Author's Note: The opening sequence was liberally stolen from Uncanny X-Men #267, Gambit's second full appearance. This story takes place during #267; Storm has been de-aged by Nanny and is being pursued by The Shadow King.
The title, Suivez la Piste, is also stolen from a French play by Emile de Harven. It's a detective-type story, and the audio version of it is really quite (unintentionally) hilarious. Loosely translated, it means: Follow the Trail. The word 'piste' can also refer to an airport runway, a lead or clue, or a person's tracks.
This story is an answer to the Writing Challenge on the Gambit Guild Message Board: It's full of great people!
Ororo's heart raced in panic as the menacing shadow of The Orphan Maker fell over her cowering form. "You cannot escape!" the armor-clad figure bellowed, his voice echoing eerily. "You cannot deny your destiny!"
Ororo began to run, her young legs pumping frantically in an effort to escape. But The Orphan Maker was faster. His hands were upon her, squeezing her into immobility.
"Got you!" he shouted as Ororo cried out in fear. "Is it so awful a thing, my pet...to join The Orphan Maker in Nanny's crusade to save imperiled young mutants---like yourself---the world over?"
The young mutant, her elemental powers not fully realized, found it was useless to fight. It would be easier to give up, relent to those who pursued her so tirelessly.
Resigned to defeat, Ororo sagged in The Orphan Maker's grip. Tears ran down her face. She was brought 'round by a voice sounding in the distance: "Chère...you okay?"
The nightmare shattered as suddenly as it had begun. Ororo awoke to find herself in an unfamiliar place, with the familiar feel of her dagger in her hand. Someone was nearby, she felt the weight of his gaze upon her. With the fear of her dream still fresh in her mind, Ororo flung the blade with a scream that tore her voice raw. A flash of adrenaline, and Ororo realized her mistake too late. For the shadowed figure in the doorway is not The Orphan Maker, but her friend and rescuer, Gambit.
Ororo began to shout a warning that she knew would come too late. But Gambit was quicker. With superhuman reflexes, he snatched the flying blade from the air an instant before it could strike him in the throat. Ororo slumped with relief into the bed and sent a few loose goose feathers flying.
"Gambit!" she gasped, while rubbing her breastbone as if to ease her racing heart. "I am so sorry!"
His response was a wry smirk. "Have y'grown tired of this Cajun's company all ready? Or is something eatin' atcha, girl?"
"It was only a nightmare," Ororo replied.
"'Only' a nightmare? Hate to see something serious."
"Everybody wants me, Gambit," Ororo replied as Gambit approached. She was of course referring to the Shadow King, his lackeys the Hounds, as well as Nanny and her sycophant: The Orphan Maker. Ororo noticed Gambit was carrying several bags with brand-name labels printed on the sides. He set them at the foot of her bed.
"C'est vrai, chère," he replied as he sat on the corner of her bed. His expression was sympathetic.
"Why can they not simply leave me alone? I just want to live my life." Ororo leaned forward, curious to see the bags' contents.
"Don't we all," he replied, his mouth a grim line.
"Is it so much to ask?" Ororo sighed.
"In your case," Gambit answered, "you have value, Storm. 'Cause of who you are, what you can do. And you have enemies. Hard place to be. Harder road to walk. Survive both better, I bet, on a full stomach. Got'cha some new frocks, so you get changed, we go eat, figure some next moves."
Gambit pulled one of the aforementioned frocks from the bag with a proud smile. Ororo grimaced. "What is that?"
"A dress! What does it look like to you?" Gambit said, holding the printed garment out to his young charge.
"It looks like a frilly pink nightmare!" Ororo exclaimed with exasperation.
"Far be it from me to be givin' you more nightmares," Gambit replied, tossing the dress at her. "But I can't be lettin' you run about in rags. B'sides, girls oughta dress up purty."
Ororo seized the bags from the floor and began to riffle through the contents, finding nothing but more sweet printed dresses, shirts and pants. "I think the time you have spent philandering has skewed your perception of what a girl should look like!"
"You want a skewed perception, y'oughta see my wi---I---agh! Ahem!" Gambit began to cough spasmodically.
"Your what?" Ororo asked, pausing her search through the clothes to look at Gambit. Her eyebrows crept up her forehead.
"Nothin'," Gambit replied, standing up and toeing a shoebox across the floor toward Ororo.
"It sounded as if you were about to say: 'your wife,'" Ororo pressed. Had Gambit almost given something away? He never talked about himself; he'd not even given her his real name. Ororo grinned wolfishly.
Gambit huffed and turned away. "You heard wrong! I think you still dreaming, p'tite. Now get dressed!"
Ororo picked up the shoebox and lifted the lid. A pair of shiny new penny loafers sat nestled in the tissue paper. With a cry of disgust, she flung the offending footwear in Gambit's direction. Apparently he was frazzled, because this time he failed to catch the flying objects. Pennies pinged in two different directions as the loafers bounced off the back of Gambit's head.
Lunch in the Vieux Carré was a long and relaxing affair. Ororo found herself graciously waited upon by a doting woman named Madame Camille, who dished out more food than Ororo thought she could have eaten in a week. While Camille was kind and affectionate with Ororo, she was stern and disapproving with Gambit. Gambit seemed to take her attitude toward him in stride, acting like an abashed child when she rapped him on the head with her ladle. Their familiarity gave Ororo the definite impression that the two had a history. Ororo wondered how a thief such as Gambit could be connected to a woman who told fortunes for a living.
"So, have you got any work for me, Camille?" Gambit asked as he leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms over his head.
"Y'ain't even gonna let the girl digest her meal b'fore you go straight on t'business?" Madame Camille crossed her heavy arms over her large bosom. She held her ladle in her hand like a saber.
"Y'know me," Gambit replied. "I like to mix business with pleasure."
Camille glanced at him sidelong, but eventually relented. "Well, it just so happens, I've got something that's right up your alley."
"I knew you wouldn't let me down, Camille," Gambit said with a cheeky grin.
Camille then glanced at Ororo, who was enthusiastically scraping up the rum sauce from the remains of her bread pudding. "Are y'sure y'wanna include the girl in this?" Camille asked.
Ororo put her spoon in her mouth, looking up at Gambit through her eyebrows. He smiled at her and replied: "This girl ain't as innocent as she looks." Ororo grinned around the spoon.
Madame Camille gave the girl a reevaluating look. "Well, when you're ready, join me in the back." She waved them behind a drawn curtain with her ladle.
Ororo was astonished to see that Madame Camille's fortune-telling parlor was actually a front for a more lucrative intelligence and computer hacking business. The back room was crammed with surveillance monitors and audio recording equipment. The equipment was manned by a young woman not much older than Ororo. The young, curly haired girl spun her chair to face them as they entered.
"Gambit!" the girl's face was radiant when her eyes fixed upon Gambit's lanky form.
"'Lo, there Ginny," Gambit replied, as he tucked his large sunglasses into an inside pocket in his trench coat. "I see you're takin' after your momma."
Ginny grinned and pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged in the office chair. "Are you gonna take the Gervaise job?" she asked.
Gambit looked over to Madame Camille, who nodded at her daughter. "Why don't you pull out the file, girl."
Ginny half-turned to her desk before spotting Ororo. "Who's this?" she asked, nodding at Ororo.
"I---I am Gambit's apprentice," Ororo answered, choosing to play her cards close the vest, much like Gambit himself.
Ginny's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "I didn't know you were taking apprentices, Gambit," Ginny said sullenly. "If y'were, why didn't you ask me?"
"And have your mother skin me alive?" Gambit said. "I think not."
"Y'brinin' this young thing into the business?" Camille asked Gambit. "Shame on you!"
"Ah, Camille, leave off. Y'ain't my mother."
"No, but I know your mother, and if she knew what you've been up to---."
Gambit cut her off with a wave. "How's an orphan o' the streets end up with not one naggin' momma, but two?" he grumbled to himself.
"You were an orphan?" Ororo asked, curious.
Gambit grabbed the brim of Ororo's sunhat and pulled it down over her eyes. "Hush up, now."
Ororo righted her hat and looked up to study Gambit's profile. He was an orphan too, just like her. Inwardly, Ororo smiled. Ginny shot her a dirty look.
"What's this about the Gervaise job?" Gambit asked.
Ginny pulled out a file and handed it to Gambit.
"Marc Gervaise," said Madame Camille, her voice all business. "A con artist who specializes in swindling women-of-a-certain-age out of their money." Gambit flipped through the glossy eight by ten photos. Each featured a handsome man with an even tan and salt and pepper hair. He had a timeless face that could have passed for anywhere between late-twenties to mid-forties. Camille continued: "He's been around awhile, usually going after sad women in bad marriages. Small time, really. Ten, maybe fifteen grand a con. But I guess our boy set his sights on a bigger prize."
One of the photos featured a woman in her late-forties. Her face had strong bone structure and smooth, almost ruddy cheeks. Her blond hair was coiffed in the traditional and nondescript way of a politician's wife, which in fact, she was. She had rather large diamond studs in her ears, and a tasteful but impressive strand of cultured pearls around her neck.
"I recognize her," Gambit said.
"Y'should. She's the former senator's wife," Camille said. "We keep tabs on all our elected officials, just to make sure things stay on the up-and-up."
"And if you should have to blackmail them along the way..." Gambit said, a wry smile twisting his mouth.
Camille returned Gambit's smile. "Lucky we were keepin' an eye on her," Camille nodded toward the photo of the senator's wife. "Our Gervaise has been nosing around the senator's mansion for months now, with his pretty promises and fake charm. His patience is about to pay off."
As if on cue, Ginny provided a print-out of a bank statement. She passed the paper directly to Gambit, though Ororo was standing much closer. Ororo caught a glimpse of the numbers as the statement passed by her nose. Those were some big numbers.
"Quite a few withdrawals," Gambit said after perusing the statement. "Wouldn't her husband notice?"
"He would," Camille began, "if he knew what he was lookin' for. Y'see, Madame Senator has a penchant for all things sparkley."
Gambit handed the photographs to Ororo. It was true, the senator's wife was never without several rings, earrings, necklaces or bracelets. The effect would have been overdone on a less impressive woman. But coupled with her pristine Chanel suits, the woman looked smart and put together. A perfect front for her obviously troubled marriage.
"One of our contacts, a bid coordinator in New York, informed us that she's recently purchased this through Christie's," Camille said, pointing to a page from an auction catalog within the photograph file. Pictured was a beautiful strand of gradated jadeite beads. The strand ended with a ten carat pear-shaped yellow diamond pendant. Christie's listed the starting bid at $800,000. Ororo and Gambit shared a grin.
"We believe that Gervaise intercepted the delivery of the necklace," Camille said. "Madame Senator trusted him t'pick it up."
Ororo looked at the last photograph in the pile. Marc Gervaise was exiting a well-known jeweler's shop, a silver attaché case in his hand. "If Gervaise follows his usual M.O.," Camille continued, "he'll be skippin' town, and soon. We're keepin' an eye out for any one-way trips booked from the city. Luckily, Gervaise uses a regular set of aliases."
"Happy t'take our charmer down a peg or two," Gambit said.
"I'll be expectin' my usual cut," Camille said, once more crossing her arms.
"Mais oui," Gambit said with a courtly bow in Camille's direction.
"And I, as well," Ororo said.
Gambit glanced at the girl. "Y'think so, d'you? Chère, this job is a bit more hands-on than your usual snatch an' grab. It's a far cry from pickin' pockets."
Ororo put her hands on her non-existent hips. Her chin lifted, her expression was one of regal entitlement. "I am capable," she said.
Gambit playfully pinched her chin between his forefinger and thumb. The girl's seriousness delighted him. "Tell y'what. You help me make this pinch, you and I, we take this show on the road. It'll be a partnership, even fifty-fifty. If not..."
"You need not state the alternative. I will not fail." Ororo thrust out her hand, and Gambit took it. "I look forward to our continued partnership."
Gambit was idly twirling his bo staff, driving Ororo to distraction. She looked up from her work to give him a quelling glare.
"Would you mind doing that elsewhere?" she asked.
"There'll be plenty more distraction while you're on the job," Gambit told her, tapping the attaché case Ororo held in her lap with the staff. "How's it coming?"
Ororo had been practicing picking the locks on a silver attaché case; a twin to the one Gervaise had been carrying in the photo. Under Gambit's direction, she was learning to pick the case's double locks. Her best time had been five minutes, which was still too long for what she needed to do.
There was a knock on the French doors leading to the small apartment Gambit and Ororo shared. Gambit peered through the slats in the door before opening it. Madame Camille's daughter Ginny stood on the doorstep.
"Entrez-vous, Genevieve," Gambit said, waving her in.
"No need to be so formal with me," Ginny simpered at him. Her dark eyes took in the apartment, which was sparsely furnished, but with quality pieces. Golden sunlight fell in stripes through the plantation shutters. Ororo spared Ginny a glance before returning to her work with the case, but kept watch over Ginny in her peripheral vision.
"You have some info for me, chère?" Gambit asked, barring Ginny's way before she could make herself too comfortable.
Ginny nodded. "Gervaise has booked a flight to LAX. One-way and first class, of course." From her back pocket, Ginny produced a plastic card which she handed to Gambit. "This should get you past airport security."
Gambit looked at the identification card: "Gary Stue?" he asked. "What kinda name is that?"
"The forgettable, generic kind," Ginny said.
"Chouette! It's just what I needed to complete my lovely ensemble," Gambit said, as he walked to a canvas bag sitting on a nearby chair. From the sack, he pulled a drab worker's uniform. "What d'you think?" he asked Ororo. "Slimming, non?"
Ororo took in the ugly uniform. "Where did you get that?"
"From an out-going laundry truck," Gambit replied.
"That is all very well, but I can hardly pass as a maintenance worker myself."
"No, chèrie. That y'won't. But I got other plans for you."
Ororo looked at him, curious. "Oh?"
"So, why don't you go and find your prettiest dress, neh?" Gambit continued. "And don't forget the shoes.
Ororo watched the ebb and flow of people from her seat inside Louis Armstrong International Airport. She waited until the line at the security gate had grown particularly long before making her move. Hefting her pink bookbag onto her shoulder, she walked to the gate. An older guard, his curly hair gray at the temples, looked as if he'd be the most sympathetic; nearing retirement and likely to have grand-daughters near Ororo's age.
Ororo hopped up and down in an effort to see through the milling crowd and past the security gate.
"Momma!" she called, waving a hand. She was looking beyond security to an unknown woman several boarding gates down the terminal. "Momma! Momma!"
Sure enough, the guard turned to look at Ororo. His expression was one of kindly concern. "Enh, now chèrie," he said. "What's th'matter?"
Ororo turned to the guard, mustering a glaze of tears in her large blue eyes. "My momma," Ororo said, trying to make her lip tremble. "She's goin' on a trip. I just wanna...wanna say goodbye one more time!"
"Now, now," the guard said as he stood from his stool. "Why don't you just pass through this way," he unhooked the belt from the post which cordoned off the security gate. "D'ya see your momma?"
Ororo made a show of searching the terminal. "Oh, there she is!" Ororo said, pointing to a woman in the distance who was in line to board the flight to Los Angeles.
The guard smiled at the charming little girl, so cute in her yellow sun dress and straw hat. "You run and catch up wit' her."
Ororo grinned at the guard. "Thank you, mis'eu!" she said breathlessly before running off, her backpack banging against her back. "Eat your heart out, Gambit," Ororo thought. He wasn't the only charming thief in the city now. She ran to gate, weaving in and out of the throng. At the front of the line to the flight to LAX, she found a harried flight attendant who was taking boarding passes.
Ororo tried to dash past the woman, but the flight attendant forestalled Ororo with an outstretched arm. "I'll need your boarding pass, sweetheart," she said, not unkindly.
"I do not have one," Ororo replied. "I am just going to say goodbye to my mother, before she leaves. The guard said it was okay." Ororo turned back to the security gate and waved at the guard, who waved back with a smile. Ororo turned hopefully to the stewardess.
The woman smiled tiredly, and nodded her head. "Well, all right. But hurry, we're beginning final boarding now."
Ororo smiled and dashed up the gangway, much to the disgruntlement of the waiting passengers in the line behind her. Ororo had spotted Marc Gervaise amongst those in line, loitering in the back. He had been carrying the silver attaché case. A second stewardess stood at the end of the gangway leading to the open plane door. She greeted passengers as they boarded.
"Traveling alone, dear?" she asked as Ororo came to a halt.
Ororo nodded, and affirmed she could find her own seat. The gangway was stuffy with the heat coming off of the tarmac below. Through the plastic window in the gangway, she could see the airport crew loading bags onto the plane. Gambit would be amongst the crew, ensuring that Gervaise's stowed bags were "lost" in transit. There was a pile of larger bags behind the stewardess; those that the passengers had carried on but were too large to stow in the overhead compartments. Ororo tripped past them and onto the plane.
She headed toward a leather seat in first-class. From Madame Camille's intelligence, she knew that Gervaise would be seated in seat 5A, nearest the window. A little technical finageling on Ginny's part ensured that the seat beside Gervaise would be free. Ororo threw herself into the cushy seat, pulled out a hand-held video game, and stuffed her bookbag under the seat in front of her with her feet. She pretended to be engrossed in her game while keeping her eye on the front of the plane. Gervaise was one of the last to board. He compared his boarding pass to the numbers above the seats. She saw his face fall when he realized his was the seat beside Ororo. Her electronic game emitted shrill beeps, blips, and squeals.
Gervaise stood over Ororo several moments before saying: "Excuse me," in an impatient voice. Ororo looked up at him with a smile, then pulled up her legs to allow Gervaise to take the window seat.
"Wanna trade seats?" she asked him as he sat and pushed his case under the seat.
"No, I do not," he replied before turning to look out the window.
Ororo studied the man. He was as handsome as his photos, but his blue eyes were hard and cold. He kept one foot over the silver case, his toe tapping against it. Ororo crouched to grab her pink bookbag, and saw Gervaise stiffen beside her as she neared the case. Ororo pulled a large bottle of rootbeer from her bag and set it on the armrest.
"Don't put that there!" Gervaise scolded.
Startled, Ororo dropped the bottle and it rolled across the floor. She scurried after it, making sure to shake it thoroughly before picking it up. "Got it!" she said triumphantly, holding up the bottle to show Gervaise. "Sorry!" She moved to twist off the cap.
"Don't---!" Gervaise began, but Ororo had all ready pulled off the top. Soda sprayed across Gervaise's lap and he jumped up, banging his head against the overhead compartment.
"Whoops!" Ororo said, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry! I've got some wipes in my bag!" She reached for her bag again, but Gervaise pushed her back.
"No, forget it!" Gervaise snapped, before sliding past Ororo and into the aisle. He stomped to the washroom, muttering curses under his breath.
Ororo bent forward to find her wipes. While she wiped droplets of rootbeer from her arms, her eyes fixed on the silver attaché case. A smile of excited anticipation spread across her face.
It was Gary Stue's first day on the job, so he was allowed some leeway when it came to baggage handling. He rather haphazardly stacked several suitcases onto the conveyor belt, which whisked the bags away to the storage compartment in the belly of the jet. Unfortunately, the bags were stacked a little too high, and tumbled off the belt to crash onto the tarmac.
"Whoops," Gambit said with a wince. Amidst the sudden hubbub of activity as the loading crew scrambled to recover the fallen bags, Gambit found an opportunity for sabotage. The tumbling bags had distracted the crew long enough for him to flick a tiny charged pebble into one of the jet's engines. It exploded with a barely audible pop, that no one heard unless they knew to listen for it.
The foreman, while staring at the pile of damaged luggage, made a sound of disgust. Each new employee was stupider than the last. But what could he do? They were Union, after all. "Stue!" the foreman shouted. "Go up and grab the carry-ons!" The foreman's words could otherwise be translated as: "Get the hell out of everyone's way!"
Gambit gave a wave to indicate he'd heard the order, but then cocked his head and pointed to the engine. "Uhm, is that supposed to have smoke coming out of it?"
The foreman turned to look at the engine, then clapped his hands to either side of his head. "Dammit!" he cried. The maintenance crew had only just finished their pre-flight check of the aircraft. Could no one do their job right anymore? The foreman stomped off to radio the repairmen.
Gambit climbed up the metal staircase to the gangway. He found a pretty stewardess in the doorway beside the carry-on luggage. He favored her with one of his million-kilowatt smiles, which she returned.
"Afternoon, chèrie," he said. "Looks as if there's gonna be a bit of a delay."
The stewardess' sighed. "The captain just informed me," she said. "Something wrong with one of the left engines." She fanned herself with her clipboard. "I don't envy you in that uniform."
"Nor, I you," Gambit replied, adjusting his sunglasses. "No matter how well you look in it."
The flight attendant laughed and touched her smoothed-back hair. "Oh, please..." In her line of work, she often dealt with a lot of flirtatious advances, but rarely from someone so handsome. "The Delta uniforms are so much nicer," she said.
"I dunno, red compliments your lovely hair, not t'mention your glowing complexion," Gambit replied, putting a hand to his chin and studying the woman from head to foot, as if he were admiring a work of art. "I do love a woman in uniform."
The flight attendant was suddenly regretting she'd be leaving New Orleans so soon. She was about to ask the man if he'd like a soda when the pretty girl with the blue eyes appeared, clutching a package of candy in one hand and her pink bag in the other.
"They told me my bag is too big to fit under the seat," the girl told the stewardess.
"Oh, that's okay, dear. We'll give it to Gary here, and he'll take good care of it."
Ororo relinquished the bookbag while trying to pull open the package of candy with her teeth. Suddenly, Skittles went flying; the bright candies bounced down the gangway. Ororo looked down at the fallen candy with dismay, then scrambled to try and retrieve the pieces.
The flight attendant patted Ororo's shoulder consolingly. "Oh, no no. Just leave them, dear. I'll go get a broom. I'll get you a bag of pretzels instead, won't that be nice?"
Ororo bobbed her head, looking somewhat ashamed. The stewardess disappeared into the plane. Ororo's crestfallen look immediately vanished. She put out her arms and Gambit scooped her up into a hug. "How'd it go?" he asked.
"Un piece de gâteau!" Ororo replied, and together they hurried down the staircase to the tarmac. They hustled to the luggage shuttle. Ororo jumped into the back and hid herself behind a garment bag.
"The case give y'any trouble?" Gambit asked as he turned the shuttle around and headed away from the jet.
"Not at all!" Ororo replied. Nestled in the bottom of her bookbag was the gorgeous necklace. She fingered the large diamond pendant.
"Good...good," Gambit replied, then fell silent.
After several moments, Ororo asked: "What is the matter? I did it, as I said I would! Or are you unhappy you will have to split the reward with me?"
"Not at all, Stormy," Gambit said. After a pause, he continued: "It's only that...a bright kid like you, a good kid...is meant for something better. Shouldn't be followin' this sinner around."
Ororo let out a puff of air, disgusted. "Self-deprication does not suit you, Gambit!"
He glanced over his shoulder to smile at her. "Maybe my ego's a bit too big for self-deprecation, but I sure get to feelin' awful guilty sometimes. Must've been that Catholic upbringin.'"
Ororo settled down with her prize in her lap. "Your guilt is wasted, Gambit. What I do with my life is my own choosing! Besides, if I am as bright as you seem to think, perhaps it is you who will end up following me!"
Gambit barked out a laugh. "Maybe so, Stormy. Maybe so!"
(c'est vrai: that's true)
(mais oui: but of course)
(entrez-vous: formal, come in)
(chouette!: super! great!)
(un piece de gâteau: piece of cake)