Authors: Evelyn Glass
This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, events, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
Mine copyright @ 2015 by Evelyn Glass. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.
“Look at the princess now!" the old woman cackled, looming over Liana. The fake wrinkles in the actress’s face looked lurid as the lighting engineer overhead struggled to get his bearings.
Liana sighed as she penciled a note into her script that the writer had changed the line, again. If she was going to get her cue right, she would have to know what her fellow actors actually planned on saying.
The play was an updated version of the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Goose Girl,” in which a would-be princess is betrayed by her servant, forced to work herding geese until the prince recognizes her and saves her. Only this version contained a lot of tight black leather and pop culture references. It was edgy, said the director. It was hip. It was now. It had been rehearsing for six months and didn’t even have an opening date.
“Cut!” shouted the director. “That’s enough for tonight.”
“Thank god,” said the old lady, taking off her wig, ending the illusion that she was older than forty. “I need a cigarette.”
Liana kicked off the high-heeled character shoes she’d been wearing to rehearse and zipped up her knee-high black boots over her skinny jeans. She grabbed her handbag from where it was perched on one of the front row chairs, glancing nervously at the thinness of her wallet. She didn’t even want to think about the streets outside, or what might be lurking there. She was ashamed of herself. She didn’t used to be this frightened. But circumstances had changed. She smoothed her hair and prepared to approach the director, who’d been generous in the past, though she knew he couldn’t exactly afford to be.
"Maybe if you'd finally pay me I could afford that," she muttered.
"I told you, nobody gets paid until opening night."
"Which keeps getting pushed back. How do I know when opening night will be? You haven't even settled on a script yet. Every time I memorize a scene, you change it and I have to learn my lines all over again. Anyway, I need to borrow ten bucks for cab. Please, Rob."
"I would if I had the cash,” he replied, sounding distracted, shaking his head at the chaos around him. “But I can't spare it. I can barely afford to turn the lights on in here."
"I noticed that when I tripped over the prop table coming in." She glanced down the street. Rob seemed to notice her trepidation.
“Look, don't worry. It's safe here. There's a cop car just down the street."
She froze, heart speeding up, sending hot blood pounding through her ears. "Where?"
"A block away. Why?"
"I've got to go," she said, slinging her handbag over her shoulder. "See you tomorrow."
"But the door's that way." He pointed, confused.
"I'm going through the alley."
Maybe, she thought as the ragged heels of her boots clip-clopped on the cement, adding to the urgency--maybe, if she hadn't spent an hour and half standing around onstage--or what passed for the stage in the run-down loft above a window factory--she would have gotten out early enough not to feel so vulnerable.
She only felt a modicum of safety as she sunk into the subway instead--not because she felt like shivering in the deserted tunnel waiting for the G train to take her home to Brooklyn apartment, but because she had ten bucks in her wallet at the moment and the driver of a cab would probably expect a tip. Besides, she needed most of that money to go to the bodega tomorrow to replace the box of Rice Krispies and the carton of milk she'd been living on all week.
The subway car, when it arrived eight minutes later, was deserted except for a guy in a thick black coat slumped in the corner seat, his face lurid under the fluorescent lights. She wasn’t sure whether she should sit closer to him, so he wouldn’t sense her fear, or keep her distance. Finally, though her feet felt like cement blocks, she didn’t sit down at all, merely hooked her arm around the metal pole and lurched when the train did, thinking about the audition she’d been on last week for a play--a real play, one written by an award-winning playwright, the type they wrote about in the New York Times.
“You’re talented, but you should take acting classes,” the handsome, curly-haired playwright had said. He was well dressed, in a plaid flannel shirt, trying to look rugged--though he wasn’t. Not really. It was all false. It was merely a weak imitation of ruggedness of the kind of men she had once known back in her hometown of Prudence, Ohio.
Besides, it was easy for him to say. He had probably grown up here, or in Connecticut with an investment banker for a dad. He didn’t understand that she couldn’t possibly afford acting classes on the tips she made pouring pints at the beer garden in Queens.
She looked at her hands on the pole, her fingers white as they gripped the straps. She'd been in New York for two years, and this was all she had to show for it. A few chorus roles, a playbill with her name in the back under “swing.” A couple of roles that had folded after two performances with nobody but friends and family members in the audience, let alone a big-time theatrical agent. And once, a stage door Johnny to hand her a bouquet of flowers so big she could hardly hold them.
He’d said his name was Jack.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off you
. At the time, she’d been delighted, eating up his words, as he grandly offered her his hand to whisk her to Midtown for a forty-dollar rib eye steak at Mendy’s, and a bottle of champagne, too. That night, for the first time since she’d left home, she’d actually felt like an actress, a
. Now she just felt ill.
Her usual subway stop at Bedford-Nostrand was quiet, as it usually was this time of night, and the footsteps of her high-heeled ankle boots sounded loudly on the concrete floor beneath. She breathed a sigh of relief when, up ahead, she spied the light on in the window of her third-story walkup apartment.
A black-clad figure was coming toward her on the other side of the sidewalk, and she edged closer to the side of the building, ducking under the endless construction scaffolding that always seemed to mar this part of Brooklyn. She sensed footsteps behind her, turning around only to see a black-clad woman with a grocery cart making her way slowly down the street.
Still, she pressed herself up against a wall, fumbling with her keys to unlock the front door. As it turned out, she didn’t have to--it had already been unlocked. She flew up the stairs. She could hardly hear her own feet. There was a ringing in her ears, a kind of strange frequency, like her own voice screaming, though she was silent. The door of her apartment was wide open. She called for her roommate. "Misty? Are you home?"
No answer. She raced into the living room, then the kitchen. The table was cleared off neatly. In the center sat a single red rose. Hand trembling, she reached for it slowly, as if it might suddenly sprout teeth and bite her hand off.
See you soon. -J.
She turned around in a circle, the shabby college-style decor of the apartment--Mumford & Sons posters, beanbag chairs, TV tables--swimming like an aquarium in front of her eyes.
The staircase outside the door creaked, and Liana jumped what felt like a foot in the air. She glanced around her wildly. There was no escape, except for maybe out on the roof. She felt herself shrink, as if she could turn invisible if she willed it strongly enough. It might be her only hope. The footsteps lurched closer.
"Liana! What's wrong?"
Liana sank down on the couch, heart still hammering, though the rush of pure adrenaline had slowed. "Oh, god, Misty, it's you."
Misty tossed her keys on the table and threw back the hood of her sweatshirt, revealing her curly mane of black hair. She flopped down on the couch next to Liana, concern swirling in her chocolate-brown eyes.
Liana's mood had gone from terror to pure, overwhelming emotion. Tears ran down her face. She watched her hands shake as she swiped at her eye with the arm of her pea coat. Misty disappeared in the bathroom and came out with a wad of Kleenex. Liana dully grabbed it and dabbed her eye, staring at nothing. She’d read somewhere that too much adrenaline, too often, could actually
you. She was starting to wonder what the threshold was.
"Did you see him?" she finally asked.
"No, I just got here,” replied Misty. “I stayed to close tonight at the restaurant. Why, what happened?"
Liana silently pointed to the rose sitting on the table, afraid to even look at it. Misty look at it with confusion, and Liana explained she'd found it when she got home, all the lights on and the doors open.
"How did he--?" Misty gestured to the door. "I know I locked the door when I left. Double-bolted it. I always do."
"I know you did. I don't know how he got in. He can get in anywhere."
"You mean he's done this before?"
"He can't do this to you!" Misty demanded, leaping up from the couch. "It's breaking and entering. It's against the law. Liana, you have to call the cops!"
"I can't," said Liana miserably, staring at the blank TV screen, which had been blank ever since they'd had to choose between keeping their cable subscription and paying the gas bill.
Nicholas Stone signaled and pulled off the freeway at the exit to Chillicothe, where he had a meeting with Tryg Ryan, the president of the Black Sparks Prudence charter. On Main Street, a familiar curly-haired girl in a denim jacket and Ugg boots smoked a cigarette across the street from the junior high school. He didn't know her name, but she seemed to wait for him there more often than not, probably hoping he'd get curious one day and stop to chat. He knew better than that, though. She wiggled her décolletage in his direction with a wink, and he tightened his grip on the handlebars, glancing back with a dismissive little smirk, knowing it would make her day – a little thrill for both of them.
Instead, he parked the bike in front of the Purple Hawk bar and vaulted off in less than a second, unfastening the strap of his helmet and slinging it over the handlebars. The other members of the character were either behind him or already there, heading to their regular rendezvous point, whether they would meet the latest shipment from the Chillicothe Trucking shipment they would escort up Highway 50 to Cincinnati. It was a routine job, one that helped them keep the lights on in the clubhouse while they were waiting for the bigger scores. Since Tryg had taken over, it tended to be weapons shipments from Russia and Northern Ireland.
As much as the road relaxed him, the text message he'd received from Tryg that morning--
Come early. Need u--
did not. Lately, Tryg had been walking around like a load of bricks was suspended on a tarp above his head with the rope ready to be cut any second. Nick, as his vice president, couldn't help but absorb that apprehension. He didn't let any of it show, though, as he shoved one hand in his pocket and pushed open the door to the bar. Behind him, he heard another bike pulling in.
Kirrily, Ryan Tryg's sinewy, strong Australian wife, greeted him with a cheeky wink. Behind Kirrily, there was a flash of even blonder hair, as eighteen-year-old barback Cora Hines, her face lit up like a gigantic chandelier, dropped the napkins and letting them flutter all across the counter and down onto the floor. More for the benefit of his fellow outlaws than for her, he shook his shoulder-length hair so its coppery-brown highlights caught the sunlight pouring in. Cora blushed and quickly slipped into the backroom.
"Looks like you just missed another another charter member of the Nicholas Stone Fan Club," said Thomas "Tomahawk" Ripley, the sergeant-at-arms, slapping Nick's broad shoulder. He was several years older than Nick, a barrel-chested, muscular redhead with a perpetual sunburn, his beard knotted into a tail. "You tapped that yet?" he asked casually, looking taken back when Nick shook his head. "Give me one good reason."
“She's only eighteen.”
“That's a negative?” Tomahawk side-eyed Nick.
“For me it is. Plus, her dad doesn't like me.”
"Oh," said Tomahawk. "What is it with you and dads? I mean, besides their-daughters-begging-to-have-sex-with-you thing."
Nick smirked and shrugged.
“I sent her out back to count glassware,” called Kirrily, reaching for the coffee urn behind the bar. Both guys looked up, slightly startled. “I started to think the broken bottles I had to sweep up whenever you walked in the door might not be a coincidence.”
"Let me get this straight. He knows you're a Spark, right?" asked Tomahawk as he strode to the counter. "Tell Tryg. He'll talk to him. She can be on the back of your bike before you leave the parking lot."
"He knows," said Nick. "And he doesn’t care. Even though I know you like to think of this club as your own personal escort service.”
personal escort service, pretty boy. If I want a girl on the back of my bike, I have to take her out to dinner like everybody else. And even then odds are still fifty-fifty I'm going home alone."
Even if he had the money to take a girl out to dinner, which he rarely did, wining and dining some manicured, high-maintenance bimbo didn't exactly thrill Nick. But that didn't stop the other Sparks from forever tweaking him about the way girls seemed to stick to him like glue on construction paper, almost hypnotized by the pout of his full lips, his exquisite bone structure, and the millions of facets of his golden-green eyes. He’d been told, by women who were brave enough, that most of the time they seemed wounded, closed-off, impossible to fathom, making the times they did open up feel like a precious gift. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t prefer it that way--though as a teenager, it had been different. Then, his looks and charm had been a tool, and an infinitely useful one, too, for a boy who’d been born with so little of anything else. But he’d been cocky, overconfident, seeking out trouble, believing he could charm and bluff his way out of whatever he found. He'd believed that because usually, it had worked--until the one time it hadn't.
And it was why now, he was cautious; some would argue, too cautious. But if being too cautious was what it would take to ensure he never made that mistake again; he was prepared for that. His fellow Black Sparks knew little, if anything, about what had happened to him when he was seventeen, and he hoped he could keep it that way. Better to leave them thinking he was too cool to care than that he cared too much. Besides, it didn't mean he couldn't enjoy the way women reacted to him--from a distance. He realized Tomahawk was still staring at him. Nick felt the tension in his shoulders relax a little as he approached the counter and leaned forward.
"I know it's early, but are you sure you don't have time for some coffee or something?" asked Kirrily, reaching under the bar. “Sit down for a minute. I feel like I haven't seen you in weeks. When are you coming over for dinner, anyway? Kizzy misses playing My Little Pony. She says nobody can do Pinkie Pie's voice like you.”
“Shh,” Nick said with an exaggerated expression, though Kirrily cracked up loudly. “Keep it down. I have my street cred to think of.”
"I can't. Tryg's got me escorting a truck to Cincinnati," he said casually, resting his elbows on the counter, displaying the inside of his long forearms, and the tattoo peeking out beneath. "These truckers, they're a little OCD. If you're a second late, they freak out."
“Are you sure you don't have time for an eye opener? Goodness knows my husband always does.”
Nick turned around, leaning against the counter, and followed Kirrily's eyes to a table in the corner. There, Tryg Ryan, a giant man with a shaved head, piercing eyes, and silver studs in his ears held court like an emperor, intimidating for those who, unlike Nick, didn’t know him--or hadn’t been rescued by him, in more ways than one. Tryg whipped out a bottle of Jack Daniels and added it to his coffee cup, the one belonging to club treasurer Martin Malone, a wiry guy with black, close-cropped hair, a neck covered in tattoos, and a nasty streak Nick made it his business to dodge whenever he could. “Although an eye-opener might be nice.”
As she passed the foam cup to him, her body stiffened suddenly. Her hand clamped onto his wrist. "Wait." She closed her eyes, scrunching up her face. "I don't like this."
"Like what?" He tried to pry his hand away gently, though the intensity of her tone had startled him.
"This energy." She closed her eyes, then reached up to her forehead with her other hand, like she was trying to channel some form of psychic energy. Kirrily usually seemed so competent and logical, but when she got like this, there was no use trying to pull away—and not just because she was the president's wife. It was because she always seemed so damned
She always claimed one of her Aboriginal ancestors was an honest-to-god shaman. Nick turned around just long enough to shoot his friend a death glare.
When she opened her already-large eyes, they were as wide as he'd ever seen them. He backed away a little, his grip on the cup tightening. "Nick, your aura..." she said. "It's always had a red overlay," she said seriously. "And that's because I know bad things have happened to you." He swallowed. "Even if you won't tell me what they are. But today something's different."
Nick didn't really know why he was listening to this. She’d gotten like this before, but, for some reason, he always did. He couldn't explain it, but Kirrily's New Agey asides were strangely comforting to him. As a kid, the adults had so often taught him that he had no right to believe in anything; that there was nothing, and no one, out there who cared what happened him – that he’d been thrown away--not only by society, but by whatever powers that be. After a while, so much shit had been heaped on him he became inclined to believe they were right. Maybe that was why Kirrily's notion that there were some power in the universe, something looking down that indicated that they were more than just specks on a map, appealed to him somehow. Not that he would ever tell the guys.
"Kirrily, I'll be fine," he assured her, steeling his voice, stroking her hand with his thumb in an effort to calm her. "It's just a routine escort. We've done it a million times before."
"But today's different. I feel it." She reached down cupped his hand, closing his fingers around it, then her other hand, the warmth clammy against his wind-whipped skin, and Nick would be lying if he said a woman's touch didn't feel nice. He hadn't had much of that lately--by choice, but still. "Take this." He looked at the crystal in his hand, then back up at her. Her face was totally earnest, with no trace of irony. "It's for your chakra," she said. "It creates an energy shield around you to protect you. It's better than a bulletproof vest. But you have to make sure it's against your skin at all times."
Nick squinted and turned the crystal around in his hand curiously, turning up his lip in a half-smirk that he hoped didn’t look too dismissive. To be honest, he was kind of flattered. But he wasn't sure quite what to say. "Thank you?"
"This is where I leave you," Tryg said as if on cue, rising from the table and coming up behind Nick and clapping his much-younger vice president on the back, his leathery grip strong even through the thick fabric of the younger man’s jacket.
Nick turned around quickly, running a hand through his long hair and slipping the crystal into his pocket as subtly as he could. Behind closed doors, Tryg probably let Kirrily dangle all the crystals she wanted over his head, but if any of the other guys saw him with it, Nick would be the laughingstock of every Black Sparks chapter from here to Frankfurt.
"I have business up in Dayton,” said Tryg, escorting him out of the shop. “It's important, and I need to know I can trust you on this." He patted the younger man's shoulder and handed him a pistol with the serial numbers filed off. Automatically, Nick reached behind him and stuck it in the waistband of his slim dark-denim jeans. Tryg nodded at Tomahawk. “Let’s do it.”
"Dude--" said Martin, looking from Nick to Tryg. "What's going on?
leading the escort? Are you sure that's--" he swallowed his words when he saw Tryg, Nick, Tomahawk, and the others surrounding him, eyes like cocked pistols.
"Are you saying you don't trust Stone?"
"I'm just saying, maybe if he spent a little less time flipping his hair--" he eyed the counter of the restaurant, where Cora hard reappeared, humming to herself as she emptied the tip jar, pretending she wasn't paying attention.
"You want to say that to my face?"
"No, it's just that he's never--"
"Dude, remember when the Latin Kings jumped your ass in south Cincinnati after you dumped their coke shipment?" Nick countered. Martin’s eyes flitted from man to man. "If it weren't for me, you'd be smiling from ear-to-ear right now--and not because you were happy."
Tryg nodded, content to let Nick defend himself; the facts were on his side. Tryg did not choose his protégés lightly. In fact, perhaps Nick's biggest liability was that he didn't make it a habit of talking about his past. As far as the rest of them knew, Nick hadn't existed before Tryg fished him out of juvie and recruited him as a prospect, and whichever questions they had had been quickly shut down by Nick and Tryg.
Tomahawk’s family roots ran deep in the Black Sparks; his father had been best friends with Tryg’s older brother Trace Ryan, who’d been president before Tryg. But Tomahawk had also instantly taken a liking to the young man who was so close to him in age, whose sad, closed-off eyes he’d helped come alive again with a little well-placed ribbing. He didn’t care what Nick had been before that. It didn’t mean he wasn’t curious, but for outlaws, who all had pasts they were trying to outrun and forget, getting the job done was all that mattered. That's what made them brothers. It was where they were going, not where they'd been.