A single bulb swung nearly weightlessly beneath the table, causing the shadows beneath it to ebb and flow. The profiles of five individuals danced effortlessly as their owners remained comparatively still. Four were sitting huddled around a thick, oaken table that seemed of . There were flat bills and chips scattered all over it. It was difficult to tell if they had a specific owner or if they belonged to the group as a whole.
Two of them had knives drawn beneath the table, while the other two had hands on the under-side of the table itself, seemingly ready to upend the sturdy wood and use it as a shield.
“Gentlemen,” Said the final person, a blonde man in a long black coat with a scruffy beard and bifocals. He pulled from his pocket a carefully curated stack of jewels, then sat down casually as he pulled the cards towards him. He began to shuffle them with the grace and ease of a professional, pulling off a few simple tricks in the process, “Could I possibly join?”
The others looked at him, then at the cash he’d placed on the table. His money was bringing a new edge to the game, that was for certain. But a stranger who had come from nowhere was definitely a liability. Still… he was already dealing cards…
“20,000 jewels to deal with the thieves stealing my customers, signed — Owner of the black cat lounge.” Kameyama read aloud. He looked at the small AI projection on his shoulder and said, “Customers moving from one shop to another? That’s just business. What customers could be worth 20,000 jewels?”
Optix searched for a possible solution for a small business to want to spend that much in order to lure customers back, “Loyal customers can bring in a hefty sum if they stick around,” Optix offered, “And the chances of a customer leaving after habitual service are low. Humans are by and large creatures of habit.”
“Mm. If there's gambling, whales are another option. They’re usually very loyal to a place, which is why they’re treated so well. It takes something big for them to park down in one place but then it’ll take something even bigger for them to shift. They aren’t quick to decide which is why they aren’t quick to move around.”
“You… sound like you know a lot, sir.” Optix offered, spinning around the chain on his neck before returning to her spot on his shoulder. Although she technically lived within the six sided charm on his chain, she had become accustomed to relaxing on his shoulder, provided he didn’t move too much. Since her form was still holographic, produced by the charm and the necklace attached to it, she couldn’t squirm around too much or parts of her would start to disappear.
“I have experience,” Kameyama said, “Besides, what kind of place is this? Kitty lounge,” He glanced at the job notice again, “Er. Black Cat Lounge. Not much better.” He looked at Optix for a search, which she readily performed, spinning in a circle as she searched for the answer.
“A great question, aaaaas usual. Aaaaaand found!” She displayed the information in front of Kameyama for him to read as she read aloud, “Black Cat Lounge, a small bar in the south of town called the Lowlands due to its geographical decline, is known for its low light, grungy atmosphere and cheap beer. The bar was once a hit place due to risqué burlesque dancers and exotic wines, but something seems to have changed all that.”
As he started heading towards the Lowlands in the southern part of the city, Kameyama asked, “What changed? I suppose times change out all fads, but surely a place like that would have been able to change with the times?”
“A great question, as always!” Optix beamed as she spun around again, “There are no official reasons. However, according to local legend… A man named Samiel visited the place fifteen years ago and asked for a drink and the keys to the bar. Only given one— guess which— it’s said that he damned the place to squalor and vowed that he would see the bar crumble come hell or high water.”
“And now we’re dealing with a curse,” Kameyama murmured, “I can’t imagine this will end well.”
It took them a short amount of time to arrive at the bar itself, and they could see what a dump it was. It seemed as though someone had done their best to fight against time to take care of it, but time was much quicker to ravage the building they were to repair it. Pushing the door open, Kameyama instinctively shrunk back for fear that it would fall right off its hinges. It didn’t, mercifully.
Looking around, he saw a man behind the bar, and about three people hanging around the bar itself, one of whom was cuddling a beer like one would a precious cat. The other two seemed to be chatting like coworkers who didn’t mean to see each other outside of work. “Is the owner here?” He asked, “My name is Kameyama, I’m a wizard and I’m here about the job?”
“Ah. Yeah.” The Bartender said, waddling over towards the door, “‘Bout time someone answered that thing. My patrons are disappearing!”
Kameyama nodded and moved to meet the bartender halfway, sitting at the stool closest to the door. It was dilapidated and sad, “About that… we had some theories that there could be something about your service that—“
“No no no, not leaving. Disappearing! They’re stealing my customers! Listen, a place called the Demons’ Den opened up just down the street, underneath the butcher’s. I’ve seen my guys go down in there, lured away by pretty girls dressed in skimpy outfits. But then they disappear! Their families haven’t seen them in days, it’s not a change in habit, it’s a disappearance.”
While his pendant glowed lightly, indicating that Optix was actively taking notes, Kameyama raised an eyebrow. “Why haven’t the local guards become involved?”
“Look… we aren’t exactly the uppity ups, down here. The Lowlands don’t get a lot of help. The jewels I’m offering you are collected from everyone involved. Could you help us out?”
“Absolutely. I think the first step towards getting them back is stopping anyone else from disappearing. At least I can identify the perpetrators and go from there. You said the place itself is located underneath the butcher’s? It has a backroom storage unit, I’m guessing?”
“Y-yeah. No one’s seen the butcher in a time either…”
“Sounds like a place a guy could make some money. Listen… I’ll need the twenty thousand jewels up front. Let me explain...”
Sitting down at the table, Kameyama dealt the cards as natural as breathing, “What’re we playing?”
“Five card,” One of them responded as they all settled into their seats, somewhat uncomfortably, “What’s your name?”
“Einhart,” Kameyama responded smoothly. “Gerald Einhart. I heard there was something interesting going on here, so I decided to check it out. Found nothing but a good game. Fifteen.”
“Looking for something interesting huh?” Another one responded. He seemed to be having a hard time suppressing laughter, “Either you really don’t know what you’re after or you really, really do. See the fifteen. Raise ten.”
A chorus of “Call” responded to the raise. Kameyama stared at the most recent speaker from over his bifocals and said, “Call.”
It took naught but two hours before every single jewel on the table, the chips and a few watches, were all on his side. Cards were strewn across the table haphazardly. Kameyama pulled the cash towards him in a self-congratulatory manner. “Well this has been fun gentlemen. I think I’ll be telling Samiel how easy it was to take your money.” He was fishing, and he knew it, but if he was correct...
Surprisingly, the four were up, weapons raised and pointed at Kameyama. The wizard himself had his hands up in a surrendering manner, “Easy, friends. We wouldn’t want things to get dangerous.” He wiggled his fingers slightly and every single one of the cards began to glow with his signature light blue electric energy. The four thugs hesitated. “How about you call your boss in here and we talk about why I'm really here?”
Ten minutes after that, a surprisingly large man barged through the door with a butcher’s knife pointed straight at Kameyama, “You tell me what this is all about, right now!”
“Sure.” Kameyama said, “I want you to quit whatever you're doing here. I think we can settle this over a game. Draw a single card. Highest wins. I win, you stop stealing customers from the Black Cat Lounge, take your operation elsewhere. You win, you can kill me and chop me into pieces with that knife there.”
“Hah! What’s stopping me from doing that anyway?”
Kameyama’s fingers wiggled and the cards lit up again. “That, mostly. Come on. I’ll even let you draw first.”
“Erg. Fine. I’ll show you goddammit.” He reached for one of the cards on the table and flipped it over. The queen of hearts. “There! Eh? How about that—“
Kameyama flipped a card right in front of the butcher using the electricity that had coursed through his fingers prior. King of spades. “Tough luck.” He murmured. Fingers moving to some unseen beat, he flipped the cards over one by one, revealing them all to be kings of various suits, save for the one the boss had drawn, “Best not to play against a stacked deck.” He flipped backwards in his seat, barely landing on his feet as the giant man swung the butcher’s knife at him. He’d technically won the wager. However, it seemed the fight was just starting.