Company Town

New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd. Hwa is of the few people in her community to forgo bio-engineered enhancements, but her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?

Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. All signs point to a nearly invisible serial killer, but all of the murders seem to lead right back to Hwa’s front door. Company Town has never been the safest place to be—but now, the danger is personal.

A brilliant, twisted mystery, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town is available May 17th from Tor Books.

 

 

Chapter 2
Broken Arm

The holding cell was unlike any Hwa had ever seen. It was a small room. Hwa had a hard time estimating just how small, because the edges of it had a tricky way of blurring away just at the periphery of her vision. Tower Five, then. Five had all the bells and whistles. At least, it had most of the programmable matter in Newfoundland and Labrador. Lynch, then. Not the NAPS. They were wasting no time taking control of things.

Carefully, Hwa stood up. Both her ankles and hands were gelled together. She knelt down and then sat. The floor beneath her was oddly warm, like skin. It moulded up around her the longer she stayed in place. Raising her legs parallel to her chest, she rocked back and forth until she could fall back on her shoulder blades with her legs and core straight up in the air. Slowly, she slid her legs through the loop of her bound arms. Now, at least, they were in front of her. Where she could use them.

A seam opened in the wall. It was the man from the platform. And he was carrying a big knife.

“Back for more?” Hwa asked.

“What? Oh.” He looked down at the knife. It looked so incongruous in his hand. He’d cleaned up and changed into a blue Lynch polo shirt and cargo khakis. The knife trembled a little in his right hand, until he gripped it more tightly. “Hold your hands out, please.”

Hwa held them out. He cut the bonds in one quick motion. Experienced, then. He knelt at her feet. Looked up at her for a moment cautiously. He was afraid she would kick him again, she realized. She stood straighter and looked away. He cut the ties, and flicked the knife back into its handle and put the whole thing in a back pocket as he rose.

“Sorry about that. How are you feeling?”

Her mouth worked. It was painfully dry. This had to be some sort of game. It certainly didn’t feel real. He was being too nice. Then she remembered her script: “My name is Go Jung-hwa and I want to speak to my union representative. Séverine Japrisot, USWC 314. I won’t answer any questions until she sends an attorney for me. Also I want to see a doctor. I have a seizure disorder. It can be triggered by things like pain lasers or whatever the fuck was on that saucer.”

“But…” His eyes flicked back and forth rapidly, like he was reading up on the keywords in their conversation. “The saucer should have picked up your stimplant, or your subscription—”

“I don’t have a stimplant. Or any subscriptions. At all. I take drugs, not machines. That’s what my plan covers.” She gestured at herself. “All of this is completely organic.”

“Organic?” His gaze refocused sharply on her. “Completely?”

“Are you asking about my IUD or my diet?”

To her satisfaction, he went red to the roots of his hair. Apparently that much of him was still organic, too. “Neither,” he muttered. He held his hand out. “Daniel Síofra. I’m with Lynch.”

Hwa nodded pointedly at the logo on his shirt. “No shit?”

He snorted. “And I’m not pressing any charges.”

His hand was still out. She flexed her fingers before shaking it. He had a good handshake. Right-handed. Long-fingered. Skin too smooth for the strength she knew was there. She watched his eyes and his smile widen as she intensified her grip.

“You just don’t quit, do you?” he murmured.

She relaxed her grip and slid her hand away. They had already been talking too long. “Am I free to go?”

“Aren’t you going to apologize for breaking my nose?”

Now he was just being ridiculous. Hwa squinted. His nose was straight. His eyes were clear, no puddles of purple beneath. “Your nose looks fine. You had it reset. And drained. Or…” She watched his eyes. He was not staring at her skin. He was not watching the left side of her face, or trying hard to avoid looking at it. Filters, then. Like the bald girl on the platform. Hwa wondered where she was, now. She decided she didn’t want to know. “You have programmable tissues.”

He blinked. “Something like that.”

Augmented people were so uptight about their augmentations. As though everyone around them actually gave a damn. As though learning about what they’d fixed could really tell you anything about the places they were broken.

“How did you do it?” he asked.

“Kick you? With my feet.”

“Surprised me. I didn’t even see you coming.” He tilted his head. Tapped his temple. “For some reason your face doesn’t show up on the camera. It’s just a blur.”

It’s because my face is a natural dazzle pattern, Hwa thought of saying. But she didn’t. Let him keep whatever vision of her face his eyes were feeding him. Let the cataract of data growing over his vision blind him completely.

“Oh, sorry. No wonder you don’t feel like talking.” From another pocket, he produced a flask. “You did so much screaming, your throat must be raw.”

Hwa took the flask. She opened it up and sniffed.

“It’s just water,” he said. “I promise.”

Hwa sipped. Seemingly just water. And it did feel nice on her throat. “Screaming?”

“The pain ray. You just went rigid, and…” He swallowed. “I didn’t want them to. So you know. I don’t like those things.”

“But you’re cool with pointing rifles at crowds of people.”

He sighed. “It wasn’t a rifle. It was a long-range microphone. The company doesn’t have access to all the networks in the city, yet. So I was using the scope to pinpoint the sources of the conversations I was listening to. You probably didn’t notice, what with all the karate—”

“Tae kwon do.”

“Tae kwon do?”

“Karate is Japanese. I’m Korean. Half Korean.”

His brows rose. “And clearly very proud of it.”

“I’ll learn karate when the Empress apologizes for the comfort women.” She folded her arms. “Anyway. Guns are bullshit.”

“It was a ricochet that set off the chain reaction that blew up the Old Rig, wasn’t it?”

Hwa nodded.

“You knew someone in the blast?”

Hwa levelled her gaze with his. Made sure he could see her eyes, if not her true face. That was the nice thing about anger. It could burn away any hint of embarrassment. “It’s a small town, Mr. Síofra. Everybody knew somebody.”

She tipped the flask high before he could say anything, but left some water sloshing at the bottom. He gestured for her to finish it. He was back to being the version of himself he’d introduced himself as. “You’re the escorts’ escort?”

Hwa swallowed and shook her head. “Just one of them. There are more.”

“Is it a good job?”

“There’s a pension. Flexible hours. Nice people.”

“Nice people who won’t cover a machine subscription that could improve your quality of life.”

“It’ll come up next bargaining session. I talked to my rep about it.” Hwa tried not to sound defensive. It wasn’t like it was any of his business, anyway. He was just trotting out the usual multinational rhetoric about how much better he had it as a corporate drone.

“Would you ever consider leaving? For a job with Lynch? I work in our Urban Tactics department.”

“The fuck’s that?”

“I change the moods of cities.”

Hwa gave him the look she gave clients who refused to pay overtime.

“It’s applying a design thinking sensibility to urban engineering, on a day-to-day basis. Changing light levels in a building so its inhabitants sleep more easily. Raising the tempo of music in the refinery to increase production.” He gestured as he spoke, and Hwa immediately understood that this was part of his work, that he orchestrated cities like a symphony conductor. “I have a certain knack for it. A sensitivity. Or so I’m told.”

Hwa looked at the dead gel ties on the floor. She toed one of them and flipped it up into her waiting hands. She twisted its length in her fingers. It twitched back to life like bait on the end of a hook. “You start every job interview in handcuffs? Because if you’re hurting for talent, that might be why.”

“You have skills we need,” he said, seemingly undeterred. “You got the jump on me. Literally. That’s not easy to do. It hasn’t happened in years. Also literally.”

Hwa grinned. “There’s plenty of muscle in this town. You don’t need mine.”

“I don’t need it. I want it.” He thrust his hands into his pockets. “And I’m willing to pay for it. Handsomely.”

The laughter bubbled up out of Hwa before she could stop it. Maybe it was the pain ray, still playing with her nerves. Handsomely. Jesus wept. Men always sounded the same, when they tried to buy women.

“I’m sorry.” She got herself together. “It’s a very kind offer. But the answer’s no. I like me own job just fine.”

He opened his mouth to answer. Then his head jerked to one side. He scowled, and then nodded. “Mm. Mm-hmm. I’ll let her know.” He refocused on Hwa. “Someone’s come to collect you. She says she’s your mother.”

Hwa winced. “You sure you can’t just arrest me?”

* * *

Sunny stood in the halo of green light cast by an exit sign. She wore a sleeveless red dress and a black scarf of smart silk that adjusted itself over her blond tease-out as she turned her head this way and that. For those that had the eyes to see it, Sunny’s profile would be popping up along with her contact info and relevant testimonials. Stuff like how she still knew all the steps from all her old routines, how she still spoke perfect Korean in perfect baby talk, how she’d call you “big brother” and punch you in the arm when you teased her just the littlest bit, how her blow jobs made you see stars. Hwa knew. Sunny made her do a spell-check on the whole profile, once, back when she was still in school.

Behind her, Síofra pulled up short. “That’s your mother?”

Of course, he could see Sunny’s profile, too. Hwa felt only the tiniest tingle of embarrassment. Not because of Sunny’s job. Nothing to be ashamed of, there. She kept more money fucking than she ever had singing or dancing. But the profile itself, the old songs, the duck lips, the overwhelming pink tide of cuteness currently washing across Síofra’s vision: that was fucking embarrassing.

“That’s her.”

Síofra said nothing. He was staring at Hwa, now. Making the comparison, probably. Between her wasp-waisted mother with the delicate limbs and perfect skin and the titless wonder in the black running tights and rash guard. He couldn’t see her face, but he could see everything else: the empty space around her, the lack of outputs and lack of profile, the lack of connections and lack of status.

Sunny spoke in cheerful Korean with a radiant smile: <<Hwa-jeon! Hurry up! You’re making me late!>>

“I have to go.” Hwa passed Síofra his flask. “Thanks for the water.”

Síofra nodded. “It’s no trouble.” He sized up Sunny and looked back at Hwa. “Is she taking you to your doctor? To check you over?”

Hwa almost laughed. Strangers were adorable. “Right. Sure. My doctor.”

Hwa hurried down the hall. Sunny held her arms open again. Those arms took hold of Hwa gently, pressing her close but not too close, as though Hwa had just told her she had something contagious.

“You were so brave!” Sunny said in loud, bubbly English.

And with that Sunny ushered her down the hall. Sunny kept her smile as tight as her grip until they hit the elevator.

When the doors closed, her hand left Hwa’s elbow. Then it smacked hard into Hwa’s left ear. And then again, across her face, so hard her head clunked against the side of the elevator.

<<You half-breed half-wit. What were you thinking? Don’t even think about coming home tonight.>>

* * *

She could have slept on Eileen’s couch. Or maybe Mistress Séverine’s. Or even her own squat, on the condemned floor of Tower One. But there was a paying gig in her messages, off-book, and she offered the client a discount on the service if she got to crash for the night. She offered an even deeper discount if the contract offered dinner and breakfast, which he did. She just had to be gone before his parents came back from their shift.

“Wait! Stop! Is this gonna hurt?”

Hwa’s fist stopped an inch from Wade’s nose. For a moment she saw him as the kid she remembered from grade three, the one who gave her sorry eyes when the other kids made fun of her face and her name and her English. He’d been cute then, too. Over twentytwo years he’d grown into his good looks in a very pretty way: bright blue eyes, blond hair in a persistent state of bed-head, broad shoulders with solid definition, a body like an inverted triangle on two strong swimmer’s legs. He had good clear skin that tanned just right, and he got dimples when he smiled. Back when she actually went to school, almost all the other girls had crushes on him, even the girls who didn’t like the same guys that all the other girls liked.

Now he was asking her to break his nose.

“What’s the procedure?” she had asked, after he slid her a coffee.

“My abs.” He had pulled up his shirt and showed her. “See that line down the middle? That’s good, but the doc says he can get me real definition on the sides. The tendinous inscription, it’s called. And down here,” he gestured at the line where his torso ended and his thigh began, “that’s the inguinal ligament. He’s going to define that, too. Just make it pop, visually. So I can wear my jeans lower.”

Hwa had considered showing him her own stomach, which had some good cuts, but then he’d have to see the stain and nobody wanted to see the stain. Besides, she doubted he wanted to try her diet.

“Bio or nano?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” Wade said. “He asked for a fat sample, ’cause it’s a custom job. That’s why it costs so much.”

“What’s the subscription fee? For the maintenance, I mean.”

He shrugged. “He says he’ll take a percentage of whatever I earn, after.”

“And you get a discount if there’s something else to fix?”

“Three jobs.” Wade reached inside his mouth and plucked out a tooth. “See? I need another one. A better fit. They printed this one when I was, like, eleven.”

Hwa nodded. “Why the abs?”

Wade pinked. It started at his ears and marched across his face, as though his blush were on a quest to embarrass him. “The oil’s drying up. Most everybody’s already left. All the other companies, I mean. That’s why they’re selling it. There aren’t any jobs. I want to get off the rig, while I still can.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“Well, yeah, but…” His lips pursed. “I want to go to university.”

Hwa winced. “Sounds expensive.”

“Exactly. There’s no way my parents will help pay for it. I already asked. They flat-out told me no. They think it’s a waste, when there’s still some money to be made right here. So I have to get a job. And I can, I just have to get some work done first.” The pink had become magenta. “I got an offer to do some modelling,” he said. “Online.”

Hwa willed her eyebrows to remain in a neutral, nonjudgmental position. “Do your folks know?”

He shrugged his shoulders and looked down. “You have to spend money to make money, I guess,” he said.

Well, he had that right, at least. He was probably getting naked for somebody, but if it paid enough to get the hell off this floating asylum, that wouldn’t be so bad. Besides, he’d look like a hard case once the doc was finished. Nobody would ever hit him again, after today. Not unless they paid Wade for the privilege.

“Okay,” Hwa said.

“Great!” Wade dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. He rolled his shoulders, bounced on his toes, and clapped his hands. “Let’s do this.”

Hwa pulled her right arm back. She pivoted her hips to give her maximum follow-through on the strike. One pop, and it would be done. She twisted forward, and Wade’s hands flew up. And that was how her fist got to be there, hovering in front of his glistening mouth, tension climbing up her arm as she held it in place.

“Yes. It’s going to hurt. Of course it’s going to fucking hurt.”

He frowned. “There’s no need to be mean about it. God. Why do you have to be such a bitch?”

Her fist connected with his face. It was a short, sharp strike. Wade fell to his knees immediately. He dragged the placemat with him, and his plate landed facedown on his back, streaking his shirt in beans and hot sauce. He knelt on the floor, hissing and rocking. He reached for his wallet.

“Keep your money,” Hwa said. “Thanks for the eggs.”

* * *

On the train to Tower Three, someone played “This Train Is Bound for Glory” on a conch shell ukulele. She found the students in her self-defence class sitting in the hallway outside the door to their studio at the gym there. Eileen gave her a little wave and Hwa nodded at her. She addressed the rest of the class. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you warming up? Is Destiny not done with Astral Yoga, yet?”

“There’s other people in there,” Sabrina said. Sabrina was one of Hwa’s best students. She was a big girl, but agile, and always had a ready smile, even when her face was glowing red with exertion and the sweat had completely soaked through her shirt. Her reserve in Ontario didn’t much take to the genetic editing; the tribe held the position that the province should expect the nearby chemical companies to clean up their act, rather than expecting the Chippewa to clean up their genes. Like Hwa, Sabrina was mostly organic. She was very popular among a certain set of clients. “One guy was really big. The other one looked just like a kid.”

“Nothing creepy, though,” said Calliope, from the floor. She didn’t look good. Her black hair was greasy and she hadn’t even bothered with eyeliner. Without a pronounced cat-eye, she looked like an entirely different person.

“Are you okay?” Hwa asked. “You look kinda sick.”

“Gee, thanks, Coach. Not like my whole career depends on my looks, or anything.”

Sabrina reached over and patted her arm. “This job isn’t just about looks, and you know it.”

Calliope gave Sabrina’s wide, soft body a long, shady look. “Keep telling yourself that.”

“Hey!” Eileen leaned over to catch Calliope’s eye. “Don’t be a bitch. So what if you look like shit? We’re here to work out, not make dates.” She squared her shoulders and stared at the other two women. “And besides. We should all be supporting each other as best we can. Times being what they are.”

“Sorry I’m late!”

They turned, and Layne stumbled into the hallway. The door caught the hem of her shorts, and she had to turn around and tug it back to herself. For some reason, Layne always treated these classes like they were make-up days in some long-ago gym period. Like Hwa, she’d quit high school years ago. Her parents figured it was for the best, after her second suicide attempt. They sent her to an in-patient hacklab in Toronto run by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, instead. In the city, she’d had her gender confirmed. Now she ran tech support on the Belle du Jour system.

“How come we’re not in class?” Layne asked.

Hwa looked at the door. “That’s a good fucking question.”

Calliope heaved a massive sigh that caused the huge Greek cross tattooed across her ponderous cleavage to stretch and bounce. “I knew I should have scheduled my tattoo appointment for today, and not next week.”

From behind the door, Hwa heard a heavy thud and a high, surprised yelp. The other women all froze. Hwa held up a hand. “Get someone,” she said, in a low voice.

She pulled open the door quietly and slipped inside. Inside the studio at the far end of the room, a well-built man stood with his back to her. Before him stood a skinny teenaged boy. The boy was white. The man wasn’t. The wing tattoo across his broad shoulders fluttered slightly. Hwa recognized it, and him. His name was Angel.

Angel had thrown her through a glass coffee table, once, when the choking game he was playing with Connor Donnelly got too rough. Connor tapped out—made the emergency call—and Hwa burst in. She’d jumped on Angel and he’d thrown her off. The moment the glass shattered, he’d come back to himself. But by that time, it was already too late. The union blacklisted him. His money was no good in the New Arcadia sex trade.

Apparently, Angel still liked hurting men who looked like boys.

“Get up!” He bounced on his toes. Moved his fists. “Come on. No rest for the wicked, son.”

The kid shot him a mutinous look from his position on the floor. Then his gaze fell. He saw Hwa. Hwa saw him seeing her; he quickly checked the mirrored wall behind Angel and then she knew he saw her face, too. In the mirror, she lifted a finger to her lips. Slowly, awkwardly, the boy got to his feet. His movements were messy. Loose. Gangly. He focused on the man in front of him. On his face, not his shoulders. Beginner mistake.

“Now, you come at me this time,” Angel said.

“You’re supposed to be teaching me self-defence,” the kid said, wheedling. He was playing for time. Hwa took off her shoes. “Shouldn’t you be teaching me blocks and stuff ?”

No, Hwa thought. Survival and escape techniques first. Then posture and breathing.

Angel brought up his fists and exposed his forearms. His right arm was heavier than his left. The grip in the fingers a little softer. He’d had the nerves cut and sewn, then. Probably by a poor tailor. Good. “This is a block.”

The kid jabbed out at a weak angle. He drove from the elbow, not the torso, with no pivot in the toes or hips. Terrible form. No power. Angel slapped his little fist away with his left arm and pulled a punch with the right. His fist hovered just above the kid’s left ear. The boy didn’t flinch. He just stared at Angel’s fist like he was waiting for it to tell him something. Like they were playing a game whose rules he didn’t understand.

“Gotcha,” Angel said, and Hwa didn’t need to check the mirror to see his shit-eating grin.

Hwa padded up behind him swiftly and silently. “Hi, Angel,” she said, just to be nice, and drove a back kick straight into his right knee from behind. He fell down and twisted to the right, left arm up, right arm reaching for her legs. She quickly swung a leg over him and trapped the right arm between her knees at the elbow.

“You fucking crazy bitch!” His left fist hammered her in the thigh and the stomach. “Get the fuck out of here, this is my gig—”

“It’s my class time, Angel.” She pivoted away from his swinging left fist, grabbing his right hand and stretching his right arm and feeling it twitch between her legs. Squeezing it, she could feel the machinery at work. Off-brand, she decided. Maybe secondhand. So to speak. “And that means it’s my studio. And I don’t like it when people use my studio to pick on people smaller than them.”

“I’m gonna fuck up the other side of your face, you useless cunt,” Angel said.

“And I’m gonna break this arm,” Hwa said. “I’d turn it off, if I were you.”

“Fuck you,” he spat.

It didn’t take much. She kept pulling on the right fist until the arm hyperextended, and then she twisted her knees. It was just the gentlest motion. The snap wasn’t even properly audible. And he had turned off the arm—he didn’t howl, didn’t cry, didn’t throw up, just stood and spat on her.

“I’m gonna sue the shit out of you,” Angel told the boy. The boy said nothing. He just kept watching the scene play out. “Fuck you both,” Angel added, turning to Hwa. “Especially you, freak. Watch your back. Karma’s a bigger bitch than you are.”

He stalked away. Hwa watched him the whole time, and let her breath out when he was gone.

The boy held out a hand. Hwa could stand on her own, but she took it anyway. “Wow,” he said. “Weren’t you scared?”

“Not really. He’s just an asshole. Were you scared?”

He shook his head. “I don’t get scared, really. Not anymore. They fixed that part of me.”

Hwa snorted. She thought of the man in the shark cage outside Mistress Séverine’s studio. She decided that telling the kid about him would mean explaining too much. “Right. Well. That part of me is still broken. And I like it that way, because fear is useful. Fear tells us when to run. And running is what stops a fight before it starts. You want to defend yourself, you have to learn that, first.”

His head tilted. “So you still get scared?”

“Sometimes.” Hwa looked the kid over. A nice welt was already building on his shoulder. Angel had knocked him down but good. “But I have a trick for being scared.”

The kid brightened. “What’s the trick?”

“I imagine the master control room.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a rumour my brother—my half-brother—heard once. About a room that controls the entire city. Water, power, cameras, the whole thing. We spent a whole summer looking for it. So when I’m scared, I pretend I’m there. In control of things.”

The boy seemed to consider the possibility. He nodded. “That sounds like it could exist. Did you ever find it?”

“No, but we found other cool places. A whole abandoned floor. A secret way into an elevator shaft. Stuff like that.” Hwa rolled her neck until it popped. “Who hired that guy?”

“My dad. Sort of.”

“Your dad doesn’t know much about this town, eh?”

The kid’s smile broadened. “Not really. We’re new.” He pointed at himself. “My name’s Joel Lynch.”

Behind her, Hwa heard the gym door creak open. She knew who would be standing there before she turned around. She wasn’t quite sure how, but she knew.

“Oh, hi, Daniel,” Joel Lynch said. “This is, um… I don’t know her name.”

“Go Jung-hwa,” Daniel Síofra said. He sounded like he’d rehearsed the Korean pronunciation.

“Just Hwa,” she said. “My full name was too much for the kindergarten teacher.”

“She broke that guy’s arm,” Joel said. “She says he’s an asshole.”

A smile touched Síofra’s eyes but not his mouth. “Does she? What a shame. I suppose you’ll need a new self-defence teacher. And a new bodyguard, as well.”

Hwa looked at her class, standing outside the door. She glanced at the studio, and the kid standing expectantly under the cold lights. “You should spray down those mats on the floor and put them away, since you’re done here,” she said, nodding at the rack of crash pads and mats on the opposite wall. He got right to work.

“You must really want me for this job,” she said, when the kid was out of earshot. “Changing the gym schedule around like that, on such short notice. Just so I’d come here and see all this. It’s pretty manipulative, if you ask me.”

“I prefer to think of it as enterprising,” Síofra said. “Creative. Strategic. That’s the Lynch way.”

She watched the kid awkwardly move mats from one corner of the room to the other.

“You change the moods of cities?”

“It’s in the job description. Much of it is urban planning and design. But some of it is also communications. Optics.”

“Seems a long way off from personal security.”

“Hiring you, and not a skullcap or someone like Mr. Ramirez, sets a tone. I’m in charge of that tone.”

“So it’s just good PR.” Now she was certain he’d never seen her true face.

“It’s establishing a relationship. Between the company and the city. We promised to bring better jobs. This is one of them.”

He had an answer for everything. Hwa watched the infinite reflection of the two of them in the mirrors on either side of the studio. Every version of him looked wrong for the place, his gleaming blue silk suit too soft and too pretty for all the sweat and blood the cork floors had soaked up over the years. She gestured at the bare bones of the space, and a thousand of her made the same movement. “You couldn’t just have the bots in HR send me a nice note telling me all this? You had to come all this way yourself ?”

“The company prefers us to follow up with prospects on a personal level. We’re a large corporation, but not a faceless one.”

Hwa didn’t believe that for a second. “And what if I still say no? What will you do next?”

He smiled. “I’ll find something you want, and give it to you.”

Hwa cocked her head. “You know what I want, b’y?”

“You want what everyone in this town wants. You want a way out.” His eyes lit on her, and for the first time she saw how very blue they were. It was an unnatural blue. Edited in. He spoke in a low tone, so low she had to step closer just to hear him. “Give us a year. Enough time for Joel to finish school here. And after that you can go wherever you like. Do whatever you want. Save the money, spend the money. But the choice would be yours. Your fate would be your own.”

Hwa licked her lips. “I get by just fine,” she lied.

His gaze flicked across the gym. “You could be doing more than this.”

“Like what? Catching a bullet for the heir apparent over there?”

Softly, Síofra shook his head. “No. You see, Miss Go, I don’t want someone who will die for Joel. I want someone who will kill for him. And I believe that someone is you.”

Excerpted from Company Town © Madeline Ashby, 2016

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