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I SLOUCHED in my chair, putting my feet up against the edge of the desk. My desk.
I had an office.
The place felt cavernous and stifling at the same time, and massively permanent, as if someone were pinioning me to this spot with a railroad spike.
I had rented the office because I’d lost a bet with a friend. A friend who was, for some unfathomable reason, far too invested in convincing me to stop doing business in dive bars. He was also campaigning for me to get a social security number, but that was over the line.
Even the office made me feel like I’d been brainwashed.
I hunched into myself, the heaviness pressing at me. Getting dragged into mildly more mainstream habits by my actual friends was one thing. But it had still only been months since I’d agreed to let the man who called himself Simon start crawling through my head every week. And I’d only agreed under duress: namely, the implosion of my own goddamn mind.
Telepathy was the closest word for what people like Simon did, and I’d been on the verge of refusing his help even if it had killed me. No matter how much he swore he would never take control of my thoughts, someone I didn’t trust should never have that much access.
Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t like trustworthy telepaths were thick on the ground. Better Simon than the ones who wanted me dead. The shadows of conspiracies and killers slithered through the back of my mind, strangling me. Conspiracies that involved my past. Killers who had forced me not to move against them.
And me, stuck in a city I hadn’t even managed to save from my own actions, and struggling just to tread water on my sanity. Losing ground while the psychics and ghosts recovered their power.
The room loomed, and I hunched farther into the chair. The walls weren’t claustrophobic, I told myself. The office was roughly twelve feet by ten, though I could see the long side was a little more than two inches shy of its stated length. The ceiling was four feet, nine and seven-eighths inches above where I was slouched in my chair. Or 1.47 meters. Imperial was stupid.
Before I could stop myself, I’d calculated the volume of the small room, minus the space taken up by desk, chairs, and me. I multiplied and estimated the number of oxygen molecules. Moles and moles and moles. Not the least danger of suffocation, I told myself. The math wouldn’t lie.
If only my bizarre computational ability could fix my brain.
I thought of the bottle of cheap vodka in the bottom drawer of the desk. No, I had a client meeting in a few minutes. The promise of work to distract me was the only reason I was here. However flimsy and trivial a job this was, I needed it. Treading water. I felt sick without even drinking the vodka.
Someone tapped on the door outside, the timid sound barely making it through the wood.
Early. Small favors. “Come in,” I called, swinging my feet down and trying my best to look professional. I probably should have worn a clean shirt.
The African American girl who pushed the door open was tall, but clearly young—probably not older than sixteen, and with the beanpole thinness and awkwardly long limbs that come from unexpected growth spurts. She was dressed smartly but not overly fashionably, wearing a jean jacket and various braided bracelets and necklaces that looked homemade, and had her hair plaited tightly back against her head.
And she wasn’t my client. The message requesting this meeting had been left by a babbling man with an Aussie accent.
She was probably lost or something. “Can I help you?” I asked with an effort, and was pleased with managing some tact. Kids bring out the best in me.
“Are you Cas Russell?” She said the words hesitantly, and one of her hands gripped the cuff of her jacket like she needed it to anchor her.
“Yeah, that’s me. Retrieval expert.” Also known as thief, mercenary, and soldier of fortune who could punch a guy in the face as hard as the relationship between impulse and momentum allowed, but I didn’t add that. Or the part about being a woman without a memory, someone else’s living weapon until my old self had gotten sliced out of my head. I wondered how she had gotten my name. “Do you want to sit down?”
She stepped forward as if she were about to walk the plank and perched herself on the edge of one of the client chairs in front of my desk. “I need your help.”
She didn’t say any more. I suppressed a sigh. “What’s your name, kid?”
More silence. “Okay,” I said. “Tabitha. Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Well, that’s what I’m here about,” she said, fidgeting. “My dad, he—he’s not answering his phone.”
“He’s not answering his phone?”
“He always answers his phone.”
I tried to speak delicately. “He may have lost it temporarily, or been busy—”
“No. He always answers when I call.” Her face was tight and tense, and her voice quivered slightly. “And he warns us beforehand if he thinks he might be out of touch—and other than that, he’s only not answered once, and it was ’cause he was in trouble, and he called me back right after. Now I haven’t been able to reach him in two days, and I think he’s in trouble again, and his message on his other phone said to come find you—”
My thoughts smashed to a halt with the grace of a car crash. “Wait, what? He said to come find me? Kid, who’s your dad?”
The bottom dropped out of my stomach.
“Are you a friend of his?” Tabitha asked.
I turned away from her, grabbed out my phone, and dialed Arthur’s cell. Voicemail. I hung up and tried his office number, the one he listed online as a private investigator. The message informed potential clients he was away from the office for a few days, and sure enough, advised any current clients with an emergency to contact me, complete with the address of the brand-new office Arthur himself had only recently strong-armed me into renting.
Well. Nice of him to tell me. “I’m not even a PI,” I growled into the speaker, and jabbed at the button to hang up before tossing my phone on the desk.
Then I turned to face Arthur’s daughter.
Arthur had a daughter. I’d known Arthur almost two years now, and I didn’t know he had a daughter.
For all the enemies I had been expecting to come feinting out of the dark, this was a sucker punch.
“I’ll track him down,” I promised her, finding my voice. “Do you have a number where I can contact you?”
Copyright © 2020 by S. L. Huang