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Tag: kat valeria

Chapters 1~3 of Stealing Sand

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Chapter One

He’s the one.

The day was clear and cold, and I hadn’t yet been able to shake the seeping chill of the lower levels from my bones.

I inhaled and exhaled slowly, watching my mark make his way across the skybridge spanning between two mega-scrapers three levels below me. I usually steered clear of marks who were that… fit… and I wouldn’t have looked at him twice if I hadn’t seen him slip a wallet, thick with a cred-case, into an accessible pocket as he entered the bridge.

Well, maybe I would have looked twice, but just because he was eye candy. I couldn’t make out details from this far away, but his closely-trimmed beard, defined jawline, and broad shoulders made him a pretty package.

He was visibly impatient as he tried to work his way through the crush of pedestrians, stopping and starting with the flow of foot-traffic that choked the massive bridge.

Impatient meant distracted, and distracted was perfect for a brush-off. Or possibly a bump and lift.

Robyn leaned into me, nudging my shoulder with his.

“Don’t do it,” he warned.

“You don’t think I could pull it off?”

My childhood friend shrugged in reply. “I’m not doubting your skills, but he looks like he’s more trouble than he’s worth. Then again, you won’t give up on that stupid bet, so I don’t even know why I’m trying to talk sense into you.”

“It’s true. It is a dumb bet.” My eyes narrowed, eyeballing the telltale bulge in the aristocrat’s pocket. “A dumb bet that I’m going to win.”

Since we’d been kids, my brother Zeke and I had kept a running monthly bet to determine who would be doing the most annoying chores, based on who could bring in the most money that month.

Zeke had tried to put an end to it a couple of times — the first one after I broke a finger escaping from a Sentinel — but every time he attempted to retire the bet I would steal his lev-cycle until he relented.

Was it an asshole move? Yes. But he’d set that low bar first by stealing my diveboard. Now I had safety locks on it so that no one but me could use it, and the only way he could get it off of me was if he won the use of it fair and square.

This month’s bet would be particularly painful to lose, because the loser lost their transportation to the winner for several months. And I hated public transit.

Robyn winced. “To be clear, when we all lecture you about being reckless, this right here is what we’re talking about.”

I shrugged.

“Fine,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not going to watch you do this, though. I don’t want to be the one to break your untimely demise to Zeke or Jade. Or Kit and Jolie. Or Tinker and Ember…”

“Are you kidding? Zeke would go after this mark in a heartbeat if he were here.”

“Not anymore. He’s making clean money, now.” He held up a finger to cut me off as I started to respond. “Well, clean-ish. He’s not risking his life for a paycheck these days. Something you may want to consider.” 

He sighed, then turned to mount the lev-cycle he’d summoned. “Just do me a favor and check in later so I know you didn’t die or end up in jail.”

“Sure. Wish me luck.”

“Don’t die,” he shot back, donning on his helmet before he dropped his lev-cycle down and away into the depths of the city.

I snorted. I’d been at it for more than a decade and I hadn’t died yet.

Had I injured myself frequently? Yes. But I was still alive.

A bit of danger makes life worth living, and this mark was a bit of danger and then some.

He’s right about the bet, though.

My brother had been pulling down large commissions at the garage over the past few weeks, and I had my suspicions that he’d started this wager with a lot in savings as well. I had until tomorrow night to bring in a big score.

Maybe Robyn has a point. I could just wait for less risky prey…

I stood, catching my lanky reflection in the window next to me. My white-dyed pixie cut framed my eyes in a way that made me look harmless, more like a student than a rookery brat. My cargo pants and vest hid the wiry strength of my limbs and minimized my breasts. Overall, the style helped me pass as younger than my twenty-eight years.

I shifted my shoulders, checking for the comforting presence of my diveboard in the holster across my back. In its idle state, the board looked like a flat silver oval, roughly a foot-long, smooth and cool and compact, ready for activation at the flick of my wrist.

If I lost the bet, my brother would keep my ‘board for six months.

Not gonna happen.

As an eighth birthday present to me, Jade had let me ride her prized diveboard for the first time. It was a decision she came to regret, because I’d instantly decided that I would have one. We’d already been living on the streets at that point, so I skipped meals and worked my ass off, doing everything from lifting wallets to dangerous courier runs to save money.

Even then, it took two full years before I had enough, so it was with a sense of deep pride that I finally traded in my crappy old air-board and never looked back.

I had ridden it every day since, raced on it in competitions. It was an extension of my body, and I relied on it for both transportation and my most daring and lucrative jobs.

Like this one, if I were lucky.

I refocused on my quarry.

He was halfway across the skybridge, navigating around a group of society matrons who were enjoying the daylight and fresh air of the upper levels. Engrossed in a conversation on his communicator, his eyes would occasionally drift up and to the right to engage with someone on his heads-up display.

Perfect.

I dropped to the walkway attached to the side of the nearest ‘scraper, then skipped down the stairs that connected it to the skybridge.

Slipping into the flow of the foot traffic, I wound through the throngs, closing on my target. A soft breeze brought me occasional whiffs of fine perfumes and spices and street food from the crowd around me. So much nicer than the pervasive scent of mildew on the lower levels.

From this close, I could tell he wasn’t much taller than I was. His back was nice and wide, narrowing to a trim waist and a tight ass, and I allowed myself a moment to appreciate it.

He bumped into a matron who had abruptly stopped to chat with a street vendor selling shawls from the tribal weavers of Scorpii. There was no telltale flare of a personal defense shield, which told me that he wasn’t wearing one.

This man makes poor decisions.

Shields wouldn’t stop a talented pickpocket, but they were useful at deterring weapons like bullets and energy bolts and shivs. They would even repel a fist or a kick, if they had enough force and speed to register as a threat. Toffs who didn’t use them were naïve or cocky — with his muscles, I’d put money on the latter.

I used the distraction to slip my hand beneath his coat and into the opening of his pocket. Every movement I made was careful, just in case he had some other form of personal defense.

When none triggered, I snagged a seam, pleating the cloth inside the pocket until the soft leather edge of his wallet brushed my fingertips. Palming it, I moved away casually, my expression bored.

A hand snapped around my wrist, strong as steel.

I looked up.

Eep.

The aristocrat’s eyes burned down into mine, cool and green. The color seemed unreal in the saturated morning light of the upper levels. A tight grin, almost a grimace, curved up one corner of his lips, exposing what, under other circumstances, would have been a very appealing dimple. His rich, neatly cut brown hair was swept back from his face like the pelt of a sleek predator, revealing a scar that ran through his right eyebrow.

Damn, he was a beautiful man. From far away he’d been attractive, but up close his masculinity overwhelmed me, short-circuiting my normal defenses. He smelled like smoke and fine spices, almost edible. My eyes slid down his powerful neck and across the wide expanse of chest under his well-tailored suit, coming to rest where his sinuous, muscular hand wrapped around my thin wrist.

What the hell was wrong with me? Dwelling on his good looks while he was likely figuring out exactly how and where to turn me in.

I need to be running, now.

His grip tightened on my flesh, and my fingers went slightly numb before releasing their hold on his property. The fine leather wallet hit the metal walkway underfoot with a soft thud that echoed on the interlaced grating.

The sound blended into the steady thrumming footfalls of the crowd passing us by, eyeing the sight of an aristocrat holding onto a vagabond.

I plastered on my most helpful, non-larcenous smile and widened my eyes, knowing that they would look large and innocent in my thin face. My naïve looks were one of my best tools.

“Oh no, it looks like you dropped your wallet, sir.” I affected my sweetest voice, swallowing back a squeak when those icy jade eyes narrowed. I tested the strength of his restraining hand with a tug, but he maintained a firm—and surprisingly gentle—grasp on me. I cocked an eyebrow at him, still smiling.

He smiled back at me.

Just as wide.

Just as friendly.

Just as false.

Crap. Busted.

“How lucky I am, then, that you found it for me.” His voice was deep and smothering as velvet. His sophisticated upper level accent should have softened the edge beneath the words, but instead it threaded through his tone like a threat, sending prickles down my spine.

If I didn’t shake him off me, I’d be going to the Slam, or worse.

My heartbeat sped up as I discreetly jogged my free arm, dislodging my stinger from my bicep holster so that the small, heavy weapon slid down my sleeve and into my palm.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Sorry, buddy.

I blinked up at him with feigned confusion, and at the same time I placed the stinger to his shoulder and pulled the trigger.

The petite device delivered a paralyzing shock of electricity with a low hum.

“Fuck!” He let me go, grabbing his numbed arm, his eyes blazing with pain and anger.

I vaulted over the railing of the bridge, teetering on the edge of the deep abyss between the colossal mega-scrapers. Skybridges spanned the space beneath me like the rungs of a ladder built by a drunken giant.

Perfect. This shouldn’t be hard.

A grin lifted my lips as I flung myself into the empty air, pulling my diveboard from its holster with a controlled flick of my wrist. I ignored the shouts that rang out behind me as I plunged, embracing the familiar rush of adrenaline as the world fell away and the wind whipped past my ears.

With a practiced move, I settled the board beneath me, sliding my heels into fitted grooves. The soles of my dive-boots activated the device, triggering a system of magnets and latches that attached me securely to its surface. Glider wings telescoped out from the oval, expanding the board to four feet in length. They snicked out in near-instant succession from the front and back — like blades, smooth as silk.

Fully extended, the diveboard vaguely resembled a cross between the surfboards and skateboards of Old Earth, but with thrusters rather than wheels. It was light and highly maneuverable, cinching in the middle to form two long, thin, aerodynamic leaves that gleamed in the light. For all of its delicacy, the board could weather almost anything; something I knew from personal experience.

It caught the wind with a satisfying jolt, thrusters firing to stabilize my descent. A twist of my body at the waist brought my legs and board under me, and my free-fall slowed to a stop.

I glanced up, anticipating the look of anger on the aristocrat’s face — or at this distance, him angrily flailing at me from the edge of the bridge.

What I saw instead filled my belly with cold fear. My grin faded.

The aristocrat arrowed down through the air without the benefit of any flying apparatus, arms to his sides like a skydiver as he hurtled toward me. A hawk, homing in on a sparrow.

He’d ditched his fine overcoat and now I could make out a shoulder harness with a gun in it.

I dodged out of the way with a grunt, the wind of his passage brushing against my cheek.

He landed on a skybridge below me with a jarring clang that echoed off the glass-and-steel canyons surrounding us. Bystanders scrambled away with surprised cries, clearing the bridge like rats fleeing fire. His head whipped up, and he fixed his gaze on me as he rose from his landing crouch. His pupils were widely dilated to track me in the dimmer light of the middle levels.

And they were glowing red and rimmed with silvery rings.

Fuck fuck fuck, he’s a cyborg!

The cyborgs had been elite knights in the war against the Eridanium Consortium, fighters modified heavily — painfully — for reconnaissance and tactical strikes. Their ranks were comprised of the overtly patriotic… or the desperate.

Robyn had been right. I’d fucked up big time.

I was close enough to notice the unnaturally swift, mechanical contraction of his pupils as they adjusted to spot me against the glow of distant daylight above.

Pure adrenaline crashed through my system, panic setting in for a few seconds before I suppressed it.

I slammed my board down and lay back on it, cutting the power.

Gravity took hold, and suddenly I was falling, plunging into a dive that sent me hurtling into the chasm. I activated my attitude thrusters to give me some directional control, but left the lifters off since they would only slow me down.

Diving blind was foolish at best and suicidal at worst, but having a cyborg on one’s ass was an exception in any rulebook.

I didn’t blink, adjusting the trajectory of my freefall with tiny shifts of my bodyweight in order to dodge the skybridges, antennae, and cords that multiplied the deeper I plunged. The air whipping past my face made my eyes water, impeding my vision. I pulled my goggles down, and suddenly I could see again—

Just in time to avoid becoming paste on a wrought-iron balcony.

With a squeak, I kicked the throttle and threw my weight to the left, wincing at the high-pitched grating of my board as it slid over the metal bannister. I glanced back to locate my pursuer again.

Crap, he’s too close!

Hiding under a skybridge wouldn’t work. The cyborg ate up the distance between us, his progress marked by the crashing booms of his body, leaping down from bridge to balcony to cable and back to bridge in my wake.

Panic seethed in my chest.

I needed to take this somewhere he’d be at a disadvantage.

I turned my attention to the city below me. The waning light filtered down between the monolithic buildings, disappearing into the mist-line a mile down. The deep veil of clouds and smog that wreathed the lowest levels of Sky City was my best bet. If I could just reach the border to the familiar netherworld where I’d lived my early life, my chances of surviving would vastly improve.

A quick glance up brought me the realization that he was going to continue gaining on me unless there were more obstacles in his way. I needed cover now.

There.

Escape presented itself as an alley, a crack separating two buildings like a wound. I shifted my weight, juicing my thrusters and aiming for the narrow space. Tightening my stance, I hugged my body as close to the polished surface of my board as I could get, hurtling with reckless abandon toward my target.

I passed into the alley. The air between the ‘scrapers, warmed by exhaust vents, slid over me like a moist, inky blanket as I slipped into the shadows between the colossal buildings.

I risked a glance back, and my gut tightened in fear at the sight of the cyborg, tall and strong and deadly, silhouetted where he clung to the wall just inside the alley like some great beast.

Dots of glowing, silver-rimmed red gleamed out of the darkness, marking his eyes. Another side effect of his cyborg nature — keen night vision.

Damn. I’d hoped that wasn’t one of his mods.

Metal crunched and shrieked as his fingers dug into the side of the building, gripping the siding with strength beyond the capabilities of any mere human. I snapped my attention back to my front, narrowly avoiding garroting myself on a utility cable strung between the buildings. I dipped and weaved, dodging more cables as they ran thicker the further I progressed.

The other side of the alley was so far away it looked like a dim blade of light, bisected by a webbing of hundreds of wires and cables and vents. In the depths below me, the mists beckoned, but the obstacles multiplied the closer they were to the mist-line.

Fuck.

The city usually kept the gaps between buildings tidy for utility work. It was just my luck that this particular alley wasn’t up to code.

This is going to suck.

My downfall was a vent that was hiding a nest of wires directly behind it.

The leading edge of my diveboard snagged on a cable, snapping my whole body forward. I lifted my legs, but there wasn’t enough space to recover, and I grunted as I glanced off of a strut. My new trajectory sent me slamming into the side of another vent. Hard. I would feel that later.

Only the grip of my boots on my board kept me from being flung free as I made a wobbly recovery.

I calculated the distance to the end of the alley, to the mist-line below, to the cyborg closing on me, and my heart sank.

I’m fucked.

My head whipped around, searching for an escape alternative, eyes scanning until I spotted an open-ended ventilation shaft gaping at me from the side of one building. It was going to be a tight fit, but if I could get there…

I struggled to deactivate my diveboard while simultaneously scrabbling for a cable. My sweaty palms were making it difficult to grip anything, and I nearly dropped my board in the process.

Fuck, no.

Heart pounding, I finally secured my hold. I eyed the vent shaft again, hoping that it didn’t have any nasty surprises, like exhaust fans or beastie traps.

Awkwardly torquing my weight around the taut length of cord, I slung myself toward the hole in the building’s side like a wobbly missile. I slid into the narrow duct with a clatter of banged elbows and knees, dragging my diveboard behind me through another cluster of cables, and for a moment exhilaration winged through me. The vent was too tight for the cyborg’s broad frame to fit.

If I could follow it to another opening, I might—

My entire body halted with a jarring, rending force, and the diveboard was ripped from my grip. I grabbed for it, but found my arm restrained. Again.

And now he had my diveboard.


Chapter Two

With one hand holding my arm, he used the other to secure my diveboard in his shoulder harness. I tangled my legs into a nest of cables and pulled hard against him, breath sawing in and out of my lungs until they burned. When struggling alone didn’t work, I smashed my constrained limb against the vent’s edge, scraping us both.

“Stop it! You’re hurting yourself,” he grunted.

His eyes met mine from a short length away, glinting a demonic red through the dark.

All that stood between me and escape was his hand on my arm.

I pulled my stinger out from a cargo pocket, bringing it up and firing it against his wrist. Hoping the same trick would work again.

His grip tightened rather than loosened, and he dragged me closer.

Fucking cyborgs.

“You need to stop fighting me. I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice was strained.

Yeah, right. You don’t chase someone to the ground to have a simple conversation.

I abandoned my stinger to pull out my shiv, burying the blade in his arm. If I was lucky, enough of him was flesh for him to feel it. He stilled for several moments.

Ouch.” He sounded… annoyed.

Those unnerving pupils bored into me from his shadowed face, respect and a glint of heat in them. I felt an odd twist of attraction in response.

The fuck?

“I won’t hurt you,” he repeated. “But I’d appreciate it if you would remove your shiv from my arm. It’s unpleasant.” His hand flexed on my trapped biceps.

He might be lying. Toffs aren’t to be trusted.

Yet somehow I found myself gingerly removing my blade from his arm. His grasp constricted briefly, and I winced at the blood staining his sleeve.

This was definitely one of my stupider moves — the kind that would have Jade yelling at me. Nothing was preventing him from dragging me out of my hiding place now. I tightened my grip on my shiv.

A faint beep from the communicator nestled in his ear cut through the stillness, a soft persistent chime. I saw his eyes flick briefly to read the caller ID, then he refocused on me. He didn’t make a move to answer it. After several more rings, his comm fell silent.

Normal blood flow returned as he released his hold on me, one finger at a time. He backed away, bracing against the walls of the alley with both legs and one arm, muscles flexing and corded, with no sign of strain.

His gaze rested on me, assessing.

“I have a proposition for you.”

“Uh… proposition?”

“I need your help on a job,” he continued. As if we were having a normal conversation.

I stared at him, thoroughly confused.

“I promise, it’s nothing overly dangerous, based on your skill level. I almost missed you lifting my wallet, even with my sensors.” He sounded genuinely impressed.

He was impressed? Did he really, actually hunt me down, chase me through the city… to pitch me on a job?

“What is wrong with you? I literally just stabbed you.”

“I have no hard feelings. You aren’t the first person who’s stabbed me, and I doubt you’ll be the last.”

How often did this guy get stabbed? “That’s not helping your case.”

“You’ll just have to take my word for it. I really do need your skills.”

“Do you offer everyone who steals from you a job?”

“Not normally, no.” He extracted my diveboard from his shoulder harness, showing it to me. “Take it or leave it. If you want your board back, you’ll need to come find me.” he sounded almost… teasing?

“Yeah, that’s not happening.”

“We’ll see. Laters, Sand.” And then he was gone, and my board with him.

His blood dripped along the blade still clutched in my hand. My breath rattled in my lungs, my body trembling with residual adrenaline.

I listened to him making his way out of the alley, to the steady rhythmic shrieking of metal siding as his fingers sank into the wall of the ‘scraper. I hid long after the sounds of his leaving faded.

What the ever-loving fuck just happened?

How does he know my name?

Something cool and rigid rested in the hand he had previously held captive. I uncurled my fingers to find a contact card resting in my palm.

SIR THIERRY MASTERSON
INVESTIGATION & ACQUISITION

Other than that and his comm-code on the back, the card was blank.

I stared at the digits as if they could help me divine some answers, but none were forthcoming.

I eventually dragged myself back through the mouth of the vent, looking in the direction he’d disappeared.

Processing my attraction toward him.

The way he looked at me…

As if he knew me. But I would have definitely remembered an encounter with a man like that.

I’d objectively known that men that sexy existed, but knowing and seeing were two very different things. It was almost like meeting a sim star in person.

Time to get back to reality. The mystery of how he knew my name could wait. I needed to calm down and think things over.

I assured myself that the coast was clear before hauling myself out to sit on the narrow utility ledge edging the wall beside the vent shaft, contemplating the long journey home.


Chapter Three

“I was this close to getting thrown into the Slam, Zeke.”

I punched my older brother in his non-artificial arm, causing the lev-cycle to wobble slightly as our balance shifted. His other arm was cybernetic; a cruder, less pricey version of what my recent mark had possessed.

Zeke’s prosthetic couldn’t pass for flesh and blood, and he never tried to pretend it was. He didn’t hide it under anything, instead favoring tank tops with short sleeves to show off its etched surface. Tinker had worked it into something beautiful for him, with intricate lace-like designs and patterns, the artwork completely covering the gunmetal ‘skin’.

Zeke rode his lev-cycle with ease born of great appreciation for the machine, as well as years ferrying around his endless succession of lovers. With his smooth good looks and honey-blonde hair, he was attractive and he knew it.

I did my best to beat his ego to a manageable size, but a sister could only do so much.

“If you recall, I’m not the one keeping this stupid competition going. And I didn’t make you choose a fucking cyborg as a mark, dumbass.” The veneer of laughter in his voice thinly veiled his concern. “If you must keep the bet going, you could always come work with me at the garage for a better chance at beating me. Hell, even picking up some paid hours at Blooming Greens would have been better than this.”

He lifted his right arm — his flesh-and-blood one — from a handlebar to pat my forearm where it was wrapped around his waist, the warmth of his touch reaching my skin through my shirt. He left his hand there, the only true indication of how deeply his worry for me ran.

I’ll definitely be more careful next time, I told myself.

I ignored his reminder that I was the one keeping the bet going. The competition gave structure to my days, gave me something to focus on that distracted me from the things I didn’t want to think about. So I was keeping it going, even if I sometimes had to suffer a loss.

“I wouldn’t have picked him if it was obvious he was a cyborg, dumbass,” I said, knowing it was a weak defense. “And the garage isn’t for me. You and Jade need to leave it alone.”

“Fine. Then having your diveboard stolen is the price you pay for overestimating your skills and underestimating your mark, sis. Since you’ll definitely be losing the bet tomorrow, and you lost my prize,” Zeke threw a stern glance at me over his shoulder. “You can also look forward to doing all the chores for the next six months. Maybe that’ll teach you to make better choices.”

Just because you changed doesn’t mean I have to. I knew for a fact that he would’ve made the same choice. At least, in the past he would have. He’d gone straight a few years ago. After Merrick had died.

I didn’t argue with him, though, since he was technically right.

And I was about to do something that was arguably just as stupid as having picked Thierry Masterson as a mark.

I was going to call him.

If there was still a tiiiiny chance that I could get my diveboard back from him, I may have enough time to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

Anger with a twist of arousal wound through me as I remembered the smug expression on the aristocrat’s sculpted face while he taunted me with my board. I pointedly ignored my libidinous response to the memory, focusing on the rage.

The bastard knew how much it meant to me, somehow. How precious the diveboard was, and the lengths I’d go to in order to retrieve it.

Did he know me when I was diveboarding in the semi-pros?

At least he seemed to want something other than to see me locked up.

My arms tightened around my brother’s waist, and he threw a worried glance at me.

If Zeke found out I was planning on calling the cyborg, he’d lock me in my room and throw the key down a sewage shaft.

Zeke interrupted my train of thought. “Or… we could call off the bet. I wouldn’t even count this loss, since your stupidity already cost you your board.”

I pinched him in the ribs, and his cussing echoed off the walls of the ‘scrapers as we descended through the mid-levels.

I distracted myself from my thoughts by focusing on how the diminishing light hit the myriad wires that ran between the buildings like a silver web spun by a drunken spider. It almost looked beautiful.

When you lived in the lower levels, you’d take beauty wherever you could find it.

I took a moment to shoot off a message to Robyn so that he wouldn’t worry about me.

SAND: Still alive, asshole.

ROBYN: Congratulations?

I studiously ignored yet another message from Jade that linked to open job listings for boring jobs that would suck the life out of me. I’d tried that route and wasn’t looking to try it again.

Then I squeezed my arms around Zeke’s waist, drawing comfort from his familiar scent.


Zeke, Robyn, Jade and I shared a flat we’d affectionately dubbed the Crashpad in the lower levels, just above the mist-line marking the top of the rookeries. The sun didn’t reach anything below the middle levels, so when we were at home we lived in a permanent, humid night-time. Mold and rust streaked the outside walls of the building, caused by the condensation that dripped from the city above.

The light from the old, dying street lamps glinted off the railing of the metal access walk that ran along our level. Some bits still had their lacy ironwork, a glimpse of faded loveliness.

The city was like that; modern glitz built on decaying glory gone tawdry and destitute by turns.

We could afford something better, more like the mid-level flat where Zeke and I had started our lives, but we all had other things to spend our money on. And our little band of misfits had lived in a literal hole in the wall after we’d landed on the streets as kids, so our standards were low.

Someone had long-ago bricked over the windows of our flat, replacing the glass with masonry, probably when the level had been lost to the shadows and relegated to the status of ‘the rough part of town’ several centuries ago.

The original windows had been floor-to-ceiling, meant to catch as much sunlight as possible when this had been the desirable top level, the skydeck, of Sky City. Back when the city was called Granville.

All that remained of those windows was a horizontal slit high in the wall that let in a thin band of dim light. I had lined the narrow sill with my collection of glass plants, and sometimes they even glimmered a bit when the street lamps flickered with power surges.

My glass plants could never be as good as the real ones that Jolie and Kit grew at Blooming Greens, but it beat the hell out of the mold, mildew, and often-poisonous mushrooms that thrived in the dank wetness of the lower levels.

To make up for the lack of beauty outside, we had surrounded ourselves with color in our apartment. The common area held a sofa and chairs, well-worn but clean and relatively comfortable. Jade had painted directly on the walls, each one carrying a different theme. Flowering plants under an open sky filled with radiant sun for me. An ocean with a colorful reef teeming with exotic fish for Zeke. A wild forest with woodland creatures for Robyn, based on the planet he’d lived on when he was young. A dahlia for Jade herself.

Zeke turned around almost as soon as he dropped me off. He’d done me a favor, taking time out of his day to pick me up.

“I’m gone, sis. I won’t be back ‘till late. Hot date with Nick tonight.”

“Have fun. Don’t catch an STD.”

“It’s been over a decade since that happened, Sand. Let it go.”

“Never. Love ya!”

“Back atcha.”

Once he was gone and no longer distracting me, my scrapes and bruises reminded me that they needed tending.

I closed my bedroom door, locking it to ensure some privacy. Most of my roommates had on-again-off-again relationships, but since I wasn’t a relationship kinda gal I was here a lot more than the others. On the off chance someone else came home, though, it wouldn’t do for them to overhear my call to Thierry Masterson.

In my room, swaths of rich fabrics in jewel tones disguised the dingy walls. After a winter day or the rare trip down into the rookeries below the mist-line, retreating to my room ran a close second to visiting Blooming Greens on my Comforts List.

My old vidscreen projector sat on a battered dresser I’d decorated when I was young. I’d painted the worn piece of furniture in shades of green, dotted with flowers. My brother had pooled money with me for the paint, and helped me handpick the colors to match real flowers I’d liked from our rare park visits.

Much as he tried to hide it, my dick of a brother secretly had a heart of gold.

Another reason I would never embroil him in my problems.

As I crossed my room, I caught a look at myself in the mirror, and straightened up as I remembered how attractive and well-dressed Sir Thierry Masterson had been next to me.

I spotted a smudge of black on my cheek from my earlier escape, grimacing as I cleaned it off.

Definitely not a sex-pot, and definitely not the kind of woman who should be able to draw the amorous attention of a man like that.

With a sigh, I grabbed my first aid kit. I used it a lot more than I let on to any of my family members, because if they knew how often I accidentally hurt myself doing something dumb, they’d have a collective coronary.

I plunked down on my narrow bed, enjoying the slight bounciness of the soft sheets and plush pillows. It was one of the few luxuries I allowed myself, the type of thing I’d rather spend money on than a nicer flat.

Don’t call him. Better just to take the loss and move on. That would be the smart, safe thing to do.

Dialing his code, I pulled out painkillers and self-disinfecting bandages. I pushed the projection arm on my comm up away from my eye, disabling my heads-up display and vidcall function. I didn’t feel like having him watch me patch myself up.

Within two rings, he answered.

“Masterson.” His voice stroked my ears. The rush of excitement I felt at hearing his voice — his voice, for the Gods’ sake! — took me off guard. I paused the bandaging of my arm, staring blankly at one of my wall hangings as I searched for my words. “Hello? Who is this?” Impatience made his voice curt. I was tempted to hang up.

He paused, then his tone changed. Lightened.

“Is this my thief?”

I cleared my throat, telling myself I didn’t like the nickname.

“Maybe it is. If you still have the diveboard.”

“Oh, I still have it.” He didn’t bother to hide his satisfaction. “Are you ready to come and get it?”

His voice purred across my eardrums, curling into my brain like a beastie settling down around a favorite treat. I shook myself, fighting off the flare of heat between my legs as I finished bandaging my scrapes from our chase.

Bad libido, getting turned on by a toff.

“How do I know you won’t just turn me in?”

“I’ve been looking for a talented pickpocket to assist me for a while. In the course of my investigations, lifting evidence would be highly useful.”

“Isn’t that against the law?”

“Technically, yes. If you get caught. And I was barely able to catch you, with all of my augmentations. If you can deliver, it will lead to other jobs. Well-paying ones.” He was trying to tempt me, and the tone was working on deeper levels than he probably intended. How could I be this attracted to just his voice? He wasn’t even flirting with me!

I opened a nutri-bar, taking a bite to distract myself. It’d been hours since my breakfast of an apple from Blooming Green’s — I often skipped meals altogether to save money — and I was starving.

“I can think of all sorts of ways to use your talents, thief.”

I nearly choked on my food.

Was that…? Is he flirting?

That voice, speaking those words, should be illegal. Definitely getting added to the spank bank…

Whoa, girl. Down. This guy would chew you up and spit you out. Aristocrats were never good news. I took a steadying breath.

“Just to be clear, I don’t deal in sex work. That’s a quick way to wind up on an auction block. If that’s part of what you’re offering, you can keep the damn diveboard.” Even though it would hurt like losing a limb. I was reckless, not an idiot.

“That wasn’t — that’s not what I meant. Though I’m happy to hear it.”

Why was he happy to hear it? Was this hot, healthy hunk of man actually interested in me? Me?

It doesn’t matter. Even casual sex with a member of the aristocracy would be a mistake.

All I wanted from this aristocrat was my diveboard. Anything else was asking for trouble.

“So, what is this job?”

“I need you to pick someone’s pocket for me. A man who has something the Sentinels need to prosecute a case.” He shifted on the other end of the line, and I pictured him settling more comfortably into his seat.

“You’re working with the Sentinels?”

“This time. I contract to whoever can afford my services.”

I raised one eyebrow. Interesting.

“Just to be clear, I won’t work for a clan. Not even by proxy.” I had few hard lines, but that was one of them.

“Good. Neither will I.” His response was prompt. Good.

“So you need someone who can get close to this man and relieve him of this thing, this evidence?”

“Yes. He doesn’t have any modifications, so he shouldn’t be able to detect you. You should be able to get close to him. If I hadn’t actually sensed you doing it, I would never have suspected that a guileless thing like you could have such a larcenous bent.” I heard his chagrin.

“We all do what we have to in order to survive, Masterson.”

“Oh, I know.” His voice chilled by a few degrees. “Believe me, I know.”

I shivered at his steely tone. This aristocrat was no piece of fluff. He had mileage on him, shadows hiding in dark corners.

Yet another reason to turn him down.

“Okay. I’ll do it.” I found myself saying. Damn it.

“Good.” His tone warmed again. “Meet me on the west-facing balcony at the southwest corner of the Sky City Bank Tower at ten o’clock tonight, skydeck level. Are you familiar with the area?”

It took me a moment to visualize the place he was describing, but I eventually got there. “I am.”

“That’s handy. I’ll brief you on everything you need to know about our target tonight. You should have enough time to get there from your place using public transit if you leave within the hour.”

“Fine. See you tonight.” I disconnected the call.

Wait.

I checked the commute time to the rendezvous point.

How, exactly, did he know where I lived?

I grabbed his contact card and snapped it in half, then quarters, finding a tracking chip inside.

That fucker. I popped the rest of the nutri-bar into my mouth, then rolled out of bed with a groan, regretting the lack of time. I’d need to make do with a quick change of clean clothes.

On the flip side, this gave me a running chance to win the bet. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could get back to picking pockets.

I pointedly refused to acknowledge the part of myself that was pleased at the idea of having contact with that fine specimen of a man again.