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Have a fabulous festive season!
The name’s Nero, Sam Nero. Me and my associate, Miss Sugar Kane, operate from an office on the fifty-fifth level of The City…
It was a funny old day. For starters, the climate computers were on a go-slow, so we’d been enduring a sickly sort of pre-dawn for around three hours. Down at street level the lamps were jittery, and the half light was offering all sorts of interesting opportunities for those inclined towards criminality. Being a law-abiding sort, I was studying the inside of my eyelids as I warmed the cracked leather of my desk chair and halfway wondered whether there was any work in the situation for yours truly. My reverie was interrupted when Sugar oozed in from the outer office. Today she wore lipstick red that might have been painted on her curves and ankle-breaking heels that made her walk even more dangerous than ever.
“Sam,” she said in that breathy little girl voice that conceals a mind like a steel trap. “Sam. There’s something going down on the street corner…”
She was cut off by the sound of high-pitched screaming coming from below. I took the stairs three at a time and reached the bottom just as the street door burst open and three figures barrelled in. Two were by way of being friends of mine, Myk and Zig, the gigantic mute twins who work for Katie Scarlet O’Halleran and her Daddy. I didn’t know their companion, a skinny guy with a big head and a wispy white beard who looked right in the edge of collapse.
I slammed the door behind them and Myk helped me to slip the two plasteel retaining bars into their slots in the wall. As the second bar clunked home something very heavy hit the door. It made a kinda wet splatter.
Zig shrugged, and slung the skinny guy over his shoulder. We made our way back up to my office where Sugar hovered in the doorway, looking worried.
“What gives?” She spoke to the twins, and her voice was no longer meltingly sexy.
Myk signed his reply, with a speed that had my eyeballs rolling in my head. Fortunately, Sugar gets it no matter how fast the fingers.
While Myk did the talking, Zig put his burden down on my visitor chair. The little guy sat up, with unease in every line of his scrawny body, breathing shallowly and darting glances around him from a pair of shifty little eyes.
“Sam,” Sugar sighed, “our new buddy here is Doctor Arlo Petersen.”
“You sure, honey?”
She nodded her platinum blonde head.
“I’m sure Sam.”
This was a puzzle, as Petersen was the original poor boy made good and the last I heard of him he was relocating, upwards, to level ninety-seven to head up a fancy clinic where the wives and girlfriends of the wealthy would go for their facial tune-ups. I frowned.
“So what’s he doing this low down the pyramid?”
“Nobody knows. He got a message to Mister O’Halleran asking for help. The big guy sent Myk and Zig to fetch Petersen, and they got there just in time to prevent his untimely demise.”
“Right.” I turned my attention to the unimpressive figure cowering in my visitor chair. “Okay Mister Petersen, who’s face did you mess up?”
He glared at me with a ratlike contempt that brought up my hackles. “I don’t talk to lowlifes.”
Myk clipped him sharply around the head, and Sugar clicked her tongue against her insubstantial teeth.
“Naughty, naughty,” she chided, lifting a shoulder in a way that was guaranteed to have her principal assists doing all sorts of interesting things under the scarlet skin of her dress.
Petersen licked his lips, and I cuffed his head.
“Less lechery more explanation.”
He tried to make a run for it, but I put out a hand and grasped him by one skinny arm. “What is it with you? You really wanna go outside and get smeared across the sidewalk?”
“The big apes can protect me. I’m paying enough for their services.” His voice was high-pitched and nasal, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.
Myk gave him the stink eye and Zig signed something very rude.
Sugar pouted. “It isn’t safe outside even with protection.”
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Always the cuckoo in the Billings family nest, it was time for Helena to fly.
She studied the woman within the fussy parlour for any acknowledgement but her mother stared resolutely out a window from her position in an ornate, uncomfortable armchair. Her hair cinched into a tight ordered bun and her expression forbidding.
Helena’s travelling cloak draped from her shoulders, curtaining the growing mound of her abdomen, and she deliberately resisted straightening her bonnet that sat slightly askew upon her head—red hair escaping in unruly ringlets tickling her face and back of her neck. The disarray would annoy her mother.
A baby on the way and no husband to support her, Helena expected no help from those she had called family for nearly one-and-twenty years, but her mother blaming Helena and refusing to acknowledge her stung less than her father not standing up to his wife. Helena’s only recourse had been to write to her beloved grandfather in Lincolnshire. She would be eternally grateful to George Stockton of Redway Acres stable, for welcoming her with open arms.
Helena spoke sadly, “Goodbye, Mother.”
Two figures shuffled in the hallway to Helena’s left, pulling at her attention. Her father’s appearance was rather haggard—the hair at his temples greyer than ever, his dark hair now more salt and pepper. No doubt his wife’s complaints about their daughter exacting their toll. Helena’s younger brother’s hair was as dark as their father’s had once been, and he filled the space with a midriff almost as large as her own. They nodded goodbye, then followed their father outside to the coach their grandfather had sent for her.
“Am I to write, Papa?” Helena asked, searing every line of his face to memory lest she never see him again.
“No, it will only cause her, and therefore me, more angst. Ask George to advise me of your safe arrival. That is all.”
The tension in her father’s voice caused hope to flicker that perhaps he, more than anyone else, felt the pain of her leaving. If that was the case, he chose not to show it. She kept her tears and fears in check.
Two days later, the countryside became more familiar as Helena rubbed her rounded stomach with relief. The prolonged days of travel caused an ache in her back, and she longed to stretch her legs.
Helena and her companions enjoyed three days of good weather during their sixty-mile journey. Accompanying her was Ruth Robertson, the Billings’ cook, and Ruth’s two young children. Following behind, driving a cart heavy with their belongings, Helena occasionally spied Ruth’s husband, John, her greater concern the large, grey stallion hitched to the cart tail. Thankfully, Perseus maintained the leisurely pace with ease and equanimity. Helena, who shared her grandfather’s love of horses and had spent much of her time in her family’s stable helping John, held a fondness in her heart for the couple.
“Baby should be ‘ere in October, ma’am,” Ruth spoke kindly to her new mistress.
“It sounds strange when you call me ma’am. I hope it’s a girl.”
“Am I to call you Mrs. Andrews, then?” Ruth smiled.
Helena’s left thumb toyed with the ring on that hand.
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