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.