An ill-wisher, a doer of dark deeds.
Trading in false hopes, broken hearts, and the not-so-pretty side of human emotion and gullibility.
She liked me to be seen and not heard. She liked magic that served her best interests. And she liked her men tall, pretty, and well acquainted with sinning.
She would’ve liked the guy standing next to me.
Even if he was a simulation.
He looked like he knew all about being bad. In all the good senses of the word. Tall, dark-haired, and sculpted by a perfectionist. But avatars—skins—can look like anything you want. In real life, he—or she—was just as likely to be a toad as a prince.
I turned back to the game menu, raising my avatar’s hand to flick through options. Pretty or not, I hadn’t expected company in Nightruns. The game was old. Several gens old. Uncool.
I’d retreated here for that precise reason, hiding out from Nat’s coaxing to join her and her team in the latest Phobos offering.
I’d wanted peace and quiet. Time to think.
Which, yes, meant more fool me for coming out in the first place. But Nat was never easy to resist. Though she did know better than to ask me to play any game with magic. I’d known the real thing and seen what it could do; I had no desire to relive it virtually.
But tonight I had no desire to stumble after her and her friends in an unknown game. Nat was a pro. I wasn’t. There’d be hundreds of thousands tuned in to the game stream. I didn’t want to hold Nat back, nor did I want to sit around and watch her on the screens. So I’d headed for the more obscure parts of the club’s catalog.
“You like classics?”
The question startled me. I twisted toward my companion. He studied me with improbably blue eyes, making me wonder again about the real face of whoever was running this skin. “Sorry?”
“Classics?” He gestured at the menu shimmering in the air. “Everyone here tonight seems to be trying to get a slot in the Phobos launch, yet here you are, back in the dark ages.”
His voice, like the eyes and the body, was too good to be true, deep and slightly roughened.
Definitely overcompensating. Still, that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy the scenery, given it was so nicely packaged in tight black clothes that hugged every pixel. “Newer isn’t everything. Anyway, I’m not much of a gamer.”
The avatar raised one dark eyebrow. “What brings a non-gamer to Decker’s?”
“I’m with friends. They’re pros.” And could get me comped on the entry fee and game price, which was how my currently slender credit balance could withstand playing in a club like this.
He nodded. “Ranked?”
I shrugged. “Some.” I didn’t want to get into a boring conversation about the leagues and rankings and upcoming competitions. If he was a game-head, then I’d find somewhere else to hide out. I reached toward the menu in case I needed the exit fast.
“Made a decision?”
I pulled back. “No.”
“How about Kingmaker? The palace run? If you feel like company, that is?” One brow quirked a challenge onto that perfect face.
I hesitated. The palace run was my favorite level of Kingmaker, full of the sorts of traps and logic puzzles I enjoyed. Zero magic. I’d been planning on tackling it alone, but a bit of competition could spice things up. Besides, it might be fun to beat pretty boy. “Pairs or head-to-head?”
He smiled, and I had to give points to whoever had designed his skin—the avatar was an advanced lesson in sheer male beauty. I smiled back before I could stop myself.
“Competition is always more fun.” He ushered me toward the menu. “Ladies first.”
“First to the crown jewels?” I asked, dialing the time to night. Moonlight made playing sneak thief more fun.
He nodded. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
“We’ll see about that,” I muttered, then pressed Go.
The walls of the palace shimmered into view and I flung myself into a run, heading for the first challenge point. Pretty boy dropped out of sight behind me. I smiled and then sped up, sinking into the moment, losing myself in the game, enjoying the familiarity, even if the simulation didn’t feel entirely real at times and the ageing graphics had a tendency to flicker at disconcerting moments.
My breath sang in my ears as I traversed the darkened corridors, climbing balconies, solving the puzzles guarding each new stage, and dodging guards. Occasionally I caught glimpses of my opponent, muscles rippling under the sleek black shirt and pants as he vaulted over an obstacle or stretched for a handhold.
He was doing pretty well—okay, really well—but I thought I had him. If I was reading his route right, he was taking the long way around. He was toast.
Or so I thought, until I dropped onto the balcony above the throne room, creeping carefully through the line of booby-trapped gilt chairs, to find him leaning against the railing looking down at the sumptuous room below with the well-satisfied expression of a king surveying his domain. His avatar didn’t even look rumpled. Maybe he didn’t like the realism of sweat and heavy breathing, but Nat had built the skin I wore and she was a purist. I knew it showed every inch of effort I’d put into my route. I stopped myself from reaching up to smooth my hair back.
“I wondered where you’d got to,” he said with another damnably perfect smile.
I bit back an annoyed retort and looked down at the throne. The crown and scepter we were supposedly here to steal still glittered against the black velvet seat. “Too scared to make the drop?”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you, Ms. Lachlan.”
“How do you know my name?” Alarm prickled my spine, and I backed up a step.
“Easy.” He lifted his hands from the railing, holding them out palms forward. “I don’t mean any harm.”
“How do you know my name?” I repeated, flexing my hand. One quick slap of the release button—the virtual reality equivalent of a safe word—and I’d be out of there.
“Your reputation precedes you,” he said. “I’ve been hearing the names Maggie Lachlan and TechWitch a lot lately.”
My mouth dropped open. “You want to talk business?”
“Does that surprise you?”
“Most people just make an appointment,” I pointed out.
“I like to know who I’m dealing with. Besides, this is more fun.” He hit me with the smile again.
I found it a little less perfect on the face of a mysterious stalker. “I like to know who I’m dealing with too,” I said, letting my tone frost a little. “So you’ve got about five seconds to tell me your name or I’m out.”
“Sorry. Where are my manners?” He held out a hand. “I’m Damon Riley.”
I sat down on one of the spindly gilt chairs with a thump. It squealed a protest, but I didn’t care.
“Game halt.” Damon snapped his fingers and the balcony disappeared. The lobby reformed around us, my chair morphing into a plain black cube.
“The Damon Riley?” I asked, more to myself than to him.
Those wickedly blue eyes twinkled. Their effect was even more annoying when I realized—having, like everyone else on the planet, seen his picture many times in almost every form of media—that the shade was close to the real thing. His avatar was nudged a little from reality, just enough to hide his identity, I guessed, but not too far.
“Yes. You know who I am,” he replied.
It was more a statement than a question. I wondered briefly what he would do if I said no. Probably leave. Unless you were a hermit or otherwise out of touch with the world, you knew who Damon Riley was. “Sure. You own Righteous.”
Somehow I managed to sound casual, as if I regularly had people who made world’s richest insert-noun-of-choice-here lists come looking for me in game clubs.
His mouth curved again. “I thought you said you weren’t much of a gamer?” He sounded amused.
I realized why. Most people would’ve said Riley Arts. Only the hard-core fans called his company Righteous. “Like I said, I know some pros.”
Pros whose heads would explode if they knew who I was talking to. I pictured Nat’s expression when I told her I’d played against Damon Riley. Exploding heads would just be the start.
The gamers called the company Righteous because it was. Riley’s games were the best. No argument. He was the man who’d developed Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the must-have game of all time. Almost a cult. It had made him his first million or fifty.
Since then, he hadn’t looked back. Riley Arts did both games and game-tech now. Their latest home virtual reality console had sold out worldwide approximately two hours after its release. The games usually took less than that.
“Right.” He rested against the railing, stretching out his long legs. “That would be Ms. Marcos and her crew?”
I nodded, my brain trying to catch up with what was happening.
Damon Riley. I didn’t have the foggiest idea why someone like him would be coming to me for help. I didn’t usually work with his sort of company. My somewhat specialized skills were generally more in demand by boring industries that lacked their own tech gods. Riley Arts had to have more computer geeks per square foot than almost any other company in the world. Why on earth would he want me?
“Yes, Nat’s my roommate. Call me Maggie,” I added. Ms. Lachlan always made me nervous. Every time the police had knocked on our door in my childhood, they were looking for ‘Ms. Lachlan.’ Back then, it had been my mother who wore the name, not me, but the sound of it still made me twitch somewhere deep in my gut.
The muscles along the back of my jaw clamped down. I recognized that cool, self-assured tone. Every rich kid who’d ever made my life hell in any of the twenty or thirty schools I’d passed through sounded like that. Like they could snap their fingers and life would provide whatever they needed.
My experience was more like snap your fingers all day long but life would still hand you whatever the hell it wanted and laugh as it knocked you on your ass.
I forced myself to relax. Working for Riley Arts would be great for my career, no matter how aggravating Damon Riley himself turned out to be. “I guess that’s enough of tiresome small talk. Which brings me back to why you’re here.”
“Your name was brought to my attention.”
He waved a hand and a cube like the one under my virtual butt rose out of the featureless white floor. He took a seat, pushing back the sleeves of the shirt. I caught a glimpse of gold on the underside of his right wrist.
An interface chip.
Nice. Better than nice. Covetable, cutting-edge technology. Still almost exclusively the domain of the power players of the virtual entertainment industry. Of which Damon was indisputably king. No wonder he had one, even on his avatar.
Nat had a chip, courtesy of a tournament win a few months back. Me, I couldn’t begin to afford one. Even if I could—and I’d had my moments of tech lust drooling over the specs—I wasn’t sure I wanted one. The thought of something plugging straight into my central nervous system made me, well, nervous.
Luckily my clients didn’t yet expect me to have one. By the time they did, I figured the tech would be tested enough to overcome my instinctive caution and I might be able to afford it.
Of course, if Damon Riley hired me, I’d be able to afford several of the damn things and still have enough left over for my other, more pressing expenses.
“Who gave you my name?” I gave him my best “hey, give me a job” smile. He smiled back, and my pulse hitched.
Just an avatar. Yes, in real life he was plenty pretty too. Not quite as sleekly perfect as the skin, but it wasn’t too much of an exaggeration. The real man was tall and dark and built too. But in real life, if I played this right, he’d be a client. Maggie’s rules of life included a strict no-lusting-after-the-paycheck clause.
Especially no lusting after the way-too-sure-of-himself paycheck.
He leaned forward, and I mirrored his action automatically. Damn.
“Like I said, I’ve been hearing your name a lot lately.”
“And you also heard I was friends with Nat?”
His eyes twinkled. “No, I’m afraid that was something my team dug up.”
“You had me investigated?” My jaw twinged again, and several muscles in my back joined in the protest. Twinkles and sinner’s smiles be damned, I didn’t like people poking around in my business.
“I believe in thorough preparation,” he added, not sounding even the slightest bit apologetic.
Paycheck, I reminded myself as my teeth ground a little tighter. “Mr. Riley, you can be as prepared as you like, but unless you tell me what the problem is, I can’t help you.”
His eyes narrowed. “Who says I have a problem?”
“Maybe the fact that you’ve hunted me down in a club on a night off and took the trouble to meet me anonymously?”
“Maybe I was just curious to meet the woman who calls herself a TechWitch.”
“TechWitch is a business name, not a description. Marketing. Something you understand very well, if the evidence is to be believed.”
I didn’t like the name. It was something one of my earliest clients had said in recommending me, and it had stuck. It was, like I said, good marketing, nothing more, which was why I’d kept it. And I was sure Riley’s investigators had told him as much. He was beating around the bush. Or lying. Or maybe both. Growing up with Sara—my mother—had left me with a well-honed bullshit meter, and the needle was starting to waver.
“So you don’t claim supernatural abilities?”
I frowned. Was he serious? Or still trying to avoid getting to the point? “Not at all. I’m very, very good at my job, but that doesn’t require magic. As I’m sure you know.”
Sara’s laughter echoed in my head. How could anyone think I had power? My mother’s disappointment—or disgust, rather—had been perfectly clear when I failed to show any signs of power after I turned thirteen. Overnight I became strictly an annoyance and a burden to her, not that she would’ve won any mother of the year awards before then. I was spared knowing just what she might’ve eventually done about that burden when she died a few months later.
“Why? Did you want a witch?”
His face went still. “No. No. Just the opposite, in fact.”
Some of the tension riding my gut eased even as my curiosity piqued. Damon Riley wasn’t a fan of magic either? One point in his favor. Though he was happy enough to include it in his games, so obviously it wasn’t completely a no-go. “So what do you want? You do know what I do, right?” I threw his words back at him.
“Yes. The term ‘computer whisperer’ was mentioned.”
I didn’t let myself groan. I’d been dumb enough to give the interview to the tech reporter who’d coined that little term. I lived with it, but I didn’t have to like it. “That’s not the term I’d use.”
“What would you use?”
“Troubleshooter, usually. Do you have some trouble that needs shooting?” I cocked my head, waiting for the inevitable questions.
Troubleshooter was a simplification. I was more a cross between cyber engineer and cyber therapist.
I found the problems that technically shouldn’t exist. The systems that just didn’t seem to like each other. Pieces of code that, in isolation, should’ve worked perfectly but caused unforeseen complications and glitches when put together with other pieces in adjacent systems.
Despite the cold hard facts that computers were machines and had no feelings, I knew from experience that they did get moody. True, by any test yet devised, no one had yet created a true artificial intelligence. But as each generation of cyber tech became more complicated, more powerful, more autonomous, and we humans generated more and more data to feed them, the systems became . . . touchier. And I, God knew why, had the knack of soothing them. Untangling the knots no one else thought were there.
I assumed I got my cyber skills from my unknown father; Sara had been useless with any sort of machine.
Damon studied me for a long moment. “I might have a systems integration issue in our accounting department.”
The needle shot into the red zone. Financial packages—other than the ones used by massive international banks—were not usually particularly temperamental. I could count the number of times I’d been called in to consult on one with less than five fingers. And a bookkeeping problem wasn’t important enough to send Damon Riley looking for me in a game at Decker’s, where there’d be no record of us meeting.
I didn’t like being lied to.
“Riley Arts must employ more geeks, nerds, and tech heads per square foot than NASA, Wall Street, and the CIA put together. If your people can’t solve an issue with your financial package, you should fire them. How about you tell me the real problem?”
“I don’t appreciate having my time wasted,” I interrupted before he could spin another lie.
He held up his hand, giving me an even better view of the chip glittering against tanned flesh. Interesting that his skin reflected that particular bit of what I had to assume was real-life detail when it blurred others. “Let me finish. Not here was what I was about to say. I don’t discuss confidential matters in unsecured venues.”
I folded my arms. “You’re the one who came to me. And at the prices this place charges, I’d think their security would be top of the line.”
“Not secure enough.”
There was that master-of-the-universe tone again. “Then why did you come?”
“I believe in knowing who I’m dealing with. And being discreet.”
“Well, it was nice being stalked by you and all, but I have to get back to my friends.” I stood. My chances of landing this gig seemed pretty remote.
He rose too. Apparently he had nice manners when he wasn’t being irritating. “Can you come to my office on Wednesday?”
Do this all over again? Why?
I shifted a little in the game chair, aware of my back sticking to the slightly sweaty fabric of my shirt in the real world, but held my avatar still as I tried to figure out if he was playing an angle. “Why Wednesday?” It was still Monday, unless our game had taken more time than I thought. If he did have the sort of problem I might be able to help with, surely it would be a priority.
“I have business in New Zealand tomorrow.” He tugged his shirtsleeves down with two sharp movements. “Unfortunately. I will, of course, pay for your time.”
Ah. Payment. He’d found my Achilles’ heel. The problem with being very specialized was you had to wait for the very specialized problems to come along. And while I did well enough, there had been a distinct lack of computers throwing temper tantrums lately, and there were other demands on my finances.
Which was part of the reason why I was out on a school night. I was sick of cooling my heels at home, worrying about my lack of billable hours and what that meant for my debts. The prospect of cold hard cash flow was even harder to ignore than my curiosity about what might be going on at Righteous. It couldn’t hurt to at least find out what the mysterious issue was, even if the boss had pushy and demanding and driven written all over him.
“I’ll have to check my schedule,” I said finally.
“Is that a yes?”
Check on pushy. “It’s ‘I’ll have to check my schedule.'”
He gestured and a data entry screen appeared in the air before me. “Go right ahead.”
Pushy and not used to being kept waiting. Not my favorite traits in men, or clients, but traits I would put up with for a chance of a job at Righteous.
I crossed to the screen, switched it to secure mode—which meant the visuals would be blurred for him—and called up my calendar with an irritated twitch of my hand. As the image appeared, I settled for glaring at it in lieu of glaring at him.
Nothing had magically appeared to fill the next four weeks since I’d checked that morning. I was still negotiating over a potential trip to a province in Liberated China to see what I could do with a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant that was behaving in a less than state-of-the-art manner after that, but getting a visa was proving to be a bitch. Apart from a few local follow-up calls, my dance card was empty.
Plenty of time to take on a new client.
Ample space in my bank account to be filled.
Not that Damon Riley needed to know that.
“I’ll have to move some things around,” I lied. I hadn’t learned a lot that was useful from my mother, but “never appear too eager” had been one of her life rules. She used it on men and marks. I used it in business negotiations.
His mouth quirked, making me wonder exactly how deep his investigations had gone. Money could buy a lot of supposedly secure data these days.
“That’s fine. I’ll get my assistant to schedule some time on Wednesday and confirm with you.”
Wednesday. After his little jaunt to the southern hemisphere. Across the planet and back in a day. Obviously he didn’t suffer any side effects from suborbital travel. Personally, it made me feel like I’d been on a three-day bender without any of the fun parts. And the travel drugs that were supposed to help only knocked me on my ass. Lucky for me, most of my clients were only too happy for me to travel via less expensive means like regular planes.
But at least I had until Wednesday to do some digging of my own into Righteous and the man at the helm.
“That will be fine.”
Damon offered his hand. “I look forward to it.”
His fingers closed over mine, and I couldn’t help wishing it wasn’t just two avatars touching.
He hit me with one last smile. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to duck out the back way. Early start tomorrow.”
His avatar vanished before I could reply.
I hit the release and yanked my headset free. Light stabbed my eyes and I blinked rapidly, ignoring the rush of dizziness from too quick a reentry as I clambered out of the game chair and pushed my way out of the curtained-off solo alcove.
The sounds and smells of the club slammed into me after the relative peace of the game, a rush of reality that made me wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing. My eyes scanned the crowd, but there was no sign of anyone who looked like Riley. And there was none of the excitement that an appearance of the gamers’ guru would cause. He really had slipped away. Easy enough to do. He’d probably been in one of the private suites on the upper levels.
I fought the stupid surge of disappointment even as my hand tingled, remembering the touch of his avatar.
“Mags! There you are. Where have you been hiding?” Nat pushed a drink into my hand. I took a swig without thinking, then cursed. It was an Insomniac. Crap. I didn’t sleep well at the best of times; I didn’t need to add triple-refined syncaf to the adrenaline already riding my system.
I passed the drink back. “You know I don’t drink these this late.”
She blinked at me, then looked down at the glass. “Sorry.” She gave me her “victory is mine” grin. “I wasn’t thinking.”
She must’ve won her bout if she was drinking Insomniacs. She only used caffeine for hard-core victory parties.
“You won?” I asked before she could ask me where I’d been again. If she found out, I’d never get out of the club. I’d have to repeat every detail to her and all her friends. Then they’d probably want to replay the game tape and endlessly critique every move. And I had the feeling that Damon Riley didn’t appreciate anybody who couldn’t keep their mouth shut.
“Crushed them mercilessly,” Nat said.
We high-fived. Nat’s team was climbing the ranks steadily, and I loved watching her kicking butt. But even as I grinned at her, I tried to think of a way to make my excuses and leave. The clock was ticking. I had thirty-six hours to try and find out as much as possible about Damon Riley.
And thirty-six hours to convince myself that I shouldn’t already be looking forward to seeing him again.
I reached for the Insomniac. At this point, I needed all the help I could get.