Gameboard of the Gods

Page 29

He made her a martini, explaining, “That’s the prissiest I can do.”

Mae would’ve expected Justin to start trolling for women, but instead, he leaned near her against the bar in companionable silence. He watched the room with interest, and she wondered if his brilliant observation skills still worked when he was strung out on illegal substances. At least he was sipping the bourbon this time. He wore his typical amused and confident expression, but when she gave him a more scrutinizing look, she swore she could see a glimmer of the sadness she’d observed in Panama.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He glanced her way, and she could tell he was on the verge of denying it. Then, studying her, he changed his mind. “Do you know why the land grants are on hold? Why we’re looking into cults now?”

“Because one of them is responsible for the murders?”

The ghost of a smile flashed over his face. “Well, yes, but I’d much rather solve all of this through placid forensics work—even though I know that’s not your thing.” He grew solemn again. “I got a call from the illustrious Cornelia the other day, letting me know how displeased she was at our lack of progress.”

Even though she wasn’t personally involved with the investigative part, Mae felt offended. “But you’re doing everything you can. Your interviews are…meticulous. You’re getting the data scrutinized again. And we’re not done talking to everyone.”

“You’re a fan after all, huh?” His smile returned, and for a moment, his hand lifted as though he might touch her. Then it dropped. “Meticulous or not, we’re stuck, and Cornelia made me very aware of the ticking clock.” He stared into the depths of his glass. “And so, we’re on to nuts like Apollo’s people—but even that didn’t pan out. I thought it’d be easy, you know. Just a few strokes of brilliance from me, and it’d be put to bed. Now I may be back in Panama before the month’s over.”

“Why did you go there in the first place?”

He looked back up, surprising her with a hint of the sadness she’d seen at their first meeting. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Mae didn’t want to, but she felt sorry for him. No matter his faults, he’d been put into a bad situation—maybe even an impossible one. Bringing him back had most certainly been an act of desperation on Internal Security’s part. “Maybe you can find that woman, Calliope—”

“Callista,” he corrected. “And maybe. I don’t know. Not many people can disappear, but she could. She’s got ties to underground networks of religions, ones that hide from SCI. Those groups stick together and help each other stay under the radar. Most of them wouldn’t go anywhere near a servitor like me, but she’d help me. I know she would.” He finished the bourbon and gestured the bartender over. “More paradise.”

Even the callous bartender looked taken aback. “That first shot should last all night.”

Justin put some cash on the bar. “It’s been a long day.” After a little more hesitation, the bartender swept up the money and handed over another vial. Mae bit her tongue on her own protests and watched as Justin took it down. His depression melted away, or was at least hidden. That dashing charmer returned, and he stepped closer to her. “You want to dance?”

“No. And that’s not dancing.” She cast a contemptuous look at the dance floor before returning her gaze to him, feeling slightly discomfited by his proximity. “It’s just an excuse for people to rub themselves up against each other.”

He leaned close. “If memory serves, you didn’t mind that once.”

“I’m going to ignore that because you’re high off your ass right now,” she snapped. “And if memory serves, you don’t go on second dates.”

“I’m not asking you on a date, princess.” The intensity of his eyes was all-encompassing, his voice velvety and coaxing. The same voice he used to get what he needed from interviewees.

Her earlier sympathy dried up. “I’m sure you think that over-the-top term of endearment is cute, but it’s really not.”

“It’s not cute. It’s true.” He looked at her in a way that somehow managed to see both the past and the present. “You know, the first time I saw you—before the alley—my whole world came to a stop. Everything else in that room faded to nothing, and there was only you, with your beautiful neck and your winter-sunlight hair and eyes that commanded the room.” He tilted his head in thought. “Do you know stephanotis?”

Mae swallowed, suddenly feeling as though she were back in Panama with a man who knew her inside and out. “Stephan-what?”

“It’s a flower. We should find some and go back to the hotel.” He reached out and ran a hand over her hair. “We’ll make a wreath of them and crown you in majesty, and then the world will ignite between us….”

Mae jerked away, embarrassed to find she was holding her breath. She was a soldier who killed without hesitation, not a woman swayed by pretty words. “Go dance. I’m sure there’re plenty of women just as far gone as you who’ll be enthralled by your flowers and fumbling advances.”

“I’ve never fumbled in my life.”

She turned away, angling her body so that her back was to him. Tense, she waited for more, but it never came. When she finally dared a look back, he was gone. The bartender strolled over.


She shook her head and left for a wall near a back exit. It gave her a good vantage of the dance floor but kept her away from most of the crowd—not that it stopped her from getting hit on. She should’ve left. There was no reason for her to be here. She didn’t even know why she’d come. Yet, something in her couldn’t abandon Justin, especially now that he was in the throes of drugs and alcohol. Not that he seemed to need much help. Each time she caught a glimpse of him, he was talking to a different woman, his face alight and full of that oozing charisma. He seemed to be on top of his game as the night went on, confident and in control, even after a trip to the bar for another drink and vial. It made his earlier proposition that much more insulting. Disgust filled her, and she welcomed it. It was easier to deal with than attraction.

Blinking out of her own troubled thoughts, she focused back on the dance floor. She couldn’t see Justin, but she could make out a few people standing around, looking at something on the floor. One of the gathered people shifted slightly away from whatever they all were watching, and Mae caught a glimpse of the jacket Justin had been wearing earlier. Her adrenaline spiked. She sprinted over to the gathered people, none of whom seemed in any particular hurry to act or move. Her stomach lurched as her worst fears were realized. It was Justin, sprawled on the floor, eyelids barely open as his breathing came fast and shallow. Alive—for now. As she quickly knelt down beside him, she wondered just how much trouble she’d get into if he died.



Justin opened his eyes and promptly closed them again—the light hurt too much. He waited a few moments and then decided to try again, this time using his hand to shade his eyes. Even that small amount of motion was uncomfortable. The muscles in his body felt limp and sore. The view above him revealed nothing, as that’s where the light source was, and only made him close his eyes again. With great effort, he tried to shift his body over and look to the side. He was on some kind of hard, uncomfortable bed, and his body complained against it accordingly.

Still keeping his eyes shaded, he blinked rapidly and tried to bring the room into focus around him. The walls gleamed dully in an inoffensive shade of taupe, and a large dark square hung nearby, which he assumed was a window. There was someone standing near it, appearing only as a shadowy figure. That figure approached, and he could start to discern more tangible features: lean body, golden hair. His Valkyrie.

“Hey,” he said, surprised when his own voice had difficulty coming out. There was a strange taste in his mouth. “What’s new?”

“You’re an idiot.” His angry Valkyrie.

“That’s not really new.” She stood in focus now. Her face looked strained, and most of her hair had fallen out of its ponytail. “What happened?” Then, before she could reply: “A bad trip?”

She nodded. “What were you thinking? You could’ve killed yourself!”

“Hey, it was good stuff. Really good.” It had been. In addition to making him feel like he was made of that spun-sugar stuff that kids ate at the Anchorage summer market, it had also distorted his vision so that everything around him was edged in color. Glittering people, ringed in brightly hued auras, left trails of colored light when they moved.

She didn’t answer, still keeping her face void of expression, and he somehow felt their relationship had just regressed about two years. At the same time, he had the startling sense that she’d actually been worried about him.

“I had no idea my job would involve protecting you from yourself,” she added. “How can someone so smart be so stupid?”

Excellent question, said Magnus.

How could he be so stupid? Well, it was easy because it was hard for him to say no. When it came to the pleasures of life, he had a tendency to think that if one was good, ten were better.

“I don’t care how futile the mission seems right now,” she continued angrily. “You want to fix things? You want to stay in the country? Then go solve this case! Don’t go drown yourself in drugs and self-pity!”

Her words brought back the dismal state of the mission, Cornelia’s threats, and Callista’s disappearance. That was more than enough to make someone seek blissful oblivion, that and—

“Have you ever not wanted to think?”

Her hard expression turned puzzled. “What?”

He shifted from her and stared up at the ceiling. “I think a lot, Mae. I see a lot. And my brain’s always analyzing every detail, over and over and over. This case. Me staying in the RUNA. That church. You.” He sighed. “I can’t shut my brain off. It’s like a hamster wheel. It’s why I take stuff to sleep.”

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