Gameboard of the Gods

Page 11

“Why?” he asked. “Why now? You’ve got hundreds of bright-eyed graduates who could do what I used to do, for less money and with more ambition.”

“Some people,” said Cornelia, in a tone stating she was not one of them, “feel you have certain qualifications that make you a valuable asset for a particular situation that’s arisen. We can’t elaborate on any other details until you’ve agreed to return.”

Francis looked ready to burst with excitement. “Oh, Cornelia, just show him the offer.”

She grimaced at having her rehearsed presentation interrupted, but after a few moments, she produced an ego and told it, “Bring up the Justin March offer.” She handed the device to Justin.

For a moment, he was more taken with the ego than its display, now that he could actually hold one. They were smaller and lighter than when he’d left, and voice commands had apparently improved significantly. Reminding himself there was an incredible chance he might be surrounded by all this technology once again, he focused back on the ego’s screen, which detailed a very generous employment package. It cited a salary much higher than his previous one, as well as other perks, such as “luxury accommodations” in Vancouver. The offer also mentioned that he’d return with a visa of unspecified length, which he didn’t find reassuring.

“How much are you authorized to go up to?” Justin asked, handing the ego back to Cornelia.

“I beg your pardon?” she asked.

“This is an offer. You’re coming in as a bargainer, meaning there’s room to negotiate on this. Whatever max salary Internal Security’s authorized you to go up to, I want it.”

Cornelia’s antagonistic expression and reluctant nod told him two things. One was that this was real, that they wanted him back—wanted him back very, very badly. And that led to his second conclusion, that he had more power here than she wanted to admit.

“Fine,” she said. “So we’re settled?”

“No. If I’m going to take up the mantle again, I want a few other things.”

None of them said anything. They were probably too astonished that he wasn’t down on his hands and knees begging to be taken back. He was kind of astonished himself.

“I want arrangements for my sister.”

“Your…your sister?” Cornelia was too baffled by the request to be scornful.

“I’m guessing she’s still stuck in Anchorage. Get her out of there. Bring her to Vancouver, and give her a place as nice as mine. Somewhere in the suburbs.”

The more this continued, the more Justin was getting a feel for the group dynamics and who was in what role. Francis, with his rank, undoubtedly held the most power and authorization, but Cornelia was the one charged with negotiation. Judging from Francis’s lack of involvement thus far, Justin hadn’t made any outlandish requests yet. After all, if they were already willing to spend so much on him, how much more would it cost to relocate one woman and her son? Meanwhile, Mae wore an excellent poker face, but she was watching everything so avidly that it was clear she wasn’t privy to SCI’s bartering. Maybe she was along for the ride simply to ensure their safe travels. Or maybe she had been ordered to kill him if he refused.

“Fine,” repeated Cornelia. “We’ll take care of your sister. Now, let’s—”

“One more thing,” Justin interrupted. Even doting Francis looked a little amazed at the audacity. It was time to see just how badly the RUNA wanted its servitor back.

Be careful, said Horatio. Even they have limits.

I know. But I have to ask. You know I do.

“There are some people here…a family. I want them to get visas too. The guy used to have business relations with us, so it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

“You want some Panamanian family allowed into the RUNA?” asked Cornelia incredulously.

“Yeah. There’s only…” Justin started counting out on his fingers. “One…two…guess we’ve got to bring her. Probably the in-laws too. Nine. There are nine of them.”

“No.” Cornelia didn’t hesitate. “There is absolutely no way we can bring in nine Panamanian nationals.”

Justin ignored her and looked at Francis expectantly, assuming this required clearance from a higher tier. Conflict filled the older man’s features. It was obviously hard for him to deny Justin anything, but as Horatio had said, even they had limits.

“I’m sorry,” Francis said. “We can’t get that many visas, unless they’re defectors with some kind of critical information about the Panamanian government. Which I’m guessing they aren’t.”

He was right. Panama wasn’t a big enough blip on the radar to be worth much of the RUNA’s effort, nor did it have a stable enough government to seek intelligence on. Justin had known it was a long shot, but his heart sank anyway. I promised him, he thought. I promised Sergio I’d make this happen. Inspiration hit.

“What about one? Can you get one visa? A student visa. Perfectly harmless.”

“You want to bring a kid back with you?” asked Cornelia.

“Girl,” he corrected. “Tessa—er, Teresa Cruz. She’s sixteen. A real prodigy.”

“A sixteen-year-old?” She couldn’t keep the accusation out of her voice.

“It’s nothing like that,” Justin snapped, losing a little of his composure. “She’s practically like another sister, except she doesn’t nag me as much as my real one.” Silence met him, and he pushed forward. “Come on, it’s nothing. One little visa. They issue a handful of student ones each year. Do that for me, and I’m yours.”

He regretted his choice of wording in that last bit, but there was nothing to be done for it now. He’d made his play. If it panned out, he could very well have his life back. Of course, there was still the teeny-tiny fact that the reason they wanted him was still unknown, but surely it would be worth what he was getting in return.

“Done,” said Francis firmly. “I’ll make it happen.” He held out his hand to Justin. With only a breath of hesitation, Justin shook the offered hand.

Cornelia updated her file to reflect the new concessions and then had Justin sign the screen. Along with all the perks, there was a fair amount of legalese in the employment agreement that probably detailed imprisonment or a return to exile at their discretion. He signed anyway and had to fight to keep his hand from shaking.

He was going home. How had this happened? How could a night that started with a garish Panamanian woman throwing wine on his shirt end with his returning to his homeland in glory?

Don’t get carried away, said Horatio. You aren’t there yet.

And don’t forget everything else that happened tonight, said Magnus, almost sounding offended.

Justin lifted his eyes to Mae. No, he certainly hadn’t forgotten about that part.

Although Cornelia wasn’t a fan of accommodating Justin or even taking him back, she seemed more at ease once the paperwork was in order. After all, she was now his boss again, which meant she could exert a little more control and feel entitled to her condescension. Francis was elated and appeared to be on the verge of starting the Justin March Fan Club.

Mae remained the enigma here. She was still doing a good job of keeping her expression neutral, which wasn’t surprising from someone who’d gone through a castal upbringing and prætorian training. It was her body language that gave her away, especially when Cornelia jumped to the next order of business: revealing what the burning reason behind Justin’s return was. Mae leaned forward to look at the screen, anticipation crackling through her.

She doesn’t know why she’s here, he thought. She doesn’t know why I’m here. It’s possible what happened earlier was a complete coincidence and not part of any larger machination. Maybe.

“So. Now that all that unpleasantness is out of the way, you’re probably wondering why we’ve taken you back,” said Cornelia.

“I figured you thought I’d learned my lesson,” he said cheerfully. Maybe he should’ve been a bit more humble, but his exuberance over this change of fortune was running strong.

“No,” she said with no humor at all. “I don’t believe that for an instant. Which is part of the reasoning for this unorthodox decision.”

Justin’s cockiness faded. All was not forgotten and forgiven.

“Now,” continued Cornelia, “I’m sure you’re familiar with the patrician murders, which have been all over the news.” She paused and then gave a contrived laugh that was supposed to sound embarrassed. “But of course you wouldn’t be. I don’t imagine much Gemman news makes it to Panama, does it?”

“Depends on if the homing pigeons are up and running,” he replied.

Cornelia didn’t blink, but in his periphery, he saw a smile play at the edge of Mae’s lips. She caught it quickly, apparently remembering she was angry, and her business mask slipped back into place.

“Bring up the patrician murder records,” Cornelia ordered the screen.

The screen came to life, displaying a list of five bolded names. Under each one were four bulleted items: age, caste name, location of death, and date of death. Justin forgot all about Cornelia’s attitude and the strange circumstances of his homecoming. Seeing the list, this set of data, snapped him into a mode he hadn’t been in for a very long time. Immediately, his brain wanted to make sense of the information. There was always a pattern to the world, and even with no other background on this list, he immediately began summarizing it.

Each person belonged to a different caste: Erinian, Lakota, Nordic, Welsh, and Nipponese. All of them were twenty-seven or twenty-eight and had been killed within the borders of their respective castal land grants. The murder dates extended over the last six months, with the most recent being a few days ago.

“These have been highly publicized,” said Cornelia. “Despite the wide ethnic spread, the cases share some similarities, leading us to believe they were all committed by the same person. The age similarity, as well as the identical nature of their deaths.”

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