TWO YEARS AFTER THE HALLOWED WAR
The bomb blasted my door off its hinges loud enough to wake the dead, or, in my case, a lousy drunk. Even with half a bottle of whiskey in me, I had Dismay—my stupidly overpowered hand cannon—pointed at my smoky doorway before my office door hit the ground. Yet I didn’t fire, not at swirling smoke, because whoever’d blown my door off its hinges probably wasn’t stupid enough to stand in it.
My battered office wasn’t much—big enough for a desk, my chair, and a battered couch in the corner—but it was big enough that my murdered door fell ahead of my desk, not on top of it. Old papers fluttered as hungry flames licked their edges. My ceiling fan spun lazily, unperturbed by the explosion.
Yet as the smoke cleared, and then my vision, and then my pounding head, I recognized the shadow darkening my doorway. It wasn’t the Armsman, come for one last duel, or Clarion’s boys, come to settle for the human traffickers I put in the ground a week ago. It wasn’t even Mia Ashford, the only person I knew who could kick a steel door off its hinges.
It was trouble, and I’d recognize her curvy silhouette in a coma. I’d known Jack Griffyn would lob a bombshell through my door if I ignored him, but I hadn’t expected one wearing boots with six-inch heels. When the biggest mobster in Dios wanted your attention, he usually sent his Morticians.
Amber Mason’s sultry voice caressed my ears. “Knock knock, Detective Riven.” She sauntered into my office, clad in gleaming black body armor, with her blond hair done up with the needles she used to murder people. “You never answer my calls.”
Amber was my same age, nineteen, but we were both veterans of the Hallowed War. We’d seen enough horrific death and blood in two years to age us ten. Amber’s pale eyes also glowed a subtle green, like my own, a message to all that we were far more dangerous than we looked.
We were equally matched, equally strong, and would probably wreck the whole floor of this building if we brawled. And given I owned this building, brawling was less than ideal. So we’d talk.
I set Dismay on top of my stack of unpaid bills and reached for my shot glass, which was empty. I snatched the half-empty bottle of Bolt 40 and poured. The gleaming lightning bolt on the label glittered in what daylight survived the trip through my dingy window.
I tossed back a shot of hard whiskey. “You could have knocked.”
Amber shrugged. “I did, six times.” She thumped her hands down on my desk, leaned close, and beamed at me. “I was worried something happened to our favorite detective!”
There were a number of fools in Dios—our giant city on a floating island in the middle of the ocean—who’d consider themselves blessed if a woman like Amber came calling, but I knew who she was. A former super soldier, like me. A Hallowed.
Anyone who underestimated either of us would wind up twisted into a human pretzel.
“Who am I finding for Jack today?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m not here on Jack’s behalf,” Amber said, which surprised me. “I’m here about another matter.” She reached into a pocket of her black vest, then slapped a worn photo on my desk. “I’d like you to find this cel for me, Riven.”
“Cels” were mass-produced artifacts that changed hands in Dios every day. They could do everything from powering a house to purifying sea water, which we did a lot of, given we lived on the ocean. Cels kept the lights on in Dios and provided a constant stream of fresh water for us to drink.
I gave the photo a look, more to keep Amber from blowing up something else than out of any real interest. This cel looked like all the others, a globe about the size of a baseball—except it was white. I’d never seen a white cel—they came in all colors of the rainbow, save white and black—but other than its unusual color, it didn’t look special.
My chair creaked as I leaned back. “Just solved your case. Got a store two floors down that sells ‘em by the truckload.” I reached for my half-empty bottle of hard whiskey. “That’ll be ten grand.”
Amber hopped up on my desk and crossed her legs, then snatched the bottle of Bolt 40 out of my hand. She jammed it into her mouth, chugging with conviction. My eyebrows rose with each gulp.
Amber’s mouth slid off the bottle with an audible pop. She slid one black glove across her painted black lips. “Do you always drink alone, detective?” Amber swished the bottle. “That’s so sad.”
I shrugged. “The bottle’s another fifty.”
Amber thumped down my bottle, twisted, and leaned intimidatingly close, mere inches from my face. “Get me that cel before any of Jack’s other people, and I can get you out of your deal with him.” She smiled seductively. “You’ll find working for Lindsay far more pleasant.”
The offer was absurdly tempting, which was why I didn’t trust it. One year ago, I’d told myself I’d have my friends and family out of Jack’s crosshairs in under three months. Since the night I went undercover—or, at least, had told myself I was going uncover, to take Cloud Nine down from the inside—one whole year had passed.
Jack had never given me the opening I needed, never let me find or destroy the blackmail info he had stored. He was too careful with his data and too good at surveilling me for me to ever be confident I could tell my friends what I was up to. The only progress I’d made in the past year was learning just how deep Jack Griffyn’s connections went in Dios, which was honestly depressing.
Jack had half of all active Dios PD officers on his payroll, more than enough that any attempt I made to tip them off would be discovered. He had informants in every gang in Dios, so passing a message to my friends, through them, would simply get them killed. And finally, Jack even had spies in Torrent—Saul’s still active crew of Dios militia members—so I couldn’t trust any of them to get a message to Saul or anyone without it going to Jack first.
Despite the whiskey in my stomach, the attractive woman leaning over my desk, and the fuzzy in my head, I couldn’t act until I knew more. Suggesting that Jack’s ambitious daughter, Lindsay, might intercede on my behalf, with Jack, might just be Amber’s latest way to fuck with me. I was going to kill Jack Griffyn someday—I was, dammit!—but not until I knew everyone I loved wouldn’t suffer.
Still, pretending I believed Amber was one way to get her off my desk and out of my office before she blew something else up. “You got anything other than that photo?” I asked.
Amber straightened. “If I did, detective, would I be here?” She reached into her vest pocket and pulled out another photo, then slapped it down. “But she does.”
I glanced once at the second photo once and then, when I recognized who was in Amber’s photo, I realized what this was really about. “Sorry, not happening.”
Amber laughed her chilling laugh. “Why not? You sold yourself to Jack to protect Mia, did you not? Why not recruit her to aid in your escape? That would be so romantic.”
I sat back in my aging chair, which creaked worryingly. “I’ll find your cel,” I said, just to shut her up. “But I don’t need Mia’s help, and I’d appreciate you leaving her out of it.” I narrowed my eyes. “That’s the deal I made with Jack, and if you break it, you answer to him.”
Amber sighed. “Weak. You and Mia could easily take down Jack, yet you won’t even ask her, because you think she needs protection.” She smiled. “She’s Hallowed, too.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust Mia,” I said, lying through my aching teeth. “I’m pretty sure she still wants to kill me, and that woman can kick through a brick wall.”
Amber slipped off my desk. “Offer’s on the table. If you’re too scared to take it, that’s not my problem. And if you doubt Lindsay has the pull to save you, consider this a down payment in good faith.”
Amber pulled out a single holo chip. She tossed the chip at me underhand. I caught it before I could think better of it.
“That holo is a gift from Lindsay Griffyn,” Amber said. “It involves Mia Ashford and a bunch of your old friends. Speak to them before they all get themselves killed, and after you do that, go find that cel for us. Succeed, and Lindsay and I will make all your troubles with Jack fade away.”
Amber spun and sauntered out of my busted door frame the same way she’d come in—with the confidence of a constrictor wrapped around its prey. Nothing to do, at that point, but gasp until you passed out. Nothing to do but lie back and die.
Could this really be the opportunity I’d been trying to unearth for over a year? The opportunity to finally betray Jack and tell everyone who now hated me why I’d pretended to side with him? I wanted it to be, so badly … but I needed to know more before I could risk everyone I loved.
Amber had been gone ten minutes before I convinced myself not to toss her holo chip out the window. There were too many horrible things it could be. Eventually, I walked to the aging projector in the corner of my dilapidated office and poked the chip into the dusty receiver.
The holo played. After I’d watched the recording Amber left for me, twice, I punched my office wall hard enough to bust the concrete. Once again, Mia was being too heroic for her own good.
I’d warned Mia not to go after Jack again, yet here we were. Mia was absolutely going to get herself killed, and even if she didn’t, she’d blow up the deal I’d made over a year ago to keep her and everyone else safe. I couldn’t protect my family from Jack if Mia kept kicking him in the balls.
I ejected the chip, tossed it in the trashcan, lit a match, tossed that in the trash can, then pulled on my long dark duster over today’s suit: a pair of black slacks, a white button-down shirt beneath a dark vest, and shined shoe with good soles. Finally, I grabbed my black, wide-brimmed hat from the rack. I’d grown up poor and starving, so dressing rich was the one luxury I’d decided to enjoy until I died.
I settled the hat over my spiky brown hair. I opened my desk drawer, pulled out rounds for Dismay, and tucked them into all my available pockets. I might need a whole lot of ammo on this job.
I stalked out of my freshly wrecked office to go save an asshole’s booze factory.
The Hallowed Conspiracy is now available for purchase!