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       Stiletto, p.1

           Daniel O'Malley
 
Stiletto


  DEDICATION

  For Mollie Glick

  and

  for Asya Muchnick

  with tremendous thanks

  EPIGRAPH

  If you had taught her, from the dawn of her intelligence, with your utmost energy and might, that there was such a thing as daylight, but that it was made to be her enemy and destroyer, and she must always turn against it, for it had blighted you and would else blight her;—if you had done this, and then, for a purpose, had wanted her to take naturally to the daylight and she could not do it, you would have been disappointed and angry?

  —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

  Optometry is the discipline of vision. What its boundaries will be depends upon what the word vision means to the profession.

  —A. M. Skeffington, May 1974

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Praise

  Copyright

  To Felicity Jane Clements, Pawn of the Checquy Group and ward of HM Government:

  You are herewith called forth by the authority of the Lord and Lady, in accordance with your obligations and your oaths, to give service, in secret, for the protection and security of the Monarch, the People, and the soil of the British Isles.

  On this day, you are to proceed with all haste into the London borough of Northam, to the location commanded. There, you will bend the abilities instilled within you to the task ordered.

  To ensure that you remain unknown and that none remark upon your presence, you will be given clothing to blend in among the populace. To discourage civilians from approaching you, you will be sprayed with urine.

  Bring milk and chocolate biscuits.

  —Odgers

  1

  The woman was crouched in an alley, her back against the wall and her hands pressed awkwardly to the bricks behind her.

  She was not an appetizing sight. A tangle of dirty dirty-blond hair hung down over her grubby face. Behind it, her eyes were open a slit, showing white. A string of drool dangled from her mouth. Apart from her ragged breathing, she was utterly still. She was dressed in several layers of filthy clothing and a pair of trainers whose mesh sides had rotted away almost completely and whose soles were peeling off as if trying to escape.

  She was also not an appetizing smell. There was a pungent odor coming off her, one that suggested an ongoing lack of access to bathing facilities. And laundry facilities. And toilet facilities. She was actually pretty enough behind the dirt, but to discover that would require several minutes’ concerted attention with a damp sponge and, possibly, a trowel. As she was, she fit into her surroundings perfectly.

  The alley was terribly narrow, more of an incidental gap between two sets of row houses. Hypodermic needles, feces of unspecified provenance, improperly disposed-of prophylactics, and general domestic rubbish were the primary topographical features.

  For a few minutes, rain drizzled in and soaked her, but still she did not move.

  A rat scurried between the rubbish, presumably on its way to somewhere more salubrious.

  Finally, she moved her hands away from the wall behind her and opened her eyes wide. She took a deep breath that would have been cleansing had she been in a place that was slightly less vile. She licked her lips, felt the drool that had dripped down her chin, and moved to wipe her face with her sleeve before realizing how disgusting her sleeve was. She sighed and, still crouching, swung her arms about stiffly. Then she looked up blearily at the sound of someone approaching down the alley.

  That someone was a tall redheaded man with lily-white skin and freckles that had cornered the real estate market on his face. Behind him was another someone who looked much the same except that he was bigger and had shaved his head so there was only a corona of orange fuzz. Both of them were dressed in clothes that did not look at all out of place in the alleyway.

  “Oh, hello,” said the first man. The woman squinted up at him and grunted. “Look at this, Petey,” he remarked to his associate. “We’re looking for something to do, and here something is.”

  “What?” she said.

  “Shut up,” said the man easily. Then, just as easily, he punched her in the face. Her head slammed back against the wall, and she fell onto her bottom.

  “The fuck?” she spat, pressing her hand against her jaw.

  “I told you to shut up,” said the man mildly. “Now, me and my mate are gonna have a bit of fun right here, and you’re not going to give us any trouble unless you want another fist to the face.”

  “And that’d be just for starters,” said the other man, Petey.

  Rather than being terrified by the prospect of a vicious assault upon her person, however, the woman seemed unperturbed and somewhat incredulous.

  “Are you serious?” she said. Her accent was not one you would have expected to come out of the mouth of a person in those environs. It bespoke an expensive education. “You actually want to do this? To someone who looks like me?” She glanced down at herself and then around at the refuse that filled the alley. “Here?” They didn’t answer her, but apparently for these men, a blond woman was a blond woman, even if she smelled like carrion left out in the sun. The first man, the hitter, put his hands to his belt. “Such a mistake you’re making,” she said.

  Then she reached out and grasped the man’s ankle. The smirk didn’t have time to leave his face before she’d yanked on his shin and kicked him, in dizzyingly quick succession, in the testicles, the stomach, the chest. He toppled backward into his colleague’s startled arms, and she drew herself up. Moments before, her posture had been hunched and defensive, but now she held herself in the classic boxer’s stance.

  “Bitch, you’ve got to be kid—” began Petey, but his assertion was cut off as the woman stepped forward and briskly broke Petey’s companion’s nose with a smart right jab. The companion’s wail of pain broke off as she punched him in the stomach and drove the air out of him. He sounded like a set of bagpipes that had just been stabbed. His knees buckled, and Petey staggered to keep him upright. The woman took a few steps back, sized them up, and was lunging forward when the toe of one of her shoes landed in something vile and squishy. Denied any purchase, her leg shot out from under her, and she lurched violently to the side.

  “Bugger!” She bounced off a wall, fell against a pair of rubbish bins that were, ironically, completely empt
y, and ended up sprawled on her back on the ground. Then the breath rushed out of her as Petey, who had apparently jettisoned his friend in favor of subduing her, dived onto her and pressed her into the pavement.

  The man who had hit her seemed to have righted himself.

  “Stupid bitch,” said the hitter in a sort of wheezy falsetto as he came down the alley to them. “It’ll be bloody now. So much worse now.”

  “Yeah,” said Petey. He was lying across her, his weight holding her down, and he pressed his face into her vile hair. “You know,” he said, “under all that hair and muck, you’re not bad-looking. But you will be when me and Joe are done with you.” She struggled, but he had her well and truly pinned. She sighed and looked up. Joe was staring down at her, and the expression on his face was terrible to behold.

  “I really didn’t want to do this,” she remarked. “Pawn Cheng?” The men exchanged confused looks.

  “Uh . . . I got your porn right here, slut,” said Joe, grabbing his crotch.

  “I’m not talking to you,” she said coldly.

  Then Joe clapped his hands to his head and seemed to fling himself backward. As Petey and the woman watched in fascination, he fell onto the ground, revealing a petite Asian woman. She was wearing a black yoga outfit and a grim expression. On her feet, somewhat incongruously, was a pair of heavy boots that looked suitable for undertaking construction work or possibly some sort of hate crime. It appeared that to pull Joe down, she had simply buried both her hands in his thick red hair and yanked with all her strength. There had been no sign of her a minute before.

  “Joe!” exclaimed Petey.

  Then Joe was up again, and he was roaring with rage. He flung himself at his diminutive assailant. There was so little room in the alley that there was simply no way she could dodge a man that big. He charged toward her, his shoulder dropped to slam into her.

  It was almost as if the Asian woman burst under his bulk. Streamers and strands of black material erupted from the point of impact, spreading out and then fading away completely. Joe kept barreling forward until he collided with the wall, hitting it so hard that he bounced off it a little.

  Petey, at this point, actually held tighter to the woman splayed out underneath him.

  “What the fuck?” he whispered. “What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck is going on? What is that?”

  “That’s my colleague,” the woman he was lying across said pleasantly, and then she initiated a wrestling maneuver referred to by some as “the dump truck.” From beneath him, she crooked one arm around his neck and the other around his torso, then she arched her whole body high, rolled him up and over her head, and dumped his arse firmly on the ground before snapping to her feet.

  Joe, meanwhile, had been so absorbed by the Curious Incident of the Sporadically Vaporous Asian Woman in the Alleyway that he’d missed his friend’s discommoding behind him. Before his eyes, the air in the center of the alley roiled, and the aforementioned Asian woman suddenly reappeared. However, she didn’t seem in the least bit interested in him.

  “Felicity, did you need me for anything else?” she asked in a thick Birmingham accent.

  “Nah, I’m fine, thanks,” said the other woman. His heart thundering with anger and bewilderment, Joe reached into his pocket and drew out a knife, which he flicked open. His hands low, he lunged forward again, but the short woman was already evaporating away with an unimpressed look on her face. He turned around and saw Petey getting painfully to his feet. The blond bitch was tying her hair back from her face. She gave him a look that said he had gotten himself into this situation and really had only himself to blame.

  “You—you . . .” Words failed him. This was not how it was supposed to go.

  “Hey, I’m right here,” she said, and the complete lack of concern in her voice ignited something in him. He barreled toward her, his knife clutched in his fist, shoving past Petey. She swayed to the side, then turned, stepped back against his chest, and caught his knife arm. Before he could think, she had flipped him over her shoulder. He went down on the ground, the knife clattering from his hand, and seemed disinclined to get back up.

  Petey came a little more cautiously, but as he moved toward her, she snapped into swift, dizzying motion. She swung her leg with mechanical precision and kicked out at the side of his knee. Under the combined force of her strength and her complete lack of hesitation or mercy, his leg simply crumpled. He fell into the mud and the rubbish, shouting and clutching at his leg. She stepped carefully over the trash and delivered a meticulous kick to the jaw that left him facedown and unconscious in the remnants of a pizza that someone hadn’t wanted anymore. The alley was quiet except for the sound of Pawn Cheng condensing out of the air.

  “Well, that was nicely done,” said Pawn Cheng. “You all right?”

  “Yeah, I’m okay,” said Felicity sourly. She dusted off her clothing, which did not make an appreciable difference to its appearance.

  “Honestly, I can’t believe you needed me to step in to help you with two chavs.”

  “Give me a break, Andrea,” said Felicity. “I just spent three and a bit hours squatting against a wall. Plus, I’m wearing these ridiculous leper shoes.” She looked down at the men on the ground. At any other time it would have given her profound satisfaction to break every bone in their bodies, or at least to put the boot in a couple of times. But there was the danger here that she might attract unwanted attention, not least from the house she’d been observing.

  However . . . she mused.

  “What the hell are you doing?” asked Andrea. “Are you robbing them?”

  “I’m not going to keep it,” said Felicity reasonably. “But I think that losing their mobile phones and their wallets will teach them a valuable lesson about . . . um . . . you know . . . respecting the homeless.”

  “You don’t think they learned that by having the crap beaten out of them by a homeless woman?” asked Andrea. “To say nothing of a chick who can turn into oxygen?”

  “You know what would make this lesson extra-special?” said Felicity after a moment. “We should take their shoes as well.”

  The Asian Pawn shook her head disapprovingly, then shrugged.

  “Yeah, all right.”

  Two minutes later, Felicity was humming cheerfully as she sauntered out of the alley.

  God, I love this job.

  2

  Wake up and get out of the bathtub. If you’re late for this cocktail party, the British will take us all out to the parking lot and shoot us in the back of the head. Plus, we need to get the slime out of the tub before the hotel maids come in for the turndown service.”

  The voice came thundering into Odette Leliefeld’s sleeping brain by way of the waterproof headphones that were clamped to her sleeping ears. She was jolted awake, and opened her eyes. The light at the bottom of the bathtub was dim and lavender, and it really was tempting just to snuggle down in the warmth and return to a nice therapeutic stasis. But then Alessio’s voice came back into her ears. “Room service will be here in seven minutes, so hurry up.”

  Odette grimaced and set about speeding up her heart rate from its restful one-beat-every-three-hours tempo. She pushed herself up out of the depths of the ridiculously large tub. The designers of the bathroom had apparently thought the hotel guests would be either engaging in group bathing or traveling with their exotic pets, because there seemed to be enough room in the tub for a party of six good friends, seven extremely good friends, or fifteen pedigree jellyfish. Instead of a bijou orgy or some purebred Olindias formosa, however, it currently contained Odette and about fourteen hundred liters of thick, viscous slime.

  She surfaced with a little difficulty, the sludge holding on to her, and sat up, taking her first breath in five hours.

  “I hate sleeping in a swimsuit,” she remarked weakly to the world as she wiped the gunk out of her eyes.

  “If I have to come wake you up all the time,” said her younger brother, “then you are not sleeping nak
ed in the tub.” She felt the headphones get plucked off her head as he bustled by, presumably tidying up the clothes that were still scattered on the floor.

  “Did you order coffee?” she asked.

  “Yes,” he said, his voice cracking a little. “Although you’re not supposed to have hot beverages or caffeine until all your new organs have settled.”

  “You know what? Don’t lecture me until your larynx has settled,” she retorted.

  “Oh, would you like me to cancel the coffee?” asked Alessio.

  “No, I’m sorry,” said Odette hurriedly.

  “Don’t step on the floor yet,” he instructed. “Otherwise you’ll just get it everywhere. Here’s the strigil.” He handed her a curved rubber blade and then hurried out to the sitting room. She smiled at the retreating back of her thirteen-year-old brother as he closed the door behind him, then stood up and looked around.

  “If any British government official is watching me,” she said out loud, “I really don’t care if you see me naked, but it’s very tacky on your part.”

  No answer was forthcoming.

  “Well, all right, then,” she said to herself. She peeled off her bathing suit and set about scraping the slime off her body and back into the tub.

  Once she’d transferred herself, mostly slime-free, to the shower, Odette carefully examined her legs, limbs, and torso. Coming along nicely, she thought. The scars along her limbs were now only faint lines, and a few more nights spent in a bathtub of goop would get rid of them completely. The Y-shaped scar tissue that ran down her chest to below her navel was taking longer to heal and was still a little itchy, but she stopped herself from rubbing at it. She held out her arm, her hand bent back, and flexed. A sculpted bone spur the size of her index finger slid out from the underside of her wrist. Okay, good. She tensed another set of muscles, and a drop of amber liquid appeared on the end of the spur. And good.

  Then she turned on the water and set about the laborious process of getting the slime out of her hair.

  So, what do you think of the place so far?” she asked Alessio as she sipped her coffee and swallowed one of her pills.

 
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