Becca Den surveyed the dimly lit gambling den as the boy her age--fifteen--led the way through the crowded tables. Gideon Cross followed close behind her; his blue eyes roamed across the supernatural inhabitants, most of whom were vampires or werewolves. Some turned and watched the trio suspiciously, but most were too involved in their poker games to look up.
Becca had only one reason for coming to the chief gambling den for residents of the supernatural underworld of Washington DC: she had a serious problem, the kind of problem only Luke Edwards could fix.
The immortal and extremely powerful Luke Edwards owned the poker den, and practically ran the city’s secret underworld as well. His powers were legend among the magical denizens of DC, and his knowledge was supposedly matched only by his greed. Becca rarely ventured into the magical world that paralleled her own, despite the fact that she was one of the rare mortals who could cross through the barriers. She knew little of Edwards or his operation; she could only hope that she could come up with something to offer Luke to appease his famous greediness.
Gideon would be no help. He had only recently discovered the underworld, and knew nothing about it. Becca had already saved him from a gang of werewolves, and stopped him from associating with dangerous vampires twice just on the walk to Luke’s. Becca hoped that Gideon wouldn’t mess things up too much, and she wondered again why she’d let him come. If only he was less involved in Becca’s problem, or more capable of helping her solve it. As it was, a naïve, pampered, rich kid with zero magical experience was Becca’s only back-up in negotiating with the most powerful man in Washington DC, so she wasn’t thrilled about their odds of success.
Becca and Gideon’s guide was named Okami Lang. His black T-shirt was emblazoned with images of howling wolves, and he wore a pin with a wolf on it. I guess that’s a not-so-subtle way to make sure everyone knows he’s a werewolf, Becca thought.
As they made their way towards the back of the gambling den, Becca observed that each of the tables was lit by a single lamp, and they were all green in color. A stand covered in silver serving trays laden with champagne glasses sat near a staircase that led to the upper levels. Becca doubted that anyone was allowed up, aside from Luke and a choice few under his employ.
One unusual thing about Luke’s poker den was that the establishment was freely roamed by cats. They were of all breeds, ages, and sizes, from tiny black kittens to bald sphynx cats to large orange tabbys. “What’s with all these cats?” Gideon hissed into Becca’s ear.
“I dunno,” Becca said with a shrug. She hoped her assumed nonchalance hid her nervousness from Gideon. She also hoped that Gideon wouldn’t mess up their meeting with Luke. Gideon was prone to messing things up.
“Luke likes them,” Okami called back, his sharp ears apparently picking up on the pair’s whispered conversation. “The cats go everywhere with him.”
“That doesn’t seem very practical,” Gideon replied, giving voice to Becca’s thoughts. Okami only shrugged and put his earbuds back in.
“Fun guy that Okami. Very talkative,” Becca muttered. If Okami heard her, he gave no sign of it. Not that Becca cared if he did; she prided herself in not caring what other people thought of her.
At last the trio arrived in the very back corner of the vast poker den. At a lone table sat a solitary man: Luke Edwards. Luke was tall and slender with long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a white dress shirt, and black slacks with shiny black dress shoes. A suit jacket was folded causally over the back of his folding chair. His green eyes glittered mischievously as he leapt to his feet and gestured for Becca and Gideon to take a seat.
“Ah, Rebecca Den and Gideon Cross! What a pleasure! Would you care for some champagne?” Luke inquired energetically. He had a slight British accent, and he appeared to be in his mid-thirties, though Becca knew he was much older, perhaps even centuries.
“I don’t think that’s strictly legal,” Becca replied, flopping into her seat. “And I prefer Becca.” Out of the corner of her eye, Becca observed Gideon carefully sitting down and folding his hands in his lap. Gideon is so annoying. Even his stupid quirks get on my nerves, Becca thought.
Luke studied Becca’s face, and thoughtfully took his seat. “Now you don’t look much like your cousin. Same nose, similar eyes, but other than that…” Luke mused.
“You knew Jamie?” Becca asked, startled. Luke had caught her off guard; she spoke about her cousin very little.
“So to speak. I knew of him, but at the present I haven’t had the pleasure of making his acquaintance,” Luke said, steepling his fingers.
“Well, I guess you’ll never get the pleasure of meeting him now,” Becca replied bitterly.
Luke flashed her a crafty smile and answered, “Ah, yes, his untimely demise. A real shame; Jamie was a unique one.” Anger flared up in Becca. She hated someone talking so nonchalantly about her cousin’s death, even though it had happened almost two years earlier.
“We’re getting a little off topic,” Gideon interjected quickly. “We aren’t here to talk about dead cousins. We need your help.”
“Oh, how forgetful of me! Please, describe your problem,” Luke said, leaning back and opening his arms. Becca sat back with her cheeks burning. She’d thought she was prepared to deal with Luke, but he had known exactly how to get into her head, and she’d allowed him manipulate her within seconds.
Seemingly interpreting their silence as reluctance, Luke grinned widely at Becca and Gideon. His constant smiles were starting to remind Becca of a Cheshire Cat. “Why don’t we talk this out over a game of poker?” Luke said, snapping his fingers. A stack of poker chips and cards appeared and dealt themselves out.
“I don’t know how to play poker,” Gideon whispered to Becca.
“It doesn’t matter. Just copy what you’ve seen on TV,” Becca hissed back. She noticed that Okami must have slunk off at some point, because they were now alone with Luke.
“Lately I’ve been having these nightmares,” Becca began. She described the dark house she’d dreamt about, and how Gideon had approached her after he began to have similar dreams. She’d dismissed him until she awoke one morning with mysterious cuts adorning her arms. The next night, Gideon’s nightmare ended with a voice telling him to seek out Luke Edwards.
“Sometimes dreams are just that: dreams. Have you considered that?” Luke said once they finished. An orange kitten hopped onto his lap and mewled. He reached down absentmindedly and began to pet it.
“Stop playing games with us, Luke!” Becca snapped.
“No more games?” Luke pouted. “Very well, fold if you like. I'd be happy to win.”
“You know as well as we do that these are no ordinary dreams. We know that you can help us,” Becca growled through gritted teeth.
“Ah, blind faith, hope. You know, I admire those qualities in a person. Admire, but don't envy,” Luke said, stroking the orange kitten that sat on his lap. It purred contentedly.
“What do you mean, Edwards?” Gideon asked, narrowing his eyes. Calling people by their last name was another one of Gideon’s annoying quirks, but its effect on Luke was instantaneous.
“Don’t. Call. Me. That. It’s just Luke! Call me Luke!” Luke said with sudden aggression; he sat bolt upright and slammed his palms down on the table for emphasis. The orange cat leapt down from his lap and scampered away. Seeming to regain his composure, Luke sat back and smiled calmly.
Becca filed two things away in her mind for later: firstly, Luke hated to be called by his last name. That might be useful if they ever needed to push his buttons. Secondly, Luke’s true personality wasn’t as kind and open-hearted as he pretended to be. Behind his facade of well intentioned compassion was a cold man who only cared about himself.
“What I meant,” Luke said airily, “was that it seems like you don’t know much about me, although you seem certain it’s my help you need. And although I don’t let many in on my secrets, I suppose I shall make an exception for you. After all, I don’t let many speak directly to myself; I am too busy to take care of all who come calling. I have a good feeling about you two though, and your family history inclines me to believe that you are most capable.”
This was news to Becca, but she did her best to hide her surprise. The less she let on to Luke, the less he had to use against her. Gideon was, unfortunately, unable to suppress his shock. “What do you mean, my family history? What do you know about me?” he asked, clearly astonished.
“I make it my business to know things,” Luke replied with a wink. “But you know little about me. I began my life as an insignificant mortal, and spent 33 miserable years trudging through boring and unimportant schooling to a boring and unimportant job. Everything changed when I discovered the supernatural world. I began my years-long journey across the cosmos, hopping from universe to universe. I met many people; far too many to mention in such short time.
“The next great change in my life came when I encountered an immortal entity bent on cursing all beings to terrible deaths, then torturing and consuming their souls. I was able to defeat him, and as the life drained from his chosen form, I felt a great change come over me. His immortality and powers were being siphoned into my very being, where they multiplied. Through my selfless actions, I had finally gained the great power and knowledge I sought.”
Becca thought there was probably more to the story, but she didn’t care. What mattered was getting Luke to help them, but it seemed less and less likely that he would. The story of his great exploits was just another example of Luke’s cunning misdirection. “I’m sorry, Edwards, but what is the point of all this?” interrupted Becca.
Luke’s nostrils flared. “I was trying,” he snapped, “to help you understand me, and to explain why helping you is a bit of a difficult thing to do. And call me Luke, not Edwards, not Luke Edwards, and not any other ridiculous nickname you dream up!”
“If you’re not going to help us, just say so, and we’ll get out of your hair!” Gideon burst out, throwing down his poker cards. Becca glanced at him in surprise. She’d thought if anyone was stupid enough to tolerate Luke’s flare for extravagance and pointless jabbering, it’d be Gideon. He’d always struck Becca as someone who was used to wasting time and money on the useless and colorful. But now that she thought about it, she’d never really gotten to know Gideon.
She was a social outcast, and he was one of the most popular people in the school. They had been pushed together by necessity, not by choice. Maybe Gideon wasn’t so useless after all. He’d been mostly reasonable, and he hadn’t been drawn off mission by Luke’s glowing charm or scheming words. I guess I misjudged Gideon. He’s in his element here, Becca thought. I was the one who was drawn in by Luke’s manipulation.
“Alright,” Luke said, holding his hands up in surrender. “You win. I can’t tell you much, but it’s important to know that your nightmares aren’t of the ordinary variety.”
“No kidding,” Becca muttered.
Gideon elbowed her and glared. “Now that we’ve finally got him talking we might as well listen!” he hissed.
“Your dreams were sent by a powerful man--well, he was once a man--who was experimenting with the supernatural world. He was corrupted by demonic magic that granted him abilities beyond your wildest dreams. Luckily, before he became too strong, your ancestors discovered his experiments and tethered his life force to a mansion, imprisoning him forever. After that, the story gets a bit fuzzy. Whatever happened resulted in the destruction of the mansion and the assumed death of the man himself. Obviously, he survived, since he plagues you with nightmares. Whatever his game is, you’d best exercise extreme caution. You’re up against forces like none you’ve seen before,” Luke said.
“The man, what was his name?” Gideon asked.
“Bauer,” Luke said quietly. “Jonathan Bauer. If I were you, I wouldn’t go around repeating that. His name still carries a lot of weight around here, and uttering it could land you in quite a bit of trouble.”
A sudden burst of anger spurred Becca into speaking out. “That’s it? That’s all you know? A name and some vague warnings? Seriously?”
“It was a little anticlimactic,” Gideon admitted.
Luke looked as if he was about to speak for a moment, then he set his mouth in a firm line. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, brow furrowed. After a few minutes, Becca decided to break the silence. “So that’s it? Nothing?” she said. Becca was aware that she was pushing her boundaries, but she didn’t care.
“I’ve already told you everything that you need to know,” Luke replied simply. “Still, out of the kindness of my heart, I’ll offer you one last piece of advice. Never underestimate the power of your enemy, but also don’t underestimate your own abilities. Bauer has terrible plans for this world, but as I said before, I have a good feeling about you two. Onto the method of payment for my services: I’ll accept an owed favor from each of you.”
Becca breathed out in relief. Looks like Luke is letting us off the hook for now. “Deal,” she said aloud, “now let’s go.” Becca leapt to her feet and hurried out with Gideon following.
“Remember, nothing in life is free! You owe me now!” Luke called after them. “And I always collect on my favors!”
Luke was right, Becca realized. I shouldn’t have underestimated Gideon, and I shouldn’t underestimate myself either. No matter how powerful Bauer is, we can still defeat him. Maybe it’s time for some blind faith and optimism.
Luke stared thoughtfully after Becca and Gideon, then smiled to himself and leaned back in his chair. Great knowledge is so difficult to withhold, but one mustn’t spoil all the surprises. It would ruin everyone else’s fun! Luke thought.
Being omniscient can be such a bother sometimes. But when you’ve lived 100 lives in 100 times in 1,000 universes, predictability is a fact of existence. How I envy the mortals, and their short lives! But this is the trade I made; I sacrificed unpredictability for immortality. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.