Chapter 1 - Jack and Halle
The Calvard Republic.
There's a city in this country, a place where migrants from the East have recreated their homeland down to the bright lacquered tiles. Nicknamed the Eastern Quarter, it's a vibrant place, bustling and hot.
The visible parts of the city aren't the only bustling areas, either--the underworld is just as lively.
For over a decade, the Eastern Quarter had been embroiled in a battle between old and new gangs. Half a year ago, the balance of power between the two changed significantly...all thanks to the outcome of a single game of poker. The newcomers suffered a crushing defeat, while the established gangs enjoyed a glorious victory.
The two players in that pivotal game, however, cared nothing for the gangs' territory disputes.
The first was a man named Jack, a prolific gambler known by the moniker 'Victory Jack' because of the countless wins he had to his name.
The second was the daughter of the late 'King,' Jack's former teacher and once the most skilled cardsharp in the region. Her name was Halle.
The match between them took many unexpected turns, and shocking truths were dealt as readily as hands.
The game eventually ended with Jack claiming the win, but Halle's loss also liberated her from the seedy underworld she'd been drawn into.
After her infamous exit, Halle took to working as a waitress in a run-down bar on the northern outskirts of the Eastern Quarter.
For Jack, who called that run-down bar home, it wasn't quite the ending he'd had in mind, but Halle's unyielding resolve forced him to resign himself to the inevitable.
Several months passed after that fateful game, and the two continued to live in relative harmony.
It was on one such peaceful day, the heat of summer at its peak, that Halle decided to take Jack out on a little trip. Their destination: the new town adjacent to the Eastern Quarter. Preferring to spend his time in the comfort and seclusion of the bar, Jack considered this idea nothing short of torture.
'Man, if only we had an orbal car...' he grumbled.
Halle shot him a skeptical look. 'You can drive, Jack?' He shrugged. 'Well enough. Been a while, but wouldn't be much of a man if I couldn't. There aren't many guys of MY caliber who can't handle a--' 'Whatever,' she interrupted, mercilessly cutting him short as they approached their destination.
A newly constructed building with a giant sign above the entrance loomed before them. It was a movie theater--one of only a small number in the entirety of the Republic.
Chapter 2 - Soleil of Love
Movies were a cultural phenomenon relatively new to Calvard and virtually unknown on the rest of the continent. They were stories told through moving pictures with sound recorded using an orbal camera, edited, and then displayed on giant screens in theaters for the enjoyment of the masses. And though movies were still uncommon, they were rapidly gaining popularity.
Ordinarily, Jack spurned Halle's invitations to venture out into the great outdoors, but his curiosity about this new innovation overcame his reluctance. 'So, which of the two are we gonna watch? This 'Gunslinger from Hell' one looks good t'me...' he said.
'Two tickets for 'Soleil of Love,' please!' Halle said to Jack, her face positively beaming.
Jack knew then that he had been a fool to even think he might have any choice in the matter. From the day that Halle started working at the bar it quickly became apparent that he had no hope of winning an argument against her. It would be easy to attribute this to the history between him and King, but truth be told, it was just his nature to fold against a hand like hers.
He sighed. 'Soleil of Love,' as he recalled, was a movie adaptation of a popular novel. A LOVE story. The genre alone was enough to convince Jack he wasn't in for a fun time, but he knew better than to try and resist.
Reluctantly, he stepped inside the theater. At least the building had air conditioning. Love story or no, it would be marginally better than standing outside in the sweltering heat, at least.
'Wow! Look at that, Jack! This is so cool!' Halle's eyes were alight with excitement as she took in the building's modern fixtures. She caught sight of the refreshment counter and dragged him over to it. After much wheedling and begging, Jack bought popcorn and drinks for the two of them. Snacks in hand, they made their way to their seats for the start of the movie.
The film began to play and a hopelessly attractive man and woman were projected onto the screen. Jack watched their romantic and tragic tale with stoic resignation while Halle sat captivated by every scene.
Eventually, the movie reached its torrid climax. The two lovers overcame the many obstacles in their path and finally came together as one in marriage, sharing a kiss so passionate that Halle couldn't help but avert her eyes.
She glanced over at Jack to see his reaction...and found him fast asleep in his seat.
After the credits rolled, the two of them made their way to a nearby cafe.
The coffee shop had a relaxed, peaceful atmosphere, but the mood between them was anything but.
Halle was furiously stuffing herself full of parfait (which Jack had been forced to buy her, of course), while he could only sit by and watch in horrified fascination.
Chapter 3 - Nike and Leonard
It was her third.
'I cannot BELIEVE you! Your first time going to see a movie and you fall asleep?!' she said around mouthfuls of cream and fruit.
Jack tried to sidestep her outrage and instead gestured to the remains of the dessert. 'You all done there? Had enough?' 'I'll decide when I've had enough!' she snapped, glaring over the rim of the glass.
He raised his hands in surrender. Jack knew from experience that there was nothing he could do when she was in a mood like this. Anything he said would just make it worse, and weathering the storm was the best he could hope for.
Of course, Halle knew exactly what he was trying to do, and that just made her angrier. Her glare grew more pointed.
'I see you haven't gotten any better at understanding women's hearts, Jack,' said a female voice at Jack's elbow. He started. How long she had been there, he didn't know.
Halle opened her mouth to say something, but when she beheld the owner of the voice nothing came out.
It was a woman in her late twenties. She had delicate, youthful features and yet exuded the allure of a much more mature woman. Her hair was wavy and platinum blond, and she wore a glamorous red dress that was open at the front, displaying her generous bosom to its best advantage.
It was a level of seductiveness Halle knew she would never be able to achieve.
What had stolen her breath wasn't the woman's attractiveness, however. It was the fact that she was the very actress who had played the heroine in the movie they had just watched.
'Hello there,' the woman purred. 'The name's Nike. I'm...an actress, I suppose. It's nice to meet you, Halle. And nice to see you again, Jack.
Jack squirmed under her dazzling smile.
'Do you know her?' Halle asked him.
'Yeah...' Jack said, not meeting her gaze. 'We go back a while.'
The woman's eyes twinkled. 'Such a cold-hearted man... You could be a LITTLE happier to see me after all this time, you know.'
'So she's King's daughter, then, huh?'
Jack and Halle turned to see a man in an expensive suit approaching their table. He seemed to be with Nike.
'It's a pleasure to meet you, Halle,' the man continued. 'My name is Leonard.' Then he addressed Jack.
'It's been seven years, I believe? Good to see you again, too, Jack.'
Jack's reply was casual, but the tone conveyed great respect, as if addressing a superior. The power balance between the two of them was immediately clear to Halle from that alone.
Leonard was a man in his late thirties, roughly five years Jack's senior. They had both learned together under King, but being the younger of the two, Jack had come to treat the other man deferentially, much like he had his former teacher.
Unlike Jack, however, Leonard had given up the gambling life and moved on to playing a new 'game.' Now he was an up-and-coming politician, regularly featured on the front pages of newspapers and well known to the people of Calvard.
An actress and a politician... The two of them certainly stood out. Several other customers seemed to realize who they were, and before long, all eyes in the room were on them.
Nike sighed. 'Ugh... This is why I hate this job sometimes.'
'Haha. You know you love the attention,' Leonard replied with a grin. 'It does, however, make this place a bit difficult to talk in... Mind coming with us, Jack?'
Knowing full well he couldn't possibly refuse, Jack shrugged and stood up from his seat.
Chapter 4 - The Race
Jack and Halle followed Leonard and Nike out and eventually found themselves at an amateur racetrack. It seemed closed for the day, though, and no cars sped around the grounds or crowds graced the stands.
Halle gaped at the circuit. 'Wow, it's a racetrack!' All of the excitement that she had felt in the theater came flooding back. It had been years since she had visited one, and the memory of that trip with her father had grown very faint. Seeing this track was almost as if experiencing it again for the first time.
Nike smiled at her enthusiasm. 'You're so cute,' she said.
'Yeah. I can see why King doted on her so much now,' Leonard replied with a nod. 'Well, seeing as you're here...want to see an actual race, Halle?'
Halle's eyes grew wide. 'Can I?!'
Leonard nodded again. 'You can...if the man you're with says yes, anyway.'
Jack shifted uncomfortably as all eyes turned to him.
It was obvious that Leonard's true motivation for the invitation was to get Jack to participate and that he had no qualms about using Halle to that end. King's other former student was still every bit the calculating man that he used to be--and that was something that Jack had never been good at dealing with.
Still, he owed Leonard a lot. He had learned a great deal from his former teacher, but he had learned just as much, if not more, from Leonard. How to drive an orbal car was just one of these things. While King had always been the expert on gambling, Leonard was the authority on sports and all other forms of entertainment.
Leonard turned to Jack. 'I was really happy when I heard that you'd gotten a bit of fire back after that game against Halle. I thought you were a lost cause when King died. All those years wasted just rotting away...' He gestured to the track. 'I want to see the Victory Jack I used to know again. So c'mon. Show me.' Jack shrugged. '...Well, if you insist. Haven't been behind the wheel in quite some time, though, so I hardly think I'll be a worthy opponent.'
'Heh. That's my man.'
Challenge accepted, the pair set about choosing their vehicles. Leonard, it seemed, was a friend of the track's owner. Not only could they choose whichever cars they wanted, but they had the entire racetrack to themselves as well.
'I'll go with this old Verne model,' concluded Jack.
Leonard laughed. 'I'll use one that has the same specs, then. Wouldn't want to have an unfair advantage against you.'
Cars decided, they moved to the starting line where a delighted Halle was to give the signal.
'On your marks... Get set... Go!' And they were off, Leonard in the lead and Jack following.
In the past, the two of them had always been equally skilled at driving. In this race, their cars also had roughly equal specs, so the odds of Jack being able to catch up on any of the course's straights were practically zero. As such, the outcome would be determined by how he fared on the course's three corners.
The first corner came.
Jack kept his foot on the accelerator until the last second, trying to seize a chance to overtake. Leonard, however, responded by doing the same and denied Jack his chance.
The second corner came.
Jack followed the bend, conserving as much of his speed as possible, but Leonard maneuvered to block him, and he was forced to remain in second place.
The third corner came.
The last of the corners was a sharp hairpin turn-- a fitting final battlefield to determine the outcome of the race, and it was here that the tides turned. Whether it was due to overconfidence from his earlier domination was unclear, but Leonard made a minor mistake that Jack was able to take advantage of, and he seized the lead.
All that remained was the straight to the finish line. In the distance, Jack could see Nike, racing flag held casually in her hands. Seeing her, he unconsciously loosened his grip on the accelerator. Leonard surged past him and was victorious.
The race was over.
Halle came rushing over and Jack greeted her with a bitter smile.
She clapped her hands together. 'You did really well, Jack! It's just a shame you got passed at the end.' Leonard and Nike joined them. Nike's expression was impassive, but Leonard's was livid.
'You held back again, didn't you?' he said.
Jack hesitated. 'No, I...' He hadn't done it on purpose, but he realized that Leonard was right.
Chapter 5 - Daily Life
The truth was, he had been too afraid to ask, but he assumed that Nike must be Leonard's lover. Seeing her at the finish line on the last straight, he had found himself not wanting to embarrass Leonard in front of her, causing him to subconsciously hold back.
In addition, Jack hated being the focus of Leonard's attention. King had always favored Jack, seeing more potential within him than his other student--a fact that had filled Leonard with envy and resentment.
Sensing this, Jack had begun to hold back whenever he was forced to compete against Leonard...a tactic that infuriated Leonard to no end. To him, Jack's behavior was nothing less than arrogance.
Leonard clenched his teeth in anger, biting back further commentary on the race.
Three days passed since the race. Jack and Halle were both back in the bar, wiling away the time the same way as always. In Halle's case, this meant working hard taking orders and carrying drinks. In Jack's, it meant sleeping in his room behind the bar well into the day.
Contrary to his appearance and indolent schedule, Jack was actually a man of many talents. Thanks to that and the kindness of the bar's owner, he had effectively ended up becoming its live-in gambler, something Jack was actually quite proud of.
He was also charismatic enough to keep the more rowdy clientele in check, although how much they actually liked him was a question only they knew the answer to.
The situation had changed somewhat since Halle's arrival, however. While Jack was still the bar's resident grifter, and his position relative to its other customers the same as ever, Halle was clearly on a level above Jack, carefully manipulating him into doing whatever she wanted him to. It was an endeavor she had the support of the punks who hung out there in doing, too.
In other words, Halle was now the one in charge.
'Jack,' she called. 'The owner needs you to go and buy some ingredients for him.'
She got a yawn in response, then a muzzy, 'Huh? Why do I gotta...?'
'Those who don't work don't get to eat. That's the way of the world! So go on. Time for you to do some work, too.'
'Ugh...' he grumbled, emerging from the room. 'Just you wait...'
Nonetheless, he obeyed the instructions of the girl fifteen years his junior.
Despite his protests, he wasn't entirely opposed to doing what she asked. What he WAS opposed to was the smart-ass grin on the face of one of the punks following the exchange.
He glared at the punk as he passed. 'What're you lookin' at?'
'Fine, fine...' he groused, and resigned to the inevitable, set off.
The battered door of the bar gave its familiar shriek as he passed through it. No sooner had he left, however, than the door let out another shriek (one could only assume either the owner didn't have the money to get a new one fitted, or he had decided it was actually quite convenient as a doorbell of sorts), heralding the arrival of a new customer. This particular caller couldn't possibly have been more out of place.
It was none other than Nike, the actress.
Chapter 6 - Women
'Welcome to our... Nike?!' Halle gaped at the woman.
'I can't believe you're really working in a run-down place like this now,' Nike replied with a laugh.
She sauntered over to the counter and claimed one of the seats in front of it with the ease of a regular.
Silence permeated the bar, booze forgotten as all eyes drank in the sight of her.
'Good to see you again,' she said to the owner. 'I'm kind of surprised, though. Your customers seem more... well behaved these days.'
The owner laughed. 'Really? We've got Halle to thank for that, then.'
'You know the owner here? Then...um... Were you and Jack, I mean...'
Nike flashed a smile at her. 'He's a former lover of mine, yes.'
Halle was stunned into silence by the response. It wasn't as though she hadn't thought it to be the case; she just hadn't expected Nike to admit the truth so freely.
Nike giggled at the expression on her face. 'That look of surprise is really cute, too... Maybe you should try becoming an actress yourself. I definitely think you've got the potential.'
'Really?' Halle gave a nervous laugh. 'I'm pretty sure I'm not cut out for it...' Her usual confidence deflated under the playful gaze of the older woman. She might have no problem bullying Jack, but Nike was another matter.
She hesitated. Deep down, Halle had a lot that she wanted to ask about Jack and Nike's relationship with one another, but she couldn't bring herself to do so.
As if reading her thoughts, Nike's perfect smile widened.
'I don't mind answering your questions,' she began, 'but it's no fun if I just tell you everything, so why don't we make a little wager? If you win, I'll tell you what you want to know...but if I win, I've got something I want to ask YOU.'
Exactly what someone like Nike would have to ask someone like her, Halle couldn't fathom, but she wasn't the type to back down from a challenge when it came to gambling. She took after her father in that regard.
They decided on cards--a game of blackjack. Nike seemed unconcerned when Halle confessed she was rather good at it.
Despite being a mere fifteen years of age, Halle was nothing short of a genius when it came to gambling. Part of it was due to the incredible amount of effort and dedication she had poured into acquiring her skills, but it was also thanks to her exceptional memory. Her powers of recollection were so great that not even her father nor Jack could compare. That, more than anything, was her greatest weapon.
It also allowed her to be an expert at card counting, an ability that let users almost predict the cards in the next hand by remembering all previous cards used in the game. Blackjack in particular gave card counters a significant advantage, making it a game that Halle had always been especially skilled at.
Chapter 7 - The Shadow
The game began.
Watching Nike, Halle quickly came to the conclusion that Nike wasn't used to playing blackjack at all. By the end, however, Nike had somehow accumulated more chips than Halle and was clearly the victor.
Halle leaned back in her chair, impressed. '...I can't believe you managed to cheat.'
'Heh. If you can't prove it was cheating, it's notcheating.'
Halle hadn't intended to let her guard down against Nike; she had just misjudged her skill level. The older woman had made use of her own years of experience and acting talents to feign inexperience. It had been a ploy designed to mask her skills and fool Halle into complacency, and Halle had fallen for it utterly.
Nike winked at her. 'I AM an actress by profession, after all.'
'Well, then...' Nike continued. 'I take it you'll be willing to answer my question?'
Halle nodded. 'That was the deal.'
'Haha. Good girl. Now, I realize it might be insensitive to ask about this...but King didn't happen to leave anything in your care seven years ago, did he?'
Halle cast her mind back to her last memory of her father and felt a slight twinge of sadness thinking about what had happened to him after it. The pain of his loss had subsided since she met Jack and would likely continue to do so, but it would be a lie to say that it had completely gone.
She racked her brain seeking an answer to Nike's question, and quickly realized that the other woman was probably asking about the jeweled Eastern-style necklace that she wore around her neck.
'This,' Halle said, showing her the pendant. 'He gave it to me when he came to visit for the last time.' Nike was silent for a moment. 'Thank you. That's all I wanted to know.' She rose from the stool. 'Well, then, I suppose I should be going. I wouldn't want to keep Leonard waiting.'
Her farewell said, she handed a tip to the bar's owner and exited with a beguiling sweep through the door.
The punks watched her departure in silence, none daring to break her spell even after she was gone.
After Nike had left, Halle resumed her usual work.
Time ticked by as she wiped down tables and busied herself.
She sighed. 'Jack sure is late...'
It had been almost an hour since he had left to run his errands. She wasn't concerned about him, though.
She'd bet her boots that he was just off somewhere slacking or messing about.
She stepped outside through the back entrance to take out the garbage. Just as she did, a great shadow filled the alley, blanketing her in darkness.
'Hey, hey! Guess who's back!' came the loud call of none other than Jack. His voice was almost drowned out by the shriek of the door as he flung it open.
One look at him proved Halle's suspicions on his tardiness correct; he had far more shopping bags than he should have.
'Huh? Where'd Halle go?' he asked, noticing her absence.
The owner glanced around. 'Now you mention it, I haven't seen her since she went to take the garbage out earlier.'
Jack was suddenly overcome by a great sense of foreboding. He hurried out the back entrance, but only a collection of scattered garbage bags awaited him.
Bags...and a very conspicuously placed card.
On its front was a simple message.
'We have Halle. If you want her back, come to the designated place. - Leonard'
Jack's angry cry echoed in the empty alley. His face a thundercloud, he crushed the card in his fist.
Chapter 8 - Black and White
The 'designated place' alluded to on the card was one of the largest and most well-known racetracks in all of Calvard. Part of its fame was due to the fact that it permitted gambling on its races, and this attracted a large number of visitors. Furthermore, today was one of the track's biggest races of the year, a day where many highly skilled teams of racers gathered to compete. It was a popular event, and the number of spectators was even greater than usual. The payouts for those who gambled on the races were bigger as a result, too.
Stepping out onto the track Jack sighed. 'Sure brings back memories...'
As he surveyed the familiar grounds, he found himself reminiscing about the times King had brought him and Leonard there to hone their gambling instincts all those years ago.
Leonard was the one who had predicted winners correctly the most often. He had spent a lot of time analyzing the outcomes of past races and bet large sums on the cars most likely to win. As a result of relying on safe bets like these, though, his payouts tended to be comparatively low. King often used to laugh at him for it, always remarking, 'Where's the fun in that?'
King, meanwhile, used his brilliant instincts and powers of observation to guide him and successfully predicted the outcome of one race after another. Of the three of them, it was he who consistently earned the most mira.
For Jack's part, his interest lay in winning big on a single bet. He lost money far more often than the other two but occasionally displayed even greater gambling intuition than King himself and sometimes won over a hundred times the mira he bet.
While he stood there mulling over those decade old wins and losses, several men in black suits approached him. Presumably, they were Leonard's subordinates.
'Please allow us to escort you,' one said politely.
Eventually, he found himself in a VIP room. Encased in thick glass, it gave the occupants inside a very up close and personal view of the racetrack outside. In it sat Leonard, Nike...and a loosely bound Halle.
Without thinking, he made to dash towards her but was quickly stopped by the men who brought him there. Each held a gun.
'Now, now. No need to be so hasty,' Leonard laughed.
I'm glad you could make it, Jack. I've got some real fun in store for you today.'
'Leonard, you son of a bitch!'
Jack's furious expression was a stark contrast to Leonard's playful tone.
'Heh. Finally saying what you truly think about me, Jack? I'm glad.' Leonard looked genuinely satisfied.
Jack shot a glance over in Nike's direction. 'I can't believe you're seriously helpin' him with this.'
'I'm afraid so,' she replied simply, before drawing closer to Leonard.
'As I'm sure you've already worked out, our aim is the joker that King left Halle over there,' Leonard continued, turning the jewel from Halle's necklace over and over again between his fingers.
Jack had indeed surmised as much.
When Jack won the battle against King seven years prior, King had given him a 'code' of sorts that he wanted him to pass on to Halle. That code was intended to unlock the 'joker' that King had once secretly kept on him. At the time, Jack hadn't understood the meaning of what he was being asked to do, but he did now.
'King was well known in the underworld. He had all kinds of connections, but those ties weren't just limited to the less savory of players. Many of the people he was connected to moved both inside and outside of the underworld.
'Tell me, Jack...' Leonard said, 'if the underworld is black, and the world outside it is white...which do you think the world of politics is?'
Jack snorted. 'Hell if I know.'
'As black as can be,' Leonard said matter-of-factly.
He made an off-hand gesture. 'King was a smart man. A calculating man. This jewel, here? This is a memory quartz and one full of information on the people he knew. People in the criminal underworld, public faces who have connections in it themselves... The power this information holds is nothing short of incredible, and I intend to use it to keep moving up the ranks as a politician.
'And for that, Jack,' he continued, 'I need the code that you, and only you, know.'
Jack was silent for a moment. 'I'm surprised you know all of that... I take it this is your doing, Nike?'
'But of course,' she confirmed. 'I want him to spread his wings and fly, too, after all.'
'Spread his wings and fly'...?' Jack repeated with a disbelieving sigh. 'That's what you call this? Preyin' on people, King's daughter no less, for a bit of political advantage? He left that data behind to protect Halle from harm... What's the point in being promoted if you have to take advantage of a father's love for his daughter to do it?!'
Jack's words resonated strongly with Halle, but they fell on deaf ears when it came to Leonard and Nike.
'I can't say I don't have a soft spot for that idealism of yours...' Nike said finally, 'but if you're afraid of using others for your own goals, you're never going to get anywhere in life. You'll forever remain a powerless child.'
Leonard laughed. 'Forget it. No amount of logic will get through to him. Still, I'd feel guilty taking everything from you without completely beating you into submission first. Got to give you a chance to fight back, after all. So here's what I propose, Jack. We'll have a little gambling competition. If you win, you can have Halle back. If I win, you'll give me that code. Simple, right?'
Jack considered it. Leonard was smart, but he was also very cautious. It was clear from his aura of confidence that he was pretty certain that he would win.
Jack, however, had no intention of backing down.
Thus began their great wager over the outcome of the day's races with Halle's fate on the line.
Chapter 9 - Good and Evil
There was roughly an hour until the first race of the day was scheduled to begin, and so they agreed to use that time to formulate their strategies. Jack was led to another room by Leonard's men. He was also accompanied by Halle, who would serve as his 'advisor.' Leonard's adviser would, naturally, be Nike.
'I take it just running away isn't an option? I mean, I'm free and all...' Halle said once in the room.
Jack shook his head. 'Even if we did manage to get away, which isn't especially likely, he's not the kind of guy to just let this go. If this method doesn't work, he'll just do something worse. Worse for us, of course.'
'Y-Yeah, I suppose you're right...' Halle said.
'Okay, forget it. Just had to ask.' As Jack had noted, however, the odds of them being able to run away weren't particularly promising to begin with, as Leonard's men were likely to be everywhere. They pondered their predicament for a moment.
Halle broke the heavy silence. 'Hey, Jack? Has Leonard always been a bad guy like that?' Jack couldn't help but smile slightly at the childish way she phrased her question. As far as he was concerned, the vast majority of gamblers, himself included, were to some degree or another 'bad guys.' He knew what she meant, though. Both he and King had been part of the criminal underworld, but they had their morals and lines that they wouldn't under any circumstances cross. Back in the day, that had been true of Leonard and Nike, too, but now...
'So they weren't, then? I wonder what changed them...' Halle mused.
Jack had a pretty good idea of the answer: King's death seven years prior. After that, Jack had lost his drive, his passion. His despondency had in turn caused Nike to become disappointed in him and leave his side.
Leonard, meanwhile, found a new life of his own, away from gambling.
It wasn't long after that that the news of Leonard's move to politics reached Jack's ears. It was a transition that made sense to Jack, too; Leonard had always been one who loved flashiness, loved to stand out. In short time, though, less pleasant rumors began to spread about him. The whispers never left the realm of hearsay, but the content was enough to make Jack concerned. Bribes, suspicions involving organized crime... It was often said that power corrupted, but Jack hadn't expected it of someone he knew so well.
'Nike really is pretty, though,' Halle said abruptly. 'You sure you're completely over her?'
Flustered, Jack could only gape for a second before stuttering, 'Wh-What makes you think I wouldn't be?! Of course I am!'
His expression told a different story, though, and Halle immediately regretted pressing him on the subject.
'A-Anyway...' Jack said, 'This isn't going to be easy while he has Nike on his side. There are many who call her the 'Goddess of Victory' for the luck she brings to men.'
'Goddess of Victory,' huh? I'm guessing you're one of those men, too, 'Victory Jack'.' He couldn't deny it; she was completely right. Nike's gambling skills were just as good as Jack or Leonard's, and whenever she and Jack had worked as a team, they had never been defeated.
Halle looked intrigued when he mentioned their teamwork. 'You guys worked grifts together?' He nodded, and it seemed as though there was more she wanted to ask, but she dropped it and changed the subject. 'You aren't going to look at all the race data they gave us, then?'
'Nah. I follow the races here as it is, so I pretty much know all that stuff already. Besides, numbers don't tell the whole story. You gotta get a read of the atmosphere out on the track if you really wanna score big. Looks like we'll have to wing the first one blind, though...'
A quick glance at the clock confirmed his dismay: the start of the first race was rapidly approaching.
Chapter 10 - The Rules
Fifteen minutes before the first race was scheduled to start, Jack and Halle made their way back to the VIP room where they came face to face with Leonard and Nike again.
The rules of the competition were simple.
Each side would begin with 100,000 mira. For each race, each side must purchase one betting ticket; no more, no less. Furthermore, twelve orbal cars would compete in each race.
The types of betting ticket available, meanwhile,were as follows:
To win, the chosen car needed to come in either first, second, or third place. This bet type had the highest chances of winning, and as a result, the payout was the lowest as well.
To win, the chosen car needed to come in first. This bet type was less likely to be successful than a show bet, but still relatively likely compared to the others.
As such, the potential winnings were relatively low.
To win, the chosen two cars needed to come in first and second place. The bettor had to also accurately predict which came first and which came second. This bet type was one of the more difficult ones, and as such potential winnings were relatively high.
Similar to an exacta, except the bettor needed to predict, in order, which cars would come first, second, and third. This bet type was the least likely to be successful, and therefore paid the highest dividends.
5. Exacta Box
Like an exacta, the bettor needed to predict the cars that would come first and second. Unlike a regular exacta, however, these could be in either order. This bet type was more likely to pay out than an exacta, but because of that, it paid less, as well.
6. Trifecta Box
Like a trifecta, except the three cars could come in any order, as long as one comes first, one second, and one third. This paid out more than an exacta box, but less than a regular trifecta.
Jack and Leonard would each buy a ticket and then show it to the other before the race began. There was no limit to the amount of mira that each could bet on one race, so long as they could afford to bet it. If either of them ran out of mira, the other would be the victor.
In all, seven races were to take place that day, with four in the first half, and three in the second. The races in the second half, the last in particular, paid the highest dividends.
Each race usually took about ten to fifteen minutes.
Every car was also obliged to make at least one pit stop to charge their car's EP and change tires.
Completing these actions swiftly and efficiently added another element of challenge to the competition.
Large groups and corporations sponsored the teams participating in the race, and the results had implications not just for the teams themselves, but for countless powerful figures and groups in the Republic who used the races as a proxy for their pride and reputations. The winning teams were also rewarded with vast amounts of mira.
The rules confirmed and agreed upon, Jack and Leonard purchased their first betting tickets, and the battle between them finally began.
Chapter 11 - The First Half
Before the beginning of the first race, Jack and Leonard showed one another what betting tickets they had purchased.
Jack, after asking Halle for her opinion, eventually settled on placing ten thousand mira on a trifecta o and 3. His reasoning was that cars 5 and 1 had the highest total number of races won, while 3 had shown a lot of potential in recent races. His bet was relatively safe and grounded in logic, but with just enough of an element of unpredictability to keep things interesting.
Seeing his choice, Leonard laughed, remarking,
'Someone hasn't changed.'
His ticket, meanwhile, was an exacta box on cars 1 and 3, on which he had placed a 20,000 mira bet.
Jack was surprised. The Leonard he knew would have gone for an exacta box on cars 1 and 5, or perhaps pushed his luck slightly and gone for an exacta on cars 5 and 1. Leonard, however, had defied expectation by going for 1, the second most popular car, and the recently successful car 3. If anything, Jack thought, that was the kind of bet King would have made.
Realizing what was on Jack's mind, Leonard's smile widened. 'My time in politics has taught me a lot of things, Jack.'
Fifteen minutes later, the result of the first race came in. Car 3 had come in first place, followed by 1, then car 5 in third. Car 3 had, it seemed, shown its potential yet again.
As a result of the outcome, Leonard won his bet while Jack lost. Jack's total mira decreas while Leonard's increased to almost 150,000.
Nike giggled. 'Seems we're off to a good start.'
Leonard drew her in close and whispered in her ear, 'All thanks to you.'
Jack averted his eyes. Halle tugged on his sleeve to get his attention.
Don't worry, Jack, we're only just getting started!' No matter what she said, though, there was a 60,000 mira difference in their totals right off the bat, and that was a significant difference.
The second race began.
Jack once again placed 10,000 mira on a trifecta, while Leonard went with a much more certain show bet.
This time, however, he placed all of the 50,000 mira he had won from the first race on it.
Once more, Jack's bet fell short and his pool of mira dropped to 80,000. Leonard, meanwhile, was successful a second time and boosted his earnings to over 170,000 mira. Leonard now had twice the amount that Jack did.
The third race began.
For a third time, Jack placed 10,000 mira on a trifecta. Leonard went for a slightly more risky bet than usual and wagered 20,000 mira on an exacta. This time, both men lost their bets.
Finally, it was time for the last race in the first half to begin. Jack, seemingly undeterred by his continual losses, once again staked 10,000 mira on a trifecta. Leonard could only sigh at Jack's refusal to learn from his mistakes, but Jack paid him no mind. For his part, Leonard went for another exacta, but this time he placed 30,000 mira on it.
Leonard won his bet, and Jack lost his.
The race over, the first half came to an end. Jack was left with only 60,000 mira, while Leonard had increased his winnings to over 240,000 mira, roughly four times the amount Jack had left.
'Haha. Luck sure seems to be on my side today, huh, Jack?' Leonard taunted. Jack said nothing.
There was a roughly hour long break between the first and second halves. After beckoning Halle to follow him, Jack walked quickly out of the room and over to their waiting area.
Barely through the doorway, Halle threw up her hands and cried, 'What're we gonna do, Jack? If we don't turn things around fast, we're screwed! We need to start making safer bets next time and--'
Jack cut her off. 'Nah. Even if we were to win bets like that, they're not gonna be enough to close the gap between us. As soon as we start thinking like that, this gamble's as good as lost.'
'Well, sure, but still...'
Contrary to Jack's seeming casualness, however, he didn't really have any better ideas than Halle did. He was racking his brain for one just as much as she was.
What he DID know was that the gap between he and Leonard was too great for them to be able to win based on instinct alone.
Halle suddenly brightened. 'Oh, yeah! I did notice something that stood out in the race data...'
As a general rule of thumb, betting on popular and proven teams tended to lead to relatively low payouts if they won, while unpopular and generally unsuccessful teams gave much greater payouts.
Races held at this track were somewhat different, though. In particular, major events like the one currently underway had higher than normal payout rates, meaning that bettors received much more than they otherwise would.
As one example of this, generally, teams that consistently lost accordingly paid the highest dividends dividends on the off-chance that they won, and far from deterring bettors, this often attracted lots of people who wanted to bet on underdogs and win big. In theory, large numbers of people betting on such underdogs would make the potential payouts decrease, but the payout rates were adjusted to make sure they didn't fall too much in order to keep things exciting for the gamblers who were betting.
Even factoring in all of that, Halle went on, there was one team whose potential payout seemed odd. Jack had a look, and sure enough, he found himself agreeing. It wasn't odd to the extent that the average person would notice, but she wasn't wrong.
The driver for that team was a man named Carlos, a real veteran racer who held the current official record for the most consecutive victories. It was an achievement that had earned him the nickname 'Legend.' In recent years, however, he'd stopped winning at all, a fact that had led to more and more people calling him 'Legendary Loser' instead. He was also an old friend of King's. Jack himself had met the man, too.
Jack chewed over her finding for a minute then said,
'Thanks for the tip, Halle. I'm just gonna step out for a bit, okay? Soon as our break's over, head back on over to the VIP room without me.'
'W-Wait a second!' she shouted after him, but he paid her no mind and strolled nonchalantly out of the room.
Chapter 12 - The Second Half
Ten minutes before the start of the fifth race, Jack had yet to return.
'I hope he hasn't gone and run off,' said Leonard, his voice heavy with scorn.
'He wouldn't dream of it!' Halle retorted.
Nike laughed. 'Apparently not. Here he comes now.'
Jack ambled over. 'Sorry,' he said. 'Had to take a leak.'
Jack's carefree manner seemed to annoy Leonard, but it filled Halle with relief. He had been so subdued in the first half that to see him back to his old self gave her confidence...until she remembered that they hadn't even bought their betting ticket. Exasperated, she hustled him to the counter to get one.
The fifth race began.
Continuing his pattern from the first half, Jack went for a trifecta. Unlike the first half, however, he only bet 5,000 mira on it.
'Heh. Here I was thinking you'd get all cocky, then you go and lower your bet.'
Leonard radiated confidence, but deep down, he knew exactly what Jack was doing. Jack was going to conserve as much money as he could until the final race and then bet it all on that.
Knowing that, he realized he couldn't afford to let up his offensive and decided to bet a massive 100,000 mira on a win bet. The team he staked his wager on was an outside chance as well.
In the end, the team Leonard bet on was victorious, while Jack lost his 5,000 mira. As a result, Jack was down to a mere 55,000 mira, while Leonard's total exceeded 500,000. The gap between them continued to grow larger and larger.
The sixth race began.
Once again, Jack placed 5,000 mira on a trifecta. Leonard, meanwhile, didn't seem to be feeling especially confident about the race and put a mere 10,000 mira on a safe exacta box bet.
The race that took place was easily the most intense of the day thus far and had the spectators on the edge of their seats. Successful winners on trifecta tickets earned over a hundred times what they bet, but both Jack and Leonard had backed the wrong cars.
'If only we'd picked the right cars on that one!' cried a frustrated Halle. If Jack shared her dismay, though, he didn't show it. His thoughts were all for the final race.
The seventh race of the day was about to begin.
Having lost every bet he had made so far, Jack was down to a mere 50,000 mira. Leonard's winnings now totaled roughly 500,000 mira even though he, too, had lost the sixth race. In order to catch up, Jack would need to make a bet that paid out over ten times his wager amount, even more if Leonard was to win his own bet.
Incidentally, the two had agreed not to show each other which betting tickets they had gone for until after the race had ended. This was in order to make things more interesting. According to Leonard, anyway.
The starting light shifted from red to green, and the race that would determine everything began.
Chapter 13 - The Price of the Soul
It quickly became apparent that this final battle was going to be even more intense and unpredictable than the sixth race had been.
First, car 4, which had been the favorite to win, had to withdraw partway through due to mechanical trouble.
The second and third most popular cars, 3 and 6 respectively, also had their own share of problems, and while they were able to continue the race, their performance was far from their full capabilities.
Thanks to these technical difficulties, there were essentially only nine of the original twelve cars still in the race. Of those nine, car 1 had the highest odds of winning, but car 5 stubbornly refused to allow it to overtake, and car 1 was unable to get into the lead.
The cars at the front of the rac and 12.
While they generally held that order, they were constantly jockeying for position. Furthermore, car 12 was driven by none other than Carlos, the Legendary Loser. That in itself generated a lot of excitement as it had been quite some time since he had been anywhere near this close to winning a major race.
As the heated race neared the end, the final corner that would determine everything approached. Just as they began the bend, a gap opened up between cars 7 and 2.
Whether it was nerves or a lapse in concentration, the drivers of those two cars left a space wide enough for Carlos to sneak through, and he seized his chance. With a deft hand at the wheel, car 12 shot through and took the lead.
The race ended. Car 12 was victorious, while car 7 held onto second place and car 2 came in third.
Leonard watched all of this unfold with a sour look.
'Did you lose?' asked Halle.
Her hopes, however, were quickly dashed.
He shook his head and laughed. 'No, no. I just wasn't expecting ol' Legend to snag first place like that. I did believe he had the goods to get into the top three, though.'
His smile widened. 'You see, I bet on a trifecta box wit and 12. The payout's 120 times what I staked.'
Jack and Halle were stunned speechless.
To make matters worse, Leonard had bet 400,000 mira, meaning that he received 48,000,000 from his ticket.
He watched their faces with undisguised smugness.
'Heh. Looks like you two realize now that you never stood a chance in Gehenna of beating me.'
Nike giggled at his shoulder. 'Sure seems that way.'
The pair oozed confidence, sure that they had won.
Halle's face fell...then she stuck her tongue out at them. 'Nah. We just wanted you to think that.'
Jack grinned at the puzzled look on Leonard's face.
'What the lady said. We were just pretending t'be surprised.'
'Then... You didn't...'
Leonard couldn't seem to work out what they were trying to imply, but Nike quickly understood. Her painted lips compressed into a flat line.
'I put my money on a trifecta,' Jack clarified. '12, 7 and 2. Get it now? That's 1,100 times what I bet!'
This time, it was Leonard and Nike who were stunned into silence.
Tickets that paid out over a hundred times the bet made were rare enough even at this racetrack, but tickets that paid out over a thousand times the bet were almost unheard of.
As a result of his bet, Jack won 55,000,000 mira, a total pot that was significantly higher than Leonard's 48,100,000 winnings.
'Wh-What...? How did you...?!'
It was Jack's turn to laugh at the furious expression on Leonard's face.
'You do realize that asking me that is basically admitting wrongdoing on your part, right?' he said. 'But ...if you really wanna know, I'll tell you. It's simple. I bribed Carlos.'
'You did WHAT?!'
'I got a friend of mine to get a ticket just like this one. The money for it was 100,000 mira he'd gathered on the spot in my name. Multiply that by 1,100 and you get 110,000,000. I told Carlos he could have the lot.'
'What?! But I've been sending him... Why would he throw all that away for a one-off sum like that, however big?!'
Jack made a 'tsk-ing' sound. 'You might be able to buy people's hearts with money for a while, Leonard, but there's no amount of mira that will let you buy their souls. The fact that Carlos accepted my offer is pretty solid proof of that. I'm guessin' he wanted out a long, long time ago.'
'Tch... What do you know?!' Leonard gestured angrily, but then grudgingly added, 'I'm pretty impressed, though. Admittedly, he wasn't alone, but it takes some skill to manipulate the outcome of races from right at the back. Ol' Legend hasn't lost his touch, that's for sure.'
It was at this point that Halle spoke up. 'But if you'd arranged the outcome from the start, why did you go for a box instead of just a trifecta? And why not go all in and bet your last 100,000 mira, too?'
Leonard looked away. 'Well...just to be on the safe side...'
Jack's suspicions had proved right. Leonard knew as well as anyone that it was impossible to completely remove all unpredictable elements from a bet. As such, his way was to excise as many as humanly possible, and then take the surest and safest path to victory. He hadn't changed at all.
'Huh... Makes sense,' Halle said. 'Too bad it cost you the victory, though. If you'd gone all in, you would've won, too.'
Leonard's head snapped back around. 'Wh-What?!' He quickly did the sums in his head and realized the truth.
If he'd bet his entire 500,000 mira, he would hav000 mira, comfortably beating Jack's 55,000,000.
'It's... It's a mistake!' Leonard blurted out. 'A mix-up! The subordinate I asked to buy the ticket must have bet the wrong amount! I didn't lose! I couldn't possibly lose...!'
'Save it, Leonard.' Nike interjected coolly. 'You messed with the most popular car in the race, didn't you? You did an excellent job of hiding the evidence... but no amount of hiding is going to be enough when someone already knows what you're going to do and can watch out for you.'
She pointed a perfect, lacquered nail at him. 'You've been getting away with things for a long time...but not anymore.'
They all stared at her.
'Wh-What are you talking about?' Leonard sputtered.
'What are you suggesting?!'
'It's probably faster to just show you...' she said.
'Come on in.'
At Nike's signal, a number of men in black suits entered the VIP room. They weren't Leonard's men, though. Instead, they surrounded him and his underlings.
'This is the end of the line for you, Leonard. We've already taken the rest of your men into custody!' Leonard wasn't the only one baffled by what was happening.
'Nike? What are you...?' began a puzzled Jack.
With a laugh, Nike took a pair of glasses from her pocket, placed them on her nose, and addressed him directly. 'I should probably introduce myself, shouldn't I? Being an actress isn't my primary occupation... I'm actually a member of the Rocksmith Agency, an intelligence group which answers directly to the president.'
Jack and Halle could only gape at her in shock.
Finale - The Aftermath
Leonard was led away without a struggle by Nike's elite subordinates. He stood accused of fixing all seven of the races that took place that day, as well as hindering many of the teams who took part in them and damaging their property, along with a host of other crimes. Either way, it seemed as though he would have a lot to answer for.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Carlos, the winner of the seventh race, was also to be tried as a co-conspirator for having gone along with Leonard's plans.
A week later, everything was back to normal in the bar where Jack and Halle spent much of their time in the Eastern Quarter.
Everything except the fact that Jack was actually reading a newspaper, anyway. He was looking at an article about Leonard's arrest. Halle, meanwhile, was pretending to be a bartender... Or rather, practicing being one.
'Oh, yeah,' she said all of a sudden. 'Hey, Jack, what happened 55,000,000 mira you won, anyway?' He shook his head sadly. 'Gone like a bad bet, sad t'say. Nike took it. It was regarded as mira 'obtained through illegal means,' or some such.'
'Aww, too bad...'
'Haha. You're tellin' me.'
110,000,000 mira he had had a friend win, meanwhile, hadn't been confiscated, but Jack had already made up his mind that it would go to Carlos one day. It was his, after all.
'You sure you're okay with handin' over that memory quartz, though?' Jack asked her.
She nodded. 'Yeah. The last thing I want is someone else after me because of it.' After Leonard was apprehended, Jack had left it up to Halle to decide what she wanted to do with the memory quartz full of incriminating information that King had left her. She had elected to hand it over to Nike.
King had intended it to act as a shield for Halle if she ever ended up getting involved in the underworld, but that very safeguard had placed her life in danger... and now an even larger number of people knew it existed.
It was simply too dangerous for her to hold on to.
Originally, the only ones who knew about the memory quartz's existence were Jack and Nike--although only Jack had known that it had been incorporated into the necklace. Nike had only found out when Halle told her in the bar.
Now that everything was over, Jack couldn't help but suspect that Nike's true aim all along had been to obtain that and not Leonard's arrest.
'So, what was the code to open that thing, anyway?' Halle asked.
'You really wanna know?'
Jack cleared his throat, embarrassed. 'It was 'My beloved Halle.' Ain't never met a more doting father than your old man.'
Taken completely by surprise by his answer, a single tear rolled down Halle's cheek.
As a gambler she was first-rate, but in every other respect she was still an ordinary girl. She wiped the tear away and then spoke again, her tone carrying no trace of the sadness she must feel.
'Hey, Jack, I've got a favor I'd like to ask you...' Just as she spoke, however, the door opened again and let out its usual piercing shriek.
Through it came Nike wearing the glasses she had been when they last saw her and a pair of casual jeans instead of a fancy dress.
Without preamble she said, 'Hey there, Jack. I've got a proposal for you... How does working again as a team strike you?'
'Hey! I was just about to ask him that!' cried Halle, not wanting to miss her chance.
Jack sighed. The future, it seemed, was full of trouble.