Beyond Control

Chapter One

The night was on fire. Lex could smell it, wood smoke and plastic burning in barrels and trash heaps. Gas, coal--anything that would take flame and light up the darkness.

A shatter of glass accompanied by victorious shouts echoed close by, maybe only three or four narrow streets over, and Lex lifted a hand instinctively to the pistol nestled under her jacket. It was the worst thing about these nights, the crime that swept through like a plague when the sectors went dark. People stole without thought or discrimination. Being disgusted by that might have made her a hypocrite, except that she never did either.

There was nothing elegant about looting.

The marketplace had been stripped of its wares, and the stalls stood like skeletons in the moonlight as she wound her way through the narrow street. Smart of the vendors to take their goods home with them, because boards and locks wouldn't keep out prying hands, not on a night like this.

Lex ducked into the alley behind Walt Misham's shop, sidestepped a pile of rotting trash, and knocked on the dented metal door.

Chains rattled on the other side before a rough voice challenged her. "Whoever it is, you should know I'm armed."

"I should hope so, Walt," she shot back. "Let me in."

The door creaked open an inch. "Lex? What the hell are you doing out on a night like this?"

"Business," she answered. He peered at her, one rheumy blue eye appearing out of the darkness, and she tilted her head to meet his gaze. "I finally got my hands on something you've been looking for."

"Let me see it."

Lex shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and squinted at him. "You know better. Mad's bringing it. He's on his way."

Walt's bark of laughter turned into a wracking cough as he pulled open the door far enough for Lex to slip inside. She had to ease carefully past a six-foot stack of crates in one corner, and a jagged wooden edge still snagged her hair.

She yanked it loose and followed Walt deeper into the back room of the shop. "You'll be glad to get out of here, I bet."

"Past time, to be sure." His breathing was raspy, and he led her toward a candlelit table before lowering himself heavily to his chair. "If these blackouts don't kill me first."

"The solar converter will help." She sat across from him and studied his face, which was heavily lined and shadowed in the dim light. "I tested it this afternoon, so it should be fully charged. You can try it out tonight."

His lips twitched. "If I meet your asking price, of course. You'd best give me a good deal, girl, if you want me around to buy your stolen goods."

"You're not my only customer," Lex drawled. "Still, it'd be a shame not to have you screeching at people in the market."

"Don't tease an old man, Lex." He grunted as he lifted a lockbox onto the table. "Name your price--unless you'd like to trade."

"Ten." A few grand less than she could get elsewhere, maybe, but Walt had cut her plenty of deals in the past based on her association with Dallas. Besides, it seemed wrong to play hardball over something like this. A pretty bauble, sure, but not a legitimate medical need.

Walt groused--he always groused--but fumbled with the lock on the box. "You want cash or clean city credits?"

"Half and half. And bust the credits up onto a couple of different sticks."

A hollow knock sounded on the front door as Walt pried open the box. "Drag your young body over there and let your friend in, if that's