The Entity Game – Lisa Shearin

Sleep was not overrated. Whoever said otherwise never flew from Zurich to DC just long enough to repack a bag and catch a red-eye to Vegas for a poker tournament. Then for an added level of masochism, didn’t see the sun for three days and caught another red-eye home. Not only was sleep a distant memory, I think I’d forgotten how to get there. Sleeping on a plane wasn’t an option. I’d never been able to do it. Another half hour and we’d be landing at Dulles. Home sweet home. Bed wonderful bed. “This is your captain speaking. There’s been an earthquake ninety miles southwest of —” A collective groan went up from those of us who’d been in town for the 2011 5.8 quake centered near Mineral, Virginia. The distance the pilot cited indicated this one was a repeat. The Washington Monument had cracked, traffic had snarled, and people inside government buildings had thought we were having another 9/11. All in all, a big scare and a major pain for everyone involved.

It’d been my first year in DC. Welcome to town. “The runway is being checked for damage, and we’ve been asked to circle until ground crews confirm it’s safe to land.” I settled back in my seat to wait it out. It was a good thing the earthquake had waited a week. Last week had been the inauguration. I’d been happily out of the country, though part of me regretted missing the swearing in of our first woman president. What I didn’t regret was missing the crowds that had descended on the city to witness it. I stretched my legs out as far as they could go. Whenever it was available, I sprung for first class.

It was worth it not to get caught in the aisle surge the instant the plane pulled up to the gate. It was worth even more to have a seat wide enough to keep from touching my neighbor. It wasn’t like I was a germophobe or afraid of crowds. I was a psychometric, which went leaps and bounds beyond being sensitive or empathetic. I received impressions and images from touching people or the objects they’d touched. However, direct contact wasn’t always necessary. If the emotions involved were strong enough, proximity worked nearly as well. It was like having an additional sense I hadn’t asked for and had never wanted. For most people, the worst part about being in a crowd was the noise. For me, it was emotions.

As long as I could get to where I needed to go without touching anyone, I was fine. Some people went through life calmly; nothing ruffled their feathers. I didn’t have a problem with those people. They were like butterflies. If they brushed against me, their emotions were a light, tickling sensation. However, most people were like bees, wasps, or super-mutant-ninja hornets. You never knew what kind of emotional baggage people were carrying on a day-to-day basis. It multiplied when they got on a plane. Emotional baggage built up over time, and nothing cranked up anxiety to absurd levels like air travel. Between parking, the stress of going through security, and getting to the gate on time, humans were pumped and primed for crazy by the time they set foot on their flights.

Traveling first-class ensured that I was one of the first ones on and off—or the last to board, if I chose. I preferred the window seat and not because I enjoyed the view. It put as much space as possible between me and everyone who had to file by my seat to get to theirs. Few people wanted to fly red-eyes. That was why I loved them. There was a reason why you didn’t see YouTube videos of Red-Eye Passengers Gone Wild. There weren’t any. The crazies flew during the day. The night was made for hardcore business travelers and people like me who didn’t pick fights, act like obnoxious assholes, or make unrealistic demands; we just wanted to get home with the least amount of fuss. And for the ultimate benefit, terrorists ignored red-eyes.

No one was lining up to fly a half-empty plane into a building in the middle of the night. We’d had a brief layover in Chicago, where dejected gamblers and glassy-eyed conventioneers filed off and business people and political types headed back to DC filed on. Two men and one woman gave me a second look when they saw my gloved hands. I did what I usually did—I ignored them. People wore surgical masks against infection. I wore gloves and long sleeves against connection. Mine only earned odd looks in the summer—or on a plane after midnight. Gloves couldn’t completely block my psychometry, but it took the edge off. People were curious about others to the point of rudeness, always ready to question or accuse. Carrying some extra weight? You must be pregnant.

Darker skin than they had? Different accent? You must be a terrorist. Wear gloves inside or in the summer? People didn’t know what to make of that, so they felt entitled to ask. I’d toyed with the idea of going with leprosy, but opted for severe burns instead—from the neck down. Once people heard that, they couldn’t back off fast enough. Very few people knew about my, shall we say, eccentricity. Those that knew called it a gift. They didn’t have to go through life with it. But since I had it, I put it to work. I wasn’t a professional gambler. I had a day job, but I’d used my ability to become highly successful in both.

Poker was strictly for fun and profit, but only in amounts that didn’t raise suspicions. Greed was not good. I’d been wanting a 1941 Indian Sport Scout for a long time, and a friend of mine, who had a shop in Arlington and was a restoration wizard, had found one for me. I’d already paid for the bike and the work being done, but needed to replace the hole it’d put in my savings account. Viva Las Vegas. I needed just under twelve thousand. I’d won that much over the three days, plus a little extra to cover my expenses. When I traveled, I preferred to go first-class across the board, not only on my flights to and from. It’s said that eyes are the windows to the soul. That might be true, but the keys to a person’s deepest, darkest secrets are found over their entire body.

I’d studied kinesics, the interpretation of body movement, to supplement my psychometry. Nonverbal cues such as posture, facial expressions, and what people did with their hands told me when they were lying or not, when they were hiding something, and how good they thought they were at both. Words could lie and often did, but eyes, lips, facial muscles, hands, legs, feet, torso position and carriage—our entire bodies give away far more than most people would be comfortable with. Talented actors or professional gamblers are experts at modifying their expressions and body language, but few could keep up the deception for long. I honed my skills by reading my poker tournament opponents. Between that and my psychometry, I could easily win far more than I did, but I enjoyed playing and the challenge of outmaneuvering my opponents. Jack had made me work extra hard this time. Not many on the amateur circuit wanted to see Jack Beckett sit down at their table—or me either, for that matter. Jack had sought me out this time. He knew me as Rory Mitchell, and I had the fake IDs and credit cards to back it up.

It helped to have friends in federal places. My real name was Aurora Donati, but considering who and what I was, I protected my privacy and did what was necessary to keep it, though I did go by Rory in real life. According to my FBI buddies, when going undercover, it was best to keep the lies you had to remember to a minimum. Mitchell was my mother’s maiden name. Most poker players had at least one tell—that thing they did to hide what they were thinking or about to do. Players did their best to keep their expression perfectly neutral when they either had a great hand or were bluffing. That very neutrality or stillness could itself be a tell. Jack had zero tells, though he was an expert at throwing out fake tells when at a table with less experienced players. At this tournament, we’d all been experienced. Jack had no facial tics, no change in his usual self-satisfied expression—which he wore regardless of how good or bad a hand he had—no change in his speed of play, the pulse in his neck didn’t even alter its beat.

In the final game, he’d sat one chair over from me, so I’d gotten an up close and personal view. In the end, it’d been fatigue that’d cost him the game and had won it for me. It’d been a long tournament, we were all exhausted, and Jack slipped up before I could. He blinked. Twice. In as many seconds. I’d seen it on Jack once before and knew what it meant. Big bluff, bad hand. This time, Lady Luck had been with me and not him. To Jack’s credit, he was a good sport about the loss.

Whenever I’d beaten him, he’d always say “next time.” He could be right. Next time he might win on his own, or I might let him —if there wasn’t a big pot at stake. Like I said, when trying to fly under the radar, greed wasn’t good. Poker was my one and only game. I’d gambled with dice. Once. Never again. Those particular dice had held the emotions of the many people who had used them, and the strongest hadn’t been the most recent. One man’s despair had clung to my hand for days afterward.

Vegas attracted people looking for a weekend of fun. It also attracted the desperate and the addicted. Those who believed they would be one of the few to win big. This man had gambled away his family’s savings. Then his child had sickened. Cancer. Final stages. No symptoms until it was too late. He’d made one final roll of the dice. The money for his child’s treatment was there for the winning.

Except he didn’t win. He lost. I’d read later that while he was losing, his child had died. He couldn’t take the loss, of either his child or the last of his family’s money. Distraught, the man had gone to the roof of his hotel and jumped to his death. I’d read about the incident two days after it’d happened. I’d made the mistake of not wearing gloves while playing, and by handling the dice he’d last used, I’d gotten the full impact of the desperation and heartbreak that’d led him to it. It was more than enough for me—too much. No more dice. Poker tournaments were the way to go.

Yes, the people who played wanted to win, but what most really enjoyed was the game and manipulating the competition. I could read the cards they’d touched, but mostly, I could read them. The man sitting across the plane’s aisle from me had been staring out the window since we’d both boarded in Vegas. A single glance had told me that he wasn’t a businessman coming home from a convention. At least four days of unruly stubble couldn’t be called business casual by anyone’s definition. His clothes were good quality, but the wrinkles told me they’d gone from his suitcase and back again over several days, never seeing a hanger or the inside of his hotel’s closet. He’d gone there to gamble, and as with most who took their chances on the Strip, it hadn’t gone well for him. He’d been drinking nothing but coffee the entire flight. Whether DC was home or a stopover to somewhere else, he wanted to be awake when he got there. His repetitive motions told me who he wanted to be alert for.

His wife or husband. Every time I’d glanced at him, he’d been holding or caressing the wedding band on his finger. He’d screwed up. Badly. He knew it, and he was terrified of losing someone he loved dearly because of it. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We have been cleared to land. Please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened. Flight attendants, please prepare for landing.” The landing minutes later was smooth with no bumps that might mean a broken section of runway.

Once the plane slowed to taxi to the gate, I loosened my grip on the armrests. I wasn’t a big fan of landings, even the good ones. A flight attendant stood and walked to the front of the coach section. “Welcome to Dulles International Airport,” he said into a handset. “The local time is 12:45 a.m. and the temperature is twenty-eight degrees. Please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until the captain turns off the Fasten Seat Belt sign. This will indicate that we have parked at the gate and that it is safe for you to move about. At this time, you may use your cell phones.

Please check around your seat for any personal belongings—” I tuned the rest out and pulled out my phone. Five and a half hours was a long time for me to go without checking messages. My grandad, Ambrose Donati, was still in Zurich and wouldn’t be flying back for another two days. In the interim, I was the Donati Detective Agency. We’d been at an international art crime conference. Afterward, I’d flown to Vegas for the tournament while Grandad had stayed to visit with old friends and former colleagues. He’d gotten into the work in Europe in the 1960s. The war had been over for about two decades, and there were still plenty of missing works of art and artifacts to recover that’d been stolen by the Nazis. Later, when he moved to the States, he’d made it his calling to continue that work and return those pieces to their rightful owners—or to any surviving relatives. When he started the Donati Detective Agency, he’d expanded that mission to include art stolen from museums and private collectors.

When the FBI founded its Art Crime Team in 2004, they retained his services as a consultant, due to his contacts in the art world and his skills as an art authenticator. I’d gone to work with Grandad after I’d graduated from UCLA with a degree in criminal psychology. He’d tried to teach me about art, but the finer details eluded me. We had the same psychometric skills, but with different goals. Grandad wanted to find and retrieve the art. I wanted to find and catch the thieves who’d stolen it. When people thought of art thieves, they saw Cary Grant or Pierce Brosnan. I’ve never run into an art thief who looked like either one. Psychometry ran in the Donati family. Grandad’s mother had the ability, but she hadn’t known of anyone further back.

Either none of our Florentine ancestors had been psychometrics, or the ability wasn’t spoken of for fear of being thought of as a witch or demon-possessed. Now, it was just another tool we used to do our jobs. No one could spot a fake like Grandad. One touch could tell him how old a piece really was, and occasionally even the identity of the forger who’d painted it. Forgers with Old Master-level talent were few and far between. Grandad knew them all. I relied more on the emotional residuals that thieves left at the scene of their crime. Whatever they’d touched, wherever they’d stood, I could pick up flashes of thought or images of what—or who—they’d seen. Few thieves worked alone. A thief’s glance at a partner’s face could give me a description.

The mention or thought of a name or place could give me their identity or the stolen art’s location. The big challenge for me was to convey what I found to police in a way that didn’t out me as the psychometric I was. I scanned my inbox. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait. Then came the ping of an incoming text. About time you landed. My friend and frequent colleague, Berta Pike. FBI Special Agent Alberta Pike, to be exact. She’d known I was going to Vegas, but on the way back I’d changed flights for one that’d left two hours earlier than originally planned. I grinned and started texting.

The FBI sees all, knows all. Damn straight. You got extra luggage? Just carry-on. Good. I’m waiting at the gate. I didn’t have to ask if anything was wrong. Berta Pike hadn’t shown up at Dulles at nearly one o’clock in the morning to give me a hug and a ride home. She didn’t have any active cases that I was involved in. It must be something new and urgent. So much for sleep.

These days, in order to get to a gate, you have to be a federal agent on government business doing some serious badge-flashing, though it usually means someone is about to be arrested. We mere mortals used to be able to wait at the gate for friends and family to arrive. No arrests, just hugs. Terrorism put a stop to that. Once the plane stopped, the man across the aisle stood to get his bag out of the overhead. I steeled myself, slid over to the aisle seat to do the same. I wanted confirmation. I reached for the overhead so my shoulder brushed his. The images flooded in. “Sorry!” I gave him an apologetic smile.

“Gotta get my land legs back.” He nodded once without looking at me. He’d gone to Vegas for a friend’s bachelor party. He thought he could resist the temptation. He was wrong. Three and a half years of progress gone. His wife loved him. He knew that, but how could she possibly love him now? He’d gambled. He’d lost. A lot.

More than they could spare. She would hate him. He hated himself. He was halfway up the jet bridge when I caught up to him. “Tell your wife everything,” I said. “You didn’t mean for it to happen. It was too much for you to handle.” He stopped, his face gone pale. “Excuse me?” I wasn’t about to explain how I knew. That’d just open a can of weirdness neither one of us wanted.

“Talk to her,” I told him. “She’ll want you to. She’ll understand. You know she will. Then promise her you’ll get more help so you don’t do it again.” I kept going up the jet bridge and didn’t look back. I didn’t need to. He’d still be standing there, stunned. I’d been there and induced that often enough to know. Special Agent Berta Pike was waiting for me.

She was wearing a dark suit and an equally dark disposition that didn’t scream Fed as much as it solemnly stated it. She wore her hair short and natural. I’d seen a couple of pre-FBI photos where she had shoulder-length braids that she’d artfully spun into a tight bun that accented her flawless cheekbones. When I’d first met her, I thought she’d gone short to prevent giving a hold to a suspect should an apprehension go south. I was wrong. No suspect or FBI workout partner regardless of size or speed had ever gotten close enough to Alberta Pike to get a good hold on anything. She was five inches taller than me, slender and solid, and in my opinion, was badassness personified. Before joining the FBI, she’d done two tours with the Army in Afghanistan. Berta may have been here on business, but I still got that hug. And I didn’t try to read her when she did.

A friend didn’t read a friend’s thoughts without permission. Though the tension she was feeling was obvious and in all caps. “How’d the tournament go?” she asked. I mustered a grin. “I won just enough for the bike, and a little extra for a suite and some room service. Laurence promised he’d get it finished and have it to me by next Wednesday.” Berta cracked a smile. “Amazing how it worked out like that.” “Isn’t it though?” I pulled the strap of my messenger bag higher on my shoulder. “Now, how’d I warrant an FBI Uber at oh-dark-thirty?” Berta’s smile vanished.

“Not here.” I’d have to be satisfied with small talk until we got to the car. I saw the man again in the baggage claim area. He was with his wife. Both had tears in their eyes, but they were the good kind. They kissed, then stopped, talking quickly, faces close together, their eyes seeing nothing but each other. Then the man tightly hugged his wife. She was his love and his lifeline. He must have sensed me as Berta and I passed. His eyes opened and met mine.

I gave him a wink and a small smile. His lips barely moved, forming two words, but I got the message. I accepted his thanks with a single nod. From time to time, what I did really was a gift.

.

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