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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Just like that, I lose.
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
~ 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
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
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
The old dude shook his head sagely. "Nuh-uh.
Prob'ly they towed it. Goddamn penny-pinching
"Too right," I said, but he'd already fallen
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
I choked. She was in his damn room.
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
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
He'd known Peg a few lousy weeks, and I
was the one he lied to.
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
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
But if I touched him, he might look at
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
Check out 12:57 am. Who the fuck
are these clowns?
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
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
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…
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.
Let's talk. You know the place.
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.
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.
Glimmer stirred, a fragrant shadow amongst
shadows. "Verity?" he mumbled, slurring.
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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