by Jaime Wyman
It was bad enough that gods gambled with human souls, but Catherine Sharp’s soul just had to be won by the Greek goddess of Discord, Eris. As if working a dead-end tech support job didn’t suck the life out of her as it was. Now, Cat finds herself performing random tasks for the goddess in her free time.
But when Coyote, the Native American trickster himself, claims to have won her own soul in Mayhem’s weekly poker game, Cat wants in on the action. With five sneaky gods upping the ante, Cat needs to find a way to collect the winning chips that could save her soul.
Marius, a handsome yet irritating satyr with his own debt to Eris, might finally come in handy for something. If they play their cards right and work together, Cat and Marius may just get their freedom back. If they don’t kill each other—or fall in love—first.
Title: Wild Card
Author: Jaime Wyman
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Length: 280 pages
Release Date: November 2013
© 2013 Jamie Wyman
“Nobody Weird Like Me”
I should’ve known something was wrong with the world that day. On my way to work, I breezed through every single green light like I owned the city. I even found a primo parking spot near the center of the Strip. The promise of the weekend bubbled up before me like primordial awesomeness waiting to be tapped and turned into a brew of good memories.
So, of course, someone had to squash my optimism like an ant under a boot.
As I stomped toward Caesars Palace for my next appointment, my phone rang. “Barracuda” by Heart. I let out the signature sigh of the bone-weary. Nothing good ever came of phone calls from him.
Without breaking stride, I rummaged through my bag and retrieved my cell. “This is Cat,” I said tersely.
“Catherine, darling,” sang the unctuous voice. “What a delight it is to speak with you.”
“Marius,” I growled. I didn’t even attempt to conceal my loathing for the satyr and his smug British accent.
“I can tell by your enthusiasm that you’ve missed me.”
“I’ve counted every second we’ve been apart,” I sneered.
“What do you want?”
“Our mistress wishes to see you,” he said.
His smirk nearly blasted through the phone. My knuckles
popped as I clenched my fist, imagining the glorious day when I could finally smack that look off his face.
“Marius, I can’t play right now. I have to work. You know? The thing mere mortals do to pay the bills?”
“Yes. Tedious, that.”
I snorted. “More than a little. I’m on my way to a job right now, Marius. The boss will just have to wait.”
“Be that as it may, the Lady expects you in her office in one hour. Ta-ta, love.”
I glared at the phone. The goat-legged son of a bitch hung up on me. Stuffing the cell in my bag, I heaved a sigh and thought, I hate immortals.
When one of the more adept techies in Las Vegas had called the office with server problems, I’d cringed. If Tully reached out for help, it meant he’d probably run into some weird, arcane shit. On the plus side, it also means this girl gets to pay rent.
Like always, I met up with David Tullemore at the registration desk of Caesars Palace. When he strolled into the lobby, he was a sweaty mass of panic. One look at me, though, and Tully’s face sagged with relief.
“Thank God, they sent someone competent today.”
Since I can say with utmost certainty that God didn’t send me that day, I appreciated the compliment for what it was worth. More than once Tully had told me how he’d called up Answers, Inc.—
my more mundane employer—and his problems multiplied until they’d handed the reins over to me. Among our tight community of code monkeys and IT gurus, I’d built a bit of a reputation for knowing my craft.
As he escorted me through the winding halls of the casino offices, we were a study in opposites. Tully was tall and damn near spherical whereas I was stick straight and short. We were dressed similarly in the unofficial uniforms of our trade—polo shirts and khakis—but while my demeanor was casual, Tully was jittery as a coked up squirrel. We exchanged pleasantries, dropped the mantles of contractor and helpless techie, and melted into the routine of friends.
“So, saved the world today?” he asked as he dabbed perspiration from his forehead.
“Not yet. But I did rewire a celebrity’s panic room this morning. Thanks to me she should be able to survive hordes of paparazzi and fanboys.”
“If you did the job, she’d survive a zombie apocalypse.”
“Well,” I said after thinking a moment, “she’ll survive if she doesn’t trip over her implants.”
His round face split with hopeful awe, and his eyes sparkled. “Whose house?”
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you, Tully.” I chuckled as we rounded a corner. “How’s the wife?”
He blew out a tired, dramatic breath, and rolled his eyes. “Fine until a few hours ago. Today, Cat, I am in the doghouse.”
“What’s going on?”
“This stupid party tonight. Apparently it’s been on the books for months, but no one in the whole hotel knew we were hosting a gala tonight! Security is scrambling and management has called all hands. I have to work my regular hours plus the graveyard shift to make sure nothing else goes wrong with the system.”
“Can’t hand it off to someone lower in the food chain?”
He shook his head. “No. This isn’t just some benefit dinner. This is big time. A lot of money will be walking in the door tonight. If a lightbulb so much as flickers, my boss will grind me to a pulp and serve me up as tacos on the ten-dollar buffet.”
“Easy, Tully,” I said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Before you start smearing salsa all over yourself, why don’t we take a look at what you’ve got for me?”
Swiping his card key,Tully accessed the data center, the beating heart of the casino. Cold, dry air blasted me in the face as I stepped in. Everything in Las Vegas depends on one computer system or another. Security, gaming, hotel room lists and reservations, Wi- Fi—you name it.
Walking into the clean, orderly room, the tension left my shoulders, and I felt my limbs relax. As the white noise of massive air conditioners lulled me into a Zen-like peace, I could almost feel my breathing fall into a cadence with the steady rhythm of the machines around me. Rooms like this are my spa. Everything has a purpose. Everything has its place. Here, everything is simple.
If only the rest of my life could be so structured and solid.
Tully rounded a corner and gestured to the worktable. “This is my problem, Cat,” he called over the mechanical din. “My domain controller shut down last night, and I can’t figure out what the hell is wrong with it.”
The domain controller is the brain and spinal cord of any casino’s systems, the “God server.” It ensures that everything runs as one smooth operation. I shuddered. If Tully hadn’t solved this riddle, what kind of a mess would I find when I took a peek?
My friendly demeanor dropped as I switched into work mode. When I spoke again, my words were clipped, my tone all business. “Backup controller working?”
“Backup is fine, but I want this one online before tonight.” “Understood.”
I sat down at the desk and hunched over the server. I opened
the case and let my eyes wander over the tangle of cables and cords connecting to circuit boards and processors. Without laying a finger on it, I acquainted myself with the machine’s landscape.
I’d often thought peering into the insides of a computer was a lot like reading entrails. Most people thought every hard drive looked like the same ancient riddle, but my trained eyes saw a language, a pattern, a grand design. Whenever I looked into the guts of a machine, I knew things.
As I took out a pair of magnification glasses, Tully slowly paced the room, his bulk rolling with each step.
“Please, God, just make this work,” he said. “Make this work and I will do anything.”
Without taking my eyes off the problem in front of me, I blew a stray lock of my copper hair out of my face. “Name’s not God, and I don’t know Him.”
“Sorry, Cat,” he said. “I’m nervous.”
I pushed the glasses up over my forehead and regarded Tully. “You know what I think is funny? Everyone always wants to believe that some all-powerful deity is watching them and guiding them, but, in reality, deities aren’t all that helpful.”
Tully nodded, his cheeks rippling in a nervous grin. “It’s Vegas. What do you expect? Everyone wants the cards to turn their way. Faith and luck are everywhere.”
“I guess. But why would they give a damn one way or the other about what goes on in our lives? Oh, that’s right. They don’t. The gods only care about themselves.”
He tilted his head. “You have some wisdom on the matter, Cat?”
Loads, I thought. I’ve met more deities than most people acknowledge even exist. I’d just gotten off the phone with an actual satyr, and my best friend was a mage who could manipulate machines and electronics. If Tully wanted to wax philosophical, I could blow his paranoid, caffeine-soaked mind. But, since I figured he wouldn’t want his worldview rocked that day, I refrained from going off on the rant that was bubbling up inside of me.
“My experience? It’s when the gods take an interest in you that you should start praying.”
His face fell.
I let him chew on that thought and went back to work, gazing deep into the circuitous paths making up the motherboard. Like a map, the lines spread out before me, linking together to form a picture as familiar as my hometown. I found the problem by the conspicuous absence of a simple connection.
“Bingo,” I cheered.
“Cat, I’ve been elbow-deep in that thing for hours, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. You’ve been here maybe five minutes.”
“Sometimes, it just takes a fresh pair of eyes. Hand me the soldering kit, will ya?”
I exchanged my magnifiers for a set of safety goggles and set to the gentle work of repairing the “God server.”
“So,” I said, “tell me about this party.”
Tully’s stress pushed out of him in a long string of words. “The joyous rumor is there will be a lot of high-society types. Celebrities, rock stars, models. The works.”
“Pricey entrance fee?”
“Very. Security has extra staff coming in to work the ballroom,
and my boss has me doing grunt work so he can try to get in and schmooze.”
“If it’s any consolation,” I said, “I’m on call tonight, too.” “For us?”
“No, standard agency work.” Or whatever random slog
through humiliation and death-defying trickery the goddess has planned for me this time, I grumbled to myself.
“But,” I added cheerfully, “at least if something goes to hell tonight and you call for help, you’ll probably get me.”
“Well, that’s a relief. At least I know the work would get done right the first time.”
Tully stopped and loomed behind me. Distracted by his presence and the weight of his anticipation, I slid my chin over my shoulder and gave him the slightest of glares. He raised both hands in apology or surrender—or both—and backed away.
I batted my eyelashes in gratitude and went back to my task.
Soldering is delicate work, but fixing a couple of loose connections is cake. There’s something relaxing about it, too. Watching molten metal solidify, I can almost feel the links being created beneath my fingertips. It makes me wonder if that’s what the world looked like millions of years after the Big Bang—little dots of slag spreading out, quenching in the briny wash of the ocean to form restless continents.
When I finished, I looked over my work with a satisfied smile. “Turn the key and see how she runs.”
Tully dragged a thick hand over the greasy fuzz he called hair, then plugged the server into a nearby test strip. Immediately the LED light on the front began to glow. Tully chewed on his lip and watched the monitor, waiting. When the boot sequence began, his fingers clenched into fists. Only when the system was purring and fully functional did Tully let out a hurricane-force sigh of relief.
“See?” I said. “Good as new.”
Tully’s second chin wobbled a little as he gaped at me. I take that sort of thing as a compliment.
I bowed as Yoda might to Obi-Wan. “My work here is done. Unless you’ve got something else for me?”
He shook his head. “No, I think we’re good.”
Good, I thought. Maybe I can actually be on time meeting the goddess for once. Her wrath was not one I particularly wanted to meet again.
I handed him a clipboard to sign off on the work I’d completed and set to packing my tools.
As he scribbled, Tully said, “I don’t know how you do it.” “Sheer awesomeness,” I offered.
“Seriously, Cat, you’re the best.”
I gave a slight shrug. “It’s a gift.”
Tully showed me out of the server room, and we began the trip back to the front desk. “Being wasted on contract work, if you ask me,” he said. “Someone as brilliant as you should be the IT head of any casino in this town. Where were you when we needed a new one?”
I snorted as Tully hit one of my sore spots. When people ask me questions like this—or worse, ask why I don’t work for one of the big names like Google or Microsoft—I have to take a deep breath so I don’t stab them with my multi-tool.
“I interviewed for the job to be your boss, Tully. Don’t remind me.”
“Really? Why didn’t you take it?”
“I didn’t get the offer.”
“Seriously?” Tully said, offended. “But you’re the best! And
I can totally tell you love what you do. I’ve heard you hum while you work. You’d be a way better boss than the asshole I deal with everyday.”
I nodded along with him. I’ve danced to this one before.
“No,” I said, “I mean I didn’t receive the offer. My phone ate the message for a week. By the time I’d gotten it, they’d already filled the position.”
Tully sagged. “That sucks. Bad luck.” You have no idea.
“Well, maybe you can get work with Apple. I mean, you’ve got the tattoo.”
He pointed down to my left wrist, and my eyes followed. Any traces of a good mood I may have had vanished at the
mention of my mark. The gold tattoo looked exactly like that apple—a stylized silhouette with a bite taken out of it. It was a common misconception. A tech nerd fixing computers for twelve hours a day with a freaking apple on her arm? Yeah. Most people associated the tattoo with the brand. It was a brand, sure, just not that kind.
The bitch that had etched her symbol on my arm waited for me, and I was running out of time. I had to get the hell out and hoof it down the Strip.
Giving my friend a quick salute, I shouldered my bag. “All right, Tully. I’m out. Good luck tonight.” I kicked myself into gear and began the brisk walk back through the casino’s labyrinth.
“You, too,” he called after me.
Thanks, I thought. I need all the good luck I can get.