Autumn Sinclair has everything she could possibly want: Loving friends, a successful business, and a gaggle of gamers in her store every day.
Welcome to Ten Again, a tabletop gaming store that attracts nerds of every kind and fosters a community Autumn’s pretty proud of—a community that also keeps business afloat. And now that she’s in the running for a grant, Ten Again’s future is looking bright.
That is, until one of Autumn’s gamers is mysteriously murdered. With everyone in the mall as a suspect and accusations flying, Autumn is going to have to do some sleuthing of her own to save her shop and her gamers from a fate more dangerous than having no saving throw.
“A nat 20! No Saving Throw is a fun, tight mystery that perfectly encapsulates the difficulties gamers face at being taken seriously. Protagonist Autumn Sinclair will stop at nothing to save not only her store, but also the geeky community it fosters.” —Alex Erickson, author of the Bookstore Café Mysteries
“Enjoyable debut . . . Readers will hope to see a lot more of the plucky Autumn.” —Publishers Weekly
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"What do you mean, a vampire killed him?"
Outside my office door, a swarm of sugar-rushed, Friday-high kids ran by, squealing like Jawas on scrap-metal discount day at the market. High voices chittered, laughter echoed off the walls, and a hormonal funk of excitement hung in the air. Aggravated, I got up and slammed the door. On the other side, a childish voice said, "Oooooh," igniting another eruption of giggles.
On the other end of the line, Cody yammered on, something about aliens and guns and not having any wooden stakes, and the unfairness of it all. I stalked around my cluttered desk and collapsed in my chair, but something sharp jabbed through the smooth fabric of my trousers. I jumped up with an outraged squeak.
"I know!" Cody said. "He was completely out of line!"
"No, that's not —"
"But it's your job to keep the GM running a fair game," he said, acting as if I hadn't spoken. "I put a lot of time and effort into this character, and if he can just erase all that with one lousy night of weak-ass world-building, then he needs to be replaced."
"I'm sorry you feel that way, but I have no control over the Saturday night games." I bent, looking for the source of my rump pain — one of them, anyway; the other one was currently whining on the phone. Something shiny poked out from the crease of the seat. "You'll need to take it up with your troupe if you have a problem." I thrust my hand into the chair and groped around until I pulled out my new nemesis. It was a tiny pewter figurine of a woman in ridiculous armor. She held a spear as long as her body directly butt-ward. I scowled at her and her proudly exposed boobs, then tossed her into the corner with a pitiful metallic clink. "Coming to me is not going to solve anything. I am not your mommy."
He sputtered. "But you own the store. You set up these games —"
"I sponsor them. I don't run them. You're a big boy. Figure it out." I hung up, exasperated, and collapsed into my chair. I sat for only half a moment before I shifted, irritated. I still wore the suit I'd resurrected from my closet, the one I'd bought when I graduated from business school and hadn't replaced in the ensuing decade, and the trousers were giving me terrible wedgies, exactly what I didn't need when I was already uncomfortable.
Wearing clothes from my twenties was definitely a mistake. Letting a spoiled gamer with a chip on his shoulder get to me was a bigger one.
Outside my office door, I heard a chorus of pubescent voices rising in a symphony of excitement — my employees, Hector and Bailey, must have started forming groups for the Spellcasters draft. The new decks had arrived that afternoon while I was off pretending to be a grown-up, and the die-hard fans had started trickling in more than an hour ago to wait their turn to build random decks and join a tournament.
Meanwhile, I was trying to remember why I'd ever thought it would be a good idea to compete for grant money to green Independence Square Mall, the building that housed my store, Ten Again. "Write a detailed proposal," they said. "We have money to improve our downtown commercial district, and we want to give it to you!"
It had all seemed so simple back before a proposal had turned into a series of contractor quotes, which in turn became a presentation before the city's small business committee, and then — well, it was best not to think about the rest of it. I glanced down at my straining blouse just to make sure everything was still neatly buttoned away.
All contained. I heaved a sigh of relief mixed with regret. Sure, now my wardrobe wanted to behave.
A few moments later, I heard a thump against my door and a shout. Next came frantic knocking and Hector's voice saying, "Autumn, I need you out here."
I closed my eyes briefly, then pulled the suit jacket off the back of my chair. The cashmere was buttery soft in my hands, the navy lining soothing to my overstimulated nerves. I folded the expensive garment, pressed it to my mouth, and screamed. The jacket successfully muffled the sound, and I sighed, relieved. I shook the jacket out and draped it over the back of my chair. It was time to feed the animals.
I opened the door an inch, peeking out cautiously.
Hector Tran, one of my employees, forced the door open more, thrusting one arm through the crack like a cat shut in a bathroom. I took a wary step back. "What?"
"Help me." He pressed his face to the door, eyes wide and glassy. "I can't keep up with them."
I opened the door all the way. "We can do this, Hector. They're just teenagers."
"Not all of them." Hector looked like he wanted to clutch at my shoulders and shake me. "There are grown men out there. One of them is wearing a tie."
"Well, we can handle him, too."
"And Cody called."
"I know. He called me, too. He says you killed his character with a vampire. There are no vampires in space, Hector."
"It wasn't a vampire! It belonged to an alien race that subsists on human fluids, like the vitreous humor and —"
"Ugh." I held up a hand. "I don't care. But it sounds like you made it up specifically to kill him off. I know he's annoying, but you can't treat him like a leper just because he's a pain."
"Me? The other players asked me to kill him off. This was the best way I could think of."
I sighed and made exasperated shooing motions with my hands. "Well, think of something better. You're in charge for a reason. Don't make me put Bay on their game."
"Ha. Bay would have killed him in the first week. And not in character."
"Ha yourself. Are you ready to open the boxes?"
"They're already open. The man in the suit opened them with a letter opener. He had it in his sock."
I blinked at that but kept my collected-boss face on. "Well, then, are you ready to start the draft?"
"They were fighting over the cards like dogs. I wasn't sure where to start."
"Well, go, figure it out!" I clapped my hands in his face, shutting him up. He backed slowly out of the office, and I watched as a wave of gamers swallowed him whole, like sharks devouring a sea lion. I shut the door again, panting slightly.
The notes from my presentation lay in a forlorn pile on my desk — all that careful research about solar panels and geothermal heating, a case study of another historic building in White Lake that had been remodeled to modernize its utilities, even a proposed plan from one contractor for installing forced air ventilation. So much work, and it had all ended, as so many things do, not with a bang but with a nervous titter.
But surely they wouldn't drop me from the running. Not for such a stupid thing.
Someone knocked on my door again.
I growled, whipped around, and yanked it open. "What?" I snarled.
My best friend of more than twenty years, Jordan Hansen, took a step back when she saw me. Her shock quickly faded into bemusement as she took in my appearance, and that bemusement rapidly became amusement. She grinned.
"You look like your mom," she said.
"Not. Helping." I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into the office.
"What is the matter with you? You have, like, a hundred preteens out there, a creepy guy in a suit, and Bay looks like she's about to punch Hector in the face. I didn't bring my riot gear, you know."
I flopped into the chair in front of my desk and put my headin my hands. "I know, I know. I was so not prepared for all of this."
I heard a creak as she perched on my desk. "Prepared for what?"
"Well, I had that big presentation today in front of the Economic Development Commission and the grant coordinators, remember? They're picking the finalists for the grant money this week, so we all had to explain our plans."
I glanced up at her. "Well, remember in sixth grade when Angie Tavers stole your clothes from the locker room and you had to make your student council speech wearing your gym shorts and the undershirt you borrowed from me? Well —"
"You did not have to make your presentation with your ass hanging out."
"No, but ..." I swallowed, words failing me. I lowered my hands from my face and made a cupping motion with my hands, the universal signal for "Honka honka!"
"Yes." I buried my face in my hands again. "The middle button on my shirt popped open."
"Was it open the whole time?"
I nodded. "The whole time I was talking, there was my cleavage, interrupting. The. Whole. Time."
"And no one told you?"
"Well, Alice was there, and I did think she was fiddling with her sweater a lot, but — no. I didn't know."
It was a measure of our friendship that Jordan didn't immediately break down laughing. Her silence went on for so long, I finally looked up.
She hastily rearranged her face, but I gave her a half-hearted smile. "I know. Go ahead."
She dissolved into giggles, laughing so hard her dark eyes watered and she threatened to slide off the edge of my desk. I shook my head ruefully, knowing we'd been through and would go through worse. We'd been best friends since the fourth grade, forced together by defensive necessity: she was the only black girl in our Wonder Bread school class, and I was the only child of divorce. When my dad married an African American woman from Detroit, well, I was quite the conversation topic. Jordan and I had rescued each other, and we'd been inseparable since then. These days, she was the first black woman on the White Lake Police force — and the irony of that title was one she more than enjoyed pointing out.
But she was the Diana Barry to my Anne Shirley, keeping me grounded when my flights of fancy threatened to drop me to a plummeting death. When she slapped one of her knees unironically, I had to laugh at my involuntary exposure, too.
"I can't believe you made your entire presentation with your tits hanging out."
I shrugged. "It'll teach me for not updating my wardrobe. I almost never have to dress like an adult anymore. But you don't even know the worst part."
"It gets worse?"
"Meghan was there to make her presentation — and so was Craig."
That clammed her up. "He was not."
She contemplated that for a moment, then shrugged it off. "Well, Meghan can just be jealous, and Craig's seen it all before. You probably did yourself a favor."
That stopped me short. "No. What if — what if they decide they liked me just because I flashed them? Twenty-five thousand dollars in exchange for a little show?"
"Oh, come on. They'll like you because you were good, and because your plan is a million times better than hoity-toity Meghan Bitchface Kountz's."
Bitchface. I snickered, appeased. It was an apt description.
"Fine. You're right." I straightened in my chair. "But I'm still allowed to be mortified. And don't say Bitchface where the kids can hear you."
"Fair enough." She hopped off my desk. "Now stop feeling sorry for yourself — you have a party to throw."
We made it two steps out my door before catastrophe struck.
Well, catastrophe-light. Someone dropped a deck of cards at my feet in a colorful cascade of monsters and spells, and a curly-haired girl pounced on me. Jordan pressed herself against the wall in exaggerated terror while I blew red hair out of my face.
"Autumn!" My assailant hugged me tight. "This is amazing!"
"Hey, Paige." One of my regulars, she'd been visiting the store since she started at the University of Wisconsin-White Lake, and I'd watched her grow from a gawky teenager into a super-hot young woman of legal drinking age who had half the male gamers following her around like trained monkeys.
Two of her entourage were with her now, glaring at each other over the spilled cards. Paige beamed at me and then at them.
"What's with them?" I asked her as the taller guy, Nick — her current boyfriend — stooped, steaming, to pick up the cards. Wes, Paige's ex-boyfriend and Nick's best friend, turned back to one of the nearby display tables with a hurt look on his face.
Paige shrugged. "The usual. Fighting over deck size."
She giggled, and I smiled. Nick and Paige had met more than a year ago through one of Hector's RPGs — a game to which Wes had brought Paige on a date: awkward. But since then, the three seemed to have settled into a bizarre, friendly trio, and Paige herself organized the store's bimonthly live action role-playing game in Independence Square Mall.
"It's good to see you guys here tonight. I didn't know if you'd make it, now that you and Nick have both joined the working world and become too important to come to Friday night Spellcasters."
Paige stuck her tongue out at me. "Hardly. We're gaming tonight — this was the only Friday this month we could all get together."
"Really?" I frowned. "I didn't have a chance to tell Donald, and the security guard won't know — and I'm already stretching my credibility in the building with all these kids running around after hours."
She opened her mouth, probably to reassure me, but I spotted Hector across the room, waving frantically to me from the register. I sighed, excused myself, and slid through the crowd, making my way over to him. When I reached the counter, he grabbed me and hissed, "He's here."
"Cody!" Hector nodded toward the back door, the one that led into the mall. Cody was leaning against the railing of the steps that led into the sunken shop floor, glowering at the happy customers around him. With his shaved head and round face, he looked like the love child of a troll doll and a jack-o'-lantern but without any cuteness or whimsy. He was in his early twenties, like the rest of the LARPers, but his perpetually angry demeanor made him seem older.
He saw us staring, and Hector grabbed my elbow and turned me away. "Don't look at him!"
I rolled my eyes. "Why, because he'll turn me to stone?"
"How did he get here so fast?" Hector muttered, casting a dark glance over my shoulder. I turned, too, watching the cranky man through the sea of happy kids. "And why is he here, anyway?"
"I don't know, but he's coming over here." I plastered a fake smile on my face as Cody pushed his way through the crowd to meet us at the register. "Do you think if we hide, he'll notice?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to try —"
I caught Hector's shirt before he could slink away. "No. We can handle this. Hello, Cody. We didn't expect to see you so soon."
"I needed to talk to him." He pointed to Hector, his finger trembling. "You need to take it back. Last night's session. What happened was unacceptable."
"Now, Cody," I wheedled. "Hector explained what happened, and I think —"
"He killed my character because he doesn't like me —"
"I'm not the only one," Hector hissed. Cody went red in the face, making him look like a particularly misshapen pomegranate. I elbowed Hector, but there was no stopping him. "They all want you out, everyone — ask Wes. He's here somewhere. They asked me to kill you off. If you don't like how I did it, then you can take it up with them."
Cody opened his mouth and closed it again, his face now brick red.
Into the awkward silence that fell, I said, "Not all groups have the right chemistry, Cody, and maybe this one didn't handle it well, but —" He wheeled, marching back into the crowd — going to find Wes, I assumed. I turned to Hector, one hand on my hip. "Really?"
He was red, too, blotches of an angry blush staining his wide cheekbones. "Didn't handle it well? Way to back me up, boss." He said "boss" with an undue amount of venom, I thought, and I felt my own hackles start to rise. Before I could take him to task, though, he stormed off after Cody.
I took a deep breath, counted to three, then smiled at the customer now waiting for me to ring up his purchase. I took the cards he handed me and forced myself to ask about his Spellcasters deck.
At times, running a game shop was like herding cats — or maybe herding clowns. Hormonal teenage clowns. Teenage clowns who were way too sensitive about their floppy shoes and bright red noses, and occasionally had fistfights over juggling techniques. Usually everyone spent their days having fun, laughing it up, but then one person would say the wrong thing, kill the wrong character, and suddenly it became a seriously freaky horror movie with clowns threatening to murder each other and terrifying the townsfolk.
By the time I was finished with my customer, Hector and Cody were back, Wes in tow, shouting at each other in whispers. I caught only part of it, but I distinctly heard Hector say, "Rules lawyer!" and Cody say, "Amateur hour!" Wes gave me a sheepish shrug.
I let them go at it until the customers started staring, at which point I picked up the miniature gong we kept beside the register, labeled "Store Owner and Nerf Herder Use Only," and struck it. It was small but loud enough to make them shut up and stare at me. I smiled sweetly at them. "Enough."
Wes looked like he wanted to make a run for it. A sweet kid with limp brown hair and dark blue eyes, Wes always looked like he wanted to make a run for it. He was ridiculously kind-hearted, and I doubted he'd had anything to do with the group's decision to give Cody the boot — I could also see how he'd managed to stay friends with Paige and Nick. The boy made a doormat look like Godric Gryffindor.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Saving Throw"
Copyright © 2019 Kristin McFarland.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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