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Epim, Tog and Ent returned from a tough mission in the devastated zone of Faultline to find a note from Lista which read:
“Hey guys. I got a weekend date, so don’t wait up for me. Like you would.
PS, Hey Jyn… I don’t know what you just said, but bite me.”
“Well, at least I’ll be able to get a shower.” Tog headed down to the locker room.
It wasn’t the best base out there, but it was manageable and it worked well enough. It was actually an old private school that mostly survived the attack in Baumton, otherwise known as “Boomtown”. What remained were some classrooms, the gym and locker room, and the lunchroom. All the necessities were there, but there was the occasional Troll, Clock, Vahz, or 5th Column that came sniffing about. They usually managed to hit one of the traps Heather designed, which convinced them that maybe it wasn’t the best place to explore.
* * *
Lista stood on the roof of an office building in
Once the aircraft set down, she got in, strapped on the seatbelt and took the headset. His voice came through the rotor noise with ease. Marcus Trenton Gauthier was a large man by most standards. He was tall and broad with a shaved head and small beard. He had made billions in real estate and carried himself with the confidence of a man who was sure he could never fail. His voice conveyed that as well.
“You look lovely. I hope the helicopter didn’t to do too much damage to your hair.”
“Nah, windblown is a look I tend to favor anyway. You look great too. So, any chance of finding out where I’m being carried off to, now that we’re under way and there’s no way I can escape?”
“I received an invitation to a meeting at the lake house of Brian Devon. Does that name ring a bell for you?”
“Isn’t he a computer guy or something?”
“He does software. A little bit of hardware too, but mostly applications.”
“So are you going into business with him?”
“I couldn’t answer that until it was final, but to be honest, I’m not sure why I was invited. That’s sort of where you come in. When I met you last week, you played me. I’m not saying I wasn’t looking to be played just a little, but you’re a pro. Now don’t look all offended like that. I’ve got a proposition for you. I can usually read people really well. It’s how I got to where I am. When we met, all of my instincts vanished and I was yours. You knew just what you were doing, and you led me just well enough to keep me from seeing I was being manipulated. Normally, I’d be scared as hell about someone that could do that to me, but when I looked back I realized that all you really wanted was a night of my time. You’ve got a talent, and I’d like to hire you to use it. If you don’t want to be a part of this, I understand and I’ll tell the pilot to set fly us back so you can leave, but I’d really like your assistance.”
Wow, he was good. He was right across the board. She had played him. She had wrapped him around her finger just like so many others before. None of them seemed to have realized it though. She wondered if it was really a trap of some sort. He was being sort of scary, waiting until she was trapped in a helicopter high over the city. She could jump out and just fly away, but he didn’t know that. “You know what. This is a little too creepy for me. I’d like to go back.”
He looked dejected, but switched the channel on his headset and said something to the pilot. The craft banked until it was on a return course. The pair sat in silence until they touched down on the rooftop, then he said, “Sorry you feel that way. Maybe we’ll meet again.”
“Actually, now that I know you were sincere about letting me leave if I wanted, I’m cool with the idea of going; if you still want me to. I had to see if we were really going to land before I was sure you were serious. You understand, right?”
“Completely,” he said with a broad smile. “Well played.” He spoke to the pilot again, and again, they were off. For the remainder of the flight they spoke about trivial things, only waiting until the last leg of the trip to actually discuss the weekend.
“I received this invitation. It said there was an urgent matter that he needed to discuss with me and that there would be three other prominent people there as well; or words to that effect. It also said I could bring a friend if I wanted, but that the actual meeting would be closed door.”
“That’s all it said?”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I’d like you to do to the rest of the people there what you did to me.”
“Everything?” Her voice raised a little. “Some of that stuff was because I actually liked you, not just because I was using you. Besides, what if one of them smells bad?”
“No. Not that stuff. Just take them off their guard and find out what they think about why they’re there. You’re supposed to be my date, so try not to sleep with any of them.”
“I’ll try, but if anyone is cuter than you, I make no promises.”
“There’s the dock, we’ll be getting out here and going the rest of the way by boat. The house is on an island in the middle of this lake.”
“Then we get a boat back here tomorrow?”
“That’s the plan.”
They boarded the small boat and were ferried to the house on the lake. It was only about but the air was cool and crisp. It was mid October and autumn had come in strong. Most of the trees had turned somewhat, but many were ablaze with red, gold and orange. About 20 minutes on the water brought them to an island. It was pretty good size, and thick with trees. It took another few minutes to get around to the far side where the boat dock was located.
The house was not really as big as Lista had thought it would be. It was two stories, and built on a high foundation, but didn’t really seem like the mansion she had imagined.
They walked up the path to the door where they were met by
the butler, who introduced himself as
“Mr. Hastings, this is Marcus Gauthier, and his traveling companion, Lisa Monet. This is Mr. Timothy Hastings, who will be serving in the role of security this weekend.” His voice was gruff, and his accent was that a British private school. He did not sound any happier than he looked.
Greetings were exchanged, and though cordial enough, it was obvious that Mr. Hastings seemed to harbor a dislike for the new arrivals.
Shortly after the clock struck four, two more pairs arrived. They were shown to their rooms as well, and then brought to the sitting room for introductions. The younger pair was Ronald and Misti Abernathy. Lista knew the man right off. He was a giant in the computer industry, having a very good hold on the market. He was of average height with reddish hair and stylish glasses. Lista estimated his age to be about 34 or so. The girl on the other hand, looked to be about 20. She was tall and pretty. Stunning really, with well manicured nails, each with a little picture on them, perfect hair, and more teeth than anyone should really have a right to. She seemed very pleasant and both Marcus and Mr. Hastings seemed to be vying for her attention in very subtle ways.
The older pair was Senator and Mrs. Wilson.
Lista was never a real follower in the political arena, but she knew the
man. He was a senator from
The group was informed that dinner would begin at precisely and that there would be one more person joining them. Their host would meet with them just before dinner. With time to kill, the group resumed the random conversations. Marcus, turned and engaged the Senator almost immediately, “What do you know about that new bill, 2619 about the deregulation of …” Lista wasn’t able, or interested to hear the rest due to Mrs. Wilson appearing in front of her.
“So you are here with Mr. Gauthier?”
“Yes, that’s right. We’ve only just recently met. I take it you and the Senator have been together some time?”
“Oh yes. Ages.”
“I think it’s great that you found someone you can share so much of your life with. I’m hoping to find that myself one day.”
“I doubt it. He’s not really a long term prospect, if you know what I mean.”
“Indeed I do sweetie. Say, I find this time of year so wonderful don’t you? The colors, the smell, even the weather.”
“I’m actually more of a sun-lover myself. A bikini, or half of one, and a nice sunny beach is ideal for me.”
“Oh. Yes. Well, that’s okay for you then. If you’ll excuse me, I think my drink could use a bit more water.”
Marcus moved in right after that. “You two seemed chatty.”
“For a second. I was trying to open some girl talk then she got all weird on me. I think maybe I offended her.”
“Eh, no bother. I’ve managed to find out that Abernathy and Wilson both got the same sort of cryptic invitation I did. Neither of them claims to know about it either. Was that the chime?”
After confirming the time, he hurried off to the television and turned it on. “I hope no one minds. My hotel hosts a live poker tournament three times a year. This year, the network has opted for non-stop live coverage of the final table and it starts now. I need to see who made it. Normally I’d be playing.”
Some of the others gathered around the television while Marcus mentioned little bits of trivia about each player he knew.”
“Nope, that guy’s new. That one too. Oh, heh heh, that guy’s a joker, glad to see him there. Ah, Rassman made it? Watch the guy next him. Rassman smells like bacon when he sweats. Might be better that I’m here.”
“Excuse me”, Senator Wilson spoke up. “Why does each player have their own deck of cards?”
“Ahh this is a new version of the game. You’ve
heard of stud poker, and draw poker, and
“Let’s say I get dealt an Ace and King of hearts. I choose 5 cards from my deck, say the 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 of clubs. If the senator has any of those 5 cards, he can’t use them for his own hand, and if any of those 5 turn up in the community cards, I can use that matching pair as a single wild card to give me a better community hand than the rest of the table.”
“Well, once I see your 5 cards, won’t I know that my hand is damaged?”
“No, Senator. You don’t see my 5 cards until after the last round of betting. They show up on screen for the broadcast, but the rest of the table doesn’t know what they are until the end of the hand.
“Sounds like an interesting twist to the game.
I might have to look into it when I get back to
“I tried to invent a card game once”, said Misti. I’m still working on it. You basically lay out 8 cards, and then you have to link them in as few cards as possible. I’ll set it up so you can see.”
No one seemed interested. Her husband spoke next. “Wow, that’s a lot of stuff on the screen. Do they show the 5 cards each person picked for every hand?”
“Yes. As the duplicates come out they gray them out to show that they can’t be used. See, there, the bacon guy is thinking he has 4 eights, but he doesn’t know that Beau there, that third guy, has two of those eights in his spoiler cards. He’s betting like he can’t lose, but right now, there is no way he can win. That guy though, Isaac, he’s playing really strangely. I can’t imagine making a mistake like that but there is no reason to do it on purpose. He’s got the 9 of spades as a hole card, and he chose it as a spoiler card. That’s just odd.”
Misti continued to explain her game from the side of the room. “See, if I have the 8 of clubs, then the 6 of diamonds, like this, I can link them with a 7 of anything, but if I have these other 6 cards showing, I might not be able to link them all before I run out of cards in the stack.”
Everyone gave a quick glance at Misti’s string of cards, but only Mrs. Wilson looked long enough to really fake interest. Misti left the cards there and went over to the TV with the rest.
For the next 40 minutes or so, Marcus, Misti and Mrs. Wilson were watching the game, while the rest of the people talked. Lista was getting bored. The Senator was a bit too devoted to his wife for her to really work on him, and Abernathy was way too easy. He was eating out of her hand within minutes. Mr. Hastings, on the other hand, was not really involved in the gathering, but just seemed to patrol the outside of it. With her foot in one door, and two others locked tight, there just wasn’t much she could do until after dinner. She began looking around the room and sort of listening to the background conversations.
The bar had several decanters made of fine crystal and filled with very expensive alcohols. There was the antique globe in the corner, and the painting on the wall opposite the fireplace. “Me too. I love the colors of the leaves; like fire in the distance.”
The mantle itself had the seemingly requisite ship in a bottle. “Congressmen don’t stay on long enough to see the big picture.”
The light was fading now, and the dim bulbs did little to reflect the light off of the dark, wood-paneled walls.
The tone rang on the clock, as if to announce the final guest. She was shown upstairs, but returned just minutes later. She looked to be in her 50’s, trying to look 30, so Lista guessed about 43. There was something forceful about her. Something that said this was not a woman to be taken lightly. She was introduced as Margaret Forsythe, head of a publishing company that put out a number of very well known magazines. Some were political, some were fashion, some were decorating, but all seemed to be guided, hands on, by this one woman. As she approached, she made it clear that she already knew everyone as well as she cared to.
“Senator Wilson. Good to see you again.
Deanna. Good to see you as well. Everything going
okay? I hope that little article a few months back didn’t cause
you too much difficulty getting that bill pushed through. Ah,
Ronald, I’ve been trying to arrange an interview with some of your engineers
about that new design layout. Good bunch of people you have
there. Loyal. I’ll break one eventually
though. This must be your daughter. Sorry?
Wife you say? Really? Maybe we can do a piece
on rich people living in states where the age of consent is markedly lower than
the rest of the country. See if there’s a trend.
Well, I’ll be. Marcus Trenton Gauthier.
“Sorry, am I to understand that you are a publisher of some sort?” Several eyes turned to Lista.
“You could say that. I run the largest publishing company in the country. We put out 17 of the top 20 magazines including the top 4 inclusive. Why?”
“Well, I thought you might want to get your facts straight. Assuming that getting anything right is a part of what you do, that is.”
The older woman fixed Lista with a steely gaze. “Feel free, then.” The words game through a tightly clenched jaw.
“Well, for starters, Misti may be young, but she’s hardly
under age. Just because someone is 20 years your junior
does not automatically mean they are a minor. You’re undoubtedly
older than you seem to think you look. Second, I am not his ‘tart
of the week’, I’m his tart of the week-end. I have a feeling that
he will stop being amusing by the time we leave here, so I doubt I’ll see him
again. I realize that that was an attempt to insult him by way of
implying that he has low standards in associating with me, but the insult to me
was much greater, and no matter how accurate the description might be, you had
no cause to make it. The others here have to accept your
condescension due to their station in life and the image they need to
maintain. I have no such requirement, as I’m certain that there is
nothing you can write about me that hasn’t been said more accurately, and read
by more people, on men’s room walls throughout
* * *