by Raven Blackmane
© Raven Blackmane -- all rights reserved
CRACK! The sound echoed in the rafters of the Blind Pig, as the white orb caromed off the rail and drilled cleanly into the lone black ball in the center of the felt-covered playing field. The 8-ball flew with military precision into the nearby pocket, while the cue ball ricocheted harmlessly away.
"And that, my friends," Copernicus said with a sly, reptilian grin, "is the game."
Jack DeMule let out a loud, braying laugh and exchanged high-five's with the lizard-man over the pool table. "Coops, man, that was beautiful!" he said. "I gotta tell ya, bud, we make an unstoppable team!"
The man known at the bar as "the Scribbler" put away his pool cue, muttering something in disgust about "lucky bastards."
"And, to the victors go the spoils, I believe?" Copernicus said smoothly, his scaly palm outstretched.
The Scribbler stuffed a fistful of Reagans into his open hand. "There you go, Lizard Lips," he said, managing to be reasonably good-natured toward his herpamorph friend. He smirked. "But I'm afraid I can't afford to lose any more bets tonight. Later, guys." He wandered back to the bar and took a seat next to Lisa Underwood, the Pig's resident Norm reporter. Within minutes, he'd be in a spirited argument with her, and probably forget all about his poor fortune at the billiards table tonight.
"You, too, buddy," Jack said.
Wanderer sighed and forked over the amount of the bet. "Ah, well," he said brightly. "Can't win them all, I suppose."
"You up for another game?" Copernicus asked.
Wanderer glanced over at the Lupine Boys table, where Raven Blackmane was looking on with interest. It was only her third night at the bar, but she'd managed to fit in fairly well so far. Everyone seemed to like her, and even the LB's became well-mannered gentlemen in her presence.
Well. Most of the time, anyway.
Raven got up from her seat and walked over to the pool table.
"Hey, guys," she said, smiling. "Mind if I jump in for the next game?"
"You ever played pool before?" Jack asked.
"Yeah, but it's been a few years," Raven replied, picking up a pool cue and chalking the tip. "Care to give a girl a refresher course?"
Coops and Jack exchanged a glance, Jack shrugged, and Copernicus turned back to face the young wolfen woman. "No problems here," Coops said. "We'll play a nice, informal game. No bets. You and Wanderer want to team up?"
"Love to," Raven said, looking at the older wolfman. "If it's fine with you."
"I'd be honored, milady," Wanderer said. "Rack 'em up, Jack."
The mule-morph did as asked, loading the fifteen balls into the wooden triangle and positioning them appropriately over the foot spot.
"Why don't we have Raven take the break?" Wanderer suggested.
There was general consent all around, and Raven stepped up to the head of the table. Leaning forward, she carefully formed the bridge around the shaft of her cue and took her shot.
CRACK! It was a clean break, if perhaps slightly under-powered. The three-ball bounced lightly off the left rail and found its way into the side pocket.
Copernicus nodded approvingly. "Not a bad shot, Miss Blackmane," he said.
"Thanks," said Raven, who then proceeded to miss her next shot. She shrugged, and gestured to Copernicus. The reptilian man nodded, moving around the table to where the cue ball had come to a stop. Quickly, expertly, he found his targets -- the 12- and the 15-ball, lined up for the back corner pocket. He indicated his objective, formed his bridge, and fired off a shot, drilling them both into the pocket while sending the cue ball bouncing off the rail. After the shot, he flicked his tongue once in satisfaction. Though far from infallible, Copernicus was the best pool player in town, and he knew it -- he just had enough class to not make a big deal over it.
When all was said and done, the lizard and the mule triumphed again. Raven had played a fair game, but it was obvious to Wanderer that she was still fairly rusty. The wolf-woman came up to Coops and Jack as they were putting their cues away, and shook each of their hands in turn.
"Thanks, guys, I enjoyed that," she said. "Looks like I'm going to have some practicing to do. Care to play another game tomorrow?"
Copernicus looked at her a moment, then smiled. "Sure, Raven. I have to tell you, I've never seen someone with more enthusiasm. You picked things up pretty quick, too. Keep playing, kid -- you'll get better."
Raven just returned the smile and walked away.
They played again the next night, and the night after that, and again the night after that. The pool games at Coops' "School," as Jack called it, continued for two weeks. Each time it was informal, laid-back, no bets, no pressure. The three men offered various bits of guidance and advice to young Raven as she gradually improved her game. She and Wanderer were still, as a team, no match for Coops and Jack, but the games got closer every night. At last, in a game two weeks after the School had started, they stayed even all the way down to the 8-ball -- which Copernicus fired into the corner pocket on a rail shot.
"That's it," Raven announced, shaking hands with the victors, as always. "Good game, everybody."
Jack wandered back to the piano and began to play. As Copernicus was putting away his cue, the wolf woman came up to him again.
"Hey, Coops," she said. "Care for a game of one on one?"
Copernicus smiled. "So you want to take the School's accelerated course now?" he asked. Though at first it was a term he'd been uncomfortable with, he'd grown used to Jack's title for their nightly games.
"Nope," Raven said, holding up a twenty-dollar bill. "I'm ready to graduate."
If it had been possible in his lizard form, Coops might have blushed.
"C'mon, Raven," he said quietly, leaning towards her. "You're going to make me look like a low-life, taking twenty bucks from my brightest student. Can you afford to lose that much money on one game?"
"It's mine to lose, isn't it?" she asked. "Don't worry, Coops. Now that things are in order with my bank accounts back in Washington, I can afford to play for real. Besides, putting money on the line has a way of making you try harder."
Copernicus looked at her a moment, then shrugged. "All right, it's your choice," he said, walking over to the Lupine Boys' table. He tossed a twenty in front of Wanderer, who sat nursing a cola and talking about the game with his fellow lycanthropes. Raven likewise put down her money.
"Keep an eye on the pot, Wanderer," Coops said. "The lady's going to try for her diploma."
Wanderer looked surprised, even shocked. "Well," he said at last. "THIS I have to see." He carried his cola and the wagers over to a table near the billiards table, where the herpamorph was even now racking up the balls. The other Lupine Boys were likewise gathering around in curiosity. Everyone knew Copernicus would win, of course, but they wanted to see just how well Raven could do on her own.
When Copernicus had positioned the balls, he looked up at Raven expectantly.
"You take the break," she said, gesturing with her cue toward the head of the table.
Coops just shrugged again, and walked over to take the shot. He placed the cue ball, formed the bridge, fired the shot ...
CRACK! The white sphere hit the 1-ball head-on, and the balls flew apart cleanly and rapidly.
None of the balls went in on the break, so Copernicus gestured to Raven. She nodded once.
And smiled mischievously.
Going over to the white ball, she lined up with the Four, which sat a few inches from the side pocket. She called her shot and knocked the ball in cleanly. The cue ball bounced off the rail and came to a stop against the Seven -- which, curiously enough, rolled into position in front of the corner pocket on the near side.
"That's a lucky break," Wanderer noted, taking another sip of his cola as Raven sighted the shot and drilled the 7-ball into the hole.
The white ball ricocheted away towards the center of the table -- and came to a stop against the Two, perfectly aligned for the right side pocket.
Wanderer blinked. Surely she couldn't have planned that, he thought.
CRACK! The cue ball knocked in the Two, bouncing it off the rail and into the pocket, before caroming off the foot-rail and then the left one.
"Do I get to play any time soon?" Copernicus asked. His tone was light-hearted, but Wanderer sensed a growing confusion in the herpamorph's scent.
"Hold on a minute, Coops," Raven said brightly, lining up her next shot.
She sank that shot ... and the next, and the next. Copernicus, Wanderer and the others could only stand back in amazement as the woman continued her remarkable streak of luck.
Or was it luck?
CRACK! THUNK! A carom shot knocked in the One.
CRACK! THUNK! CRACK! THUNK! A glancing shot that was heavy on the English knocked the Three into the side pocket, continuing on its way to blast in the Six at the far corner.
CRACK! THUNK! A line drive clear across the table launched the Five into the rail, where it ricocheted toward the right pocket, bounced against its edge, and dropped in.
And everyone -- Wanderer ... the Lupine Boys ... Jack, who'd been keeping an eye on the incredible series of events from the piano ... most of all Copernicus himself ... was speechless.
Wordlessly, Raven examined the playing field. The cue ball was at the foot end of the table, on the right side; the 8-ball was up near the front left corner. The Ten and the Fourteen sat between the white ball and her target, while the Fifteen and the Nine guarded the pocket from any frontal assault.
Raven studied the positions of the balls, like a surveyor scanning uncharted territory. She used her cue to measure the angles between her cue ball, the rail, the Eight, and the pocket.
She gave a small frown.
"Eight ball, corner pocket," she said grimly, gesturing at the ball's intended destination. She grabbed the chalk, ground it heavily into the tip of her cue, and took her position.
Raven leaned over the table, carefully formed her bridge around the cue, slid the shaft forward and back a few times to test the feel of it, and fired.
The white ball shot almost straight towards the opposite rail, very rapidly, bypassing the Ten and Fourteen. It caromed back on a very narrow angle, still going like a rocket. For a moment, Wanderer thought it would miss the 8-ball entirely ...
CRACK! A glancing blow hit the Eight with just the right amount of English to send it rolling away in the direction OPPOSITE the path of the cue ball. The black orb went wide past the Fifteen and the Nine, and bounced off the rail.
The Eight, having expended most of its energy by now, rolled slowly towards the head of the table...
... tapped lightly against the edge of the pocket ...
... teetered on the precipice, as all onlookers head their breath ...
... and finally fell in.
The Lupine Boys erupted into cheers, as Raven held the end of her cue before her lips and blew on it, like an old gunfighter cooling the barrel of his pistol.
She walked over to the table, took the forty dollars with a flourish, then went over to Copernicus -- who was still standing, dumbfounded, with an expression that suggested his brain had gone torpid.
And as always, she put out her hand.
"Good game, Coops," she said, grabbing the reptile's numb, scaly hand and giving it a good shake. "It's been a pleasure taking you to school."
Copernicus did not respond.
Mischievous grin on her face, Raven put away her cue and walked up to the bar.
"Hey, Donnie," she said loudly, leaning back on the bar to face the other patrons. "How's about a strawberry daiquiri for the new Headmistress of the Blind Pig School of Billiards?"
Donnie complied with a small smile on his bovine face. Raven brought it to her lips, took a sip, and declared, "The First Commandment of Raven's School: Thou shalt never underestimate the woman!" This brought cheers and laughter from Rydia, Lisa, Ellen, Eddie, and several other women in the audience.
Jack walked over to Copernicus, who was just coming out of his daze.
"Did ... did I ... miss something here?" the herpamorph asked.
Jack put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Let's put it this way, Coops: You've been hustled."
Meanwhile, Wanderer slid onto the stool next to Raven.
"Now, let me see if I understand this ..." he said. "All that time you were with us ... all those games ... it was just an act? A ploy to win easy money?"
"Not as easy as it looked," Raven said, taking another sip through the daiquiri's straw. "I don't think I've ever been on my game like I was tonight."
"Well, certainly not, but still ... You must be far better at the game than you let on."
Raven sighed. "When you grow up in a small town in the Washington state backwater, you find out real fast there's not much to do," she said. "I mean, sure, we had Web access, but it was an ancient line, fed out to us in the late nineties. Try running virtual Web communities with only a hundred twenty-eight point eight signal speed. So most of the real action happened downtown -- at the bars and the pool halls." She smiled wistfully. "Pool was my father's favorite pastime. He eventually got so good he worked on the side as a trick-shot artist for local parties. Naturally he passed the family trade down to his daughter."
Raven looked at Wanderer, a small smirk on her face. "Do you have any idea how many dumb jocks I hustled in those pool halls? The innocent little teenage girl who comes up to them asking 'Mind if I play a game?' and walks away with half the cash in their wallets!" She took another long sip of her drink.
Wanderer could only put his hand on her shoulder and say, "My dear Raven, I believe that SCABS dealt you the wrong hand."
He raised his eyebrows in a sincere expression. "Yes. It would have suited you far better to be a vixen!"
And the laughter rang in the halls of The Blind Pig.
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