This book contains violence, sexual situations, and a reasonable amount of course language, as well as a thrilling plot and entertaining characters.
I LOOKED LIKE AN easy mark. One arm held a primitive flip-phone to my ear. The other was busy with a grocery bag. The forest green apron around my hips suggested I could be a waitress, returning home from a closing shift with pockets full of tips. The man’s footsteps sped up behind me.
“He’s moving in,” Quin said on the phone.
A bundle of fresh carrots tipped out of the paper bag, but I caught the phone with my chin and grabbed them. “Yeah,” I spoke carelessly as I shoved the carrots into the bag. “I know he’s hot.” I palmed the phone and tossed my head to get the black-brown hair off my shoulder. “But he’s also kind of a dick.”
Quin snorted. “I thought you learned that lesson with Keith. It’s the next door on your right. Pull out your keys like you mean to use them.”
“Alright, listen to me,” I said as I reached into my apron. “You think you can keep it physical this time, but you can’t.” The steel door was less than ten feet away when my stalker’s shoes started clipping the cement at a light jog.
“Wait. I’m the one dating this guy?” Quin laughed.
“I’m just saying it would be a mistake.” I kept my face straight.
“What will I tell Dana?”
“It’s your sex life,” I sighed as I pulled my keys out of my apron.
Someone’s obnoxious neighbor was playing music so loudly that it drowned out the footfalls behind me. My heart quickened, even though I knew Quin had eyes on everything. He’d tell me if the guy got too close.
No street lamps intruded on the road, but the light from business signs and billboards was more than enough to see. The lights in the City of Ash never went out; they just changed from natural to neon with the dusk. As a result, there were few places I could walk down the sidewalk in the middle of the night without being seen by anyone. I was on that dank, dirty, little street because it happened to be one of them.
So, I would guess, was the man coming up behind me.
I was five feet from the door when Quin said, “He’s slowing down. Thinks he’s sneaking up on you.” He clearly expected me to stop and fiddle with the lock. He hadn’t noticed that it was electronic, but my keys weren’t.
Keys still in hand, I grabbed the door handle, swept inside, and closed it quickly behind me.
The handle rattled, but Quin had already relocked it. I faced the grungy corridor and shoved my keys into my apron while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I passed a pile of garbage bags that hadn’t quite made it to the dumpster, keeping silent until I was sure the man couldn’t hear me through the door.
“Are you tracking him?” I said as I pulled a pair of gloves out of my pocket.
“All resources are on you,” Quin said.
I strode down the empty corridor toward a bank of elevators. Gripping the bag with the crook of my elbow, I wiggled my fingers into the gloves. “I can handle a few minutes off—”
“No. Absolutely no.” Quin opened one of six elevators when I was still ten paces away. I switched the phone from my shoulder to my free hand and watched the destination floor flash from G to sixty-two.
“That guy was clearly following me,” I said as the elevator shot up.
“He lost you.”
“I’m saying he’s dangerous.” Quin’s silence stretched, and I added, “To other people.”
“What do you want me to do? Call city security?”
“Of course not.”
“Because I can probably track him down if I send you home.”
“No,” I said quickly. “But if he hurts someone else, it’ll be our fault.”
“It’ll be his fault, actually.”
I fell into helpless silence, and Quin said nothing more. The elevator slowed, and the door slid open. The hall in front of me was brightly lit, and the clean, tan walls and deep plum carpet were a far cry from the peeling gray paint, vinyl tile, and garbage bags that decorated the ground floor.
“So this is a good neighborhood?” I said to ease the tension as I started down the hallway.
“That classification is relative,” he said absently.
“I live in a roach-infested dump.”
“I’m not judging your lifestyle choices.”
“Five of my last seven neighbors left for the free rent in prison.”
“Why haven’t I tried that?” Quin wondered.
“Cause you’re too pretty for jail.”
“Remarks like that are why we’re friends,” he said.
I smirked at a security camera as I passed, confident that Quin was the only person who’d see me.
“My point is, I’ve been living in that dump for years.” Floor to ceiling windows glinted with the light of the billboards outside. “And I don’t always keep decent-people hours.”
“You are on the phone with me at one A.M.,” he agreed.
“And I’ve never had trouble walking through my own neighborhood at night. Not once.”
“You’re dressed extra harmless tonight. Maybe the thugs in your area are intimidated by your usual look.”
“No one’s intimidated by any of my looks.” I took a turn and walked toward the glass double-doors at the end of the hall. “You were scared shitless of Mel’s cat, and you’re not afraid of me.”
“That cat was half my size.”
“It was a cat.”
“It was small and fuzzy.”
“Those things are killers.”
“It had three legs.”
“And four fangs.”
I smiled into the phone. The doors unlocked with a loud click as I approached, and I pushed my way through to step onto an empty skyway. It was ten feet wide and stretched seventy feet across the gap between towers. The building’s subtle sway had been imperceptible, until I started walking across that narrow bridge of steel and glass. I grimaced.
The glass walls around me reflected the night, and the cheshire grin of the waning moon had just crested the eastern skyline far above. Quin stayed silent as I crossed the skyway, and neither of us spoke until I’d passed through the next building.
“Elevator’s clear. Change in plans, though. You’re going down to floor fifty-two to avoid a guard in the hall. Take that skyway across and go back up.”
I walked up to the bank of elevators and into the one he opened for me. When the elevator stopped, the door stayed shut.
“Someone in the hall,” Quin explained. “Hold on.”
I kept quiet until the door opened into another barren corridor.
“No more talking,” Quin said. “Unless you want to give me more fake relationship advice.”
“I said what I needed to say.”
The conversation devolved into me muttering random words of assent and the occasional, “whatever,” until I reached the last skyway. My goal waited across eight lanes of sparse, distant traffic.
“Are you good?” Quin asked as the doors to the skyway slid open.
“Am I?” I walked out over the night.
“Yeah. Everything’s clear. Be safe.”
“I’ll be quick.” I hung up, turned off the phone, and dropped it into my apron pocket. Private security inside would pick up any signal my cell sent out if I left it on. It might not cause me a problem that night, but it wasn’t best practice to leave a trail that could be easily avoided.
Shifting the grocery bag from my hip to both arms, I strode across the walkway. The last elevator waited open for me, and it took me up to another sleepy hallway on the fifty-ninth floor. I hung a right and passed three doors before a quiet click announced that Quin had triggered the fourth door open.
The barren apartment smelled of new paint and bleach, and open blinds across the room let in the only light. I walked into the kitchen and set the groceries down by the garbage chute. I tossed the food from the top of the bag into the chute and pulled the brown wig off my head, then stopped everything to rub the itchiness out of my scalp. The plastic bag that had been hidden under the veggies, I emptied onto the counter.
My black stealth boots and mask might have drawn the wrong kind of attention in the street. A sixteen inch curve of steel wrapped in a black towel might have drawn eyes too. I pulled on a long black coat that was bulky enough to hide everything I carried, as well as the fact that I had hips, then dropped everything that wasn’t going with me down the garbage chute. If Quin was still doing his job, all evidence that I’d been there would be ashes inside of a minute.
The balcony door had a mechanical lock. Opening it was easy. Locking it once I stepped outside was impossible, but no job ever went perfectly. And who was likely to worry if the windows weren’t locked fifty-nine stories up?
The balcony was walled with a thick stone balustrade. I set my palms on it and leaned forward. Even that high up, buildings obscured most of the city. Brilliant white billboards and neon advertisements drowned out the starlight, leaving the moon looking lonely in her sky. Far to the east, the dome of the industrial district filled the gaps between buildings. Its massive, blast-proof shield produced no light, but the moon lit it up like a spherical mountain at the edge of town. In two different directions, at wildly different altitudes, red signs warned me that it was after midnight and not safe to be out.
Before I made another move, I whispered four syllables. Ice kissed my lips as I repeated the chant, and cold crept across my face, shrouding my flesh in a wild pattern that I could feel but not see. The invisible lines and whorls crossed my cheeks. They cut over my scalp, where the pattern blurred into a flash of bliss and searing pain that spread down my neck and over my body. It was a fight to keep chanting, but the pain subsided, and the pleasure faded, until all that remained was a dull chill that spiked in rhythm with my heart.
Still chanting, I climbed over the rail and told myself that the drop was closer to one foot than seven hundred. I stuck my feet between the posts and carefully lowered myself until I hung from the edge of the balcony. I was just tall enough to get my toes onto the stone barrier below, and I leaned inward as I let go, falling into a crouch while I grabbed the heavy stone for stability. Quashing the desire to sigh in relief, I stepped down on the balcony and moved toward the double-paned glass doors. The room was dark, still, and hopefully empty. The door slid open when I checked the lock, and I moved inside, making no sound but the quiet chant on my breath.
Vaulted ceilings. Hardwood floors. Original art on the walls. Once I eased the door shut, rosewood blinds blocked much of the night’s neon glow. I felt a pang of desire when a glance into the kitchen revealed a dusky marble counter and mahogany cabinets. My kitchen was plywood and chipped ceramics. I’d broken into more expensive apartments, on higher floors, but none had such an elegant aesthetic.
Other tags I’d seen shared a reliable set of bad habits. Their extravagances were symptoms of the hubris that had brought them to my attention in the first place. This guy was smarter. He’d learned to rein in the ego that comes from finding out other people’s rules no longer apply to you. Evan Larken had no wall-to-wall computer screens, no gold doorknobs and self-portraits. No statuary.
A little smarter, and maybe I wouldn’t have paid him a visit.
I moved into his living room in a fluid half-crouch. I saw no cameras or motion detectors. No alarm sounded, and no feet pounded down the hall. I’d have been shocked if they did. Quin hadn’t failed me yet. If he did screw up, the mask covered my hair and face, and my ID chip was rigged to be unreadable. At worst the investigators would get my gender and a rough estimate of my height.
Actually, in the worst case I’d be killed, but that was the risk of messing with Larken’s kind of power.
In front of me, a black leather corner couch faced a mirror that probably concealed a large screen. Bookshelves lined his living room, sporting an expensive array of titles in old-fashioned paper and ink. Light seeped under a closed door to my left, and I crept toward it.
The quiet click of the doorknob vanished under the background noise of vents and running water. The lamp in his bedroom was dim, but vibrant light emanated from a cracked door across the room. Through it, I heard the shower and glimpsed a tile floor.
I hardly had time to glance around his room before the stink of defecation hit me, souring the musky scent of sex. My stomach lurched, but years of training kept my chanting steady.
A woman lay in his bed, obscured except for a slim pale arm over the dark sheets. I froze. He was supposed to be alone. I might have run, but the stench and her stillness stopped me. There was a void, a depression around her body that I couldn’t see or hear, but I felt it. It was a palpable absence. It was death.
She was a victim, not a potential witness. I could still do the job.
I stole into the bedroom and closed the door. The sheets wrapped around her legs and thighs. Her bare skin shone with sweat.
With the chant breathing for me, I shouldn’t have smelled much, but the scent of her death grated at my calm as I approached the bed.
Her slack jaw, glassy eyes, and the foul smell should have been enough, but I pressed the vein in her exposed wrist. Her skin felt warm through my thin gloves. Warm and utterly still. Her wrist was supple, her fingers limp. She had died recently, and without obvious injury.
The shower went silent. I slipped around the bed so I’d have a clear view of Larken and he of me. If he saw through my invocation, I had a clean shot at the exit. But I didn’t think he would.
I caught a flash of skin as he stepped past the crack of light, then he threw the door open and walked into the room. He was tall, with smooth skin for a man who was supposed to be pushing fifty. The towel around his waist showed his thick muscles, and water spiked his short hair. His eyes absently slid over the room before focusing on the body in his bed.
He didn’t see me.
Adrenaline burst through my veins and gave life to an aching fury in my gut.
I let my voice normalize, and the chant left my lips at a comfortable volume.
He didn’t hear me.
Evan Larken wasn’t human.
Larken strode toward the bed, picked up a phone, and tapped the screen. I stopped, dropped the chant to a whisper, and covered my mouth.
“I need a cleanup.” His voice was higher than I expected, its tones dulcet and boyish. He paused. “None of yours, you shit.” I would have paid a lot to learn who was on the other end of that call. “Send someone, or you’re out.” He ran his fingers through his hair after he hung up. He looked at her, and for a moment, I thought his anger had been for himself, not the voice on the phone.
I had no time to think that way. I could hope he hadn’t called within the building, but I didn’t dare count on it. My front door escape path was screwed, and I had to work fast. I reached into my coat to loosen the strap that held my khukuri in place, then guided the forward curving blade with my off hand as it slid from its sheath.
I stalked after Larken as he moved toward the bedroom door. My chant bubbled up as I matched his pace, drew the blade up, and opened the back of his thigh. The skin split with a cascade of blood. He shouted as his leg collapsed, bringing the mark closer to me as I stepped around him. I had to finish it before his wound healed.
He scrambled onto all fours. The navy blue towel opened and slid down his thighs. “No!” Larken threw up one hand as he flailed for balance with the other. His eyes darted around wildly but never stopped on me. He would see nothing but his empty room, his blood spilling on the floor and his victim dead on the bed.
“Money.” He swung at me on the wrong side. “I have money!” He made another blind swipe. The laceration on his leg began to knit together from the ends.
I stepped in, lifting the small sword with both hands.
“I’ll pay anything you wa—”
The khukuri tore through his neck.
His blood soaked the carpet.
My chant flowed. I’d have liked to tell him where he could shove his money, but interrupting the chant to be snarky to a dead man would earn me an embarrassing epitaph.
The need to continue chanting was so deeply ingrained that I didn’t have to think about it while I worked. I pulled a folded-up backpack from my coat and shook it open, then upturned it on the floor. Its contents spilled, releasing a rag, a squashed roll of duct tape, and a plastic bag. I picked up the rag, cleaned my blade, and sheathed it. The rag went into the plastic bag, and I pushed the head in after it. I added my gloves, wrapped it tight, and taped it shut.
I tossed the bag into the backpack and replaced my gloves with a clean pair, then pulled the backpack over my shoulders as I walked past Larken’s body. His living room was silent and still. The unlocked balcony door waited for me.
A backward glance showed no footprints when I reached my exit, but a picture frame caught my eye. My heart jumped into motion, feeding a sickness in my gut that twisted into claws digging at my chest. I forgot my haste as I approached his book shelves, captured by the photo.
I picked it up, staring at the man next to Larken. I hadn’t noticed the resemblance when I’d studied Larken’s file, but it was clear when I saw them side by side. They might have been brothers or cousins. The people around them were probably family or friends, but they could have been chimpanzees in corsets for all I knew. I hardly saw them.
Without a thought for the consequences, I stuffed the picture frame into my coat, jogged out to the balcony, and closed the sliding door with shaking hands. A stiff breeze stole the chant from my lips, but it wouldn’t carry far with all the ambient sound.
I climbed onto the balustrade and took one long step to the next balcony. The skyway two floors down and three windows over was close, but not so close that I could look at it without noticing how tiny the cars on the street were. I swallowed a sigh. It wasn’t safe to drop the chant yet.
The next gap stretched much farther. I took a few quick steps and jumped. My feet hit the ledge sliding, but I moved with the fall and landed on the platform. I stood. Clammy sweat stuck the mask to my face and my gloves to my hands. Another jump put me on a balcony above the skyway, and I sat on the balustrade as I twisted over the side.
Light shone through the window in front of me, illuminating a man as he left his refrigerator with something in his hands. He turned toward me, and I dropped out of sight. The light in his apartment should have made me difficult to see in the darkness, but the glowing billboards behind me could create a very out of place silhouette.
I descended two more floors and stepped down onto the skyway. Solar cells lined its roof. Their glossy black surface was textured to support maintenance workers, and I crossed the gap between buildings without slipping. I built up speed for another jump and landed with a loud rattle on the metal mesh platform of a fire escape. The steel quieted only a little as I raced up the steps. At the top floor, I glanced back at Larken’s apartment, but the balcony door remained closed, and nothing moved within.
I turned away and levered myself over the outer wall and onto the roof, then sprinted across the top of the building. Some of my tension released when I lost sight of Larken’s window. I jumped over a narrow gap to the next rooftop and raced for a stairwell. The door faced away from Larken’s building, obscuring it from the sight of anyone or anything within. I tried the knob, and it turned. Unlocked, as promised. I went inside and locked the door behind me. A small stack of clothes waited on the steps.
I took a deep breath. Draining the chant from my skin left me slightly warm, but empty. I pulled my mask off and wiped the cold sweat from my face.
The backpack slipped from my shoulders and landed on the stair by my feet. I stripped off my clothes, wiped down my shoes, then shoved the blood-splattered garments into the pack. Adjusting a few straps pulled the sheath tight against my spine. The khukuri would be difficult to draw if I needed it, but if I needed it now, I was probably dead anyway. I dressed in the loose jeans and t-shirt left for me, untied the braid that bound my hair, and shook it loose. Then I slipped the phone out of my pocket, turned it on, and made a call.
“Yeah?” Quin answered after the first ring.
“He was a tag,” I said. “It’s done, and I’m out. He had a guest, but I was too late to help her.”
“May she rest in peace,” he said.
“Right. He called someone to clean her up.”
“You get an I.D.?”
“No. Can you trace it?”
“Probably not. Go home.”
“You sure our guy came through?”
“He’s a very devout man,” Quin said. “The door was open, wasn’t it?”
“And you haven’t been swarmed by cops?”
“The night is young.”
“Then head down.” He didn’t laugh, but I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Whatta ya see?”
“Blue skies and nude beaches, all the way to the horizon,” he said in a tone that demanded a smart ass reply.
“Thanks,” I said dully and hung up. The picture frame was light wood, but it hung heavy in my coat.
I took the stairs two at a time, but sixty floors of sterile white steps still took a while. The late hour and a little luck helped me avoid other people until I reached the basement door. A worn metal plate warned that “Authorized Persons Only” probably didn’t include me, but I tried the knob anyway. It clicked open, letting me into a wide concrete room full of cleaning supplies and maintenance equipment. Vertical toilet plungers ringed a seven foot high stack of bright orange cones, because apparently someone in maintenance had had a boring day.
A hallway straight ahead cut through the concrete to a room lined with pipes, full of tanks and noisy machines. The one I wanted was obvious – the same maintenance worker who’d fixed the locks had turned it on and left the door wide open. It was ready to go, according to the note I found beside it.
I read his instructions, crumbled them up, and tossed them into the machine. I tossed the cheap phone after. Then I swung the backpack off my shoulders and threw it in the incinerator too.
I COLLAPSED ON MY bed without adjusting the bunched up covers. When I closed my eyes, her lifeless face filled my head, empty gaze fixed on Evan Larken’s ceiling.
My eyes shot open.
Unnatural light filtered into my room. In a few hours, the sun would chase away the neon night, but it would only briefly touch my window at midday, before the City of Ash’s steel and glass teeth swallowed it again.
I stared at the window, glanced at the clock, didn’t like what it said, and rolled over to glare at the dilapidated wall. I kept my place clean, but scrubbing did not improve the appearance of peeling paint. It was also an ineffective weapon against fixtures so corroded there was nothing left of them but rust.
I could have had better, but not on the pay of a part-time courier. The money from my other job wasn’t mine, as far as I was concerned. They kept giving it to me, so I kept saving it, but money wasn’t my motivation, and I didn’t want that to change. So I lived in a stained little hovel where the carpet was worn enough to pass for ugly, fuzzy tile, and it snowed bits of ceiling when the couple upstairs got horny.
That being said, I loved my little studio apartment. It had a small bed, a small kitchen, a small bathroom, and a tiny little closet, which meant there was very little space that required cleaning. With my patchwork bike propped up by the foot of my bed, it even housed my transportation.
I yawned, and a growl rumbled through my belly. I slid out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen. The cereal shelf did not impress me, so I opened the fridge. A minute later, a half-eaten bean burrito sat on the counter. I had a bottle of hot sauce in one hand and a can of cheap-as-watered-down-piss beer in the other when a thump shook my wall. A grunt in the hall froze every muscle in my body.
Had they found me?
Metal clicked and scraped as a key slid into the lock. My landlord wouldn’t come to my door at three in the morning. I put down the beer and hot sauce and dashed across the room, drawing in a breath to chant in the softest whisper I could manage. Liquid ice spread from my tongue to my skin as I dropped to one knee and groped for the stock of the sawed-off shotgun strapped under my mattress. It slid free as quietly as haste allowed.
The doorknob rattled but didn’t turn.
I crept up to the door and pointed the muzzle into the flimsy wood. Still whispering to the rhythm in my soul, I looked through the peephole.
My mouth quirked into a half smile, and I let the chant die.
“Crappy locks,” said a voice on the other side. “Building was probably old before the Rising.”
That was just hyperbole. Two hundred years ago, the City of Ash had been a glorified rest stop on the road between two much more important places. Before the Rising had shredded the old world into fodder for the new.
The doorknob rattled again, and I spun around to bury the shotgun in my hamper. Then I tossed through it for pants and hauled on a dirty pair of sweats. I slid the bolt open.
“Fine’ly,” said the same slurred voice as I opened the door. When he saw me, he gave a start. Then Kit Culver’s gray eyes lit up with a grin. His cheeks were flushed with blood and scruffy with dark blond stubble. He wore a brown jacket, jeans, and grubby boots.
A leggy brunette with messy hair looked as appalled to see me as Kit was surprised. The buttons on her blouse were closed unevenly, and she was all at once recognizable and unfamiliar. The same sort of woman followed him home once or twice a week. Occasionally it was the same woman both times.
This one was slender, fit, and taller than me. Her blouse, skirt, and heels looked like they cost as much as my entire wardrobe, but she’d probably picked them up used. No one who could afford those clothes new went home with a guy who lived where Kit and I did. Her perfume smelled upper city, but fresh. Probably a cheap knockoff or thinned down with too much alcohol to have any staying power. I pegged her for a low paid professional, a secretary or personal assistant who worked above the lower city but would never escape it.
“Gwyn?” Kit’s beer breath wafted over me. He tilted his head back and squinted at the number on my door. “Shit. Sorry.” He gave his brunette a shrug. “Wrong door.”
She didn’t look as if she needed help to figure that out. She gave me a bored once over, her eyes flicking from my wrinkled sweats to my rumpled camisole. You’d think everyone had black hair and blue bangs from the way her gaze slid past them. Then her attention swerved back and stuck to my face.
“Do I know you?” she said.
“Are you sure?”
I looked at Kit. “You’re almost home. Think you can make it on your own?”
“Gwyn,” the brunette said. “Gwyneth Hawthorn?”
I slumped into the door frame.
“Sorry,” she blurted and took an unconscious step back. Her head turned, and she searched for something down the hall, probably an exit. “Can we go?” She straightened her buttons, not looking at me through the narrow slice of doorway.
“Yeah.” Kit frowned at her. “Sorry we woke you,” he said to me.
“I was up.” I shrugged. “No big deal.”
In the stillness of my empty little room, the argument next door was difficult to ignore, so I flipped on the fan. The whoosh of air through its blades and the loud click that had landed it in a thrift store drowned out most of their words, but not her tone.
I finished my burrito and tried not to wonder if she thought I was Gwyneth Hawthorn the Soul-Sucking Infernal, or Gwyneth Hawthorn the Opportunist, but enough of her opinion filtered through the noisy fan that I found out anyway. Glancing around my apartment, sipping my watery beer, I wondered what kind of “fame whore” lives in a sixth-floor dump on the border of the outer city.
A crappy one.
Kit’s door slammed loudly, and I felt a brief pang of guilt for scaring away his girl, even if she was an ignorant bitch.
I left the kitchen with a few scraps of tortilla and an empty can on the counter. The photograph was still in its frame, stuffed in one of my drawers. I stared at the scuffed-up dresser, then glanced at my phone. When I turned it on, the display reminded me that it was three in the morning. Not the best time to ask a favor from a friend. I put it back down.
The bathroom light flickered for a few seconds, then Mirror Gwyn stared at me with chagrin. My skin looked washed out, a faded shade of milky brown with flat, dull cheeks. My eyes were shadowed, and only half of my hair submitted to the power of gravity, with the rest in disarray from my failed attempt to sleep. Streams of blue bangs tangled with the longer black, and a hint of light hair had begun to show at the roots. I ran my fingers through it as I leaned forward and squinted at my scalp, then threw open the cabinets under the sink and grabbed a box without looking.
When Kit came to my door again, a towel smeared with spots of dye draped my shoulders, a thick layer of lotion bordered my hairline, and a shower cap clung to my head. He held a six-pack, minus the beer in his hand, and a half-eaten pie.
“You brought me pie.” My voice dropped in pitch and volume when I remembered the time. I backed up, tripping over my laundry basket as Kit sidled into my apartment.
“What color this time?” He knocked the door shut with his heel, lost his balance, and caught himself on the counter. If he blushed, I couldn’t tell through the flush that already filled his cheeks.
“Red. More like burgundy since I didn’t bleach it first.”
“An’ the blue hair?”
“Will be dark purple. I hope.”
He set his gifts on the counter. “Couldn’t be worse than the green.”
I sighed. “I’ve admitted the green was a mistake.”
“Catastr’phe.” He grabbed a pair of forks from my drawer.
I examined the pie. “Cherry!”
I plucked a cherry from the pile of filling that had sagged across the pan and popped it into my mouth. Then I noticed my finger tips were burning. “‘Oo hoh’.” I held the steaming cherry between my teeth and blew.
“Better put somethin’ cold on that.” Kit handed me a beer.
I ONLY KNEW I’D fallen asleep because the phone woke me up. I checked the number. Out of all the people who might try to call me, Reverend Martin Greaves was the last one I should ignore, but I still put the phone down and rolled over until the evil noise died. Then I crawled out of bed anyway, because all the beer I’d drunk had to go somewhere.
Kit had hung around long enough to make sure I was happy and tipsy and full of pie, but he’d never brought up the brunette’s reaction or what was said after they’d left my place. He’d been in the middle of his border service when I was all over the news, six years earlier, and he hadn’t found out about it until after we got to know each other. He never brought it up, and I was glad to have a friend who knew how to not talk about things.
I got dressed, trying not to stare at the drawer where the picture was stashed. I picked up my phone. Nine a.m. was a much better time to ask for a favor than three.
Cobie answered my call after two rings. “You’re up early.”
I answered her courteous greeting with a snort. “How many rules would you have to break to do some research on last night’s assignment for me? Specifically, family.”
“Already done.” She sounded far too awake. “Family connections and histories go in the dossiers before a judgment.”
“How many rules would it break to show them to me?”
“None of the big ones.” I could hear the suspicion in her hesitation. “But you have to come to the office. I can’t transfer those files out of the building. That’s a big rule.”
“I need to know about male relatives. Brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews. Whatever. Blood relations only. I need to see pictures.”
“If I ask why, will I get the truth?”
“How important is this?”
I considered my answer. “It’s very important to me,” I said truthfully. “That’s all,” I lied.
She was silent for a moment. “You gotta quit this.”
“If I come in this morning, can you show me what you have?”
“Yeah.” Cobie sighed. “Okay.”
SIX WEEKS HAD PASSED since the train station by the church closed for repairs, and the stop was still crossed out in red on the schedule. Sliding steel doors that had stayed open for twenty-four hours a day, as long as I could remember, were chained and locked.
It shouldn’t have bothered me. Ten extra minutes of walking from the next stop down, especially when I was on my way to work out, was far from unbearable. But that day it was ten extra minutes of waiting and wondering if Cobie’s information would be useful.
I passed the closed station so lost in thought that I almost didn’t notice a middle aged woman call my name.
“Gwyneth. Gwyneth, sweetheart.” Her burned out voice dug into my head.
I stopped so abruptly that someone bumped into me. I apologized as I turned, but he walked away with a muttered curse.
“Mornin’ Beth.” I swallowed an answering burst of profanity for her sake.
She wore three layers of coats. Bags sat around her folded blanket in front of the closed station, and she scrambled away from them with a smile. The smell of alcohol and stale sweat filled my nose when she grabbed my hand. She squeezed hard. “You look just gorgeous, honey. Will I see you at the counter today?”
“No, I’ll be upstairs.” Other pedestrians walked wide around us, their eyes avoiding us with equal skill.
“That’s too bad.” She didn’t actually look upset about it. “I love to see you down in the kitchen.” Her smile was huge, her teeth absent. “Been upstairs a lot lately.”
I patted her hands and tried to extract mine. “I go where they tell me.” Which had always been mostly upstairs, for training. Helping out in the church’s soup kitchen or clinic was only cover for my visits.
“Oh you do,” she said. “And you work so hard. Don’t ever stop workin’ girl.” She squinted, and her browned cheeks bunched up around her eyes. Tears glistened but didn’t fall. “You work hard for yourself. Never give all yourself over to someone else.” She patted her chest, then closed her hand into a fist and thumped it over her heart. “When they die, they take it all with ’em.” She pulled my hand to her heart and squeezed again.
“Yeah, I know.”
Beth let me go. “I guess you do.” She withdrew, and the sour smell went with her.
Feeling guilty and repulsed at the same time, I followed her. “You have enough money for lunch?”
Beth settled onto her blanket and smiled wide. Her open mouth was a patchwork of brown teeth and black holes, but her bright eyes looked kind. Damaged, but fundamentally soft and sweet. Maybe that was why she’d broken. “I don’t need nothin’ from you, honey. Just a smile.”
I tried. My eyes didn’t smile with my lips, but it was good enough for her.
“Better get goin’. Preacher’s expecting you up at the tower, right?”
After she left, the crowd filled in around me. I waved and walked away, vacillating between hungry thoughts of what I might learn from Cobie, and guilty thoughts of how little I could do for Beth. Hers weren’t the sort of problems I could solve with a khukuri and the chant. The monsters I hunted didn’t tend to prey on people like her — the city did that in its own convoluted way.
I swerved around a mass of people gathered at a taco stand, and tearing metal shrieked through the busy street. A woman in the line twisted just as I stopped, and her elbow clipped my arm. She dropped her taco. I was staring at a smear of sour cream on my shoes, listening to a stranger shout about my mother, my sex life, and my anatomy, when a scream destroyed the Sunday morning clamor, then cut short. Dead.
More screams followed, and the crowd surged together, then shattered. The swearing woman tumbled into me, forcing me against the taco stand. I kept my feet, but she hit the ground. My first impulse was to run, but in the press of fleeing bodies I would be easily knocked down and crushed. My second impulse was to kick her in the ribs. Instead, I grabbed the back of her blouse and helped her up, just to watch her bolt without so much as a “thank you,” “sorry,” or even an “oops.”
I took shelter against the taco stand as people fled the station in all directions. The crowd cleared away, and when I saw what they were running from my heart exploded into motion. The train station’s steel doors gaped open, broken off their hinges. The chain lay strewn across the pavement, links torn and bent. Rot, sewage, and the stink of death assaulted my nose.
Beth’s bags were scattered and her blanket shredded. Her eyes bulged wide, blind. Her head hung from ribbons of flesh, and her bloody neck was half ripped away. Her body dangled from the jagged stone and bone teeth of a monster that, from its long snout and the slight curl in its ragged tail, had probably died as a dog. Since rising, the revenant had consumed so much flesh and debris that it had grown to stand half again as tall as me. A patchwork of fur covered decaying muscle that flexed through rips and holes in its blackened skin, leaking inky blood. A skeleton of bone, metal, and stone pressed through the torn meat along its spiny ribs and down one of its legs. Plates of armor, cement veined with iron, dappled its sides and joined together at the top of its neck to cover its skull.
The revenant held Beth’s shoulder in its claws. It clamped with its teeth and tore off her arm.
In the middle of the street, two more of them pinned a man down. They were smaller than the giant, smaller than me. He screamed. Still alive. Teeth punched into the side of his head, and his shrieking ended.
A boy shouted, “Dad!”
The kid dropped a grocery sack and stepped toward the dead man.
I pushed off the taco cart and sent it skidding. The crowd had passed, crushing waves pressed away from the entrance to the tunnels. There was no one left between me and the boy. Youth, I amended as I got closer. He was taller than me but with soft cheeks and undeveloped muscles. I grabbed his arm.
He jerked away and stumbled in the wrong direction. “DAD!”
I sprinted after and caught his wrist, pulled his arm, and turned him away from death. He flailed. I dug my heels in and shoved him away from the revenants. He tripped and fell on his knees, then jumped up and took a wide, graceless swing at me, managing only to throw himself off balance.
I pushed him again. “Run kid. Swear at me later, but now you fucking run.”
“Fuck you!” Luckily, the kid didn’t know how to throw a punch.
I let him ruin his balance again and grabbed his wrist. “Later.” I bent his arm behind his back and hustled him forward in an awkward lope. It would be an easy hold to break, but all the kid knew how to do was squirm.
When his feet started moving by his own volition, I released him. His arms pumped at his sides as he ran, and he kept up the pace when he glanced over his shoulder with tears on his cheeks.
Three black figures sprinted along the top of a low skyway ahead of us. I couldn’t see any sign of allegiance on their armor, but that close to the church tower, I didn’t have to. They’d have the white ouroboros twisted across their backs.
The Templars, Dragoons most likely, stopped when they reached the center of the skyway. One of the church’s soldiers carried a grenade launcher and a rifle. The other two had weapons, but I didn’t have time to identify them. They wouldn’t consider a couple of lagging pedestrians worth the risk of a revenant getting into the dense crowd.
They wouldn’t wait to fire.