Disclaimer: See Prologue.

Chapter 4: Incognito

Tintin woke with a start.

The sharp movement lanced painful pins and needles through his arms and hands, which had been resting comfortably numb behind his back.

"Crumbs!"

Slowly, he forced his uncooperative eyelids to open and, with further effort, his eyes to focus. He found himself in the center of what appeared to be a large storeroom of some sort. Well, disposal room would be a more accurate description. Broken chairs lay here and there in his line of vision; no doubt, the victims of fights between la Sirene's patrons. A large heavy table sat in pieces by the shut door, its one intact leg sitting atop the rubble.

Despite himself, Tintin was impressed by whatever fisticuffs had reduced that monstrous piece of furniture to such a state.

He blinked, clearing his vision and as focus returned, so did memories from earlier in the night.

-The Adventures of Tintin-

La Sirène was a monument to a lost era. The gilding on its art deco exterior had chipped and peeled. Some industrious soul had attempted to repaint, but workmanship was shoddy, at best. It was flanked on either side by newer, more fashionable establishments, sleek monsters of glass and steel. These casinos only emphasized the shabbiness of the once great hall.

The lack of aesthetic, however, did not appear to be a deterrent to its steady stream of customers. In fact, the clientele suited the establishment to a tee. Middle-aged sailors and dock workers dressed in various shades of disreputable stood outside the entrance, smoking furiously and laughing uproariously as only the inebriated can. Here and there, Tintin saw smooth faced youths trying to hide their age and social status behind grubby coat collars.

Several of these boys eyes the reporter as he approached the door, posturing. The older men paid him no heed.

"Don't go looking for trouble," He silently advised his peers, "It will find you soon enough."

It must be said that in his focus on the goal, the irony of that thought coming from him was lost on the young man. Furthermore, in a few hours, he would be wishing that he had taken his own advice.

He wasn't certain if the gloom of the interior of la Sirène had been a choice by the management to hide less than picturesque details of the building or was due to the thick cloud of cigarette smoke.

Serving girls with large trays, dressed in vibrant red dresses, moved among the poker and black-jack tables in the large central hall. They provided the only real color in the place, a striking contrast to the more somber colors of their customers.

One such sever stood at the door, ready to exchange currency for chips to any and all comers. Tintin quickly gave her a modest amount and received the chips he was due. To his surprise, none of the little plastic pieces were red or black.

He entered the large open area, eyes open for a table that would give him a strategic view of the room.

Suddenly, the hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention and a familiar sensation made itself known. Someone was watching him.

As he walked through the games, he scanned the room surreptitiously for whoever was watching him with such focused interest.

He almost overlooked her entirely.

Clad in a black version of the server's uniform, she had accomplished a sort within the shadow of the pillar against which she was leaning. Only pale skin and the glowing tip of a cigarette distinguished her from the surrounding obscurity. The woman had every appearance of nonchalance, save for her gaze, which never wavered, even as her eyes met his.

Forcing fear of recognition down, he reminded himself to stay in character. He returned the stare, causing his admirer to arch an eyebrow. Adopting what he hoped was a convincing leer, he winked. He could only hope that in the poor light, she couldn't see the pink tinting his cheeks. Tintin, world renowned journalist and adventurer, could claim many titles. "Ladies' Man" was not one of them.

Her eyes widened, before a smirk wound its way lazily over her face.

Tintin turned away, again picking his way towards a convenient game of Blackjack. After settling into his seat, he glanced to where the dark-haired employee had stood. She had disappeared.

The dealer acknowledged him with a nod and he turned his mind to more pressing matters.

As he played several rounds, his attention was drawn to a staircase directly in front of him, across the main hall. Grand and marble, it was guarded by two large men, who stared dispassionately out into the crowd of gamblers.

Tintin played for nearly an hour, but saw only four men pass through the two behemoths. Each time, the client was stopped before being waved through.

'So,' The journalist mused to himself, 'You need credentials to go upstairs. But why is the upstairs restricted?'

Having suffered minimal losses, he withdrew from the game, steering himself in the direction of the bar. Despite being crowded, no one at the heavy oak bar seemed to be in a particularly talkative mood. Most hunched over their drinks, celebrating with their winnings or attempting to forget that they had no winnings.

As he slid onto an abandoned stool, he noted that the man seated next to him did not have the same air.

While the rest of the denizens of the bar were a study in how to avoid conversation, this man seemed almost pathetically eager to make it. He swung side to side on the stool, attempting to make eye contact with his fellow patrons or the bartender. He was soundly ignored by all.

His hands moved constantly on the bar, softly clicking something together. When his lifted his hand, Tintin almost jumped off of his stool. There, against the faded oak, where two chips, one black and one red.

The man smiled in triumph as he noticed Tintin's stare. He leaned in close and the disguised man barely resisted recoiling from the smell of cheap pastis and poor dental hygiene.

"That's right," He crowed in a low voice, "I got the keys to heaven." He looked across the room and Tintin followed his gaze to the staircase.

"'Course Old Peter don't guard nothing like what's up there," He added with a crooked smile.

"But don't worry, Boy! Save enough and you can ascend, too!"

Suspicions were solidifying in the young man's mind. The black and red chips were access cards to the rooms upstairs, then. It must be something if the numbers had to be so restricted.

He eyed his unwitting informant as the filthy man took a swig of his drink. Now, to get access for "ascension."

A/N: Sooo, I have an excuse. It's kinda a poor one, but here you go. After getting back to the States, my application and re-application for a visa in France was promptly denied for no apparent reason. Then, following that was Christmas and the usual madness surrounding that. Follow with a "What the hell am I doing with my life?" moping and a frantic job search. Finally, I remember that I have this chapter all typed up. The day I go to post it, my computer dies. The chapter and my outline for the whole story are gone. Cue hissy fit. But! Now I have a life-plan, a brand spanking new laptop (courtesy of after Christmas sales) and I am well on my way to re-creating the outline. So, all's well that ends well. And my apologies for being so late in updating. Thank you all for the marvelous reviews!

GoldenFlither: Poor Tintin's day is about to get a lot worse. I really do love this story, despite my negligence of it, and I'm glad that comes through in my writing.

Baou21: Thanks! And for once, it wasn't Spellcheck's fault.

Etoile-de-saphir: Thank you!

Bgh: Sorry, but not quite. Actually, not even close… Thanks for reading!

Noremac: Thanks!

Nezumi-88: Oh, the places this story will go… Just you wait!

Hhhheeeyyy: Patience is a virtue, my dear.

Jaclefish: Glad you're enjoying it…but where did I ever give any indication there would be Tintin!rape in this story? If you're referring to the capture, that happens like every other page in the comics and our hero always escapes with his virtue intact.

Anon: You flatter me! (And I like it.) But seriously, thank you very much. It's always the trickiest characters that end up being the most fun to write in the end.

Flylikeabird22: Thank you! Glad to know that my English isn't degrading into Franglais!