Read an Excerpt
Attack the Geek
Three Hours Earlier
“How the hell am I supposed to trust you!” Ree flung her hands in the air, ready to give up her dinner break and get back to work just so she could walk away from this idiocy.
She stood at a tall table facing Eastwood, her onetime mentor in all things fantastical. But their partnership had lasted about as long as a Las Vegas marriage once she discovered that he was making deals with devils.
He was trying to atone, but humility was apparently not part of his penance.
Eastwood kept his voice level, seizing the person-who-shouts-is-losing-the-argument high ground. “This is major league magic, Ree. It comes with a price.”
“But seriously, puppies?”
“You wanted ideas. I heard this from someone on 4chan.”
Ree scoffed. “Your first mistake was going to 4chan for anything other than SAN loss. Your second mistake was mentioning anything that possibly leads to puppies getting hurt.”
“I can make it painless. Unless you think we can steal Death’s scythe and trundle down to the underworld ourselves like The Middleman.” Eastwood crossed his arms, digging in.
Ree couldn’t see a downside to that plan. “Why not?”
“Because Death outclasses the Duke, and we only survived last time because I managed to think ahead.”
“Wait. Who was it that dropped trou and shouted the Duke out of town, again? There’s got to be like fifty quick-escape artifacts out in the world, right? We sneak in, stun or distract Captain Hoodie, grab the goods, and then scurry away on a getaway gadget. Next stop, reunion town!”
“So you think you’re hot go-se, now?” Eastwood replied. “The Duke almost killed us both. And if we put him in a position to team up with Death, it won’t matter if we do get Branwen out of Hell, because we’ll all be headed straight back there ourselves, faster than Fox can cancel a new SF show.”
Ree narrowed her eyes at the older geek.
Fuck it. All of the hero-ing in the world wouldn’t erase what he’d done to those kids.
She turned and made her way to the office to grab her apron and get back to work. They were never going to see eye to eye on this. The only solutions Eastwood offered on how to get her mom (aka his girlfriend) back from her tenure in Hell as the guest of the Thrice-Retconed Duke of Pwn involved a lively stroll through the Dark Side.
When she’d met him, Eastwood had been collecting the souls of teen suicides to trade to the Duke for her mom’s freedom, and would have succeeded if not for Ree, who was, like any person not grief-maddened, opposed to sacrificing kids to a demon. And anytime she suggested an alternative breakout plan, Eastwood dismissed it out of hand, usually not bothering to explain why. Which meant they kept circling the issue, never getting anywhere.
Tying her apron back on, Ree toggled her brain back to work mode.
Saturday night at Grognard’s Grog and Games meant three things: V:TES tournament, half-price Jaeger, and Grognard getting morose.
Ree Reyes (Strength 10, Dexterity 14, Stamina 12, Will 18, IQ 16, Charisma 15—Geek 7 / Barista 3 / Screenwriter 3 / Gamer Girl 2 / Geekomancer 2) had noticed that there was something about Saturdays that got to Grognard like an itch in that one place on your back that was physiologically impossible to scratch without help. So that night, like most Saturdays, she tried to keep her head down and stay out of his way. Her boss was almost unbelievably permissive with her whacky urban fantasy schedule, which more than made up for his eccentricities. And the employee discount made her hero-ing far more affordable.
The bar section of the shop was half-full, four booths and two tables crammed full with players wheeling, dealing, drinking, and thinking over games of V:TES (which had been renamed from Jyhad to Vampire: The Eternal Struggle aka V:TES for reasons of cultural sensitivity, despite the fact that the creators at White Wolf wore their “bad kids of gaming” reputations on their sleeves). During the day, most of the action was on the other side of the store, where rows of comics, cards, and collectibles tempted customers of all stripes—Grognard’s was occult shop, hangout bar for magicians, and game store all in one.
Ree took a shortcut through the store section rather than navigating through the tables, a tray of drinks and food balanced expertly on her shoulder. Ree Reyes was in her full bartender costume: black jeans, black T-shirt over black undershirt, her shoulder-length hair tied back and held up with a pair of ebony chopsticks, and around one eye, drawn-on sunburst markings taken straight out of Dollhouse’s “Epitaph Two.”
After a few months, customers had come to expect the facial art, and it was a fun challenge. So before she knew it, drawing on her face had become part of her pre-work ritual, except on days when she’d come straight from fighting monsters or tromping through the sewers, which was more often than you might think.
Ree set her tray down on an empty table and passed out Redheaded Sisters, mozzarella sticks, and pints of Grognard’s Vorpal Bunny IPA. Back at the bar, the titular Grognard (Strength 14, Dexterity 10, Stamina 15, IQ 15, Will 18, Charisma 10—Geek 7 / Collector 4 / Geekomancer 3 / Brewmaster 5) kept an eye on the room, mixing drinks without having to look down. Callused and gnarled hands worked on autopilot while the bald brewmaster stared off into the distance the way he always did on Saturdays.
Grognard snapped back to attention when asked a question by Ree’s least-favorite member of the local Steampunk community, the self-appointed “Lieutenant” Abigail Wickham.
Abigail Wickham (Strength 13, Dexterity 14, Stamina 12, Will 8, IQ 14, Charisma 16—Old Money 4 / Mean Girl 3 / Model 2 / Blogger 2 / Steampunk 2) was a walking catalog page straight out of Vogue: Steampunk.
Three-paned goggles, by Dr. Einsteinium = $299
Butterfly Cog hair pin, by Lady Jaydite = $79
Resist! earrings, by Francesca Riviera de la Vega = $329
Whalebone, jade, and ivory-boned bustier Shackles, by Zenia = $899
Functional Pneumatic Needler gun, by Dr. Einsteinium = $1,999
Crimson-to-black asymmetrical Bustle Skirt, by Francesa Riviera de la Vega = $249
Custom brown duster, by Lobelia Judgehammer = $1,499
Custom thigh-high leather boots, by Made for Walking = $499
Every piece of gear had a story, a relationship, but even while wearing the work of a dozen master craftswomen and -men, Wickham still made it all about herself. She collected awesome craftspeople like they were Pokémon, their accomplishments and capabilities turned to her ends.
Wickham had made her distaste for the handiwork of Ree’s friends Priya, as well as Drake Winters, abundantly, self-righteously clear. Therefore, Ree made a point of never bothering with Wickham if she could avoid it, so she walked straight by the “Lieutenant” and returned to her duties, making a barback sweep to clear glasses and plates. Grognard refused to hire actual barbacks, instead relying on Ree to clear tables. It usually wasn’t a problem, even on Saturdays. Mostly it meant that she wore through a pair of insoles in a month.
On the upside, the extra runs gave her a chance to check in on the games. She’d played V:TES back in the day, usually after school and on weekends, when there had been time for a three-hour chunk of deal-making, face-pounding, and sudden but inevitable betrayals. It wasn’t quite as much fun as LARPing Vampire, but it took a hell of a lot less prep time, and cards cost less than makeup and costumes.
Uncle Joe, a Grognard’s regular, was handily in control of his game, his Nosferatu stealthy enough to make him a difficult target, leading the other players to take swipes at one another. On the surface, Uncle Joe looked like any one of a million milquetoast white guys: balding head, paunch, Pillsbury Doughboy complexion, topped off with a collection of sweater-vests. But when it came to card-flopping, he was a Monte Carlo shark.
Eastwood sat in the nearest booth, in Master Geekomancer mode, though like everyone else, he was observing the No Magic rule that applied to all tournaments.
Eastwood had gone from scruffy hero to full-on 90s-antihero-on-the-redemption-warpath since last October, doing penance by cavorting around Pearson night and day, thereby proving that the superheroes who patrolled actively were, in fact, totally insane.
Eastwood (Strength 11, Dexterity 14, Stamina 14, IQ 18, Will 18, Charisma 7—Geek 8, Astral Cowboy 4 / Geekomancer 5 / Thunderbolt 1) looked like he hadn’t slept in a week; he had deep circles under his eyes, and his beard was a full order more scraggly than usual.
Ree wondered if there was a connection between Eastwood’s strung-out-itude and Grognard’s especially grumpy Saturdays.
Maybe it has something to do with Mom, Ree wondered. After ditching her husband and daughter, Ree’s mom had gone back to her Geekomantic ways and shacked up with Eastwood before dying under mysterious circumstances, which, as noted, had prompted Eastwood’s rampage through the Dark Side in an effort to get her back.
Ree chewed on that mystery while she cleaned the tables and checked the games. Three of them were in endgame, but the rest might stretch on for another couple of hours. The night was young.
Hauling a full tray back to the bar, Ree hip-checked her way into the back, where she dropped off the tray beside the dishwasher. Elbow-deep in suds, Drake was hard at work, scrubbing a huge glass jug that Grognard used for brewing. The room smelled of soap and sweat.
Ree had been working for Grognard since the start of November, but Drake had volunteered his services after a cluster-fuck of a night where the pair of them had lost Grognard’s traveling cart and several pony kegs of beer during a not-so-random monster attack in the sewer.
Drake’s sleeves were rolled up to his biceps, giving him a more decidedly working-class look, as his jacket was hung up on the coat rack in Grognard’s office. His suspenders hung down and back over his pants. The overall effect was deliciously retro blue collar-y.
A man out of time, Drake Winters (Strength 12, Dexterity 15, Stamina 13, IQ 16, Will 15, Charisma 15—Inventor 5 / Gentleman 2 / Steampunk 6 / Fae-Touched 3) was just barely taller than Ree, his riding boots set aside for the long dishwashing shifts. His short sandy-blond hair slicked to his forehead with the sheen of sweat and steam, and his hands were so pruny, they qualified him to be a backup dancer for the California Raisins.
“Good day, Ms. Ree. How are the games proceeding?” he asked, setting the jug down on the counter and wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Eastwood and Uncle Joe are kicking ass, Shade has all of his opponents paranoid, and Talon had an elder on the table before anyone could blink.”
Drake nodded politely, though as far as she could tell, he’d never played V:TES or any other CCG. He was a much older-school kind of geek, more about the gears and geegaws than the card-flopping and the fan-vidding. Which, coming from an entirely different dimension as he did, was entirely understandable.
“You doing all right back here? Need a drink?” Ree asked.
Drake chuckled, laughter brightening his already warm demeanor. “Strange that spending hours half-submerged in water and soap could leave a person dehydrated, but so it is. I would adore an iced tea or water, if it is not too much trouble.”
What Ree wanted to do was to wink suggestively and take a page from Rogue and say something like, “For you, sugar, anything.”
But since Drake was still dating one of her best friends, all she said was “Coming right up.”
Ree got herself out of the situation before she could say something stupid, and went back out onto the bar floor.
Thou shalt not fuck with one of thy best friend’s relationships, she told herself, a refrain she’d had to repeat countless times.
During Ree’s brief stint as a screenwriter a few months back, superstar actress (and childhood crush) Jane Konrad had, upon observing her and Drake together, told her, “And since he’s no longer the competition, I might as well tell you that Drake is crazy about you.”
Perhaps. But he was still with Priya, and when Ree had the ovaries to deal with the emotional roller coaster that came from seeing them together, they appeared to be perfectly happy. Which meant that she had to be a grown-up about it and deal.
Grognard caught her attention as she crossed his thousand-yard stare.
“Can’t afford breaks for you to moon at Captain Dashing right now. I need you to stay on top of the tables.”
And, of course, everyone knew about it but Drake. Gods, kill me now and spare me the soap opera.
It was about then that the lights went out.