Authors: Christine Hart
Table of Contents
The Variant Conspiracy
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Ramona Lockwood
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my Mom
for being my biggest fan and my best ally.
This book, and the series as a whole, has truly been a labor of love over the last few years. Many friends, family, and professionals have helped me along the way.
Big thanks to my husband, Jeff, my parents, Rick and Mary, my sister, Sarah, my friends, Jessica, Jamie, and everyone who has offered encouragement and support through the whole process.
Huge thanks to Soul Mate Publishing and Samantha McMahon for sharing my vision and helping it shine.
I surveyed a dark London alley, the air heavy with odors of fat and fuel. Go-go boys gyrated in the window of a dance club across the adjacent street. Club music reverberated off the buildings around me while I pulled my boyfriend Jonah through an interspatial portal.
“Welcome to Soho. In London, England of course,” I said to Jonah. Our former co-worker Melissa gave him a half smile.
He rubbed his arctic blue eyes. In the dark alley, his black hair glistened like wet ink. He stood tall beside me, gripping my shoulders protectively as though he might have to toss me behind him in an instant. I still smelled the dust of the Mojave Desert and the soot from the trailer fire on Jonah’s damp T-shirt.
“Wild. We’re really in London.” He smiled down at me. “What is Soho?”
“It used to be the red-light district.” Melissa unzipped and stepped out of her dusty brown dirt-biking pants. She discarded them in the back corner of the alley. Her remaining clothes were a simple white waffle shirt and denim shorts. She unraveled her disheveled ebony hair bun and re-wound it carefully. “That’s why Evonatura chose it. You can have an interesting cast of characters like variants and all their weird and wonderful talents in this neighborhood without standing out too much.”
My friend Faith stepped through the portal and nearly bumped into Jonah. She stumbled forward. Her purple dreadlocks picked up a shaft of electric blue from a black light across the street. Her steel nose stud and eyebrow ring glinted briefly.
“Yeah, you’ll want to move well away from the portal until everyone is here. Sooner than later if you don’t mind. It gives me a headache keeping one of these gateways open for too long.” Melissa waved us away from the floating silver oval.
I guided Jonah toward the graffiti-coated brick wall on the other side of the alley. Faith dusted off her charred cargo pants and grimy black tank top as she followed us. My twin brother Ilya mimicked a discarded rag doll in his dirty jeans and tangled mop of cinnamon hair as he stepped through the portal. Next came my one-time, would-be boyfriend Cole and then our resident beefy bodyguard Josh. Those two carried themselves like weathered soldiers, both muscular, dirty, and wearing week-old beard stubble.
“So where exactly do we go from here?” said Jonah.
Melissa closed her portal and then stretched her arms and neck. “We don’t want to get too close to Evonatura right now. We should lay low until we can figure out the best plan of attack.”
“We’ll need rooms. Anything rent by the hour around here?” said Faith.
“What did you have in mind?” Ilya playfully elbowed his girlfriend.
“Be serious,” Faith answered with a frown.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a place around the corner above a pub that should work. It’s not rent by the hour, but it’s seedy enough that Ivan wouldn’t go near it,” said Melissa.
“How well do you know the neighborhood?” I asked.
“Think of it this way. When
was in charge of Ivan’s travel arrangements,
frequently scouted locations in person,” said Melissa.
It suddenly occurred to me how and why Melissa had been a better assistant to Ivan than I ever could have been. I stared back at her as I tried to think of the right response.
Faith elbowed past Melissa and me, making her way to the street. “Speaking of you working for Ivan, how do we know you’re not still on the payroll? I’m still not sure we can trust you.”
“Babe, when I read her mind back in the desert, I got enough to know she’s on our side.” Ilya calmed Faith by putting his hand on her arm.
“Wait, I’ll go first just in case. We don’t know where Ivan and Tatiana are. Or Ralph and Adelaide for that matter.” Josh jogged forward, his vest thudding against his chest. His mention of my estranged father and aunt only sparked an image of my sister, brainwashed and following them into god-knows-what.
Josh glanced up and down the street. He nodded for us to join him. The nightlife bopped on the busy club and pub-filled street ahead. Nobody matched the exotic flair of the window dancers, but everyone had dressed to impress while we resembled failed wilderness trekkers. The pedestrian traffic felt like a festival—or a weekend at least.
I realized I no longer knew the night of the week. I pulled my phone out of my bag and checked, 10:16 PM on Thursday night, September third. My phone had already picked up local time. I caught my reflection in a dark shop window. Soot and dust covered me like everyone else. Since I was much shorter than my companions, I looked exceptionally waif-like in my fitted three-quarter shirt, sporting wild hair in desperate need of a brush.
We followed Melissa to a façade coated in flat black paint. Round red light bulbs spelled the word, Incinerator above the door. Melissa passed the bouncer and stopped at a glass-shielded wicket below a sign for Berwick Hostel. The wicket was set inside a stairwell beside the bar’s entrance. She pulled a wallet out of her shoulder bag.
“Four double rooms please,” said Melissa.
“How do you figure four?” said Josh, startling Melissa.
“Ilya and Faith, Irina and Jonah, you and Cole, and another for me,” she said as though the assignments were obvious.
“You’re not bunking on your own. Not until I can vouch for you myself. For all I know you can fool mind-readers and psychics.” Josh stood the tallest among us by far. His spiky hair was full of debris. His bare arms shone with sweat under his military vest and cutoff shirt.
“I thought we covered this already. Either way, I’m not shacking up with some guy I hardly know. These are tiny rooms,” said Melissa flatly.
“You know us. Why don’t you just humor Josh for one night? We’ll be on our best behavior if you stay with us. I’ll even take the floor.” Cole’s tanned skin and coffee-brown eyes warmed his square jaw. In the light from the stairwell, I could see dirt and charred fragments in Cole’s short sandy hair.
“He takes the floor.” Melissa pointed at Josh.
“Fine,” said Josh.
“I’ve got five singles and one double, love. Take your pick,” said the round bald man behind the glass.
“Two singles and one double then.” Melissa passed the man a credit card.
“That’ll be a hundred quid for the double and eighty each for the singles. Two pounds fifty extra per towel,”
“Good thing we are bunking together. How much is that in dollars?” said Cole.
“Way too much for this place,” said Faith.
“It’s over four hundred US dollars!” Josh tapped on his phone.
“Why are towels extra?” said Jonah.
“Can’t you do better since we’re paying together, like a group rate or something?” said Melissa.
“Where do you think this is? Take it or leave it love. I’ll fill up before the night’s out with our without you lot,” said the man.
“I guess you win. Six towels too please,” said Melissa.
“You’re on the tenth and twelfth floors. Rooms Ten-O-nine, Ten-O-eight and Twelve-ten. Loo’s at the end of the hall on both.” He passed a trio of grungy tags with patina-coated keys to Melissa.
We followed her up the narrow stairwell that allowed single file with little elbowroom. The stairs went upward in a square spiral for several stories. The first door we passed was an exit for the third floor. My legs ached and my lungs burned by the time we reached the tenth where Melissa passed keys to Faith and me.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to wash my hair and hit this club for a few drinks. We just jumped ahead seven hours and I need a little sedative to help me get some sleep,” said Melissa.
“Works for me.” Faith pushed open the fire door to the main hallway.
“Yeah, what the hell? It’s not like we go out very often,” said Ilya.
“See you downstairs then.” Melissa continued up the stairs. Josh and Cole kept walking behind her. I could have sworn I saw Josh eying Melissa’s shorts.
“We’re not supposed to go out partying. We’re supposed to . . .” I said, pausing to think of the right way to phrase ‘save the world’ without sounding melodramatic.
“Get the bad guys?” Faith arched her eyebrows. We arrived at rooms 1008 and 1009.
“Saving the human race?” said Ilya.
“Well, yes,” I said.
“Never mind stoic inclinations. Shouldn’t we worry about being seen?” In the dim hallway, Jonah’s eyes glowed with a neon-like intensity.
“Depends on how weird this neighborhood really is,” said Ilya.
“Let’s hope that London has a high variant population. And with Evonatura a few blocks over, we might even see some tonight.” Jonah took the room key from my hand and unlocked our door.
“Will they know who—or what—we are if they notice us?” I said to Ilya and Faith. Ilya spoke, but I didn’t hear him.
Instead, my first night at The Looking Glass in Victoria popped into my mind. Rubin had taken me to meet Jonah and Cole. Casey had been guarding the door. The day before, I had seen Cole and Casey fighting in the street. It had been almost six months ago, but it felt like the distant past.
“Hey, Irina, are you going first in the shower or am I?” Faith waved her hand in front of my face. I couldn’t break my train of thought to answer her. I kept puzzling over why the image of Casey guarding a club door was so prominent.
“We don’t need to worry about being seen downstairs. I doubt Ivan will let his people out to party, in Soho or anywhere else. He’ll have everyone with him in lockdown, if I know anything about how his mind works,” said Ilya.
“If we do see any variants, Ilya can listen in and see if any of them work for Evonatura or even know Ivan. And since you’re in la-la land, I’m getting the first shower,” said Faith.
It reassured me to know we would be on our guard, possibly gathering useful information. The last time I’d been in a club with Jonah, I’d made an ass out of myself. Tonight promised a different experience.
My turn in the shower came quickly even though I’d waited until last. I soon figured out why everyone else had only taken a few minutes each. The entire bathroom had not been cleaned in a very long time. The shower stall smelled of mildew and the water wouldn’t go above lukewarm with hot turned on full.
I cursed the round bald proprietor until I thought about warming up with a cocktail. And after that, Jonah. I studied the hostel’s scratched-up bathroom mirror and smiled on my way out the door.
The tiny closet-sized hostel room felt even smaller with Jonah and me inside it. He sat on the edge of the bed in the corner of the room while I pulled on a white blouse usually reserved for work. It wasn’t something I’d wear to a club, but I had limited options in my old canvas backpack. With my black pants, the outfit broadcasted an edgy femininity.
I brushed my towel-dried, dye-darkened hair and slipped a hoop earring into each ear. I drew dark lines along my eyelashes and dusted on my favorite metallic rust eyeshadow. I finished with pink lip-gloss and stepped back to let Jonah evaluate the results. He grinned at me and I felt pretty. I wanted the moment to last forever.
Jonah looked downright dapper with his gelled black wavy hair, his preppy baby blue collared shirt and dark blue denim pants. I suppressed the urge to kiss him. If I touched him, I knew we would never get back out of our tiny room.
The bouncer at the Incinerator looked nothing like Casey. Instead, he was a short, boney man with thinning gray hair and a baggy black leather coat. He sneered at us as he stepped aside to let me, Jonah, Faith and Ilya enter.
Faith wore a fitted v-neck T-shirt with her old roller derby team’s logo on the front. With her camouflage print pants, she parodied an off duty soldier. Like Cole, Faith was muscular and built for battle. The T-shirt showed it off tonight more than usual.
Ilya was slender like me. He blended into the walls with his shaggy hair, faded black T-shirt, and gray denim pants.
Only Jonah truly stood out. I briefly considered asking him to go back upstairs and find something more fitting for a gothic club, but combined with his eyes, the blue on blue effect was too attractive to undo.
Inside the club, an open-air courtyard style structure displayed three levels of writhing bodies. The scene emulated a medieval painting depicting the evils of excess. Beautiful gothic women swayed disdainfully alongside unimpressed black-clad men. White and purple lights flashed overhead. From the phosphorescent way white and light fabric gleamed, somewhere in the lighting mix was a black light. Dry ice fog billowed through the lower level.
“Let’s go check out the basement. That’ll be a better place to lay low,” said Jonah.
“I’ll do a pass through the upstairs and see if Cole, Josh, and Melissa are here yet. It’ll give me a chance to scan for variants as well,” said Ilya.
“Then I guess I’ll get the drinks.” Faith pulled a large flat hair elastic from her pocket and tied back her long purple dreads. Faith was definitely ready to rumble. I felt grateful she and Cole were on our side.
Jonah and I descended the open frame wrought iron stairwell. I felt like a lamb among wolves as I held Jonah’s hand, following him down and down the metal spiral.
We reached the floor and encountered a room shrouded by the artificial dusty mist I’d seen billowing through the air from above.
“We won’t find them in this,” I said.
Jonah turned toward the back wall stairwell and I followed him.
“Then they won’t see us either,” Jonah pulled me toward him and spun me around so my back faced the wall.
Jonah leaned in and kissed me softly, as though trying not to spook me. I kissed back and he went deeper, as he ran his hand up the side of my body, behind me and down to my rear. He grabbed it firmly and pulled my pelvis into his. I stretched up so he could stand straight. I returned his gesture and slipped my hands into his back pockets.