Desert Steel Chapter 28

-Counting

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The moment of cresting the final dune and having the full expanse of New Arusha unfold across the dry plain before you was unforgettable. To Sebastian, the mesmerising view wasn’t just of the glittering casino. The shanty town, of mud and wood and corrugated iron, shone with its own vibrant, dirty energy.

“Where do we even start?” Jax asked. “If it was a small town… But this!”

Sebastian laughed. “If I have even an inkling of what Ansar is like it’s going to be the casino.”

“What if he’s somewhere else?”

“What if he’s not in the city? We’ve got to start somewhere.”

The group moved down the dunes to the oasis. At the two entrance ways, they stopped.

“We should split up,” Sebastian said. “Tanaka, Gwendolyn, with me to the left, Timmy and Jax to the right.”

“Okay,” Timmy agreed.

Sebastian lead his group  along past every table in a zigzag pattern. It wasn’t seen as suspicious, as many other people were drifting between tables, looking for exciting bets and fun games. With the large length of the hall, it took them twenty minutes to reach the VIP staircase.

Ansar was sitting there on the top step, waiting for them. Seeing them, he smiled, rose, and disappeared back up into the lounge above.

Tanaka’s hand flickered for his gun, but he gave up the idea when he saw the number of guards around.

Gwendolyn swatted the back of Sebastian’s head.

“What?” Sebastian asked.

“Did you see him?”

“I’m not blind.”

“Well then go after him!”

“Do you see the guards at the bottom of the staircase? You think they’re just there by chance? Wherever he is, it’s some kind of guarded area.”

Sebastian went up to the guard. He noted the star under his chevron, and turned his polite subservience up a notch. “Excuse me sir? Do you mind telling me what’s up there?”

The guard was bored and glad for any conversation. “A VIP area.”

“How do you get in?”

“Either we know who you are, or you can field five Casino Platinums or equivalent.”

Sebastian thanked him and returned to the other two. “We need five Casino Platinums. Now.”

Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “Sure, let me just get out my ATM card. Dumbass.”

Tanaka ignored her. “You got an idea?”

“We’re in a casino. We can win the money.”

“If we’re very lucky.”

“I can card count,” Sebastian said. “I think I can make some of my own luck. Gwendolyn, you wait here for Jax and Timmy. Tanaka, we’re going gambling.”

Sebastian chose a blackjack table close to the entrance, betting low at first. Card counting at its simplest was a matter of keeping track of all the high and low cards. With his memory and mathematical skills, it was a breeze. After ten rounds he had almost doubled his pot. Tanaka left and returned with drinks.

“Let’s make this fun!” he said, beaming. “I always wanted to go to a casino.”

Sebastian grimaced. “I should stay clear headed. Have fun on my behalf man.”

“You got it, boss!” He chugged both drinks in a matter of seconds. Apparently, he even drank fast.

The rounds progressed like that, Sebastian quietly accruing more winnings while Tanaka became a loud suspicion buffer. Sebastian moved up two tables, to higher stakes, and kept gambling. Noticing the dealer starting to watch him, perhaps growing suspicious, Sebastian nudged Tanaka.

“I will have that drink,” he said.

Tanaka grinned. He handed Sebastian an orange liquid. “We’re too young to not have fun.”

Sebastian chugged the burning spirit in one go. He waved for another. Tanaka rushed to oblige.

Sebastian usually avoided getting drunk, because it dulled his greatest weapon, his mind. But he got shitfaced in the casino. Soon it was a blur of tables higher and higher up. Throughout it all he maintained his counts. His winnings grew and grew. The dealers, seeing a harmless drunk, lost their suspicions of card counting.

Pauly sat on the hard wooden boards. People flowed in and out of the casino on the other side of the oasis. The room was silent except for the tinkle of glasses and the soft padding of the waiter’s feet.

“Aren’t you worried?” Pauly asked. Ansar had seen Sebastian and the rest enter from across the oasis, and waited at the top of the stairs to bait them in.

“Why?” Ansar asked. “Because they’ll kill me? A weak man cowers to death like a weak tree breaks in the wind. But a lion roars in the face of death. Ansar is the name given to me by my mother, but Arslan is my true name.”

Pauly bent his head down.

“You want to know your true name, Peelly? You are the tree that sways to the wind, but does not break.”

Pauly kept staring at the knots in the wooden floor.

“Of course, a lion resists death. I’m not going to be lying around here forever. I have a safe house in the North East of the city.”

Pauly kept staring at the floor. He nervously played with the loose splinters.

It took twenty minutes, but Sebastian and Tanaka returned, buzzed and victorious, to the VIP area, with five Casino Platinums. There was no one there waiting for them.

Sebastian frowned, His brain pickling in alcohol. “Hol-hold up.”

“You’re my bestest friend.” Tanaka slurred. “You know that? Like, if you were a girl… And I was a girl… We’d still be friends.”

“I’m thinking,” Sebastian slurred back. “But thanks man, you’re like… Two best friends.”

Sebastian stood still for a moment, his gears still turning but slowed by drink. He staggered over to the guard. “Did the girl and a baby-faced boy go up?” he asked.

The guard didn’t look at him. “We don’t divulge anything about VIPs.”

Sebastian giggled. “You just did. Hey, Tanaka, you hear that?”

“Yeah. What a dumbass.” Tanaka paused, then gave a pantomime shush. “Shhhh. I gotta be good.”

The guard turned and stared at them stony-faced.

“You just told us they were VIPs, which means they did go up,” Sebastian said. “What about a stocky rat-faced man. Did you throw one out?”

The guard smirked. “I did. As I will you two if you don’t move along.”

“Nah,” Sebastian said. “Becaushhh we’re with the VIPs. They’ll ashking for us soon.”

The guard scowled. “Prove it.”

“Sure. Call down some precious VIPs. Disturb them.”

The guard was trapped. He glared at the two of them. “No trouble, or I’ll make it double.”

“Team rocket!” Sebastian exclaimed.

“Huuuuh?!” Tanaka moaned.

The guard pulled out a baton.

“That won’t be necessary, officer.”

It was Timmy, descending the staircase, Gwendolyn in tow.

“Lotta nerve trying to run ahead on us,” Tanaka growled. “Too much nerve. You can’t handle me…” He shushed himself again and muttered ‘good’.

Timmy smiled. “Gwendolyn had no way of knowing I had the authority through Mikhail to get in. We’re supposed to stay undercover and it was my call.”

“Except Jax wasn’t invited,” Sebastian observed, swaying on his feet.

“It’ssshhh a load a bullshit,” Tanaka said. “I could get my fists up their arses before they can blink. Make ’em into puppetsh”

“He didn’t have Mikhail to vouch for him, did he?” Timmy said. “We would have returned down these stairs with Ansar and reunited with Jax but…”

“He got pissedddddd,” Tanaka laughed.

“No, we’re pisshed,” Sebastian retorted. They both laughed.

“While you were getting drunk,” Timmy said with disapproval, “We were searching for Ansar and your friend. Drinking is bad for your brain, you know. It’s a bad habit to keep.”

“You can’t find him, can you?” Sebastian said. “He escaped with Pauly again.”

Timmy nodded solemnly. “We need your help, Sebastian.”

“Of course, you do,” Sebastian replied. He and Tanaka wobbled past the guard, who was gritting his teeth but saying nothing.

Sebastian staggered into the VIP room, staggered straight to a rubbish bin, and vomited into it. Tanaka burst into laughter.

“Gaijin can’t handle his drink!”

Sebastian wiped his mouth clean and stood up with steely determination. His mind was clearing. He turned to Timmy.

“The staff won’t talk?”

Timmy shook his head.

“When’d you arrive?”

“Five minutes after you left.”

Sebastian’s eyes swung left and right. Over the couches, empty and full.

“Anyone else come up here?”

Gwendolyn shook her head. Her fiery hair flared in the motion. “How many VIPs do you think there are?”

Sebastian didn’t reply. He moved from empty couch to empty couch, feeling each one. He stopped at one with a clear view out over the oasis.

“Ansar was here,” he said.

“How can you possibly know that?”

“MAAAGIC!” Tanaka said.

“The seat is still warm and the leather deformed,” Sebastian said. “No one new has arrived. Hopefully people don’t move around much, but I think it’s the best guess you’ll get.”

“Good job,” Timmy said.

“I’m not done.” Sebastian crouched down and pointed at the wooden floor. “Someone sat here, you can see the sweat marks, probably Pauly. He’s scratched something.” He got down closer. “Looks like NE.”

“Maybe it’sh initialsh,” Tanaka said. “Like, Nicholash Earl or something.”

“No,” Sebastian chuckled. “I think it’s North East.”

“What? Kanye West’s daughter?” Timmy asked.

“No, like the direction,” Sebastian said. He and Tanaka looked at each other, exchanged smirks, then burst out laughing.

“Kanye East!” Tanaka spluttered.

Timmy frowned. “Very funny, but once you’ve emerged from your artificial drunk good cheer may I remind you your friend is captured and fast escaping.”

Sebastian recovered himself and swallowed his grin. “No, he’s not. He’s holed up somewhere in the North East of this city.”

“Okay, how do you know that?”

“There’s nothing North East of here. And in desert navigation, you never say ‘I’m going North East’, you say ‘I’m going to this town’. It makes sense anyway, this is a big city. Plenty of places to hide.”

“Too many.”

“Not really. We know it’s North East, which is actually a narrow area. If it was just North that would probably mean a full quarter of the City to search. But North East is more specific, it gives us just an eighth to search. Less, actually, since if it’s too close to the centre it would be called ‘central’ or ‘by casino’. Maybe the area of one of the small towns.”

They left the casino. Sebastian didn’t bother look to see how Ansar escaped. He didn’t really care. It wasn’t important. They found Jax sulking outside the casino.

“You find him?” he asked.

Sebastian smiled. “We will. Come on.”

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