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11 – preparations, pt. 3

Her morning-after contraceptive is a pink pill from the drugstore – its brand is Alea, and it's one of the few decent pills you could pick from the shelf without needing a prior prescription. Immediately after LeBlanc walks out the mall with Renton, she downs the pill, feeling it slide down her throat with a gulp.

She wouldn't imagine how it would look like, having a child with Renton. (If it were to be a boy, she'd hope he'd have Renton's good looks and natural charm, without the shy self-consciousness of herself.)

Seeing her take the pill, it flashes through Renton's mind, their moment together, and he could barely contain a tremble.

/

At the hotel, Swain and the others are midway through their breakfast in the lounge, and LeBlanc with Renton join them after having packed his outfit.

"I've gotten his things ready," LeBlanc tells them, and she hastily whispers to Renton to sit up straighter – he's slouching in his seat beside, and.. it's still morning, and boys like him would be rousing at this time. But it's making her look bad.

"Renton," Swain goes, munching on a bacon sandwich, "what we'll do now is have you ready for our upcoming performance in a few days. You'll be performing duo, as Twisted Fate's partner on stage."

"My two-timin' card-dealin' partner," Twisted Fate says.

Renton glances down. He wishes he could be on-stage with LeBlanc instead..

"What's the matter Renton?" Twisted Fate goes. "You aren't looking forward to it?"

"Oh, no, no, I'm just wondering.. does it have to be you, or can I pick-"

"I can't think of anything else to put you in currently," Swain says. "Lulu and Heimerdinger have already set up their routine with each other, and I can't think of how it would be very entertaining if you were cowering under my storm of crows. And LeBlanc.."

Renton beams upon her mention.

"Her function is to have the element of audience participation, one-on-one. It wouldn't work if you were there with her."

"Oh.." But what about the last time, with the whole Back to the Future interruption thing? What about her promising me I could be her partner earlier..? Renton wants to say that, but another thought makes him more resigned – that this intimacy he feels about her, it is not exclusive to him. Surely he's not the first she's enticed, and sadly, he probably won't be the last. "So what do I gotta do with TF, are we playing-"

"Playin' Hearts, and you're going to be pulling off funny stunts as the casino dealer. It's a hit especially in Vegas. Shouldn't take you too long to get the hang of it."

"Our stage will be set in MGM Grand," Swain goes. "It is just a matter of getting acquainted with the layout, setting up environmental cues accordingly, and if we are lucky, our audience will be especially receptive.. but that is only the easy part.

"What we're here for is obtaining the second-last artefact; the staff of Ra. Long-sought after, we've manged to pinpoint it to the current owner of the MGM Grand, David Bateson. An old, bald man with a penchant for collection of rare artefacts. I've only just found him two weeks ago, finding an old photo of him from 1986, with what resembles the staff.

"Why none of us has ever heard of it.. it is because everyone else has been expecting to look for it in the museums, or hoping to find it still undiscovered in the archaelogical dig sites. When it's been in Bateson's hands, all along. Just happened to be mis-named as his faithful walking stick, painted a different colour."

"Swain has real brains," Heimerdinger goes, wiping his mouth. "I would have never realised that in a million years!"

"And it's lucky for us that I've found this out when I did," Swain goes. "Bateson is going to auction off the staff the night we perform. If we don't get our hands on it then, it could disappear away in the hands of another, as just a mere walking stick.

"Our two options: we can partake in the auction – bidding online, or we can steal it beforehand, when Bateson thinks his million-dollar stick is safe in the vaults. Preferably, I think we steal it."

/

The MGM Grand Hotel – it is a splendour of a building, exemplifying the Vegas spirit of hedonistic pleasures in its combination of being a hotel, a luxurious casino, and a grand stage to perform in front of an audience of ten thousands.

At day, it is just a building, with many vehicles parked in the lot for the people who stay for the upcoming Black Rose's performance. But at night..

The rented limo drops Swain and everyone off, and Swain leads them through the lobby to the stadium – their presences inconspicuous amidst the people, like distant dreams of a yesterday night.

Right now, the stadium happens to be vacant, with the janitor boys sweeping the littered popcorn and pop drinks from the floors. The vast stadium, all the seats sweeping around the arena, surrounding the centre stagefloor that is to be where the performances are.

"Waw.." Renton says, gawking at how big the whole stadium is. It's like a hockey arena, mixed in with the theatre, and up above, the spotlights are set to a general white lighting.

They've entered through one of the aisle entrances, being led by one of the stage managers, making their way down to the backstage. You can tell the manager is so giddy in their presence – he's babbling on and on about how it's his privilege to help host their show, and how he's got two daughters who'd line up by the TV or their computers for all their shows..

On the bright side, the manager's eagerness is certainly going to translate over to the efforts put into setting the stage up.

While Heimerdinger narrates to the manager what they'll need (a table, hula hoops..), Renton asks LeBlanc if she still gets stage fright.

"All the time," she says. "Lulu holds my hand every time before we're introduced, and I gulp. When we step out from the curtains, it's like a fever dream when you see all those faces gazing upon you. It's so riveting to feel, yet so perilous when you know that every slip-up you can make, everyone is watching. My first couple of performances, I choked because once I was in that moment, I could not get rid of all their attention, bombarding me on what I'm supposed to do. The thought that there'll be some people in the audience who'll hate me on the stage, no matter what I'd do."

"So how did you manage to overcome that?"

".. I just do it." LeBlanc notions at the blank stage displays, that'll be zooming in on them for the benefit of those in the bleeder seats up above. "But more importantly, don't be afraid to fuck up; you can find moments of improvisation, when you least expect it, and you'll wind up taking the show to a new, unexpected direction."

/

Out of a rented utility van, Team ROCHAT step out by the MGM Grand – their leader Viktor in holographic disguise as a normal plumber. They've flown anonymously on public airway, stowing away their belongings in a trans-dimensional pocket (hammerspace), and they are going to make their stay in low-profile.

There was a call from the hotel for extra servicemen, because the stage is going to be packed at full capacity, and they need extra pairs of hands to get things running smoothly.

"Oh, you're part of the hired help? You'll be staying in the utility quarters," one of the valets tells them, trying not to mind how foreign they look, and they're led down to one of the basement levels, past where security rooms monitor the casinos, vaults, and other entertainment venues – and to what looks like a barracks, where other servicemen are idle, either resting on the bunk beds provided, or joking around on MewTube videos.

"You'll find there's a call sheet for whatever duties they need help with," the valet goes. "If you get lost or confused, the others will help you get more acquainted." And leaves them be, thinking them experienced enough to be leaving it up to their hands.

"What kind of crap room are we stuck with!?" Veigar exclaims. "This is not suited for someone like us! It's a six-star hotel, I'm sure they could afford much better for the poor plumbers and electricians! I demand more comfort!"

"Quiet boy," Singed goes – waving away the attention from Veigar's outburst. "We won't be staying here long. If we can deduce what big thing the Black Rose scum are after, our trip will be more than worth the paltry quarters we're residing in."

"Oohh! I hope I do get to play with the white tigers..!"

Zac is mumbling, snugly fitted inside a canister. He hopes they'll let him out soon.

/

After the Black Rose have been suitably familiarised with their grand stage, Twisted Fate is shuffling his cards with Renton at a table backstage. He is going to show Renton how to play the part of the no-good dirty-rotten casino dealer.

"So you're wearin' one of them tight uniforms, with the black shirt and red vest," Twisted Fate goes, shoving half the shuffled deck to Renton. "The room temperature is kept cool, to keep the gamblers in a concentrating mood. But you're still sweatin' by your armpits, because your job is not only to be slick with the cards, but makin' sure your consumer ain't cheating you over the game. You keep your eyes on theirs – watch if they get anxious, or if they're putting their attention on something funny. Not on their hands, because an experienced card shark will easily pull a fast one while you blink."

"Got'cha." Renton is enjoying Twisted Fate's cowboy accent; and soon, he's getting acquainted with the game of Hearts:

The object of the game is to win as many hearts as you can, by duelling your opponent with the biggest card in your hand, and the winner of the duel picks a random heart from the pile. At the end of the game, when you've spent all your non-heart cards in duels – you sum up the value of the heart cards you've picked up, and the one with the larger value wins.

The first few games, Renton always gets beat by Twisted Fate (somehow).

"How are you winning?!" Renton goes, slamming his fists on the table in frustration. "I don't get it. Seems like you always have higher cards than I do.. it's your deck of cards."

"Mmm, I ain't cheating you-" Twisted Fate grins. "It's strategy; you don't blow your whole load right from the beginning, you pick the card that you think will marginally beat your opponent's – I look at the cards I hold, and then I deduce the other cards you're holding. See, you've blown your kings and queens on my threes and fours, and then I savour getting the upper hand over you, because now you ain't got no advantage no more."

"Damn!" Renton shakes his head. "How do you come up with these.. I mean, you're a much better card-player than me.."

"Kid," Twisted Fate goes, re-shuffling the cards. "About your age, I did this to make a living. I went around in card-playin' shows and casinos, and outplayed most of them competition at their own game. Is just a matter of figuring out your hand, and their hands, from what's already out on the table, and what to do with the luck that's been given to you.

"I was so good at the games that they swore I was cheatin' them somehow, and I got my ass booted out of some casinos, hauling them short of hundred grands in cash each time I came. Wasn't supposed to be that way for them, but hey, 'the house always wins.'

"I was livin' it large, and I went to see how them fancy Frenchmen would deal 'em in grand Pariee. Little did I know, I was gonna be robbed of my entire life savings, and then some. Faster than a rabbit gets- you know."

Renton shifts in his seat. "What's your name? Your real name, that is."

Twisted Fate looks him straight in the eye. "Owen Thomas."

As it turns out, Twisted Fate has grown from a poor Rancher family, and bored with his family's lack of any ambition (besides herding cows), he's gambled his way to France, where he's lost all his cash against the much more sophisticated French players – and barely survived through the various oddjobs he took, until he met Swain, and was cast as the card manipulator, Twisted Fate.

He was the third member to have joined the Black Rose; there was Evelynn, who was LeBlanc's predecessor, who played the role of the invisible seductress, and who was Twisted Fate's lover, until her feisty temper got the better of her during a confrontation with police.

They continue practising the card game while Lulu is doing something with Heimerdinger – she is turning the thrown hoops into doves who poop out rainbows of skittles, and commanding the doves to fly in formation so that it looks pleasing to see, and some audience members could reach out for the skittles.

By the ladders, LeBlanc seems to be doing a slow box dance with her staff, her eyes seemingly entranced with her staff's crystals, and her reflection in them.

"I think LeBlanc's taking quite a liking for you," Twisted Fate mentions, upon which, Renton spews out his Sprite drink, and starts blushing very red.

"I.." Renton decides to feign innocence here. "Why?"

"Because. Ever since you jumped on board, I've seen her smile more, and whenever she thinks anyone isn't looking her way, she gushes in private. Usually, she is quite serious. I've never seen her like that, except maybe once or twice long ago, in an affair with Swain."

It is a thought that wraps up Renton's head – imagining her kissing passionately with the bald Swain. The seductiveness he's seen from her, and she'd once shared it with him..

"Seems like I've caught you in a doozy," Twisted Fate goes, smirkng. "Well, how about let's get back to our skit; you're thinking of fudging the deck in your favour.."

/

The owner of the MGM Grand, David Bateson – he is a spry man of age 78, and thanks to his diet of vegetables, multi-vitamin pills and daily exercise, is able to hobble along on his new titanium walking stick like he's 30 years old. He's told his friends in his past that a rich lifestyle is nothing if you cannot live healthily too, and now his friends are eating his words at the nursing homes.

Here is David's daily routine: get up at 7, write a journal entry of his dreams, eat fish and high-protein vegetable bars, do a strenuous workout at the gym, and return up to the penthouse floor to catch up on social media while eating lunch, with maybe an old classic movie or two afterward.

While the others of the Black Rose are practising, Swain has caught David just after he has taken a shower from the workout sweatiness – there is not a wrinkle to be seen on David's face, what a miracle!

"M. Bateson?" Swain goes, getting his attention. "I'm Jericho Swain – I'll be performing as the Black Rose this Friday?"

"Ohh! Swain!" David is gleeing.

"I'd prefer if we'd keep the conversation down," Swain goes, almost in a whisper. "We operate under a low profile when we're not performing, and I'd like to keep it that way."

"Oh, sure. What can I do for you? Are the staff treating you well?"

Swain thinks of something to get closer to him. "Yes, they are treating everyone exquisitely-"

"Ooh! Exquisitely! I always like to hear that-!"

"What I'd like is if you can show me around your grand hotel – I always enjoy getting acquainted with the place I'm going to be performing in."

David takes off the sweatband from his head. "I've got to prepare myself for the afternoon first – but you are absolutely welcome to join me for a cup of tea, up in the penthouse."

So David takes Swain up to the elevators, greeting everyone along the way.

You seem like a nice old man, Swain thinks, glancing at David's new titanium walking stick. It is too bad I will have to unceremoniously part you with your treasured old 'stick.' As you'll mourn about it, you'll never know of its true significance.

/

Up on the penthouse floor, David Bateson's dog can be heard barking all the way down the hall.

"What is with that dog..?" Viktor goes, dusting the hanging portraits of David and his collegue on the wall. He's had a pleasant time dusting while Singed is doing some kitchen cooking ("Spicy Indian, anyone?"), and what on earth is Rumble thinking, making a show of himself with the ladies as a valet?

Then Viktor sees David and-

It's Swain!

Even though he is animatronic beneath his human-form disguise, Viktor still tenses up with Swain's presence, fearing for a second that Swain could see through it.

"Carry on, good sir!" David tells the young-looking lad. "Those portraits look dazzling!"

If Viktor could sigh a breath of relief, he'd be doing so. But more importantly, he could find up what Swain is up to, so Viktor hurriedly finishes up the dusting and follows the two into Bateson's personal chambers, where David's dog (Benny) leaps up onto his master, licking his face and giving David a light-hearted chuckle.

Then Benny turns towards Viktor behind them, and starts to bark angrily in his direction – something doesn't smell right about that one.

"Ohh, Benny..! It's just visitors.." David tries coaxing Benny to calmness, and finally, he carries the dog over to a playpen, where Benny's apprehension goes ignored – a resigned whine.

David Bateson's room is the intersection of the MGM Grand's plus shape; a four-pronged crossroads, where David can enjoy the bird's eye view over the lots, and the Las Vegas cityscape – at night, if you have the lights off in the room, you can enjoy staring out at all the artificial awe of the citylights, snuggling with someone beside you.

But nearing the afternoon, the room maintains a business-like tone – it resembles the post-postmodern office room of the current business world, mixed in with the comforts of a luxury home.

"I'm sorry about the mess.." David is gathering up the pile of papers on his desk. "I was busy all week getting the upcoming auction affair sorted out. My walking stick here, one of the salesmen in Texas Astronautics Sciences was a tad too convincing for my taste. Ergonomics.. it's better for my walking posture, so I'm afraid I'm going to be parting with my old stick, since 1958.

"I was born with Polio, and the doctors thought I'd never get to walk in my lifetime. Then my parents took me to see a Chinese mystic, and with acupuncture and herbal medicine, I was able to walk with my own two legs – but not entirely well. So I have this gait.. and I was friends with this nice, absent-minded professor of Egyptology, who gave me the stick that supported me up to this year, on concrete, linoleum, dirt, carpet.."

David tucks the legal paperwork away in a folder. "It's funny, how you bond with an object. You attach all these feelings.. all these fond memories with it over the times."

Swain glances at the folder, while David hobbles over to the stove, and prepares a cooked salad of salmon, beets, onions and pistachios over some Bibb lettuce for himself.

"If you're getting hungry," David Bateson goes, "I can call up my personal room service for you two – I imagine you aren't vegetarian like I am."

"I've already eaten my lunch," Viktor says flatly (he doesn't eat).

"Um, I'll have marinated chicken with soup," Swain goes, and David gives the order through his phone, before serving himself the sizzling salad on a plate and eats the dish by his desk, knife and fork.

The dog is playing with a ball, punting it along the playpen's walls – but really, he's trying to slam the ball into Viktor, whose eeriely metallic scent he strongly dislikes.

/

The aftermath of the meeting is where Viktor is leaning against the hallway walls, seeing David and Swain trail off into the elevators. He is apparently frozen, still mentally processing the revelations that took place as the salad disappeared from David's plate, bite by bite.

Swain seems awfully interested in David's old walking stick, and it is very clear that whatever significance the stick has to Swain, it is something pivotal for the Black Rose.

It's going to be stolen around the auction. Maybe that's why the Black Rose are performing here.

The one thing Viktor has always felt resentful about is how his own Team ROCHAT seems to be left in the dark, while he sees other groups make major headway, stumbling upon the strands of a grand web that looms and affects everyone. The Du Corteaus of Corsica were the prime instigators of the Great Magician's War, and the Freljord Clan exploited their proximity to the North Pole, controlling one of the last few reserves of Emperium-laden land.

In general, how it seems none of Team ROCHAT have struck upon the same kind of massively-affecting success the other groups seem to stumble upon; despite being the pride of Quebec, they would be doomed to being second-rate in comparison with everyone else. With the likes of the Black Rose.

But, perhaps that is all about to change.

The tactic being employed right now is beating the Black Rose to the punch of what they desire, putting themselves into a position where they can make demands to be let in whatever Next Big Thing is taking place.

And the fact that this David Bateson said his 'walking stick' came from an Egyptologist..

Viktor is recalling vague mentions of a long lost Egyptian artefact. The Staff of Ra, which is said to be instrumental to an ancient ritual, relating with the legendary isle of Avalon – it's rumoured to be the origin of all magic on Earth.

Could it be.. the Black Rose believes the Avalon isle is real? It's currently believed to be hogwash by many other groups, but then again, many people believed the Earth had been flat, long ago.

Viktor begins to smile; he's not about to let this golden opportunity slip away. Not while he can help it. He whispers into the earpieces of Team ROCHAT: "I know what the Black Rose is up to. It's something massive – we discuss this during our mutual break times this afternoon.."

The dog is heard growling from the distance, as one of David's maids is tending to it.

/

At Winkies (a fast food diner), the little girl Annie is munching down on a quarterpounder cheese sandwich, pretending to feed some pieces to her stuffed bear Tibbers – "Yum yum! You'll grow big and strong with beef!"

Her much older guardian, Brand, he is intently focused on his phone, sipping some iced tea one second, then the next second, reading the article about the recently stolen egg from Vancouver; how the police had seemingly lost the trail of the 'professional thieves' to a destroyed white van, and arriving on the scene is Bezu Fache, an Interpol investigator who insists there's a correlation between the inexplicible crime and the presence of the Black Rose in the city.

"Tell Mr Tibbers to pipe it down," Brand says, his voice gruff. (He looks like the kind of scruffy vagrant who has been hitchhiking the numerous highways of America.) "Trying to read something important." He has a near-photographic memory when it comes to reading news, but he needs the concentration, and that can't happen when Annie is loudly involved in a play session-

"Tibbers want you to say please," Annie goes, making her bear's arms crossed from rudeness.

".. please."

"Oh c'mon! You didn't mean it! Now you have to say pretty please!"

"Pretty please."

"See?" Annie munches off on her sandwich. "The power of being polite can take you anywhere!"

"Now pretty please, with a cherry on top, shut up and let me finish reading Annie."

Annie gives her caretaker a raspberry. "You're no fun sometimes."

Despite the rough bumps like these, Brand and Annie have a strong bond (her Tibbers included too), inseparable in their performing travels together (except when they use the washroom) – more devoted to each other than a brother and sister, more faithful than a husband and wife. Because of the deeply ingrained feeling that they're all they have in the world.

Together, with their pyromancy, they are the Infernal Inferi; their public appearances sporadic – primarily to replenish their funds from the willing donations of their gathered audiences.

And together, they embark on the search for Avalon also, for the meaning behind their magic. Why, you might ask? It is like the grand question that comes to us Muggles, of the deeper meaning behind our existances – why are we the only ones alive and intelligent in the world.. in space? Where Science cannot adequately answer that question beyond the facts and theories, Religion seeks to provide us with the spiritual answers, sent from God and His divine prophets.

And likewise, the isle of Avalon is a symbol of hope for the true meaning behind their magic. From Avalon, one could derive true power, or better yet, discover the next step for all Magicians alike.

Brand is still reading through the article.

Bezu Fache, the French Interpol agent – he has been a long-time investigator of magicians; specifically, how crime seems to occur around them wherever they visit – and if you tell Fache it's just coincidence, he'll likely fly into a fit in your face, and give you an extensive rebuttal of murders, thefts and other acts of capery; not minor crimes, mind you, but major ones. Influential figures who get poisoned, or suffer 'accidents,' because their agendas happen to stand in the way of a magician group.

Etc.

The trend has been continuing on to this day, and Fache has fought against Interpol's internal affairs division, in order to keep his investigations going – to prove that his efforts are not just chasing after mere conspiratorial fancies, but to bring to a definitive light the malice of Magician-kind.

"Once I do catch them in the act," Fache comments, "the world should not be thanking me; it should already have been obvious to those who do pay attention to things."

An unrelated news article mentions the disappearance of a boy named Renton Thurston.

"This Bezu Fache might prove to be a problem," Brand goes, putting away his phone and finishing up his fries.

"If he comes our way, we'll blast him into ashes!" Annie spurts. "Isn't that right, Tibbers? - Oh yes yes, Fache is Ash!" Tibbers nods.

"No, we aren't allowed to do that. Actually, he'll be on the Black Rose's trail, and bam, if he does catch anything, we'll be long gone with the staff."

The two have coincidentally stumbled upon David Bateson's possession of the artefact, and they've arrived with only two days to spare before its auction.

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