There were some situations that caused time to seemingly slow down, where everything but the one who experienced it nearly stopped. For Bartholomew Lash the Third, this was one of those times.
He found the strength to pick up the Huntress and carry her away. It was kind of creepy to see how the bullets actually moved through the air slowly, or how everything was muted. He placed the Huntress down in an alley a good distance away, and everything went back to normal.
“What the hell just happened?” the Huntress asked. Not even a minute ago was she looking down the barrels of automatic weapons.
“I did. And I didn’t have to,” said the Maverick. “I can’t show my face now in Little Russia. You know how many games I’ll miss?” He was quite upset.
The Huntress was still seeing twins, courtesy of Boris. Thus there was little she could do to stop the Maverick from walking off.
Well, she did curse him, and she was going to redouble her efforts to catch him, a criminal who had saved her, the daughter of the Bat. That was almost unforgivable.
The Maverick wasn’t really concerned with all this by the time he returned to his hotel room. He always fell for a pretty face, young or old. No, what he was concerned with was his skill with a needle.
The Huntress had put a hole in a thousand-dollar suit jacket and a three hundred dollar shirt, and his favorite one at that.
But he couldn’t hold it against her. A pretty face, young or old, tended to do that to him.
Helena Wayne wondered how she looked sitting in the library, reading a book on card playing.
“That’s a very good book; I highly recommend it.” Helena looked over the top of the book and saw him — Bat Lash — dressed up in that ridiculous outfit of his.
“That’s what the librarian said. I decided that I needed a hobby.” In actuality, she had decided she needed to understand the Maverick better.
“Well, if you want to learn, I’m happy to teach you,” Bat said, sitting down and taking out a deck of cards, “right now, in fact.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I insist.” Bat then quickly shuffled the deck seven times. “Now, this game is five card poker. I like to call it aces and eights. Those cards are wild, you see. And it’s full double drop. You can give up to five cards, twice.” Bat dealt the cards.
“Well, then, you know the hands?”
“As told by Hoyle.”
“Perfect. So, how many cards do you take?”
“And I take two. You want more?”
“Now comes the hard part. Poker is five percent luck, five percent skill, and ninety percent psycho-mentallagy. Or, that’s what Granddaddy said,” Bat said with a grin. He then placed his card face down on the table. Helena raised an eyebrow to that.
“All part of the bluff,” was Bat’s reply.
And the lesson continued for a few hours. As the two played, Bat made jokes about himself and told some stories, while Helena told him about herself, what she did and who she was. The lesson ended only when the library kicked them out at closing.
“I really enjoyed this. And, I’d like to do it again. If you’d like,” Bat said, walking alongside Helena.
“Mr. Lash, are you asking me out on a date?”
“Why, Ms. Wayne, I surely am.”
“I’d be delighted to.” It wasn’t that much of a lie. The rogue was starting to grow on her, if just a little. And she had enjoyed the last few hours, all things considered.
“Meet me here, then, tomorrow night. I’ll buy you the best dinner in town.”
“I’ll be here then.”
“So, Bat, where are you taking me?” It had been two weeks or so since that meeting in the library, and the two had gone on a few dates. This would be one of them, actually. Helena Wayne was wearing a red dress that matched nicely with Bat Lash’s suit. Of course, she had also hidden her Huntress costume in the clothing, just in case.
“Somewhere special,” Bat said. The two were in the nicer part of town and came up to a rather ritzy hotel. After some time, they entered a room.
Helena was shocked at what she saw. Ten tables that could each seat five people were set up. There had to be at least seventy people in the room.
“Now that the final player has arrived, let the Derby begin!” The speaker was an older gentleman. With that, people took their seats.
It took some time, but Helena finally recognized what the man said and remembered something from long ago. For school, she’d had to do a paper on the urban legends of Gotham City. She had chosen the Derby, a poker tournament dating back to the Civil War. She got a C-plus on it.
And the night wore on. Money changed hands on the draw of a card. People of all cultures and walks of life played. Ten tables went down to five, and five became one. Before the round was to start, Helena was able to talk to Bat.
“You didn’t tell me this was where you’d take me!” Helena whispered, almost a hiss. But this was not what she’d planned. She had just stumbled onto the largest and longest running illegal activity in Gotham. It was quite a shock.
“Don’t worry ‘Lena. We aren’t doing anything too illegal,” Bat replied. “Besides, I’m in the lead, and I got you on my side.”
“A few lessons in the library and a few dates doesn’t place me on your side, Bat.”
“You came with me, didn’t you? And don’t worry, ‘Lena. What’s the worst that can happen?”
As if to contradict him, a noise erupted from outside. Soon after, several men came in — several well-armed men, and one other.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Steven Sharpe, and I am disappointed that I wasn’t invited.” This man was dressed similar to Bat, though his choice of color was bright, and he wore a slouch hat. He also had white hair and a goatee.
This was a villain known to have fought Green Lantern. This was a villain known to have been a member of the Injustice Society of the World. This was the Gambler.
“The Gambler.” Bat shifted into his Maverick personality, which was just like himself, but much more steely.
“The Maverick. Fancy seeing you here,” the Gambler replied.
“Looking pretty good for a crazy vagrant wandering Las Vegas.”
“No thanks to you.” The Gambler’s voice was pure venom.
“Had I known that your psyche would snap like a fragile twig, I would have lost. Question: Have you been spending the last year and a half tracking me down?” the Maverick asked.
“Only the last three months. Took me some time to regain my sanity — a long, hard time to regain my sanity.”
One year ago:
“Oooffmph!” The wind escaped from the old man’s lungs as he was thrown out the door by two burly casino security men, and he fell to the sidewalk, down onto his hands and knees.
“And stay out!” one of the bouncers called before the door shut.
“I’ll be back!” the old man shouted as he shook his fist defiantly at the door. “Just you wait and see.” Stephen Sharpe rose to his feet and dusted himself off, then began to stomp away.
A few steps down the sidewalk, he turned angrily and watched as they let in some skinny kid with sunglasses and his little girlfriend, but not him, the Gambler. Rage began to build again as he thought about how those ruffians at the casino had tossed him out — him, the Gambler. Finally, he exploded.
“You buffoons! I am the Gambler! I will have my games!” the Gambler yelled, shaking his fist at the building. But it was no use. In angry resignation, he stuck his hands in his pockets and walked away. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: Stretch O’Brien: Weekend in Vegas, Chapter 1: High Rollers.]
“I’m the Gambler, the Gambler.” Of course, that’s all he knew about himself, that he was called the Gambler. Everything else was like a treasure locked in a vault. He knew it was there, just not what it was, or how to get it.
Several months later found a deeply disturbed man calling himself the Gambler in the Las Vegas Homeless Shelter.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” The voice was everywhere, and judging by the acoustics, seemed to originate somewhere from inside the Gambler’s head.
“Who’s there? Show yourself!” The Gambler tried to hide his emotions, but wasn’t doing so well.
“You are, you twit.” With that, someone looking like the Gambler appeared, though he was more calm and controlled, and better dressed. “Or at least the part of you that was banished to the far corners of our mind.”
“Just take my hand, and all should be revealed.” The Gambler did so, albeit reluctantly. His ghostly self vanished as soon as he did.
“Maverick…” For the first time in a long time, Steven Sharpe spoke.
“An old ally of mine, William Zard, speculated what had happened,” continued the Gambler as he finished his story. “When my personality was banished into my subconscious, my strong will to win would not let that be my fate. Under similar circumstances, the same would probably happen to Lawrence Crock.”
“Nice to know that you boys are so insane that you don’t stay crazy,” said the Maverick. “Now, we gonna settle this as they did in the period of our dress or in the way of our profession?”
“Neither. I invoke a gambler’s duel!” There was a gasp from nearly everyone in the room.
“A gambler’s duel? One hasn’t been invoked in nearly a hundred years, and that was to end the Great Guild Wars!” The man who spoke was known as the Dealer, a title held by the organizer of the Derby.
“I accept, as a member of the Dame Fortune Society.” The Maverick was unfazed by this show of bravado from the Gambler, as a smug grin formed on his lips.
“Dame Fortune, hmmm? Heh. I’ll crush you. I’m a Jack in the House of Cards,” the Gambler replied with a chuckle.
To Helena Wayne, an observer, this was a bunch of gibberish. The Dealer noticed this and approached her.
“I take that you are not a true follower of Hoyle?” the Dealer asked. Helena shook her head. “It’s complicated to explain to a non-gamester, but I’ll try. The gambler’s duel is the single most stressful poker game ever developed. The players put everything at stake — their honor, their fortunes, their reputation. Sometimes their life. And, in the odd circumstance, sometimes their soul. The founder of the Dame Fortune Society, Enoch Shaw, last used it to end the Great Guild Wars. Hasn’t been used since, the risks being too great.
“Right now, they’re staring each other down for that single hand. This could take a while, so I suggest that you take a seat, ma’am.” The Dealer looked around, but she was nowhere in sight. “Madame? Where’d she go? She was here just a moment ago.”
Helena had snuck off while the Dealer was talking. She understood what was going to happen, and she couldn’t allow that to happen. Also, from what she knew about the Gambler, Bat was going to need all the help he could get.
The Gambler and the Maverick had been bluffing each other for the last half-hour. They went through complex, almost ritualistic motions, as if, at one point, there was magic involved in them, but it had died out long ago. And the steely glares that they gave each other, if focused through glass, would give Superman’s heat-vision a run for its money. Until, finally…
“I call.” The voice of the Gambler could be heard in every corner of the room. His hand was a four pair, kings.
Dejectedly, the Maverick laid down his hand: aces over eights.
“How appropriate. The Dead Man’s Hand,” the Gambler said, his Derringer in hand. Just as he pulled the trigger, a blunt crossbow bolt hit his hand.
The Maverick was still hit, and the shock caused him to revert back to Bat Lash. But it was in his side, not his gut.
And the Huntress made herself known, as did the cards the Gambler had up his sleeve.
Si potes vincere. Perdere si debes. Sed semper decipiat. This was roughly translated as, “Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat!” The great gambler Gregori Krimevich, the founder of the House of Cards, was said to have said that at least once in his life. And that set off the Dealer.
“That… that is a direct violation to every rule we hold sacred! You, Steven Sharpe, have no honor!” With that being said, the gamesters, men and women, all drew their fifth ace. For some it was a Derringer, a small-caliber pistol. For others, it was a large knife, such as a Bowie or a Dirk. And there were those few that carried a belly gun, a revolver that had all but the last quarter-inch of the barrel sawed off. And they took on the Gambler’s goons.
The Huntress noticed that both the Gambler and Bat Lash were gone. But there was, unfortunately, a trail of blood for her to follow. When she came to where the trail ended, she found Bat Lash clutching his side and firing into the shadows.
“I lost him,” Bat said, lowering his belly gun.
“We need to get you to a hospital; that wound looks serious,” the Huntress said.
“Oh? Isn’t catching the Gambler more important?” Bat asked. The Huntress — no, Helena — bit her lip as she shook her head.
“As much as it pains me to admit this, no. Right now, nothing is more important,” she replied. Bat walked up to her and leaned against the heroine.
“And you said you weren’t on my side. Heh.” Helena was too shocked to reply, but she was going to inquire later. Right now, there were more important things to do, such as helping Bat get to a hospital.
And in the back room, the Gambler’s goons were unconscious and trussed up, ready for the cops.
Otherwise, there was no obvious signs that the Derby had even been there, save for a single daisy.