The Game: Chapter 15

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Chapter 15

The water was cool, almost cold, but August endured. A woman getting wet was very primal, affording a conversational advantage well worth a few goose bumps. She had to take what she could get. Her target was not quite the expected easy mark.

James Kirkpatrick had been stirred up like a nest of hornets. His outfit was black as night, an obvious tell from a person whose self-image defaulted to jeans and t-shirt. And just as disturbing was his new conversational tack: doggedly determined to disrupt her flow.

Poker held the answer. As a card player, August would always start on the offensive—aggressively overwhelming her opponents, forcing them into a passive stance. Even if the opponent was almost certain that August didn't have a strong hand, it was hard to call her down without a very solid read. Eventually, of course, they would start playing back, believing the time had come to trap; at that moment, August would change styles. Poker was letting your opponent falsely believe they knew exactly where things stood.

The same technique worked on James. The slightest honesty on August's part had him believing he had glimpsed her inner workings. But there was more to truth than not telling lies. August didn't enjoy manipulating a decent man, but sympathy and compassion were for the weak; in poker and in life, the minute you felt bad about winning, you lost.

When James let his guard down, he was surprisingly loquacious. The difficulty became letting him talk at his own pace. August's study of his existence had informed her of all but the most recent details, but she couldn't say, Look, will you skip ahead to the bit I need?

So she listened. James talked about his life and his mother, about Donald Marsh and Dawn Li, and about what it was like to have worked in every field and risen in none. August tried to seem fascinated. After a while, even though it was all in the file, she actually did find herself fascinated. Maybe it was his nature as a writer, or maybe something else, but he told a good story.

"Why'd you decide to give a go with Shattered Land if you don't like games?"

"Donald decided, not me. When he decides, you go with the flow."

From years of working to infiltrate UCC, August knew that was no exaggeration. Donald Marsh was a force of nature.

"Why now, of all times? He's been working on it for years." Pronouncing years as yee-ahs, letting it roll off her palate with just the right amount of Aussie.

Every day since coming to America, August had practiced until she could modify her inflections at will. It came in handy during Mr. X diplomacyworking people for information while staying anonymous. If she disguised herself even slightly and spoke with flawless American diction, no one would suspect that the flamboyant redheaded Aussie was behind it.

Conversely, sometimes her native accent was useful. In dealings with males, August would use just enough Aussie to lend a certain mystique. Men were drawn to things outside their experience—as long as they didn't have to work too hard to understand you.

"I guess he was worried." James shifted his back against the tree. They had moved a little up the slope of the dell as night fell.

"Donny, worried? About you?"

"Yeah. You'd never know it to look at him, but he worries about people."

"Only ones he cares about a great deal, I'd say."

James shifted again, eyes firmly on the dimness between his feet and August's. She had embarrassed him, which was good; embarrassment could create spontaneous intimacy.

"He knows how to push my buttons. He knew I would play because he gave me the stuff."

"Well, seems to've worked out right, eh? Now you're a Grand Prix champion."

"No, I'm not."

"But you should've been!"

August wasn't even lying. Though James had been the weak link, if he continued to improve and fought less moralistically, his team could win the whole shebang, even at the Falgarde Invitational.

Though it might be best if they didn't. Groupies and fangirls would come swarming out of the woodwork. Bad enough that Donald Marsh's little crew contained five attractive females, a statistical unlikelihood that sometimes made the deck feel stacked. August needed James to focus only on her until she had what she needed. Then he could conquer the virtual world and populate a digital harem for all she cared, but only then.

"You're probably right," he said.

"That you should've won?"

"No. That it worked out."

"Because you got to meet such a scintillating conversationalist as meself?"

"Because if I hadn't played today, who knows what might have happened."

August watched James carefully. It was too dark to read his expression, but his body language said enough. "Will you tell me about it? I'd love to go to the pub and keep on."

"Actually, I have to head off. Prior engagement."

James stood, stretched, and offered a hand up; August accepted, skinship being exceptional for bond-building.

"Oh ... a date, is it?"

"No. Some of my friends are in a band that's performing at the Colosseum."

"Quite a venue, that."

James started walking up out of the dell. August fell in beside him, tempted to trip so that he could catch her or help her up, but no: too contrived. There was a line between letting a man feel needed and making yourself look like a clumsy idiot.

Time to spring the next trap.

"Wait, a band ... the Colosseum ... blimey, is it Stars and Dreams?"

"You've heard of them?"

"Crazy coincidence, that. I was planning to go to that concert. Me friend and I. But she pranged her car up and had to cancel. I'd almost forgot the thing entirely because, well, didn't really want to go by meself."

At the mention of an accident, James almost lost a stride. He cleared his throat. "Is your friend alright?"

"Oh yeah, nothing major, light concussion and a few scrapes and the like. She's not even in hospital anymore, but we'd already decided to cancel. Not knowing if she'd be right yet, that sort of thing."

Telling a complete fabrication was risky. Half-truths were better. In this case, though, the reward justified the means. August knew all about Hanako Kirkpatrick, and would use even that as a step toward her goal.

"Good," James said. "That's good. That she's fine."

"Tough little blighter, that one. No worries."

They walked for a short while in silence. August let James turn the scenario over in his head. His train of thought would inevitably pull into the station she had scheduled.

"So you were planning to go to the concert," he said.

"Was quite looking forward to it, actually, but with me friend 'n all, I got put off. But then here you were going anyway ... odd. Bit like fate, isn't it? Shall we go together?"

It was hard to say with a straight face. Fate? Hah. August had created the scenario from start to finish. But for James, it would seem like a bizarre string of coincidences that couldn't easily be written off. This was one of the pivotal moments in her plan, and though it was certainly in the bag, she found herself holding her breath.

"Why not?" James said, and August released the breath in a whoosh. If he heard, he would just assume she was relieved and happy.

Which she was. Only not for the reason he might think.

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