HANK STARED blankly at the naked body next to him. Did the bared shoulder belong to a woman or a man? His vision blurred after a while, so he gave up. As long as no angels arrived to arrest them, it didn’t matter.
He slipped out of the bed, relieved to find his clothes piled in a heap on the floor. At least he wouldn’t have to hobble out of there without his pants. Dim rays filtered in through the large tinted window and illuminated everything enough that he didn’t have to risk turning on the lights.
As he dressed, Hank scanned the room for anything familiar. Worn furniture, an outdated Prophet-class network panel, and an appalling holo sculpture in the corner all screamed hotel, and not the high-end kind either. He must have been incredibly drunk if they’d ended up there.
His fingers brushed the headset attached to the port behind his ear—he hadn’t lost it this time! With luck he could rent a gondola and slip out before he had to admit to his bed partner that not only did he not remember their name, but he had no idea what they’d done the night before.
A tapping on the window caught his attention. Hank grinned and brushed his fingers over the button that dissolved the window. Outside, a golden gondola hovered, carrying one of the men from his security detail. Hank hadn’t completely managed to lose his handlers.
“Get in, Master Henry.”
“Ian, really?” Hank already had one leg out the window.
“Just get in the damn gondola, Hank.”
Hank winked as he dropped his shoes over the ledge. They landed with a thump on the padded seats. He followed and winced as his ass made contact with the armrest instead. Ian could have raised the gondola to the proper level. Probably thought he’d teach Hank a bit of a lesson—no, that wasn’t fair.
Ian didn’t do crap like that. If he had a problem with Hank, he’d say so, not do passive-aggressive shit like most of the security people Father hired. It helped that Ian wasn’t bad-looking for someone from the lower Circles. His face lacked the usual perfection, but something in his serious brow and dark eyes begged for a second look.
Maybe Hank had spent a few evenings fantasizing about Ian—about the strength coiled beneath that deceptively trim frame. Ian had incredible hands, and Hank imagined himself under them.
“Where are the other guards?” Hank put on his shoes, even though they stank like the back room of a bar. He managed to get one on before realizing he had it on the wrong foot.
Ian flicked on the forceshield without looking back at Hank. “I’m pretty sure they’re still at Cloud 9, expecting your return. I was the only one smart enough to follow you.”
“You don’t happen to have a hangover patch handy, do you?” His head had started to throb with the motion of the gondola.
“Sorry. You’ll have to wait until we get back.”
“What good are you?” The words had more bite than he’d intended. He meant it as a joke, but the pain made it sound bitter and angry.
He got a glare thrown his way—which he deserved—but Ian never had the chance to respond in kind. A booming roar filled his ears, and a flash of light blinded him. The gondola rocked to the side and spun and lurched in the air.
Hank slammed against the shield, thrown upward by the impact. He tumbled back onto the seats, with his head pounding and belly wrenching. The world twisted around him. What the hell had happened?
“Dammit! Hank, are you all right?” Ian managed to get them right-side up, and Hank blessed his driving skills.
Flames poured out of the hotel room window from which Ian had rescued Hank. Licks of orange surrounded the tall cylindrical building, now a blight on the smooth surface that marred the perfection of Heaven. Melted metal and glastic swayed in the wind and looked about to tumble to the levels below. Hank shouldn’t have been able to feel the heat through the forceshield, but somehow he did, hot enough to make him sweat.
A few seconds earlier and the blast would have tossed him over the side of the vehicle to plummet to his death. A few minutes earlier…. He swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat. Thank the God AI.
“Depends on how you define all right.” If not for Ian, Hank would be dead right now.
Ian didn’t respond. He’d ducked his head, with his hand on his own headset mod attached to the port behind his ear. Hank guessed Ian was calling it in.
Hank blinked, trying to clear his blurry vision. He’d hit the shield pretty hard. When he looked away from the waves of fire, he saw them. The angels dropped out of the sky, the early-morning sunlight glinting off their metallic wings. They were brilliant and beautiful, perfect soldiers of Heaven. Hank had always wanted to bed one of them, to have those golden wings stretched out overhead while being ridden.
A flight of angels broke off from the main group. Their wings beat closer, obscuring the vision of the city behind them.
Hank realized they were coming for him.
HANK DRUMMED his fingers on the tabletop, tapping out the rhythm of a song stuck in his head. It repeated on a loop, the only thing his mind could grasp after the night he could barely remember. If the angels thought they’d get anything more relevant than a pop song, then they were out of luck.
With his interrogator’s wings neatly tucked away, the golden halo that circled the guy’s forehead provided the only clue Hank sat face-to-face with an angel. Just as pretty as anybody who lived in the higher levels of Heaven, Raphael 3029 had flawless skin, chiseled cheekbones, and blond hair that fell in soft waves around his ears. He wore the armor-plated gray uniform that would have everyone stepping out of his way if they passed him on the walkways between levels.
Then again, Hank had never heard of an angel walking through the crowds. Why walk when you could fly?
“What can you tell me about the woman you left Cloud 9 with last night?”
The angel had a pleasant tone, deep and firm, but his empty eyes stared through Hank. Raphael 3029 held an Angel Sphere in one hand, and Hank knew it would light up if he lied.
Hank squirmed in his chair, unable to get comfortable on the stiff plastic. Despite all his antics, he’d never been interrogated by angels before. He expected more from their sanctuary than this stark room of nothing but round lights set into the ceiling and a single chair. Part of him wanted to demand better treatment. No Abraham should be treated like a common criminal. His brother would say that, except Charles would never be caught in this kind of situation in the first place.
“Not much. Can’t even remember if she was any good in bed.” What a damn shame. Had he died last night, Hank would have liked to know if it was at least a good lay.
“So you left the bar with intent to fornicate?”
Angels. Always so proper. “I assume so. I don’t remember.” Hank frowned. He didn’t think he’d had that much to drink last night. His memory had pieces missing, and while he was used to waking up hungover and confused, the events usually trickled in eventually.
The angel nodded. “Perhaps that has something to do with the combination of Ice and manna found in your system.”
“Now wait a minute. I don’t do Ice.” Downsiders used that messed-up drug. He wouldn’t be caught dead with something so unfashionable. Hank shifted in his chair and crossed his forearms over his chest. The drug patches the medics had given him rubbed and pulled at his skin.
They’d chewed some manna last night. The hazy memory filtered back. She’d been lovely, with long dark hair swept away from her face and caught into a braid. Hank couldn’t remember the color of her eyes. After the manna, she’d left to get drinks and then… nothing.
“Demon’s balls, she drugged me!”
“That is a possible scenario, yes.” Raphael tilted his head to one side. He didn’t have a single recording device on him for this interview, probably holding it all in his specially modified brain. That made Hank’s skin crawl. Brain mods were so shifty. “Did she give any indication that she was a terrorist?”
“Before or after the fucking?” Did he expect the terrorist to announce herself at some point? When the angel didn’t respond, Hank rolled his eyes. “No, she didn’t. But why would the demons target me?”
“Not demons,” Raphael said.
The door slid open and Ian walked in, a data tablet in one hand, which he shoved at the angel. “Here are the private surveillance recordings from Cloud 9 and the names of everyone in attendance. Unless you require anything else, I think we’re done here.”
“My hero.” Hank flashed Ian a smile, but Ian ignored him in favor of staring down the angel.
Raphael nodded slowly. “If Master Abraham recalls anything, contact us immediately.”
“Yes, sir.” Ian helped Hank out of his seat and gestured toward the door.
Hank took a moment to stretch, his limbs still tight despite the muscle-relaxant patch the medic had slapped on him. He was a walking cocktail at the moment, especially with the Ice. That would certainly give his docs something to talk about during his next checkup.
Ian led the way through the angels’ station, back to their gondola in the private dock. He didn’t say anything, and for once Hank didn’t have a joke to crack. Before they reached the edge, he grasped Ian’s shoulder but backed up a step when Ian whirled around, his dark eyes flashing.
“I wanted to say thank you”—surprised at Ian’s anger, Hank retracted his hand—“for saving my life. If you hadn’t come when you did….”
He’d nearly died. The memory of it shook Hank again, and he trembled. He swallowed, trying to keep control of his body. It wouldn’t do to lose it in front of the staff—that’s what Mother always said.
“Shh, Hank, come on.” Ian took his arm with a gentle grip. “Let’s get you home.”
Home. Like that would help.
IAN DESPERATELY wished for the comfort of his own fucking bed—even if company-issued with sheets this side of scratchy. He’d done his duty and dropped Hank off at his penthouse suite, escorting Hank to the front door instead of handing him off to the building’s security team like usual. The entire time he’d been at turns grateful for, then disturbed by, Hank’s silence.
To be fair, Hank did shut up on occasion. But the glassy-eyed man who stumbled after Ian was not his Hank. Maybe an attempt on his life would knock some sense of self-preservation into him. Then again, Hank seemed bent on abusing every privilege he had as an upleveler and an Abraham. Ian had no doubt when he reported in tomorrow, he’d be dragged along to yet another damned midlevel club with the rest of Hank’s snot-nosed uplevel friends.
Ian winced at his boss’s voice in his ear. He dialed down the volume on his headset before responding. “Yes, sir. Just finished delivering the package.” Which meant Ian should be fucking off shift now. He’d done what none of the others on his team could do—he’d kept Hank alive. That should earn him some time off, not a chewing out by his boss. Then again, what else could Ian expect? As a lowlevel grunt, it was his job to serve.
“I know. I’m tracking your GPS. That’s not why I’m calling.”
If Ian wanted to, he could close his eyes and the feed from the port behind his ear would show Adler sitting around his bank of monitors. The first time Ian had jacked in after getting his port, he’d been fascinated by that function. He’d slipped out of reality and into someplace else. It had been easy to see why so many lowlevelers got addicted to it and ended up in debt to pay for the mods. Now Ian didn’t bother to engage the feature, already jaded at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
“Get your ass to the Abraham estate. The head of the family wants to meet with you.”
Panic fluttered in his belly but didn’t take root. If they wanted to fire him, they had easier ways. Unless Sir Abraham wanted to chew him out in person? “On my way.”
THE INNER sanctum of the Abraham estate hadn’t changed since Ian had his job interview there five years ago. Back then the picture Sir Abraham made behind that polished burgundy desk, sitting on a chair made of real animal leather, had awed him. The old man held court in this room, decked out from floor to ceiling in nothing but luxury. Ian had to force himself to keep his attention on his new boss, instead of gawking like the lowleveler he was.
Heavy drapes covered the immense windows but let in enough light for the flowers that grew out of pods hovering along the walls. A fountain in the center of the room poured water from a tiny angel’s mouth. It could be a hologram, but Ian never tried touching it to find out. It served as a reminder that he stood in the presence of one of the First Families. The angels answered to them, and Ian, a mere transplant from the 360, did his job and nothing more.
Ian ignored the two plush armchairs in front of the desk. He stood straight, his arms clasped behind his back to stop himself from fidgeting. If they intended to chew him out, then he would damn well answer the charge with dignity.
The door behind the desk slid open, and through it stepped a woman dressed in long blue skirts and a blouse that looked as if it strangled her. Her honey-blonde hair was wrapped up into a severe knot. But her electric-blue eyes drew Ian’s notice.
“Madam Abraham!” He bowed a shade too late. The smoothness of the motion didn’t come naturally to him. Having to do it made him grind his teeth. She was only his better due to having more money and mods.
Her face lacked the wrinkles and tired gaze of his own mother, although Ian knew her to be a good ten years older. But those who lived in the top Circles didn’t have to worry about aging.
Especially not one who served on the Board. Elizabeth Abraham represented the Abraham subsidiaries as one of the twelve who governed all of Heaven Corp, not only this city. Ian had never stood in her presence before. All his previous dealings had been with Hank’s father, William Abraham, who ran the family’s company.
She waved a hand at him before moving to sit in the large chair. It should have dwarfed her and made her look small and unimportant. But she seemed to fill out the entire seatback, like a fucking queen on her throne.
“Have a seat, Mr. Caldwell.”
He perched at the very edge, not certain how long she meant to keep him there. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“I should be thanking you for saving my youngest son’s life.”
Ian shrugged. That’s why she paid him. He kept Hank out of trouble, though the trouble had never been something so explosive before. Maybe she’d at least offer him a damn raise. He could use the money. He still had mods he needed to pay off.
“Not like the other idiots in his security detail. They’ll be terminated without reference immediately.” She pressed her palms to the table, and Ian knew there had to be a touch screen there, putting her desires into action as she spoke them.
Ian clenched his hands into fists at her words, swallowing down his protest. Five good men wouldn’t be able to find another job in security, not after being dismissed like that. Damn Hank and his need to keep stealing away from his keepers. If Ian hadn’t slipped a tracer into Hank’s shoes, he wouldn’t have found him at all.
“Master Henry can be a challenge to provide security for.” He offered the only support of them he could. Otherwise he risked getting fired himself. Who knew what set these uplevelers off sometimes.
She laughed, the sound too loud in the stillness of the room. It transformed her face, removing that stern visage into something light. Now Ian could see Hank in her.
“Ian Caldwell, you have a gift for understatement.” The stern mask fell back into place. “Tell me, did you see anything to make you think this was a terrorist attack?”
For the first time, something threatened her safe little Upsider world. The last time terrorists had attacked Heaven, they’d only managed to hit the 300 levels. Ian had moved out of there by then and remembered dialing up his parents’ codes again and again before the link had finally established. Angels had caught the group and executed the perpetrators on a public feed blasted to the entire city and beyond. That had been small comfort for the lowlevelers who’d lost family and their homes.
“Not that I saw, ma’am. Then again, I didn’t speak to the woman Hank left with.” She’d looked like any number of Hank’s conquests, of the female variety anyway. Hank didn’t seem to have a type other than lovely and willing. “And I didn’t scan the scene afterward.” Which he would have, if the angels hadn’t shown up first. Ian might only be a security guard, but he took pride in knowing everything about a situation concerning his clients.
She nodded and moved her palm over the surface of the desk. A hologram sprang into being between them, showing the burned-out husk of Hank’s one-time hotel room. Scorched into the wall was the word “blasphemer.” That’s what the terrorists called everyone in Heaven, condemning them for taking on the trappings of God.
“Anyone could have written that. It’s hardly evidence that the terrorists are back.”
“I agree with you, although we’ll have to wait for the angels to finish their investigation. You understand, Mr. Caldwell, if this wasn’t a random act of violence, then someone is targeting Henry specifically.”
Ian rubbed his forehead, trying to think of anyone Hank had pissed off lately. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I can’t wait for the angels. I’d like you to be personally responsible for Henry’s security. You’ll be able to handpick your own team. Anything you need, request it. Money is no object.”
Of course it wasn’t. Ian had no illusions about this sudden promotion. He would be no less expendable than any other member of the Abrahams’ security. Jim’s words echoed in his mind: They’ll expect you to lie down and die for them. And then they’ll keep going like you didn’t even exist. Don’t you forget it.
He could still see the old man, as Jim had been before he’d died—gray beard, heavy eyes, and the cane Jim used to whack the other 360 kids with. Even after a lifetime of service as a security guard, Jim hadn’t been able to afford the medical fees to fix his leg, and it didn’t classify as essential surgery. So he’d limped around, and Ian had followed after him, learning everything he could about what it took to move uplevel.
Ian cleared his throat. “I’m not sure Henry will like the idea.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m sure Henry wants to stay alive. He seems to like you. I don’t think you’ll have any problems getting along. I want twenty-four-seven security on him. In fact, I’d prefer it if you lived in. Metatron knows we have the room. Henry cannot slip his security again.”
And if he did, it would be on Ian’s head. “Of course, ma’am. I’ll do my best.”
“I need you to do better than that. This is Henry we’re talking about.”
The youngest of her children. The ne’er-do-well who always ended up in one tabloid news feed or another. Spoiled, beautiful, clever Henry. “Yes, ma’am.”
Time to stop by medical and get a stim patch. Ian would need it to survive Henry, never mind whoever had tried to kill him.