Math-genius mercenary Cas Russell has stopped a shadow organization from brainwashing the world and discovered her past was deliberately erased and her superhuman abilities deliberately created.
And that’s just the start: when a demolitions expert targets Cas and her friends, and the hidden conspiracy behind Cas’s past starts to reappear, the past, present, and future collide in a race to save one of her dearest friends.
S.L. Huang’s Critical Point, the third novel in the Cas Russell series, publishes April 28th with Tor Books. Read the first two chapters below!
I slouched in my chair, putting my feet up against the edge of the desk. My desk.
I had an office.
The place felt cavernous and stifling at the same time, and massively permanent, as if someone were pinioning me to this spot with a railroad spike.
I had rented the office because I’d lost a bet with a friend. A friend who was, for some unfathomable reason, far too invested in convincing me to stop doing business in dive bars. He was also campaigning for me to get a social security number, but that was over the line.
Even the office made me feel like I’d been brainwashed.
I hunched into myself, the heaviness pressing at me. Getting dragged into mildly more mainstream habits by my actual friends was one thing. But it had still only been months since I’d agreed to let the man who called himself Simon start crawling through my head every week. And I’d only agreed under duress: namely, the implosion of my own goddamn mind.
Telepathy was the closest word for what people like Simon did, and I’d been on the verge of refusing his help even if it had killed me. No matter how much he swore he would never take control of my thoughts, someone I didn’t trust should never have that much access.
Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t like trustworthy telepaths were thick on the ground. Better Simon than the ones who wanted me dead. The shadows of conspiracies and killers slithered through the back of my mind, strangling me. Conspiracies that involved my past. Killers who had forced me not to move against them.
And me, stuck in a city I hadn’t even managed to save from my own actions, and struggling just to tread water on my sanity. Losing ground while the psychics and ghosts recovered their power.
The room loomed, and I hunched farther into the chair. The walls weren’t claustrophobic, I told myself. The office was roughly twelve feet by ten, though I could see the long side was a little more than two inches shy of its stated length. The ceiling was four feet, nine and seven-eighths inches above where I was slouched in my chair. Or
1.47 meters. Imperial was stupid.
Before I could stop myself, I’d calculated the volume of the small room, minus the space taken up by desk, chairs, and me. I multiplied and estimated the number of oxygen molecules. Moles and moles and moles. Not the least danger of suffocation, I told myself. The math wouldn’t lie.
If only my bizarre computational ability could fix my brain.
I thought of the bottle of cheap vodka in the bottom drawer of the desk. No, I had a client meeting in a few minutes. The promise of work to distract me was the only reason I was here. However flimsy and trivial a job this was, I needed it. Treading water. I felt sick without even drinking the vodka.
Someone tapped on the door outside, the timid sound barely making it through the wood.
Early. Small favors. “Come in,” I called, swinging my feet down and trying my best to look professional. I probably should have worn a clean shirt.
The African American girl who pushed the door open was tall, but clearly young—probably not older than sixteen, and with the beanpole thinness and awkwardly long limbs that come from unexpected growth spurts. She was dressed smartly but not overly fashionably, wearing a jean jacket and various braided bracelets and necklaces that looked homemade, and had her hair plaited tightly back against her head.
And she wasn’t my client. The message requesting this meeting had been left by a babbling man with an Aussie accent.
She was probably lost or something. “Can I help you?” I asked with an effort, and was pleased with managing some tact. Kids bring out the best in me.
“Are you Cas Russell?” She said the words hesitantly, and one of her hands gripped the cuff of her jacket like she needed it to anchor her.
“Yeah, that’s me. Retrieval expert.” Also known as thief, mercenary, and soldier of fortune who could punch a guy in the face as hard as the relationship between impulse and momentum allowed, but I didn’t add that. Or the part about being a woman without a memory, someone else’s living weapon until my old self had gotten sliced out of my head. I wondered how she had gotten my name. “Do you want to sit down?”
She stepped forward as if she were about to walk the plank and perched herself on the edge of one of the client chairs in front of my desk. “I need your help.”
She didn’t say any more. I suppressed a sigh. “What’s your name, kid?”
More silence. “Okay,” I said. “Tabitha. Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Well, that’s what I’m here about,” she said, fidgeting. “My dad, he—he’s not answering his phone.”
“He’s not answering his phone?”
“He always answers his phone.”
I tried to speak delicately. “He may have lost it temporarily, or been busy—”
“No. He always answers when I call.” Her face was tight and tense, and her voice quivered slightly. “And he warns us beforehand if he thinks he might be out of touch—and other than that, he’s only not answered once, and it was ’cause he was in trouble, and he called me back right after. Now I haven’t been able to reach him in two days, and I think he’s in trouble again, and his message on his other phone said to come find you—”
My thoughts smashed to a halt with the grace of a car crash. “Wait, what? He said to come find me? Kid, who’s your dad?”
The bottom dropped out of my stomach.
“Are you a friend of his?” Tabitha asked.
I turned away from her, grabbed out my phone, and dialed Arthur’s cell. Voicemail. I hung up and tried his office number, the one he listed online as a private investigator. The message informed potential clients he was away from the office for a few days, and sure enough, advised any current clients with an emergency to contact me, complete with the address of the brand-new office Arthur himself had only recently strong-armed me into renting.
Well. Nice of him to tell me. “I’m not even a PI,” I growled into the speaker, and jabbed at the button to hang up before tossing my phone on the desk.
Then I turned to face Arthur’s daughter.
Arthur had a daughter. I’d known Arthur almost two years now, and I didn’t know he had a daughter.
For all the enemies I had been expecting to come feinting out of the dark, this was a sucker punch.
“I’ll track him down,” I promised her, finding my voice. “Do you have a number where I can contact you?”
She gave me her mobile number, the beginnings of relief sketching her features.
“Did he tell you anything? Or, uh, anyone else in your family?” Was Arthur married? Wife? Ex-wife? I had no idea.
She shook her head. “My sister and brothers don’t know anything. Dad never wants to involve us in his work; he won’t talk about it. They keep telling me not to worry, but…”
“Better to be safe,” I agreed, trying for comforting. “I’ll find him.” A sick worry had started squirming in under the shock. “What about your mom? Would she know anything?”
“My other dad,” Tabitha corrected. “I have two dads. No, they don’t—they don’t really talk anymore.”
So Arthur liked men. In the name of everything holy, how had I never known that he had what sounded like an ex-husband and a family? These seemed like pretty basic things for friends who regularly saved each other’s life to know. Forget the shock and worry, I was settling on pissed off.
“I’ll find him,” I vowed to Tabitha again, even more firmly. So I can punch him. “Are you okay getting home?”
She nodded. “I’d better go. My dad will miss me if I’m home too late.”
Her dad—Arthur’s ex. I seethed with curiosity, but forcibly behaved myself in front of Tabitha. “Go home. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”
“Thank you, Ms. Russell,” she said solemnly, and hitching what looked like a school bag on her shoulder, she ducked awkwardly out of my office.
I picked up my phone.
I knew exactly who my next call would be.
“Hey, Cas!” said the voice of the best hacker I knew—who also happened to be Arthur’s investigative partner and information broker. “Did you hear David Tennant is doing an event in Los Angeles next month? David Tennant. I might have to leave the Hole for that.”
“Checker, have you heard from Arthur lately?” I interrupted.
“Uh, yeah, talked to him last week. We don’t have any cases right now, though. What’s up?”
“Have you talked to him in the last two days?”
“Me neither. And guess who was just in my office worried she can’t reach him? His daughter.”
“Checker, did you know Arthur has a family?”
Another long pause. Then Checker said, “Yes.”
“And did you find this out through Internet stalking, or am I justified in feeling shafted right now?”
“It’s not like that,” Checker said a little desperately. “I knew Arthur before everything went down. Before he lost—while he was still with them. Nowadays he never… he got private about them afterwards. His business, Cas,” he added severely. He cleared his throat. “Which daughter?”
Great. He knew them all by name. “Tabitha.”
“I, uh, I think we should be worried. Maybe very worried. Arthur wouldn’t ignore one of his kids, ever.”
The squirming in my gut got worse, enough that my anger faded a bit. “Do you know what he was working on?”
“Not a clue. I didn’t even know we had a case on.”
“I’m going to head to his office, then. See if I can find anything.”
“Sounds good,” said Checker, and I could already hear the quick clack of his computer keys. “I’ll see if I can find anything on my end. Does Diego know?”
“Who’s Diego?” I was proud of how calmly and precisely I managed to speak.
The clacking of the keyboards stopped for a moment. “Uh, his husband. Never mind, I’ll call.”
“Still in touch, are you?”
“Stop it.” The clacking had resumed, and a thread of annoyance joined the worry in Checker’s voice. “You can be petty after we find him.”
He was right, but that didn’t mean I had to concede it. “I’m capable of multitasking,” I snapped. “I’ll let you know what I find at his office. And after that I’m going to his apartment. Are you going to give me grief about respecting his privacy on that too?”
“Just find him,” said Checker, sounding tired and concerned, and hung up on me.
I grabbed my coat, steadfastly resisting any urge to feel guilt about my snippiness. I checked the Colt in my belt and made sure the hem of the coat covered it completely, shoved a few spare magazines in my pocket and, feeling in a better-to-be-safe-than-sorry mood, a revolver in another pocket. Part of me hoped to find Arthur snoozing at home, but a strong sense of foreboding in my chest warned of how unlikely that was.
Wherever he was, he’d better be alive. He owed me about a thousand damn explanations.
Shit. I’d forgotten about my client meeting. I pulled out my cell as I locked the door of the stupid office behind me, punching in the contact number I had. It was already seven minutes after the hour; maybe he was a no-show anyway.
The phone rang out without a voicemail message. That was weird.
“You’re not supposed to be leaving,” said a voice with an Aussie accent.
I turned. It took me three scans of the decrepit parking lot to find the person who had spoken. My client—well, I assumed—was scrambling toward me over the gravel: an unkempt Asian Australian man, with shaggy black hair, greasy stubble, and a torn shirt beneath his leather jacket that was even dirtier than mine. “Sorry,” I said insincerely, waving my phone at him. “I was just trying to call. Something’s come up.”
“No. No!” He whipped his head in a frantic headshake. “No, you have to stay!”
“Look, we can reschedule for—”
“No!” he cried, and launched himself at me.
His movement translated into mathematics, clumsy Newtonian mechanics with his mass and velocity throwing themselves forward with no regard for efficiency. He might be bigger than I was, but still, it was insulting. And I was in the mood to hit someone.
I twisted and struck my palm against his hip, building the perfect fulcrum. His body flipped over in a spin an acrobat would have been proud of, and he landed on his back, wheezing.
I stepped into the afternoon sun so my shadow fell across his face. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Cas Russell. Our meeting is rescheduled. Is that underst—”
My office exploded.
The concussion roared outward through shattering glass and splintering wood and slammed across the lot. The blast flung me into the air, the noise overwhelming everything else. I flailed against it and managed enough of a partial solution to twist and hit the ground hard on my shoulder before rolling out back to my feet.
The explosion had shredded the front wall of my new office, bits of boards hanging by mere splinters against crumbling mounds of plaster. Nothing was on fire, but I didn’t want to know what it looked like inside. The small, grimy parking lot had only a few cars in it, but their windows had all shattered, and I could hear car alarms wailing from some distance away. My lungs twinged in the aftermath of the sudden pressure differential.
My would-be client, who had escaped the worst of the blast by being flat on his back, tried to scramble to his feet and dash away. I snatched up a piece of wood rubble from the explosion and threw it.
What the hell? I never missed. One hundred percent accuracy was one of the perks of having a freakish mathematical superpower. I picked up another piece of debris, concentrated, and tried again. This time the board smacked him against the back of the knees, and his feet flew up, landing him on his back for the second time in thirty seconds.
“You!” I shouted, bearing down on him. My voice sounded strange and tinny. Also, my head hurt. “You just tried to get me killed!”
He mouthed something at me.
I grabbed him by the neck and slammed his head into the gravel. “Who are you?”
His jaw worked frantically, as if he were trying to form words, and he stabbed one finger repeatedly at the side of his head like a jackhammer.
The car alarms I was hearing weren’t from far away. They were right next to me.
I yanked the guy to his feet and levered one of his arms behind his back to force him along with me. His face contorted in pain as he stumbled to keep up. I brought us to a car that wasn’t mine and shoved him to the ground while I jacked it open; glass showered down onto the seats. I shoved my new friend into the back, brushed the glass off the driver’s seat, and pried open the dash to touch the right two wires together.
The car thrummed to life beneath us. I couldn’t hear it.
Neighbors were starting to poke their heads out. An Armenian guy in an apron who was probably the owner of the car came running, waving his arms, but I was already pulling out, skidding in a 360 to squeal out of the parking lot. At least, I was pretty sure we squealed. My head felt like it was wrapped in wool, muffling all sound to almost nothing. A high ringing phased in over it, as if trying to prove the point.
Christ, I’d have to start tracking my hearing damage. Between firefights and explosives, I was pretty sure some of it was becoming permanent.
We had to switch cars fast; it wasn’t like we could stay under the police radar with all our windows blown out. I swerved into an underground garage beneath a rundown apartment building, and within minutes, we were driving back out in a much less conspicuous sedan. In the chaos I’d almost forgotten to haul my prisoner along in the car swap, but he’d tried to run again and I’d clotheslined him into the front passenger seat.
I texted Checker with one hand as I drove:
OFFICE BLEW UP
ON THE RUN
BURNING THIS PHONE
IN TOUCH SOON
Then I popped the battery out, dropped the phone out the window, and lost us in the summer heat of Los Angeles traffic.
My prisoner moaned next to me, reminding me again that he was there. He tried to reach for the car door handle, but I punched him in the throat.
“No, no,” he wheezed between bouts of coughing. “You don’t see me!”
“Of course I do,” I said. “You blew up my office!”
Come to that, where the hell should I go with him?
Aside from my office, I exchanged monthly cash payments for plenty of shabby little apartments around LA which doubled as both safe houses and interchangeable living spaces. Arthur had also tried to get me to stick to a semipermanent address, but I absolutely had never seen the point to that.
I had to get to Arthur’s office and home and check them, but what if those were rigged too? What if the explosion had to do with his disappearance? How likely was that? After all, I had plenty of enemies who’d be more than happy to blow me to kingdom come, and they had nothing to do with Arthur.
The grasping hands of my past reared up again. Flashes of fragmented memory had given shape to doctors and drugs, training and cruelty. Someone had been honing me—honing a lot of us—but I still didn’t know who or why. Only that they had been frighteningly similar to the people who called themselves Pithica, the mind witches who’d eventually claimed themselves puppet masters of the world until I’d been dumb enough to throw a spanner into their works.
Or maybe it’s closer to home. Maybe someone in the city found out about you screwing them all in the head.
That was a troubling thought. As of four months ago, almost all of Los Angeles had owed me a broken skull, but my mistakes had been psychically erased in the most discomfiting way possible, and most of them appeared to have forgotten. I doubted the telepathic sweep had gotten everyone, though. Some people seemed to have dismissed the rumors of my involvement, given the ultimately bizarre and seemingly inconsistent sequence of events, but I suspected there existed others—people who’d recognized a voice on the radio and now nursed perfectly rational grudges even as their cohorts laughed them off.
Then there were all the people I’d screwed over directly by breaking into their secure lairs and threatening them. I was pretty sure Yamamoto wasn’t the only crime lord still taking my rampage as a personal insult, and I hadn’t even pointed a gun at him.
But even with all the lurking threats, I still didn’t believe in coincidences, or at least only believed in them when they fit the relevant probability distribution. And for my office to blow up exactly after Arthur had gone missing… especially considering he’d left a message on his voicemail about being connected with me…
“You’re not supposed to see me,” moaned my passenger.
Somehow I’d stopped paying attention to him. Weird. Especially considering he was currently my most likely source of answers. The ringing in my ears had died down enough to hear the very loud rap music in the car next to us; it was past time to run an interrogation.
“Yeah, I’ve heard blowing people up is great for stealth,” I said back to him. “In fact, we’re going to have a nice little conversation now. Talk and you’ll live.”
“I don’t know anything,” said the Aussie man. The emphasis on the words was odd, as if he wasn’t used to speaking aloud. “You were supposed to stay. You were supposed to stay and not see.”
“Nobody sees,” he continued. “I’m not here.” He started giggling.
Oh. Oh, shit. This guy was… not all there. Someone else must be taking advantage of him.
I thought for a minute and then drove to a four-story apartment building where I kept a one-bedroom place on the top floor. The Aussie man whimpered about hidden secrets and invisible friends all the way up.
I didn’t want to hurt him again—I wasn’t opposed to hurting people in general, but in this case, it didn’t seem fair—but when he wouldn’t get out of the car, I had to hustle him out with a grip on his jacket. I got him up to the apartment and sat him down in the bedroom. There wasn’t a bed, only a couch with one of its cushions missing, but hey, I didn’t run a Hilton.
“What’s your name?” I tried.
“People don’t talk to me,” he said. “And I don’t talk to people.”
“A man after my own heart.” I sighed. “Who told you to blow up my office?”
“They told me to do it,” he agreed. “And they were right.”
“Who told you?”
“The one who makes the music,” he said. “Playing the songs when you ask.”
“Does this person have a name?”
“I’m not supposed to tell anyone. How did you know it was me?”
“You basically told me,” I said. “I do tend to notice when people try to kill me.”
“No, you don’t. It wasn’t me. You’re wrong.”
I gave up.
He had access to the bathroom, and I opened some cans of overly processed food and left them in the room with a spoon and a few bottles of water. Then I locked the door to the bedroom and shoved a wedge under the outside door to the apartment for good measure. The windows in the place were painted shut and four stories up—the only danger of him getting out was if he started making noise and someone investigated. But this building was mostly empty units or people who spent their entire days high, so I didn’t think it likely.
Two years ago, I probably would have tied the guy up and gagged him, or at least considered it. “Fuck you, Arthur,” I muttered.
Are you sure it’s all Arthur?
I stomped down the stairs. No—Arthur had been trying to convince me to have a conscience long before I’d had a telepath in my head regularly. I wasn’t going to go there.
Wasn’t going to start second-guessing myself.
I’d repeated the same words so often over the past four months that I was sick of them.
Besides, I reminded myself, it was bad enough if it was just Arthur pushing at my morals—pretending to be my friend, trying to fix me up to be a model citizen, and not even telling me the basic facts of his own goddamn life. He knew the most personal details about me, after all. He’d been with me all through fighting a worldwide organization of psychics who were only too ready to kill me if given half a chance, and knew all about Dawna Polk, Pithica’s telepath who’d clawed into my brain and almost destroyed me. He knew about my amnesia—that I was mired without any memory more than five years back, aside from hellish remnants best forgotten. And he knew about Simon, who I had to keep letting erase me once a week or I’d fragment and blow away on the wind… even after I’d found out he was the one who’d obliterated me in the first place. A past I couldn’t look at, the capacity for ruthless mathematical violence with no explanation behind such an abnormal skill set… whispers of words and images and nothing more to tell me who had made me… Arthur knew all of it.
I’d saved Arthur’s life so many times now, and he’d saved mine.
He’d never once mentioned he had a family.
Excerpted from Critical Point, copyright © 2020 by S.L. Huang.