ANNOUNCEMENT! Bounty: Origins

One of the world’s most renowned scientists washed up dead in the Chesapeake Bay.Bounty cover concept

Jill Andersen, one of the Baltimore Police Department’s brightest investigative minds, has been tasked with solving that murder. But what starts as a typical murder mystery quickly becomes so much more, as a mysterious vigilante emerges from the shadows and appears to have a connection to the murder victim.

Jill finds herself trying to do two jobs at once: find out who killed Dr. Trent Roberts and discover the true identity of the costumed hero known in some circles as Bounty. But she also must face her father’s pending fate and the emergence of an influential figure in the city of Baltimore who isn’t quite as he seems.

All of these disparate threads tie together to potentially reveal the answer to the biggest question of all:

Who is Bounty?

Bounty: Origins is the imaginative, non-canon retelling of Bounty’s origin – first told in the pages of J.D. Cunegan’s debut novel Bounty in 2015. This graphic novel returns both Cunegan and his titular character to their roots, as Cunegan finally showcases his lifelong love affair with superhero comics.

Bounty: Origins will be released on June 1, 2020 — the five-year anniversary of Bounty‘s original publication! I cannot wait to finally throw my hat into the superhero comic book ring, because without superhero comics, there is no Bounty (or Notna, for that matter).

(NOTE: Above art by J.D. Cunegan. Digital lines and colors. The above image does not constitute a cover reveal; the eventual cover may be something else entirely. But copyright J.D. Cunegan 2019 anyway.)

 

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.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

About That Graphic Novel…

Some of you may remember that I said one of my 2019 goals was to produce a Bounty graphic novel. I thought I’d provide some insight into setting that goal and what I’m learning as I dabble into the world of creating comics.

Those of you who’ve been around a while know how much I love comics, and how that love is lifelong and originally sparked my creative streak. Even though I’m a published author, my love for superheroes and comic books is evident in my work. So doing a graphic novel just makes sense. Bounty started as a comic book character; writing and drawing a Bounty graphic novel returns her to her roots. It brings her home, so to speak. And it returns me to my roots. I started out wanting to create comics. So I’m creating a comic.

Now I realize how ambitious doing that this year is. Especially since I’m both writing and drawing it. Both steps are time-consuming on their own, but together? Especially since I’m learning a) how to draw again and b) how to tell a story in this medium. It’s not just drawing a bunch of pictures.

Were I at my peak as an artist, maybe this would be easier. But I like the challenge. I *need* the challenge. I haven’t grown bored with writing novels — far from it — but adding this challenge has actually given me a boost of creative energy. I’ve needed that.

I’m not abandoning novels. Far from it. This graphic novel is just me challenging myself, as a writer and artist. Pushing myself to set a goal and finish it, to encounter obstacles and overcome them. To prove to myself that I can take on a task and accomplish it.

Maybe this graphic novel doesn’t see the light of day until 2020. That would be okay — so long as I see this project through and finish it. As Chuck Wendig (and others) says, FINISH YOUR SHIT. I intend to do just that — but I’ll admit, this is hard.

I’m practically learning, as I go, an entirely new method of storytelling. How to tell a story with images as well as words. How the two work in concert with one another. There’s a method there, and there’s gonna be a ton of trial and error here. I’m okay with that.

(Come to think of it, this very process would make a great future Pixel Wretches podcast.)

I fully anticipate being occasionally frustrated to the point of wanting to stop. The point is getting myself to NOT stop, but to push forward and create in spite of that. Abandoning projects midway through is not how I’m gonna get better. Finishing my shit is.

So I’m pushing myself, challenging myself to return to my creative roots. To remind myself where my love for telling stories started, and to show up at a con one day with both my novels *and* a Bounty graphic novel on my table.

Maybe that’s 2019. Maybe it’s not.

I used to dream about being the next Jim Lee. Now I just wanna be the best J.D. Cunegan I can be. That means novels. And comics. And who knows what else is down the road for me. But if I don’t push myself, if I don’t test myself, how will I know what I’m capable of?

Four years ago, I pushed myself, and the result was my first novel. Bounty proved to me that I can complete a creative project and see it through and put it out there for the world to see.

Now I have five novels, a novella, a collection of short stories, and an an anthology credit to my name. And there are plenty more such stories coming in the next few years. That’s not nothing, and I keep having to remind myself of that, even when sales are… yeah.

But, and I think other creatives can relate, I want more. More stories to tell. More ways to tell them. More ways to push myself and flex my creative muscles. Make them grow. Make them better. Make *me* better. This graphic novel will do just that.

In a perfect world, Hampton Comicon in October would be the debut for the Bounty graphic novel. But if I have to push that back, so be it. This is a lengthy, involved process, and I’m going to make sure it’s worth every moment of it.

And I want you on the journey with me.

 

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.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

In many ways, 2018 was a struggle.

That includes my reading. I went into 2018 hoping to read 40 books. I’ve managed 28 — and frankly, I’m lucky to have even gotten that far. But I did come across some gems this year, and in this, the third year of me compiling this list, we have a first: a non-fiction entry.

NOTE: These are not the best books that came out in 2018, just the best ones I read this year.

5. Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir

Reaper at the GatesI can’t compare Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series to the rest of the YA dystopia set of genres, but I know her novels are intense, emotional, and a blast to read. Reaper at the Gates, the third entry in the series, is no different, and I daresay it’s the best of the series to this point.

This book juggles three points of view — Elias and Laia and Helena — and what could become a jumbled mess instead takes readers on a journey between three disparate and occasionally overlapping perspectives, which only adds to the readability. A great book leaves you wanting more once the last page is turned, and Reaper at the Gates delivers in that regard.

Reaper at the Gates is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

4. Death Rites by E.A. Copen

Death RitesWhat do you get when you take Harry Dresden and drop him in a mythology-rich city like New Orleans? Something a lot like Death Rites, the first book in E.A. Copen’s Lazarus Codex series. While I will go to my grave defending Judah Black (Copen’s other mystical whodunnit series), she’s found a winner in Laz.

Copen shows a deft touch not only when it comes to worldbuilding and creating memorable side characters, she’s a master at making Laz a sarcastic little son of a bitch who’s also the sort of lovable loser you can’t help but root for. In a genre that’s almost overflowing, Copen has found a way to stand out, and I put the Lazarus Codex on the same level as R.R. Virdi’s Grave Report books.

Death Rites is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

3. Divided by Madeline Dyer

DividedWhile I enjoyed Fragmented, the second book in Madeline Dyer’s dystopia Untamed series, it lacked something that made me fall in love with the first book. But with book three, Divided, Dyer has fully returned to form, and what unfolds is a gripping, intense, at-times uncomfortable read.

Yet you’ll keep turning the pages. You’ll have to know what happens next. Even knowing there’s another book to go before everything wraps up, the journey is such a thrilling ride that you can’t help but want more. The first book, Untamed, laid out the stakes for Seven, but Divided is the first time I could actually feel them. Divided was so good that I want to read Destroyed *now.*

Divided is available in paperback and ebook.

2. Racing to the Finish by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan McGee

Racing to the FinishFor the first time, a non-fiction book makes this list, and for good reason. Retired NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. paired with ESPN’s Ryan McGee to offer a first-hand account of Earnhardt’s final few years behind the wheel, his battle with concussions, and why that battle ultimately led to his decision to step out of the car.

The intimate first-hand account is hard to read at times, and the revelations contained should put any racing fan’s mind at ease as to why Earnhardt retired. Also, this book was written to help others dealing with head injuries and their aftereffects — and if just one person reads this book and seeks the help they need, then this book is an unmitigated success.

Racing to the Finish is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.

1. Celestial by S.E. Anderson

CelestialJust when I think I can’t love S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series any more, she puts out a new release. Celestial, book four in the series, is every bit as lighthearted and funny as its predecessors — but for the first time, the stakes feel as heavy as they should. The stark reality of just how out of her element Sally really is slaps you in the face, and you can’t help but keep going.

Anderson strikes a delicate balance in this book, showing how dire everything is without Celestial falling into the same taking-itself-too-seriously trap that so many others in the sci-fi genre do. There are still laughs, but there are also thrills, chills, and a few tears. And with how Celestial ends, the next installment can’t come soon enough.

Celestial is available in paperback and ebook.

Honorable Mention: Console Wars by Blake J. Harris, Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis, Elevation by Stephen King, Traveler by S.E. Anderson, Miracles Not Included by C.A. King, Fortunate Son by E.A. Copen, Leading the Way by Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan

NEWS: Signed Copies of My Books Now for Sale!

(Most of) you have asked for this, and now you’ve got it!All Books

I am now offering copies of my books, signed, for sale. Barring the occasional discount (which will be given out on a case-by-case basis), here are the prices*:

One book (any title): $20

  • Bounty (Jill Andersen #1)
  • Blood Ties (Jill Andersen #2)
  • Behind the Badge (Jill Andersen #3)
  • Behind the Mask (Jill Andersen #4)
  • Notna

All four Jill Andersen books: $70 (a savings of $10)
All five books: $85 (a savings of $15)

If you would like to purchase signed copies of my work, contact me either through my Facebook page or my email address (bounty_email@yahoo.com). I will need your mailing address and a PayPal email to which I can send an invoice.

Let me know if you want your signing personalized as well!

*prices listed are for shipping to destinations in the United States. International shipping will result in higher prices and will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

 

Official SealBounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award!

It’s a big deal for my debut novel to even be nominated — and there are plenty of perks therein — but if by some stroke of luck I actually win, then there’s no end to the awesomeness that would ensue. Mostly I’m just jacked that someone thought enough of my work to nominate it. That’s pretty damn cool.

Anyway, check it out (and if you haven’t got your copy yet, do so)!

 

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

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: S.E. Anderson

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

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

 

What was your inspiration behind the Starstruck series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of your favorite books right now?

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

Starstruck (Starstruck #1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: *****

Buy Starstruck now!

 

Alienation (Starstruck #2)

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

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

Seriously, Sally goes through some stuff here.

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

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

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

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

Rating: *****

Buy Alienation now!

 

Traveler (Starstruck #3)

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

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

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

Yet it all works.

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

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

Rating: *****

Buy Traveler now!

 

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

OUT NOW: BOUNDLESS

Yesterday was National Superhero Day.

No, really.

So how did I celebrate? With a new release!

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

Best of all? It’s just 99 cents.

Boundless Final_Resize

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

BOUNDLESS: Chapter Four

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

But who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jill wanted Riggins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

◊◊

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

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

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

“Touché.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who says I can’t be both?”

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

“What about the person who killed Duval?”

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

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

“I don’t care about that.”

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

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

“So can my boss. Who’s yours?”

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

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

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

Freefall was instant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You alright?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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