This was not a dignified place to die.
Sand rasped against Valentine’s legs as he crouched, momentarily obscuring his likeness as it peered back at him from the salt pirate’s tinted shades. Feathers woven into her ratty hair fluttered against her mouth, still open in a silent scream.
He tried to push her jaw closed, but it was stiff from rigor. Ugh. It didn’t matter how many bodies he encountered, he was never going to get used to dealing with them. Blood and dirt crusted the hole in her forehead, and whatever weapons or items she’d had were already gone.
Gravel crunched and Ace nudged the woman’s temple with her steel-toed boot. “She probably deserved it. Put on some act about how she’s trying to feed her family. They do that, y’know.” She knit her brows in mock supplication, then clasped her hands beneath her chin and raised her pitch. “‘Please, mister. I got starving kids at home.’”
Maybe it was the past year of spending practically every moment with him that made Ace adept at pressing his buttons—that or it was natural talent. The pirates were their enemies, but whatever thoughts had gone through this woman’s brain before the bullet did were likely no different than what he or Ace would think. “You need to pick up knitting or tarot card reading. Making fun of the dead is not a distinguished hobby.”
“And burying random corpses is not a productive one!”
“Just because it’s not—”
“You can’t stand out here in the sun and dig a four foot deep hole for some woman who would have lodged an arrow right through your eyeball without a second’s hesitation. There are too many people in the world to worry about. And salt pirates should be particularly low on that list.”
He picked up the shovel and jammed it into the ground, then hefted the dirt behind him. His concern didn’t work that way.
“Jesus, Val. Stop it.”
The shovel clanked against a rock and he struggled to dislodge it.
Ace pinched the bridge of her nose and blew out a slow breath. “I don’t want us to waste time when we have a delivery to make, plus it’s dangerous. I shouldn’t have stopped at all, but I thought she might have something good on her that we could grab quick.”
It was his van, but she was always the one who ended up driving.
He flung dirt over his shoulder.
“Val.” Ace stepped back toward the van.
They were supposed to be a team, but the only time they got along was when he was in agreement, and he didn’t have the energy to fight about every decision.
Sighing, he dropped the shovel. Hopefully this pirate’s kin would look for her when she didn’t come home. They could give her a proper pirate burial, whatever that entailed.
Trying to keep his voice level was difficult. “Fine, hon, then let’s go. Gotta be in Festerchapel by nightfall, anyway.” He pursed his lips. “Such a gross name. Sounds like a church full of zombies.”
Ace squinted, sun-bleached hair fluttering in the wind. “Dog Teats is worse and always will be.”
“Don’t make fun of Dog Teats. Only bar that has the mead I like.”
“You should just drink whiskey neat like every other salvager. Put hair on your chest.”
“Is that what I’ve been doing wrong?” He pulled the pirate’s scarf up over her face, tucking it beneath her head so the wind didn’t blow it away.
Brittle brush whisked at their boots. Sepia hills sat beneath a chalky sky, salt flats and barren desert rolling away in all directions like a crappy landscape painting the artist had abandoned.
Ace hopped into the driver’s seat of the van. The old beast was looking a little worse for wear with every passing month, but Valentine supposed that made it more intimidating. They’d had to replace the passenger’s side of the windshield with a metal vent cover last month. That windshield had withstood three years of pirate arrows, rocks, and birds, but apparently was no match for Valentine sitting on it when he was drunk. His ass had gone right through the pane.
Papers crowded the passenger’s side, and a collection of plastic fruit sat above the glove box, some of it partially melted into the dashboard.
He tested the sliding door, laced in rust and studded with welded staple steps. The damn thing had a habit of flying open when they were driving if the lock wasn’t secure. They’d lost half a shipment of copper piping that way, and that wasn’t close to what a disaster it would be to lose any of the fuel barrels stacked in the back right now. The tank batteries within two hundred miles were already tapped dry, but traveling the extra distance to a partially full one had earned them more barrels than Festerchapel had asked for.
An unwanted visual of them exploding open on the highway entered his mind, and he checked the lock again.
He climbed the steps to the top of the van and collapsed in the scalding vinyl seat behind the static-gat. He much preferred driving to sitting up here, but Ace complained the gat was too hard to wind. It was, which is why they’d gotten such a good deal on it.
Valentine hooked his boots into the stirrups of the gun stand as Ace drove them south. Hot wind buffeted his face, the torn shoulder of his blazer flapping. The gatling squeaked as it swiveled on its stand, and the dead pirate disappeared into the distance.
He couldn’t shake the image of his reflection in her glasses—strong cheekbones, heavy brows, all his shortcomings indistinct. Dress him in the perfect suit, a city suit, with wide lapels and broad shoulders and a silver collar clip. Scrub the dirt from his face and slick back his hair. Give him shiny shoes without a speck of blood or shit.
Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out his slim billfold and slid a magazine page from within. The fold lines were soft and fuzzy with age, edges creased. He opened it and smoothed it over his knee, shielding it from the wind.
The heaviness in his heart grew as he stared at the spread. A model stood casually, his gaze on something in the distance, like the fact that he had the world’s squarest jaw and a thousand dollar outfit weren’t worth his time to consider.
He was a man who had probably never spared a thought for his Adam’s apple, for his height, his narrow hips, or his dick… Well, he probably thought about that last one, but never the idea of lacking one.
Valentine would never have any of those things, but once he had a visa, he could relieve some of this anguish. Residents of Salt Lake City had free medical care, which meant he could go back on testosterone and get chest surgery. And after that, yes—hell yes—he was going to buy a sexy suit so he could look like the apathetic jerk on the magazine page. Citizenship felt like a delusion because he’d already failed the practice test several times, but once he had a visa, he could hire a tutor. Memorizing historical figures and writing grammatically correct sentences was easy, but doing algebra made his brain melt.
It was hard to stay optimistic about eventual residency when he was up here roasting his ass with sand raking his face. When every day meant heading into dangerous territory for materials needed by places called Festerchapel. And every time his voice rose to a feminine pitch when talking to a stranger or his clothes accentuated his hourglass figure instead of hiding it, he wanted to curl up and die.
Dark forms crested a nearby hill, speeding toward them at an alarming rate. Shit! Not again. Ace would be livid if she knew how much he daydreamed up here.
Heart throbbing, he folded up the magazine page and stuffed it in his back pocket.
Dust billowed behind two motorcycles, weaving effortlessly across the white salt. Something whined past Valentine’s head and he ducked behind the gun stand.
He swiveled the static-gat toward the riders and struggled to wind the handle. The stupid thing took too much time to warm up, but once it got going, it turned everything it touched into toast three shades too dark.
Static crackled, purple arcs of electricity snapping between the barrels. An arrow pinged off the van. Ace screamed something that was mostly his name and a handful of obscenities. He cranked faster.
His chest and arm ached in protest and his hand slipped from the handle. The hum within the gun became a disappointed sigh, and the electricity died.
“Asswrench!” Heaving his weight against the crankshaft, muscles straining, he wound it with both hands until it screamed with sparks.
The van lurched violently, throwing Valentine from the seat. He slid across the scalding roof, scrabbling for the gun stand. Sharp bolts scratched across his fingers. He snatched the spade grips, hauled himself upright, and hit the trigger.
Lightning blasted from the whirring barrels, snapping against the salt and leaving black scorch marks in its wake.
“Back off!” Valentine shouted, but his voice was snatched away by the wind.
One of the riders veered toward the van; Valentine swung the gat their way and the tires on their motorcycle exploded. The rider vaulted over the front and slammed into the ground. Smoke wound from their clothes, and they didn’t get back up.
The second cycle raced closer, two riders coming into focus. The one on the back was tiny, swimming in their oversized helmet. Junior pirate.
Valentine curled his hand away from the trigger. He couldn’t fry a kid or fling them off a speeding bike. Why in the hell were they allowed to come on raids?
He aimed the gat in front of the motorcycle and squeezed off a warning shot, but the rider simply weaved around the blasted earth and kept pace with the van.
The junior pirate pointed a pipe gun and fired. Something shattered against the gat seat in a puff of red smoke. A fiery itch raced down Valentine’s throat and into his lungs. He coughed violently and gulped a painful breath, batting at the haze through teary eyes. That little shit.
The gat was slowing down, the hum dying. Another pepper bomb exploded against the van.
Ace shrieked. “Val! Do something!”
He had to act, kid or not. After giving the crankhandle another vigorous spin, he pressed the trigger. Electricity arced from the barrels, zapping the ground directly in front of the motorcycle. The rider swerved, their bike fishtailing. It listed and crashed on its side, then slid to a stop in the dirt. The little salt pirate tumbled off, and the driver shoved the bike away.
Well, Valentine didn’t kill them. Maybe karma would return the kindness and leave him and Ace alone for a while… although his consideration for pirates hadn’t helped them any in the past.
Sliding across the roof, his throat still full of bees, he swung through the passenger’s side window and into a pile of papers. Ace wrinkled her nose like he’d sat on her perfectly collated inventory logs instead of a clusterfuck of meaningless notes.
She threw a wide-eyed glance into the side mirror and gunned the engine. “They’re getting back up. You should have killed them.”
Valentine braced himself as the van bounced over rocks and badger holes. Plastic fruit rolled across the dash. “We’ve been over this.”
“I don’t want either of us face down in the salt with holes in our heads. They aren’t going to bury us. C’mon, you’re supposed to have my back.”
He scrubbed his cheeks and his hands came away slicked in red powder. “You know I do.” But each fight, each injustice, each war within himself sliced him open a little bit more, until he was raw and aching. He’d told her this before, but she never listened. Any time he opened his heart, or hell, just wanted to bitch about something, her eyes glazed over.
He popped open the glove box and rooted through for a weapon, but there were only more papers. The silhouette of the motorcycle disappeared in the side mirror, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t follow them.
“You know, you were the one who insisted we take that job looking for an ‘ancestral heirloom’ for that snobby old asshole,” Ace said. “I told you that was a bad idea.”
“Are you still thinking about that?” Now he knew she was purposely pushing his buttons. He pulled a slow breath through his nose, then let it out, but it didn’t ease the tightness in his chest. “What do you want me to say, that it’s my fault we don’t have visas yet? My poor judgment choosing that job, even though you were the one who grabbed the wrong necklace?”
Ace huffed. “He said it was gold with a green gem. That’s what I grabbed.”
“Well next time, we’ll be sure to get—”
“Next time?” Her gaze bounced between the side mirror and the terrain ahead. “There’s no ‘next time.’ I’m not doing that sentimental job shit again. Not worth it. We can stick to fuel and tools like normal. These towns out in the sticks aren’t fussy like city people.”
Valentine thudded his head against the warm metal of the door. He didn’t have the energy to argue about this again.
Desert rushed by beyond the window, sagebrush and maiden grass giving way to craggy hills studded in juniper trees and wildflowers. No cycles trailed behind them, but hopefully Ace would keep her foot firmly planted on the accelerator until they reached Festerchapel.
Her hair snapped in the hot draft, eyeliner melted and running into the canyons of scars on her cheeks. She looked closer to a pirate than a cityslicker, and only wanted into Salt Lake because her distant relations lived there and promised her a place in their family. They’d help her with the citizenship test—which would grant her a permanent place in the city even after the visa expired—give her a place to stay, and a position in their business. But they expected her to buy a visa on her own. Though she spoke wistfully of this potential new life, he was certain the desire to obtain a visa didn’t ache for her the way it did for him.
She nudged his arm and he glanced over. “We’ll get the money, ‘kay? You’re no fun when you’re pouty.”
“Three thousand dollars for each visa didn’t seem impossible when we first started, but last I counted, we have twenty-four hundred combined. We’ve been saving up for a year and don’t even have half of what we need.”
For every risky job they took that paid well, a chunk of the money went to fuel cells for the van, to the border fee into city territory, the rental fee for a message box, and food and hygiene items. It was one step forward and two steps back. They’d cut trips to town bars first. Then decided they could darn the holes in their socks instead of buying new ones. Valentine didn’t need more magazines and Ace could wear less eyeliner.
He anxiously stared into the side mirror and leaned out the window, expecting more salt pirates to appear. A bedraggled orchard and collapsed barn slipped into the vanishing point, and rusted hulks of cars peppered the way ahead, jeweled succulents spilling from the busted windows.
His testosterone had still been sucking up a huge portion of their funds. He’d been dragging Ace down, but if they had kept their finances separate, one of them would earn the money for their visa before the other, and they’d made a pact not to abandon each other. Keeping their money together was the most effective way of doing that.
Stopping T was one of the hardest things he’d done, and Ace half-heartedly argued against it. It had been okay at first—his voice had already dropped some, his wedding tackle had grown, and his body hair wasn’t going anywhere. But over the months, his physique had gone soft, shifting back to its previous shape.
The worst part was cutting the testosterone out of their budget still didn’t help them save much faster. They’d started to skip meals and scrimp on soap, and Valentine had been using a toothbrush with a broken handle and frayed bristles for six months.
He’d built up somewhat of a reputation for taking on the undesirable jobs, even before meeting Ace. Garden-variety salvagers came in two flavors—danger-thirsty or travel-averse. Many jobs were too boring or too far away to be worth anyone’s time but Valentine’s. There were usually a handful of personalized notes waiting for him whenever he stopped at the message board. But no matter how many they took on, it never seemed to make much of a dent in what they needed.
Sinking back into the brittle leather seat, Valentine pushed a sheaf of papers to his feet. He could think all he wanted about being a rich jerk in the city, but it didn’t change the fact that he was stuck here as a wasteland salvager, in a body he hated, in a stinking hot van decorated in plastic fruit.
He smacked his scruffy cheeks and red powder drifted. “You’re right. I’m getting pouty. Turn on the music, will ya?”
Ace tapped the shattered screen of the phone plugged into the dash. The twitchy jazz of Gunman Gee filled the cab. Valentine belted out the lyrics in raspy, off-key pitch. It didn’t improve his mood much, but it did pass the miles to Festerchapel.
The town was as ugly as its name. Wooden buildings clustered like broken teeth in the rotten gums of some ancient creature. Pig shit and tanning solution fouled the air with a smell so strong it stuck in his throat.
Ace rolled up to the town’s front gate and a bearded man toting a crossbow stopped at the driver’s side window, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Your worries are over, baby.” Valentine winked. “I have arrived.”
The guard’s scowl deepened.
Ace said, “We’ve got a delivery.”
“Delivery of what?”
“Sass, obviously.” She thumbed into the back of the van. “Also fuel.”
He peered through the window. “Go to the bay. Don’t get out of the van. Someone will come to inspect the delivery and unload it.”
“We know the drill.”
The man unlocked the gate and waved them through.
A sagging church sat at the end of the main street, its crooked steeple skewering the sky. Fields of barley and peas spread away from the town proper, swaths of yellow-green peeking out between splintery shacks and a barter outpost. Rusty signs nailed to posts were painted with street names and points of interest, as if anyone could get lost in such a tiny place.
A delivery bay—a helpful sign with a drippy arrow pointing the way—sat behind the church, surrounded by corrugated metal sheds and a couple of possibly-functional trucks.
Shadows swallowed them as Ace pulled into the bay and shut off the engine. These little towns got paranoid about strangers wandering around, especially when they showed up in a van sporting a static-gat.
Heat prickled against Valentine’s skin, and the engine ticked as it cooled. People wandered past the sheds beyond the bay, but none of them seemed in a hurry to come inspect the van.
Valentine poked his tongue through the gap in his front teeth, then glanced at Ace. “Wanna make out?”
She snorted, then leaned on the horn. “Got a delivery here!”
A stern-faced woman with a clipboard entered the bay and stopped before Ace’s window. She flipped through the papers on her board, then peered at the barrels in the back. “Names.”
“Audrey Emmitt,” Ace said.
Valentine wiped sweat from his brow and his hand came away red. “Valentine Weis. We have your fuel shipment. Quite a haul too. Three more barrels than you asked for.”
The inspector stared at him, mouth drawn down like he suggested they boil her cat for dinner. She rounded the nose of the van and stopped at his window, then consulted her clipboard. “It’s Valentine Weis? Not Valentina?”
He pursed his lips and looked away. “It’s a typo.”
His life was a typo. But there was no reason the inspector should have that name at all. When he’d first taken on salvage jobs, he’d gone by his birth name, but that was years ago. It didn’t make sense that anyone would remember it now. He could have labeled his message box “Studly McStudface” and that would be the only name anyone would have to go by. Maybe it really was a typo.
“Hmm.” She scribbled something on her clipboard. She should have been tallying the goods already.
“Hey, is there a problem?” he asked. “Let’s haggle and we’ll get out of your hair.”
She tugged on the van’s rolling door. Twisting in his seat, he reached for the lock, but the woman jabbed her pen at him. “Don’t move.”
He put up his hands. “Just trying to get the door open for you.” Cautiously, he reached beyond the headrest and pulled up the lock.
The inspector struggled to haul open the door on its warped track, but Valentine didn’t offer to help. She tucked her clipboard under her arm, then poked at the barrels.
Something was off. Normally after this, the community would show their hospitality by inviting him and Ace into town. They’d have some drinks even after agreeing not to, until Valentine inevitably started singing and Ace had to drag him back to the van for the night.
But the woman returned to Valentine’s door and said, “Get out.”
Valentine raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“Get out of the van. Come with me.”
Ace opened her door, but the inspector shook her head and pointed at Valentine. “No, no. Only her. She comes with me.”
He cringed but held his tongue. The inspector said, “You, Audrey, stay here while I have someone inventory your delivery.” She waved a hand. “Then you’re free to head into town.”
His mind spun with possible reasons he’d be singled out and drawn away from the van. He hadn’t done anything wrong in recent memory, but the woman knew his birth name.
There’d been a notice at the message board that Salt Lake was tracking down salvagers for a new fee. It hadn’t seemed like it applied to him and Ace, but his mind had been elsewhere and he couldn’t remember the specifics.
Maybe that wasn’t it at all and these people hated that he was trans. He’d be dragged behind a building and have his head kicked in like that woman at the message board last year.
He rubbed his clammy hands on his jeans. They needed their money for this delivery, and if he was in trouble, he didn’t want Ace punished by association.
As he popped open the door, Ace grabbed his arm. She gritted her teeth and shook her head, but he gently shrugged away her grip and stepped outside.
His go-to solution was a disarming smile and a joke, but the inspector’s scowl could peel paint off of walls.
“May I ask what this is about?”
She clamped a hand on his elbow and led him out of the bay. He threw a glance back at Ace, then squinted in the evening light, the sun spreading its fingers over the rooftops.
A curling note clung to the inspector’s clipboard and she tapped it. Messenger waiting for Valentina Weis. Should be arriving with a delivery sometime this week.
“Listen, no matter what they told you, those goats were like that when I found them, I swear.”
The inspector’s gaze narrowed. Dammit. It was worth a try. She said, “He’s from Salt Lake. Been here for two days, waiting for you.”
Valentine blinked. “I’m flattered I have suitors all the way over here in lovely Festerchapel, but—”
“People are weirded out. Go get your message so he’ll leave.”
Okay. Just a message from the city. Not a fate of getting curb-stomped by hillbillies.
Cows lowed in the distance and a horsefly darted past his face. Valentine and the inspector rounded the side of a shed, stopping before a man in a gorgeous powder blue suit who was sitting perfectly still on a large storage trunk. His eyes were closed as if in meditation, hands resting on his knees. A pair of tiny, round spectacles pinched the bridge of his nose. Light shone off his glossy finger waves, which looked a little wilted from the heat, but they were still so close to the style from Valentine’s magazine page that he had to resist the urge to touch them. A white streak ran through his hair on the right side and divided his eyebrow, and patches of pale skin mottled his forehead.
The inspector kept her distance. “Valentine Weis is here for your message. It’s Valentine, not Valentina.”
The man’s lashes fluttered and he glanced up. His left eye was a deep brown, but the right one was a pale spill of blue, which gave him a look both alluring and slightly unsettling.
“I love your hair,” Valentine blurted. “And your suit.”
The messenger dabbed at sweat on his pallid brow. “Thank you. It’s inappropriate for the weather, but I’m afraid if I take off the jacket, someone will steal it.”
“A valid concern.” Valentine tugged on the torn shoulder of his blazer and grinned. “Trade you.”
The man stood abruptly and both his knees popped. His gaze scrambled over Valentine’s face and body, dissecting him, and Valentine tried to make himself smaller than he already was.
“There was some confusion about your gender. My apologies, Mr. Weis.”
Heat rose in his cheeks. “Call me that again and you’re forgiven.”
“What? Mr. Weis?” The man frowned and tugged at the collar of his shirt. He blinked hard, and Valentine could almost see him fighting to find his train of thought.
“Are you okay?”
“Um, yes. My name is Osric, and I’m here on behalf of Portia Thibodeaux of Salt Lake City. You have a reputation for taking on difficult—” He cleared his throat and winced. “Difficult jobs. Portia is prepared to offer you a substantial—”
Osric’s legs buckled and he collapsed, his head barely missing the corner of the storage trunk. His little spectacles tumbled off into the dirt.
“Oh my gods.” Valentine crouched beside him, then tore off his blazer and wadded it under the man’s head. As he pressed a hand to Osric’s forehead, heat burned into his palm. He turned to the inspector. “He needs water.”
The inspector hurried away and Valentine turned back to the messenger. “When’s the last time you drank anything?”
“Two days ago.”
“Jesus. These shitwaffles didn’t offer you a drink? You’re lucky you’re not dead.” He unpinned the collar bar from Osric’s shirt and loosened his tie, then popped open the top button. Osric put up his hands in protest, but Valentine wrestled them back down. “I’m not trying to ravish you or steal your suit, as fun as those things sound. But it’s way too hot out here and you might have heat stroke.”
Valentine pushed the messenger’s shirt open. Thin seams ran across his sternum and rounded the sides of his neck. Silver brackets studded his collarbones, and a tiny green light embedded in his chest pulsed slowly.
Valentine’s mouth fell open. He knew androids existed, but never expected to meet one outside the city.
Osric drew in a labored breath. “I’m not supposed to be in this body.”
Valentine tugged Osric’s shirt closed. “Me neither, hon.”