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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Story By JA Baker[]

The House Always Wins
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written April 6th, 2020
Story Era Succession Wars Era

Being dispossessed sucks arse.

Not so bad if you're a regular soldier. none of the big Houses like having trained, experienced MechWarriors sitting around, doing nothing, so there's usually a replacement 'Mech that can be shaken loose from the Quartermaster. Same goes for some of the bigger Mercenary units, even a handful of the more successful pirate gangs. a MechWarrior without a Mech is a gold-brick, and is better off back making money, by fair means or foul.

But then... but then you get fools like me.

Some call us D.P.I.'s. Supposedly means 'Damn Proud Independents', but without a 'Mech, it may as well stand for 'Depressed, Pointless and Impotent'. There's always a few of us hanging around the Hiring Halls, ready to fill open spots left by the dead or otherwise departed so a unit can mean quota for a contract. Some are headhunters, ringers brought in to give someone a nasty surprise come weapons-free, but most of us are just owner-operators who just aren't natural joiners. We'll sign on for a mission, do what's expected of us, then be gone soon the dust settles. It's not a life that encourages lasting relationships, but you still need a reputation as someone who won't cut-and-run when the dice come up snake-eyes.

I was fortunate enough to have such a reputation. I may jot play well with others, but if I said I had your back in a firefight, then I did. I was a Medium 'Mech pilot by choice; preferably a Wolverine, but I can turn my hand to a Griffin, Shadow Hawk or Centurion if needed. Lot of people overlook mediums in favor of heavies and assaults, but a good pilot can be just as deadly mo matter what they ride. In our business, reputation is everything, and my rep was real good. Unfortunately, reputations aren't LRM proof, and I'd had my last ride, an old 6R that had been cobbled together from half a dozen less fortunate machines, shot out from underneath me, and that's how I found myself down-and-out on Circinus.

Now, don't get me wrong. I may be willing to bend a few rules if the money's right, and, well, war crimes are often a matter of prospective, but I ain't no pirate, so I wasn't looking to join the Black Warriors any time soon. Unfortunately, the unit I'd been working with didn't feel the need to carry my sorry arse all the way back to Galatea, so they kick me off ship when they landed to stock up on consumables. The CO had made it abundantly clear that I could have stayed, had I opened my legs for him, but it's only my skills as a pilot that are for sale, so I grabbed my duffle and walked away.

There are plenty of ways to make an honest buck, even somewhere like Circinus, and I was almost solvent enough to buy passage back into the Inner Sphere, where I'd have a better chance of finding a unit with a spare 'Mech to sign-on with, when I got word about the Big Game. Hell, every dispossessed 'Mech Jock within a hundred light-years heard the news. Some Lostech prospectors hit pay-dirt out the Aurigan Reach way, found a downed SLDF DropShip that hadn't been picked-clean in the last few centuries. Some local broker was handling the liquidation of their haul, and had decided to have a little fun with the last item.

See, the broker owned a casino, and Circinus is the kind of world where you can bet with anything, on anything. No matter what, if there's someone willing to give you odds, you can get a piece of the action. So they'd set up a winner-takes-all poker tournament. entry fees went to the house, but the winner walked away with a fully operational WVR-7H Wolverine II. Just reading the specifications alone was enough to make me hot under the collar, let alone the idea of just what I could do with something like that. I quickly counted up my funds, and worked out that I just about had enough to cover the entry fee, so long as I didn't feel like eating that week. But it had taken me six months to build up that much, and I didn't much feel like spending another half a year sitting on my arse, gathering dust and rust.

"Interesting proposition, yes?" a soft, almost musical voice behind me caught my attention, and I spun round, one hand instinctively reaching for my side-arm.

Even now, looking back after so many years, the memory of seeing her for the first time still takes my breath away. I've always had an equal opportunities view on who I invited into my bunk, but that's not to say that I don't have standards. And yet, I knew that she could have just beckoned with a finger and I would have been naked in a heartbeat. She was tall and slender, but it was clear that she wasn't without strength, given the toned look of her arms through the long, flowing sage green dress she wore. It was tied at her waist with a golden belt, showing off her perfect hourglass figure, topped with a sea-green shawl. Her flowing hair was the Color of spun copper, and cascaded down from behind a golden headband. But it was her eyes, her beautiful, emerald green eyes that really drew me in.

It took me a moment to even register that she was even there, she looked so out of place.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that people in the Periphery can't look good, but she was the kind of easy. Classical beauty that should have been on the arm of some high-born noble in the Confederation or the Combine. Somewhere like Circinus? I don't think that even the high-paid escorts looked half as good as her.

I stood there, jaw slightly agape, mind completely blank, until she laughed and nodded towards the billboard announcing the tournament.

"Quite the prize, yes?" she asked, eyes almost glowing.

"...yes." I managed, trying to get myself back to normal, "Hell of a risk, though."

"Do you play?" she asked, stepping forward so she was standing beside me, close enough that I could feel the warmth radiating from her body, "Poker, I mean."

"I've been known to." I turned slowly and deliberately, not wanting to trip over my own feet, "Certainly never for such high stakes."

"Yet, here you are. A dispossessed MechWarrior presented with the opportunity to win a new BattleMech." she didn't even turn to look at me, "And a 'Royal' one at that. Ultra AC5, Medium Pulse Laser, SRM-6 with Artemis IV Fire Control System, Endo Steel structure, Ferro-Fibrous armor, double heat sinks and Cellular Ammunition Storage."

"You know your 'Mechs." I felt my hand moving back towards my side-arm, "And apparently you know me..."

"I make it my business to know everyone of interest." she smiled, as much with her eyes as her lips, "And you are quite interesting."

"You work for the casino?" I asked, wondering if she was some kind of ringer, employed to draw in the big fish.

"Not exactly." She gave me a look at made me feel seven different kinds of unusual, "Let's just say that we're in the same line of business."

"If you don't mind me asking..." I started, but she cut me off.

"I think you should enter the tournament." she sounded amazingly confident, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all."

"I only gamble with my life." I countered.

"Excellent!" she smiled, and I felt like a rabbit that suddenly found itself face-to-face with a hungry fox, "Then it's a bet."

"Excuse me?" I blinked, confused.

"You will enter competition. If you win, I will arrange transport for you and your new BattleMech back to the Inner Sphere." She turned to face me, still smiling sweetly, "I can even put you in contact with some people who'd be willing to pay good money just to spend some time looking it over."

"And if I lose?" I asked, my mouth suddenly very dry, but oddly excited at the same time.

"Then you work for me." her eyes seemed to flash brightly, and I told myself it was just the reflected headlights of a passing car, "I have use for someone with your particular set of skills."

She offered her hand to seal the deal.

I'd certainly been offered worst contracts in the past, but something told me that this was something different. Something about her had every instinct I had as a MechWarrior telling me to run for the hills, that she was dangerous in a way I simply couldn't comprehend. You don't get far in my line of work without learning to trust your instincts, but I somehow found myself reaching out and shaking her hand.

A shock ran up my arm, almost as if I'd been electrocuted, but she showed no signs of discomfort at all.

"Excellent." with that she turned and walked away, "I'll see you at the tournament."

I never even asked her name.

Now, Circinus isn't the kind of place w here you back out on a deal, and the locals considered a handshake as good as a signed contract. Sure, if she'd held a gun to my head, I may have been able to claim I'd been coerced into the bet, but that was a no-go. I had no choice but to make my way to the casino, pay in pretty much every last dime I had, and see my name flash up onto the board of registered players.

Not everyone in the tournament was a MechWarrior, or even military. any Lostech 'Mech, especially a working SLDF 'Royal' one, is worth more than its weight in gold. Certainly more than the cost of entry, so a lot of people were throwing their proverbial hats into the ring. I didn't recognize any of the names, but from the way people around me were talking, it sounded like a 'Who's Who' of the local card-sharks and professional gamblers. Certainly the kind of people I'd never want to face across a table under normal circumstances.

One name in particular did catch my eye. Lady J.

Circinus ain't the kind of world where people go in for titles, and if you're from the Inner Sphere, it probably wouldn't be best to advertise the possibility that someone back home may be willing to pay to see you safely returned, or even stabbed in the kidney and left to bleed-out in some alley. And it wasn't the kind of name a professional gambler would pick. they go for stupid names like 'One-eyed Jack', 'Billy the Duce' or 'Steamboat Sam', trying too hard to invoke a romantic image of a time that probably never really existed.

The casino itself certainly helped re-enforce that stereotype, with piped piano music, waitresses in skimpy, sequined outfits and dealers in shirts, bow ties and straps around their arms to show they had nothing up their sleeves. Under normal circumstances, it wasn't the kind of place I'd be seen dead in... which is probably a bad choice of words, given the number of very obvious and very heavily armed security guards keeping an eye on not just the players, but the crowd of spectators as well.

The manager, the man behind the whole circus, announced the rules before the start. Lyran Hold-'Em, Aces High, no buying extra chips and the dealers word was final. Anyone caught cheating would be forcibly ejected from the establishment, forfeiting anything left from their stake. I felt the need to say 'We Who Are About To Die Salute You', or something equal stupid, but I held my tongue.

First round saw me up against another dispossessed 'Merc, two members of the Black Warriors and a couple of locals just trying their luck. I played it safe at first, keeping my bets as low as I could get away with while trying to get a read on the other players. poker is a popular game to play while waiting for a JumpShip to recharge, and like most people who make their living on the go, I'd played more than a few hands, so I at least had a good grasp of the basics, and knew what to look for to try and differentiate between a fake tell and a real one. The other 'Merc was easy. He was just a kid looking to make a name for himself in the hopes of getting a spot in a unit that was more than one step-removed from pirates. The two local pilots were probably ringers sent to try and win the 'Mech for their unit, but one of the civilians was a decent gambler, certainly the one to look out fore.

We were four hands in when the other 'Merc goes all-in. It was clearly a desperate move, as he'd been bleeding chips all game, but it was something we had no choice but to anti-up or walk away. The two Black Warriors followed suit, raising the pot even higher, forcing the other two locals to do the same. All eyes fell on me, knowing that I had little choice but to do the same or walk away with nothing. I only had a pair of sevens, and I still wasn't sure on their tells, but it wasn't like I had another choice.

I went all in, and we laid our cards down. 'Merc boy had a flush, one of the Black Warriors had two pairs, sixes over twos, while the others had nothing of any consequences. Then the dealer turned over the hole cards, ending with a pair of sevens.

Four of a kind. Pot was mine.

We had half an hour to piss and grab a coffee, so something stronger, from a dedicated bar, then got our assigned seating for the next round, and that's when I saw her again. She was dressed in what was either the same dress, or one just like it, and her eyes were as cold as ice as she took her seat at a table across the room. I glanced up at the big screen that listed who was playing where, and Realized that she was the mysterious Lady J.

Well, that just made things interesting.

Second round, I was up against a bunch of locals... to this day I have no idea how they got through the first round. Pretty clear that they were just in it for the thrill, although Lord knows where they got that kind of money to burn. They were too busy trash-talking each other and playing grab-ass with the waitresses to concentrate on the game, so it was easy enough for even someone of my skills to take them down. I advanced to the next round with enough extra time to take full advantage of the free buffet.

Rounds three and four were pretty much like the first, with me managing close wins. A couple people on other tables decided to take their chances, pulling the old "Do you know who I am?" when the dealer decided against them. It was kind of entertaining to watch two men with military grade stun-guns escort them to the floor, then use their heads to open the doors on the way out.

We had an hours break between rounds four and five, so I grabbed a shower in a room provided by the casino. I was only half surprised to see Lady J waiting for me when I went to get dressed again.

"Enjoying yourself, so far?" she asked as she stood with her back to me, looking out the window at the city beyond.

"I've had worse days." I dropped the towel that had been wrapped around me, watching to see if she took the opportunity to check out my reflection. I may have a few scars, but you don't see many overweight MechWarriors. Spending a significant amount of your time in a metal sauna has some advantages, and I'm not above admitting that I look good naked.

I felt somewhat disappointed when she ignored the free show.

"You're doing good, but the the wheat has been separated from the chaff." She didn't even move her head as I finished drying off and started to get dressed, "Now the real game begins."

"What's your angle?" I asked as I pulled my tank-top over my head, "You're not a MechWarrior, you don't strike me as the kind of 'suit' to be bankrolling a unit, and you're to well dressed for a pirate."

"I'm all about the thrill of the chase." She finally turned and smiled, "The feeling you get when the coin is in the air, the clatter of the wheel as it spins, the rattle of the thrown dice. You're only really alive when you're on the edge."

"Then why me?" I asked, "What does someone like you want with someone like me?"

"That's for me to know, and you to wonder about." she shot me a shark's smile, "I'll see you in the final round."

"Assuming we both make it that far."

"Oh, don't worry. we will." with that she turned and strode purposely out of the room, "I'm already looking forward to it."

I'll admit, if her intention was to put me off my game, it worked. I made mistakes in the next round, almost crashing out, before pulling a narrow Ace over King High-card win. I mentally slapped myself a few times, forcing myself to concentrate on the people I was actually competing against, not 'Lady J'. By round six, almost all of the casual thrill seekers had been cut, the number of tables shrinking noticeably. I was starting to find myself more and more playing against the hard-core gamblers. The kind of people who regularly wager more on a single hand then I'd see in a good year as a 'Merc.

There were still a few more MechWarriors, scattered here and there. as I said, you have a lot of down-time between missions, and cards are a universal way of making it pass quickly. But even they were obviously out of my league, if not for the fact that I couldn't seem to get a bad hand. Never anything that made winning a sure thing, but nothing that would make me fold immediately. I managed another close win, making it through to the seventh and penultimate round, and by then I was the only pilot at a table of dedicated gamblers.

It was then that my unusual good luck went into overdrive. dealer dealt me a Royal Flush, followed by two Straight Flushes and a Full House. I took a quick glance over at the other table, where Lady J was sitting, trying to work out if she'd somehow gotten to the dealers. It would have been a hell of a risk, given how permanently the management would deal with something like that, but I wasn't sure I could put anything above her by that point. She obviously wanted to face me in the final round...

I was so fixated on trying to work out what her angle was that I almost missed the commotion on my own table. one of the other players accused the dealer of dealing from the bottom of the deck, and pulled a small, hold-out laser from a hiding place inside their hat. His first shot went wide, hitting one of the ornate pillars, and he was correcting his aim when the first security guard fired, hitting him in the chest. He was obviously wearing some kind of armour under his expensive looking shirt, and he only grunted as the bullet struck him. He fired again, but the dealer was already dropping to the floor behind the table, so the second bolt hit one of the spectators, killing him instantly.

All hell broke lose, with people screaming as they tried to get out of the way, knocking into each other in the chaos. I had the good sense to duck down under the table, finding myself huddled down next to the dealer as the security guard fired again, his aim being shaken by a passing guest, and they ended up blowing a hole in the ceiling. This did, however, get the attention of the enraged gambler, and they shifted their aim. But by then a second guard was in action, and blew the fools head clean off his shoulders.

Throughout it all, Lady J had remained in her seat, cool as a Kuritan's Heart.

It took while for security to regain control of the panicking crowd, so the management announced that the final round would be postponed until the next day, with all remaining players being given free rooms for the night. Two of the others decided that the competition was too heated for their liking and bowed out, but I was hardly in a position to do the same. So I found myself back in the same room as before, still riding high on the adrenaline rush, when there was a knock on the door.

I opened it to find Lady J standing on the other side.

Yes, she spent the night. No, I won't go into details. Some people might like regaling others with tales of their romantic exploits, but I'm not that kind of girl. I will say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to burn off that excess energy, and that she was gone by the time I woke the next morning, leaving only the lingering scent of her intoxicating perfume behind.

I don't know if she was looking to confuse me before the final round, or if, like me, she was looking for a chance to confirm she was still alive after a close call, but I felt surprisingly calm and relaxed as we settled down for what was sure to be a game to remember, win or lose. The number of chips in play was staggering, even with most of the smaller ones exchanged for higher denominations. A regular 6R is a little under five-million C-Bills, fresh from the factory, but we were playing for almost four times that amount. I guess it's true what they say, that the House Always Wins, because they were looking at one hell of a payday when all was said and done.

We sat there, like a bunch of long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs, as my old grandma used to say, carefully eyeing each other for any sign of weakness. This wasn't a game any more, but rather a battle of skills, nerve and luck. And while I had my own share of all three, it wasn't my battlefield of choice.

The dealer cut the deck, and battle began.

Like before, I got good cards. Not great, but enough to keep me in the game while the others were eliminated one by one. There were no more theatrics, no more silliness. Everyone knew the odds and had accepted them. To have gotten to the final round was no mean feat, and certainly worth a few drinks after. Hand after hand, the piles of chips ebbed and flowed, until I found myself sitting across from Lady J.

"Told you we'd meet again." she smiled in a way part of me hoped was sweetly, "Feel like making it interesting?"
"I have a feeling that life's interesting enough as it is." I smiled back, straining to control every last millimeter of my body. "Oh, but this is where it gets fun." she winked, "How about we raise the stakes of our little side-bet?"

"Considering that you still haven't told me exactly what I stand to lose..."

"I know. doesn't not knowing just set you on fire?"

I hate to admit it, but she was right. While I wasn't stupid, I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and not knowing exactly what I'd agreed to was like a smoldering flame in the pit of my stomach, a fire that was growing with every heart-beat. Whoever, whatever, she was, she was slowly drawing me like a fish on a line. Part of me wanted to lose, to find out she how far she'd take me... but if I'd wanted to be a kept woman, I'd had plenty of offers in the past. I was too much of a free spirit to ever allow myself to be tied down to anyone or anywhere, regardless of how intoxicating they were.

"I like the bet the way it is." I shook my head.

"Your loss." she pushed all her chips forward without even looking at her cards, "All in."

An audible gasp went around the room. she had slightly more chips than I did, meaning that I had to match her move or fold. And I knew, deep down, that she'd just keep doing the same while I slowly lost chips to the Big and Small Blinds until she won. I didn't know much about her, but I knew that much for sure. This was her big power play, that ultimate thrill she'd been chasing. to risk it all on a handful of cards she'd never even glanced at.

Ice ran through my body, making me shiver despite myself. I couldn't help but think that she'd somehow, in some way, been behind my streak of good luck, that I was only sitting there at that table, because she wanted it that way. And her eyes... damn her eyes! So deep I felt like I would drown in them. The rest of the room seemed to fade away into the background, leaving just the two of us and the table. She somehow seemed larger than life, as if I was only seeing the smallest part of something far bigger, far stranger, than she had any right to be...

"Call." I pushed my own stack of chips forward, snapping myself out of the trance-like state she'd put me into.

The room fell deathly silent, all eyes except mine and Lady J's on the massive pile of chips in the middle of the table. Sure, some of the bigger worlds in the Inner Sphere, twenty million in chips might not be much, but on Circinus? I doubt anyone there had ever seen that much money in one place at one time.

The dealer slowly turned over the cards. Queen of Hearts, Two of Clubs, Ten of Hearts, Two of Diamonds, Jack of Hearts and Ten of Spades.

Slowly and deliberately, Lady J turned her cards over one at a time. Eight of Hearts, then the Nine of Hearts.

A Straight Flush, Queen High.

All eyes turned to me, or rather, my cards.

My pulse was pounding in my head so loudly I thought my chest would explode. My mouth was so dry I felt my tongue stick to my lower jaw. Everything, and I mean everything came down to the two cards that lay before me.

I reached out, slowly, almost hesitantly. Part of me didn't want to turn them over, didn't want the game to end. The rest of my life was just moments away. I would leave that table the proud owner of a new BattleMech, or whatever it was Lady J had in mind for me. And to this day, I couldn't tell you which outcome excited me more.

Time slowed to a crawl as I reached out. The seasons changed, the stars span around over head, empires rose and fell as I felt the edge of the cards against my finger tips. The breath left my body as I looked up to lock eyes with Lady J, and tossed the cards into the air.

They span in the air, somehow in slow motion, but also too fast to see what they where. They fell to the table, bounced, knocked into each other, then landed, face up.

King of Hearts. Ace of Hearts.

A Royal Flush.

Reality snapped back like an elastic band that had been pulled out to the very point of breaking, then let go. I felt like I was outside myself, watching events unfold from somewhere else. The crowd went wild, whooping and cheering like wild men. The owner of the casino coming over to shake my hand. We posed for photographs as he handed me the registration documents for the Wolverine, then there was an endless line of people wanting to shake my hand.

I felt one of them place something in my hand, and I looked up in time to see Lady J backing away into the sea of people. She paused just long enough to blow me a kiss, and then, as quickly and mysteriously as she had come into my life, she was gone.

But she was good to her word. the card she'd palmed me held the details of a DropShip heading into the Free Worlds League, as well as contact details for someone at Gibson Federated BattleMechs. All I had to was tell them that 'Lady J' had sent me, and they booked me an express trip to Gibson and a fat paycheck for letting them go over the Wolverine with a fine-toothed comb. Even they couldn't tell me just who my mysterious benefactor was, just that they'd learned to listen when her name, apparently one of many she used, was invoked.

It's been more than twenty years now, and I still can't stop thinking about her.

The End

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