Excerpt: Love Games

I shouldn’t have come, but I was a man on a mission.

Like a seagull searching for a strip of dry land, I circled the two-tiered parking lot twice before spying a space that didn’t require a bus ride back to the property. My destination, a vintage aluminum structure newly christened ‘Dark Universe’, had been a dignified military aircraft hangar but now played host to crazed gaming jocks hungry to pit their skills against the most brutal and violent of video games.

Flinging open the heavy glass door festooned with product labels and snack food advertisements, I lifted my chin and winced at the cloud of Red Bull and B.O. that floated out as I trekked in. The dizzying array of merchandize and gaming paraphernalia choking the narrow aisles had the effect of an Escher painting. My stomach lurched in response.

In the belly of the building, in an area aptly named The Pit, the young, the old, and the every-age-in-between were propped on the edges of oversized, black faux-leather couches in front of T.V. screens the lengths of football fields.

This was the last place in the world I wanted to be: a video gaming store on a Friday evening.

I loathed video games. Grown men and women wasting countless hours playing with mind-numbing computer-generated images? Ridiculous.

But my very testy, very pregnant cousin needed a pacifier while she impatiently waited to give birth. Dead Knights at Castle Kill, her favorite pastime, was the only thing that would satisfy. Reluctantly, I’d promised I would purchase the masters-level edition on my way home from work. And I was a man of my word, even if it meant postponing my favorite pastime: indexing my collection of historically themed postage stamps.

In an effort to avoid ‘The Pit’ and witness the senseless slaughter of pixilated creatures, I inadvertently wandered into a copse of gaming consoles. A young woman with pale skin, a red beanie pulled over long blue-black hair, and eyes the color of mint jelly (had to be contacts; that hue was about as natural as Tupperware) wrenched her stare from her screen as I approached. “Need help?”

Nudging my horn rims further up my nose, I lowered my arm, adjusted my bow tie, and said, “As a matter of fact, I do. I’d like to purchase Dead Knights at Castle Kill. The masters level. Do you have it?”

Green Eyes scanned me like a bar code. “Got a gem, Poindexter?”

“Right here.” I yanked a slip of paper from my jacket pocket. The gem, my cousin had informed me, was a string of numbers the gaming manufacturer embedded under a virtual trap door at the final stage of the game. Its retrieval entitled the gamer to product sales and discounts, as well as store promotions and—since the average player seldom reached the coveted accolade before being beaten, eaten, or slain—a fair amount of prestige.

Green Eyes’ expression transformed from impassive to impressed in less than sixty seconds. “Hang on. I’ll get you a salesman.” Pushing to her feet, she bellowed, “Hey, Mars? Mars? There’s a guy out here looking for D-Knights masters.”

“Don’t you work here?”

“Me? Naw, I’m just hanging out, racking some practice hours.” Green Eyes shoved a piece of purple gum between her lips and popped the slab against her back molars. “Sooo, masters level, huh? You interested in competing in the circuit, the championship series, or the world cyber cup?”

Circuit? Series? World cup? What was she going on about? I didn’t have a chance to formulate a response before she added, “Me and my team? We’re shooting for the CGS and a spot at the X-Games Invitational. I mean, sure, the cup’s worth serious greenbacks, but with a purse that size, everybody and their mama’s competing.”

A blood-curdling screech rent the air. I whipped around, the hairs of the back of my neck standing at attention. Green Eyes turned back to her screen and picked up her controller.

“What the heck was that?”

“A rabid werewolf.” She shrugged her shoulders. “This game’s mad noisy. Hey, wanna give your digits a little action and play a round or two? I’ve got some perks left you can swallow.”

“Swallow?” I puckered my mouth. Were the game pieces edible?

Werewolves of the Dawn ain’t Dead Knights, I know, but its good target practice.”

I raised my hands and stepped back “I don’t…”

“I swear, you hardcore Dead Heads are all alike.” Green Eyes swatted my bicep with a meaty hand, knocking me off balance. I nearly kissed the floor. “Won’t play anything ‘less it’s got a dead horseman on the cover. Purist.”

Snorting a chuckle, she grasped my hand. “Name’s Jacqueline Jackson. My tag’s Jackie the Giant Killer.”

“Regis McHale.” I tugged at the hem of my disheveled jacket. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clever eponym like hers. Unless ‘Regis the Really Annoyed’ counted.

In addition to her fierce tag, Jackie was well over six feet, and at five foot seven, I had to tilt my head to make eye contact. Her hand practically swallowed mine when she pumped it up and down as if expecting water to spout from my lips. I was about to inquire if she lifted weights when a honeyed-bass voice interrupted us.

“Who’s looking for Dead Knights masters?”

I opened my mouth to answer but forgot what I was about to say. A tall, muscular man with broad shoulders and narrow hips stood in front of me, short-circuiting my capacity to think. Long, dark, wavy hair framed a narrow face with jutting cheekbones, dark brown eyes, and a wide, sensual mouth. A black polo shirt accentuated his skin, which was the color of ripe apricots, and a pair of gray chinos hugged his thick thighs.

Something unfurled inside me that’d been asleep for a hundred years.

Jackie hooked her thumb and pointed at me when I didn’t answer. “The suit wants it. Did ya find one?”

The salesman held up the game in question. An image of a hooded knight in black armor atop a demonic horse graced its cover. “This is the last one. You’ve got good timing, yeah?”

I raked my fingers through my hair and racked my brain for the perfect, witty, urbane retort that would be sure to impress him. “Ah, yeah.” Okay. That was it. I was completely out of nouns and verbs.

He thrust out his hand, his dark gaze warmly assessing me. “Name’s Mars. And you are…?”

I clasped my fingers around his wide palm. Breathed in the sweet, citrusy scent of his aftershave. “McHale. Regis McHale.”

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