She looked up. Paladin searched her eyes and saw the pain in them. She'd been running away from life since their father died, killing herselfslowly and with style, but just as sure as if she'd placed a gun to her head.
"You're cleaning up, Flora. Maybe not today, but I will get you out of here."
She smiled and stood and smoothed out her gown. "I think, you better take care of whatever business you have with Karina, and leave...while you're still alive."
Karina walked across the room, her white dress trailing behind her. "Mr. Blake, shall we talk now or wait until tomorrow? There are other matters I must see to tonight."
Paladin didn't want to stay in this vipers nest a second longer than he had to. "My sister and I are done," he said. "For now."
"I must take your brother," Karina said to Flora. "Forgive me."
Flora leaned into Paladin, kissed his cheek and whispered, "If anyone needs saving it's not me...it'll be you. Be careful."
Karina took Paladin's hand and led him from the bar. "Do you prefer dice, cards, or the wheel, Mr. Blake?"
"I thought we were discussing business, not games."
"Gambling is how we do business with newcomers on Le Coeur du Minuit," Karina said. "They must prove their intellect, their resourcefulness, and their luck. Besides, all of life is a wager, no?" She flashed him a dazzling smile.
"I never to gamble with anything but my heart," Paladin said. "But for you, I'll make an exception. What are we wagering?"
She snapped her fingers. "Jacques."
Jacques obediently stepped forward and tried to take her hand to kiss. She withdrew it. "You have a sample of Mr. Blake's fine liquor?"
"Oui, Madamoiselle," Jacques stammered. He gingerly handed her the square bottle of Black Knight Bourbon. She took it and waved the Frenchman away.
She ran her index finger of the label. "I thought we would wager your cargo. If you win, I shall pay you the cash equivalentsay twenty-five francs a bottle? Then we can move onto more...interesting stakes".
"I see," Paladin said cautiously, unsure of just what her plan was. "Cards then."
Another gunshot soundedpossibly in the street outside the casino. A few heads turned, but in moments the gamblers returned to their games, nonplussed.
Karina approached a Baccarat table and with a nod of her head, the players and dealer got up and left.
Paladin sat down opposite from her.
She set the bottle on the green felt between them. "We have met before, Mr. Blake, but I cannot quite place where and when." Her green eyes squinted slightly as if she were trying to see through him.
"I'm flattered, but I don't think we have."
She had to remember who he was. Paladin's photo had been splashed on every paper and newsreel when he'd brought her brother's zeppelin down practically on top of the Washington Memorial. So why keep up the pretense?
Why did a cat play with the mouse before ripping it apart?
Karina reached under the table and handed Paladin a sealed deck of cards.
He opened it. They didn't look marked. He shuffled, offered her a cut, which she took. "A test of luck?" He dealt two cards face down. "Lady's pick. High card wins."
With her delicately long fingers she flipped over a card: the eight of clubs.
Paladin turned over his: the Jack of Diamonds.
She leaned forward and her brows arched. "Very good, Mr. Blake. I owe you ninety thousand francs. Would you care to wager again?"
"Sure." Paladin tossed the Jack onto the table. "My three hundred cases and the money for information. If I win I want to know more about the Die Spinne social club...and how a guy like me gets to join."
She scooped up their cards and buried them in the deck. "You appear to be a gambling man after all." She shuffled with the speed and precision of a sewing machine, and then threw a card in front of Paladin and dropped one in front of herself.
"I will tell you this," she said, "Die Spinne is more than a social club...as you have obviously gathered. We are an import-export enterprise. Independent operators and several national governments use us to move their products."
She withdrew a business card from her long white glove and flicked it across the table. Embossed upon it was a spider web. "Die Spinne'the Spider' in German," she explained. "Each strand of our web extends to a different nation, across North America, Europe, and even the Orient. We are everywhere."
Paladin saw the spider-web was bent, the strands kinked halfway from the center.
"We have other, more ambitious plans, of course," she added, "but before I can tell you of our future...the cards."
A gunshot blast echoed in the adjoining room. This time everyone took note. Karina stood. Paladin instinctively reached for his .45swhich weren't there.
The door to the other casino flew inward off its hinges. The Judge stepped in, Tommy gun pointed at the crowd. He glared at Paladin with his good eye. "I knew it was you."
"Judge," Karina said in a deliberately calm tone, "I hope you have an excellent explanation for this interruption or you will walk the short plank."
"I've got reason enough." He pointed with the muzzle of his gun. "That's Paladin Blake."
Karina didn't look surprised. She turned over her card, revealing the Ace of Spades. "It appears, Mr. Blake, that your luck has run out."