My newest book, Five Moons Rising will be out April 2017. To celebrate its brand new cover, I’m sharing the first chapter with everyone. Meet Malice, a genetically-engineered supersoldier who is tasked with hunting down the things that go bump in the night.
Keep in mind, this is my final draft. The published copy may be different, but you won’t know unless you pick it up in April.
She barely kept her feet, hunched over as she was, trying to desperately to pull in a full lungful. The large pillar kept her hidden well enough for now, but it wouldn’t be adequate concealment for long. The stitch in her side was nothing compared to the knot of fire higher up along her ribcage. The bastard was damn fast. If she’d been almost any other human, she would be lying dead on the floor, a crater bashed into her ribcage. As it was, her torso bled slowly from half a dozen shallow puncture wounds. Whatever he was, he was covered in spikes. That had been a surprise. She was lucky it hadn’t been worse.
Sucking in a slow deep breath, she tried to focus on her surroundings through her agony. There was none of the grinding that would have accompanied broken ribs. Beyond herself, she listened as hard as she could for the slightest whisper out of place.
The darkness of the loft pressed in on her and seemed to swallow all sound. All she could hear was her strained inhalations and she struggled to get them under control. If she could hear it, chances were the thing hunting her could as well.
Where is he? He’d gotten the drop on her, moving faster than she’d believed possible. According to her intel, he was little more than a run-of-the-mill demon, though of a type they’d never seen before. It hadn’t stopped him from clawing out his own little corner of the shadow-world.
Why did it have to be a demon? She hated demons the most out of the creatures she was set to take down. Demons came in so many horrible flavors, not like the rest of the supranormals. Werewolves and vampires started out human, at least. Demons were so different they might have been from an alien planet, not that her superiors would confirm or deny that. Human values meant nothing to them, they simply didn’t operate on anything near the same set of morals. Her theory, not shared by her employer, was that they came from another dimension. Such ideas bordered on the mystical and were not acceptable to the United States government, but their theories had so many holes and required such mental gyrations that they weren’t any more reasonable. She’d never met a demon she could stand to share a room with. Her current quarry was no exception.
A puff of air across her cheek was her only warning and she dropped to her knees, one hand on the floor, the other slicing through the air, the katana an unthinking extension of her body. His hand thudded into the pillar where her head had been less than half a breath before. Masonry exploded and small bits showered down on her head. The katana bit, blade sliding deep into his thigh. A hiss that turned into a wordless shriek was her satisfaction.
Determined not to lose her advantage, she surged to her feet, turning the sword in both hands and lining up for another strike. As fast as she was, the demon was faster. He blurred away from her and disappeared back into the darkness, leaving her fencing with shadows.
There was no time to consider her next move. He was on the run and she had to track him down before he made it out of the building. Now that he knew she’d been set upon him, he could easily disappear and that could not happen. He couldn’t be allowed to prey upon the unwary any longer. Countless scores of young runaways had already been sacrificed to his appetite.
Stalking through the empty loft after him, she was glad she’d at least marked him. Droplets of bright blue blood glowed and smoked on the concrete floor, corroding it, leading her onward. She peered deep into the gloom. Even enhanced as it was, her night vision was barely enough to keep her from running into the debris that littered the ground. He had a decided advantage in the dark and she pulled a compact cylinder from her pocket, holding it in her right hand as she stalked the darkness.
The droplets stopped and she looked ahead into the dark. There was no sign of him, but from behind her came the barest the rustle of spine upon spine. She grinned tightly and squeezed her eyes shut tight. The cylinder in her right hand went off with a blinding flash as soon as she pressed the button. Even with her eyes clamped shut and facing the other direction, light still exploded across her corneas.
Another scream met her efforts and she dropped the cylinder, bringing her right hand to grasp the end of the handle. In one smooth motion, she turned and raised the sword. The demon cowered in front of her, hands over too-wide eyes that oozed thick blue blood, giving Malice her first good look at the thing. A spiny crest jutted aggressively from the top of his head. He was covered everywhere in spikes of varying lengths, even on the backs of his fingers. Her blood still stained the protrusions on one hand. His movements were jerky and quick, almost impossible to track.
“Don’t,” he choked, voice thick with pain. “For the love of God, Malice, please don’t.”
Malice gazed down at him. How many of his victims had pleaded with him in just the same way? They hadn’t deserved their fate but he certainly did. She brought the sword down in a smooth arc, cleaving through his neck and both up-raised hands. They hit the floor in a series of small thuds as his body slumped over.
Already, the acrid stench of his death threatened to overwhelm her. Another reason to hate demons, Malice thought. They can’t even die cleanly. Not for the first time, she wished supranormal corpses would simply disintegrate into ash, the way vampire ones did on human television shows. This wasn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for better or worse. She had no sidekicks to rely upon, no snappy banter; it was just her and her prey. Reality, as was so often the case, was much messier than fantasy. His body should corrode away to nothing over the next twenty-four hours, if her previous experience was anything to go by. At least he’d had the sense to make his lair in an abandoned factory building. She could leave his corpse and be relatively certain nobody would blunder across it. It wouldn’t do for some luckless human to stumble across the body. They weren’t supposed to know about the nightmares that congregate in the underbelly of society. The government made very certain to keep knowledge of the beasts from their constituents. Their presence was an inconvenient truth, which was where Malice came in.
Impassively, Malice stared at the blackening corpse for another moment before turning. She pulled a cloth from her pocket and drew it along the blade of her katana. Demon blood was so corrosive it would pit the metal given more than a few minutes. Satisfied the blade was clean, she dropped the cloth. Already, holes were being eaten through the fabric. It would dissolve completely long before his now-inanimate corpse would.
Through the abandoned loft and down four flights of deserted stairs, Malice kept the katana ready in her hand. Demons sometimes ran in packs. She wasn’t sure about this one. His spiky exterior and impossible speed were brand spanking new. He could have had a dozen brothers and sisters with him, or he could have been the last of his kind. If there were others, they wouldn’t catch her unaware. Malice hadn’t survived as long as she had without keeping her head on a swivel.
Nothing moved in the shadows and she emerged into a dark courtyard. Light poles dotted the perimeter, and broken glass glittered in the light of the moon below each one. Folded in a neat pile in one corner was a black trench coat. Malice picked it up and slipped it over her shoulders. The katana slid back into its sheath on her back and she pulled up her hood to disguise the sword’s handle. With easy strides, she left the courtyard, never looking back at empty windows that seemed to follow her every move.
The area was mostly industrial and deserted at that time of night. Malice walked swiftly down silent blocks, past shuttered factories and storage facilities. Her truck was a few blocks away from her target’s nest. She’d been trained never to get too close in a vehicle, and years of experience had only reinforced that training. Most supranormals had excellent hearing. She smiled slightly as she contemplated the other reason. If she didn’t survive the mission, her superiors didn’t want anything to connect her to them. She would be simply one more dead Jane Doe in a city full of them.
There were many reasons why she and her remaining cohorts were stationed in major cities. The beings they hunted were drawn to large urban centers, full of humans who wouldn’t be missed, full of easy meat. In the wash of humanity, another dead body wouldn’t be a big deal. Malice knew that when she died, her body would spend its last days in a drawer in the morgue before being interred with the other John and Jane Does beneath the tall trees of Homewood Memorial Gardens. It was only a matter of time. Of her original platoon, six were already gone and that was of the sixteen who had survived their training and… enhancements. It had only been what, five years since she completed her training?
Malice grimaced slightly and twitched her mind away from the scant memories she still retained of that time. Even what little she remembered was more than she cared to. They said that memories of physical trauma were never as sharp as the actual pain, but that didn’t seem to apply to what had been done to her. Her bones ached, cold and sharp, and Malice brought her sister’s face to mind. Cassidy’s smile chased away the last vestiges of remembered agony.
Her truck was where she’d left it. The black Mitsubishi pick-up truck gleamed under a lone street lamp. She extended her senses but nothing seemed out of place. She emptied her pockets, pulling out more light grenades, a couple knives, a taser, and placed them in the tool box in the truck’s bed. Her katana had its place in a specialized holder in the box’s lid. Satisfied that everything was secure, Malice headed home.
It was a long drive home, over forty-five minutes. At least with as late as it was, Chicago traffic wouldn’t be the headache it usually was. She flipped on the radio and relaxed as pounding drums and heavy guitar riffs seemed to absorb the adrenaline that still coursed through her veins. It would be a while before she would relax completely after the night’s takedown. This one had been closer than most. Still, not as close as some.
Malice pulled off the side street and onto the tri-state. Prudently, she kept her speed down. Traffic blew by her on the left as she made sure not to be the fastest one out there. If she was pulled over for speeding, she would have a hard time explaining the contents of her tool box.
The wind whistled through her window, stripping the last bits of acridness from the inside of her nose. She breathed deeply, tucking a stray lock of hair behind one ear. Regs demanded that an operative with long hair club it back into a tight bun, but she preferred the ponytail. At just above her shoulders, her hair didn’t always cooperate with a bun and the pony was easier. It wasn’t like she had some sergeant waiting at home to get on her back about it, only her handler and he certainly didn’t go out on missions.
Slowly, the Chicago skyline passed by on her left, lights twinkling merrily at her through the stillness of the evening. It was a gorgeous autumn night, but late enough that traffic on the tri-state was almost non-existent and she made it home five minutes earlier than she’d anticipated.
Her neighborhood wasn’t that different from the one she’d just left. It was mostly warehouses and as quiet at night. She pulled up in front of one of the older buildings, three stories of weathered brick and frosted glass windows. It took up half the city block. Bending over, she felt around for the small button hidden under her dash. It was little more than a depression in the molded plastic, but clicked loudly when she pressed down.
The large metal door a few yards away raised, metal creaking slightly in protest. As soon as the door was barely high enough to drive under it, she roared in, pressing the button again. The tortured squeal of the door reversing in its track echoed throughout the cavernous first floor. It reminded her uncomfortably of the demon whose existence she’d terminated scarcely an hour before.
The entire area was open and mostly empty. Large pillars marched along the interior and did much to break up the emptiness. Malice could have parked anywhere but she pulled up next to a small area enclosed with chain link fence. She opened the door and vaulted from the truck’s running board onto the edge of the bed. Bending her knees, she picked up the toolbox in both hands. It was heavy, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Since no one was around, she made no effort to hide her strength. The weight would have been too much for most men, never mind most women, but she handled it with little more than a grunt.
She knew she was on the short side. Statistics might say the average height of a woman in the US might be 5’3”, but she always felt short when around other humans. Even her baby sister was taller at 5’6”, and that rankled. The day Cassidy had discovered Mary Alice was no longer the taller one still burned in her memory. As a moody teenager, that had done nothing to improve her attitude. That had been the day she’d joined the US Army.
At least her strength was a hell of an equalizer. Some people thought they could mess with her, normal humans who didn’t know any better. Little did they know that even the fastest and most ripped man had little chance against her, all thanks to Uncle Sam.
With another grunt, she stepped up on the side of the bed and dropped to the ground, bending her knees again to absorb the extra weight. Malice gasped aloud at the pain in her ribs. She’d forgotten about her injury. Adrenaline and a boosted metabolism had driven it from her mind. She set the box on the ground and took a deep breath. It didn’t feel like she’d damaged herself any further, but she needed to be more cautious.
Against the chain fence was another tool box, identical in appearance to the one she’d just removed. This one actually carried tools, and not ones meant for dispatching supranormals. Carefully, she lugged it to the end of the truck and balanced it against the bumper as she pulled down the tailgate. Placing the box on the bed, she gave it a good shove. It slid the length of the bed before coming to a rest against the cab with a muffled thump.
Satisfied, Malice headed over to the freight elevator just on the other side of the enclosure. Wooden gates stood open, and the elevator car waited for her. Weariness dragged at her. It was all physical, the adrenaline finally waning. She knew from experience that her mind would continue to churn for hours yet. It was good to be home where she didn’t have to worry about anything else.
Inside the elevator, she pulled the wooden gates closed before pressing the button for the top floor. A reluctant rumble accompanied the car as it moved between the floors before coming to a stop on the third floor. She opened the doors and stepped into the echoing loft. Almost home, she thought. Her quarters were all the way across the large empty space. If anyone ever tracked her to her home, she wanted as much warning as possible. Her distance from the elevator gave her some peace of mind, but she really wanted to unwind. A hot bath sounded divine, and was still too far away.
Privacy screens created the illusion of walls, turning the cavernous space into something cozy and comfortable. Malice dropped her trench coat on the floor by the door. It wasn’t really a door, more like a gap between the screens, but she couldn’t help but think of it as such.
I should really pick that up. She hesitated for a moment. Nah. There was no one to nag her. That was a good thing. Why does that always sound like I’m trying to convince myself?
A blinking light in the kitchen caught her eye. Her cell phone lay on the island, blinking mindlessly, the light gleaming off the stainless steel countertop. She had a message.
She had seven messages, as it turned out. Malice eyed the screen before sighing. That didn’t bode well. Only a couple of people had the number and a reason to leave her a voicemail. Even if they all called at once, there wouldn’t be seven messages. Malice left a very light impression on the human world. Tapping in her password, she brought up her voicemail and set it to speaker.
“Hi, Mary Alice.” Her sister’s voice filtered tinnily through the speaker. Malice smiled and pulled her shirt over her head, ignoring the slight twinge that went through her ribs. “Don’t forget, we’re on for lunch with Mom before she heads home. You can’t get out of seeing her for much longer. I can’t wait to introduce you guys to the new place I went with my classmates.”
Cassidy’s voice did more to relax her than even veterinary-grade sedatives could. These days her metabolism was too high for most drugs to have more than a fleeting effect upon her anyway. She smiled as her sister prattled on for another minute or so while she prodded her side with cautious fingertips. Satisfied that the worst she had to deal with were a few bruises and shallow cuts, Malice advanced to the next message.
“Mary Alice, it’s Uncle Ralph. I miss you kiddo, call me.” Despite the words, the voice was brusque, almost impersonal and Malice rolled her eyes. Her handler wanted to know how the night’s activities had gone. He was always impatient. After five years of working together, he still thought he could rush her into debriefing. She needed to come down before she’d talk about it. He knew that, but it didn’t stop him from trying to prod her into talking it out sooner than later. He would simply have to wait. Daylight would be more than soon enough to touch base.
“Hi, Mary.” Her head snapped up at the voice that filtered through the phone’s speaker. Her voice light and slightly breathless, the woman sounded nervous. “I had a great time the other night, and you said you’d call, but you haven’t. I hope you don’t mind the call, but I got your number from your gallery.”
Oh no, she didn’t! Disbelieving, Malice slumped into one of the high chairs at the island. She stared at the phone. It had been a mistake to go on that second date, she’d known it when she agreed to it with Ann. The girl was nice and they’d had a lot of fun at her apartment. So much fun, in fact, that Ann’s downstairs neighbor had pounded on the floor to get them to tone it down. But all it had been for her, was an opportunity for some fabulous sex and to blow off some much-needed steam. Apparently, Ann hadn’t taken the hint.
She picked up the phone and scanned through the other messages. They were all from that Ann chick. With a groan, Malice deleted them without bothering to listen further. She was going to need to change her phone number. That was no big thing, she did it periodically as a security precaution, but Ann had said she’d gotten her number from the gallery. Her hand tightened around the phone and she quickly relaxed her grip when the phone flexed slightly. It wouldn’t do to crack another screen.
The morning was the earliest she’d be able to track down the gallery owner and find out what the hell had happened. If the answer wasn’t satisfactory, she would have to take her sculptures elsewhere, somewhere that understood the value of discretion.
She glanced around the darkened kitchen then heaved out a sigh of irritation. There was no point trying to unwind for bed. Her heart rate was back up and thudding in her chest. She was keyed up for more action, almost tingling with the need to hit something. If she wasn’t going to be able to sleep tonight, then she might as well do something useful. It was time for a little workout. Maybe if she worked her body past the point of exhaustion, she’d be able to grab a couple hours of sleep before the sun came up.