Critical Point (Cas Russell #3) - S. L. Huang


I SLOUCHED in my chair, putting my feet up against the edge of the desk. My desk.

I had an office.

The place felt cavernous and stifling at the same time, and massively permanent, as if someone were pinioning me to this spot with a railroad spike.

I had rented the office because I’d lost a bet with a friend. A friend who was, for some unfathomable reason, far too invested in convincing me to stop doing business in dive bars. He was also campaigning for me to get a social security number, but that was over the line.

Even the office made me feel like I’d been brainwashed.

I hunched into myself, the heaviness pressing at me. Getting dragged into mildly more mainstream habits by my actual friends was one thing. But it had still only been months since I’d agreed to let the man who called himself Simon start crawling through my head every week. And I’d only agreed under duress: namely, the implosion of my own goddamn mind.

Telepathy was the closest word for what people like Simon did, and I’d been on the verge of refusing his help even if it had killed me. No matter how much he swore he would never take control of my thoughts, someone I didn’t trust should never have that much access.

Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t like trustworthy telepaths were thick on the ground. Better Simon than the ones who wanted me dead. The shadows of conspiracies and killers slithered through the back of my mind, strangling me. Conspiracies that involved my past. Killers who had forced me not to move against them.

And me, stuck in a city I hadn’t even managed to save from my own actions, and struggling just to tread water on my sanity. Losing ground while the psychics and ghosts recovered their power.

The room loomed, and I hunched farther into the chair. The walls weren’t claustrophobic, I told myself. The office was roughly twelve feet by ten, though I could see the long side was a little more than two inches shy of its stated length. The ceiling was four feet, nine and seven-eighths inches above where I was slouched in my chair. Or 1.47 meters. Imperial was stupid.

Before I could stop myself, I’d calculated the volume of the small room, minus the space taken up by desk, chairs, and me. I multiplied and estimated the number of oxygen molecules. Moles and moles and moles. Not the least danger of suffocation, I told myself. The math wouldn’t lie.

If only my bizarre computational ability could fix my brain.

I thought of the bottle of cheap vodka in the bottom drawer of the desk. No, I had a client meeting in a few minutes. The promise of work to distract me was the only reason I was here. However flimsy and trivial a job this was, I needed it. Treading water. I felt sick without even drinking the vodka.

Someone tapped on the door outside, the timid sound barely making it through the wood.

Early. Small favors. “Come in,” I called, swinging my feet down and trying my best to look professional. I probably should have worn a clean shirt.

The African American girl who pushed the door open was tall, but clearly young—probably not older than sixteen, and with the beanpole thinness and awkwardly long limbs that come from unexpected growth spurts. She was dressed smartly but not overly fashionably, wearing a jean jacket and various braided bracelets and necklaces that looked homemade, and had her hair plaited tightly back against her head.

And she wasn’t my client. The message requesting this meeting had been left by a babbling man with an Aussie accent.

She was probably lost or something. “Can I help you?” I asked with an effort, and was pleased with managing some tact. Kids bring out the best in me.

“Are you Cas Russell?” She said the words hesitantly, and one of her hands gripped the cuff of her jacket like she needed it to anchor her.

“Yeah, that’s me. Retrieval expert.” Also known as thief, mercenary, and soldier of fortune who could punch a guy in the face as hard as the relationship between impulse and momentum allowed, but I didn’t add that. Or the part about being a woman without a memory, someone else’s living weapon until my old self had gotten sliced out of my head. I wondered how she had gotten my name. “Do you want to sit down?”

She stepped forward as if she were about to walk the plank and perched herself on the