Authors: Matt Betts
A Deena Riordan Novel
Indelible Ink © 2015
by Matt Betts
Published by Dog Star Books
Cover Image: Bradley Sharp
Book Design: Jennifer Barnes
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015943133
Praise for Indelible Ink
“Dark, imaginative, and thrilling, Indelible Ink is part urban fantasy, part crime novel, and completely enthralling. A first-rate adventure from the ever-reliable pen of Matt Betts.” —Tim Waggoner,
“Women assassins, guns, black magic and government conspiracy; what’s not to love about Matt Betts’ latest novel, Indelible Ink? Grab a copy now, before the powers that be decide you can’t be trusted with the truth.”
I’ll Meet You Yesterday
“Matt Betts doesn’t seem to know all writers get put into a box. He ignores genres and boundaries and simply writes what his imagination wants. His stories are what make reading fun.”
Everyone Hates a Hero
“This urban fantasy has a strong female slant that I enjoyed, and the quirky character of FEI Agent Pel is one of my favorites. Betts’ use of the ‘ink’ and monstrous power it holds is intriguing and quite unlike anything I had read before. Deena is one tough fighter that I wouldn’t want to come across in a dark alley, or in a Starbucks either, for that matter. In case of impending apocalypse, I want her on my side.”
—Mercedes M. Yardley, author of
“A thrilling, clever, and quick paced fantasy!”
—Ellen Ann, NY Times Bestselling Author
“Mysterious powers and perpetual mayhem rip through this secret world where guns are bad, but something worse can lurk beneath the skin.”
—Nayad Monroe, Editor
Not Our Kind
To Dad for putting books in my hand when I was a kid, and for continuing to hand me great books today.
To Mom for cheering me on no matter what.
I can type away on a novel all I want, but I can’t do everything myself. Once the writing is done, there are many, many people that get involved in preparing the book for publication, and I’m thankful for each and every one.
Thanks to Mike Liddy for not being bitter about getting killed in my first book, and for giving me awesome notes on this one (I promise you’ll get to be the hero one of these days).
Huge thanks to Heidi Ruby Miller and Jennifer Barnes for taking my first novel at Dog Star Books. Thanks also to Jennifer for all the hard work and guidance on
. Thanks to the whole team at Dog Star and RDSP who got it ready for publication.
Thanks to my Nemesis, Mercedes Yardley, for the impetus to keep writing better and writing more. And writing
more better. YOU’RE the Doofenshmirtz
Thanks to the Naked Wordshop for giving me an incredible education in writing, publishing, editing, storytelling and general awesomeness. Ninjas make it all better.
And thanks to my family. None of these stories get told without your help. I love each of you to the moon and back. No… all the way to the Milky Way and back.
I’ve known Matt Betts for over a decade, and he continues to be one of the friendliest, most enthusiastic, and magnanimous writers in the business. I suspect his unending good humor is simply a by-product of a great family life…and writing what he loves, even if it never fits neatly into one genre. That passion is evident in a myriad of short stories and in
Odd Men Out
, his debut novel that I acquired for Dog Star Books as one of the flagship titles to launch the entire imprint back in 2013. Now his affection for storytelling bleeds through here in
This latest addition to the Betts-verse is a spectacular brew seasoned with urban fantasy, science fiction, and horror. No surprise, considering his literary inspirations range from Seanan McGuire and Patricia Briggs to Elmore Leonard. These expansive influences inform his work and bring Deena and Harper’s story alive through crackling dialog and quick pacing. “Leave the boring stuff out,” right?
His genre-meshing isn’t the only break with more traditional urban fantasies, however. Indeed, his character choices show he tries to stay away from the obvious archetypes-become-stereotypes whenever he can.
Matt also manipulates many urban fantasy tropes to come up with unique ideas as Deena tames the dark magic which lives inside her and manifests itself as deadly, magical art upon her skin. Throughout time, cultures have viewed the tattoo as mystical and reverent, and Matt expands upon this anthropological rite of passage in a macabre, but sensational way. It is a perfect example of how he plays to genre expectations one moment only to catch the reader off-guard when he makes the unexpected choice later on—like a de-aging protagonist who finds it difficult to be a tough-as-nails enforcer when she looks and feels like a fourteen-year-old.
His twists through this speculative labyrinth keep the characters moving and the plot morphing just like Deena’s “Dark Energy.” And, it seems he saved one of those twists and salvaged an extra villain for the next book. Remember when I said he loves what he writes? Well, so do I and I look forward to seeing dear Deena and her magical tattoos again in book two,
-Heidi Ruby Miller
Uniontown, PA, February 2015
Deena Riordan’s plane would be landing in Seattle within the hour, and she was ready to put this business to rest. She slouched down, pulled a magazine out of her bag and flipped through it. She didn’t feel like reading, but the pictures calmed her mind and gave her something to focus on.
Deena had watched Frank Harris discreetly through three flights and eight hours of layovers, waiting. The more time the man had to think he’d made a clean getaway, the greater the shock when she told him otherwise.
He hadn’t been terribly cautious or observant in his crazy zig-zag course across the country and he let a little more of his guard down as the trip went on. Harris seemed to think a fake name and doctored ID made him invisible. Even if it did, Deena was sure she could find him by his stench; he smelled like a combination of body odor and airport gift-shop cologne, which made her blink uncontrollably. She mourned for what the smell did to the expensive new suit that he’d been wearing for going on two days.
On previous flights, her tickets put her far enough from him that the smell wasn’t a problem, but now she found herself sitting next to him on the short hop from Milwaukee. Her eyes watered a little.
Deena ached with exhaustion, but could feel the familiar buzz building up inside. She bit her lip hard enough to make it bleed in an effort to chill out. It didn’t work and she struggled to keep a grin from appearing.
This should be fun.
“Can I get you anything?” asked the attendant with the fake tan and the tight smile. “Pillow, blanket?”
“How about a drink or three?” Frank said.
“We’ll come back around with beverage service soon.”
“Maybe a blanket?” Deena asked
“Sure thing.” The attendant drifted off down the aisle with a look of vague purpose. There weren’t many other passengers in their section, but the woman stopped at each of them.
“Cold?” Frank asked.
She looked up at him from her magazine. “Yeah.” Immediately, she looked back at the page and turned it.
“Always freezing on these flights.” He pulled his jacket closer about him. “Why do they need to keep it so cold?” He gave her a questioning look that lingered. Deena just shook her head and shrugged.
When the attendant leaned over with a thin blanket, Deena took it and wrapped it tightly about her legs. She knew Frank was still looking at her. She turned slightly and held her magazine up closer to her face, as if trying to get better light so she could read. She didn’t like his stare.
“I thought you were a bit older when I first sat down,” he said. “You seem kind of young to be flying all alone.” He sounded suspicious.
“I get that a lot.”
“Where are you headed?”
She didn’t want to have to play twenty questions with Frank. “Are you a cop? Air Marshall?” She gave a mocking look of shock. “Truant officer? That’s it. You’ve come to take me back to school. Oh, what shall I do? You’ve found me out.”
“Take it easy.”
“What?” Frank looked around to see if anyone else heard her, but no one seemed to notice.
“You heard me,” Deena said. She was enjoying winding him up.
“Jesus, kid.” Frank’s face got red. “Look. Maybe one of us should see if we can sit somewhere else? I don’t want to put up with this the whole flight.”
“Give me fifty bucks and I won’t tell the stewardess you put your hand on my thigh,” Deena said. She wanted him off balance when the real trouble began.
“What the hell? I did no such thing. What are you trying to pull? Think you can get a little money out of me? Go ahead, call her. Let’s get the stewardess over here and see who she believes. Maybe you can talk to airport security when we land? See how fast I have you busted. See how funny your shit is then.”
I guess now is as good a time to do this as any.
She smiled and held up a placating hand. “Easy there, Frank. We both know you’re not going to talk to anyone in law enforcement. Not with your recent history.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I never told you my name.”
She smiled and started rolling up her sleeve. “Oh, didn’t you? Hmmm. Are you sure? When you were making a pass at me, I swear you mentioned it.” She said it loud enough so that others could hear, if they cared.
“What? I never did any such thing.” Frank looked alarmed and scanned the cabin again for anyone who might give a shit.
“Easy. Easy. It’s true, you didn’t.” As the material of her shirt came up to her shoulder, a mass of ink revealed itself near her pale bicep.
“What is wrong with you? What’re you doing?”
She nodded toward the black stain.
“Great, the little psycho has a tattoo,” he said. “So what?”
Deena closed her eyes for just a moment and concentrated. She envisioned a radio glowing in a car dash. She could see it clearly in her mind, including the hand that came down and turned the knob to get the station she needed. When it was done, she opened her eyes. The mass on her arm went from an indistinguishable blob to another, more definable shape. Frank squinted, and then recognition came across his face. Deena knew he doubted what he saw; he had to wonder if his eyes were playing tricks on him. She never looked at what was happening on her arm; she didn’t need to. She knew there were blotches moving around slowly, separating and coming together; they were doing it at her command. They pooled and stretched, leaving skin exposed and then covering it up again. When it was all over, she exhaled and waited for his reaction. He blinked rapidly and she knew he was trying to place exactly what was on her arm.
He leaned in to get a closer look. “Is that supposed to be me?” The likeness was better than could be expected from black ink on pale white skin; it was nearly photo quality. Deena had been working hard to expand what she could do with this power inside her and she’d gotten pretty good at silly little parlor tricks.
“What’s going on here? How do you know me?” The tattooed image of Frank’s meaty face began to twist and contort again, the dark wavy hair melting into the wide nose, the chin sliding over into the ear. It swirled and formed itself into a fist. Knuckles defined themselves, hairs came into view. Once the image of the hand had settled and rested a moment, the middle finger extended itself.
“Hey, what the—”
“Shut up, you greasy fuck and pay attention.” Deena’s mouth curled into a smile. She called the power her Shadow Energy. Every time she used it, it seemed like a shadow fell across her arm or across the ground, sometimes even her victims. She’d found that no one else saw the phenomenon, just her. “I’m not here to answer your questions. Just sit there, with your mouth closed and listen. ’Kay?” Before Frank could respond, she gritted her teeth and retuned her radio image to conjure up the new picture she wanted.
The ink started to swirl again. It didn’t take long for the image of another face to appear on Deena’s arm. This time it was a thin man with small glasses; he was a bit older than Frank, maybe in his late fifties, early sixties. Deena watched Frank’s face. This was the part she loved: seeing the instant when the stupid actually realize they’re stupid.
Once the image was as clear as it was going to get, it began to move. Frank gasped and tried to back away from it.
“Hello there, Frank,” the tattoo said, mouth moving. “Good to see you again.”
Frank shook his head and looked around to see where the voice was coming from. Not finding any other source, he looked back at the image. It was a fully animated likeness of a man he knew very well. “Mr. Marsh?”
“Oh, good. I was afraid you’d perhaps forgotten my name, seeing as you left town so quickly. Worried maybe you’d forgotten it and therefore weren’t sure where to leave the giant pile of money you owe me.”
Deena laughed at the image of her boss, even though she was beginning to feel lightheaded. The initial playing-around had drained her more than she’d expected and faking a moving image of Marsh was adding to the strain. She also hadn’t fully recovered from her last job before her handler hustled her off to this one and it was taking its toll. This one was a rush deal, and she didn’t have time to regenerate and rest as much as she needed. To top it off, this radio thing was the toughest spell she’d ever tried. Still. If she hurried, it shouldn’t deplete her too much. A good nap would work wonders. Some crackers. A tall cup of something with a metric ton of caffeine in it wouldn’t hurt either. She was sure she had enough in reserve if she stopped playing, though. If not, she could be screwed.
“You see,” Mr. Marsh continued, “when you incorrectly guess the outcome of several games of chance, that’s called ‘losing.’” He paused to let the lesson set in. “And when there is money involved, the loser has to pay the winner. Make sense?”
A line of sweat ran down the side of Frank’s face. It was obvious he still wasn’t sure where he was supposed to direct his voice and he looked from the tattoo’s face up to Deena’s and back. “I did pay you. I signed over everything I had. In fact, it should have been worth ten percent more than I owed.” He looked earnest, if not panicked.
The image nodded. “True. Quite true. Except when we began to process these assets, we found they didn’t actually belong to you. Excellent forgeries.” Mr. Marsh face was stern. “Good work, but the real owners found you out already and the court froze those properties and assets days ago. We’re lucky someone didn’t catch us snooping and think we were the ones that stole them. That would have been terrible.” He sighed. “You didn’t want that to happen did you, Frank?”
Another trickle of perspiration joined the first on Frank’s head. “Oh, no. Of course not. This must be a mix-up. You’ll see, it’ll straighten itself out.”
The Mr. Marsh image was silent, as if thinking. “Perhaps. But in the meantime, I think it best for us to make other monetary arrangements. A wire transfer or cash would be preferable. No checks. No collateral. Gold would be nice if you have it on you.”
A look of defiance came across Frank’s face and a charge of excitement went up Deena’s spine.
Stupid people being stupider.
“You know, once we land, you’ll never be able to touch me,” Frank said. “You’re right, I dabble in identity theft and once I hit the ground, I’m gone.”
Deena laughed to herself. “
I dabble in identity theft.”
“I understand that possibility,” Mr. Marsh said. “Though the presence of this lovely young lady should indicate that I can find you anywhere.”
“With the state of security these days, I doubt your little messenger here smuggled a weapon onboard, and I don’t think there is one waiting for her in the airport. Speaking of which, this little girl doesn’t look too tough; I think I can handle a sixteen-year-old.” He looked at her, and his eyes narrowed. Deena smiled. “You looked sixteen a minute ago. Now…”
“Think I could pass for twelve? Maybe I could get a discount at one of the terminal restaurants?”
Mr. Marsh spoke up. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide what course of action is best for you, Frank.”
“If you kill me, you’ll never get your money,” Frank said.
The little tattoo head nodded in agreement. “Yes. That’s true, but the next man that thinks maybe he’ll put one over on me might take notice and decide it’s best to pay.”
Frank stared at the tattoo as it dissolved back to an indistinct black blob. Deena reached over toward Frank and he jumped.
“Easy there, fat boy.” She reached to the back of the seat in front of him and took down the airphone’s handset. “I’m just the messenger, pal. I’m not here to kill you. I do, however, suggest you start moving money around.”
He took the phone and stared at it.
As she pulled her sleeve down, she saw the attendant approach, pulling a cart.
“Sorry for the delay.” The attendant smiled and looked from Deena to Frank. “We’re going to have to rush drink service. What can I get you?”
“Scotch and soda.” Frank put the airphone down. “As much as you can give me.”
“Drinks are seven dollars each and I can only give you two at a time.”
The attendant turned and smiled. “Can I get you something, young lady? A cola or juice?”
Deena shook her head.
“I know!” The woman dug into her pocket and pulled something out. “Here.” She handed Deena a small plastic pin with the airline’s logo with shiny wings outstretched on either side of it. “I’ll let you clip it on, but be careful not to stick yourself.” The tiny grey feathers gleamed in the light of the sun streaming through the windows. The attendant took Frank’s money and left him his drinks, which sloshed around in the clear plastic cups as the plane hit turbulence momentarily.
Frank finished the first glass with one swig. “You going to stab me with that pin now?”
“Please. I’m not going to lay a hand on you. Besides…” she held up the wings. “The tip isn’t even that pointy. See?” She jabbed him in the arm with it.
Frank jumped, spilling ice into the aisle and dropping his cup. “Christ, kid.” He looked at his arm and noticed the pin hadn’t even made it through the fabric of his jacket.
Deena thought it was funny that he called her kid, like she was some kind of child on a school outing. She was feeling a little addled and could barely keep from giggling at the thought of a killer on a class trip. She needed rest.
Just a few more minutes and this will be over.
She reached over and grabbed the airphone once more. “Make the call, Frank. They won’t let you use the phone when we start our approach to land.” She shook the receiver in front of him. “Then it will be too late.”
Frank took a sip of his remaining drink. “Look, I don’t know what you think you’re going to do, but come on. Wise up, before you get hurt.”
“I don’t think I’m going to get any wiser at this point. Maybe you should take your own advice.