Nocturnal Lives

Musings from the mind of Amanda S. Green – Mother, Writer, Possessed by Cats

Category: Snippets (Page 1 of 9)

Release Day is Almost Here!

Tomorrow is the official release date for the special edition of e-book version of Vengeance from Ashes. (The print version is already available.) I’m extremely proud of this book, in both its versions. This new version contains new material that has never before been available, approximately 20k words of it.

Here’s a quick snippet from early into the book:

***

Without a word, he deactivated the security field and stepped inside. The first indication Shaw gave that she was even aware of his presence was a startled glance in his direction when he didn’t reactivate the field. Then the mask was back in place and she went back to her sit-ups.

He waited until she finished her set before speaking.

“All right, Ash, you’ve put up a good front, just as I taught you. But you can drop it now. Believe me when I say the guards are looking at a video loop of you exercising and me standing outside the cell watching.” He waited, wondering how much time would pass before she responded.

Ashlyn Shaw slowly stood and then dropped onto the edge of her bunk. Her eyes were wary, her mouth tight. Santiago felt his own mouth harden as he saw the scar marring her left cheek and another bisecting her right eyebrow. She looked pale, as if she had not been in the sun for a very long time. Worse, she was thin, too thin, even if she had managed to maintain muscle tone through her exercise regimen. It was no wonder Tremayne had called him.

“What do you want, Major?” Shaw’s voice seemed harsher than he remembered, almost as if she’d been screaming for a long while and had strained it.

“I just had an interesting call from Miranda Tremayne.” Before she could say anything, he shook his head. “No, she didn’t tell me what you talked about and I didn’t ask. But she did ask me to look into what has been happening on Tarsus for the last two years. Since I was already doing so, I told her I thought it was time she and I shared information. But now I want – no, I need – to ask you some questions.”

“Sorry, Major. I’ll tell you exactly what I told her. Until I know my people are safely away from Tarsus and have received full pardons, I’m not talking. If you can’t accept that, then you might as well just send me back so I can finish out my sentence.”

Santiago drew a breath, held it for a long moment and then blew it out. Her response didn’t surprise him but it did frustrate him. There were too many possible reasons for her reluctance to talk and none of them were good. So he had to find a way break her silence, at least enough to give him a clue about where to start looking for answers.

“Kid, I know something’s going on. Anyone taking a look at you would. But I need to know what it is so I can put an end to it.” He’d always been honest with her and he wasn’t going to stop now. “I need you to listen to me, Ash. I’ve known you for a long time. I helped train you, make you into the Marine you are–”

Her lips peeled back in an almost feral snarl and her eyes flashed dangerously. For one moment, she looked as if she might say something. Before she could, Santiago held up a hand to prevent her from interrupting. He understood at least a little of what she must feel. The court-martial had stripped her of her rank and had ended her career. He doubted she’d allowed herself to even consider the possibility she might one day be able to rejoin her beloved Corps.

“You are a Marine now and forever, kid. Don’t forget that. Don’t you ever forget that. It’s in your blood. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

“I’ve reviewed your reports from before your court-martial. I’ve seen your correspondence with Admiral Tremayne, Rear Admiral Sorkowski and Major O’Brien. I’ve also seen the original copy of your orders. I know you did your best to keep your people from being caught in the backlash caused by those orders. I have also discovered evidence proving Sorkowski had those orders altered after the fact. Further, I can prove O’Brien knew and didn’t say anything. I know they did it to cover their own sorry asses. I know and can prove they were responsible for the loss of most of your unit as well as the civilian deaths that were the result of your orders as well as enemy reprisals. I can also prove you not only warned Sorkowski and O’Brien about what could happen but that you also officially objected to your orders as being unlawful – not to mention stupid – and how you forwarded copies of your objections to Admiral Tremayne and others. Finally, I can show how those messages were delayed or miscoded so they wouldn’t be admissible at your trial. In other words, Captain, I can prove you were set up.”

Shaw’s head snapped up, anger flashing in her eyes. Santiago nodded slightly. He understood. She’d sworn over and over again that the copy of the orders that had been introduced at her court-martial hadn’t been the orders she’d received. Now there was proof of that and more.

“Then why in hell haven’t my people been brought back here and cleared?” Her hands gripped the edge of her bunk so tightly her knuckles shone white.

“I just found the information last night, Ash, and I have to make sure I can prove its validity.” God, didn’t she know how badly he wanted to do exactly what she asked? He wanted to clear all of them. Their convictions were a black eye to the Corps and to the military as a whole. He’d like nothing better than to be able to correct the miscarriage of justice. “That’s why I need you to talk to me.”

He hoped thought she might actually relax enough to answer his questions. Instead, she shook her head, her expression closing again.

“Damn it, Ash, I’ve been looking into what happened since before your court-martial. But Sorkowski isn’t stupid. He covered their tracks well. It’s taken time to break through and find evidence corroborating your claims.” Frustrated, he waited, watching for any sign she believed him. What was it going to take to get through to her?

“Major, whether you want to admit it or not, you already have what you need. If you need more, check my personal files. If the admiral – sorry, senator – doesn’t have them, my parents will. But that’s all I will say, at least until my people are freed.”

“I’m doing my best, but it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d help me.” He took a step forward, stopping when she shook her head. “Ash, please.”

For a moment it looked like she might change her mind. Then she pushed off her bunk and moved as far away from him as she could. When she turned and looked at him, the anger reflected on her expression rocked him.

“You want to know what’s happening at Tarsus, Major?” Her words were clipped, her voice harsh. “Take a look at the prison records. Compare the stats for the current leadership there to earlier administrations. How many people are sentenced there and how many actually manage to survive their sentences? Of those who do, how many are still sane?

“If that’s not enough to answer your questions, then look at me. Take a good look, damn it!” She waved a hand at her scarred face. Before he could say anything, she grabbed the left sleeve of her jumpsuit and pulled. The sound of the shoulder seam ripping filled the cell. She dragged the material off her arm and tossed it onto the floor.

“Look at this, Major. Look at what they did and know it is only a small example of what they’ve done to all of us.”

Santiago’s stomach churned and bile rose in his throat. The skin of her bicep had been torn away from the underlying muscle and it looked as if it had been left to heal without proper medical treatment. Rough, discolored scar tissue hid the definition of the underlying muscle. Worse, he knew what had been on her arm where now there was only ugly scarring. His own right hand reached up to touch his left arm and the Devil Dog tattoo he proudly bore. Every member of the Devil Dogs, past and present, had one. Shaw had as well – at least until someone had so cruelly removed it.

“Do you want to see more?” she demanded, tears pooling in her eyes. All he could do was shake his head. “Now think about this. Every day I’m here is another day those bastards are figuring out new ways to torment my people. I was warned before I left Tarsus not to say anything. If you’ve lied to me, if there is someone listening in on what I’ve said, my people are dead. If that happens, I promise you’ll die a very slow and painful death.”

***

The original version of the book will be removed from sale on Amazon later today. For those of you who have already purchased it, don’t worry. It will remain in your library. I did check with Amazon about that and they assured me that would be the case.

And now, it’s time to get to work. Until later!

A Snippet, a Reminder and More

We’ll start with the reminder first. Vengeance from Ashes (special edition with exclusive content) is currently available for pre-order. Release date is Oct. 17th. This new edition expands on the original edition without changing the overall story arc. Work is progressing on the special edition of Duty from Ashes, as well as Honor from Ashes. They will be released in December and January.

Now for the “more”. Actually, it is a request. Indie authors get most of our PR by word-of-mouth. The best comes from reviews. So, if you’ve read my books — or books by any indie author — please consider leaving a review. It doesn’t have to be long or in-depth. Just a paragraph or two is enough. And they do help. Not only do potential readers look to see if a book has been reviewed and what other readers think, Amazon looks at how many reviews a book has when it comes to their own advertising metrics.

Finally, for the snippet. This is the second snippet from Light Magic. This novel is set in the Eerie Side of the Tracks universe and many of the characters already introduced are returning, as well as a few new characters showing up. This is the unedited version. That means things can and probably will change between now and publication. You can find the first snippet here.

***

I rode past the green and white sign proclaiming “Welcome to Beautiful Mossy Creek” and almost instantly wondered if I’d somehow managed to step back in time. Downtown could have been lifted straight out of the 1950’s – heck, even earlier for all I knew. Small shops with colorful awnings and sandwich board signs on the sidewalks lined Main Street. More than a few of the shop windows contained signs supporting the high school football team in its quest to become the regional champion. Parked along the street and in the surface lot across the street from the courthouse were everything from battered farm trucks to, I kid you not, a Lamborghini.

Next to the courthouse stood Peggy’s Café. I slowed, looking for a parking spot. I’d been on the road since well before dawn. My stomach growled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten. If that wasn’t reason enough to try the café, the fact I needed more coffee was. Besides, if the café was like those in other small towns I’d visited over the years, someone would know where I could find this Serena Duchamp. Who knows, they might even tell me something about the woman and why my mother thought it so important I make the trip to see her.

Or, more likely from the stares I’d gotten since pulling into town, they’d clam up and not say a word. Maybe riding in on my Harley SuperLow and dressed in black leathers hadn’t been the smartest thing I to do. Not that I cared. I was here only because my mother told me to come. It was, in a way, an attempt to fulfill her dying wish. I didn’t have to understand it or like it. I’d do it and, hopefully, be able to leave without delay.

I found a spot not far from the café and backed in. As I did, I glanced around. Early as it was, people hurried up and down the sidewalk, some to work and others in the direction of the café. Some even glanced my way and nodded in greeting. Others actually wished me a good morning. That was certainly more than I’d ever gotten in Maxon’s Mill, not that it meant anything.

Or did it?

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Vengeance from Ashes (expanded edition) – Snippet 2

(This is the second excerpt from the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes, release date scheduled for October 17th. The below excerpt is from the beta readers’ version and the published version may contain minor changes.)

***

Major Rico Santiago stared at the image on his screen. He couldn’t believe it. There was no way she could be on-planet, much less be just three floors below his office. But, as the ancient adage went, a picture was worth a thousand words. In this case, it was worth a hell of a lot much more and it raised just as many questions.

He leaned back and shook his head. Even after watching the scene in the cell for approximately five minutes, his mind refused to accept what his eyes saw. The prisoner, dressed in the standard issue black jumpsuit that the JAG euphemistically called “persons of interest”, was moving through an increasingly more difficult set of push-ups. First had been five standard push-ups. Then five knuckle push-ups followed by five fingertip push-ups. He’d continued to watch, even after catching the line of her jaw and the tilt of her head. That had been enough to confirm her identity. Even so, he still wondered if it wasn’t all a dream. No other explanation made sense.

His fingers moved over the virtual keyboard as he typed in a series of commands. He paged through the readouts, moving them into order, his eyes quickly scanning the results. Then he leaned back and blew out a breath. There was no doubt about it. Not only was she on-planet but someone had managed to get her there and into the security complex without him getting wind of it.

And that most definitely was not good.

As one of FleetCom’s top intelligence officers, it was his job to know everything before it happened. The fact this had almost slipped by him spoke volumes about who had issued the orders to bring her back to New Kilrain. He had no doubt those orders had come from well above his pay grade. No one else had the pull to not only send a ship for the woman but to get her released to local confinement. Who and why he didn’t know – but he would.

Frowning, he drummed his fingers against the synth-wood of his desktop. Could it be there were others besides himself looking into the circumstances surrounding Ashlyn Shaw’s court-martial and conviction? If so, what was their motivation and why had they brought her back? More important in some ways, who were they and why had they acted on their own instead of through his office?

He hated not having the answers. Any intelligence officer would. Unanswered questions could easily mean death, if not for the “spook” then for others, usually innocents.

Damn it, what the hell was going on?

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Light Magic — Snippet #1

(The opening of the novel, as well as some of the main character’s backstory, has changed. Myrtle, being the evil muse that she is, might demand further changes before publication. But here is the opening scene. This is from the rough draft. Hope you enjoy!)

***

If anything happens to me, go home to Mossy Creek. I mean it, Meggie. Go there and find Serena Duchamp. She’ll know what to do. Promise me, Meggie. Please. Do this for me and for you.

I first read those words two weeks ago when my mother’s attorney handed me a file of paperwork. Mr. Chandler’s expression was appropriately serious. There might have been a hint of compassion in his rheumy blue eyes but I hadn’t noticed. All I’d wanted was to get out of there. I’d had more than my share of people offering their hollow condolences and well-wishes over the last few days. They no more fooled me than they had my mother.

Damn them. If they cared so much, why hadn’t they been there for her when she’d needed them?

Why hadn’t I?

The latter was easier to answer than the former. I hadn’t been there because she didn’t tell me she was sick. I would have gone AWOL if necessary to get to her in time. Not that it would have been necessary. I hadn’t been active duty in almost seven years. I wasn’t even a member of the Reserves any longer. Much as I’d hated giving it up, it had been the Reserves or my job and I needed my job. It allowed me to not only keep a roof over my head but to help supplement Mom’s expenses as well. I should have realized something was wrong when she quit protesting the money I sent at the beginning of each month. I thought she’d quit because she knew I would keep sending it, whether she wanted me to or not. It was my way of repaying her for all the sacrifices she’d made for me when I was younger.

Damn it, I should have listened to the doubts and asked her straight out what was going on. Now it was too late. She was gone, leaving me with more questions than I had answers, not the least of which was why she wanted me to go “back” to some hole-in-the-wall town in Texas named Mossy Creek. The only problem was I didn’t remember ever being in Mossy Creek. So how could I go back to it?

If that wasn’t enough, who was this Serena Duchamp and what was she supposed to help me?

Instead of Mom telling me she was sick, I’d been blindsided by a call from her minister. I’d listened in disbelief as he told me Mom “was no longer with us.” Yep, that’s exactly how he put it and it took me several moments to realize what he meant. I’m sure he thought I must have been in denial when I asked why he was calling to tell me she’d changed churches. It never occurred to me that she might actually be dead. My mother had always been bigger than life, even if she stood just under five-feet tall. She had been a force of nature. She had to be to survive in Maxon’s Mill, Kansas. Despite having lived there since I was a toddler, Mom had been an outsider. Oh, those living there had no problems coming to her when they needed something, but they never accepted her – or me.

Now they could all rot in Hell as far as I was concerned. To prove it, once old man Chandler filed the probate papers, I packed up my mother’s things, sold what furniture I didn’t want and put everything else into storage in Wichita. I didn’t trust the locals enough to leave it there. Her house was on the market, the attorney taking care of the legalities. And I had no reason to ever return to the town that had never made us feel welcome.

Instead, I was on my way to a town I’d never heard of until opening Mom’s last letter to me, one she’d known wouldn’t be delivered until after her death. But what did it mean?

And why had she never mentioned Mossy Creek or this Serena Duchamp before if they were so important?

Snippet: Vengeance from Ashes (expanded edition)

Good morning, everyone. I thought I’d give you a taste of the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes this morning. This is the first chapter. Those of you who have read the original version will see that nothing had changed, not in the grand scheme of things. However, there has been an expansion of the chapter to the tune of approximately 500 words.  As with all snippets, this is the pre-publication file. There may be a few spelling or punctuation errors that will be caught in final edits. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter One

“Prisoner Four One Niner Baker One-A, prepare for transfer,” a disembodied voice said from the overhead speaker.

Lips pulled back, teeth bared in an animalistic sneer, the prisoner sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bunk. As she stood, she turned away from the cell door. Her hands automatically went behind her head, fingers lacing. Almost without thought, she sank to her knees, legs spread, ankles crossed. Then, realizing what she had done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.

Two years. Two very long years in Hell had taught her how to act. Her body responded automatically to the commands barked at her. Only when she allowed her mind to surface, to let herself fully experience what was going on around her, did she hesitate. But not this time. There was no reason to disobey, no threat yet to meet.

Those years may have taught her all too painfully how to act, but they hadn’t broken her. Not yet at any rate. Even so, they had come close. Two years cut off from those she cared for, from almost all human contact. Stripped of even the most basic of human rights and dignity, she knew she was little more than an animal to break and tame to those in charge. She knew it just as she knew she could do nothing about it.

Just as she knew she’d been betrayed by the government she’d served and had been ready to die for.

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A Snippet and a Share

Just a quick post this morning. On the writing front, I finally have the opening of Light Magic figured out and the book is progressing nicely (fingers crossed). I should see the updated cover for the expanded edition of Vengeance from Ashes later today. I’ll share as soon as it’s in. This is also my day blogging at Victory Girls. Today’s post is about the latest Rasmussen poll, what it shows about how American voters now view Hillary Clinton and my thoughts about her latest book being released on the 5th anniversary of the attack on our Benghazi compound.

Light Magic has taken some twists and turns since I started visualizing it. The book I thought it would be will actually be the next on in the series. This one will introduce a new main character as well as bringing back some of the favorites from the other titles in the series. Here’s a very brief — and rough draft version — snippet.

Mossy Creek, Texas.

Nothing but a small dot on the map. Or, as I like to think of it, a pimple on the butt of an otherwise great state. So why was I returning to a place I last saw a lifetime ago? Because I gave my word and, while I might be a screw up where most everything else is concerned, I try to keep promises I make to people I care about. But this might prove to be too much, especially for someone like me.

One thing’s for sure. Neither Mossy Creek nor I will be ever be the same.

Now I’m off to write some more. Until later!

 

Murphy, go home!

Life is nothing if not interesting. Of course, when it’s interesting in the proverbial sense, I tend to wish for dull and boring. But it is getting there. I simply need to learn to listen to not only my muse — she is an evil bitch but she does seem to know when I need to switch gears and write something new — and to my gut. In this particular case, it would have let me sleep an extra hour this morning and not have to reschedule a trip to the mechanic. Oh well, I’m up if not fully functioning.

Oh, and the plumber is due later today. Hopefully, since this is just the annual check, he’ll find nothing wrong. Please let him find nothing wrong. We’ve already had one plumbing emergency this month. I don’t need any more.

On the writing front, things are rocking and rolling. I’ve set Nocturnal Rebellion aside for the rest of the week. I’ll pick it up Monday or Tuesday of next week, convert it for my Kindle Oasis, and give it one last read. Then the final file will be uploaded for publication. Remember, it is available for pre-order now. Publication date is August 15th.

I will admit, right now I feel like Mac does in the book. Of course, while she wishes for a simple, straight-forward murder to investigate (one without shifters or the government involved), I just want a week without complications.

I am also about halfway through the updates on Vengeance from Ashes. The expanded version doesn’t change the story line but it does expand on some scenes and there will be a few new scenes/chapters as well. I still love the original novel but this is sort of my version of the “director’s cut” of the book. I’m hoping you guys love the additional material as well.

Next up in that series will probably be a short story followed quickly by the next full-length novel. At least that’s what Myrtle the Evil Muse says. Lately, however, I’ve learned there is someone more evil than Myrtle and who has even more control over my writing than she does — Murphy.

And I tell you, whoever invited that Irish trickster and master of chaos into the country, much less to my house, needs to be hunted down and hung. I am so over Murphy right now. So, before he decides it’s time to get up and complicate my life any further, I’m out of here. However, here’s a little tease from Nocturnal Rebellion:

The man crawled slowly toward the bar, dragging himself inch by painful inch. He didn’t know what happened or why. One moment, everything had been normal. Drinking, smoking, whoring. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then the door opened. He’d looked up, as had others, and frowned to see four people he didn’t recognize. Few dared come to the bar without an invitation. Those few who did usually turned around and left before taking more than a step or two inside. That’s all it took to realize The Hellhound was the sort of biker bar outsiders weren’t welcome at.

And there was no way the four were bikers. Dressed all in black, they walked further inside, seemingly oblivious to the looks in their direction. Then they’d stopped. One of them pointed right and then left. Two others broke off, moving quicker and more silently than they should have been able to. As they did, the tension in the room ratcheted up a notch.

That’s when the surreal turned into nightmare. The fourth person, a woman, stepped up to one of the two tops. Before the biker he knew only as Ranger could react, her hand fisted in the man’s long hair. She pulled his head back, baring his throat. A knife appeared in her other hand. Its blade slid along Ranger’s neck. Blood sprayed and she released him, stepping back and watching as he crumpled to the floor. The fallen biker gurgled once, blood flecking his lips, before dying.

Now for more coffee and to get back to work on an editing gig before sitting down to do some more writing. Later!

Nocturnal Rebellion Snippet

Nocturnal Rebellion is now available for pre-order. It’s been a tough road getting it there. Between real life interfering and the story taking a few left turns on me — all good for the story but they threw me because they weren’t what I expected.  (I know, silly me. I ought to know by now that Myrtle the Evil Muse loves to torment me.

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy writing Mackenzie Santos. From the very first book, Nocturnal Origins, (currently on sale for $0.99) she’s been a character that challenged me. She’s a dedicated cop with a complicated relationship with her family, especially her mother. The family secret, one she’s not let in on until it’s too late, is why that relationship has been so strained over the years. Mac’s always known there are monsters out there. As a homicide detective, she deals with them on a daily basis. What she didn’t know until the day she died — and came back — was that not all the monsters were human, or “normals”. Now she suddenly turns furry and that’s one secret she has to protect because the world simply isn’t ready to know shapeshifters exist outside of bad Hollywood movies and literature.

Except life is never easy. Over the course of the series, Mac’s learned shifter politics are more complicated — and deadly — than anything she’s ever had to deal with. Now shapeshifters face rebellion within their kind. Complicating matters even more, they have to find a way to make their existence known to the normal world without causing a panic and a modern day version of the witch hunts. That’s the background against which Nocturnal Rebellion opens.

***

The bullpen fell silent as Chief of Detectives, Luis Santiago, moved to the front of the room. The look on his face mirrored how they each felt. Disbelief, sorrow and anger – but mostly anger – burned in his dark eyes. They knew why he was there. Every cop, not to mention every cop’s family, faced this possibility each time they reported for duty. But that didn’t make it any easier, especially not when it hit this close to home.

Santiago looked around the squad room, making eye contact with each person there. It didn’t surprise him to find more than the day shift present. He had no doubt were he to check the other squads under his command, he would find the same thing. When a cop went down in the line of duty, no one worried about vacation or sick leave. Every cop, no matter what their rank or their assignment, would report in, ready to do all they could to find the perps responsible. That knowledge made him proud to be part of the long blue line. Not that it made this part of his job any easier. Fortunately, it was not something he had to do often, but even once was one time to many.

Standing there, seeing how each of those assigned to Homicide waited, hoping he had good news for them but knowing he did not, he drew a deep breath. He could have let someone else handle this. But that would have been the easy way out and he had never been one to push the uncomfortable parts of the job off on someone else. Besides, he owed it to them, and to their lieutenant, to make sure they understood that even though he no longer worked cases on the board, he was still one of them. He hurt with them and he thirsted for the same vengeance they did.

“I’m not going to tell you this gets easier. It doesn’t and each of you knows it. Let’s be honest. This squad has faced more than its fair share of challenges these last two years.” He paused and reached up to rub his eyes, burning with unshed tears, with thumb and forefinger. As he did, he felt every one of the last twenty-six hours he had been awake. Twenty-six hours of sitting vigil at the hospital and then talking with family members, of briefing Chief of Police Darnell Culver, and of doing all he could to head off any interference by the feds. Three of his own had gone down and he was damned if he was going to let the feds or any other agency take over the case. Then he cleared his throat and continued. “Each and every time, you have risen to the challenge and done what was necessary to carry out your duties as members of the DPD. I know I’m asking a lot now, but I need you to do so once again.

“The next few days are going to be difficult for the entire force, but especially for you. You not only lost one of your own yesterday but others of the cop family as well. I’ve spend a great deal of time with the families of our fallen brethren and they’ve asked me to let you know arrangements have been made. They thank each of you for all the time you have spent with them since the ambush. They have asked that, until the funeral, members of this squad continue to be with them. They know you were all family and they will feel better having someone who knew their loved one with them. Sergeant Collins, I’ll leave it to you to arrange schedules to accommodate this request.” He glanced at the squad’s acting commander and she nodded, her expression grim.

“In three days, we will lay the first of our fallen, to rest. I expect each of you to be there in dress uniform, representing not only this squad but the best of the force. Show the city that we bleed blue. Then show them that DPD does its job, no matter what. Find the bastards responsible for the ambush and bring them in to face justice.

“It would be easy to seek vengeance. I understand that feeling because I share it. No one, no matter who they are, is allowed to kill one of our own. But we will not lower ourselves, or the rest of DPD, down to those bastards’ level. Find them and bring them in. We will let the courts deal with them and, when the time comes, we will be sitting on the front row of the viewing chamber when they are brought in for their executions.” He glanced around as detectives, uniformed officers and clerical workers nodded grimly. “Do your lieutenant proud and find those bastards before they manage to kill anyone else.”

As one, everyone present turned to look at the darkened office with its closed door and silence so profound it felt almost alive filled the squad room. Then a tall blonde with short cropped hair, her expression stone-cold, pain reflected in her eyes, stepped forward. The others waited, watching as she approached Santiago.

“Sergeant Collins, the squad is yours,” the Chief of Detectives said. “Close this case before the feds try to take over. We will not step aside for anyone, not this time.”

The blonde nodded. As she did, she blinked back the tears swimming in her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded once and shook her hand. Then he turned and left the squad room. As the door closed behind him, Pat drew a deep breath. Whether she liked it or not, the squad was hers and she had a duty to do, a duty to the DPD, her partner and her squad.

“The Chief’s right,” she said softly. She did not try to hide her grief. Each person in the room shared it. “We have to work this like any other case, but let’s be honest. This isn’t just any other case and it never will be. We will have the press looking at everything we do, questioning each move and every word spoken. Worse, IAB is going to be nosing around.” She held up a hand before anyone could protest.

“Hear me on this. No one likes the idea of the rat squad poking around. This squad has first-hand knowledge how they can twist things to meet their own needs. So I want every i dotted and every t crossed in this investigation. Work this case like your life depends on it because it very well may. We have cop killers running loose on our streets and none of us are safe until we find them. So, when IAB comes calling, we will answer their questions. The quicker we do, the quicker we get them out of the squad and out of the investigation. Don’t play games with them. If they ask or allude to anything that sets off your warning bells, let me know.

“From now until this case is solved, it’s all hands on deck. All vacation time is canceled until further notice. If you call in sick, you’d damn well better have a doctor telling me you are on your death bed. Work your contacts and get your CI’s on the street and asking questions. Finding these bastards is our priority now. That said, make sure your other cases are worked as well. Don’t miss any court dates. But hear me,this is our priority. We will find the bastards behind the ambush and we will be the ones to bring them in.”

With that, she strode across the bullpen. Pausing before the door to the office that had been her partner’s she reached down to turn the knob. As she did, her hand shook. A sob rose in her throat. She choked it down. She had to maintain control until she was behind closed doors. The squad was hers, at least until Chief Culver found someone to replace Lt. Mackenzie Santos, not that anyone could ever fill her shoes as a cop or as a partner and friend.

Damn it, Mac. I wish you were here.

 

It’s Monday. Nose, meet grindstone

First off, the pre-order for Nocturnal Rebellion should go live late tonight or early in the morning (fingers crossed). It is later than I wanted or anticipated but, as is so often the case, real life interfered. I learned long ago when that happens, it is best to wait it out instead of trying to push through. Mistakes happen when I’m too distracted by real life and I don’t want to hurt a book by not giving it my all.

Unfortunately, this means I am behind on several other things as well. Today and tomorrow, hopefully, I can get caught up on some of them. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, the updates for Vengeance from Ashes for the expanded edition are rolling along. (The link is to the original edition.) It is odd going back to a book I wrote several years ago and knowing this is my chance to make it into the book I initially visualized. I’m not knocking the original. I love it and I had a blast writing it. But I only had a vague idea where the series was going at that point. Now that idea has solidified — as it should since I’m three books and several short stories into it — and things I hesitated to put into the original can now be woven back in. I can’t wait for you to see the final result.

Now I need to figure out what I’m going to work on next. Yes, I know. I am supposed to have a schedule and I do, of a sorts. But the muse is being unnaturally quiet right now and that is kind of scary. It usually means she is about to hit me with something I most definitely hadn’t planned on. So, in order to head her off at the proverbial pass, I’m looking at what I have planned, what I have already roughed out and will decide in the next day or two what it will be.

Of course, Myrtle the Evil Muse says she has the right to object — of course, she does. She’s evil. Sigh.

Anyway, here is an excerpt from the expanded version of Vengeance from Ashes. It is still in rough (as in I haven’t done spell check, etc) format. For those of you who have read the original, you will see a few alterations from the original, nothing that changes the story in any way.

***

“Prisoner Four One Niner Baker One-A, prepare for transfer,” a disembodied voice said from the overhead speaker.

Lips pulled back, teeth bared in an animalistic sneer, the prisoner sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bunk. As she stood, she turned away from the cell door. Her hands automatically went behind her head, fingers lacing. Almost without thought, she sank to her knees, legs spread, ankles crossed. Then, realizing what she had done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.

Two years. Two very long years in Hell had taught her how to act. Her body responded automatically to the commands barked at her. Only when she allowed her mind to surface, to let herself fully experience what was going on around her, did she hesitate. But not this time. There was no reason to disobey, no threat yet to meet.

Those years may have taught her all too painfully how to act, but they hadn’t broken her. Not yet at any rate. Even so, they had come close. Two years cut off from those she cared for, from almost all human contact. Stripped of even the most basic of human rights and dignity, she knew she was little more than an animal to break and tame to those in charge. She knew it just as she knew she could do nothing about it.

Just as she knew she’d been betrayed by the government she’d served and had been ready to die for.

What she didn’t know was why. Why had she been betrayed? Worse, why had those who’d served loyally at her side been targeted?

The soft swoosh of the heavily armored door sliding open broke the silence of the small cell a few moments later. With her back to it, she couldn’t see who entered, not that she wanted to. One of the first lessons she had learned after arriving at the Tarsus military penal colony was not to look. That had been a very painful lesson, one that landed her in the prison’s infirmary for several days. It was also a mistake she’d never repeated.

That had been one of many lessons she’d been forced to endure since arriving there. With the commandant’s tacit – hell, as far as she knew it was his overt – approval, the guards could be as sadistic as they wanted. Correction for even the most insignificant infraction might take the form of a rifle butt to the ribs or kidney, and that was if she was lucky. If not, the beating that followed would leave her hurting so badly she could barely move. Even then, the guards wouldn’t send her to the infirmary. After all, it was so much more fun to watch her suffer, reminding her that she alone was responsible for what had happened.

Fortunately, she’d heard the horror stories before arriving at the penal colony. Even though she hadn’t been ready to believe them, they had helped prepare her for what she’d face. Even so, it had been a shock the first time one of the guards beat her down for asking what would have been a simple question on the outside. That had been enough to convince her that the best course of action was to remain silent unless it was imperative that she speak. That wasn’t to say there hadn’t been times when circumstances forced her to break that rule and she bore the scars to prove it. All she wanted now was to live through the remainder of her prison term. Survival was the first goal. Vengeance would come later. Not for her, but for those brave and loyal souls who had followed her despite her protests and who had paid the ultimate price as a result.

She swallowed hard, forcing her mind away from past horrors, as boots clomped across the small cell in her direction. A rough hand grabbed her right arm, twisting it painfully behind her back. She flinched as a security cuff was locked tightly around that wrist. Her breath hissed out as the process was repeated with her left arm. Moments later, similar restraints were fastened about her ankles. Then a gloved hand closed around her left arm and jerked her to her feet.

Guard Captain Gavin Haritos spun her to face him, grinning sadistically. His fist caught her with a vicious backhand. With a sharp cry of pain, she staggered back. The short chain connecting her ankles tripped her. Only the man’s quick grab at the front of her jumpsuit kept her from falling. He pulled her forward and, with the ease of much practice, draped a heavy hood over her head before she could react.

Haritos’ cruel grip on her arm kept her on her feet as he hauled her out of her cell and down the long corridor. Blood pounded in her ears, almost deafening her. Fear and hatred raced through her, sparking every fiber of her survival instincts. She knew this was going to be bad, very bad. It always was when the guard captain came for her. But she could do nothing to stop him, at least not yet.

“This is your lucky day, bitch.” Haritos shoved her into one of the three lifts at the end of the corridor and she heard him slam his fist against the control panel. A moment later, the lift gave a slight lurch and she felt the car start downward. “You’re being transferred, Shaw. But don’t get your hopes up that it means the rules no longer apply because they do. If you’re smart, you’ll remember those poor bastards sentenced here with you. Everything you say and do from now on impacts them.”

A soft moan escaped her lips before she could stop it and fear raced like an open current through her. No matter how many times she’d been in this position before, she couldn’t help it. A transfer could mean almost anything, none of it good. Not as long as the survivors of her unit were still on Tarsus.

Bile rose in her throat as the lift came to a sudden halt. But it wasn’t that which caused her breath to catch. The guard captain’s low chuckle sent a shiver of fear down her spine. Once before he had stopped the lift short of their destination. He’d told her then it was time to deliver a warning.

Warning!

He had beaten her so badly that day she had prayed for death. Was he about to repeat that performance? If so, why? She had done nothing to break the rules. She hadn’t been out of her cell in weeks, her only contact had been with the guards who checked on her three times a day.

Without warning, Haritos’ fist connected with her stomach. Pain doubled her over. Tears filled her eyes beneath the hood and she fought the urge to vomit. The neck of her jumpsuit tightened uncomfortably at her throat as the guard captain’s hand fisted in the material. Using it to hold her in place, he continued his assault. Her head snapped back and she tasted blood. She lost track of the number of times he struck or where each blow landed. All she could do was stand there, held in place by the hand at her collar, and pray the beating ended soon.

Suddenly, Haritos released her and she fell to the floor of the lift. Before she could struggle to her knees, his heavy boot caught her in the ribs. Once, twice, he struck, each time forcing her to cry out in pain. Her ribs ached and it hurt to breathe. Her face, especially her nose, throbbed with each beat of her pulse. From the stuffiness of her nose, she knew Haritos had broken it – again. Her right eye felt puffy, swollen. It had been a long time since she had been beaten this badly and why?

Why now?

“Listen carefully, bitch,” Haritos growled as he once more hauled her to her feet. “This is only a temporary respite for you. Sooner or later, you will be sent back. Remember your people are still here and we can do whatever we want with them. So keep your mouth shut. We’ll know if you do or say anything about your time here.”

To her surprise, Haritos said nothing more. That was unusual. Whenever he’d come for her before, he’d taken perverse pleasure in detailing what horrors awaited her. The fact he’d gone silent worried her. And what did he mean by this being a respite and she would be back?

Dear God, what was happening?

Haritos remained silent as he forced her off the lift. Doors opened and then closed behind them. She didn’t know how to react when, for the first time in months, she felt the sun beating down on her. They were outside. But why? Where were they going?

It didn’t take long to find out. Haritos led her up a ramp. The hood obscured her sight, but she could hear the muffled sounds of a crew working to prepare a shuttle, maybe even a courier ship, for launch. Haritos pulled her to a halt and told her to stand still. Then he released his hold on her arm and she sensed that he had moved a short distance away. There were soft voices. Straining to hear, she only caught a few words. Transfer. . . prisoner. . . dangerous. . . tried to escape. . . take no chances. . . don’t listen to anything she says. . . .

Dear God, was she actually being transferred out of the Tarsus penal colony?

Hope flared only to die as quickly as it had been born. She remembered Haritos’ warning. Her people, those few who had survived the ambush only to be betrayed by those who should have stood for them, were being left behind. That meant she had to do as the guard captain said. Otherwise, her people were as good as dead.

No!

Before she could do anything – not that there was much she could do, bound and hooded as she was – Haritos was once more at her side. She stumbled forward as he grabbed her and led her further up the ramp. He hissed one last warning not to do anything foolish. Then he turned her over to someone else. Flanked on both sides by unseen guards, she was led into another lift. A few minutes later, her restraints were removed and then her hood and she found herself standing in the center of a small cell. She didn’t need to hear the announcement for all hands to prepare for departure to know she was on a ship. But a ship to where?

And what about those who’d been sent to the penal colony with her? Why weren’t they being transferred with her?

Now, almost a week later, she stood in yet another cell, this one planetside, and worry warred with anger. She’d overheard enough from the guards on the transport to know her fears were true – the others had been left behind on the penal colony.

That’s when an anger so great it overrode the fear of the unknown had flowed through her. For the first time in two years, she’d been separated from the survivors of her unit, those poor, brave souls who had fallowed her into hell and back only to find themselves brought up on charges right along with her. It didn’t matter that the commandant of the penal colony hadn’t let her see her people. She’d managed to get word of them from time to time and that had been enough to let her know they were all right – or at least as all right as anyone could be after being sentenced to the Tarsus penal colony.

It still amazed her how the prison grapevine managed to keep tabs on everyone and pass along information. It might be inconsistent, but it was there and it had been all that kept her sane. She’d never thought herself a social animal, but two years of rarely seeing anyone but her jailers had been almost more than she could handle. Thank God for the grapevine and the bits of information it brought her.

During transport from the penal colony, no one had told her anything. Held in the transport ship’s brig, she had no opportunity to learn anything about their destination or why she had been taken from Tarsus. A guard brought her food and drink at regular intervals but he never said a word that wasn’t necessary. He certainly hadn’t volunteered any information. Still, she’d managed to work out that she was alone in the brig by the way his steps never stopped before he appeared at her cell door and because no one had responded when she’d tapped out messages using the code learned on Tarsus.

She had just noticed the slightest change in the rhythm of the ship’s engines, indicating it had assumed orbit somewhere, when another guard arrived with a change of clothes for her. She’d looked at the plain black jumpsuit with suspicious eyes. Nothing about it marked her as a prisoner. It could have been something worn by almost any worker on the docks or in a warehouse. That should have reassured her but for one thing. There was nothing about the guard’s manner to indicate she was about to be freed. In that moment, she’d come the closest to breaking her rule of “never ask a question you don’t know the answer to” than she had been since her first few days on Tarsus.

Half an hour later, she’d been seated on a shuttle. The guards had secured her hands behind her back before locking her safety harness in place but they hadn’t hooded her. They obviously weren’t worried about her recognizing where she was. Of course, the only way she could do that was if she could actually see something of the lay of the land. So she’d craned her neck in an effort to see into the shuttle’s cockpit. One corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly at the sight of the high rises ahead of them. Her heart beat a bit faster and her breath caught as she recognized the skyline of Fuercon’s capital city. New Kilrain. She was home. But why?

Now, after being processed into the same military brig where she’d been held during her trial, she still didn’t know why she’d been brought back home. It couldn’t be good. They may have taken away her prison issued jumpsuit, but she’d still been brought there shackled and had been processed into the brig as quickly as humanly possible. It had almost been as if FleetCom was afraid word of her return might leak out. But why?

Damn it, what was going on?

Of course, there’d been no explanation. Nor had she asked for one. It would be a long time before she forgot that lesson. Too much talking, too much curiosity was a bad thing that almost always resulted in painful punishment. She might not be on Tarsus any longer but that didn’t mean things would be any different here. After all, who policed the jailers? No one, at least not on Tarsus and she wasn’t willing to risk it now that she was home. That was especially true after the way she and the others had been betrayed by those they’d been loyal to

Freed of her restraints and alone, she looked around. One cell was pretty much like any other. Across from the door was a narrow bunk. Hygiene facilities were at the foot of the bunk. It was almost exactly like her cell back on Tarsus. There was nothing she could use to escape and nothing she could use to kill herself, not that she planned on taking that route out. At least not anymore. No, there were others who needed to die before she did.

“Prisoner is secured,” the guard who had brought her to the cell radioed as he stepped back.

Ashlyn Shaw, former Marine captain, didn’t move. Instead, she stood in the center of the small cell, her brown eyes focused on some point beyond the guard, her hands behind her back even though the restraints had been removed. As the security field across the cell door activated, she gave no sign of realizing it even though the faint, high pitched hum was something she’d learned to listen for over the last two years. That sound, like a distant bunch of angry bees, meant she’d fry her nervous system long before pushing through the field. Freedom might look close, but she’d be dead – or worse – before she actually found it.

At least the guard didn’t close the physical door. For the first time in what had to be months, she could look beyond the confines of her cell. It might not be the same cell she’d occupied since her conviction. Hell, this wasn’t even the same planet. That didn’t matter. All that did was the fact that the open cell door gave her at least some semblance of not being completely cut off from all other life on the planet.

As the guard disappeared from sight, Ashlyn remained where she was, motionless except for the rise and fall of her chest and the slow blinking of her eyes. She listened, counting his footsteps as they slowly faded away. When she’d been escorted to the cell, she had focused on what was directly in front of her. She had not wanted to give the guards on duty the satisfaction of seeing her look around in curiosity. Now, with only silence filling the air, she allowed herself to relax a just a little.

Once convinced the guard was gone, she moved to the door, careful not to get too close to the security field. Looking to her left, she couldn’t tell how far away he might be. All she knew for certain was that her cell was located at the end of the corridor, the door situated so she couldn’t see much beyond the far edge of the cell. So there might be any number of other prisoners close by but, for all intents and purposes, she was alone – again.

That was fine. Alone meant fewer chances for anyone to figure out what she planned. But it also meant she had to keep up appearances. She couldn’t let them guess what she had in mind. So she lay on her bunk, her back to the doorway. She wouldn’t let those she knew were watching over security monitors see her curiosity or her concern.

This was as close to home as she was likely to get in a very long while. If the opportunity to escape presented itself, she’d take it and be damned with waiting on the military courts to finally get it right. Once free, she’d deal with everyone who had betrayed her and then she’d find a way to free those who had been sent to the penal colony with her. After that, she really didn’t give a damn about what happened.

***

I hope you enjoyed the snippet. Until later!

 

Another Title Discount

Good morning, all. Let’s get started with another sale announcement. I’ve lowered the price of Hunted to $0.99.

When Meg Finley’s parents died, the authorities classified it as a double suicide. Alone, hurting and suddenly the object of the clan’s alpha’s desire, her life was a nightmare. He didn’t care that she was grieving any more than he cared that she was only fifteen. So she’d run and she’d been running ever since. But now, years later, her luck’s run out. The alpha’s trackers have found her and they’re under orders to bring her back, no matter what. Without warning, Meg finds herself in a game of cat and mouse with the trackers in a downtown Dallas parking garage. She’s learned a lot over the years but, without help, it might not be enough to escape a fate she knows will be worse than death. What she didn’t expect was that help would come from the local clan leader. But would he turn out to be her savior or something else, something much more dangerous?

Here’s a snippet from Hunted:

THEY WERE HERE.

I knew it the moment I stepped outside. Despite all the precautions I’d taken, despite all the times I’d moved and left no forwarding address, they’d found me – again. It didn’t matter that I’d done everything possible to live off the grid. All it took was one small mistake and there they were.

Damn it. I really liked it here and now I had to move and move fast.

Assuming I lived long enough to do so.

Just moments before, I’d been thinking about the upcoming weekend. A couple of days off sounded good. I didn’t even mind the fact Dana had set me up on a blind date with her cousin. Not that I expected anything to come of it. Nothing ever did. Either my demons interfered or Michael’s trackers did – like now. Damn it, what’s a girl got to do to have a nice dinner and maybe some good sex?

Without breaking stride, I melted into the early afternoon foot traffic. A quick glance right and then left didn’t reveal my pursuers. But I knew there were there. I could feel their eyes on me. The back of my neck prickled. There was that itch between my shoulder blades. Instinct had kept me alive this long. Would it be enough now?

God, I was an idiot. I’d actually started believing Michael had forgotten about me or had decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to keep looking for my latest hiding spot. I should have known better. I’d embarrassed him when I refused his advances in front of the others. But that hadn’t been the end of it. He hadn’t let it go.

Bile rose in my throat at the memory of that long ago night. I’d learned what it meant to fight for your life then. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel his hands on me. I could smell the scent of him as he’d pulled me close. I’d fought back. That’s the one thing he hadn’t expected. It was over almost as quickly as it had started. That night I’d fled the only home I’d ever known, leaving him bleeding on the floor.

I’d run. I might not have looked back but I had kept a look out. I’d known Michael wouldn’t just let me go. But I’d never expected him to keep up the chase this long. God, would I never get my life back?

I’d arrived in Dallas almost a year ago, hoping to lose myself here. After fifteen years on the run, I was tired. I wanted nothing more than to settle down, find a mate and have a life. The thought of moving again, of having to establish yet another identity was almost more than I could bear.

Had I gotten careless because I was tired of running?

It didn’t matter what happened. The damage was done. If I wasn’t careful, I’d find myself once more facing Michael. This time there’d be no escape. He would view what happened so long ago as a direct insult to him, the clan’s Alpha. Michael had to bring me back. Otherwise the others would think he wasn’t strong enough to control a mere female. If he wasn’t strong enough to control a female, they’d question his ability to control the clan.

It didn’t matter that I had never been a “mere” anything where the clan was concerned.

None of that mattered. Only one thing did. I had to get away. The next person to bump into me could be the one I was running from. I’d never been one to act like a lamb awaiting the slaughter and this was no time to start. I might not be the Marine my father had been but he’d taught me well. He and my mother, God rest their souls, had taught me how to act under fire, real or metaphorical.

It was time to remember exactly who and what I was. I was the daughter of the former clan Alpha and his mate, who was an alpha in her own right. Let the fools Michael Jennings sent for me learn just what that meant.

If they wanted to play, I was more than happy to oblige.

I paused before the main display window for Neiman Marcus and glanced around, careful not to be too obvious about it. Yes, someone was definitely there. Again. As much as I’d like to believe whoever was watching me was more interested in my good looks – hah! – or even in stealing my backpack, I knew better. Despite all my attempts to tell myself differently, I’d felt their presence for a week now. Never at the same place and never at the same time – and never this close.

Damn it, I had gotten careless.

Fortunately, so had they. They were close enough I could scent them. Yes, them. There were at least three trackers close by. I probably ought to be flattered Michael had decided a single tracker wasn’t enough to bring me in. Hopefully, three wouldn’t be enough either.

I didn’t have time to wonder why Michael had suddenly changed tactics. Had something happened within the clan to force his hand? Or was he, like me, growing tired of the hunt

God, why couldn’t this be over? I like a good hunt as much as the next person. But only when I’m the hunter. This being the hunted didn’t sit well. One way or another, I had to end this game of cat and mouse. But I had to bide my time. Downtown Dallas wasn’t the place for a confrontation, at least not the sort I usually found myself involved in. So, unless I wanted our secret made public, I had to find some place secluded and I needed to find it quickly.

A hint of worry licked at my confidence. These hunters were better than the others Michael had sent for me in the past. They’d been able to track me no matter what I did to throw them off. That meant they were at least as good as I was, perhaps even better. So I had to be careful. No unnecessary risks. Well, at least no outrageously unnecessary ones. My whole life was one of risk. The fact that someone was stalking me – again – only proved it.

Fortunately Dallas, even downtown Dallas, wasn’t without out-of-the-way areas where I could put my plan into action. All I had to do was get to one before my unseen trackers decided to make their move.

I started down the block. Attorneys and their clients hurried down the street in the direction of the courthouse, briefcases swinging like weapons to part the crowd before them. Men and women in business suits strolled only slightly more leisurely back to their offices from lunch. One or two may have staggered, a bit worse for wear after one too many margaritas at lunch.

As the crowd pressed on down the street, I paused near the entrance to Renaissance Tower. I carefully shifted my backpack, settling it more comfortably over my left shoulder, leaving my right hand free. I wanted to be able to drop it without hesitation, or use it as a weapon, when the time came – and something told me that time would be soon.

I had to get off the streets.

A man bumped against me and I stiffened, relaxing only as he mumbled a quick, “’Scuse me” before moving on. One thing about Dallas, it’s a polite city. Even though I looked like the average college – okay, post-grad – student wandering the streets, people still greeted me and begged for forgiveness for whatever minor breech they thought they might have committed. Strange town this.

A slight smile touched my lips as I ducked inside the building. I knew it was a risk. There were any number of security cameras here, cameras that would capture my image. But they’d also capture the image of whoever followed me. It might not help me, but in the long run, it might help any who looked into my disappearance. That really was the best I could hope for.

The glass doors closed. For one moment I relished the cool air that greeted me. But I couldn’t stand there enjoying it. Too many others wanted inside, politely but insistently pushing past me. Then there were the trackers. I could feel them even if I couldn’t see them.

“May I help you, ma’am?” the uniformed security guard asked as I approached his desk. Then he looked up and grinned. This was the third delivery I’d made there this week. “Hi.”

He really did have a nice smile.

“Hi, Gil. I’ve got a delivery for George and Chandler from the Jessup Firm. They’re expecting it.”

I waited as he called upstairs to confirm my story. I hadn’t realized when I took the temporary job as runner for a local law firm that it would come in handy as a way to keep alive. I’d been surprised enough when it led to some very interesting dates. Now it seemed I had another reason to be thankful for those bottom feeders called lawyers.

“Twenty-fifth floor, Finn. Sign in and put this on.”

He pushed a clipboard across the desk in my direction with one hand and handed me a guest badge with the other. He glanced at the page as I scrawled my name on the first available line. I handed him back the clipboard and then attached the badge to the right front pocket of my jeans. There, I was official.

“When you going to finally agree to go have a drink with me, Finn?”

“When you don’t have a family to go home to, Gil.” That was one of my only rules. No married men, and especially no married men with kids.

I gave a little wave and moved toward the elevator bank. I needed to be smart now. More than my own future depended on it. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for letting the world-at-large know that shape-changers really do exist and that we walk among them. Michael might be willing to risk it but I wasn’t.

Ten minutes later, my delivery made, I stepped into the corridor and glanced around. No one else was visible. But that didn’t mean anything. My pursuers could very easily be waiting for me in the lobby. It would be easy enough to flank me as I stepped off the elevator. They’d rely on the fact I wouldn’t want to create a scene. By the time we were away from the crowds, it would be too late – at least for me.

They could be closer, hiding in the restrooms down the hall or in one of the stairwells. I doubted they had given up, but I could no longer feel them bearing down on me. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. All I knew for sure was I had to get out of the building without being forced to either surrender or reveal much more to the public than any of our kind wanted to.

The elevator doors slid open and I tensed. Instead of the demons from my past appearing, a couple of well-dressed women stepped out instead. From their whispered conversation, I knew they were talking about a different kind of assignation than the one I’d been expecting. No, they were comparing notes on their love lives, oblivious to all around them.

Inspiration hit. I reached out and stopped the door before it could close. I punched the buttons to make the elevator car stop on the twenty first, nineteenth and tenth floors before coming to a stop in the lobby. Unless I missed my guess, the car would stop on at least one other floor along the way which was all to the good. The more stops it made, and the more people who got on and off, the more difficult it became for my pursuers to realize where I had actually gone

Now, to get out of the building. Then I could make sure that any confrontation happened on my terms and not theirs.

I resisted the urge to run as I walked toward the stairwell door. I could hurry once there. Then I’d take the stairs up six floors and then take the elevator down. Everything above the thirtieth floor used a different bank of elevators than the one I’d come up on. Those elevators opened out of sight of the main lobby. Even better, they opened just across from the stairwell door that led down to the parking garage. If I could just cross to that door, I’d be in the garage before anyone knew it.

Of course, that was a very big IF….

The elevator doors opened and I let myself be swept out by the other passengers. I glanced around, every sense alive and seeking. Much as I’d hoped my shadows had given up, at least one was still there. I could feel him. He was close, too close for comfort. But where? Why couldn’t I see him?

Praying the explanation was as simple as whoever it was happened to be on the opposite side of the elevator bank and blind to my return, I looked for the stairwell door. All I had to do was get to it. That’s all. Only ten feet separated me from potential freedom.

With my backpack thumping against my side, I hit the door at a dead run. Now we’d play it my way. Let’s see just how good he – or she – happened to be. I’d bet my life – hell, I was betting my life – that he hadn’t. Dear God, I hoped I wasn’t backing the wrong horse this time.

I pelted up the drive, climbing, climbing until I saw daylight. Cars lined up at the gates, waiting for their tickets to enter or to pay so they could exit. I slipped between them, emerging onto the street. Even then I didn’t slow. I couldn’t. Not when I could hear someone behind me. Running feet, labored breathing. Good. He wasn’t in the physical condition I was and he’d pay for it. Then he’d tell me what I wanted to know or pay an even greater price.

I veered to my right into another parking garage, an above-ground one this time. We’d already run more than a city block, not counting the time in the bank’s parking garage. I could feel my pursuer flagging. Good. Just a little longer. I had to be careful about where I chose to confront him. But soon, very soon, this would be over.

There’s something about the hunt that excites at the primal level. It doesn’t matter if you’re the hunted or the hunter. At least it doesn’t matter to me. My senses seem to sharpen as my pulse increases. My mind clears and a sort of calm settles over me. I know how good I am. I’ve managed to survive combat situations and too many chases like this one because of it. This hunter, if you dared call him that, was no match for me.

I raced up the ramp, one level and then two. My running shoes, carefully selected for just such an emergency, cushioned my steps. Only a muted slap-slap-slap with each footfall betrayed me. Even though my pulse raced, my breathing was barely labored. I was born for the hunt.

I hit the door leading to the stairwell. Time to add some distance between us. The door slammed behind me, just as I wanted. I wanted him in the stairwell. I wanted him to wonder which direction I’d gone. When he started up the stairs, he’d be even more tired. That would make him an easier target when the time came.

Three flights up, I slammed through another door. I didn’t think about anyone else who might be on the other side. This was between me and the man following me. The world had shrunk to just the two of us. There wasn’t time to worry about anyone else. Not until this was over. Until he was over.

Then I could worry about consequences.

I slowed, my eyes scanning the level. Almost every parking space was filled. The cars and vans increased the shadows on the level, making it easier to hide. And hide I was going to do. Now was the time for patience and cunning. Maybe it was even time to play with the fool a bit before pouncing. This mouse had very sharp teeth and the cat had better be battle-hardened before going after it.

He was close. I could feel it even as I heard him coming nearer. The fool. Why wear boots if you’re trying to stalk someone? Every step he took reverberated, even through the closed door. Soon, very soon, it would be over.

I crouched behind a van near the top of the ramp, hidden in the shadows. My backpack rested on the concrete beside me. Down the aisle, the stairwell door clanged shut, followed almost instantly by a sharp curse. I couldn’t help smiling. It just kept getting better.

I remained where I was, secure in the knowledge the shadows were, as always, my friend. For a moment, the only sounds were those of my heart beating and my slow, even breaths. There! A step. Then another. His pace quickened. He wasn’t running, but it was close. If I’d had any doubts about being followed, I no longer did.

Waiting, listening as he moved up the aisle, memory intruded. This was wrong. There had been at least three of them when I’d ducked into the bank building. Why had they split up? More importantly, where had the others gone? I might have little respect for Michael but he wasn’t a fool. He’d have sent a team that worked well together. So why was this team breaking all the rules?

Leaving my backpack, I edged around the rear of the van. The backpack, if the tracker found it, would delay him further. It would divert his attention and give me the chance to act. But I had to take care not to blow my chance before it arrived.

I crept behind another vehicle, this one big and black. Some sort of SUV. I really didn’t care what it was as long as it offered me protection. Now was when hunter became the hunted and the thrill of it raced through me. If only we were away from town where this could become a real hunt. It had been too long since I’d allowed my jaguar out and now it strained against my control, confident it was better at this game of cat and mouse than I.

Hell, it probably was, not that I dared do anything about it now. The trackers might be willing to risk exposing our existence, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t. There were too many others who’d suffer if the normals discovered the things of their nightmares walked among them.

Footsteps neared. Slower now, more relaxed. It was almost as if someone was taking a leisurely stroll down the aisle. Had I misjudged? Was it possible my stalker had been playing me? No, I didn’t believe that. There had to be another explanation.

I shrank further into the shadows. My heart hammered. Fear clawed at my throat. For one moment, I closed my eyes. I prayed this was all some horrible dream I’d soon awaken from. But it wasn’t. I’d learned long ago that the only nightmares are the ones we’re forced to live, day after day after day.

A car door opened just a few yards away and I started nervously. My hands flew to my mouth in a desperate attempt to silence my gasp. It wasn’t him. By all that was holy, it wasn’t him. It had been an innocent, that’s all. Whoever it was, they weren’t a part of this. All I had to do was wait for them to leave. Then I could finish this, once and for all.

If I had time. For all I knew, the hunter had heard my gasp and even now was using the sounds of the car starting and backing out of its space to distract me as he closed in on my location. Dear God, what should I do?

Patience. I had to stay patient and not move too soon. I couldn’t risk getting careless now, with the end so close.

A red sedan slowly passed my hiding space. Behind the wheel sat an attractive, gray haired woman. From where I crouched in the shadows, I could see she hadn’t locked her doors. It would be so easy to slide into the backseat as she drove past, to force her to drive me out of there and away from my pursuer. It was so tempting. . . .

No! That wasn’t the way. It was far too dangerous to involve someone else, someone outside the clan. In this day and age of lo-jack tracking on cars and global positioning software in cell phones, it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. One phone call to the police and they’d know within minutes where the car was. I might be willing to do a lot of things but risking a police shoot out wasn’t one of them.

The car disappeared around the curve and I sank back against the wheel of the SUV. Where was he? My ears strained and my heart pounded. No matter how many times I’d been in this position – and I’d been there more times than I cared to count – it never got any easier. But this time was different. I could feel it. The hunter was alone and a one-on-one fight suited me just fine.

I wouldn’t kill him unless he forced me to. Not that I wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to find out how he’d found me. Once I knew that, I could disappear into the shadows again and move on, another town and another identity.

Again.

Leather scraped concrete and my muscles tensed. I waited, ready to pounce. All he had to do was come a little closer.

Wait. Something was wrong. This was all happening too easily. Was it possible this was all some sort of elaborate trap they’d laid to capture me?

Fear licked at my confidence and without thought I glanced down, frantically searching for that tell-tale red dot of a laser scope. Nothing. If anyone besides the two of us were there, they hadn’t tagged me, at least not yet. Maybe I was worrying for no reason.

I dropped to my stomach and looked under the cars, searching for another set of feet, for anything to prove or disprove my fears. Nothing. Only the boots and jeans of the lone tracker.

I sat back up and drew a slow, deep breath. My lips pulled back, baring my teeth and a low, primal growl fought for release as my jaguar fought for control. My muscles all but quivered in anticipation as each step brought the tracker closer, ever closer.

From where I crouched, I saw his legs first. Faded blue jeans. Black, worn boots. Interesting. That wasn’t the usual attire of the trackers but it did make sense if this one was trying to blend in. Maybe he wasn’t quite the amateur I first thought. Or maybe not. Although he moved slowly up the aisle, checking first one direction and the other as he scanned between the parked cars, his hands were visible and very empty. My well-trained eye saw no hint of a weapon anywhere on him. Good. That would make things much easier.

I slipped further into the shadows cast by the SUV and the wall behind me. All I needed was for him to take another couple of steps forward. That’s all. Then I’d be in his blind spot and could move. He’d never know what hit him. By the time he figured it out, it would be too late and they would both be well away from there and anyone who might be looking for him.

Silently, I rose from my crouch and stepped into the aisle, ready to attack. My head jerked up, the scents of the other trackers suddenly assailing me. Damn it! It had been a trap. Somehow, I’d played into their hands. But how? How had they known this was where I’d come?

My mind may have frozen, but my body acted on instinct. I turned and took first one step and then another. I had to run. It didn’t matter where. All that mattered was getting out of there. I’d made the worst mistake possible. I’d become over-confident and I’d fallen into their trap.

The screeching of tires filled the air. A moment later, a black Mustang slid to a stop beside me.

“Get in!” the driver yelled as the passenger door swung open

For a moment, hope flared. Escape was at hand.

Three sharp jabs hit my back, like needles or nails, as I dove into the car. Then my system lit up. It felt as if a thousand – no, a million – hot needles suddenly pierced me. Every nerve seemed to catch fire. No longer would my body answer my commands. Muscles tensed, spasmed and I slumped forward. There was pain – I think there was pain – as I hit the dashboard face first. Then I was thrown back against the passenger seat as the Mustang sped off.

Breathe. I had to breathe. But my lungs wouldn’t work. Panic filled me. This is what Hell must be like. A mind alive and terrified in a body that does nothing but scream in agony. Dear God, was this really the day I’d die?

***

Yesterday, I announced that I’ve put Wedding Bell Blues on sale for $0.99.  Nocturnal Origins is also still on sale for $0.99.

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