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Jeux de Hasard - Part 7

At first Jules thought the banging was inside his head. It was only after he sat up on his bed and opened his eyes with some effort that he discovered the banging was at the door to his room. Pushing himself upright, he staggered to the door, opened it, and stepped back.

Fogg sauntered into the room, dressed and pressed to perfection, the white carnation tucked in the buttonhole of his coat lapel almost too bright for words. "Ah, good, you're up and dressed, Verne." He dropped a paper-wrapped bundle to the table by the window and opened the shutters - Jules shielded his eyes with his hands and blinked at the brilliant light - then turned. "Or maybe not yet undressed from last night?"

Still trying to force his eyes to stay open for more than a few seconds at a time, Jules blearily looked down at his crumpled dress shirt and trousers. His shoes were readily located in the center of the room, his jacket and waistcoat on a chair. "I think I fell asleep as soon as we got back. When did we get back?"

Fogg leaned both hands on the head of his cane, wearing a wry smile that Jules found incredibly offensive, considering that his head felt fuzzy and about twice its normal size. "Don't you remember? It wasn't late when the cab dropped you here, definitely before two. I was back at my club well before three."

"In the morning?" Jules winced at the incredibly high note of disbelief in his own voice. He poured a glass of water from the pitcher, took a few sips from it, then poured some onto his palm and slapped it half-heartedly on his face.

"Yes."

Jules tried to glare at Fogg, but he couldn't open his eyes fully, the light from the windows blinding him. "Could you - um--?" He waved futilely at the shutters.

"What? Yes? Oh, of course." Still grinning, although with a bit more compassion, Fogg left his cane resting against the table leg and returned to the shutters, pushing then partially closed. "Better?" he asked, turning.

"Much."

His answer was little more than a croak. Jules drank the rest of the water from the glass, then poured the remains from the pitcher into the washbasin. Resisting the urge to drop his face into the water and drown himself, he splashed again, knowing the dress shirt to be a lost cause. "What time is it now? Six? Eight?"

"Noon."

"Noon?" Picking up a towel, he wiped most of the water from his face, his eyes only truly open for the first time that morning as he stared at Fogg in surprise. He paused, listening - a city clock had just finished the final tolling of the hour.

"I thought we might have a late luncheon." Reaching into his pocket, Fogg withdrew a piece of paper and dropped it to the table. "A cable arrived this morning from Rebecca - she and Passepartout should return this evening with the Aurora. It seems their mission was been accomplished in record time."

"Successfully, I hope," noted Jules, rubbing the back of his neck with the towel and then throwing it over the railing.

"I'll gather we'll hear the actual details when they arrive."

Slipping his bracers from his shoulders, Jules began to undo the studs on his shirtfront. He walked toward his dresser, turning his back to Fogg. "They're both all right, then?" he asked, unable to identify the worry that hovered at the back of his mind.

"So it would seem. You had reason to suspect otherwise?"

"No. Nothing. Just--nothing." Shaking his head, Jules removed his shirt and tossed it onto the bed; the collar, cuffs, and shirt studs he placed on the dresser. "Speaking of details, is there a reason why I feel like I spent last night slamming my forehead into a wall?"

"Ah." He turned at Fogg's exclamation, caught a hint of a smile - or was that worry he saw in his friend's eyes? - and then turned back to the dresser in search of a clean shirt as Fogg said delicately, "I assume you're the worse for drink, then?"

"I know what I feel like after a night of bad wine. If this is what the good stuff does to me--?" he winced, then lifted a shirt from the drawer. The precision of the fold and the clean smell meant that it had been part of the batch of laundry Passepartout had done for him on the Aurora.

"I hardly think the Bordeaux at dinner was to blame, or the brandy afterward," said Fogg, albeit somewhat defensively. "They were really quite excellent."

"They were." Jules shrugged into the shirt, then paused, thinking carefully of the night's events. He turned back to Fogg. "I don't remember drinking anything else."

The comment won him a sympathetic smile. "That could be the problem."

"I remember dinner - how could I forget that dinner? - and the cab. We were going back to the club, but . . . ."

"We went to a casino," said Fogg.

"Yes. You were going to show me how to gamble."

"I've brought you that copy of Hoyle's I'd promised - second-hand," he added quickly, as Jules opened his mouth to protest the gift. Fogg lifted the paper-wrapped parcel from the table. "I thought a French translation might prove more useful to you. And, on a selfish note, I'm curious to see the differences in the translation."

Shirt still unbuttoned, Jules took the package from Fogg's hand and placed it on the table. He picked up a knife, slipped it through the string and unwrapped the parcel. He was relieved to find it was a functional, pasteboard edition, instead of an expensive, leather-bound display copy. Something like this he could accept, and graciously.

"Thank you." He picked up the book and opened it, flipping through the pages, reading a word or phrase.

"You prefer the French?" noted Fogg.

Jules looked up and realized he'd smiled as he flipped through the book. His grin got a little wider. "It is easier," he admitted, before glancing down at the pages again. "Some of the games I've watched you play seem so intricate. I wasn't looking forward to trying to sort out the rules and make the translation in . . . my . . . head . . . ."

The words seemed to leap off the page at him. He mouthed them silently, "Vingt-et-un."

There had been cards on a baize cloth, one face up and another face down. His hand tapped the cards, requesting another card be drawn from the deck.

"I played last night." The faint light sneaking in through the partially open shutter gave the room an odd cast, for he could have sworn Fogg went pale at his words. "Vingt-et-un."

"A single trick." Fogg wore a faint, if rather formal, smile. "You won more with that one hand than I did in the previous three."

"If I did win, it was complete luck. Or you were helping me," he guessed, looking down to the book again and scanning a few more pages. "Or . . . both," he added, as another image came to mind - a green dress, green eyes, green gloves and hair the color of the first flush of fire, red-orange bright. "There was a woman . . . ."

"Verne, when you visit a casino, there's always a woman."

Jules chuckled at the note of exasperation in Fogg's voice and glanced up from the book. For an instant he thought he saw a flash of concern in Fogg's expression, which had now gone suddenly neutral.

Black gloved hands - lace gloves, a woman's hands - dealing cards.

Fogg raising one of those hands to his lips, kissing it with a triumphant, almost defiant air.

And then--

"Verne?"

Without moving, he stumbled. The book teetered in his hands and he caught it somehow, closing it with a thump. His knees buckled, the floor looked likely, but then Fogg's arm gripped his elbow, held him upright long enough to get a chair beneath him.

His head was swimming. The book fell from his hands to the floor as he leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. "I don't remember drinking anything," he protested weakly.

A moment later there was a grip on his shoulder. Fogg pulled him upright and pressed a glass of wine into his hand, then steadied his fingers as they shook around the glass.

The wine was sweet. His eyes opened in surprise and Fogg nodded. "Just sugar - that'll help take the edge of that head of yours. Drink it."

He did, finishing the glass, his hand steady enough near the end for Fogg to release it and leave him on his own.

Fogg stalked away, hands tucked in his pockets. "My own fault," he said aloud. "One of those women no doubt slipped something in your glass. It didn't occur to me last night - I just thought you were the worse for drink."

Jules stared down at the glass in his hand. The fuzziness in his head was starting to ease a bit. "Why would anyone want to drug me?"

"Money."

"But I'm not--"

Fogg whirled on him, a finger raised to contradict him. "You were, to all appearances, a young gentleman of some consequence. Quiet, perhaps, but well mannered. You did cause something of a stir when we arrived."

Swallowing, Jules looked up from the glass. "I did?"

"Indeed." Fogg's sudden smile disappeared. "If I'd been less distracted, had been more alert--"

Jules shook his head tentatively and, when it didn't fall off, added more force to his disagreement. He rose from the chair and placed the empty glass on the table. "Don't blame yourself, Fogg; you were worried about Rebecca and Passepartout."

He'd meant the comment to calm his friend - if anything, Fogg's reaction was entirely contrary. He looked down at the floor, saying stiffly, "Was I?"

"As was I." Jules walked over and patted him once on the shoulder, earning Fogg's careful attention. "We both know what her missions can be like. How dangerous they can be."

"Yes," said Fogg softly. "We do. All too well."

Jules ducked his head. "Besides, I'm - well, I'm embarrassed I let myself get taken in by a pretty face."

"It was a very pretty face, if it's the one I glimpsed."

"Was it?" asked Jules, unable to keep the hope out of his voice.

"Beyond imagining," promised Fogg. For an instant his expression grew serious, and then he walked back to the table and lifted his cane, balancing it on the backs of his hands. "She must have been sorely disappointed at losing you."

Jules explored the pockets of his trousers, but found nothing but a handkerchief. "Maybe not," he said ruefully.

Fogg turned quickly, the cane falling from his hands, but he snatched it from the air before it could hit the floor. "What?"

He held up the handkerchief for Fogg's inspection. "You said I won a hand, more than you won in three, but there's no sign of my winnings."

"Ah." There was relief in that one syllable, as well as a sense of mischief. Fogg touched one finger to his lips and studied Jules for a moment. "We'll have to remedy that, won't we?" Turning his back, he walked over to where the book had been left unceremoniously on the floor and picked it up. Fogg tossed it to Jules, who caught it, on his way to the door. "I've some arrangements to make before luncheon - meet me at that excuse for a bistro across the way. It won't be a decent meal, but it'll be quick enough for us to meet the Aurora and allow time for preparations for a trip to Monte Carlo."

Jules looked down at the book, hefting it in his hands, then looked back at Fogg and shook his head in mock disbelief. "You can't be serious?"

"Never more so." Fogg paused at the door. "You're right - you had my help when you won last night. This morning's events have proven that I'm a less than capable minder. It might be better for all concerned if you acquire the skill to win on your own behalf, should circumstances warrant."

"It's not as if I'm ever going to be able to afford to play for money--"

"There's more at stake than money," said Fogg sharply. "Men have wagered for the fate of nations and for lives - and not always their own." When Jules sobered at the rebuke, Fogg smiled and added, "Trust that my reasons for going to Monte Carlo are not entirely altruistic. It might be better not to mention anything of last night's adventures to Rebecca, either."

Hugging the book to his chest, Jules chuckled. "Rebecca disapproves of your gambling."

"Hardly," noted Fogg, with an affronted air. "It's that we're likely to catch merry hell for not having taken her along."

"I thought respectable English ladies weren't supposed to gamble?"

The comment had been innocent enough - Jules had very little experience with the upper strata of Parisian society, never mind the English, but one did hear things. He was startled when Fogg walked directly toward him, almost past him, and caught him by the shoulder. The grip of his hand was tight, almost fearsome and Fogg looked not at him, but past him.

"A word of warning," said Fogg, in a low, even voice. "Should you ever use the word 'respectable' in that tone of voice about Rebecca in Rebecca's presence, she'll likely hand you your head on a platter." Then Fogg turned his head ever so slightly and met Jules' gaze. "And if she doesn't do the honors, I'll be more than happy to oblige. Is that understood?"

"Absolutely," said Jules, swallowing. "I meant no offense, Fogg, honestly--"

Fogg released him and clapped his shoulder lightly, his lips twisting into a wan smile. "I know." The smile grew genuine as he nodded, as if to assure Jules that he'd accepted the apology, then Fogg backed away toward the door, pointing at him with his cane. "What are you waiting for, man? Get dressed! If I'm not at the bistro when you arrive, you're to start your studies. I'll expect you to explain the differences between Euchre and Ecarte before we've finished coffee."

"But--?"

His protestations were met only by the closing of the door. Stunned, Jules stood there a moment, trying to figure out precisely what had just happened. He would never, in his life, completely understand that man.

He tossed the book to the bed with a sigh and returned to his dresser. His shirt edge had turned under at Fogg's manhandling and he reached his hand to fix it, catching his fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck in the process.

The movement stirred a vague scent of perfume that clung to his hair. Jules stopped in mid-motion, frozen, as it brought to mind those green eyes and that flame-colored hair. Her fingers had played softly along his neck, her breath warm and sweet at his cheek.

Beyond imagining, Fogg had said. That very well might be, for he couldn't remember much about her save her eyes and her hair. At a passing glance, he might not even recognize her . . . but for her perfume. He wondered, for a moment, if she would recognize him, if they ever met again. Surely not?

But the thought made him grin. She might look out from her carriage and pass him as he walked in the street, never knowing that the common law student had passed as - what had Fogg called him? - a young gentleman of consequence. Not a bad idea for a story, that. Shakespeare used it often enough. Something to think about later.

The collar fixed, he fastened his shirt buttons. Running his fingers through his hair to set it in place brought back the scent of perfume. He grimaced at the thought of enduring Passepartout's persistent questions - persistent because his non-answers would be taken as evasive. And Rebecca was as observant as a hawk. She couldn't fail to miss--

It suddenly struck him that if he showed up at the Aurora without making the least attempt to wash the scent from his hair, he would have the answer to his question. Would Rebecca, like an older sister, congratulate him on having attracted feminine attention or would he be subject to the same teasing revenge she inflicted upon Fogg?

The prospect of either was enough to make Jules' mouth go dry. His hands moved to his shirt to unbutton it. He could fetch more water, have his hair washed, and possibly still be down at the bistro in time to meet Fogg, or perhaps only a few minutes late. One of the highest accolades in Fogg's book of chapter and verse was timeliness, but what else was there to do? If he didn't wash the perfume from his hair, he would know, one way or the other, exactly how Rebecca regarded him.

He would know.

It was an epiphany worthy of Saul on the road to Damascus. Jules stood for a moment, hands frozen upon the buttons of his shirt and realized that Fogg had been right - there were other stakes with which one could gamble, stakes more important than money. He could resign the hand, wash the scent from his hair and walk away from the table . . . and not know. But there was still the other option, to play the cards he'd been dealt and wait for the dealer's response. He might lose.

Or he might win.

He paused, considered, then made his decision.

Refastening the one button he'd released, Jules grinned. He'd meet Fogg on time. For no discernible reason, Jules knew he should take the chance. He just felt . . . lucky.

And there was absolutely no way in hell he was going to be able to tell Fogg the difference between Ecarte and Euchre before they'd finished coffee, not with the promising scent of that perfume still lingering in his hair.

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The End

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