Good Luck Charm

by Alister Davison

The engine stops, and I savour one last breath of conditioned air, drawing it deep into my lungs as if it’s my last.

The way my luck is holding out, that may well be the case.

Got to admit, I thought I’d escaped. Getting to grips with a new routine hadn’t been easy, but it was worth the sweat and tears if it kept me away from prying eyes and meddling hands.

At least they were subtle about it. I’d just entered my apartment building, looking forward to getting started on the pile of books I’d taken from the library, when a figure stepped in front of me, blocking my way to the stairs.

I knew the procedure, it was one to which I’d bore witness many times. I placed the books on top of the mailboxes, turned around and put my hands behind my back. In silence, I was cuffed and gagged, a cloth bag placed over my head. It makes for an uncomfortable car journey, that’s for sure; my arms cramped an hour ago and my fingers have gone numb.

Still, at least I’m alive. For now.

Doors open – one, two, three – allowing stifling air to force itself inside. The car rocks as the other occupants get out. The two goons either side have been keeping me upright, so I fall to my left without their support, lying there like a fish long out of water.

It takes a couple of seconds for them to haul me out like a prize catch. I hit dirt, dusty and dry, the brightness of the day evident even through the hood.

It blinds me when they pull it off. Takes my eyes several seconds to adjust to the crystal blue sky, the Nevada sand crushed and compact, an equally dazzling reflection of the sun from up above. Sweat wicks from every pore, a combination of the oppressive heat and recognition of the brown wing tips a few feet from my face. The immaculate white spats that cover them are a startling contrast to my dusty Converse.

“Get him up.” The voice is soft, almost melodic, but the goons hurry to do as instructed, lifting me up by the armpits. I sway a little on my feet, which are the focus of my gaze as I try to orient myself, almost falling again as they remove the gag, cutting it with a switchblade that sparkles in the sunlight.

I work my jaw, up and down and side to side, but say nothing. There are moments when being discreet will keep a man alive; this is one of them. Instead, I stare down at my trainers.

The spats move closer, but the shadow stretches out to the side, as if it’s shying away from me. “Jimmy the Boy. We meet at last.”

Jimmy the Boy. I’m closing in on thirty and they’re still calling me that, as if I was the same punk kid that tried to pick Big Sal’s pocket all those years ago. Sal gave me a thick ear, then a home, followed by a life. Whenever I think of him, I wonder how he’d have felt about my running away.

I look up at the man who’s had me brought here. Immaculately dressed in designer suit, shirt and tie; even in this heat, there’s not a drop of sweat on him, as if he’s still in New York’s corridors of power. His only concession is a Stetson, which somehow shades his face in a way that makes his dark eyes seem to glow. He swipes a hand across the brim of the hat, cuff links glittering.

“You’ve taken some finding, which has incurred much expense, as well as some slight discomfort to yourself, but our employer deemed it necessary.” He leans closer, mint evident on his breath. “Now here you are.”

In the movies, right now is where the hero would say something cool. Me, it’s all I can do not to piss myself. I’ve heard of this man, who rose quickly in the organisation, graduating from henchman to right-hand in a few years. Guessing why I’ve been brought here, to the middle of nowhere, I look frantically for a shallow grave, but there’s no sign of anything except cooked, hard earth.

“We’re not here to kill you,” he says, as if he’s read my mind. “One more task, James, one that will truly free you from the Organisation, if that is what you wish.”

He reaches into his jacket, taking out two photographs. Only one is handed to me; a picture of a casino, façade covered in glittering lights.

“The Seers?”

Spats moves closer, arm over my shoulder like he’s my best friend. I don’t like contact at the best of times, so it’s an effort not to shrug him off. “I don’t know how you do what you do, son. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s some kind of Rain Man voodoo.”

“There’s a pattern in the cards,” I whisper as if I’m imparting a great secret. “Some see it everywhere, in everything, but with me it’s just the cards.”

“I’m only interested in the results.” He’s so close, that minty breath is sickening. “Let me show you this, just in case you’re not fully motivated.”

The second picture is that of a woman and a toddler, at play in a park. Sal’s niece and her son, five years old.

“Call it added incentive.” Spats steps away.

His words are unnecessary; implying the threat has always been enough. There are things words don’t have to say, whereas my acknowledgement will save lives. I may not have seen them for years, but still; family is family.

I look away, see my reflection in a goon’s mirrorshades. Unkempt, tired, not the man I used to be, nor the one I want to be. One last caper, then out. Always tempting – how many times have I told myself just one more? – but now there’s no choice.

“All right. What do you want me to do?”

***

Win. And win big.

That’s my only thought as I stand at the entrance to the Seers Casino. The building’s lit up like a gold Christmas tree, the dancing lights creating a discotheque reflection in my polished shoes.

I straighten my tie, roll my shoulders and shoot my cuffs as I take the deepest breath of my life. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m happy enough in these expensive clothes, wearing them like a knight would a suit of armour, but my lucky tooth and silver pen are back home, and the only routine I’ve been able to go through is the folding of the handkerchief in my jacket pocket.

Three times. First with a triangle of silk tongue poking from the pocket’s mouth. The second fluffs it out, so it blooms like a white rose against the deep navy (my lucky colour). Finally, I fold it square again, place it to form a white stripe across the top of the pocket.

There. I’m ready.

To win, as instructed. Win big, like nobody in the Seers ever has. The place prides itself that nobody’s ever hit the jackpot enough to do it any damage. It’s completely independent from any criminal control; no group takes a skim, no single person is paid to look in another direction from time to time. Clean, when there’s no such thing.

So, I tell myself, I must beat the unbeatable.

Here’s a new thought; if I don’t, people I care about will die.

That’s what’s on my mind as I step through huge sliding doors, catching the eye and the smile of a blonde in a golden bikini, a huge set of tail-feathers rising up behind her. She welcomes me to the Seers Casino; the lingering look we share makes it sound more than a customary greeting, but I’ve been fooled before.

Still, I must admit I can’t help liking what I see. Golden curls, eyes the colour of a summer sky, a brightness to them that puts the glitter and glitz of our surroundings to shame. If they’re truly the mirror to her soul, then I doubt it’s anything short of wonderful. Just as I’m feeling a mental connection, one that almost has me believing in love at first sight, a voice shatters the moment.

“Hey, Kitty! Kitty!”

Her smile slips for a fraction of a second. “It’s Katherine, dammit,” she mutters. Then, all is as before, bar the fat man in a tux with straining seams, shirt collar so tight it’s turning his round head into a purple grape. He’s a heart attack waiting to happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Katherine is wishing for right now.

She opens her mouth, but doesn’t get the chance to speak.

“What was I saying before? You can’t just stand there like a dummy. You’ve got to work it!” He sneers at me, the lascivious tilt of a time-served creep. “Am I right?”

I slip my hands in my pocket. “I was hoping this beautiful lady would accompany me to the tables. I could do with a good luck charm.” It’s no lie; being kidnapped has made this all a rush, my usual tokens foregone in favour of haste.

Katherine smirks, slipping her hand through the gap between my arm and my body. Her perfume is like a sweet narcotic, and her touch, far from unpleasant, sends a spark through me. I feel good, like I could take on the world, even turn around and walk out of here a pauper. With her at my side, I’d be satisfied.

If it wasn’t for the whole death-threat thing, maybe I’d ask her.

We walk between rows of fruit machines, their single arms raised high like worshippers praising the gods of excess. An old woman pumps coins into one of them, while an even older woman hits the jackpot, leaping out of her seat as if she’s been healed by a miracle worker, coins spewing out into a plastic cup.

Katherine leans close to be heard over the noise. “What’s your game?”

Unable to decide if she’s asking me why I’m here or what I’d like to play, I give her answers to both. “Blackjack. I’m here to beat the unbeatable.”

She smirks at this, but I sense humour rather than disdain in her voice. “How does a private table sound?”

“I’m in your capable hands.”

Katherine guides me to the table. The croupier is a man as thin as the cards he deals, his construction all joints and angles. His clothes are expensive, tailored to fit like a glove, which doesn’t do him any favours.

He watches me sit. There’s a wide grin on his face, but still I feel like I’m being interrogated, examined for any tell-tale signs or ticks. There’s a moment of pressure in my forehead, like a flash of toothache, and his grin slips, quickly replaced by a smile as he starts rattling off the house rules.

They’re the same in most of these places, and I know them by heart. Still, I listen, eyes closed to take in every nuance of his voice. Sometimes, it’s the way people talk that give them away as much as a raise of the eyebrow or a rub of the wrist.

“All right,” he announces, opening a fresh deck of cards. “Let’s play.”

***

I’m an hour in, a few thousand up, when I first see it.

Nothing more than a glance, an exchange for only a fraction of a second, but I kick myself for not noticing it sooner.

I’m being played. Hustled at my own game. How, I don’t know, but I suspect this beauty at my side has something to do with it. Too good to be true, and I fell for it. I don’t know who I’m annoyed with more, her or myself. People’s lives are depending on me, and I let myself get distracted by Miss Tailfeathers here.

“I need a break.” I slide out of my chair and stride away, leaving the two of them. Let them stay in cahoots; I can move on, play another game.

Except I’m already deep in this one. The patterns are forming, and I can guess which cards will be next out of the shoe. I can do this. I have to do this, or people will die.

My heart pounds against my ribcage harder than a wrongful arrest. I lean against the wall and close my eyes, but all I can see is Spats’s face in shadow under that hat, eyes aglow as if he’s the devil himself. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what he is.

“You need to clam down.” I recognise Katherine’s voice, and the sincere concern within. Opening my eyes, I see she’s handing me a glass of water. “Drink this.”

I take a sniff, making sure it’s not vodka, then pour it down my throat. It cools all the way down to my core, but that fireball of irritation refuses to be put out.

“We need to talk.”

“About what? How you and your friend are taking me for a ride?”

Katherine looks from side to side. I’ve learned to read people, and she’s panicking. Genuinely afraid. “Not here.”

She walks away, not looking over her shoulder to see if I’m following. I do, and we end up at an inconspicuous door with a small keypad above the lock. Katherine closes her eyes, then keys in five digits; a turn of the handle, a wiggle of feathers, and we’re in.

The room is small, the size of an elevator, lit by a panel that glows in the centre of the ceiling. It’s very much empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to descend into some underground lair.

“There’s something you need to know.”

***

If she didn’t look so sincere, I’d laugh. As it is, I summarise.

“So, you’re telling me the reason the Seers always wins is because it’s run by psychics.” Put like that, it sounds simple and rational. The rest of it, though… “And these psychics, you included, are from one of many parallel dimensions.”

Katherine rubs her forehead, eyes on me. “In a nutshell. That’s how I picked up on you, and your desperate need to win. You’re doing this for Sal; even though he’s gone, family is family, right?” She smiles now, and I swear the small room brightens. “Besides, there are some people in here who need to be taught a lesson.”

I’m disappointed. I’d thought, hoped, there’d be more to it than that. Despite my suspicions of betrayal, I still can’t help feel a certain attraction to her. I look down at my feet, saddened when I have no real right to be.

Her hand on my chin, that same frisson at her touch. She lifts, so I have no choice but to look into those summer sky eyes. “When this is all over, how about we stay together for a while, see how well we get along?”

I know how it works, that this could be an idea she’s planting inside my head like a seed, but I also know there’s more to it than that; Katherine is offering me a choice, not an ultimatum. Besides, it’s something I’ve been thinking of from the moment I clapped eyes on her.

I put my hand over hers, relishing the warmth of the contact. “Read my mind,” I say.

I’m expecting the mental equivalent of a burglar raking through drawers, but there’s no discomfort, barely any sensation at all other than a shiver up the spine, like you get when you’re being watched, only now it’s from the inside. She’s never been in here before, never manipulated me.

I push aside the relief to focus on the faith I have in her, myself, in anyone who’s willing to listen and help me save those who have been like a family to me when I deserved nothing. They had faith in me, all those years ago, and now it’s time to return the favour. What goes around comes around, a cycle of karma like the patterns I see when cards are being dealt.

Tears glisten in Katherine’s eyes. I swallow my own emotion; now that she’s not in my head anymore, there’s a void in there, one that didn’t exist until only a moment ago. It’s a mental impact that makes me sway, but she steadies me with her hands on my shoulders.

“It’ll pass.”

I almost don’t want it to, but I nod. “What do we have to do?”

Katherine smiles. “I’ve persuaded you to go back to the table. Given your outburst, you’ll be allowed to win. Not quite as big as you’d like, but big enough to be tempting when he says the three magic words.”

“He loves me?”

“No, but you will be screwed.” The smile becomes a grin. “That’s when I come in.”

***

Katherine was right. I’ve lost a few hands, but overall I’m doing well. Too well to be true, beyond even what I’d been expecting. To say I’m being hustled is an understatement; I’m close enough to a huge prize that I’ve attracted an audience of around a dozen, being willed on by each and every one.

Katherine remains at my side, thoughtful throughout. I catch her and the croupier exchanging looks now and again, but that’s to be expected.

Then, as if from out of nowhere, the croupier delivers the three words that could change my life.

“Double or nothing?”

My crowd ooh and aah, offering me conflicting advice at various volumes.

Have faith, I tell myself as I look at Katherine from the corner of my eye. I sit up, straighten my back, and smile.

“Let’s do it.”

***

The blue and white Mustang roared along the road, Vegas and that old life further behind with every passing second. Occasionally, the car swerved, riding the white line or the outer edge of the Tarmac that cut through the Nevada desert like an infected wound.

The driver looked in the mirror, wiping away the last of the make up with a tissue. She steered with her knees for a moment, placing a long dress over her shoulders and letting it shuck down to her waist. The bikini, she vowed, would be shed once she got to a motel.

Katherine saw the gleam of sun on metal a few minutes later. The Cadillac, exactly where James has said it would be.

Looking at the briefcase on the passenger seat, she felt a pang of regret. It faded as quickly as it had arrived; she’d done what she had to, and lies were inevitable. Such was life.

She slowed, pulling off the road so the trunk of the Mustang faced the other vehicle, drawing to a halt with a plume of dust. Ignition off, the car fell silent and the world felt bigger.

Katherine had predicted no trouble here, but it paid to be careful. Trust no one; that had been her mantra since coming to this Dimension in pursuit of a new life, one that was close around the corner.

No trouble, but it always paid to have a back up plan.

She picked up the case, along with a tyre iron she’d stowed under her seat, and opened the door. The day was a couple of hours old, so the heat was already bordering on the intense. Shoes on, she got out of the car, smoothing the dress down to her knees and cursing the high heels as she negotiated the lumpy terrain, coming to a halt at the back of the Mustang, placing the case on the trunk.

As the Cadillac’s doors swung open, Katherine let her makeshift weapon hang down, knocking it three times against the Mustang’s fender. The sound of metal on metal was reassuring, ringing out like a bell calling the faithful to prayer.

As she’d expected, the two goons came first. Men more muscle than brains, she knew they wouldn’t be the problem. No; any issues she was going to have would be with the owner of the legs that were now swinging out, spat-covered shoes planting themselves into the dust.

Their owner quickly followed, exiting the car in one fluid motion. He adjusted cuffs and tie as he approached, coming to a halt close enough so their conversation couldn’t be overheard.

“This is a surprise,” he said, lifting his head so the shadow of the hat slid from his face.

Katherine smiled as if she meant it. “It’s good to see you again, Monroe,” she lied.

No mental probe followed the untruth. Her former boss was being unusually respectful.

“You look well,” he said.

He did too, but there was no way she was going to be drawn in. Monroe was good – hell, he’d been one of the best until he’d Gone Native – and was well-versed in extracting information from even a brief conversation.

Katherine patted the briefcase, cutting to the chase. “This is what you want.”

“And Jimmy?”

That regret again, a weight on her shoulders, yet blessedly brief once more. “Do you care?”

Monroe lowered his chin, letting the shadow fall like a veil. He said nothing, but took a couple of steps forward, stretching out his arm. “I’ll take the money, Katherine.”

“I’ll need some guarantees first.”

He sighed, that of a teacher whose prize pupil has proved a disappointment. “Must we?”

“We must.”

“Very well. Take a look.”

Katherine met his gaze, pushing her ability into the void of his pupils, then further back into the mansion of his mind. There were many rooms, but Katherine knew exactly where to go. A door was opened and – in an instant – she saw it all.

The images flooded her mind, but she was adept at controlling them, sorting through them to pick out the most important. It was the reason the owners of the Seers had hired her, but now she was using the talent for herself, making it even easier to sift through and find the nuggets, the how and why of everything leading to this moment.

She saw the child, born a year after Monroe first came here almost three decades ago; the boy who had to be given away for fear he’d be killed or kidnapped by his father’s enemies; the ‘orphan’ who somehow made his way back into the fold – fate’s wheel spinning – although it would be another family that took care of him while his father looked on, knowing the truth could never be told; a young man with a gift who would make his father proud and, ultimately, make him play his own son as a pawn in his ambitious game.

Overwhelmed by it all, Katherine staggered, the tyre iron dropping to the ground. She would have fallen along with it if Monroe hadn’t taken hold of her arms, kept her upright. In that moment of weakness, she let her guard down, and a sliver of his own talent slipped through to dip into her mind. A brief invasion, but enough for him to ascertain the truth.

He could have killed her, right there and then, but all he did was laugh. “Clever girl. I’m pleased some of my lessons stayed with you. Who else knows?”

“Just you and I.”

He let her go, clapping his hands with obvious delight. “Bravo. Very well done, indeed.”

Katherine couldn’t believe it. “You’re pleased? After what I’ve done?”

“My dear, I’m pleased because of what you’ve done.” He leaned forward, whispering with minty breath. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy, but let me make a suggestion.”

He did so, and Katherine found a smile.

“Now, I’ll take what’s mine and be on my way.”

Katherine stepped aside, Monroe striding to the case and clicking it open. “Hmm,” he said, “never looks as much as it does in the movies, does it?”

“What will you do with it?”

“This will have done The Seers some damage, as predicted, and I’m sure they’ll be grateful of the added capital.” He grinned, teeth bright. “It’s a foot in the door, if nothing else.”

“And The Seers has been seen to lose. It’s possible to meet their challenge, so more will try.”

Monroe nodded, clicking the case closed. “It’s a shame to lose you, Katherine. I fear your previous employers wasted your talents somewhat.”

He moved to shake her hand, but the move was impossible due to the bundle of notes in it. “That should be enough to get you started.”

Stunned, she could only take the money and watch him walk away.

Monroe paused at the car door, looking at her over his shoulder. “Let’s be sure both our secrets stay hidden, eh?”

***

It took a few minutes for the Cadillac to drive out of sight, after which Katherine popped the trunk.

“We’re good?” James asked as he clambered out.

“Fifty grand good.” She offered him the bottle of water she’d taken from the glove box.

Katherine watched as he guzzled it all, letting some spill down his chin. Yes, she could see his father in him now, that same bright gleam in the eye.

“So where do we go from here?” he asked.

Katherine linked his arm in hers and they walked to the front of the Mustang. “We find a motel and get better acquainted,” she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “And after that… I’m told Monte Carlo is good this time of year.”

THE END

Advertisements

Cole

By Paul R. Green

The cut on his eye stung like a bastard as Otis rinsed away the blood and smeared Vaseline over it. “I told ya to watch his elbows” the corner man hissed as he threw the bloody sponge into the bucket and removed the ice-pack from Cole’s neck. His trainer’s words were clear to Cole, despite the incessant baying of the twenty thousand plus crowd outside the cage that had come to the Seers to see him take on Martinez. “Relax, coach, ain’t nothing coming between me and that title. Certainly not that preening cock” he snarled, eyes fixed on the wiry Latino currently stood atop his stool, arms held wide like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in his native Rio. He raised them up, flexing the muscles and whipping the crowd into a further frenzy. “You must admit he has a certain flair, though” the trainer conceded as the bell sounded for the fourth round. “Now go knock his punk ass into next week.”

***

Cole’s rise from a minor player in the Nevada leagues, fighting in clumsily welded cages for a hundred bucks a night to having a shot at the title could only be described as meteoric ; a term he’d never understood – didn’t meteors come crashing down?

Like most things in life in Cole’s experience, it had all come about thanks to dumb luck, or to be more accurate a dumb fuck, stupid enough to try and mug him outside the bus station in Parumph. Cole had been walking to his motel thinking of the steak he was going to order from the diner off of East Street, when the guy had sidled up alongside him, pulled a knife and demanded Cole’s wallet. Cole had stared at the knife for a few seconds, not exactly in shock, more out of disbelief; not comprehending why the guy had picked him when he had the choice of any number of potential victims, all of them less physically imposing than Cole’s six foot two, two hundred and forty pounds frame. He shifted his gaze to the man’s eyes. They were a rich hazel colour, though the whites were tinged with red as if the man had rubbed them recently – probably trying to keep the flop sweat that covered his forehead from blurring his vision. His hair was a short, mousy brown fuzz, as if just growing back in after being shaved to the scalp. That and the slightly too big clothes, all of them at least five years out of date, worn beneath a denim jacket that had seen better days and a crudely drawn skull tatt on the back of his hand suggested his would-be assailant wasn’t long out of prison.

Cole’s eyes quickly swept across his surroundings, the street was quiet but not deserted, though the nearest person to them was a good hundred yards away and oblivious to all but their destination and the music pumping through their oversized headphones. Cars passed, but no-one was really paying any attention to Cole and his mugger. Back from where he’s came he saw the bus pulling away from the station.

“Look, friend, walk away. You don’t want to do this” Cole said calmly, as he subconsciously flexed his fingers and shifted onto the balls of his feet. Apparently the man had wanted to though, and Cole had been forced to defend himself, neatly side-stepping the attack, blocking the clumsy lunge with the knife, and breaking the man’s arm in the process. The move that instinctively followed had caught the stumbling attacker across the back of the neck speeding his rendezvous with the sun-baked asphalt and leaving his assailant with a broken nose, a shattered jaw and three missing teeth.

And that could have been that if not for the girl on the bus who’d caught the whole thing on her phone. It had gone viral. Within a week he was competing in matches in Vegas, within a month he had an agent and had fought on both coasts. And now six months after ‘PUNK GETS PUMMELLED’ had took the internet by storm, Cole was back in Vegas – and this time he wasn’t just on the Strip, but sharing the bill with Hector ‘El Gallo’ Martinez at Seers Casino in a title fight with a purse worth a cool five mill.

***

“You think you can take me, Puto?” The words were sharp in his ear as Cole desperately struggled for air as Martinez pushed his face into the mesh of the cage. The champion was a lot stronger than his size suggested and coupled with his speed he’d caught Cole a sucker punch to the kidneys that had resulted in him being pinned to the cage as the crowd outside bayed for blood. And he was pinned. He’d exhausted all his options and knew his opponent had enough experience not to give him an opening. Not now. Not with the title so close.

Except?

What the hell? Martinez was switching his grip on Cole’s wrists where they were painfully held halfway up his back. This was it; time to man up and take the title, or go back to being paid peanuts to fight has-beens and wannabes in Fuknows, Nevada.

***

Cole groaned as he pulled himself out of bed, grimaced as he stood and the arthritis in his knees sent knives of fire screaming through his body. Five years at the top were beginning to take their toll; a fact confirmed as he stared back at his haggard reflection in the bathroom mirror as he took his first piss of the day. Maybe he should get a face-lift? Would that help or hinder his acting career? Probably hinder; action heroes were meant to be rugged. Maybe he should grow a moustache? But a proper one like Charles Bronson or Warren Oates. He had a few weeks before he started shooting his next picture; he’d start today.

He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt and headed downstairs, instructing Maria, his cook, that he’d take breakfast by the pool this morning as he grabbed a mug of coffee and stepped into the California sun. He paused at the door, letting his eyes adjust to the glare, and smiled as he watched Rachel glide through the crystal clear water as she carried out her morning ritual of fifty lengths before breakfast.

***

Cole stared at the leaves floating on the pool’s murky surface, wondering if he should take the deal. He hadn’t fought in over three years – a long time in the MMA game – and, if he was honest with himself, wasn’t sure if he was in good enough shape to defend his title. He’d managed to avoid it so far thanks to his agents and management team, who used his Hollywood status and shooting schedules to sidestep any challenges, but his last couple of films had thanked and the same people who had been so keen to help were now worrying about where their next slice of Cole Tanner pie was coming from. Still, if he won, it could just be the boost his career needed. That and the five million fee, regardless of whether he won or lost, meant that deep down he already knew the answer.

***

Cole roared his contempt for his opponent as he slammed his forearm across his chest, sending the punk crashing to the floor. He quickly followed up by dropping onto him, leading with an elbow to the gut that forced the air from his lungs in a violent, spittle-flecked gasp. Whilst the challenger was still recovering, Cole flipped him onto his stomach and locked his arms behind his back. The crowd were going frantic. They were chanting his name. This was it. The match was almost his. All he needed to do was hang on for ten more seconds. Ten short seconds.

Not that short. Not short enough. Maybe he should just switch to a more secure group? Yeah, the more he thought about it, the more changing his grip seemed like a good idea.

Cole eased off for a second… Continue reading

Psytech Dealings

by Mark Barrett

Bleep.

Bleep.

Bleep.

There was only so long that Logan could ignore the determinedly incessant bleeping before he had to admit defeat by acknowledging that he was, in a fact, awake. His head throbbed. How long had he slept? The question was a moot one, as the answer was going to be ‘not long enough’ regardless of the time.

The bleeping was coming from his i-comms Home-Ents system. The colour of the flashing light on the base unit told Logan that it was his work trying to contact him. The fact that the bleeping had gone on long enough to wake him from his dreamless, exhausted sleep told him that they were desperate to contact him. “Stuff them,” he sighed. “They can wait a bit longer.” Then in a clearer voice, “boiling water.”

Eighteen seconds later Logan was filling an Insumug with boiling water from the Beverater fixed to the back wall. As he did so, the bed he had so recently been sleeping in retracted in to the side wall, to be replaced by an Ergohammock chair which descended from the ceiling above. He quickly checked that his Home-Ents system was on standby, before stooping down and retrieving a small glass jar from behind a picture-frame he kept on a low shelf. The jar was marked ‘coffee’.

As a Psytech law enforcement agent, Logan knew better than most why all stimulants, intoxicants and additives were banned. But he couldn’t help himself. He had picked up a taste for coffee in dimension hD6, and just could not resist bringing a stash back with him. In fact, as this jar was more than three-quarters empty, he found himself hoping that a trip to one of the more lenient dimensions would be necessary soon.

But not too soon. He was exhausted from his most recent case. The case had caused Logan to stretch his mind along more courses, further and more frequently than could be reasonably expected of any Psytech. Of anyone at all, for that matter. Echoes of others’ thoughts still permeated Logan’s waking hours, and a dull nagging headache – now a throbbing beat thanks to the bleeping – accompanied him at every moment. His commanding officer had recognised his exhaustion, fully expected it due to the complexity and danger inherent in the case, and had given him an open-ended leave to, quite literally, get his head together. So why was work stubbornly refusing to let him sleep now?

“Comms on,” Logan said out loud. He could have turned the machine on by simply using his mind, but had instead opted for the voice recognition option.

The viewer on the Home-Ents system changed from the darkened screen reflecting Logan’s tired-looking, saggy, unshaven face surrounded by dishevelled, brown curly hair to show his commanding officer. “Morning, Logan,” came the sound of commander Topps‘s voice through the integrated speaker system, “how are you feeling?”

“Rough.”

An uncharacteristic frown of concern flashed across Commander Topps’s usually stern, dark features. “I’m not surprised. You’ve been worked hard.”

Logan blew out a snort of humourless laughter, and took a sip from his gently steaming Insumug.

Topps’s frown shifted back from concerned to stern. “Is that coffee? Logan…”

Logan raised his eyes to the image of his commanding officer on the screen. His jaw set into his well-rehearsed look of righteous indignation. “Coffee? Seriously? What do you take me for, boss? We both know that…”

“I take you for a bloody idiot who has developed a taste for that rank, addictive shite that they serve in some of the h grade dimensions.” Topps paused, allowing his voice and expression to soften once more. “And I take you for the best and most trusted Psytech LEA that I know. Which is why I’ve got a job for you.”

“Jeez, Topps. I’m whacked-out. No way – I’m not up to a case at the minute.”

Topps’s sorrow at asking was evident. “I didn’t say a case, Logan; I said a job. I need something sorted, and it needs to be you.”

Logan blew out his cheeks in exasperation, “come on, Topps. There are other agents who are every bit as…

Topps interrupted. “Yes. Yes, there are. But what I don’t need is just an agent on this. I need someone who I can trust to do the right thing. I’m sorry; I really wouldn’t ask if there was any other way.”

Logan ran his hand through the unkempt curls on his head, then brushed it down over the stubbly growth on his chin. “You’re killing me Topps. All right, send me the details.”

Topps smiled, but tightly. “Thank you, Logan. I’ll psytran you it now.”

Logan shook his head: he didn’t feel up to a psychic transfer at the moment. “No, Topps, just send it through the comms system.”

***

Dimension hD6. What a coincidence, Logan had just been thinking about this dimension as he had prepared his coffee this morning. And now here he was in that self-same dimension: h – reasonably technologically advanced, mass-communications systems in place, an over-reliance on inefficient fossil fuels; D – low level psychic activity mainly among children and a select few adults, general mistrust, misunderstanding and disbelief of psychic abilities; 6 – the sixth of fourteen dimensions so far discovered by the inhabitants of dimension vX1.

Logan pushed his palm into his forehead, trying to force his nagging headache away. He was sat in the window seat, about half the way up a three-quarters full public bus travelling along the Arizona and Nevada border. He had drunk three bottles of cola – really racking up the banned-substance misdemeanours – in order to try and stave off the rampant thirst that always followed a dimension-hop. Barely five hours after Topps’s call, Logan had read all of the notes related to the job that he was undertaking, had been showered and changed and had undergone a dimension-hop to dimension hD6. He was still exhausted, his head still throbbed, and his mind still felt stretched across a much bigger space than his head contained. But now he knew why Topps had wanted him. When Logan had first graduated to the Psytech Law Enforcement Agency, with the best psy scores ever recorded, Topps had been assigned his mentor. They had worked together for over eight years, and had become firm friends as well as trusted colleagues. Topps had risen up quickly; he was ambitious, talented and motivated and was always going to progress through a glittering career. Logan, opposingly, avoided every opportunity for promotion, instead choosing to remain as a simple agent specialised in policing inter-dimensional crime. Topps wasn’t so much calling on Logan’s advanced psychic abilities, as the trust and friendship that they enjoyed.

Logan was slumped back in the bus seat, vacantly staring out of the window, watching the barren landscape sweep past. He was gently allowing the facts wash across his consciousness. An ex-Psytech Law Enforcement Agent had retired to dimension hD6. He had started his own business. His business was doing extremely well. Other people from dimension vX1 had emigrated to hD6 in order to work for him. Vitally, he had been Topps’s partner before Logan had joined the force, and the two were good, good friends. A routine audit of the finances of this ex-agent’s company, though, had revealed some anomalous figures. There was no indication of a crime, as yet, but there were certainly enough irregularities, potentially, to trigger a long and embarrassing investigation into Topps’s oldest friend. Dimension vX1 had a detailed and coherent set of rules governing how its people dealt with the people in the less able and knowledgeable dimensions, and Topps desperately wanted to know that his old friend and partner was sticking to them.

As Logan was pondering this, he felt the unmistakable tinge of a mind considering him. He had deliberately not been extending his own thoughts in order to rest it from the strains of the past eight days, but the unmistakable metallic tinge alerted him to the fact that he was the main focus of another’s attention. He didn’t change his posture or his expression, gave no outward signs, but inside he gently relaxed his mind. There were still echoes from his recent psychic exertions, but he pushed them to one side and looked for the source of the metallic tinge of interest. It was still there. This was not somebody who had casually looked at Logan, taken in his plain features and pale complexion and wondered idly about him, but was somebody who was focussing a lot of thought and consideration on Logan, thinking deep and hard about him. It was not difficult for Logan to find the source of the tinge – a small orangey needle of thought, piercing him through the back left-hand side of his head. A lesser psytech may well have turned around to look, but Logan was far too experienced for that. Instead, he sent his own thought train back, following the thin, web-like, orange strand of thought that would track back to the thinker. As his mind opened out and began to trace the thought path, Logan could sense other people’s thoughts all around them: dusty, orangey clouds of thought, occasionally focussing into a tight ball as the thinkers concentrated on something internal, occasionally flowing out towards something or somebody else as the thinker considered them, but always moving, fluid and hazy. The thought line he was following, though, was straight and tight; Logan was generating a lot of interest in somebody. Logan’s mind travelled back to the rear seat of the bus, where it found a mind surrounded by swirling, dark-orange, tempestuous thoughts. Two distinct strands reached out, the one that Logan had followed back from himself, and one to an inside pocket of the thinker’s battered, blue jacket. Logan dipped into that thought and saw the clear shape of the very real knife in the thinker’s consciousness. Outwardly Logan’s body gave the merest of shudders, as his mind pushed further in. The man, as indeed a man it was, had erratic, conflicting thought patterns, almost as if he was in a battle with himself. Logan had seen minds like this before – they tended to belong to violent criminals. This one, Logan found, was no different as he drifted through the man’s surface thoughts, seeing that he was thinking about his recent stint in prison, his lack of money, his hunger, his disappointment at only coming away with eighteen bucks from yesterday’s mugging in Lake Havasu City. And now this violent man’s thoughts were focussed fully on Logan.

Logan could understand why the man may have picked him as a victim: he was pale and a little overweight, making him look an easy target; he was wearing good quality clothes, all top labels in dimension hD6, as the produce here was so cheap; his accent was English, so he stood out as not being a local here in the Western part of North America; he was carrying a small leather holdall which would be an easy pick-up for a would-be mugger. Yes, Logan was not surprised that he would be a target for this man. But he would not be a target for long.

Logan knew that the right thing to do would be to enter this man’s mind fully, explore the motivations and ideals there, seeking to twist and turn them into new motivations and ideals that could set the ex-convict off onto a less destructive path. But Logan didn’t have time for that. Logan was also concerned that his mind was not fully rested, and a complete psychic embrace such as that could go wrong, with serious mental consequences for all involved. He didn’t even feel confident enough to completely remove the idea of mugging from the man’s mind, as he seemed so intent on achieving this aim. In order to completely eradicate an idea, Logan would have to track it back to its very source within the man’s mind and sever it, then carefully remove the thread of it without disturbing any surrounding thoughts which might reconnect to the original idea. It was a slow operation that, again, needed a heightened level of skill and concentration that Logan did not feel comfortable enough to muster at the moment. Instead, he took an easy option.

Logan tracked the thought back to himself, and saw that the man had not diverted from his original plan, to mug Logan. If anything, the thought was stronger, more pronounced and Logan knew that, if he did nothing, within minutes of exiting this bus he would the victim of a violent attack. He gently prized the orange spike of the thought from himself and let it waver in the air for a second; it immediately tried to dart back towards Logan. Yes, the man’s mind was made up. Time to change it. Logan took the spike of the thought and tugged it gently away from himself, the whole orange trail following. He quickly scanned the hazy, changeable surface thoughts of the multiple other passengers around him. An old lady was wondering whether her cat would like the new cat food she was carrying home; a girl was considering what to change her online profile to in order to generate more interest on a dating site; a businessman was wondering whether all of this overtime he was working would prevent him from seeing his young son’s first steps. And then Logan found it: “I’m gonna get me a peppercorn grill from that steakhouse; got eight days to make the weight; wonder what my odds are now in the Tapout tournament…’. It was not the ideal solution, Logan knew, but he was not willing to risk anything else. He took the spike of thought from the would-be mugger and embedded it into the career wrestler sat three seats in front of him. He heard the physical change of position of the ex-convict on the back seat as he shifted his focus onto the large man in the training top. Logan watched the line of thought for a while, ensuring that it had genuinely stuck. It had. Logan allowed himself to relax back into his own mind. He would get off at the next stop and order a cab to take him the rest of the way.

***

That first night Logan booked himself into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. He could easily have started the investigation tonight, Las Vegas was open all hours, but he wanted another night’s sleep before stretching himself further. Having been to Las Vegas – the party capital of hD6 – before, he knew not to stay anywhere central. Such a dense, vibrant, bustling city full of the bright and raucously noisy thoughts of the myriad of people who were visiting was not conducive with a good night’s sleep for a psychic. Even out here there was a dull psychic glow emanating from the city proper. It would do.

The next morning Logan ordered room service, which consisted of coffee and lots of it. He also chose the full American breakfast, mainly for the pancakes with syrup – unlawfully high sugar content for vX1. He revelled in his excess, gorging upon the breakfast and coffee – which he made a mental note to purchase more of before he dimension-hopped home. He then spent three hours in his room, reading the newspapers that he had ordered from the concierge, trawling through the internet and flicking through the local TV channels. He always liked to familiarise himself with a dimension, even one that he thought that he knew well, before venturing too far out into it. By the time he was satisfied, it was lunch time, and Logan decided to head out for a spot of on-the-job lunch. His investigation was taking him to Seers Casino, and Logan could eat there as he checked the place over. He hoped that they did large desserts.

According to the files, Seers Casino now employed over twenty staff from dimension vX1. This in itself was not strikingly unusual; Logan knew of at least three businesses in this dimension which employed more than twice that number. What was unusual, though, was the profit margin. Ordinarily a casino can expect a house gain of between half to one-and-a-half percent across its games. From this house gain the profit margin would be worked out after deducting wages, rent and overheads. The problem with Seers Casino’s profit margin was that – assuming that they were paying the going rate for wages, rent and overheads – they must have a house gain in excess of fifteen per cent. Whilst it was theoretically possible for a Casino to have a house gain of fifteen percent in the short term, it would not take long for an ongoing gain at such an astronomical level to draw attention from the authorities of this dimension. As vX1 was the only dimension with the technical advancement to render it capable of developing dimension-hopping, it was routinely accepted that they also had the authority and responsibility to police all of the dimensions. Logan, as a Psytech Law Enforcement Agent, administered that authority and responsibility. If there was a law being broken at Seers Casino, he had to deal with it before it impacted on dimension hD6.

The desserts at the Seers Casino were large and sweet enough to satisfy even the biggest of appetites. They also served a good double espresso. Both gave Logan’s tired mind and body a much needed lift.

As he had entered the great sliding doors of the casino, he had been greeted by a beautiful, befeathered young lady who offered him a tour of the facilities. He was also greeted by a short, gentle mind probe which scanned through his surface thoughts, not unlike a baggage scanner at an airport, looking for any sign of psychic prowess. Luckily Logan had been half expecting this, and had spent a little time preparing a deliberately fuzzy haze around his mind, filled with a myriad of unconnected thoughts, like the minds in low-psychic dimensions, and not the sharp, formed and pointed shell that surrounded the mind of an accomplished psychic. As his mind was still a little fuzzy anyway, from recent exertions, this had not been too onerous.

After his lunch, and with the strangely comforting acrid scent of the coffee on his breath, Logan made his way towards the card tables. Seers Casino was like every other that he had encountered on previous trips to this dimension: an assault on the senses. Among the physical and mental noise, Logan had not identified who it was who had mind probed him, and had no intention of trying to find out. Sending his mind out in an area where there was another accomplished psychic would make him stand out like the coffee grain in the sugar bowl. He wasn’t ready to alert anybody to his presence yet, if at all, and certainly not before he confirmed what he thought was occurring.

So Logan found himself sitting at a blackjack table, popping twenty dollar chips down for the privilege of letting somebody throw a few small, brightly coloured rectangles of cardboard face down on the table before him. Logan played randomly for an hour or so, not paying too much attention to the game and partaking of the free sodas – even Logan considered drinking alcohol as being a step too far. As the time passed Logan found that he was about one hundred and eighty dollars up. Things were going well. He decided to up his bets to forty dollars a hand, and that is when it happened. Logan picked up the next two cards dealt to him, held them close to his face and inspected them. King of diamonds and three of clubs. Thirteen. Not a great number to start off with in blackjack. He was about to call for an extra card when he felt a gentle push on the outside of his hazy cloud of thoughts. It was very gentle, very skilful, but it was there. Somebody had touched his mind and read his most forefront thought – namely the number that he had in front of him. Logan hesitated, appeared to consider, and then chose to stick. The dealer turned his cards over: the nine of clubs and the five of hearts. Fourteen. Not a number that a dealer would ordinarily stick on. But he did. It was an incredibly simple trick, and not one that could have been pulled-off on vX1. But here on one of the lowest level dimensions for psychic activity?

Rule three, subsection eight, paragraph four: psychic abilities must not be used to take advantage of unknowing members of the lesser dimensions.

Logan’s, and Topps’s, suspicions were correct. Seers Casino was employing psychics from dimension vX1 in order to cheat unwitting gamblers in dimension hD6 out of their money. Logan had to do something – but officially this was not a case; it was just a job. Logan thought about this. Topps had asked him to sort this out, not to investigate and solve it. He was sure that Topps had asked him as a friend, and maybe he had, but Topps had also asked him because he bent the rules. Topps was right that he could trust Logan; he could trust him not to be trustworthy when it came to following rules.

With the next four hands, when the dealer gently touched Logan’s brain in order to read his cards in his thoughts, Logan purposefully sent thoughts containing the wrong numbers. The dealer’s frustration showed very quickly – this had never happened to him before. On the fifth hand Logan clearly sent a mental message to the dealer that he should keep out of people’s heads. The dealer visibly paled, and before the sixth hand was dealt Logan found himself flanked by two suited gentlemen.

It did not take a mind-probe to know that these two did not have the mental capacity to be psychics. They barely had the mental capacity to be side-kicks. But what they lacked in mental capacity, they more than made up for in size. They were huge. Their scarred hands, one of each, rested gently yet firmly on Logan’s shoulders as their dull-eyes bored into him from beneath square brows. Logan considered that he may have made a mistake and pushed too far too quickly. These two men were all physicality. Whilst Logan’s heightened psychic abilities gave him more than an edge in any fight, he was not convinced that he currently had the strength of mind necessary to keep two such physical specimens at bay for long enough for his own out-of-shape and physically inferior body to actually do them any significant damage. He meekly accompanied them, keeping a close eye on their pale-orange, gently-undulating thought patterns for any sign of sudden, sharpened and violent focus. It did not occur. Logan almost allowed himself to relax.

The corridor that the two men led Logan down was long, plush and deserted. Only his absolute certainty that neither man was considering harming him kept Logan from panicking and trying to run, in what would be a futile effort anyway if the steel in their currently gentle grips on his shoulder was anything to go by. Finally, they reached a door to the right. Both men slowed as they approached the door and Logan sensed a brief psychic trigger touch all of their minds; the men then renewed their pace and opened the door without knocking.

Logan was firmly guided into a room that made the plushness of the corridor seem dowdy. This room was a heady, tawdry mix of dark wood panelling, red shag-pile carpet and overly-large antique-style furnishings. High polish and low-grade gold leaf glittered at him from every angle. But this was only a backdrop to what Logan’s eyes, and mind, were resolutely focussed upon. A man in a pristine, white suit, highly polished brown shoes and a colourful silk cravat was stood with his back to the doorway, feeding raw meat to a white tiger using a pair of long, metal tongs. His hair was slick, his stance was confident and his mind was the tight, bright-focussed cube of an accomplished psychic.

Logan tensed, mentally and physically. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen now. The slick man in the white suit did not turn around but released two sharp, bright spears of thought across the room. Logan threw up a hastily prepared mind-shield, cursing himself for his tired state and earlier laxness. However, the spears of thought penetrated straight into the minds of Logan’s two, huge companions, who immediately released their grip on Logan’s shoulders, tunred smartly around and left the room. Only when they left did the smooth man turn from the tiger. A face that was lined and aged, yet firm and angular faced Logan. He studied Logan with dark eyes that held a brightness which had little to do with their colour. He did not attempt to read Logan’s thoughts, and Logan returned the courtesy.

After four seconds of study he indicated two glasses sat on an overly-large and ornate coffee table. “Bourbon? It’s Kentucky’s finest.” Logan was about to protest but the man waved them away, suddenly laughing warmly. “I know, I know. Don’t worry, buddy, I’ve almost drowned the stuff with cola – us prime dimensioners really can’t handle our alcohol.”

Logan walked to the table and raised the glass to his nose. It smelled pleasantly sweet. “So, you were expecting me?”

The man was quickly by his side, taking up the other drink. Again the disarming smile. “Of course. Maybe not this soon, but Topps was always going to keep half an eye on his trouble-buddy.”

“Trouble-buddy?”

“Yeah. It’s what we called each other back in the day.”

Logan filed that piece of information away for later and embarrassing use. The casino owner took a sip of his drink. Logan abstained and said, “you’re Mr Cappino?”

“The one and only.” Cappino threw himself into one of the office’s stuffed, fluffy armchairs and indicated that Logan should do the same. He did, and was surprised to feel a myriad of tiny motors adjusting to his body-weight and posture in order to give him maximum comfort. They were a standard feature on the Ergomaster3000 back in vX1. Cappino smiled at Logan’s momentary confusion. “Come on, Logan, you can’t leave all comforts behind.”

It was all Logan could do not to smile back at him. “You know who I am?”

Cappino shrugged. “I guessed. I heard your reputation back when I was still on prime and figured Topps wouldn’t risk sending anyone but the best.”

“That’s an honour, Mr Cappino. Rumour has it, you were pretty good yourself.”

Cappino laughed out loud then leant forward, taking a large slug of his drink. His eyes narrowed and his cheeks sucked in. “Woow. This stuff really kicks, but you just can’t stop yourself going back for more.”

Logan’s eyes strayed to his drink, but that was all. His hasty mind-shield was still in place form when he entered the room and, even though he felt strangely comfortable in this stranger’s presence, years of intense Psytech training saw him strengthening and weaving that mind-shield even as he and Cappino spoke.

Cappino shook his head, sadly. “I understand, son. I do. But trust me, you don’t need that. I mean, it takes half my concentration to keep that beast in check.”

Logan had not previously noticed the thin, orange thread of controlling thought that connected Cappino to the white tiger at all times. His mind really was tired, and he was slipping.

Cappino answered the unasked question. “The locals kind of expect that sort of shit from a big-shot casino boss. It keeps them happy.”

Logan laughed again. He had been to this dimension several times before and knew all about their strange ideas, etiquettes, superstitions and obsessions. “So, you know this dimension well, Mr Cappino?”

“Well? Well? Of course I know it well. Topps and I were in the original exploration party for hD6. I mean, what a great dimension. It wasn’t so much an exploration party as just a full on party. I swear down, half of the decency and contraband laws of vX1 were invented after the shit me and my trouble-buddy got up to here.” Cappino settled back with another sip of his drink, smiling at the memories. “Ah, Topps. How is the stubborn old bastard?”

Logan resisted the urge to enter into good-natured, derogatory banter aimed at his boss, as mention of Topps had reminded Logan of the reason why he was here. He was not about to let Topps down. “Topps is the reason I’m here, Mr Cappino. I need to discuss something very serious with you.” He confronted Cappino with what he knew about the irregularities at Seers Casino. As he did so, Cappino finished his drink and poured himself another, unmistakably stronger. Logan’s was still undrunk.

Cappino sucked in his cheeks, this time not in reaction to the drink. “Could it be a lucky streak?” Logan shook his head. “Accounting error?” A shake again. Cappino paused for another sip. “Is it noticeable enough for this dimension to pick it up?” Logan nodded. Cappino thought for a while. “Okay. That’s serious, isn’t it?” Although he was not waiting for an answer, he knew. “Can we say that the cashier was working in isolation?”

Logan raised his eyebrows. “One cashier increasing the whole casino’s profits ten-fold?”

Cappino finished his second drink, “so what are we going to do?”

Logan sat back in genuine surprise, “what are we going to do? We? We are going to do nothing. You are breaking one of the three prime rules; you are an ex-Psytech agent; I am a serving Psytech agent; I’ve got to take you in.”

Cappino’s eyes held Logan in a way that no amount of psychic power could have done, “and yet you haven’t. You haven’t given me my case number; you haven’t read me my rights; you haven’t called in a Psytech mop-up unit. Am I even being investigated, officially, Mr Logan?”

It was difficult for Logan not to show his obvious discomfort at this question, “you’re being looked-into, Mr Cappino.”

Cappino smiled, “well, I guess that answers my question.” He then sat forward, the conspiratorial friend talking over a drink, “you are good, Logan. Dedicated, intelligent, experienced. You are pretty much the perfect Psytech agent. But what about you Logan? What about your life? Where’s your fun? How do you relax? Let your hair down?”

“I drink coffee, Mr Cappino.”

“Coffee.”

Logan nodded, “coffee. And I like sugar.”

Cappino put on an elaborate, gently-mocking display of sarcasm, “coffee and sugar? Wow, you really know how to live the high life.”

Logan’s face hardened, “I’m happy with my life, Cappino.”

Cappino’s whole demeanour softened back to the smiling gentleman who had first welcomed Logan, “are you? Really? Don’t you wonder why Topps has sent you here, to me, in the party capital of the most fun dimension that we have so far discovered?”

All Logan could do was to shake his head.

Cappino leaned in towards Logan once more, “then I suggest you find out. And it starts by taking a little drink of that bourbon and cola.”

***

Bleep.

Bleep.

Bleep.

The bleeping had begun as a fire-alarm in the background of some bizarre dream that Logan was having about doing kung-fu on a squirrel. It was a week later. Logan’s face appeared to be stuck to his pillow by his own saliva and his head throbbed. Strangely, though, the rhythmic bleeping actually gave him the urge to dance, which he would undoubtedly have attempted were it not for the fact that his stomach felt like it was slowly turning around inside of him and threatening to expel its contents.

He peeled himself out of the bed and called, “coffee.”

A computerised voice replied, informing him that coffee was an illegal substance and therefore not available…

“Hot water!”

It took almost four minutes for Logan to focus enough to stir his own coffee into his Insumug of hot water. He sat down on his bed, not bothering to ask his room to convert into a living room, complete with Ergohammock chair and drinks table (definitely not a coffee table), as he felt that he’d be back in his bed soon enough. “Comms.”

The screen flickered to life, showing commander Topps in his usual, professional position. “Afternoon, Logan.”

Logan placed his cool fingers against his hot forehead, “afternoon, is it?”

“Yes.” Topps leant forward and peered through the screen, “is that coffee?”

Logan looked at the mug, “yes. Yes it is.”

“Logan, you know…” Topps stopped talking, then smirked slightly, “aren’t you well, Logan? Still feeling rough after your big case?”

Logan let out a puff of foul-smelling breath, “feeling rough, yes, but I think I’m over the case.”

Topps chuckled, “I think we can let the coffee go on this occasion. So how did things go with that little job I asked you to check out?”

“Nothing doing, boss,” Logan shrugged his shoulders, “everything above board.”

Topps’s frowning eyes told Logan that this would not serve as explanation enough.

“Well, sir. It seems that no rules are being broken,” Logan took a sip of his extremely strong coffee, which went some way to washing the sickly-sweet remnants of bourbon and cola from his tongue.

Topps’s deep voice interjected. “No rules being broken? With known psychics serving as dealers and a house gain over fifteen percent?”

“Actually, sir, the house gain has increased to over twenty.”

“What?”

Logan’s aching head was in no state to be treated to such a loud shout, and he winced noticeably. After a settling sip of his coffee, he went on. “The thing is, it seems that I wasn’t the only one with suspicions about Seers Casino.”

Topps turned his head in order to hear more clearly. “What? Someone else knew about the psychics.”

Logan nodded, “well, that’s the only explanation I can think of, because someone anonymously tipped a national newspaper in dimension hD6.”

It looked as if Topps would go into apoplexy, “a national newspaper ran the story?”

Logan nodded, “yes. One of those lower-grade newspapers that specialises in bizarre stories. No real, genuine exposure there. Obviously, it was picked up as an interesting story to be flung around on social media, but no genuine credulity.”

Topps sat back, letting his eyes wander upwards as he asked, “okay, so there’s no indication that people know anything about the dimensions? Especially our dimension?”

“Nope. None at all.”

Topps’s eyes remained fixed above the monitor. “So how does that mean Cappino is off the hook? And how come profit margins are rising?”

“Well,” Logan seemed to be slightly enjoying this, “people on hD6, especially American people, are somewhat…” Logan searched his mind for a suitable word, “belligerent in their belief in their own prowess.”

“Yes?”

“And so Americans started to come from miles around to play against the psychics.”

Topps was incredulous, “they want to play against the psychics. Why?”

Logan blew out his cheeks, “Some to prove that they don’t exist. Some to prove that they can beat them.”

“They think that they can beat them?”

“Yes,” Logan paused a second, “the casino even put a huge, blown-up poster version of the story above their front entrance. People are queuing up to lose money to psychics.”

Topps chuckled, his large jowls bouncing joyfully, “queuing up to play psychics? Are they mad?”

“No. Just belligerent self-believers,” he had liked the word.

Topps nodded, but his expression moved to sadness, “but this does mean that Cappino is using psychics to make money out of other dimensioners. That breaks the rules.”

“Actually, sir, you’ll find it doesn’t. Rule three, subsection eight, paragraph four: psychic abilities must not be used to take advantage of unknowing members of the lesser dimensions.” He knew that he did not need to quote the rulebook to Topps, but he enjoyed doing so. And he especially enjoyed his next comment. “These people aren’t unknowing. The casino has a poster up, radio advert, everything to ensure that the people are fully aware that they are being taken advantage of. So, no rule breaking, sir.”

Topps’s face slowly broke out into the wide smile of a happy and thoroughly entertained man. “Unknowing. Of course. Those crazy Americans are walking right into that with their eyes wide open on the slim chance that they can walk away saying that they beat a psychic.”

“Sir, they’re not even concerned about winning. They seem just as happy when they lose every hand so that they can say that they lost against a psychic.”

Topps was laughing out loud now. “Priceless. Just priceless.” He stopped laughing and regained his composure. “I knew that you’d pull through for me, Logan.”

Logan shrugged, “I’m just telling you how it is, Topps.”

“Sure, sure you are. And how about you? Feeling better?”

Logan nodded, “yeah. Much better. I’ll be back in work tomorrow.”

If Topps’s smile could have broadened it would have, “good, good. I knew that you and Cappino would be good for each other. Now stop drinking that coffee!”

As the comms system blinked into darkness, Logan reached under his bed and pulled out a bottle of bourbon, “okay Topps,” he said to himself, “I’ll stop with the coffee.”