Read an Excerpt
Rook Venner stood in the clouds. Far, far below, the land glittered to infinity as the endlessly setting sun picked out purple mountaintops and golden fields. He thought of those long summer days watching baseball with his father and grandfather—perfect days that would never end.
A choir of angels sang to the heavens, their lilting melody the perfect harmony to the warm voice that floated to him on the soft breeze.
“The world is changing fast, Detective Venner.” The voice made him feel as calm as the white clouds drifting over farmlands, cities, and sparkling lakes. “The America I love would not be here without everything we have done.”
Doubt fluttered through his mind, though he could not understand why he felt anything but trust.
“Freedom is nothing more than an idea. An idea that nearly destroyed this country,” the voice continued, its warmth completely at odds with its meaning. “America is rotten from the inside out, fat, lazy, promiscuous, greedy. People need a firm hand, or the world is nothing more than chaos.”
The clouds washed away and Rook stood with a line of warriors clad in armor formed up atop a slight rise.
“The Roman Empire built walls to keep the barbarians out. We need something stronger. We need to protect the people from themselves.”
Facing Rook was a horde of horrors, things that might have been men, but were malformed and strange, brandishing hideous implements of death.
“Popular discontent can lead to rebellion. And what are we supposed to do when the American people get out of line?” The gentle, feminine voice hardened. “Force has its limitations. We need a much more subtle approach. It is necessary to provide correction.”
The voice sounded a note of regret. “But in the normal scheme of things, that is impossible. The only answer is to move outside the usual spectrum of politics.”
Of course, it made sense, he thought. What else could anyone do?
“There are few of us who can steer the course of history. You can help me, Rook, and keep our country safe forever.”
Wind rushed past him, exhilarating his senses. To help her was his only purpose, his single goal.
“Rook, will you stand with us?”
He felt no fear. He would fight. He had never been more sure of anything. He wanted to stand in service to the warm voice. He would hold the line against the gibbering mass of disgusting filth that threatened everything that was good and just and American.
“As an American, as a police officer, you must do your duty.”
…police officer…For some reason those words stirred something, deep down, beyond all the smooth, obedient agreement.
But he was no longer listening. With a sharp suddenness, like a knife splitting a taut sheet of cloth, the glittering landscape broke into pieces and blew away. Fractured images spilled through his mind.
“I am Plesur,” said a small, anxious person sitting across the table from him at the police station. His only desire was to protect the beautiful woman who looked at him with blue eyes filled with fear and confusion.
His hand stroked a smooth flank in the dark. She turned, her breasts visible for a moment, outlined by the red glow of fire.
Hair swirling in a golden halo, she spun through the air and slammed a foot into a tac-team assailant, knocking him out cold.
She reached for Rook’s hand, and together they turned and jumped off the roof, twenty stories into the black.
“Plesur.” Rook shivered, moaned, reaching out for her in the void.
Blue eyes flashed with shock. He saw Plesur, spinning backward, her body shuddering as the bullets ripped into her. He saw himself, outlined in black, holding the gun, firing, firing, firing…
“No!” his voice rang out, roaring in his ears. But nothing could stop the sound of bullets exploding from the gun.
He shook from side to side, lost in a vortex of schizoid imagery, oblivious of what was going on around him. He didn’t see the tense faces or hear their voices. He didn’t hear the squeak of wheels as the gurney sped along a bright passageway. Beside him, Plesur lay on a second gurney. She was covered in blood.
“Get him over to the house!” A burly man in blue scrubs was pulling and guiding the gurney. “Take her to the operating room.”
Before the splitting headache tore away his consciousness, Rook’s eyes flew open and he saw her. He reached for the pale, motionless figure, but his arm felt like lead. He cried out as he was veered crazily to the side, Plesur moving away until she was swallowed by the light.
All the while, relentlessly, the warm voice kept speaking from the core of his brain, insistent as the beat of his own heart. “Rook, we need you…Rook, you must help us. Rook—”
“Rook! Oh my God,” a blond woman cried as she caught up to the gurney.
“Easy, step back. I’m Connor Calaan, Rory’s brother. I’m a doctor.”
“You better be fucking good!” Julia, real name Angie Bricken, glared at the doctor.
“Good enough.” Connor had a disarming grin.
“How is the pleasure model?” she managed to croak.
“Lucky.” He held his thumb and forefinger close together. “Missed the artery by a millimeter. She’s in surgery now.”
“P-mods are as resilient as children. She ain’t leaving us yet.”
“What about him?” Julia indicated Rook, still writhing on the gurney as they wheeled it across the yard toward the main house. She didn’t even want to guess what had happened to him, what could have made him lose his mind and shoot Plesur.
Connor pointed to the incision behind Rook’s right ear. “There’s a control chip in his head. My bet is a Sable Ranch special, one of the new military types.”
Julia looked at the livid red scar. “What does that mean?”
“Means it’s explosive.”
Connor gave her a quick glance.
“We saw one blow a man’s head to pieces.”
“They’re effective,” the doctor said.
“Can you get it out?”
“That’s what we do.”
They’d reached an open door in the back of the house with rubber seals around the edges. A girl wearing yellow scrubs waved them in.
“Blast room is prepped,” she said to Connor, handing him a surgical mask and gloves.
“Okay.” The gurney slid into a small but well-equipped makeshift operating theater. Sheets of plastic covered the floor, and the furniture had been shoved against the walls.
“He should be in the hospital!” Julia exclaimed as she studied the bare room.
“Can’t risk blowing up the medical center.”
“Don’t let him die!”
“If that chip goes off, we all die,” said Connor. “Leave him to us.”
The girl in scrubs gently ushered Julia back. “Wait outside, please.”
Out on the back porch of the big farm house, Julia sank into a wicker chair. The Calaan compound stretched out before her: medical center, fields full of crops, a self-sufficient commune nestled in the woods of western New York. No one would suspect they ran an underground railroad for pleasure models and were armed with more guns than a NASCAR rally.
She shook off the dominatrix personality construct known as Mistress Julia and said good-bye to Rook Venner. Without the icy dominatrix in control, tears filled Angie’s dark blue eyes. Though she’d known the detective for less than a week, she’d been struck by his obvious decency, and the courage he’d shown. Not only on the rooftop of Zato’s gangland but when they were running from the hunter TYGO robot. He’d made them leave while he stayed to face the unkillable thing that tore men in half as if they were made of tissue paper. He’d risked his life for people he barely knew when anyone else would have walked away.
And she’d known that Venner was in love with Plesur, which had made his crazy act, shooting her, completely inexplicable, until just now.
Angie watched as Rory, leader of the Calaan compound, marched across the grounds, issuing a stream of orders. The Calaan clan was in motion, camo-clad humans and pleasure mods alike responding to orders like a well-trained regiment.
“Take the South Trail, yeah. Good. Out.” Rory barked orders to his redneck commandos.
The ex-marine and leader of the Calaan community turned to another soldier. “Captain, you set the pit sensors on 44? Good. Check the D Nets, then get everyone out of the farm, if they haven’t already left.”
Angie’s gaze settled on the handsome blond man who walked up the steps and sat in a rocking chair beside her.
David handed her a plastic cup of coffee.
“So, he had a chip in his head,” said David quietly.
“Could explode at any moment.”
“Thought it had to be something like that. He really loves her.” David, a male pleasure model of the David kind with an expensive surgical upgrade, was obviously shaken by what he’d seen.
He glanced at Angie, worry in his blue eyes. Louisa Marion, matriarch of Sable Ranch and de facto ruler of the country, would not stop until Rook and Plesur were dead. Plesur’s former owner, the murdered General Sangacha, had planted information in her head, coordinates that led to a secret Marion would do anything to protect.
Angie sat next to David and took his hand in hers. Gratitude was in his eyes. Emotional support was something that pleasure models rarely got. He put an arm around her and pulled her close.
She felt tears welling up and tried to fight them off. The Julia construct had been switched on full-time these past few days. The expensive, psycho-conditioned überpersonality of Mistress Julia was designed to whip men until they bled without the slightest concern. The dominatrix could deal with the gunfights, killer robots, kidnapping, rape, the constant threat of death. But Angie could not. Her throat was closing, her vision flecked with bright spots. The ground swayed. David’s body felt hot as coals against her flesh.
Silent as a viper, Julia slid back in place. Her head cleared, the feelings ebbed, and Angie was in the background again, hiding in the dark. Julia brushed the tears from her cheeks. It wasn’t the time for that.
“The spinners set?” Rory marched up to them, shouting orders into his headpiece. “Balloons?…Good. You got the 88s, right?…I want to be sure that Deem knows what he’s doing…. Yeah. Hit and fall back, and for fuck’s sake, don’t get killed!”
“What’s going on?” David asked him.
“Sable Ranch knew where to drop Detective Venner. They’ll be coming down on us like a freakin’ hammer.”
David stood. “Air strike?”
“Possible.” Rory’s hand went reflexively to the gun strapped to his holster. “More likely they’ll send in an assault team.”
“Shit. What can you do?”
“We’re getting everyone out.”
“I’m sorry,” Julia said, not knowing what else to say.
Rory gave her a conspiratorial grin. “Believe me, we’ve got places they’ll never find. After the first time, they never caught us with our pants down again.”
“I take it you’re not on Sable Ranch’s Christmas list,” Julia smirked.
Rory grinned, pulling the scar on his cheek taut. “They’ve sent everything from a couple of squads and a machine or two, up to a full company with twenty machines.”
David scratched his jaw for a moment. “TYGOs?”
Rory shook his head. “No. I didn’t even know there was one of those here in the U.S. Those are battlefield weapons. Right now the Thunderclaw Mark 5 is the preferred assault machine in America.”
Julia stared at him blankly.
“Lot of Calaans have served in the military,” Rory explained as if answering her question. “We got friends fighting down in Georgia.”
“You think they know that Plesur’s still alive?” asked Julia.
“They will. Once that chip in the detective’s head is deactivated, they’ll be all over us like flies on shit.”
Julia shook her head. “What the hell are they hiding that’s so important?”
“Good question, that.” Rory produced a handheld. Its screen glittered in the sun, displaying a map. “Let me know when you find out.”
Julia had a house just a few miles from those coordinates. She still felt a strong sense of wonder, and some surprise, that the murder of her client, General Manuel Sangacha, had come full circle, right back to the beautiful mountain ridge where she’d bought a getaway second home.
But her neighbor Jim, who had put her in contact with Rory, hadn’t been surprised at all. Dr. Jimmy, as he was known, knew every conspiracy theory and had generated a few himself.
“Jim said there’s some kind of secret facility at the old aqueduct,” she said.
Rory nodded. “Back in the Emergency, they had something going on there.
“So I’ve heard.”
“Your little pleasure model, she knows something is happening again, and they’ll kill us all to keep their secret.”
Suddenly the porch shook as a deafening boom rocked the house. Julia and David were thrown to the ground as someone screamed; a burst of red flames shot through the roof of the right side of the sprawling Calaan house.
“Shit!” Rory leaped onto the porch.
“What happened?” But Julia already knew the answer.
Rory bagged the handheld, ripped the screen door open, and ran inside. “The chip went off.”
MONEY SHOT Copyright © 2010 by Macmillan