxurious tail nervously as he straightened his typically immaculate tailored black suit. His eyes kept darting towards the window, which revealed nothing but it's usual forest view, this time with a rather pretty sunset-gold shading.

     She stopped what she was doing, which was replacing the comfortable, pocket-filled, brown suede vest which trademarked her as Detective Khargana with the pricey black faux-leather jacket which marked her as the Queen of Spades. Incapacitated? As in, out for the count? Yeah, the others, but the Ten of Clubs? That gargantuan red Kougra buddy of hers needed quite a bit of force before keeling in to anything. Oh, Neoflakes, this had to be big. Because bigger than 10C had to be really, really big.

     The green Wocky absentmindedly straightened her slick coat and slipped on matching black boots, wristbands, and mirror shades to complete the façade to anyone who might perchance to be the slightest suspicious. "Who'd you mess with, B.J.? Or rather, who messed with you, and why?"

     Black Jack turned his handsome brown head toward the doorway nervously. "Must you always be the detective? Can't you just be a friend, just this once?" He turned back pleadingly, still nervously fidgeting to get going.

     Khargana tilted her head so the shades slid downward. Her direct brown eyes beneath the black hat's brim met his clever blue peepers.

     His tail twitched and he wiped his front paws nervously on his black suit pants. "Okay, it wasn't my fault! This gang held up my joint and is trying to take it over. Err, okay, they DID take it over. They want it as a secret headquarters and they're trying to get all the small gangs here in Neopia Central to join. To remind you, that's about seven gangs, not counting the major ones I've already taught to leave me alone."

     He glanced toward the door again. "And PLEASE don't mention this to your copper friends! That Chief Kerowski or whatever has had his Starry Lupe nose in my path more than a few times. It's bad enough I squealed to you, even though you've got an official Card House title and all. If they knew I spoke with a P.I. with links in the NCA hierarchy my life would be worth nothing." He shuddered and added, "less then nothing."

     The green Wocky slid the dark glasses back up her nose. "All of the gangs in Neopia Central? Bang! We've got ourselves one heap of a big mess. Okay, Black Jack, let's get outta here."

     The two Wockies dashed out onto the dirt path that wove through the forest outside Khargana's house.

At the Card House Entrance

     "Where is everybody?" whispered Khargana to Black Jack. It was now full dark out, but some moonlight made things just visible enough. The Card House should be packed at this time. It was the ideal time for club hopping, but not a clubbie in sight.

     "I don't know! They were having a meeting of sorts when I snuck out... But the regulars were still being allowed in! They couldn't possibly have gotten all of the regular Card Housers already, so that can't be the reason-"

     The Card House's lights were all off, and the place appeared vacant. How could it be? The Card House was never empty! And surely those gangsters wanted as many regulars as they could get; Card Housers are renown for their fighting skills and know-how. They couldn't possibly have gotten everyone in the four or so hours Khargana had calculated had elapsed.

     The two Wockies were hiding around a corner in a dark alley facing Black Jack's not-quite-so-respectable establishment. The large two-story building sat alone between two other silent buildings, looking exceptionally quiet.

     "Maybe they realized I was gone."

     Khargana turned toward her friend. "Why, may I ask, would that be a problem? Are you, my dear friend, hiding information from me? I'd have thought you'd know better than that."

     "Umm, well, yes. See, they had me locked up in my office. After I realized what they were up to-umm, I suppose that's when they knocked out 10C and the rest of my loyal employees-they grabbed me and locked me in my office. They posted guards at my door, and I don't have any windows, but they forgot about my skylight, or perhaps they simply didn't know about it. I seriously thought I'd be able to slip back in! I was sure I'd have enough time to pull out my Ace, well, Queen, and get back..." He dusted some invisible dust off his coat, trying to look nonchalant, but his paws shook.

     Khargana slipped off the pitch-black reflective sunglasses and massaged her temples. "Just how many do they have, o-old-buddy-of-mine-that-I-have-a-feeling-I'm-about-to-do-something-very-stupid-for?"

     Black Jack chewed his bottom lip and closed his eyes. "Fifty, maybe sixty on their side, maybe more by now. My guys never stood a chance. We had no idea..." When he opened his eyes they shone wetly, but no tears fell.

     Khargana slipped the glasses back on. "I'm going in. You stay here. If I'm not back within, say, give me two hours to slip out, promise me you'll go to this address." She wrote something down on a scrap of paper she had in her pocket and handed it to him.

     Black Jack stared at the paper for a second, and when he looked up to ask Queenie whose it was he saw her sauntering down towards the empty clubhouse, paws shoved rebelliously in her jacket pockets, shades covering eyes, and her black hat-brim pulled down low over her face, it's silver band glinting in the moonlight and her whole face hidden in shadow. She was indistinguishable from the other lowlifes here in this part of Neopia Central.

     Khargana sauntered up to the front door with the easy air of a talented bookie or Aisha-thief. She peeked through the dark windows, and, unable to see anything, hammered hard on the door with a fist.

     At first the place retained it's appearance of emptiness: of cold, dark, silent bareness. Just as she was thinking of sneaking in for a look around, a whisper asked Khargana for a password.

     Khargana whispered back, careful to use a street-rat accent. "Watcher talkin' 'bout a stinkin' pass-word? I'm the Queen o' Spades, an' I don' take that sorta talk from no one!" Knowing they were watching her, she stretched her taunt muscles, flicked her tail, and growled in the way anyone would expect of a street-Wocky whose favorite club just closed.

     A huge claw reached out of the barely open door and snatched her by her jacket's collar. It yanked her inside and slammed the door.

     Black Jack saw the whole thing, and, groaning, settled down to wait. Out of trust for his friend, he wasn't going to move until the time limit was up. He settled down and stared at the scrap of paper. It didn't even have a name, just an address in the uptown city area. He looked up at the moon. Two hours seemed a long way off.

     ******

     The lights inside The Card House stayed off, except one bright one that shone directly at Khargana, a.k.a. the Queen of Spades. Thankfully she had her mirror shades, or she probably would have been temporarily blinded. As it was, she had to blink her sensitive eyes a few times.

     The toughie, a big Yellow Scorchio, still had her jacket collar grasped in his claw. She grabbed his wrist and twisted so roughly he was forced to let go. "Try that again an' I'll break that stupid wrist a' yours!" she growled. It was very easy to believe her.

     A commanding female voice rang out and our Green Wocky was still focused in the spotlight. "So you're the famous Queen of Spades? You? An average-looking low-life decked out in black leathers?"

     "Ya betta believe it," Khargana answered smoothly, tipping her hat back and readying her paws at her sides.

     A beautiful, princess-like Desert Aisha slipped into view. But the beauty ended at her cold, green eyes, which stood outlined with black paint. She had a gold tiara balanced on her head.

     "Somehow I expected a girl somewhat more distinguished and exceptional. Your reputation surely precedes your appearance, or I wouldn't have expected someone like you," she announced, tossing her head cattily. The implied insult didn't slip past Khargana, but the detective chose to ignore it.

     She measured up the Queen of Spades before her before reaching her conclusion. "If you are who you declare, I challenge you to prove your identity," the Aisha announced. "My men are unarmed; they should present no challenge if you are who you claim." She flicked her paw and six gangsters immediately jumped the Green Wocky. Average, of course. No problemo-she could handle more than a few rent-a-thugs.

     As expected, none were as talented as the Queen of Spades. In less then a minute Khargana had crashed two of their heads together, flipped one over to slam him onto the floor, ducked under as two others tried to slam her into a wall, they themselves painfully crashing into it, and lifted the last thug bodily and threw him onto a table which collapsed.

     They all recovered fairly quickly, and would've attacked again except for the Aisha's snap. The six huge but rather dim gangsters eyed the medium-build of the Green Wocky, and tried to figure out how she possibly could've avoided their multiple attacks.

     "Well done, Queen of Spades. You've proved yourself. My name is Sahara Princess. In that case I would like to talk to you..." She motioned at the Yellow Scorchio standing behind Khargana-- the same one that the Wocky Detective had threatened to snap his wrist.

     Khargana felt the creepy hot/cold end of a lightning gun press into the back her neck, right above her ruffle. She immediately stiffened. She'd had bad experiences with lightning guns, and her gut was telling she'd soon have another to add to the list.

     "Oh, just give me a reason, Queenie." Of course, he had no idea that was an affectionate nickname her best club-friends had given her. He said it with a derogatory ring. The big Scorchio rubbed the gun into the back of her neck, deliberately trying to provoke her into fighting.

     (Just a note: Lightning guns do not kill, at least not in the normal flow of things. What they do is send a shock of electricity straight through your body, effectively stunning you in an effective, and very painful manner. Khargana, of course, knows this, and she could've tried to get away from the gun, but what would that accomplish? She was here for answers, not a good brawl.)

     Standing ramrod back stiff, Khargana kept her body ready to attack or defend, depending on whatever happened next. Careful not to move her head, she asked "What, Miss Sahara Princess?"

     "About you working for me, whether you like it or not."

     "Dream on, babe."

     Immediately the zap ran through her body, her muscles turned to jelly, and she collapsed on the floor.

     The yellow Scorchio turned to his boss. "What now, my princess? The Wocky will surely get in our way."

     The Desert Aisha rubbed her chin thoughtfully as she reached a conclusion. "I do want a female lieutenant at my side. As good as you are, Yellow Flare, the charisma of this Queen of Spades fascinates me. The rumors say she is certainly intelligent and honorable, so I believe we shall have to trick her into working for me." Her small lips curved in a catty smirk. "I believe a… wager is in order. She's too upright to turn on something she swore to do."

     Yellow Flare, though a little put out that his mistress seemed to want to give this Wocky the position of at least his equal, chuckled at the thought. He knew his princess's tricks. She would beat this "Queen of Spades" at her own game.

     Then the princess shrieked as she peeked into the room she had thought would one day be hers by right of conquest. Black Jack's office-and unsurprisingly it was empty.

     "I AM HAVING MAJOR WOCKY PROBLEMS TODAY!!!" she screamed.

     "I'll search the premises at once for Black Jack," declared the yellow Scorchio.

To be continued...

PLEASE tell me what you think! I've been working on this story forever, and I really want to know how many people are as interested in the Card House as me! Neomail me for questions, comments, predictions, whatever--thank you!

 
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