Race of Thieves

An Urban Fantasy Adventure

Book Cover: Race of Thieves
Part of the Artifact Hunters series:

You’d never know that Shatter Cage is a were-squirrel by looking at him. Between fake fire charms and his impenetrable confidence, everyone believes he’s the phoenix he claims to be.

The lie is a necessary part of his branding. He’s determined to become a Hero, blessed by the Oracles and venerated by legions of followers. For now, he’s just one more thief slinging magical artifacts on the black market, hoping for infamy to strike like lightning. But he’s never going to become canonized if Gutterman, demon and loan shark, gets his pound of flesh from Cage first.

A job offer from the biggest Hero cult in America lights a path to fame—and enough money to repay Gutterman. Unfortunately, Cage’s ex-girlfriend, Brigid Byrne, wants the job as bad as he does. Whoever steals an artifact named Nábrók will be hired. And Brigid doesn’t mind kidnapping, poisoning, and back-stabbing Cage to win…

The race of thieves is on. And Cage is bent on scoring Nábrók before all his bad decisions catch up with him.

Excerpt:

The Helios Tether was open all night, so Phaethon Bay was too. Shops seldom closed. High-rises never darkened. Its rhythm merely shifted with the arrival of moonlight as the day-dwellers went inside and the population’s other half emerged.

At midday, children shouting at playgrounds formed the backbeat for the commuter vehicles on the way to the Tether. Once the sun dipped behind the towering skyscrapers, usually early in the afternoon, the music of the night rose. The howls of shifters, the sweep of feathered wings as long as helicopter rotors, the metallic zing of magetech.

Shatter Cage always thought that the city sounded alive at night. Almost like he was crouching upon the bony ridge of some impossibly huge animal’s brow rather than the roof of a skyscraper.

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Of course, if Cage had seriously thought that there was anything biological to the city itself, he wouldn’t have been wiring a bomb to blast the top off one of its skyscrapers.

Magic pulsed quietly by his right ear, where Vision hovered. Although his dangling optic nerve didn’t move the air, Cage had gotten used to the infernal eye that followed him everywhere, and he was sensitive to its weight upon the universe. He could always feel his assistant’s living spy camera when it drew close.

Anton Vex’s voice murmured from the Link at the base of Cage’s skull. “You mixed up the red and blue wires.”

“No, I didn’t.” Cage flicked his thumb to make the charmed ring flare. In the moment of bright orange light washing over his bomb’s initiator, he saw that the red and blue wires were indeed crossed. “I just wanted to try an alternative wiring scheme this time. See if we can add a longer delay to the fire suppressant.”

Vex turned enthusiastic. “That’s a great idea! I usually test everything in my lab before taking it into the field, but if you think that will work, I’m sure it’ll be fine!”

Bless the warlock’s shriveled black heart. Even when he thought Cage was about to blow himself up, he had nothing but positivity to send through Vision.

Cage would fix the bomb. Eventually. For now, he fiddled with the ignitor’s battery to waste time and spare his dignity, much like how his cat always gave her ass a thorough licking after falling off the bed.

His fingers were numb from going this long without gloves. The air was too cold and wet to be outside, and it was only going to get worse. Another storm was rolling in off the ocean. Weather witches said they should expect fifteen centimeters of rain that week alone, beginning at midnight.

“I’ll just do conventional wiring if you’re worried about it. If only to make you more comfortable, Vex.” Cage flipped the wires around again, connecting red and blue where they belonged. “How’s it look now?”

Vision vaulted weightlessly over his shoulder to examine the bomb from every angle. Vex was the designer of their explosives, so he should have been deploying them too. But Phaethon Bay’s lively nights meant there were people outside, and Vex didn’t do people. The eye was as close as he could get.

“It looks perfect! You did so great!” Vex cheered through the Link. His voice sounded loud to Cage, but since it was transmitted through the Link and encrypted by Vision, nobody else would be able to hear the warlock. Cage’s cheering squad of one never needed to stop talking, even when he was in delicate situations.

Like the very delicate situation Cage was about to be in.

He checked his watch before pulling warm gloves over his stiffening fingers. It was ten thirty-seven. Their plan would begin at ten forty-four at the latest.

Cage wedged the bomb between two air conditioning units and stepped onto the edge of the roof. He dropped into a crouch so the wind wouldn’t buffet him as hard.

He was so high up, in such a wealthy strata, that the understory’s freeway looked like a bioluminescent bloodstream hundreds of meters below. Tracks and tunnels sang with the passage of steel bodies. Cage had grown up in the city, among the best magetech you’d find in human spaces, and its beauty still staggered him. “Any signs of rewiring in our target’s security system?”

“Everything’s green for now.” Vision dropped onto his knee, warm and reassuring.

Not that Cage needed the reassurance. He was a seasoned thief with hundreds of grabs under his belt, so he wasn’t worried about the job. Yet Cage always felt better with Vision resting against him. He couldn’t resist the urge to pet the little eyeball while wind yanked his jacket’s flaps, enclosing them in a cocoon that Phaethon Bay’s ethereal glow couldn’t penetrate.

“Any sign of the silver BMW?” asked Cage.

Vision’s iris seemed to blink vertically. The Tether reflected off his eye, casting a blazing white bar over his crimson pupil. “No, but I’m watching every traffic camera for a kilometer radius. We’ll know when he’s out.”

Cage’s laugh was sucked away by the wind off the bay. “You won’t miss him. You never do.” Vex was meticulous. He’d kept Cage alive against the odds for years.

Of all of the professional thieves in the North American Union, Cage was not the smartest. Not to say that he was stupid—just not the smartest. Ever since the Gaean Security Amendment passed, trafficking pre-Genesis artifacts had become more lucrative than any other industry. The field attracted the best minds and the toughest competition. Cage was a medium-sized fish in a pond that was somehow fitting whales.

That meant he had to make up in other places. Mostly, he made up by having a constant connection with Vex—easily the best assistant any thief could ask for worldwide, not just in the NAU.

Cage also made up for his inadequacies by being obsessive. As the seconds ticked nearer the launch of the next phase, his fingers wandered, performing one last check of his gear. He’d brought a lot of things he’d probably never need. But if he did need them, and didn’t have them in functional condition, he’d be dead.

So he’d checked and repacked and checked again, every idle moment for the last several hours.

Parachute? Check. Backup parachute? Check. Grappling hook? Check. Spare grappling hook? Check, and check three more times, because he had brought a hook for every occasion.

Breaking into Araboth Condominiums was not an easy feat. Cage had spent all week looking for a way in and out other than the bay-facing windows, since they were thousands of meters above pavement. It was a scary entry point. Scary because failure meant falling. Scarier still because the fall wouldn’t kill him, and he’d fail the theft with no way to repay his debts.

Then he would die.

Unfortunately, Araboth Tower’s security couldn’t be evaded. Their lower floors were staffed by witches who could see through any glamour. Their computer system was impenetrable, meaning that Vex couldn’t fabricate credentials for Cage. Even hiding on a resident’s body as they passed security wouldn’t work against the scanners. Hitchhiking was a favorite way for demons to break into fancy places just like this one, after all. Araboth Condominiums was ready for it.

Cage had spent all week researching and found no way inside.

That left the windows.

Vision alighted from Cage’s knee. “Bad news,” Vex said. “He’s on the move.”

“Being on the move is part of the plan.” Cage clenched his fist and fire flared again over his knuckles. His hands warmed within the gloves.

“Not Forfax. Gutterman’s guys.” Vex’s voice over the Link was not exactly panicking, but he had lost some of his chill. If Vex lost his chill, Cage was going to lose his chill, and that was indeed bad news.

“Are they heading toward you? Did they find our apartment?”

“I can’t tell,” Vex said. “We should still have four hours, so…”

Cage relaxed. “He won’t try to kill us until we’re out of time. Gutterman always wants money more than blood.”

Gutterman was a nightmare demon by biology and a loan shark by choice. His infernal ability to feast upon human fear made him perfect for the criminal underworld. He could intimidate anyone into doing anything, except for producing money out of thin air. Cage was so terrified of the guy that he’d have done it if he could.

Cage had taken a teeny, tiny business loan from Gutterman six months back. A million northcoins.

He’d been due to repay a week ago.

It should have been easy to repay. Cage had immediately invested the loan into his Museum of Oddities and Hellspawn—a guaranteed income stream. It was near Third at Thirteen. It had a view of the Helios Tether. His exhibits were cool.

Perfect tourist bait…in theory.

In practice, the museum was dust bait. For some reason nobody was interested in Cage’s oddities, no matter how many thousands of fliers he left on car windows, how many northcoins he drained into his online ads, and how many fake five-star reviews he left on Yelp. The best he could figure was that someone had cursed him. Vex was still looking into that, but so far, no luck on the curse-breaking front.

When Cage had asked for an extension on the loan, Gutterman had replied with goons wielding silver-laced knuckle bars. They’d given him two good blows to the face and seven more days to pull together more money than Cage had seen at any other time in his life.

A miracle hadn’t materialized.

So now he was here, preparing to jump across the emergent layer, and probably going to pancake on pavement with disappointingly non-fatal results.

“This never would’ve happened if people just came to my museum,” Cage muttered under his breath.

“What did you say?” Vex asked.

“Nothing.” Cage fired a sticky charm at Forfax’s window, making an anchor for his grappling hook. The tracker was a dim green rune that Cage could barely see through the fog. It should have been brighter. The magic hadn’t adhered securely enough.

“Prepare to deploy the cable,” Vex said. “A silver BMW is leaving the parking garage.”

Crap. Cage didn’t have time to shoot another charm. His grappling hook would fall while he was still zipping through midair.

He latched the hook to the charm. The rope stretched tight above the glowing freeway. Several hundred meters of cable connected to Cage by little more than an enchanted carabiner.

“Yes, that’s Forfax’s car,” Vex said. “Go! Now!”

The tracking charm was already flickering.

But Forfax was going to his dinner appointment, and they had ten minutes until building security visited his condo on eleven o’clock rounds.

Cage leaped into space.

For a terrifying instant, Cage felt as though he were flying.

Then the carabiner caught, magic pulsed, and he soared feet first toward Forfax’s window.

By the time he could see the tracking charge in the foggy night, its flickering had intensified.

It cut out a heartbeat before his feet slammed into the window.

“Whoa!”

The grappling hook tumbled into misty night, thrashed by wind all the way down.

Cage’s fingertips scrabbled at the centimeter-wide ridge of the window frame. His entire weight hung on three fingernails for the two longest seconds of his life—until he brought up a diamond-tipped glass punch, slamming it into the window.

The glass turned into glittering shards.

He didn’t register the scrapes until he’d already somersaulted across the carpet and onto his feet. “Hellfire,” Cage swore, shaking glass off of his sleeves with a grimace. He’d been scratched a good dozen times on the shoulders and thighs. He burned with the healing fever as his body knitted itself back together.

Cage wasn’t often grateful to be a shapeshifter, but he never loved it more than when he pulled stupid stunts and survived.

He took inventory of the condominium while healing.

Air hushed from the vents. Wet wind whistled over the broken window. Glass crunched under the soles of his boots. His shifter ears were sensitive enough to tell that there were voices on the floors above and below him, but it was normal conversation from other tenants, not incoming security.

Vision bobbed through open air, breezing past the glass shards untouched. “Bad news, Cage. Silent alarms are going off. I swear to the gods that I cut those!”

“I’m sure you did. Security probably just repaired them.” That was okay—it just meant they were tighter on time.

Cage had memorized the floor plan and electrical layout of Forfax’s unit. He knew what to expect before he landed. But schematics had failed to convey the impressiveness of his decor.

As an archangel, Forfax was basically required to have a weird hobby; his poison of choice was antique wardrobe pieces. Half of his living room was filled with display cases underlit by hazy amber lights, giving them the moody look of a rock band music video.

“I like a man who really appreciates what he has, but...” Cage peered closely at a full set of SWAT gear from pre-Genesis New York. It was brutal yet quaint, utilitarian and mundane. It would have been a great entry into his Museum of Oddities and Hellspawn. “This is kind of weird, isn’t it? Just collecting fancy clothes?”

“You like baseball,” Vex said.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Four minutes and thirty seconds left,” Vex replied.

It took five minutes for the security team to completely lock down after an alarm. The building would be quarantined from the surrounding city first. Other condos would become magical Fort Knoxes to isolate the site of the alarm—in this case, Forfax’s condo.

Then, at the five-minute mark—now four and a half minutes—the security team would descend to pepper Cage’s skull with silver bullets.

Every angel who visited the geosynchronous station at the top of the Helios Tether, called CYCNUS, held joint ownership in Araboth Tower. That gave them hardcore diplomatic immunity. Almost sovereignty. Nobody would question his death if he suddenly went missing, so security wouldn’t warn him before shooting.

In less than five minutes.

“Plenty of time!” Cage said.

He abandoned the SWAT gear and headed down a curved hallway. Its inner wall was made of glass, creating an exhibit out of the round room at its center. Within, a fountain bubbled round the roots of a marble tree. Magelights tipped each branch. The glass was too thick to allow sound to pass, but speakers piped the rush of water into the hall.

The serene bubbling chased Cage down the sloped hallway, which opened into a postmodern clerestory with stairs spiraling to three bedrooms. He wanted one on the right. That was where the electrical schematics had showed the highest concentration of cables, suggesting the highest security.

“You’ve now got three minutes, fifty-seven seconds until security arrives,” Vex said, “and Forfax’s silver BMW has flipped a U-turn three blocks down.”

An angel would be able to reach Cage much faster than the security team, lockdown or not.

There was no time for lock picking and skullduggery.

Cage lashed out with a heel. Rubber sole met lock mechanism. The mahogany around the handle pulverized and the door bounced open.

The bedroom had been converted to accommodate two aisles of armor stands within class cases. Some of the armor looked to belong to sidhe royalty. The black leather catsuit had belonged to the first Gray overlord in pre-Genesis history—first, last, and only. Forfax also owned a set of stone body armor that Cage didn’t recognize, though the placard attributed its design to half-angel Oracle Marion Wilder.

The two end cases were the most secure. They had battery backups in case the power went out, ensuring the climate within would be maintained. Magetech wards shimmered over the glass. He had expected this type of display for the Tigris Coat, which Gutterman had described simply as “an old red jacket.”

What Cage hadn’t expected was too find two old red jackets, both heavily locked down.

One jacket was dyed, tattered linen. The other one looked like an English gentleman’s coat, but frillier and stupider.

“Which one is the Tigris Coat?” Cage asked.

Vision had caught a ride down the hallway on his lapel. The eyeball slipped off his shoulder to take a closer look. “I don’t know,” Vex said after a moment. They had prepped exhaustively for this heist but hadn’t been able to find details about the Tigris Coat. It was an obscure artifact among obscure artifacts.

Neither of them could identify it.

An audible alarm began blaring. The building had shifted from its initial quarantine mode to locking down the other residents’ condominiums. That left Cage two minutes before guards showed up.

“Forfax is out of his car,” Vex said.

That gave Cage thirty seconds at best. He fumbled a pair of enchanted earplugs out of his breast pocket. “I’m gonna blow the bomb.”

“Give me twelve seconds so I can get outside and watch!” Vision whirred through the open door, racing toward the entry point.

“Don’t run off!” He jammed the earplugs into place. “How am I supposed to know which coat to grab?”

“You’re the Shatter Cage! You’ll figure it out!” Vex’s voice was softening as distance weakened the signal to the Link.

A rustle of feathers. A breath of wind. Moments after Vision disappeared, Forfax appeared at the end of the clerestory, his wings stretched to their full glory. Each one extended three meters and had feathers as long as Cage’s hand. They were not white like angel wings in kids’ books, but the multihued earth tones of a bird of prey. It brought out the gold in his skin and emphasized the chilly blue of his irises.

Chilly and hostile blue, for that matter. Forfax had spotted Cage within the shadows of the bedroom.

“Shapeshift!” Vex urged. “You’ll be too fast to catch if you change, and there’s a vent right behind you!” Cage’s animal form was small enough that “shapeshift” was great advice for escaping most situations. But it was advice he never took. Not when he had a dozen guys aiming guns at him, and not when he’d been spotted by a furious angel.

“Come out with your hands up!” Forfax drew a scimitar from within his jacket. It caught fire when he twisted his wrist, because of course it did. Archangels had to have the scariest, most fucked up toys to go along with their eccentric hobbies.

Cage didn’t look back before slamming the diamond-tipped punch into glass. He put all his weight into it, and it still barely cracked. Shapeshifter strength should have pulverized any glass on the planet. Angels were probably getting glass from Jupiter or somewhere ridiculous. They had a stranglehold on lunar mining, so they could afford it.

The hole in the glass was big enough for Cage to yank out the more elaborate of the red coats. It looked fancy enough to be worth Cage’s life.

Surprise burst over Forfax’s features. “What are you doing?”

“The dignified thing,” Cage said, and then he raced straight at the angel.

Shifters could go from zero to sixty faster than sports cars. Fast enough to surprise an angel.

Forfax was surprised all right. He leaped aside, plastering his back to the wall. That cleared a path for Cage to get to the living room. He arrived just in time to feel the concussion and hear the explosions and watch the building across the street go up in a fireball.

The shockwave made the glass remaining on Forfax’s windows ripple like water. Cage’s eyes watered from the blazing light, and his eardrums throbbed, even with the charmed plugs.

Every other shapeshifter for kilometers was going to be deaf like they had just seen a Black Death revival band playing at max volume.

The duller ears of the angel were still sensitive to the explosion. Forfax roared and staggered behind Cage. His sword dropped. The fire went out when it lost contact with his skin.

This would have been a great time to escape. He’d grabbed the coat, and Forfax thrashed on the ground. Finders keepers, losers bleeding eardrums.

But how was Cage supposed to escape when the fireworks were this good? He’d decapitated the building like Marie Antoinette. The reflection on Vision’s glossy eyeball somehow made it look delighted.

“Over here!” Cage reached out a hand.

Vision whirred away from the window, and Vex’s cheers of delight grew louder as it approached. “That was so cool! Did you see, Cage? Did you see what a mess that made?”

He nestled Vision in the neck of his shirt. “That was even better than the Centre Pompidou!”

Like the time they’d blown up a wing of the Centre Pompidou, they’d ensured the area they were destroying was empty. It was an office building—no employees at night. And Vex would have disconnected the trigger if any lifeforms had appeared at the top of the building before detonation.

That meant it was just pretty. Very, very pretty.

And they could giggle over it like total psychopaths because nobody was actually hurt.

Although at least one insurance company was gonna be pretty pissed off after this.

Forfax struggled to his feet, swiping at the silvery blood that trickled down his jaw line. “You—you thief, you fool—” It was perversely satisfying to see a perfect angel’s face twisted into such pain.

Gods, he hoped Forfax wasn’t the type to hold a grudge.

“Sorry about this! Nothing personal!” Cage called.

The eyeball tucked itself into Cage’s collar. Forfax lunged toward him, but Cage raced for the window. He didn’t need to run very fast. Forfax didn’t seem serious about getting him. Otherwise, he could have used his wings to close the distance in a heartbeat.

Instead, the last thing Cage saw before leaping out the window was Forfax’s bemused face.

Not angry, not vengeful.

Bemused.

Cage, the coat, and the eyeball plummeted out of the window.

One of his bigger grappling hooks connected easily with a grotesque perched on a building down the street. Cage swung away safely, and Forfax never chased him, and Cage tried not to worry why.

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