High Voltage

Page 30


My eyebrows climbed my forehead and vanished into my scalp.

Seriously? Furious thumbs flew over the keys as I typed Barrons’s words from a few years ago. He’d been right.

All caps make it look like you’re shouting at me.

His reply came so swiftly, I swear he’d already had it typed and ready.

I was. You never listen otherwise.

“Wear. A. Dress,” I fumed, steam building in my head. I know Ryodan and he knows me. Which meant he knew telling me to wear a dress would pretty much guarantee I’d choose anything but a dress.

But…you have to take things a little further with that man because that’s how he thinks, always looking ahead. Since he knew telling me to wear a dress would make me choose something else—and he also knew I was fully aware of how his manipulative brain worked—he knew I’d ultimately decide to wear the bloody dress just to prove I wasn’t being manipulated by him. So, he’d get me in a dress either way.

This was a complete clusterfuck. How did I win? By wearing a dress or not?

I now fully and completely understood why That Woman had gone into battle with Sherlock naked.

The only way I could win was by not being there to be picked up at eight. My screen flashed at that precise instant with a new text from him.

This isn’t about us. Our city is in trouble. Be there.

“Oh, screw you,” I growled. Right, provoke my innate, highly dysmorphic sense of personal responsibility.

I shoved my phone back in my pocket, resisting the urge to mute further texts. I wouldn’t let him make me let my city down by not being there if someone in need texted me.

I was storming back to my flat to demand Shazam’s presence (and counsel!) when I saw one of them: a bird with a broken wing, maybe two.

I sighed, and circled back to a food vendor, placed my order, rearranging priorities, watching her from the corner of my eye where she huddled on a bench outside a pub, trembling and pale, badly bruised.

I didn’t know her story and didn’t need to. I knew the look. This was a pervasive problem: the disenfranchised could be found on nearly every corner of every street in every city in our world.

Their stories were some version of this: their families/children/lover got killed when the walls fell and they lost their job; they watched their siblings/friends/parents get seduced and destroyed by Seelie or Unseelie; the worst of humans had preyed on them.

Glassy-eyed, sludge-brained, terrorized, once victimized, they were prey magnets.

Not everyone was as lucky as me. Not everyone had a hard life, so when the going gets tough, they don’t know how to get going.

“Here. Eat.” I offered the woman the sandwich I’d just bought. She was young, too pretty to go unnoticed, thin.

Trembling, she raised her head and looked at me. Shock glazed her eyes, fear blanched her skin to snow. She made no move for the wax-paper-wrapped food, and if she didn’t take it soon I might fall on it myself. It was one of my favorites, a hot, breaded fresh-caught fish and tartar sauce delight nestled in a sesame bun, with chips, dripping grease.

“I’m Dani,” I said, settling on the far end of her bench, keeping the bulk of it between us so she wouldn’t feel cornered. “I help the folks that need it. Take the sandwich and eat it. I don’t want anything from you. But if you stay here, some bastard is going to hurt you worse than you’ve already been hurt. Do you understand?”

She flinched. Someone had beaten her. Recently. Her lower lip was split and one eye freshly swollen shut. I know bruises, her eye and half her cheek would be black before nightfall. She knew she was vulnerable but whatever happened had left her fractured, unable to make decisions. She was here because she had no ground to go to, no one to take care of her while she regained—or learned to have for the first time—fighting strength. That’s where I come in.

“Seriously. You’ll feel better after you eat. Here’s a soda. Drink it. Sugar makes everything look better.” I placed the can gently on the bench in the expanse between us.

After a moment she snatched the sandwich from my hand and took the soda. When she fumbled, trying to pop the flip-top, I reached for it to help and she flinched again.

“Easy, I’m just going to open the can,” I said. The backs of her hands were scraped nearly raw, bloodstained nails broken to the quick.

She took her first bite of the sandwich with seeming revulsion, chewed automatically, swallowed hard. The second went down the same way.

Then I saw what I always hope to see but don’t always get: she fell on the food ravenously, tearing off big chunks, cramming them in her mouth, shoving chips in alongside, smearing tartar sauce and grease on her chin. Her body was hungry and, despite its trauma, wanted to live. Now I just had to get her mind back in line with it.

When she was finished, she slumped against the wooden slats of the bench, wiping her face with a stained, frayed sleeve.

“I don’t know what happened and don’t need to,” I said quietly. “I’m offering to take you to a flat I keep stocked with food, water, everything you need. I have dozens of places like it around the city for folks that need them. This one’s yours for thirty days. You can stay there while you work through whatever you’re dealing with, eat, sleep, and shower in peace. Periodically, I’ll drop by to make sure you’re okay.” Usually in a week, they were ready to talk. Needed to. I offered thirty days because a time limit was pressure and a firm hand lends shape to Play-Doh. If they needed more than thirty days and were earnestly trying to recover, they got it.

She cleared her throat and when her voice came out it was gravelly, hoarse, as if she’d recently been screaming. But no one heard. And no one came. “Why?” she said.

“Because every man, woman, or child we lose in this world, I take personally.”


“It’s just the way I’m wired.”

“What do you want in return?”

“For you to get angry. Heal. Maybe join those of us trying to make a difference. Do you do drugs?” That was a defining factor. Hard-core drug users I usually lose. So many broken-winged birds, I try to focus on the ones with the greatest odds of success.

“No,” she said, with the first trace of animation I’d seen, a flash of faint indignation.


“Are you for real, kid?” she said sharply, emphasis on kid.

Anger was common. Belittle me, drive me away. It never worked. “As if you’re much older than me,” I scoffed. “I’m twenty-three,” I erred on the farthest side of my age to establish credibility, “and they were hard years.”

Her sharpness vanished. It took energy, and birds had little to spare when it was all caught up in an inner cyclone whirling around whatever horrible thing they’d endured, kicking up so much internal debris it was hard to see anything clearly. “I’m twenty-five,” she whispered. “Birthday was yesterday.”

That was harsh. I’d had a few rough birthdays myself. I wasn’t stupid enough to wish her a happy birthday. Sometimes there is no such thing. I fished again for her name, to make that fragile first connection. “I’m Dani.”

Her nostrils flared. “I heard you the first time.”

“And you are?”

“Not carrying a sword, assorted guns, and weapons.” She made it sound like an insult.

I said lightly, “Well, stick with me and we’ll remedy the shit out of that.”

Her eyes went flat again and she said on a soft, exhausted exhale, “I’m not a fighter.”

“Then you’re a die-er?” There were only two positions in my book.

A long silence, then, “I don’t want to be.”

“That’s a start. Do you think the world is going to get nicer?”

She began to cry, silent tears slipping down her cheeks. I knew better than to pat her hand in a gesture of comfort. Birds have hair-triggers. You couldn’t invade their space or they half flew, half scrabbled away. You had to talk easy. Focus on getting them to safety. Whatever she’d survived, it had happened very recently. From the way she’d commented about her birthday, I suspected yesterday.

I said, “I’m standing now. I’m going to start walking. Follow me and I’ll get you off the streets. You’ll have thirty days—taken care of, fed, and housed—to decide what you want to be when you grow up,” I flung the thorn.

It pricked, she bristled minutely. “I am grown up.”

“If this is your finished product, you’re in trouble.” I pushed up and stalked off, not slow either. They had to want to come.

“Wait,” she said behind me. “I’m hurt, I can’t walk as fast as you.”

Because she couldn’t see my face, I allowed myself a smile.

* * *


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