Justine Jones is a hypochondriac. Her personal mental malady? Vein Star Syndrome. Justine fears that at any minute the pinpoint pain and tingling sensations she feels in her head are going to result in a ruptured vein and inevitable death.
This overwhelming fear makes it hard for Justine to have the normal life she craves. Her relationship with her boyfriend Cubby is strained at best, and her financial situation leaves something to be desired as late night ER visits and continuous cat scans have left her bank account a little sparse.
Enter Sterling Packard, the handsome, mysterious owner of Mongolian Delites restaurant. Justine runs into him at a dinner with Cubby and feels an instant pull toward him. A short time after their encounter, Packard sends for Justine and asks for a meeting in person. Here, he divulges that he can give her the fear-free existence for which she's been hoping. He tells Justine that he and those in his employ are a group of unlikely crime fighters who, instead of embarking on vigilante killings, "disillusion" their targets by infusing them with a fear to which they are vulnerable. Once their mental state is compromised, they are able to reboot and return to society as useful members. Each member of Packard's team has an all too common vice (gambling, alcholism, rage) they are then able to "zing" into their target. Zinging is the transference of their vice or fear into another person. Once the target is zinged, that hypochondria, anger, urge to gamble, etc takes root and they begin to self destruct. The team member who did the zinging is left in a state of euphoria, completely free of the vice that previously consumed their lives.
This prospect holds a great deal of allure for Justine and she agrees to join Packard's group of misfits after he provides a quick demonstration of zinging. The story progresses to her taking on a couple targets who are susceptible to different physical afflictions, and thus perfect for her brand of attention. Once Justine becomes Packard's minion, she begins to realize that things aren't quite as black and white as Packard made them seem. She starts seeing the humanity in her targets, and questions Packard's motives for disillusioning them. As with many of the characters in Mind Games, there's so much more to Packard than what's on the surface. His ability to read people is infallible, but yet he himself is impossible to read. Questions continue to be raised as Justine discovers tidbits about Packard's past, about the city she lives in, her targets, and the people she thought could do no wrong.
This story started out a little slow for me. The premise itself is intriguing and original, but it took a while for everything to be explained, the characters to be in place, and the real plot to start. Once it got going however, I couldn't put it down.
Justine is an extremely likeable heroine and her bouts of hypochondria add quite a bit of humor. For instance, when she finds herself in an extremely precarious and threatening situation with a target, instead of devising a plan for self-rescue, this is what's running through her head:
"And he's so heavy on me, it's hard to breathe. Is he collapsing my lungs? And what about my head? The pain in my temple is back."
Not what my thought process would be in that situation, but that's just me. Ms. Crane does a fantastic job of blurring the lines between good and evil, and she has created characters who don't fit neatly under either definition, but rather posess qualities that straddle that fine line. The more information Justine, and thus us as readers, receives the more confusing the truth becomes. Furthermore, it becomes clear that there can be more than one truth in a single situation, and both sides have extremely convincing stories to support their point of view. Heroes could possibly be villans, villans could be heroes and we all just have to wait for the next installment to see what happens.
Another well executed aspect of this book is the sexual tension between Packard and Justine. She's drawn to him, but there's so much she doesn't know and he has enough aces up his sleeve to outfit several decks. I thought about their relationship long after I finished the book and I found myself running to the computer to find the release date for the second one.
Overall, it started slow, but finished very strong and left me wanting more:)