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Jill used to watch Robyn play blackjack in Vegas and wondered why she did- n't take the House for everything they had. Robyn's open-mouthed aston- ishment was followed by the answer that consistently winning too much money would get Robyn on somebody's shit list and no casino in town would so much as let her walk through the door. Besides, that's not how precognition works, Robyn said, taking this as a good opportunity to try to explain.

The first thing Jill needed to realize, Robyn told her, was that the free will of herself and others was paramount, and it constantly obscured her talent for precog. The other players could hit or stand and there was no way for Robyn to predict what they would do, and each choice affected what cards would be dealt to the players down the line, which in turn would af- fect their decision to hit or stand, and so on. The variables multiplied beyond Robyn's ability to sort them out. That's why I always wait until the seat is open at Third Base before sitting at a table, she said. And by Third Base, Jill understood that to mean the seat that was serviced by the dealer last, just before he turned over his own cards. That way all the variables were reduced to just those affected by Robyn's own choices.

The only thing I can see without fail, sha said, is whether the deal- er's going to get a blackjack, and if that happens I can sit out the hand with no bet but if I do that every single time they will catch on and toss me out on my ass. So sometimes Robyn lost a hand, but it was always just the minimum bet. Sometimes the cards were no help and there was no way to beat the dealer no matter what sha did. But Robyn never busted by going over twenty-one unless sha wanted to throw the watchers off her tail, the ones snooping on closed-circuit TV through cameras mounted over the table. And if sha could see sha was going to beat the dealer sha doubled down. The result after a few hours of relaxation and exercising har talent was a mild buzz from her drinks and a few hundred dollars. Every night. Before sha moved into space Robyn considered gambling to be har primary occupation.

One thing still puzzled Jill, however. Robyn had no problem predicting stock market crashes or recessions, and they had infinitely more variables than a simple blackjack game. The big stuff is easier, Robyn said. It's not about a single person telling a dealer hit or stand, it's about groups acting together, buying and selling things. And I can narrow things down if a single person commits himself to a course that is irrevocable.

And that was precisely what Hunky had done by beginning to take possession of hyz fellow Bene Elohim. If Hunky was quickly found out, hy would be immediately driven into the camp of Belial, and if his deeds went undetect- ed, hy would gradually alienate the other Family members until hy was forced to remove himself to Belial's side. It was just a question of time.

A surface probe by Jill established where Hunky was located. Sha went up to his apartment with Robyn in tow while Lilith continued to negotiate with the Iranians. Hello, mother, hy said, letting them both in. Briefly hy was tempted to take possession of Robyn first, judging har to have the greater power but Jill would broadcast a warning to the others if hy tried.

Really, son? You're going over to Belial? Why have you closed your mind to me, Hunky? Tell me what's going on with you. What's wrong?

Hunky deserved an Oscar for his performance. He sobbed and extended his arms, inviting hyz mother to give hym a hug. Hy needed close physical con- tact to make the possession work. Jill and Hunky moved together. And then hyz mind was bearing down on hars with irresistible force, compressing and diminishing Jill's very soul. With any other person the trick would have worked, but Jill's talent was the ability to copy the talent of the other Bene Elohim, which sha promptly did in a desperate act of self-preserva- tion. Immediately sha was taking possession of Hunky even as hy was tying to take her. Her mind regained lost intensity until they were balanced in stalemate. Then Robyn brought the base of a lamp down on Hunky's head.

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Strangers In Paradise