Molly, cloaked by hood and nightfall, stood huddled in the cold alley. The sky was clear, but the cobblestone path was dusted with powdery snow. Her breath misted out into the darkness. It was getting late, and Molly was getting impatient.
The icy wind bit through the leather of her jacket, through her auburn cascade of hair and into her neck. She should have been freezing, but the snap flowing through her bloodstream made her skin warm and tingly. It was a solid, pleasant buzz that kept her warm as she waited for Griff.
The silence of Alpine Heights was thick and absolute, aside from the occasional clack of her cane on the cobbled walkway as she paced. To her south, at the end of a long street, was the Overlook Plaza, sprawled out across the edge of the cliff. It perfectly framed the white, clustered peaks of the Seraphim Range beyond. The mountains stood tall under the sparkling black sky, forming a picturesque backdrop. The night, for once, was peaceful.
A few minutes on, the sound of men laughing burbled through the silence from behind her. Molly whipped her head around to see.
The four figures behind her were dressed in black suits. They were laughing in boisterous bursts, striding down the middle of the alley like they owned the whole street. She recognized the one in the middle. Molly would know the ducktail haircut of Killian Stalder from a mile away.
One of the men had his hand clasped around the collar of a young, pitiful bastard who was looking up at her ruefully with big, doe eyes.
Damn it, Griff, you fucked it up!
The four men clambered down the path, barrelling towards her, laughing harder.
She felt an instant gut reaction to get away, but she ignored it. These bastards didn’t deserve her fear.
“Looking kinda cold, there, Miss Molly!” Killian called to her. “Maybe you want a little snap to warm you up? We all know how much you like making deals!”
Young Griff avoided her gaze. “I’m sorry, Molly, they cornered me, they threatened my mom…”
“Run along, kid, you’re not getting any snap from her today.” Killian kicked him in the back of the knee. Griff yelped and took off running back the other way.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Molly said. “You want to talk to me, you talk to me. You leave my clients out of it.”
“Oh, don’t be like that, lass!” Killian jogged up and rounded in front of her. “You’re not still mad about last month, are you?”
Molly glared. “Get out of my face, Stalder.”
“Of course you wouldn’t be mad,” said Killian. “You didn’t get screwed out of your money, did you? That was me.” He grinned a mirthless, vulpine smile at her.
“You tried to sell me tainted snapdragon, you low-life.” Her grip tightened over the rounded head of her cane. “I don’t like getting grifted.”
“Hey.” Killian’s smile vanished. “I’m no boonswoggler. You take that back. That snap was pure. Straight from Kaitra.”
“Oh, is that what your supplier told you? I’d be out of a job if I tried to push that crap on my clients.”
“You watch it, Virtanen,” said Killian. “If that’s your real name, I mean.”
Molly narrowed her eyes. “What the hel are you talking about?”
“I spoke to my father about you,” said Killian, dark jolly filling his rosy cheeks. “I had his people look into you after you screwed me over. You moved here five years ago, right? Married that dead husband of yours? Thing is, before Alpine Heights, you didn’t exist. So where did Miss Molly come from?”
A mix of vitriol and terror mingled in her stomach. “Don’t you dare bring up Kirk,” she said, trying to redirect Killian’s train of thought. “He was right not to trust you.”
“You ever read up on the Psion War, Molly? Does the name Quinn Enterprises ring a bell?”
“This conversation is over.” Molly pushed past him.
Killian grabbed her by the wrist. “Leaving so soon, Lysandra?”
Molly struck him across the face with her cane. His nose snapped with the force of the strike. As Killian howled in pain, Molly ran.
She heard the three goons coming after her. Molly’s home was nearby but she couldn’t risk leading them there. Molly needed somewhere to lay low.
Darting between columns of residential buildings, Molly ran towards the Overlook Plaza. Her kneecap screamed at her with every stride she took.
Many of the lights in the shops’ windows were off. Not so for the Lost Starlight, nestled tight in-between two more reputable businesses. The cafe’s windows were blacked out, but long lights like icicles hung from the roof. Their green luminance cast deep, inky shadows and made the cafe entrance seem ethereal, like the gateway into some bizarre hell designed just for her. It would work.
Molly came down the plaza and pushed through the doors of the Lost Starlight.
The cafe was warm, and melted away the last of the chill on her face. The lighting had a taut, classy vibe—or, at least, it made an attempt. The crystal chandeliers overhead were trimmed with black lace and the long bar counter, while mahogany, was smudged and dented. In an alcove in the far back, a local ensemble played a rhythmic, syrupy jazz beat. The patrons were scarce, and isolated, except for two men playing monty at a little game table.
“Evening, Molly,” said one of the monty players, a hunched old man.
“Hey, Frank. Good luck tonight.”
Molly slid into a seat at the far side of the bar. She fixed her gaze on the door. Nobody followed her in. She had eluded them for the time being. Now all she had to do was wait.
A raspy, nasally tone came from the other side of the bar. “You gonna order, ma’am?”
“Uh, double espresso. Straight up.”
The bearded, wiry barista went to the silver espresso machine at the low-lit back wall. He set a stocky mug under the spout and tapped a button. The machine hummed and whirred as it pulled the shots through the grinds. Molly laid her cane over her lap, thankful to take the weight off her bad leg.
The barista slid the mug to her. “That’ll be twelve hacksilver from you, ma’am.”
“Twelve hack? Are you kidding me?”
“Nothing personal.” He tugged at his beard and frowned. He spoke haltingly, punctuating his words with a compulsive, deep-throated grunt. “Well, if we’re being honest, maybe it’s a smidge personal. Your little business venture’s been losing me money.” Molly scowled, but she wrenched her wallet out from her jeans’ pocket. The barista took her coins, not breaking eye contact. “May I assume coffee’s your only business here tonight, ma’am?”
“I’m not here for trouble.”
The bearded man reached under the counter. “If any snap deals get started tonight, I’m ending them.” He set his Mjolnir revolver on the counter in front of her, next to her mug. “Your move, boss.”
“That’s not necessary. I’m just here for coffee tonight.”
“Then why you sweating so much?”
She glanced back at the door, but there was still no sign of Killian. “You make me flush.”
That seemed to placate him. He stowed the revolver and attended another customer further down the bar.
Molly sipped down the bitter drink. When it hit her stomach, it mingled pleasingly with the hit of snap she’d taken at home. Her insides glowed with pleasant warmth, but neither the coffee nor the snap could extinguish the anxiety that burned deeper in her stomach.
An ice-cold hand touched her shoulder. She jumped.
“I thought I might find you here, Lysandra.”
The voice wasn’t Killian’s, but she knew it, and it made her sick all the same.
Molly looked up at the man as an old nausea curdled in her stomach. “Uncle?”
The weathered man took a seat, smiling sadly. The last five years since she’d seen him had deepened the wrinkles on his face, and even the brightness was gone from his eyes. Her uncle’s outfit was different, too. Where a neat sweater vest should have been, he wore a baggy blazer. His untucked shirt was splotchy, and his shoes did not have their old shine. His smile was boilerplate.
The light had gone out of Jarl Quinn.
“It’s been a long trip,” Jarl said. “Glad to have made it in one piece.”
“What the hel are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“Find you?” said Jarl. “The family never lost you.”
“Wonderful,” muttered Molly. “I see Evelyn isn’t dressing you anymore.”
He shook his head, speaking in a slow, wistful cadence. “No. I’m afraid your aunt hasn’t been keen on ironing my slacks lately. It…hasn’t been easy, her being gone.”
“Gone?” It suddenly felt colder in the room. “Aunt Eve…she’s not—”
“Hmm? Oh. No, she’s fine, it’s just…well. I’ll tell you about Evelyn soon enough. I want to hear about you first. How have you been?”
“Jarl, what makes you think I want anything to do with this conversation?”
“I’m sorry to get the jump on you like this. I didn’t think you’d want to meet if I asked.”
“Then that should have been your first clue. So, you here to tell me how much of a fuck-up I am?”
“I’m not here to lecture you, Molly. I’m not like your mother.”
“Oh, Mom. How’s she doing these days? Still running Quincy’s death regime at the Industries? You and the family don’t know this, Jarl, living up in your Zaringrad towers, but there’s a lot of people out there who don’t think Grandfather’s the paragon he always said he was. Inventing an army of killer robots tends to have that effect on people.”
Jarl flinched. “You shouldn’t feel the need to run from your family.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a point. You all just end up finding me anyway.”
“I wish you wouldn’t think of me like you do your mother, Lysandra.”
“Oh, and don’t call me that. It’s Molly now.”
“I just wanted to see my niece—”
“You want time with your niece? Spectacular. I could have used some of that time after I found out about my necrosis.” She gestured at her bad kneecap.
“Lys—Molly, I didn’t want tonight to go this way.”
“Well, how did you expect me to react to this little surprise reunion? Crying into your arms and asking forgiveness for leaving you all?”
“I’m not asking for that.”
Molly locked her gaze with her uncle’s deadened eyes. “Fine, I’m sorry, okay? Sorry I fell in love with a drug dealer. Sorry I got tangled up in his work, that I never went back to academy. And I’m particularly sorry I didn’t come crawling back to Asgardia after Kirk got himself killed. Are you happy now, Uncle?”
“No.” Jarl’s face was stone. “This hasn’t been easy for me.”
“Pretending like I didn’t exist?”
“I never forgot about you.”
“Oh, then I really appreciate the support.”
“Your mother told us it was best—”
“Do you even remember what Mom said to me when I told her about the operation? She told me to let my druggie sex toy take care of it. And you know something, Jarl? He did.” Tears were tingling at the edge of Molly’s eyes. She blinked them away. “He got himself killed getting money for it, but in the end, Kirk was there and Mom wasn’t.”
Jarl sighed. “Your husband and I were not on the best of terms. But I never wanted to see him die. And I know that Andra didn’t, either. Your mother, she just wants the best for you.”
“You were still Lyssy to me when you moved here. I don’t want my niece to disappear.”
Molly spread her arms. “I’m right here, Uncle Jarl. Now tell me why I ought to stay.”
Jarl’s gaze dropped. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately. About life, I mean. About family.” Jarl took a deep breath, his mouth tightening. “I’m old, Molly.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re fifty-eight.”
“I know, but my health hasn’t been the best, you see. And what with Evey leaving…” To Molly’s surprise, tears began to roll down the grooves of her uncle’s face. Jarl brought a hand to his eyes to steady himself. He took a shaky breath. “I’m an abomination. Evelyn hates me.” A sob escaped his mouth. “I don’t deserve to be here.”
“Jarl,” said Molly, “what the hel are you talking about?”
He took a moment to compose himself, starting slowly, “Last spring, Molly, I had a heart attack. I didn’t make it through this time. Evey found me in the shower. The water was still running. They told me the neighbors heard it when she screamed.” He gave a wry smile. “Evey was always quick to scream. Who could have blamed her? Her husband was dead.” His voice crackled. “But Quinn Industries didn’t think it was quite my time to clock out.” He upturned his wrist and rolled back his sleeve. “Quincy never cottoned to the idea of death.”
His fingers found a seam on his bare arm and lifted up a flap of skin. Underneath, his muscle was solid metal.
The cold hands. The dead eyes. She realized it then.
“They augmented you?” asked Molly.
“Not augmented,” said her uncle with difficulty. “Refurbished.”
Her stomach churned with disgust.
“You’re not my uncle, you bastard,” she spat. “You’re another one of Quantum’s lab experiments!”
Jarl bowed his head.
“Sick,” said Molly. “This is a whole new fucking level of sick for that company. Did they send you here? You getting instructions beamed into your head?” She looked into his false eyes, past them. “Go to hel and die, Mother, you hear me? I know you’re listening, you psychopath!”
“It’s not like that,” said Jarl. “I agreed to this. My health was failing, so I asked the company for help, in case…in case I passed. I couldn’t leave it all behind.”
Molly couldn’t think of a word to say. She turned away to storm out.
“Don’t go!” Jarl placed a hand on her wrist. “I thought you of all people would understand! Nobody else wants anything to do with me now. You’re all I have left, Lysandra.”
Molly snatched his cold wrist and gripped it hard. “Then you should have stayed dead.”
She stood up, set her cane, and went to leave. Her mind was a violent storm, every ounce of her being dedicated to hating Jarl, hating her mother, hating Quincy Quinn. Why couldn’t they have just left her alone?
In the midst of her haze, she saw four men push through the doors of the Lost Starlight.
The barista said, “Hey! Put down your weapons and—”
A gunshot later, the barista crashed against the tea rack, sending a shower of leaves into the air. He slumped down below the counter.
The cafe froze, collective gazes fixed upon Killian Stalder and his men in the doorway.
Before Killian could spot her, Molly strafed back to her seat, ducking behind a stool.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Killian’s cadence was high and rapid; he had taken a big hit of snap. “I hope your night is going well!”
Jarl touched her arm, asking quietly, “Molly, what’s happening?”
She silenced him with a sharp gesture.
Killian said, “Anyone who isn’t a crippled bitch named Molly Virtanen, I suggest you keep quiet and drink up and out of our way. Next round of espresso’s on me!” He spread his arms, anticipating applause, but he only got silence. “Clap, you fools! Oh, and if you are Molly Virtanen, why don’t you bring your pretty face right up and we’ll get our business on outside?”
“Who are they?” Jarl whispered.
Molly’s command rang out louder than she hoped. A gesture from Killian sent his three hired guns aiming for her.
“Good golly, Miss Molly,” said Killian with a sneer. “You’re quite the vexing bitch!”
Molly stared down Killian, her hand going to her cane.
“Someone go get her up,” said Killian lazily. One of his men broke off and went to her.
Jarl stood up, blocking the goon from her.
“You watch what you say to my niece, sir.” His voice was firm, unwavering—the bravest Molly had heard him in a long time.
Killian’s eyebrows rose in interest. “Hmm.” He snapped his fingers.
Once the rain of bullets burst out, Molly wrenched herself up and dove over the counter, coming down hard on her shoulder. Ignoring the pain, she righted herself and pressed her back against the wood paneling. The barista was across from her, motionless. Blossoms of red marred his white apron.
“Come on up, Virtanen, stand and deliver!”
Molly gripped the head of her cane and twisted. She felt the head unlock.
Metal glinted from above as a goon leaned over and aimed down at her head.
Molly swept the tip of the blade out of her cane and up. She drove thirty-six inches of steel up through the man’s wrist. Killian’s lackey roared in pain. His grip on the gun went slack. Molly caught it in time and ducked back under the counter. Crimson coated her blade’s tip.
“Vinny, you bojo! I told you she’s got that godsdam blade in her cane! Keep your distance, all of you!”
She swung out the cylinder of the man’s Tyrfing pistol. Five bullets were nestled inside. Molly snapped the cylinder closed and cocked the hammer. She had to make the best of two shots. She was about to stand and deliver, like Killian had asked, when she saw something metal and bulky tucked up under the mini-fridge further down—the Mjolnir revolver. Knee clenching, she crawled over the barista’s body and snatched the gun. Molly crouched, the heavy guns in each of her hands.
“Giving ‘til the count of three! Put down that piece or prepare to get winged! One—”
Molly closed her eyes a moment.
Taking a quick breath, Molly rose and spun, and squeezed the triggers.
“Three,” she said.
Her first shot with the Tyrfing ripped a spurt of blood from the furthest man’s shoulder. The second shot went wide so she dropped the empty gun. The Mjolnir’s shot took the second man in the torso and propelled him back over the monty table. Cards went flying. The last man was unarmed on the ground, still nursing his punctured wrist, so she spared him.
Killian did not get the same luxury. Mjolnir’s hammer came down. Killian screamed when his kneecap exploded in a splash of red.
All four down.
Molly took her cane’s black casing from the floor and slid it back onto her blade. She lifted herself up with some difficulty over the bar counter. Killian was screaming at her.
She turned to Jarl.
His body was crumpled down by their seats. The fabric of his disheveled shirt was ragged and torn, but there was no blood. Her uncle’s eyes stared forward blankly.
Molly looked at him for a moment. Her mouth began to tremble as she knelt. Molly closed his eyelids with her fingers and left him there.
The knights had to be on their way. Molly turned the Mjolnir’s safety on and shoved it into her pants. “Have a good night, Frank.”
“See you next time, Molly,” said Frank.
She left the warmth of the cafe and went out into the cold. Molly planned to be long gone from there before the law arrived.
Alpine Heights was shrouded in a haze of white static now. Icy snowflakes landed on her hair and chilled her down to her scalp.
It was time to run away again.
Molly zipped up her jacket to brace against the snowy night and walked swiftly into the shadows.