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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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.

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

With my latest release, Behind the Mask, out in five days (!!!), here’s another excerpt to Behind the Maskwhet your appetite. Be warned, though: this chapter contains spoilers from Behind the Badge.

Enjoy!

There had been a time when Daniel Richards envisioned himself going to the Bishop L. Robinson Sr. Police Administrative Building — or The Bishop, as just about everyone in the department called it — every day. A career that once seemed to have him staring at a future in the department’s upper administration had stalled at the captaincy of the Seventh Precinct, and Richards found himself making weekly trips to this building that were for nothing more than tedious meetings. Arrest rates, case closure percentages, and other statistics that made his eyes glaze over… that was what The Bishop meant to Richards.

But even as he ascended the stone steps leading to the Bishop on this sunny morning, Richards knew this meeting was going to be different. There was nothing concrete to this feeling, but the phone call earlier that morning from Commissioner Saunders left an unsettled feeling in the pit of the captain’s stomach. It was, in all honesty, a call Richards had expected in the last couple weeks. A moment of reckoning was at hand, and this morning was apparently the time. Truth be told, he had expected it to come much sooner.

Working his way past the reception area, with the woman behind the desk ignoring him, Richards took the spiral staircase leading to the second floor. From there, Richards was greeted by a narrow hallway illuminated by nothing more than the morning sun pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Several fresh-faced interns wandered the halls, clutching overstuffed manila folders and hoping the bags under their eyes weren’t too obvious. Richards remembered being that young, and even in the uncertainty of the moment, he allowed himself a lopsided grin.

But that grin disappeared as soon as Richards came to wooden double doors to his right. They led to the only conference room on the floor, the room he had been summoned to just minutes after getting to his office and pouring his first coffee of the day. If this meeting went as expected, Richards would need something stronger than coffee later in the day.

Opening both doors to push his way into the conference room, Richards saw one table along the far wall with five impeccably dressed individuals sitting on the other side. Commissioner Saunders, decked out in a uniform that more closely resembled that of a military general, sat at the center of the table with the American and Maryland flags flanking him over each shoulder. Janet Baldwin, the deputy commissioner, sat to Saunders’ right, and to his left was Jeff Downs, the colonel whose help in the Devin Buckner case had eventually led to this mess. Men the captain didn’t recognize sat on the ends of the table, and their suits looked like they cost more than Richards made in a month.

Of the five, Baldwin was the only one who wasn’t a white male. It was a sight Richards had dealt with throughout his entire career.

Each of the five had a full glass of water in front of them. Saunders grabbed his glass and took a long first sip; when he set the glass back on the table, his fingerprints were visible against the morning sun peering through the windows. Richards swallowed, the tick of the second hand on the clock behind him the only sound in the room for what felt like minutes.

“Sit,” the commissioner ordered, pointing to a solitary wooden chair across from the table.

Reluctantly, Richards did just that. His hand went to the service piece on his hip; he took it with him every time he left the office. He felt more comfortable with the weight of it on his hip, and if this meeting went the way he feared it would, he would at least be saved another trip before turning in the weapon. But the captain kept his expression neutral, deciding to get a feel for how this was going to unfold. The tension was thick enough to slice through with a knife, and Richards could feel the collective stares burrowing into him.

For the most part, Richards had always been friendly with the people at the table over the years. Seldom did his disputes with downtown, annoying as they often were, ever erupt into anything major. He had a feeling that was about to change.

Saunders waited until Richards was seated before clearing his throat and adjusting the thin black microphone in front of him. “Where’s the vigilante?”

And there it was. This was the meeting Richards had expected for the past few weeks. Why did it take so long for the BPD to take him to task over this? Were they too busy trying to ensure there wasn’t any egg on their own faces before turning to the all-too-predictable witch hunt? The captain fought the urge to sigh and roll his eyes, instead crossing one leg over the other and running his fingers over his thick black mustache.

“I don’t know.”

It was actually the truth; despite Richards’ best efforts, he’d had no contact since Jill had turned in her badge. He had watched her televised confession with the same slack-jawed surprise that he figured many in the city had, and all of his attempts at communication in the days and weeks since had been for naught. Wherever Jill was, she was in no position to contact anyone who was in her corner — or maybe she had no way of knowing who was in her corner anymore, so she was better off cutting off contact with everyone.

Baldwin squinted. “I don’t believe you.”

“Well, that’s tough shit.” Richards was still upset at Baldwin for the way she had acted during the Buckner case, popping up at the Seventh Precinct and roundabout threatening one of his detectives for trying to do her job. Jill had been in line to take the Sergeant’s exam, but Baldwin had made it clear that Jill would lose that shot if she kept poking around the four cops who killed Devin Buckner. It reminded Richards of his earlier days on the force, and it was something he had let himself believe no longer happened. Clearly, he had been naive. “I haven’t talked to Jill since she turned in her badge.”

Downs, who at one point had been the most sympathetic of the five at the table, shook his head. “How long have you known Detective Andersen was actually Bounty?”

Richards opened his mouth, a lie on the tip of his tongue. It was instinct; what was the surest way to protect Jill? How could he make sure she was okay, even if he had no way of getting in touch with her? Lying was certainly an option, but so was telling the truth. And if Richards was being honest with himself, he wasn’t sure if he cared enough to hide the truth. They were likely going to try forcing him out regardless of the answer, because it was now abundantly clear where the department’s priorities were.

“Do you honestly expect me to help you in this witch hunt?” the captain asked instead.

Downs shook his head. “Detective Andersen has been breaking the law.”

“And so did the four cops who killed that boy!” Richards sat up straighter and grabbed the arms of the chair. “Yet I remember some in this room standing in my detectives’ way when they were trying to do their jobs!”

The bespectacled man on the far right cleared his throat. “No one was telling them how to do their jo –”

“Bullshit!” Richards sprung from his chair and jabbed his finger at Baldwin. “She came to my precinct and explicitly told my detective that her shot at a promotion was on the line if she didn’t stop pursuing our suspects!”

“Your suspects were Baltimore police officers,” Baldwin argued. “They were entitled to decency and respect.”

“Decency and respect,” Richards repeated with a shake of his head. “For the four fuckers who tortured a kid, but not for the woman who devoted almost four years to this force, and then tried to go beyond even that to make this city better.”

“Captain,” the commissioner interjected, “sit down.”

Richards did not sit; instead, he began pacing back and forth in front of the table, glaring at each of the five administrators who were clearly pursuing an agenda. He had half a mind to toss his gun and badge at them and be done with it, but that was probably what they wanted. And Daniel Richards was damned if he would give these people the satisfaction of running him out.

“The truth is,” Saunders continued, “we’ve been concerned about your precinct for a while now, Captain.”

Richards frowned, his hands balling into fists. “My precinct has the highest case closure rate in the city.”

“Your precinct also has a record of suspects being attacked in interrogation,” Downs rattled off, reading from an open manila folder in front of him. “Suspects in Holding either escaping or dying, detectives running off without alerting their partners, your own absence several months back when one of your detectives was injured on duty… what, exactly, is going on at the Seventh, Daniel?”

Richards clenched his jaw. “We’re doing our jobs.”

“And aiding and abetting a vigilante,” Saunders added.

“You wanna fire me? Fire me.” Richards approached the table, flattening his palms on the surface and getting in the commissioner’s face. Saunders had a close-cropped cut, his features chiseled and screaming every bit the military career he had before transitioning to law enforcement. “But you will not run me out, you will not touch my people, and you damn sure will not be bringing Jill in while I’m around.”

“No one here’s looking for a firing,” Saunders said, his right eye twitching. “We just want to know where the vigilante is.”

“Well, you won’t be getting that from me.” Richards stood upright again. “And no one from my unit will be helping, either. Now, if we’re done here, I’ve got a precinct to run.”

Turning on the balls of his feet, the captain stormed out of the conference room before anyone at the table could respond. He let the heavy doors slam shut behind him, and as he marched toward the staircase, Richards pulled a gray flip phone from his back pocket. It hadn’t worked yet in the weeks following Jill’s resignation, but after this meeting, he had to at least send her a warning. Even if she didn’t get it, or ignored it, Richards couldn’t let this slide without at least sending up the flare.

Bishop asking about you – be careful

Pocketing the phone and descending the staircase, Richards sucked in a deep breath. He had survived the first blow, but something told him the fight was just starting.

Behind the Mask will be available in paperback and several ebook formats on Dec. 4, 2017. Kindle pre-orders are currently live, as are pre-orders at these digital retailers.

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Here’s another excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth book in the Jill Behind the MaskAndersen series! Please note that this is not the final version of this scene; any mistakes are my own. Also, I tried not to post something too spoiler-y, but there might be spoilers with regards to the first three books in the series.

Enjoy!

As soon as Jill opened her eyes, her head began to throb. Turning her head ever so slightly, she cringed at the stabbing pain at the base of her skull. Blinking the stars out of her eyes, Jill slowly pushed herself onto her elbow and frowned at her surroundings. She was in an abandoned warehouse, but it wasn’t the one she had been hiding out in; that one boasted the faint aroma of rat feces, while this one had a decidedly fishier smell. Her guess? She was somewhere close to the Inner Harbor, but tucked away in an alley deep enough that no one would come poking around in search of her.

Of greater concern was the man crouched down next to her. His mask was in a heap on the floor, and Jill found herself face-to-face with a man who, facial scar aside, looked as far from intimidating as anyone could. His skin was smooth, which told her this man was likely barely out of his teens. His eyes, a striking blue that pierced through the relative darkness, held a mirth that sent a chill down Jill’s spine.

But that scar… the stories it could tell…

“Oh, good.” The man’s voice was chipper, the slight hint of a Russian accent buried within it. “I was hoping you would wake up soon.”

Jill almost asked where she was, before clamping her mouth shut at the realization of how stupid that question would sound. Though this was her first time seeing the man’s face, she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was the other vigilante. His black bodysuit alone, outfitted with the finest Kevlar she could never afford, gave away that much.

“Why am I not dead yet?” she asked, cringing when her voice threatened to give out.

“Why would I want you dead?”

This man had to be joking… and yet, the quirked brow and the slight frown told Jill otherwise. She forced herself into a sitting position, rubbing a hand along the back of her neck. “Well, you work for David Gregor. It’s a pretty easy assumption to make.”

“The old man is a means to an end,” the man answered with a one-shoulder shrug. “I am Piotr.”

Was the pain in her head causing Jill to imagine things? Had the man who had hit her upside the head with a pipe and knocked her unconscious just introduced himself to her? She frowned in a combination of pain and confusion, resisting the urge to shake her head until the throbbing subsided. She caught sight of her katana out of the corner of her eye; the weapon was propped up against the far wall, still buried in its leather sheath.

It was hopelessly out of her reach. It was also not tucked into its usual hiding place like it was supposed to be.

“What do you want?” It was pretty much the only thing she could think of to say. Nothing else seemed appropriate.

“You and I have a lot in common,” Piotr answered.

That much was true, at least on the surface. He was a black-clad vigilante, much like Jill… but she drew the line at killing people, while this man apparently had no such qualms. He had dispatched of four disgraced police officers in a public display that was as brazen as it was sudden, and she had seen him slit another man’s throat two nights ago with such ease that she wondered how many times he had done that before. Honestly, she was surprised he hadn’t yet pulled that trick on her… even as her hand went up to her neck.

“If you count fashion choices, sure,” she said.

Piotr’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. “What do you know of Project Fusion?”

Jill’s heart skipped a beat, and she had to will herself into keeping a neutral expression. She felt the pit open up in the bottom of her stomach, and her hands tightened into fists for no other reason than to hide how much her hands had started to shake. She opened her mouth, but whatever words she was planning to say got stuck in the back of her throat. Instead, she shook her head and stared at her captor.

It made sense, if only in hindsight. She had seen the video footage of the van careening into the bay, the way Piotr had leaped from the speeding vehicle and rolled his way back to his feet without so much as a scratch. The way he had moved the first time they fought, his allegiance to Gregor and his fascination with her. Jill could try to deny this all she wanted, but the fact was that Project Fusion was the only connection that made sense.

Ramon’s theory held water after all.

But still…

“I know it tanked years ago,” she said with far less conviction than she had hoped.

“No.” The ghost of a smile played on Piotr’s lips. “It did not.”

Behind the Mask is currently set for a Dec. 4 release in paperback and ebook. Catch up by picking up your copy of Bounty today — or you can pick up The Bounty Trilogy — exclusively on Kindle — to read all three books in one go.

EXCERPT: Notna (LAST ONE)

With two days until Notna‘s official release, one last excerpt to whet everyone’s appetite.

Enjoy!JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

Easterwood Airport, College Station, Texas

No matter how many times Cassandra tried to school her features into a neutral expression on the drive to this tiny airstrip, the knowing grin on her face just wouldn’t go away. Even though she was now in her thirties, with a cavalcade of degrees on her wall, Cassandra could never quite embrace the “stuffy academic” role. Her lectures often turned into excited ramblings over subject matter that she had long ago devoured and still revered. She treated students not as subordinates, but as equals who shared in her life’s passion. She grinned at the mere thought of unfolding the mysteries of the past. Her heart raced whenever she was on the cusp of a new discovery, and the prospect of a treasure hunt, unlikely as it was, still made her adrenaline pump.

“You’re thinking about that five million, aren’t you?” she teased.

Jack, who was the more skeptical and guarded of the two, smirked. “Aren’t you?”

She squeezed his hand near the gear shift of their black SUV. A private jet sat on the runway in front of them. A pair of packed duffel bags sat in the rear of the vehicle, stuffed haphazardly with just enough clothes and supplies for a couple of days. Jack had insisted the bags were not an indication that his mind was made up…and neither was the fact that they were at this airfield, staring at a plane promising to take them to Brazil two days after a Smithsonian representative had dangled five million bucks in their faces for an artifact.

The more Jack argued the point, the less Cassandra believed him. He would likely never admit it, but deep down, Jack was just as excited at the prospect of this find as she was. He was simply doing a far better job of managing expectations. After all, they still had no tangible proof the Gem of Notna existed. All they had was Dr. Roberts’ word, and the assertion that the Narazniyan Scrolls, once translated, would shed light on the matter.

Cassandra’s eyes never wavered from the plane. It resembled one of those jets billionaires flew around in: the kind that had bottle service and lavatories lined in gold. Awful fancy for the government dime.

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

“No, it’s…” Jack paused, sucking in a deep breath. “It’s a persuasive number.” He lifted his hand, kissing the back of Cassandra’s. “There’s that dig in the Canadian wilderness I’ve wanted to go on for years. We do this, and that gem’s real…”

The smile on Cassandra’s face grew. “We’ve paid for that dig and then some.”

“But what if we get down there and come up empty?” Jack asked. He was always asking the questions no one else would; it was why Cassandra often argued their field of study was, in fact, a science. Even if other scientists disagreed. “All that wasted time and effort, all because we decided to chase a number. To say nothing of all the class time our students will be missing.”

“Oh, I dunno.” The grin on Cassandra’s face turned cheeky. “Way I figure, this thing’s real, and if and when we find it, we can fund all the digs we want for the foreseeable future. If it’s not? Hey, free trip to Brazil. And I think our students will be okay.”

“Right, ’cause getting stuck in the Amazon is my idea of romance.”

Cassandra pulled her smile into a mock frown. “Hey, wasn’t Brazil where Sam came from?”

Jack bristled at the mention of his ex-boyfriend. The relationship had occurred while Jack was pursuing his Master’s degree at UCLA, and had ended when Sam received a job offer in Australia. The break-up hadn’t been pretty, but time had given Jack the perspective he needed…and was the only reason he let Cassandra tease him over it from time to time.

“I doubt we’ll bump into him where we’re going.”

Cassandra quirked a brow. “So, we’re going?”

Jack glanced out the windshield again, just in time to watch the door to the jet open and the steps lower to the runway. Tricia emerged from the plane and stared at the SUV, a confident smile creeping onto her face before she lifted her wrist and tapped her watch twice.

“I guess we are.”

Cassandra leaned over to kiss Jack’s cheek. “Hey, we got this. Nothing to lose.”

‡‡‡

As the private jet soared over Central America, Jack couldn’t help but glance out the window. He had seen this view countless times throughout his career, but in the luxury of private air travel, he didn’t have to put up with cramped seats with no leg room and all the other inconveniences a commercial flight would keep one from enjoying the sights. For as quickly as this jet was cutting through the air, the ride was surprisingly smooth. The bottles of beer available free of charge were a nice touch. Jack had never been one to turn down a free drink.

Even as he polished off the rest of his bottle, wiping a drop of condensation off with his thumb, Jack couldn’t help but marvel at the price tag. The government was footing the bill for this plane, and the Smithsonian was offering a pretty penny for this trinket. Assuming it existed. Jack wasn’t so sure, but his curiosity was at the point where he had to find out one way or the other.

Jack squinted into the sunset as the plane hovered over Costa Rica. The Hitoy Cerere biological reserve, if he remembered correctly. Jack chuckled to himself, setting the empty bottle at his feet. He had lost count of how many times on commercial flights he had left fellow passengers in awe after pointing out something on the ground and spouting off all sorts of facts about it.

Cassandra, leaning over in the seat next to Jack, broke his train of thought, and they shared a smile when she pulled the tray table down in front of herself and laid the Narazniyan Scrolls flat across the surface. She had been working on them since before the plane took off, and Jack knew better than to disturb her once she got into the zone.

She was as stunning in her sky blue t-shirt and khaki shorts as she was when she dressed for her graduate lectures, and Jack thanked his lucky stars every day that she had fallen for him. Her silver locket, a gift from her mother after she graduated from high school, always hung around her neck.

“So check this out,” she offered, brushing a bead of sweat from her temple; such intense concentration always made her sweat. “Remember back in the office, it looked like there was one passage on this scroll that was a different color than the rest?”

Jack nodded with pursed lips. “I thought I saw that.”

“Right? I thought it was a trick of the light.” Cassandra turned on one of the overhead lights. “But here, you can really see it.”

Jack furrowed his brow as he studied the scrolls as closely as possible without fully leaning into Cassandra’s seat. As many times as he had seen these words, they still held no meaning to them. At first glance, the text appeared to have been scrawled in Hebrew, but a professor at the department who specialized in Hebrew argued otherwise, claiming several different linguistic inaccuracies. Unfortunately, that professor couldn’t tell them what language the scrolls were actually written in.

“The next-to-last paragraph,” Jack said.

“But the rest of it is written in black, like you would expect,” Cassandra pointed out. “I’m not sure what that implies. I mean…I’ve heard of prophecies written in blood before, but that’s fiction. Right?”

“Only way to know for sure would be to physically test the scroll.”

“Which would compromise it,” Cassandra argued.

Truth be told, they should have done this when they first came into possession of the scroll weeks ago. But the hustle and bustle of academia pushed that to the back burner. In fact, Jack had been so busy with his lectures that he had given the scroll little thought until Tricia interrupted his class two days ago. It had always been in the back of his mind, to be sure, but it was always a project for later.

Tricia emerged from the cockpit, standing and watching the two professors talking over the scroll. She cocked her head to the side and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. This was the second time she had seen the scroll with her own two eyes, and if everything she had heard about it was true, then this trip was going to be quite the treat.

After all, if she returned to the states with one of the world’s most famous legends in her possession, she could write her own future. Nothing would be off-limits to her anymore, regardless of gender. The Louvre was an option; she could walk into any museum in the world and they would practically bow down to her.

Hell, if Tricia wanted to, she could open and operate her own museum. As prestigious as the Smithsonian was, as great as that name looked on her résumé, Tricia loved the idea of calling the shots herself.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“I wish.” Jack shook his head as Cassandra rooted around in the laptop bag she had in the overhead bin. The scanned version of the scroll had been loaded onto a jump drive—several, in fact—before they packed for the trip. Within minutes, Cassandra had the machine open on her tray table and stuck the drive into the appropriate port.

“With any luck,” she offered, “this program is worth the money it cost.”

“Mind if I see the scroll?” Tricia asked.

Cassandra shot Jack a questioning look, knowing that he’d had a hard time letting the scroll out of his sight since it had come into his possession. They still had no idea what it said, and Jack didn’t believe in the Gem of Notna, but as an ancient scroll, he treated it with the reverence and care he would for any artifact. The lack of time spent on the project in no way shaped Jack’s reverence for a relic of history.

“Look,” Tricia said, fighting the urge to roll her eyes, “we’re pressed for time here. If that scroll can point us in the right direction, I need to know. We need to know.”

“The Smithsonian?” Jack asked. “Funny how we’ve never heard anything from any of them. Just you. You sure you’re not just in this for yourself?”

“Believe me when I tell you that you’d much rather be dealing with me. My boss, Mr. Fletcher, can be a real pain in the ass. But he’s tasked me with securing this artifact, so rest assured that if I’m on your ass, it’s cause he’s on mine.”

Jack quirked a brow. “And if we come up empty?”

Tricia shuddered and closed her eyes. Honestly, that was a possibility she wasn’t willing to consider…mostly because there was no telling what Mr. Fletcher would do if she came back empty-handed. He wasn’t known for being particularly understanding.

“You better hope we don’t,” she offered.

With a quick glance at the parchment, Jack opened his mouth to protest…before shutting it and handing the scroll over. Tricia took it in both hands, careful to keep the material completely flat as her eyes danced over the text. She wasn’t dressed as impeccably as she had been in Jack’s office two days prior, but even in cargo pants and a tank top, she exuded a certain elegance.

Jack raised a brow. “Is this the part where you tell us what that thing says?”

Tricia shook her head. “I wish.” She handed the scroll back. “Of all the languages I mastered in school, this was not one of them.”

“Um…guys?”

Both Jack and Tricia glanced over at Cassandra, who was looking at the pair with a furrowed brow. Her face was bathed in the computer’s backlight, and Jack couldn’t miss the way her throat bobbed up and down when she swallowed.

“What is it, babe?” he asked, sitting up straighter.

“I know what the scroll says.” Cassandra stared at Jack and Tricia, flipping the monitor around so they could see the text shifting right before their eyes. What had been little more than a series of indecipherable marks now appeared in perfect English. Cassandra’s pulse quickened, and she swallowed the lump in her throat.

“It just…doesn’t make any sense.”

Jack leaned in to study the mass of text before him, trying to ignore Tricia hovering over his shoulder. They both mouthed the words as they read them, and the crease in his brow deepened more with each word he took in.

The Chosen One will make himself known when the time is right, when the skies turn red and the Mighty River flows with blood. The gem will select the Chosen One as its new host, bestowing its power upon a noble soul with the knowledge and the clarity with which to use it. The Chosen One will not seek this power; rather, it will be thrust upon him as foreseen by the Gods themselves. Only the Chosen One can prevent the End of Days. The snakes will hiss at the sky, the waters will be cleansed anew, and balance shall be restored. The Primordial will beseech the Chosen One, and He will be like the Gods.

“Why is the Chosen One always a he?” Cassandra asked.

“Because it’s men who write these things,” Jack said as he sank back in his seat with a shake of his head. “What do we know about the Narazniyans?”

“Hardly anything,” Tricia answered, leaning back against the door leading into the cockpit. “No one in my circle has heard of them, and every Internet search brings up nothing more than wild theory and some bullshit about aliens.”

“Maybe they’re a little-known ancient society native to South America,” Cassandra offered. “That would explain why these scrolls, and that temple, were in the Amazon.”

At a loss, Jack returned his gaze to the window. Without any more answers, Tricia and Cassandra followed suit. They really should have worked harder to get a translation back on campus. If nothing else, it would have given them more time to suss out what the passage actually meant. There were colleagues at Jack’s disposal on campus; now, thousands of feet in the air and heading to the Amazon, he and Cassandra were largely on their own.

Ancient societies were often a cause for celebration in their line of work, but Jack was feeling anything but jubilant at the moment. He hated not having concrete answers; even the translation of the scroll had left him more confused than before. Tricia eventually returned to her perch inside the cockpit, while Cassandra continued her work on the translation program. The plane turned to the east, coasting over the waters just north of South America.

As the sun sank toward the horizon, the suddenly choppy water became harder to see. Jack let his eyes wander toward the sky, his heart skipping when he was met with a blanket of red.

It looked like a typical sunset, but in light of the translation…

Preorder Notna today! Notna releases in paperback, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play on Oct. 10.

EXCERPT: Bounty

I know what you’re thinking… an excerpt from an already-published book? Well, with Bounty having recently been re-launched, with a new cover and a wider digital distribution, now seemed as good a time as any to let readers sample the first chapter. Enjoy!

A storm was brewing.Bounty Final

The Inner Harbor, usually the most peaceful spot in all of Charm City, was in turmoil. Waves violently splashed against the pier, angry winds tearing through the sails of the boats latched to the dock. Seagulls cawed in protest, every attempt to fly thwarted by the gusts. White caps thrashed onto dry land, staining the pier. Tourists and locals alike had made themselves scarce; even the seafood cathedral Phillips, one of Baltimore’s most popular spots, was relatively barren. Clouds roiled and built in the sky, turning the already-dark hue a particularly gnarly mix of black and purple.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. The air was thick with the smell of pending rain. To the trained nose, something else was in the air. Something dank. On the rare occasion the wind dissipated, the stench was unmistakable. A young detective was on his knees, hunched over the edge of the pier, that night’s dinner spilling out of his mouth and into the bay. Everyone else already on-scene ignored the man’s retching as uniformed officers canvassed the area, roping it off and shooing away the occasional passersby. A crane whirred to life, scaring off three seagulls as it lifted something out of the water.

Jill Andersen approached the man still hunched over the edge of the pier, placing a hand on his shoulder as he continued to cough and hack. Her green eyes studied the crane, narrowing upon catching sight of a dead body in the machine’s clutches, mangled and twisted, dried blood mixing with the salt water. She then caught her first whiff of the stench, silently glad for the fact that she’d already put in three years on the force. If nothing else, it had allowed Jill to build a tolerance to the gore. Her partner wasn’t that lucky yet.

“You okay, Ramon?”

The young man named Gutierrez looked up, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his tan overcoat. “Yeah.” He cringed and stood upright, still looking a bit pale. “Still takes some getting used to.”

“You will.” Jill gave Ramon’s shoulder a squeeze before crossing to the other end of the pier, ducking under the yellow crime scene tape and flashing the gold badge on her belt. Letting the uniformed officer see her badge number, Jill stopped to push a strand of brown hair out of her face. She put her hair back into a ponytail to avoid having it blown in her face like this, but the winds were so strong that anything short of shaving herself bald would prove futile.

It was like this every time she got to a crime scene. Everyone going about their jobs, as if this was just another day at the office – because for them, it was. But Jill always made sure to take a moment, no more than a few seconds, to remind herself that the victim was someone. At the end of the day, whoever’s mangled corpse was in that crane was a person. Someone’s family, someone’s loved one. More than anything, that was what mattered. Those left behind didn’t care about procedure or protocol; they wanted answers, and more importantly, they deserved justice. Too many times in this profession, victims were viewed in the abstract; it was easy to forget they were people with loved ones and dreams. Jill swore the day she made Detective that she would never lose sight of that.

“I swear to God, Sorenson, if you make a fishing joke, I’m throwing you overboard.”

The stocky officer’s smile was humorless. “Vic’s name is Trent Roberts. 49 years old.”

Jill frowned, hands stuffed in the pockets of her black leather jacket. She couldn’t tear her eyes from the body being lowered onto a white sheet splayed out on the concrete. The stench was far more pronounced now, and the sheet immediately turned red from the blood still oozing from Trent’s neck. Her eyes focused on his face, eyes wide and mouth agape. It looked as if the attack had taken him by surprise.

She tried her best to keep the dread off of her face, silently thankful for the acting elective she took that one semester her senior year of high school. She knew the victim. More than that, the victim was largely responsible for who she had become. Not that she could mention that, lest the captain remove her from this case. But if Jill was being honest with herself, stealing a glance at the raging waters, she knew it was only a matter of time. Trent Roberts winding up dead in her city wasn’t a coincidence.

“How do we already have ID?” Jill asked.

A black man joined Jill and Sorenson, red tie loose around his neck. The bags under his eyes nearly matched his mustache. “Uniforms found his briefcase in his yacht. ID was in it.”

Turning on the balls of her feet, Jill again brushed strands of hair out of her face. Crap… “Captain.” She cocked her head to the side. “What’re you–?”

Backing away from the crime scene, Daniel Richards — captain of Baltimore’s Seventh Precinct — motioned for Jill to follow him out of Sorenson’s earshot. “High-profile victim.” He nodded in the direction of the body once they had cleared the crime scene tape. “Only a matter of time before the Sun and the TV trucks show up, and you can’t exactly solve a murder if you’re busy swatting at gnats.”

Loathe as Jill was to admit it, the press had good reason to be interested in this case. Trent Roberts had been a high-profile scientist, renowned for his work on human prosthetics. He was also considered a pioneer in the study of cybernetics, using his extensive knowledge in that field to push revolutionary improvements in said prosthetics — many a war veteran had Dr. Roberts to thank for the fact that their lives had returned to normal, even after losing a limb in combat. Trent had worked closely with the United States government and with governments throughout Europe, hoping to push forward and perfect technology that would allow the world’s soldiers — the ones fighting on the front lines — to be stronger, faster, more resilient. He had once called it proactive prosthesis: outfitting soldiers with enhancements and upgrades in the hopes that they would avoid catastrophic injury and return home as intact as they were when they had left.

The Pentagon never admitted it had consulted with Dr. Roberts, and his life’s work — called Project Fusion — was little more than urban legend, but Jill knew better. She had seen all of this firsthand during her time with the Army. Not only did she serve two tours in Iraq before her four years were up, but she had also seen things that, officially, never existed.

Giving Richards a knowing glance, Jill again ducked under the tape and approached the body. Juanita Gutierrez, Baltimore’s chief medical examiner, was crouched to examine Dr. Roberts, the sky blue of her latex gloves contrasting with the drab surroundings. Juanita wore a black ball cap to keep her matching hair out of the way, but the occasional gust of wind threatened to toss the hat into the Chesapeake Bay.

Ramon stood behind Juanita, covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief. His blue eyes still had that sick look about them. “Guessing we found cause of death.”

“I’d say,” Juanita said and gave her little brother a sympathetic smile. “Slashed across the throat. You name it, it’s been severed. Guessing he got tossed into the water to try and mitigate the mess.”

Jill crouched across from Juanita, her eyes scanning Dr. Roberts’ remains. His face was bloated; were it not for his wire-rim glasses and the unmistakable hint of yellow in his eyes, she might not have recognized him. Her forehead scrunched in concentration as she put on her own pair of latex gloves. Her heart nearly skipped a beat when she finally laid eyes on Roberts’ chest, which had been sliced open, sternum snapped in two, and several ribs broken. Strong as her constitution was, Jill nearly doubled over when she saw Dr. Roberts’ heart was missing.

“Ugh…” She got back to her feet, stumbling back before gathering her bearings and clear her head. “We sure it wasn’t the gaping hole in his chest?”

Juanita shook her head. “Postmortem.” She stood and took a step back, using her pen to point at the body. “Just like the slash on his left arm.”

There it was again: that pang of familiarity, along with its dear friend, the chill of dread. Jill struggled to keep her expression as neutral as possible, so as not to raise the suspicion of anyone else on-scene. She paced around Dr. Roberts’ body before glancing up at her partner; Ramon was still holding the handkerchief over his face, and she could tell by the look in his eyes that he desperately wanted to be elsewhere. Under better circumstances, she would tease him over his weak stomach, but given the condition of the body, and the reality of the case that had fallen into their collective laps, she couldn’t blame him.

“This doesn’t makes any sense.” Jill scratched an imaginary itch on her right temple, shaking her head. “Who would slash his throat, slice open his chest, steal his heart, slash the side of his arm, then toss him into the water?”

Juanita arched a brow. “Especially since there’s not much spatter on the yacht.”

“Hey, Ramon,” Jill decided to give her partner an out, “go canvass the yacht, see if there’s anything uniforms missed.”

Jill allowed herself an amused smile and a knowing glance at Juanita as Ramon hurriedly made his way to the yacht. He tried to play it cool, but it was obvious how glad he was for the reprieve. Between his constitution and the fact that he insisted on wearing those overcoats at crime scenes, sometimes teasing him was too easy.

The detective knelt beside the body again. Juanita, after making a note on her clipboard, regarded Jill and cocked her head. “What?”

“Nothing,” Jill lied. “Just… I think I met this guy when I was in the service.”

Clearing her throat, Jill stood upright again, deciding it was best to change the subject before Juanita had the chance to pry any further. Logically, Jill figured the truth was going to come out eventually, but she didn’t feel like taking a trip down Memory Lane while Dr. Roberts’ body was staring up into the sky — and definitely not with dozens of cops swarming around him. Maybe Jill would get lucky, though; maybe Dr. Roberts’ death was unrelated to his ties or his work.

Come on… when have I ever been that lucky?

“We need to find the heart.”

Even as she said it, Jill knew how unlikely that was. If the killer went through the effort of cutting Dr. Roberts open, of snapping his sternum in half and making a mess of his ribs, then that meant whoever it was wanted the heart for something. Which meant the heart wouldn’t be at the crime scene. Familiarity tugged at the detective again — not just because of who the victim was, but even the manner in which he died felt familiar.

Jill made a mental inventory of every case she had worked since Captain Richards handed her the badge, but nothing sprung to mind. Baltimore had seen some gruesome homicides in her time on the force, but nothing like this. Even the occasional mob hit had nothing on this; as gruesome as the Lincoln riddled with bullet holes had been two months back, with blood staining the windows and a mob enforcer’s brain splattered all over the back seat, even that paled in comparison to this.

Jill glanced over her shoulder, making sure none of the other officers were looking in her direction. Content in that knowledge, she reached up to her left temple before grabbing and peeling off a skin graft to reveal a metal eyeplate that spanned from her hairline to her cheek.

With a blink and a tap of her finger against her temple, Jill activated the infrared sensor embedded in her left eye, scanning the crime scene — careful to make sure she was in a dimly-lit area in case any officers or detectives looked her way. The last thing Jill wanted was for a street light to glimmer off her eyeplate.

Jill took her time looking over the area. The pavement was clear of anything the naked eye wouldn’t pick up, and her infrared vision didn’t do much for the water. Jill needed to examine the yacht, but Ramon and three uniformed officers were still on the vessel.

With a sigh, Jill turned her back to the crime scene and placed the skin graft back over the eyeplate. Without a mirror handy, she took a few extra seconds to make sure everything was in order; she couldn’t eyeball this one. She eventually returned to the scene, stopping once Richards approached again. “Don’t look now,” Jill saw news vans approaching over Richards’ shoulder, “but here come the vultures.”

Jill shrugged. “Just as well. I’ve got some phone calls to make back at the precinct.”

Jill tried not to laugh; the thunderstorm began just as the media arrived. Juanita and two uniformed officers scrambled to cover Roberts’ body so the rain wouldn’t compromise any potential evidence, and the TV crews struggled to get the rain gear on their equipment — which was all the opening Jill needed to avoid dealing with them. Talking to the press was not her job; the department had a spokesperson to handle that.

Pushing her way past Richards, and ignoring the portly reporter cursing under his breath at how the rain had already ruined his notepad, Jill dialed a number into her smartphone before pressing it to her ear. Crossing Pratt Street, she ducked into an alley to get away from the commotion and the heavy raindrops dotting the pavement. She pulled the band off her hair, undoing her ponytail and straightening out the locks. She cursed under her breath when the phone rang for the fifth time, and she was ready to hang up when the sixth ring cut off and a male voice answered.

Freeman.”

“We have a problem.” Jill’s voice was steady, and her fingers again removed the skin graft. “Meet me at our usual spot.”

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EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

 

Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Below is an excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth novel in the Jill Andersen series. Please note that this is an early draft that has not yet been subject to strenuous editing. All mistakes are my own. Also, be warned that there are spoilers if you haven’t yet read Behind the Badge.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (7)Every time sirens whirred to life, Jill Andersen’s heart skipped a beat.

The two weeks since Jill had marched into the WJZ studios, hacked into the live television feed, and broadcast to all of Baltimore who she really was had crawled by. It was almost reminiscent of when Jill and her younger brother Brian were children, eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. Each day that drew closer to the holiday seemed to drag along slower than the last. The only difference this time was the overwhelming dread that came with waiting. It almost literally pressed down on Jill’s shoulders, the bone-chilling and stomach-churning realization that any night would be the night Jill finally lost her freedom.

And in a way, Jill thought she should. After all, every time she donned the black leather, every time she assumed the mantle of the vigilante, she broke the law. Her day job centered around bringing those who broke the law to justice; if Jill broke the law, wasn’t she supposed to face the same fate?

In a perfect world, she would — but then again, that same perfect world would have seen the four officers who tortured and killed Devin Buckner suffer the same fate. Instead, the Baltimore Police Department aided and abetted them, threatening Jill in the process, and it got to the point where those four wound up in a watery grave thanks to a nameless, faceless vigilante.

That ultimately led to Jill turning in her badge. As for the reveal? Well, that was a much more complicated, much more sordid tale. Jill had kicked herself plenty for her rash decision over the past couple weeks, whenever a close call nearly had her hunched over in the back seat of a squad car with her wrists shackled together behind her back. It was the reason she wore a bulky black overcoat on top of her leather. It was the reason she had chopped much of her hair off and dyed it jet black. It now curled up at the sides around her ears, bangs forming over her forehead. It was the reason she abandoned her apartment and hadn’t so much as spoken to her brother or her former partner, outside of an untraceable text from a burner phone. It was the reason Jill kept her trademark katana hidden in an abandoned warehouse on the corner of Lee and Charles.

It was the reason Jill’s heart just now leapt in her throat and she peered over her shoulder around the corner of the building. The sirens were growing louder, and Jill couldn’t help but wonder if this was the night the cops finally cornered her. To her relief, the warehouse in question still had one of those old-style fire escapes. The metal was rusted from lack of care, and it chaffed against the leather on Jill’s palms when she jumped to grab it, but her enhanced strength made ascending the warehouse’s six stories a relative walk in the park.

As Jill made her way to the roof, she peered over her shoulder again. The police vehicle, which was actually a K-9 SUV, had stopped a block to the north, blue overheads spinning to announce their presence. The light bounced off the buildings in the vicinity, and despite having height to her advantage, Jill crouched down to stare over the ledge. A husky officer named Yancey emerged from the driver’s seat, sauntering to the rear of the vehicle and producing two adult German Shepherds. Jill cursed under her breath and pressed her back against the ledge.

Jill knew almost nothing about dogs, other than her childhood memories of Brian begging for a puppy for his tenth birthday. She had no idea how good their sense of smell really was, if they would be able to sense where she was and when. A side effect of being with the Homicide unit her entire career, Jill hadn’t taken the time to learn how other divisions operated. She wondered if that ignorance would be her undoing, and part of Jill bristled at that. She didn’t want Fido to be the reason she wound up behind bars. She was a superhero, a freaking cyborg… she was so much better than that.

Pushing off the ledge, careful not to let her boots crunch too loudly against the gravel, Jill tried to keep an eye on Yancey’s route. He stuck to the sidewalks, lighting a cigarette and seemingly content to let the dogs lead the way. Their black snouts were pressed to the pavement, their tails remarkably still.

Yancey turned around, giving Jill a full view of his face. He pushed the brim of his cap up, puffing out a drag of his smoke. Even from six stories up, Jill could see the bags under his eyes and the general disinterest on his scruffy features. Pulling the cigarette from his mouth and tapping out a few ashes, Yancey shook his head and glanced toward the sky. His gaze wasn’t in Jill’s direction, yet she still crouched down further in response. Yancey looked as if he was none too pleased with this particular assignment, and he didn’t notice as the two dogs wandered into a nearby alley. Instead, he kept sucking away at his cigarette before finally flicking the spent butt out onto the street without bothering to snuff it out.

The dogs barked in unison and Jill flinched. But Yancey just stuffed his hand into the pocket of his bulky overcoat, producing a flashlight and heaving a sigh before turning around and joining his pooches. It was in the opposite direction of where Jill was, and she released the breath she hadn’t even realized she had been holding. Chances were, Yancey was simply following orders — reluctantly so, if Jill had correctly read his demeanor. So if he was the one to catch her, would she really be able to blame him?

And for all the bravado Jill tried to pump herself up with, for all the times she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror and remind herself that there were those in this town who worshiped her… this was wearing on her. When Jill wasn’t actually on the run, she was having trouble eating. She certainly wasn’t sleeping. Her titanium skeleton and enhanced strength weren’t doing her any good when she was this run down. If only Project Fusion had rid her of the need for food or rest…

The barking in the distance stopped. Jill glanced over the ledge again, but she didn’t see Yancey or the dogs emerge from the alley. At first, she didn’t think anything of it, but with each second that passed, and as the traffic lights at the intersection of Charles and Hughes went through three cycles, dread built in her gut. Her first instinct was to go investigate; whether as a cop or as Bounty, that was what Jill’s body was practically trained to do. Yet she kept still, because there was too much at risk. If someone else saw her, if Yancey was, in fact, alright… the last thing Jill wanted to do was fall into a trap.

Minutes passed without any sign of Yancey or the dogs. Jill got to her feet, deciding she could no longer ignore the intuition plucking away at her subconscious. One of the first lessons she had learned as a cop was to trust herself when her gut told her something wasn’t right. A cop’s gut wasn’t gospel, despite what some old-timers had tried to tell her, but Jill had eventually learned that listening to her proverbial spider sense was beneficial more often than not.

But when Jill got to her feet, the sound of gravel scraping gave her pause. Jill held her breath, her hands balling into fists seemingly on their own. She held her breath, training all of her senses to hone in for that sound again. She was met with nothing more than the howl of wind off the bay, her hair fluttering in the breeze, but she could feel the presence behind her. Tightening her fists, Jill turned to regard whoever was now on the roof with her. She wasn’t sure what she expected — if it was a cop, chances were they would have already announced themselves, but once Jill caught sight of the lanky man wearing a black and orange overcoat and a matching baseball cap hung low over his forehead, she frowned. This was not what she expected.

“Erikson?”

“You’re a hard woman to find,” the Baltimore Sun‘s investigative reporter said with a sideways grin. “Though I guess that’s by design these days.”

Reluctantly, Jill unfurled her fists. “Sneaking up on a paranoid superhero’s not a very good idea.”

“Even if I have a tip?”

“Please tell me the next words out of your mouth are that the cops aren’t after me.”

“Not quite, but just as good.” Stanley Erikson glanced over his shoulder and tugged on the bill of his cap. His eyes narrowed when the wind picked up. “Tomorrow night, an associate of David Gregor’s will be awaiting a shipment at the Port of Baltimore.”

Jill’s spine stiffened at the sound of that name. “While he’s across the Atlantic. The perfect alibi.”

“My sources tell me he’s resuming the drug trade,” Erikson explained. “If you’re not too busy playing hide-and-seek with your former employers, might be worth checking out.”

“That it? You could’ve just texted me.”

“There’s also this,” Erikson said, producing a black USB drive from his pocket and handing it to Jill.

She took the device with a frown and a quirked brow, shaking her head. It wasn’t like she had ready access to a computer to read whatever was on here, yet her fingers curled around the small stick regardless. “What’s this?”

“Something I have a lot of questions about,” Erikson said, zipping up his coat and stuffing his hands into the pockets. “Questions I know you have answers to.”

Something about the way Erikson said that rubbed Jill the wrong way, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the flash drive… nor could she ignore the intel he had provided just moments before. If she could corner one of Gregor’s associates while he was out of the country… oh, the possibilities were endless.

“I’m guessing you won’t take a ‘no comment’.”

A rueful smile crept onto Erikson’s face. “Oh, something tells me you’ll have plenty to say about this.”