Every year when the deep cold of winter sets in, unbeknownst to humanity, dangerous visitors arrive from another world. Disguised as humans, the Nafikh move among us in secret, hungry for tastes of this existence. Their fickle, often-violent needs must be accommodated at all times, and the price of keeping them satisfied is paid most heavily by servs.
Created by the Nafikh to attend their every whim, servs are physically indistinguishable from humans but for the Source, the painful, white-hot energy that both animates and enslaves them. Destined to live in pain, unable to escape their bondage, servs dwell in a bleak underworld where life is brutal and short.
Lucy is a serv who arrived as a baby and by chance was adopted by humans. She’s an outcast among outcasts, struggling to find a place where she truly belongs. For years she has been walking a tightrope, balancing between the horrors of her serv existence and the ordinary life she desperately longs to maintain; her human family unaware of her darkest secrets.
But when the body of a serv child turns up and Lucy is implicated in the gruesome death, the worlds she’s tried so hard to keep separate collide. Hounded by the police, turned upon by the servs who once held her dear, she must protect her family and the life she’s made for herself.
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BERNIE'S SPENT SO MANY years in that wooden chair ruling his shit little kingdom, the carpet's worn threadbare from the wheels rolling back and forth. He burps, and Lucy catches his eye, delivers disgust in her stare. He lets out a theatrical sigh. His sausage fingers deal another hand of solitaire. The cards are old and stained and look soggy. The barred window over his desk gives onto the main hallway, where Bernie's expended the effort to set up a crappy plastic Christmas tree with blinking lights, as if he's actually vested in running this dump. To the right of Bernie's window hang all the keys to Hotel Paradise. About half the keys are gone, due to the upcoming holidays, everyone with a little extra to spend and a need for philandering.
The stroller is parked in the corner with the brakes on. Lucy's stashed her small suitcase in the storage basket below the seat, that way she doesn't have to push one and pull the other at the same time. The arrival is about eleven or twelve. He's in an adult diaper and a threadbare Spiderman tee shirt that clings to his sweaty skin, his temperature still near boiling point. His mouth hangs slack, drooling. He was walloped into la-la land the instant he came into this world, and the only sign of life is in the crazy blue of his half-open eyes. Even in their drugged state they're startling against the white freckled skin and dripping black hair.
He shifts abruptly, one skinny arm twitching. Lucy feels dread looking at the knobby knees poking the blanket, the rigid little fingers. She can practically feel the bruises already. This one looks really scrawny and weak, though, a thin, bony lump in the too-small stroller.
She looks away. Bernie shakes his head in resignation. For all his grossness, he's got a vat of pity and sorrow inside him; don't they all. He says, "Nothing you can do, Lucy."
She stares him down, sickened by the powerlessness they share. He shrugs, goes back to his card game. The pipes clank deep in the basement, and the vent gushes lukewarm air into the room, heating up the odors of Bernie's crap dinner of chicken, potato chips and beer, and of his sagging sweating body, and underneath it all pot smoke and vomit, pervasive throughout the hotel.
"He better show up soon," Bernie warns.
Lucy lifts an eyebrow at this. "Or what?"
"I can distribute to anyone I please," Bernie whines, but he's already retreating from his dumb remark. He gathers up the cards and shuffles, sighing with impatience, as if what, as if he has better things to do? This is it, this is his life, ever since the Gate handed down notice that he'd be this district's overseer. He'll be processing arrivals and mediating petty bunk conflicts till he drops dead.
Bernie shifts his bulk, settles deeper into the chair. Lucy imagines him fusing with it, sitting there getting fatter and fatter like some kind of Jabba the Hut, his thick lips splattering chip crumbs all over his greasy cards. His letting himself go like this is deliberate, it proclaims his freedom as an overseer: no regular serv could ever get away with it. She can't stand looking at him, but she can't stop, either. It's like she needs the hate she feels and pours all over him in this dead silence. She drags her eyes away. On the wall over the antediluvian plaid couch hangs a poster of a snowy, mountainous vista, Switzerland, maybe. When he's alone shooting up, Lucy supposes, Bernie sits and stares at that scene, dreaming himself out of his existence here. It's the number one dream of every serv, to get the hell away.
Whatever. No one ever does. Servs get tagged with a titanium anklet on arrival, GPS encoded, setting off alarms at the slightest damage. Even if you get around that obstacle, you still have to watch over your shoulder the rest of your life. Snitches get paid with reduced Services, coveted above all else in this world: hence the old joke about the serv who got away, but was so dumb he snitched on himself.
The reality is there's hardly a corner on earth a serv can escape to, except maybe the deep hot heart of the Amazon jungle or some sweltering African or Indian village. But that kind of heat's as intolerable to servs as it is to the Nafikh. You might as well just kill yourself.
Barring that, the only way to get out of Service is to make quota, then you're wiped off the roster. Lucy could make her 303 quota in about eight years: she's down to 127 remaining, putting her survival rate at over 50%. She'll be thirty-seven if she makes it out, which used to feel like light years away. Maybe she's the one moving to Switzerland, she fantasizes with vindictive pleasure. She'll learn to ski, fly down icy mountains with the wind on her cheeks. She'll have a chalet with those big wooden chairs and a chandelier made from antlers. When the Nafikh come, she'll hunker down indoors, drinking cocktails and shooting pool in her spacious game room.
She's only seen such opulent places, of course, because of Service. But that's a serv's life right there: a string of sick ironies.
The buzzer goes off, making her jump. Bernie plants one fat finger on the button without consulting the grainy black and white screen, the image further obscured by the blowing snowstorm. Lucy makes out a figure standing on the stoop, then it vanishes. The noise of a hard-slammed door reverberates down the corridor, sending a shudder through the walls. Julian thumps past the Christmas tree. Lucy's Source spikes new slivers of pain, though she barely notices, she's already in agony just being near the arrival. She takes a few deep breaths, which does little to control the searing nugget within her chest. The Source burns hard and mean for the duration of a serv's existence, like a battery indicating life. At some point, the Source goes on the fritz and the serv weakens, gets sick, and then drops dead. It could be today, tomorrow, or in a decade.
One of many reasons not to bother making friends.
The pain is generally tolerable, gets aggravated in the proximity of other servs, is way worse near an arrival, and is mind-blowing in the presence of the Nafikh. Bernie's status earns him a sweet painkiller regimen handed down from on high. Then there are the likes of Julian, able to afford his own cocktail, while Lucy, bottom-feeder that she is, has to make do with White Label, or Jack as the case may be, which latest bottle is currently stashed in her suitcase.
Julian comes into the office, closing the door behind him. The fresh scent of wet snow fills up the room. He pulls his hat off, spiking up his black hair. He's got a narrow, bony face and green wolf-eyes, always suspicious, like the world's out to screw him and he's ready to fight back. Once upon a time, Lucy was crazy in love with him.
He addresses Bernie: "How long's he been under?"
"Not even an hour," Bernie replies, a little smug about his promptness.
Julian couldn't give a fuck. "Come on," he commands Lucy.
She grasps the stroller handles, struggles to release the brake. The arrival's body jostles, and his left arm slides off his belly and dangles. Lucy lifts it by the wrist, the bones like two hot pebbles between her fingers. Julian counts out the bills under Bernie's greedy, nervous gaze. Now that everything's moving along, Bernie just wants it done. Overseers aren't supposed to sell. They're supposed to set up every arrival with a bunk, an ID, and some crap job scrubbing toilets or serving burgers to help foot the bill of their existence. Once newcomers are adjusted, insomuch as that's possible, they get greenlighted for Service and the merry-go-round begins. Overseers who risk selling on the side do so intermittently, so as not to attract attention. They make the deal, then log the arrival as deceased. No one ever checks, especially if it's a kid. The Gate doesn't get involved in details, so long as there are enough servs for calls.
Bernie folds up the bills and stuffs them into his pocket. The buzzer rings, startling them.
"Come on, chop-chop," Julian snaps.
"It's been busier than usual," Bernie mutters, handing over the room key. "You see what I mean?" he adds, as the buzzer goes off again. He slams his palm down on the button. Lucy grabs a blanket and drapes it over the arrival. No human would think he's anything other than a normal sleeping kid, albeit way too old for a stroller. But then, they'd assume him to be helpless in some way, autistic or something. People see what's put in front of them and nothing more. That's how servs get by every day undetected.
Too late, Lucy takes note of the hurt sparking anew inside her chest. Julian tenses, on alert. The serv who enters the office is wearing a long camel coat and no hat, her snow-flecked black hair pulled back, accentuating her angular features.
This is followed by the shock of recognition: Margot. They bunked together years ago. By the narrowing of her eyes, Margot recognizes her, too, but makes no comment. Instead, she nods at the stroller. "I'm not too late, then?"
"Indeed you are," Julian says. "You can get going."
"Just who's in charge here?"
"You didn't get notification," Bernie tells her.
"I get dibs on kids, and I'm down two. That's two empty beds, Bernie. He should go with me."
"Are you joking?" Julian scoffs.
Are you joking is right — Margot running a kid bunk, who would've thought? Lucy's amazed, and a little envious. Bunk bosses get a fat stipend, and they hardly ever Serve, hence her fancy duds and superior air. Though that, she always had.
"I am not joking," she informs Julian coldly. "What do you want with him? Look at him. Skin and bones. Let me take him."
Julian's not used to being defied. "Everyone gets a turn. That's how it works."
"I have funds."
"I don't need your funds."
Margot leans around him to address Bernie. "I can double whatever he paid."
The idea lights Bernie up for a second before reason prevails. He waves his fat hands in protest. "You better head on out now. You'll get the next one, I promise. Settle down," he warns, but Julian grips Margot's arm, pushes her backwards out the door.
"I can't stand your type," he says. "You're so goddamn righteous." He makes the word sound like a sickness. "Get the fuck out before I smack you."
"Get off me!" Margot cries, twisting her arm free.
Julian's hand clenches into a fist.
"Go, Margot," Lucy blurts. "Just go."
"You know this bitch?" Julian exclaims.
Margot turns on her. "I can't believe this is how you ended up!" Shame fills Lucy, but also resentment. Margot always did think herself so much better.
"He's just a boy," Margot hammers on. "How will you use him, running drugs? Whoring? What's the matter with you? How can you do this?"
Julian whips his hand up within an inch of her face, silencing her. "The distribution's done. Leave."
Margot hesitates a second longer, pink-cheeked and furious. She slaps Lucy with one last look, then turns and strides out. They listen to her fast, angry steps, the creak of the front door swinging open. The noise of the storm howls down the hallway, then the door slams shut. Lucy lets go her breath.
"You have got to be fucking kidding me," Julian starts.
"Give it," Lucy says, snatching the key out of his hand. She pushes the stroller past him, turns left down the hallway towards the elevator. Margot's accusations smart awfully. She wishes she'd fought back, said something. But what? She had no case to make, is the reality, which compounds her shit feeling.
"If she's going to be a problem, tell me now, Lucy," Julian threatens, hovering close. "We don't need some friend of yours digging around, do you understand?"
"I don't have friends."
"Well, there's a surprise."
"Look, I haven't seen her in years, O.K.?"
Lucy keeps her focus straight ahead. She parks the stroller and hits the button to call the elevator. There's a ding from way up in the building. Once Julian starts, he never can stop. His anger is like a wire running off its spool.
"I am finding it hard to believe you haven't seen her till now, till right now, when she shows up here. That's bullshit."
"Now you're being paranoid."
"Watch your tongue."
Lucy grips the stroller handle, her knuckles whitening. "Listen. I can't even remember the last time I ran into her. It was years ago." He considers this, appears somewhat mollified. "Will she come looking for you? Ask around?"
"We barely knew each other."
"Huh," Julian nods. "I can see why. Holier-than-thou."
The elevator arrives with a whoosh and a thump. The door clunks open. They step inside. Julian lights a cigarette. The smoke blows out in a fine steady stream, filling up the small space at once. "I can't believe she talked back like that. What the fuck," he marvels.
Lucy can't believe it either. Margot used to be such a priss in her patterned dresses and pink lipstick. They're all older now, she supposes. Everyone changes.
Julian doesn't say anything more, but he's got that anxious look about him, foot tapping, cigarette clenched in his fist. He's never been good with blips in plans. She used to joke he had Asperger's, that the Nafikh screwed up making him. He's turning this incident over in his mind, sharpening it, and no doubt he'll come at her again.
Whatever. She's got the hell of the next few days she needs to focus on. Deep under her ribs the Source flares knives of hot pain. If she could afford it, she'd buy high-end stuff from Julian to get through these jobs. But she can't waste the money, and he'll never offer it for free. She hunches her shoulders, sucking breaths, aware he's watching her struggle. Bastard.
TOP FLOOR, FAR WEST corner, number 1215: one of a handful of rooms used for processing arrivals in Hotel Paradise. Bernie will keep the rest of the floor vacant from now till it's over, but still, they go down the hall fast, and Julian's got the door open and closed in a matter of seconds. Not that anyone who patronizes Hotel Paradise would give two shits, but there's never any telling when an arrival will wake up, what it might say or do.
They shrug off their coats and hang them in the closet. The economy bulbs take forever to brighten, so the dismal rooms come into view with the slowness of a scene opening on stage. It's a two-room suite, though that's a generous-sounding description. The South End's been on the up and up over the last several years with art galleries and swank restaurants opening all over the place, but the hotel's not in one of those hip zones, and the Gate's hardly going to sink funds into renovation, anyway. The whole building is crumbling to pieces with rot and roaches in the walls, decaying furnishings, and the cloying odor of room freshener seeping from plug-ins. This suite is no different, decked out in faded puke-green and pink vine patterns with a tired painting of a house on a river nailed to the wall, like someone might care to steal such a masterpiece.
Lucy flips the switch in the bathroom, checks for enough towels and a first aid kit. The front room has a double bed with a striped comforter, and a wooden chair tucked under a writing desk. The attached smaller room has a fridge bar, a TV, and a sleeper sofa. The crate's in the corner next to the sofa, already stocked with a clean mat, a fresh stack nearby for when she needs them. There are also diapers, garbage bags, and cleaning supplies. On top of the pile lies the signature blue-tinted baggie of narcotics the Gate delivers with every arrival.
Julian stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray, leaving a spray of smoldering flecks and a thin stream of smoke snaking towards the ceiling. Lucy gathers up the arrival's legs, waits for Julian to lift him by the armpits. They carry him across the room with crab-like steps, uncoordinated, Julian cursing under his breath.
"Leave him," Lucy says impatiently. "I can do it alone."
Julian's only too happy to comply. He crosses the room and pops open the window, does the same in the bedroom. Arrivals can't take heat, not at first, so that's part of the reason; but this one's also already stinking up the room with his sweat stench, to be followed soon enough by shit and vomit. Julian parks himself at the desk near the cool air pouring into the room. He lights another cigarette.
The arrival starts moaning, utters a cry, his face twisted up in pain. His leg jerks, kicks out, nailing her in the chin. Julian looks away, exhaling smoke. The pain of arriving is monumental, Lucy's been told. She must have endured it, too, but the Nafikh made her an infant, and she has no memories of that time.
She swiftly unwraps a syringe, inserts it into the tiny vial marked with the numeral one. The minuscule doses seem ridiculous, but if she popped one into her own vein she'd be dead in seconds, which isn't to say the notion hasn't crossed her mind. But arrivals are possessed of a phenomenal constitution, and the dose will serve; at this stage, he's still in in the throes of creation, though it's finishing up fast.
The thin cry is pitiful, and shocking to the arrival himself, who gapes at her. Where am I: the first thing usually out of their mouths.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Skinner Luce"
Copyright © 2016 Patricia Ward.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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