By Hook or By Crook

 

By-Hook-or-By-Crook

Flynn was born in the lap of luxury—a Founder’s son and heir to the Stark fortune. Of course, Molly hadn’t known that when she fell in love with the devilishly charming smuggler. If she’d known that Flynn was a Scraper back when she first met him, she probably would have hated him just on principle.

Molly was born in an outlaw camp, the daughter of a whore and a gambler. She was a street rat who didn’t belong in the glittering sky city where Flynn wanted to take her as a spy for the forts. She wasn’t ever going to turn into a lady, no matter how many fancy gowns Flynn dressed her in.

But maybe while they were there, she’d be able to talk Flynn into giving up on his plan of becoming a respectable businessman, and things could go back to the way they should be—her and Flynn raising hell, the scourge of the western skies. Blood didn’t have to be destiny, did it? And if Flynn could choose the future he wanted, then what was to stop her from doing the same?

 

 

Chapter One

 

Sometimes Molly found herself wondering what it was about her that always seemed to land her hip deep in trouble. Most people would never know what it was like to have their future turn on the fall of the cards. They didn’t get shot at, pushed from airships or tracked by bounty hunters. Some people lived their whole, long lives without once seeing a flesh-eater except for in the papers. But then those people had never been forced to scavenge through Reaper-infested territory just to make a living.

There was that.

She hadn’t exactly picked this life by choice. It had picked her.

Flynn hopped from the airship to land lightly on his feet and turned to extend his hand, as if he were a gentleman at a ball inviting her to dance. The dry wind ruffled his dark hair, and his eyes glittered with excitement.

The man was enjoying himself. Of course he was.

She accepted his hand so as not to hurt his feelings, but let go as soon as her boots hit the ground. Flynn locked the hatch—wouldn’t do to come back and find out a Reaper had decided to make a den of the ship—and she looked around at the barren spot where they’d landed.

She’d fallen asleep somewhere over New Providence, so she wasn’t sure how far into Reaper territory they actually were, but this was nowhere she’d ever been. The land was flat and covered with prairie grass. To the west, mountains ripped into the horizon like spiked teeth. A sluggish brown river curved around behind the ship. And straight ahead, directly in their path, was a sorry, forgotten little town painted orange by the dying sun.

There were no Reapers about that she could see, but it was that weird time of day when shadows stretched long and deep. There were too many shadows. Too many places to hide.

She frowned. “You said we were making a quick stop at your bank to make a withdrawal.”

Flynn turned from the hatch and drew his pistol. “That’s what we’re doing.”

“Here?”

“Here.”

The place was a dump even by ghost town standards. Most of the buildings were roofless and the walls were beginning to crumble. The wide main street was covered with grass and weeds. Wildflowers sprouted up here and there like flowers on a grave.

Twenty years. About twenty years gone.

They must be a hundred miles into Reaper territory, further than she’d ever dared to go looking for scavenge.

“You’re telling me this is where you keep your money?”

Flynn shrugged, and his collar slipped, exposing the tip of the crow’s wing inked on his neck. “The money is safer here than if it was sitting in the Federation vault on Eyrion.”

“You have a funny definition of the word safe.”

“We’ll be in and out, twenty minutes tops. It’ll be easy.” Flashing her a devilish grin, he started off toward the town.

With a sigh, she followed. “I break out in hives whenever you say something’s going to be easy.”

The back of her neck was starting to itch already.

Flynn moved gracefully over the broken ground, avoiding a rusted plow and the shattered remains of a wagon. His back was straight and his pace unhurried. He held his pistol loosely in his hand. He looked like he was out for a stroll on the paved streets of a sky city, but she wasn’t fooled. She saw the tension in the set of his shoulders, the attentive sweep of his gaze from one building to the next, the way he ignored her. Flynn never ignored her. He was as nervous about this stop as she was.

It was unusual for Flynn to take risks over money. He’d turned outlaw to piss off his stepfather, not because he’d been born to this way of life. He was like a prince who’d escaped from the castle to see how the peasants lived. Money had never been about survival for him.

They passed into the shadow cast by the church. The building blocked the breeze, and the world went suddenly quiet. This hadn’t been a large town. She saw the remains of a stable and inn. There were several shops and about a dozen houses.

“How far?” she asked.

Flynn pointed with his gun to a large building in the center of town. A bank. She might have laughed under other circumstances. As it was, she was too spooked to do more than nod.

She wasn’t a coward. She scavenged towns like this all the time. She knew the look, sound and smell of them. This one felt off.

From the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of movement in a busted-out window. She stopped short, her blood turning cold.

“Flynn.”

He turned, and she lifted her hand. “There. Something in the general store.”

They both stared at the old building. The awning was broken. One of the support beams had collapsed onto the walk. The door was ajar. The empty black windows stared silently back.

“There’s nothing there,” Flynn said. “We keep moving.”

She grabbed his arm. “I saw something move.”

“It could have been a bird, a sun shadow, anything.”

“It wasn’t a bird.”

“Can you say for sure it was a Reaper?”

She pressed her lips together. What else could it be? “We’re not too far in yet. We can still make it back to the ship before it can reach us.”

He hesitated a moment, but then shook his head. “If there’s only one, we can handle it.”

Her mouth fell open. He didn’t look like he’d lost his ever-loving mind. “If there is a Reaper, we don’t know it’s alone, and gunfire will only draw more.”

Flesh-eaters had keen senses. They were feral but canny hunters. The one across the street was surely already aware of their presence. It’d probably just been lying in wait for them to pass by.

Flynn’s jaw firmed. “We go around, then. We can get in through the back.”

“It’s not worth the risk.”

“We need the money, Mol. We have to repair the ship, buy new clothes and—”

Finery? That’s what we’re doing here. Risking our lives so we can dress up to impress a bunch of rich folk?”

“Finery will open the doors we need open.”

“I have my lock picks,” she said. “They’ll open any door I want to get through.”

“Not any door.” He pulled his arm free. “You go back to the ship. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”

And he was gone, down along the back of what had once been a saloon, the grass rustling softly with his passage. Molly closed her eyes, gripped her gun and cursed him soundly before following right behind. Because she was a stupid, lovesick fool, and no matter that Flynn was capable of handling most things, he still needed someone to watch his back.

She caught up to him when he paused at the corner of the saloon. He barely glanced at her before nodding and taking off at a run along the back of the crumbling structure. The street had been clearer, even overgrown as it was. The town had been picked over a long time ago. Whoever had done it had left items scattered about in the back. Rusted-out pots and broken furniture. A child’s doll stared up at the empty sky. Its cloth body had long since rotted away, but its porcelain face was eerily well preserved. Rosebud mouth. Cornflower blue eyes.

Molly repressed a shudder and jogged a few steps behind Flynn, keeping her ears and eyes peeled for any sign of movement. The windows above gaped black and open. Most of the doors were hanging loose, rotting away from their hinges.

Flynn paused outside the bank. The paint had long since peeled off the place. The bars on the windows and door were still intact, but the glass was all broken out and the frames sagged like they couldn’t support the weight of the iron. There was a swinging sign above the door with faded writing. Salem…something…Trust.

The back door was nailed shut, but that didn’t mean Reapers hadn’t claimed it for a den.

“Fuck,” Flynn muttered. “We’ll have to use the front door.”

Which meant facing the Reaper again. The thing was probably even now creeping up on them, gathering all its Reaper friends to invite them to dinner. She stepped back and looked up at the building. There was no easy way to break into the place without tools, but then, it was a bank, even if it was an abandoned one. They built banks sturdy.

Flynn disappeared around the corner. She followed him into a narrow alley. It was dark. In another half-hour, they’d need a lantern to find their way out.

As she stepped from the alley, a sound came from across the street. Muffled and faint, it could have been anything. An animal. The wind. She aimed her rifle in that direction while Flynn stepped gingerly onto the wooden porch in front of the bank. Most of the boards were rotten. Some cracked and split. The door was barred, but scavengers had taken a crowbar to it. At least two of the bars were missing and a third was bent. They’d given up in the middle of the job, which made Molly wonder how many skeletons were hidden beneath the long grass.

A breeze touched her cheek, carrying the scent of the river. Rich earth. Green, growing things. Bees drifted between the flowers and there was a fly that kept trying to land on the back of her hand. Aside from the buzz, the place was dead silent. There should be lots of animals scurrying around. Birds and rodents and snakes. Maybe she and Flynn had scared them all off. Maybe.

“Hurry up,” she said.

“The lock turned, but the door’s jammed. Give me a minute.” He threw his shoulder against the door and it gave. The warped wood made an unholy noise as it scraped against the floor. She ran up the steps and slipped inside behind Flynn, then put her back to the door to help him close it again.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Flynn shot the bolt.

“See there,” he said with a grin. “I told you it’d be easy.”

“We’re not out of trouble yet.”

He braced a hand on the door and pressed a quick kiss to her mouth. “You like trouble.”

She scowled. “Why can’t you keep your money in a normal bank like a normal person?”

“I have no regard for normal, and neither do you. Besides, this place is perfect. Who would look for money here? It’s too far south for anyone on horseback to risk coming here even if there was anything left to steal, and there’s more money in smuggling than scavenging for anyone with a ship. It’s safe.”

“The money’s safe. We’re not.” She pushed him away. “Let’s get what we came for and get the hell out. Where is it?”

“In the vault. Where else?”

Flynn picked up a lantern from the floor—a newer one, all brass and shine—and lit it before leading her down a narrow hallway to a small, bare room in the back. There were scuff marks on the floor from a chair that was no longer present and a dusty hat hanging from a nail in the wall. The vault was a beast. It was the same height as Flynn and twice as wide. Salem must have been a very prosperous town once upon a time. It was no wonder that scavengers had left the safe behind. You’d have to take down a wall just to get it out, and she had no idea how you’d move something so heavy.

The surprising thing was that they hadn’t worked harder to get it open.

“Tell me you have a key.”

“Oh ye of little faith.”

He fished a chain from the gap in his shirt and produced a heavy black key.

“I’ve never seen that before.” She certainly hadn’t seen him put it around his neck that morning when she’d watched him get dressed. “Are you keeping secrets from me, Flynn?”

“Lots of them.”

“I thought we were partners on this run.”

He set the lantern on the floor beside the vault and fit the key in the lock. “We’re partners. I’m sure you have secrets too.”

She didn’t. Not really. She’d never been able to keep secrets from Flynn.

The lock turned with a heavy clank and Flynn straightened, pulling open the door. It moved easily for how thick it was. The hinges were still oiled. Flynn took one step forward and stopped dead in his tracks.

“Flynn?”

“It’s gone,” he said, his voice harsh and dangerous. “I don’t know how he found out about it, but he took it all.”

“The money? Who took it?”

Who could have known Flynn had money hidden here? He hadn’t even told her about it. She moved to peer over his shoulder. The vault was empty.

No. There was a small figurine sitting on the floor. Flynn couldn’t have missed it. It was just the kind of thing a Scraper lady would have decorating her boudoir, dainty and expensive. Or it would be expensive if the figurine of the little boy had still had a head.

Flynn picked up the figurine and turned it in his hands. In a strange voice, he said, “This belonged to my mother. It was a gift from my father. She said the boy reminded me of her.”

She reached out her hand to touch his back. Her fingertips grazed his shoulder as he stood and turned around.

Molly stepped back quickly. Growing up around violent men had given her a well-developed sense of self-preservation. Flynn had never hurt her. He wouldn’t ever hurt her, but old habits died hard.

Right now, Flynn didn’t look like the man she knew. The lines of his lean face were hard and tight. His eyes blazed. “It had to be Stark.”

Molly didn’t think Flynn was angry about the money. Not really. Oh, he’d have been frustrated if some scavengers had gotten into the vault or if the building had collapsed to bury it whole. But it would have been a plain, clean anger, not this raw and bitter fury. The deadly game he played with his stepfather wasn’t about lost inheritances or stolen ledgers. It was about revenge. The money was just how they kept score.

She understood that. She did. Flynn had lots of reasons to hate his stepfather. She suspected he hadn’t told her the half of them.

“Flynn,” she said softly. “We have to go.”

He tossed the key aside and crouched down, fisting his hands in his hair. “Just give me a minute.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t think of anything she could say that would make it better. Feeling helpless, she took up a position as guard while Flynn wrestled with his demons. This she could do. Watch his back. Keep him safe until he found the way forward again.

The creak of a footstep overhead chilled her blood. It sounded like someone walking toward the front stairs. Her mouth went dry and her skin broke out in a cold sweat.

“We don’t have a minute,” she whispered tightly. “We’ve got company.”