Chapter no 20

The Final Gambit (The Inheritance Games, 3)

wasn’t sure which was going to be harder: convincing Max to let Oren assign a bodyguard to her or showing that picture of Toby to Eve. I ended up going in search of Max first and found her and Eve in the bowling alley with Xander, who had a bowling ball in each hand.

“I call this move the helicopter,” he intoned, lifting his arms to the side.

Even in the darkest of times, Xander was Xander. “You’re going to drop one of those on your foot,” I said.

“That’s okay,” Xander responded cheerfully. “I have two feet!”

“Did Skye know anything about the disk?” Eve brushed past Xander and Max. “Is she involved?”

“No to the second question,” I said. “And the first doesn’t matter right now.” I swallowed, my plan of confronting the Max situation first evaporating. “This does.” I handed Eve the picture of Toby and looked away.

I couldn’t watch, but not watching didn’t help. I could feel Eve beside me, staring at the picture. Her breathing was audible and uneven. She felt this, the way I did.

“Get rid of it.” Eve dropped the photograph. Her voice rose. “Get it out of here.”

I bent to pick up the photo, but Xander ditched the bowling balls and beat me to it. He took out his phone. As I watched, he turned it to flashlight mode and ran it behind the photo.

“What are you doing?” Max asked.

I was the one who answered. “He’s looking to see if

there’s a message embedded in the paper’s grain.” If some parts of the page were denser than others, the light wouldn’t penetrate as well. I hadn’t wanted to look that closely at the photograph, at Toby’s face, but now that Xander had turned on flashlight mode, my brain shifted gears. What if there’s more to this message?

“We’re going to need a black light,” I said. “And a heat source.” If we were dealing with someone familiar with Tobias Hawthorne’s games, then invisible ink was a definite possibility.

“On it!” Xander said. He handed me the photo, then bounded out of the room.

“What are you doing?” Eve asked me, her words coming out hollow.

I was scanning the photo, looking past Toby’s injuries this time. “The newspaper,” I said suddenly, forcefully. “The one Toby’s holding.” I took out my own phone and took a photo of the photo, so I could zoom in. “The front-page article.” Adrenaline flooded my bloodstream. “Some of the letters are blacked out. See this word? You can tell from context that it should be crisis, but the first is blacked out. Same for the in this word. Then LW. Another A.”

Sliding over to the bowling computer, I hit the button to enter a new player and typed in the five letters I’d already read off, then kept going. In total, there were eighteen letters blacked out in the article.

D. I typed the last one, then went back and added spacing. I hit Enter, and the message flashed across the scoring screen overhead. I ALWAYS WIN IN THE END.

I’d known that someone was playing with us, with me. But this made it so much clearer that Toby’s abductor wasn’t just playing with me. They were playing against me.

When Xander came back carrying a black light in one hand and a Tiffany lamp in the other, he took one look at the words on the screen and set them down. “A bold choice of name,” he said. He gave me a hopeful look. “Yours?”

“No.” I refused to give in to the darkness that wanted to come and instead turned to Max. “I’m going to need you to agree to take a bodyguard back with you tomorrow.”

Max opened her mouth, probably to object, but Xander poked her shoulder. “What if we can get you someone dark and mysterious with a tragic backstory and a soft spot for puppies?” he said in a wheedling tone.

After a long moment, Max poked him back. “Sold.”

When things settled down even a little, she and I were going to be having a long talk about poking, nightstands, and her friendship with Xander Hawthorne. But for now…

I turned to Oren, a new fear hitting me far too late. “What about Jameson and Grayson? They’re still not home.” If anyone close to me could be a target, then—

“I have a man on each of them,” Oren replied. “Last I heard, the boys were still together, and things were getting ugly. Hawthorne ugly,” he clarified. “No external threats.”

Given their emotional states after that conversation with Skye, Hawthorne ugly was probably the best we could hope for.

They’re safe. For now. Feeling claustrophobic, I turned back to the words on the screen. I ALWAYS WIN IN THE END.

“Single first-person pronoun,” I said, because it was easier to dissect the message than to wonder what winning looked like to the person who had Toby. “That suggests we’re dealing with an individual, not a group. And the words in the end, those seem to imply that there might have been losses along the way.” I breathed, and I thought, and I willed myself to see more than that in the words. “What else?”



Two and a half hours later, Jameson and Grayson still weren’t home, and I was spinning my wheels. I’d been over and over the message, and then the photo itself again and

the envelope, in case there was something else there. But nothing I did seemed to matter.

Avenge. Revenge. Vengeance. Avenger. I always win in the end.

“I hate this,” Eve said, her voice quiet and reedy. “I hate

feeling helpless.” I did, too.

Xander looked from Eve to me. “Are you two brooding?” he asked. “Because, Avery, I am, as ever, your BHFF, and you know the penalty for brooding!”

“I am not playing Xander Tag,” I told him. “What’s Xander Tag?” Max asked.

“What isn’t Xander Tag?” Xander replied philosophically. “Is this all a joke to you?” Eve asked sharply.

“No,” Xander said, his voice suddenly serious. “But sometimes a person’s brain starts cycling. No matter what you do, the same thoughts just keep repeating, over and over. You get stuck in a loop, and when you’re inside that loop, you can’t see past it. You’ll keep coming up with the same possibilities, to no end, because the answers you need

—they’re outside the loop. Distractions aren’t just distractions. Sometimes they can break you out of the loop, and once you’re out, once your brain stops cycling—”

“You see the things you missed before.” Eve stared at Xander for a moment. “Okay,” she said finally. “Bring on the distractions, Xander Hawthorne.”

“That,” I warned her, “is a very dangerous thing to say.” “Pay no attention to Avery!” Xander instructed. “She’s

just a little gun-shy from The Incident.” Max snorted. “What incident?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Xander said, “and in my defense, I didn’t expect the zoo to send an actual tiger. Now…” He tapped his chin. “What are we in the mood for? The Floor Is Magma? Sculpture Wars? Jell-O Assassins?”

“I’m sorry.” Eve’s voice was stilted. She turned toward the door. “I can’t do this.”

“Wait!” Xander called after her. “What are your thoughts on fondue?”

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