Nerves of Steel, p.1part #1 of Misfits of Magic Series
Table of Contents
NERVES OF STEEL
MISFITS OF MAGIC: BOOK ONE
Copyright © 2017 Lee Hayton
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
Table of Contents
About the Author - Lee
When the vampire walked into Joe’s Bar in midtown, it shocked me so much I fell off the roof.
Well, not the whole way.
I jerked backward and stumbled, then suffered a terrifying high-speed slide down the smog-greased tiles. A split second later, my body hung over the edge of the building. My fingertips were the only things standing between me and a four-story crash to the ground.
“Good one, Asha,” I whispered to myself, wishing someone had installed an upgrade that allowed me to fly.
Luckily, those finger joints were pure titanium. Sturdy but light—a favorite choice for your cyborg needs. With those suckers hooked in place, it was possible that the cracked and mildewed spouting would give way first. Much more likely, in fact. So probable, it was close to absolute. Eek.
I pulled myself up to chin height and threw one knee up to stop gravity busting my balls. Okay, not balls, but you’re not allowed to mention female genitalia in polite society.
Once I had half my body back on the roof, it didn’t take much more effort to pull my remaining leg and torso up there, too. I resisted the urge to look at the ground during the whole experience by keeping my eyes squeezed shut.
Working from lofty vantage points was a necessity to get the pictures I needed, but that didn’t stop me from hating heights. Worse, that fear was wired in—it wasn’t a choice.
If I stared at the ground while I was swinging, then soon I’d literally scream from the rooftops. No matter how hard I clamped my lips together or told myself the dangers of drawing people’s attention, a yell would still emerge. If not a full-on shout, then at least a high-pitched squeal.
Only when I was back in the safety zone, with tiles instead of air underneath me, could I risk cracking open one eyelid to survey the scene. Shit couldn’t roll uphill and neither could I. To get back into my earlier position, I’d need to crawl.
My half-titanium, half-flesh frame quivered up to the apex until I could straddle it, pressing my face in relief against the hard slate. Given the cost of my body, I should treat it with more respect. It’s projected to last for upward of a thousand years. A pity then that it would take twice that long to earn out my rebuild debt to the empire.
Not to worry. I sorted out my own early retirement from the empire’s work-to-own scheme. That was part of the reason I didn’t want anyone to catch me screaming on a roof. It was why I had to accept these suspect jobs in the first place, to pay my rent.
Ah, yes. The job.
I shimmied along until I was right up behind my mounted camera. Luckily, my clumsiness hadn’t brought it down with me in my tumble. Those tripod clips were worth the high price point.
After a quick check of the equipment, I flicked back through the last few images I’d snapped.
Definitely a vampire. Just strutting around like his lily-white ass belonged to a free man.
I had a clear shot of him walking along the alley, bold as brass, not bothering to check over his shoulder to see if someone was flanking him. Not a smart idea for anyone on this side of town, but unusually careless for a slave of the empire.
But nope. This guy wasn’t bothered. If his skin hadn’t been bright alabaster white, with eyes as pink as a bunny rabbit’s, then I wouldn’t have believed it.
It felt like information I should tell someone, but after glancing into the dark alleyway again, nobody sprang to mind. I’m not going near the empire police, and their bounty hunters were the ones looking for me, not the other way around.
Meh. None of my business. Whereas, keeping watch for the errant husband of my client—Mrs. Pennyworth—was.
My eye went back up to the viewfinder, and I settled my butt cheeks into as comfy a spot as they could find. Experience told me it could be a long wait.
I had a very particular set of skills. Ones that were worth a lot of money to a very select group of people, those in the empire governance mostly. Although the jobs I’d taken recently felt like a complete waste of my talents compared to what I could do, they were enough for me to get by now that I was persona non-grata.
Once I’d taken photographs of Mr. Pennyworth with a floozy on his arm, I could relax, extricate myself from the hellish heights of roofdom, and pack it in for the night. Though the photographs were just window dressing, they take more time than my real skills.
Despite the name, the Pennyworths are worth one hell of a lot more than a penny. Her dad’s fortune was forged by mining the outer peninsulas before any other bugger could work out a plan of attack. She now ran that company, so well-known that the husband took her surname when they married.
Hubby was in the grand old institute of law—getting his private clients off without a stain on their reputations. To keep themselves pristine, there was always someone willing to fork out a pretty penny. Just like there was forever someone willing to shell out double to drag them through the muck.
I didn’t drag people down. Instead, the muck was where I found most of them to begin with. Women who committed the cardinal sin of growing old were my bread and butter. They wanted me to find their spouses and remove the latest trollop to attach themselves like a limpet. Word on the street said that was how I restored marriages to good health.
It wasn’t the truth, but it wound up in the same place, so no one cared.
What my clients actually used me for was to have their husbands fall in love with them again. This wasn’t a difficult job—not for me—but it wasn’t child’s play, neither.
I didn’t advertise this service. It wasn’t the task client’s thought they were buying, but it delivered the outcome that my discarded wives—or an occasional husband—ached for. Each new lead knew from my previous clientele that they’d find this magic from only one place.
If I were a free agent, I could charge whatever the hell I liked—somebody would alway
Can I get a hooray for capitalism?
Back on the roof, once I’d ensured the freshly caught images were safely uploaded to my hard drive, I deleted the originals. No sense in taking the chance of those falling into the wrong hands.
My next port of call would be to visit Mrs. Pennyworth and show her the evidence she already knew was coming. After that, I’d suggest that she stop railing about the possible ways to dismember her life-long partner and set up a meeting to discuss the situation instead.
That was where my actual talent came in. My expertise came from subtly altering the brain chemicals of a person—in this case, so that they fell back in love.
Ah. There’s nothing like the rush of serotonin and dopamine that true romance brings.
Once I’d fiddled about in their heads, the Pennyworths wouldn’t be able to keep their hands off each other. The mister will set off to work every day with a spring in his step, while the missus would be able to get a good night’s sleep after a long day at the office, her body sated with the sweat of their love.
Just so long as she stayed off the sticky patch.
My mother used to call me a witch and my granddaddy used to bounce me on his knee and call me magic. Of the two, for some strange reason, I preferred his term.
If you liked to argue something down to its root, I’m telekinetic. Though be warned, if you wanted me to pull a Carrie on your ass, you’d die waiting. If I concentrate hard, maybe for a few days, I might be able to shove a small end table over by an inch.
My specialty had always been on a smaller scale. My training focused on the chemicals that course through any human’s anatomy. A tweak, a poke, a nudge, and the right liquids will flow into the right cells. A natural high delivered to you courtesy of a person that’s too often been labeled unnatural.
Better than heroin. Cheaper than a cartel. Also, rarer than hen’s teeth, and that’s been a blessing and a curse.
Once I dismounted from the collection of rusting metal that the apartment building called a fire escape, I unlocked my bicycle from the shadowed recess where I’d left it earlier. Thieves didn’t often bother with such crass technology but the street kids who roamed in packs at night weren’t above giving anything a beating. Even my rusty cycle could be fair game.
On a cold night like this, after hours spent freezing and terrified on a roof, I’d usually head straight back home. Tonight, I was still curious. With my intrigue peaked, I wheeled around the corner to have another look down the alley.
Joe’s Bar had long been a fixture in midtown. The grapevine was very good at advertising it was where you could get anything—for a cost.
Those price tags started off on the high end of money and finished with the remnants of your soul.
Like the old saying proclaims: Take what you want and pay for it.
Even with the wide selection of ‘anything’ on offer, it’s rare to see people acting entirely out of context. But if it held any secrets, the empty alleyway wasn’t about to spill them to me. The dank stone bricks reflected the moonlight with an evil, silver stare.
Nothing to see and I couldn’t hang about out there forever. Soon enough, the wrong someone would come strolling past. I needed to get back home to safety.
The trip from midtown to the western lowlands was a trail leading from seedy to destitute. The crumbling buildings of my home suburb stay upright from vindictive stubbornness, not strength.
The owners of these properties would have long ago trashed them with fire if the insurance payout wasn’t lower than the cost of getting the right low-life to do the job.
Instead, the buildings squat on the sides of the road and slowly sink down to its level. Every other week the locals will have a tale of someone being hit and killed by falling bricks.
Down here, nobody was on their way up and out. Life had beaten any desire out of them. It was the perfect place for a wanted fugitive to hang out. The residents were too worn out by just surviving to raise their hands for a reward.
The perfect scenario of live and let live, except it’s more like die and let die alone.
A food store sat two streets over from my house. Even in this neighborhood, someone can make a profit by selling necessities. For a while, I’d get my stuff for free by tweaking the attendant bot's electronic wiring.
I hadn’t done that for a while. True, it wasn’t an activity that would get picked up by the store cameras, but it was a strange enough event that it might trigger a closer investigation. I’d been through a similar situation once before and once was enough for me.
Relocating was hard when you’d hired a nice removal van and had a new home picked out. Try slinking out of your current place on a night drenched with rain—armed with nothing and heading to nowhere.
That much stress, I didn’t need.
I did need food, though, and until the Pennyworths were lovey-dovey, I wouldn’t have any cash in my hot wee hands. Luckily, there’s a vending machine in a disused parking garage that the stockers hadn’t taken off the circuit. The drones filled it up every week like clockwork. It was the go-to for half my street.
There’s a compatibility chip clicked into the side of my motherboard. It’s the brainchild of some long-dead inventor who wanted his alarm clock to tell his coffee machine and toaster to get their asses into gear. With it, any and every device can communicate with each other, even if it’s something as sophisticated as me talking to something as dumb as a vendor.
With my added human powers of persuasion, I could get another machine to do just about anything. Admittedly, it would take a bit of reconfiguration of the poor thing’s motherboard, but nothing that shaved any skin off my nose.
With a few candy bars in my pockets, I could finally head home for the longed-for reward of satisfying my hunger, followed by a nice, long sleep.
I didn’t know when it had happened, but at some point, I turned into my nana.
Some of the street kids who hung about outside our apartment building at night were hard at work. They had trapped a driverless car into a recess where a storefront used to be. The pitiful vehicle kept trying to drive its way free but couldn’t. Each sensor lit up in turn, warning that a human was in the way.
As I cycled close to the stairwell leading to my room, I picked up a rock from the sidewalk. Make that half a brick. It appeared some masonry had staged a bid for freedom and not made it very far.
I leaned my bike against the wall of a building that might once have been an office block, but now smelled of petrol burning in large drums. Usually, I didn’t bother the gangs of children who roamed about at night, and they didn’t bother me.
Tonight, these kids stood between me and home. There was no way they’d let me pass without some sort of altercation. Since a fight was coming, anyway, better that I was the one to start it.
“Hey,” I called out, hefting the brick in my hand.
Only one of the kids turned around at my voice. No surprise there, I sound like a talking baby doll with its string pulled. Whoever selected my features in the lab where they stitched me up had some serious gender issues to sort out.
I hoisted the block in my hand again, while staring at the one person who’d bothered to show any interest. Even in the dim light thrown by the moon, I could see his eyes widen. My grin did the same.
By the time I’d taken two steps toward him, the kid had elbowed his neighbor into turning around. At five paces forward, I stopped, tightening my grip and lining up the best target. The tallest of the group of six was most probably the leader. Certainly, he had the most acne to worry about.
“Why don’t you leave the car alone and head back home?” I shouted out. “I’m sure your mommies are worried that you’re out so late.”
A cheap shot that, but a good one. Those little rebels didn’t
“What’s going to happen when they go to tuck you into bed? How sad will they be?”
The one who’d turned first ran at me then. I waited for a beat then swiped the brick around in a semicircle. It caught the boy’s shoulder and grazed the edge of his jaw.
No use me throwing the damn thing. Then, I’d lose my only weapon.
The leader launched toward me next. This kid knew damn well his respect lay in not waiting for anyone to push him into action.
He charged, head lowered like a bull stampeding towards its target. The boy didn’t have horns, though, even if he did have a thick skull. This time, I didn’t worry about using my weapon. I just locked my muscles and let the idiot plow straight into tensed steel.
Ouch. The bang when the boy hit me at full-speed made my teeth ache. The poor kid would feel that for weeks to come.
Blood dribbled down his face into his eyes as he staggered backward. Another child rushed forward to catch him. Lucky, or the fearless leader would have toppled to the ground.
“Anyone else want to have a go?” I asked, taking turns to look each one in the eye. My baby voice still caused a few sneers, but no one held a high enough opinion of their own strength to make a move.
“Shove off, then,” I said. “You don’t have to go home, but you shouldn’t hang about here.”
One of the children in back sniffed and hitched his pants up. When he’d finished, they still hung halfway to his knees. He took a step back and then turned, sauntering away as though free will was the only thing being exercised today.
The rest followed, the leader being helped along by a mate. The kid whose shoulder I’d hit cupped it with the opposite hand and scowled at me before following along.
I waited till they were out of sight before moving. Once upon a time, I feasted on horror movies. I know better than to turn away too soon.
Before I picked up my bike to carry it upstairs, I hefted the brick in my hand again. The driverless car was tentatively rolling forward, its sensors cautious about the possibility of more trouble to come.