Preamble

Okay, this is something I’m really excited about. I’ve got a secret project in the works (secret because I’m not quite ready to officially announce it yet), something I think you all will really enjoy. Anyway, my newsletter subscribers and Patreon supporters have already had access to this, but now, the rest of you get to catch this sneak peek into my secret project.

Enjoy!

*****

“Doctor… Lo, is it?”

Amanda Crawford tossed her glasses on top of the overstuffed file folder in front of her. There were so many files and papers crammed into the folder, it was a wonder the thing hadn’t torn yet. Maybe her advisers were right; maybe she should upgrade to a binder. But binders took up space, and space was one luxury her she didn’t have these days.

Well, her new office had plenty of space. Personal space? That was another story.

Sebastian Lo loosened his black tie for what seemed like the thousandth time since he stepped out of the limousine that had dropped him off here. Formal attire didn’t suit him in the best of situations, but with his nerves so shot that he could feel the sweat stains forming under his arms, it was a wonder the woman sitting next to him couldn’t smell him.

“Y-yes.” He gave a curt nod, pushed his black-rimmed glasses back up his nose.

“You have had quite the career,” Amanda offered with a shake of her head. “Normally, I wouldn’t give someone with a dishonorable discharge on their record the time of day, but right now, beggars can’t be choosers.”

Lo’s frown deepened. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

The annoyance on Amanda’s face melted away, replaced with an exhaustion and a weariness that typically didn’t befall those in her profession until after a couple years. The bags under her eyes were darker than her brown irises, and in the harsh light of her office, she appeared so pale as to be dead.

But she wasn’t a corpse on Lo’s slab. She was the newly-elected President of the United States. And why she was bothering to meet with Lo, he had no idea. But the nausea told him whatever was in that folder wasn’t good.

“Are you familiar with the attack on D.C. several months ago?” she asked.

Lo’s frown disappeared. He quirked an eyebrow and stole a glance at the rest of the Oval Office. What was pristine in photographs, awe-inspiring, was surprisingly ordinary in-person. Sure, it looked like the Oval Office should, but the mystique Lo expected to feel wasn’t there.

Maybe it was the nerves. Sure, that was what he told himself.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he admitted, again pushing his glasses. “Not sure what to believe.”

“Well, it’s all true.” Amanda stood with a sigh, walking past Lo and staring out the massive windows overlooking the lawn. The American flag flanked her to her left, much larger than the pin she kept on her lapel. “There are monsters in this world, Doctor. Things far more dangerous than any threat we’ve ever faced. And I mean to do something about it.”

Lo blinked. “I don’t recall monster slaying being part of your platform.”

“No one will ever know,” she said, hands clasped behind her back. Her gaze never left the window. “What I’m proposing, Doctor, is completely off-the-books. Unofficial, doesn’t actually exist.” She glared over her shoulder. “That means nothing we discuss leaves this room. Understood?”

Lo nodded.

Amanda’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes,” Lo answered with a placating shrug.

“I’m impressed with your work, moral judgments aside,” she said. “I daresay that in many ways, you’ve honored Dr. Roberts’ legacy. Human prosthetics and cybernetics are as advanced as ever, and something tells me we’ll need that technology and expertise in the coming battles.”

Lo shook his head, removing his tie entirely. For the first time since entering the Oval Office, he could take a full breath. “Are you offering me a job, Madame President?”

“I’m offering you a choice.”

Lo opened his mouth. Amanda turned away from the window and took the large leather seat behind her desk. She seemed to sink into the cushion, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Lo the same sort of look the dean used to give him when he was an undergrad and spent more time chasing bottles and skirts than textbooks.

“I know what you did for David Gregor,” she said. “And I know all about your… other experiments. Rest assured that not only are they grossly unethical, they also break several laws.”

Lo pursed his lips. “I see. I either accept your offer or you throw me to the wolves.”

Amanda offered a thin-lipped smile. “So to speak.”

“What’s the offer?”

Reaching into a drawer to her right, Amanda produced another folder — this one far thinner than the first. It was plain manila, with large red letters spelling out CONFIDENTIAL – EYES ONLY scrawled along the front. She tossed the folder at Lo, and he watched it land in his lap.

“Open it.”

With shaky hands, Lo did just that. He frowned at what appeared to be autopsy photos — only these were no ordinary humans. One specimen had his mouth pried open, revealing fangs. Another looked to be an oversized slug split open down the middle, like it was a middle school science class dissection. A third photo was of a man-sized bat, half of his body scorched and rotting.

“Operation: Hellion is our answer to the growing supernatural menace,” she explained as Lo thumbed through the rest of the folder’s contents. “If the monsters are intent on invading our planet, threatening our way of life… well, what kind of president would I be if I didn’t try to protect my people?”

Lo frowned. “I’m not a monster fighter.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not asking you to be one.” Amanda leaned back in her chair, hands steepled together. “I could put the most capable military might at our disposal on this team, and they wouldn’t last two seconds against a nest of vampires. No, I need a super team. I need people with… abilities.”

Closing the folder in his lap, Lo sighed and shook his head. “You want to resurrect Project Fusion. Officially.”

“No. I want something better than Project Fusion. And you’re going to give it to me.”

*****

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About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

 

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: S.E. Anderson

Hey, everyone! It’s time for another Author Spotlight, and I’m excited to feature one of my favorite indie authors, S.E. Anderson! She’s a fantastic sci-fi author, but she’s also a kickass graphic designer (seriously, look at her covers for my series), she’s studying to be a scientist, and… oh yeah, she also happens to be a fan of mine.

Anderson is one of the reasons I love being an indie author, and I’m excited to tell you guys all about her work! First, let’s have a chat with S.E. Anderson.

 

What was your inspiration behind the Starstruck series?

Back when I first started writing the series, it was a joint effort between me and one of my closest friends, Joanna. We wanted to write what we weren’t finding in the books available to us: a girl struggling with real life, but also science fiction that was fun and possibly even hilarious. She wanted to work on characters who lived so long they couldn’t remember where they started out; and I wanted to write an adventure serial about teleportation. The two ideas meshed perfectly!

In my experience, and I know I haven’t read the entirety of it, the science fiction genre can be pretty doom and gloom, and a lot of times, it’s a genre that takes itself far too seriously. How important to you was it for your series to not fall into that trap? How important is the humor in these books?

It’s essential for the series. The universe is a massively chaotic place; the only way through it is not to fight the chaos, but go along with it. Living life by that logic, I’ve been able to have the funnest, oddest experiences. For Sally, it’s on a much larger scale. She struggles with depression and anxiety, so it would be really easy for the series to get quite dark. And it will: some moments are harsh and painful. But it’s in those moments of pure, unadulterated absurdity that she grows.

Tell me a bit about your background as a scientist. How does being a scientist affect your writing? Do you get story ideas from your academic work?

I’m still just a student, but I know enough now to see where science fiction differs from science-fact. I love learning a new concept in lectures and thinking about how to integrate it into my books. It’s fun trying to work out warp drives or faster than light travel with friends! I definitely love to learn, and hints of things that really hit me are dotted throughout the series.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist grow from one book to the next?

Personally, I’ve read books that fall on either side of the wall: great stories with flat characters and boring plots with amazingly relatable people. But I think character is the most important element. If a book has amazing characters, they could be doing absolutely anything and I’d still read them. I’d read a whole book of Percy Jackson doing his dishes or Harry Potter trying to help Ron with taxes. At the end of the day, those characters are the ones that make you come back to the series.

In my opinion, a plot cannot be separate from characters. Everything (interesting) that happens is driven by choices. So good characters make for a gripping story, no matter what. And authors who treat their world as a character and build it up in the same way usually create something more visually impacting.

Sally is constantly growing through the series. My biggest struggle writing Starstruck(s) comes down to how Sally is going to change. What makes her mad, what drives her to aspire to do more? The upcoming book 4 will make her decide if she wants to take on responsibility or if she’s not ready yet. In the end, the series is Sally’s saga, how she changes from a shy, isolated, self-conscious girl to a strong woman ready to take on anything the universe throws at her. But she’s not there yet.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The more I plot, the more I procrastinate. I have a premise, my characters, and they lead me along to find the plot as I write. Editing will change a lot of my first drafts!

On top of being an author and a scientist, you’re a graphic designer and a book reviewer. How do you manage all of those different hats, and how does each piece of the puzzle fit into the greater whole that is S.E. Anderson?

I shall answer this with two words, one sound: *pterodactyl scream*

Tell me about some of the other projects you’re working on. I know there’s one more book coming in the Starstruck series, and I think you’re working on a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz?

That’s right! Celestial, book four of Starstruck, is currently with my editor. Book five is being written off and on. My real focus over the next few months is to bring YELLOW (read sneak peek here) to life. The book follows Dora, an illegal clone of the current royal princess, who finds herself trapped on a mysterious planet in the Outer Zone after making a costly mistake. She makes allies with a girl with no memory, a droid with no personality, and a genetically modified soldier with no orders. Together they need to find the Technomage, a genius engineer who could potentially solve all their problems – if he can be trusted. It’s a story about identity, friendship, and taking risks.

What are some of your favorite books right now?

So many! Absolutely loves Atlas Fallen by Jessica Pierce. And Children of Blood and Bone – Phenomenal!
Now, let’s check out her books!

Starstruck (Starstruck #1)

In my experience, science fiction is a genre that takes itself far too seriously.Starstruck

Fortunately, Starstruck — S.E. Anderson’s debut novel — doesn’t have that issue. Don’t mistake: the stakes are high, both in Sally’s life and for the world at large, but this is a quirky tale that isn’t afraid to occasionally stop and take a moment to laugh at itself.

After all, Sally goes from a relatively dead-end life to one in which she’s knee-deep in aliens and trying to save the world. It’s an absurd concept, and the narrative not only acknowledges that absurdity, it embraces it. Sally is a great protagonist who is surrounded by equally remarkable characters. Zander is a treat, and Blayde was so much damn fun to read — very Faith Lehane-like — that I want much more of her going forward.

Most protagonists with Sally’s backstory spend the entire story feeling sorry for themselves, but she doesn’t fall into that trope. Instead, Anderson gives her remarkable agency, revealing layers of depth and bravery even Sally doesn’t realize she has, and it is viscerally satisfying to see how much Sally grows from the first page to the last.

In a way, the ending is a little bit of a head-scratcher, but a) that’s by design, and b) this is clearly the first in a series I have on good authority will be at least five books in length. And if the future volumes are anything like Starstruck, then sci-fi fans are in for a treat.

Anderson’s debut is a fun ride with more depth than it might appear on the surface. It’s not afraid to go for a laugh, but it also takes great care in making sure Sally is at the forefront of everything. She is a fantastic character, one I’m eager to accompany on future adventures.

Starstruck is one of the best books I read in 2017, and it is highly recommended.

Rating: *****

Buy Starstruck now!

 

Alienation (Starstruck #2)

Alienation, the follow-up to S.E. Anderson’s debut sci-fi romp Starstruck, is grander in scale and far more intense than its predecessor. Don’t worry, though; there are still 20623566_10213617375530787_675999032_oplenty of laughs to be had, and Anderson never loses sight of what drives Sally and what keeps her going in spite of… well, everything.

This is very much a fish-out-of-water story. I suppose Starstruck was, to a degree, but whereas the first book had a supporting character learning a new world in Zander, Alienation puts Sally through the proverbial wringer, plunking her on a foreign planet, separating her from Zander and Blayde, and… I’m not sure which winds up harder for her, the mental anguish or the physical pain.

Seriously, Sally goes through some stuff here.

But all the qualities that made Starstruck so great remain in Alienation. Sure, the fantastic world and strange alien species are cool, and it’s fascinating to see how the locals react to Sally as much as vice versa, but the strength of this series remains the humor and the heart. There’s a certain whimsy throughout much of this book, which makes the darker, heavier passages easier to navigate, and Sally’s continued growth is evident.

For all the change Sally endured from the beginning of Starstruck to the end, she grows even more here in Alienation. To see someone so anxious, so used to life being an absolute dumpster fire, seeing Sally stand up straight, ball up her fists, and pretty much say “Alright, enough of this crap” is as satisfying a journey as zooming through the cosmos.

Too much science fiction anymore is dark, gritty, and so damn focused on apocalyptic futures. That’s fine – there can be some great stories to come from that backdrop – but Anderson’s insistence on not falling into that trope is a large part of what makes Alienation every bit the excellent read Starstruck was.

Anderson is not afraid to go for a laugh, but she also takes great pains in crafting a memorable protagonist who’s easy to fall in love with. More than anything, Anderson proves that science fiction can not only be funny, but it can also have tremendous heart.

Rating: *****

Buy Alienation now!

 

Traveler (Starstruck #3)

Traveler, the third installment in S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series, might not be as laugh-out-loud funny as its predecessors, but it is quite possibly the best, most well-rounded entry in the series to this point.38469649

A cross between Galaxy Quest and Clue, this latest has us join Sally, Zander, and Blayde as they appear on a rather large spaceship — one that winds up being not quite was it seems. In fact, very little is as it seems in this book, which in the hands of a less capable writer would be frustrating. But Anderson’s attention to character detail, and her ability to know when to let a moment breathe, make the journey worthwhile.

Though the outright laughs are not as plentiful in Traveler, there is still a whimsy to it all. The doom and gloom are doomier and gloomier than before, but Anderson never lets us forget how utterly ridiculous this all is. After all, Sally’s on a spaceship. There’s Star Trek fanfic. And a robot trying to do its best Billy Graham impression.

Yet it all works.

All three books in the series to this point have taken place in different locales, and Anderson is showing that she’s just as good at building multiple worlds as she is in crafting memorable characters. Her love for the genre is obvious, even in the moments when she lampoons it, and that’s just another piece of the puzzle that makes Traveler such a great read.

If you’re not in on this series yet, you really should be.

Rating: *****

Buy Traveler now!

 

In addition to the Starstruck series, be sure to catch S.E. Anderson’s work in several anthologies. Check out S.E. Anderson’s website, as well as her Amazon and Goodreads pages. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and be sure to check out her covers, too!

News and Notes

A lot of really exciting things going on. Let’s get right to it.

-For the second straight year, I’ll be at Tidewater Comicon (this weekend at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Va.). If you’re in the area, come on out!

-On Saturday, June 9, I will be at my first reading and signing! Join me from 6-8 p.m. at Dog Eared Books in downtown Hampton, Va. for an evening of good books, good people, and help support a newly-opened independent bookstore. Visit Dog Eared Books here, here, and here.

Notna is part of a massive giveaway on Instafreebie, the May 2018 Fantasy Extravaganza. This runs through next Tuesday (May 15), and there are over 130 books involved. Check out the first five chapters of Notna for free!

-You can also take advantage of the giveaway on its own by clicking here from now through the end of May.

-If the Jill Andersen books were a comic book series, then the latest release, Boundless, would be issue #0. The best part? It’s a great jumping-on point to the series, and it’s just 99 cents! Pick it up on your favorite e-reader today.

-I’m busy working on Betrayed, the fifth entry in the Jill Andersen series (on top of a few editing projects, and a full-time job…), but I’m really close to announcing a brand-new venture. Check this space in the coming weeks for the announcement of a new project that promises to combine the best aspects of Bounty and Notna.

OUT NOW: BOUNDLESS

Yesterday was National Superhero Day.

No, really.

So how did I celebrate? With a new release!

Boundless is a prequel to my debut novel Bounty, and it takes readers through Jill Andersen’s first adventure as the costumed vigilante Bounty. It’s exciting, violent, and the perfect jumping-on point for the Jill Andersen series.

Best of all? It’s just 99 cents.

Boundless Final_Resize

A little more than two years before the events of Bounty, Jill Andersen makes a life-altering decision. But this decision comes with consequences she didn’t foresee, and her first night as the vigilante Bounty winds up being something for which she was wholly unprepared.

A crisis of faith eventually gives way to certainty: both in terms of discovering who killed a young man named Johnny Ruiz and in terms of coping with the latest change in her own life.

Along the way, Jill defies death and discovers just how deep the city’s corruption runs. But will she survive the experience long enough to decide if a life of vigilantism is for her?

Just 99 cents — available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and other digital outlets

 

Also Out Now
Notna is now available! Get your copy.

Behind the Mask (Jill Andersen #4) is now available! Get your copy.

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

BOUNDLESS: Chapter Four

The process of re-writing Boundless continues. Here’s chapter 4!

Dental records had confirmed that it was, in fact, Madison DuvalBoundless Final_Resizestuffed in the supply closet with his jaw blown clean off. While the preliminary analysis pointed toward suicide, the ME working the case had his doubts. Harrison Sloane had worked for the Baltimore Police Department for nearly twenty-five years, and if he said it wasn’t a suicide, everyone was inclined to believe him.

For one thing, they had found the murder weapon in his left hand. Not only was Duval right-handed, but there was no residue on either of his wrists. As far as Sloane was concerned — and Jill was inclined to agree — that meant someone else had shot Duval at point-blank range and stuffed the gun in his hand.

 

The FBI was quietly celebrating Duval’s death — an agency liaison Jill had never met had told Captain Richards over the phone that Duval’s death freed up so many resources that the beancounters in D.C. were probably doing cartwheels. The truth was, though, that Jill now had two murders to solve. Duval’s death was a setback in the Johnny Ruiz investigation, and for the first time, she wished she had a partner.

The combination of department-wide layoffs and a hiring freeze, borne from a fragile economic recovery and politicians who insisted on cutting, cutting, cutting instead of finding new revenue streams, meant some officers and detectives worked solo. Most of the time, Jill enjoyed the relative freedom, but times like this she longed for a partner off whom to bounce ideas and theories.

Then again, she was fortunate to not be one of the city’s layoffs — yet — so she wasn’t about to make too much of a fuss. But she was mentally reeling over the knowledge that she had gone a few rounds with Duval himself the previous night; she was surprised both that he was that hands-on and that Riggins and his boys clearly had something to do with his death.

Jill’s theory had been that Riggins and his posse had been working for Duval. But if she was right and the bullet that blew Duval’s jaw to hell came from Riggins, then there was a new player in the mix.

But who?

The pain in her left leg was completely gone by this point, and Jill found herself once again taking inventory of the abandoned office space on the twentieth floor. If an office space could be pristine, it was now. There wasn’t even any evidence the police and forensic crews had been there earlier that day. But there was something here everyone else had missed. She was sure of it.

Earlier that day, Jill had spent her dinner break watching security footage and just as Sorenson had said, a bald-headed man approached the file cabinet before the feed gave out. It was nine at night by the time Richards had ordered her to go home. That happened far too often for the captain’s liking, and Jill couldn’t think of why he was so insistent that she go home every night. It wasn’t like she had a family to get home to.

So after changing her bandage once again, Jill had opened her armoire and slipped on the mesh armor. It had taken five minutes before she was fully decked out in black leather again, peeling the skin graft off her face and placing it in the box on the bathroom sink. She hoisted the sheath carrying her katana over her right shoulder, then turned around to take one more look at herself in the mirror.

Jill’s hair was still done up in a tight ponytail, which was no good. She flicked off the black headband and let her brown locks spill out over her shoulders. A shorter hairdo would probably be more convenient, but Jill had always liked having long hair. Besides, it now had the added benefit of concealing her face.

Not for the first time since they discovered Duval’s body, Jill’s mind went back to Riggins. He was definitely in on this, considering he had been here at the scene after Duval’s murder. According to Sloane’s autopsy report, Madison Duval had been killed almost two hours before Jill had first shown up to the office building. She couldn’t link Riggins to the murder with actual proof, but Jill was convinced Riggins had been the one to shoot Duval’s face off and shove him in a nondescript closet.

But who was pulling Riggins’ strings? He had boasted about things running much deeper than Jill realized, and at first she thought he had meant Duval. Someone as well-connected as him would’ve easily fit the bill. But considering Duval was now lying on a metal slab in a morgue, missing half his face, that wasn’t an option anymore.
So the question remained: who was Riggins working for?

Jill hadn’t returned to the office building with realistic hopes of finding a missing clue; she had been to this scene three times by now, and at no point did she find something she had previously missed. An infrared swipe of the supply closet turned up nothing unexpected: just a lot of blood and two teeth CSU had missed when collecting and cataloging evidence. Considering they already had an ID on the victim, the teeth held no significance.

No, Jill was back because some part of her hoped she would run into Riggins again. As expected, running his name through the BPD database had turned up nothing. If Jill were a betting woman, she would put down ten bucks on national and international databases faring no better. Her original theory that Riggins wasn’t his real name appeared to have weight to it, and Jill wanted him to come to her.

Ideally, he would be alone the next time they squared off. Jill had already had to fight off her share of lackeys once, and she tired of it. Lackeys were no better than suspects in the box whose sole purpose was to waste her time.

Jill wanted Riggins.

More importantly, she wanted whoever was above him, the one calling the shots. As far as Jill was concerned, Riggins was nothing more than a puppet. Maybe if she snapped off Pinocchio’s nose, Geppetto would come calling.

The thing about Riggins was, he didn’t see himself as a pawn. He thought he was the big dog. In a way, that made him dangerous, but that also made him vulnerable. People drugged up on their own self-importance were more prone to leave openings. Their vulnerabilities would be on display, giant neon arrows pointing at them.

The trick was knowing when to strike. For Jill, that time was now.

“I was wondering when you’d find him.”

Jill smiled when she heard the voice from behind. Every so often, her wishes did come true. Fighting the urge to go straight for her sword, Jill instead balled her hands into fists and kept her back to Riggins. She didn’t really want to use the sword anyway; it was for show as much as anything.

As far as Jill knew, the blade had never before sliced human flesh. It had come into her family as a gift, a show of gratitude toward her grandfather Wyatt for his heroics in the middle of World War II. Her father had treated the sword as if it were one of his own children, and Jill didn’t want to sully that by staining the blade with blood. She would do it if she had to, but the katana was little more than window dressing, an intimidation tactic. That and she couldn’t use her gun. Firing a police-issued firearm wouldn’t do much for keeping her identity a secret.

Riggins’ boots were heavy against the carpet as he approached. “Gotta say, finding out you’re a badge was a bit of a surprise. I did not see that coming.”

By the time Riggins finished talking, Jill could feel his breath against her. Her right elbow shot backwards in a blink, connecting with his nose. As he stumbled back, hands over his face, Jill twirled and kicked him in the stomach.

Riggins dropped to his knees, doubled over himself. His arms were now cradled against his midsection, blood pouring from his nose onto the carpet. He coughed with such force that Jill thought he might become ill.

“Guess you didn’t see that coming, either,” Jill said before kicking Riggins again, this time in the chin.

◊◊

By the time Riggins regained consciousness, he found himself sitting up against the wall, hands tied behind his back and his legs tied together at the ankles. His chin throbbed and his nose was swollen. Dried blood ran from his nose, over his lips, and down his chin. His stomach was sore, and Riggins doubled over as he fought the urge to gag. The sensation would bubble up inside him, and he would have to suck in as deep a breath as he could muster to fend it off — and that hurt as well.

Looking up, Riggins spat blood onto the floor. “And here I thought you fought fair.”

“Says the guy who threw a knife at me as I walked away.”

“Touché.”

He spat another mouthful of blood onto the carpet. Riggins looked up through hooded eyes at the woman hovering over him, decked out in black leather from head to toe with a sword on her back and what he could only describe as a Terminator eye shining somewhere behind a wall of scraggly, unkempt hair.

He wouldn’t believe it if he wasn’t staring right at it. All these years, he thought of superheroes as little more than figments of imagination, useless doodles in the funny books or some awful movie that still managed to rake in billions of dollars. And yet… there was one, right in front of him.

Riggins smiled despite the pain. The rumors had been true. All the rumblings he would hear in the middle of nowhere about the government looking to create super soldiers… he had assumed they were little more than flights of fancy, as if the wrong people had read too many issues of Captain America. But here stood living proof. Riggins still didn’t know her name, but he knew she was former military, and now he knew she was a cop as well. This was quite the discovery.

“This how it works now?” He chuckled. “Police can’t do something, they send their pet robot?”

“What makes you think I’m with the police?”

“Well, the fact that you were in here earlier today with a badge and gun, mostly.” Riggins shrugged and spat again.

“So you’re a spy now.” Jill shook her head. “What happened to the macho my-gun-is-bigger-than-yours tough guy?”

“Who says I can’t be both?”

Jill lowered herself into a catcher’s crouch. “Look, I don’t give two shits about you. You could be the second coming of John Riggins, for all I care. What I want is the person who killed Johnny Ruiz.”

“What about the person who killed Duval?”

“How do I know I’m not looking right at him?” The smallest of smiles crept onto Jill’s face. “Hell, for all I know, the same person committed both murders.”

“Say that’s all true.” Riggins raised his chin and looked down his nose at Jill. The dried blood on his face wasn’t all that different from the camo paint he had worn the night before. “What then? Sure, I get hauled off to prison, but you haven’t really accomplished anything, have you? A deadbeat’s still dead. And you can celebrate Duval being gone all you want, you know as well as I do someone else is just gonna take his place.”

“I don’t care about that.”

It probably wasn’t as convincing out loud as it was in Jill’s head, but there was some part of her at least that felt that way. Her job wasn’t really all that macro; a dead body would pop up somewhere and it was up to her to figure out who killed them. In that regard, Johnny Ruiz and Madison Duval were her sole focus. But she was starting to see that if she was really going to make a habit of being a vigilante, sometimes the big picture would be unavoidable.

“You’ll want to,” Riggins warned. “Because the man I work for? He can make your life hell if you’re not careful.”

“So can my boss. Who’s yours?”

Before Riggins could open his mouth, his head flung backward in tune with a gunshot from behind Jill. His body slumped back onto the floor, and by the time Jill whirled around, she saw five men covered from head to toe in specialized military gear. Heavy-duty helmets, might-vision goggles, Kevlar vests. The most advanced automatic weaponry America’s tax dollars could buy, far more advanced than the guns she had faced the night before, and they were all pointed directly at Jill. Without another thought, Jill sprinted away from Riggins’ body and ran along the wall, hoping against hope that she could outrun the spray of bullets she knew was coming.

Sure enough, the men all opened fire at once. The burst of gunfire rang in Jill’s ears, and she ducked her head as she bolted full-speed toward the tarp covering the broken window. There was no way Jill was going to get by the men and to the stairwell, and there was nowhere in the empty office to hide. Her only option was to jump, even if it meant a plummet that might severely injure her. If not worse.

She felt one of the bullets whiz past her ear. Clenching her jaw, and ignoring the dull throb that had reignited in the back of her left leg, Jill leapt at the tarp. It ripped with ease when she pushed through it.

Freefall was instant.

Jill could still hear the gunfire as her body began its rapid descent. She didn’t dare look down. Her hair whipped violently against the wind. The pressure of the breeze against her face was like a punch.

But then, much to Jill’s surprise, she landed. Not on the sidewalk, but on a metal plank that swung back and forth when she slammed into it. Scrambling back to her feet, Jill frowned and frantically searched her surroundings.

As it turned out, she had landed on a scaffolding often used for high-rise window washing. In the heat of trying not to get shot, Jill had never even noticed it. But now she was face-to-face with a thin elderly man grabbing onto the railing and staring at her. His mouth dropped, as did the squeegee in his hand. Jill could only smile and wave in return.

Jill looked up in time to see one of the military men peeking out the broken window, his weapon trained down on her. She drew her sword and ducked into a crouch, thankful that when the man opened fire again, the bullets all ricocheted off the blade.

Once the gunfire ceased, Jill sheathed the blade again and grabbed the railing before flipping herself over the edge and somersaulting downward. She then grabbed the bottom edge, still too many stories up to let herself drop to the pavement.

Gunfire resumed, severing one of the ropes. As the left side of the platform tilted downward and the entire thing started careening toward the ground, Jill flipped back over the railing and cradled herself over the old man. The rope caught on the spindle once the platform was hovering just over the second story. The sudden stop nearly sent both Jill and the old man over the ledge, but she grabbed the rail with a free hand to keep her balance. She gritted her teeth, tightening her grip and doing her best to ignore the pain in her shoulder.

Once the gunfire quit again, Jill lifted the man into her arms and jumped over the edge. She landed with a grunt before setting the man back down to his feet.

“You alright?” she asked.

The man, who wore a bushy white mustache and large-rim glasses, nodded and glanced up at the sky. He straightened the dirty hat atop his head and shrugged, adjusting the strap of his faded overalls threatening to slip off his left shoulder.

“Don’t s’pose I could get workman’s comp for this?”

Jill looked skyward, reaching up to initiate her infrared sight again. Another tap of her temple allowed her to zoom in, but the man was no longer positioned by the broken window. If she had to guess, Jill figured the commandos were tending to Riggins. Whoever was controlling him had decided he was no longer of use, conveniently right as she was trying to get information out of him.

That told Jill she was close, a lot closer than she realized.

“Sue your employer. That’s what everyone else does.” She looked at the old man again, who appeared to be none the worse for wear. “Listen, I need you to do me a favor. Call the cops, tell them there’s been a murder on the twentieth floor. And whatever you do, don’t mention me. Got it?”

By the time the man turned to reply, Jill was already gone.

 

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Read Chapter 1 here | Read Chapter 2 here | Read Chapter 3 here

Behind the Mask, the fourth entry in the Jill Andersen series, is now available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Be sure to check out the entire series, no matter your reader of choice.

BOUNDLESS: Chapter Three (AND COVER REVEAL!)

The process of re-writing Boundless continues. Here’s chapter 3! Also, check out the new cover, another fantastic creation from Sarah Anderson!

As she had hoped, a good night’s sleep had done wonders for Jill’s leg. It still hurt, and Boundless Final_Resizeshe still had a minor limp, but the bleeding had stopped. The red stain in her bandage was far smaller than Jill had expected, and her biggest issue upon slipping out of bed was how stiff she was.

When she had finally conked out the night before, Jill had fallen into such a deep sleep that she hardly moved. It took several long stretches before Jill could lift herself from the mattress and stagger to the bathroom.

Cringing at the sight of the leather pile on the floor, and the katana in the bathtub, Jill shook her head and stared at herself in the mirror. Several times in recent months, she had considered seeking a roommate — but her double life ruled that out, even if it meant expenses occasionally overwhelmed her. Snatching her outfit and boots, Jill wandered back into the bedroom before tossing them into the armoire on the far side of the room.

She did the same to the sword before placing the lock in its place. Her phone chimed as the lock clicked into place, and Jill leaned over to see the screen. Captain Daniel Richards had sent a text letting her know there had been a break in the Ruiz case and he was on his way to pick her up.

Heading back to the bathroom, thanking whatever deity would listen that her limp was almost gone, Jill pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail before applying a healthy dose of deodorant to her underarms. Another glance in the mirror, and Jill quirked a brow. Last night, her nose was slightly swollen; now, it appeared to have returned to normal. The bruises she had sustained had also disappeared, and aside from the dull throb at the base of her skull, Jill appeared the picture of health. Accelerated healing was a wonderful thing, even if it hadn’t finished the job yet.

She could at least hide a headache. Or blame it on a lack of caffeine.

Opening a small blue box sitting on the right side of the sink, Jill pulled a skin graft and gave herself another long look in the mirror. The eyeplate surrounding her left eye was the most obvious reminder of Project Fusion, the only thing she truly had to hide from the rest of the world. Originally, it was simply a matter of not wanting to startle everyone. Now she had a secret identity to keep.

Fortunately, an old contact of hers once affiliated with Project Fusion had created the graft for her. The patch matched her skin tone perfectly, with the added benefit of making it look as if her left eye was as green and vibrant as her right. Jill never bothered to ask how it worked — mostly because she wasn’t sure she’d understand it.

Sweat didn’t both the graft, which was great for those humid July afternoons, and Jill could shower with it on and go swimming with it.

Wearing the graft gave Jill a brief sensation of normal. But it was fleeting, and she was glad for it. Jill wasn’t normal, whatever that word meant anymore, and she liked it that way. Wanting to be a cop wasn’t normal, for most people, and neither was wanting to be a superhero. Physically, Jill was the picture of health, and aside from her titanium skeleton and the chip in her head, her insides were just like anyone else’s.

The skin graft in place, Jill removed the bandage on her leg and placed a damp washcloth to clean what was left of the wound. The process of cleaning and applying a new bandage was far quicker this time, given her increased range of motion, and by the time Jill finished, her phone buzzed again.

Captain Richards was outside, waiting in his squad car.

Unlocking her armoire again, Jill produced her badge and service piece from a small wooden box. She holstered both to her belt, locking the armoire again before leaving her apartment, taking two flights of stairs to street level. It helped stretch out her leg, and she got rid of what was left of her limp. The pain was still there, but it was more of a dull throb than anything. She could easily ignore it.

Jill slipped into the passenger’s seat of a black Crown Vic and immediately reached for the cardboard cup on the console between her and Richards. Her shoulders relaxed after the first sip.

“Hazelnut,” she said with a smile. “Just what I needed.”

Daniel Richards, a black man sporting a thick black mustache with flecks of gray on the ends, stared at Jill with a quirked brow. “Rough night?”

Jill shrugged and took another swig. “Late night. Was studying case files.”

Richards shook his head and pulled into traffic. “Ruiz or your dad?”

Jill kept her gaze on the windshield, mindful of the conversation they’d had several months ago when Richards had found her in the archive room, thumbing through Paul Andersen’s file. Richards had threatened Jill with demotion if she removed files from that room or didn’t inform him of new developments, but he hadn’t told her to stop.

Richards probably knew telling Jill not to look into her father’s case would have only driven her deeper into it. Then again, Richards had been a damn fine detective, so he was pretty smart.

“Ruiz,” she admitted around another sip. The coffee was as much a habit as anything else. It was far better than the muck they served at the precinct; how no one could brew a decent cup of coffee in a work environment where people relied on the stuff was beyond Jill. The soda machine in the back corner saw more action at the Seventh than the coffee maker, even if it had a habit of eating dollar bills and giving nothing in return.

“What have I told you about bringing your work home?”

Jill glanced out the passenger’s side window. “That I’m better off getting a dog.”

Richards pulled the Crown Vic into an open spot by the curb, fishing his badge from the inside pocket of his brown leather coat and pulling the door open. He adjusted his black-rim glasses and stared skyward “Just don’t want you to get burnt out.”

Jill stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her, chugging the rest of her coffee. When she tossed the empty cup into a nearby trash can, Jill noticed where they had stopped: a high-rise business complex at the corner of Cider Alley and Paca Street. Her heart leapt into her throat, her mind instantly going to the trail of blood she had left the night before — to say nothing of the carnage on the twentieth floor.

“Another body?” she asked, hoping her nonchalance held.

“Not quite.” Richards nodded at the informed officer standing on the corner before yanking open a heavy door leading to a dimly-lit stairwell. It resembled the stairwell Jill had descended the night before, but there was no sign she had ever been there. No blood stains. No trace of anything. Jill hung behind Richards as they climbed the stairs, frowning in confusion.

“Ugh.” Richards shook his head. “Just the thought of climbing all these steps makes me wanna puke. But the elevators are down.”

Jill’s stomach churned and her leg started aching again. What would they find up there? Little more than an empty office space with a shattered window? Bodies littered everywhere? Blood stains in the carpet, maybe even a blood-soaked knife that would put Jill on the scene once the forensics team did their thing?

She held back on her fear, though, because to give it voice was to arise suspicion and risk blowing her cover. There was no use admitting to something her captain didn’t know about yet. Besides, she shuddered to think what the man who was basically her surrogate father would think of her double life.
Captain Richards had been Paul’s partner when they were both detectives. Not only had they been one of the city’s best crime-fighting duos, but they were practically brothers. Jill had lost count of how many times her family had gone to Daniel’s house for dinner, and she fondly remembered how Dan and his wife Evelyn considered Jill and Brian their own children. The Richards were never able to have kids of their own, and they had doted on the Andersen children whenever possible.

That continued even after Paul’s arrest. Daniel had been the one to slap the cuffs on him, and ever since then, he had done everything he could to be there for Jill. She still had weekly dinners with Daniel and Evelyn, and even though Brian was never as close to the Richards as Jill, Daniel had always made it clear that were Jill and Brian to ever reconcile, he would be just as welcome.

She was glad to be assigned to his precinct. Not just because of how close they were, but because there was no telling how Jill would be treated at another precinct. For one thing, she was a woman working in a masculine field, and the fact that she was the daughter of a cop brought about its own baggage — and that didn’t even get into the fact that her father was on Death Row.

At least this way, she knew someone had her back.

By the time they got to the twentieth floor, Richards was struggling for breath. He was trying to play it off, act like he was fine, but those years of smoking had clearly taken their toll. Jill frowned when she took in her surroundings. Not only was there no blood on the floor, but there were no bodies anywhere. The window that had been broken the previous night — no thanks to her face — was covered with a white translucent tarp.

“Uh, Dan? There’s nothing here.”

“That’s because,” Richards paused, gulping down one more deep breath, “that’s because something was stolen.”

“Stolen.” Jill shook her head and took another long look at her surroundings. This wasn’t making any sense. “But… we’re Homicide, not Robbery.”

A stocky uniformed officer named Greg Sorenson approached the captain and Jill with a wooden clipboard. He adjusted his hat and nodded his greeting. “Security cam footage shows a man breaking in through the stairwell around midnight last night and approaching a metal file cabinet in the far corner.”

Jill’s eyes instantly went to the spot in question. There was nothing there.

“Greg? Hate to burst your bubble here…”

“But here’s the thing.” Sorenson set down his clipboard. “The footage stops right as the man got to it. Fade to black, cut to snow, all that shit. Cameras were still disabled when we got here.”

“How’d we know to come here?” Jill asked.

“Tip came from Robbery.” Richards gave a one-shoulder shrug. “Once they found out the building was leased in Duval’s name, they called me.”

“Couldn’t have been easy, luggin’ that cabinet outta here.” Sorenson pointed at the empty spot against the wall. “Thing was almost six feet tall. Probably heavy as fuck.”

Now that Jill thought about it, the file cabinet hadn’t been there last night, either. So whoever stole the file cabinet did so and left before Jill got there. Fortunate for her, because that meant her little exploit hadn’t been caught on camera.

Still… what happened to the men who had attacked her? Where was all the blood? Someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble to make it look like nothing happened the previous night, including a clean-up job that extended down twenty flights of stairs and out to the sidewalk.

Comforted as Jill was by the fact that she wouldn’t be outed so soon into her superhero career, having someone tailing her and cleaning up her messes was an unnerving thought.

She turned back to Sorenson. “Please tell me we got a good look at the guy.”

Sorenson shook his head. “Just the back of his head.”

“What was in the file cabinet?” Jill asked.

“According to our tip,” Richards said, “everything that would implicate Madison Duval.”

Jill shook her head. “Why not go to the FBI with that? They’re the ones investigating him.”

“Not for the murder of Johnny Ruiz.”

Jill’s mind wandered back to the military types she had encountered the previous night, Riggins in particular. He had made it a point to tell Jill just how in over her head she was, how whoever was pulling the strings on all this was untouchable. Duval certainly fit the profile, and it made sense that he would get rid of files implicating himself. Get police investigating the “stolen” file cabinet and they won’t think twice about the murder he committed.

It was Super Successful Businessman Bad Guy 101.

Having slipped on a pair of gloves, Jill approached the door next to where the file cabinet had supposedly been. The door was completely nondescript, probably leading to a simple supply closet. Jill hadn’t noticed the door in the scrum the previous night, and it probably meant nothing. Another dead end, like so many other things about this case.

Only the dead ends in this case weren’t the result of police incompetence; more likely, they were intentional on Duval’s part. He was just smart enough to pull the strings, to keep the cops guessing until the trail ran cold and he could move on to the next shady deal. But what kind of cop would Jill be if she didn’t exhaust every possibility, no matter how unlikely?

“Dan,” she called out over her shoulder. “Back me up here.”

There probably wasn’t anything on the other side of the door, but Jill wouldn’t be a good cop if she didn’t prepare herself. Her free hand went to the gun on her hip, fingers wrapping around cold metal. She kept her grip on the weapon loose as she turned the knob. Jill and Richards exchanged a nod before she stepped back and pulled the door open. She drew her weapon at the same time, only to watch as a body slumped over and fell to the floor.

The lower part of the man’s face was destroyed and there was a hole in the back of his head. His jaw was completely gone, as was the lower row of teeth and most of the man’s tongue. Dried blood stained his white dress shirt and dark gray suit. Eyes rolled back into his head. A handgun hung loosely in his left hand.

Jill glanced back at the open door, seeing a good amount a blood spatter on the back wall of a supply closet. A broom had been knocked over, along with a roll of paper towels. Several teeth and chunks of muscle were strewn about the floor.

While Jill was no medical examiner, her first guess was that the gun had been placed in his mouth and the trigger pulled. If that were the case, then they were looking at a suicide — either that, or something that was supposed to look like a suicide. More importantly, the man resembled the first man she had encountered the previous night: the one with the red hair and scruff. Even with half his face blown off, Jill could tell who this was.

She stood with a sigh and shook her head, fishing out her smartphone and pulling up the camera before snapping a series of haphazard shots. Forensics would come by later and take better pictures, but for now, her grainy phone would have to serve as a baseline.

“Holy shit,” Richards said.

Jill glanced over her shoulder and frowned. “What?”

Daniel pointed to the bald spot on top of the man’s head. “I think that’s Duval.”

 

 

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Read Chapter 1 here | Read Chapter 2 here

Behind the Mask, the fourth entry in the Jill Andersen series, is now available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Be sure to check out the entire series, no matter your reader of choice.

BOUNDLESS: Chapter Two

The process of re-writing Boundless continues. Here’s chapter 2!

No sooner did Jill push through the door to her apartment, she collapsed. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle, so she hadn’t left much of a trail down the hallway, but the loss had left her lightheaded. Jill had somehow managed to shut the door before rolling onto her back and gritting her teeth. Why couldn’t Project Fusion have made her skin impenetrable? Though the bleeding had nearly stopped, the pain was, in a way, worse than when she still had a blade buried in her leg. The burning and throbbing were almost unbearable.

Jill reached for the back of her leg. The second her fingers touched leather, a jolt shot up her spine and she cried out. Jill clasped her hand over her mouth; the last thing she needed was a concerned neighbor checking on her or asking for help. Ms. Reynolds in 4D was a lovely woman, but she didn’t know Jill’s secret — and it needed to stay that way.

Someone calling the paramedics would be even worse. Word would almost certainly get back to the Baltimore Police Department, and that would be bad for Jill on several fronts. So whether she liked it or not, Jill was on her own in this.

Gritting her teeth, Jill looked up at the wall for something to grab onto for leverage. She had to find a way to get up again without moving her leg. Even with her considerable strength and other enhancements, the exertion took nearly as much out of Jill as the fight over an hour ago.

She huffed several breaths before digging her fingers into the dingy carpet and lifting herself onto her elbows. It took three tries, but eventually Jill hoisted herself upright again. Clutching the wall, she kept her leg hovering just off the floor. The carpet was so rough that Jill refused to walk barefoot over it, so there was no telling what it would do to stab wound.

Jill blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Fuck…”

Her first night as a costumed vigilante had been going well, all things considered. Sure, she’d had her face smashed into a high-rise window and wound up staring down an arsenal of military-grade weaponry. But Jill had defeated all those men with surprising ease. Not only was she in shape from a personal history that included high school soccer, a stint in the Army, and breezing through the Police Academy, but she had an advantage most could only dream of.

While in the Army, Jill had volunteered to undergo a secret scientific experiment called Project Fusion. The brainchild of noted cybernetics expert Dr. Trent Roberts, the project took human prosthetics and cybernetics to the next level. By the time Jill had recovered from the procedure, her entire skeleton was grafted in titanium, she boasted super strength, speed, and agility, and her left eye was capable of infrared sight thanks to a supercomputer the size of a bread crumb embedded in her brain. Jill was practically the Bionic Woman… despite being remarkably human in every other respect.

Even now, she could feel the wound stitching itself closed. Accelerated healing was also on her laundry list of abilities, even if it paled in comparison to a certain Canadian comic book hero her brother loved as a child.

Jill took a step and promptly lost her balance before grabbing the edge of the kitchen sink. For once, her apartment’s diminutive size worked in her favor, even if the bathroom was still too far away for her liking.

She hopped on her right leg, keeping the other leg as still as possible until she crossed into the bathroom and flipped on the light switch. The bulb overhead flickered as Jill reached for the white First Aid box sitting on the back of the toilet, tossing it onto the sink and ripping open the lid.

Her First Aid kit was essential even when only taking into account Jill’s day job. But now that she had added “costumed vigilante” to her resume’, it was even more important. But Jill had known that to be the case long before she ever put the leather on. To this point, she hadn’t told anyone of her plan — not just because it would mean she didn’t have a secret identity, but because she knew they would all try to talk her out of it.

Then again, who was there in Jill’s life at the moment? To call her younger brother Brian estranged would have been generous. Daniel Richards, captain of the Baltimore Police Department’s Seventh Precinct, was like a father to her — but he was also her boss. Her actual father, Paul, sat on Death Row. Her mother, Janice, had been buried for almost a decade after hanging herself.

Richards would call Jill a damn fool if he ever found out what she was doing, and he’d probably be right. But Jill could never talk herself out of this. Not once did she ever doubt what she was going to do. Not a night went by anymore when Jill stared out her window, overlooking her hometown, and didn’t think of how she could make things better.

But now, staring at her own reflection, seeing the way the harsh light reflected off her eyeplate, Jill couldn’t keep the doubts at bay. She cried out in pain when she tried to lift her leg onto the sink. The wound might have been healing, but she was sure she had just torn it open again. So she hobbled to the toilet instead, lowering herself onto the bowl with a hiss.

What a night this had turned into… a stab wound, an accompanying muscle cramp, and Jill was no closer to finding out who killed Johnny Ruiz than she had been when the day started.

A homicide detective with the BPD, like her father before her, Jill had been the first on the scene almost twenty-four hours ago when a call came in about a body stuffed in a dumpster between the city’s football and baseball stadiums. Jill was aghast not just at the state of Ruiz’s body, but at the thought of someone being murdered near the city’s most iconic backdrop. After all, the B&O Warehouse that ran behind the right-field fence at Camden Yards was as close to sacred ground as the city had now that Memorial Stadium was gone and replaced by senior community centers, a YMCA, and a youth baseball field.

As it turned out, though, Ruiz had not been killed there — just dumped. A gunshot wound in his forehead gave away cause of death, but there was no blood pool or spatter in the dumpster or the surrounding area. A forensics unit later discovered an abandoned Cadillac near One Charles Center, blood spatter all over the back seat, as well as gunpowder residue and a slug matching the bullet in Ruiz’s brain.

The car had been reported stolen the week before, leading Jill to a man named Madison Duval. Duval was rumored to be a powerful crime boss in the city, running an underground drug syndicate that perpetually fed cocaine into West Baltimore. Drug arrests in that part of the city had increased by fifty percent in the past two months, and Narcotics officers believed Ruiz was a runner for Duval.

Captain Richards had received a call early that afternoon from a contact with the FBI, claiming Ruiz had actually been an informant. So the running theory was that Ruiz had been feeding Duval’s secrets to the feds and Duval had been tipped. One late-night car ride later, Ruiz had a bullet in his brain and Duval didn’t seem all that concerned with being caught.

Ruiz had been dressed to resemble a homeless man, but his attire and the location where his body was found were as far as the charade went. Had any other precinct caught the case, it might have worked. But Jill wasn’t one to let things go without digging as deep as she could; if she didn’t know any better, she could swear Duval was practically rubbing law enforcement’s nose in it. Like he wanted everyone to know what he did and that he was probably going to get away with it.

The problem was, he was probably right. Duval was one of the city’s most untouchable men, regardless of how legitimate his business was. His wealth and connections made quite the shield. He knew just enough people in the right places to keep scrutiny pointed elsewhere. The only reason the FBI had been tailing him was because he hadn’t yet infiltrated that agency.

The case had hit a standstill by the time the sun set, but the minute Jill heard Duval’s name, she decided this was as good a time as any to do a little unofficial investigating. After all, if law enforcement couldn’t touch him, she might as well try with her still-developing alter ego.

A contact in the mayor’s office had tipped her to the high-rise office building on the corner of Cider Alley and Paca Street. The twentieth floor supposedly held all the files that would implicate Duval, not just in Johnny Ruiz’s murder, but in several other illegal dealings. If the FBI could get its hands on the files that were reportedly housed on that floor…

Only once Jill had gotten there, the place was empty. There had been no files. Instead, Jill wound up squaring off against a handful of G.I. Joe wannabes, including head honcho Riggins — who swore up and down this went far deeper than Jill knew. To say nothing of the original assailant, whose identity she still hadn’t discovered.
If Riggins was telling the truth, the police stood no chance.

Earlier that night, when Jill had first slipped into her costume, she thought she had it all figured out. Between the leather, the armor, and the sword on her back that was actually a family heirloom, Jill had left her apartment as confident as ever. Now, as she slipped the sheath from her back and leaned the weapon against the tub, cringing at the pain and questioning why she ever thought this was a good idea.

Nothing in the First Aid kit was suitable for a knife wound like this, but Jill would have to improvise because going to the hospital was out of the question. She was not going to blow her cover on the first night.

Jill sucked in a deep breath, removing her gloves before running a washcloth under the faucet and wringing it out once the warm water had soaked through. She then removed the sword from its holster, laying the weapon in the tub and biting down on the leather sheath. She could already tell cleaning this wound was going to be excruciating, and the last thing she wanted was for her scream to wake kind Ms. Reynolds.

Biting down harder and squeezing her eyes shut, Jill pressed the damp cloth to her wound. As expected, the pain was grueling. Her scream was muffled by the strap and Jill’s leg trembled, but she held the cloth in place. A sharp pain rippled throughout her body, catching Jill by surprise. She let go of the strap and bit down on her lip. Even if she cut her lip open, it beat crying out in pain.

In some ways, this hurt worse than the initial injury. Even as the wound slowly but surely stitched itself back together, the slow trickle of blood seeped through the washcloth. Jill shook and her human eye rolled into the back of her head.\

Fuck,’” she hissed. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck…”

Was this her life now?

Huddled up in the bathroom at all hours of the night, tending to her own wounds?

Once the cloth lost its dampness, Jill removed it from her leg and stared at the dark stain in the center. Her leg was still shaking and the pain was slow to dissipate, lingering just below the surface of her skin. Jill tossed the rag into the sink and sat back against the commode with a ragged sigh.

What on Earth had made her think this was a good idea?

Gritting her teeth against the pain so hard her jaw started to hurt, Jill unzipped her bodysuit and pulled her arms from the sleeves. She then untied her combat boots, which proved difficult given her lack of mobility. But she managed to get the laces loose and push the shoes off without reaching down any further than necessary.

Forcing herself to stand, Jill kept her left leg inches off the floor. She pushed the leather the rest of the way off until it pooled at her ankles. A black pair of compression shorts stopped mid-thigh, just above the wound. Jill sat on the toilet again and grabbed a roll of heavy-duty bandage.

Wrapping the bandage around her leg hurt worse than Jill expected, but she steeled herself against it, adding several layers before cutting the bandage from the roll and securing it with medical-grade adhesive. Expensive stuff, but apparently worth it if she was going to make this double life a recurring thing.

Gingerly, Jill pressed her left foot to the floor. It still hurt, but far less than she expected. Lifting herself upright again, Jill left the costume and the sword in a heap to be tended to the next morning. She wasn’t on-call until noon the next day, despite the fact she was working an active case. As thankful as Jill was for the chance to sleep, she wondered how she was going to explain her limp the next day. Hopefully, it would have healed enough by then that there would be no limp, but she had to be prepared.

She spent her days surrounded by detectives. They would notice.

Most nights, sleep was immediate. The rigors of her day job were often enough to wear Jill out so much that she would be asleep the moment she walked through the door. Add in the night’s festivities in that office building, and Jill was sure she would pass out the second her head hit the pillow.

Yet once she got to her bed, Jill found herself wide awake. The pain wasn’t keeping her up, nor was the case. Jill rolled onto her right side, tucking her arms under the pillow and staring into the bathroom. Her costume was clear as day, even with the light out.

Again, Jill wondered what the hell she was doing. As bad ideas went, this probably ranked up there with the time her brother tried to eat a bowl of chili while playing video games. Three months later, the Nintendo still smelled like cheese and that stain had never come out of the rug. Then again, Brian’s stunt all those years ago hadn’t resulted in him taking a knife to the leg. Their mother might have reminded Brian that his father had a gun — in jest, of course — but no physical harm had come of it.

The double life always seemed so easy in those comic books Brian used to read. By day, the hero was a dashing businessman or an intrepid reporter or a fighter pilot or even a professor. By night, they transformed into a brave, death-defying crime fighter dedicating their life to saving those who couldn’t save themselves. That was all Jill wanted to do. Her badge went a long way in that regard, but it wasn’t enough.

Not in this city.

Over the past calendar year, Baltimore had averaged almost two homicides a day — to say nothing of drug-related offenses, robberies, and the like. The police were, among other things, overworked. Depending on which newspaper one read, they were also incompetent. Truth was, a lot of them were taking money under the table from outside sources, so what some saw as incompetence might have actually been willful neglect.

Then there was the worst insult of all. Her father had once been Baltimore’s most decorated cop. He had a key to the city, the highest closure rate in his precinct. He had a loving wife, a good son, and a daughter who worshiped him. But over a decade ago, Paul was arrested and charged with three murders. Gruesome acts that left bodies unrecognizable and appeared to be the work of a deranged serial killer.

Yet all of the state’s evidence pointed to Paul and he was found guilty. As such, he had been sentenced to die. His lawyers had drug the process out with appeals and injunctions, but as it currently stood, Baltimore’s greatest hero was two years away from being put down. Not even a recently-elected governor vowing to abolish the death penalty would save him.

Jill became a cop because of her father. When she was little, she was in awe of the way Paul fought for all that was good in the world He put the bad guys behind bars and came home every night with a smile on his face. Her father and her boss, who had been his partner at the time, were like Batman and Robin to her.

In those formative years, Jill never understood her brother’s fascination with comic books because, as far as she was concerned, they lived with a real-life superhero. Paul was what she wanted to be when she grew up. As much as Janice had hated the thought, nothing was going to keep Jill from getting her badge.

A stint in the Army, and two tours in Iraq, couldn’t even do that.

But Jill could see that being a cop wasn’t enough. Her hometown was still in trouble, and her efforts thus far to clear Paul’s name had been in vain. There was no way she was going to let the state of Maryland kill an innocent man. Jill didn’t care what the prosecution said, she didn’t care what some jury decided. Her father did not kill those three people, and she had a little over two years to prove it.

But not before she figured out a way to tie Duval to Johnny Ruiz’s murder.

 

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Read Chapter One here.

Behind the Mask, the fourth entry in the Jill Andersen series, is now available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Be sure to check out the entire series, no matter your reader of choice.

BOUNDLESS: Chapter One

I’m in the process of re-writing Boundless, the prequel short to my debut novel Bounty. Earlier this week, I shared the first chapter of the re-write to my newsletter subscribers; now, I post it here for you. Enjoy!

Jill was glad the left side of her face was made of metal.

Otherwise, the shards of glass raining down around her would have hurt far more. Her face stung as it was, having smashed against the window like that. A large hand tugged on the back of her bodysuit, meaty fingers wrapped around black leather with surprising give. Jill’s assailant yanked her away from the plane glass, and a gust of wind rushed onto the twentieth floor of the downtown high-rise. A flick of the man’s wrist sent Jill across the room, her back slamming against the wall and a framed photograph crashing to the floor.

More shattered glass.

Jill Andersen had crawled back to her feet by the time her attacker drew close again. She ducked his left fist, which buried itself in the wall behind her. She slammed her own fist into the man’s stomach, and when he doubled over, she wrapped her hands around his neck and flung him face-first into the carpet. She yanked off his black ski mask before he could get back to his feet, tossing it aside and grabbing him by the collar.

“Alright, fuckface,” she growled through labored breath, “you’re paying for that window.”

The silver on the left side of Jill’s face surrounded an infrared eye, which shone brighter than usual in the darkness of the office. She made sure the light hovered in her attacker’s field of vision. His red beard was close-trimmed, his eyes impossibly blue. They were also useless, with the red light shining in his face. He reached out to wrap his hands around Jill’s neck, but his aim was off and Jill’s grip on him was impossibly tight.

Jill was decked out head to toe in black leather and matching combat boots, the lone holdover from her military days. A layer of silver mesh armor laid beneath the suit, and Jill wore black gloves that reached her elbows. A katana was strapped to her back, though she hoped she wouldn’t have to use it. During the day, Jill was one to wear her brown hair in a ponytail, but in this outfit, having her long locks hanging down over her face seemed more fitting.

It added to the mystique, but it also helped keep her identity secret. The eyeplate on her face, which ran from her cheek to her hairline, also helped. The infrared sensor and microscopic supercomputer in her brain made all this possible, as did the titanium coating her entire skeleton.

“I know what you did,” Jill said, tightening her grip. Her attacker’s eyes grew wide and his legs swung when she lifted him off the floor, not unlike the way her younger brother Brian’s legs used to swing off the pier whenever they visited Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as children. Back in those days, Jill had always wanted to jump right into the Chesapeake Bay, but Brian had always been content to sit on the edge.

“Doesn’t,” the man began, cringing when Jill tightened her grip. “Doesn’t matter.”

Jill frowned. The man was scared, but not of her. Not that she necessarily wanted someone to be scared of her — okay, maybe just a little — but fear of the mysterious other meant things were more complicated than she thought. Still, some fear directed her way would be nice. This costume wasn’t cheap, especially on her salary.

“Kill me if you want,” he added. “You’ll never touch him.”

“I’m not gonna kill you,” Jill said. “But I’m thinking whoever ‘he’ is might, once he finds out what went down here.”

The man slipped into a tight grin, ramming the sole of his boot into Jill’s knee. She lost her grip when her leg buckled and she stumbled back to regain her footing. Her attacker dropped to a knee and pulled a gun from beneath the waistband of his fatigues. But by the time he was upright again, Jill spun on her heel and kicked the gun out of his grasp. She used that momentum to spin completely around, pinning the man’s arm against her side and twisting until his elbow popped from its socket.

He howled in pain and crumpled to the floor before Jill’s boot smashed into his nose. The blow knocked him unconscious, blood oozing from his nostrils and onto the carpet.

Catching her breath, having vastly underrated how physically exhausting her first foray as a vigilante would be, Jill pressed her index finger to her left temple. With a flash, her surroundings were bathed in infrared light. Other than the damage the battle had done to the window and opposite wall, broken glass and blood stains on the carpet, the otherwise abandoned space was fine.

A door slammed behind Jill, and she turned off the infrared sight as she whirled around to see six men dressed head to toe in Black Ops gear pointing their high-powered weapons at her. Jill’s heart skipped a beat and she raised her hands in the international sign of surrender.

Six red dots converged on the center of Jill’s chest. Her infrared eye matched their glow; were it not for the bursts of red, Jill would almost be swallowed up by her surroundings. Between her black bodysuit and dark hair — to say nothing of her black lipstick — the costume was as stealthy as it was form-fitting. The leather on its own had plenty of give, but the armor Jill put on underneath had made movement an occasional issue.

If she survived the night, Jill would have to consider eventual upgrades. And in hindsight, a couple practice runs in this outfit were probably a good idea.

“Um… hi, guys.”

The commando furthest to Jill’s right crab-walked toward the unconscious man, dropping to a knee and pressing two fingers to his neck. He removed his bulky night-vision goggles and nodded at the others. If their reactions were any indication, the fact that Jill’s attacker was still alive was a good thing. It didn’t make them lower their weapons — modified M16A2s, if Jill had to guess — but their shoulders tensed and fingers that had rested on triggers moved.

Jill felt her heart pounding in her chest. On top of that, her arms were starting to get sore — but she kept them raised, because any movement would probably cause the men standing in front of her to pull their triggers. As tough as Jill’s armor likely was, she doubted it could handle military-grade weaponry.

“Okay, you know I didn’t kill him,” she said. “So why don’t you just let me walk out of here and you guys can still hit Happy Hour at O’Shea’s?”

Two of the commandos flanked out to Jill’s left, while two others took position to her right. They stood equidistant from one another, trapping Jill in a perfect circle of heavy-duty firepower. Their movements were slow, with purpose; whoever these men were, they were clearly professionals. Jill was loathe to admit, even to herself, how out of her league she likely was.

The soldier standing directly in front of Jill lowered his weapon and turned off his night-vision goggles. As he approached Jill, he took the goggles off and smirked. Once he was disturbingly close to Jill’s personal space, she could see the streaks of camo paint on his face. It matched the rest of his getup, and it would’ve been perfect had they been in a jungle and not a generic corporate building.

The look was, to be perfectly frank, macho military man cliche. The man even had an impossible square jaw and close-cropped hair. He stood in front of Jill and clasped his hands together behind his back, raising his chin.

It was all Jill could do not to roll her human eye. “At ease.”

“Funny.” The lead commando pursed his lips. “You don’t strike me as the military type.” One of the man’s eyebrows shot toward the ceiling. “Unless the rumors are true. Tell me, what’s your name?”

Despite her arms screaming in protest, Jill made sure not to move. She still had multiple semiautomatic weapons trained on her, and the last thing she wanted was her first night as a superhero to end in a puddle of blood. Though her infrared sight was off, her left eye still glowed red — and the man didn’t flinch when it shined in his face.

Which was actually impressive.

“You first,” Jill said, barely containing a smile.

“My name isn’t important,” he said, even as he wore a name tag that read Riggins. Whether that was his real name, Jill couldn’t be sure, but the irony was still there. “Let’s just say… when Special Forces can’t get the job done, me and my men are the ones they call.”

“Off the books, unlimited budget, no accountability.” Jill nodded once, the move deliberate. “That about right? You do Uncle Sam’s dirty work?”

“Uncle Sam can’t afford me.” Riggins took another step, his nose almost brushing against Jill’s. His cologne tickled her nostrils, and were those guns not still trained on her, Jill would have doubled over and gagged.

“Really.” Jill chewed on her lower lip. “Who can?”

“Certainly not the flunky you sent to Dreamland.” Riggins smirked and tossed a nod in the unconscious commando’s direction. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“I have the right to remain silent.”

“Which would be great, if you were under arrest.” Riggins gave another nod and all four men lowered their weapons. As soon as Jill lowered her arms, her hands balled into tight fists. Out of the corner of her right eye — the human one — she saw one of the commandos dragging away the man she had left unconscious. She wanted to call attention to it, but with her luck, those weapons would be trained on her again.

The adrenaline from the earlier brawl had worn off, leaving a throbbing pain in the left side of Jill’s face. The titanium reinforcement had been great for ensuring Jill wouldn’t sustain lasting damage, but she could still feel pain. Something told her a shower of bullets would still be pretty damn painful.

Her best bet was Riggins saying or doing something foolish, because in all honesty, she was itching for another fight. Answers were the true endgame, but if Jill had to crack open a few skulls to get them — well, wasn’t that why she got this outfit in the first place?

“C’mon,” Riggins said. “One vet to another… who are you really?”

“You know, I haven’t actually thought of a name yet.” Jill let a smile tug on her lips, tossing a one-shoulder shrug. “I’m open to suggestions, though.”

Riggins grabbed Jill by the neck, and every nerve screamed for her to retaliate. But she had to assume the other commandos were quick draws, and that she would be dropped before her hands reached Riggins. Instead, Jill clenched her jaw and stared into Riggins’ eyes, her fists starting to shake. The adrenaline made a swift return, accompanied by a healthy dose of anger.

“I don’t know who you are, or what you think you’re trying to accomplish,” Riggins said, “but you’re so out of your element. You have no idea what you’re up against.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

Jill headbutted Riggins before he could react, the sound of metal slamming against skin distracting the other commandos. Riggins dropped to the floor, cradling his forehead in both hands and writhing in pain as blood oozed out between his fingers. Jill twirled to her left, ducking a punch from one of the other men before grabbing and breaking his wrist.

He screamed in pain, and Jill flipped over him as the other commando to her left drew his weapon. He suppressed the trigger, but wound up shooting his friend with the broken wrist three times. The bullets tore into the man’s protective vest instead of Jill, and the force of the gunfire sent him reeling.

Jill tossed her human shield aside before bum-rushing the man who had just opened fire. He had stopped firing once he realized who he was hitting, and Jill used that to her advantage. She tackled the man to the floor so hard that his gun scattered a couple feet away. The two remaining commandos drew their guns, opening fire as Jill leapt to her feet and slipped into the shadows.

The rat-at-at-at-at littered the carpet, leaving it riddled in holes, burn marks and spent shell casings. One of the bullets hit the first commando to attack Jill in the right leg. He screamed and clutched at the wound; the bullet had hit an artery, and the gush of red was impossible to stop.

Ignoring their comrade’s suffering, the two men left standing stalked the open office space. They flipped on their night vision, oblivious to the fact that Jill was behind them by now. The darkness was her advantage, even outnumbered like this. She stepped out of the shadows, the broken window to her back so moonlight could spill in and cast a long shadow once the men turned around. They opened fire again as Jill lunged to her left and tucked into a barrel roll.

Once Jill got to her feet again, she drew the sword on her back. She was on both men before they could gather their bearings, one swipe of her blade slicing through their guns to render them useless. But the force of the swing meant the katana dug into the floor, and Jill couldn’t immediately extricate it.

One of the commandos used the opening to tackle Jill to the ground, and she hit the back of her head on the floor. She grit her teeth against the pain, the carpet offering little cushion, before the man’s fist bashed in her nose.

He was far heavier than he looked, no doubt because of all the gear he was wearing. Jill couldn’t pry him off of her, and the commando got in two more punches. Jill’s nose broke before she caught his fist, her teeth gnashed together and a trail of blood running from her nose. His eyes widened when Jill squeezed her fingers around his knuckles. She clenched her jaw and twisted her hand, leaving the commando’s wrist snapped at a ninety-degree angle.

He cried out in agony and fell to his left. Jill hopped back to her feet with a huff, wiping blood off her face with the back of her hand. An unseen force tackled her, sending her face-first into the floor. Both she and her attacker careened toward the broken window, skidding to a stop and leaving Jill’s head hanging off the ledge. Shards of glass dug into Jill’s chest, and she closed her eyes against the view of the street stories below. The wind caught her long hair and sent it violently whipping about and nearly tearing from her scalp.

Turning as best she could, Jill spat blood onto the man’s face before reaching up to peel off his goggles. They slipped from her grasp, careening to the sidewalk below as Jill jammed her thumbs into her attacker’s eyes. He grunted and wrapped his hands around her neck, pressing his thumbs against her windpipe. Jill gasped and pressed even harder, feeling her thumbs dig into the man’s eye sockets.

The struggle felt like it was going on forever, and Jill blinked the spots out of her human eye once breath was hard to come by. Her mouth opened, but she managed little more than a wheeze. Jill bucked under the man as best she could, but his weight hadn’t shifted enough. Jill needed more leverage, more strength — which was harder to come by with each labored breath.

A gunshot caught Jill by surprise, and she watched a trail of blood oozing down her attacker’s forehead. He slumped off of her, leaning forward until he fell out the window. Rolling to her right to make sure the commando didn’t take her with him, Jill hoisted herself upright again in time to see Riggins pointing an M9 at her. Last remnants of smoke fluttered from the barrel, and Jill rose her arms again.

“Just you and me now,” he said, grimacing as blood trickled down his forehead. “Feels right this way.”

“Whatever happened to leaving no man behind?”

Riggins shrugged. “We do things a little different in my unit.”

He was on Jill before she could respond, and she barely dodged his fist. The sudden movement made Jill dizzy. Her nose throbbed, as did the back of her head. It would appear titanium casing on a skull was little protection against concussions. But another jolt of adrenaline kicked in, and when Jill ducked the second blow, she followed it up by punching Riggins in the stomach. He doubled over before Jill smashed her left knee into his chin.

Blood splattered onto the carpet. Riggins collapsed.

Jill stormed off to fetch her sword, pulling the blade from the floor and sheathing it. Riggins was upright again when Jill turned around, his face caked in blood and a dagger in his hand. He charged and swiped at Jill, who barely leapt out of the way. In fact, it was so close that the blade sliced away some of the leather on Jill’s left side.

The dagger hadn’t reached armor, but it was an impressive weapon. Jill could see her own reflection in the blade, meaning Riggins took tremendous care of his weapon. Which said so many things about him…

Riggins swung the dagger again, but Jill parried the blow before grabbing the back of the man’s head and tossing him across the room. As if his face wasn’t bathed in enough blood, he smashed face-first against the wall and grunted in pain. He dropped to his knees, catching his breath. He tried getting back to his feet, but Riggins lost his balance. It was all he could do to maintain consciousness. Sweat was pouring from his forehead, mixing with the blood.

“This was fun,” Jill lied. “But if you don’t mind, I have other things to do.”

“You stupid bitch…” Riggins shook his head. “You have no idea what you’re up against.”

“You said that already. But see?” Jill approached Riggins and dropped to a knee. “You told me you were more badass than Special Forces, and yet… I just handled five of you. Forgive me if I’m less than scared.”

Jill turned and headed for the door leading to the stairwell. The elevator was tempting, but it was more likely to be monitored, and Jill didn’t care for being caught on her first night in this getup. But before she could grab the doorknob, Jill felt a stabbing pain in the back of her left leg. She dropped with a grunt, glancing back to see the dagger buried in her thigh, blood on the handle. When she looked up, she saw Riggins’ staring at her with a smug grin.

“You have five minutes to get out of the building,” he bragged. “You really wanna see who’s pulling the strings? Stick around.”

Jill pulled the dagger out of her leg with a scream, nearly falling face-first because of the pain. She stared at the blood dripping down the blade, swallowing hard before yanking the door to the stairwell open and hobbling across the threshold. The heavy door slammed behind her, echoing along the narrow corridor, and Jill managed to descend three steps before her leg gave out.

Grabbing the rusty railing and hissing at the pain, Jill stared at the flickering light overhead. At best, she had four and a half minutes left.

Each step was more painful than the last. After three flights, Jill wondered if she was better off taking her chances. After all, maybe she would get lucky and paramedics would find her first. But if they did, how would she explain what they would find? There weren’t medical journals dedicated to her… condition.

Leaning against her good leg, Jill cursed under her breath as she hobbled down another flight. A titanium skeleton was great for absorbing blunt force and avoiding fractures, but flesh wounds were as much a concern for Jill now as they had been before Project Fusion.

She could still feel the blood running down the back of her leg, cursing herself for not having ordered armor that protected her below the waist. Then again, her salary had only allowed for so much, and in truth, she had suited up far sooner than anticipated.
Jill’s stomach churned with every jolt of pain in her leg. The blood loss, the exertion, had sweat running down her brow. Jill had lost count of how many flights of stairs she had taken, and she didn’t know how many of those five minutes she had left.

Maybe Riggins was bluffing. But she probably wasn’t that lucky.

Jill’s body screamed for her to stop, to lean against the wall and catch her breath. For better or worse, Riggins had given Jill a reprieve; he had probably done so not expecting Jill to make it out of the building or survive the night.

If nothing else, she needed to prove him wrong.

Besides, Jill was not going to die on her first night as a costumed vigilante.

After what seemed like an eternity, Jill pushed through the heavy exit door. She paid no mind to the alarm that blared throughout the building, instead propping herself against the wall and lumbering along the dark sidewalk.

At this late hour, downtown Baltimore was relatively barren. No tourists or locals enjoying everything the Inner Harbor had to offer. If it had been earlier in the night, the blood trail Jill was leaving would be more of an issue. As it was, she hated leaving it, in case there were more commandos itching to follow her. Besides, if the cops stumbled upon this, and decided her blood needed DNA testing…

But there was nothing she could do about that. All she could do now was get home somehow, patch herself up, and regroup in the morning. Hindsight was screaming all sorts of things at Jill, but the fact remained: if she didn’t get that wound in her leg taken care of, nothing else mattered.

Camden Yards was lit up in the distance. That meant Jill was close to her apartment — and more importantly, the First Aid kit in her bathroom.

 

 

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Behind the Mask, the fourth entry in the Jill Andersen series, is now available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Be sure to check out the entire series, no matter your reader of choice.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Well… 2017 was a year.

Not that it was all bad. I got a new full-time job that gave me more financial freedom and the work-life balance I had been looking for. I published two novels — the lifelong labor in Notna and Behind the Mask, the latest in Jill Andersen’s saga. And I read some really good books.

As with last year, this list is not of the best books released in 2017, but the best books I read in 2017.

5. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperMurder mysteries are a dime a dozen (says the guy who writes his own), to the point where it’s the twist on the genre that can make or break a book. In the case of Kerri Maniscalco’s debut, Stalking Jack the Ripper, the genre is tossed all the way back to 19th-century London, and we’re introduced to a teenage girl who is studying forensics.

That twist brings with it some societal commentary (impossible not to, given what was expected of women and girls back then). Fortunately, Maniscalco doesn’t preach to us; instead, she takes us on a journey where Audrey Rose uses her wit and impressive intellect to track one of history’s most notorious killers. A sci-fi twist at the end punctuates the thriller nicely, and the historic backdrop is almost a character in an of itself.

Stalking Jack the Ripper is an exciting, intense, and surprisingly emotional tale — one that will likely be pigeonholed as YA because of its teenage protagonist. But this is a fantastic book for readers of (almost) any age, and it sets the stage nicely for future adventures (including Hunting Prince Dracula, which came out this past September).

Stalking Jack the Ripper is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

4. Beasts of Babylon by E.A. Copen

Beasts of BabylonI’m already a huge fan of E.A. Copen — her Judah Black series is some of the best mystery/urban fantasy I’ve read in recent years, and she proved she can go dark with the short Kiss of Vengeance. But with Beasts of Babylon, Copen merges the traditional western with the horror genre, and the result is her finest work to date.

Anastasia Throne is dead. Only she’s not. She’s also one hell of a gunslinger, and she’s got a tragic past that still clings to her even as she trudges through what now passes for her life. Beasts of Babylon is dripping with tension, the rare horror novel I’ve read that manages to scare without relying on visuals.

Heroes are not as virtuous as they seem, and the villains aren’t quite the monsters we might wish they were. Copen has introduced us to a vibrant, disturbing world, one I can’t wait to revisit. The monsters and the fights are matched only by deep character moments that give Beasts of Babylon more depth than one might expect at first glance.

A true must-read.

Beasts of Babylon is available in paperback and ebook.

3. Starstruck by S.E. Anderson

StarstruckScience Fiction has a problem. It takes itself too damn seriously.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with gritty, end-of-the-world, dystopian sci-fi. There’s a place for it. But S.E. Anderson has given us a sci-fi romp where the stakes are high, but laughs are still to be had. Sally Webber has her admittedly dreary life turned upside down, and she finds herself knee-deep in aliens and a life change that proves too good to be true.

Along the way, Sally, Zander, and Blayde set the stage for future adventures. Make no mistake: this is not just a frolicking journey through the cosmos. The stakes are high, the risks are real, and when appropriate, the violence is quite bloody. The humor is not here to detract from the overall narrative; instead, Anderson uses that humor to defuse the tension, to remind us that above all, science fiction should be fun.

And fun Starstruck is. The pages fly by, not just because of Sally, because of Anderson’s deft prose, and because of the action, but because all of those elements combine to create one of the most engrossing, most complete books I’ve ever read in the genre. If you’re a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan, or you’re into Guardians of the Galaxy, this book might just be for you.

Starstruck is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. Grave Dealings by R.R. Virdi

Grave DealingsThe 2016 list should’ve made it clear how much I enjoy R.R. Virdi’s writing. Witty, intense, consuming… and the Vincent Graves books are perhaps the best example of his grip on the craft. Grave Dealings, the third installment in the series, takes what made the first two entries great and builds on it.

No, literally — Grave Dealings is twice the size of the first two installments. Graves has yet another murder to solve, only this time, he’s faced with distractions that threaten his safety and sanity… he faces uncomfortable truths he hadn’t confronted in the first two books… and for the first time, the carrot of potential long-term answers are dangled in front of him.

You don’t have to read Dangerous Ways in order to follow along with Vincent Graves, but having done so makes reading Dealings more satisfying. Virdi has not only crafted memorable, easy-to-root-for characters, but we’re watching him construct and round out a vibrant world that’s almost a character on its own. If you’re an urban fantasy reader, and R.R. Virdi’s not on your shelf, you’re missing out.

Grave Dealings is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

1. Floor 21: Judgement by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 JudgementHorror doesn’t get better than this.

Jason Luthor’s brand of horror — on full display again in his third novel, Floor 21: Judgement — doesn’t rely on jump-scares or moments that make you practically soil yourself in fear. Rather, he prefers to toss you into a room where the tension pushes down on your shoulders, the shadows are always just out of the corner of your eye, and the walls always seem like they’re closing in.

There is no rest from the tension in Judgement, the end of the trilogy that also leaves plenty of bread crumbs for future installments. One of Luthor’s strengths is developing a vibrant, all-encompassing world — all housed within one building. The characters continue to grow and develop; not just Jackie, but supporting characters who were but bit players in previous installments.

The simple truth is this: Floor 21: Judgement is the best book I read in 2017, and if you’re new to Luthor’s work, then I suggest you devour all three installments. Few indie authors can weave a tale as expertly as Luthor, with a delicate balance of action, character, and heart. Judgement has all of it in spades.

Floor 21: Judgement is available on Kindle.

Honorable Mention: The Seekers by Cait Ashwood, Black Fall by Andrew Mayne, Alienation by S.E. Anderson, Playing With Fire by E.A. Copen, Steele-Faced by Alex P. Berg, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, Finding Home Again by Mary Head

Why I Don’t Shy Away From Politics

I know a lot of authors keep their political opinions to themselves. I understand why they do this, and I do not begrudge them that choice. However, as those of you who follow me on Twitter (or hell, even those of you who actually read Behind the Badge) can tell, I’m not one of those writers.

But why?

Well… first of all, I’m not just a writer. I’m a fully-formed person with a wide variety of interests, passions, and opinions (this is the same reason every Sunday from February through November, my Twitter feed is one big ball of #NASCAR). And while I’m sure I have some followers who are only following J.D. Cunegan, the author, I’d imagine far more are following Jeff Cunningham, the person.

And part of that involves me having political opinions. Ones that need voicing, especially given the tumultuous and uncertain times in which we find ourselves (I mean, honestly, who saw that guy as president coming? I mean, other than The Simpsons). This isn’t just a case of “Oh, the president is from the other party.” I’ve already lived through three Republican presidents; that’s not really anything new.

But this guy is such a unique blend of ideologue, incompetence, and hatred that I can’t help but speak out. To sit back in silence… I can’t fathom that. Not with all of the existential threats the Crusty Cheeto represents. This isn’t just a case of disagreeing with the other side; this is the fact that the other side represents a clear and present danger to everything we claim to hold dear about this country.

I mean, seriously… Russia? The 1980s called to remind everyone the Cold War’s over.

Not only that, but there are policy battles going on that affect me — not just me as a whole, but me as a self-published author specifically. The tax plan currently being bandied about has a lot of really bad shit in it, especially for the self-employed (which self-published authors are, at least in the IRS’ eyes).

Oh, and net neutrality? I use the Internet to publish and sell my work. I use social media to promote said work. If the Internet gets sold in tiers or any of the other possibilities, it could affect my bottom line, as well as the bottom line of every other self- and independently-published author.

Not to mention… I feel like, if you read my books, you already have an idea of where I stand politically. And I don’t just mean Behind the Badge (which was far more overt than my fiction normally gets); the fact that I take great pains in making sure my fiction is racially and sexually diverse should tip readers off where I stand on the political spectrum.

So if you read my work, but get mad if I’m mean to Trump on Twitter… are you really paying attention? Besides, every time someone argues that I’m losing readers when I make a political post… the people who would get that upset over my political opinions aren’t people I want reading my work in the first place.

As for Behind the Badge… I wrote that book because a) racially-motivated police brutality is as relevant a political topic as we have today, and b) it was important for me to examine how Jill would react to such a case (and for the record, she responded exactly as I thought she would… except for the end of the book).

Part of the reason I write these books is the fact that I look at the world around me and it’s not what I was told it is growing up. Peace and justice and equality and all that are not realities, so in some ways, I find myself turning to fiction — genre fiction, specifically — to fill the gap. The real world isn’t what it’s supposed to be, but maybe by crafting Jill’s world, I can fulfill that promise in my own little way.

Real-world heroes disappoint. Hopefully, my heroes don’t.

Like I said, I get why some writers keep their yaps shut when it comes to politics. It’s not that different than the old Michael Jordan quote about how “Republicans buy sneakers too.” But I feel like I’d be doing my readers, my fans, a disservice if I didn’t let them see the complete me. And if my political views turn them away… well, no real loss, to be perfectly honest.

Notna is now available! Get your copy: Paperback | Amazon | Universal ebook Link (Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

Behind the Mask is now available! Get your copy: Kindle | Paperback | Universal ebook Link(Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

About J.D. Cunegan

J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.