ScarredSCarrED

Book 2 in the Sapphire City series - sequel to SCORCHED

Available 14 January 2016


Come out, you dirty rat-fink villain. I know you're in here.

I crouched in a shadowy corner of the museum, lactic acid and impatience eating at my thigh muscles. Moonlight sprinkled through the curved glass clerestory, falling like stardust over shining glass cases filled with jewels, ancient treasures, dusty artifacts of old. In the case beside my hidey-hole, a glittering diamond-studded figurine winked at me, whispering Take me! Take me!

Not me. I'm one of the good guys. Verity Fortune, crime-fighter to the unsubtle, beating holes in things my specialty. I couldn't see the thief I'd come to catch. But I could feel him with my augmented senses, like tiny fairy lights glittering beneath my skin…

There. Across the room, the darkness dipped and swirled. I knew it. My mindmuscle itched, eager to kick some villainous butt.

Still, “villain” is relative in Sapphire City. It wasn't as if this dude was planning genocide or world domination. If my tip-off was for real—and I needed a break, the way things had gone for me lately—this was just a greedy little art heist.

Audacious, all the same. Sapphire City Museum—read “swanky art fortress”—is tricked out with the latest in invisible laser steal-me-and-I'll-fuck-you-up technology. But for the Gallery—the gang of super-powered lunatics who terrorize our city, led by a lurid pyromaniac arch-psycho called Razorfire—the threat of loot and the promise of violent death are just a turn-on. They pride their cruel, lonely asses on doing impossible things.

Bring it, you thieving Gallery turdball. Whoever this guy was, he'd be no match for me.

My nose twitched, and my secret senses tingled with the sherbety spritz of augment… and like a cocky-ass specter, the thief strolled right through the minefield.

Holy crap. He wasn't invisible. Just… un-solid. A glittery, translucent man-shape. His tiny particles danced and shimmered in the silvery moonlight. Glowing with strange inner energy. Eerily beautiful.

For an instant, a foreign gleam knifed through him at waist height. Light scattered in rainbows. The laser system. I winced, bracing for the alarm…

Nothing. No shrieking, no electric shocks, no tiny LED flashing in the corner.

Dude was below the dust threshold. That particle transition dissipated his body heat—which meant no infra-red signature—and reduced his reflective cross-section to negligible. Like a stealth bomber, skipping past radar. The museum's state-of-the-art security system saw nothing but dirty air.

Honestly. How is that fair?

Inwardly, I cursed, sweating inside my shiny gunmetal leather coat. I'm a masked telekinetic crime-fighter, not a Las Vegas stage magician. I'd crawled in here along the ceiling, clinging like a big-ass spider with fingernails and talent, and this dark corner was as far as I could get without alerting security. But this guy could cut to dust any time he wanted and flee, leaving me in laser-surveillance hell.

I couldn't beat him. Could I?

Fact was, I needed this victory. And not only to uphold the law (right, because the law's done so well by me lately) or keep the museum's shiny junk collection intact (rather than spend the money on something useful, like food for poor people) or even just out of principle, because thwarting Gallery villains in their mission of terror and mayhem is what we Fortunes do.

No, I had to prove to Adonis—my righteous prick of a brother and the boss of our crime-fighting outfit, whom I love to death and would happily strangle if it wouldn't prove him right—that I wasn't a liability. That he could trust me again, the way he used to, before… well, before I unwittingly betrayed us all by consorting with our archenemy. If beating some impossibly clever vanishing guy was what it took? Bring it on.

But the thought of clever vanishing guys just made me wince. Don't even talk to me about Glimmer. Glimmer isn't a Fortune, but he's the finest of us, and he had been my best friend. Now…

Golden particles glittered, on the move. Mr. Sparkly strode quietly yet confidently, casting no shadow. His ghostly footfalls made no sound. I couldn't even smell him, beyond a tart whiff of the weed he'd been smoking, and that bothered me, too.

See, stinky villains are generally easy game. When you're a gibbering power-mad paranoid with pretensions to world domination? Personal hygiene isn't high on your must-do list. You're too busy going bonkers to care what people think.

It's the clean ones like Sparkly who worry me. The ones who make time for fashion and good grooming. Body-conscious means they're at least planning ahead. Vain, unfortunately, can mean they've got more brain space than you. If a villain has great hair and smells dreamy? Run. Trust me. Because I didn't run, and I got a dead father, a family in exile and months of screaming nightmares for my trouble.

I flexed my mindmuscle, determined to focus. The sinister glittery thief drifted past another glass case, into a pool of bluish shadow. Damn. I'd lost sight of him. I blinked rapidly. Had he vanished? Beamed up to his starship, or something?

My augmented senses sharpened, directional, and homed in. Oh, right. There he was, sparkly again, flitting from shadow to shadow, rematerializing for a few seconds each time he was out of sight. As if his glittery powers didn't last very long and he was recharging.

Whatever. He could be the Energizer Bunny and it wouldn't help him once I got my hands on his thieving Gallery ass. He strolled past a case full of ancient parchments, another stuffed with jeweled funerary ornaments from eighteenth-dynasty Egypt, yet another of antique ivory figurines. In the middle of the room, before a cylindrical glass case, he halted.

Tiny spotlights glared on the item inside. I squinted, trying to get a glimpse.

Looked like… a rock. Lumpy-shaped, like a fossilized seashell, a rusty red-brown color. Was this what he'd come for?

My belly warmed, in anticipation of feeding my hungry power at last. He flexed one glittery hand. Reached for the inch-thick hardened glass… and slipped his hand clean through it. Elbow on one side, hand on the other. Like the glass wasn't even there.

I gulped. That was totally cool.

So how did he not fall through the floor? Gravity isn't advisory-only, even for Gallery show ponies. Could this dude fly as well as sparkle? And how did he make his clothes do that trick? It didn't make sense. Maybe his secret villain name was Logicfail. Why did no one ever worry about these things?

Still, no time to puzzle it now. He'd already grabbed the funny rock—and nothing happened. I grinned. Logicfail, my ass. Can't turn that to glitter, can you? You're stuck, like honey-stuffed Winnie the Pooh. Now what's your plan, smart-ass?

I stretched my mindmuscle, a feline pleasure-yawn, and leapt. Whee! Up like a bouncing rubber ball.

He clenched his sparkling fist around the treasure, and yanked.

Kapow! Glass exploded, and the thief materialized in a puff of angry gang boy. Young Latino dude, jeans and black tank top, studded dog collar, shaven scalp crawling with prison tattoos. Fist still clenched, gym-built forearm bloody to his elbow and dripping red puddles onto the floor.

I hurtled through the air, slingshotted on a rubber band of mind energy. Tough guy, eh? DNA all over the place, broadcasting his true identity to anyone with twenty minutes and a spectrometer. I liked his attitude.

Umph! I crashed into him and we hit the floor. Fighting, rolling, limbs flailing.

And now the alarms went bugfuck.

A siren whooped. Blinding white lights flashed on. Steel security grilles ground down over the exits, crunch-grr-slam! We struggled. I aimed a swift punch of force, banging his skull into the floor.

"Goatfucker," he snarled, and scattered into particles beneath me.

I fell through him. Slammed into the floor face-first. Shit. The treasure-rock clattered across the tiles into a corner.

His particles swept around me, tingling—steady on, tiger, we only just met—and he coalesced. On his feet, hulking with rage, sweat spraying from his shaven head. "Asshole," he growled, and kicked at my ribs.

I rolled away, grabbing his foot with my power. He fell on his ass, cursing in Spanish. I caught something about an impossible (at least for me) feat of bestial eroticism, and grinned. At least “asshole” and “goatfucker” improved on “bitch” or “whore”, this season's must-have snappy put-downs for the discerning sexist-pig villain. Gotta love an equal-opportunity insult. And he wasn't afraid to fight a girl. I could learn to like this guy.

But I'd no time to flirt. Any second now, rent-a-cops with guns would blunder in. I needed to be history when that happened. I grappled for his throat, ready to knock him insensible.

And a third person appeared right next to us, and kicked me in the face.

Not arrived, or coalesced. Appeared. From nowhere, eureka! with a rush of displaced breeze.

My head whiplashed sideways. A broken tooth crunched, and I tasted copper. But no time to care. I was too busy skidding across the floor, and my body slammed into a display case. Doinng! The glass and my skull both thrummed with the impact. I blinked, groggy. Who the fuck was that?

A skinny teenage girl, blue dreadlocks straggling to her shoulders. She wore a threadbare camisole top and jeans patched with scraps of plaid. A knotted string bracelet hung on her wrist, the kind of friendship pledge that grade-school kids wear. Her eyes were deep-set, bruised, her pimpled face sickly like a shopping-mall zombie.

And she had a sidekick. An equally scrawny boy, his gangly overgrown legs encased in black jeans. Jagged black-dyed hair with blond roots flopped over his cheek. Wispy unshaven chin, bitten black fingernails. His Yoda t-shirt read DO OR DO NOT – THERE IS NO “TRY”. He wore eye pencil, for God's sake. I smelled cigarettes, alcopops, cheap spray cologne.

Just kids. So far as I could tell, they weren't even high. What the hell?

Mr. Sparkly swore and scattered. But Blue Dreads Girl was quicker. And she pulled the very same trick. Dissolved into a metallic cloud of sparks.

I gaped. Impossible. No two augments were exactly the same. Not even Harriet and Eb, my twin cousins, had identical powers… But I had to believe my eyes. Didn't I?

Tornado-like, she chased him, wrapping herself around him, twisting into him, through him. The two tangled, buzzing like angry wasp swarms… but Sparkly tired first. He dragged himself free, and slumped to the floor in human form, drained. And the remaining particles swirled into a coiling funnel and remade themselves into Blue Dreads. She laughed and kicked him with her scruffy lace-up boot.

In the meantime, Guyliner had retrieved the treasure and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. I scrambled up, ignoring my aching face. I needed to win that rock. To prove I could still do this, that my lurid sojourn into temporary insanity hadn't crippled me.

But Blue Dreads just grinned. Gleeful, a cruel little girl. "Too slow, hero," she gloated, and she and her emo BFF vanished.

Snap! Air slammed into the empty spaces. Gone. Ka-poof. May the Force be with you.

Just like that, I lose.

Shit.

Inwardly, I cringed. I'd wasted my chance. Still, no point crying about it. Sparkly groaned on the floor, limp, and I stumbled over to spend a few precious seconds finding out why Razorfire—because it had to be a Gallery heist, right?—had ordered him to steal a rock. At least that info would be something… and I skidded to a halt, waving my arms for balance.

Twin red laser dots bloomed on Sparkly's chest.

Uh-oh. I glanced down. Another two red dots, hovering over my sternum. Nice steady shots, too, barely flickering.

Well, fuckity do-dah.

The loudspeaker started blaring witty commands. "On the fucking floor NOW! Drop your weapons! Hands where I can see 'em!"

Right. Good luck with that. Stupid rent-a-cops, late to the party as usual.

Sparkly tried to rise, but only vomited. Blue Dreads had given him a right good thrashing. I sighed, frustrated. Sparkly, we're just not working out. It's not me, baby; it's you.

I coiled my power around one fist and fired myself at the glass ceiling like a silver-streaked cannonball.

~ 2 ~

Whizz! So far, so good, right?

Wrong. A little Verity-fact that just loomed kind of large: I can't fly.

I'm called the Seeker. I'm telekinetic, which might sound like some kind of psychic horror-film ooga-booga, but forcebending augments like mine are more physics than magic. Sure, I can fling myself through windows, but to do that, I rely on boring everyday things like inertia and centripetal force and the difference between up and down. When falling time comes? All I can do is hold on, and hope.

On the way up, I pulled my pistol—d'you think I blunder around unarmed? I'm augmented, not stupid—and put two quick shots into the giant clerestory window. Crack-crack! Twin starbursts erupted in the glass. I barely had time to stuff the weapon back under my coat before I smashed in, shoulder first.

Boom! The damaged glass shattered. Splinters stung my face, clinging to my hair and all over my clothes. And I hurtled out into the chilly October night.

Skyscrapers, traffic lights, virtual advertising flashing amid swirling searchlights and smoke. Sirens wailed, and distant weapons cracked, a spurt of gunfire. Just another night in Sapphire City: choose your weapon, watch your back, and check your civil rights at the door. That's what you get for electing Razorfire to City Hall. Yeah. Nice one. Hooray for democracy.

I grabbed an exposed metal strut with my power, and pulled. My elastic grip stretched, and contracted like an angry bungee cord, and slammed me sideways into the outside wall.

My breath crushed to a whimper, and for a moment I dangled there, gasping, sixty feet above nothing.

Gradually, I found my breath. Climbed down, hand over hand, along rain gutters and metal joints. Jumped the last twenty feet, landed on my own invisible bouncy castle of force and hop-skip-stumbled to the ground.

Paved garden courtyard, prissy fountain bubbling in the center, iron fence at the far end, and beyond it, the street. Inside, alarms still shrieked, but this part of the wall was opaque. The goons couldn't see me. Heh. Catch ya later, goons. Nice messing with you.

I dusted rueful hands on my swallow-tailed coat. Well, that was a bust. Villains: 1, Verity: nil.

But my nerves tingled eagerly, and my muscles hurt with that pleasant ache you get after some tough exercise, or really great sex. I wriggled my thighs, ready for another round. Damn, it felt amazing to use my power again. Adonis didn't let me out alone much anymore, and since that little fiasco a few months back atop the old FortuneCorp skyscraper, Adonis's word was law. I didn't get a say in it. Boy, was he gonna tear strips off me when I got home.

I shuddered. I'm not afraid of Adonis. Not exactly. Too much fond sibling contempt between us for that. Doesn't mean his furious ice-emperor act is something I look forward to.

A homeless guy in an old Nazi trench coat squatted by the fountain on a cardboard sheet. Pigeons pecked for crumbs on the paving around him. He peered at me, scratching his greasy head. "Fuck was that? You a goddamn alien?"

I flipped him a live-long-and-prosper salute. "I come in peace, earthling! You seen my spaceship? Thought I parked it around here someplace."

The old dude shook his head sagely. "Nuh-uh. Prob'ly they towed it. Goddamn penny-pinching assholes."

"Too right," I said, but he'd already fallen asleep.

I wiped blood from my chin, spat out a shard of broken tooth, and sucked on my injured tongue. Ouch. Those two mouthy tweens would pay for this.

If I ever saw them again, that was. If I could even figure out who Blue Dreads and Guyliner were. These days, new villains sprouted all over Sapphire City like warts, egged on or chased from hiding or just plain pissed off by our esteemed new mayor's crackdown on the augmented. Insects, most of 'em. Vermin, not worth breaking a sweat over. But these grungy kids with their oddly identical powers bothered me. They drifted in my head, the ghostly remnants of a bad dream.

Especially the girl. Those hollow cheekbones and bruised zombie eyes. Something about her felt wrong.

I spared a brief thought for Sparkly, probably cuffed in talent-draining augmentium alloy with blood running from his ears right now. I'd appreciated his talent, his hubris, his glitter-quick reflexes. Our side could've used more guys like him. I even felt a twinge of shame that I'd abandoned a fellow augment to face the heat, even if he was Gallery. Like me, he was just making a living.

But inwardly, I shrugged, his defeat both salty and sweet in my mouth. Shared adversity doesn't make us pals. You make your bed, you die in it, you black-hearted Gallery shitweed.

I peeled off my black leather mask and stowed it in my trouser pocket. Dipped my hands in the fountain, splashed my bloodied face clean. Shook the drips back into my ponytailed hair, and strolled out onto the street.

Cool nighttime air refreshed me. It was late, but traffic still streaked by: silent yellow electric cabs, smart cars, SUVs, a golden stretch Humvee. A kid whistled past me on a scooter. A trolley car rattled along its tracks, lights flickering over the few passengers inside. Late-working office jockeys strode the sidewalk, briefcases and tablets tucked under their arms. A homeless guy wearing a tattered football jersey rattled a paper cup for change beside pasted bills for theatre shows and “occupy” demonstrations and a splurt of all-too-familiar crimson spray-painted graffiti.

BURN IT ALL

Dizziness waltzed in my skull, the giddy specter of half-forgotten fever. Razorfire's catchphrase. What would he think of me now? I'd screwed up the simplest job, been taken unawares by a pair of joy-riding boy- band fans. I cringed. Jeez, how humiliating…

Mentally, I smacked myself upside the head. Verity, the only thing he'd care about is that you attacked one of his crew. He's your enemy. He will peel your skin off. Forget him.

Forget him.

Right.

Razorfire's gorgeous scent dizzies me, mint and fire and dark delight, and I can't help but inhale. Swallow, gulp for more, my body yearning to drink him in. His flame licks my bruised cheek, both threat and promise. I flush, mortified. I don't deserve this. I don't deserve him…

Fiercely, I blinked, and the memory splintered and whirled away, leaving only fresh-sliced pain in my temples. Fuck it. The flashbacks of my evil ex-lover—yeah, long and gruesome story—were growing less frequent, easier to banish. But the guilty twist in my guts didn't ease.

Wanna know a secret? It never does. Not for one goddamn second.

Sure, Razorfire tricked me, playing twisted psychological games until my mind snapped. That didn't excuse how I'd acted, or the suffering my twisted infatuation had caused. Adonis had tried to have me treated and it badly backfired. My father and sister were dead, my family in hiding. I had a lot to make up for.

I glanced about for Sentinels, those sneaky augment-detecting gadgets that were bolted to every lamp post in the city these days, or so it seemed. Razorfire's plan since he'd been elected mayor had been inscrutable, to say the least.

In his public persona, he was all keep the streets safe and prosecute to the full extent of the law and no tolerance for violent criminals. Yet every once in a while, he'd climb into his crimson silk archvillain suit and mask, and burn some neighborhood to a smoking ruin. Post threatening videos on the internet. Ratchet the tension higher, let the police department and the district attorney's office take the heat (heh) and generally stir up a furious hornet's nest of violence and fear.

Look, there was a Sentinel: a smug silvery cylinder mounted ten feet up on a building's corner, silently blinking its incriminating red light at me. I flipped it the bird. Detect this, you metal moron.

Across the sidewalk, an office worker in a slim-cut suit did a double-take, and made a move inside his jacket. Sigh. Seriously: a gun? Are they arming metrosexuals now? Stop, or I'll order decaf!

I didn't pause. I just pointed into his face as I walked by, and gave him my best Dirty Harry impression. "You really wanna test me, punk?"

He scuttled backwards, dropping his computer case, hands raised in peace. Heh. Must have my angry face on today.

In my pocket, my phone's message tone chimed. Whatever. Probably Adonis wondering where the hell I was. Or Glimmer, texting me a dose of the guilts because he imagined I was drinking myself horny in some seedy Castro Street bar, and of course he'd never do anything so grotesquely banal and ordinary as get drunk and laid, because he was Glimmer and he was too damn perfect and jeez, when did I turn into such a jealous little worm?

I sighed, rubbing the dented scar on my cheekbone. A headache swelled like a tumor deep in my skull, threatening murder. Hell, I wanted a drink and a cigarette, even though I'd never been much of a drinker and I didn't like the smell of tobacco smoke. What I needed was food and sleep. I should go home, as far as “home” went these days, now that FortuneCorp were in hiding and Glimmer's secret techno-lair was a crispy barbecue and Sentinels mined half the city's streets into a no-hero zone.

But I needed to salvage something from tonight. Prove I hadn't simply screwed up, hadn't let those villains escape out of carelessness, that my power was reliable and strong. Or hell, I might as well rock on down to Castro Street right now and order a triple brainfuck with a twist of sordid.

Belligerent, I squared my shoulders. I didn't give a moldy fart for Sentinels or cops or vigilante office boys. What were they gonna do, shoot me? I'd survived that before. Anyway, my altercation with Sparkly and the twin tweens had set off every alarm in that building. The entire world already knew I was here.

So I strolled across the courtyard to the museum's main entrance, and kicked the door in.

Crash! Boot mixed with mindmuscle, unstoppable. The revolving door buckled like a crushed beer can. I cracked my neck, satisfied. Damn. Someone fetch me that cigarette.

I hurled the wreckage aside and strode into the tiled lobby, where a weird marble statue resembling a gigantic pink horse turd squatted on a pillar.

A black-uniformed security guard challenged me. I flung up one hand and hurled him against the wall, pinning him under the chin with an invisible grip. His handgun clattered to the tiles. The mega-turd teetered and crashed to the floor, a clatter of broken marble. Oops. Performance art.

"Where's the CCTV, idiot?" Blood pounded in my temples, nearly drowning out the sound of my voice. I was in the clear, unmasked. I didn't care. Let the world look at my scars. Let them see me as I truly am.

Glimmer once told me his mask was his true face. That it wasn't a disguise, but a confession. For me, it's the other way around. My mask is unsullied, fit for public consumption. The face underneath… on my bad days? Not so much. And the physical scars—my souvenir of that hellhole of an asylum, courtesy of my well-meaning asshole of a brother—are the pretty part.

The security guy wasn't dumb enough to play the hero. He jerked his head towards a locked door, his throat bobbing as he tried to swallow.

I let him fall undamaged and stepped over him as he gurgled for breath. Heh. Dumb enough to play the hero. There's a lesson we could all learn.

I smashed the security office door open. Old-school video screens, surveillance-camera footage of darkened museum rooms and corridors. In the room where I'd fought the tweens, a battalion of guards and cops and rented heavies were arresting Sparkly and reading him what was left of his rights. From the black-and-bloodied look of his face, they'd left out the “we can't beat the snot out of you while you're restrained” part.

I leveled my pistol at the only guard inside the CCTV room. Chesty young blond, biceps like turnips stuffed up his shirtsleeves. His sidearm lay on the bench. Bad choice, Turnip Man.

His ice-chip eyes widened, and one hand strayed to the can of pepper spray at his belt.

I thumbed the safety off, pulling three pounds on a four-pound trigger. My hands were shaking as badly as my voice. I was weary, hungry, pissed off. "Just try me, moron. See what happened to that window? Imagine what I can do to your skull. We understand each other?"

Turnip Man nodded, otherwise perfectly still, fingers splayed to show he'd surrendered. They weren't paying him enough to die. Sweat trickled down his neatly shaven cheek, and in that moment I hated him utterly.

For being young, ordinary, carefree. For having a regular job, where you went home after work, dumb and happy with your sixteen twenty-five an hour in your pocket, and thought about something else.

For living such a goddamn simple life.

"Good. Then you know what I want." I jerked my bruised chin towards the bank of screens and digital recording equipment. "So get on with it."

Forty seconds later, I was gone.

~ 3 ~

By the time I reached the new FortuneCorp HQ, I was wet, sore and angry, and I reeked of shit.

Sentinels, see. The old ones you could fool with augmentium, the alloy that's resistant to augmented powers. Razorfire strutted around in public for weeks wearing a wristwatch forged from the stuff and no one was the wiser. These improved models? Nuh-uh. At least, not for us. His Archvillain-ness is still getting away with it. Somehow. Fuck him.

Hmm. Right. Moving on from that thought…

Since that night a few months ago, when we lost out to Razorfire big time—he sabotaged his own superweapon, became the city's hero, got himself elected mayor and declared us Fortunes public enemies; if that isn't irony, can me up and call me a sardine—we don't want him knowing where we're holing up. We need to move about out of sight, and a lot of the time that means underground. Sapphire City's sewers date from before the fire at the turn of last century, and they smell like it: greasy brick tunnels, calf-deep in foul flushwater, floating with fat globules and dead rats and discarded baby wipes, and crusted with decades of slimy dripping God-knows-what.

I carried my coat rolled up under one arm, and let my boots take the brunt of it, but by the time I levered up the rusted grate and climbed blinking like a mole into the deserted parking lot by the waterworks, it was two in the morning, I stank like a mediaeval train toilet and my mood didn't smell much better.

Times like this, I wished I could fly. Or turn invisible. Or make decent coffee. Or do anything, pretty much, that was useful to anyone anymore.

I slipped unseen into the forest surrounding the parking lot. Fog curled among the tall eucalypts, luminous in the moonlight, wreathing smelly old me with the leaves' disinfectant scent. The city noise faded to a cool murmur. I squeezed stinking water from my trouser cuffs and strode up the hill into the dark. Leaves and soil crunched under my boots. Somewhere a wildcat yowled. A few charred tree trunks lay in my path, black shapes darker than the shadows, and I hopped wearily over them.

At the top of the hill, no lights shone. But I knew the path, and my tongue tingled with the candy-sweet flavor of augment. I picked my way through stumps and fallen branches towards our hideout: the derelict asylum.

I'd spent months trapped in here at Adonis's behest, while doctors tried to “cure” me of my little misdirected affection problem. Naturally, I'd escaped and set the place on fire. The concrete-block building was now partly a blackened ruin, but at one end, roof and walls still stood, two stories high.

Had I freaked out when we first came here? Fuck, yes. I'd stalked around with a loaded fistful of power, unleashing on ghosts, jumping at every noise. I was okay with it now. It no longer looked much like the place where I'd been tortured… but sometimes, in the night, I still woke alone in my cold ex-cell to the phantom smells of stewed apple and puke and singed hair, the bright buzz of electroshock, unseen screams grating in my ears.

And Glimmer wondered why I frequented late bars.

I eased the unlocked basement door open, quiet as I could. Inside, a row of caged light bulbs hung, just one in the middle switched on. The old food hall: a stainless-steel serving hatch, steel tables bolted to the green linoleum floor, barred gates to keep the crazies in. No alarm on the door. Glimmer hadn't gotten around to installing one yet. Too busy hacking our cell phones so they couldn't be tracked (good job) and repairing his surveillance kit (from what was left of it, which was pretty much zilch) and rebuilding the data-mining algorithms he'd lost when Razorfire torched his lair.

But my teenage cousin Ebenezer was on watch. Slouched in a plastic chair, playing a game on his tablet. Lank brown hair in need of a wash, dusty trench coat over safety-pinned jeans. His lame left leg was stretched out, still a mite crooked despite endless iterations of surgery and traction, back when the Fortune family were still respectable and Uncle Mike's money could buy that sort of thing. I think Eb secretly likes it that he limps. All part of the package.

Some defects you just can't fix.

Eb blinked at me, short-sighted. One watery blue eye, one brown. "Well, you look like you just crawled from a sack of hungry rat corpses."

"Thanks, man. No, really."

"Always here to help." A rare grin, inept, like he didn't care to practice it much. On his lopsided face, it had a kind of evil leprechaun charm.

Eb was the weirdest sibling from a branch of the Fortune family that wasn't exactly noted for being normal, and it wasn't just the limp or the oddball eyes. When he unleashed—which he did more often than was strictly necessary or appropriate—people pissed themselves and cowered into gibbering blobs of oh-god-let-me-die.

He'd taken the secret name Bloodshock from a serial-killer character he played on some screwed-up online RPG, and it stuck. He might look like an escapee from the aftermath of the teenage nerd apocalypse, but you do not want to mess with cousin Eb.

I believe that allegiance is nurture, not nature. Good versus evil is a choice we all make. But if anyone on our side was born to be a villain, it's this guy.

"You'll go blind looking at that stuff." I ruffled his hair, dodging a punch. What with my Miss Universe face and bubbly personality—and growing up with Adonis and Chance for brothers—I knew how it felt to be the unpopular one. I'd made an effort with Eb ever since I'd forced us all into this charming little camping vacation, and I sort of like the guy. Even if he sometimes makes me want to brandish a crucifix in his direction. "Get a girlfriend. Oh, wait. That'd involve talking to a real girl."

"This isn't interactive porn," Eb insisted. "I'm honing my reflexes."

"Right. When the big-breasted virgin schoolgirl zombies attack, you'll be the first guy I call. Any dinner left?" On cue, my stomach grumbled. My dead appetite had reanimated, at least in part, since my rat-happy sewer jaunt, and I hadn't consumed anything except high-caffeine cola and a candy bar since this morning.

Yesterday morning, that is. Jeez, what am I, twelve? No wonder I'm such a wreck.

Eb nodded towards the darkened kitchen's serving hatch. "Peggy made lasagna."

I rolled my eyes. Of course she did. Adonis's new lady friend was perky, red-headed, domesticated. "Did she bake cupcakes, too? Wearing a frilly apron?"

"Mee-yeow." Eb mimed a cat scratch. "You'd eat it if a certain person made it."

"Did I say I wouldn't eat it?" But I dragged the tray towards me a little too hard, spilling tomato sauce on the counter. Glimmer baked the best lasagna on the planet, no exceptions. Glimmer did most things better than everyone else. Especially me.

To be fair, Peggy did everything she could to help out, despite not really being one of us, and her cooking sure tasted nice. Everything about Peg was nice. Probably what Adonis said after he fucked her. That's nice, dear.

Okay, now I really had no appetite. I pushed the tray away. "Maybe later."

"Whatevs." Eb didn't look up.

I slunk upstairs to the second floor, where our bedrooms—read rusty ex-torture cells, and yay for that—were. On the landing, Uncle Mike's latest stray cat adoptee hissed at me with a suspicious yellow glare. Poor little bugger looked hungry. "Whatevs," I mimicked as I went by. "You wound me with your disdain, kitty. Lasagna's on the table. My treat."

The dim corridor smelled of old smoke and rust. Steel cell doors lined each wall, stretching into the distance, where the roof had collapsed in the fire and damp moonlight misted in. Light wind whistled through the twisted corrugated iron, whoo! whoo!

Electric light leaked from a single door that lay ajar on my right. I tiptoed, trying to creep by unnoticed.

"Where have you been?"

Fail. I stopped, folding my arms on a sigh. "Like you don't know."

Adonis leaned in his doorway. Unshaven, his blue eyes bloodshot. His shirt was creased, formerly an extinction-level event for my big brother, who'd spent his life wearing custom suits and diamond cufflinks, wading through rivers of adoring girls on his way to corporate board meetings and glittering charity balls. They write romance novels about guys like Adonis. He's what ordinary women think of as a hot date, and life has gifted him with what you might call a healthy ego. I wouldn't label him vain, exactly—he's too pragmatic for that—but let's just say his secret name isn't Narcissus without reason.

His blond hair was ragged, in need of a cut. It made him look a little crazy. And the bruises under his eyes shone darker than usual. He'd been losing sleep. We all had.

"Fine." His voice was hoarse, fatigued. "I know where you've been. So what the hell were you doing?"

"Stopping a crime in progress, since you ask. That okay with you?" But my chest hurt inside, and my hostility lost its luster. My brother, questioning my good intentions. My fucking brother.

He just eyed me, glitter-blue. Accusing.

Christ, I'd no energy to fight with him tonight. "I'm tired, Ad. Can we just get some sleep?"

"Vee…" He touched my arm.

I halted again. "What?"

"We've talked about this. You're not well. You shouldn't go off by yourself and—"

"And what? Do my job? We're crime-fighters, aren't we? How about we fight crime?"

My words bounced off the walls. He frowned, a finger to his lips. Of course, my phone pinged again in my pocket, over-loud.

Shit. I fumbled it to silent to make it shut up. "What?" I whispered fiercely. "Am I gonna wake up the Stepford wife?"

"I'm working. Peg's in her own room." A defiant edge. He knew I didn't like Peggy. I'd never liked any of his long-term—read longer than two weeks—girlfriends. None of 'em were worthy of him. It was a brother–sister thing. And ever since I'd murdered our father, and Adonis locked me in the nut house, and I dropped a ceiling on our elder sister, and Adonis shot me and hurled me out a fifty-sixth-story window? Brother–sister things had become a little complicated.

"Sleeping alone? So sad. Does she snore? Or are you just tired of her already?"

"You can talk."

That gloss of disgust took a hacksaw to my nerves. "Screw you, okay? I am so over you judging me. At least I tell mine they're losers as soon as I'm done."

An incredulous laugh. "Jesus, Vee. Last day to cash in this month's bitch credits?"

I swallowed, ashamed. Truth was? Seeing him like this broke my heart. He hadn't asked for what had happened to us, any more than the rest of our family had. None of it was his fault.

No. No, it was mine.

"She cooked a nice dinner," I allowed grudgingly. He didn't need to know I hadn't eaten any. "And hell, she seems to like Oreos and Bruce Lee movies. I guess there's hope for her."

He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. "She tries, okay? Give her a chance. It's not her fault she's—"

"Adonis? Everything okay?" A sleepy female voice drifted from the half-closed door.

Adonis sighed, resting his head on the doorframe.

I choked. She was in his damn room. He'd lied.

My face burned. Ugly, poison words crawled up my throat. Before I could spit them out, I clamped my teeth and marched away. He didn't call after me. I heard his door click shut. I kept walking, though I itched all over, an army of rabid ants nipping furiously beneath my skin.

I stormed past more rooms: Jeremiah, Ebenezer, Harriet, Peggy, the rest of the stray augments we'd adopted like some stupid special-needs homeless shelter since we holed up here. Jem was coughing, a horrid throat-savaging beast that no doubt we'd all catch before the week was out. I could hear Uncle Mike snoring. Mike, Dad's kid brother, who'd been as civil to me as was humanly possible, considering I got Dad killed.

They don't forgive you, hissed one of the incarnations of me that rattled around in my skull. Since the asylum, I'm like a range of Barbie dolls in there. This one was Nasty Verity, like the ghost of my dead sister Equity with a double shot of spite. They'll never forgive you. They're just humoring you, until they think of a way to get rid of you quietly, with no fuss. One day, you'll have a tragic accident…

Viciously, I kicked at the dead leaves littering the floor. Shut your face, Nasty. If Adonis was pissed at me for disobeying him? Fine. That was his right. I didn't care. I didn't even care that my precious big brother was sticking his dick in the world's most boring woman and apparently liked it enough to let her sleep in his bed, for fuck's sake.

I cared that he trusted her more than he trusted me.

He'd known Peg a few lousy weeks, and I was the one he lied to.

Fuck.

A silent scream hollowed my chest, and my mindmuscle burned. I felt like tearing down the broken ceiling to crush us all. The fact that I'd earned his mistrust a dozen times over only made it hurt more.

I reached the door to my room—dark, cold, empty—and hesitated, restless. My muscles watered with exhaustion, my eyes smarted with grit. I needed to crash. But my thoughts howled in wild circles, my power pacing like a caged beast in my belly. My senses had graduated from tingling through prickling to a malicious stinging cloud that wouldn't be silent. Sleep seemed about as likely as a lightning strike.

And I still had business tonight. The memory of those teenage hooligans—y'know, the ones with identical, improbable powers who'd whipped my ass?—wouldn't leave me alone. Who were they working for? What was the artifact they'd taken, and why did they want it?

More to the point: had Razorfire really deployed them against his own guy? And why?

Sure, maybe I was paranoid. Seeing archvillain conspiracies lurking under every rock, every breath of wind and rustle of leaves part of an elaborate plot against me.

Wouldn't be the first time it'd turned out to be true.

I crept to the cell next to mine and pushed on the unlocked door. "You awake?" I whispered.

Dim green glow filtered from a computer screen, throwing the tiny cell into shadows. A cursor blinked solemnly from a window brimming with wingdings code. Schematics and circuit diagrams were stuck to the whitewashed walls with tape and gum. The crumpled bed had disappeared under a heap of silicon hardware, cables, parts of phones; more of the same cluttered the desk, next to coffee mugs and empty cola cans and two unwashed dinner plates.

Glimmer lay asleep at his desk, green light rinsing his face. Head pillowed on one arm, dark hair with an albino splash in front tumbling onto the keyboard. His warm vanilla-spice scent drifted, both comfort and accusation. I inhaled more deeply, like I did sometimes when he wasn't watching. Oyy. Even working nineteen hours a day in a grubby cell deep in the ruins of a sadist's hellhole, he managed to smell like this. If Glimmer were a villain—if he'd even a breath of badness in him, which he didn't—you'd flee from that scent alone.

He looked exhausted, dark stubble stark against his too-pale face. Time was, he'd worn his mask twenty-four-seven around me. No longer. He'd nothing to hide, except that he was young and talented and didn't deserve the shitty deal Razorfire had hurled his way.

I bit my lip. Once upon a time, Glimmer had been my friend. God, I longed to talk the way we used to. Trade insults, give him crap about his hair product. Say, dude, you'll never believe what happened to me tonight and have him scoff at me, charm me with his grin and his wise-ass wit. I wanted to be dazzled by his white-knight geekboy brilliance, and hunt criminals together safe in the knowledge that he'd never betray me, never give up. Hell, the jealous part of me wanted to smack his pretty face for being so much better at it all than I.

Compelled, I drifted my palm over his cheek, just a twitch from touching. His breath warmed my hand, and my pulse quickened, shame and loneliness and some deeper compulsion I didn't understand mingling like inks in my blood. I could wake him. Stroke that velvety hair from his eyes, take heart from his sweet, crooked smile…

But if I touched him, he might look at me.

Instead, I stuffed my hand into my inside pocket and yanked out the DVD of security footage I'd taken from Turnip Man at the museum. Unearthed a pad of yellow sticky notes from the mess on the desk, and stuck one onto the plastic case.

Check out 12:57 am. Who the fuck are these clowns?
xox
V.

P.S. Your lasagna is better.

Quietly, I set the DVD by his keyboard, where he'd see it when he woke. Like he didn't already have enough work to do.

Glimmer's lashes fluttered, and he murmured, immersed in some unwelcome dream. My throat ached. My rude thoughts about him earlier in the night seemed petty and stupid. All his bad opinions of me? They were justified. He was strong, steadfast, a proper hero. Whereas I was unreliable, weak, indecisive, confused about the simplest decisions.

Maybe part of me resented him for making me feel inferior. And okay, maybe another, secret, blushing-girly part would've liked it if he were a bit more jealous about the whole drunk-and-laid thing. He was smart, cute, had a heart of unblemished gold. Any woman would want him.

But mostly, I just wanted my friend back.

I could wake him right now. Tell him how sorry I am for being such a screw-up. Beg him to help me get through this, to be there for me, the way he'd always been since the moment we met…

Bzzz-bzzz.

My phone, vibrating on silent. Shit. It wouldn't give up.

Swiftly, I backed off, and shielded the screen's light with my curled hand. That message I'd ignored a few hours ago, after I'd escaped from the museum guards…

My nerves crackled, ice and fire. The bright letters telescoped, and all else, including time, slipped away.

Confused, firebird?
Let's talk. You know the place.
R.

My throat swelled, throttling me.

Memory swamped me, nightmares of pleasure and passion and utter conviction, both delight and torture. It was unique, singular, terrifying. And I adored it.

I gasped, shivering. I was sweating, my mouth sticky. My hands shook. A junkie denied a fix.

Oh, God.

Keep it down, urged Common-Sense Verity, the sensible and incredulous me who still lurked somewhere inside. It's not what it seems. It's just a learned response. You know that. Fight it!

Glimmer stirred, a fragrant shadow amongst shadows. "Verity?" he mumbled, slurring. "Whassup?"

My guts hollowed, desperation swimming against a warm velvety undercurrent of desire. Glimmer could help me. I knew he could. Fight it!

But I didn't want to.

"Nothing," I murmured, oddly calm. So calm, it should've terrified me. But I was already beyond fear. "It's nothing. Go back to sleep." And I pocketed my phone and walked out.



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