The Best Books I Read in 2017

Well… 2017 was a year.

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

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

5. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

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

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

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

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

4. Beasts of Babylon by E.A. Copen

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

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

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

A true must-read.

Beasts of Babylon is available in paperback and ebook.

3. Starstruck by S.E. Anderson

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

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

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

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

Starstruck is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. Grave Dealings by R.R. Virdi

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

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

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

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

1. Floor 21: Judgement by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 JudgementHorror doesn’t get better than this.

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

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

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

Floor 21: Judgement is available on Kindle.

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

RELEASE DAY: Behind the Mask

TODAY IS THE DAY!

Behind the Mask

Behind the Mask, the fourth installment in the Jill Andersen series, is now out! This entry promises to change everything going forward, and after the events of Behind the Badge, things are about to get even more intense.

About Behind the Mask

It’s hard to be a hero when everyone’s out to get you.

Once upon a time, Jill Andersen considered herself a hero. Not just because of the badge handed to her by the city of Baltimore and the pledge she once made to protect and serve. Her secret life, as the vigilante Bounty, had allowed Jill to protect her native Baltimore in ways her day job never could.

But all that has gone to hell now. One case pushed Jill past her limits, to the point where she made choices she can’t take back. As a result, the entire city is on the lookout for her. Allies can no longer be counted on. People who were once in her corner might very well be trying to bring her down… to say nothing of those she has crossed along the way.

But that is the least of Jill’s problems. A shadowy figure emerges among the chaos, and his link to Jill’s past has the potential to be her ultimate undoing. Jill thought every link to Project Fusion has been settled once she solved Dr. Trent Roberts’ murder almost one year ago, but if she’s not careful, her past might just kill her.

Behind the Mask, the gripping, hard-hitting fourth novel in the Jill Andersen mystery series (Bounty, Blood Ties, Behind the Badge), gives readers yet another taste of author J.D. Cunegan’s comic book-inspired brand of fast-paced prose, with chapters that fly by and plot twists that will leave readers guessing and waiting for more.

About J.D. Cunegan

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

Pick up Behind the Mask today in the following formats: Paperback | Kindle | Nook | Kobo | Apple iBooks | Indigo | Angus & Robertson

Check out the rest of the Jill Andersen Series.

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: 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.”

Pick up your copy of the newly relaunched Bounty today: Kindle | Paperback | Kobo | Nook | Google Play | iBooks

Behind the Jill Andersen Relaunch

Bounty FinalIf you’ve been paying attention to my social media presence in recent weeks, you’ll know that I’ve been in the midst of relaunching the Jill Andersen series. The impetus behind this relaunch was removing the books from Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s subscription service that allows readers to read books on their Kindle devices and apps without paying the price to buy the books.

In short, KU readers could read my work without paying $2.99 for each volume.

But, to put it mildly, my KU numbers were always either pathetic or nonexistent. Even the times when my actual sales were good, I would have pitiful KU numbers. So from a financial standpoint, I wasn’t gaining anything out of KU (particularly given that any book enrolled in KU has to be digitally exclusive to Amazon — meaning any Nook, Kobo or iBooks reader who wanted my books either had to use the Kindle app, buy the paperback, or go without).

Not to mention the scamming rampant within KU.

Blood Ties Final

So in the interest of protecting my work and wanting to make it available to a wider range of potential readers, I thought this would be the perfect time to give the series a more uniform visual identity. The slate of covers I had for BountyBlood TiesBehind the Badge, and even Behind the Mask were great — but there was nothing identifying them as installments in a series.

Fortunately, one of my biggest fans — author S.E. Anderson — also happens to do cover design work (you can see her premade covers on SelfPubBookCovers, and she’s also the cover designer of R.R. Virdi’s Grave Report novels and Dangerous Ways).

In short, she does really good work, and something told me she’d be excited to put her stamp on books she loves.

Behind the Badge 2Boy, was she.

The new covers look fantastic, and I love that this series now has a look that’s uniform throughout — something that you can look at and think to yourself, Yep, that’s a Jill Andersen book. The design of the covers for Behind the Badge and Behind the Mask remained the same; she just changed the font to match the rest of the series.

But look at the cover to Bounty. There is now an official canon representation of what Jill looks like. The eyeplate, the black lipstick, the katana… all of her trademarks are there. And Blood Ties… I think that cover is some of Anderson’s finest work. I particularly love the dueling skylines (trivia: one of those is downtown Baltimore today, while the other is downtown Baltimore from 100 years ago). This cover perfectly embodies the series: it’s a little bit mystery, a little bit sci-fi conspiracy, a little bit of the shadowy unknown…

If this series finally takes off in the near future, I think these covers will be a big reason why. As much as we like to think “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the faBehind the Maskct is a lot of people — potential readers, especially — do.

So in the coming days and weeks, this series will be available not only on Kindle, but also on Kobo, Apple iBooks, Google Play and Nook. I’m in the process of updating the paperbacks as well, and I hope to have new editions of the physical books with me come Hampton Comicon on Oct. 21. Keep checking back; as each new edition goes live, I’ll be updating this site accordingly.

And if you haven’t given Jill a try yet, there’s no better time than now.

Bounty and Comic Books: An Origin Story

Before we get started, look at this awesomeness.

I commissBounty-Smallioned comic book artist Kendall Goode (@kendallgoode on Twitter) to draw a piece depicting Bounty, the hero of my Jill Andersen series of novels, and as soon as I saw the finished product in my inbox… well, I’m not sure there are words for the sound I made. But suffice it to say, I love the piece, and it perfectly exemplifies what I think of when I write this character.

I’ve made no secret of the influence comic books have had on my work. Nor have I hid the fact that Bounty, when I first created her back in 1997, was a comic book character. She was supposed to be on your local comic book shop every month, not available on Amazon.

But life is funny sometimes.

These days, I’m a novelist. Not because I’ve outgrown comic books — I still collect them, after all — but because I’ve become a much better writer than artist. It’s an evolution borne out of necessity (as most evolution is), but even as I have morphed Jill and her world into prose, the panels and word balloons are never far from my mind.

As I type this, I’m toying with the plot for a potential Bounty graphic novel. I have no timetable for this project, but I do want to see it through — and the above image is all the motivation and inspiration I need. I love the Jill Andersen books; I love that I’ve matured enough, as a writer and as a person, that I can write these stories. I love that readers love Jill as much as I do.

But I want to bring Jill home. She deserves to be immortalized in a graphic novel. That was where she started. Hell, that’s where I started. Without discovering and getting hooked on comic books when I was in middle school, I doubt I’m a storyteller right now. I don’t know what I’d be, but I don’t think I’d have “published author” among the things about which I can brag.

Who would draw a Bounty graphic novel? Well, that’s one of the hang-ups.

It sure as hell won’t be me (see above). Right now, Goode is my choice… but then there’s the issue of payment. I would never ask an artist to work with me without proper compensation — to say nothing of how much money we’d agree to split on any potential sales. In a perfect world, a comic publisher would pick up my script and all of that would take care of itself. But a Plan B would be nice.

So for that reason alone, the Bounty graphic novel might be way down the road. But it is something I want to do, it is something I’m writing. But for the time being, Jill will have to stick to prose, with only glimpses like the above image keeping the dream of her going back to her roots to spur me onward.

Some readers have compared Jill to Daredevil — a comparison I find flattering after having watched at least some of the latter’s Netflix series. One reader said Jill was like a cross between Lara Croft and Deadpool, and my fans are well aware of all the Batman references I throw into these books. Jill is a comic book character in a novel world — and as great as superhero novels are (there really should be more of them), just once I’d love to sell someone a Bounty comic or graphic novel.

One day, that will happen. One day…