1

"I do not like dank dark forests, you arrogant English ass." Liam Donovan cursed as he ducked low on his horse to avoid being hit by a low branch.

"I suppose you would be happier strolling down some gentle, sloping, Irish hill, heather in the air and all that?" Thomas North ducked the same branch. The two had been riding in the German forest for the better part of an hour and were beginning to look much the worse for wear.

"Just so," the bulky red-haired Irishman agreed appreciatively. "A civilized geography, that."

"No cover for miles in any direction, conducting secret business for all to see, and practically begging for some government busybody to interrupt with soldiers. No wonder your people lost every war."

"July, 1921," Donovan said coldly.

"Yes . . . Well, plenty of time to worry about that one later," the tall pale Englishman replied in a huff.

* * *

"I do not care for this, Tom," Donovan said. They had finally arrived at the designated meeting point, a quiet bank of the river Saale just south of Jena and hopefully out of sight of prying eyes.

"I do not care for it either. Lynch is your friend, I remind you."

"What exactly is that supposed to mean?" Donovan asked.

"The last time we had less than legal dealings with one of your close personal friends from back in Eire, we had half the Imperial army chasing us with the other half wagering on our method of execution."

"What was the good money on?"

"Shot while trying to escape."

Donovan smiled. "Ah. I love the classics."

"Here he comes," said North, when he sighted the small boat by its lamp. "Just like an Irishman to be late."

"He's from Kerry; it's to be expected. Sean Lynch! You demon-spawned son of a whore! Over here!"

"Liam Donovan, you great building-sized bastard. And the right bastard North! Milordship." Lynch bowed with a generous wave as the boat eased gently onto the shore.

"Men have been killed for speaking less," said North dryly.

"Many men in my home have been killed for much less," replied Lynch, shrugging. "Oddly enough, by men who spoke very much like you. But that is a separate issue. Let's to business."

The wiry Lynch disembarked and once on solid ground pulled the boat until it was securely ashore. He then reached into the boat to remove a canvas sheet from several boxes.

"Explain to me again how you acquired these goods, Lynch?" North asked suspiciously.

"The usual way—I stole them. And don't give me that sour look, North. I know you're not above such things."

"True. I'll still need a better explanation that that."

"Ha!" Lynch puffed out his chest in annoyance. "But of course he does! He's an Englishman. He steals by native right; others must justify themselves. Well, North, these goods were once the proud property of one of the wizard Americans. A `survivalist,' as they call them, by the name of Newman. Sadly, the good survivalist did not live up to his name. My associates encountered him while he was trying to make a supply run to Jena for food. He even spoke German fluently, but, alas, his boots were a giveaway. A dead giveaway, you might put it."

"Why do all Irishmen insist upon bad puns?"

"We are a literary people, North, for which you should be grateful. The Irish saved civilization, you know. The Americans even have a book about it in their town library."

Irishman himself or not, Donovan was as suspicious as his partner. "I had thought all the survivalists were brought in. Certainly a ruckus would have erupted with this Newman's disappearance?"

"I doubt it," Lynch replied, rubbing his heavy beard. "This one had been in hiding a long while. His lair was a thing of beauty. When we looted it we found a number of items that I would be more than happy to sell to my good, close, friends. Have you the money?"

"Aye." Donovan patted the purse at his side, which emitted a distinctly metallic sound.

"Let me see it then."

"Of course." North nodded gracefully. "After we see the guns and ammo."

"All we have seen so far is a few crates," added Donovan, with a very false grin.

"O boyo. I can feel the trust in the forest." Lynch removed the top of the first crate to reveal dozens of cardboard boxes and tossed one of them to North. North opened up the small box and pulled out a nicely ordered collection of up-time bullets in the.308 caliber. Satisfied, he sealed the box and tossed it back to Lynch, who quickly reinserted the cartridge box in its crate.

"The rifles?" North asked with a little more trust.

"Let me at least see the money. There are two of you, after all, and only one of poor me." In the lamplight, Lynch's face bore a passing resemblance to that of a pleading beggar. It was all North could do not to laugh out loud.

Donovan waited for the signal from his partner. When North nodded, he removed his purse and loosened the leather strap until the pouch revealed numerous gold coins.

"The equivalent of two thousand dollars gold, don't mind the coinage," said North with a wry grin.

"I usually try not to. Ten rifles, all in good working order. Examine one yourself." Lynch opened the second crate and removed a single rifle from the company of its fellows and handed it over.

While North was not as expert on up-time weaponry as he was in seventeenth-century sword and pistol, he knew enough to verify it as an example of the quite ferocious and lethal weapons the Americans had brought back in time with them. He loaded the second bullet taken from the cartridge box with a smooth, fluid motion and aimed it toward the opposite river bank. A squeeze of the trigger yielded a single loud shot, with a corresponding splash of mud and water.

"Now that you have alerted every man within ten miles, may we hurry about this?" His face sour, Lynch took the rifle away and resealed the crate.

"The third box? Your description back in the Thuringen Gardens was rather vague."

"Ah, but this is the interesting one, laddie. This Newman fellow he had his own little alchemist operation. Making something called nitroglycerin. Fantastic stuff! But be careful and I suggest you don't test this one out, it is . . . "

"Rather temperamental, yes. I have read about nitroglycerin."

"Then you will forgive me if I don't pry this one open and ask that you wait to do so until I have rowed myself downstream. I believe we have established trust, aye? I have to think about my children."

"You don't have any children, Sean." Donovan handed over the pouch of gold.

"I might someday." Lynch winked as he took the gold and hefted its contents for the most cursory of examinations before placing it in his clothing.

"The nitro is in twenty glass jars, with as much padding as I could insert. Remember to take it slow and easy, lads. If you hear the glass rattling, I suggest you start praying for your one day of heaven, before the devil finds you dead." Lynch stepped back in his boat and removed the lamp from its stand, leaning down so that he could get a closer look at what he was moving. Just then a rifle shot rang out in the not-too-great distance.

North, instincts screaming "trap," immediately pulled out saber and pistol and turned to Lynch. But Lynch was searching just as furiously for the source of the noise and making no threatening moves. The Englishman told his partner to remain watching Lynch and then moved off into the forest. Stalking quietly through the woods, North searched for several minutes and listened carefully for any approaching interlopers. When none were immediately forthcoming he returned to the waiting boat, with Donovan's pistol drawn in Lynch's direction. Paranoia was a survival trait both admired and respected in the other.

"Bit of a busy secluded forest we have here, lads, do we not?" said Lynch nervously.

"Some hunter or kinder playing at being a soldier," said North curtly, not wishing to remain any longer. "Let us finish this."

"Then come and help me, lads. The crates are heavy and I don't have the leverage inside the boat."

Donovan holstered his weapons and walked to the rim of the beached boat, grabbed one side of the box he knew contained the bullets, and helped heave it out, handing it to a waiting North. The second crate of rifles was handled in like manner and North carried it stoically over to the waiting packhorses. Then, with careful and meticulous effort, the three of them lifted the crate of nitro out of the boat. Waiting until the other was ready, the two mercenaries slowly carried the crate away from the boat and gently settled it onto the soft ground.

"A little help pushing off would be appreciated," said Lynch, as he sat down and manned his small boat's oars.

The two complied, heaving the boat off the mud and into the river with a placid ripple. Lynch began paddling away and then gave an enthusiastic wave. "A pleasure doing business with you!"

North watched the pucklike man float downstream and then turned to the three crates, and one crate in particular.

"You realize that we are both completely daft."

"Utterly and totally," Donovan agreed. "How are we going to get that devil's brew back to our camp?"

"One excruciatingly cautious step at a time. Come on then."

The two lifted the crate carefully onto the packhorse. While Donovan held it secure, North went to retrieve the ropes necessary for lashing.

"Keep it steady," said North.

"I am."

"No, you're not. It almost slipped!" snapped North.

"Well, if you would hurry up . . . ."

"I am not the one who has to have two hours just to wake up in the morning."

"Not all of us are sons of Satan with iron constitutions."

"You can not blame me for who my parents were."

"Oh, yes, I can."

"Piss off."

"Go fornicate a sheep, you—watch out!" Donovan screamed. The nitroglycerin crate slipped out of the lashings and fell to the ground.

Thud.

Crash.

Thud?

No boom?

"Liam . . . why are we not blown into little pieces scattered across half the continent of Europe?"

"Two possible explanations for that, old friend. Either we were blown into little pieces and scattered across half of Europe and this is hell, which we are destined to share together—which would most certainly fit my preconception of that place. Or the second explanation . . . "

Donovan leaned down to examine one of the shattered glass jars emitting a distinctive noninflammable odor. "The second possibility is that we are very much alive and you are never going to let me forget about this one."

North leaned down next to his partner and picked up one of the intact glass jars. No, it most certainly wasn't nitroglycerin.

"Newman's Own, Fra Diavlo: Hot and spicy," the Englishman read, before tossing the glass jar hard across some nearby rocks. He quickly rushed over to the two other crates, ripping open the covers. Inside the first was sand and rocks, which North was sure was the same weight as a crate full of ammunition. The second crate yielded something slightly different. Rocks and sand.

"But . . . but we saw the rifles. You fired one of them!" Donovan said angrily.

"Did we see the entirety of those crates, Liam? No, we saw what he wanted us to see . . . in the dark. He must have switched them while we were distracted by that rifle shot. One of his accomplices . . . Signaled by the lamp being lowered . . . In our hurry to get out of here we simply grabbed the boxes he indicated and didn't think to look any further. I thought it was too good to be true. Lynch had one rifle and box of ammo and that's all we needed to see. There was never any survivalist, no weapons cache, never was any nitro, just a crate full of glass bottles meant to keep our minds on the consequences if we dropped it."

"Probably for the best then . . . if it had been nitro we would be . . . That damned Kerryman! I am going to kill him slow, going to rip his balls off with my bare hands!"

"No doubt."

"How can you be so sodding calm about this?"

"I was just admiring the irony of the situation," said North, shaking his head.

"What irony?"

"We got conned."

"Aye. So?"

"We got conned . . . by Paul Newman's own."

"Aye?" Donovan nodded, still waiting for elaboration.

North sighed, rolling his eyes. "You cultural barbarian. We are making a trip to the video library when we get back. Bog Irishman probably wasn't even aware of the reference when he planned this. But one has to appreciate the skill and intelligence it required to pull it off."

Donovan glowered, first at North, and then in the direction Lynch had disappeared in.

"Oh, we're still going to kill him," said North, merrily nodding his head. "Slowly, painfully, and any other way we can think up. Still, the irony!"

2

"Are you kidding?" Mike Stearns' eyes scanned the members of his cabinet sitting around the table before coming back to his secretary of state.

"I'm afraid not, Mike," replied Ed Piazza. "In hindsight we shouldn't be so surprised. This would be right about the time we should have expected them. Time enough for the news to get there and them to get here. The world's a big damn place here in the seventeenth century."

"The Mughals," Stearns mused. "The freaking Mughal Empire."

"We don't know that for sure, it's just one guy and a wild story," cautioned Piazza.

"I don't believe that and neither do you, and even if . . . " Stearns shook his head. "We can't take the risk. If this guy is an official representative of the Mughal Empire, the opportunity is too great—potentially, at least—for us to ignore."

"Ignore, okay," agreed Frank Jackson, "but what can we do? Mike, Innsbruck is hundreds of miles away deep into Hapsburg territory. For us to do it would require a massive military undertaking, and we don't have the forces. Nor is Gustavus Adolphus going to give us anybody, not with war breaking out with the League of Ostend."

"And if our little rescue mission comes a cropper, we will have a whole heap of trouble with the southern principalities," commented Piazza. "We're just starting to be on speaking terms with some of them. Our army traipsing through will kill that pretty effectively."

"We have to do something," said Quentin Underwood. "The merest possibility of establishing favorable trade relations with them is something we have to pursue. Christ! Forget France. Except for maybe the Ottoman Turks and the Chinese, the Mughal Empire is the greatest power in the world right now."

"So we have to do something, but we can't do what he asks," said Stearns. "Not directly, anyway."

Harry Lefferts cleared his throat. He was not normally a part of cabinet meetings but Mike had asked him to sit in, since he'd had a feeling Harry's expertise might be called for. "I know a guy. Well, two guys."

That afternoon North and his partner sat in the converted office to discuss the week's business. The farmhouse that served as the Albernian Mercenary Company's corporate headquarters was not an illustrious affair. It was, however, located near enough to Grantville that the town's amenities were always at hand. But also far enough away for several hundred armed men to drill without upsetting the neighbors' delicate sensibilities too much. The former owners originally had no inclination to sell. But there are very few of life's problems that couldn't be solved with an influx of cash, which the two expatriates had sufficient in supply.

The houses and barns were only enough to keep a few extended families, really a miniature village. Since acquiring the property, the company had been building outlying barracks to house the men. But a shortage of bricks had halted construction three quarters of the way to completion and it was a good thing much of the company was away on assignment. As it was, some would probably have to make do with tents when the heavy snows began.

"What do you have to report?" asked North.

"The merchant caravan from Prague came back safe and sound, despite the recent unpleasantness. It appears `state of war' is a rather flexible viewpoint for them. Two minor fights with Bohemian highwaymen, but nothing Hastings couldn't handle." Donovan glanced at the barely legible account Hastings had turned in. "There was a spot of trouble collecting our pay but Hastings handled that manner in his usual subtle way."

"I told you hiring him was the right decision. There is no reason for you to dislike him so much."

"The man is a drunk. After he collected the gold, his men had to carry him back to the farm from the Thuringen gardens. Five of his men."

"So he is a drunk. As opposed to which other of our sergeants, I might ask? Besides, he does his best fighting when he is drunk. You should know that."

"Don't remind me," said Donovan, rubbing his chin and wincing at the memory.

"You know how to handle Hastings," said North quietly as he worked out the kink in his neck.

"Of course. I fine him two weeks pay, as usual. He is now seven weeks behind in his pay . . . as usual. At this rate he will be in servitude to us for his entire lifetime and never collect a coin aside from what he can pilfer from our contracts."

"Huh," North grunted. "Don't let the Americans hear, they are rather touchy about slavery."

"Speaking of which, I finished talking with the gunsmith and we can take possession of seventy-five more flintlocks along with forty thousand rounds of ammunition. We still have a sufficient supply of gunpowder and our own mill should be running in a few weeks. Schroeder says he can begin production by November."

"You are still not happy about that, are you, Liam?"

"It seems to me a frivolous expense."

"I cower in fear of the Irish hordes and their double-entry bookkeeping." North sat up from his desk and tossed the valuable up-time composition notebook into his partner's lap.

"I was being serious, Tom," said Donovan, carefully returning the company's ledger books to the desk.

"So was I." North shuddered appropriately at the memory. "We have been through this time and again. The cost is great but I deemed it necessary. We are in the middle of a war. And we need an independent supply. If we don't have a bottleneck on saltpeter, probably we will end up selling it to the government at three times profit."

"What is more likely is that once production is up and running, Stearns will seize the mill as a `vital military asset,' under their law of eminent domain. And we will be out the huge expense."

"You, sir, are a pessimist. By that time we will have secured all the up-time weapons we need. And we won't need raw gunpowder any longer."

"At which time you will ask me to build a cartridge factory."

"Liam, you are not exactly the paragon of capitalism yourself."

"I do not know what you mean."

"You recruited another fifteen men today," North responded coldly.

"So I did. And?"

"Are any of them between the age of fifteen and fifty?" With a booming economy, and those not involved in a trade enlisting in the regular army, their private mercenary company did not exactly have first choice on who it hired.

"Some," Donovan stalled, suddenly very interested in the cleanliness of his fingernails.

"And I see they had about forty camp followers between them."

"The lasses can be cooks and washerwomen," said Donovan stoutly. "The lads will help in the fields. We need them, Tom. The farm was supposed to be a secondary income but it is turning out to be quite a secondary expense."

"My shirts are washed so often the stitching is coming loose. Oh, I know, they can sew it back up again too. My meals are served promptly. Six times a day. And I can even take a ride in my own fields with Ariner a whole ten feet before tripping over some brat."

"Winter is coming," said Donovan, halting his friend's rant cold.

"We haven't the space," complained North.

"We will. We have plenty of timber about. The newcomers will build their own barracks. It won't be a proper residence but it will do. It is probably what we should have done from the beginning, instead of trying for brick."

"Most of them will desert come spring."

"Probably, but we will still have the buildings they constructed when they leave, and think of the good this charity will do your soul. Which is badly in need of it, let me tell you. I believe the up-timers call it good karma."

"Karma? Where the hell did that come from?"

"India, I believe."

"North and Donovan have been together several years now," said Harry Lefferts. "They met originally in Amsterdam, when the Dutch sent out the call for any mercenaries in defense of their independence from Spain."

Piazza grunted. "That would have been after the truce between 1609 and 1621 broke down, I assume? They must be old-timers."

"No, they're both in their late twenties. Once the truce was over and Spain attacked again—just another part of the mess we call the `Thirty Years War'—the Dutch needed as many mercenaries as they could get. As young as they were, both were intelligent and rose pretty quickly within their mercenary company. And somewhere in the course of it, they got to be good friends."

"An Englishman and an Irishman?" asked Quentin skeptically.

Harry shrugged. "For being from different countries, fighting a war to defend yet another, they had a lot in common. Liam had been tossed out of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin when it was found out his family was Catholic. The authorities were so pissed off by his false application that he had to get out of Ireland altogether. He landed on the Continent with an extensive knowledge of languages, the classics, and histories, but with barely a penny to his name."

"And North?" asked Mike.

"North left England for less, ah, austere reasons. He's nobility of a sort, being the third son and seventh child of the minor baron of Kirtling. The first son inherited the title and lands. The second son was expected to enter either the army or navy, to defend the glory of England. The third son, if a lord was so fortunate, was usually sent off to the clergy."

Something in Harry's expression caused a little chuckle to ripple around the cabinet room. Harry smiled. "Yeah, that's about right. The Anglican Church doesn't expect chastity. They allow clergy to marry, after all. But they still weren't willing to elevate somebody like Tom North to the holy orders. I guess he had quite a reputation. If he'd been the son of a duke or a more powerful lord, special arrangements might have been made, but . . . he wasn't. And while he was a bit better funded than Donovan, I guess his father made it clear to him not to return home for a good long time. So, Thomas North was alone in a foreign land before finding Liam."

Harry shifted in his seat, trying to marshal his words. "Normally, you'd think, an Irish Catholic intellectual and an English Anglican nobleman would not have much to do with each other. But after discovering each other in a Dutch gaming parlor they found out they did share one fundamental characteristic that surpassed all borders and religions. They like money, and plenty of it, and between the two of them they're pretty good at figuring out how to get it. Since then, their noble quest took them here and there, to whoever was the best paymaster at the time. Eventually they wound up in the Clancy mercenary company loosely connected with Tilly's army back when it was rampaging across Germany. By then, Thomas had risen to command one of the detachments of fifty men used to scout about the flanks of the army." Harry cleared his throat. "This fortunate assignment enabled them to make their unofficial transfer an easy business."

The President of the United States rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Don't tell me."

"Yup," said Harry, now grinning. "After they heard reports of the newcomer Americans and our effectiveness in the field—not to mention the usual fabulous tales of our wealth—the two of them packed their bags, decamped in the middle of the night, and set out for the, ah, promised land."

Still staring at the ceiling, Mike closed his eyes. "Promised land," he murmured. "Out of idle curiosity, when did we decide to pave the streets of Grantville with gold? And how come I haven't noticed any special abundance of milk and honey around here lately?"

Judging that the question was rhetorical, Harry pressed on. "So, the two of them headed directly toward what most in their situation were taking their distance from. Look, Mike, whatever else, these two guys aren't stupid."

Mike opened his eyes again, still keeping them on the ceiling. "No, apparently not. And, of course, once they got here they wouldn't have had any trouble getting work. In fact, if they're as literate and multilingual as it sounds, they probably did pretty well."

"They loved the place," said Harry. "Believe it or not, what really charmed them the most was our libraries. They both love to read. And, in North's case, I think he loves movies even more."

Quentin Underwood grunted. "They still sound like scoundrels to me."

Harry made a little wiggling gesture with his hands. "Yes and no. I sure wouldn't nominate either of them for the Mr. Morality contest, but they're really not that bad, Quentin. Sure as hell not compared to most longtime mercenary soldiers. The Croat raid last year even instilled in them a mild sort of patriotism, I guess you could call it. Mind you, I think they were mostly determined to keep the libraries intact."

Again, he shifted in his seat. "After the attack, they also decided to go back to the mercenary business. That was because—"

Mike brought his eyes down from the ceiling. "Yeah, I understand. After the Croat raid we relaxed our earlier restrictions on letting mercenary companies operate in our area, as long as they had our seal of approval. Did they ever consider just joining the regular army?"

Harry glanced over at Jackson. "Mike, joining the army was never really an option. And it's just as well, frankly. Either one of them, much less both together, would have sent even Frank into orbit."

"They have a good reputation, professionally speaking," said General Jackson. "I agree with Harry that I wouldn't have wanted to touch them in the regular army. But we've used them for a few courier runs and, mostly, for providing protection for supply trains when our own people were stretched too thin. They always did the job, no complaints or problems, and at reasonable rates. I also hear they do guard duty on local properties and run protection for a few merchant caravans in and out of CPE territory as well. They haven't lost a single one far as I know, and we have a few less highwaymen and bandits to deal with thanks to them." He grimaced slightly. "Of course, they're one step removed from bandits themselves, but all experience shows them to be loyal—as long as they get paid."

"All right," said Stearns, massaging his head. "Harry, do you think they can hack it?"

"Well, Mike, they've been fighting wars since they were in their teens and have more practical experience than everyone in this room combined. In their own way, they're pretty good." He hesitated a moment. "Maybe a bit rambunctious."

"Damn good cardplayers, if nothing else," said Frank.

Mike looked him, surprised. "When did you start playing cards?"

Jackson shrugged. "I don't. But Henry Dreeson says they're damn good. He's played cards with them several times at the Gardens."

"Where?" asked Underwood, coming alert. "In the main rooms or—"

Jackson grinned. "Quentin, when does Henry ever play cards in the front rooms?"

There was a moment of silence. To everyone's surprise, once Grantville eventually bowed to reality after the Ring of Fire and the enormous influx of immigrants and lifted its up-time restrictions on gambling, the town's elderly mayor had been revealed as a card shark. He'd become something of a legend in the area's gambling circles. If North and Donovan were able to keep up with him in the back rooms of the Gardens devoted to serious card playing . . .

Stearns came to a decision. "All right, Harry, bring 'em in. If I remember right, Donovan handles most of the business side of things, so I'll talk to him about the contract. In the meantime, I want you to take our guest out to their place and see if he approves. And I want you to personally oversee as much as you can."

Harry nodded, got up, and left. "Now," said Mike, "let's move on to the next item on the agenda."

The cabinet meeting eventually broke up. Mike stayed at his chair, frowning a little.

"Becky's situation bothering you again, Mike?" asked Ed Piazza, when they were alone in the room. He knew Stearns was worried about his wife, trapped in the siege of Amsterdam.

Mike shrugged. "Yeah, sure, it always does these days. At the moment, though, that's not what I'm fretting about. It's what Harry said, at the end there."

"What? His recommendation of North and Donovan?"

"Not that so much. I agree they're probably the best fit we have for this peculiar problem, much as I hate to admit it. But it's how he described them at the end. `Maybe a bit rambunctious.' "

Piazza smiled ruefully. "Coming from Harry, that's a little rich."

"Still that's not what's eating at me. It's that he hesitated before he said it."

Piazza's smile went away. "Oh, Christ."

The Friday night game was perennially held at nine p.m. every Friday in a backroom of the Thuringen Gardens. The game could very well go on all weekend, with small fortunes being won and lost. Of course the same players wouldn't necessarily keep at it all weekend. Busting out or cashing out, they would quickly be replaced by another eager sheep waiting to be fleeced.

"One card," said North as he discarded onto the felt. "And I still say he was and will be a lunatic."

"Two cards," said Donovan when the deal came to him. "He is one of the finest Irish writers that ever lived or will live."

The other players received their cards, sharing knowing looks with their fellows on what was to commence, almost as much a tradition as the game itself.

"James Augustine Aloysius Joyce," said North, annunciating the first syllables like he was giving orders on the battlefield. "The only reason you like him is because you share a name."

"That is not true."

"At age twenty-four he renounced his Roman Catholicism and left Ireland forever. Yet `history' considers him a champion of those two groups. Bet twenty dollars."

"Call," said Henry Sims, tossing a few chips into the center. "I have to agree with Mr. North here. I had to read Ulysses in college, a terrible experience."

"See? Our shire's senior dentist and a man of learning agrees."

"Call," said Donovan, biting his tongue.

"And his punctuation was atrocious," continued North. "Raise twenty."

"Fold," said Sims.

"Fold," said Henry Dreeson.

"He was an artist," said Donovan.

North sniffed. "He was a lazy little git who could not be bothered to learn the English language, raise fifteen."

"I know what you are trying to do." Donovan tossed more chips into the center. "Call."

"Do you now?"

"You are trying to anger me, to involve emotion in the game, to get me to bet heavily so that you can `clean me out.'"

"When I read Finnegan's Wake, I wanted to put a bullet in my brain and have one of my own. `Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the'—with no period at the end of the novel, I might add."

"He was making a point."

"No, the point is, he did not make a point. Raise twenty."

"That is a fine way to end a masterpiece, and if you did not have the intellect of a flea you would understand. Call. It will not work this time because I know you're bluffing."

"Am I now?" asked North condescendingly.

"Yes." Donovan smirked. "You are shuffling your cards back and forth. It is your tell. Call and raise twenty. We have reached the table limit, I believe."

"I leave aside that you have just proved how amateur a player you are by telling me that. There is one thing that you forgot, old friend." North pushed most of his remaining chips into the center. "I knew you recognized that tell three hands back. The one I lost for a whole five dollars. I used it this time to draw you in. The rant on James Joyce just came from the heart. Full house, ladies over threes."

"Damn!" Donovan threw his three jacks down on the table in disgust.

North laughed as he reached out to scoop up his winnings.

"Ahem!" A female voice intruded. North turned to Veronica Dreeson, who had constantly, and without saying a word, kept in the game, pushing forward chips to the end. North had disregarded her as a nonentity since she was very new to the game.

"I am not sure about four fives," said Veronica sweetly, "but ace is high card, yes?"

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