Authors: Elliott James
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It had been over a decade since I last saw Jamie Belmont, and in that time she had apparently grown a male prostitute. He was attached to her hip, sprouting dark, well-groomed hair and pretty enough that he would have looked feminine if not for all of the gym muscle. His clothes were skintight, expensive, and faux-casual, probably made by some designer with a name like Rutger Hauer. I decided to surgically remove him.
“Why, Jamie Belmont,” I said in my best Colonel Sanders impression. “As I live and breathe.” We and close to a hundred other people were standing in the reception hall of Russell Sidney’s Atlanta mansion, milling about between two large spiraling staircases and the wraparound balconies they led to. Maybe only fifty people if you didn’t count the high-class hookers or the suspiciously large and rough-looking men who were standing behind buffet tables and beneath serving trays. The latter looked like apes who had been shaved and crammed into red tuxedos.
“Is that supposed to be a Southern accent?” Jamie demanded in the real thing. Even in high heels, she had to look up to stare me down. Jamie was maybe a shade over five feet tall, a pert and pretty brunette who would have been called a “pocket rocket” in my youth, back before the phrase became a slang term for vibrators. “You sound like Yosemite Sam.”
“Consarn it, ya varmit!” I scolded her. “I sound genteel! Now shut yer dad-blamed piehole and be charmed.”
She laughed and fluttered her eyelashes, extending a hand out to be kissed.
“But where are my manners?” Jamie turned to her admirer. “Patrick, this is Mark Powell, an old friend of mine. I haven’t seen Mark in…what? Seven years? Eight?”
Twelve, actually, but it’s not like we had been engaged or anything. My name wasn’t even really Mark Powell.
Jamie turned her attention back to me. “Mark, this is Patrick of no last name. I believe young Patrick is in the service industry.”
“We’re all just here to enjoy ourselves,” Patrick said uneasily.
“Could you give Jamie and me some privacy?” I asked pleasantly, but in a way that made it clear I wasn’t really asking. “We have a lot of catching up to do, and some of it is personal.”
For just a second, Patrick gave me an evaluating stare that belonged to someone who had grown up in much less expensive clothes. It was a neutral, soulless gaze, and he didn’t like what he saw with it. “No problem.”
“I don’t know if I should be mad at you or him,” Jamie observed as she watched Patrick’s tight pants walk away.
“Him,” I said promptly.
We were there because Russell Sidney ran an illegal poker tournament. He wasn’t a serious criminal, or he hadn’t been a decade earlier. Russell was more a spoiled brat than anything else, a trust-fund baby who didn’t like to be told what he could and couldn’t do, and what he liked to do was play poker. Since the interest off his principal didn’t give him enough money to be a mediocre card player as often as he wanted, Russell started occasionally using his remote mansion to host underground tournaments. He ran an honest, discreet game; sometimes he used the fees he collected to sit in, and sometimes he just watched.
The entry fee was currently twenty-five thousand, enough to weed out players who lacked means or mettle. It was worth it because while you still had to buy your chips, there was a five-hundred-thousand-dollar prize waiting for the winner of the tournament in addition to whatever money he or she might win as they progressed through the rounds. Moreover, Russell’s family name still had enough power to attract wealthy dilettantes, which in turn attracted the kind of players who prey on them.
Players like me.
Being a poker player was never a lifelong dream of mine, but I have been trained to pay attention to detail and have heightened senses. I can literally smell fear and arousal and anger in someone’s sweat. If I concentrate, I can hear someone’s heartbeat; though it gets hard to distinguish in groups, and I usually tune that sort of thing out the same way you might tune out the sound of an air conditioner in the background. As long it isn’t anytime close to a full moon, this gives me a great advantage.
Unfortunately, my gifts are also a curse. There are people chasing me who can trace their family lines all the way back to the days when dragon slaying wasn’t a metaphor. These modern-day knights have never forgiven me for having been one of them once, and poker is one of the ways I generate income off the grid. My real name is Charming, by the way. John Charming.
“What’s going on here, Jamie?” I asked.
She was still hard to read. There was a part of herself that Jamie always kept hidden behind deep internal walls, and there was a part of me that wanted to cut my way through the emotional thorns that surrounded her deepest self, to storm her gates, to climb her tower, to wake her up with a kiss. “What do you mean?”
“The last time I was here, Russell ran these things like a bed-and-breakfast for people who liked to play cards.” I reminded her. “All very low-key. Eight players tops, no dates allowed. Now there are forty-eight players and Russell’s providing prostitutes?”
“I call them party favorites,” Jamie said lightly. “I don’t think they’re actually prostitutes. I think he just hires some model wannabes for ambience.”
I refused to be distracted. “And what’s with all the scary-looking help? This place has gone from good old boys to goodfellas.”
“More people means more money. More money means more security.” Jamie’s tone suggested I was being slightly slow. “We even have a former sitcom star here tonight.”
“Then where’s Russell?” I asked. “Shouldn’t he be down here acting like a big shot?”
She looked surprised. “Russell has cancer. How can you not know that?”
“It’s not like we pinky swore to stay in touch,” I grumbled. “Russell didn’t say anything over the phone a couple of months ago.”
“Well, he wouldn’t.” Jamie sighed. “He’ll make a token appearance during the games, in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank. He looks like he’s dead already.”
I indicated the crowd around us. About fifteen feet away, a heavily sweating middle-aged man who was slightly ahead of the rest of us in terms of where the party was going had hastily put his clothes back on recently. His tie knot was loose, his zipper was half down, and the shirt button over his navel was undone. He was sucking on a plastic inhaler while an attractive brunette watched and jiggled and giggled. I was pretty sure he wasn’t taking asthma medication. “So who set all this up?”
“Nicole Matthews,” Jamie said. “She’s Russell’s…I don’t know what. Secretary, I guess. Lover. Nurse. She plays poker, too.”
“This place has changed,” I repeated. “Why do you still come here?”
“Every place has changed,” Jamie observed bitterly.
Jamie had held up pretty well over the years, though I could smell that she had started smoking. Her makeup was a little more noticeable, and she was dyeing her hair now, but there was nothing fake about the muscle tone in her arms and legs. It was the hint of bitterness and self-pity in her voice that was new. It made me sad.
Another trained gorilla walked by carrying a tray of bite-sized pastries.
“Oh, have you tried these?” Jamie asked me, snagging one off the tray with her left hand as the man went by. She had to stand on tiptoe to do it. “I don’t know what they are, but they’re delicious.”
rolls,” I offered, grabbing one myself. “Flatbread fried in egg yolk. They’re big in India.”
“How do you know?” Jamie asked, biting into the pastry. “Is that where you’ve been? Traveling?”
I didn’t answer. You can put anything you want in the center of baida rolls—cream, jelly, meat, nuts—and the smell released when Jamie bit into hers momentarily paralyzed me. They say that everything tastes like chicken, but all meat has its own smell, and in my day I’ve killed just about everything that walks, crawls, hops, glides, and flies. Up until that moment, I had been assuming that some mobster or ambitious wannabe criminal had gotten their hooks into Russell Sidney.
But that wouldn’t explain why the guests were being fed human flesh.
“What’s wrong?” Jamie made a living out of watching people closely.
“I had food poisoning recently,” I lied, plucking Jamie’s baida roll out of her hand before she could protest. “I thought I was fine, but the sight of meat is still getting to me. Would you mind not eating any while I’m around?”
She swallowed, and my stomach twisted. “Oookay.”
“I’ll be right back.” I left to dispose of the party treats.
I preferred not to wind up in any police stations for questioning, and I was surrounded by dangerous men. The guests at the party had already been eating the pastries. The human who had gone into those pastries was already dead. Right or wrong, I stayed silent while the guests continued to sample the hors d’oeuvres.
And I waited for my hosts to show their hand.
* * *
Jamie caught me staring at Nicole Matthews across the room.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Jamie said softly.
wasn’t the word I would have chosen. “Nicole’s” pale flesh was tinged with a slightly bluish color as if oxygen-deprived. The hair on its large, bulbous skull had been shaved down to bristle, and its belly was huge and distended. The talons at the end of its thick sausage-link fingers were curved and sharp, and they glistened with a greasy sheen probably left there by contact poison. Its nose was a puggish lump with two slits, and gray, mossy teeth were jagged and pointed beneath them. It was at least six feet four, wrapped in a kilt made out of human skin and wearing war paint made from blood. If it had a gender, it was probably male.
“She’s something, all right,” I agreed.
In fact, “Nicole” was a rakshasa.
If rakshasas aren’t demons, they’re the closest things I’ve ever met. Mostly found in India, they are eaters of human flesh and drinkers of human blood, preferring to dine on young children the same way that some humans put a premium value on veal. Rakshasas can often be found around games of chance, though I don’t know if this is a weakness or a strategy. When rakshasas are not literally eating innocence, they are doing it metaphorically. They live to corrupt and seduce. In some stories rakshasas are dumb beasts, but unless their intellects vary greatly that is an allegorical reference to their bestial appetites. The stories of their cunning and deviousness are more accurate in my admittedly limited experience.
Psychological profiles aside, rakshasas are formidable for a lot of reasons. These ass jackets are strong—stronger than me—and they have acute senses and regenerate rapidly, but they are illusionists, not shape changers. That is what makes them truly dangerous. Rakshasas can make others see whatever the rakshasas want them to see.
Fortunately, mind magic doesn’t work on me. It was about the only natural advantage I had over the damnable thing, and it wasn’t even a real advantage. It was more a lack of a weakness than anything.
“Nicole” made her way across the room.
“You must be Mark Powell.” The rakshasa didn’t offer its hand. “Russell told me you were coming. You look so young, though.”
“Don’t tell him that, Nicole,” Jamie admonished. “You’re only supposed to say that when it’s not true.”
So much for growing a beard to make myself look older. I’m actually pretty good at using a charcoal stick and various plasters to age myself, but I wasn’t risking that in a mansion full of con artists and people who observed closely for a living. Maybe I should have just brought a cane and said things like “By cracky!”
“I owe it all to clean living,” I said.
“Oh, I doubt that.” The rakshasa grinned nastily. I looked at the bits of flesh caught between the large, uneven fangs in that frog-like mouth and wondered briefly what everyone else in the room was seeing. “You’re hard to read, but you smell like a wolf in sheep’s clothing to me.”
“Mark’s only this quiet and polite when he’s sizing people up,” Jamie agreed.
“I just came here to play poker,” I said. “Not cause trouble for anybody.”
This was true—that
why I’d come there. If or how I left was going to be a bit more complicated.
“Oh, you’re welcome here,” the rakshasa assured me. “The game was getting boring. I like a challenge.”
Somehow I didn’t think it was talking about poker.
* * *
I won the first game easily. I was sitting at a table with a bunch of clichés: a divorcee whose wealthy ex-husband had dumped her for a younger woman, a self-made multimillionaire who had gotten everything he wanted and discovered it wasn’t enough, and a young hotshot who thought he was hustling me. The latter—he said his name was Jesse but I doubted it—was the only real challenge. The divorcee was having trouble concentrating, and the multimillionaire cared too much. The poker table is not a good place to put your ego.
Jesse tried to set me up by faking a tell. He would tap his middle finger on the table whenever he was bluffing, and then advertise that he had been bluffing by bragging about it and flashing his cards if he won. Jesse had skills, but he was young, and faking a tell is a delicate art form; if you’re too subtle the people who think they’re good players and aren’t won’t notice, and if you’re too obvious the real players won’t buy it. I pretended to fall for Jesse’s ruse, calling him on a small hand that he wanted me to win, but I was pretty sure I knew what Jesse’s real tell was unless he was a lot more devious than I was giving him credit for. It was subtle, but most animals try to make themselves look bigger when they want to appear threatening, and Jesse straightened his spine whenever he didn’t want someone to call.
I won three hundred thousand dollars.
* * *
The rakshasa drifted over while I was loitering around the fringes of a side game that Jamie Belmont had joined. I was drinking a cup of coffee that I had smelled very carefully while being mildly rude to Brooke with an “e”, who wouldn’t take a hint. Brooke was naturally blonde, young, taut, and had one of the best smiles that money could buy. She thought I was fascinating. But when the rakshasa made its way over, Brooke left hurriedly.