Player vs Player

Player vs Player, by Amelia C. Gormley
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-183-0
eBook release: 
Dec 8, 2014
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-184-7
Print release: 
Dec 8, 2014
Word count: 
74,600
Page count: 
282
Type: 
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Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
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Pushing for change can be dangerous when change starts pushing back.

Video game writer Niles River loves the work he does at Third Wave Studios: creating games with mass appeal that feature women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters. To make his job even better, his best friend is his boss, and his twin brother works beside him. And they mostly agree that being on the forefront of social change is worth dealing with trollish vitriol—Niles is more worried about his clingy ex and their closeted intern’s crush on his brother than he is about internet harassment.

But now the bodies on the ground are no longer virtual, and someone’s started hand-delivering threats to Niles’s door. The vendetta against Third Wave has escalated, and to make matters worse, the investigating detective is an old flame who left Niles heartbroken for a life in the closet.

No change happens without pain, but can Niles justify continuing on with Third Wave when the cost is the blood of others? If he does, the last scene he writes may be his own death.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

 

“Check that out.”

Niles’s gaze followed to where Rosena Candelaria, CEO and lead producer at Third Wave gaming studios—and, not coincidentally, his boss and best friend—had gestured, pointing out a cosplayer in the autograph line. A stacked woman in a form-fitting, yet combat-practical, brown leather catsuit stood amid the crowd beside another cosplayer. He whistled appreciatively. “Great costume. That must have taken some effort.”

Rosie nodded. “Yeah, but notice anything about her specifically?”

Niles narrowed his eyes and looked closer. To her credit, the girl in the leather hadn’t made any attempt at darkening her skin to portray Issis, who was a tall, ebony-skinned powerhouse of a mercenary in-game. The care she had taken with her outfit showed in the minute details and quality of its craftsmanship. The neckline over Issis’s not-inconsiderable rack was squared off, rather than the plunging vee the marketing dickwads at EEU had slipped past them for the promo images, and hanging from her shoulder was a bandolier of ammunition, lockpicks, and various tools of the character’s mercenary trade. “Oh, hello, looks like we have a beta participant. Lucky lady.”

“She had to have busted her ass to get that costume completed. The limited beta just went live two weeks ago, and no one knew Issis’s look was different from the promo shots until we released it.” Rosie turned back to attend to the next fan in line at the autograph table, though Niles continued to watch for a moment longer, his attention drawn to Issis’s companion.

The other cosplayer was shorter, and so convincingly androgynous that Niles wasn’t entirely sure if the person under the dark blue-gray stage makeup was male or female. His money was on female, given the height and the fact that there weren’t a lot of guys who would show up in public dressed as Gairi, Phoenix Force 3’s unapologetically queer character. Gairi’s costume wasn’t as eye-catching as Issis’s, but then, there wasn’t much the cosplayer could do with the homespun peasant-wear Gairi first appears in-game wearing.

The pair were still quite a ways down the line and Niles glanced at his watch, hoping they’d make it to the table before the autograph session ended.

Normally, a lead writer and CEO wouldn’t have been signing autographs at all. That sort of fan interaction generally went to the voice actors doing convention appearances, but this year, Portland GamerCon had a feature aimed toward gamers wanting to break into the industry, and specifically focused on gaming companies in the Pacific Northwest. It was exciting for Third Wave, and he and Rosie were getting a little bit of celebrity treatment for the way they’d taken an unlikely start-up and managed to produce a franchise of platinum titles. Of course, the downside was that everyone who stopped by for an autograph had an idea to pitch to Rosie, which meant each autograph was taking longer than it should and their handlers had to keep urging people to move on.

Between signing mint-condition collector’s edition boxes of the first two Phoenix Force games and a handful of other Third Wave offerings, Niles monitored the two cosplayers’ progress in line and took in the rest of the convention-goers. Amid a mass of T-shirts bearing logos for countless TV, movie, comic, and game fandoms were many other cosplayers, and Niles wished he had time to wander the floor and get a better look at them. Through the open doors of the autograph room, the main convention floor bustled, clusters of tables hosting pen-and-paper role-playing games. Booths for other electronic gaming companies lined the walls, complete with computers and consoles offering passersby a chance to sample upcoming titles.

The number of guys wearing fedoras at the gaming tables and in line at the booths and exhibits was disheartening. With the hat having been adopted by the regressives who were misleadingly styling themselves as men’s rights activists, he found he couldn’t see a fedora anymore without making a snap judgment about the wearer. How many of these guys here today were making a political statement with their headgear, and how many just thought they looked cool?

The autograph line continued to inch forward. The third time a ubiquitous dude-bro gamer asked “Issis” to pose for a picture with him, he noticed the young woman’s smile was beginning to look a bit strained. Predictably, the guys ignored “Gairi,” no doubt concerned that if they took a picture with someone portraying a gay character, the gay would rub off on them. It was the female fans—and a lot of them—who wanted their picture taken with Gairi, or with Gairi and Issis together. Equally predictably, the shots with the female fans generally featured the deadly bombshell Issis in power poses, while the guys who asked for pictures sometimes were simply looking for an excuse to cop a squeeze.

“Funny how people watching at one of these cons pretty much encapsulates every single issue with gaming we try to tackle at Third Wave,” Rosie observed under her breath. To all appearances her attention was on the first edition Phoenix Force comic she was signing, but Niles could tell by the tension around her mouth and eyes that she hadn’t missed all the interplay involving Issis.

Niles nodded. While it was the most blatant bit of harassment they’d seen, he had no doubt there was plenty happening out of their line of sight, as well. The Portland Convention Center was packed. The scent of food brought in from the outside mingled with body odor from people who had been sitting at the gaming tables or wandering—and definitely sweating—all day, making the air stifling. He’d never dare admit it publicly, but he was one geek who really didn’t care for conventions.

“I’m trying to figure out how to take some of the pressure off her without creating a scene. Looks like she could use a break,” Niles murmured back, refraining from checking his watch to see how much longer they had to be here. He smiled at the next fan as she stepped up to the table.

Before Rosie could respond or Niles could greet the fan, a broad-shouldered body inserted itself between their chairs. Not in a pushy way. Quite the opposite, actually. There was a questioning hesitation to the interruption. “Ms. Candelaria, Mr. River, Mr. . . . uh, the other Mr. River asked me to see if there was anything the two of you needed.”

Rosie stopped signing autographs long enough to look at the stammering young man, then over to Niles. “I didn’t know you’d brought an intern along to help out today.”

“I didn’t.” Niles chuckled, giving his new intern an amused look. “Patrick, it’s okay to call me Niles. And I promise, my brother doesn’t need to be called Mr. River any more than I do. I didn’t know you were working today. Did Jordie bring you along?”

And if so, just what was Jordan doing co-opting Niles’s writing-staff intern?

“Uh, no, Mr.—um, Niles. I’m here with my stepbrother and some of his guild-mates from his old MMO. They’re around . . . somewhere.” The intern frowned. Patrick Rutledge was a nervous kid, Niles had noticed, even here in a social setting. He glanced around the crowded meeting room with the same discomfort he normally exhibited every time Niles tried to get to know the skittish intern. The kid’s anxiety seemed to get worse when referring to his family, especially his stepbrother or stepfather. “I just bumped into Mr. River on the floor, and he asked me to check on you.”

“Leave it to your brother to wrangle a hapless convention-goer into free labor.” Rosie shook her head. “Tell Jordan he can bring us a couple more bottles of water, and he can do it himself. Don’t you dare let him make you do it for him. If you paid admission and you’re not on the clock, go have fun.”

“Oh, I don’t mind helping out,” Patrick protested, blushing. “I’m not sure where Mr. River is just—”

“He’s there.” Niles jerked his chin toward the line of people still waiting for autographs, which was steadily creeping along. A fedora-wearing dude had hit Issis up for a picture, and judging by the way she stiffened and jerked away after the flash had gone off as the guy’s friend took the picture, Niles was willing to bet the kid had tried to grope her. He saw her face flush and her mouth twist as she struggled with the impulse to retort angrily. But just then, Jordan appeared beside her, his voice loud enough to carry across the ever-shortening line.

“Hey, I just have to say I love your costumes!” he gushed to her and Gairi. Niles blinked at the amount of camp in his tone because that wasn’t Jordan’s style at all. He managed to sidle up to Issis without actually disrespecting her space and turned to give a salacious look to the handsy guy she’d posed with. “Who’s your friend?”

Never had a dude-bro backpedaled quite so quickly. He practically fell on his ass in his rush to put several steps between himself and Jordan, as though Jordan were going to launch himself at the guy and shove his tongue down his throat at any second. Gairi looked wryly amused as the guy righted the fedora on his head and stammered defenses of his masculinity, but Issis seemed peeved with the display. She stepped away from Jordan as soon as she could politely do so, and Jordan dropped the camp act.

“Thanks,” Niles heard her say, looking from Jordan to her accoster and back. “But I was about to deal with it.” She paused for a moment and gave Mr. Hands a stern look. “Dude. Not cool. Grabbing someone like that without consent is considered assault, you know. If you grope anyone else, I’ll report you to security, and maybe the police.”

“Oh, good girl,” Rosie whispered.

Mr. Hands scoffed, his alarm turning quickly to indignation. “Whatever, bitch. Don’t bother dressing up if you don’t want the attention.” He thumped his companion, the one who’d been wielding the iPhone, on the chest. “Come on, let’s go. There’s fucking fags and bitches all over this place.”

They walked away before Issis could answer, and a dozen or so frustrated responses played across her face, stuck on the tip of her tongue. Niles could still hear the guys complaining—and not discreetly—about “crazy sluts” halfway across the convention center. Gairi laid a consoling hand on Issis’s arm.

He didn’t really even need to glance at Rosie to know what her reaction was. Her knuckles whitened around her metallic Sharpie, and he wondered if it could actually be used as a stabbing implement if wielded with enough force. She seemed ready to give it a try. She jerked her head in a “come here” gesture to Jordan, and he got the cosplayers’ attention without invading their space.

“You two want to jump to the head of the line?” he asked with a reassuring smile. “Ms. Candelaria wants a better look at your costumes.”

The two cosplayers grinned at each other, Issis’s irritation with Jordan melting away in an instant, and they nodded eagerly, following Jordan to the autograph table. Niles heard a sigh behind him and looked over his shoulder to see Patrick staring at Jordan with stars in his eyes, as though Jordie had just single-handedly rescued the ladies from a whole army of boss mobs. He continued staring the entire time Jordan guided Issis and Gairi past the queue.

Biting his lip against the urge to smile or say something that might embarrass Patrick, Niles murmured, “I thought Rosie told you to go have fun? We’re okay here. I’ll see you later.”

Patrick nodded, swallowing as he tore his eyes away from Jordan, and left. Niles sighed and turned around to accept the next game box to autograph, exchanging a few words with its owner until Jordie and the cosplayers reached the table. Jordan gave them a friendly nod good-bye and slipped away, leaving them with Niles and Rosie.

“What’s your name, Issis?” Rosie asked when they arrived, giving the young woman a smile as she produced a booklet of concept art that had come with the collector’s edition of PF2. Niles smiled at the young woman—on closer inspection, it was obvious his assumption regarding the sex of the player had been correct—cosplaying Gairi, who had a copy of a trade rag Rosie and Niles had done an interview for after the original Phoenix Force had gone platinum.

“Charity Anspach,” Issis replied, glancing sideways at her friend, and Gairi eagerly stuck out her hand somewhere between Niles and Rosie, as if she couldn’t decide who she wanted to shake hands with first. She looked ready to bounce off the walls.

“Lakshmi Agrawal,” she said as Niles set his pen aside and came to his feet to accept the proffered handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Lakshmi,” he said, smiling in an effort to encourage her to relax. “We’ve been admiring your costumes from up here. You did a great job.”

Rosie likewise stood and shook their hands before sitting again, with Niles following suit. “How are you enjoying the beta, Charity?” she asked as she began inscribing something on one of the glossy pages of the booklet. Niles lifted an inquiring eyebrow, and Lakshmi spelled her name for him as Charity effused over her play-through so far. Niles and Rosie traded off the items to autograph while the girls bantered.

“I’m still so freaking jealous you won that drawing for the beta key,” Lakshmi interjected, nudging her friend. Then she gave Niles a long-suffering look. “Don’t worry, she’s following the NDA. She won’t even give me spoilers.”

Lakshmi grumbled, and Niles laughed. At a fleeting glance from Rosie, he produced a card from his shirt pocket and offered it to Lakshmi. “Here. Your very own beta key, for having such an awesome costume.”

Her dark eyes grew huge, and she and Charity beamed at each other. Niles and Rosie handed their memorabilia back and stood to shake their hands again, Rosie adding an extra pat and a squeeze when she clasped Charity’s hand.

“You did good, standing up to those guys out there,” she said sincerely. “Keep it up. Don’t let them win, okay?”

Charity nodded eagerly, and the young women hurried away to make room for the remaining fans to slip in before the autograph session closed.

 

Chapter Two

 

“Oh, great,” Rosie muttered as the line continued to shuffle past, rubbing her temple where it felt like someone was trying to drill into her head with an ice pick. Her senses were kicking into overdrive. The smell of the place was turning her stomach, and the flickering of the overhead lights had her eyeballs ready to crawl out her skull. “I never got a chance to tell Jordan to bring us some water. Where’s he off to now?”

“Prince Valiant, you mean?” Niles chuckled, flashing her a characteristically wry smile. It always astonished her how two identical men could have such different smiles. Same olive-brown Mediterranean complexions, same dark hair and startlingly contrasting pale gray-green eyes, but Niles’s smile was gentle and sweet, Jordan’s sharp and wicked. There was no way to confuse the two.

“Hunting down some con officials to report the harassment to, if I had to guess,” Niles said. “If he catches another glimpse of those kids that bothered Charity, he’ll make sure they’re kicked out. He probably also wants to keep negative incidents like that from affecting the studio’s public image.”

“Ouch.” Rosie lifted her eyebrows at the harsh assessment, and Niles gave a self-effacing shrug.

“You know Jordie. He defines enlightened self-interest. He’ll always do the right thing, but he likes it better when the right thing happens to also have a pragmatic upside.”

She considered it a moment, conceding the point with a small nod. “Well, where’s your intern, then?”

“You mean the one you told to go have fun?” Niles snorted, and Rosie rolled her eyes at her own about-face. This headache was screwing with her memory—and her ability to think rationally. “Probably panting at my brother’s heels,” he continued.

She gave him a pointed look, and Niles waved a hand at her. “C’mon. You know Jordie better than that. He’s not going to mess with an intern. Patrick’s virtue is safe, and his crush doomed to pass by unrequited.” He lowered his voice. “Especially since I’m reasonably certain he isn’t even out yet.”

Another pause for autographs, then Rosie murmured, “How do you know?”

“That he’s not out or that he’s pining for my brother?” Niles shrugged and stretched, nodding as their handlers approached the table and a con official announced the autograph session was over. “Just a feeling. He winces every time I ask him about his family.”

Rosie dropped the subject as their handler escorted them away from the table and to the conference room where she and Niles would be doing a Q&A next. Outside the door, they were stopped by a trio of college-aged guys. In addition to the casually sexist and homophobic slogans emblazoned on their T-shirts—seriously, did anyone even make that “fake gamer girl” joke anymore, much less the “back to the kitchen” schtick?—they had an air of nervous bravado, as if they were girding their loins for a confrontation. Apprehension masked with arrogance. One of them had a cell phone out, apparently taking a video.

“Excuse us. Rosie, could we talk to you for a moment?”

She cleared her throat, trying to ignore the spike of pain in her temple. There were times she wished she didn’t have quite the level of notoriety among gamers that she had. Most gaming studio CEOs wouldn’t be recognizable on sight, but then, most gaming studio CEOs were cis men who had never had to deal with their faces being plastered all over sexist and violent internet memes. “Do I know you gentlemen?” she asked briskly.

The one who appeared to be the ringleader hesitated for a moment but charged on. “No, but we’ve got this pet—”

Her face stiffened. Jesus, she needed some water. “If I don’t know you, then it’s Ms. Candelaria. Now what can I do for you?”

The three didn’t seem to know how to respond to that, trapped somewhere between indignant defensiveness and embarrassment at being called out on a breach of simple courtesy their mothers should have drilled into them. It took one of the silent pair nudging him to get the ringleader to continue.

“Um, actually, we were hoping to present the petition to Mr. Lott, since he’s the producer on Age of Valiance,” he said, referring to Third Wave’s low-fantasy single-player RPG, the first game of a new franchise still in development.

The bottom dropped out of her stomach at the first surge of adrenaline, which wasn’t helping the nausea any. Years of practicing, years of studying the societal and cultural scaffolding that taught women not to make waves, and it was still a daily effort to force herself not to retreat. Be conciliatory. Head off a confrontation. “Drew Lott is the lead animator and concept artist for AoV, not the creative producer,” she corrected them, her voice and smile brittle. “And he couldn’t be here today. Now, I’m about to be late for our Q&A, so if you young men could get to the point . . .?”

The spokesman glanced at his companions, as though looking for moral support, and then the set of his jaw became more belligerent. “It’s just that we’d be more likely to get an unbiased hearing from him.”

Another spike of pain. It wasn’t doing much for her temper. “Drew Lott works for me. I am his boss, not his coworker or subordinate, which means whatever your issue is, any decisions made regarding it will have to come from or be approved by me.” She crossed her arms over her chest, turning her wrist to check her watch before tucking her left hand into the fold. “Now, your choices are to present your petition to me within the next ninety seconds, or email it to Drew, who will then bring it to me. Which will it be, boys?”

Another exchange of glances between them all. In her peripheral vision, she saw Niles cover a smile. How likely was it that these guys’ worldview would adapt to the idea that, yes, a woman did actually run the show at Third Wave Studios? It wasn’t a secret by any means, but these sorts of situations came up with exhausting regularity: fans assuming that she either had someone she answered to or that some male would know better than she would about issues pertaining to her studio and game franchises.

Finally, the spokesman held up a sheath of papers. “All right. Rosie, this is a petition—” her jaw tightened, her eyes narrowing “—signed by five thousand seven hundred and fifty-three loyal Third Wave fans—both online and here, today, at the convention—requesting the removal of Niles River as a writer from Age of Valiance and as a writer at Third Wave entirely.” He glanced down at the papers, clearly reading the petition’s text. “There are rumors that there are going to be gay characters in AoV, just like there are in Phoenix Force. It’s clear from the direction Third Wave’s titles have been going that Niles has an agenda he’s trying to push with the writing he does on these games. We feel Third Wave is neglecting its largest paying demographic, which is the straight male gamer. We’re determined to boycott AoV if Niles continues to write for that game and forces more gay characters on us.”

Rosie stared at them silently, one after another, and they began to squirm when she refrained from speaking. They kept peering at Niles as if they expected him to jump into the conversation, but he took a step back. His mien was sober, but Rosie could see the small sparkle he was trying to mask, the slight crinkle in the corners of his eyes, the twitching at the edges of his lips. He knew what was coming, and he was more than pleased to let Rosie handle it.

“What’s your name, young man?” Rosie finally asked the ringleader.

“Jeff Whitfield,” he answered, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

Rosie saw their convention handler step close and murmur to Niles that they needed to get going to the Q&A, but at least the poor guy had the sense not to interrupt.

“Well, Jeff.” She heard the coldness that imbued her tone and wished she had the patience to extend civility a little further. But she didn’t. “I’m curious. Which part of what you just did do you think was okay?” Except for the one with the video camera, the boys began stammering, and Rosie could see the defensive bluster gestating on their lips. She didn’t give it a chance to birth. “Was it the part where you completely disregarded my request not to address me familiarly? The part where you intimated that because I’m a woman, you wouldn’t get an unbiased hearing from me? Or the part where you attempted to undermine my authority at the studio I created by assuming that decisions there regarding our game franchises are made exclusively by men—both Niles and Drew?”

The boys shot more glances at Niles, but he merely shrugged, the gesture clearly saying, You’re on your own, dudes.

“Or was it the part where you presumed that you, as cisgender, heterosexual, white male gamers, could tell me how to run my business?” Rosie drew a breath, and the boys swallowed, hard, in unison when her lips curled in a particularly nasty smile. “At any rate, in this case, Jeff, your arrogance is only outpaced by your ignorance. Niles River is not, and never has been, a writer for Age of Valiance. He’s far too busy as the lead writer for the Phoenix Force franchise, where he—with my full and enthusiastic support—oversees the development of storylines that represent the entire gender and ethnic spectrum of the actual gaming audience. He’s presently at work on a collection of downloadable content expansions that will be coming out after PF3’s release. And because I do not and never will make my staffing decisions by committee or public referendum, you may be assured that he will continue in that role until I, and only I, decide to use his talents elsewhere. Now, you’ve wasted enough of our time. Get out of my way.”

When she’d brushed passed the boys to enter the conference hall, and their handler had closed the door safely behind them, Niles finally spoke. “You okay?”

“Hm? Yeah.” She pressed her fingers against her temple and rubbed so hard her short nails dug into the skin.

“You have your migraine meds with you?”

“Why do you think I wanted the water?” She opened her eyes to look at their handler. “If you don’t mind?”

“I’ll get you a bottle,” he murmured as he led Rosie and Niles backstage. He disappeared into the conference room that was gradually filling and returned with the water. Niles sat beside Rosie silently as she downed the pills and prayed the headache would dissipate before she had to face the Q&A.

“Fuck,” she muttered finally. “I think I almost preferred the tumor in my skull to the headaches after having it removed.”

Niles offered her a crooked smile. “I think I prefer you alive and capable of speech.”

Someone came backstage to speak with their handler, who warned them they would be introduced in ten minutes and left again. Rosie sat up, her energy lifting at the prospect. Public address was where she shone. She could have made a mint on the lecture circuit if she hadn’t decided to develop video games.

She tapped her fingers on her chair while they waited. “You know, I keep thinking back to the Star Trek conventions and such I went to when I was a kid, back when conventions were run for fans by fans and weren’t such a huge corporate affair. And I don’t remember shit like that happening.” She chucked her thumb over her shoulder in the direction they’d entered from. “Guys groping women, calling everyone fags and bitches, trying to push women around. Was I just too young and ignorant to notice, or has it actually gotten worse?”

“I’m not sure. I think maybe the attitude was always there, but that internet culture and the anonymity it affords have amplified everything. Lack of accountability has given those sorts of people the idea that it’s okay to behave that way, so they maybe don’t have the filters they used to?” Niles shook his head and sighed.

“Maybe. Or maybe I’m just getting to be a tired, old, bra-burning bitch ready to yell at kids for walking on her lawn.” She snorted. “What the hell possessed me to prance out of college with my women’s studies and computer programming degrees and decide to reform video game culture?”

Niles grinned. “The fact that no one else was doing it and it needed to be done.”

“True, that.” She closed her eyes and fell silent a moment, then asked, “Vault of Reminiscence raid tonight, since we’ll be out of here early enough to sync up with the guildies on the East Coast. You in?”

He nodded eagerly, but before he could say anything, their handler appeared again, and Niles stood. Rosie could see the effort it took for him to suppress his urge to offer her a hand up, because he knew she wouldn’t want it.

“Come on.” She rose on her own, squeezing his elbow in passing. “Let’s go enlighten some of today’s misguided youth, then kick some undead ass.”

 

*****

They didn’t catch a glimpse of Niles’s twin until later that afternoon as they were about to leave for the day. As she scanned the crowd, she saw their intern in the company of a young man who was probably about Patrick’s age and a slightly older man with a camera. The stepbrother and guild-mate, she assumed. They were with Charity Anspach and Lakshmi Agrawal, the stepbrother laying an arm around Charity’s stiff shoulders and mugging for the shot. Lakshmi and Patrick stood beside them, but Patrick carefully kept his distance from her. He looked distinctly uncomfortable in the company of the androgynous young woman cosplaying the unapologetically gay video game character, reminding Rosie of Niles’s assertion that Patrick was in the closet. Was his reticence due to the fact that Gairi was actually a girl, or was Patrick keeping his distance because the character was gay? He could apparently devour Jordan with his eyes, but only when people who knew him weren’t around.

She was debating with herself about interrupting to say goodnight to their intern when Jordan caught up to them.

“Hey, we going to dinner?” he asked, looking every bit as fresh and polished as he had when they arrived at the convention that morning. Rosie envied him that. She felt greasy and exhausted from too much exposure to too many people in too close of quarters.

Niles glanced at his watch. “Actually, Jordie, Rosie and I have a raid forming up in about a half hour.”

“Seriously?” Jordan rolled his eyes.

“If Rosie wants to bring her laptop over to my place,” Niles said with a flick of his eyes in her direction, “we can all order pizza.”

“Right. And I’ll sit there watching TV while the two of you are on raid chat with your guild. No, thanks.”

“You could always play with us,” she taunted.

Jordan snorted. “Thanks, but I have better things to do on a Saturday night. I’ll go out and get laid, like people with lives outside a computer sometimes do.”

“Grotesque stereotyping!” Niles elbowed his brother in the ribs.

“Which happens to be true. When’s the last time you picked someone up?”

“When’s the last time I wasn’t working eighty hours a week?” Niles shot back.

Jordan turned an arched eyebrow to Rosie, and she held up her hands. “Don’t look at me. I’ve been trying to get him to go dancing for months.” The arched eyebrow shifted in Niles’s direction, and he shrugged helplessly. Rosie smirked. “Okay, here’s the deal: if I score the killing blow on the last boss in the Vault tonight, then tomorrow night you go out to a club with me and Jordan for a few hours.”

“Wait a minute!” Jordan protested. “You know Niles and I don’t go clubbing together.”

Rosie narrowed her eyes at him. “You want to get him out having fun for a few hours? Deal with it.”

“It’s not exactly a fair bet—for you,” Niles taunted, laughing. “I’m your healer. I can make sure you don’t live to make that killing blow.”

Rosie narrowed her eyes. “Hey, I’m the tank that keeps your acolyte ass alive in your tissue-paper excuse for armor. Remember that if the temptation to play dirty gets to be too much to handle.”

Niles sighed. “Fine. It’s a bet.”

Jordan fist-bumped Rosie and led the way out the door. When she turned to make sure Niles was with them, he was watching the cosplayers. Charity was putting some distance between herself and Patrick’s stepbrother with a smile that looked a little forced. Another unwanted advance? She almost asked Niles if he’d seen what had preceded it, but he just shook his head and turned, following them out of the convention center.

Chapter Three

 

Jordan smiled at his brother as Niles juggled three bottles of beer from the bar to the sofa where he and Rosie sat. They were shouting a conversation at one another above the driving beat of the music, which pulsed through them so heavily Jordan could feel it rattling in his lungs.

“Bless you!” Rosie yelled as Niles set the bottles down. She abandoned her empty to grab one and took an enthusiastic swig of the cloudy microbrew. “Isn’t this better than sitting around moping?”

“I don’t mope!” Niles denied, grimacing. Jordan could practically hear his twin’s internal mutterings about how ridiculous it was that simply carrying on a conversation was going to strip his voice hoarse by the time they left the club. After the convention on Saturday and now the club tonight, his introverted brother was no doubt reaching the limit of his ability to cope with the unwashed masses. Jordan, on the other hand, loved the noise and the activity.

“Speaking of last night’s raid, what did you think of our new off-tank?”

Jordan rolled his eyes and tried to tune them out, but Niles squirmed uncomfortably beside him. “Bolment?” He cleared his throat. “After you logged off, he made some remarks on voice chat that required me to give him his first, last, and only warning about slurs and hate speech in guild spaces. I don’t think he read the guidelines very well before he applied to the guild.”

“What did he say?” Rosie’s eyes narrowed. Never a good thing for whoever was the cause of that particular expression. Jordan spared a moment of sympathy for whoever or whatever the “off-tank” was.

Niles sighed. “When I mentioned that our raiding schedule isn’t particularly demanding because of the hours you and I work. He apparently thought we’d raid more frequently than that, and complained that his last guild didn’t have a tight enough raiding schedule because it was run by a bunch of ‘pussy-whipped faggots’ with ‘family obligations.’”

“Seriously?” Rosie’s thunderous expression lightened a little bit, and her mouth lifted in a sardonic smile.

“I tried to take a light-handed approach at first. I assured him that as a rule, unless our partner happens to be a trans man, we faggots are rarely pussy-whipped.” Niles shrugged. “He didn’t find it as amusing as I did. Which was why I had to bring the hammer down and give him his warning.”

Niles sounded unhappy about that, which probably had as much to do with the fact that Niles hated confrontation as it did with however this Bolment guy had responded. Jordan laid an arm around his shoulders.

“How did he take it?” Rosie asked. She must have picked up on Niles’s discomfort because her smile gentled.

Niles cleared his throat again. “We’re now back to searching for a new off-tank.”

“Oh, brother.” Rosie sighed. “Ah well, it was clear he overstated his qualifications to begin with. He was one of the first to die on the Recollector, because he didn’t have a clue about the mechanics.”

“Unlike those of us who knew damn well what taking that AOE nuke was going to do to us if we didn’t get out of line of sight, but stuck around to heal your ass anyway,” Niles muttered, taking a swig of his beer.

“Sore loser!” Rosie taunted.

“It was a fucking wipe!” He leaned forward, growing more animated. “You were down to five percent health when the Recollector went down.”

“Well, that’s why I’m the boss.” Rosie grinned and took another lusty drink.

Niles narrowed his eyes at her. “You could work on being a more gracious winner.”

“Relax, bro.” Jordan drew his tense body in close. “You’re just cranky because Anthony called again.”

“Now, see, I knew you should come out tonight. A breakup is definitely cause to go to a bar with friends and get hammered.” Rosie smiled over the mouth of her bottle. “And hey, I finally got the two of you to go to a club together.”

“This time only.” Jordan shook his head with a small smile, tipping back his own beer.

“Okay, I don’t get that!” She looked back and forth between Niles and Jordan, nearly pouting. “What the hell do the two of you have against going out together? You do everything else together. You even work for the same company!”

Niles caught Jordan’s eye and then turned his head, jerking it in a subtle nod toward a guy who had been cruising them since Niles had walked up to the bar. “That’s why.”

Rosie gave him a puzzled frown. “What, because someone is checking you out?”

“No, because someone is checking us out.” Niles sighed. “We can’t go out together without every guy in the place assuming we’re a package deal here to fulfill his twin fantasy. And we don’t do that.”

Anymore.” Jordan buried a smirk behind his beer. After a bad breakup in college, Niles had had a brief slutty period, and they had quite a few fun memories from that time.

Rosie’s eyebrows shot up, and she took a long swig of her beer. “Sorry, I need a moment alone with that mental image.”

Niles snorted and leaned his head on Jordan’s shoulder. He wondered—not for the first time—what exactly was troubling Niles. Something was going on he wasn’t talking about. Jordan could just tell. And it wasn’t that Niles was heartbroken over the breakup with Anthony, that much he knew. Niles had already admitted the chemistry between the two of them hadn’t been working for quite a while. Jordan suspected he simply didn’t want to have to start the search for a relationship all over again. Jordan was perfectly happy taking home a different guy every night, but with their thirty-second birthday looming, Niles was over the singles thing and counted himself among the ranks of the husband hunters.

“Careful, Rosie, you’re bordering on becoming a stereotype.” Jordan grinned at her, and Rosena shrugged.

“Come on, a pair of you, both gay. How often do you see that?”

“It’s more common than you think.” Niles took a slow drink of his beer, comfortably pressed against Jordan’s side as she looked askance at him. Jordan let himself enjoy the fact that Niles was unwinding a bit. “I’m serious. If you’re a gay identical twin, there’s something like a fifty-two percent chance that your twin is gay too. It’s one of the strongest arguments there is for a genetic component to sexual orientation.”

“I bet it’s actually higher,” Jordan mused. “I bet whatever method they used to calculate that fifty-two percent figure doesn’t take into consideration the twins whose siblings might be in the closet.”

“That’s a good point.” Rosie hummed thoughtfully as Niles’s pants pocket vibrated against Jordan’s thigh. “Though, I imagine when the person who’s pretty much literally your other half comes out, it’d make it a bit easier for the second twin to come out, no?”

“It definitely did for me.” Niles set his beer down and dug in his pocket for his phone. He glanced at the text and rolled his eyes, stretching to stuff it back into his pocket, but Jordan snagged it from his hand first.

“Another one?” He frowned. No matter how many times Niles assured him that harassing messages were part and parcel of what he and Rosie were trying to accomplish at Third Wave, nothing was going to make him feel better about the fact that strangers were saying vile, threatening things to his brother.

Niles shrugged, smiling wryly. “Well, what did we expect after that ‘petition’ to take me off the writing staff before the Q&A yesterday? It’s not like it’s news to us that I’m considered a blight on gaming culture, what with me spreading my faggy influence all over the games.”

Rosie grimaced at the mention of the petition. “I guess you have to admire their chutzpah, however misguided.”

Niles grinned and saluted her with his beer. “I especially liked the assertion that we were ‘forcing’ the same-sex romance on the player by writing Gairi so that he flirts unless and until you tell him you’re not interested.”

Jordan scrolled through the texts on Niles’s phone, anger beginning to sizzle in his gut. “Fuck, is there anything these guys won’t say?”

Niles shrugged and grabbed it back. “You become inured to it after so many times of being told you should drink bleach and jump off an overpass into heavy traffic while fellating yourself.”

Rosie snorted into her beer. “That’s more inventive than having your body type and ethnicity disparaged while being told to get back to the kitchen before you make gamers into pussies and succeed in having all female characters dressed in nuns’ habits.”

Jordan looked up to catch her rueful smile. With her broad shoulders, thick waist, large breasts, and wide hips—she was a good forty or so pounds over the near-anorexic “ideal”—Rosie was a prime target for cruel remarks concerning her appearance. Even though she seemed to be completely happy with her body, and was as outspoken against body shaming as she was on every other issue, the constant barrage had to be hurtful. “I don’t think inventive is a word that belongs in the same sentence with these dickwads.” Niles’s phone vibrated again almost the moment he’d stuffed it back in his pocket. He ignored it, grabbing his beer instead.

“How often do they do that?” Jordan demanded, gesturing to the outline of the phone beneath the denim.

“Do what?”

Another vibration. Jordan resisted the urge to jerk the phone back out himself and see what they were saying to his brother now. “Actually threaten you?”

“That wasn’t a threat.”

“‘Get fucked with a chainsaw, you worthless cunt,’ isn’t a threat?”

“Probably not in the legal sense. Not unless the person in question is saying, ‘I’m going to fuck you with a chainsaw’—”

“I’ve got a few thousand of those in my files, if you want to compare,” Rosie muttered.

“—That would be a threat. This is just . . . some basement-dwelling trogg using his mom’s computer to talk like a big man about a game he bought with his dad’s credit card.”

Rosie gave him a censuring look. “Niles. Seriously? You, of all people, stereotyping gamers?”

“Sorry.” Niles gave her an apologetic smile. Jordan understood all too well. As Third Wave’s marketing director—and a staunch nongamer—he’d been the target more than once of a lecture about the truth behind gamer demographics, but it really was all too easy to assume this sort of behavior was the province of kids, given how immature it was.

He wasn’t going to let the two of them divert him, however. “How many of these do you receive in a day?” Jordan demanded. “And don’t try to parse semantics of what does and doesn’t constitute a threat.”

Rosie shrugged and answered for Niles. Jordan knew no matter how vile the abuse and harassment heaped on his brother, it was nothing to what Rosie was regularly inundated with. “Depends on the day. If we’ve recently released news or done an interview that pisses someone off, it could be hundreds. If it’s a slow news day, maybe only a few. This week will be interesting, because you know that video of my response to that petition is going up on YouTube. There will be another wave of rape and death threats for me, threats of violence and homophobic slurs for Niles. Same old, same old. They’re persistent but not particularly original.”

“Have you thought about hiring security staff for Third Wave?” Jordan leaned toward Rosie, bracing his elbows on his spread knees. Unlike the two of them, Jordan wasn’t going to accept that such treatment was the cost of doing business.

Maybe it was because he had more of an outsider’s point of view on the whole issue. He hadn’t come on as Third Wave’s marketing director until after the furor over Phoenix Force 2 had died down, and Niles hadn’t ever been particularly candid about the harassment until Jordan had been in a position to witness it firsthand. “And I don’t mean those rent-a-cops who patrol the building at night to keep someone from stealing the equipment or the guy at the front desk trying to prevent industrial espionage. I mean a security team whose job it is to track down the source of threats like this and analyze them to make sure they’re not coming from legitimate crazies.”

“‘Crazies.’ Nice ableist language, there.” Rosie gave him a brief censuring look, and Jordan dipped his head apologetically. “Want me to hire bodyguards while I’m at it?” she asked with a roll of her eyes.

“Relax, Jordie.” Niles pulled on Jordan’s shoulder, urging him to recline against the back of the sofa again. “Finish your beer, go dance, pick up someone to take home tonight. You’re making too big a deal of this.”

He scowled at Niles. “My brother is being threatened. Pardon me if I take that seriously. I want to know who these people are and take legal action until they back the fuck off.”

“Last I checked, freedom of speech was still a thing, even when it comes to hate speech,” Rosie offered with a wry smile.

“Last I checked, harassment wasn’t protected by the First Amendment.”

“True, but there are hundreds, maybe thousands of these guys, and we can’t track them all down and file complaints against them.” Rosie sighed and patted his knee. “Look, I’m the first to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on unacceptable behavior, but we have to be careful here. Too much of a reaction will just egg them on. They’re attention whores. The worst thing you can do is let these guys think they’ve had an impact. I’ve gone on record supporting Niles and made it clear that Third Wave values him. There’s nothing else to do. Shrug them off. Go dance. I’ll get us a fresh round of beers.”

“Hi, everyone!”

Niles startled under Jordan’s arm at the voice behind them, and Rosie laughed in delighted surprise. Jordan turned to see the writing staff intern—what was his name? Paul? Peter?—standing there.

“Hello, Patrick! How are you tonight?” Rosie asked with a smile.

“I’m doing good!” The intern licked his lips, his eyes darting around the club nervously. His smile looked eager and yet a little forced. “Thanks for inviting me, Mr. Riv—er, Niles.”

“My pleasure. Seemed like you could use an evening out when I bumped into you back at the con today. Did you ditch your stepbrother and his friends?” Niles asked carefully, and from the way Patrick’s face shuttered and the avid light went out of his eyes, Jordan could tell Niles knew something Jordan didn’t about the dynamics the intern had with his family. In fact, judging from Niles’s solicitous demeanor, Jordan would bet Niles bumping into Patrick and extending an invitation to come out for the evening was no accident. He certainly hadn’t had a work-related reason to return to the convention that afternoon.

“They, um, they don’t know I’m here.” Patrick rubbed the back of his neck, looking at the floor. Ah. Okay. The kid wasn’t out yet. Sympathy warmed Jordan’s regard of the guy. “I didn’t want to hang with them again after yesterday. They don’t— I mean, I-I haven’t—”

Niles reached over the back of the sofa to lay a sympathetic hand on Patrick’s arm, bringing his stammering to a halt. “It’s okay, Patrick. We get it.”

Rosie smiled softly. “You’re fine here. Don’t worry. I assume you’re twenty-one, since you got through the door?” Patrick nodded quickly, watching her with attention that suggested he thought he was still on the job and talking to his boss. Rosie dug in her pocket and came up with a folded bill. “Here. Go buy yourself a beer, then come back, and we’ll dance for a bit. Okay?”

Patrick nodded again, his eyes wide as he took the bill. “Yes, ma’am.” He scurried off before Rosie could suggest he call her anything else.

Niles, Jordan, and Rosie all settled back with identical indulgent smiles and sighed nearly in unison. The wistful Ahh, kids these days was unspoken, but the sentiment hung in the air. Silence settled among them as Rosie scanned the club.

Niles’s pocket vibrated again, and he groaned quietly, but not quietly enough that Jordan couldn’t hear it, as he dug for his phone.

Go suck that Candylandia dyke’s dick and quit fagging up our games, Jordan read over his brother’s shoulder.

Niles sighed. From what Jordan understood, the trolls were always looking for clever ways to get in a dig about Rosie’s weight and/or sexuality. Which was interesting because no one—including he and Niles—knew exactly what her sexuality was. Rosie liked it that way, because then she could take people to task for making assumptions.

“Hey.” Jordan looked up when Rosie spoke, and she tipped her head, nodding off to the side. “Over there at the cluster of tables by the door. Be subtle.”

Niles peeked first and then groaned again. Affecting a casual glance around the club, Jordan looked too, noting a pair of guys not much older than Patrick, neither of whom was dressed remotely as though they’d come to the club with the intention of attracting company. In fact, their clothing screamed Straight dude so loudly that everyone in the club was giving them the side eye. One of the guys kept gazing around with an expression of distaste, while the other was typing something into his phone.

A moment later, Niles’s pocket buzzed.

Jordan’s brow furrowed and he glanced at Rosie, confused. She snorted. “It’s our petitioners. Well, two of them, at least. They actually came into a gay club?”

Yeah, they came into a gay club to pursue and harass his brother. Jordan gritted his teeth. “What the fuck?”

“Want to bet they think they’re supersleuths or some shit, trying to get dirt on me? Maybe hoping to catch me getting sucked off in an alley?” Niles sighed and shook his head, looking—to Jordan’s mind—more amused than he should be.

They discreetly monitored the guys for another moment, until the timing between the one using his phone and the arrival of harassing texts was irrefutable. Setting his jaw, Jordan rose and began to unbutton his shirt. “That’s it. I’m going to handle this.”

Rosie grabbed her own phone and followed, leaving Niles to scramble after them.

With his shirt hanging wide open, his skin damp with sweat from the heat generated by the sheer crush of people, Jordan sauntered up to the pair and draped an arm around each of their shoulders, pulling them in intimately close, not letting them jerk away. He pasted his best barracuda smile in place, the one Niles said meant he was about to eat someone alive. “Hey, guys, having a good time?” A second later, the flash of Rosie’s phone camera lit them up as they stood there with identical expressions of panic on their faces.

He plucked the phone out of the texting guy’s hand and began scanning through it while Niles shook his head at them.

“You know how many federal and state communications laws you’re in violation of with these?” Jordan asked conversationally, shoving the phone back at the guy. He didn’t wait for an answer. “I don’t, either, but I imagine it’s enough to face some pretty hefty fines. Maybe even time in prison.”

Rosie looked up from admiring the picture on her phone, her grin positively evil. “This is going to look great splashed all over the Third Wave fan forums. Homophobe petitioners party with Third Wave staff in gay bar. Thanks to that petition, we even have their usernames, so I can tag them in the caption.”

The two young men scrabbled to get away, rushing out of the club like it was on fire, and Jordan looked over to see Patrick coming up behind Niles, who was watching them with a bemused expression.

“What’s going on?” Patrick asked.

Rosie patted his shoulder. “Just handling some trolls. Come on, I want to dance. Niles, Jordie, you guys in?”

“Nah.” Jordan tossed his shirt to Niles and looked around the crowd. “I think I’m going to take my brother’s advice and find someone to take home tonight. Catch you later.”

He felt someone’s eyes on him as he melted into the crowd, probably the intern watching him with that puppy-dog look Jordan sometimes caught the kid giving him. He’d be okay with Niles and Rosie, though. Better than with him. He wouldn’t touch Patrick even if he wasn’t an intern with Third Wave. Jordan didn’t do closeted guys, or guys so inexperienced that the new-car smell hadn’t even faded yet. And right now, Jordan had some anger he needed to burn off.

*****

“You all right?” Niles glanced over at the tipsy intern in his passenger seat. Patrick still swayed a little unsteadily, but his babble had faded away and his demeanor grew more sober the closer they got to his house.

“Hmm? Yeah, sure.” He was staring out the side window as if afraid to look anywhere else. Niles had been almost certain he’d seen someone lure Patrick into the back room around midnight, but Patrick wasn’t acting much like a guy who’d gotten laid or sucked off or whatever he’d done back there. He was acting like a guy going to his execution.

Once again, Niles found himself wondering just what Patrick’s relationship with his family was like. He’d nearly panicked when he’d realized that he’d missed the last MAX train, at least until Niles had offered to give him a ride so that he didn’t need to call home or take a cab. It was out of his way—Niles could almost have walked home from the club to his historic Victorian in Northwest—but Patrick had been so distressed that he couldn’t leave the guy hanging, especially since Jordan had already taken off and Rosie was heading in the entirely opposite direction.

“You know, Patrick . . .” Niles sighed and rubbed a hand through his hair as he pulled to the curb in front of the Craftsman-style bungalow his intern pointed to. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted to say, but Patrick seemed like he needed something, even if Niles had no idea what. If he was right that Patrick wasn’t out to his family yet, but moving in that direction, the least Niles could do was offer him a sympathetic ear. “Look, my cell number is on the list of employee contact numbers. If you ever have any trouble or need anything, even just to talk, you can give me a call, all right?”

The intern nodded, never meeting Niles’s eyes. “Sure, um, Niles. Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow. Well, later today, I guess.”

“Yeah. See you then.”

With his head hung, Patrick closed the car door behind him. Niles tracked his progress up the front walk to the house and waited while he fumbled with his keys. The back of his neck prickled; the sensation of being watched sent a shiver rippling down his spine, but all the blinds and curtains he could see seemed to be closed and the street was deserted at nearly 2 a.m. Then the porch light came on and someone opened the door for Patrick. The feeling faded, and when the door shut again, Niles drove away.

*****

He gave up trying to sleep at five o’clock, after a few hours of staring at the ceiling and dozing fitfully, his restlessness fueled by a nameless and shapeless anxiety. The elegantly cozy house he’d bought after the first Phoenix Force game went platinum felt too cold and empty, each creak of the house startling Niles just as he’d started to nod off again.

Finally, he flung the covers back, pulled on a sweatshirt and flannel pajama bottoms over his boxers, and shuffled downstairs to his desk in the living room. At some point since he’d gotten home, it had begun raining in earnest, a stiff wind pelting water against the leaded glass windows. Even with all the city lights, there were too many shadows in the house, and Niles circled the room, switching on table lamps and lighting the gas fireplace.

A crash from the front yard brought him springing to his feet, his heart racing. With a longing look at the empty coffeemaker, Niles bypassed the kitchen and undid the chain and dead bolts on the front door. His porch furniture was all still in place, despite the best efforts of the gusting wind, but the gate between the tall hedges that bordered his front yard swung wildly, knocking against the stones lining the path from the sidewalk to the porch.

Sighing at his own jumpiness, he slipped his bare feet into the nearest pair of shoes and clutched his robe around himself. The stinging rain drove against his cheeks like needles as he dashed up the walk to close and latch the gate. His glasses were quickly becoming too water-spotted to see much, but it was useless to look around anyway. Whichever passerby had decided to unlatch the gate, they were no doubt long gone.

As he reached the porch again, his cell phone rang from where it sat on the hallway table beside the mail. Cursing over yet another delay between him and a hot cup of coffee, he toed off his shoes and removed his useless glasses. And promptly slipped on an envelope he’d either missed or dropped when he’d gathered up the mail from beneath the slot in the door on Saturday. He caught himself on the table and snatched the phone to his ear in a single, graceless lurch.

“Yeah?” he gasped.

“Niles? You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, Jordie.” Shivering, he crouched to pick up the letter, frowning at it. “What the hell are you calling me for this time of morning?”

“Well, you’re awake, aren’t you?”

“Doesn’t answer my question.” He squinted and turned the envelope over in his hands. There was no return address, but that wasn’t unusual for things like leaflets and credit card offers. His address was neatly printed in Times New Roman on the front, but there was no “To the resident at . . .” to indicate it was junk mail. Weird. It was probably still junk, but curiosity compelled him not to drop it in the shredder.

He could practically hear Jordan’s nonchalant shrug. “I’m just heading home. Thought I’d offer to take you to breakfast before I went in to work.”

“Damn, whoever you went home with must have been good if you’re just now leaving.”

“Eh, he was okay. I just need to give up on twinks. Think I’m getting too old for them. Not enough experience to give a really killer blowjob. Kind of fun to show them how it’s done, though.”

Niles huffed a brief laugh, shaking his head. “Whatever floats your boat, man.”

“So, you in for breakfast or not?”

“Yeah, okay, breakfast sounds good.” He dropped the envelope on the table with the rest of the mail and gave the coffeemaker one last yearning glance before heading upstairs.

“Thought so. I’m almost there. See you in a few.”

“Mm-hmm. Just let yourself in. I’m hopping in the shower.”

“Right. Okay.” There was silence on the line as Jordan failed to disconnect as Niles expected him to. He waited, letting his damp robe fall at the threshold of the master bath. “You sure you’re all right?” Jordan finally asked, concern evident in his voice.

“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Something seemed wrong when you answered the phone.”

“Nah, I just nearly killed myself trying to get to it in time. I’d had to go outside to close the gate. So except for being way too short on sleep—for which I hold you and Rosie completely responsible, in case you’re wondering—I’m fine.”

“Okay.” Jordan didn’t sound convinced, but Niles wasn’t going to stand around shivering, trying to reassure him.

“I’m starting the shower now. See you in a few.” He hung up before his brother had a chance to fret any further.

 

Chapter Four

 

“Jesus, what did he do, hit her with a brick?” Detective Timothy Wyatt stared down at the remains of what—judging by the rest of her—had once been a young blonde woman. He tried to get a sense of her features, but it was near impossible due to the massive bruising that mottled her face. Tim glanced up through the barren branches at the misting sky, breaking away from the sight long enough to distance himself from it a little. All around him, the park was ripe with the scent of decaying greenery as autumn’s fallen foliage decomposed. He let it fill his lungs before looking down again.

Nathaniel McDermott, the medical examiner, shook his head. “I’m going to tentatively call it a two-by-four. There’s a broad bruise across her back, and in the abrasions are splinters of what I’m fairly certain is processed lumber, since I’m not finding any bits of bark along with them.”

There was no evidence of any sort of weapon in the vicinity. “And the killer kept it?”

Tim’s partner, Detective Angela Payne, ducked under the crime-scene tape and came to a stop by his side. “Could have just been whatever was lying around. Or it could have been planned out. It’s an easy weapon to dispose of.” She looked down at the body. “All you need is a fireplace.”

“What would a two-by-four be doing in the middle of a million trees?” He rubbed his chin for a moment, frowning. “That bruise across her shoulders . . . Are we thinking he—or she—got the drop on her? She comes around the corner, he hits her from behind, knocks her down, and goes to town?”

McDermott nodded. “It’s possible. There’s blood spatter on the ground and tree trunks. The attack took place right in this spot. We’re going to have a hard time getting footprints with all the leaves on the ground, though. If this drizzle had fallen twenty-four hours ago, we’d have an easier time of it.”

“I’ll be sure to register a complaint, see if we can do something about that.” Tim gave McDermott a wry smile.

“What would someone wearing those boots be doing in Forest Park?” Payne frowned, her eyes moving up and down the corpse. “Take it from me, Wyatt, you don’t wear spike heels where it’s not paved. They punch into the sod, and then you break your fuckin’ ankle.”

“What would someone dressed like her be doing in Forest Park to begin with?” Tim eyeballed the tight, shiny brown leather pants wrapped around the young woman’s legs. Tatters and shreds of dried leaves stuck to her clothing where blood and rain had wetted it, as they did to her bruised face. “Was she out at a club? Sex worker? What call girl meets a john on a hiking trail?”

Payne shrugged. “Maybe she was just on a date and the guy brought her here? Though, if you ask me, those aren’t date clothes, either. They’re not easy-access enough for her to be a stripper, and they’d be damned inconvenient if she was turning a trick.” She looked up from the body. “Besides, what are those pockets by her shoulder? Could it be a costume? Maybe she was a model?”

McDermott snorted, tucking away his measuring tape. “Not likely. She’s only five foot four.”

“Not like a fashion model. A personal one,” Payne clarified. “Some private photographer wanted to do a fetish-wear shoot, maybe? That would explain the outfit and location.”

A uniform came jogging over, forestalling Tim’s reply.

“We found her bag,” he panted. “It’s over in the trees back that way. Documenting the scene now.”

Tim glanced at his partner and followed the rookie over the uneven ground to another cordoned-off area where a backpack lay at the base of a shallow gully.

“We just finished photographing the area,” a tech informed him. “We think it was thrown down from that jogging path up there.”

“How many sets of footprints are we going to find on a popular jogging path?” Payne grumbled.

The tech grimaced. “Too many. I’ll let you know what we find.”

“No wonder it took so long to find the bag.” Tim pulled on a pair of gloves, squatting down beside the pack. “We thought we were looking for a purse or a handbag, something to match the clothes.”

Payne drew closer as he unzipped it. “No change of clothing, so if she was doing a photo shoot— Wait. A parking pass for the Portland Convention Center?” She hummed thoughtfully. “That could be our answer. Maybe she was a booth babe. A lot of strippers moonlight doing that sort of thing.”

“Wouldn’t it be sunlight?” Tim shrank away from the flat look Payne gave him. “Anyway, I thought they only had those at conventions in Las Vegas. But we’ll check the venue, find out what events were going on there over the weekend.” He rifled carefully through the printouts and notebooks stuffed into the pack. “She was a student. This is all schoolwork. Media trends. Feminist theory. Looks like notes for a paper. Any ID?”

“Here it is.” Payne located a wallet in one of the outer pouches and pulled out a student ID. “Charity Anspach, enrolled at PSU. Assuming this is her bag. We’ll have to make sure the ID matches the body.”

“Which could take a while, considering the condition of her face, especially if she hasn’t been fingerprinted before.”

She sighed. “Fuck. And then we get to tell her parents they’re not going to see her graduate. Come on. Let’s see if there’s an ex and work our way through it.”

*****

Jordan’s phone had already been vibrating with texts, warning him, before he arrived to see that there were people with signs picketing on the sidewalk outside the Third Wave Studios offices. Signs which read, “Protect our Children!” and “End the Violence.” There were even a couple about stopping the homosexual agenda. That was new, at least as far as the real-life picketers went. It wasn’t the first time antigaming crusaders had taken aim at Third Wave for their content, and those groups had been on a rampage since the Sandy Hook shooting, courtesy of the NRA attempting to divert blame to the gaming industry. The Phoenix Force franchise was no more graphically violent than any other first-person shooter game, nor was the sexual content any more explicit than any other RPG. It was considerably milder than many titles in the genre, in fact, and none of the violence was sexualized, which couldn’t be said for many other games.

But logic had little to do with the protesters’ platform.

Great. Just great. Because the harassment Niles was already getting wasn’t enough.

Jordan frowned again as he recalled the texts Niles had received last night. It was harder than he would have thought, seeing what some of the trolls were saying to and about Niles. Now the occasional glum and besieged phases Niles and Rosie went through made a lot more sense. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since, even after he’d left the guy he’d picked up.

He’d lied to Niles about where he’d been all night. After leaving the twink, he’d gone into the office and started looking through the stacks of fan mail, as well as the email from the contact box on the studio website. There was much more where the harassing texts had come from. There were entire fan forums dedicated to malcontents who were unhappy with the gay storylines in Third Wave games. The shit the twerps said on the various forums, showing their internet dicks and talking big to try to impress one another, seeing who could say the vilest thing, was even worse. Jordan had started making accounts on every board and forum and mailing list he could find to keep track of them all, under the rationale that as Third Wave’s marketing director, he should know what the fans were saying, even the negative stuff. They kept egging each other on, prompting ever more extravagant threats and insults, and the big brother in him—admittedly only by six minutes, but still—wanted to start bashing heads together.

Sighing, he drove past the protesters, then hung his laptop case on his shoulder, and headed inside to where Niles and Rosie were talking in the door of the break room, cradling cups of coffee and looking far more tense than the picketers accounted for.

“So what’s their beef today?” Jordan asked, striding toward his office as they fell in step with him.

“They found a new angle,” Rosie nearly growled. “That video went up on YouTube just like I predicted it would, and now Niles is the poster boy for fags everywhere trying to push the gay agenda on unsuspecting kids.”

Jordan set his bag down a little harder than necessary in his chair. “Wait. They got that from you informing them that Niles wasn’t on the writing staff for Age of Valiance?”

“He’s our lead writer, even if he’s not working on a specific title. Or that’s the argument they’re using.”

Niles grabbed a remote off the filing cabinet and turned on the TV on the wall in the corner of Jordan’s office. “They’ve called the news outlets. There are going to be interviews.”

“Shit.” Jordan closed his eyes, imagining declining sales after the news broadcast claimed that Third Wave was shoving gay storylines on people’s kids. This was going to take some spin control. “We need to get ahead of this. Start a marketing campaign immediately touting the message of acceptance and diversity inherent in Third Wave’s games. Get it out to liberal parenting sites, not just LGBT and ally sites. We need to hammer home the message that equality is the ultimate family value. I’m going to draft a post for our social forums to be released immediately and start scheduling interviews.”

“Get on it, then,” Rosie said shortly. “In the meantime, we’ve got another problem.”

“It’s not a problem.” Niles spoke between gritted teeth.

“The fuck it isn’t!” She snatched an envelope from his hands and threw it on Jordan’s desk. He picked it up. It had Niles’s name and address on it and inside was a plain, white sheet of paper with two large, stark words:

WATCH YOURSELF

from Joyfully Jay

[I]f you’re looking for an incredibly well written mystery with a host of engaging characters, then Player vs. Player is definitely for you.

from MM Good Book Reviews (by Tams)

[C]ompletely engrossed in this story and was seriously upset when I reached the end, I wasn’t ready for it to be over.... [S]o well written and conveyed...a must read.

from 3 Chicks After Dark

Not only do I feel I read an awesome suspense novel, I feel more aware of yet another social injustice. Kudos to Amelia C. Gormley for such a great book and tackling this controversial and caustic topic.

from The Jeep Diva (by Pansy)

This story had murder, stalking, betrayal, good friends – old and new, romance, hot twins, hot cops...an entertaining read with a wonderful story. Give it a try!

from Nautical Star Books

I could not put this book down without knowing how things played out with these amazing characters.

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