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One Way Fare

Null City Book 1

Author(s): Barb Taub, Hannah Taub

Superpowers suck. If you just want to live a normal life, Null City is only a Metro ride away. After one day there, imps become baristas, and hellhounds become poodles. Demons settle down, become parents, join the PTA, and worry about their taxes.

Null City is the only sanctuary for Gaby Parker and Leila Rice, two young women confronting cataclysmic forces waging an unseen war between Heaven and Hell. Gaby and her younger brother and sister are already targets in the war that cost their parents' lives. Should they forsake the powers that complete their souls and flee to Null City? Meanwhile, Leila has inherited a French chateau, a mysterious legacy, and a prophecy that she will end the world. Gaby and Leila become catalysts for the founding and survival of Null City. It just would have been nice if someone told them the angels were all on the other side.

Excerpt


BETWEEN:
In the room made of light, they plan the end of Hell. White floors disappear into the distance to blend seamlessly with walls and ceilings. A portable conference table with four folding chairs occupies the center. Three gold laptops blinking blue-screen error messages are ignored while their owners cluster around the fourth, with its apple-shaped icon gleaming in a brushed aluminum case.
“I told you not to order through in-house Central Stores.” The fourth laptop’s owner sits back to allow them a better view and serenely folds her hands into the flowing sleeves of her robe. “They have a sweetheart deal with Celestron Computers, but their processors are dinosaurs, and they’ve outsourced their tech support to imps at Fallen Court.” Her face, while carved from the same perfect model, hints at an unfinished spark not visible in her three companions.
Ignoring her words, the others focus on the message on her screen. The rustle of their robes subsides until the only sound is brisk tapping as her fingers return to the keyboard. “That’s it then.” She looks up at her three elders. “My calculations show if we control all three points in time that determine Null City’s history, we have a 96.7 percent chance of successfully isolating the City and recovering the Archangel Raziel’s Book.”
The Eldest softly closes his gold laptop. “Null City must be destroyed before humans try to use the power in the Book to unmake Creation.”
The laptop operator’s voice is calm, and her face remains immobile. But her youth relative to their endless eons is betrayed when she asks, “Not only will that strategy lead to massive death and destruction for humans, but it could mean war between Fallen and Angels. Is there no other way?”
Gently, the Eldest replies, “No.”












GABY, Chapter One
1972, Seattle
Gaby’s new employee handbook was clear: missing a client appointment was an excellent way to get fired. But it didn’t say a thing about breaking and entering. She’d checked. Over the past hour, she’d knocked, called, tried the house phone, paced, and automatically straightened the paintings lining the elegant hallway of Seattle’s Olympic Hotel. Despite the muted voices from within the suite, the brass-bound double doors of the Presidential Suite remained closed.
She’d promised Dad: no more B&E. Her foot tapped. She could go back and try to explain to the agency. Tap. But this assignment was supposed to pay crazy-well for a week or more, and they’d asked for her specifically. Tap, tap. She needed that money for the normal life she’d promised her brother and sister after their parents were killed. Her foot slowed. Sorry, Dad. She pulled out her father’s torque wrench and favorite hook pick. Moments later the lock’s tumblers hit the shear line with a subtle click. I didn’t break a friggin thing, Dad. I’m just entering. Returning the little tools to her bag, she eased the door ajar a careful half-inch. “Hello?”
No answer. No problem. If there was one thing raising her brother and sister taught her, it was how to power a bellow. “Is anyone here?”
“Dammit, Harry, did you leave the door open again?” The man’s voice was velvet and smoke with a faint Creole accent. He called, “Be with you in a minute. What do you play?”
“Ten-key?”
Silence.
Gaby juggled the now-cold coffee she’d brought from the lobby, briefcase with her beloved ten-key adding machine, purse, and dripping coat while digging in her pocket for the assignment slip from the agency to check―again. Yep, she had the right room. The door was pulled open and she stared. Nobody gets to be that beautiful was as far as her thoughts would go. Then again, maybe the hollow feeling in her stomach was hunger—she had skipped breakfast to get ready for this assignment.
“Luic leMuir.” Leaning against the jamb with one arm blocking the doorway, he ignored her outstretched hand.
Don’t say it, she sternly admonished her squealing inner-Gaby. He doesn’t need to know you have every record he’s ever made. Or that you take your showers to the sound of that voice…
“Gabrielle Parker, CPA.” Her own voice was a breathless octave higher than normal. “Accountants-on-Demand sent me?”
Under her spellbound gaze, one of his eyebrows lifted. “Well, Gabrielle CPA, I didn’t expect you to be so…” His voice trailed off.
Inner-Gaby cut off mid-squeal. So…what? “Young? I have a college degree, and I’m the youngest member of my graduating class to pass the CPA exams.” Up went the eyebrow again, sending her stumbling over the edge of the conversational cliff. “I’m a Mensa member; I can solve Rubik’s Cube in less than thirty seconds, and…”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Early. I wasn’t expecting you until ten.” Lifting the arm blocking the door, he waved in the direction of the next room, from which wafted both the sound of arguing voices and a cloud of something that was definitely not tobacco. “We were still working.”
“It’s after eleven. I’ve been outside your door for over an hour.” She took a deep breath and sternly ordered inner-Gabby to shut up. “Is there a mistake? Did you have an accounting project?”
He deliberately eyed her from the pale hair pulled back into what she hoped was a sophisticated chignon but suspected was a lot closer to a granny-bun, down her mother’s suit, which Carey insisted made her look much older, finishing up at her sensible, low-heeled pumps. Her brown gaze narrowed, starry-eyed adulation shriveling before the coolly amused glint in his blue eyes.
“You look…” Like someone dressed up in her dead mother’s five-year-old conservative librarian suit, she silently finished for him.
“…damp. Are you any good?” He paused. “At accounting?”
I know a twelve-year-old who out-glints you any day of the week, Mr. Sexy Rock Star. You think an angel’s face and gold records gives you a be-mean pass? “Are you any good?” She tilted her head, taking in the long, dark hair, mustache and beard, tie-dyed vest over a broad, shirtless chest, and leather pants. “At singing? I couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag, but I’m the best accountant you’ll ever find.” Shut up, Gaby! She mentally groaned at the vision of the $52.79 balance in her checking account. At this rate, breakfast and lunch weren’t the only meals she’d be missing.
Again with the eyebrow. “Do you want to hear me sing?”
“Not really,” she lied. Been to the concert, got the T-shirt. “I don’t have time for…” narcissistic rock musicians “…entertainment. Do you want to see me do some accounting?”
“I don’t have much time for … accountants … myself.” That eyebrow arched wickedly again.
“But my business manager heard you were good, so I asked for you specifically. Since you’re here, why don’t you have a look at these records?” He waved her into the suite’s dining room, now piled with banker’s boxes. “I’d really like to know why they don’t add up to what’s in our bank account.” For some people, Gaby heard, it was sex. For others, chocolate, alcohol, drugs, or even rock and roll. But one look at the pile of overflowing banker’s boxes and she knew her breathing sped up, her cheeks flushed, and her fingers itched for their comforting dance over her adding machine’s keys. Her vision narrowed in anticipation of the story she would put together from the clues the boxes would yield. Sure, he was pretty—but this was accounting.
As she headed into the room full of boxes, Gaby glanced back over her shoulder. “I’m going to need a pot of coffee. And please get rid of the weed smoke. It makes it hard for me to concentrate.” Flicking vague fingers in his direction, she’d already forgotten him as she reached for the first box.
 
“We’re leaving now.” Luic’s voice penetrated her concentration. Gaby waved one hand in acknowledgement, fingers of the other never missing a beat on the adding machine. She looked up to see Luic pointing to the man next to him. “This is Harry Daniels, part of the band and our business manager.” With his long, sun-streaked hair, patterned shirt, and faded jeans, Gaby thought Harry couldn’t have been further from any business manager she’d ever seen.
“Should we send up dinner for you?” Harry asked.
Dinner? What happened to lunch? Eight forty-two read the cheap watch the twins had given her for her birthday.
“Going! I can’t miss the last ferry.” Gaby made wild grabs at the equipment she had precisely arranged in parallel rows across the suite’s dining table.
“Go on without me,” Luic told Harry. “I need to talk to her.” Looking over at the mirror panel next to the elevator, she thought Harry looked amused as he pushed the elevator call button.
When Luic turned back, Gaby dove under the table to unplug her ten-key adding machine. “I can get you a preliminary report first thing tomorrow.” A glance back as she crawled out showed him leaning against the wall, one eyebrow raised as she defensively reached back to twitch her skirt into place. She stood and reverently packed the adding machine into its padded case. “There is a lot more to do, but basically, your books have seen more action than hookers at an auto convention.”
She frowned at the small pile of papers she’d just finished reviewing and added them to three of the piles arranged with military precision across the large dining table. “Stuff dances through accounts and then eventually disappears.”
“Disappears?”
“Yes.” What was it about the eyebrow that stopped her thoughts? Breathe, Gaby. “Um, I don’t know all the steps yet, but at the end of the dance you are definitely hemorrhaging money. Don’t you know where it goes?” Her tone dripped disdain for anyone who didn’t know the intimate details of his own finances.
“I don’t do numbers.” He mirrored her dislike. “But I suppose you better tell me about it. Over food.”
“Can’t miss my ferry.” Like her life didn’t already suck enough. Now she was turning down a chance for dinner with Luic leMuir. He might be an arrogant jerk, but dinner invitations were few and far between for a junior accountant raising adolescent siblings. And there was that eyebrow. She didn’t slow the practiced ballet that saw an astonishing amount of material and equipment vanish into her battered case. Making a grab for her coat, she raced for the door. “I’ll be here at seven tomorrow morning and we can talk. Do not let anyone touch anything before then.” She waved a hand over the precisely arranged piles along the table.
His hand caught the closing elevator doors, and he stepped inside. “The only people who talk to me at that hour are the ones I’ve been with all night.”
“Neither of us thinks that will ever include me.” Gaby jabbed the lobby button. “Look, I’m not good with people. That’s why I’m with a temp agency instead of one of the regular accounting firms. But I’m damn good at accounting. Numbers talk to me in ways you would never understand. So you have your choice of me putting all this into a memo or you finding a time to talk to me.”
“Dinner. Tomorrow. And if you want this job to continue, you’ll be ready for dinner at eight tomorrow night.”
Despite her physical pain at the thought of the untapped banker’s boxes, Gaby shook her head.
“I can’t miss my ferry. I have … responsibilities. I’m sure the agency can find you someone else.”
Icy blue-eyed fury met her stony brown-eyed gaze.
“And the glare isn’t going to change my mind,” she said. “I face down the world’s scariest twelve-year-old girl several times a day.”
“Fine. Tomorrow morning.”
 
Bemused Seattle commuters and tourists streamed around the chauffeur holding the sign with big block letters proclaiming GABRIELLE CPA. That’s just wrong, thought Gaby as she headed down the ferry Kaleetan’s foot-passenger ramp the next morning. As she passed the uniformed sign holder, she called out, “She’s not coming.” Just beyond, the dark window of the limo rolled down. “I haven’t had any sleep,” warned the voice she already knew too well. “I’m not happy. Get in. Now.” Gaby looked in the window and saw Luic gesturing over the decanters in front of him. She sighed, marched over to the truck parked on the corner, and came back with two cups of coffee, two bagels, and a couple of oranges. Getting into the limo, she handed him one of each.
“Good morning, Gaby,” she hinted. “How was the ferry ride? Looks like a beautiful day. How are you doing?”
He glared.
“When you’re done with breakfast and ready to behave like a normal person, we can talk.” She positioned the sugar, optimistically labeled creamer packets, and a giant pile of napkins on the seat between them, unrolled the window on her side, and proceeded to work her way through bagel and coffee.
She was, she admitted, tired herself. After getting home so late, she’d looked over her sister and brother’s homework, listened to Carey’s chatter about their day, evaded Connor’s questions about her assignment, and sent the twins off to bed. Then she spent the next two hours thoroughly cleaning their little house. Not until she could verify everything was in its precise place did she finally climb into bed herself, only to stare at the ceiling for hours. She told herself it was her harmonia gift for making sense of hidden patterns that kept her awake. It was struggling to decode the story starting to emerge from Luic’s financial records, her fingers itching for the numbers waiting in the untapped banker’s boxes, that denied sleep. It couldn’t have been the memory of one blue eye and an arrogantly-lifted eyebrow.
Closing her eyes as she finished her coffee, she leaned against the cushioned seats of Luic’s limo and waited. When she finally looked back, he still scowled, but coffee and bagel had disappeared. “Do you need help peeling your orange?”
“Good morning, Gaby,” he ground out as his long musician’s fingers stripped peel from the orange. “I’ve never been a normal person. Now can we talk about my money?”
“Here’s what I know so far.” With a cautious glance at the front seat, Gaby closed the partition behind the driver. Her voice was low and serious. “Somebody took the time to set up your finances professionally. It looks like there are charities you support, plus the usual tax and other accounts. All about what you’d expect. But the part I haven’t been able to track yet is the way stuff moves around. And you’ve got weird investments—do you know how many of your oil wells don’t produce oil? Investment money goes lots of directions, and some of them pay off. But a lot of them just suck in cash. Why do you keep buying the wells?”
“I’d say it’s what you’re going to find out for me. Harry and I have had the same management team in place since our first gold record, but all of a sudden things are just not adding up. I want you on a plane to New York tomorrow morning.”
“No, thank you,” she said politely.
“You work for me, and I need you to go.”
“Do you think the drinking could be causing these memory lapses? I already told you: I don’t work for you and I have responsibilities.”
“I checked on those ‘responsibilities.’” Luic leaned back and his blue eyes gleamed at her. “I think your brother and sister will need the kind of money I’m offering you. I’ll give you two percent of whatever you get back for me. And I’ll pay you another twenty thousand if you can tell me who’s got their fingers all over my money.”
She froze. Gaby didn’t talk about Carey and Connor or her goal of providing them with a normal life. Ever. What gives this total stranger the right to “check” on us? Her eyes narrowed with what she hoped was anger but felt a lot like fear. What if he’s with Haven? What if they decided that killing Gifts like Mom and Dad wasn’t enough, and they’ve come for me? Or the twins? “Why me? For your kind of money, you can hire teams of accountants.”
“I could say it’s because, even though Harry recommended you, I had you investigated. You are raising your brother and sister on almost no money. Your parents are dead, and you don’t seem to have any other relatives. And you’re just as smart and talented an accountant as you think you are.”
“But?”
“But actually it’s because you don’t like me. You’re not going to try to get on my good side, because neither of us thinks I have one. I’ll have my agent set up your reservations.”
Afraid, Gaby? Hell, yeah. But his investigations and anything else he found out about the Parkers would have to wait at the end of her nightmare line because there were damn big terrors duking it out for first place. Suppose Haven gets to the twins while I’m away? Should I take Connor and Carey and go to Null City? We would be safe there from Haven’s war on Gifts. We could live there as normal humans, but we’d have to give up our own gifts. Absently she reached out and straightened the decanters, placing the largest in the middle with the two shorter ones on either side. Still, his twenty thousand buys a lot of normal right here in Seattle. And he knows it.
“Make it five percent of recovery and I’ll do it.” When he nodded, scowling, she pulled out a notebook and flipped through several pages. “I have other things I need to find out from you. And before you tell me to ask someone else, the first thing on my list is who has access to your accounts. I won’t be talking to any of them until I know more about what’s going on.”
Luic glanced at the pages of her neatly-labeled list. “Did I mention I don’t like you, either?”
 
The next morning Gaby was waiting in front of Luic’s hotel for the cab to the airport when she heard her name. She turned and watched Harry Daniels approach. Objectively, she thought, Luic’s best friend and fellow band member might be even better looking. But the severely trimmed beard and long, gold-flecked hair tied back at his neck reminded her of austere saints sculpted by medieval masters.
“Gabrielle Parker,” he said.
“Harry Daniels.” She eyed him. “What can I do for you?”
“We have to talk.” He glanced at her suitcase. “Maybe I can give you a ride to the airport?”
She laughed. “We never even went out, and the first thing you say to me is ‘We have to talk’? What’s next? ‘We can stay friends?’ Or ‘I’ll never forget the good times?’”
Harry blinked. “Luic warned me about you, but I didn’t believe him.”
“I’m not as good with people as I am with numbers.”
He grinned and waved her toward the convertible idling by the curb. “Now I’m starting to think this could actually work.”
What did Harry want to work? She looked pointedly at the open convertible. “You know this is Seattle. You’re just inviting trouble.”
“Rock star.” He shrugged. “Image.”
“Seattle.” She looked up at the usual overcast. “Rain.”
He shrugged again and put the top up.
“So, Harry,” she said as the little car purred along the freeway toward the airport. “How well do you know Luic?”
“I had a feeling you didn’t accept my ride because you admired my profile.” He sighed. “And I’ve known Luic a lot longer than you can imagine.”
“Do you know why he’s such a…” she paused. Maybe his best friend wouldn’t appreciate her referring to Luic as crabby or suspicious or carrying a chip on his shoulder the size of the Space Needle. Angry, narcissistic asshole was probably out too.
“Arrogant son of a bitch?” Harry was grinning.
Then again, maybe not.
“I’ve known Luic since we were kids.” Harry looked straight ahead as he guided the car around a slow-moving line of trucks. “His mother’s relatives showed up every now and then full of promises about how she would come back and take care of him soon and how good everything would be. After his first hit song, they were lining up with their hands out. To Luic they were all liars, and soon he was ready to take most things people said to us as lies. So now he doesn’t trust anyone, and he doesn’t give second chances.”
Harry pulled up in front of the terminal. “Don’t ever lie to him, Gaby.”
 
Two weeks later, jet-lagged but glad to be back in Seattle, Gaby stepped into the first phone booth she saw at the airport. When she heard the voice of her neighbor and adopted grandmother, she relaxed for the first time since leaving Seattle. “Hi, Mrs. Allen, it’s Gaby. My plane just landed. Before I talk to Carey and Connor, I wanted to thank you again for staying with them.”
“Gaby!” cried two voices over Mrs. Allen’s reply. Gaby heard Mrs. Allen laugh as she handed over the phone. She knew from experience Carey would have a death grip on the receiver, but it would be pressed between their two dark heads.
“Hey you guys. I’m finally done with New York. How are things going?”
Carey did all the talking for both of them, a jumbled account of school and friends and how she beat up another boy she thought was picking on Connor. Gaby wondered if she would regret the Tai Kwon Do classes they had all been taking in hopes of boosting Connor’s confidence.
“Carey, we’ve talked about this,” Gaby interrupted. “You know what happens when you fight for Connor.”
“Hot fudge sundaes,” Carey said happily. “And I get to pick the toppings.”
“Connor?” Gaby prodded.
“I was fine. Miss Ready-Fire-Aim went off the deep end as usual.” He moved in for the kill.
“So I think I should get to pick the toppings.” Carey’s wail of protest sounded through the phone.
“Well, this is still a long-distance call, so I’d better say good-bye. See you both soon, and no, you don’t get to watch TV until I get there.” Gaby heard Connor’s good-bye and hung up amid the flood of assurances from Carey.
Sitting in the taxi from the airport to the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, Gaby watched the raindrops chasing each other down the window. People said that the future of the area was going to be over on the East Side where fancy neighborhoods were springing up to handle Boeing’s growth. But her family had always preferred the close-knit island community on Bainbridge. Passing through downtown Seattle, she saw tourists with their umbrellas staring at Seattle natives striding along in oblivious disregard of the drizzle. And what does that make me? Will Seattle ever feel like home?
She’d asked her mother the same question ten years ago as rain streaked the breath-fogged windows of their little yellow VW. As she drove, Mama had glanced back over her shoulder as Gaby kept the two-year-old twins quiet in the backseat so Daddy could rest. “Now that we’re finally all together, we’re going to have a normal life,” Mama replied firmly. “And if Carey ever goes to sleep, we’re going to love it here.”
And Mama laughed.
Her mother smiled at them and loved them, twelve-year-old Gaby realized, but she couldn’t remember hearing her laugh since Daddy had left for the war against Haven two years before. If a normal life means mamas laugh and families are together, she had decided, then we’re going to have the most normal life there ever was. I’ll go to a regular school, and nobody will know we’re from Null City. They won’t know about gifts manifesting, or about fathers getting hurt in a war nobody’s ever heard of, or that Parkers are anything but normal.
But ten years later as Gaby got out of her taxi and stood in the rain at the ferry, she worried, as always, about the twins. All too soon Connor and Carey would have to decide whether to accept their heritage as harmonia, able to perceive hidden patterns, or return to Null City with its own imposed version of normal life—at the cost of whatever unique gifts and abilities they might be developing.
Gaby’s thoughts turned from worry about the twins to worry about what Luic was going to say when she told him she suspected Harry Daniels—his best friend from childhood—was systematically bleeding off his assets.
 
“No. He’s not.” Luic’s usually pure tones sounded gritty and strained. His mouth, which she thought might have—almost—smiled when he first saw her, now pressed into a grim line. “Not Harry.” To get away from possible ears at his hotel, they were strolling through Pike Place Market. “I’ve known Harry most of my life. If he wanted anything, he would just ask for it. And I’d give it to him. Something else is going on, and you’re supposed to be the one figuring it out.”
Glacial fury iced his blue eyes as he stalked ahead of Gaby. Even in the market crowds, she had no trouble following his tall figure until he finally stopped at a stall selling handmade kaleidoscopes. He waited until she caught up to him before changing the subject. “Our new album is going to be called Kaleidoscope.” He picked one up. “We’re looking for cover images.” While he discussed the kaleidoscope’s design and construction with the artist, Gaby pretended to examine the instruments, only to replace each one into precise parallel lines containing groups of three or five instruments. When Luic looked back at her, Gaby ran her hands over the smooth polished wood of an exquisitely crafted little instrument trimmed in brass. She raised her eyebrows but murmured her thanks when Luic paid for it and handed it to her.
“How did you meet Harry?” she asked as they walked on. “Look, I’m not prying into your life or anything, but everything I’ve uncovered in New York this past month points to someone close to you. As far as I can tell, that’s an exclusive club, and Harry is the only member. So explain why it’s impossible for it to be Harry.”
“Have you seen the bio the record label puts out?”
“Yes,” she said. “Poor boy from Louisiana gets his first guitar at twelve and writes his first hit song at sixteen. He forms a band with his best friend and starts cranking out the hits…”
“They left out a few things.” Luic stepped over to the window to stare out at the waterfront.
“Like the part where we met when we were twelve because we ended up in the same group house. Neither one of us had one person on Earth who gave a damn if we lived or died. Miss Rachel, who ran the place, gave us the guitars on loan and told us we better hang onto them and each other because the world wasn’t going to give us anything. For the past fifteen years, Harry and I have hung on. He bailed me out of jail a few times, and a few other times we ended up there together. He tells me when a song stinks, and when I tell him to go to hell, he says only if I’m going there too.” She heard the words he didn’t say. The one person he trusted completely was Harry. She wondered how he would survive if that trust was broken.
“Right, then. Not Harry.” She looked down at the little kaleidoscope she was turning over in her hands. “But somebody really clever has gone to a lot of trouble to hide almost all traces of what’s going on. I’m damn good, and I barely figured out this much. Whoever is doing this not only buried it deep, but even deeper, planted clues pointing to Harry.”
Her lips were pressed against the words she couldn’t say. Luic, I’m not good with people. I don’t say the things a good accountant would say. But my family are harmonia, and for me that gift means the numbers dance into patterns telling me things no accountant could know. And Luic, the dance leads to Harry.
She looked at him. “I know you don’t want to know the accounting, but we’ll need coffee. We’re going to go over this point by point, and you’re going to have to help me see if I made a mistake. And since I do not make mistakes, you might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on.”


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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 978-1-62916-002-3
Genre: Steampunk
Date Published: 11/30/2036
Publisher: Taliesin Publishing

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