Vixenscratch

Short stories and serials by Alexandra Herakai

Shell Game

The streets were bustling at the New Year’s Faire, with stands along the sides of the city’s main street, performers on miniature improvised stages in the center of the street at regular intervals, and people enjoying the holiday filling up most of the rest of the street. The area was crowded; ideal for pickpockets. And that was why Alej and his colleagues were there.

Normally, the half-fox, half-wyvern’s job wouldn’t take him into this kind of regular situations, but he had to admit it was a nice change of pace. Walking down the streets in plainclothes, on the lookout for pickpockets and conmen, was quite different from being responsible for the capture of cursed creatures such as werewolves or vampires when they stepped on the wrong side of the law.

Nobody would recognize him, of course, possibly not even his own colleagues. That was one reason he’d been asked to serve the Faire; raev’s affinity for illusions made even an individual with relatively low power, such as his two-tailed self, virtually impossible to recognize, even for a normally eye-catching hybrid. Currently all he was doing was hide his wyvern features; a ruby-furred fox was unremarkable enough in the mixed crowd, where one with horns and spikes would not be.

“Sir! Sir!”

Alej turned toward the speaker, a man wearing a long-sleeved tunic, kneeling on a blanket on the street between two market stands, the keepers of those stands too busy to really notice his presence. In front of the stranger were three cups on a laquered-black tray, turned on their sides, the mouth of each facing the undercover police officer. He didn’t need to play theatre; his ears perked in interest, though the reason behind that interest was not what the shell man probably assumed it would be. “Yes?”

“Care to play a game, sir?” A tooth was missing from the human’s smarmy smile.

“Oh?” He took a step towards the blanket, tail swaying in a half-wag. “What kind of game?”

An emerald beetle appeared in the man’s hand, and his smarmy smile widened. “The best kind of game!” he bragged. “One where you can win big money if you’ve got a good pair of eyes on you. And…” He lowered his voice and winked at the raev. “I can tell you’ve got a real good pair of eyes on you, sir. I’m sure a flea couldn’t scratch his ass without you noticing!”

Alej chuckled, stepped closer yet and sat down, cross-legged, on the blanket opposite the shell man. He’d seen the game being played with live tokens before, and it suited him fine. It was a long-standing suspicion that beetles such as the one this shell man possessed weren’t exactly legal to begin with, seeming too intelligent and tolerant of rough handling at once to be anything but illegal constructs, but it hadn’t yet been proven. “Big money, huh? Show me.”

“You see, I put this fella down like so…” The man shook his hand gently, and the beetle obediently hopped down on the tray. “Then I put these here cups down, one over him, like so. Watch carefully, now.” The three cups in a line, the beetle under the middle one, the man swapped them around a few times. Then he lifted the left cup, and the beetle was sitting there, lazily twitching its antennae at the seemingly-captivated audience of one. “Easy! If you guess which cup he’s under, I give you three times your bet back.”

With a thoughtful nod, the fox signaled to the con man to go ahead, making a show of keeping an eye on the cups. Finally, the three cups were set in a row again, the middle one nudged slightly closer to him. If he hadn’t been watching for it, Alej probably would have missed the subtle encouragement to pick that particular cup, and he took a moment to reach out with his race’s innate talent for MindSpeech, sensing the living token under the suggested cover. With a smile, the policeman put a coin on the tray in front of the center cup, humoring the man. If he hadn’t known the con, he might have been fooled into thinking he was clever and could outwit the shell man.

Well, he could outwit the shell man. But it would take more than eyes sharp enough to see a flea scratching itself.

“Another go, sir?” the shell man asked, still wearing his smarmy smile, as though he absolutely loved losing his money to the Faire’s visitors, pushing two coins identical to Alej’s across the tray to join the raev’s. “You have a fine pair of eyes on you, sir.”

“Another go,” the fox consented, picking the coins up into his hand, but not putting them away.

The shell man let him win a second round, and when they played a third, the beetle was still under one of the cups, just not the one that was nudged forward to encourage the fox to pick it. Obediently, he picked the false trail.

“Aw, Uwghlock curse my luck!” Alej shook his head, down all his winnings as well as that first coin he’d bet. “One more go, give me a chance to win it back.”

The shell man’s lip twitched as he put the cups down, slipped his beetle under the middle one, and then made a show of tilting all three cups back so Alej could see that the beetle was, indeed, under the middle one. Then he started sliding the cups across the tray, sleeves dragging by the cups, and the fox followed the cup that was supposed to hold the beetle with perked ears. He couldn’t afford to be careless, now.

Cups finally in a row, the man made a sweeping gesture over them. “Place your bet, sir, and collect your winnings. Such a good pair of eyes on you, I’m sure you know where that little green fella is at.”

Oh, I know where it’s at, alright. Alej could sense the beetle safely tucked in the man’s sleeve. Until now the shell man had played fair, hoping to provoke his victim into placing a large bet, and there was nothing illegal in offering Faire-goers a game of chance. Well, two could play that game, and unlike the con man, the fox didn’t risk a jail sentence by doing so.

He picked a larger-denomination coin out of his pocket and placed it in front of the cup where the beetle should be. If he had been playing honestly, that would have been enough to win back everything he’d lost and then some.

“Ah, sir, I’m s–” The shell man fell silent as he tipped back the cup to see an emerald beetle, twitching its antennae. Unexpected as the sight was, it made him completely lose his bearings. “What? But… how?”

Alej flicked both the other cups, making them fall over and revealing that they, too, were empty, before dismissing the illusory beetle under the cup he’d placed his bet on and picking up his money. “The beetle is in your left sleeve.”

“You cheated!” the con man protested, gesturing to the now-empty cup. “There’s no way you could have seen that!”

“You said it yourself, I got a good pair on me.” The fox’s hand slipped into another pocket and came back up with a pair of handcuffs and his badge, showing the latter to the frantic-looking human. “You are under arrest for fraud.” He allowed the illusion obscuring his true nature to lapse, as well, and couldn’t help but feel pleased at the brief spark of recognicion in the man’s eyes.

At least the shell man had the good sense not to try and bolt, glowering in silence as the half-raev read his rights to him and secured his wrists behind his back.

Who said you can’t con the con man?



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