In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best bar to be playing smooth jazz in. I was wearing my second-best suit and tie for the occasion, and I’d even brushed the tangles out of my mop of curls. We weren’t playing bad—not good either, mind, but not bad—but a few of the dive bar’s seedier-looking patrons looked set to start pitching bottles at us.
Salin had been the one to set up the gig; I just showed up with my old trumpet that looked like it’d been pulled from the ruins of Hiroshima. For all I knew, it had been. Now I was wishing I’d ignored Salin’s call and stayed at home watching B horror flicks. I gave the surly crowd another glance and used a rest in the music to take a step back, putting Salin and his double bass between me and the crowd.
I noticed the woman as soon as she came in off the street and took a seat at the table directly in front of the stage. The thick black coat she wore wasn’t unusual; it was only the start of autumn, but already the air had teeth. No, what drew my eye was that she was now the only Vei in a bar full of humans.
I was so busy watching her I missed the last note, but I doubted any of the louts had the cultural acumen to pick up on it. The song died an undignified death in the hostile room. Salin gave a bow, his hair falling across his lined, dark face, as if expecting applause. Surprisingly, he got some, a single clap from the Vei woman. She glanced around, and huddled back down, returning her hands to her lap. I stroked the corner of my mouth as I studied her. She was strange, all right.
Salin looked like he was going to launch into the next piece, but Bubbles seemed to have the better idea. He gave the audience a quick appraisal and unplugged his keyboard. I nodded to him and leaned my head down to Salin’s ear.
“Exit, stage left?”
Salin’s frown was a permanent affliction, so I didn’t begrudge him it. “We haven’t finished our set, Miles.”
“We’re getting paid in bar food, and the grub in this place isn’t worth getting beat to hell over.”
He frowned, looking confused. “Our set,” he repeated.
I sighed. Arguing with Salin was like arguing with a parrot. I doubted he’d even noticed the way the crowd was looking at us. “Fine. I’m going out for some air. Call me if anyone wants an encore.”
He nodded, and I returned my trumpet to its case and tucked it behind a chair at the back of the stage. I’d probably get back and find it being used as a beer funnel.
I glanced at Bubbles and jerked my head toward the door, but he shook his head, already making for the bar. He had that look in his eyes, the one that meant he was going to be blotto by the end of the night. I shrugged and shouldered my way out the back door and into the cold night air.
The alley was like most of Bluegate at night: dark, littered with cigarette butts and old newspapers, and generally not the sort of place you wanted to be unless you had a masochistic streak.
I was in the alley listening to the sirens go past and enjoying the relative quiet for less than a minute before a voice behind me spoke. “Miles Franco?”
I jumped like I had springs attached to my feet. I spun on the spot, heart rate through the stratosphere, my hands moving to my pockets of their own accord.
The Vei woman put her palms up and took a step back. “I did not want to scare you.”
Vei are an odd-looking bunch, no one could argue that. Picture a shark with a flattened nose, large eyes and pale skin, and that’d be a good approximation of the woman’s face. From the neck down she looked fairly normal, if a little small and oddly proportioned. Under her coat she wore a necklace of pearls, nearly invisible against her negligible cleavage. She had the smell of money about her, something far more alluring than any perfume. That got my interest, given my current financial state. It wouldn’t be long before I was selling kidneys to keep my landlady from evicting me at the end of a shotgun.
“You often go round sneaking up on people in alleys?” I asked, the words coming out sharper than I intended.
She cast a look over her shoulder, eyes flicking about like they were chasing fireflies. Vei tend to be flighty, prone to bouts of exaggerated emotion, and this one wasn’t much different. “You are Mr Franco, yes? The Tunneler?”
Christ. “Nah, wrong guy. I’m a plumber. Pipes, not Tunnels.”
“No, your friend, the musician, he said you are the Tunneler.”
I groaned. “Which one ratted me out?”
“The dark-skinned one with the large guitar.”
“Double bass,” I corrected.
She cast another look around as a couple of people walked past the alley and watched them until they were out of sight. It was only then that she swivelled her bulbous head back toward me. She spoke soft and fast, leaning in toward me. “Mr Franco, my name is Anja Roya. I was told I could find you here. I have had trouble. I—”
The door to the bar slammed open, making the Vei jump twice as high as I had. The first thing to come into the alley was a stiletto heel with a shapely calf attached. That was followed up by a bare thigh and an hourglass body in a silk cocktail dress with a slit right up the side. I was distracted enough by all the interesting curves that it took me a few moments to realize the body also had a woman’s head, with almost-black hair done up in a bun that was probably French or Italian or something.
I picked up my jaw and tuned in my brain just in time for her to fix the Vei woman with a sneer. “Jan, Amy,” she called back into the bar. “The bitch’s out here.”
Anja let out an alien yelp and ducked behind me, one hand with a death grip on my shoulder. Two more scantily dressed women strode out of the bar and stood staring at the two of us. I kept my eyes down. I’m not ashamed to admit it; beautiful women scare me. That’s a story for another time, but having the three of them staring at me was enough to dry my throat and turn my face into an oven.
Anja pawed at my shoulder with long, slender fingers, bringing her wide mouth uncomfortably close to my ear. “I need your—”
“—help. Yeah, I figured.”
The women winning the staring match were clearly not a bunch of ordinary gals out looking for a good time. I couldn’t be sure—there wasn’t an official handshake or anything—but I’d put what little money I had on them being Silk Dragons. As whores packing heat, the Dragons ran the east Bluegate drug and prostitution trades. They’d even been claiming territory from the Gravediggers in recent months, and the Gravediggers didn’t give up territory easy.
I tried to stay out of gang business for the most part. It was bad for my life expectancy. But in Bluegate, that’s like trying to stay dry in a swimming pool.
“Hey, handsome,” the dark-haired woman said, practically purring. She put one hand on her hip and outstretched the other to me, her finger brushing my chin. “You look strong. Fancy buying me a drink?”
Jesus, these girls didn’t play around. “Sorry, Miss, I can’t even afford my own drinks these days.”
“Mmm, I’m sure we can make a trade.” She stretched out one of her oh-so-long legs and set it down even closer to me. “How about I buy the drink, and you give up that pretty bird you got shivering behind your back?”
“She’s not mine to trade,” I said. “In fact, if you look closely, you’ll realize I’m not even here. And even if I was, I wouldn’t have seen anything. Good evening, ladies.”
The look on the Silk Dragons’ faces brought to mind that of a cat with a mouse under its paw. My stomach turned, but this wasn’t my business. I tried to take a step forward, but Anja whimpered and clutched my arm so tight I was worried it was going to fall off.
“Mr Franco,” she whispered. “Please.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Damn it, I hated that word. For some reason, I always heard it right before I did something stupid.
The Silk Dragon lifted a hand and reached past me.
“Please,” the Vei said again.
My heart squirmed. “You said your name was Anja?” I whispered.
“Reminds me of a girl I once knew.” I sighed. “Ah, to hell with it.”
I snatched the Silk Dragon’s wrist out of the air, and her face twisted into an animal snarl. Behind her, the other two Silk Dragons dropped into crouches, switchblades appearing in their hands.
“You know my rates?” I said over my shoulder.
“Yes,” Anja said.
“They just doubled.”
I shoved the Silk Dragon back into her friends, sending the shorter of them sprawling into a garbage can. The dark-haired one ran her tongue along her teeth and pulled a snub-nosed revolver from her garter.
“Anja,” I said, my hands going through my pockets. “I think it’s time for us to get lost.”
From one pocket I pulled a small silver coin, from the other, a thimble-sized bottle of silvery, viscous liquid. I’d add the cost of the Kemia onto Anja’s bill. Along with a good chunk of hazard pay.
But making Tunnels isn’t the only thing us Tunnelers are good for.
I uncorked the little bottle with my teeth and shoved Anja behind a dumpster. Not very suave, I’ll grant you, but with the Silk Dragon aiming her revolver at us, I wasn’t going to take any chances with my paycheck. Client, I mean.
“Don’t be stupid, pretty,” she said, advancing on me with the gun raised. “She’s too much trouble for you. Walk away.”
“You’ve got no idea how much I want to, lady.”
I upended the bottle of Kemia, pouring the silvery catalyst over the coin in my other hand. The fluid flowed into the lines I’d scratched into the surface of the metal, weakening the fabric of our Universe.
And then there was a pulse of something pushing against reality.
Tunneling relied on making a connection between our reality and the reality of Heaven. Not the afterlife Heaven with clouds and pearly gates. It just picked up the name from some expeditionary soldier’s half-forgotten joke. In Heaven, the laws of physics were more like rough guidelines. It was the sort of place that could drive you mad if you weren’t already a little crazy, or a native, like the Vei. But if you knew what you were doing, and you had the skill, there were ways of harnessing that strange reality.
I liked to hum while I was Tunneling. It got me into the right frame of mind. I let my mind wander into a kind of nonsensical dream state, matching time with the bizarre pulsation pushing through reality. And then I threw a dash of energy into the Kemia-soaked coin.
This wasn’t a full-sized Tunnel I was playing with. We called this one a Pin Hole, a tiny link that opened between Heaven and Earth. Each one was different, depending on how you crafted it, but they all relied on harnessing the shifting, unpredictable nature of Heaven and imposing it on our reality. This particular Pin Hole was one of my favorites.
The Silk Dragon thumbed back the hammer on her revolver, but she was far too slow. Something indescribable shifted, and there was a feeling of wrongness as the new reality took shape.
And then the air in the alley turned to smoke.
I dived to the side as the gun barked. The sound of the shot echoed around the concrete walls, damn near deafening me, but the smoke was so dense I couldn’t see more than the hint of a muzzle flash. We were invisible—or as near to it as possible—for a moment at least.
I groped through the smoke, ignoring the impressively blue language coming from the Silk Dragons. Finally, my hand found what it was looking for, and closed on the wool of Anja’s coat sleeve.
“This better be worth it, sweetheart,” I said, and hauled her to her feet. Another gunshot went off, hitting the ground a few feet from me. It would seem I’d made a few new enemies. I’d have to add them to the list.
I half-dragged Anja out of the alley, toward the back of bar. The tapping of her heels on the concrete made stealth impossible, and we only had a minute or so before the smoke dissipated, but it would be enough. Well, that’s what I kept telling myself.
“You got a car, lady?” I asked, puffing already.
“What? No. You do not?”
“Not quite. I hope you know how to hang on.”
* * *
I ride a rusted 250cc Japanese motorbike, only kept running by good engineering and a fair amount of luck. At the best of times it was a struggle to keep myself and my trumpet and whatever other crap I had with me balanced, especially given the nonexistent skills of Bluegate’s drivers. With a half-hysterical Vei on the back, it was damn near suicide.
“Sit still, goddamn it!” I yelled over my shoulder, but she didn’t take any notice. I’d let her wear my helmet, and it was a snug fit given the shape of her head. Even if her ears weren’t being crushed, she’d have trouble hearing me over the sound of her own incoherent babbling.
I was already regretting my decision to get involved in this crap. What the hell had I done? I could be playing jazz to people who didn’t care, and instead I was racing through the night with an unwanted fare on the back of my bike, praying to the Eight that a bunch of armed whores weren’t on my tail. This wasn’t the way to live a free life. Not a long one, anyway.
I’d put my money on Anja being an illegal immigrant. She probably bribed her way through Immigration at the Bore, the main channel to Heaven, or maybe she paid some seedy freelance Tunneler like myself to smuggle her in. I dealt with a lot of illegals, but usually I was smart enough to pick the ones that weren’t going to get me killed. What the hell was I doing with this one?
When Anja nearly unbalanced me for the third time, my second thoughts stopped being so secondary. I was tired, I was cranky, and I wasn’t in the mood to put up with any more of this woman’s nonsense.
I sharply turned into an abandoned construction site, taking perverse delight in Anja’s rising screams. Skeletal buildings and long-forgotten construction equipment surrounded us, cast into shadow. I brought the bike to a halt, killed the engine, and clambered off, then dragged the trembling Vei down as well.
“Listen,” I said, pulling her helmet off and holding her by the arm in case her legs decided they had better things to do than keep her upright. “You need to cool it, lady. I’ve got half a mind to slap a few stamps on you and mail you back to those crazy bitches. What the hell are you into?”
She was shaking, but she still had the fortitude to give me a look so cold my nose grew icicles. She dropped her eyes a second later, silent.
I ran a hand through my curls and forced myself to exhale. “I got better things to do than be out here. If you want my help, you’d better start telling me exactly what you want and give me some damn compelling reasons why I should be a part of it.”
“You are a Tunneler. I need a Tunneler. You do not need to know more.” Her voice had more bite than I was expecting. What happened to the flaky little Vei from the alley?
Still, I wasn’t going to let her get away that easy. “Maybe you should go find yourself another Tunneler. Me, I like to know who the hell I’m working with. Keeps me alive, you understand? So go on. There’s a phone booth around the corner. See if you can find yourself some other sap before those Dragons find you.”
She slapped me. Hard.
For a moment, there was no sound but the echoing crack and a slight ringing in my ears. My brain was still playing catch-up when her face dropped and she brought her hands to her cheeks, eyes so wide I wondered if her eyelids had withered away entirely.
And then she started babbling in Vei. It’s a harsh language, ever-changing and full of sharp consonants. I can speak it well enough, but her mouth was a blur and trying to translate it would’ve made my brain start smoking. My cheek was starting to throb, and for a moment I had a savage daydream of slapping her back just like they did in old black-and-white films before they invented women’s rights. But it’s not really my style, so I settled for grabbing her by the shoulders and giving her a quick, sharp shake.
“Knock it off,” I said.
She shut her trap and stared at me for a moment before switching back to English. “I am so sorry. The—”
“Yeah, yeah. Later. We don’t have time right now. There’s a lot of nasty people out there looking for us.” Despite my words, I set my feet and folded my arms across my chest.
She got the message. Vei didn’t cry, at least not that I’d seen, but Anja looked like she might make an exception for me. “My brother, he manages an establishment near the Avenues.”
“What kind of establishment?”
“The kind that offers jobs to illegals without asking questions. I work there, helping my brother with the accounts. We report ourselves as a bar, but most of our income comes from other sources.”
Other sources? My gut twisted. “Ink?”
She gave the briefest of nods. Hell. I stay away from drug jobs, for the most part, and Ink smuggled in from Heaven was the nastiest drug out there. There’s two ways that sort of career ends; either your box has a barred-window or it doesn’t. Still, I kept listening, though I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t just walk away right then.
“I did not want to be involved,” she said. “But it was the only place we could get work.”
“I know,” I said, and it was the truth. “So where do our lovely ladies of the night come in?”
“They came a week ago, the same one we saw tonight, demanding protection money. The owner already paid protection to the Gravediggers, and my brother told them so. They left, but they said they would be back. And this night, they returned. I was working upstairs when I heard the shots. I ran down and found my brother on the floor, bleeding. The women were still there, taking money from the register and clearing the customers out.”
Her voice trembled as she spoke, and she kept her eyes aimed at the dirt.
Christ, this woman knew how to yank on my heartstrings. She was playing me like a goddamn ukulele. “Then you ran?” I asked.
She nodded. “They chased me a while, but I lost them. Or I thought I did.”
I didn’t bother asking her why she didn’t go to the cops. Even if she found an honest one, there wasn’t much in the budget for an illegal. So I cut to the chase. “And now you want my help to leave Earth.”
“There is nothing for me here. Not anymore. I can pay.” She reached into her coat, and pulled out a wad of cash so thick it made my eyes turn into dollar signs. “I took it when I was doing the accounts, but I don’t need it. Not as much as I need to go home. Please, Mr Franco. I just want to go home.”
You could practically hear the sad violins playing. I may be an asshole, but even I couldn’t say no to a face like that.
“Christ,” I said. “Come on, then. On the bike. I need to pick some things up, then I’ll get you to Heaven. But keep the screams down this time. I’d like to not be deaf after tonight.”
* * *
Twenty minutes later we pulled up outside my apartment building, a monstrosity that was one more building code violation from being demolished. I fished in my pocket for my keys, trying to blink my eyes into focus, and wondered if I’d manage to get any sleep at all tonight.
I unlocked the front door and let us inside. It was dark and smelled vaguely of mold, but if she noticed, she didn’t complain.
“Go downstairs to the basement and get yourself ready to go.” I kept my voice low as I pointed. My landlady lived on the first floor, and waking her would be a good way to be reminded of exactly how much rent I owed, right down to the cent. “I need to get some Kemia from my apartment. I’ll be down in a minute.”
She opened her mouth, then shut it again and nodded passively. I nodded back—gentlemanly, I thought—and began the nine-story ascent to my apartment.
Like always, I was huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf by the time I got up the stairs. I fumbled with my keys again, slid the right one into the lock, and shoved against the stiff hinges.
My apartment’s not much to speak of, and I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the mess I’d left for myself, so I didn’t bother switching the lights on. The mess was the main reason I hadn’t brought Anja up with me. Human or Vei, women tended to be highly critical of my apartment.
I tossed down my keys and tapped on the bowl I kept near the door to check my goldfish, Munsey and Frank, were still alive. When they responded I opened the fridge and started rummaging through the Chinese leftovers for a bottle of Kemia.
“Midnight snack, Mr Franco?”
For the second time that night, I jumped and jerked around. This time, I managed to slam the top of my head against the inside of the fridge, and I saw stars.
A light flicked on overhead, illuminating the dark-haired Silk Dragon standing in my living room. At another time I might’ve been drooling to have such a scantily dressed woman in my apartment, but the gun in her hand put me off a little.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Who was it sold me out this time?”
“Bubbles, I think he said his name was. He was very pliable, especially after a drink or two.”
“Son of a bitch.”
The fridge was still open, and something in the door rack caught my eye. A full bottle of Kemia, just sitting there, tempting me to reach for it and get my head blown off.
“What do you want?” I asked, mainly to take my focus off the Kemia. After my stunt in the alley, I didn’t think this bitch would be too likely to put up with more of my nonsense. Come to think of it, that summed up most of my relationships with women.
She smiled and moved toward me, her hips swinging hypnotically with each step. They made a convenient place to stare so I didn’t have to look her in the eyes. She kept her arm tight against her side and pointed the gun at me, casual, like she did this all the time. Maybe she did. “We got off to a bad start. Maybe we can get to know each other.”
“Sure. Toss the gat, pull up a chair, and we can have a good old-fashioned chin-wag.”
She let out a throaty laugh, but the gun stayed where it was. “You know why I’m here. Where is she?”
“That old thing? I dropped her off by the bus station a few minutes ago. One-way ticket out of town. You hurry, you might still catch her.”
“You’re a bad liar, Mr Franco.”
“Yeah, but at least I managed to put underwear on this morning. More than I can say for some people around here.”
She cocked her head to the side. “You noticed? How sweet. Would you like a closer look?”
“Maybe another time.” My throat had gone dry, but I refused to let her see me swallowing.
“Sad.” She pouted. “But that’s all right. I have plenty of other things I can trade.”
She reached into her handbag and pulled out a pile of cash twice as big as the one Anja had shown me. Christ, if people didn’t stop flashing money at me, I was going to have a heart attack.
I’d be lying if I said all that green wasn’t tempting. I could get a lot of people off my back with that money, not the least of them my landlady. I live pretty frugally—meals are a luxury for a man like me—and what she held in her hand would keep me going for a long time. My hand itched, and I could almost feel the grain of the bills beneath my fingers.
Still, I wasn’t quite ready to throw in with her yet. A part of me still protested, the part that had kept me out of the pockets of the gangs for years. It wasn’t going down without bruised knuckles and a bloodied nose.
“And what, exactly, would I need to do to get my hands on that stack of cash?” I asked.
“Not much,” she said, holding the cash up toward me, as if tempting me to feel the heft of it. “I wouldn’t want a pretty thing like you to get his hands dirty. You just have to come with us and show us where she is, that’s all.”
“I’m pretty snowed under right now. How about I just point you in the right direction?”
She smiled, staying silent. My eyes drifted to the stack of cash again. It was a lot of money. And what were my alternatives? Say no and get my kitchen decorated with my brains? I gotta say, being rich sounds a hell of a lot more fun. And I could afford plenty of drinks to wash away any niggling guilt. Tequila was particularly good at that, I’d found.
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” I asked.
“Of course you do, handsome. You always have a choice.”
“Sure doesn’t feel like it.”
She stepped closer, moving well inside my personal space. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the gun in her hand, metal glinting in the light of the open fridge. I shivered.
For the second time that night, I found her face inches from mine. She was a couple of inches shorter than me, but her heels pushed her up so we were almost face-to-face. She smelled of cinnamon, and she had four freckles on her face. I counted them. Somehow, despite the gun, she seemed strangely vulnerable.
There was nothing else for it. I kissed her.
She didn’t hesitate, she just parted her lips and let out a subdued porn-star moan. She had something sweet on her lips, and I ran my tongue along it. My left arm wrapped around her, sliding against the impossibly thin fabric of her dress, feeling her muscles relaxing beneath my fingers. There was a smile in her kiss, something smug, self-assured. She was a pro. She had me.
My other arm snaked out and pulled the bottle of Kemia from the fridge door. Beautiful women were always so sure of themselves.
I slipped the Kemia into my jacket pocket just as she broke the kiss. She licked her lips, eyelashes fluttering, and said, “Mmmm.”
“Okay,” I said, “looks like you’ve got a deal.”
“Looks like I do.”
“Let me go get changed. I’ve been wearing these clothes all day and it feels like I’m walking around in a goddamn sauna. Then I’ll give you what you want.”
She tugged on my tie. “Need help, handsome?”
“Maybe I’ll let you buy us a few drinks later, see how we go then.” I forced a stupid grin onto my face. Well, I didn’t have to force too hard. It had been a pretty good kiss.
She winked and stepped back. I closed the fridge door behind me and made for my bedroom, forcing myself not to break into a run. Be cool, Miles. You’ve got this.
“Don’t be long,” the Dragon said.
I gave her one last look and pulled my bedroom door closed behind me. I could still taste her lip gloss on me. I wasn’t in a hurry to scrub it off. Right now, I just wanted to get out of here alive.
I went to the window and wrenched it open as quietly as I could. By some miracle, it didn’t squeak. Maybe my luck was turning.
My building’s excuse for a fire escape was little more than a few rickety platforms connected by ladders that were more rust than metal. Still, with a homicidal prostitute staring at her watch and waiting for me to come back out, I didn’t have many options, so I stuck my leg out the window and pulled myself onto the platform.
The groan of the metal was enough to make me cringe, but I didn’t stop. The night surrounded me, a siren wailing somewhere in the distance. The cops were always a few gunshots too late in Bluegate. If you wanted to survive, you had to learn to save yourself.
I scrambled down the ladder and onto the next platform, and then the next. The whole thing rattled and threatened to come crashing down. I wiped my sleeve across my forehead and kept moving.
I was at the final ladder, maybe eight or ten feet above the alley beside my building, when the Silk Dragon’s shout came echoing out of my bedroom window. My skin prickled and I kicked the last ladder down on its sliding rail, but I have to admit, a grin spread across my lips just the same.
I hit the ground with the grace of a drunken elephant, nearly crashing right into a pile of rubbish bags, and started running. Curses rained down on me until I rounded the corner and ran back up to the front door of my building, both hands in my pockets. Where the hell had I put those goddamn keys?
“Hey, that’s him!” a voice came from behind me.
I risked a glance back and saw the other two Silk Dragons jumping out of a sleek convertible. Hell.
I went through my pockets one more time, then gave up. I must’ve left my keys lying next to my goldfish. Since I didn’t think they’d be much help running them down to me, I went for Plan B.
Stiletto heels clacked against the concrete behind me, but I put them out of my mind as I pulled out one of my coins and uncorked the bottle of Kemia I’d taken from the fridge. It was a simple Pin Hole, designed to play with the probabilities of something with only a couple of settings. In this case, a lock.
I forced energy into the coin as I splashed Kemia over it, and felt an instant reverberation of chaos in my mind. There was no noise; the door was just unlocked, as if had always been that way.
I ducked inside, trying to control my breathing. The glance I got of the two Silk Dragons before I slammed the door in their face left no doubt about what they’d do to me if they caught me. I’m pretty sure it would’ve involved a sharp knife and a few choice parts of my anatomy.
I released the Pin Hole, and it snapped shut with a mental crack of energy. The Silk Dragons hammered on the door, but it was locked again. I figured it’d hold them for about two minutes.
My forehead was sweating so much I felt like a goddamn waterfall by the time I got to the basement. No point using a Pin Hole to lock the door down here—I’d need all my focus to open the Tunnel to Heaven—so I shoved an old box of some resident’s crap up to the door and made my way through the maze of junk.
“Mr Franco?” Anja said. She stood in the corner, coat clutched tight around her, wide eyes opened even wider. “What is happening?”
“Ran into some old friends, is all.” I snatched up a set of sidewalk paint and a brush I kept stashed on a broken washing machine and gestured her over to the circle I kept in the basement. “Probably best we get moving.”
The basis for my circle is an iron ring, seven feet in diameter, bolted to the concrete floor in a damp corner of the basement. It keeps the Tunnel fairly stable, as these things go. Still, it’s not complete until I’ve marked it up specially. I unscrewed the top of the paint tube and started painting symbols within the confines of the circle. “Where do you want to go?”
“Skytown,” she said without hesitation. “My family live there.”
I nodded and kept painting. I could get us right into the city; I knew a good place to open a Tunnel there. Skytown was nice this time of year. Maybe I’d stay for a while, given the enemies I was making.
On cue, the basement door shuddered as someone tried to force it open. “Franco! I’m going to gut you, pretty.”
Anja squeaked, and I suppressed the urge to do the same. I put the finishing touches on the Tunnel and stood up. Not enough time to make the thing as well as I’d like, but it would hold. Might be a bit of a bumpy ride, though. I emptied half the bottle of Kemia onto the circle, and the symbols started shifting and swimming.
Another thump came from the door, and I heard the box scraping along the concrete.
“Time to go, lady,” I said, grabbing Anja by the elbow and pulling her back away from the circle.
I closed my eyes and let my mind flicker from thought to thought randomly, chaotically. A nonsense tune built in my throat, and I started humming as an awareness of discord pressed against my mind.
There’s as many theories on Heaven as there are people studying it. It’s a world where entropy always wins, or a quantum reflection of our own Universe, or a representation of the Devil’s twisted psyche. Truth is, that’s all posturing bullshit. Sometimes it’s all of those things, and sometimes it’s none of them. It’s chaos, pure and simple.
The thumping on the door grew louder, but I pushed my knotted stomach down and focused on getting us the hell out of Dodge. Chaos pushed against the circle, wanting to spread out in our nice clean reality. All it took was a little tear.
My legs shook as my strength left me, like I’d suddenly lost a quart of blood. I controlled the energy as best I could, focusing it, if not like a laser, then at least like a flashlight with fresh batteries.
The center of the circle pulsed once, twice, and then the Tunnel broke through. I opened my eyes to find the center of the circle being sucked into the concrete, a black pit growing until it reached the iron ring that bordered it. A sense of pure anarchy overwhelmed me for a second, nearly dropping me to my knees, before I got my head back into place and managed to bring up the wall in my mind that divided the dichotomy of chaos and order.
The Tunnel wasn’t much to look at. If you weren’t looking too closely you could mistake it for any old hole, apart from the oil-slick sheen that covered the blackness. Anja’s eyes reflected some of that gleam, or maybe it was just the light being tricksy.
“All aboard,” I said, giving Anja a nudge. “You know what to do.”
She nodded and stepped up to the Tunnel’s edge, her wide mouth formed into a line. Strange, she didn’t seem quite so scared now. I, on the other hand, was doing my best not to hear the threats coming from the basement door. Three voices came from the door now, not just the one, and when I dared to look, I could see jewelry-speckled fingers appearing around the frame.
Why was it I never had enough time?
I glanced back to see Anja extending one bony leg over the lip of the Tunnel, looking every bit like someone about to step off a building and end up a splatter on the sidewalk. But when her foot touched the slick surface of the Tunnel, her reality shifted.
She swung downward, like gravity had decided to branch into new directions. For a moment, it looked like she’d fall into the pit and plummet to wherever bottomless pits finally bottomed out, but then, with a sense of swinging that would make my stomach lurch if I hadn’t seen it so many times, she was standing inside the Tunnel, perpendicular to me, looking back through the sheen.
I offered the basement door one more look before I stepped up to the Tunnel. The Dragon I’d kissed stuck her face through the crack in the door, lipstick smeared and teeth bared. “Franco!” she screamed.
A shiver ran through me, but I forced it to stillness, tipped an imaginary hat to the Silk Dragon, and stepped out over the edge and into the Tunnel.
My frame of reference shifted in an instant, and I rotated through space like I was on some horrible carnival ride. And then I was standing again, with Anja next to me in the darkness, the Tunnel stretching endlessly into the distance. I switched the focus in my mind, gathering energy from my reserve, and did a little playing God. Light bloomed in the Tunnel, seeming to come from everywhere at once, casting no shadows. Anja blinked her big eyes.
“The hell you looking at?” I asked. “Run, goddamn it!”
* * *
I don’t know how long we ran for. The distance to Heaven is never constant, but usually it’s at least an hour of walking. From the way my legs were burning, I would’ve guessed I was running for at least a couple of decades.
The Tunnel wasn’t wide enough for us to run side-by-side, so it was Anja in front, and me bringing up the rear. The far rear. Christ, that woman could move when she needed to.
It wasn’t long before the clatter of stiletto heels came from behind us, echoing down the Tunnel walls. The Silk Dragons were wasting no breath on threats anymore; maybe they figured I’d got the picture. They’d be right.
“You let them follow us?” Anja yelled.
I was wheezing like a ninety-year-old chain smoker, but I forced myself to speak anyway. “No choice. Can’t close one end without closing the whole Tunnel.”
Anja’s annoyance showed through, but she didn’t say anything else. I doubted I had the energy to answer her anyway.
Somehow, despite their inadequate footwear, the Dragons were closing on us. But after an eternity, or maybe two, the end of the Tunnel appeared, a glimmering sheen just like the one we’d passed through. I’d never been so happy to get to Heaven before.
Anja was outpacing me by a long stretch. She paused at the end of the Tunnel and glanced back at me.
“Go!” I shouted.
She nodded and dived out of the Tunnel. She twisted and changed direction, then disappeared from my sight.
I threw a look behind me as my deadened legs carried me the last few yards. The three Silk Dragons were close enough for me to make out the rage in their eyes and the thin sheen of sweat that coated their faces.
I had a feeling this wasn’t going to end well.
I exploded through the Tunnel exit at full speed, flying through the air even as gravity rearranged itself around me. Some instinctive part of me found the ground and got my feet pointing in the right direction before I hit, saving me from getting a face-full of rock but still resulting in me stumbling wildly for a few seconds before I got my balance.
Anja looked to have landed more gracefully. Her breath came heavy, but she stood upright on the rocky ground, illuminated by a green sky. Behind her, the edges of the rock dropped away into cloud. Skytown was aptly named.
“What are you still doing here?” I asked, panting. “Get going!” I pointed past her, to where clusters of spike-like buildings reached up to the sky. Each of them was mounted on a single rock as large as a city block, and each rock was floating suspended in space. Bridges linked the bits of land, shifting as they bobbed up and down. Even from here I could make out the crowds of Vei moving back and forth, and the din of Vei chatter drifted toward us.
Anja dug into her coat and pulled out the wad of cash she’d waved at me in the abandoned construction site. It looked pitiful now, compared with all the green the Silk Dragon had offered me, but it was still more than I earned most months.
She tossed it to me, and I turned the cash over in my hands. “This is more than my fee.”
“It is a bonus.”
A shout echoed from the Tunnel, sounding like it was coming from underwater. I met Anja’s eyes. “Beat it, lady.”
She looked troubled for a moment, but then the expression vanished. “Thank you, Mr Franco.” She turned and ran, her black coat flowing behind her and casting ever-changing shadows on the ground.
I turned back to face the Tunnel and listened to the approaching footsteps. I could close the Tunnel now. It’d be easy, just switch off the chaotic part of my brain, let the energy dissipate. Or I could turn and walk away until I was too far to keep it open. The Tunnel would wobble for a moment, protesting the moving mass still inside, and then it would crack closed with no more sound than a snapping rubber band.
I’d be safe, free to hang around for a bit, count my money, then go back to Earth when I felt ready.
There wouldn’t even be any screams as the three Silk Dragons died.
I probed the edges of the Tunnel with my mind. So easy. Like ripping off a band-aid. Sweat rolled down my cheek.
“Shit,” I said to myself, balling my hands into fists. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t have a triple murder on my conscience. What with the glow I was feeling from getting Anja to safety, I was beginning to think I was a big softie.
The clatter of footsteps came closer. I stuck my hands in my pocket and waited. The warm fuzzies in my stomach were at war with the butterflies, and I wasn’t sure who would win. I wiped my sweating palms on the inside of my jacket pockets and took a deep breath. Well, Miles, you’ve really done it this time. How are you gonna talk your way out of this one?
The dark-haired Silk Dragon came out first, swivelling up as gravity reoriented itself around her. The other two appeared a moment later. None of them were packing heat by the look of it; bringing guns into a place as unstable as Heaven was a good way to shoot your own foot off without even touching the trigger. Instead, the brunette’s friends each clasped a switchblade, looking like they were eager to use them. I gulped.
The dark-haired Dragon swung one long, graceful leg out. I was still registering the movement when her kick caught me on the chin and sent me falling back on my ass.
“Ow,” I said, rubbing my jaw. It felt like she’d nearly dislocated the thing.
She grabbed me by my tie and jerked me forward, snarling. “Where is she?”
“She’s out at the moment. Can I take a message?”
She tagged me with her fist this time, sending my teeth rattling around my head. It took a few moments for my vision to clear. When it did, I found her hissing at the other two. “Split up. Find her. She can’t be far.”
The two of them gave me venomous looks and raced off across different bridges, neither of them the one Anja had taken. Despite the lightning shooting through my jaw, I found a grin stretching my cheeks.
“You think this is funny?” she said. “You’re going to pay if I don’t find her. You know how much that bitch cost me?”
“Can’t your dignity take one little runaway? She’s not gonna talk to the cops, you should know that.”
She frowned, her snarl fading. “What the fuck are you talking about, Franco?”
“You killed her brother, you got your money. You made your point. Hell, I bet you’re reputation’s even still intact. Consider it a win and go home.”
She stared at me for a few moments. Her perfectly-shaped eyebrows drifted down low over her eyes, then a slow smile spread across her face. “That’s what she told you?”
“Yeah,” I said. Something in her tone gave me pause. “Why?”
She threw back her head and laughed a mirthless laugh. Her fists tightened on my jacket. “You stupid fucking sap. We didn’t kill anyone. She ripped us off.”
“She came in playing sweet and innocent, saying she had to buy a whole lot of Ink for her boss, or something. She was willing to pay cash up front, so I didn’t ask questions. Gave her what she wanted with a bulk-buy discount.”
It didn’t make sense. And yet, the grim smile playing on her face stopped me from casting away her claims entirely. “What did she get, then?”
“Half a million in Ink.”
My eyes must’ve bugged right out of my head. I tried to speak, but my throat had other plans.
She grinned at me and rocked back on her haunches. “Yeah. But your sweet Vei wasn’t entirely honest with us. You see, she paid us in phony bills.”
Counterfeit. No, the Dragon was playing with me. She had to be.
I stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out the wad of money Anja had given me. At first glance it looked like normal cash, all in twenties. But come to think of it, something about the color was off.
“No,” I said, as if denying it would make a difference. The dark-haired woman simply watched as I flicked through the notes, comparing the serial numbers on each one.
They were all the same.
I pictured Anja’s big black coat, the way it rattled ever so slightly when it ran. The way she never once took it off. A coat more than big enough to hold a few hundred vials of Ink.
“Fuck me a rainbow,” I whispered. How was that for a get rich quick scheme? Sell your ill-gotten Ink, turn your dirty money into clean bills, and let some idiot Tunneler take the fall. I’d admire her if I didn’t want to rip her head off.
The Dragon leaned down over me again. “I have half a million in cash that I can’t do a thing with. The cops will jump on us if we try to launder it. That leaves me in a bind, as I’m sure you understand.”
“Tough break,” I said, thinking more about my own poor wallet. The cost of the Kemia alone…
“Yes, yes it is,” she said. “You’ve cost me a lot of money, pretty.”
My heart sank somewhere around my knees. I didn’t like where this was going. “Hey, we’ve both been played, how about we call it a—”
She loomed over me, her lips peeling back over her teeth.
I sighed. “Will you take a check?”
If you liked this story, be sure to check out more of Miles’ adventures. The Man Who Crossed Worlds is available now. And don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list if you’d like to hear about new releases as soon as they’re available. I promise not to spam you or give your details to anyone else.