The second Tales From the Skies book, City of Devils, is coming August 28th and is available for pre-order for only 99 cents. In the meantime, here’s an exclusive sneak peek of the first chapter:
Rory Sullivan couldn’t help but smile whenever he saw his lover, even after almost a year of dating. Today Lacey wore a green flapper dress with silver embellishments dangling around her knees. It was surprisingly tame for her – she preferred to be more flashy – but their dates weren’t a time for her to draw attention. That was why Rory was dressed in a plain shirt and trousers. The only preparation he’d made for this date was combing his hair. It was the same outfit he’d be wearing to work later tonight, but he tried not to think about that just yet.
She saw him, smiled, and waved, the blonde curls in her wig bobbing as she jogged towards him. Several of the surrounding cinema goers saw her and stared in awe, for Lacey was popular throughout all of Over York. If they’d undressed her, like Rory had so many times over the last year, they’d mistakenly think her body made her a man all the time.
“Hey,” he said when she reached his side, taking her hand and kissing her. “You look lovely.”
“So do you. As always,” Lacey replied, sharing his smile. Rory’s own smiles had been more frequent over the past year. “I wanted to wear a suit today.”
Rory couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at those words. For the sake of appearances, Colin always had to attend their dates dressed as his female persona, Lacey, whether he felt like being her or not. Two men holding hands would draw too much suspicion, and neither of them could risk it, especially in their professions. It was better when they were on their own and he could be whoever he wanted. But they didn’t want to only see each other in their apartments or in the hidden portions of the sky city. They wanted to see each other in the daylight, too. Or in the street lighting of Over York’s indoor areas, as they were now.
“I got our tickets,” Rory said, holding up two stubs for Bonnie the Pirate Queen, glancing at the film poster bearing the likeness of an actress dressed in pirate regalia. “I knew you’d be late, and I didn’t want to be stuck with crummy seats like when we saw Wizard Boy.”
“Luckily for me, you’re the organised one,” Colin said, slipping an arm through his as they entered the Kekoa Theatre, a favourite spot for their dates.
The staff behind the concession booth nodded to them, even as they hustled around fetching popcorn and sodas for the Friday night crowd. The two of them were well-known there, since Colin was practically the owner.
“You want something?” Rory asked, nodding to the booth. They could get anything they wanted for free.
“I shouldn’t. I’ve got work later. I don’t want a sugar crash putting me to sleep.”
“In that case, I shouldn’t, either,” Rory said, heading instead to the curtain-covered doorway leading to the auditorium.
They smiled at the woman standing there, another familiar face. “Evening, Fahma,” Colin said as they handed over their tickets. “Any trouble today?”
“Only a few kids throwing popcorn off the balcony. Threatened to tell their big brothers on me, as usual,” the woman said as she checked their tickets from underneath her hijab, pulling the curtain towards her. “Enjoy the show,” she added, nodding at Rory.
He nodded back, glad she didn’t refer to him by his proper title of ‘Detective’. It was too risky to reveal inside of a mob establishment.
Inside the theatre screen, they squeezed through the aisle to find their seats, near the back so they could be as affectionate as they wanted.
“You think this film is about the real Pirate Queen?” Colin asked as they flipped the seats down. “Or the guy who took over from her?”
“No idea,” Rory replied. “Maybe it’s about how she lost the Undersea Civil War. I’m kind of behind on Undersea history.”
“Really? Queen Bonnie was Irish, like you,” Colin said, adoringly stroking Rory’s flaming red hair.
“She was Scottish.”
“Same thing, right?”
“You’re lucky my dad isn’t around to hear you say that,” Rory said, giving him a tender squeeze. He endured only a small tinge of sadness. He wasn’t as concerned now at casually mentioning his father. It didn’t matter to him anymore that Colin’s mob boss father had killed his own. They were long past that.
“The only history I remember from school is the Romans. Probably because of the togas. Then there’s everything Johnny tells me about Russia. He really thinks he’s some lost prince or something.”
“I doubt anyone could’ve survived the Romanov execution.”
“I find it best to let him have his delusion. At least it gives him a backstory. Oh, it’s starting.”
The whole theatre shushed as the auditorium darkened, Fahma shut the curtain and the outside door, and the screen lit up. Upbeat music opened the newsreel, which made half the audience groan.
“If I wanted to be depressed, I would’ve gone to see a play,” Colin uttered.
“It’s important to stay informed about current events,” Rory said, his arm around his lover as they leaned into each other.
“You know this is only what the mayor wants us to see.”
“I know,” Rory said with a sigh as the news reel started.
“1929 is already setting up to be the most prosperous year in Over York City’s history,” the announcer said over footage of the mayor cutting the ribbon for yet another shopping centre, her bored-looking husband and children lingering behind her.
Rory tensed at the sight. He felt Colin do the same next to him. Neither of them held any positive opinions on the woman, and with fair reason. She had almost sentenced Colin and his colleagues to death last year, and attacked an entire crowd at the same time.
The rest of the audience recalled the incident too, as they yelled ‘Boo!’, threw things at the screen, and demanded the film start.
“Thanks to Mayoress Smith’s tough stance, indecency and crime in the city are at an all-time low,” the narrator continued.
“This guy doesn’t know a damn thing,” Colin intoned.
“He’s reading off a script. It’s not his fault,” Rory replied.
“With her help, gang activity such as last year’s Central Park Massacre will be a thing of the past,” the narrator said over footage of Mayoress Smith standing on a stage with a sharp piece of metal held to her neck. The person holding the blade was Colin.
He shuffled down in his seat slightly, glancing around, even though nobody here would recognise him in drag unless they already knew him. Both he and Rory knew that wasn’t how the incident in Central Park had happened. Colin had held that broken piece of a metal bird’s wing to the mayor’s throat as it had been the only way to force her to call off the birds which were attacking people. They had been doing so under her orders. In fact, the entire event had started as a public execution for Colin and his speakeasy colleagues. It had only been thanks to Rory’s intervention and Colin’s quick thinking that they’d escaped death. But other people in the park hadn’t been as lucky, Rory remembered with a shudder.
“In entertainment news, Bernadette Silver returns to Over York for a press tour of her latest box office hit, Bonnie the Pirate Queen,” the narrator said, the screen showing footage of the actress they’d just seen on the film poster outside, signing autographs amidst a cheering crowd. “It’s hard to believe this superstar actress is one of our city’s own, from the humble district of Chelsea.”
“Speaking of actresses, how’s Kalaya doing?” Colin asked.
“In her last letter she said she’s doing fine. Still working at that coffee shop,” Rory replied, his throat closing a little.
His childhood friend Kalaya had left the city on the same day he and Colin had officially begun their relationship. She’d moved to the filmmaking capital of Lumière to achieve her dream of becoming an actress. In all her letters she sounded optimistic, but still didn’t give news of landing any roles.
“We should be seeing her on this screen. Not this rich girl who had her daddy buy her way into Lumière,” Colin grumbled, shuffling in his seat.
“These things take time. I’m sure we’ll see her up there soon,” Rory said, more to convince himself.
“I don’t know why she doesn’t just talk to my aunt. She knows people in the business and could get her in the door easily.”
“She wants to do this on her own.”
“Yeah, but in Lumière it’s all about who you know. That’s the only reason Bernadette Silver is famous,” Colin said as the last few bars of the Empire’s Anthem played and the newsreel ended. “Finally. I’ve been waiting all week to see this,” he said, shifting slightly off Rory to look closer.
But the film didn’t start straight away. Instead, a wall of text appeared on the screen.
The following motion picture has been approved by The Smith Code to be free of moral indecency, unlawful activities, incorrect standards of life, or dangerous lifestyles.
Long live the King.
“The Smith Code?” Colin asked, glancing at Rory with a frown. “This has to be the mayor’s doing.”
“Smith is a common name.”
“It has to be her. What is she up to now?” Colin said with a sigh, slumping in his seat as the film started.
Both of them had been excited to watch a film about Undersea Pirates, but this was highly different from what they’d been expecting. The famous Pirate Queen, Bonnie Read, switched to the Empire’s side, while the man who took over as Pirate King was gunned down after a lengthy speech about the evils of debauchery.
“I’m no expert, but wasn’t that Pirate King guy Middle Eastern or something?” Colin whispered to him.
“I think so,” Rory replied quietly. Even on a black and white screen he could make out the actor’s pale skin and bright hair.
“I’m pretty sure he was married to a man, too.”
The crowd shuffled, shouted obscenities, and loudly pointed out historical inaccuracies, and Rory couldn’t help but side with them.
When Bonnie finally said ‘I’ll never drink again’, the first audience member said “Fuck this!”, rose from his seat, and stormed out the theatre. Many followed, some throwing their snacks at the screen as they went.
“I hope that doesn’t leave any stains on the carpet.” Colin sighed as he slumped deeper into Rory’s side.
“Too bad this date night was a flop,” Rory said, taking Colin’s hand as they returned to the artificial lamplights, the next round of cinemagoers lined up. He wished he could warn them of the disappointment they were in for. No doubt a few first dates were going to go horribly.
“At least it will be good for business. With nobody going to the cinema, they’ll be scrambling to get into our place. And the mayor’s plans with this Smith Code thing won’t work. She’ll be-” Colin stopped himself, glimpsing at Rory then away. “Sorry…”
They’d made an agreement early on not to bring their jobs into their relationship, but sometimes they slipped up. Many times, Rory wanted to comfort Colin over his work troubles, or wanted to vent to him, but knew they couldn’t.
“It’s ok,” he said with a smile. It hadn’t been too bad, really. “I have to get to work, anyway.”
“Me too,” Colin said, squeezing Rory’s hand tighter. “I wish we could stay out later.”
“I know, but duty calls.”
“Fucking duty,” Colin said, even as he leant in and kissed Rory. “I’ll see you later?”
“Yeah, I have Tuesday night off. Want to meet up then?”
“The usual place?”
“It’s a date,” Rory said, giving his lover one final kiss before they left down different paths. Rory took the elevator to the higher Uptown ring and Colin to the ladder leading Downtown and to the lower portions of the city where Over York’s criminal underworld operated.
“I don’t understand why they always choose the filthiest places,” Commissioner Serafim griped, turning his nose up at the ramshackle building before them.
It was just as run-down as any other building in Rum Row, the city’s main docking platform on the outer ring, jutting out from the main bulk of the flying city. Dozens of non-descriptive buildings like this one lined the docks between the airships and pegasus carriages. Rory knew at least half of them contained contraband goods.
The only real appeal of this part of the city was it was the only place where you only had to crane your neck up and you could see all rings of the city at once; Downtown nestled in the inner portion, Midtown and Uptown above those and mostly out in the open, and the Central Park ring around those, full of greenery. Even after living in Over York his entire life, standing there and looking upon it reminded him how huge the city really was, and how small he was.
“Maybe they choose the worst ones so nobody will bother going in? To avoid suspicion?” Rory said next to him. He understood the gang’s tactics. This wasn’t even their sneakiest. They had tricks Serafim wouldn’t ever guess.
“I can see why. It’s working. Let’s get this over with quickly so we can get back home and have a drink to warm up,” Serafim said, indicating the heavily armed officers behind them to prepare.
“With me, men,” Rory ordered with his most authoritative voice. He nodded at Serafim, both their guns drawn, and at the same moment they kicked down the door. “Police! This is a raid!”
“Shit, how do they always know?” one of the smugglers said.
Rory didn’t reveal to anyone he knew the man’s name was Gino and he was the second-in-command of this group of criminals, known as the Flying Squad. He was midway through stacking a barrel. From the smell alone, it clearly contained alcohol. And alcohol was illegal throughout the entire British Empire. The Flying Squad used their airship, the Thunder Child, to transport it into the city.
“It’s because you always leave your cigarette butts lying around for them to find!” the group’s leader said. Rory knew her name was Rosalie, for she was Colin’s sister and a good friend of his. He also knew to avoid her during a scuffle if he wanted to keep all his bones intact.
His eyes drifted past her to the man by her side. He recognised the same lips he’d kissed only a few hours before. The same hands he’d held, now covered by thick work gloves instead of dainty lace. He was dressed in a smart suit now, but to Rory he was unmistakable as his lover, Colin Gilbert.
Colin darted to the side, even knowing Rory was faster.
The other officers moved to help, but a swift kick of Rosalie’s boots knocked over the stack of sealed barrels. They rolled towards the officers, sending them sprinting and screaming in all directions like panicked chickens.
The few who had escaped the rogue barrels brandished their guns against the lawbreaker’s weapons, resembling the standoff in the film Rory had just watched. It was difficult to say who was stronger – well trained police officers or gang members with nothing to lose. Sometimes Rory worried that someday they would destroy each other.
He pushed that thought from his mind as he dashed forward, grabbed Colin, and pinned him to the ground as gently as he could. Colin ogled him with a smile which could have been mistaken for pleasure.
“Don’t try anything,” Rory hissed.
He didn’t want him to play around again. He didn’t want to give away any hints that they were a couple. Rosalie and the rest of the Flying Squad knew, of course, but he couldn’t risk Serafim or anyone on the force finding out.
“Nice work, Rory,” Serafim said, pacing towards him.
“Don’t come any closer. They’re dangerous,” Rory tried to warn him.
In that brief moment, Colin pushed him off and scrambled free. Rory hadn’t even given him wriggle room to break free. He always managed it on his own. He admired his lover so much for that.
“Rotten ne’er do wells!” Serafim said.
“You think that’s going to offend us?” Rosalie countered.
Rory noticed one woman – the Thunder Child’s boatswain, Chalise Peel – ducked behind one of the labelled barrels, using it as a shield. It wasn’t going to be enough. Rory pointed his gun towards the barrel-shield. He could fire through it easily.
“Not that!” Serafim cried out.
“What?” Rory asked, gawking at him.
The commissioner’s eyes widened as he reached out a hand to stop him.
In that brief moment, Chalise dashed out from her cover. Rory ignored Serafim to rush forward and grab her by the wrist, wrestling her to the ground. It was much more difficult than it had been with Colin because she was stronger and more ferocious.
He just about caught the flash of pride in Colin’s eyes before it was replaced by rage. “Let’s get out of here,” he ordered his subordinates.
“But the goods-” Gino argued, glimpsing at the barrels scattered throughout the warehouse. A few were leaking bitter-smelling alcohol, puddling around the officer’s feet. Others were lying on top of the officers who struggled to free themselves.
“Forget the goods. I don’t want my nose broken,” Colin said, dragging him away. It was a smart decision. He may be reckless, but at least Colin knew when to keep his people safe.
“Follow them,” Serafim said, taking the handcuffed woman from Rory, even as she growled and spat at him. “I’ll take care of this one.”
“And the alcohol?” Rory asked. He didn’t want to risk the outlaws coming back for the barrels whilst they were busy chasing after them. It had happened once before, and Serafim had been furious.
“I’ll handle that, too. You go.”
Rory nodded before he tore out of the warehouse after his lover.
“That bastard nearly broke my nose,” Chalise mumbled.
“You knew what you were getting into when you chose this profession,” Serafim said, pulling her roughly to her feet.
“I didn’t choose it. My parents were in debt.”
“Stop complaining. Do you have it?”
“Left pocket,” the lawbreaker said, turning her body slightly so Serafim could easily reach in and take the envelope she had stashed there.
He checked it briefly, finding the white, glossy feathers within. He shivered. It was enough to buy a new automaton-drawn carriage or a deposit on a house Uptown.
“Only two nights in the cell for you this time, I think,” he said, leading the racketeer out.
“You only gave Gino one night last time,” Chalise hissed.
“I’m compensating for other crimes you’ve no doubt committed that I don’t know about,” Serafim said as he shoved her out the building towards the waiting police van. “Or do you want your bosses to find out about our transactions?”
The thug had the sense to stay silent. It was a shame, for he would have liked more to charge her with.
Rory couldn’t help but admire Colin’s form as he charged through the docks. Colin knew that, and teased him accordingly. The mobster also knew that Rory was faster, but didn’t have as much stamina. If he could only keep ahead of him, he could outrun the cop eventually. And he knew Rum Row far better than Rory.
He leapt over a ledge, landing in an airship’s raft, scrambling out before Rory could even realise what he’d done.
“Don’t be too reckless,” he called.
“You know I never would,” Colin said with a flirtatious tone as he ran, Rory scrambling over the railing after him.
Just when it seemed he would lose him, Colin abruptly stopped and turned around. Rory was barrelling with such speed he crashed into him, both of them nearly falling over the city’s edge into the sea far below if Colin hadn’t held him up.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Colin purred into his ear as he grabbed his wrists. Rory didn’t know whether to kick him in the shin or kiss him.
Colin raised his wrists and twisted them both around as if they were dancing. Rory broke free of his lover’s grasp and caught the perturbed look on his face. It was so adorable. In any other circumstances, Rory would have kissed him.
The horn of an incoming airship interrupted them, making them both clasp their hands over their ears. Was it another shipment of alcohol? No, looking up, Rory saw it was a cruise ship, returning from somewhere hot where the rich folk liked to escape whenever the city circled colder climates.
When Rory sighted him again, Colin already had a leg up on the railing. His heart leapt for a second and he almost ran forward to grab him.
“See you on Tuesday, dear,” Colin said before pulling a string hidden in his sleeve, releasing metal wings from his back, leaping, and floating away. He hadn’t been wearing those in the cinema. Rory would have felt them as he’d been cuddled close. Colin always found new ways of escaping which surprised Rory every time.
“See you then,” Rory said, waving with a sigh as he watched his beloved escape into the moonlit sky. He really did love that man. But he was also so irritating he could strangle him.