Why is my son still alive, Liam?” The irritation in Richard Harding’s voice set my teeth on edge. “I’m running out of patience.”
“Do you want it done quickly, or do you want it done right?” I muttered as I adjusted my cell phone’s earpiece. “Choice is yours, but it’s one or the other.”
“I want it done. You’re not getting sentimental about this job, are you?”
I stopped dead in my tracks, my boot scuffing on the sidewalk. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s a valid question, don’t you think? Given your . . . history with Daniel.”
I nearly gave in to the urge to grind my teeth. “That was a long time ago. This is business.”
“Then get it done. This is taking entirely too long.”
I started walking again, taking longer, faster strides. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my duster and nestled my face into the high collar to keep from choking on the downdraft of thick, acrid pollution. “For the record, that UV-resistant mod that’s been ‘in development’ since the dawn of time would have sped up this process considerably.”
“That mod is still in the experimental phase,” he said. “You know that.”
“Then this will take some time. If you wanted it done faster, you might have lit a fire under the asses of the people who could give me the ability to move around in daylight.”
He huffed. “Just get it done. I’m a patient man, but—”
“Has the money been transferred?”
I stepped up to the curb and gestured for a cab. “All of it?”
“Yes. All of it. Now get it done, Liam.”
I laughed. “Or what?”
Silence. Long, telling silence: Harding was desperate. He had to be. Men didn’t put themselves on my radar unless they had no other options. For Harding to contact me and offer up so much money, he had to be beyond desperate. Pity for him he didn’t realize I’d have done the job for a fraction of the price. Had I ever crossed paths with Daniel Harding again, I’d have put a few bullets in him for free.
But when a man offers you $10 million to take out his own son, you don’t argue.
And neither, apparently, did he, because his end of the line was still silent.
I laughed. “That’s what I thought.” As a cab nosed toward me and slowed down, I added, “Your son will be taken care of.” Before Harding could say anything more, I disconnected the call.
I opened the cab’s door and slid into the backseat. The first taste of the air in there made my eyes water; there were disadvantages to an enhanced sense of smell, and enclosing myself in the capsule of filth and sweat that was a taxicab was one of them.
“The microchip factory on Fourth Street,” I said, trying not to let on that I was gagging.
The driver grunted an affirmative and pulled out into traffic.
I could walk to the factory in twenty minutes, but the sidewalks between here and there were a gauntlet of thieves. Though muggers didn’t scare me in the least, they were an inconvenience. A delay. And every minute wasted was a minute closer to sunrise.
Streetlights glowed halfheartedly along the roadside, yellow clouds of mist swarming around each burning bulb. Passing cars sliced hazy bands of amber and gold into the fog, some with headlamps so dim and old they were barely functional. Even with the horrendous visibility down here, workers could only spend so much of their pittance of a salary on anything they couldn’t eat.
There was a time when artificial lights, even this foggy darkness, necessitated a pair of sunglasses to keep from burning my eyes. These days, the caustic air stung, but my most recent optical mod included a self-adjusting tint that kept out even the most brutal fluorescents and mercury vapors. Now if the cybernetic companies could just do something about my skin, I’d be happy. But of course, they’d have to spend less time creating super-soldiers and sex goddesses if they actually wanted to outfit the city’s vampires with a mod to keep us from bursting into flames on contact with the daylight.
But of course that was, and probably forever would be, “still in development.”
While the cabbie drove, I took off my earpiece and dropped it in my pocket. It was just a decoy device, something to tell passersby and anti-mod activists that no, I was not speaking to someone using a communications implant. What they didn’t know wouldn’t inconvenience me.
With my left hand, I pressed the tiny nodule between the middle and third knuckles on my right hand. Everything in my field of vision darkened except the glowing blue-green displays visible only to me. I moved my hand until the nodule—now glowing the same color—lined up with the option for “display account.” I logged in and pulled up the transaction history.
As promised, Harding had made the deposit. I transferred the money to another account, then split it between four others. Harding hadn’t been thrilled about having to pay in full upfront, but he wanted me and no one else for this hit, so he’d grudgingly agreed to my terms. I wanted to be damn sure he didn’t pull a fast one and try to withdraw the money between now and when the hit was complete.
I couldn’t blame him if he did. $10 million was a lot of money, even for a cybernetics tycoon. For me, it was a fortune and then some. After this hit, I’d be out of the Gutter and out of this Godawful line of work.
I closed the display and deactivated the nodule, returning my vision to normal. Through the cab’s dingy window, I watched rundown people going about their business beside the line of decrepit cars in front of filthy, vandalized buildings. Third shift employees shuffled into factories, looking just as exhausted and haggard as the second shift shuffling out. This was the part of town where the destitute built the mods that bettered the lives of the wealthy.
I sighed and pulled my gaze away.
The cab lurched to a halt at the base of a brick-front building covered in a spiderweb of graffiti. The buildings in the Gutter were nearly indistinguishable from one to the next, but this was the right place. I’d been here enough times; I knew.
I paid the driver, then stepped out and immediately buried my face in my jacket collar again. Here in the industrial heart of the city, the pollution was even thicker and more acrid. My eyes watered, and on top of the lingering aftertaste of the rancid air inside the cab, every whiff turned my stomach. There were mods on the market now that filtered better than my zipped-up jacket collar, but those compromised senses on which I relied, so I dealt with it.
I looked up at the factory. High above me, the feeble glow of the sixth-floor windows was just barely visible in the haze. The seventh floor wasn’t visible at all, but I’d done enough recon to—
Footsteps. Behind me. Three meters to the rear and half a step to the left. All my senses immediately shifted, homing in on the approaching individual. Faulty attempt at stealth. Rapidly decreasing intervals between footfalls. Ambush.
I rolled my eyes. I don’t have time for this.
I spun, and my would-be attacker skidded to a startled halt, lip curled into a snarl and knife in the air.
“Just gimme your cash, man.” His voice shook in spite of his aggressive stance. “I don’t want no harm, just—”
“Put that knife away before you hurt yourself. You don’t know who you’re fucking with.” With that, I turned on my heel and started toward the side of the factory. Damned Gutter rat couldn’t hurt a vampire if he wanted to.
“Hey! Hey!” The mugger lunged at me, and I spun around again. We collided and the blade bit into my palm, but a swift kick to the idiot’s side sent the knife clattering to the pavement and its owner flying into the wall. He hit hard, grunting as his face met brick beneath a yellow spray-painted “Sky Must Fall” slogan. Groaning, he crumpled to his knees on the sidewalk.
I glared at the thin, shallow wound on my hand. What the fuck? Times really were getting dangerous when petty thieves carried weapons that could penetrate a vampire’s flesh. My arm tingled as nanobots scrambled through my system to take care of the damage. I shuddered and rolled my shoulder; the microscopic machines had saved my life numerous times, but I never could get used to that skin-crawling sensation when they were on the move. My palm burned, and I flexed and straightened my fingers as the tissue fused back together.
While the nanobots did their job, I turned to go, leaving my would-be assailant to figure out what had just happened.
I made it three or four steps, then stopped and looked back. The mugger wasn’t seriously injured, but he was still disoriented. He’d probably have a hell of a headache, but as soon as he was steady on his feet, he’d accost the next passerby. On the other hand, as long as he was down, he was vulnerable to the next thief.
I chewed my lip. I was no stranger to the desperation that drove men to crime, especially down here in the Gutter. This was the cruelest part of a cruel world—a place that had driven me to make my living committing murder—and theft probably wasn’t just a hobby for a man with ragged, mismatched sneakers barely held together by fraying laces.
I had no qualms about laying waste to the wealthy assholes who forced the rest of us to live like this, but the Gutter rats were like kin to me. It was us against them, so although I couldn’t afford the delay, I backtracked toward the mugger.
When I picked up the knife, his eyes widened. He stared up at me, holding his head in one hand and showing his other palm.
“Don’t . . . please . . .” He whimpered, drawing back and cringing like he was looking into the face of death.
If you only knew.
I knelt and laid the knife on the pavement. Then I grabbed his wrist, dug a few tattered bills out of my pocket, and pressed the money into his palm. As I stood, I toed the knife toward him. “Careful where you point that thing. Now get the fuck out of here.”
Then I walked away.
I went around to one of the factory’s side doors. Through bribery, the black market, and a thinly-veiled threat, I’d obtained an access code and a badge. I glanced up and down the narrow alley, making sure I was alone. Then I swiped the badge and punched in the access code. The kid who’d hooked me up obviously valued his life, because the LED turned green and the door unlatched, just like it had during the other night’s test run. I pulled it open and slipped into the factory.
The inside of the building was sweltering. The acrid stench of pollution wasn’t as strong, but the air was metallic and stank of brass, industrial lubricants, and heated rubber. Machinery clanged and rumbled. Conveyor belts hummed. Components clicked and clattered. Though I moved with practiced stealth, the factory’s noise gave me added insurance as I slipped past the workers.
I made my way to the back stairwell, then up to the seventh floor, where a second access code let me into the maintenance facility for the train station perched on top of the building. From there, I went into the restroom where I’d hidden a briefcase and backpack in the ceiling tiles. I quickly changed into the suit from the backpack, hid the bag and my duster back in the ceiling, and took the briefcase with me.
At the sink, watching my reflection in the mirror, I carefully peeled away the false skin that hid the visible mod on my face. Black silicone and titanium covered my temple and formed a crescent around my left eye. It wasn’t all that useful now that I’d had the new display implanted with my ocular mod, and down in the Gutter, it was just the kind of thing that would make me a target of the anti-mods. Where I was going, though, a mod marked me as one of the elite.
I discarded the false skin and scrutinized my reflection. Adjusted my tie. Tugged at my sleeve. Smoothed my hair. Once everything was perfect, nothing wrinkled or out of place, I picked up the briefcase and left the gentlemen’s room. Looking like any other businessman on his way home from a late night at the office, I strolled through the thin crowd on the train platform to the stairwell.
At the top of the stairs, I took a deep breath of crisp evening air and looked around. Though the Gutter was less than ten meters below my feet, it was a different world up here. Immense glass and metal buildings strained for the stratosphere all around me, and like crystalline capstones, glass penthouses gleamed and glittered on top of each towering structure. The elite of the elite lived in those. Cybernetics tycoons. Software lords. Heirs and heiresses to this or that empire.
Huge fans below the streets kept the industrial pollution of the Gutter down, and the air up here was perfectly crystal clear.
Everything was perfect here. The people of the Sky would never accept anything less.