Ok, when I say Undersea is back, I mean I’m actually releasing a new series set in the same universe, only in a sky city. I’ve already received raving feedback from beta readers and I’m excited to share it with all of you. Here’s a preview of chapter one (note- you don’t need to have read the Tales From Undersea trilogy before this one, as it focuses on a new set of characters):
Chapter One – Under the City
Over York City, 1928
Rory Sullivan gripped the sleeve of his pin-striped suit as he eyed the building. It wasn’t much different than any other building in Over York’s Downtown ring; peeling butter-yellow paint, tall windows, and a slightly sloped black roof. When he read the words ‘Hel’s Alley Shool of Laguag’ (several letters from the sign were missing), he knew he was in the right place, but he still sweated through his suit. He hovered on the opposite pavement, considering turning and returning home. But he still crossed the street once the tram to Harlem passed. He opened the door, the handle warm to the touch.
The interior was underwhelming; nothing more than a small foyer with a few rickety chairs, yellowed posters advertising classes which had ended months ago, and a young man slumped over a desk. His piercing blue eyes bore into Rory as he took the final few steps into the building, the door closing on the outside world.
“I’m here for the… the Finnish course,” Rory stammered, unsure if he should look the man in the eye.
“The full course or the try-out?” the receptionist droned automatically with a hint of an accent Rory couldn’t quite place. He was attractive enough to be a prince and seemed he wished to be anywhere else.
“Just the try-out for today,” Rory said, nearly swallowing his own tongue.
“Four feathers.” He took the gleaming silver feathers Rory offered then leant over, turned the handle of the interior door next to him, and pushed it open. “Enjoy your class.”
“Thank you,” Rory said, not mentioning he could’ve easily opened the door himself.
The receptionist slammed the door shut behind him. Rory was left alone in a dimly lit hallway, the walls and floor humming and vibrating slightly from the machines deep within Over York’s lower portion, which kept the sky city aloft and moving. He descended the stairs, unable to see the bottom in the gloom. This might be the deepest into the city he’d ever been. Already he was considering turning around and asking for his feathers back. The man at the desk seemed so bored he was probably eager for an argument, just for something to do. But that would probably mean he wouldn’t get his feathers back and this would be a wasted trip. Each step felt colder and further away from safety.
He reached the end of the staircase and saw only a single hallway before him. This one had a woman a few years older than him at the end, standing before yet another door. She smiled at him as he neared her. He could see now how her hijab lined her face and the bulge of her long shirt-dress concealed the points of weapons.
“I’m sorry, I… I’m not sure I’m in the right place,” he fumbled for words.
“Oh, you’re in the right place,” the woman said, her smile widening as she pushed the door open without having to as much as flash her eyes at it.
Light and noise flooded Rory’s senses. He almost had to squint.
“Enjoy your stay,” the woman said as Rory stepped over the threshold.
He didn’t want to go back anymore. He already knew he wanted to stay here.
A neon sign flashed the business’s real name – The Sky’s Edge. People seemingly from every corner of the world mingled throughout the room, chatting, flirting, or sat at tables in small groups. Already Rory received smiles from smartly dressed men and women in short dresses unseen in the cold of the city streets. The central focus of the room was the long bar where several patrons crowded around downing alcohol.
Highly illegal alcohol.
Speakeasies such as this had been rife throughout Over York ever since prohibition had become law throughout the British Empire eight years ago. Rory had never had the nerve to step into one during all that time, until today. He’d never even had a sip of alcohol in all twenty six years of his life. Unless Holy Communion counted, but he hadn’t been able to set foot in a church for years, either.
Rory dismissed the bar, for alcohol wasn’t the reason he was there. His attention was drawn in the same direction as everyone else’s once the stage curtains opened and the band started a new song. Rory squeezed through the crowd to find an empty seat near the front of the stage. He’d heard rumours about this and had to see for himself.
The curtains opened fully and the crowd applauded the dancer girls in scantily clad costumes lining the back of the T-shaped stage. But they were only the background dressing. The real draw was the figure in front.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a voice both soothing and with a hint of fire. “How are we all this fine evening?”
He received a few cheers and encouragement to start. Rory stayed silent as he took the man in; His ebony black curls, shimmering gold dress ending at just the right spot to reveal his long legs, a pink feather boat, and high heels.
How does he walk on those? Rory pondered.
“I’m Lacey Licious,” the drag queen continued, “and you’re in for an incredible show this evening. Let’s start things off with one of my favourites, A Member of the Midnight Crew.” He gave a silent signal to the pianist and began the song.
“I hate a moral coward, one who lacks a manly spark. I just detest a man afraid to go home in the dark,” he began. His singing voice was even more soothing than his speaking voice, velvet and flame all in one. The dancer girls pranced around him, shaking feathers to hide then reveal him over and over to hoots from the crowd.
“The fun it doesn’t stop ’til twelve on happy old Broadway. So what’s the use of going home, until the break of day?” he launched into the second verse, shimmying down the central part of the stage. As he went, he gave special attention, winks, and even scraping the hands of the patrons clamouring to the front. Rory began to sweat further, hoping it wouldn’t be seen in the dim lighting. Would Lacey Licious catch his eye? That was why he’d seated himself at the front of the stage. But now a lump formed in his throat as the drag queen sauntered towards him in a wave feathers and sequins. He was even more dazzling up close. No doubt half the people in this room were already madly in love with him.
Lacey’s eyes finally fell on Rory and his breathing almost stopped. So did Lacey’s.
“Bring your wife and trouble, it will ne… never…” the singer’s voice faltered for a second as he took Rory in, almost as if he recognised him. But that was impossible.
“Make her a member of the midnight crew!” she continued as if the lapse had never happened.
As he began the next verse, he danced towards Rory, placing a soft, manicured hand over his. Their eyes were so close, Rory could see the flecks of gold in Lacey’s. He didn’t know how but they matched the exact shade of gold on his dress, and even his nail polish. Everything about this man was golden, especially his smile. The smile loitered on Rory as he sang the song’s final few notes.
“Bring your wife and trouble, it will never trouble you. Make her a member of the Midnight Crew.”
He drew back, bowing and saying “Thank you” over and over as the crowd cheered. “I’m going to take a short break and hand things over to our wonderful singer, Miss Freya Holmlund!”
A new wave of applause started as a blonde woman took Lacey’s place on the stage. The next song began and the dancers launched into their next routine around Freya as Lacey stepped expertly off the stage, not even tottering on his heels. Everybody within range scrambled to get closer as he headed towards the bar, eager to buy him a drink. Rory was up like a shot, shoving through the crowd. It was rude, but he had to get there first.
“Miss Licious?” he asked, touching the queen’s shoulder, soft and moisturised.
“Yes?” Lacey asked, turning and flipping his hair (which Rory now saw was a wig) elegantly. He could make even the simplest of movements glamorous.
“I mean… Mr… Lacey… I’m sorry, it’s my first time here…” He blushed, chastising himself for being so foolish in front of this man.
“First times are the best,” Lacey said with a chuckle, placing a hand on Rory’s chest, as if he intended to stop his heart. “And just Lacey is fine. No ‘Miss’ needed.”
“Lacey,” Rory repeated, as if speaking the name of a goddess. “You probably get asked this a lot, but can I buy you a drink?”
“I do get that a lot, but I do like to drink. What’s your poison?”
“Oh… uh, I don’t actually…” Rory paused, taking a moment to realise Lacey was referring to the bar.
“Been a while since you had a drink, hasn’t it?”
“Actually… I’ve never had alcohol. I had only turned eighteen when prohibition started,” Rory said, leaning in close so Lacey could hear him over the noise of the band, which had just started a louder jazz number.
“Oh, that must have been horrible. But still, that’s why places like this exist,” Lacey said, seating himself (no, herself, Rory remembered) at the bar as if she owned it and leaning towards the barman. “Two cloudy kisses, Kenneth.”
“Give me a minute, Lace. I’m swamped with orders here,” the barman grumbled, pouring four bottles of beer into a dirty bucket and shoving it towards a patron.
“I asked for four beers, not a cocktail,” the customer complained.
“You asked for four beers and that’s what I gave you. What more do you want?” Kenneth griped, turning away from the man and pouring some wine into a martini glass.
Lacey couldn’t hide her grimace. Rory chuckled. It was somehow even better than her stage act.
They finally received their drinks, missing the white mist which would have made them cloudy kisses. But that didn’t matter to Rory. This was his first ever real taste of alcohol. His heart raced as he stared at the blue liquid.
“Don’t worry, it won’t kill you,” Lacey said. “It tastes weird at first, but you get used to it.”
“Down the hole. Or however the saying goes,” Rory said, raising his glass to clink against hers. He brought the glass to his mouth at the same moment as she did to hers, letting the alcohol pass his lips. He gagged on the bitter taste.
“What did I tell you?” Lacey said with a smile. But not a mocking smile.
“That was… Oh God…” Rory coughed, wishing he had something to take the taste away. His heart raced further. That was his first taste of alcohol.
Now he was a criminal, just like everybody else in this speakeasy.
“Regardless, It’s always nice to have such a handsome gentleman buy me a drink,” Lacey said, running a manicured finger over the rim of her glass, avoiding the pre-existing lipstick stains.
“You’re the handsome one. I mean, beautiful,” Rory said, wishing he could hide in his own glass.
“No, I mean it. That red hair could be used as a warning light.”
“I got it from my father. He’s dead,” Rory said, then immediately wondered why. He didn’t like talking about his father at the best of times. The familiar wave of grief washed over him. Why had he just spilled that out to a complete stranger?
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lacey said, forgetting for a moment to speak in a falsetto. “My mum left when I was just a nipper. All I get from her now is a postcard at Christmas. Still, at least you inherited something good from your father. Ugh, these are terrible,” she said, placing her drink on the bar.
Rory did the same, gratefully. He’d been too afraid to spit out the drink in front of Lacey.
“I apologise on behalf of my bartender. He’s the worst I’ve ever had,” Lacey continued.
“You know I can hear you right, you big fairy?” Kenneth grumbled.
“I’m well aware, Kenneth,” Lacey said even louder.
Rory couldn’t help but laugh. “So, you own this place?”
“Technically it’s a family business, but I do manage it. As best as I can.”
“It is wonderful,” Rory said, looking around, watching the dancers and listening to the band. “You don’t find places like this anywhere else in Over York.”
“Oh, there are places like this all over. We’re just well hidden.”
“It’s no wonder the man at the desk was so grouchy, stuck up there when he could be down here.”
“That’s Johnny. We stick him up there to keep him out of trouble. And he doesn’t exactly have any talents worthy of the stage.”
“I do this mostly as a hobby. But it keeps the punters happy. Don’t tell anyone but I’m a far better performer than a business manager.”
“Your secrets are safe with me.”
“Lace, it’s time,” the pianist called to her, jabbing a thumb at the stage where Freya was just ending her song, bowing to the crowd and accepting the flowers they offered.
“Crap, I almost forgot,” Lacey said, then realised what she’d said and stood up straighter. “Sorry, honey, but it’s time for my next set. You’ll be here when I’m done?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Rory replied, his eyes fixed upon her. He couldn’t possibly be drunk from only a few sips of a terrible cocktail, yet he already felt euphoric.
“Is my wig straight?” Lacey leant forward and whispered.
“Yes, you’re fine,” Rory said lowly.
Lacey smiled and returned to the stage, the crowd cheering as if they’d been waiting a century for her return. She began a lively, energetic song about how they didn’t need the outside world. Rory was forgetting it more by the second. He felt he could always stay in this bar, watching Lacey sing and feeling the vibrations of the band playing. Everything which had been bothering him for years was washing away. How could he have never known this world existed right below his feet?
“And then the guy starts playing the bagpipes! I’ve never seen the place clear out so fast.”
“I wish I could have seen that.” Rory laughed along with her. “Wait, where did everyone go?” He looked around to see the speakeasy empty except for Kenneth sweeping a filthy rag over the bar, leaving behind more dirt than he was cleaning up.
“It must be close to morning. I didn’t even realise,” Lacey said. She didn’t appear even remotely tired. These late nights must have been normal to her.
“Is it morning? It’s hard to tell down here.”
“That’s on purpose. Keeps the punters drinking longer.”
“Smart move,” Rory said. He almost felt he could forget about the outside world completely. As long as he was down here, it could just be him and Lacey together.
“Well, now we’re alone,” Lacey began, ignoring Kenneth’s cough, “there’s nobody to interrupt us.”
“Interrupt us doing… what?” Rory asked, flushing all over even as he leant in closer.
“I think you know,” Lacey said, licking her lips and tucking a strand of fire-red hair behind Rory’s ear.
Their faces were inches apart. Lacey’s eyes were already closing. Rory only had to move slightly…
He snapped the cuff closed around her wrist.
“Colin Gilbert,” he said, his voice deep and authoritative.
Lacey’s eyes snapped open at the sound of her real name.
“You are hereby under arrest for the management of an illegal speakeasy and-”
Colin’s elbow dug into his face. His heel struck Rory’s stomach, sending him tumbling off the barstool. “I should’ve known,” he grumbled, his voice now missing the falsetto he’d been using all night. “Cops are sneaky bastards.”
Rory pulled himself up. The handcuffs were still hanging from Colin’s wrist. He needed to get the other half around his own. But he had to be careful. This was Don Gilbert’s son, after all. His father was in charge of the Hell’s Alley Gang, the most dangerous mobsters in Over York. He could see the resemblance closer now. The same sharp jawline and dark, twisted eyes. No makeup could hide that.
The crook was too fast, rolling over the other side of the bar. Kenneth flattened himself against it as he raced across. Rory rushed to the other side, determined to cut him off.
“Don’t bother helping or anything,” Colin hissed at his bartender as he vaulted over the other side of the bar.
Rory had barely made it around the other side as Colin wrenched open a back door and immediately tumbled over. It took both of them a second to realise he’d fallen over a stack of beer bottle crates against the door.
“Kenneth, you’re fired!” Colin roared, throwing one of the bottles at him.
“Good. I’m not putting up with any more of this shit,” Kenneth said, throwing his hands up and marching to the opposite door.
Colin ignored him as he scrambled up. It gave Rory enough time to reach him and grab him by his hair. It ripped off and he vaulted over the crates. Rory could’ve kicked himself. He’d been with the man all evening. How had he forgotten he wore a wig?
Rory clambered over the misplaced crates and barrels – more illegal drink than he’d ever seen in a single place – and up the staircase. He burst through after Colin, the early morning light hurting his eyes and the ice-cold air hitting him with a rush. The city was just waking up, bakers and milkmen going about their rounds or setting up for the day. The last few remaining speakeasy patrons mingled around, throwing up into the gutters or watching the chase in a drunken stupor.
“Go to hell, copper!” one of them slurred at Rory as they raced past.
Colin outran him easily, even in heels.
“How are you running in those?” Rory called to them, genuinely curious.
“You think you’re the first pig who’s ever chased me?” Colin shouted back, knocking over a fruit seller’s stand in an attempt to trip him.
“I don’t doubt that,” Rory said as he dodged the squashed mangoes and dirtied apples.
“Bloody gangs!” the fruit seller yelled after them, shaking a fist.
“Bloody coppers is more like it,” Colin called back, not slowing for even a moment.
He had to tire eventually, Rory knew. Especially if he was running in heels and a silk dress. They weren’t padded and would freeze him outside at this altitude. But Rory would tire, too. Already he was starting to sweat in his padded suit. He could feel his face reddening and his breaths coming shorter.
His blood ran hotter as he found his second wind, just as Colin slid down a ladder to a lower level of the outer city. A shot of released steam from the interior engines hid him. Rory brushed it away and waited for it to clear. The other man was gone. Rory glanced around as he climbed down, his sweaty hands threatening to let him fall and become pavement slurm.
He spotted his target, a flash of gold ducking into an alley. He followed, catching the man’s eyes again as he turned to check behind him. Casting even a flicker back was a mistake. He tripped over. Now Rory had him.
The tram back from Harlem trundled around the corner. Colin grabbed the rail and leaped aboard. He turned back with a grin, watching Rory race after him. The smile faded just as quickly as he leapt aboard.
“You didn’t have to bring innocent people into this,” Rory snarled.
“The tram’s basically empty at this time of day,” Colin quipped, jerking a thumb to the single off-duty security guard snoring in his seat. A second later he booked it along the tram, Rory close on his high heels. He reached the driver’s cabin, who barely had time to react as he leapt out the side door.
“I’m so sorry,” Rory said as he followed.
Each street lamp flickered off as Colin flew by. Finally he stopped, clutching a railing at the city’s edge. This was it. Rory had him now. There was nowhere left for him to run. There was nothing left before him but the sky and a long drop. Rory was feet away, his hand outstretched to grab him.
Colin drew back, flashing him a look which was almost concerning. Why would he feel concern for him? Then Rory knew. His momentum took him over the railing. He was falling. His eyes widened as he saw the ocean far below the floating city, stretched wide, and waiting for him. There was no safety netting. Why was there no netting? It was supposed to prevent accidents like this.
This couldn’t be it, could it? After all he’d done, all the work he’d put into tracking and stopping the Hell’s Alley Gang, he was going to die simply by falling over the city’s edge? He couldn’t. Not now. There was so much he still had to do. He still hadn’t fulfilled the promise he’d made on the day of his father’s funeral. And now he was rushing to meet him.
A soft hand closed around his wrist. He wasn’t falling. Panting, he looked back. Colin’s hand was holding his wrist firmly. They took in each other for a long moment, unable to tear their eyes away. Colin could so easily let him drop. He probably wanted him dead. Rory had witnessed himself how much the mob hated the police.
Instead, in a single swift motion, Colin pulled Rory back up, grabbing the front of his jacket and drawing him so close their faces were practically touching. In the light of the sunrise, the flecks of gold in his eyes were even brighter.
“Don’t think this means anything, filth,” he said, pushing Rory onto solid ground before darting away.
Rory couldn’t follow him. His vision swam, his breaths came hard and heavy, and bile pushed into his throat. He’d almost died. He’d almost fallen right off the edge.
And the Don’s son had saved his life.
Colin ducked behind the first billboard he reached, panting as he peeked out. He watched as Rory staggered to his feet and returned to the Inner City, dazed but alive.
He leant back, filling his lungs with the sharp outside air. He grinned. Another successful escape from the pigs. He raised a hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead, and something metallic smacked him in the face. He opened his eyes to see the handcuff still around his wrist. Still locked tight. And the key with the police officer.
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