Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best Reads of 2016 Part 1

I read over 200 books in 2016 so when I decided to do a Best Reads feature it was very difficult to narrow it down. Some of them were new releases, some were just new to me, and some of them are re-reads but all really stuck with me and found a lasting place in my heart and library.  I finally decided on 4 books for each month broken into four parts, here is part 1 of my favorite reads of 2016 each containing my original review.

Part & Parcel by Abigail Roux
Sidewinder #3
Nick O'Flaherty and Kelly Abbott had their happy ending in sight when a friend’s call for help almost ended with them losing it to the blade of a knife. Now, in the aftermath of near-disaster, both men are trying to heal and move on.

Moving on together, though, is harder than either of them realized it would be. Kelly struggles with simply being a lover instead of the Doc, while Nick is mired in his recovery. The distance between them inches along in stilted silence.

Desperately seeking solace, Nick finally gathers the courage to sort through the possessions his dear friend and fellow Sidewinder teammate Elias Sanchez left him when he died. Instead of comforting memories, Nick and Kelly find a stack of letters and strict instructions from Eli that prompt them to send out a call for assistance. With Eli’s letters in hand, Sidewinder sets out on one last mission together, seeking peace and absolution from beyond the grave—and from each other.

Click here to check out the Cut & Run Series where Nick, Kelly, & Sidewinder were first introduced.

Nick and Kelly may not quite be Ty and Zane but they are a very close second.  In Part & Parcel, we get not only Nick and Kels, but also Ty and Zane, Sidewinder, and through early flashbacks, letters, and memories shared around the table we get to meet Eli Sanchez, whose death started it all.  Eli's murder while hunting down the Tri-State killer is what brought Ty and Zane together in Cut & Run and eventually introduced us to Sidewinder, and then it all snowballed from there.  As someone from the Frozen Tundra, I don't like snow but this is one snowball I will gladly keep rolling and packing for as long as Miss Roux wants.

I don't feel I can go into many specifics about this installment without giving spoilers but I will say that I cried, I laughed, oh did I laugh a few times.  Kelly's emu oil comes to mind, I laughed so hard at that scene, tears were falling so hard that I couldn't see the print on my Kindle for nearly 10 minutes.  Then of course there is the whole berry/fruit/veg debacle that had me roaring too.  There are plenty of tears shed in moments of heart wrenching truths too.  Put them all together and you have an amazing story that even without a crime/mystery to solve, is worthy of our boys who have burrowed their way into our hearts.

If you are new to the Cut & Run/Sidewinder universe, you are in for a treat what I wouldn't give to be able to read them for the first time again, but they should be read in order starting with Cut & Run.


Resurrecting Hope by Shell Taylor
Home for Hope #2
Adam Lancaster can’t imagine how his life could possibly get any better. He’s on the cusp of moving in with his boyfriend, Elijah Langley. Their charge, Kollin Haverty, finally has a loving, stable home environment, and Home for Hope is up and running, keeping over fifteen LGBT youth off the streets at night. But one phone call from his birth mother, Jessica Lancaster, is all it takes to unravel Adam’s carefully constructed new life.

Informing Adam his grandfather has died, Jessica expresses remorse for abandoning Adam to the state and begs him for a chance to be part of his life again. Jessica’s true colors eventually shine through her façade, and Adam is devastated all over again when he discovers she is only using him to get her hands on the valuable inheritance his grandfather left him. Jessica’s betrayal forces Adam so far inside his own hell, not even Elijah or Kollin can keep him from abandoning all of his responsibilities and running away. Adam will have to dig deep to find the strength to confront his birth parents, heal once and for all, and earn back his place with his new family.

Click here to check out Home for Hope series.

I'm going to jump out of the gate by saying that when I read the blurb, I was terrified.  I didn't read it immediately, partially because I was in the midst of a Christmas fix but also because I wanted to put off Adam's downfall.  I bit the bullet and jumped in and yes, I was right to be terrified but in a good way.   When Adam's past comes back in the form of his birth mother, to say it rocks his world is an understatement because it rocks the hell out of everyone's world, the reader included.  Elijah and Kollin do their best to help but it's something Adam has to work through on his own, or at least he thinks so.  Watching their family inch their way forward and backward and forward again is an incredible balance of heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Resurrecting Hope is a fantastical follow-up for this author's second book, I can't wait to see what she has coming next.


Masters of Cane by Erin O'Quinn
Gaslight Mysteries #5
There is something evil afoot in the growing city of Dun Linden, Ireland (1924) where private dicks Michael McCree and Simon Hart have a PI agency. No one has hired them this time, as they find their neighbors and their own tiny spy network in grave danger from a group of thieves who would rather slit a throat than pick an honest pocket; and an old nemesis who has a score to settle with both of them.

When the peril grows too grave for two men to handle, they call on a few trusted friends and some unusual weaponry to help in a case where they are outnumbered—but never outwitted.

The always-edgy partnership of the two investigators also undergoes some twists and turns … of fate and canes alike.

Click here to check out Gaslight Mysteries series.

Masters of Cane begins less than 24 hours after Thin as Smoke ended and once again Simon wakes before Michael with his ongoing internal debate over their relationship still percolating, though he does seem to come to his wants and needs faster than usual.  But nothing comes easy for this lovely duo and this time they find their little friend Squeak the one possibly in danger.

Michael McCree has always seemed a bit on the me first side, at least on the surface, but he truly cares for those in his life and that includes Squeak and Copper as well as Simon and Sam.  Yes, Dashiell "Sam" Hammett returns and this time Simon may still hold some elements of jealousy for the history Sam shares with Michael but he also comes to see Sam as his friend too.

There may not be a paying client this time but they do have friends and neighbors to protect and they do it as only Simon and Michael can, with a little ingenuity, spontaneity, and passion.  Another great entry in the Gaslight Mysteries.


The Road to Silver Plume by Tamara Allen
Secret Service operative Emlyn Strickland may be new to field work, but his talent for identifying counterfeit bank notes, honed over ten years at the Treasury, has given Sing Sing’s population a respectable boost. When counterfeiter August McKee takes illegal advantage of a sinking silver market, his former confederate Darrow Gardiner shares that information with Agent Strickland so they can track down the once-friend who left Darrow to rot in prison.

Promised his freedom in return, Darrow’s after something more. He wants possession of his best work, the flawless fifty dollar plates still in McKee’s hands. And with a little maneuvering, he’ll have the one thing a vengeful McKee may consider fair barter: the Secret Service operative whose testimony sent them both up the river.

It seems an objective within Darrow’s reach after he rescues Emlyn from an assassin, earning a measure of his trust in the process. But on the cross-country journey in search of McKee, another attempt on their lives leaves operative and outlaw stranded miles from Denver, with no one to rely upon but each other. Beset by turncoat agents, angry miners, and the burgeoning threat of a wealthy and powerful McKee, Darrow and Emlyn discover that standing on opposite sides of the law doesn’t safeguard them from the dangers of friendship—or a deeper attraction that may force Darrow to choose between the real and the counterfeit as he’s never done before.

Some might call this enemy to lovers sub-genre, for me Emlyn & Darrow are not quite enemies to begin with but they are definitely what I would call adversaries.  At first, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to "get into" this story right now as it wasn't really the time frame I was searching for but it only took the first chapter and I was hooked.  Emlyn might be out of his depth as a field agent but he sure does know his money.  Darrow may be a convict looking for his way out but he too knows his money or how to create it anyway.  Together they have a common foe in their sites but watching them find a way to work together is interesting and immensely entertaining.  Once again, Tamara Allen has captured the era with precision and created characters that burrow their way into your heart in both loving and not-so-loving ways.  A great read for anyone who loves historicals but also for those who love a great story.

Trust by Brigham Vaughn
Evan Harris thinks his relationship with Jeremy Lewis is going well. But when Jeremy bolts, Evan is left nursing a broken heart. Jeremy loves Evan, but his inability to trust holds him back from facing his past head on and building the future he desperately wants. Evan’s patience is at the breaking point, and he struggles to decide if Jeremy deserves another chance.

Scarred by his own parents’ treatment of him, Jeremy doesn’t trust Evan’s mother’s motives when she reappears in Evan’s life after his father lands in jail. The ensuing disagreement about his concerns puts further pressure on their developing relationship.

Unless Jeremy can learn to trust and Evan can let go of past hurts, they’ll miss out on the relationship they’ve both been searching for.

Click here for a closer look at book 1 Connection

I fell in love with Evan when Russ & Stephen met him in Partners and that love only deepened when he became one half of the feature couple of the author's spin-off duology Evan and Jeremy.  I will be honest and admit I had my doubts about Jeremy when he was introduced as Stephen's ex, generally exes cause strife wherever they go, but not this ex.  Jeremy really begins to heal in Trust but it doesn't come easy and Evan finds it harder to let go of Jeremy and move on when the man pushes him away.  I was a little on edge after reading the blurb but knew it was a story I had to read no matter how bumpy the road got and boy was there potholes all over their road.  Having grown up around disability and health issues I understood both Jeremy's fears and Evan's hopeful optimism, which only helped the boys when they began to burrow their way into my heart.  If you've been reading Miss Vaughn's Equals/Evan and Jeremy series then you can't miss this entry and if you haven't begun yet, well what are you waiting for?  I must say that I wouldn't mind seeing minor characters Tod and Chris get their own fairytale journey, *hint, hint*.


Clockwork Heart by Heidi Cullinan
Love, adventure and a steaming good time.

As the French army leader’s bastard son, Cornelius Stevens enjoys a great deal of latitude. But when he saves an enemy soldier using clockwork parts, he’s well aware he risks hanging for treason. That doesn’t worry him half as much, however, as the realization he’s falling for his patient.

Johann Berger never expected to survive his regiment’s suicide attack on Calais, much less wake up with mechanical parts. To avoid discovery, he’s forced to hide in plain sight as Cornelius’s lover—a role Johann finds himself taking to surprisingly well.

When a threat is made on Cornelius’s life, Johann learns the secret of the device implanted in his chest—a mythical weapon both warring countries would kill to obtain. Caught up in a political frenzy, in league with pirates, dodging rogue spies, mobsters and princesses with deadly parasols, Cornelius and Johann have no time to contemplate how they ended up in this mess. All they know is, the only way out is together—or not at all.

Warning: Contains tinkers, excessive clockwork appendages, and a cloud-sweeping tour of Europe. A little absinthe, a little theft, a little exhibitionism. Men who love men, women who love women, and some who aren’t particular.

First I have to start off by saying that I don't really get the whole terminology of steampunk.  I know what it means and I know it is a sub-genre of science fiction but to me science fiction is science fiction, nothing more, nothing less.  As a reader, I will be putting this and others labeled steampunk on my science fiction library shelf but as a book blogger I will defer to the whole steampunk terminology labeling.  Just wanted to put that out there.

Now, onto Clockwork Heart.  I have been a sci-fi/fantasy fan ever since I first saw Star Wars in 1977 when I was only 4 years old, so as you can imagine I have seen and read a lot in the genre and Heidi Cullinan's Clockwork Heart belongs near the top.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who create in this genre because you are creating your own world from top to bottom, not just characters and storylines but everything.  Whether your story is an alternate timeline/history or full fledged new universe, it is original and the time it must take is mindblowing and the world of Heart is fantabulous (and yes I know that is not a real word but if you can't make up words in a science fiction review than when can you?)

Here we have a world that is different because one key point in history was changed and we experience it through the eyes and hearts of Cornelius and Johann and those around them that become family.  I honestly cannot think of much more to say about the story without giving spoilers so I'll just leave here saying that this is a phenomenal book with amazing characters and an intriguing storyline that had me hooked from beginning to end and I eagerly await the next installment in the Clockwork Love series.


The Gladiator's Master by Fae Sutherland & Marguerite Labbe
When Roman politician Caelius inherits a stable of gladiators, there is one who captures his attention above the others...one whose eyes gleam with hate, pride and desire.

Forced into slavery by Roman greed, Gaidres can barely conceal his contempt toward his new Dominus. Gaidres has a plan: kill Caelius and end the lineage of the Roman family that enslaved him. For his plan to succeed, he must make a show of respect and obedience--even when called on to service his master's desires.

Gaidres is shocked to learn that in the confines of his quarters, Caelius doesn't want to dominate his slave, but to be taken by him. The sex is explosive as they break society's taboos and, to Gaidres's dismay, they form a tenuous relationship. Even when Caelius learns of Gaidres's plans for revenge, he knows he can't live without his perfect lover. Is he willing to risk it all to tame his gladiator's heart?

As a history lover and a huge fan of the Starz series Spartacus and having just re-watched the entire series I was in a mood for Ancient Rome setting.  The Gladiator's Master was recommended to me and thank God because it is amazing.  Both authors are new to me which can be scary for some but I find exhilarating and I was not disappointed.  The story, characters, setting were done with amazing detail that I felt as if I was right there in the ludus watching it enfold.  When Gaidres realizes that Calieus is not his uncle, his life is turned upside down.  Finding out if he takes this new path or keeps to his current destination is heart pounding and you will have to read for yourself to discover the answer, I will say that I could not put it down until I reached the end.  What a great way to break into the Ancient Rome sub-genre.


Will and the Valentine Saint by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon
Victorian Hearts #2
Will Andrews wishes to escape the craziness of his bohemian family and create some order in his life. Hiding his eccentric theater background and presenting false letters of recommendation, he interviews for a position at a legal aid society. The last thing he expects is to fall hard for his genteel employer, Hugh St. John.

When Hugh needs a secretary, one magnetic candidate draws him. Will Andrews shares his vision for the Society and is also the most attractive man he’s ever met. But Hugh has never even kissed a man and would never throw himself at an employee.

As the pair plans a Valentine charity dinner, they grow ever closer to surrendering to Cupid’s arrow. But when Will’s false credentials and true background are revealed, can Hugh forgive his lies and omissions? Can fragile romance blossom into true love after trust is broken?

Click here to check out Victorian Hearts series #1-3

Click here to check out Victorian Hearts series #4

Not only was this a great Valentine treat but we also got to see a little glimpse of Christopher and Simon from the authors' Christmas story Simon and the Christmas Spirit.  In Will and the Valentine Saint we see Christopher's brother Will trying to find his own slice of happiness in the form of Hugh St. John.  Of course, he is only looking for some independence but when he begins working for Hugh, his heart has other plans.  A brilliant novella for this holiday series from Devon & Dee that I can't wait to see what else is to come and who's happiness will be next.


Under the Rushes by Amy Lane
Ten years after Dorjan trusted a boy’s word over his superior officer’s, he and his best friend, Areau, are still living the aftermath—and trying to stop the man responsible. Locked in a careful dance to bring down a corrupt government, Dorjan struggles to balance his grief with Areau’s anger. Just when Dorjan reaches the end of his rope, he sees a familiar face in the shadows, and the boy he trusted a decade before offers him unexpected kindness.

Taern remembers the soldier who found him under the rushes and listened to his pleas to save his family. When Dorjan reappears in his life, Taern is both captured by his commitment to justice and terrified by the risks he takes. All Taern wants to do is fix him, but the oncoming destruction has been ten years in the making, and Dorjan doesn’t want his help. Not if it puts Taern at risk.

Powers clash and a world's fate dangles between Areau's madness and Dorjan's nobility. While Dorjan fights to save the world, Taern joins the battle simply to save Dorjan, knowing everything hinges on the heart of a man in armor and the strength of the man who loves him.

This is a tale of what happens when higher-ups make a decision that goes against everything you are all about and how the clean up is out of your hands.  But Dorjan is not about just roll over and accept what life has become.  His world is definitely not where he thought it would be but his determination to fix things is admirable.  Watching Dorjan and his best friend Areau, who is a shell of the boy he grew up with, tackle their enemies from inside is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Even if they think they are doing a fine job, it becomes pretty obvious to the reader that they need help and that help comes in the form of Taern and Krissa, prostitutes that have an uncanny way of being exactly what their counterparts need.  I would not label Under the Rushes as any kind of superhero story but if I am completely honest, there are most definitely moments that scream Batman, Robin, and their trusty butler Alfred.  Under is classic Amy Lane with a sci-fi twist that kept me on the edge of my seat all the way through.

Reviewer Note: I have to say that I don't really get the whole terminology of steampunk.  I know what it means and I know it is a sub-genre of science fiction but to me science fiction is science fiction, nothing more, nothing less.  As a reader, I will be putting this and others labeled steampunk on my science fiction library shelf but as a book blogger I will defer to the whole steampunk terminology labeling.  Just wanted to put that out there.


The Mermaid Murders by Josh Lanyon
Special Agent Jason West is seconded from the FBI Art Crime Team to temporarily partner with disgraced, legendary “manhunter” Sam Kennedy when it appears that Kennedy’s most famous case, the capture and conviction of a serial killer known as The Huntsman, may actually have been a disastrous failure.

The Huntsman is still out there…and the killing has begun again.

Sam Kennedy and Jason West have the potential to be the next Jake Riordan and Adrien English.  I know what you are thinking, "that's one helluva prediction".  Maybe it is, but considering Jake and Adrien are one of the couples I tend to use as a personal rating system when it comes to romantic mysteries, I think it is more than a prediction.  They have the kind of chemistry that ignites your soul to the point that you could care less about the mystery they are actually trying to solve.  Luckily, Sam and Jason don't let that "WOW" feeling get in the way of their job.  The mystery behind The Mermaid Murders may or may not keep you guessing all the way through, that depends on the way your mind works, this reader has been reading/watching murder mysteries since I was 10 years old so very few actually keep my creepy mind stumped.  That right there is what I rate a mystery on, keeping the reader hooked even when they are 99% sure they know who did the deed or deeds and that is why Josh Lanyon's latest thriller is a must read.


Jury of One by Charlie Cochrane
Lindenshaw Mysteries #2
Inspector Robin Bright is enjoying a quiet Saturday with his lover, Adam Matthews, when murder strikes in nearby Abbotston, and he’s called in to investigate. He hopes for a quick resolution, but as the case builds, he’s drawn into a tangled web of crimes, new and old, that threatens to ensnare him and destroy his fledgling relationship.

Adam is enjoying his final term teaching at Lindenshaw School, and is also delighted to be settling down with Robin at last. Only Robin doesn’t seem so thrilled. Then an old crush of Adam’s shows up in the murder investigation, and suddenly Adam is yet again fighting to stay out of one of Robin’s cases, to say nothing of trying to keep their relationship from falling apart.

Between murder, stabbings, robberies, and a suspect with a charming smile, the case threatens to ruin everything both Robin and Adam hold dear. What does it take to realise where your heart really lies, and can a big, black dog hold the key?

Click here to check out Lindenshaw Mysteries series.

Once again Charlie Cochrane reminds me why I love English murder mysteries so much.  The relationship between Robin and Anderson, his sergeant is reminiscent of Barnaby and Troy/Scott/Jones(Midsomer Murders), Morse and Lewis(Inspector Morse), and many more.  I enjoyed seeing how Robin and Adam have grown since The Best Corpse for the Job and Adam may not be at the center of this mystery but he is drawn into it and not just because he is living with Robin.  As for the mystery, it may not have been as heart pounding as book one but it still managed to keep me on my toes guessing the outcome.  A true gem that is well deserving of the English murder mystery genre that has left me hungry for further adventures from the apparently dangerous Lindenshaw countryside.


Caged: Love and Treachery on the High Seas by Bey Deckard
Baal's Heart #1
Sheltered and lonely, Jon's life changes drastically when a strange ship sails into the harbour of his small port town one day. Trapped between the possessive pirate captain and his murderous first mate, he must learn to adapt or he will lose himself completely. An epic tale of love, treachery and revelation, this first instalment of the Baal's Heart trilogy brings you into the lives of three men so bound together by jealousy and lies that they must sail to the very ends of the earth to find forgiveness.

Deckard's first novel is a masterful portrayal of sorrow, hope, and passion, with a narrative that twists the reader through an alternate world set in the Golden Age of Piracy. A thrilling look into the darker side of human nature, Caged effortlessly melds serious historical fantasy with five star erotica.

Themes: Erotica, Historical Fantasy, Ménage, Enemies to Lovers, M/M Romance

Click here to check out Baal's Heart series.

Overall Series Review:
If someone asked me to describe the emotion of Baal's Heart in one word, that word would be Gobsmacked!  On the surface, this is a story of Jon's self-discovery, coming of age amongst pirates but after a few chapters you realize that, yes it is a story of self-discovery but not only Jon's.  He may be the newest member of the crew but Captain Baltsaros and First Mate Tom also learn and grow, not always forward but life is that way, three steps forward and two steps back.

I'm doing an overall series review because this is not a tale where you can read just one, Baal's Heart is a package deal and trust me, it's a package you won't want to return.  Don't get me wrong, it is not all sunshine and roses, this is a tale of filled with darkness and grit but that does not mean there is no happiness and triumph because it is chock full of all of it.  This is not for the faint-of-heart, much of the boys' journey may be hard to take, good and bad, but for me it was worth it.

Jon, Tom, and Baltsaros' relationship is more than just a ménage or threesome, it is a complicated, messy at times, unsure, but a relationship from the heart for sure.  The sexy times are off the charts, the heat is just short of starting your Kindle or paperback ablaze.  This journey is a tale of so much more than just sex and passion, there is plenty of drama, violence, piracy, backstabbing, underhandedness, but there is also lots of friendship, compassion, and plain heart.  Bey Deckard is a new author for me but Baal's Heart will not be the only thing I'll be reading, can't wait to check out more of his work.  I went searching for tales of pirates when the newest season of Starz' Black Sails began back in January, there may be more fantasy than history in this series, I was not disappointed and highly recommend this series to anyone who looks for an amazing story with unforgettable characters, history fan or not, don't let this one pass you by.


Part & Parcel by Abigail Roux
Chapter One
Lights flashed. People screamed in the distance. Nick’s back hit the ground, and it was all blue sky and smoke. His body was cold when it should have been hot, going colder by the second. The sounds faded, and then the light, and there was peace for a while. Just sweet peace.

When Nick woke, pain flooded him like he’d never felt before. He jerked, fighting for breath, clawing at whatever was burning inside his right arm.

“Hold him down!” someone yelled. “Jesus Christ! Hold him!”

“Irish,” someone breathed close to his ear. A smooth voice, one that meant safety and home. “Irish, it’s Six. You got to be calm, bud.”

Nick immediately tried to still himself. If Ty was telling him to calm, it meant his panicking was a threat to someone. Where were they? Were they still out in the field? Were they prisoners again? Pain burned through him. He gritted his teeth and fumbled around for Ty’s hand, desperate for something—anything—to ground him.

“Six.” Nick gasped, barely recognizing his own voice.

Ty’s fingers were hot in Nick’s hands, but Ty’s grip was unwavering. “We’ve got you.”

“Who the fuck let this bag run out?” someone else shouted. Nick belatedly recognized Kelly’s voice, and damn, he sounded pissed. “Get out of the fucking way! You can’t do your job, I’ll do it for you!”

Ty’s face swam into Nick’s flickering field of view. He had Nick’s hand in both of his, holding Nick’s fingers close to his face the way they’d held each other every night in captivity. Nick clung to him, breathing hard, trying not to beg for help.

“You’re okay. Hold on, Irish.”

Nick stared into his eyes, clutching at him until cold began to soak into his arm. It climbed through his veins, cloying, cloudy, seeping into every part of him and pushing out the heat and pain.

“That’s it, bud,” Ty whispered. He petted Nick’s face, thumb resting against Nick’s cheekbone. “You’re okay. It’s all okay.”

Nick closed his eyes, trusting Ty to be telling him the truth.

When he woke again, it was to a much more pleasant world. The pain was just a distant whisper at the edges of his being, and the panic had left him with Ty’s assurances. He turned his head, squinting against the bright lights. He could hear someone sweeping, accompanied by the tinkle of broken glass and the rustle of plastic. And of course the beeps and whirring of monitors that he knew all too well.

“O’Flaherty?” Kelly said carefully. His voice was a whisper, as if he wasn’t sure that Nick was really conscious and didn’t want to wake him if he wasn’t.

Nick turned his head to find Kelly sitting on the other side of his bed, a tentative smile on his face. “Hey, Doc.”

Kelly set aside the book he’d been reading and scooted his chair closer. He rested one elbow on the edge of the bed, giving Nick a small smile. “Welcome back, Staff Sergeant.”

“The others?”

“All okay. You were the only casualty.”

“What’d I lose?”

“Your pride,” another voice answered. It took Nick far too long to focus on the man who’d come up behind Kelly. Elias Sanchez bent closer, as if he realized Nick couldn’t see him. “Not only did you get yourself shot, but you also lost our bet.”

“Bullshit,” Nick grunted, closing his eyes again.

Eli and Kelly both chuckled at him. Eli tapped Kelly on the shoulder. “Six needs you for his report. I got this.”

Kelly gave Eli his chair, offering Nick a gentle pat on the chest. “I’ll come check on you when we’re done.” He pointed at the machinery, shooting Eli a look he probably didn’t think Nick would notice. “Watch his pain. If it tops again, he’ll do even more damage to himself.”

The sweeping sound stopped for a moment. “If he’s going to fucking trash my MedBay again, we’ll tie him down.”

“Come near him with those restraints and I’ll fucking kill you,” Kelly snarled.

Eli squeezed Kelly’s shoulder. “Doc.”

“Nobody fucking ties him down,” Kelly growled, pointing one long finger at whoever had been given the task of cleaning up whatever mess Nick had made in his earlier rampage.

Eli waved Kelly away, and Kelly left them with one last look at Nick. Nick watched him go with a frown. He wasn’t sure why Kelly was so opposed to the restraints. Hell, last time he’d been injured Nick had asked them to restrain him because he’d almost killed the corpsman who’d been there to administer a blood test and had woken Nick too abruptly. The restraints were just to keep everyone safe, including Nick.

“Why’s he angry?” Nick asked Eli.

“You been talking in your sleep,” Eli said with a reassuring smile. It didn’t reach his eyes, though, and from the sadness in them Nick knew immediately what he must have been saying. Heat flushed across his cheeks. “None of us knew how much all that shit stuck with you and Grady. You never talk about it, so we figured you were okay. But you called out for Ty a couple times, so they had him come in here. You were . . . begging.” Eli winced and lowered his head.

Nick fought hard to swallow, forcing himself to keep looking at Eli so Eli wouldn’t know he was ashamed of it.

“Grady said he has the same dreams, told us a little about what you were probably dreaming.”

“Oh,” Nick said weakly, his eyes going unfocused because it was just too much effort otherwise.

“Doc didn’t take it too well. Hell, none of us did.”

Nick recalled the flash of anger in Kelly’s normally placid gray eyes and shivered.

“Hey Lucky, you ever need to talk that shit out, I got you. You know that, right?”

Nick met his eyes and nodded, earning himself a gentle pat on the head as Eli leaned closer. Nick stared at Eli for a few seconds, trying to remember what had happened this time after he’d been hit. It was all a haze of fire and drugs.

Eli began to grin, his dark eyes finally sparkling. “First person to get hurt this tour, that was the deal.”


“Deal’s a deal, papá.” He reached into the pocket of his uniform and withdrew a black permanent marker. “It’s for your own good.”

“Oh God,” Nick grunted, and he could only give a long-suffering sigh as Eli began a Sharpie doodle on his forearm. “If you draw a dick on me . . .”

“Would I do that?” Eli asked without looking up from his work. “I been practicing that Celtic knot stuff you showed me. This is going to be classy as shit.”

Nick couldn’t help his smile as he closed his eyes, relaxing as Eli’s familiar presence filled him with warmth and safety. “You’re classy as shit.”


* * * * *

February 22, 2013

Nick stepped over the body of the man he’d just killed and reached for the car Ty and Zane were trapped inside. He’d seen the NIA agents closing in on the squad car, and he’d moved as fast as his ruined knee allowed to get to them. The relief when he reached for the door locks was the first good thing he’d felt in weeks.

And then someone grabbed him from behind.

“No!” Ty cried. He banged on the glass, struggling with the handle. “No!”

A knife drove into Nick’s side before he could react. His eyes were locked on Ty’s, everything moving in slow motion, the streets of Miami morphing into a desert with streaks of military lightning overhead. The attacker twisted the knife to bring Miami and the real world crashing back down on him, and Nick screamed.

Ty echoed it with an anguished cry and threw himself against the opposite window, slamming his fist into the already cracked glass over and over as Nick sank to his knees. He bowed his head, losing sight of his friend, losing sight of everything. He was still being held around the neck by the man with the knife, and Nick’s mind raced for a way to free himself. His attacker yanked the knife out of Nick’s side and plunged it in again, wrenching another scream from Nick. He arched his back, eyes squeezed shut as tears streaked down his face. His fingers grazed the KA-BAR he’d stashed in his boot, and he gasped for one last lungful of air.

He flipped the knife in his palm and jammed it into the killer’s throat, then folded over and desperately grasped for the wound at his side to stanch the bleeding. Black SUVs were drawing near, full of more NIA agents with guns and knives who no doubt wanted to ask Ty and Zane some very pointed questions.

If the rest of Sidewinder was going to help them, they would have reached Nick by now. They’d obviously been held up in battle or, God forbid, hadn’t made it out alive. Nick was on his own, Ty and Zane’s lives in his bloody hands.

Nick began crawling for the cruiser, keeping low as the rattle of gunfire from further down the street got closer. His fingers reached the gun he had dropped during his tussle. There was so much blood, he didn’t know if he’d be able to grip the damn thing. He collapsed in the debris, holding on to the handle of the knife in his side and crying out in agony. It would be easy to give up. It would stop hurting if he just gave up.

He met Ty’s eyes through the glass of the police cruiser. He would never make it to the door. There was only one way to get Ty and Zane out of that car, and as they stared at each other, Ty seemed to read his mind. Nick reached out with a trembling, bloody hand and aimed the gun as Ty and Zane ducked out of sight.

The shot was excruciating. Nick seemed to feel every last inch of his broken body as the aftershock tore through him. When he came back to his senses, Ty was grasping at him, tugging him, trying to help him up. Nick tried to get to his feet, but he couldn’t even feel them. He reached out for the other man nearby for extra support, surprised to see Eli there in the middle of Miami. But his hand passed right through him: there was nothing there but shadow, and Nick collapsed in Ty’s arms.

Ty fell to his knees again, holding Nick to him. Nothing hurt anymore. Nothing.

Nick stared up at the sky. It was the color Kelly’s eyes could sometimes turn. Kelly . . . he hadn’t been able to say good-bye. He wouldn’t be able to. This was it.

He focused on Ty, nodding in acceptance. This was it. “Okay.”

“It’s okay,” Ty whispered. His fingers tightened in Nick’s shirt, cradling him in his lap. “We’ll get you all patched up and you’ll be fine. Zane, help me!”

Nick tried to speak, tried to tell Ty this was the end, that it was okay. The gunfire was closer, and Ty hunched defensively.

“Run, Ty,” Nick managed to get out.

“We’re not leaving you here,” Ty snarled. He was angry, but Nick understood. They’d been angry at Elias Sanchez for dying on them, too.

Nick struggled for more words. He hadn’t given his life for Ty and Zane just to see them die with him in the street. “I’m already dead, babe. Go.”


Nick couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. They fell shut against his will, Ty’s face against the cheerful sunshine and the silhouette of Eli standing over him and grinning the last things he saw. “See you on the other side, brother.”

* * * * *

March 2, 2013

Kelly didn’t sleep much lately, and when he did, his dreams were full of terror and pain. He woke up every time thinking he’d lost Nick, confused and unsure of what was real and what merely was his deepest fear haunting him. He woke up exhausted, and scared to drift back off for fear that the man sleeping in the hospital bed next to him wouldn’t be there when he woke next.

The last time he’d slept had been for about three hours that morning. He’d curled up on the uncomfortable recliner, too spent to fight sleep any longer, and left the other guys to keep vigil at Nick’s bedside. Zane Garrett had been there when Kelly awoke, sitting in a wheelchair, peacefully reading a book at Nick’s side and occasionally talking to Nick about what he was reading. Kelly had sat and watched them for a few minutes, sadness engulfing him despite assurances from the doctors that Nick would wake at any time.

He hoped Nick could hear them. He hoped Nick knew that they were all there with him, each of them trying to make up for the fact that they’d left Nick behind, alone in the street with his life bleeding out of him.

Kelly sat by the bed now, paying little attention to the sounds of the machines monitoring Nick’s status. Owen Johns was curled on the tiny bench under the window that passed as a couch, snoring softly. They were all exhausted and still recovering from their own injuries, but no one would leave, so they were taking shifts. The others had all gone for lunch at Kelly’s insistence. He appreciated them being there, and he knew they needed to be there as much for their sake as for his or Nick’s. They all loved Nick. They all thought they’d lost him when they’d left him behind. They all deserved to be there when Nick woke. But Kelly needed a little time alone. Time to be alone with himself, with his thoughts and fears and hopes. Time to be alone with Nick, who had yet to wake four full days after nearly bleeding out in the street.

Owen being asleep on the other side of the room didn’t bother Kelly. At least he didn’t have to pay him any attention, and could instead focus on Nick. His friend. His lover. His would-be fiancé who’d never truly proposed.

Kelly smiled sadly. He held Nick’s hand in both of his and traced the tip of his finger over scars and bruises. Nick’s hands had paid for all the damage he’d done to the people trying to hurt them. Kelly’s chest swelled with pride and pain. He flipped Nick’s hand over, following the life line on Nick’s palm. Nick had a knife scar on the back of his hand, and it trailed from his wrist up toward the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, connecting almost perfectly with his life line. Together, they almost encircled his entire hand.

Kelly had always joked about Nick’s scars meaning he’d live forever. Now he wasn’t sure it was all that funny.

He could hear Nick’s laugh in his mind, though. See the way his eyes crinkled when he grinned. It was so real and so close it seemed like he could reach out and touch. But he might never see or hear Nick’s laughter again, and Kelly wasn’t handling it very well.

He sighed heavily as his finger trailed along the scar, his vision blurring with tears and exhaustion. Nick’s fingers twitched, giving the illusion that he was brushing Kelly’s hand affectionately.

Kelly quirked his lips, trying not to be upset by it.

Nick would wake up. He wasn’t dying. He would come back to them, full of laughter and joy, just like he always did.

“Hey, Doc.”

Kelly’s head shot up at that simple, hoarse whisper, his eyes wide, his heart suddenly racing.

Nick was staring at him.

Kelly pushed to his feet, sending his chair screeching back. Owen leapt up at the noise, crouching, prepared for battle. “What?” he cried.

Kelly leaned over Nick, reaching for his face. When his fingers touched Nick’s skin, Nick’s eyes fluttered closed.

“No, no, Nicko, stay awake,” Kelly begged. He felt Owen moving but couldn’t tear his attention away from Nick’s face to see what he was doing.

Nick opened his eyes again. They were clear and green, but had faded like when Nick didn’t feel well. “Are you okay?” Nick asked him.

Kelly held his breath for a moment, trying to think through the elation to find a response. He finally huffed a laugh and nodded, pressing his forehead to Nick’s cheek. “Welcome back.”

“Where’s Eli?” Nick asked, his eyes closed, his voice tortured from days without speaking.

Kelly’s heart stuttered, and he glanced up to meet Owen’s eyes. Owen’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. He finally swallowed hard and nodded. “I’ll go get Six.”

Kelly returned his attention to Nick, running his fingers through Nick’s hair. “Eli’s gone, bud,” he whispered.

Nick’s forehead furrowed and he squeezed his eyes tight. Then he took in a deep breath and opened them again. “That’s right.”

The relief that flooded through Kelly was bittersweet. Where had Nick been for the last few days, lost in his memories?

“What day is it?” Nick asked, his voice so rough it was almost painful to listen to. “Did I miss Opening Day?”

Kelly laughed, knowing he was dangerously close to hysterical now that the weight of worry had been lifted. He hugged Nick closer, smooshing his face against Nick’s. Nick’s hand settled carefully on Kelly’s back.

“No, you didn’t miss it,” Kelly finally managed. “Still lots of time.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Nick whispered as his fingers curled into Kelly’s shirt.

His breathing was more labored against Kelly’s cheek, and his grip on Kelly’s back began to tighten, his nails digging in. The beeping of his monitors, which had faded into background noise for Kelly about two days ago, began to encroach on his awareness, beeping going faster, a warning Kelly knew all too well.

Kelly pushed away from Nick just before the machines went into a full-blown panic and Nick twisted on the bed, writhing and gasping. Kelly shoved his chair aside, sending it toppling sideways, as he ran for the door to call for help.

He should have known a gentle reunion wasn’t Nick’s style.

* * * * *

March 4, 2013

It was early March in Boston, and Kelly’s fellow mourners were forced to brave a brisk wind as they gathered in the cemetery. Many in the crowd were in uniform, shined and pressed and stoic as befitted the funeral of a retired member of the Boston Police Department.

Kelly had to squint against the sun to see the small crowd around them. The wind ripped at his lapels, ruffled his hair, and made his eyes water. He wasn’t the only one. Several of those around him were fighting the stiff breeze, using handkerchiefs and sunglasses to fend it off.

He turned his eyes back toward the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. Nick’s four sisters, only two of whom Kelly had actually met, stood together, singing a beautiful version of “The Parting Glass.” The youngest one got choked up before the second verse and wasn’t able to continue. She stood with her head lowered, tears streaming down her cheeks, as her sisters continued the song. Watching her, Kelly couldn’t really feel anything. No empathy, no sadness. Nothing.

Nick moved beside him, jostling his shoulder as he stepped out of line from the others. He was relying heavily on a cane, but something about his perfectly pressed uniform contrasted with the limp and gave him a gravitas that he probably wouldn’t care to lend intentionally to Brian O’Flaherty’s funeral.

Nick took his youngest sister by the arm, straightening her up without a word. She buried her face in his chest, holding to him as he sang the next verse with them.

Kelly shivered at the way Nick’s eyes never strayed to the coffin, how he stared right over the crowd and sang to help his sisters say farewell to a man who didn’t deserve it.

Kelly was still watching Nick when the song ended. He was still watching him when the crowd began to disperse. Nick stood alone as his sisters moved away to throw dirt into the grave. Kelly frowned worriedly when Nick didn’t follow them, and he counted to five before he stood and joined Nick.

“You okay?” Kelly whispered. He took Nick’s elbow, standing close enough that Nick leaned against him with a huff.

“I’ll be fine,” Nick grumbled. He snickered and met Kelly’s eyes. “She moved away on me and I realized I was stuck without someone to lean on.”

Kelly scowled. Nick’s condition was no fucking laughing matter, but Nick kept on making jokes out of it. It was his way of coping, but Kelly wasn’t laughing. He wound his arm around Nick’s waist, and Nick wrapped an arm around Kelly’s shoulders, using the cane and putting a lot of weight on Kelly as they moved together toward the line of waiting vehicles. Nick had chosen to ride in his own car rather than join the family in the procession.

“Nicholas,” a woman called from behind them. Kelly glanced over his shoulder to find Nick’s mother there. She’d remained mostly stoic throughout her husband’s service. In fact, the only person who’d seemed especially upset over Brian’s passing had been their youngest daughter, Nessa. She was only a year or two out of high school—Kelly couldn’t quite remember how old she was—and she was inconsolable over the loss of her father.

Kelly had fought to find sympathy for her. But that girl had known a very different father than Nick had known.

“Ma’am,” Nick said without turning around. He had his head lowered, his arm still around Kelly’s neck, but tightening as he tensed.

“You’re coming, aren’t you?”

Kelly shook his head. “He’s done too much already. I have to get him home.”

“He only had one father,” she snapped, hard eyes on Kelly.

“I’ll see you there,” Nick said over his shoulder, his fingers tightening on Kelly’s jacket before Kelly could respond.

His mother moved away, giving Kelly another look that told him exactly what she thought of the fact that her only son had a boyfriend.

“How the hell did two such horrible people come up with something amazing like you?” Kelly snarled.

“Murphy’s Law,” Nick grunted as they continued on toward his Range Rover. “We’ll stay long enough for people to see my face. Then we’re done.”

“Okay,” Kelly whispered, wondering how the hell Nick had spent his entire life like this, doing what was expected of him to appease people who treated him horribly. It was brand-new insight into Nick’s otherworldly stores of patience. Kelly hugged him closer, and Nick hissed and stumbled a little. “Sorry! Shit, I keep forgetting about the stitches!”

“It’s okay,” Nick said, his voice strained as they reached the car. He lifted his jacket out to peer at his side, where just ten days ago an attacker had stabbed him. Twice. There was blood on his otherwise pristine white shirt. “Hey! Looks like an excuse not to stay too long at a sorry-your-shitty-dad-died party, huh?”

Kelly rolled his eyes and helped Nick into the car.

* * * * *

“You okay?” Kelly asked yet again as they sat in the dim back corner of a bar several blocks from Nick’s childhood home. It was his father’s local watering hole, where the mourners had come to pay their last respects after the coffin had been lowered into the ground.

Nick shook his head, staring at the full glass of whiskey in front of him. He hadn’t taken a sip. It was a drink meant to honor his father’s memory, and he intended to let it sit there. How many times had he been sent to this tavern to find his father and tell him it was time to come home? How many times had he been shouted out of this bar and run home, praying he’d get there before his dad did?

He tapped two fingers on the table, rattling the drink. “Let’s go home, huh?”

Kelly didn’t question him; he merely nodded and pushed his chair back to stand. He helped Nick get to his feet, handing him his cane and offering his arm. It’d been mere days since Nick had been released from the hospital in Miami. Kelly had been with him every second of his recovery, and this routine was one they’d repeated at least five times a day since Nick had woken. He appreciated Kelly being there, but for the first time in their long history of fighting side by side, Nick was ashamed of needing help. Kelly wasn’t a corpsman anymore, he was Nick’s boyfriend.

When Kelly had called his sister Kat to let her know that Nick was alive, Kat had told them about Brian. He was dying, in the hospital with mere days to live. Nick hadn’t made it home in time, nor had he especially tried to, and he knew without a doubt that his mother would never forgive him.

Nick was having a hard time pretending to be the grieving son.

He leaned on Kelly as they threaded their way through the small crowd, spared from the obligation of saying good-bye or shaking hands with his late father’s friends. Everyone knew what he’d been through, everyone knew he probably still should have been at home in bed, if not in the hospital. Everyone knew he was still weak.

Nick fucking hated it.

“Nicky,” a man in uniform said as Nick and Kelly neared the front door. Nick stopped, and Kelly discreetly stepped away so Nick wasn’t leaning on him as he faced the man. “How are you, son?”

Nick gave a curt nod in answer. He was at least five inches taller than the man, but he remembered having to crane his neck to see his face when he stood in their living room waiting for Nick’s father to go to work.

“I was surprised to see you out there.”

Nick didn’t respond. He merely stared, waiting.

His silence apparently made his father’s old partner nervous, because the man continued talking, his words faster and his fidgeting more pronounced. “Everyone knows what you tried to do for your daddy. Even if that liver didn’t take, you gave him one more year. Him dying wasn’t your fault, Nicky.”

Nick made a clicking noise with his tongue and stood a little straighter. “I know,” he said, voice just as flat as his expression.

He turned before the man could say more, reaching for Kelly’s arm as they made their way out of the pub.

“Wasn’t your fault,” Kelly grumbled under his breath. “Why the fuck do any of these asshats think you’d be sitting around blaming yourself because your dad’s body rejected a piece of liver you risked your life donating?”

“Because they think it’s my fault,” Nick said blithely, his head down to watch his steps on the uneven sidewalk.

“You don’t really think that, do you?” Kelly asked, sounding half-horrified and half-insulted.

“I know it. That was my dad’s partner. They worked together for thirty years. He responded to a domestic disturbance call at my house one night when I was about ten. Wrote the report up and everything. Disturbance caused by fall down the stairs.”

Kelly slowed and glanced over his shoulder.

“My dad’s friends all know that if I could kill people with the power of my mind, my dad would have been the first to go.”

Kelly snorted angrily. “What, they think you filled your liver with hate before you gave it to him?”

Nick chuckled, shaking his head as he continued to stare devotedly at the ground. He tightened his grip on Kelly’s arm, and Kelly moved closer to him as they walked toward the car.

“Maybe I did,” Nick murmured after a few seconds of silence.


“I’d be okay with it,” he admitted. He slowed as the pain in his knee swelled, and he had to stand there for a moment with his eyes closed, waiting for it to pass. He’d eventually need surgery to repair the damage that had been done by a vicious kick. The orthopedist wanted him fully healed from his other injuries first, though, and so he was left to limp around and live on painkillers until then.

For a man who’d spent his entire life being active and relying on his dominant physical capabilities day in and day out, it was possibly the most frustrating state of being he could imagine.

“Okay?” Kelly whispered.

Nick took a deep breath, gazing at Kelly.

Kelly raised an eyebrow, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “What?”

“I love you,” Nick said, but the words came out a whisper, as if the mere thought had stolen them before they could form.

Kelly grinned a little wider and slid his arm around Nick’s waist again, squeezing him as they continued on toward the car.

Resurrecting Hope by Shell Taylor
Chapter 1
AS THE jurors filed into the courtroom, Adam Lancaster slipped one arm around Kollin’s shoulders and gently nudged Elijah Langley to remind his partner he wasn’t alone. Elijah leaned into the touch but didn’t let go of Kollin’s hand to reciprocate.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the judge began, nodding to the panel. “I am informed that you have reached your verdicts.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Please hand the verdicts to the clerk, and Mr. Marshall, will you hand the verdicts to me?” The clerk handed the verdicts to the judge, who silently read the small piece of paper and handed it back. “I direct the clerk to read the verdicts.”

“We, the jury, find the defendant, John L. Haverty, guilty of child abuse, class E felony offense.”

Adam closed his eyes and slowly exhaled. One down. One to go. Beneath his arm, Kollin sank further into himself.

The clerk continued. “We, the jury, find the defendant, Susan S. Haverty, guilty of child abuse, class E felony offense.”

Tears sprang to Adam’s eyes as Kollin fell forward and buried his head in his arms. Adam gripped Kollin’s shoulder and tugged him into a one-armed hug. Elijah didn’t let go of Kollin’s hand, but he tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. With a heavy sigh, Elijah closed his eyes while the judge continued.

“I’d like to thank the jury for their service and diligence. Sentencing will be announced at a later date and is dependent upon the defendants’ cooperation. Court is adjourned.”

Kollin’s parents shuffled out the side door without a spare glance in his direction, and the handful of people in the audience filed out the back, murmuring quietly to one another. Kollin didn’t stand, so Adam and Elijah remained in their seats, flanking him on each side, protecting him from the worried eyes of their extended family huddled in the corner. Adam’s and Elijah’s parents, Adam’s foster sister, Kirsten, and her husband, Derek, insisted on attending the court reading for moral support. When Kollin started to shake beneath Adam’s arm, he wondered if allowing them to come was a mistake.

After several more minutes of silence, Elijah knelt in front of Kollin and Adam. Wrapping an arm around each of them, he huddled them all together.

“I’m so sorry, Kollin. I’m so fucking sorry. I’d spend every last dime I have if it meant ensuring you never had to go through this. I don’t want you to ever doubt you’re wanted and loved exactly the way you are in my home. It’s already our home to me.”

Kollin choked out a sob and threw one arm around Elijah to bury his face in Elijah’s neck. “I love you,” he whispered so quietly Adam barely heard him.

“I love you back, buddy,” Elijah said. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter 2

Kirsten threw down her cards and glared at Adam. “How in the hell are you doing that?”

“I’ll never tell,” Adam sang, pitching his voice high to mimic Brittany Murphy in Don’t Say a Word.

“Ahhh, la la la la la.” Kirsten plugged her ears. “Stop it. You know that creeps me out.”

“I’ll never tell.” He mimicked the chant again more softly.

Elijah sat back in his chair. “I will never understand how you two lived together.”

Pushing himself off the couch where he’d been watching everyone play cards, Kollin said, “I think the real question is how Matthew and Amelia put up with them.”

Kirsten scrunched up her face and made a sound closely resembling that of a dying seal. “You guys are so funny. Seriously, though. Adam’s the worst Bullshit player ever. Like ever, ever in the history of time. How are you kicking my ass right now?”


“Don’t you dare.”

Derek collected the cards and peered at Adam through the shaggy blond hair that always seemed to cover his eyes. “She’s right. In the six years I’ve been around you two, I’ve never once seen you win this game.”

“That doesn’t mean he can’t,” Kollin said, leaning against the La-Z-Boy.

“Thank you, Kollin.”

Kirsten flumped back against her chair. “I guess the sun really does shine on every dog’s ass once in a while.”

Elijah eyed Kollin and took the deck of cards from Derek. “Why’re you defending him? You’re usually the first one to make fun of Adam.”

Kollin shrugged. “Y’all are being kinda mean.”

Widening his eyes, Elijah pointed at Kollin. “You helped him. Didn’t you?”

“Whaaaaat?” Kollin held his hands up and shook his head. “I would never.”

Derek flickered his eyes from the couch, where Kollin had been lying, to Kirsten’s seat. “You could see her cards.”

“Whaaaaat?” Kollin said again.

“Oh, please. Don’t even try. You’re a horrible liar.”

Kollin’s face broke into a grin, and he clamped his hand down on Adam’s shoulder. “Sorry, man. I tried. Oh, and FYI, I could see your cards in the mirror too, Derek.”

“You dirty cheater,” Kirsten said.

“You set this up beforehand,” Elijah said and pointed at Adam.

“That’s just sad, Adam,” Derek said. “Involving a minor in your deceit. You’re supposed to be a role model.”

Unable to control his laughter any longer, Adam threw up his hands. “It feels so good to finally win, I don’t even care. My losing streak started long before you came around.”

“That’s pretty lame,” Kollin said.

“Yeah. Well, you didn’t have to fold so quickly. All you had to do was deny with a modicum of believability.”

“Whatever, dude. Can you please tell them why you asked them over so I can go to my room?”

Kirsten grinned at Kollin. “Phone date with Jase?” she asked.

Kollin narrowed his eyes at her slightly, but Adam didn’t miss the way his cheeks tinged a darker shade of pink. Jase showed up at HOPE for the first time about three weeks before, and Kollin glommed onto him quickly. They bonded over their mutual love of basketball, but Adam saw the flirtatious glances the boys sent each other when they thought no one was looking. He was one of the few black kids at the center, and Adam hoped Jase’s presence was the result of their efforts to reach the entire community, to let them know everyone was welcome.

“No one has phone dates anymore, Kirsten,” Kollin said with all the derisiveness a sixteen-year-old boy talking to a stone-aged, out-of-the-times adult could muster. “We text or Snapchat.”

Raising one eyebrow, Kirsten spoke primly. “Is that so? I’ll be sure to remember for future inquiries.”

“Anyway,” Adam said, “we wanted to let you guys know I’m officially moving in with Elijah and Kollin—”

Kirsten shot up from the couch and threw her arms around Adam’s neck. “Oh my God. You’re getting married.”

Adam’s eyes widened, and Elijah choked on his drink and quickly pounded himself on the chest three times.

“Um, no, Kris. But thanks for that,” he said, gently pushing her away.

“Shit. Sorry.” Kirsten sat down and covered her face in embarrassment. “But you’ve basically been living here for two months. I didn’t think it required a big announcement.”

Having regained his breath, Elijah stepped next to Kollin and Adam. “There is a little more to it—we hope.” Elijah cast a sideways glance at Kollin and continued. “Adam probably should’ve started by telling you that I’ve contacted my lawyers about formally adopting Kollin. After talking it over between the three of us, Kollin and I decided this was something we felt we needed to do, even though he’s almost an adult. We’re trying not to get too excited, because a lot could still go wrong—particularly Kollin’s biological parents refusing to sign over rights.”

Adam could count on one hand the number of times Kirsten was rendered speechless, but there she sat on the couch, hand covering her mouth, several slow tears sliding down her cheeks. She placed her hands in her lap and offered them a watery smile. “Well, that’s even better news.”

Kirsten stood, hugged Kollin first, and then Elijah, whispering to each of them. Derek followed behind her to offer his congratulations.

“I guess it’s time we go home before I weep all over your house,” Kirsten said.

Derek hugged Adam and offered a simple “Congrats, man,” and then followed his wife to the foyer.

“See you guys later,” Kollin said as he jogged up the steps with a wave over his shoulder.

“Thanks for coming tonight. We’ll have to do it again sometime soon.” Elijah one-arm hugged Derek and bent down to hug Kirsten again. “I have some stuff to do in the office before I turn in, so I’m going to head up. Be safe.”

Kirsten turned to Derek. “Can I have a minute?”

“Of course. I’ll be in the car.”

Adam waited until the door shut behind Derek. “You okay?”

Kirsten nodded. “Are you?”

Adam shoved his hands in his pockets. “’Course I am. This is the best thing for Kollin.”

“Well, duh. But what about you? Why aren’t you doing this together?”

“Come on, Kris. Elijah and I have been together half a year. Adopting a teenager with me is not even close to being on his radar.”

“I doubt adopting a teenager fell on his radar at all a year ago, but life happens, and things change. There’s nothing you could say to make me believe Elijah and Kollin wouldn’t be 100 percent on board if you wanted to adopt him as well.”

Adam sighed. “Even so, it’s better for everyone involved if I stay out of it. And Elijah and Kollin agree. We’ll set up the legal papers so I become his guardian if something happens to Elijah. But I don’t feel the need to do this the same way Elijah does. I’ll always love that kid as if he were my own, but this is Elijah’s thing with Kollin. This is a healing thing for them that I’m not a part of, and I’m more than okay about it. Besides, I know Kollin’s different, but I’d feel weird legally adopting someone I met through the center and guilty I couldn’t do it for the next one who comes through and needs a home.”

Kirsten stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Adam’s waist. “You’re right.”

Adam rested his chin on her head. “Really? That’s it?”

“Yeah. That’s it. I get it.” She looked up to meet Adam’s eyes. “I guess I always assumed if this happened, it would be all of you together. You’re so damn selfless…. Are you sure this is what you really want?”

“I promise. I’m excited and happy for both of them. I can’t think of two better people who deserve this more.”

Kirsten pursed her lips as she pulled away. “Hmmph. I can.”

“Yeah, yeah. Trust me on this one. Okay? Now get out of here. It’s not nice to keep your man waiting.”

“Like you know anything about keeping my man happy.”

Adam laughed and then pulled Kirsten back in for a hug. “I love you.”

“I love you too, brother.”

ADAM’S PHONE rang, jerking him out of the haze of inputting expenditures. He checked the time and saw the “So You Want to Go to College?” course he’d signed up to teach that month had started five minutes before. He’d never remember anything without HOPE’s receptionist’s constant reminders.

Adam grabbed his desk phone as he locked his computer. “I’m coming now, Chloe. Thanks for the reminder.”

“Wait, Adam. You have a call on line one. She wouldn’t leave her name and didn’t want to leave a message when I told her you were getting ready to step into a meeting. She said she’d call back, but I told her I’d check with you first.”

Adam groaned. He didn’t want to be late—later—for his class, but he never knew what kind of trouble the person on the other end of the line could be in.

“I’ll take it, but can you let the group in the training room know I’ll be a few minutes?”

“Of course. She’ll be there when I hang up.”

A moment later the line clicked over, and the loud background noise of the center disappeared.

“This is Adam. How can I help you?”

Silence followed his greeting, and Adam’s heart sank. Calls starting out this way rarely ended well.

“Hello? Are you okay?”


“Listen. I’ll do whatever I can to help you, but you have to talk to me first. Okay? I promise whatever you tell me right now is strictly confidential.”


The voice sounded scared, or maybe skeptical, and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“Yes. This is Adam. Is there something I can do to help you?”

“Adam… Lancaster?”

Adam’s heart sped up and butterflies fluttered around his stomach as his mind searched for the owner of the somewhat familiar voice on the other end of the phone.

“Yes,” he all but breathed out. “Who is this?”

“I… I can’t believe I actually found you.”

The butterflies danced and twisted, threatening to empty everything in his stomach as his mind led him to a door he’d not only closed but locked long ago.

“I never thought I’d hear your voice again,” the woman continued.

Slowly shaking his head, Adam fell into his chair and pleaded for his brain to back away from that door.

“Adam? Are you still there?”

Adam squeezed his eyes shut and tightened his grip on the phone as he held it to his chest. The voice on the other end called his name one more time, and Adam could no longer take the sound. He slammed his phone down in the receiver and tried to take a deep breath. But it turned out choppy and short, so he drew another right behind it.

Same result.

He struggled to suck in oxygen, but once again was unable to breathe deeply. So he tried again.

And again.

And again.

True panic crept in. Adam had no control over his body. He was going to pass out.

Calm down.

Breathe slower.

But his lungs wouldn’t cooperate. He struggled to remember what he needed to do to pull himself out of a downward spiral, but he hadn’t had a panic attack in so many years that everything he knew felt fuzzy and out of reach.

Panic filled every nook and cranny in his body.

Adam could barely inhale before his body forced him to gasp for another breath. Lightheaded and desperate for more oxygen, Adam dropped his head between his knees. Several moments later he was able to take his first deep breath. Closing his eyes, Adam pressed his palm against his chest and began counting, slowing his breathing a little at a time.

A light tap sounded on his door, and the loud squeak of the hinges quickly followed. “Oh my God.” Chloe rushed around the desk to kneel at Adam’s side. “What happened? Are you okay?”

Adam took another long, slow, deep breath and nodded gently.

“What can I do? Do you need water?”

He shook his head and then rested his forehead on his knee and turned to look at Chloe. “Can you apologize to the kids in the application course and tell them I can’t make it today?”

“Of course. Anything else?”

“Umm. I hate to ask, but could you call Elijah for me? I don’t think I’ll be able to drive for a bit, and I need to go home.”

“I’m on it. Don’t you move.”

“Thanks. And Chloe? Please don’t tell the kids why I can’t be there.” No need for them to worry. Chloe would do enough of that for everyone.

Chloe left, and Adam managed to raise his head enough to lay it on the desk in front of him. True to her word, Chloe returned in less than two minutes with a bottle of water.

“Elijah’s on his way. He’s likely to break the sound barrier getting here. I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t worry him, so I told him you’d explain.” She fussed with the pitiful limp throw pillow Adam kept on his couch and then kneeled next to him again. “Want to try moving to the couch?”

Adam accepted her shoulder to lean on, fumbled his way over to the couch, and then took the water she’d opened.

“Thanks. I’ll be fine if you need to get back out there.”

Chloe sat on the edge of the couch by Adam’s feet and patted his leg. “Nope. Julie’s covering the desk for me. I’m not leaving you until Elijah’s here.”

Adam nodded, feeling guilty for keeping Chloe in the dark, but exhaustion from his panic attack kept him from explaining. Adam hadn’t heard his mother’s voice in almost twenty years, and he knew, without a doubt, he could’ve gone twenty more without hearing it again.

Masters of Cane by Erin O'Quinn
The next instant, Michael found himself arse-over-bollocks on the carpet. Simon had hooked his ankle with the cane handle and jerked just hard enough to send him crashing to the floor.

He and Simon became a tangle of hairy legs and bony knees, each struggling to pin the other to the thick rug. How in bloody hell Simon kept his robe together was a mystery he intended to crack. Managing to sit on his chest, Michael reached down and tore the sash from his opponent’s waist. The once-hidden cock lunged, a rabid dog seeking the flesh of its victim.

“Damn you! Get off me!”

Michael had begun to pant a little, not with effort but with blind lust.

“Aye, but not without a bite o’the beast. Ye said ye’d take me. So do it, or stop bragging.”

“Sodding bastard!”

Simon’s vocabulary was coming along nicely, Michael thought. In fact, his partner’s maddened speech made him so stiff he began to ache for relief. Simon had asked for it, plain and simple. No sense tittering and pretending, like a spinster in the face of a rare suitor.

He leaned on Simon’s chest and sought his mouth, tearing at the brooding lower lip and jabbing his tongue in a series of hard thrusts, as though the sensuous mouth was a willing asshole.

But he’d misjudged Simon, as usual. Where did the man’s strength come from? True, he worked his body mercilessly in his gentlemen’s club almost every day. But it took a special determination and skill to best Michael McCree. In a throb o’the heart, Simon had slid from his hold and turned him on his belly.

The cane came from nowhere. Simon used it as a vise to pin his arms behind, and then he felt his hands being wrapped by the sash of the dressing gown. In moments, he was trussed like a holiday goose, his gut sunken into the wool fibers of the rug and his chin and his dick ground into its surface.

Simon lay along his spine and put his mouth in his right ear. “This time, McCree, lie still. Or I swear to God I’ll roll you under the bed and leave you here.”

“An’ ye’ll recruit what army?”

“Just my cane and my cock.”

The Road to Silver Plume by Tamara Allen
Chapter One
The sun was too goddamned bright. The afternoon, for that matter, too cold and windy. The wood plank under him would rattle his bones from their sockets even before Grand Central fell from view, and Sergeant Fulton was hitting every damned bump and hole in the road. Deliberately.

Still, the September day—so far—had more to recommend it than the Mount Pleasant accommodations Darrow had said farewell to, hours before. And one hell of a farewell salute it had been from his suddenly sentimental cellmates. His head pounded yet, his stomach rocking with the wagon's sway. He didn't know whether to blame the last whiskey or the first.

The play of morning light on green leaves and the rushing gleam of the Hudson had only occasionally distracted him from his misery on the train trip downriver. Now, in the half-forgotten territory of home, he raised his aching head to peer through the bars. Manhattan hadn't changed much since ’87. The buildings stood higher than he remembered. Traffic ran thicker and faster; but maybe it seemed so because the only traffic he'd seen in six years were police wagons, arriving with clockwork regularity, and the occasional closed carriage concealing uneasy visitors. But the unrelenting clamor of the city hadn’t changed. He was home and he was free.


Fulton eased the wagon from the meandering line of horse-cars winding down Park Row and angled for the broad stretch of curb in front of the post office. The four stories of overwrought granite bearing up under a bulbous roof of dark slate resembled nothing so much as a pompous government official with a derby atop his bald head; or more pertinently, the two men at the curb who seemed to be waiting on Darrow’s arrival. As Fulton opened the wagon doors, the older man—a division chief, most likely—peered inside. "Darrow Gardiner?"

"That's him," Fulton said grimly, and unlocked the chain that ran through the shackles. "Come on out, you son of a bitch."

Darrow smiled in the sergeant's scowling, gray-bearded face. Fulton wouldn't get under his skin. A juicier fish waited to be skewered and fried; one smug, self-assured Secret Service operative by the name of Emlyn Strickland, who had sauntered into the courtroom six years ago to swear that only one person in the world could have engraved the near-perfect twenty dollar plates on damning display at the exhibit table.

The case had won Strickland fawning accolades from every city official and praise from every journalist. Sentenced to a dozen years in Sing Sing, Darrow had that day decided to make Strickland regret the testimony; but not with a fist or a gun—no, he wasn't going back to prison, not with a chance to walk free.

It was a freedom so near, not even the shackles on his wrists could dampen his anticipation. The two operatives now apparently in charge gave him a cursory once-over before heading inside, leaving Fulton the task of making sure he kept up. Glad to be free of the leg irons, Darrow kept apace down the marble corridor, past niche after niche of lock-boxes, to the elevators. Few people glanced his way. When they did, they looked away again, seeming startled by the sight of a man with his wrists manacled.

The elevator doors opened upon a fourth floor labyrinth of austere offices. Cells, too, Darrow mused; if not as dark and narrow as the one he'd called home. An inscription at the door read, "Secret Service Division." Below that, for good measure, someone had thought to add, "Positively No Admittance." That didn't apply, by virtue of the information in his possession, to him. He followed the operatives into an office warmed by a wood-fire and busy with the hustle of clerks. Rows of Wanted photographs scowled from the walls, and bulky safes—no doubt stuffed with confiscated evidence—stood, indifferent, beneath them.

A door at the far end led into an interior office. A lone desk occupied the room, and the name on the deskplate, Charles Bishop, belonged, Darrow knew, to the lanky figure lost in reverie at the window, a file under his arm forgotten as he gazed out on Broadway. Fulton offered a gruff good-morning and the man turned, his prominent, raw-boned features set in what Darrow sensed was a perpetual state of wry humor—except perhaps when his genial limits were tested. Darrow suspected Bishop was, then, as capable as a prison guard of putting any man in his place. And Darrow had tested his share.

"Take a seat, Mr. Gardiner." Bishop sat at the desk, his assistant finding a less settled perch on the low cabinet behind him. "This is Franklin Lahey, my personal secretary."

Lahey took Darrow in, head tilted like a curious crow. "Before you share your information, Mr. Gardiner, I must admit I'm curious to know how you came by it."

Fulton, at Darrow's shoulder, hovered all the more emphatically, as if daring Darrow to overstep in the slightest. Darrow ignored him. "Where's Strickland?"

Fulton grunted, clearly unimpressed with the mild tone. Bishop only smiled. "Mr. Strickland went down for some of the evidence in storage from your trial, in case we wanted to review any of it." He leaned forward, arms on the desk, fingers laced. "I'm as curious as Mr. Lahey, I’ll confess. You say you’ve evidence of an undetected counterfeit in circulation. Evidence you’re willing to share.”

“With conditions.”

Bishop’s smile didn’t waver. "Of course you’ll be compensated for your trouble."
Darrow smiled back. "Meaning a discharge of all obligations to the state?"

"Mind yourself," Fulton grunted.

"Yes, Mr. Gardiner, as we discussed. Sentence commuted, and the usual sum to start fresh. But first we must know what particular knowledge you possess that the Secret Service does not."

Darrow sat back and folded his own arms as well as he could with irons around his wrists. “I’m sure you have a good eye for fakes, but this one is going to call for Strickland’s expertise.”

“You have one of the bills?”


Bishop’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed. I suppose we would benefit from Mr. Strickland’s presence.” He turned to Lahey. "Where the devil is he?"

Lahey appeared to have no satisfactory answer. “Shall I go—“

“No, let’s be efficient about it. Sergeant, if you’ll gather up your charge, we’ll track down our missing party.”

They made a peculiar procession, judging by the inquisitive glances of visitors, clerks, and operatives they passed. Bishop strode at the lead, Lahey scurrying along aside, and Darrow could hear their every word.

"Sir, we might be wiser leaving Gardiner behind—"

"The sergeant will keep Mr. Gardiner in hand, should it be required."

"Yes, sir. But Emlyn—he's had so little field experience—"

"I'm aware of that, Mr. Lahey."

"Yes, sir. My concern is..." Lahey's backward glance at Darrow completed the thought.

Bishop chuckled. "Mr. Strickland has been in New York how long?"

“Three weeks, sir."

"Yes. Perhaps it's time to broaden his horizons."

Darrow couldn't help noting that however much respect the Service might have for an operative with a knack for identifying counterfeits, they didn't show it by situating the man in any of the busier front offices. Several twists and turns from Bishop's headquarters, a narrow hall led past a handful of unoccupied rooms to an unmarked door at its end. Bishop entered without knocking, into an office that appeared to serve as secondary storage—or perhaps first. In an atmosphere thick with the mustiness of old furniture and older books and files, dust motes floated in the meager shafts of sunlight, waiting their turn for a resting spot.

Over a desk pushed under the room's single window, Emlyn Strickland sprawled like a sunflower seeking more light. There, the sun obliged, catching the paler shades in Strickland's brown hair and falling warmly on the cream-colored waistcoat and tweed backside hemmed in by stacks of books all over the desk. Strickland looked amiable and innocuous—to anyone who didn't already know what an arrogant, exacting son of a bitch he could be.

At Bishop's gentle throat-clearing, Strickland sat up, knocking over several books in the process. One book fell open on the floor, exposing a collection of counterfeit bills as neatly arranged as a stamp collector's scrapbook. And some of the bills, to Darrow's amusement, were not unfamiliar. Noting the papers Strickland had in one hand, the magnifying glass in the other, he wondered why the Service couldn't buy the man a damned lamp.

But Strickland didn't seem troubled by it. Maybe he was accustomed to putting up with the poor light. If it bothered his eyes, there was no sign in the clear gaze that fell warily on Darrow. The son of a bitch remembered him...

And Darrow remembered him; no trouble to look at, with features still too frankly expressive for a Secret Service agent, Strickland was probably just past thirty and still as leanly built, though he did most of his Service work behind a desk—or on top of it, apparently. His gaze, gray as the coldest day in winter, sat somberly on Darrow as if he'd concluded Darrow's early release from Sing Sing would not be in the best interests of the world at large.

Darrow let one corner of his mouth curl into a smile with more than a thimble's worth of triumph. "You didn’t figure on seeing me again so soon."

"Not in custody, no.”

That dry, even tone Darrow remembered. The tone of a man who could bring down judgment on others without a moment’s regret. “Don’t tell me you thought I’d escape?”

“Considering the direction in which your talents lie, I fully expected you’d forge your own pardon.” Strickland’s glance slid assessingly over the second-hand suit before rising even more somberly to meet Darrow’s gaze. "You've lost weight, Mr. Gardiner."

Caught off-guard by the personal remark, Darrow lifted his shoulders in a careless shrug. "Live on mush and molasses for six years and you won't grow fat."

"I suppose not." Strickland's attention strayed to Bishop and a fleeting grimace crossed his face. "I beg your pardon, sir. I got caught up. Those bills First National turned over to us..." He bent to scoop up the fallen books. "The artist is Edward Johnson. Just as you thought."

Darrow snorted. "What did he misspell this time?"

Strickland looked startled—then unexpectedly laughed. "He didn't. But he still can't resist a flourish where nonesuch exists." He plucked a bill from the book and raised it before their eyes. "The line engraving isn't as steady as it should be. The shading's lacking—"

"Might be Hill's," Darrow said.

Strickland hesitated. "I don't think so..."


"Taylor's a much better hand at the vignettes."

"Well, it's not one of mine."

“Indeed, no. Your work is superior,” Strickland said ruefully. “Far superior.”

“Which returns us to the matter at hand...” Bishop glanced around. "You've no chairs in here, Em?”

Strickland frowned as if he’d only just noticed their absence. “I could’ve sworn—“

"I believe the office next door is adequately furnished," Lahey put in on a dour note.

"We'll settle in there," Bishop said, already heading for the door. "Mr. Gardiner has imparted little yet.” He stepped into a smaller office, empty but for a desk and three chairs. "If you would like to continue, Mr. Gardiner..." He steered Lahey to the chair behind the desk and remained standing as Fulton less than gently invited Darrow to sit. Strickland took the third chair, the dubious light in his gaze as irksome as the amusement. The son of a bitch thought himself made of better clay by virtue of his badge, same as Bishop and Lahey. The same as every goddamned government agent.

And yet here they were, waiting for his help.

Darrow savored it a moment before digging the dollar from his waistcoat pocket. He’d kept close care of the coin for a good five weeks—no easy thing in prison—until he’d been able to get word to Bishop and secure an interview. Now the coin was going to buy him his freedom and more.

He tossed it onto the bare desk, where it landed beside Lahey’s notebook. Lahey paused in mid-scrawl to glance at it, but Bishop picked it up. He examined both sides and finally fished a quarter from his own pocket to test the ring. The fake rang cleanly and Bishop pinned a reproachful gaze on Darrow. “If you hope to persuade us this coin is filled…”

“It’s not.”

Bishop’s stare sharpened. “Do explain yourself, Mr. Gardiner.”

Darrow turned to Strickland, whose curiosity shone as plainly as Bishop’s skepticism. Rising, Strickland held out his hand and Bishop passed him the coin. Strickland had already produced a small brass magnifier from his waistcoat pocket, and coin in hand, moved to the window.

Bishop was apparently not in the mood to wait for a verdict. “Mr. Gardiner, let me just remind you that you’re not dealing with laymen. We’re all quite aware of the fact that you and your fellow engravers find the means to persist in your trade even in Sing Sing. If this coin is a creation of yours, we will discover it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And when we do discover it, you may be sure neither we nor the governor will be inclined toward leniency.”

Strickland had a shoulder pressed against the glass, his head bent over the coin with the same intense, single-minded concentration Darrow remembered from the trial. If he followed the conversation, there was no sign of it. Bishop was paying him no mind, having taken to pacing back and forth behind Lahey’s chair as the secretary scribbled furiously to keep up.

“Furthermore, Mr. Gardiner, do not imagine you may, upon being found out, claim it was merely a simple mistake.” He silenced both tongue and stride long enough to cast a stern glance at Darrow over Lahey’s head. “We’re dealing with no layman, ourselves. We know as much.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So if you have altered this coin, however minutely, in order to arrange an early release, you may as well confess it—“

“Good heavens.”

Strickland’s exclamation ended the invective, to Darrow’s relief, but Bishop and Lahey had no more than given him their attention before he abruptly bounded from the room. Bishop cast a puzzled glance at Lahey, as if he might provide an explanation, and Lahey snorted softly. “Ten years in the Redemption Bureau, sir. Addles a fellow some, I expect.”

Bishop’s lips twitched, a hint of long-suffering in his sigh. “Mr. Lahey, kindly retrieve Mr. Strickland.”

“Yes, sir.”

Lahey had only reached the door when Strickland bounded back in, cradling a coin scale and a fruit jar brimming with silver. Without preamble, he poured the silver onto the desk and began to dig through it, his urgency sparking what Darrow guessed was a rare uneasiness in Bishop’s eyes. “Emlyn, what—“

“Eighteen ninety-two.” Strickland plucked the shinier coins from the silver pool, to as quickly discard them after checking the date. “Do either of you have an eighteen ninety-two?”

“It’s counterfeit, then?” Lahey looked awed, Bishop dismayed. Both dug into their pockets, but turned up only a decade-old dollar between them.

Darrow had expected some measure of concern once they’d caught on, but nothing quite so satisfying as this alarmed scramble. The only annoyance was Strickland, who seemed more fascinated than apprehensive. He’d found his prize, Darrow knew, when his fingers curled around a bright bit of silver. As Lahey and Fulton hovered, Strickland passed the magnifier and both coins to Bishop. “The weight’s near-perfect. Off by a few grains, at most.”

Bishop laid the coins side by side on the desk and bent over them with the magnifier. After a long minute, Strickland cleared his throat. “The lettering,” he prompted.

“‘In God we trust.’ It’s not aligned as precisely.”

“Yes, sir. Without the magnification, it’s nearly impossible to tell. The vignette isn’t quite right, either. But I expect the metals are all in proper proportion. Forty cents’ worth of silver in one almost flawless dollar.”

Bishop straightened, chin dropping to his chest, gaze fixed yet on the coins.
“Silver’s still at sixty-three? So he’s making sixty cents on every coin he passes.”

“It may be useful,” Lahey ventured, “to ask just who he is.”

When the three of them turned in his direction, Darrow let loose a soft laugh. “You don’t know?”

The question, directed at Strickland, provoked a raised eyebrow from Bishop. “Mr. Gardiner, I realize it’s tempting, in your position, to engage in a bit of cat-and-mouse, but this can be construed as obstruction of justice—“

“Mr. Strickland’s already got a list of suspects in mind.” Darrow settled back against the comfortable leather. “He was putting it together the minute you handed over that coin.”

“The quality does narrow down the list,” Strickland acknowledged. “I know of five or six men, off-hand…” He leaned against a corner of the desk, arms folded. “August McKee?”

Darrow rocked the chair back and forth. Treasury men had it soft. Mighty soft. All the same, they could be damned smart. “You cut that down quick.”

“You’ve known McKee fifteen years.”

“Sixteen. But I’ve known others as long.”

Strickland’s mouth curved with a hint of reproof. “Sixteen years of friendship and he bid for his freedom with your engravings.”

“I gave him those plates a long time ago. He could do what he liked with them.”

“And your fifty dollar engravings? Where are they?”

“You’ll have to ask McKee.” Fourteen months of painstaking care had gone into the making of those plates. The pride he'd felt on presenting the plates to Gust was as powerful as it had been seven years ago. Gust had called them works of art—and so they were, as thoroughly as any Rembrandt or da Vinci. He’d thought as highly of the tens, but he’d readily traded them for a commutation, two years into his own twelve-year sentence. Where the fifties languished, Darrow could fairly guess. But after six years in prison, he’d lost any expectation Gust was going to bargain for his release, too.

And that was something Strickland had no need to know. “McKee doesn’t owe me. I don’t owe him. If he’s the one minting those dollars—“


“I don’t know it for a fact. But men come and go in Sing Sing. Gossip’s about the most valuable thing they’ve got on them. That, and a little spare change.”

“Let us assume August McKee is our craftsman in this instance.” Bishop scooped a handful of silver and dumped it into the jar. “Might you have an idea of his whereabouts?” His gaze on Darrow was as assessing as Strickland’s, if not as shrewd. The deal to trade freedom for information depended, Darrow knew, on how useful the information proved to be. And Bishop had the power to decide if it wasn’t quite useful enough.

There was little point in the cat-and-mouse. But being too forthcoming was as risky. Once Bishop had all he wanted, he’d toss Darrow into the Tombs for safekeeping. Gust would be arrested, the engravings confiscated. Darrow couldn’t allow either, if he wanted both his freedom and his fifties back.

“I don’t know McKee’s whereabouts, no. But it should be easy enough to come up with a list of possibilities.” Darrow straightened in his chair. “A man setting up his own mint is going to need plenty of metal.”

Bishop’s brows rose. “Are you suggesting McKee has come into possession of a silver mine?”

Darrow shrugged. “He’ll want to keep an eye on every step. If he’s digging up his own bullion, he has control from start to finish.”

Lahey looked up from a notepad crisscrossed with calculations. “If McKee’s minting coin straight out of his own mine, he must be making a fortune. Even a meager production of ore will make him quite wealthy—“

“Mr. Lahey, we’ll need a list of silver mine owners as quickly as you can put it together.” Bishop turned to Strickland. “You think you can track him down through his other counterfeits?”

“If he’s still making use of Mr. Gardiner’s engravings, yes. The banks have sent in a good many letters I haven’t had the chance to file yet. You know, if McKee has acquired a mine, his ownership may be listed under a confederate's name." Strickland's considering gaze rested on Darrow. "A name Mr. Gardiner may recognize."

Bishop seemed satisfied. "Mr. Lahey will make inquiries and I suggest you begin going over the letters from the banks." He smiled faintly, almost as if embarrassed. "I think you're going to need more light and space. I'll have another office set up for you. Sergeant Fulton, if you will return Mr. Gardiner to his temporary quarters—"

"I beg your pardon, sir." Strickland pushed away from the desk, straightening. "Mr. Gardiner can identify counterfeits as well as I can. The work will go twice as fast if he remains."

Bishop sent a dubious glance in Darrow’s direction. "I assume, Mr. Gardiner, that you prefer to stay and assist?"

Sorting through counterfeit bills sent in from banks all over the country… That promised to be an arduous task. An afternoon in the Tombs might be preferable. But he had to keep an eye on things, himself. "I'm at your command, Mr. Bishop."

"Good. Sergeant, kindly release Mr. Gardiner from the irons and turn him over to us for the time being."

Fulton obeyed without a word, but the look he gave Darrow was both warning and promise. Darrow gave the threat no further thought once the irons were removed. With that dead weight off his wrists, he was still under guard, perhaps, but another step closer to being a free man.

He rubbed his wrists, at the same time stretching aching shoulders as he joined Strickland in the dusty storage room. Despite the seemingly haphazard organization, Strickland needed only a minute to locate the bank lists and Reporter journals. He filled one box, then a second from the file cabinets, only hesitating as he passed the first box to Darrow. "It's a little heavy—"

"I was carting barrows full of marble three days ago." Darrow took the box. "You can trust me."

"We're trusting you with a great deal more than bank journals." Strickland picked up the second box. "Whatever you can tell me about McKee...”

Darrow glanced at him sidelong as they stepped into the corridor. “That’s why you asked Bishop to have me stay.”

Strickland met his glance and again unexpectedly laughed. “No insult intended, Mr. Gardiner. I do believe your eye for counterfeits is nearly as good as mine.”

“Took you at least a month to pin down those twenties.”

“And less than an hour to determine you were the artist.” Strickland shifted the box to one arm and turned, meeting him eye to eye. “I recall my testimony as well as you do. And whether I’d taken one month or a dozen, you’d have gone to Sing Sing.”

“Thanks to your testimony, I did.”

“That you spent six years in prison was your doing, Mr. Gardiner. Not mine.”

Darrow let an indifferent smile form. “No regrets, then.”

“None so far.”

“Give it a little more time.”

Strickland brandished the silver dollar between thumb and forefinger, as grave-faced as Liberty herself. “You’ve nearly won your release. You won’t trade it for a moment’s satisfaction.”

“No? A man can find lifelong satisfaction in some moments.”

Strickland’s lips parted, then firmed into a disapproving line. “Employ that philosophy and you may find yourself with very little life left to enjoy.”

“Bishop will track me down?”

“Do you imagine he won’t?”

Darrow broke into a grin. “I expect he might. Even for the sake of a Redemption Bureau coin shuffler.”

That sparked annoyance in the gray eyes. “If you’d prefer to go back with Sergeant Fulton—“

“You can’t afford to send me back, unless you want August McKee to flood your Treasury with these.” He plucked the dollar from Strickland’s hand and tossed it, letting it land flat on his palm. “Gust’s best work to date, really.”

Strickland didn’t offer an opinion, nor any further discussion until they’d found their way to the office Bishop had ordered set up. It was considerably larger than any Darrow had yet seen, with room for two desks—and a long table, in case the desks fell short. Darrow claimed the desk nearest the window and found some mild entertainment in sorting through the counterfeits, increasingly amused by the outraged or exasperated letters from cashiers who couldn't fathom the number of fake bills that had ended up in their accounts. Most of the fakes, Darrow recognized. One or two originated from plates he'd made long ago, plates he assumed were in Gust's possession.

The farther down the list he went, the clearer it became that Gust was somewhere near Denver. "I've seen almost all these bills before. I know which are coming from Gust's operation. Odds are he’s in Colorado."

Strickland rose. "I'll give you more letters—"

"Don't bother. I'm convinced and you are too. Or you should be."

"I know it's not the most enjoyable of tasks—"

Darrow snorted. "Reading letters from a bunch of tellers who don't know what they're doing?"

"What makes you think they don't know what they're doing?"

Darrow lifted one of the bills that had been sent along with the letter. "They're posting these fakes up where anyone can see them, aren't they? Damned kind of you folks to point out a fellow's mistakes. Likely the engraver's already putting out a much better copy."

"How would you suggest we warn depositors of counterfeits in their possession?"

"Don't warn them. You're enlisting them to do your work. Maybe if you did a better job if it—"

“You, of all people, should know what we’re up against. For every fake coin we ferret out, you pass another dozen to take its place.”

“A good engraver doesn’t pass his own work.”

Strickland breathed a laugh. “Sidestep all you want. The more evidence we gather from banks, depositors, disloyal passers—anyone who's had one of McKee's bills or coins in hand—the more likely we can narrow down just where he’s hiding."

“I can narrow it faster.”

That won him a guarded glance. “What do you have in mind?”

“I have friends who can probably tell us just about anything we want to know.”

“Where are these friends of yours?”

“Around town. Most of them frequent Huber’s. If I can talk to them—“

“Huber’s Beer Garden? In the Bowery?"

"You've been there?"

Strickland cleared his throat. "I've passed through the Bowery once or twice."

"No one just passes through the Bowery. That's like a man in the desert crossing a river without stopping for a drink." Darrow leaned his chair back, propping his boots on the desk. "Even Secret Service operatives find their way there. For another sort of field work," he added with a low laugh.

A frown flattened Strickland’s mouth, but he couldn’t seem to hide his curiosity. “You’re suggesting we go roaming the Bowery. Just the two of us.”

“You won’t be recognized. Any friends of mine you’ve sent up are probably still in prison. I don’t bide my time with housebreakers and pickpockets.”

“And yet you perform the same service, relieving a man of the coin in his possession.”

“He can spend mine as readily as he likes.”

“Not if he wishes to remain in the bounds of the law.”

“So you think of me as a pickpocket?”

“You’ve put the false coin in his purse.”

“And you haven’t? You’re passing silver for far more than it’s worth—“

“We do not ‘pass’ silver, Mr. Gardiner. We stamp and issue it.” Despite the amused note, Strickland still seemed uneasy. “I think I want a word with Mr. Bishop. You’d best come with me.”

Trust by Brigham Vaughn
Jeremy leaned close, his lips almost brushing Evan’s ear. “Want to dance?”

“What? Really?” Evan turned to look at him. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, my leg can handle a slow dance with you.” Jeremy flashed him a grin that made Evan a little weak in the knees. Evan was concerned about Jeremy’s leg, but now that he mentioned it … “C’mon, kid. Please?” Jeremy stood, held out his hand—palm up—and Evan took it, feeling a little stunned and extremely confused.

“Yeah, okay.” His stomach fluttered as he followed Jeremy toward the dance floor. Jeremy pulled him close so the front of their bodies were pressed close together. Jeremy led, and Evan didn’t mind because he’d never slow danced with anyone before. Jeremy seemed to know what he was doing though, and Evan felt a little dizzy as he looked at Jeremy’s hazel eyes. He would swear he saw something more in that gaze than he’d ever seen before. He had no idea what song was playing, or how long it played, as they moved in slow circles. His heart thumped too hard in his chest, confused and happy. Wanting more. Wanting to know what all the moments and glances and touches this weekend meant. But he couldn’t speak, especially not after Jeremy leaned in and pressed his forehead against Evan’s.

Evan closed his eyes and tried to savor every last second, afraid it was all he’d ever have of this perfect, perfect moment. When Jeremy tilted his head and pressed his lips to Evan’s, it was so right, so close to what Evan had been wanting, that he kissed Jeremy back.

But the funny, worried feeling in the pit of his stomach never quite went away, even as the kiss went from cautious, to familiar, to heated. When the music changed and they slowed to a stop, Jeremy’s lips did too, and he pressed his forehead to Evan’s again. Evan panted, struggling to understand what was happening, and he slowly pulled away. He stared at Jeremy for a long minute before he took a deep, shuddering breath, his head spinning with confusion.

“I—I’m gonna go take a walk for a minute.”

Evan fled, heading down the stairs to the beach before Jeremy could reply. He kicked off his shoes and buried his socks in them, looping his fingers in the back to carry them. He set out at a quick pace, heading closer to the waterline as he walked down the shore. The dry sand became wet, and he cursed and dropped his shoes, hastily rolling his pant cuffs and grabbing his shoes before he started out again, walking along the waterline. A wave washed over his feet, and he felt the sand erode, the water pulling the foundation out from under him. He walked until the beach club lights were small in the distance, and he stared up at the moon, which was almost—but not quite—full.

It hurt. He hurt. His heart and his brain and everything everywhere else hurt. He wanted to believe that when Jeremy held him, looked at him tenderly, it meant what he wanted it to, but what if he was wrong? Again.

What if Jeremy had been right when he said he was too fucked up for a relationship? Evan couldn’t fix Jeremy’s issues about his scars. Jeremy had to want to, and Evan wasn’t sure if he could put himself through hoping for that again. It hurt too much.

Clockwork Heart by Heidi Cullinan
Chapter One
March, 1910
Calais, France
Though Cornelius Stevens had thumbed his nose at his father’s international conflicts since he was old enough to understand what the word war meant, the night he rescued the Austrian soldier from a pile of dead bodies was the first time his disobedience had gone as far as treason.

He’d gone out, as it happened, to spite his father, who had ordered Conny to attend the local magistrate’s dinner party. “A good friend of mine will be there and is looking forward to meeting you,” his letter had said, and then it had gone on to promise Cornelius a hefty raise of his allowance and the set of Italian tools he’d been coveting in exchange for his presence at the event. Normally that would have been enough to lure Conny into even the most dull official gathering, but the letter had arrived with the evening paper, whose headline celebrated the archduke’s victorious conquest of Switzerland in the name of France. Cornelius had been put off his breakfast at the thought of how many innocent people had died so his father could supply the worthless, lazy emperor in Paris with cheap aether, and he’d burned the letter from his father in his brazier, vowing he’d join the Austrian Army himself before he’d attend a dinner party where he’d hear nothing but the glories of the French forces.

Cornelius was not his father. He saved lives instead of taking them. He was a tinker-surgeon, apprenticed to the best tinker in France. He was a master of clockwork. He saw at least three veterans of his father’s horrible war each week, and he gave them surgeries for free and clockwork for cost, or for whatever the soldiers could afford. He was his father’s son, but he was a bastard son, in blood and in spirit. He would never celebrate the Empire’s appetite for war. He donned his white armband for peace with pride. He wouldn’t attend a dinner party where he knew they’d be celebrating more death.

So that evening Conny dined with friends and drank wine, enough to make him glib about the sirens’ warning of an invasion on his walk home, chalking it up to more hokum from his father. Until half a kilometer from his flat he heard the shelling.

Calais, the city that never saw much more than a dust-up between sailors on leave, was being invaded. Uncertain how to respond, Cornelius moved into alleys and side streets to complete his journey. He climbed barrels and stumbled over cats, sobering with every step as he made his way home through fog tinged with the tang of gunpowder. He wove his way into an industrial area, following the path of a service canal—and that was where he found the raft of dead Austrian soldiers.

At first he thought he was hallucinating. It happened more often than he cared to admit, if he worked too long without stopping to eat. But he’d eaten both lunch and dinner, and it had only been one bottle of wine, no absinthe. Also, he’d never hallucinated smells before. Gunpowder. Sea muck. Sweat. Blood.


As a tinker-surgeon, Cornelius knew the scent of life recently ended all too well. The small barge heaved with a stack of dead soldiers, almost six feet high. Each wore the same green-gray uniform with the Austrian insignia, now caked with blood and mud. Some stared sightlessly at the sky, some twisted to their side, gazing at a distant eternity. No one living rode along to shepherd the dead. They simply drifted along with the rest of the night garbage waiting to be disposed of downstream at the city incinerator. No need to guard dead enemies. No need to afford them courtesy.

It was the most horrific, inhuman spectacle Cornelius had ever seen.

This is the work of my father. This is the fruit of Archduke Francis Cornielle Guillory’s terrible, endless war.

Cornelius swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d spent the day erasing the poor Swiss invasion victims from his imagination only to stumble upon barges full of fuel enough for a lifetime of nightmares. Hundreds of men, dead at his father’s hand. It didn’t matter how many lives Cornelius saved in surgery, how many wounded soldiers he gave new life to with surgical clockwork. He realized, standing on the bank of the canal, his entire life was but a pebble in his father’s ocean of blood.

Shutting his eyes, Cornelius put a hand to his mouth and fought the urge to retch. A watery cough made him open his eyes again, and he saw a hand raise and lower feebly on the top of one of the piles of corpses.

One of the soldiers was still alive.

With a cry, Cornelius sprinted across the street, hopped over the rail and vaulted onto the barge.

He climbed the dead men, the soft squish of their faces and necks and creak-cracks of their bones making him shiver as he scaled the heap. Another cough from above spurred him on, and then, at last, when he grasped an arm for purchase, it tensed and flinched under his grip.

Life. I have found you.

“It’s all right. I’m here.” So much blood. The soldier’s legs were broken at odd angles, and the right one had a seeping stain that told Conny it was bleeding out. Shrapnel protruded from the man’s belly and chest, and one great piece of metal appeared to have gone through his left arm entirely. His left eye was a scarred, mangled mess—it wasn’t missing, but it had been highly damaged. If he could see at all out of that side, it wasn’t much. Though that wound wasn’t fresh. However he’d partially lost his sight, it wasn’t from this battle.

The soldier murmured something in slurred German and tried, weakly, to push Cornelius away.

Cornelius stilled him with one hand as the other continued his examination. “You’re badly injured. But everything here is treatable, I think. Certainly I could give you a new eye without any trouble. Your left arm must go, and I can’t promise good things for your right leg, but…well, you floated by the right one for the job.”

The man gasped in pain and tried again to shove Conny. This effort was even weaker, though, and when Cornelius’s hand brushed his, the soldier’s fingers tightened around his own.

Cornelius threaded their fingers together. “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. This is wrong. This war is wrong, this barge is wrong—you shouldn’t be here if you’re alive. You should be at a prisoner-of-war camp, and you should be accorded respect.” He swallowed a bubble of bitterness. “You should be at home. If you came to Calais, it should be for a holiday.”

The man opened his good eye and gazed at Cornelius through a haze of pain. Though he spoke in German, no translation was necessary for the look on the soldier’s face.

I’m going to die, and I’m afraid.

Cornelius drew the man’s hand to his mouth and kissed the bloody, dirty knuckles. “You aren’t going to die. I’m going to save your life.”

Letting go of the soldier, Conny hurried down the corpses and up the bank with his blood pumping as his mind raced through potential plans. When he spotted a small surgery on the corner down the way, he dashed to it, picked the lock and burst inside. Needles, medicine, antibiotic went into his bag, as well as three rolls of bandages. The surgeons had a gurney as well, bless them. Leaving a hefty pile of bank notes on the counter by way of apology, he dragged the gurney outside and toward the barge, which had by now drifted almost out of sight.

His lungs burned as he climbed up a second time, and he feared he would find the man dead after all—but no, the soldier babbled slurred, panicked German as Cornelius arrived.

“Calmez-vous.” Cornelius wished he could offer reassurances the man would understand. He gave him an injection of painkiller, another of antibiotic, and then, to make things easier, he dosed the man with just the faintest bit of aether.

He was glad for it, because even with the gas, the soldier cried out as Cornelius tried to set his limbs. Unfortunately, Conny quickly realized all the soldier’s extremities were crushed except for his right hand. Cornelius bound the wounds as best he could, devised splints out of bits of the ferry rail, and then, with great effort, rolled the man onto the gurney pallet and strapped him in, hoping against hope the shifting didn’t incur too much additional damage.

Getting the pallet off the heap nearly sent them both into the canal. The soldier was broad and tall, and Cornelius was not. Essentially the only way to transport him was to slide the poor man on the pallet as if it were a sled. Clamoring after, Cornelius hoisted the pallet back onto the gurney, unlocked the wheels and rattled into the alley toward his apartments above Master Félix’s shop.

Only God knew what Cornelius would have said if he’d run into anyone on the streets—but he didn’t. Everyone hunkered in cellars, praying they weren’t set upon by soldiers. There were no soldiers on the streets, however, save the one Conny wheeled into the night. Once back at the shop, he found Master Félix wasn’t at home, and the maid was long gone for the night, so Cornelius simply rolled the gurney into the elevator in the back, primed the crank and rode with his patient past the first-floor general tinker shop into the second-floor surgery.

As an apprentice to the most celebrated tinker-surgeon in all of France, Cornelius had seen his share of dire patients, but he’d never faced anything as intense and critical as this soldier, and he’d never done such an intensive treatment alone. He did his best to push his nerves aside as he washed his hands, donned his surgical apron and dosed the soldier with so much aether he wouldn’t feel any pain well into the next week. Once that was done, he stripped the patient down and cleaned him head to toe.

So many wounds. Shrapnel in his belly and chest—some had gone into a lung, Conny was certain of it. The legs did have to go. Both of them, sadly, though the left leg only to mid-calf. The left arm too. For a moment, Cornelius wondered if he shouldn’t help the man cross over, instead of yanking him back to life. Then he remembered the look of naked terror on the man’s face, and resolve gripped him like a vise.

No. I am a healer, a fixer. I hate war and weep for all humans in pain. I will save this soldier. Whatever it takes. And I will give him clockwork so grand he won’t miss the flesh he’s lost.

Amputating and cauterizing the man’s mangled legs stopped the worst of the bleeding, though Cornelius did transfuse some blood into his patient to be certain he hadn’t lost too much. Perhaps it had been a bit of fancy to use his own blood from the stored pints, but he was a universal donor, was he not? Cornelius got rid of the soldier’s burned, crushed arm and sealed up that stump too. He wrapped the belly, then shifted his focus to the collapsed lung.

That was when he saw the bit of metal sticking out of the soldier’s chest, right above his heart. It was so low he’d missed it the first time, tangled in the man’s thick pelt of chest hair. But there was no missing it now.

It was the mortal wound. Conny skimmed his hand over the man’s thigh, scanning his patient’s body with new eyes, taking in the wounds old and new. It was the metal in the man’s heart killing him. Cornelius had healed everything else. If he healed that too, and fixed the lung, the man wouldn’t die.

Cornelius drew his bottom lip into his mouth as he stared at the stub of iron.

Seeing to that wasn’t simply cleaning him up. It was surgery. Clockwork surgery. And to finish the job, Conny would need to give the man a clockwork heart assist. That would be improving. Organ upgrades barely allowed to the gentry, given to an enemy soldier.

That would be treason.

Cornelius sucked his lip deeper into his mouth, biting nervously on the soft flesh.

Going any further than what he’d done was too much. He should give the man an overdose of aether and send him sweetly into death. He should do his duty, then find a pretty thing in a dockside bar or a stalwart sailor willing to let him cry on his shoulder before making him forget the shadows of war.

Cornelius let his gaze rest on the soldier’s big, battered body, his surprisingly pretty countenance beneath the scars, so innocent in sleep. Conny remembered the look of terror on his face and those whispered pleas. The weariness only war could bring. He thought of the dead Swiss men and women and children, who had done nothing but live in a country rich with aether the archduke needed to fuel his war.

He couldn’t save those victims. But he knew, if he let himself cross the line, he could save this one.

Probably he’ll die in surgery, Cornelius told himself as he washed his hands and sterilized his kit. He’ll die, and I can say I tried. Treason with no witness or lasting effect.

Except Cornelius did more than simply try.

Putting the Austrian on the Lazarus machine when the surgery went south was wrong. Siphoning off another pint of his own blood was foolish, because it made him woozy. Setting a tiny assistant pumping mechanism into a dying man’s chest was pointless—careless, even, since he’d end up burying thousands of dollars’ worth of intricate machinery if the man died, which he was highly likely to do.

But breaking into Master Félix’s vault to steal the clockwork heart once the pumping gear wouldn’t turn—that was certainly the most terrible thing Cornelius had ever done.

The clockwork heart was Félix’s masterpiece. He’d only shown it to Cornelius a month ago, after an evening of too much wine. “This is my masterwork, Conny, not that anyone can ever know about it. A clockwork heart. Not an assisting device but a fully clockwork organ, the first and only of its kind. Completely replaces an organ made of flesh, and very possibly functions better than the pump God gave us. It would run forever, until the body gave out. It might well make a body perform better than a flesh heart could. It could change the world.”

“But that’s wonderful!” Conny had touched the clockwork heart reverently, imagining all the good it could do. “It could save so many lives. You should make more of them.”

“I will never make another one as long as I live, and no one will ever use this infernal machine. I only have it here because it was no longer safe where it had been hiding. Soon I must move it again. Unless I can work up the courage to destroy it.” Félix turned to Conny, sodden with wine but burning with intensity. “You must never tell anyone about this. Not a single soul. Not ever.”

Cornelius hadn’t told anyone. Not even Valentin, his longest, dearest friend. But he knew the heart hadn’t yet moved on to wherever Félix intended to hide it next, and he hadn’t destroyed it. As the Austrian soldier lay dying, his heart of flesh too damaged to beat on its own, all Conny could think of was the perfect substitute locked away downstairs, lying useless with its owner vowing never to let it see the light of day.

Surely the safest place to hide the heart was inside of someone. A man who would not live without it.

Cornelius set the clockwork heart next to the mechanical pump, coaxed it into working independently before sewing it up inside the thin gold cavity he made in the man’s chest. He made a flesh-seal and tucked the access port under the man’s right arm, sealing it up with a cap that could pass for a mole to anyone who didn’t get close enough to see this mole had a tiny hinge. He stood over his patient, his own still-human heart thumping madly as he realized what he’d done.

Then it occurred to Conny, since he’d crossed one line, there was nothing stopping him from breaking as many rules as he needed to not only save his soldier but give him every advantage in whatever the next chapter of life brought him.

And that is precisely what Conny did.

* * * * *

Johann Berger was fairly certain he should have been dead.

He couldn’t yet be sure he wasn’t dead, though that he had a headache and ached all over seemed a good indication he was probably still alive. Death seemed like it would either not hurt at all or hurt a hell of a lot more, to pardon the pun. But Johann’s aches felt muted. Annoying, but tolerable. His left arm and his legs felt very odd. His mouth tasted like ash, and his chest felt…strange. He was warm, however. He lay in something soft and fragrant. Inhaling, he caught hints of lavender, sage and the lemon tang of a cleanser. He could not, for the life of him, imagine where he was or how he got there. Hoping for visual cues, he opened his eyes.

After drawing in a sharp breath, he closed them again. Tight.

When he opened them once more, his pulse beat hard against the back of his throat. He could see. Out of both eyes. Not a blurry haze out of his left which his right eye had to ignore. He saw, with crystal clarity, though his left eye saw everything with a sharp-edged tinge of yellow-brown.

He raised his hands to his face. Through the amber edging, he could see his right hand looking normal, his arm bare and scarred and marked with service tattoos. He also saw his left hand, which did not look like a hand at all. In any kind of light.

Oh, there were five fingers, true enough. But they were made of copper casings, not flesh. Tiny wheels held every joint in place and larger gears made up what he could only call a wrist. More wire and more clockwork comprised a forearm he could, technically, see through. What should have been his left arm was now a delicate machine. But even stranger than his new appendage was the discovery that when his brain told his left arm to move, his left wrist to turn, the fingers of his left hand to curl—they responded in kind. He let out a shaking breath and touched his left hand with his right. The clockwork arm didn’t register sensation in the way his right hand did. It felt like a slight fuzzing on his brain, an odd tickle that resonated more in his elbow than in his substitute fingers. He noticed, too, that his movements weren’t as smooth or dexterous with the mechanical arm as with his real one.

This was clockwork. Incredible clockwork. He’d seen some clumsy versions on a few officers who’d lost limbs, and once his unit had been stationed near Italy, where Johann saw a nobleman wearing gears on his flesh arm, but the kind of clockwork fused to Johann was like nothing he had known could possibly exist.

How had this happened? He tried to recall his last memory, but everything felt blurred and confused in his head. Had he ended up back with Crawley? He couldn’t see how. The pirates had left him, the commander had found him, and they’d put him straight onto the front lines. Onto a special assignment, the regiment sent to storm Calais.

A suicide mission. He remembered now. A distraction so the English airships full of Austrian troops could land on the eastern shores. Something about destroying a weapon. Or finding it. Or something. Nothing to do with him—his job was to be cannon fodder for the French.

So how had he ended up in a nice-smelling, soft bed with a yellow eyeball and a clockwork arm?

His belly curdled as he remembered the rumors, the warnings the sergeants had taunted them with at camp. The French are turning their war prisoners into automatons. Don’t let them catch you alive, or they’ll make it so you can never die and can’t do anything but fight for Archduke Guillory.

Terror brought back missing pieces of Johann’s memory. It had been fear of that story that had made him fake death and swallow his cry of pain as the French soldiers had tossed him onto the corpse barge. He remembered lying cold and trembling in the foggy night, waiting for death, knowing being burned alive would be better than the future they had in store for him as a prisoner of war.

And then a pretty young man had climbed the corpse heap, touched his face and whispered in French.

The curtains around Johann’s bed parted, and the pretty Frenchman from his recollection smiled down at him, head backlit by gaslight, his features outlined in a strange amber hue in Johann’s left eye.

“Voilà, vous êtes réveillé enfin.”

The Frenchman sat on the edge of the bed and smiled kindly down at Johann. As he spoke more lyrical words Johann had no hope of comprehending, he touched Johann everywhere. His face. His neck. He laid a hand over Johann’s chest, pressing gently—it was then Johann realized that flesh was slightly numb.

They have captured me and turned me into their slave. That is why I have the clockwork arm and God knows what else. I am an automaton. He began to panic.

The pretty man shushed him, petting his shoulders and entreating Johann once more in French. He didn’t sound like an enemy doctor intent on hacking men into reusable pieces. In fact, Johann hadn’t heard anyone speak with this much tenderness since he’d left his mother.

It was a little drugging. He decided he would gladly fight for Guillory’s army, if it meant this man would croon to him at the end of every battle.

The pretty man explained the mechanical arm, with slow French and pantomime. Johann got the idea the man had installed it, or designed it, or something, because he was intensely proud and could explain how to work it even without a shared language. “Nerf,” he kept saying, tracing a line from Johann’s elbow to his brain. He said nerf as he touched Johann’s left eye too, putting Johann’s right hand up there to feel the strange metal socket placed over the hollow where his mangled eye should have been.

He had Johann sit up, which was when Johann saw his legs.

The Frenchman hushed him once more when he cried out at the sight of his lower half—his right leg was entirely machine, steel and copper skeleton rising almost to his hip. His left leg was natural to his calf, where he had something which looked much like the foot version of his left arm. It was more intricate than the right side by far.

He had no legs. No feet. He was more clockwork than man.

Though Johann wanted to panic, it was difficult to remain upset with his doctor soothing him in what tonight had to be the prettiest language on Earth. The man hugged Johann’s shoulders and spoke quietly into his ear, his lips gently brushing the skin and wresting Johann’s attention away from his artificial limbs.

“Tout ira bien, mon chéri. Croyez-moi. Je vous soignerai.”

Johann shut his eyes, wondering how that worked when one was basically a copper lens. It did shut, though, when he told it to. In fact, all the clockwork parts seemed to respond to his most casual thought. His, not the Frenchman’s. The question was, would it remain that way?

Would he care, if it meant this man would continue to be so kind to him?

“I don’t know what you’re saying or what you’ve done to me, but…” He leaned helplessly into the man. “Please…don’t stop talking. Or touching me.”

With a soft French coo, the man prattled on, his tone even gentler and sweeter now. “Je m’appelle Cornelius. Quel est votre nom?”

Name, Johann’s rusty brain offered up in translation. He wants to know your name.“Johann Berger. Of the Austrian Army’s 51st regiment.”

A shiver ran down his skin as the man—Cornelius—threaded fingers into Johann’s hair. Johann decided he liked it, but it was strange. His mother always said the French had odd ways. He hadn’t realized they were such touchy ways.

Probably he’d have run away to France when he’d first deserted the army, if he’d known.

“Bienvenue, Johann Berger. Sur mon honneur, je jure que je vous protégerai.”

Johann felt a kiss on his hairline, and he curled his mechanical hand instinctively at the touch.

As he lay in the embrace of the Frenchman, Johann recalled his mother. Her gentle hands on his face, her tears as she said goodbye. They’d both known it would be the last time they saw one another. Johann wondered if she had put him out of her heart the way he’d sealed off her and the rest of his family, his life in Stallenwald. It hurt too much to remember a time when life had been good.

In the Frenchman’s arms, Johann broke the seal. He let himself feel the ache of loss, let himself acknowledge how much he missed love and light in his life. A sense of purpose that wasn’t futile. A future filled with hope, not despair. It was a fever, no doubt, that let him turn the incomprehensible French coos into something to latch on to. He had no idea to what purpose this man meant to assign him now that he was a clockwork man, but in that moment he didn’t care. However it happened, whether or not it was real, right now he felt safe and peaceful.

He’d been a son, a soldier, a pirate, a human sacrifice. If it meant he could keep feeling like this, he’d be whatever the Frenchman wanted him to be.

The Gladiator's Master by Fae Sutherland & Marguerite Labbe
It had been a month since his uncle had died without warning. Privately, Caelius was of the opinion that Craxus had choked on his own bile. With his death came a whole new host of decisions. Caelius hadn't wanted a new villa, especially one that needed so much work, but it did have a ludus and he took that as a sign from the gods.

Of course, the ludus was far from the glorious ones he had seen at other estates. What remained to be seen was how much work it would take to make it and the fighters ready for a grand show. He did not care for the games. Many powerful Romans did, however, and if he wanted to further his political career, what better way than to become a patron of their favorite pastime?

"Felix." Caelius turned to his personal scribe and lowered his voice. "Spare no expense on the renovations. I want no problems later that we could have anticipated now."

"I will see to it myself, Dominus. It doesn't appear as if much has been done before our arrival," Felix murmured for Caelius's ears alone. "I examined the ludus as the men gathered in the courtyard."

"I wish to see for myself before I make any decisions."

He, his scribe and a retinue of guards strode from the villa down to the short tunnel that led to the training courtyard. A strong, high wall extended from the southern edge of the villa, securing both the courtyard and the gladiator quarters. He'd viewed the courtyard from his balcony, had seen a few of the men on occasion, but his first few days here had been filled with tasks requiring his attention and this was his first opportunity to see the ludus up close. At least his wife had chosen to stay at their other villa in Caere until this one was made more comfortable. One less headache to manage.

He passed the men, who huddled together as they sat on the training ground. Some glanced at him with suspicion, others stared with empty expressions. A few hung their heads. He pressed his lips together, torn between anger and regret.

Caelius frowned as they entered the emptied gladiator quarters. The stench alone was overpowering. "Have these cells cleansed from top to bottom. One shouldn't keep animals in places such as this, much less fighting men who bring coin and renown."

"Yes, Dominus." Felix looked at the small cells. "They will need new bedding and blankets. The others are rat-chewed."

"There are rats?" Caelius turned to his uncle's overseer, Priscus. "Why wasn't I told of this?"

"A ludus will have rats, Dominus. It is simply the way it is," the man said with an oily tone.

"Ridiculous. Procure a few cats, good mousers, for down here and several more for the villa." If rats were in one place, it should stand to reason that they would appear in his new home, as well.

They moved on to the equipment room, which was in a similar shameful state. What was the purpose of owning gladiators who stood not a chance of winning?

"This place will need to be expanded. I want a bath installed for them as well. We can destroy the kitchen, but keep the dining area. Food and drink can be brought from the villa. That should help with the rats." Though Caelius couldn't see any sign of the food and water he had ordered weeks ago before leaving home. "I wish to see the men now."

Priscus wrung his hands as he led Caelius out to where the men had lined up to wait. They were an even more miserable-looking bunch up close, ill-fed with the pinched expressions and hollowed eyes of men who had lost muscle and weight. No doubt thanks to his uncle and his coin-pinching ways. Why feed slaves three times a day when he could feed them once and drink away what he saved?

Will and the Valentine Saint by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon
Hugh had practiced the speech aloud at home until he knew “the script,” as Andrews called it, by heart. But this was the first time Andrews had asked him to deliver the address.

“Stand before me as you will when facing your audience,” he said when Hugh tried to get away with speaking from behind his desk. “In the center of the room. Back and shoulders straight. Mind clear of anything outside of your message. Deep breaths before you speak. You know what you need to do.”

Of course he did. Hugh had once been to a specialist who’d taught him techniques similar to the things Andrews suggested. So why did he instantly turn into a cringing, self-doubting child when called upon to speak before an audience—even an audience of one? He could almost feel his throat closing up, his mind going blank, his tongue preparing to stumble over the words as he faced his secretary. Will’s hazel eyes staring so directly at him made his heart stutter.

Hugh inhaled and began. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.” He paused before going on. “The Society of Legal Counsel for the Needy deeply appreciates your p-presence at our dinner tonight. We hope you enjoy the meal and the…entertainment provided.”

He hurried into the explanation of the firm’s good works. By the time he described a sample case to illustrate those good works, he was stammering over letters and pausing at inappropriate spots.

Andrews patted his palms against the air, gesturing for him to slow the rush of words. Hugh took a breath, but his mouth was a runaway horse over which his brain couldn’t resume control. He could scarcely breathe. He thought he might pass out. And the more he worried he might, the shorter his breath became. The words he struggled to recall had lost all meaning to him.

He was hardly aware when Andrews rose from the chair he’d placed in front of Hugh and approached him. Between one heartbeat and the next, he was suddenly just there, right beside Hugh. He put a hand on his back as he murmured, “Steady on. Stop speaking.” Then placed the other on Hugh’s waistcoat. “Inhale deeply, filling your diaphragm. Picture a point of light in the center of your forehead. Exhale and continue to focus on that point. Shut out every other thought. Don’t see the room around you, only the light.”

His calm voice and warm hand on Hugh’s abdomen and back were anchors. And the point of light he envisioned was a beacon, a lighthouse bringing him out of turbulence. The panic receded. Hugh could breathe again. 

After Hugh had got himself under control, Andrews continued. “Now you can focus on the speech again. Don’t look at the eyes of the audience if they distract you. Look above their heads. Picture that single point of light and speak directly to it. Recall the reason you speak, on behalf of men like Keller the tailor or Mrs. O’Gill and her brood evicted from their flat. This is not about you.”

The pressure of one palm left Hugh’s stomach, and a warm print was left behind between his shoulder blades. But the other man didn’t step away. He placed his palm on Hugh’s throat above his shirt collar. “These muscles need to relax. Loosen your throat and stop trying to squeeze the words through a tiny tube. Let them roll out of you, nice and easy.”

Nice and easy? How could he relax when Andrews’s hand was lightly massaging his neck? Hugh stood frozen by the unexpected touch. He’d never in his life felt anything as intimate as that caressing hand. He wanted William—how could he think of him as Andrews now?—to touch him everywhere. That was all he could think about.

But apparently his brain still remembered the speech he’d repeated over and over to himself in the privacy of his bedchamber, for it began to flow out of him—smooth and easy, just as William had said.

His voice didn’t falter or shake or sound pinched and tight. Hugh turned his head slightly to look into the other man’s face as he finished, “And so, honored guests, I welcome you tonight and pray you will give generously to support our worthy cause. Allow me to introduce our master of ceremonies, who will now…tell you…more of our hopes for the future.”

He stopped speaking but continued to stare into bright hazel eyes. His entire body was warm and relaxed and yet not relaxed, for he felt like a violin tuned too tight. William’s slow, beautiful smile was a bow sliding against his strings.

“Well done, sir. How did it feel?”

“It felt…” Hugh hesitated, but not in a stammer. He simply couldn’t find words to encompass the feelings roiling through him, the strong yearning to lean just a little closer to Will, who stood so nearby, and let his lips touch someone’s for the first time in his life. “It felt…very good.”

His voice grew so rough, it sounded as if a different man had spoken.

William’s eyes widened, the pupils dilated so those hazel irises nearly disappeared as he held on to Hugh’s gaze. The hand still resting on Hugh’s neck moved in a long slow caress all the way from jaw to starched shirt collar.

Hugh inhaled a trembling breath. William swallowed hard. Something enormous shifted and stirred and filled the space between and around them. William leaned closer. 

“William,” he murmured.

“I’m Will,” his assistant whispered. Neither of them moved. It was going to happen. Hugh’s eyelids closed and his lips parted.

Something warm and soft brushed his mouth. He opened his eyes and stared into William’s face. He should have said something or moved, but he could no more move than speak. 

William blinked and pulled away enough that Hugh could see his cheeks reddening. Will’s hand abruptly dropped, and he stepped back. He cleared his throat. “Well, sir, if you don’t mind. I’ll leave now. I’ve more details of menu and décor to attend to. I must check with a florist and…” He didn’t bother finishing the thought before fleeing from the office.

After the door closed behind him, Hugh groaned. Embarrassment, disappointment, humiliation, aching loss, and desire stormed through him. He’d never been so close to…to something, to whatever might have happened next, to the possibility of touching another human being, to the delight of having Will Andrews in his embrace. He felt as if a door had slammed shut and he’d been standing close enough that it smashed him in the face. 

Under the Rushes by Amy Lane
THE boy should not have been there.

Dorjan almost stopped short, but the phalanx behind him was wearing steam-enhanced walking armor, and the subsequent crash-up and bottleneck would literally cripple the army. Still, the boy was not supposed to be there.

Dorjan was nineteen. He’d enlisted two years earlier, because the age of consent was sixteen, and he’d wanted to finish his university studies before he joined to serve his province. He was young, brilliant, and well trained. He’d also practiced for hours while using the steam-enhanced walking armor, and he had a few tricks the commanding officers were not aware of.

Fluidly, using some well-honed muscles he was justly proud of, he stepped sideways, taking all of the forward inertia of the steam system to propel both his armor and his body and redirect it. After two smooth steps, he disconnected the main copper tube tugging at the back of his neck, sending the steam into the frosty autumn evening. His armor suddenly drooped around him, pulling him down like weights in a quagmire. Of course, part of that might have had to do with the spongy ground and the tricky bits of gravity that rolled through the Karanos province.

The gravity was, in fact, one of the reasons Dorjan’s government, the Forum of Biemansland, had refused to quell this threat of usurpation until the steam armor was perfected. Dorjan’s friend Areau had participated in that development—in the development of most of the army’s new technology—and was justly proud of his creation.

The gravity was behaving at the moment, and that was good, because the steam armor without the steam weighed a bloody ton… but still.

The boy was not supposed to be there.

He was young—nine at the most—and Dorjan wouldn’t have noticed him, except his hair was blacker than sin-stained pitch, and he was hiding in some rushes that had gone brown with the chill of the season. The off color had caught Dorjan’s attention first, but as they’d made to pass, he’d seen the eyes—almost that same black, he thought, but then they glinted midnight blue.

And that was when Dorjan broke formation.

He squatted down next to the rushes and looked curiously into them. The boy had reached that age where his arms and legs were too long in proportion to his body, and his hands and feet were even longer still. But in spite of that protuberance of limbs and predominance of elbows and knees, he seemed small for his age, and quick, and the look he cast Dorjan was unfriendly and cautious but not frightened.

“What’re you doing here, boy?” Dorjan asked before he grimaced and lifted his visor so the boy could see his face. Bimuit, what a disaster. “There were to be no people here. We’re destroying a building, that is all.”

The boy’s eyes grew huge. “A building? The only building is mine!”

Dorjan frowned and tried to speak nine-year-old boy. “Yours—you mean you have a hut around here?”

The boy’s mouth pulled up in a sneer, and too late Dorjan recognized the fineness of his clothes: small-weave linen with leather patches at the elbows, and boots that were supple and had two buckles on the sides. “A hut? I’m not a bloody peasant, you prat bastard! You’re heading for Kiamath Keep—I live there. That’s the only place this road leads!”


Dorjan swore to himself and looked up at his lokogos. “Yes, Lokogos Dre!”

“What are you doing out of ranks? Your battalion has gone on without you!”

Dorjan frowned at the man and gestured to the boy. “He says we’re not heading to a weapon stockpile,” he told the man, feeling lost. The stratego had been most clear—Dorjan had been in the room when he’d briefed Dorjan’s superiors. He’d said they were eliminating a weapons stockpile and that there should be no civilian casualties. It would be a righteous victory, Stratego Alum Septra had proclaimed, one they could be proud of.

It was, Dorjan knew, the only reason Areau had agreed to work so many sleepless nights on the armor. He wanted peace. Hell, all of the citizen soldiers wanted peace. It was the banner under which they’d enlisted. As young as he’d been, Dorjan had plowed through his studies like he was being ridden by a steam-powered nisket so he could enlist in the damned army and fight for peace.

The lokogos swung down off his mechanized cricket and flat-handed the spot right behind the creature’s ear. “Not a stockpile?”

To his credit, he sounded stunned.

“That’s my home!” the boy shouted, and Dorjan was right—he wasn’t stupid. “You’re taking all these scary people to my home? And the company that went before?”

Dorjan blinked at him, the full horror of the situation descending. His company was supposed to ride cleanup. Areau was probably approaching the compound now with the stratego, the better to simply destroy the place so Dorjan’s company could put out the fire and keep destruction to the surrounding marshland to a minimum.

“Lokogos!” Dorjan said, suddenly fearing.

“Connect your armor,” the lokogos muttered. “Connect it. Now. Get on the cricket—I said get on!”

Dorjan looked at the boy. “Boy,” he muttered numbly, “stay here.” He looked at the lokogos, who nodded. “Stay hidden. I’m going to try and stop a disaster, you hear me?”

The boy’s face had frozen, and for the first time, Dorjan saw fear. “My mum?” he said, sounding shocked. “My da? My wee baby sisters—there’s three of them! You monsters wouldn’t hurt the wee babies, would you?”

Dorjan didn’t know how to answer that. Two minutes ago he would have said no, but now? They’d been told no casualties. They’d been told a bloodless exercise—a warning shot. How could this intelligence they’d been given be so wrong?

He reconnected the steam pipe at the back of his neck and threw his leg over the cricket. He lifted his arse just so, plopped his bottom down, and felt the steam jack of the cricket fit into the port in the armor, and suddenly the generator that made the armor so heavy was now powering them both.

“Hide, boy,” he shouted and pointed the cricket toward the south, where Areau’s regiment had been heading. He rubbed his hands flat down the back of the cricket’s head. The legs—useful for hopping among the burdocks of weeds in the swamp—suddenly folded behind the cricket’s metal body, and the big rubber-gum covered wheels descended and began to whirr.

The lokogos shouted through his amplifier for the entire battalion to adjust right, and a corridor opened down the road on the left. Dorjan closed his eyes, said a prayer, and thumped twice on the cricket’s head to ride at full speed ahead.

It was a nightmarish ride, made worse by the cricket’s speed and its tendency to leap whenever an obstacle appeared. If Dorjan hadn’t been jacked into the generator port, he would have been thrown, and sometimes, in his worst moments afterward, he wished he had been. But that night, hurtling across the dirt road and through space, he still believed in honor and that this entire debacle was just an honest mistake.

The cricket arrived at Kiamath Keep after a particularly hairy bound. Dorjan actually had to close his eyes at the sight of battalion after battalion marching upon what he could see clearly from this vantage point was exactly what the boy had said: a compound, a simple keep, much like the one Dorjan had been brought up in. It wasn’t an armory, it was a country town house designed to cater to the farmers who were supported by the landholders, who did their duty in the Forums and Triaris of town.

It was a large farm with perhaps ten to twenty families. From the cricket’s terrible height, Dorjan had seen the people huddled against the walls of the compound, the better for the metal arrows of the infantry to miss them. He looked down at the beginning of the cricket’s descent and quickly surveyed the chaos of the night. It was war, filled with the magnesium flares of soldiers preparing to launch munitions, the shouts of the techs performing maintenance on their armor, and the scream of metal and gears as the machines of war defied inertia and began the slow hurtle to murderous momentum. Dorjan landed directly in front of the other crickets in the battalion, pretty sure of what he’d find: the three lokogos as well as Stratego Alum Septra, the man who had brought wars to the borders of Biemansland.

“Stop!” Dorjan screamed, ripping off his visor so they could see not just the insignia of lokargo on his uniform but the human behind it, and the commanding officers all stopped in what looked to be a last-minute conference and stared at the boy wearing lokargo insignia and riding a lokogos’s cricket.

“Boy, you’d better have some explanation as for what in the hell—”

“It’s not a munitions warehouse!” Dorjan cried, gesturing to the castle walls, especially the fortifications with very worried-looking people on the ramparts. “Aren’t you people looking? I could see it myself from the cricket—it’s a keep! There are women and children in there!”

Dorjan would remember that moment. The three lokogos, they looked surprised and skeptical, their faces frozen in the glare and flicker of the magnesium torches and the arc-welding that was going on in the chaos of setting up for battle.

But Stratego Alum Septra? Dorjan saw his face, saw the way his mouth quirked up at the corners, saw the calculation in his eyes.

“You know!” Dorjan shouted, and Alum drew twenty years as stratego and counselor around his shoulders and lied.

“I know nothing of the sort, and I don’t believe you either.”

The three lokogos all jerked back, stunned, because now they were fucked. They could either believe the raw young lokargo or they could believe their stratego. What were they to do?

“Who gave you permission to ride a cricket?” the youngest lokogos demanded. Even Dorjan could tell he was dodging the point.

“My lokogos!” Dorjan snapped. “Even he felt this was important information!”

“Who told you this?” the stratego asked. “Why would you break formation, Lokargo, to learn intelligence that is obviously above your pay grade?”

Dorjan’s jaw hardened. “A child,” he said, making sure his eyes never left Septra’s. “A child who was afraid we were going to slaughter his family, because his family occupied the only dwelling within walking distance of the damned army! Now are you people too damned lazy to even get on your lousy crickets and look? Or are you so sure of your souls that you’ll risk demolishing innocent people for politics?”

The lokogos looked at each other uneasily, and for a moment Dorjan thought he might actually have their attention. And that’s when he saw Stratego Alum Septra push a button on the side of his cricket while the lokogos were all looking at each other in confusion. Suddenly the chaos of the battlefield was silenced as a single massive flare launched up in the eerie quiet. It was burning so brightly that its shallow arc—designed to descend a mere half klick away—could hardly be seen.

Dorjan gazed at Alum Septra in horror, seeing him for the first time. A handsome man with a long jaw and silver hair pulled back into a smooth queue, he wore his dress uniform trappings over his armor for what was supposed to be nothing more than a training exercise.

He looked, Dorjan thought in shock, like a man dressed for the copper glyph that would make him famous.

“Oh dear,” Septra said urbanely. “It seems that even if you’re right, you arrived a moment too la—”

Dorjan didn’t hear what else he said, because he had launched his own cricket straight up into the air, preparing the same flare Septra had launched—but preparing it to fire at the flare that was still gracefully arcing toward the innocent civilians in the compound.

“Can you do this?” he asked the cricket. The machine, which knew only what it had been programmed with, circled the probability dial slowly, even as they hovered in the air.

Dorjan looked at the dial and swallowed: 15 percent probability.

“Then do it,” he muttered and pushed the same panel Septra had.

The magnesium bomb traveled a lot faster and a lot straighter than Septra’s, and it connected, but not solidly, sending both projectiles spinning wildly into the brush beyond the castle.

There was an explosion so bright he closed his eyes behind the tinted goggles of his visor and barely had time to open them again to sight the cricket’s landing plane.

By the time the cricket touched down, the fire sparked by the magnesium bombs in the dry grasses of the autumn bogland had turned the horizon a fiery bronze-blood red.

The cricket landed hard and Dorjan was tossed off, his armor disengaging and pummeling his body as he landed. Without the steam to provide a cushion and protection, he knocked about inside the metal plating like a plum in a steel box. Odds were good he’d be the same color the next day, but it didn’t matter. He was running on adrenaline now, and he’d actually pulled himself up off the ground and was looking wildly around before the golden-haired god of his childhood intruded on his tinted vision.

“Bimuit and Karanos!” Areau thunked a wide-palmed hand on Dorjan’s shoulder and was hauling him around—probably to tackle him and pummel him some more, knowing Areau’s temper.

Dorjan yanked off his visor and goggles before he could try, and fought for breath. “People!” he gasped. “There are people in the keep!”

Areau stopped with his fist hauled back behind his ear and became a focused beam of stillness in the mayhem of the night. “People?”

“It’s a keep, Areau! There’re families in there, probably ten or so—they’re huddled away from the safety arrows—”

Areau looked up to see the blood-bronze flare of light, and a sudden new wave of bedlam washed over the battlefield. “Bimuit! Dorjan, the fire is heading right for them!”

They locked eyes, a lifetime of understanding between them. Dorjan’s father, Kyon, ruled the keep, but Areau’s father was his right-hand man. Their keep had been one of the most productive of Biemansland until the war had forced them to strip away most of their gain in the form of taxes, and there was nothing—horses, lessons, their first girl, Dorjan’s first kiss with a boy—that the two of them had not shared in their hearts.

They shared this too, without even a word.

Dorjan vaulted to the back of the battered cricket and made sure his port was securely attached. It was difficult to get in—the port had been bent with the fall—but he wiggled in and offered Areau his hand.

“I’ll vault the children out,” he called as Areau swung his leg up over the cricket. “You get the officers near the gate to help you with the others.”

“Deal!” Areau’s arms tightened around Dorjan’s middle, and for a moment Dorjan was reminded of the helpless, useless torch he’d carried for his best friend since he’d first kissed a boy and decided they were more fun than girls. Areau had undergone no such revelation, and Dorjan closed his eyes and hoped it wasn’t the guilt, Areau’s ever-present fear that Dorjan’s disappointment would sever their two hearts that so often beat together.

The cricket bounded up into the aether and landed solidly square in the middle of the courtyard.

Oh God. They were terrified. Without knowing what he was searching for, Dorjan found three girls, their hair as black as pitch and night sky, and thought of the boy, the scrappy, arrogant kid on the side of the road. He lifted up his visor as Areau scrambled down off the cricket, and called out to them.

“There’s a magnesium fire on its way! Give me the children—I’ll lift them out. Areau will try to get the adults out through the gate. We’re sorry—we thought this place was empty. Please… please let us help you.”

The mother had the same black hair and midnight eyes in the pale face, and the father was whippet thin and brown haired, so his blue eyes were surprising. They came up together with their daughters and about half a score of other children under twelve gathered before them.

“Please,” the mother whispered. “Please—can you?”

Dorjan nodded. Areau had slid off and was herding the adults under the ramparts, where the first wave of infantry had been stationed. Dorjan could hear his voice, commanding, strong, thundering over the objections of the lokogos there, but that was not his job. He had to trust in Areau as Areau had trusted in him from the moment they’d first enrolled in the academy.

“We have a son!” the father protested as the mother shoved her girls up behind Dorjan. Dorjan pulled at leather harnesses attached to the exoskeleton of the cricket. The harnesses were hidden under the top plate of armor but could be pulled out for passengers, and the mother and father used them to secure the girls.

“Make the attachment logical!” he warned. “I need to let them off so I can come back for the rest of the children!”

The father nodded, and he seemed an able man. “About our son—”

“He’s the one who told us your keep was occupied,” Dorjan said. “When I left him, he was safe.” His mouth quirked up, because that could have been the only bright spot in what was surely career suicide even if he and Areau survived. “Angry, but safe.”

The parents nodded, and Dorjan looked behind him. “Hold tight!” he ordered tersely, hoping the girls were secure. He wasn’t sure if it was the heat from the fire or his own fractured imagination, but he was sweating inside his armor, and the fire-illumined faces of the girls seemed flushed as well. “One, two, three!”—and with that, the cricket took its biggest leap yet.

The girls didn’t scream. He checked twice in flight behind them, and they were wide-eyed and looking past the brutal wind at their surroundings. The steam armor had served his battalion well, and Dorjan saw his own men, led by the lokogos who had given him the cricket, racing down the road as if to help. He aimed for them and landed in front of his surprised lokogos before he turned to help the girls slide off the cricket in his hurry to get back.

“What in the furry asscrack of Bieman….” Lokogos Dre stopped his swearing when he realized there were children on board, and Dorjan was so grimly determined to finish out his task he didn’t even smile.

“The stratego tried to blow the place after I told him,” Dorjan snapped tersely. “I kept the mag-bomb from landing, but the whole bloody bogland is on fire. Where’s the boy?”

Dre grimaced. “Wriggled out of my grasp as soon as you took off! Said he couldn’t trust you to do the job right.”

Dorjan found he was growling, mostly because it was true. “These are his sisters. I’ll be back with more. This could end badly for us, you understand?”

Lokogos Dre nodded. “I didn’t sign on to slaughter children,” he said. “You neither, even though you are one. You get them here; I’ll keep ’em safe. Their parents?”

Dorjan looked toward the keep and shuddered. “Lokargo Areau—with munitions. He’s getting the parents out. Ready?”

“Bimuit’s luck!” the lokogos wished, and Dorjan thumped his closed fist against his chest even as he bade the cricket to jump.

His next visit to the keep, it wasn’t his imagination—the fire was moving quickly and it was moving mercilessly. He’d seen the tech battalions hosing down their own environs with flame retardant, but he wasn’t a fool. They were staying carefully beyond the keep. Alum Septra was going to let those people burn, and take credit for the kill.

Not if Dorjan could help it.

The second time at the keep, the parents must have been as frantic as Dorjan—they shoved even more children up on the cricket’s back—five this time, two of them hanging precariously over the sides. “You can hold on?” he asked, and he believed their frantic nods because he had to. Up, up, and away he bounded, giving thanks under his breath when the little ones proved good to their word. He stared at the keep and the closing flames, not even speaking to Lokogos Dre as the man unharnessed the frightened children. (They had held on, but this batch had screamed, and two of the girls, tiny and terrified, were screaming still when he lifted off again.)

He landed in the courtyard, feeling his armor heat so badly his skin blistered beneath it, and saw that the children were drooping, semiconscious, in their parents’ arms.

“Where’s Areau!” he called, wincing as one of the smallest screamed upon touching the heated metal of the stressed cricket. Without a word, the lady of the keep ripped off her nightdress and stood, fat and middle-aged and bare in the center of the courtyard, so she could swaddle the boy from the heat. Her husband was not far behind with his own sleep tunic.

“Is that all?” Dorjan called, lifting his visor so they could talk.

The adults nodded, and two people came from the shadows with lengths of wet muslin in buckets that were already beginning to steam. “Areau!” he called. “Areau! What’s your status!”

He heard a hacking and Areau stumbled from the doorway. “We’re using a blow torch to get through the gate. They won’t help us open it, the fucking gits, but they’ve promised not to kill us if we get through!” Pained voices cheered beyond the ramparts, and Areau looked up and nodded. “Go—go, Dori! I’ll be there! I swear! We’ll face the Triari together, you and I, Bimuit’s luck!”

Dorjan reached down, seized Areau’s hand, and pulled him close with their clasped hands between them. They touched foreheads and Dorjan muttered, “Bimuit’s luck!” before he straightened and bounded upward one more time.

He barely avoided the magnesium missile that had been aimed and waiting for his exit from the keep. He pulled the steering stick to the right frantically, then pounded at the two stabilizer wheels on either side of the board to keep the thing from rolling in midair. The children screamed as the magnesium seared their skin and the heat choked their lungs. His armor protected him to an extent, but the five children bound to the back of the great metal beast—

He cried out as one of them slipped off and went tumbling down, and then another. Bimuit, oh hells! Two of them, and then a third, but she didn’t even scream, and he wondered if she hadn’t been dead or unconscious before she fell.

“No!” he cried. “No! Hells, Bimuit! Hold on! Oh hold on!” The cricket hurtled downward, preparing its legs for landing, and he saw that one of them was frozen, unable to support weight. He had just enough time to scream, “Jump!” as the cricket tumbled to the ground.

The children landed painfully on the soft bogland, but he was attached to the cricket. It thudded hard, throwing him against the windscreen before rolling over him twice, the force so great he felt his bones give and his skin split. He screamed in pain, and the cries of the children answered him, so for a moment he felt relieved—at least some had survived. The cricket twitched, rolling off of him, and he screamed again. With the cricket gone, he had a clear view of the keep, and now he screamed in rage.

He saw the final magnesium bomb arc gracefully into the air and fall and hit the keep, and he was still screaming as the inferno destroyed it all.

WHEN he stood before the Triari, he stood alone.

He’d been scooped off the battlefield in fractured pieces and had spent a month in recovery. Lokogos Dre was his first visitor.

“Lokargo,” the lokogos said tentatively, “it’s good to see you’re recovering.” He looked both ways in the infirmary, but Dorjan was the only one there. He’d been removed to a special ward for military criminals, and the gauze sheets separated him from… nobody. Not even nurses and doctors, whom he saw when it was necessary, but not enough to know them as people.

“The children?” Dorjan mouthed, because he was not sure how much anybody knew. Nobody would tell him.

Dre looked left and right and removed his cap, revealing blond hair cut short but not shaved. “Smuggled to my father’s keep,” he murmured. “Before we could get to you, Septra’s personal battalion ran in, calling you a war criminal and saying you were responsible for the deaths of our men.” Dre glared about him again. “This is the only military hospital anywhere near the Biemansland-Karanos border, and Bimuit, boy, I swear the only other person besides you is a boy with diarrhea. It’s a ruse, sure enough, to explain why we were trying to take out that keep.”

“Why were we trying to take out that keep?” Dorjan asked before the one thing he really wanted answered superseded the strategy of the people falsely accusing him. “And where the hell is Areau?”

He saw the tentative look of sorrow on Dre’s face and knew his heart was about to fail.

“He’s not—”

“No!” Dre muttered, and again, that fearful look about the place. “He suffered wounds—he was trying to drag the last of the people out when the mag-bomb hit. I heard him screaming as they carried him away, but he was still alive. As far as I know, they’ve taken him into the asylum in Thenis.”

Dorjan tried to scowl through the pounding in his head. “Thenis? Bimuit! Why there? That place is… it’s bedlam! Are they healing him, if he was hurt? Why would they shove him in that place?” His whole body ached and his soul most of all, but this… oh, God, Areau, who had followed him out of the same sense of duty Dorjan had been instilled with. “Why? Why would they shove him there?”

Dre leaned closer. “Don’t you see? They don’t think he has people—they think you’re it. Now see, I’ve been to your father’s hold. I know how it works there. You all have the mines, and the niskets, and that alone is a bond there, and you share that with the miners and the farmers and everybody. Areau’s yours, like kin, and I’ve sent word to your father, so he’s probably working on it, but he’s working on it legal.”

Dorjan remembered Lokogos Dre, back when the man was a young lokargo, seeking shelter at his parents’ keep on his way to his own keep, which was even farther out from Thenis, the principal city. “Why is that wrong?” he asked, and Dre’s look of pity would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Don’t you see? What they were doing? That wasn’t legal. Septra got found out—he’s not going to be happy, and he’s going to pin it on you and on your friend there, and on me—”

“No.” Dorjan looked at him and shook his head, his heart pattering against his ribs. “We can’t allow them to pin it on you, Dre. We’ll lie first to keep you there. We need an honest man in the army. Did this… this hieterfuck do it for Septra? Was he promoted to Triari?”

“No—which probably steamed him right through his armor plates, if you ask me. He had a reporter with a copper glyph and a wax mold for his phonograph, all ready to make a talking head for his announcement. He’s putting it about that two young cadets committed treason on his watch—which sends your credibility into the privy, but it’s not looking so great for him either. He’s not Triari, not yet. In fact, I think it put him down on the list. The other rumor is that he led us into an ambush, and there’s even another, that’s the truth, that has civilians in that keep.” Dre had pulled up a chair, his crisp brown uniform practically bending like pasteboard as he sat. He had gold braid at his shoulders, but he was, as far as Dorjan could tell, missing some of an officer’s treasured pins at his breast. No, Dre had not done well by this, but he hadn’t complained of it either.

Dorjan nodded. “We need you,” he said quietly, his brain churning steadily ahead. When Areau had been working on the steam armor with the other military alchemists, Dorjan had told him once that he wished someone could connect a steam pipe to his brain so it could move in those lovely, fitful leaps and bounds, like the soldiers in their armor and the transpo crickets. Areau had laughed and cuffed him in the ear. Your brain works fine and solid as it is. No leaping about for Dori’s brain—need to keep it on the true way and have it steamroll any shite that lies in the path before it. “We need you,” he repeated, his thoughts finding their purchase in the uneven ground of maybe.

“For what?” Dre asked, but he asked it eagerly.

Dorjan wished his head would stop pounding, and the breaks in both arms and legs and his ribs and his chest, but he began to form a plan around the pain. “We need to stop him,” Dorjan said. “If he’s not losing his commission for this, sooner or later, he will be the Triari—that must be it! The power, the money—”

“The way out of harm’s way,” Dre grumbled, and Dorjan remembered the man’s cowardly act of launching the mag-bomb.

“That too,” he agreed. “So he wants on the Triari, and we need to stop him, and to do that, we need information.”

Dre nodded. “So what’s your plan?”

Dorjan sighed. “Well, I’ll tell them I rescued the children and gave them to a soldier—a deserter. If you can fabricate a name for me, that would help. But I’ll sell them that pile of slop and tell them I stole your cricket—”

“Didn’t you already tell them I gave it to you?” Dre asked, upset, and Dorjan barely managed to tilt his bandaged head sideways.

“Do you think they’ll gainsay me?” he asked crossly. “If they try it, they’ll have to admit I told them civilians were in the keep, and at the moment, I think they’re trying to ignore that part altogether. So I saved the children, gave them to someone untrustworthy, and I have no idea where they are. I knocked you cold after we found the boy—what happened to the boy?”

Dre snorted. “I told you—he ran off. I’ve had soldiers looking for him too, but no luck. Not in Karanos, not in Biemansland—I don’t know if he’d manage to make it to any of the other provinces. He was only a wee boy.”

Dorjan remembered the boy’s assurance, his pride, and would have shrugged if his wounds had let him. “I’ll have to believe he made it,” he said, not wanting to think about the three of the five children who hadn’t made that last trip on the cricket. “I have to.” And it was nothing less than the truth.

“So we save your job, and then my father and I, we’ll have to find out where Areau is, and get him back and—”

They both stopped. They heard footsteps coming, purposeful and impersonal. A doctor, shrouded in white, with a white cloth helmet and white cloth mask, peered around the corner. “Your time is up, Lokogos. The… lokargo is resting.” The man’s contempt was unmistakable.

Dre stood up and leaned forward. “We’ll find your friend, boy. You save my job, I’ll make myself useful, worry not.” With that, he turned to the contemptuous doctor. “That boy has saved more people in one act than you have in your entire life, you quack—you treat him right or I’ll have you transferred to the Thenis asylum, you hear me?”

And with that, Dre was gone, and Dorjan was left to wonder how long until someone who could help him write a letter would visit.

A MONTH later he stood in his basic lokargo’s uniform—pressed brown pants, burnt-umber jacket, silver braid at the shoulders, and a hexagonal cap with a stiff brim—and gave testimony to the three governing Triari of the Biemansland province.

To say it was a travesty of justice was to say mag-bombs burned hot.

The three Triari were elected from the rulers of the individual keeps, and occasionally from someone who had distinguished him or herself in the military. In this case there were two men and a woman, all landowners, in their late middle age, who all wore the traditional togas (the woman deferred to the late fall by wearing a white sweater beneath hers) and crowns of oak. All three surveyed Dorjan dispassionately as he stood, with aid of a cane, and answered their questions without pause, without a chair, and without even a glass of water offered as a courtesy.

His father would say later that he’d never been prouder of Dorjan than on the day he destroyed his life.

“So, Dorjan, son of Kyon, what do you have to say for yourself?”

It felt like the sixth time (his father said it was the twelfth) that the question had been asked.

“There were civilians in the keep—”

“That’s never been verified.”

“Nobody wanted to verify it,” Dorjan snapped bitterly. “And you’ve successfully buried the other lokargo who would have.” He was aching and exhausted and tired of courtesy and worried for Areau. They had located him—and Dorjan’s father had smuggled an honest-to-aether healer into the ward to make sure he didn’t die of infection (or a lead pipe to the head)—but so far they hadn’t been able to smuggle him out.

The healer said Areau needed to come out. His wounds had healed, but they’d been mishandled and had scarred terribly. The healer danced around Areau’s state of mind, but Dorjan knew—without even seeing him again—that the playful, brilliant friend of his boyhood was never going to smile into Dorjan’s eyes again.

“We are aware of Lokargo Areau’s difficulties,” the woman said, and she lowered her voice gently. “We understand that the disaster that killed so many of your men had a terrible effect on his mental health.”

“None of our men died,” Dorjan responded crossly. “I don’t know where they’ve been reassigned, but before my cricket crashed, they’d effectively sprayed the fire-retardant bubble. Those battalions were going to be fine! But the civilians in the keep—they were going to die!”

“Are you saying the stratego and three lokogos all lied about the casualties of Kiamath Keep?”

“I’m saying I landed that cricket, told them there were civilians in the keep, and the stratego fired a magnesium charge at the keep without even resolving the issue!”

There was a breathless silence because this had not been part of the questioning.

“That’s impossible,” the oldest Triari stated. “If that charge had gone off, there wouldn’t have been any children to rescue!”

“I shot the charge out of the air, Triari—how do you think the fire started?”

That airless, motionless void again, and then the youngest Triari—the other man—cried out in amazement. “That’s impossible!”

There was a murmur in the Council Forum, and Dorjan’s face heated. “The cricket set the probability at 15 percent,” he mumbled.

That silence grew weighted and unhappy, and he looked up into the faces of the Triari and saw three people caught in a sudden agonizing conundrum.

“Why would he do that?” the youngest Triari mumbled. “Why would he fire on an occupied keep?”

The other two looked at him, and the oldest spoke next, his jaw hardening—but not with resolve. As Dorjan grew in wisdom and politics, he recognized that look more and more. He was a man who feared something he believed was too big for his own comprehension.

“He wouldn’t,” the man said, and even though his voice lacked conviction, the other two nodded in agreement.

Dorjan let out a wordless bark of a laugh, and the three Triari were suddenly a united front.

“Is there anything funny about this, young man?”

Dorjan shook his head and let the fury shake in his voice. “There is nothing funny about people who fear the truth so badly that they paint a thin lie on a flame bubble and pretend it’s a steel wall.”

He watched their mouths open and close in shock and indignation, and suddenly the only thing he could hear was a burbling, hearty laughter. The laugher was joined by another, and another, and when Dorjan looked up, his father was wiping tears from his eyes and the battalion of men Dorjan had led—who had not been allowed to testify, not even Lokogos Dre, who had sent him missives all week saying that he would come out and tell the truth, planning be damned—were all barking bitter, angry laughter at the Triari.

The lead Triari smashed his gavel on the marble stone several times, demanding order, and finally he snapped, “Bimuit’s balls, Kyon, what in the name of steel and stone are you laughing at?”

Dorjan’s father sobered abruptly. “You, Archon! You’re going to rob my boy of his commission and his good name on pretense, and the whole Forum—the entire lot of us—saw when you realized it was a lie. I’m laughing because you’ll carry it through out of false pride. I’m laughing because when this country is plunged into warfare and ruin in ten years, only the people in this room will know you could have saved us.”

The Triari blushed. “You do not own so much land that we can’t remove you from council,” he thundered.

Kyon stood. “Try it,” he said softly, “and see how fat your coffers grow without your sulfur and your bronze and your lumium and coal all mined from a rolling gravity rock tethered in the aether. My blood and I know the secrets to the asteroid mines, and nobody in this room will get it from us. I dare you to remove us and see how bloated your precious state grows when you’re deprived of our resources. If you don’t have the stones for that, I suggest you make sure me and mine always have a seat.” Kyon bowed low and deeply. “I’m sorry, my son. I will not watch you be tortured at the whim of fools. I’m going to go do something about the one thing that causes you the most pain. Your men will bear you to the town house—I have a rabbit ready.”

Kyon bowed again, and Dorjan took several deep breaths and battled the heat behind his eyes. His father loved him—of that there had never been in doubt, not when he’d been found in the pantry kissing Areau’s cousin and not when he’d joined the military. There had been some surprise on both occasions, some fear for him in his chosen path, but no disgust and no ultimatums. His father had said it was a good thing he had Dorjan’s older sister to keep up the niskety blood, and, in the case of the kissing, had looked meaningfully at Areau’s cousin and told him he might need to come by another day. After that, he and Dorjan had spent a quiet afternoon baking pies of all things. Pie was, after all, why his father had come to the pantry in the first place. Eventually the pie had been eaten, and his father had talked gently of politics and of things Dorjan must not reveal except to a chosen few.

“Like Areau?” Dorjan had asked anxiously.

Kyon had nodded and wiped more flour across his broad-cheeked, perspiring face. Dorjan had his father’s bull chest, square jaw, and almond-shaped brown eyes but his mother’s narrow cheekbones and small, even nose—this combination was pleasing, he had realized early, even to young men. His father, too, was handsome, and although he was broad and heavy with age, Dorjan had always thought of him as vital. The laugh in the Forum had been like him, and the blunt speech had too.

His allusion to getting Areau out of the asylum was as subtle as he got, and Dorjan was grateful. He had felt the power of his father’s support, and now he could do without it. As long as Areau could come home.

AREAU did not come home that night. The men of Dorjan’s battalion helped him into the rabbit when the Triari were done with him, and one climbed inside with him. The interior of the mechanical palanquin was fitted with cushions and a nice supportive chair, all in dark navy and tan, and it enclosed the two of them in a comforting, gauze-covered shell. There was barely a quiver to the palanquin as the rabbit lowered its mechanical back legs to the ground, and the two in-line rubber wheels, much like the cricket’s, made contact with the rail. Dorjan allowed his junior officer to key in their destination. The Triari had done pretty much what his father had predicted, and he was weary beyond words.

He fell asleep as the rabbit bore him to his family’s Thenis town house, and was not aware of the chair folding out to a couch and lowering into a bank of pillows. He awoke when his father entered the rabbit with a steaming bowl of sweetened grain mixed with fruit, and rolled him gently awake.

“Dori—Dori, son, I need you to wake up.”

Dorjan rolled over and groaned, cursing the damned bones and joints, which were still sore after a month. He’d visited the niskets briefly after his stay in the hospital, but he certainly couldn’t bring them from Kyon’s Gate to the city. The tiny, secret beings were exceptional healers, even if sometimes their idea of healing was harrying a body out of bed before said body felt truly rested. At least when they did that, they flickered and buzzed around the offending muscles and rubbed the stiffness out. This was just his father with breakfast, and most likely unwelcome news as well.

“What do we have to do?” he asked, startling fully awake and taking the sweet-grain because he was soldier enough to know his body needed fuel.

Kyon’s jaw was set grimly, and he shook his head. “Something’s happening with Areau—either tonight or tomorrow. They’re moving him, doing some sort of radical treatment on him—something. Did I miss anything yesterday?”

“They kicked me out of the military,” Dorjan said brightly, even though it had stung at that moment and ached now like an amputated limb. He had wanted to serve people. He’d been born to position, but his father never let him forget he needed to honor that. That’s why he’d gone into the military when the government had talked about the threat from the west. After the derision of his peers over his father’s refusal to overmine the asteroids, he had wanted to serve. Now it felt as though the privilege had been cut from his future like a leg with a festering wound.

“But…,” Kyon said, and Dorjan had to remind himself that his father was, had always been, smarter. Not just smarter than Dorjan but smarter than the politicians, smarter than the businessmen—just smarter. He was a good man—a jovial man—but very often he stated the truth of things when the less astute preferred not to see it. As Dorjan grew older, he realized his father made enemies because of that. The floundering, the incompetent, the entitled—a man like his father, a fat, jolly man who had gotten his hands dirty in his own mines, was beneath them.

How dare he know more about the world?

“But what?” Dorjan asked carefully.

“Did they take you out of the succession, boy?”

Dorjan’s eyes widened. “No! No. Why would they?” Dorjan wouldn’t be the first disgraced landowner’s son to inherit his legacy regardless.

Kyon nodded thoughtfully. “Because they think they can use Areau to control you. They know you want him, and they want you to dance to their tune. But they can’t keep him there without a reason. It’s… it’s a bad moment for your friend, Dori, make no mistake.”

Dorjan shoveled a spoonful of fuel into his mouth and swallowed. “Fine, Da. What do we need to do?”

THEY wore white robes with the cloth helmet that covered the face, and snuck in through the back, where some of the staff would sit outside, smoke their chinkly pipes, and relax during shifts. Not a soul watched or cared as Dorjan, his father, and the mercenary physician they’d hired strode in through the kitchen while meal preparation was in full swing.

Of course, if they were working half as hard at keeping their gullets from rising in their throats as Dorjan had to, they wouldn’t have much left in them to notice. Feaugh! What a stench! Dorjan thought of Areau, locked in here for the last month, eating the slop he saw prepared in the kitchen, and wanted to cry. Unfortunately the kitchen wasn’t the worst part.

Rats, cockroaches—yes, and the cockroaches were bigger than niskets, that was the truth—but as they walked the bare concrete floors in rooms with painted steel walls, those weren’t the worst of the asylum, not by a long shot.

The worst part was the inmates—women laughing hysterically, banging on the bars of square metal cages, or men whimpering in corners, systematically plucking the hairs from their heads one by one. There was screaming and sobbing and the stink of urine left to corrode through the floor of a cast-iron platform, and walls painted and scrubbed a blinding antiseptic white, with no other color anywhere except the blood the inmates had shed to decorate on their own.

Oh Areau—how could you exist in this terrible place!

They found Areau in the infirmary, strapped down to the table with cast-iron restraints and chains. He thrashed about and moaned when they first walked in. Dorjan ripped off his cloth helmet and bent down before his friend, lowered his face to Areau’s, and stroked back his wild, sweat-stained yellow hair.

“You’ll be fine,” he murmured, but he had to work hard not to howl. Oh, Areau… what had they done…

Or not done, as the case was. Areau had been burned in the battle, but his wounds—oh, Bimuit! A week with the niskets at Kyon’s Gate and they would have had him cleaned up with minimal scarring, but here…

They were festering, blistering, with the lack of care.

“What in core’s depth have you been doing!” he snarled at the physician, who was currently applying balm to the oozing chafes on Areau’s wrists. Areau’s grimace was twisting, almost orgasmic, at the pressure to the bloody sores. “How can you call yourself a healer if he looks like this!”

“It wasn’t my fault!” The physician was a slight older man, with a fringe of white hair and a small, bitter face. “I came in and tended to his wounds, and the next day, all my work was undone and the… the filth they’d rub into them….” He shuddered, and Dorjan glared at him.

“Tend to them now,” he muttered and sank back down to Areau, putting his face close so Areau would see him through the pain.

“We’ll care for you, Ari. We’ll take care of you. We’ll fix this.”

“You came,” Areau breathed out. “You came for me. They told me you’d forget about me, that you didn’t care.”

Dorjan shuddered and pulled the neck of his white cocoon open to the navel so Areau could see, see the stitches from the operations where even the niskets wouldn’t have been able to heal him, see the still fading bruises and the paleness and the ruin.

“I could barely stand,” he whispered. “And we had to find you first. Oh, Ari, did you think I’d ever leave you behind?”

Areau’s good hand was free now, and he reached out and traced the scars, his touch tentative enough to tickle. Dorjan endured it without flinching. Areau had earned the right to touch him with impunity.

“I… I need to hold on to something,” he muttered, and Dorjan gave him his hand.

“Hold on to me.”

His father and the physician had the restraints uncoupled by then, and they threw a clean gauze robe over his skinny, ravaged body and a gauze helmet over his once-bright hair. Dorjan supported one side of him and his father the other, and together they walked back out the doors of the asylum. They had just cleared the kitchen when someone noticed.

“What’s with him?”

“Stomach ailment,” Kyon supplied. “Caught from one of the patients—very contagious!”

Dorjan shook Areau gently. “Barf, Ari?”

Areau startled but, after seeing Dorjan wink over his mask, started making horrible retching noises, and whoever it was backed off.

It was a good moment, and it cheered them, all four, as they made their way to the rabbit Kyon had secreted in a nearby stable. They rounded the corner toward comparative safety, and there was a sudden motion, a man in black coming near them and flitting away, and just that suddenly, Dorjan’s father went down in a blur of white and scarlet.

Dorjan grunted as all of Areau’s weight sagged into his arms, and he shoved his friend at the physician. Areau barely stirred from his trance, staring and whimpering as he looked at Kyon’s heavy body on the ground. Dorjan fell to his knees and saw that—oh, core’s depth—his father’s throat lay slashed open, the blood pooling, and his father’s eyes closing just that quickly. Only that? Only a knife flashing in the fading sunlight? Was that all it took to end a man’s life?

“Bimuit!” Dorjan turned toward the physician. “Get him to the rabbit and wait there!” he ordered, and military or not, something of those years studying for command must have held, because Areau and the physician struggled on. Dorjan gently slipped his father’s silver pendant through the slowing pump of blood and over his head. The pendant was an unspoken part of the landowning in Kyon’s Gate, and he would need it later. Once it was in his pocket, he glanced quickly over his shoulder to make sure they were gone. His last look at them showed them walking through the stable toward his father’s rabbit.

Dorjan was hurtling down the street by then.

He shed his disguise as he ran, leaving it on the concrete and the rabbit rail as he leapt. The knife man had been quick, there was no denying it, but he’d hit Kyon’s jugular, and he’d spattered a lot of blood on himself. His first footsteps, his direction, were all written in Kyon’s blood, and once Dorjan started to run… well, before his injuries, he’d been practicing in steam armor and gravity simulations with the thought that he’d be fighting in Karanos.

Thenis—Biemansland as a whole—had none of the gravity difficulties brought about by overmining, and Dorjan had been nisket healed after he’d been allowed to leave the hospital. His sprint wasn’t at its fastest, but it was still faster than the man who’d killed his father.

The people of Thenis prided themselves on clean, orderly streets, with trees planted in holes in the concrete and the rails that kept the steam-powered centipedes and the rabbits in line, which managed to keep the streets uncluttered by rickeys or hexahorses or any of the usual urban detritus. Dorjan was lucky—he had a straight enough shot to gain sight of the man.

But he followed the man to a part of the city he didn’t recognize, and even as the buildings went from stone to unpainted wood, he was surprised. The change was so complete—from soaring skyscrapers to two-story storefronts, to ramshackle tenements, to pasteboard roofs between the walls of an alley.

And still Dorjan ran. His lungs burned, his heart screamed painfully in his chest, but as long as he could see—

His target turned right and ducked under the pasteboard roofs of the mock-up ghetto, and Dorjan leapt and ran atop those roofs, grateful that his usually bulky muscles had leaned this last month in recovery. He spotted the frames of the tenements under the pasteboard, and ran on those. He heard his target’s progress as he went, and he had a moment to wonder: how was it that they were in the stewing seams of the city, but directionwise it seemed as though they should have turned a full circle, right back to the glittering, clean heart of it?

The alleyway opened up, and Dorjan, by whatever instinct, rolled to use his momentum and sank to a crouch in the shadows of the alley as he listened to the chaos underneath his feet.

In front of him, at the end of the alley, was a courtyard. It was lovely. Trees soared up between pale buildings that sported moldings carved intricately with animals and other symbols of luck, all glistening with bronze frames and brilliant flames of windows in the fire of sunset.

In the center of the courtyard sat the Triari, Alum Septra, and a number of other landowners. Septra was talking and the others were sitting, gathered like herd animals, and even from his position, Dorjan could see it: Septra was the tiger in their pen, not the breeding bull at all. He didn’t want to lead them, he wanted to devour them, and it was too late for the sheep to lock Septra out, now that he’d started his first course.

The murderer emerged from what appeared to be the façade of a door, and although Dorjan couldn’t see it clearly from this side, he could imagine—a bright doorway in the building, one that seemed to lead to nowhere.

And it did. None of those sheep or gazelles or deer wanted to know that right next to their graceful courtyard, with the fountain of clean water, was a hell of poverty so singularly filthy that Dorjan could smell excrement from where he crouched.

The murderer emerged and Dorjan saw the back of his head—black hair past his shoulders, curling at the ends, and efficient black trousers and boots, coupled with a black tunic belted close to his waist with a black utility belt.

Dorjan never saw his face, but he saw the man bow to Septra, and then stand, and even from a distance, he could see Septra’s smug grin. Alum Septra, the man who would murder innocent children and destroy Dorjan’s life and loved ones, stood up.

“Kyon of Kyon’s Gate is dead. Shall we have another vote, then, about continuing the war?”

“What about his son?” said the youngest Triari. “Dorjan of Kyon’s Gate is not a man to be ignored!”

“He’s a child,” Septra dismissed. “And a disgraced one. And now his father is dead, and we have a country to run. Once again. Who here favors the war?”

As Dorjan watched, horrified, grief stricken, and helpless, the Triari who ruled all of Biemansland, who ministered justice and civilization to all its citizens, stood and bowed.

The Mermaid Murders by Josh Lanyon
Kennedy went through the open square entrance framed between Ionic entablature and columns. A crumbling and weathered frieze offered images of sea creatures which would never have appeared in genuine classical architecture.

Jason followed.

A small entry hall with a boarded-up ticket kiosk opened onto a larger central room. In the wide doorway with its fake and chipped pillars sat an old-fashioned diving helmet perched on a pedestal as though someone had forgotten it on their way out of the lyceum.

Which was probably about right. Rexford had certainly experienced its share of looting and vandalism. The mystery was that it hadn’t been picked to its bones.

And speaking of bones…

“What the hell?” Jason murmured.

The lighter squares and rectangles on the floor spoke to exhibit cases safely removed to new and dryer locations. Embedded within the walls were what was left of four natural-history dioramas that must have been too complicated or too expensive to be relocated. Unfortunately, time, weather, and other predators had all but demolished the cases.

All that remained of the creatures within were bones and feathers scattered across peeling seascapes.

There was a sharp cracking sound as Kennedy put his foot through the floor. “Damn.” He called over his shoulder, “Watch where you’re walking. The floor is rotten in places.”

That was an understatement. In some places the floor was gone or was only represented by a few remaining floorboards. Through the gaps Jason could see only shining darkness. Water?

Their radios gave a burst of static as Gervase requested their status. Kennedy paused to reply, and Jason—his attention caught by an unnatural pattern in the blanket of dust—cautiously continued into the next room.

Were those boot prints? He wasn’t sure.

His nostrils were twitching at new and even stranger scents. Mold and decay and unidentifiable chemicals. Hopefully not some kind of poison gas. At this point, nothing would surprise him.

And a few feet farther on, any hope of confirming his suspicion of footprints was lost. The floor was covered with leaves and twigs and dirt thanks to a giant hole in the roof. In fact, a large tree branch had fallen into the room.

The leaves on the branches were green, so this latest destruction was fairly recent.

He could hear Kennedy talking from across the hall. Jason looked around himself. Not including the giant branch filling the middle of the space, this room was also empty, but the walls were studded with what appeared to be a variety of ferocious-looking jaws. Shark jaws?

All those rows of enormous teeth were disturbing. At least to someone who spent as much time surfing and diving as Jason. Not that he didn’t know he was sharing the ocean, but somehow…

“West?” Kennedy called.

“In here.”

He realized what he had mistaken for a square shadow on the wall was actually another doorway. Or, more exactly, the square entrance into what appeared to be a small antechamber. Jason walked toward it.

The sickly smell of decay and rot were much stronger in this part of the building. His stomach churned with a mix of unease and distaste.

Without the flood of natural light supplied by the giant hole in the roof, it was harder to see more than a few steps ahead. Jason could just make out what looked like one exhibit case. A long, narrow glass box that reminded him suddenly and unnervingly of a coffin.

He heard Kennedy’s footsteps approaching.

He stepped forward, feeling drawn toward the case, unable to tear his gaze from the dark misshapen thing lying inside on folds of blue material.

He gazed down through the grimy glass. Peered more closely, trying to make sense of what he saw. His heart seemed to stop in his chest.
“Kennedy?” His voice sounded weird. He felt almost light-headed, unable to tear his gaze away.

“What have you got?”

“I don’t…”

It was probably about six feet long. Most of it was tail. A fish tail with scales. The other half appeared to be human, but something terrible had happened to it—to her. Her flesh had been dried and blackened until it had shriveled like leather. It almost had a fuzzy look to it, but maybe that was dust. Though how could that much dust have collected so quickly? Her hair was waist long and coarse, yellow-gray in color, her arms with those strange misshapen hands were outstretched as though she had died in agony, and the expression on her face—could you call those bared jagged teeth and subhuman features a face really?—supported that impression.

“West?” Kennedy said in a very different voice. “What’s the matter?”

“God. God.” Jason threw Kennedy a horrified look. “Is that…”

Kennedy was staring at the contents of the case too. He shook his head. As if he didn’t know, or it wasn’t what Jason thought it was?

Jury of One by Charlie Cochrane
Chapter One
Robin Bright wiped the residual shaving cream from his face and grinned at his reflection in the mirror. Life tasted good, better than it had in a long time. Work was going well, with a promotion to detective chief inspector on the cards, but that wasn’t the only thing making him so happy. He had plenty of blessings in his private life, and if he was counting them, the number one was at present down in the kitchen, clattering about. And Robin’s second-best blessing was probably sitting in his basket, chewing on dog biscuits and hoping somebody might throw the end of a sausage in his direction.

Was it only a year ago that he’d have woken on a Saturday morning with nothing more to look forward to than the delights of washing and ironing, accompanied by the radio commentary of Spurs getting thrashed by the Arsenal? He used to hope the phone would go, calling him in to work because a gang of little scrotes had misbehaved on Friday night. How things had changed.

“Are you going to be in there forever?” Adam Matthews’s voice sounded from downstairs. “Your tea’s going to get cold.”

“I’ll be down soon. Got to get my shirt on.”

“Yeah. You don’t want to scare the postwoman again.” The sound of footsteps and the thud of the kitchen door indicated that Adam had gone back to making breakfast.

Robin took a final glance at the mirror, decided he’d do, and went off to find his favourite T-shirt. Hopefully his phone would keep silent today so a proper shirt and tie wouldn’t be needed; surely a man deserved his relaxation time? In the meantime he should get his backside downstairs before Adam sent Campbell, the huge black Newfoundland that shared their lives—when he couldn’t share their bed—to fetch him.

“Smells good.” Robin soaked up the delicious aromas as he came into the kitchen.

“Me or the crepes?” Adam expertly flipped a pancake. “Can you let himself into the garden? I suspect he’s bursting.”

“He probably doesn’t want to go out in case he misses a crumb falling on the floor.” Robin opened the back door and eased the dog outside, with a promise that they’d keep him some of their breakfast.

The radio was on, the relentlessly cheerful tones of the Monkees forming a standard part of Radio 2’s Saturday morning fodder. Adam’s well-nigh tuneless tones competed with Davy Jones’s much more melodious ones as they encouraged Sleepy Jean to cheer up.

“Just as well you didn’t sing for those kids.” Robin let Campbell back in. “You’d never have got the job.”

Adam had recently been interviewed—successfully—for a deputy headship that he’d be taking up at the start of the next term. The recruitment ordeal had included being grilled by the school council, who’d insisted that each candidate sing them a song. Adam, being a smart cookie, had managed to persuade the kids to do the singing instead, and they’d loved him for it.

“Look at me ignoring that.” Adam produced a stack of pancakes from the oven, where they’d obviously been keeping warm. “Get some of those inside you. Busy day.”

More than busy. Lunch with Adam’s mum, followed by a bit of shopping, trying to navigate the tricky issue of what Robin’s mother might want for her birthday. What do you get for the woman who insists that all she wants is for you not to be at work so you can share her birthday dinner?

“I just hope the bloody phone doesn’t go.”

“So do I. Can’t you put it onto divert and make the call go through to Anderson?”

“He’d kill me if I did.” There was another blessing, Anderson still being on Robin’s team, making snarky remarks and useful leaps of deduction. “Or at least put laxative in my coffee.”

Adam sniggered. “You need to make the most of him. He won’t be with you forever.”

“True.” Anderson’s promotion was on the horizon, as well. He’d proved himself a bloody good copper, as Robin had.

“Even Campbell likes him, and that dog’s no fool.”

“He’s an excellent judge of character.” Robin stirred his tea. “I wish there were more like Anderson in the force. People who don’t think themselves above being civil and pleasant to the old salts who’ll be walking the beat until their retirement.”

“More clones of you, then?”

“Why not?” Robin didn’t like to boast, but he knew he did his job well. He’d won plenty of friends on the way up, and when they neared retirement, he’d be on his way to becoming superintendent. “It’s not hard to do the job. Keep nicking people, keep your nose clean, and keep your paperwork up to date.”

“Yes, sah!” Adam saluted, then tucked in to his breakfast.

Robin had put away his third pancake and was eyeing a fourth when his mobile phone sounded. Adam made his eye-rolling “I hope that’s not work” face, although the bloke was getting used to being at the beck and call of Stanebridge police headquarters. You couldn’t expect anything else when you’d hitched up to a rozzer.

Robin grabbed the phone. “Robin Bright speaking.”

“Cowdrey here.” His boss’s not-so-dulcet tones came down the line. “Sorry to interrupt your Saturday morning, Robin, but we’ve got a tricky one. Bloke got killed last night, a stone’s throw from the Florentine restaurant, in Abbotston. Bit off our patch, but the local superintendent’s a friend of mine and wants us to handle things. His team’s tied up with those attacks.”

Abbotston, fifteen miles away, was twice the size of Stanebridge, with a crime rate four times as high, and its very own ongoing crisis. “The Abbotston Slasher,” the papers had christened whoever was making the knife attacks, although that title smacked more of Carry On films than the terrifying reality: three young women stabbed these last three months, each on the eve of the new moon, and one of them had died of her wounds. The moon would be new again tonight; Robin guessed leave had been cancelled and any unexplained death not related to the case would be an unwelcome distraction.

“Never rains but it pours, does it, sir?”

“Pours? It’s bloody torrential. There’s the cup tie, as well.”

“Oh hell, I’d forgotten about that.” Millwall hitting the town, to play non-league Abbotston Alexandra. Even their cleaning lady was going to the match. Robin mouthed Sorry at Adam, then grabbed a pen and notepad.

“What do we know about the murder, sir?”

“It happened about three o’clock this morning. A couple of passers-by found the victim alive, just, although unconscious, and they called an ambulance. He didn’t make it beyond the operating theatre. Died at six o’clock. ” Cowdrey sounded short of breath; he was corpulent, asthmatic but as hard as nails. “Stabbed four times at least.”

“Any leads?” Robin, while making notes, was already building up a picture. The Florentine was an upmarket kind of a restaurant to get stabbed near, the sort nominally run by an up-and-coming television personality chef. It attracted punters from across the Home Counties. Perhaps, he thought—irreverently and guiltily—the dead man was one of the waiters and the murderer had been a customer incensed at the size of the bill?

Whatever was going on, there was a guarded edge to the chief superintendent’s voice as he continued. “The men who found him reckoned he’d been drinking at a local bar earlier, and got himself into a fight there in the process. We got called in with the ambulance and managed to start taking statements at the club concerned. One of these all-night-opening places.” The slight hesitation in Cowdrey’s voice made Robin stiffen; he could guess what was coming.

“Which bar was this, sir?”

“The Desdemona.”

The Desdemona. Robin had been there once or twice, back when he was single; it wasn’t a bad sort of a place. It was on the pricey side, but the decor was tasteful, and there were neither slot machines nor TV screens to ruin the atmosphere. It was about two hundred yards from the Florentine, both of them in the posh part of Abbotston. And the bar flew a rainbow flag outside, which was presumably one of the reasons why he was being put onto the case when the local boys needed a hand.

“Homophobic element, sir?” Might as well ask the obvious.

“Too early to say.” Cowdrey exhaled, loudly. “Sorry, but I think your Saturday’s ruined. I’ll call Anderson and get him to meet you at the scene.”

“Thanks. I’ll be there in half an hour or so. Less if the traffic’s kind.” Robin ended the call, looked longingly at the fourth pancake, and decided to snaffle it now. It could be a while before he got anything else to eat today. At least Lindenshaw, where Adam lived, was the right side of Stanebridge for getting to Abbotston quickly.

“A case?” Adam said in the supportive tones—supportive but with an edge of resignation—he used on these occasions.

“Yeah. A bloke’s been murdered. Stabbing,” Robin said between mouthfuls.

“Blimey. It’s getting like Morse’s Oxford round here.” Adam half filled Robin’s mug. “Here, wash those pancakes down.”

“Thanks. And this is hardly Morse country. It’s only the second murder investigation I’ve led on.”

“That’s two too many.” Adam patted Robin’s hand. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be so tetchy.”

“I should be the one apologising. For buggering up the weekend.”

“It’s not your fault, it’s your job. Like marking a ton of books is mine.” Adam smiled. “And it’s best part of a year since the last one, so I shouldn’t complain, even though I probably will. Where did it happen?”

“It’s not our patch, thank goodness. Abbotston.” Robin let his guilt subside under the details of the case. “Near that posh restaurant with the Michelin star.”

“The one we could never afford to eat at?” Adam’s eyebrows shot up.

“That’s the one. Don’t think the victim ate there either. He’d been at the Desdemona, earlier.”

“The Desdemona? Did they bring you in because . . .?” Adam finished the question with another lift of his eyebrows.

“Because I’m a bloody good copper?” Robin grinned, then swigged down the tea before going over to give Adam a kiss. “No. My boss is bosom buddies with the local detective superintendent, so it was a case of helping out an old mate. The local guys are up to their eyeballs with these attacks on women, and if whoever’s doing it plays to form, there’s likely to be another tonight.”

“I know. Sally at the school lives over there, and she won’t go out after dark.” Adam gave Robin’s cheek a squeeze. “You look after yourself, right? I don’t want you getting stabbed.”

“Yes, Mother.” Robin swiped an apple from the fruit bowl, on the principle that it might be as much lunch as he’d get, then legged it upstairs to put on that bloody shirt and tie.


Abbotston wasn’t the kind of place Robin could warm to. The posh parts were much posher than anything Stanebridge had to offer, but it lacked character, except in some of the outlying areas where villages had been absorbed. The centre had been bombed during the war, and the rebuilding programme had been typically 1950s: utilitarian and horribly ugly. Part of it had seen recent redevelopment, and the Florentine was located there.

The telltale blue-and-white police tape surrounded a piece of concreted hardstanding behind an estate agent’s office next to the restaurant—probably where he or she parked their big, swanky car. The area was partially hidden from the street and not likely to be well lit at night, so you’d avoid it if you were female and the new moon was about to appear. Within its boundaries, a solitary crime scene investigator was finishing off his painstaking task.

Robin noted the groups of people gathered on the pavement, who stood for a while watching, then went about their normal Saturday morning business with the added bonus of a mystery to speculate about. Who, why, when? The word would soon get around. The local news was probably already carrying it, and people would watch, wonder, and just as soon forget. Robin wouldn’t be able to do that until the culprit had been brought to book.

According to Cowdrey, who’d briefed Robin on arrival at the scene, the victim had left the Desdemona, turned east, and headed up the main road, towards the smart new block of flats about a mile away, which, according to the business cards the CSI had found on his body, was the contact address he gave. It also turned out to be where the man lived. That was a mystery in itself, not because it was so unusual to work from home, but because he’d have had to double back to get to this end of town.

Thomas Hatton, Tax Consultant.

They’d found the victim’s wallet seemingly intact, so robbery didn’t appear to have been the motive. Hatton’s keys had been in his pocket too, and, once the CSI had finished at the scene, the police were going to have to work through the dead man’s flat, trying to build up a picture of him.

Four stab wounds indicated to Robin that hatred or some other deep passion had been involved. Though the police couldn’t rule out a random attack from somebody who was so drunk or drugged up that they didn’t know what they were doing.

He looked up and down the road. If Hatton had initially been heading home, why had he taken a detour and ended up here? Had he met someone en route and been walking with them? The early reports were that he’d left the club alone.

“Surprised nobody saw him being attacked, sir.” Sergeant Anderson’s voice at his shoulder made Robin jump.

“Must you creep up on people?”

Anderson grinned. “Reconstruction. I’ve proved the victim could have been crept up on. Assuming he hadn’t come along here voluntarily with his killer. Into a dark car park for a bit of slap and tickle, perhaps?”

“I’m not sure why anybody would have come up here.” Robin shrugged. It might be as simple as a few minutes of fun gone horribly wrong. “Hardly Lovers’ Lane.”

“Some people appreciate the sleazy aspect. I wonder why he wasn’t heard, either. Did he shout out? Or did he know whoever killed him, and get taken off guard?”

Robin nodded. Certainly children were most at risk from people they knew and trusted, family and friends being more dangerous statistically than strangers were. The same applied, if to a lesser extent, to adults. “Does it get that busy round here in the middle of the night? That you’d not be seen or heard?”

“Fridays and Saturdays, yes, or so my mates say. Clubs and bars turning out. The men who found him had been drinking not far from here. Not one of your haunts?”

“No,” Robin replied, coldly. “I can’t help wondering if these local drinkers are so universally sloshed that they wouldn’t notice somebody running away covered in blood? This would have got messy for the killer.”

“Some of the people who roll out of clubs are so far gone they wouldn’t notice if aliens invaded.” Anderson rolled his eyes. “Point taken, though.”

“I suppose if you had a big enough coat, one that you discarded for the attack and then put on again, you could have hidden a multitude of sins.” Especially under street lighting that would have been hazy at best. “If the killer made his or her way off into the residential area, they could have easily gone to ground. That’s supposed to be a complete rabbit warren.”

“You don’t like Abbotston, do you?”


“Not even the football team?” Anderson didn’t wait for a response. “I wouldn’t have minded getting called in for cup tie duty.”

“You enjoy aggro?” Abbotston Alexandra’s stunning progress through the early rounds of the FA Cup was about to be put to an end by a Millwall team who were having a great league run and whose supporters had a nasty reputation. All in all, Abbotston wasn’t a nice place to be at present.

Anderson made a face. “It would make more sense to escape up by the apartment blocks than to go along the main road. Unless you had a car waiting for you, then you’d slip in and Bob’s your uncle.” And a car wouldn’t have necessarily attracted attention at chucking-out time if things did get that busy, because there’d have been taxis milling around and people getting lifts home.

“That lack of noise bothers me. Even if Hatton was attacked suddenly by somebody he knew, he was stabbed time and again, so why didn’t he call out?”

“Maybe he did and the noise got swallowed up among the traffic. Or it coincided with some rowdy mob coming out of the Indian restaurant.” Anderson gestured vaguely along the road.

“Or, if he knew his attacker, that line of thought may be irrelevant because he could have let them get close enough to put a hand over his mouth.” Robin shook his head. Too much speculation and no proper evidence to go on, yet.

Robin glanced towards the pavement, the other side of the tape, where Cowdrey was talking to Wendy May, a young, tired-looking WPC, who’d been called the previous night to help take statements from the people at the Desdemona. Whose idea had it been to send a female, black officer into the club to accompany the white, male, local officers? Had someone seen the rainbow flag—or known of the establishment’s clientele—and decided that if they couldn’t find a gay officer, then some other minority member would have to do?

He wasn’t being fair, and he shouldn’t make snap judgements. WPC May was described as an excellent copper, but he’d always been sensitive to outbreaks of political correctness. It was a weakness he found hard to overcome. People said a gay copper would have opportunities galore to get on the force if he displayed any talent. And possibly if he didn’t; the powers that be wanted minority officers to hold up as examples of the constabulary’s open-mindedness.

It grated. Somehow being condescended to in such a way was as bad as coming up against rampant discrimination. Adam felt the same.

“Inspector Bright. Sergeant Anderson.” Cowdrey called them over. “WPC May has been updating me on the statements she took with Inspector Root. He’s gone to get a couple of hours’ sleep before this evening.” They all nodded.

“Is there anything to follow up, sir?” Robin liked presenting the superintendent with opportunities to show off his knowledge. It made the man happy and by some reverse psychology seemed to give Cowdrey the impression that Robin was a particularly bright spark.

“Hatton was involved in a scuffle inside the Desdemona club. He and the other man were ejected at about twelve forty-five. The doorman made sure they went off in opposite directions.”

Twelve forty-five. That left the best part of two hours unaccounted for.

“Do we know who the other man was?” Anderson asked the superintendent.

Cowdrey shook his head. “Seems like no one had seen him there before. Someone called him Radar, but that wound him up, so it’s not a lot of use.”

Radar? That was a character in a show they ran on the classic-comedy channel; maybe he was a fan? Or an air traffic controller, or one of a hundred other things. “I suppose it would have been easy enough for this ‘Radar’ to double back or go around the block and meet up with the victim again? How long would that take, May?”

“To get here? About four times as much as going direct. It wouldn’t take two hours, though.” The constable stifled a yawn.

Cowdrey adopted a paternally encouraging expression. “You’ve done a good job here, given us a start. Before you get some rest, can we pick your brains? Who would you follow up first out of the people you spoke to? You met them; we didn’t.”

May nodded. “As I said previously, sir, there was only one I think needs further questioning at the moment, and I’ve put his statement at the top of the pile. Max Worsley. I know it’s only a gut feeling, but I’m certain he knew more than he was saying.”

“Thank you. Go and put your feet up.” Cowdrey turned to Robin, handing him a dossier stuffed with paper. “There you are, Bright. Not often you get a murder to keep you two out of mischief.”

“Thank God for that, sir.”

“Think of it as good for your careers.” Cowdrey nodded at Anderson, then left, ushering May with him.

“Good for our careers?” Anderson snorted. “Only if we don’t make a pig’s ear of it.”

“Too true.” Robin looked at the dossier, glanced at where the murder had happened, then puffed out his cheeks. “I’m assuming we rule out a link to the Slasher?”

“Don’t you always tell me never to assume?” Anderson flashed his cheeky grin. “Can’t make an obvious connection, though. Victim’s the wrong sex; wounds aren’t in the same places.”

“That’s what I thought.” It would, however, be unwise to dismiss a connection entirely; last night had seen the appropriate phase of the moon. He noted the address on the statement. “Right. Get your phone and find out where Sandy Street is. Let’s see if this Worsley bloke has surfaced this morning.”

Sandy Street was in the part of Abbotston that had been developed back in Victorian times, when the railway arrived, best part of a mile from where Hatton had been found. The quality of the properties shot up a notch as they turned the corner in Worsley’s road.

“Number twenty-one will be on the left side.” Robin peered at the numbers. “Looks like you should be lucky with a parking space.”

They drew up outside an elegant town house; the column of names and bell pushes showed it had been divided into flats, though the facade was well maintained and there wasn’t the air of seediness there usually was about such conversions. They rang, gave their names and purpose over the intercom, were let in, and went up to the top floor. Worsley—a muscular bloke with two days of stubble and a gorgeous smile—was waiting for them at the turn of the stairs.

“It’s about last night.” Anderson dutifully flashed his warrant card. “One or two things we need to clarify.”

“Come in, I was just making myself some coffee. Bit of a late night. Want some?”

“I wouldn’t say no.” Anderson looked at Robin hopefully.

“Count me in as well.”

Worsley ushered them into a little dining area, set in a corner of the lounge, with a view of the local rooftops. A vase of flowers on the table and another on the bookshelves helped fill the place with colour. Worsley soon appeared, bearing coffee-filled china mugs, leaving the policemen to juggle with drinks, notebooks, and pens.

“Did you see either of the men who were in the scuffle at any other part of the evening?”

“Not really. I was too busy drinking and chatting with friends.”

Drinking with friends? Robin was trying to find a subtle way to phrase the natural follow-up question when Anderson cut in with, “Do you go to the Desdemona a lot?”

“As often as I can. Even my straight pals hang out at the place. I assume the question actually meant ‘am I gay?’” Worsley grinned.

“Not at all.” Anderson, if he’d been wrong-footed, made a swift recovery. “I was trying to establish if you were a regular there, in case you could tell us whether Hatton or the man he fought with had been at the club before.”

“My apologies. And no, I’ve never seen them there before. Not that I remember, anyway.”

Robin took a swig of coffee, earning some thinking time. What had May picked up that made her think Worsley had more to say? They couldn’t ignore the fact that he lived relatively close to the scene of the crime, and it was possible that he could have left the club, done the deed, run home to clean himself up, and returned to the Desdemona later, bold as brass.

“Have there ever been similar incidents near the Desdemona? Or the Florentine?” Anderson—eyes darting about—was clearly taking in the flat, maybe searching for clues. “Not necessarily stabbings, but trouble of any sort.”

“Not that I remember. The Desdemona’s a pretty staid place. Matches the area. Very quiet part of Abbotston. Safe.” Worsley shrugged and drank his coffee.

“And is there anything else, however small or insignificant it might seem, that you can add to what you told WPC May last night?” Robin was on the verge of closing his notebook and leaving.

Worsley’s face became guarded, as if he was weighing his options. “What do you know about Hatton? Come to think of it, what do you know about me?”

Well spotted, WPC May. Looks like you were right about him knowing more than he’d let on. Adam would be giving you a house point if you were in his class.

Robin shared a wary glance with his sergeant before replying. “Very little. Hatton’s business card says he was a tax consultant . . .”

“Tax consultant? I suppose he might have been by now, assuming he’d left GCHQ.”

“GCHQ?” Alarm bells started to go off in Robin’s head. “Do you mean Hatton was involved with the secret services? How on earth do you know that?”

“The answers to those are, in order, ‘yes,’ ‘he used to be,’ and ‘I did some computer work for them and saw him there.’” Worsley grinned again, the sort of grin that made Robin uncomfortable around the collar. If he didn’t know better, he’d say he was being flirted with.

You’re not my type, dear. And anyway, I’m already spoken for.

“Let me get this right,” Anderson said. “You saw him there? How long ago was that?”

“Oh . . .” Worsley wrinkled his brow. “Three years?”

“Three years and you remembered him?”

“Yes. I have a photographic memory for faces, especially handsome ones, and he was a real silver fox. How I hadn’t clocked him in the bar before the fight, I don’t know. Maybe because it was crazy busy.”

Maybe. If he was telling the truth.

“I’m bloody useless with names, unfortunately.” Worsley carried on, oblivious. “I must have seen him around and about GCHQ perhaps half a dozen times over the course of a month, even though I wasn’t working in his department.”

“I suppose you can’t tell us what you were doing there?” Anderson asked.

“Afraid not. Official Secrets Act and all that, although I’m sure you can verify my security clearance and the like, if you need to make sure I’m a good, reliable boy.”

“We will, believe me.” Anderson had clearly taken a dislike to this particular witness. “Did you notice anybody else you recognised from GCHQ while you were at the club?”

“No. Should I have?” Worsley appeared to be equally disenchanted with the sergeant.

“Please. We’re only trying to find out who killed Hatton,” Robin reminded them both. “You work in computing?”

“Yeah, part of a consultancy. Helping to put in new systems or troubleshooting old ones.” Worsley ran his finger round the rim of his mug. “And in answer to an earlier question, I have no idea if he was gay. He certainly didn’t give the impression of being on the pull last night.”

Robin nodded, but he’d keep an open mind on that point for the moment. “You said you saw Hatton half a dozen times. Ever speak to him?”

“Not back at GCHQ.”

“Last night?”

Worsley shrugged. “No.”

“What about the other guy in the fight?” Anderson asked. “Did you interact with him? You said you’d ‘not really’ seen either of them. Is that a yes or a no?”

“It’s a qualified no. Unless you count me saying ‘thank you’ when he held the door to the men’s toilets open. And for the record,” he added, with a sharp glance at Anderson, “nothing goes on in those toilets.”

“I never said anything.” Anderson raised his hands in a gesture of innocence that clearly fooled nobody. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in us trying the old ‘do you know of anyone who had a grudge against Hatton’ question? Or whether you’ve got any further bombshells to drop?”

“No, I’m sorry.” Worsley’s regret sounded genuine enough. “Although if that changes, I’ll get back to you. Have you a contact number?”

Robin produced a card with the relevant details on it. “This is the Stanebridge police station number, but someone there can make sure I get any message; I’ll ring you back.”

“Okie dokie.” Worsley took the card, studied it, then put it in his wallet. “Just as well I’ve got this, because I’ll never remember your names.”

“Don’t put yourself out remembering mine.” Anderson pushed back his chair, signalling that the interview was finished.

Robin made an apologetic face, smoothing over the awkwardness with some platitudes, before getting Anderson through the door. They were halfway down the stairs and out of earshot before he asked, “What rattled your cage?”

“Him. He put my back up.” Anderson made a face, as though even referring to Worsley left a bad taste in his mouth. “We should keep an eye on him.”

“And is that based on anything other than the fact he narked you?”

Anderson grinned. “Call it instinct. Anyway, if Hatton was still involved with GCHQ when he died, this is likely to get messy.”

Robin nodded. Murder wasn’t something he had a broad experience of, with the exception—the wonderful exception—of the case that had brought Adam across his path. Terrorism was outside his experience entirely. Of course, Hatton might have been acting as nothing more than a tax consultant at the time of his death, or that could be a cover story; they’d have to wait for further information.

“We’ll get back to the station and plough through the rest of the statements first.” They’d reached the car, although Robin stopped and took a deep breath before getting in. “And we’ll get Davis to work her usual magic on the background stuff.”

“Sounds good. She’ll love you for spoiling her weekend.” Anderson grimaced.

“She can join the club. Your Helen won’t have been happy at you getting called in.”

Anderson shrugged. “She’s got a hen do tonight, so she’s glad to have me out from under her feet.”

“I’ll volunteer you for more Saturday jobs, then.” Adam wouldn’t be so glad. He accepted the long hours as part of a policeman’s lot, in the same way he worked every hour God sent at times, but they’d got used to having their weekends together. Robin was ready to go, but Anderson seemed to be lost in thought. “Are you thinking about the earache you’ll get if I keep screwing up your weekends?”

“No. I’m trying to work out why he bugs me.” Anderson jerked his thumb towards the house. “He’ll be trouble. Mark my words.”

“I will.” Robin started up the engine. Trouble? Robin couldn’t work out how. But the nagging voice in his head reminded him that Anderson had been right about this kind of thing before.

Chapter Two
Adam and Campbell took advantage of having time on their own by taking a Saturday morning run. Since Robin had moved in, they’d had to adapt to a new routine, and while Adam wasn’t complaining—a change of habits was far preferable to an empty space in his heart—sometimes it was nice to slip back into bachelor ways. Campbell clearly appreciated the opportunity as well, straining at his lead to urge Adam on to faster speeds.

Mum would be sad not to see Robin at lunch, though, given her soft spot for him, and Campbell couldn’t take his place at the restaurant, no matter how much he’d have relished the chance. She often said she was lucky she got to see Robin at all; in fact, it seemed like a miracle that he and Robin got to spend any time together, given the hours they both put in. Thank God the Stanebridge crime rate wasn’t soaring, particularly in the school holidays when there wasn’t quite so much work to call on Adam’s time.

“Slow down, Campbell.” Adam pulled on the lead, trying to restrain the dog’s enthusiasm. “I’ve got a lot to do today, and you’ll wear me out before I’ve even started.”

And he’d have to do it on his own, given that Robin wasn’t likely to be back until late. Murder or child abduction took priority over everything else, as did this Abbotston Slasher business. Sally, one of the learning support assistants in the infants’ part of the school, wasn’t the type to panic, being used to dealing with children with bodily fluids coming out of every orifice at once. She was kind but formidable; Adam wouldn’t have liked to meet her in a dark alleyway if she bore him a grudge. Even so, she was locking her door in the evening and never going out alone at night, if only to put the bins on the pavement, irrespective of the phase of the moon. Apparently her neighbours were similarly edgy. It didn’t help that she knew one of the victims, although said victim refused to discuss how awful the experience had been for her.

“Murder’s never nice, is it, Campbell?” Adam hadn’t intended to voice his thoughts, but they’d come out anyway. Just as well there was nobody but the dog within earshot.

The repercussions spread wider than the victim and his or her family; Adam knew that from experience. Those in the vicinity of the crime, witnesses to it, and those who ended up under suspicion all suffered. And the poor bloody rozzers, as Robin kept reminding him, had to mop up the mess while juggling too many balls, not least the interest of the media. What chance of the national press keeping away if there turned out to be a link to the Florentine and its celebrity chef? Adam had gone through that once before, when the media had invaded Lindenshaw on the heels of the murder at the school. He envied no one the experience.

Adam shivered, a sudden wave of cold sweeping over him as he recalled those days. “Come on.” He and Campbell broke into a run, which might both warm him up and make the unpleasant memories go away.

Hopefully Robin would get home at a reasonable time that evening, so Adam could fuss over him, feed him up, and get a bit of a debrief. Not that a mere schoolteacher would be able to offer anything in the way of insight to the average police problem, but Robin said having to explain the case to somebody not involved helped him to get things clear in his mind. Not only that: when Adam asked for clarification or needed points explained, Robin said he sometimes began to view matters afresh, get a new angle on things, and cut through the dross. It helped.

The first batch of dross came with the late afternoon local news on the telly, the stabbing taking precedence even over the FA Cup game. Adam, curled up on the sofa with Campbell, both content from lunch and a postprandial nap, watched with interest.

“A man was found dead with stab wounds early this morning in Abbotston,” the reporter said, in a piece that must have been filmed earlier that day.

“No sight of himself,” Adam said, scratching Campbell’s ear. “He’ll be avoiding the cameras, I guess.”

“Police are appealing for witnesses, particularly anyone who saw a fight in the Desdemona club in Abbotston last night.” The reporter finished her piece and the feed went back to the studio, where talk turned to the gutsy but ultimately losing performance by Abbotston Alexandra.

The football fans had behaved themselves, miracle of miracles. Maybe it had been the result—or the unexpected sunshine—that had tempered things.

“Perhaps the police got the catering staff to put something in the half-time Bovrils, to take the edge off their aggression. Like you need when you see that big moggy from up the road.” Adam grinned at the dog’s expression. “Only joking. With any luck, your favourite person will be back to tuck you up in bed.”

Adam’s hope came true, but only just. The clock was striking nine when Robin came through the door, tie undone, looking desperately tired. They’d worked out a routine for such occasions, one that got sporadically reversed when Adam was late back from a governors’ meeting or a school parents’ evening. Robin kicked off his shoes and slumped on the settee with Campbell while his better half performed the kitchen duties, rustling up a hot drink and a bite to eat, waiting for it to be wolfed down before getting into any proper conversation. Feeding the body before he exercised the brain.

“We saw your case on the news, although I doubt we got the real story.” Adam settled himself on the sofa once the dishes were put away. “Campbell doesn’t believe anything he sees on the telly anymore.”

“He’s always had a lot of sense, that dog.”

“He won’t grill you if you’d rather clear your mind.”

“Nah. I’d rather keep you up to date.” Robin gave Adam an outline of some of the things the media didn’t yet know, including what the police had found out about the dead man, which admittedly wasn’t a lot at present. “Every indication is that he genuinely was working as a tax consultant, so the witness we had who saw him at GCHQ either made a mistake or Davis hasn’t managed to trace things back far enough. We’ll come at it fresh tomorrow. Sorry to spoil the weekend. I never even asked how your mum is.”

“She’s blooming. Kept going on about her new bridge partner. I might be getting a new dad, the way she talks.” Adam rubbed his partner’s arm. “And don’t worry about tomorrow. Now I can’t feel guilty at the pile of marking and planning I have to do. I suspect you’ve got the better deal.”

Robin stifled a yawn. “Sez you. Right. Bed. I could sleep for a week.”

“I’ll set the alarm to make sure you don’t. Come on, boy,” Adam encouraged Campbell to come with him to the kitchen. “You go up, Robin, while I get this lump settled for the night.”

By the time Adam had made sure the dog emptied his bladder and was happy in his basket, and got himself ready for bed, Robin was out for the count. Adam watched over him for a while, concerned at how tired the bloke appeared, upset that he’d been deprived of his well-deserved weekend of rest. He supposed this would always come with the territory.

Adam just hoped that this case would get sorted out as soon as possible, and normal—or what passed for normal—life could resume. He also hoped it wouldn’t veer quite as close to home as the previous murder case had.

Sunday morning brought rain, so the prospect of having to work—marking or investigating—wasn’t too unpleasant. Robin, looking refreshed, wolfed down his breakfast and talked murders.

“There are various possibilities, but you need to start with the obvious,” he said, waving a slice of toast and driving Campbell mad in the process. “I’d always go down the line of nearest and dearest, because they’re the people you’re most at risk from.”

“Charming. Still, I suppose you’re right. Who were Hatton’s nearest and dearest?”

Robin shrugged. “Not sure yet. Both parents are dead. No wife, no live-in girlfriend—or boyfriend. Nothing much on social media and very little evidence in his flat of any relationships, apart from some packets of condoms, so possibly he always played away from home and kept it casual.”

“Possibly.” Somebody must have known the man, though. “But it could have been the person he got into that fight with, couldn’t it? Was that an unhappy client who’d found out Hatton had been swindling him?”

“That’s for us to find out. Mind you, given the GCHQ angle, the attack might have been about something distinctly nasty.”

Adam shuddered. “The Slasher is bad enough. Can you imagine terrorists loose in Abbotston? My mum would have kittens. Campbell would have kittens.”

The Newfoundland frowned, looking suitably offended.

“Did he strike last night, by the way?” Adam asked.

“Not that I’ve heard, but I’ve been wrapped up in my own case. Anything on the news?”

“Not a dickie bird. This Hatton couldn’t have been him? Somebody found out and got their retaliation in first?” The timings were remarkably coincidental if there wasn’t a link.

“We did think of that, you know, Superintendent Matthews.” Robin slapped Adam’s arm. “Nothing to suggest a connection in his flat, although we’re keeping an open mind. Okay. Let’s go and see what the new day brings. Not sure when I’ll be home, I’m afraid. I’ll text you, but it could be late. Sorry.”

“I’ll make a cottage pie or a casserole or something. Easy enough to heat up when you do get back.”

“You spoil me. God knows what it would have been like if this case had cropped up before I met you.”

“You wouldn’t have eaten properly, for a start,” Adam said, avoiding anything emotional. This wasn’t the time or the place; best leave it for when the case was wrapped up and they could wrap themselves up in the duvet in their big, comfy bed. Which might be a while off, but it was a more enticing prospect than the pile of marking on Adam’s desk.


Stanebridge police station in the rain wasn’t exactly the world’s nicest place; a damp odour hung about it, mingling with the smell of disinfectant from where one of the Saturday night drunks had disgraced himself. Or herself. We are an equal opportunity puking facility.

Davis was hovering outside his office.

“Here’s what we’ve got sir.” She waggled a file.

“Have you been here all night?”

“No. Not quite, anyway. I can get forty winks this afternoon. If you let me,” she added, with a smile at Anderson, who had appeared in the doorway. “It’s useful living in Abbotston. I called in to Hatton’s block of flats on my way here and helped his next-door neighbour put out her recycling. Little old lady. Great source of information.”

“Aren’t they always?” Anderson settled behind his desk. “What did she say?”

“That Hatton was one for the women. He left at least two of them to mourn him, one in Abbotston and one here in Stanebridge. A shop girl for weekdays and a bit of posh totty for high days and holidays.”

Robin flinched. He would have rapped Anderson’s knuckles for talking like that; he couldn’t decide whether Davis needed the same. What was sauce for the goose . . .

If Anderson had noticed Robin’s reaction, he didn’t show it. “Blimey. Got any names?”

“Not surnames. Beryl and Sandra, which is why the woman remembered them. Characters off some old TV programme, she said.” Davis shrugged. “Anyway, I’ll have a shufti through his address books. Mrs. Cowan, that’s my friend with the recycling, says she’d expect Beryl the shop girl to be heartbroken and Sandra the posh one to be pretty philosophical.”

Anderson would have said that put to bed the question of whether Hatton was gay, but that was being too simplistic.

“And what’s that observation based on? How the Liver Birds would react?” Robin ignored Anderson’s quickly suppressed chuckle. So what if he’d gone and outed himself as a fan of TV reruns? He’d been indoctrinated in British comedy classics at his mother’s knee.

“Not with you, sir.” Davis frowned. When elucidation wasn’t forthcoming, she cracked on. “Anyway, she’s met Sandra, and wasn’t particularly impressed. The other woman she’d just heard about.”

“Good work. Which would be even better if you got their addresses.” Robin tried his most persuasive smile.

“I’m on it, sir.” Davis waggled what must have been Hatton’s mobile phone. “I’ll get May on the case, too, when she comes in.”

“Excellent. She struck us as being perceptive.”

Davis rolled her eyes. “She is. Workwise. Wouldn’t trust her choice in blokes; she’s had a few dodgy fellers. Now she goes out with a dog handler.” She smiled, then left them to contemplate Hatton’s complicated love life.

“Sounds like Hatton got himself in the old eternal triangle, sir. What’s the chance that one of the girls got overcome by the green-eyed monster and took her revenge on the love rat?”

“Must you talk like you’re a tabloid journalist? Some offices have swear boxes—you need a cliché box.” Robin shook his head, although Anderson was quite right. Was one of these women the deadly “nearest and dearest” he’d been talking to Adam about? The sudden reappearance of Davis, still clutching the mobile phone and wearing a superior smile, suggested he wouldn’t have long to wait to find out.

“Beryl’s rung. She had a hell of a shock to hear a female voice on the end of the line.”

“I bet she thought you were Sandra.” Anderson said.

“I’m not posh enough for that!” Davis laid on the Welsh accent good and thick. “Anyway, she’s been away for a few days and heard the news on the radio when she came back. She was hoping against hope it was about another bloke called Hatton.”

Robin nodded. It was one of the parts of the job he loathed intensely, telling people that their loved one wouldn’t be coming home. “How is she?”

“Devastated, like Mrs. Cowan said she would be. She wants to talk to you, though. As soon as is convenient.”

“We’ll get round there now.” Robin picked up his car keys from the desk where he’d not long since laid them down. Chances were it would be late that evening before they lay in their usual place in the hallway.

Author Bios:
Abigail Roux
Abigail Roux was born and raised in North Carolina. A past volleyball star who specializes in sarcasm and painful historical accuracy, she currently spends her time coaching high school volleyball and investigating the mysteries of single motherhood. Any spare time is spent living and dying with every Atlanta Braves and Carolina Panthers game of the year. Abigail has a daughter, Little Roux, who is the light of her life, a boxer, four rescued cats who play an ongoing live-action variation of 'Call of Duty' throughout the house, a certifiable extended family down the road, and a cast of thousands in her head.

Shell Taylor
Shell Taylor is a full-time mother of three exuberant and loving kiddos and one fur baby, a tiny but fierce Yorkie-poo named Rocco. As a Christian who practices love, grace, and humility rather than hatred and judgement, she tries her best to instill these same virtues in her rowdy kids. She just recently learned how to crochet to start bombarding new mothers with matching hats and booties. She is a huge Marvel fan and because of the superhero-plastered tees paired with jeans and Chucks has been told when helping out in her son’s classroom that she looks more like the students than a parent. Her favorite way to procrastinate is to binge watch entire seasons on Netflix. Best of all, she’s been married ten years to a man who’s turned out to be everything she never knew she needed.

Erin O'Quinn
Erin O’Quinn earned a BA (English) and MA (Comparative Literature) from the University of Southern California. Her life has been a pastiche of fascinating vocations—newspaper marketing manager, university teacher, car salesperson, landscape gardener—until now, in relative retirement, she lives and writes in a small town in central Texas.

Erin has published six M/M novels and three novellas with AmberQuillPress and two independent M/M novels.

Her series titled “The Gaslight Mysteries” includes Heart to Hart, Sparring with Shadows, To the Bone. and Thin as Smoke.

Erin's indie books are NEVADA HIGHLANDER and THE KILT COMPLEX, both very well received.

In addition to these Amber Quill Press and indie books, Erin has thirteen other published novels. Of those, two are M/M historicals published by Siren Bookstrand, set in the Ireland of badass clansmen, cattle drovers, druids, Saxon mercenaries and St. Patrick himself.

Tamara Allen
Tamara Allen resides in the piney woods north of Houston with her cozy family of husband, son, and cat. Her primary occupation is keeping them out of trouble, but on the side she likes to make up stories, for the pleasure of living briefly in an era long gone by.

Brigham Vaughn
Brigham Vaughn is starting the adventure of a lifetime as a full-time writer. She devours books at an alarming rate and hasn’t let her short arms and long torso stop her from doing yoga.  She makes a killer key lime pie, hates green peppers, and loves wine tasting tours. A collector of vintage Nancy Drew books and green glassware, she enjoys poking around in antique shops and refinishing thrift store furniture. An avid photographer, she dreams of traveling the world and she can’t wait to discover everything else life has to offer her.

Heidi Cullinan
Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren't enough of those stories out there. When Heidi isn't writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, knitting, listening to music, and watching television with her family. Heidi also volunteers frequently for her state's LGBT rights group, One Iowa, and is proud to be from the first midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Marguerite Labbe
Marguerite has been accused of being eccentric and a shade neurotic, both of which she freely admits to, but her muse has OCD tendencies, so who can blame her? Her husband and son do an excellent job keeping her toeing the line, though. Together with her co-author Fae Sutherland, Marguerite has found a shared passion for beautiful men with smart mouths.

When she's not working hard on writing new material and editing completed work, she spends her time reading novels of all genres, enjoying role-playing games with her equally nutty friends, and trying to plot practical jokes against her son and husband. Her son is learning the tricks too quickly and likes to retaliate. You'd think she'd learn.

Fae Sutherland
Fae Sutherland is the award-winning, bestselling author of 30 M/M erotic romance novels - co-authored and solo. She also writes M/F erotic romance under a pen name.

When Fae's not working on new stories to make her readers sweat, she loves website design, spending too much time on Twitter, and watching oodles of Food Network with her beloved life partner. If there's any time left over, it's spent snuggling the cat.

Bonnie Dee
I began telling stories as a child. Whenever there was a sleepover, I was the designated ghost tale teller. I still have a story printed on yellow legal paper in second grade about a ghost, a witch and a talking cat.

Writing childish stories for my own pleasure led to majoring in English at college. Like most English majors, I dreamed of writing a novel, but at that time in my life didn't have the necessary focus and follow through. Then life happened. A husband and children occupied the next twenty years and it was only in 2000 that I began writing again.

I enjoy dabbling in many genres. Each gives me a different way to express myself. I've developed a habit of writing every day that's almost an addiction. I don't think I could stop now if I tried.

Summer Devon
Summer Devon is the pen name writer Kate Rothwell often uses. Whether the characters are male or female, human or dragon, her books are always romance.

You can visit her facebook page, where there's a sign up form for a newsletter (she'll only send out newsletters when there's a new Summer Devon or Kate Rothwell release and she will never ever sell your name to anyone).

Amy Lane
Amy Lane dodges an EDJ, mothers four children, and writes the occasional book. She, her brood, and her beloved mate, Mack, live in a crumbling mortgage in Citrus Heights, California, which is riddled with spiders, cats, and more than its share of fancy and weirdness. Feel free to visit her website or blog, where she will ride the buzz of receiving your e-mail until her head swells and she can no longer leave the house.

Josh Lanyon
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.

Charlie Cochrane
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice - like managing a rugby team - she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries, but she's making an increasing number of forays into the modern day. She's even been known to write about gay werewolves - albeit highly respectable ones.

Her Cambridge Fellows series of Edwardian romantic mysteries were instrumental in seeing her named Speak Its Name Author of the Year 2009. She’s a member of both the Romantic Novelists’ Association and International Thriller Writers Inc.

Happily married, with a house full of daughters, Charlie tries to juggle writing with the rest of a busy life. She loves reading, theatre, good food and watching sport. Her ideal day would be a morning walking along a beach, an afternoon spent watching rugby and a church service in the evening.

Bey Deckard
Born and raised in a small coastal town in northern Québec, Bey spent his early summers on his uncle’s boat and running wild on the beaches of the surrounding islands, lighting fires and building huts out of driftwood and fishermen’s nets. As an adult, he eventually made his way to university and earned a degree in Art History with a strong focus on Anthropology. Primarily a portrait painter and graphic artist, Bey sat down one day and decided to start writing.

Bey currently lives in the wilds of Montréal with his best buddy, a ridiculous, spotty pit bull named Murphy.

Abigail Roux
EMAIL: abiroux@gmail.com

Shell Taylor
EMAIL: shell4jmu@gmail.com

Erin O'Quinn

Tamara Allen
EMAIL: writer.mara@gmail.com

Brigham Vaughn
EMAIL: brighamvaughn@gmail.com

Heidi Cullinan
EMAIL: heidi@heidicullinan.com

Marguerite Labbe
EMAIL: MargueriteLabbe@gmail.com

Fae Sutherland
EMAIL: faesutherland2@gmail.com

Bonnie Dee
EMAIL: bondav40@yahoo.com

Summer Devon
EMAILS: summerdevon@comcast.net

Amy Lane
EMAIL:  amylane@greenshill.com

Josh Lanyon
EMAIL: josh.lanyon@sbcglobal.net

Charlie Cochrane
EMAIL:  cochrane.charlie2@googlemail.com

Bey Deckard
EMAIL: bey.deckard@gmail.com

Part & Parcel by Abigail Roux

Resurrecting Hope by Shell Taylor

Masters of Cane by Erin O'Quinn

The Road to Silver Plume by Tamara Allen

Trust by Brigham Vaughn

Clockwork Heart by Heidi Cullinan

The Gladiator's Master by Fae Sutherland & Marguerite Labbe

Will and the Valentine Saint by Bonnie Dee & Summer Devon

Under the Rushes by Amy Lane

The Mermaid Murders by Josh Lanyon

Jury of One by Charlie Cochrane
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES

Caged: Love and Treachery on the High Seas by Bey Deckard