Andrea Clark can't trust anyone, least of all the mysteriously sexy man she meets outside of her trashed hotel room. But Zain might be her only hope of making it through the convention and home alive. He's her very own superhero, made of all the stuff to make her fall fast and hard. With no safety net in place, she can only pray that Zain will catch her when she falls.
A web of lies and deceit ensnare two lovers. Zain must use more than his brain and quick fingers to put a stop to the doxxing and death threats before a killer emerges from the ranks of Andrea's friends.
Warning: The geeks do it better.
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An Excerpt From: DANGEROUS GAMES
Copyright © SIDNEY BRISTOL, 2016
All Rights Reserved, Inked Press.
Zain Lloyd pressed his back against a cement column to avoid being hit by a walking TARDIS. He liked cosplaying at conventions as much as the next thirty-something nerd, but some get-ups were more hassle than they were worth. He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and watched the spray-painted TARDIS wander down the aisle, bouncing into people.
People darted from booth to booth, like exotic fish seeking the shelter of an anemone. The energy in the room was high, almost electric, in a way Zain craved. There was nothing dangerous, no gut-wrenching dread about to crest, no fear someone wasn’t coming out of here alive. Just…excitement.
He peeled off the column and merged with the flow of traffic, picking his way out from the depths of the booths and toward the outskirts of the vendor hall. An alien and a superhero passed Zain. They traded quick nods, one cosplayer to another. A sign of mutual respect. Man, if Zain’s SEAL buddies caught a look of him decked out in his steampunk gear, they’d probably try to give him a swirly. But whatever.
For the first time since Christmas, he was completely without care or stress. No life hung in the balance. There was no threat to be assessed. The constant weight that if Zain didn’t make the right choice, someone would end up dead. It was all gone.
As much as he loved his career with Aegis Group, a private security firm made up of former military, there was no other stress—outside of being enlisted—that could compare. While his former injuries kept him out of direct field work, it was his responsibility to coordinate munitions, surveillance, intelligence and anything technical related. It wasn’t a bad gig. What he did mattered, and they saved lives. It was all he’d ever wanted to do.
But today, he was just another guy in a costume strolling around the convention floor. No responsibility whatsoever.
“Steampunk Captain Hook—nice!”
A camera flash nearly blinded Zain. He cringed and gritted his teeth against the burst of memories, the white blossoms against his eyelids. The onslaught of images battered at his brain, but he’d long since learned how to navigate this perilous undertow. His grin was more of a grimace, a barely contained snarl caught in his throat. He didn’t mind the photographs, he expected them. His newest cosplay get-up was considerably more elaborate, and of course, he didn’t mind posing. What he would prefer was a little common courtesy and being asked permission.
“Thanks, man. How’d you make the hook?” The smart phone photographer reached out and grabbed the brass hook that was part functional and part cosmetic.
“That’s my prosthetic.” Zain pulled the hook out of the photographer’s hand, smiled and side-stepped what would no doubt have been an awkward conversation, after that introduction.
Comic cons were a unique environment. It was the only place where people tended to treat his assortment of prosthetics like an accessory or something to play with instead of the normal disdain or complete avoidance.
He skirted the main bank of elevators where people were waiting six deep for a ride up to their floor. During his initial scouting of the building’s layout, he’d discovered a hidden lift deep in the bowels of the convention-center-hotel complex. One most of the attendees still didn’t appear to know about.
A left, a right, another left, and a long stretch of hallway opened up in front of him. Halfway down, a woman in a long, white gown and iconic brown buns waited for the same elevator.
Only at an event like this.
He grinned and shoved his hand into the deep pockets of his brown captain’s coat. Growing up, he’d always had a thing for the princess. While other guys pinned posters of swimsuit centerfolds to their walls, he’d preferred the blaster wielding, prickly woman who could keep pace with the boys.
The Princess Leia cosplayer glanced over her shoulder at him and shifted, her eyes sliding off him as soon as they hit, as if she expected a platoon of Storm Troopers to waylay her any second.
Zain slowed, keeping his distance while they waited for the elevator to show up. If he had to guess, she was in her mid-to-late twenties and curvy. The buns were either real or incredible reproductions. The outfit wasn’t just a sheet with a hole cut in it and belted around the waist, either. It was fitted by someone who knew how to drape fabric, something Zain paid a tailor to do. Judging by her fidgeting, she’d had some unwanted attention at the con—like him—but it was different for women at these events. Much worse, actually. Too many people thought it was okay to touch a cosplayer, specifically a female one, anywhere they liked.
She shifted from foot to foot and glanced his way once more. Their gazes met for a fraction of a second.
Princess Leia jerked around, her back plank straight.
He hadn’t meant to be caught staring, but he was. Her eyes were pale, almost ice blue. Viking eyes.
The elevator doors slid open on an empty car.
“Ladies first.” He held out his hand, keeping the doors open and nodded her into the lift.
She rocked forward, glanced at him and then at the empty elevator, her nerves telegraphing at a ten on all channels.
Was it his face? The scar? His mug was pretty ugly, but it wasn’t so bad it made babies cry. At least, not that he was aware of.
She finally made up her mind and squeezed past him into the small elevator a second before the doors slid shut and pressed herself into the farthest corner from the door
“Floor?” he asked.
He jabbed the button and leaned against the side of the lift. His gaze slid back to her of its own accord.
She stared at him, her eyes slightly rounder.
He knew that look.
Princess Leia was scared of him.
He’d totally missed it, but this close he could see it in her eye and the way she didn’t look at him, but kept him in her line of sight.
What piece of work had made her afraid?
Sometimes he wanted to kick his own ass just for being a guy.
He should get off, just pick a random floor. But would that freak her out more? He’d already said they were on the same floor, which was a truth. God damn it. Now he felt guilty for some other asshole’s behavior. How could he make it right? Should he try?
“Having fun?” He glanced down at her name tag and paused. He’d just meant to strike up random conversation, but he knew that name. More than knew it. How had he not recognized his Internet crush? “Andrea—Clancy? As in the Grunge game designer Andrea?”
Before he got the question out, her eyes had nearly bulged out of her skull and her chest heaved, as if she were having a panic attack. Shit, he couldn’t say or do anything right around a woman these days.
“I liked D7,” he blurted and stared at the floors ticking by.
Things to do: Not talk to Internet celebrities he happened to find exceptionally attractive.
Twelve more floors to go…
He really should just get out now.
“You—liked it?” Andrea’s voice was light, breathy, and dripping with disbelief.
“Yeah. What wasn’t to like? The graphics were the shit.”
“You liked it?” She took a half step toward him, her tone more demanding, as though she expected him to change his answer.
“Yeah.” He shrugged and pivoted to face the doors. Next time he thought to talk to a stranger, he’d remember to keep his comments to himself. Fuck. He was going to embarrass himself if he didn’t get out of this elevator soon.
“You don’t care that we totally genderbent the whole Drudge game?” She let go of the railing and swayed toward him.
“It’s a game. The gender of the avatar doesn’t matter to the game play. The armor was right though, which I appreciated.” He was aware a lot of people were grumbling about the male characters appearing onscreen as female. All he wanted was a mindless escape at the end of a long day, and the Drudge games were a good way to scratch that itch.
“The armor was all Crystal.”
“Well, she got it right. None of that armored bikini and heels crap.” He liked to look at boobs as much as the next guy, but even in a game situation, it bugged him that designers wanted to send female characters into battle in little more than their underwear. It might be a fantasy game, but the stupidity of it always pulled him out of the world.
The elevator doors finally slid open. He once more held them open while Andrea-fucking-Clancy strolled out and waited for him. He managed not to trip over his own feet getting out after her.
God, he was a creepy old Internet dude right now.
“Crystal ordered a dozen different kinds of body armor and made everyone wear them while they did the initial sketches for the characters. It was crazy expensive. I can’t imagine people fight in stuff that weighs that much.”
“Well, it paid off.” He wiped his palm on his jacket. Sweaty hand? Really? What was he, twelve?
“You don’t think the proportions were off?”
“Not to me, but I’m used to seeing people in body armor.”
“Really?” She practically bounced. “Can I ask what you do? We’re talking about doing a companion game and Crystal has all these ideas for some new designs but our boss isn’t sold on them after the concepts. I…am running my mouth, aren’t I? I am so sorry. This whole convention has been…well, it’s been hell, and—I’m going to shut up now.” Andrea smiled, her features relaxed and more at ease, like she was on the YouTube show. But in person. And better.
“I work in private security.” He struggled to string together the sentence. Part of him was still baffled she was speaking to him. Andrea Clancy. In person. “Why has the con been so bad?” She was a completely different person from the timid thing down in that hallway. And damn if she wasn’t as pretty in person as she was in vlogs. Yes, he was totally guilty of catching Crystal’s Gaming Hour on occasion, which Andrea often joined. Those were his favorite episodes. She had a good analytical view on games and was far more middle-of–the-road when it came to reviewing them. At least she wasn’t scared of him anymore. That would be a real personal low.
“People are really upset about Drudge VII. Like, doxxing and death threats upset. That’s why Crystal couldn’t come. She posted this pissed-off vlog last week that really riled people up and Miranda, our boss, told her it was probably better if she stayed home to take care of her diabetic cat. We both know Miranda was really telling her not to come. Anyway, some guys posted her parent’s address on-line and they’ve been getting weird mail.”
“Wait, guys are so pissed off you made Dusty and his brothers…chicks?”
“Uh…yeah. I’ve already had three copies of D7 thrown at me, one guy dumped a bottle of water on my luggage and I skipped one panel because there was an angry mob of fan boys waiting to waylay me.” She rolled her eyes and side-stepped, bumping him with her shoulder. “Sorry.”
“This happened here?” Zain came to the conventions to unwind. To forget about people dying, the friends he’d lost and the parts of himself he’d left behind. That a bunch of douchnozzles were so bent out of shape about a digital rendering of a human being’s supposed gender was the most ridiculous and selfish thing he’d heard of since the God damned War on Christmas. He couldn’t even wrap his head around the doxxing. This was the kind of stuff he handled on a daily basis. It didn’t belong here.
Zain took two more steps before he realized Andrea had stopped. He turned and the hair on the back of his neck rose. Her face was pale, lips parted, eyes wide. It was the same fear-stricken expression she’d looked at him with in the elevator—but worse. Ten times worse. It was the kind of expression clients had at their worst, usually when they called to hire one of their guys, or a whole team.
He followed her gaze to a door a couple feet down the hall. It was cracked open and the lights were on inside.
Zain stepped in front of her, shielding Andrea with his body. He didn’t need to be told this wasn’t a good thing. His awareness switched to overdrive, every little pressure change registering across the hairs on his neck and the slightest sound tickling his ears.
“Is that your room?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her voice cracked.
“Did you leave your room unlocked?” He kept his voice low and crossed to the adjacent wall, watching the narrow crack for any hint of movement.
“No. I always lock the door.”
“Stay right there.” He held his hand up as he reached the door and peered inside.
Someone wanted to harass Andrea Clancy, and like hell he was going to let that happen.
Kevin Lee took the stairs two at a time.
The designated rendezvous time bore down on him with all the expectation of a first date. The messenger bag thudded against his thigh, the weight a reminder of the task ahead.
Andrea Clancy was a stepping stone. A piece of a greater puzzle. It just so happened that she made shitty games that needed to be dumped. And fast. If this plan worked, it would be smooth sailing out of the horrible mess that was D7 and on to bigger and better things. There was no coming back from that game, only moving forward.
Kevin stopped his descent at the second floor of the convention center, pausing to peer through the glass pane. The stairwell let out into the main convention area, but at this hour, most of the attendees were in panels, and the halls were nearly deserted.
He pushed the door open, adjusted the laptop bag, and strode out into the wide thoroughfare, his head up and shoulders back. The few people scattered about the hall were too busy on their phones to pay him any mind.
A few turns down smaller halls and he arrived at the final meet spot with thirty seconds to spare. Kevin carefully pushed the door open, mindful to make as little noise as possible. A man in dark gray slacks and a polo shirt stood at the front of an empty room. Judging by the boxes, it was some sort of con storage space.
“Sir?” Kevin kept his voice low, hesitating just inside the door.
The man twisted, a phone to his ear.
Kevin nodded and took up a post by the entrance, listening for the sound of someone approaching. He’d spent a lifetime waiting by doors. First, for his family, praying they’d let him out of the closet and maybe give him something to eat. Later, he’d been at the mercy of the juvenile detention center, and the hours out of his solitary confinement. Along the way, he’d met a misplaced young man and their paths had never quite separated. Speckles hadn’t belonged in the detention hall, not like Kevin. Speckles didn’t fight, he didn’t steal. It was a wonder that Speckles had been there at all. They were from two different worlds, Kevin from the wrong side of town, destined for a life prone to being behind bars, and Speckles from a world of privilege and plenty.
Their paths shouldn’t have crossed.
And yet they had.
It’d been a Thursday. They got fresh fruit on Thursdays, and both Kevin and Speckles had kitchen duty. Kevin had felt sorry for the older boy, though not enough to intervene when the others picked on him. At least not in the beginning. Speckles had been smaller. He’d been pudgy and wore glasses that never quite stayed on his face right, always hanging at a haphazard angle. That morning, Speckles had offered Kevin half an orange, and the rest was history.
No one had ever offered Kevin something for nothing.
That bit of kindness had set their paths on a parallel journey. Together, they’d found freedom. As long as no one dug up Speckle’s backyard.
“Did you get it?” Speckles’ sharp tone snapped Kevin out of the memory.
“Here.” He handed the bag over.
“Excellent.” Speckles unzipped the bag and slid the laptop out, setting it on top of a stack of boxes.
“Will it be enough?”
“No, but it’s a start.” Speckles fired up the machine. “I’ll need you to hack it, get me access to the C drive.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You’ll be at the panel in twenty minutes, right?”
“Yes, and everything is set.”
“Perfect. I got you on the list for tonight. Is everything ready for then?”
Kevin patted his pocket.
“Good. Good.” Speckles grinned. He didn’t wear glasses anymore, hell, he wouldn’t even acknowledge his old nickname, but to Kevin, Speckles would always be the one person who gave Kevin a leg up when no one else would.