Veronica awoke to the blinding light of the rising sun outside a hotel window. Her head was pounding so hard that she instantly wondered if she had been drinking the night before. A knock came at the door, and she tried to let her eyes adjust to the light as she turned her head toward the door, making no effort to rise to answer it. Whomever it was could wait. She rolled herself over and rose to a seated position, which made her head pound harder. Unlike a hangover, it seemed to hurt most at the base of the back of her neck. She felt with one hand underneath her raven black hair. There were two thick, fresh scabs. Like a vampire bite, if vampires were even real.
Ready to look out the window, Veronica stared out across the landscape of neon-lit spires of the endless city that her hazy memory reminded her was controlled by Cyber Bet Syndicate. But why was she in this hotel room? Where was she, exactly? Veronica looked over at a mirror that was mounted above a sink, and went to wash her face. She looked like some kind of cyberpunk kid, which was very strange because she worked as a poker dealer. That memory came suddenly and strong. She knew how to skillfully deal for every poker game known to man, and she had a distinct love for playing the game, herself. Maybe she had drank far too much while playing poker last night? A casino uniform was folded neatly on the bedside table, so Veronica changed into it, and looked at herself in the mirror again. No familiarity. Strange.
The knock came at the door again. Maybe that was her manager or something? Veronica couldn't remember who her boss was, just that she felt confident enough that she had completed her training and could perform well at her job. She went to peek through the peephole, cautiously. An old man wearing a long duster coat stood in the hallway while another man wearing a suit seemed to be having an argument with a casino employee.
"What is going on here?" Veronica opened the door, and squinted at the employee's uniform. The name on the uniform, "Darius," didn't seem to ring any bells as far as if he was someone she had worked with before.
"Hi Veronica," the old man in the duster said, causing her to snap her attention over to him. "I need you to come with me." His voice was gentle, but urgent. Veronica searched her mind for his familiar face, but there was some sort of mental block. Was he a friend?
"You've got a shift at eleven!" Darius leaned away from the man wearing a suit to inform Veronica. She nodded and shook her head at the man in the duster.
"Look, buddy, I've got a couple hours I can play poker before I've got to go to work. You're welcome to come join me at the table, but I don't want to be anywhere else." The certainty of her voice surprised her. She loved the game so much and couldn't wait to buy in. In particular, she felt like she loved to start tables running at stakes that didn't have others playing at them yet, as a favor to the casino bosses that had given her the world's most awesome job.
Veronica made a beeline to the poker room with the man in a duster keeping close by. She noticed he had a cybernetic arm.
"Hey, I'm sorry, what's your name and do I know you?" Veronica didn't really make eye contact as she scanned the poker room to see what stakes were running. There was nobody playing 2k/5k credit games, so she asked the woman running the floor to start a table.
"You can call me Old Man Coffee." The man in the duster put on a cybernetic augmentation jammer handed to him by a casino employee and they walked to an open table. Veronica looked around at all of the dealers, but she didn't recognize any of them. That seemed pretty odd, since she worked here. Maybe she had just recently started?
The game they were playing was Texas Hold'em, a game she knew well. Two cards were dealt face-down to each player. Up to five cards cards would be dealt face-up on the table. She had to match her hidden cards to the community cards on the table to make the best five-card poker hand. Three other players wandered over to join their table, so they were playing five-handed, but this Coffee guy seemed to only want to talk to her.
"Cyber Bet Syndicate captured you last night and installed their mind-control implants in the back of your head," Coffee was explaining as Veronica reached forward for the dealer to scan her Player's Club chip in her right arm. She noticed the injection site for the implant was fresh on her arm. "You've got to come with me so that we can discuss a case that you agreed to solve with me." Coffee kept his voice low and kind. He was fudging the truth a bit about her agreement, but since Cyber Bet Syndicate had clearly wiped her memory of the previous night, it seemed like a helpful white lie.
Veronica shook her head as she clumsily moved magnetically-stacked glowing chips forward to raise a bet with an Ace and a Jack as her hidden cards.
"I'm not a detective, I'm a poker player first and a great poker dealer second."
Coffee, moved chips of his own forward to call her bet. The dealer dealt a five, a Queen, and a Jack on the table, and Veronica eagerly placed a bet with a card matching the second highest card on the board. Her magnetic tower of chips tipped over awkwardly in the middle of the table, and the dealer swept them into the rest of the chips that were accumulating.
"Look at you," Coffee drawled, "I don't see how you think you're a poker player. If you have all this life experience, why can't you handle the chips without knocking them over?" Veronica squeezed her fists together, ignoring him and trying to count how many chips were in the pot as an Ace was dealt on the board. "You can't count the chips easily, can you?" Coffee pressed. "If you were some star poker dealer you'd be able to do a pot count instantly."
A cold sense of dead filled Veronica's stomach as she bet on a ten that was dealt on the table. Maybe this Old Man Coffee was right. Coffee flipped over his hand after calling her bet. He had three of a kind fives, whereas she only had a pair. The dealer pushed the huge stack of chips over to Coffee. Veronica felt a little thrill, and she was tempted to play another hand, but she tore her eyes away from her tiny amount of remaining chips to meet Coffee's eyes. "Let's go." She said.
The two of them hurried down the hallway away from the poker room, Coffee's jammer helmet now removed. Veronica paused at a slot machine that was in one of the corridors, but Coffee gently pulled her away by her wrist.
"First thing's first," he growled, "I've got to get that mind-control chip out of your head. I know a guy. My boss Max has done it thousands of times, he's really good at it." Veronica nodded, losing track of the twists and turns Coffee was taking in this maze-like building. "Once that damn thing is out of your head, your real memories will come back. You're a phenomenal hacker, and I need those skills to help me take down Cyber Bet Syndicate for these illegal implants."
"But, I just want to play poker!" Veronica whined. Coffee slowed to a walk so that he could look sideways at her with a smile.
"That's the good news," he said, "I'll teach you how to play some real poker so that we can figure out who Cyber Bet Syndicate is laundering money to in order to control this whole town. Help me find some mob connections we need to put away." Veronica looked up at the tall man's weathered face. She felt comfortable with him, so maybe he had been a friend of some kind. He had reassured her that she wouldn't have to give up playing poker to join him in an adventure, far from it. Maybe he was even her dad? Veronica's mom was Chinese, but she had never met her father, a white man who had died of a drug overdose before she was born. Veronica smiled, and reached automatically to squeeze the hand of this fatherly man. "I'm in."
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