“Why the hell did you hide the intel in Sparkle World?” I hissed into my bracelet. I sidestepped a freaking princess employee dressed in an elaborate deep blue gown as I jogged down a yellow brick road, the fake daisies on either side of the walkway blowing in a chilly breeze. This place was a nightmare with little brats yanking their parents all over the place, everything so sugary-sweet and…cute. “No running is allowed in Sparkle World!” the princess shouted from behind me, her voice dripping in charm as she barked her order. Disgusting. “There are children here. You don’t want to run them over!” Like I cared if a child took a header into the flowers. I craned my neck around, shooting a disgruntled glance at the lovely woman. I hollered, “If you can catch me in that ridiculous dress, I’ll slow down.” Her blue eyes narrowed to thin slits. She even went so far as to pick up the hem of her dress, ready to take chase. The princess must have changed her mind, though. She swept her fingers down her dress, straightening the wrinkles. A serene smile lifted her lips, except the smile didn’t reach her eyes. Those were still dead set on me in quiet fury.
I may have been many yards ahead of her now, but I could still see her pretty lips mouth silently, “You’re lucky I’m working, bitch.” I snickered. That princess knew how to cuss. I picked up my pace, zigzagging through brats, and returned my attention to my bracelet. “Did I lose you, Karma?” “Nope. I just didn’t want to listen to you bitch about where I placed the intel, so I put you on mute for a minute. Figured that would be long enough for you to get it out of your system.” Karma cleared her throat, pointedly. “Are you at least to the funnel cake store yet? You’re running out of time.” “Almost there,” I hissed, breathing through the stitch in my side.
It had been a long time since I had run this far. Maybe I should exercise more often. Sitting in a chair all day long wasn’t exactly the healthiest daily activity—and that was all I ever did. Karma muttered, “You sound like a sputtering train. Are you having an asthma attack or something?” Yep. I need to exercise more. “Shut up. I’m concentrating on breathing,” I panted. “And I don’t have asthma.” “Well, you sound like shit.
” “Thanks.” I ran past the funnel cake store, the sign’s twirls of light making me dizzy. Or maybe that was my shortness of breath. I stopped behind the building and glanced at the backdoor. It was closed, and no one was outside. “I’m here. Where to now?” “Under the mat.” Trying to regulate my breaths, my chest hitched up and down much more slowly. I bent down next to the back door and lifted the dirty mat. “Ew.
There are slugs on it!” Karma chuckled softly. “Just press your damn finger to it, Noelle, before it self-deletes.” I lifted the slim package and flicked off each of the slugs. “This had better be worth it.” “Am I ever wrong?” she hummed. “Never.” I sighed then pressed my thumb to the small circular security protection. A quiet reverberation shuddered across the black package as it read my fingerprint, and the package in my hands turned from black to olive green. “Done.” “My payment?” My fingers tapped on my bracelet, sending the units to her hidden account.
“Half paid like normal. I’ll send the other half once I’ve reviewed the contents and deemed it worthy.” “Thank you. And, Noelle?” she stated. “What? Want me to bring you a slug?” My lips twitched. “No, asshole. You need to hurry back to review it. That information is on a schedule. You don’t want to miss the show.” My head tipped back.
I eyed the gray sky above me. “I’m almost afraid to open it now. The last time you put on a show, a train fell from the sky.” Karma snorted. “It was all planned perfectly. That street needed to be razed so new jobs could be created.” “Tell that to the pedestrians who lost their lives,” I spat. I was all for spreading the juiciest news the fastest way on the underground web, all the crazy shit that happened in New City, but not when people died from the antics of terrorists. Luckily, not all of my contacts were as crazy as the woman I was currently speaking with. She’d cut her fee in half this time, all to do business with me again.
She knew she had gone too far the last time. “Karma, seriously. Is anyone going to be hurt?” I questioned. Her sigh was long-suffering. “No. I swear. This is controlled as long as the Corporate Army doesn’t fuck it up.” Damn it. I’d have to contact the CA again. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be too late this time.
Karma was out of control. I closed my eyes in resignation, muttering, “This is the last time I’m doing business with you. Don’t contact me again. And don’t expect the remainder of the payment from me. Not happening.” I tapped my bracelet and ended the call, then lifted the package with both hands and glared at it. “What the fuck did she do?” The package didn’t respond. Not really surprising. I sucked in a large lungful of crisp air, the sweat on my forehead long dried. But I was about to get sweaty again.
I grumbled to myself, “There’s only one way to find out.” I stuffed the package under my thick coat. I needed to get back to my apartment. To my equipment. I sprinted as fast as I could out of Sparkle World. CHAPTER TWO I swatted my apartment door closed, absently locking it. The package was heavy under my jacket, the burden of the dreadful possibilities weighing it down. I yanked my coat off and held the olive green package in front of me with shaking fingers. The package quivered, almost dropped, by my own trepidation. My apartment wasn’t modest in size, not with my lucrative online income, but the walls of my indigo colored living room pressed in on my soul.
I had never felt so small in my life. The very air I breathed suffocated me as I sat down with a heavy heart. The leather of my chair cushioned my tense body, my favorite chair placed directly in front of my computer board, a blank hologram instantly appearing, programmed to my unique proximity. I swallowed and opened the package. I needed to know the threat level before I contacted the CA. I keyed my passwords in on my computer board, multiple encryptions, before my neon handcuffs background appeared before me on the hologram, allowing me access. My security system was topnotch, all created by myself. Information was my bread and butter, so my security system had to be the best. I pulled out the disc from the package and swiftly waved it in front of the hologram, then set the disc and the empty package aside on the sparse empty space on my desk—almost spilling over three drinks left there from the night before. With a quick tap on the hologram with my pointer finger, right over the new file downloaded from the disc, I opened the secret intel.
My eyes narrowed. Only a dark internet address was there. I tapped on it. Instant live feed from a camera in a warehouse. My attention snapped to the watcher count in the upper right-hand corner. I nibbled on my lip. Only one person was watching this feed. Me. What the hell kind of game was Karma playing? Nothing about what I was watching looked dangerous. The barren warehouse, down to its studs and iron, was completely empty of any living being.
There were only crates stacked in the right corner and a few boxes randomly scattered in the center of the room. One lone doorway—without a door—was on the left. I squinted at the doorway. My head cocked to the right, analyzing the view. It was bright out there, but like it was filtered somehow. Perhaps by glass or… I stared hard. Stairs. There was a stairwell outside the doorway on the left. Not just a simple, ground level warehouse then. Multiple floors.
Perhaps new construction. My eyes flitted to the watcher count again. Still only me watching. This was beyond bizarre. Why would Karma want only me to view this? It didn’t make any sense. None of it did. Unnerved, I tapped my bracelet. “Order: Call Karma.” I didn’t even know the crazy cunt’s last name. She answered without preamble.
“Hello, Noelle. I knew you’d call me back. Confused, I bet?” “What am I watching? And why am I the only one watching it?” I questioned bluntly. “Oh, you know…” Karma hedged. “You like all the limelight. I didn’t think you would mind.” “Cut the bullshit. I can smell it from here.” Her laughter rang too loud in the air. “Fine.
Fine. Some guy named Mr. Valentine somehow caught wind of what I was up to. He paid me a shit ton of units to make sure you were the only one watching.” “What?” I mumbled. “Who the hell is Mr. Valentine?” “A hot as fuck man who obviously has a hard-on for you. I only met him once.” Karma sniffed. “And honestly? Once was enough.
The man may be fuckable, but he’s creepy as a stalking ghost.” Brilliant. I rubbed at my forehead, and muttered, “Send me all the information you have on him.” “It’s at the top of the feed. See it up in the middle?” Karma stated on a yawn, completely bored with the conversation now. “That’s his bank account information. That’s all I have. I knew you’d ask for it.” My eyes ran over the twenty digit number, quickly memorizing the information like code. “So what am I watching? You never said.
” “I’m taking down a new construction site by Mason Corporation on the outskirts of the city.” I groaned. Loudly. “What? It’ll give all those workers more paychecks. They’ll have to build it all over again!” “Karma, you have to stop this shit. What if someone was there?” “It’s the weekend. They don’t work on the weekends.” I rolled my eyes. “You said something about the Corporate Army finding out.” “I said they might find out.
There’s always that possibility.” Another large yawn. “But I’m not even watching the feed, per Mr. Valentine’s instructions. You’ll have to let me know how it all ends. The bomb is set to go off in two minutes.” “I’m hanging up now. You’re lucky the building is abandoned. Otherwise, I would be contacting the authorities. I don’t deal with terrorists, Karma.
And you’ve already toed the line too many times. Our dealings are done. Have a nice life—if you get your shit together. Order: End call.” I sat back on my chair and sighed. There was nothing to be done with the bomb going off in two minutes. Karma truly was fortunate the building wasn’t occupied right now… My back shot up ramrod straight. “Fucker fucking stupid ass motherfucking shit of all timing bullshit!” Four individuals dressed in standard black CA uniforms had entered the room. And I recognized one of them—anyone would know who she was. Poppy freaking Carvene! Her red hair bounced around her shoulders as she stalked the space, and her brown eyes moved over every item in the barren room while her tiny hands gripped two sharp knives.
Fuck. Karma. Poppy Carvene was going to die. “See anything?” Poppy asked, her voice ringing out through my computer board. My lips turned down into a horrible frown. How helpful of Karma. She had even installed audio. I mumbled under my breath, “Yeah, I see a woman who’s going to meet her old love in heaven soon.” “Nothing here,” one of the male soldiers answered her. A new man entered the room.
I groaned and slumped down. The death count just kept climbing. The new man wore a long, silver fur coat, buttoned up to his chest over a white T-shirt, the hood of the jacket covering a portion of his refined features. His silver hair stuck out from under the hood at odd angles, and…his feet were bare. He lifted a wine bottle into the air, and slurred, “Everyone, wait. You won’t want to leave the room.” “Cassander?” Poppy mumbled in shock. “What in the world are you doing here?” “I’m working, Ms. Carvene.” He swayed side to side and took a large drink from his bottle.
Absurdly, all three male soldiers instantly started stepping back from him, blatant fear etching their stoic features. “I will smack you the next time you call me that. You know my damn name. Use it.” She shoved her knives into their protective sheaths on her thighs, and then pointed a finger at the men in her group. “You’re scaring them. They think you’re here to kill them.” Cassander snorted. And grinned. “Wait, are you here to kill one of them?” Poppy blinked.
The three muscular men took five more steps back. I had to admit, this was entertaining. Even if morbid. Cassander pushed his hood back, revealing his entire face. Damn… Hello, pretty pretty. He grumbled. “No, I didn’t even bring my weapons. They’d get buried in the wreckage.” “What wreckage?” Poppy’s lips pursed. He unbuttoned his fur coat as he walked on unsteady legs to one of the boxes in the middle of the space.
Using his bare toes, he dug them under the box, and then kicked it up into the air. No one paid attention to the empty box as it landed across the room. All eyes were glued to the obvious bomb right before them. Cassander pointed the bottle at it. Took another drink. “Twenty seconds. If you try to run, you’ll be under the rubble for weeks until they can dig you out. Dying and dying and dying. I hate fucking dying.” I stared at the odd man.
He didn’t make a lot of sense. Poppy crossed her arms and sighed heavily. “I’m not a fan of it either.” No fear showed whatsoever. Her brown eyes peered up into his gunmetal silver gaze. “So the top floor is the best for this?” “We’ll still die, but Rune will have us out in a day.” He shrugged. “Give me the bottle.” The redhead held her hand out. Cassander handed it over.
“I thought you might want a sip.” Poppy swallowed a plentiful gulp. She smacked her lips and eyed the wine bottle. “That’s good shit.” “I may be a vagabond, but I have great taste.” She chuckled quietly, then whispered, “Thanks for coming.” The man locked eyes with her. “You’re welcome.” His lips trembled, and then he winked. “Ms.
Carvene.” Poppy’s eyes narrowed, and her empty hand rose. Boom. I jerked in my chair. Her hit never made contact with his head. Fire blasted over the screen, and the view went dead. My leather chair vibrated beneath my ass as a rumble erupted in the air, attacking my ears with a fierce blast. I jumped up from my seat and raced to my balcony, throwing open the glass door. I stared in horror as a building only two blocks over erupted into flames, fire leaping into the air like it wanted to eat the overcast sky. “You lying sack of shit, Karma,” I breathed under my breath.
“Yes, well, what did you expect from someone such as her?” a man’s voice whispered from behind me. “She’s now dead, by the way. I took care of her for you. A little slow-acting poison in her morning coffee did the trick. She peacefully fell asleep after speaking with you. Forever.” A quiet grunt and pleased words. “I timed it rather perfectly.”