The Omega Game Excerpt

BOOK ONE: OPENING


FIRST MOVE

Quaid Loman woke up— or at least became fully aware of his surroundings— sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed. His hands shook, sweat dripped down the back of his neck, and he needed a drink more than at any time in the past six months.

He tried to remember the previous night, and he couldn’t.

Quaid rubbed the palms of his hands deep into the orbits of his eyes, and fairy ghosts of color shot across the insides of his eyelids. It was a reflex, born from other long nights he couldn’t remember, and the longer mornings that followed.

It took him a few moments before he was awake enough to realize that the hangover blood-throb— the price of admission for such an evening— was absent.

Even so, Quaid’s breathing was measured, careful. His body still expected the pain. When he finally moved, it was with a slow deliberation, restrained by a fear that was almost an ache itself— the anticipation sharp as it had ever been.

Not just the first drink,Quaid’s barely rational thoughts stepped on themselves, the firstthought of drink.

As if to mock him, the pain refused to come.

If anything, that made the craving worse. One drink, it’ll take the edge off, better than aspirin for the pain. . .

Six months of sobriety, and he’d blown it.

Quaid pulled his hands away from his face, still expecting the hangover fist to begin squeezing his brain. He blinked a few times at a blurred, horribly bright hotel room. Each time his eyelids rose, he tensed against the searing light.

He almost wished for the blinding headache, the nausea, the burn of acid in his throat and deep in his chest, the throb of his own pulse in his ears. That would almost be better than waiting for it to hit, his whole body a muscle tensed against the cramp that any moment would knot it into a ball and tear it from the bone.

He blinked, his vision blurred, adjusting to a too-bright day. After a few long moments of squinting, Quaid began to believe the hangover wouldn’t come.

He was fully awake and the visceral fears of the reptilian hindbrain gave way to the fears of a more rational mind. He bore none of the physical stigmata of a drinking binge—

But last night was a hole cut out of his mind. It had been removed so completely that not even a silhouette remained to give him an idea of the shape and size of the missing memory. This place, and how he had come here was knowledge so thoroughly gone that he couldn’t be certain if he had forgotten it, or had never known in the first place.

It wasn’t his first blackout—

It wasthe first where his body didn’t pay for it afterwards.

“What happened? Where the hell am I?” Quaid whispered to himself. His words carried the pasty taste of sleep. He was trembling slightly when it sank in that he didn’t even remember sitting up. It was as if he had just been teleported here, sitting naked on the edge of a stranger’s bed.

There was a night-stand in reach. He reached over, another reflex, and fumbled for a moment, but his hand found his glasses. He put them on, and the room shot into focus.

Now he could see where he was.

“Shit. . .” Quaid shook his head.

A hotel room. Even though it had been a while since he had a job that required travel— or much of anything else— he recognized the character of the room almost instantly. That wasn’t a great surprise, what surprised him was the look of the place was several orders of magnitude out of his league right now. There was real wood paneling, stained and waxed, Victorian wallpaper bearing a fruit-bowl motif large enough to be a mural, and a plaster scallop-shell molding circled a ceiling that centered on an antique brass ceiling fan that looked like it came straight out of the nineteen-twenties.

The vague European feeling to the room was brought home when he looked down near the baseboard and saw an outlet with two small round holes. . .

God knew wherehe was, but that wasn’t an American wall outlet.

Before his marriage and everything else had fallen to the booze, he had been on enough business trips for all hotel rooms seem the same to him. The Raddisons blending into the Hiltons into the Residences into the Hyatts. He had even gone overseas a few times.

No expense account ever sprung for a place like this, even before he was a lush.

Quaid looked at the paneled walls and tried to come up with some explanation of how he had come to be here. His memory was empty of any answers. No way he had afforded this. . .

He tried to force himself to remember the prior day, but all he could recall was a series of nonspecific moments that could be yesterday, or last month.

His mind locked onto one memory as the most recent— at least as the freshest.

He remembered entering the elevator on the way to his current job. He had a vivid image of a teenager on the elevator with him, wearing a violent red and blue tie-dyed T-shirt, lycra shorts, and a black bicycle helmet. His mind was fixated on the kid’s appearance, so incongruous in the gray office building where he spent his gray workdays.

Quaid tried to force a memory of what he was doing, what he was thinking.

A crumpled sheet of paper in his hand. Anger. Apprehension. Fear?

Red and blue tie-dye.

What was I thinking?

Glorified temp-work, maybe he muttered it out loud. . .

Had he actually gone up that elevator to quit the first steady job he’d had in over half a year?

What the hell had he been doing?

He couldn’t remember the rest. Like a half-forgotten word, the more he tried to force the memory, the more it retreated.

Quaid felt sick, and it wasn’t from a hangover.

He got to his feet and walked over to the window. It was burning daylight outside, and the sun should have been driving daggers into his forebrain. However, the only pain he felt was a hollow self-pity for his own stupidity. It was a feeling that he had managed to nurture quite often in his long lurch toward sobriety.

“So I quit,” he muttered. The words were still thick and pasty, as if he’d been asleep for years. He shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe himself. He kept shaking his head as he looked out the hotel-room window.

“Where the hell am I?” He repeated to himself. The view out the window didn’t help him come to an answer.

The window had wooden louvers and shutters, not your typical Raddison Inn touch. Looking out it, to one side, he saw a bluff that rose about sixty feet above an unmarked, snow-white beach. Beyond was a lagoon of water a brilliant shade of blue, a color that he’d only seen in National Geographic specials. Tropical woodland crowded around on the other side, except where a road of white gravel snaked past the side of the hotel.

He looked at the palms rustle in the breeze. He had to in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands, The Pacific maybe…

Until now, at the hotels he frequented, a good view had been one that didn’t face the airport.

Maybe I finally landed a decent job. . .

Christ, if that was the case, where had his memory gone? Quaid couldn’t believe, even with his history, that he would do something stupid like celebrate a new position with enough one-arm curls to wipe out his still-drying synapses.

That wasn’t quite truthful.

He didn’t wantto believe it. When he was honest, he wouldn’t put it past himself.

But, he hadawoken in worse predicaments than this one. When it came down to mornings after, waking up naked in a luxury hotel in Fiji, Tahiti, or wherever didn’t even rank in the top twenty— with or without his memory.

“Things could be worse,” he said, allowing himself a chuckle.

That phrase had been a personal motto of his before he’d hit bottom and joined AA. The day she left him, Judy had said that they were going to etch those words on his tombstone.

He didn’t know if repeating the phrase now was a conscious effort at being ironic with himself, or if he was slipping into old patterns of denial.

He really could use a beer right now.

Quaid shrugged off the craving and got up to look for his clothes.

He opened drawers and cabinets. Bureau, wardrobe and even the end-table, were all empty. They didn’t even contain the obligatory bible or tourist pamphlets. Not even hotel stationary. That seemed odd enough, but Quaid didn’t stop to ponder it— he was feeling more and more exposed without any clothes on. It seemed ludicrous that he’d come here with his glasses and nothing else.

To his relief, he found his clothes in an open suitcase, sitting on a stand in a closet. He stepped into the closet and had the disturbing realization that it was one of threesuitcases.

He had never packed that much for a business trip. Those usually only rated an overnight bag. Even when he and Judy had gone on vacation together— the last time two years ago— they’d only taken two suitcases and an overnight bag between them.

Threesuitcases could have contained every scrap of clothing he owned. One suitcase he didn’t recognize as his, and it looked brand new. He bent over it and saw it still had a Wal-Mart inventory tag on it.

Wish I knew why I came here. It’s got to be an interesting story.

Quaid pulled on some jeans and a polo shirt that seemed light enough for the climate, and began noticing more oddities about this hotel he found himself in. First off, there was no television. That, combined with the absence of any tourist literature, struck him as odd enough that he started lookingfor other things out of place.

He found them— or, more correctly, he didn’t find them.

There was no phone. Not only was there no phone in the room itself, he tried to hunt down his cell phone in his luggage, including the mystery case, which just held more of his clothes.

Whoever had packed him for this trip hadn’t included the phone. That shouldn’t have bothered him, since he was probably miles outside the roaming area, but its absence made him uneasy. He was also somewhat disturbed that his luggage didn’t include any other electronic devices. Not his ThinkPad, not his Walkman, not even his calculator.

The hotel didn’t even have its own radio.

Quaid looked out the window, at the empty beaches. The only thing moving out there was a lone gull catching an updraft, and the occasional breaker rolling across the too-blue water. He was overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation, as if this room was cut off from everything else in the world. As if he was the only human being for thousands of miles.

The thought lasted for about five minutes, until he heard a woman screaming.

#

“Thomas?”

The word left Beatrice Greenhart’s lips before she had fully awakened. Her dead husband’s name spoken in the tones of a prayer, a talisman against the unknowns hiding in the darkness.

Hearing her own plea to the absent Mr. Greenhart awoke her fully with a sense of sourceless dread. It was a feeling stronger than any she had felt since the morning of her husband’s stroke. She realized, with a combination of disgust and disorientation, that the bed she lay on was not her own.

She sat bolt upright and threw the covers off of herself as if they had been trying to strangle her.

“No. . .” her voice was a whisper. This wasn’t her house.

The air she breathed carried the copper taste of panic. She gripped her head as if she could pull the evil thoughts out of her body.

It claimed Thomas, it’s come for you. . .

“No.” He voice sounded old and frail in her ears.

It takes your mind first, your memory. . .

“No! Stop it!”Beatrice yelled in her loudest, most bitchy voice. It didn’t matter who it was she was shouting at— she managed to compose herself by force of will. Mr. Greenhart had not condoned pointless blubbering. She shouldn’t start now.

There was nothing wrong with her or her memory. Her brain was fine, intact, and working perfectly. She pushed herself out of the alien bed and hugged herself.

She wore her own nightgown, and slowly convinced herself that yes, she did remember going to sleep last night. She had gone to sleep in her own bed and had woken up—

Where?

She walked to a shuttered window, the wood floor cold against her naked feet. She pushed the shutters open on a wooded vista filled with alien trees.

There was little question. She had been kidnapped. Drugged or assaulted while she slept and abandoned here. Wherever here was. God only knew how long her captors had kept her unconscious, but Beatrice was thankful that it wasn’t any failing within her own skull that had done this to her.

Her pulse started racing as she looked out at the palms from her window and thought of the kidnappers, and where they might be now. She pressed her palms against her forehead and tried to force herself to exhibit some of Mr. Greenhart’s practicality.

That had been Thomas’ strong suit, no nonsense, no worry, no day-dreaming, no “wishy-washy bull crap” as he was fond of saying. He had been a nuts-and-bolts, here-and-now kind of man. If Beatrice had told him about her fears of kidnappers— as she had with her fears about muggers and rapists years ago— his response would have been something like, “Are there any here now? Get down to business, woman.”

Beatrice got down to business.

She wasn’t going to accomplish anything standing around in her nightgown, so she looked around the room hoping that her abductors had left her something she could wear.

They had.

In a well-worn suitcase that Beatrice had last seen in her attic’s crawl-space, she found most of the contents of her bedroom closet. The contents gave her a chill. They must have been watching her for a long time, they had only packed her recent clothes. She had been getting stouter in the past few years, and only about half the clothes she owned still fit her.

At least they were her clothes. She doubted she would have been able to put on unfamiliar clothes when she didn’t know their origin. Her skin still crawled when she thought about someone else’s sheets and blankets touching her. Thank god they had left her nightgown.

That brought another shudder.

They could have stripped off her nightclothes while she had slept. They could have done other things. . .

Down to business, woman!

She didn’t know what they’d done while she slept. Like the absent kidnappers, it didn’t bear thinking about.

She grabbed the clothes that were on top and pulled them on. She dressed quickly, trying to rush ahead of the random speculations that were trying to frighten her. In the back of her mind, Thomas’ ghost was telling her that her business was to get dressed, then find a phone, and get herself back home.

What have they done to me? What are they going to do to me?

However much she tried, she would never reach his level of businesslike detachment. Though at least she could manage a businesslike demeanor. She forced herself to slow down, not to let her panic control her movements. She pulled on a pleated charcoal-gray skirt in a deliberate, unhurried manner, even after she realized that this room had no phone.

That only makes sense, what kidnappers allow their prisoner a phone? The door is probably locked. . .

Her pulse raced again as she thought about having to leave by the window. There was a flagstone patio a story or two below. A fall that would easily break a hip, or a spine—

Thomas’ ever-practical voice was with her, saying to put on her shoes and try the door first, before she started worrying about the window.

She put on a pair of flats with cushioned soles and walked up to the elaborate Victorian door. The knob danced with scrollwork and at eye level was a circular trap door that served as a peephole. Cautiously, Beatrice opened the peephole and looked out.

She received a small circular view of another elaborate Victorian door across the hall. An engraved brass plaque identified it as the door to room 215.

Beatrice held her breath and tried the elaborate knob. It turned easily and the door pulled inward. The surprise of an unlocked door, if anything, frightened her more. She caught her breath and tried to stand up a little straighter. Her kidnappers must have just abandoned her here, in this hotel, after they were done with her. . .

“Find someone to call the police,” She whispered to herself as she stepped out into the hallway. She left the door open behind her, as she took a few tentative steps into the hallway. It was a long hallway, with a t-intersection on either end. She stood near one end of the hallway. About midway, on the wall opposite Beatrice’s door, she saw the top of a stairway. She started walking toward it.

It was definitely a hotel, the brass plaques numbering the rooms told her that. The carpet was dark, with blood-red patterns in it that complemented the dark wood paneling on the walls. The ceiling was high, with a scalloped plaster molding. The fabric wallpaper, on the walls above the wood paneling, featured pineapples and flowers in a twisting vine motif. Between every pair of doors, a thin table supported a pair of clawed lamps with Tiffany shades. She didn’t see anyone in the hall with her. There was an eerie feeling of emptiness that prayed on her fear. She clenched her fists, refusing to run, or start screaming for help.

She had almost reached the stairs, when she heard a voice behind her. “Madam? Pardon me. Do you speak English?”

She spun around, as if she had been struck. Her first thought was that her kidnappers had returned. They wouldn’t let her go home. Now that she was awake they would do what they wanted, because they wanted her to know what was. . .

She was shrinking from the stranger, ready to run from him, when Beatrice’s brain finally caught up with what he had said. “What?” She shook her head as if to clear it.

The man seemed to take Beatrice’s answer as affirmative. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” He was bald and had a snow-white mustache, and wore a blue work shirt and jeans. He had to be several years past retirement, but he was built as if he still did heavy manual labor every day. His face was lined and hard, but there was a lost expression on his face.

“This is crazy,” he said, “But can you tell me where we are?”

“Are you playing games with me?” She had a sudden conviction that this man was part of it. Why else would he be asking her such a question? Here? Now?

“No—”

“Stop it,” Beatrice said, her fear pushing her voice an octive higher and several decibels louder. “Stop trying to frighten me! Tell me why I was taken here!”

“I didn’t—” The man took a step back, frowning. “Let me start over. My name is Frank. I woke up in a hotel room down the hall, and I don’t remember how I got here.”

“You?”

Frank’s words muddled Beatrice’s fear up with an uncertainty and a disorientation as severe as that she had awakened with. She hugged herself trying to force herself not to feel the impact of what he was saying.

“Are you all right?” Frank asked.

“No!” Beatrice felt her upper body shake under arms that clutched her sides hard enough to make her ribs ache.

Too much. Too fast.

“Why am I here?” She asked, the edge gone from her voice. “Why would anyone want to take me here?” She looked up at Frank’s blurry face, mortified at her tears but unable to stop them. “Where is here?”

There was a long pause as Frank looked at her. The harness in his face broke for a moment.

“You too?” He asked, reaching out for her shoulder.

Down the hall, a door burst open to the sound of screaming.

#

Quaid ran out into the hall outside his room and into a Victorian hallway with textured fabric wallpaper, wood paneling, and blood-red carpeting. He could hear commotion down the hall from him, around a corner where another hallway entered his from the right. He heard smashing glass and a female voice screaming, “Who are you? What have you done to me?”

Then he heard more glass smash against something.

Quaid rounded the corner just in time to nearly collide with a black man at the convergence of the two hallways. The new guy was backing away from the scene. He didn’t even bother to look at Quaid, he kept looking down the hall, holding up his hands and saying, “Calm down, girl.”

The woman he was talking to could have benefited from his advice.

She was standing in the middle of the hallway holding the remains of a table lamp. The Victorian glass shade was scattered in multicolored fragments across the carpet. She held the brass lamp upside-down with both hands, as if she was ready to hit a world-series home run with the thing and the black guy was a wild pitch.

She stared at the black guy, then at Quaid, apparently trying to determine who was the bigger threat. Quaid had no clue what was going on. From the screams he’d thought a rape or a mugging, looking at her he wasn’t so sure now. She was barely covered in a sheer black nightgown that— with everything else— showed that she was unhurt. In body, at least.

“Who are you?” She yelled at the two of them, and the other guy looked at Quaid with an expression that said he didn’t want to be here.

They weren’t the only three in the hallway. There was an elderly couple standing on the other side of the woman. Quaid had missed the pair at first. The hysterical woman and her weapon grabbed most of his attention.

She whipped around to see the couple, as if Quaid’s notice had given their presence away. The old man stepped protectively between the two women and backed his companion away from the scene.

“Don’t you come near me!” She shook the lamp at the couple, and the man kept backing away.

“The bitch is nuts,” said the man next to Quaid. His voice was quiet enough that Quaid knew the guy didn’t intend him to hear, much less the woman. But the woman whipped around and yelled, “I am not crazy!” She swung the lamp in the black guy’s direction, and even though she was over six feet away and couldn’t connect, the move made the guy stumble backwards and fall on his ass.

Someone had to try and defuse the situation before anyone got hurt.

Fortunately, Quaid had long and repeated experience in dealing with explosive rages. Unfortunately, most of those times he’d been the one holding the lamp.

Quaid took a few tentative steps forward trying to picture himself as Judy, before she had given up on him. He winced when he walked on the remains of the glass shade in his bare feet.

He tried to duplicate Judy’s disarming look of concern as he asked her, “What’s the matter? Maybe I can help you.” Christ, was Judy as scared then as I am now?

He stopped approaching before he got within what might be perceived as a threatening distance— and about as close as he could get without being in easy clubbing range.

“What’s the matter?” She repeated his words with a dripping sarcasm that said that she thought Quaid knew perfectly well what the matter was. For all he knew, he should’ve. “Who do you think you are? You can’t do this to people. There’re laws. . .” he saw the muscles twitching in her face. The end of the lamp was shaking.

Quaid focused on the woman. If he could monopolize her attention, maybe one of these people with a more complete memory could slip away and get the local cops, or paramedics, or whatever. He risked a step forward and sucked in a breath as a shard of lampshade sliced open a chunk of his heel. “Do what to people? What’s happened to you?” That was one of Judy’s tricks, keep asking questions. Keep plugging away.

The lamp lowered a bit, which Quaid found encouraging.

She was looking at him, as if she until now she hadn’t quite seen him. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or so, though up close he could see signs of premature aging around the eyes and mouth. She was attractive, at one point she might have been shaped like a model, though right now she was too bony, her posture too beaten. Her hair was a flaming red that seemed to have come out of a bottle. Looking into her eyes, this close, made him wonder again if she had been raped.

“Who are you?” she asked. Her tone was normal now. She wasn’t shouting the question as if it was an accusation.

“Quaid Loman,” he said, and resisted the temptation to hold out his hand. “What’s your name?”

“C-Connie.”

“Why don’t you put down the lamp and tell me what’s going on?”

She didn’t put the lamp down, but she did lower it all the way. Quaid could hear the exhale from the guy behind him. She seemed to melt a little and asked him a question that made him stop breathing for a moment.

“How did I get here?” She asked him. “Where am I?”

Very slowly, he asked, “Don’t you remember how you came here?”

She shook her head. “It’s the white slavers, isn’t it? They want me to be a prostitute in some sick third-world country—”

“Connie, do we look like white slavers to you?” Quaid didn’t know what else to say to her. He was still trying to understand the implications of finding someone else with an incomplete memory. He looked over his shoulder at the black guy, who had managed to get to his feet by now. He was older than he first took him for, from the back he could have been in his twenties, but looking at his face, it was lined and his mustache was dusted with gray. “You aren’t a white slaver, are you?”

“No, man. I fix cars for a living.”

“What’s your name?” Quaid asked, splitting his attention between him and Connie. He had some thought that if he introduced all these strangers, it might calm Connie down.

“DeVay, Carlos DeVay—” He looked past Quaid and at Connie. “I didn’t have nothing to do with you being here, madam.”

Quaid looked back at Connie, and past her to the older couple. When he looked at them he realized that he had mislabeled them a couple. From the body language, and the way the woman was watching the man with as much suspicion as anyone else— with the possible exception of Connie— Quaid could tell that the two didn’t know each other.

The man was large, bald, with a bull neck and a white mustache. The woman was pear-shaped, with a tight helmet of brown curls. She peered at everyone through a narrow, suspicious squint.

“What about you two?” he asked. “What about your names? Connie can trust you, right?”

“I am Mrs. Thomas Greenhart, son. If anyone has some explaining to do, it’s the young lady— not to mention—”

“I think we can understand her dilemma,” the man said, “Can’t we, Mrs. Greenhart?”

Mrs. Thomas Greenhart gave the man a look that accused him of betraying a confidence. Quaid was beginning to have an uneasy feeling exactly what that confidence was.

The man stepped forward, still keeping his body between Connie and Mrs. Greenhart, “Frank Pisarski,” he said. He looked at Connie and said. “I don’t think you need to worry about us. I’m believe all of us are in the same boat.”

Connie looked at him, “What. . .”

Quaid asked, “How did you get here, Frank?”

Frank Pisarski spread a pair of strong hands and said, “Haven’t a clue.”

Carlos let out a long whistle. “Oh man, you too?”

“Mrs. Greenhart and I just ran into each other, just realized our mutual amnesia, when Miss—” He paused, looked at Connie, and when a surname wasn’t forthcoming continued, “—when Connie here ran into the hall.”

Connie looked at Quaid and he saw the question in her eyes even before she asked it.

“Yes,” Quaid said, “Me too.”