Exposed, page 1
Copyright © 2015 Judith Graves
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Graves, Judith, author
Exposed / Judith Graves.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-4598-0722-8 (pbk.).—ISBN 978-1-4598-0724-2 (pdf).—ISBN 978-1-4598-0725-9 (epub)
I. Title. II. Series: Retribution (Victoria, B.C.)
PS8613.R3827E97 2015 jC813'.6 C2015-901714-9
First published in the United States, 2015
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015935529
Summary: Stealing cars to get by and pay her debts, Raven excels at urban climbing and takes pride in her job—until she is forced to take sides and bring down a car-theft ring in this fast-paced entry in the Retribution trilogy.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Cover image by iStock.com
Author photo by Curtis Comeau
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
To those afraid of heights but who still make the climb.
The trouble with most people? They never look up.
They keep their eyes dead ahead, fixated as they march forward and go about getting the day done. And, like ants, they don’t notice that the darkness creeping over them isn’t just another storm cloud. It’s a freaking shoe. No. It’s a steel-toed boot on the foot of some beer-guzzling, asbestos-lunged construction worker, and the thing is going to stomp their lights out.
I thought I wasn’t most people.
Guess I was wrong.
I shifted my grip on the crumbled concrete, the pull of my weight stretching the tendons in my fingers like the string on a crossbow, threatening to snap. Toes digging into the brick, I managed to snag an edge and relieve some of the pressure. I’d completed this route more times than I could count, and that was the problem. I’d been using this building for training for weeks, its brick façade perfect for an easy climb. But I’d become complacent. Forgotten my own rule. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Just like those dead-ahead ants I promised myself I’d never be.
If I had simply looked up while I’d made the climb, I would have noticed that the awning I’d decided to rest my feet on was missing a bolt, or had rusted out, or whatever made the metal bar pop from under me. Leaving me dangling by my fingertips far above a major street.
Not that any of the late-night pub crawlers noticed, too drunk to do more than put a foot in front of the other as they shuffled from one watering hole to the next.
But I’d been on automatic, not focused on where I was going and far too worried about the guy steadily climbing after me. He’d watched as the bar that had been under my feet made its clattering descent, missing his shoulder by a hair’s breadth, then gone right back to picking his way up the face of the old theater.
Well, so was I.
A gust of cool night air had strands of my hair dancing before my eyes. Escapees from the confines of my ponytail. I probably should cut it once and for all, but it was my claim to fame, the long, layered black hair that inspired my name, Raven. My mother used to say my perpetually messy locks looked like the ruffled tail feathers of the large black birds.
Funny, I could hear that raspy tone she had from smoking and screaming too much, but I couldn’t quite picture her face. I shook my head, clearing both my mind and my vision as I climbed, springing off my perch to snag the next handhold. Where memory failed, muscle and sinew served. Handhold, foothold, reach and handhold, foothold. Motion, thought and breath in sync, I made quick work of the climb.
I scrambled over the foot-wide ledge and dropped about three feet to the roof. The red glow from the flickering marquee provided enough light for a quick scan of the perimeter. Rusted vent pipes erupted from the surface. Cracks filled with tar clawed the patchwork concrete like long black, twisted nails. Other than the cooing presence of a few pigeons, I was alone.
For the moment.
I backed away from the ledge. Waiting.
Seconds later a dark form crept over the ledge. Breath siphoned from my lungs. He’d made it. I let our gazes clash briefly, then spun on my heel and bolted across the roof. The grinding scratches of my shoes sliced through the silence as I slipped across crumbling concrete. The ledge drew closer. So did the pounding of feet behind me. I stumbled once, straightened and shifted my weight just in time. I launched forward like a circus performer gone mad, hurtling through the air. I flat-palmed the lip of the ledge and pushed off, vaulting into the night.
A dizzying blur of headlights in the distance as I crossed the seven-foot expanse over the alley. The pull of the earth, desperate to bring me down to the ground. Chin to chest, my body automatically tucked in on itself as I landed on the roof of the next building in a fluid roll, momentum driving me to my feet. I stood still. Watched as the guy neared the ledge on the building I’d just vacated. Would he make the jump?
His arms and legs pumped like mad. He just might do it.
At the last second, the guy slammed into the ledge. Instead of using it as leverage, he struck with full force, coming to a complete and utter stop with all the grace of a five-year-old using the ice-rink boards as an emergency brake. The impact had him crumbling backward.
A growl of frustration echoed across the expanse.
I threw back my head and laughed. “Maybe next time, kid.”
From this angle, I could only see the top of his head as he sat there, unmoving. Maybe he’d landed harder than I thought. I frowned. “Supersize?” Named for his larger-than-life personality and not his stature—which qualified as short at best—I knew a show of concern would only make him mad. Still…“You all right?” A stream of swearwords had me smiling. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Supersize struggled to his feet and approached the ledge. “So close.” He stared down at the alley below. “I almost made the jump.”
“Almost will get you killed. You were right to bail—you waited too long to get airborne.” I fired him a grin. “You weren’t the only one who screwed up. I was so keen on watching you, I didn’t verify my foothold with that awning. Learn from me, young Skywalker. Look before you leap.”
He laughed. “You’re so full of clichéd wisdom, oh ancient one.”
The gibe about my upcoming birthday went unchallenged as I sauntered to the edge of the roof and swung a leg over.
“Quit trying to tick me off,” I said. “I’m your ride home, remember?” Fingers locked onto the ledge, I found the first foothold and let gravity take me down until my vision barely cleared the lip. A soft, red glow backlit the kid. He wa
He’d said he’d let me go. That I’d done my time, served him well, and that once I turned sixteen I had a choice. Stay, or leave with his blessing. I was seriously torn. He’d taken me in when my parents had all but abandoned me for their one true love: meth. He was all the family I knew. He had given me the tools I needed to survive—I owed him my life. How could I leave when I owed him everything?
Still, there was no denying that he’d changed. And I had to admit that I was tempted to finally put my escape plan into action. That I dreamed of another life. Wondered what I could be if I had a shot at something different. And the opportunity might be at hand.
But cutting loose wasn’t as easy as it sounded—and not just because I was torn. I had to train my replacement before I could leave. Diesel had grown accustomed to my unusual skill set. It was my job to scale the tallest, most exclusive, most secure parkades and give the others access from the inside. What I did—the strength, speed and sheer guts involved—had taken me years to develop. Diesel had given me mere weeks to get the kid up to speed.
“Be at the car in five or I’m leaving without you.” I left my protégé to make his own descent.
Not bad for a first attempt, but not great either. I’d have to report it as I saw it, no matter the consequences. The kid was cautious. That wasn’t a problem. This was dangerous work, and it paid to take your time, to have a solid game plan. We climbed without ropes, chalk or any of the usual safety gear, leaving no physical evidence behind for the cops to trace. What concerned me most was that Supersize lacked confidence. I could get him there—a few minor successes should build him up enough—but I needed additional time.
More than I had. There were others on the team who could climb a few stories, but no one willing to go as high as I could. Supersize was my last shot. He’d showed such promise, but there was more to this job than just scaling walls. You had to be comfortable crawling all over them, jumping from rooftop to rooftop and taking controlled risks.
So far Supersize hadn’t been able to push beyond his self-doubt. He was overthinking. Freaking himself out at the last minute.
My chest tightened. My breathing became strained, but not from the demands of the climb.
Diesel would not be pleased.
An hour later I pulled into the warehouse’s rear bay doors and killed the engine. Through the windshield I noted the familiar two-story industrial layout with its open-beam ceiling, long row of blacked windows, and rusted metal columns.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” Supersize said, speaking as low as his not-quite-broken voice would allow, then leaning in for a kiss like some dude from an online dating commercial. I let him get close. Let him think it was going to happen.
Then, laughing, I palmed his whole face. “Ugh. Please.” I twisted his head so his lips puckered into the air.
“Worth a shot.” He grinned and slipped out of the car, heading toward what we jokingly called “the dorm,” where he’d probably fall into an exhausted sleep. I pretended not to notice his limp. Guys and their egos and all that. His had already taken a beating.
I climbed out of the driver’s seat and slammed the door.
“What is this crap?” I heard someone say. Disgust dripped from every word. To a member of a crew responsible for breaking into the city’s fanciest parkades to access the expensive vehicles within, the car I’d brought to the warehouse that night was subpar to say the least.
“Come on, Link.” I smiled up at the unibrow who’d come to stand at my side. Six four and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a textbook Neanderthal, The Weakest Link, or Link for short, was one of the best guys working chop. “It’s not so bad.”
We both examined the Honda Civic hatchback. The industrial lighting wasn’t kind. Rusted wheel wells. Bondo patches. Not my best work. Usually my hauls were higher-end vehicles, 4x4s, SUVs or sedans that’d be sent to the dock and loaded into shipping containers. But tonight I’d hotwired whatever was around to give Supersize a taste of the adventure.
Didn’t tell him the rush is a lot like chewing gum—intense at first, but all too soon your jaw is working clay.
“I’ll make it up to you,” I said, flashing Link a smile.
He wagged a finger at me. “Now quit that. I’m not falling for those come-and-get-me eyes, and long lashes…”
“Come-and-get-me eyes?” I smirked, impressed. “Really?”
Link flushed and backed away a few paces. “Get out of here, Raven. Some of us have work to do.”
Laughing, I spun on my heel and left him to it. I took the stairs to Diesel’s second-floor office two at a time. Years ago the warehouse had served as a bottle factory, and then it was abandoned. Most industrial buildings were snapped up by developers and turned into condos, but Diesel had lucked out. Thanks to his unnamed connection in the city zoning department, no one had ever come sniffing around. If they had, they wouldn’t have seen much beyond the crumbling facade of the exterior walls and boarded windows.
The inside was another story.
Two levels of genius. The lower level had bays to temporarily store stolen cars and a chop station for dismantling. The upper floor was Diesel’s “central command” and an entire converted wing of small rooms that housed those on the team who had no other place to go. The warehouse was a refuge.
We took care of each other. When I’d told the kid I was taking him home, I meant it.
For some of us, this place was the only home we knew.
As I approached Diesel’s office, voices rose angrily over the clatter and squeal of power tools. My footsteps slowed. If Diesel was having words with someone, I’d have to bide my time and wait. Diesel had become the king of his very own empire. But it hadn’t come easy. Every success seemed to set him more on edge. The better he did, the higher his expectations for next time. His ring was one of many; if he failed to meet demand, his clients would go elsewhere.
The constant pressure was getting to him.
The sound of a fist meeting a face came through the walls loud and clear. I flinched as if I’d been hit.
“When I say we need more, I mean it.” Diesel’s voice was thick with rage. “I better give him another demonstration—I’m not sure he heard me over his crying.”
My stomach rolled. This was our home, but it no longer felt like a safe haven.
The office door opened, and one of the older boys was shoved out. He staggered on his feet, cupping a hand over his bleeding nose. Bruising already building under his eyes.
I leaped forward, trying to help, but he shoved me against the railing and bolted down the stairs.
Catching my breath, I gripped the railing and shook off my anger. I knew it wasn’t right that Diesel was getting physical with some of the boys, roughing them up more and more when things didn’t go as planned. But he still kept us fed, with a roof over our heads, and saved all of us from the streets.
This was just a temporary thing, I told myself. He’d be back to normal once the pressure was off. We owed him our loyalty, our lives. Below, I had a clear view of the chop crew already stripping the hatchback I’d stolen of its license plate and the cartoon-family decals on the rear window. I gripped the railing, tremors of fear settling in my bones. I wasn’t looking forward to telling Diesel the kid needed more time.
The voices grew louder.
“I don’t care what Bowdin said.” Diesel’s usually smooth voice had serated teeth and cut through the glass and wood, making it impossible to do anything but eavesdrop. “Or Livingston, or Darwell. Those guys strut around in business suits, barking out orders at their cell phones and thinking they’re above me
“But distribution is what this business is all about. Without them—” began Wheels, Diesel’s second in command, only to be cut off by a hiss of anger.
“Don’t tell me what I already know,” Diesel said. “They demand. We supply. Some schmuck transports. That’s the order of things. Period. When the suits start dipping their noses in, things go wrong. Businessmen and corrupt government officials. What do they know about this life except how much money we make them? I won’t have them sniffing around my shop, telling me how to increase production or questioning how I handle things.”
Tension crawled up my spine. Diesel was already riled up. Screw waiting. I just wanted the badness over with. I slipped by the window to stand before the office door, my fist hovering, waiting for the right moment to knock.
“We have to stay one step ahead of the competition,” Diesel was saying. “Gotta keep our heads straight. If I find out you’ve been using again, you’re history.”
That was one thing I’d always respected about Diesel. He might be running a car-theft ring and chop shop, but it was a drug-free working environment. A rare thing in this industry. If anyone in the warehouse used, they’d be tossed back out on the streets. If help was needed, it was freely given, but there were no second chances. Diesel had gone through rehab and changed his life. They say there’s nothing worse than an ex-smoker, and that was Diesel exactly. Zero tolerance. Most of the kids he took in were like me, orphaned by meth. I was just the first to benefit from Diesel’s reformed ways.
He’d always had a soft spot for me.
But lately even I’d been on the wrong side of Diesel’s machete-sharp temper.
I swallowed back the unease scaling my throat and rapped my knuckles on the door. Twice. Hard.
The door swung open. Wheels stormed past me, his short, wide, bodybuilder’s form filling the narrow walkway, muscles straining under his white wife-beater shirt.
“Ah, Raven, you’re like a breath of night air.” Diesel stepped from behind his desk and waved me inside. No sign of the beating he’d doled out or the anger he’d been spewing at Wheels in the wide smile he offered. “How did it go with the boy? What’s his name again? Supersize?”
by Judith Graves have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes