New Hopeland City may be the birthplace of Tech Shifter gear, but it isn’t the only place that likes to blend technology with folklore. Now, a new nightmare is stalking the streets…
When PI Cassie Tam is attacked on the way home one night, she expects the police to get involved. What she doesn’t expect is to be forced into acting as bait to lure out a lunatic in a tech-suit that’s literally out for blood. But past actions have consequences, and doing so may be the only way she can get a clean slate from the city’s law makers.
If only that didn’t mean having to face down a wannabe vampire.
Publisher: Ninestar Press
Heat Level: 1
Romantic Content: 1
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Lesbian
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Badass Hero
Word Count: 66400
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
“Nei hou gaau siu.”
When Lori smiles like that, her eyes take on a slight twinkle, making their pale blue tone feel warm and welcoming. That being the case, it takes me a moment to realise I didn’t understand a word she just said. Am I so drunk already? “Uh, sorry. What?”
Lori giggles and repeats, “Nei hou gaau siu.” When I stare blankly, she frowns and asks, “Is my pronunciation off? I was sure that was right.”
“What were you trying to say?”
“I was trying to tell you that you’re funny in Cantonese.”READ MORE
And at that, the laughter spills out of me, uncontrolled to the point I have to bury my face in the table to muffle the sound. If we’d been in our usual haunt, Northern Main Street’s late-night café-cum-alternative hangout Tourniquet, I’d have let loose uninhibited. The people there look like an odd bunch when you’re viewing things from the outside, but if you spend enough time there, you soon realise they’re all really nice people with tastes and hobbies that fall outside the mainstream. Seeing as we’ve opted for Cartwright’s on Dunstone Avenue, though, I’m trying to hold back. Honestly, I am. I’m just not doing a good job of it.
The staff in Cartwright’s are lovely, but the clientele is a little less raucous than those at Tourniquet, and so I’m already drawing some confused looks by the time I wipe the tears from my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m sorry.”
“I’ve never been much good at languages. Oh God,” Lori sighs and shoots me a now far more nervous smile. “Put me out of my misery. What did I say?”
I shrug. “You probably told me I was funny in Cantonese.”
Lori tilts her head and says, “Okay, now I’m confused.”
“I don’t speak Cantonese.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I really don’t.”
“You really do. I mean, you can’t seriously be telling me you’ve been using diu in the Taiwanese sense?”
“No, no…,” I reply, waving my hands in frantic motions. “Wait. What does it mean in Taiwan?”
“It was old slang for cool.”
“Oh, right. No, I’m definitely using it the way you think.”
“So you do speak Cantonese then.”
“No, I swear in Cantonese. I couldn’t hold a conversation in it. My dad had a thing about me swearing. He hated it, even when I was an adult. It was the one thing that always made him roll his eyes at Mom. Anyway, he spoke Mandarin, English, and a little French, so my options for big kid words were kinda limited. I went to school with a guy named Tom Huang; he spoke Cantonese, so I got him to teach me the cool words. Dad probably got the gist of what I was saying, but I think he appreciated the ingenuity of it.”
And now, Lori laughs and buries her face in her hands. She shakes her head and says, “I am such an idiot.”
“Nah, it’s not like I’ve ever spoken Mandarin around you, so how would you know? Honestly, I know enough Mandarin to get by, but we always spoke English at home, so I just picked that up easier. Let’s see, though…you would have meant nǐ hěn gǎoxiào. Or if you wanted to be really over the top with it, nǐjiӑng shénme dōu néng bӑ wŏ lè huài le. That’s ‘everything you say cracks me up.’”
Lori shakes her head. “I think I’ll stick to English.”
“I am sorry for laughing,” I say, taking her hand. “It was really sweet of you to try learning something in another language for me. Why that phrase, though?”
Lori lets out a short, gentle laugh, and replies, “Every time we’re together, you either do or say something to make me laugh, so I figured it was something I could guarantee I’d get to use.”
“I’ll get us another drink,” I blurt, and whip myself to my feet and away towards the counter. It was just a compliment, but still… Did I move quick enough to stop her seeing how red my cheeks are?
“Nǐ hěn gǎoxiào,” Lori giggles in broken Mandarin.
I guess I was too slow. Diu.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to give you a lift back?” Lori asks.
I shake my head. “We both have early starts tomorrow, and it’ll take you all the way back to the other end of the city. Besides, it’s a nice evening.”
Lori looks up at the clear sky and nods. “It’s still pretty early by our standards too, so I guess it’s not like there are going to be too many muggers out.”
“Come on.” I act mock taken aback. “You can’t seriously think I wouldn’t be able to handle a couple of petty thieves?”
“Oh, I know you can. I just thought if anyone was stupid enough to attack you, you’d probably get hauled up for assault.”
“Cheeky,” I retort, giving Lori a playful punch in the arm.
She smiles in response and draws me into a deep kiss, running her fingers smoothly through my hair and tracing a line down the back of my neck. When I shiver and a low moan leaves my lips, she pulls back and fixes me with a playful, I-love-having-that-effect-on-you grin. Ever the tease, she backs up to her car, keeping her eyes on mine, unlocks the door with the fingerprint scanner and slides effortlessly into the driver’s seat. It’s so well practised, part of me has always wondered if she’s used the same moves on other people before. I tried following that train of thought once and came to two conclusions. The first was the concept probably wasn’t new, and she knows full well what she’s doing, but with others, different spots probably set them off.
The second thing I realised was that I don’t really care. Whether she’s treated others the same or not doesn’t matter. What matters is it’s me she’s putting the effort in with now. No matter who it was for in the past, right now it’s for me, and just me. Part of me really wants to tell her all that, because I want her to know how much I appreciate that she pays attention to what I like. But you won’t tell her, I remind myself. Because you’re making the effort not to overanalyse things and pretending you don’t is the best you’ve got right now.
Lori slows the car as she passes me and leans out the window to say, “Seriously, though, Cassie. Stay safe. Message me when you get home, yeah?”
“Of course,” I say, with a wink, “I wouldn’t want my pretty kitty worrying.”
Lori chuckles at my lame attempt to demonstrate an okay-ness with her Tech Shifting and waves her goodbyes as she pulls out onto the surprisingly quiet street. I am okay with knowing she Tech Shifts, especially as it’s her primary way to de-stress. In a way, I’m lucky too; between Lori and the others at the regular meets up at the Forster Street Community Centre—who have all been really welcoming since I started intermittently, not to mention awkwardly, attending—my interactions with the Tech Shifting community has been pretty positive of late. Even the Kitsune case last month was fine in that respect. It was the non-TS crowd who caused all the trouble for me.
Yet you still can’t let go of the TS Murder Files, can you? No matter how different those around you are, you can’t separate them in your head. Not completely.
I shake away the bad thoughts and start making my way down Main Street. It would actually be a little quicker to take some of the back streets, but I’m guessing Lori brought up the muggings because the news sites have been reporting a sudden spike in them recently. She made a joke of it, but she really does worry, I can tell that much. Even if Lori can’t see me doing it, I’d rather take the precautions to make sure she doesn’t have to worry so much. So, Main Street with all its lights and public visibility it is.
It really is a nice night out, though, complete with a clear sky and a bright, shiny moon to look down on me. It’s still early enough that the drinkers and the eternal partygoers aren’t out in full swing yet, so it’s pretty quiet too. In fact, for most of the walk, the loudest sound I can hear is the quiet put-put-put of the EU25s that line the kerb of the street at regular intervals. The idea of the small metal boxes is they sit nondescriptly just within the bounds of the kerb and process the air put out by the non-electric cars going up and down the road. I stop and lean down to watch the little machine in action because, well, despite my normal mixed emotions about some of our modern tech, these things fascinate me.
We were at one point expected to go entirely electric with vehicles, but it’s still cheaper to run a car on fossil and biofuels, so the city is pretty evenly split in terms of who owns what. Even if biodiesel is still the higher seller of the two, it does emit an odour. Personally, I think biodiesel emissions smell a little like burnt fries, which isn’t entirely unpleasant as car exhaust fumes go, but I get why people don’t like it. The current thinking is that, now the poorly titled petroleum cloning research has started gaining ground, it’s likely we’ll see an influx of biodiesel cars within the next twenty years. You see, since the animal rights protests have died down in relation to cloning what are essentially modified but already dead animals in order to harvest unnatural amounts of fat to help produce the fuel, the experts are touting how the prices are going to drop again.
Which would mean more burnt fast food wafting through the streets. So, about two weeks ago, the Government rushed out the installation of the EnviroUnit version 25, or EU25, so they could road test it in a live environment. The machine takes in the emissions, neutralises the smell through some sort of techno-magic, and releases a virtually odourless equivalent in its stead. The general consensus so far is they’re working really well. Not to mention they’ve had a positive effect on other potentially unwanted stinks; like mess left by the living animals who now only make up a little over a third of the city’s pet population, or the liquid expulsions of those who can’t tell when to stop drinking.
“No, these I can get on board with,” I say, getting to my feet and continuing my journey.
I freeze. “Hello?”
“Help…me. Please…” the voice comes again, rising weakly from a darkened alley a few steps ahead.
I narrow my eyes, my internal paranoia engine on full alert. Mysterious voices crying for help from darkened alleys are not always what they seem. My moral compass is pointing due innocent-in-trouble, though, so I opt for the balanced approach and walk towards the alley. Slowly.
I give a quick glance around to make sure that my exits are clear and reply, “Hello? I can’t see you. What happened?”
“Lured in…three men. Took my purse,” the voice rasps, clearly female now, and carrying an air of a genuine struggle to get the words out with it.
I take a deep breath and make a decision there and then. “Okay, I’m coming in. Whereabouts are you?”
I walk forward a few more steps, pushing through the contents of a flipped dumpster, and try again. “Miss? I can’t see you.”
“Back here. Bleeding. Help…me. Please.”
It takes ten more steps for me to hear the alarm bells ringing in my head. Help me. Please. It sounded the same as the first time she said it. Exactly the same.
I turn to head back towards Main Street but realise very quickly that I’m too late. A bright flash of light hits my eyes and, before I can bring my hand up to shield my vision, my hands flinch back involuntarily as a wave of fear rushes over me. I stumble back, heading further into the alley as I try to escape, and trip over something on the floor. Or it may have been my own feet. I can’t tell any more. My vision is blurring, and as each flash of light hits me, I see a figure getting closer and closer.
Something inside me registers what I’m looking at and I start to retch, my stomach forcing its contents up and out onto the ground in front of me. The warmth of it is pooling around my hands, bringing with it the realisation that I’ve somehow pushed myself up onto all fours. I force my head away from the light, but it makes no difference. I still can’t see properly, can’t even begin to get to my feet. And the voices; whispering incoherently from all around me.
Two gloved hands reach out and touch me. A voice in the back of my head screams, Run! Get up and run!
But I can’t.
All I can do is whisper one word as I feel a tightness in my head, and the darkness engulfs my vision.