Gameboard of the Gods

Page 5

“Watch where you’re going, you little bitch. Get one drop on me, and I’ll have Cristobal kick you out on the streets like that.” Ana tried to snap her fingers for effect, failed, and succeeded on the second try. “You can crawl back to whatever hole you live in and fuck your landlord for rent.”

Classy, said Horatio.

Justin knew the waitress. After four years, he knew every single person who worked for Cristobal. Her name was Sara, and she was half Ana’s age and size. Sara had a good head on her shoulders and a pretty face too, and in a sea of women like Ana Santiago, Sara was someone Justin wouldn’t have minded getting to know better. Sara was too smart to get involved with any of her boss’s party friends, though, and had made it abundantly clear her sole purpose in putting up with drunken gangsters and would-be socialites was to feed the two small children she had at home. Justin respected that. There was something in her that reminded him charmingly—and painfully—of his sister.

Even now, Sara was too savvy to offer a word of protest. She accepted the rebuke meekly, offering a soft apology as she delivered the table’s drinks. Justin handed her one of Huan’s larger chips as a tip, earning a nod of thanks.

Ana watched her go in triumph, apparently feeling proud of her ability to demean someone who was already at a much lower station in life. “I get that Cristobal wants easy ass around, but I don’t know how he puts up with the incompetence. She’s lucky she didn’t ruin this dress. It’s a Gemman import, you know.” That was directed toward Justin, as though he should be impressed. “Not that you’d expect trash like her to understand that.”

“Trash? She’s from the same place you are,” said Justin. He spoke quietly, but everyone at the table heard.

Ana’s eyes widened. “I live over on the west shore.”

Huan made a low noise of warning in his throat, but something in Justin snapped. He was so, so tired of this place. Tired of the games, tired of women like Ana, tired of dancing for Cristobal’s entertainment. The ravens often spoke of greatness and divine plans that lay in store for him, but Justin saw no greatness in his future. There would be no end to this place, and it made Justin angry, angrier still that Huan would get to leave it.

“But you grew up in San Garcia,” Justin told Ana. He rushed forward when she started to shake her head in denial. “It’s in the way you slur your S’s and use expressions like ‘easy ass.’ All the money and power in the world aren’t going to change where you came from, and trying to hide it with piles of fake jewelry isn’t going to work either.”

Ana flushed. “These are real!”

“The hell they are. I can see the brass tarnishing from here. And that dress is not Gemman—unless you managed to visit a post-Feriae costume clearance sale. That fabric’s just some flammable castoff from Guatemala. I know, because I saw it in stock at that tailor down on Flores Street, which is the same place I get my shitty knockoffs.” Justin paused to take a drink, then remembered he was out. “You can put on as many airs as you want, but in the end, that dress is the same as you: an old, cheap design dressed up to look like it’s worth more than it is.”

The table collectively held its breath, and then Ana, face furious, flung her wineglass at Justin, leaving a bloody stain on his shirt. “Looks like it’s time for another shitty knockoff.” She stormed away, probably straight to Cristobal, Justin thought bleakly.

Huan caught hold of Justin’s arm and steered him from the table. “Okay. Let’s go get a cigarette, Little Miss Charisma.”

“You don’t smoke,” Justin said, letting himself be led.

“It’s not for me. Here.” Huan took off his coat and handed it over. “You don’t want the world thinking you were shot. Unless you want to play dead when her husband comes seeking revenge.”

Huan must’ve come from some work meeting because he had one of the official coats he wore in his diplomatic dealings. It was navy, double-breasted, with the EA’s flag embroidered on the pocket and a series of colors edging the collar that correlated to his rank and position. Wearing it felt weird to Justin, but not as weird as walking around in a wine-stained shirt.

“Will this get me out of the country?” Justin asked ruefully.

Huan gave him a sympathetic smile as an answer and opened a door that led out to a back alley. Even with the heat and humidity, the outdoor air felt light and refreshing compared to the haze and crush of bodies inside. The sound of night insects buzzed around them, and above, clouds chased each other across the sky. In the distance, he thought he heard the low rumble of thunder, and the trees on the other side of the building were beginning to sway. Storms had a tendency to blow up fast and furious around here.

Justin groaned. “I don’t know why I put up with this.”

“Because Cristobal lets you live like a king,” said Huan, giving him a comforting pat on the back. “When you aren’t insulting his guests.”

“I’d rather be a beggar at the RUNA’s door than king of this nightmare,” Justin replied.

“If it makes you feel better, you did a great job with the story tonight. One of your best performances—even though I’m pretty sure it gets you a little closer to hell each time you tell it.”

“I don’t believe in hell, so it’s okay.”

Silence fell around them, and Huan spoke his next words hesitatingly. “I was just in your old stomping grounds, though.” His expression almost became compassionate. He knew these conversations tormented Justin…but he also knew Justin yearned for them. “Had a meeting in Vancouver.”

Justin jerked his head up. Vancouver! The very word had power. “How…how was it?”

“The same as always. Beautiful and perfect. The jewel of the world.”

“The jewel of the world,” Justin repeated. He raised his unlit cigarette in a toast. The same ache welled up in his chest, the longing he felt whenever anyone talked about the RUNA. All the drinking and drugs and other vices in Panama City could never make the pain go away.

“I’m sorry,” said Huan.

“It is what it is. It has been for a while.”

A hint of Huan’s old smile returned. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever tell me the real reason you left?”

“Nah. I know how much you like the Penelope story. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.”

“I thought it was Phoebe. Or Pamela.”

Justin waved it off. “Doesn’t matter. She’s a shameless whore.”

“Right. You’re better off without her.”


Huan chuckled and held out his hand. “You going to be okay if I go?”

Justin shook it. “Depends if I can keep the coat.”

“Sure. I’ve got lots more where that came from.” Huan moved to the door. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Justin repeated, watching the other man go. Party noise flared briefly as the door opened and then faded once more. A dark mood settled on Justin, and he welcomed the solitude as he lit up.

Smoking outside was a habit from the RUNA. No one cared what or where you smoked here, but there were strict laws back home. He took a deep drag on the cigarette, feeling a pleasant buzz that enhanced the alcohol, which had already made him light-headed. He wouldn’t have been able to smoke cigarettes like these back home either. The RUNA was conscientious of its citizens’ health. Of course, seeing as the RUNA had stopped caring about him, he figured he was welcome to whatever self-destructive behaviors he wanted. Huan’s words replayed in his mind.

Beautiful and perfect. The jewel of the world.

“Goddamn it,” Justin muttered.

Which god? asked Horatio.

Whichever one sent me here, Justin answered.

Judging from Magnus’s reply, the ravens were back in insolent mode: You sent yourself here. The gods merely helped. When they weren’t criticizing his life, the ravens were always talking about gods.

Quiet, Justin told them. I’m trying to have a moment.

Watch out, said Horatio.

Six hulking figures suddenly loomed out of the darkness off to Justin’s right. Moonlight shone off Paolo Jessup’s shaved head, along with the many gaudy earrings he wore. Beside him was his brother Miguel, and Justin soon recognized the other thugs as Jessup-family cronies. He had a sinking feeling that he might be closer to Huan’s hell than he’d realized.

“Hey, Paolo, how’s it going?” Justin managed a smile and wondered what the odds were that this wasn’t about Blanca.

“Don’t fucking waste my time. Did you think you could get away with that? You think you could just take advantage of my sister like that?”

The odds, it would seem, were not good.

Tell him she wasn’t that unwilling, Horatio suggested. Justin ignored him.

“There’s some mistake,” he told Paolo. “I’d never do anything to Blanca.”

“That’s not what she told Dora Ramirez,” growled Miguel.

Dora? And Ana? How many people had Blanca talked to? Justin at least hoped she’d been complimentary about that night.

He also wondered where the hell Cristobal’s security was. The outsides of his establishments were usually crawling with henchmen, and Justin speculated on whether the Jessup brothers had bribed them. He couldn’t imagine Cristobal would be happy about the untimely demise of his favorite houseguest…or would he? Cristobal would certainly get a lot of mileage out of the tragic tale. Justin could practically hear the big man already: He was like a brother to me….

Miguel took a few menacing steps forward, snarling like one of Cristobal’s badly trained dogs. He kind of smelled like one too. “I’m going to rip you apart!” he yelled.

I don’t think Blanca was worth it, Horatio told him. She wasn’t even that good.

Magnus’s comment was more enigmatic: Your Valkyrie.

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