“Life is only one letter away from lie, ya know? What does that mean? You tell me.”Cadence Morello
The air was thick with smoke and the smell of booze. The dim v-lights barely had the power to pierce through the veil of grayness that was the cloud of ash hanging over the room. The haziness was the perfect blanket for Cadence to hide in.
They sat at one of the many round tables that dotted the bar. On the table before them was an array of playing cards with small tokens interspersed in-between. The man sitting across the table was looking at her as if he could read her like a book.
Damn. He was so too predictable.
The v-watch he wore was a knock-off, indicating he was a show-off who was easily swindled. His tight monochrome suit that strangled his wrists and neck indicated he was in denial of his current circumstances and he may not have the funds for a new one. In other words, he was desperate for money and respect.
The man sneered at her as he tugged his collar with one hand and waved his set of cards in the other. “Looks like this game is just about to wrap up, Antonio.”
That was not her name, of course. That was who she looked like at the moment. Yes, Antonio Figeroli was the guise she currently wore. Antonio Figeroli was a middle-aged man with a hanging gut and a sadly receding hairline. He had a swaggering demeanor and often threw his money at whatever caught his eye, be it women, clothes, or alcohol. He frequented this tavern so often that the bartender always prepared his drink before he arrived in order not to face the man’s impatient wrath.
It hadn’t been difficult to pick up Figeroli’s mannerisms. All she had to do was swing by the tavern a couple of times and chat him up when he was drunk. He’d been even easier to read than this buffoon. At the moment, the real Antonio Figeroli was passed out in an alleyway somewhere in the city—courtesy of the Romano Family.
The fact that this man truly believed her to be Antonio Figeroli just highlighted how stupid he was. For saint’s sake, he was in the left Twin City: home of thieves and birthplace of everything underground. If someone in this city approached you out of the blue, it meant they either wanted your money, wanted your life, or wanted your body.
“Damn, Tulio,” she swore in the deep and rumbling voice of Antonio with a spit for good measure. She slammed her fists onto the table with cards still in hand just as Antonio would and bowed her head. Her rings clacked against the wooden surface as she tapped her fingers in mock impatience. “This can’t be right. You’re cheating.”
“Not cheating.” Tulio grinned. “I’m just that good.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and looked him over carefully. “Say, I’ve seen you here before once or twice. Always drunk as hell. Made me feel better about myself. So, what’s with the sudden confidence?”
Tulio considered her for a moment and then smirked.
Hook. Line. Sinker.
The man leaned across the table and glanced around the tavern with narrowed eyes. She leaned forward to meet him and pricked her ears.
“Just between you and me,” he whispered, “I got myself a new gig distributing some state-of-the-art conductors to some very generous buyers. You wouldn’t believe how desperate people are nowadays for one of ’em since Ophiuchian regulation makes ’em impossible to get.”
“Don’t ya mean how desperate people are to make money sellin’ ’em?” she returned.
A pause, and then: “Your voice—”
Rising to a slow stand, she wiggled her ringed fingers and felt them prickle where the metal of the ring touched her skin. Copper light blossomed from the area and crawled up her arm before reaching her face. When the light faded, the man sitting across from her let out a shout and fell backward in his chair.
“Y-You’re not…! You’re a Conductor!” the man stammered, pointing a shaking finger in her direction. “You’re a kid!”
She paused. Raising a brow, she lifted her hat and scratched her red hair. “Not what I expected to hear, but what can I say?”
Holding out her cards for him to see, she let them slip from her fingers and onto the table. As they left her hand, they glimmered copper, just as her body had. The two of spades became an ace of hearts. The five of clubs became a queen of hearts. The jack of diamonds became a jack of hearts. And the king and ten of spades became a king and ten of hearts. An illusion broken. A royal flush.
“The name’s Cadence Morello.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Personal associate of the Romano Family, at your service.”
At the family name, Tulio paled, then greened, then paled again. In an instant, he was on his knees, crawling to her ankles. “I… I… I…, please. I meant no disrespect! I’ve got a family I need to provide for! You understand, don’t you? My children! Please, I’ll give you all the conductors I have and—”
She took a step back from him with raised hands. “Ey, ey, I get it. These are hard times. People get desperate. But ya can only go so far and get sympathy, ya know? I mean, did ya really think ya could go encroachin’ on the Romano Family’s turf and get away without a single scrape? Even I’m not that lucky.” She fell to a crouch and met his gaze with a reassuring smile. “Look. If ya tell us who’s been providin’ ya with those conductors, then I might be able to get in a good word for ya. Maybe only two fingers cut off instead of all ten.”
The man’s eyes widened. He wobbled in place.
“Whoa, don’t go passin’ out now,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t want ta have ta drag your body to the boss, ya hear?”
The man did not move. And then it clicked for her. He was not staring at her in fear. He was staring at something behind her.
She turned her head just in time to see a flash of bright light followed by a gust of heat. The gust knocked her clean off her feet, and she was thrown backward into the bar. Glass rained down around her in clicks and clacks—a sound which seemed to match the beat of the crackling and popping that echoed in the background.
With much effort, she cracked open her eyes.
The air was clouded in smoke. A shroud of it. But this time the shroud did not aid her. No, it was suffocating her with its gray hands.
She couldn’t breathe.
Not only that.
She couldn’t move.
Flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. The flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass scattered around her.
No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she was so close.
She gagged, hacked, coughed.