by Barb Taub
Null City Book Four
Is it wrong that shooting people is just so much easier than making decisions? Carey wonders—and not for the first time. But the Agency claims this will be an easy one. A quick pickup of a missing teen and she won’t even have to shoot anybody. Probably.
Carey knows superpowers suck, her own included. From childhood she’s only had two options. She can take the Metro train to Null City and a normal life. After one day there, imps become baristas, and hellhounds become poodles. Demons settle down, join the PTA, and worry about their taxes. Or she can master the powers of her warrior gift and fight a war she can’t win, in a world where she never learned how to lose.
And then there is…him. For the past two months, a dark stranger has persistently edged his way onto the mental game board behind her eyelids. Well, whatever trouble he's selling, Carey Parker is not buying. Her to-do list is already long enough: find her brother and sister, rescue her roommate, save Null City, and castrate her ex-boyfriend. Preferably with a dull-edged garden tool. A rusty one.
She just has a few details to work out first. Her parents have been killed, her brother and sister targeted, and the newest leader of the angels trying to destroy Null City might be the one person she loves most in the world. And her sexy new partner’s gift lets him predict deaths. Hers.
Genre: Urban FantasyPurchase link(s): Amazon ARe Smashwords iTunes Kobo B&N
Content/Theme(s): Suspense, Humor, Steampunk, Romance, Sentient Train
Release Date: April 7, 2016
Publisher: Hartwood Publishing
Excerpt & More
Was it wrong that shooting people was so much easier than finishing up the humanities requirements for her criminal justice degree? Carey Parker sipped her coffee and—not for the first time—wondered about herself. But the Agency said this would be an easy one. A quick pickup and she wouldn’t even have to shoot anybody. Probably.
There were two distinct advantages to her corner table at the rear of the self-consciously artistic coffee shop on the edge of Seattle’s eclectic Fremont district. Nobody could see her screen, and—infinitely more important—she had sole possession of the outlet currently charging both iPad and phone. She checked her iPad’s video screen to make sure the blonde teen she was tracking still had no idea she was being studied. Well, okay—studied along with the research materials for Carey’s overdue Humanities 201 essay. “Discuss the relationship of capitalism and patriarchal post constructivist theory. Provide data and cite literature supporting your thesis.” She squinted at the assignment, minimized to parallel the video window, and cringed.
Enlarging the video, Carey automatically evaluated her target. The teenager was a few inches under Carey’s own five-five. But where Carey’s cargo pants and hoodie hid a leanly muscled frame and a surprising number of weapons, the other girl’s designer Goth outfit made the most of her soft curves. Plus that pink streak in the younger girl’s hair was a little too shiny, her dark eyeliner a bit too creamy, while her wannabe goth leather jacket, fitted black T-shirt, and long dark skirt screamed Nordstrom personal shopper and Daddy’s credit card.
A lifetime of training—three years at the Academy, four more in the field—and they send me after Goth-Barbie. Carey sighed. Is it even worth it? But a flash memory—her guardian Harry’s blood-drenched golden hair, the almost-forgotten faces of her murdered parents, her missing brother and sister—stopped her. If she had a prayer of finding Gaby and Connor, she couldn’t afford to give up the all-important info access the Agency jobs provided. And then there was…him. For the past two months, the dark stranger had persistently edged his way onto the mental game board behind her eyelids where her harmonia gift visualized connections only she could view. Whatever trouble Mr. Six-Feet-Plus of arrogance is selling, I’m sure not buying.
“Excuse me. Do you need both outlets?”
Carey looked up to see the blonde standing in front of her, expectantly holding up her power cord. “Yes.” She returned her focus to the iPad screen, ignoring the muttered “bitch” as the girl went over to try her smile on the men two tables over. Her reversed video window showed the younger girl breathlessly thanking the man who leaped to free up an outlet for her. As she leaned over their table, the men’s eyes lit with appreciation for the way she maximized scoop-neck T-shirt, youth, and the best technology the foundations industry had to offer. Guess there’s all kinds of ways to say thank you.
Shrugging, Carey returned to her own essay assignment. Her business partner, Marley, was pushing her to finish the degree that would let them bill the Agency at a higher rate. But at twenty-four Carey felt a generation older than her fellow students. With her erratic hours, she had to take classes offering online options whenever possible, so she was currently sentenced to Humanities 201: Postmodernist Applications for Economic Themes in Literature.
“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting here for ages.”
At the sex-kitten whine, Carey’s eyes flicked back to the little video window to see the other girl pouting up at a new arrival. But her complaints didn’t stop her from giving the young man—a boy, really, although Marley’s data sheet said he was nineteen—a thorough tonsil cleaning. Pulling away, he threw himself into a dramatic slouch across the next chair, giving Carey her first good look at him. He was thin, but more like an adolescent whose slender arms and legs had yet to develop a man’s solid outlines. His pale fallen-angel face sulked behind long hair too carefully slashed and tossed over one eye to be accidental. He looked, Carey thought, beautiful and brooding and more than a little stupid. Score!
Pretending to check her phone, Carey took a quick picture of the boy and texted it along with the address of the coffee shop. It had only been a few days since he’d left home and stopped showing up at his classes or part-time job. Too little time for the police to be concerned, but long enough for his frantic parents to agree to her search fee. Setting the phone aside, she adjusted her video window to give him a critical once-over. But he didn’t seem any more pale or unhealthy than would be explained by devotion to the laptop he was even now pulling out and opening.
“Get me a coffee?” He didn’t look up from his laptop as he spoke. The girl pouted again but bounced off. Returning with a cup for each of them, she leaned forward to lay a gentle hand on his arm. “Is your poem cycle done yet?” The boy shook his head impatiently, fingers tapping at his laptop’s keyboard. She smiled. “Don’t worry. Now that I’m here, it will go so much better.” He blinked, and shivered. She breathed in and smiled again. His typing increased, his face intent on the screen.
Carey flipped the cover down on her iPad, rewound its power cable as well as the one for her phone, and stored them in their specially padded—okay, armored—case. The Apple people had been incredibly nice about that last bullet incident, but she could just hear Marley explaining, again, how their little company couldn’t afford to keep buying her new iPads. Setting the case into the backpack hanging behind her corner chair, Carey leaned both elbows on the table, peering over the brim of her raised coffee cup. Excellent coffee, she decided. Wonder if they roast it themselves?
Finally the two men, the only other customers in the secluded rear room, stood up and left. She took a final look around at the coffee shop’s rear seating area—one door, no windows or other access—and left to talk to the barista in the front room of the coffee shop. Twenty dollars later, Carey taped a handwritten sign—“Rear room reserved for private meeting”—to the outside of the door. Stepping back inside the room, empty now except for the younger couple, she closed the door behind her and stopped in front of the boy.
“Your mother is worried about you, Will.” His automatic sneer came a fraction too late to cover his stunned expression. Before he could speak, she turned to the girl. “It’s time to go, Leigh Ann.”
“The name is Leannán.”
Carey laughed. “Well, Leannán Sí…” She pronounced each Gaelic syllable with exaggerated care, L’ann-AN Shee. “Since you refuse to honor the Accords Agreement, the Council feels it’s time for you to go to Null City. Let’s go. I have a class this afternoon, and I don’t want to be late again.”
The boy started to stand, trying to look tough, but only managing to achieve the ferocity of a puppy protecting his favorite chew toy. “We don’t have to go anywhere with you. Get your stuff, Leigh Ann. We’re outta here.”
“Actually.” Carey’s voice was quiet. “You’re half right.” Her hand shot out and pressed his stomach. “You don’t need to go with me.” His breath whooshed out, and all three looked down at the tiny needle as she pulled her hand back. A moment later, his legs buckled, and Carey guided his falling body back down to his chair. He slumped there, head hanging awkwardly.
Leigh Ann stared from Will to Carey, eyes round. “Is he…?”
“He’s fine.” Carey turned to the girl and pointed to her corner table. “Sit. And don’t even think about talking.”
Carey checked the boy’s pulse and nodded to herself in relief. As a young witch, her friend Claire’s sleep spells wore off pretty quickly because she had to boil down the spelled water to make it take effect so fast. He’d probably just wake up with a hell of a headache. She arranged his head on his arms as if he was taking a quick nap in front of his laptop. In an afterthought, she picked up his fedora from the floor and pulled it onto his head, hiding his face.
Returning to the scowling girl at her table, she took a small book of forms from her backpack and started filling out the top page.
“You can’t just—” Leigh Ann sputtered.
Without looking up Carey showed her the hand. “What did I tell you not to do?” The girl fidgeted for another minute as Carey frowned at the form in front of her. Finally she looked up. “How old are you again?”
“Nineteen. And I don’t…”
Carey shook a warning finger without looking up. “I hate these Accords forms. You have to make sure you fill in every last blank or those badgers in accounting will hold up your check.” She made a final note, put the notebook away, and pulled out her phone to check the time. “They should be here by now. Must be that damn bridge traffic.”
Carey jerked her head toward the next table. “Sleeping Beauty’s parents. I’ve found it best to collect my fee on the spot. People’s memories tend to…fade…otherwise.”
“Wait.” Leigh Ann sounded indignant. “You were hired to find Will?”
“Nah, he was just a bonus. One of his friends told the Agency that he’d disappeared with a Leannán Sí. I used him to find you because I have an authorized ARC warrant for you.”
“Accords Recovery and Capture.” When the girl still looked confused, Carey sighed. “Amateurs. I’m an Accords Warden licensed for paranormal recoveries, and I’m serving an ARC warrant in your name. That reminds me.” She rooted through the pocket of her backpack for the laminated card and set her phone camera to video. Centering the camera view screen on Leigh Ann’s face, she pushed record, and began to read the card. “By the authority of Accords Agency warrant number 110309A57, I charge you, Leigh Ann—” Pausing, she looked over to the form she’d filled out before returning to the card. “—Leigh Ann Shay, a practicing Leannán Sí, to accompany me to the Council Headquarters. If you request a hearing, you are entitled to representation. Otherwise, you are sentenced to five years of Null City residency without an amnesty day. This recovery and your rights are specified in Amendment 3, sections 7-18 of the Accords Agreement of 1998. The current time is 15:57 on March 7, 2011. Carey Parker, Accords Adjunct Warden License 07823 class 3, submitting authorized Accords Recovery and Capture statement.” She turned off the camera and played back the recording. Satisfied, she uploaded it to Agency servers, put her phone and the card back into her backpack, and faced the girl.
Leigh Ann looked uncertain. “Null City?”
Carey looked at her curiously. “You don’t know about the City?”
“Yeah, and I know about the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny too. Come on. You really believe there’s a city you get to on a magic train, and after a day there you become a normal human?”
“Since my family founded it, yeah. I kinda do believe it.” She leaned back in her chair to consider the teenager in front of her. “You could have killed that boy, Leigh Ann. What could be worth his death?”
The girl widened soft blue eyes at her. “I’m a Leannán Sí. He’s a writer, and I would have given him an intense, brilliantly inspired life of creating masterpieces. So what if it would have been a short one? It’s got to be better to go as a blazing star than stay as a…” Her voice trailed off as a snore filtered from beneath the fedora.
“Did you give him a choice? Did you say to him, ‘Will, I’ll be your muse and give you lots of coffee-shop kissing although the actual sex won’t be that great, and there’s the whole die young thing… But you won’t mind because it will all be for your Art’?”
Leigh Ann frowned. “The sex wouldn’t have been that bad.”
Carey snorted. “And actually, that masterpiece he was producing?” She reached over to snag Will’s computer and pulled it around to face Leigh Ann. “First thing I did was put a keystroke tracker onto his laptop. And believe me, reading that drivel was almost as bad as my humanities essay. He copied most of it from last month’s Poetry!Slam online. Here’s what he was actually writing.” She selected Recent Documents on the laptop and opened the top file listed.
The younger girl’s eyes widened. “Fanfiction?” She peered at the screen and looked like she might be sick. “One Direction fanfiction?”
“Nothing wrong with fanfiction.” Carey raised an eyebrow. “We’ve all done it. But Will’s was…” She shuddered. “Really, really bad.” She looked curiously at the younger girl and waved at the snoring boy. “Why did you do it?”
Leigh Ann looked down at her clasped hands. “My parents were killed just before the war ended. When Haven and Gifts signed the Accords in 1995, I was sent to live with my father’s cousins. They had a little apple orchard up on the Olympic Peninsula, and there wasn’t much money. Everyone had to work pretty hard all the time, just to get food to eat and a few clothes. But I knew there was something different inside me. Something that would inspire beauty and genius and glorious creativity.”
Carey stared at her. “Well, that’s an entire pickup truck full of prime-quality manure.”
“Was it the farm?” Leigh Ann frowned. “The orphan bit?"
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