EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

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

Enjoy!

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

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

But that scar… the stories it could tell…

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

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

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

“Why would I want you dead?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramon’s theory held water after all.

But still…

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

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

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

EXCERPT: Notna (LAST ONE)

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

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Easterwood Airport, College Station, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess we are.”

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

‡‡‡

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which would compromise it,” Cassandra argued.

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

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

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

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

“Any luck?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…guys?”

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

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

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

“It just…doesn’t make any sense.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT: Bounty

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

A storm was brewing.Bounty Final

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

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

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

“You okay, Ramon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on… when have I ever been that lucky?

“We need to find the heart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freeman.”

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

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

EXCERPT: Notna

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

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Prague, Czech Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything appeared to return to normal.

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

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

“Oh, my God!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how was that possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow…”

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

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

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

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

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

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

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

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Erikson?”

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

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

“Even if I have a tip?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT: Notna

I’m excited to share with you an excerpt of my upcoming novel Notna, which will be available sometime in late 2017 in both paperback and Kindle. Keep in mind that this is a first draft and there will likely be changes before publication. Enjoy!

The Not-Too-Distant Future…
Depending on the culture, the Underworld has been known by several other names. Gehinnom, Sheol, Hades, Hell, the Fire… seemingly every Western culture or religion has some version of a spiritual place full of torment and punishment for the wicked. A simplified version of what was actually the truth — and the Underworld was not latched to any particular religion. It existed on its own merits, a hellscape of eternal fire and bloodshed. This was not merely a place for the wicked; anyone could fall captive to the Underworld’s eternal prison. No one ever escaped with their life or their sanity intact; the few who would manage to cross back over were condemned to a life of solitude and mental degradation. The ones who died in the Underworld were, in all honesty, the fortunate ones. But even they were faced with futures full of little more than torment and bloodshed.

On this night, the Underworld doubled as a battlefield. The final battlefield, truth be told. Fresh blood pooled everywhere, severed limbs decorating the drab, lifeless landscape. Fires blazed skyward, flames reaching for a nonexistent ceiling. The constant roar of the fire provided the soundtrack for swords clanging together, sparks flying, and warriors crying at the top of their lungs. Those cries were cut short when a blade lopped off a head or rendered a battle-hardened warrior defenseless. One of the Divine’s finest sword-wielders looked on in disgust as his hands were severed from his arms, still clutching his sword. But before he had a chance to look up, the leather-skinned demon swiped just under the warrior’s chin. The blow was clean, and the blood didn’t flow until the warrior’s head slid off and fell to the ground in a fit of dust.

From atop his throne, built from the bones of those who had dared defy him over the centuries, Seraphus couldn’t help but grin. This was what he spent the last several hundred years working toward: breaking his realm’s stalemate with the Divine and finally gaining the upper hand in this never-ending war. His smile grew when his eyes glanced down at the body at his feet. The previous bearer of the Gem of Notna had been formidable, far more than Seraphus had expected, but in the end, he was just another human being. Snapping his neck has been satisfying, but not nearly as much as prying the gem from his cold body and taking it as Seraphus’ own. The crystal hissed in protest initially, but once it settled into the ruler’s chest, talons and tendrils slithering all over his pale frame, he knew he was worthy.

And now that Seraphus had the gem, the Divine was without hope.

But there was one Divine warrior who hadn’t yet given up. Seraphus watched with great interest as Josef cut a swath among his demon hordes. Josef had died in battle several hundred years ago, at the hand of the vampire Demostricus, but the Divine — in a fit of panic — had resurrected him to serve as an ally for the Chosen One. Though the Chosen One lay dead and broken at Seraphus’ feet, Josef continued his rampage. He beheaded Ornias with little effort, green blood splattering onto his brown cheeks, his shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Another armored demon got the jump on Josef, but a well-placed elbow allowed him to break free. One more sword swipe and another demon head fell to the ground.

Two more demons approached, one from each side. Josef grit his teeth and pulled a dagger from the small of his back. With a blade in each hands, Josef thrust both arms out to either side of himself. Both weapons plunged into the demons’ respective necks. Seraphus couldn’t help but cringe at the resulting bloodbath and the gargled screams of his fallen minions.

“Seraphus!” Josef called out from the bottom of the throne. He smashed one of the skulls with his sword. “This ends now!”

Rising from his throne, Seraphus kicked the body at his feet aside and curled his hands into fists. Black eyes turned red and began to glow, as did the ruler’s fists. He was shirtless, a scar running from his right shoulder all the day down, across his abdomen, and stopping near his groin. Of all the scars Seraphus had accumulated over the years, this was his proudest. It spoke to his resilience, his tenacity. His refusal to let anyone or anything stand in his way. He approached the warrior with slow, purposeful steps until they were level with one another.

“Does it?” Seraphus couldn’t help the chuckle that burst past his lips. “You are losing, nomad! Your numbers are few!”

“So I should just quit?” Josef twirled the sword, which was a foot taller than him, over his head. “You don’t know me very well, heathen.”

“I know enough.” Seraphus raised his right fist, a black tendril snaking out from the gem on his chest and slashing Josef across the cheek. The warrior responded by slicing the tendril in two, a loud hissing filling his ears and causing him to recoil. Seraphus used the opportunity to close the distance, sinews of lively black covering the ruler from head to toe like armor. He grabbed Josef by the neck and lifted him into the air. “I know your Chosen One has fallen. I know your numbers are few. I know you, valiant as ever, are weak.”

Josef, struggling for breath, grit his teeth and kicked Seraphus in the stomach. The ruler loosened his grip and Josef swung his sword. Sparks shot from the tendrils as the blade bounced off with no damage done. Josef tossed the weapon aside and bumrushed Seraphus, tackling the ruler to the ground. They both grunted when Seraphus’ back slammed into the ground, dust kicking up around them.

“I know you talk too much,” Josef muttered, backhanding Seraphus across the face. Something black spills from Seraphus’ nose and mouth.

More tendrils shoot out from the gem, wrapping around Josef’s neck and pulling his arms away from Seraphus. The warrior struggled with every bit of strength he had, but the sinews only tightened their grip as the hissing grew louder. Josef found himself hovering several feet in the air, the living armor surrounding him growing thicker and more voluminous. It began creeping onto his face, and as Josef bit back as scream, he felt one of the sharp points poke him in the side of the neck. A drop of blood fell onto Seraphus’ foot.

The ruler grinned, the glowing around his eyes almost blinding by now. Both fists unfurled and Seraphus raised his arms above his head. “Enough!”

Seraphus’ voice echoed throughout the Underworld, a large tendril shooting from the gem and piercing Josef’s neck. The warrior gagged when the weapon came out the other side of his neck, blood pouring down his chest. His eyes widened for a moment before all of the breath left Josef’s lungs. He fell slack, now dead, hung upright and in the air by nothing more than the gem’s living armor. With a snap of Seraphus’ fingers, the tendrils disappeared. Josef’s body fell to the ground in a heap, and he watched as five angels followed suit, having fallen in the heat of battle.

At last… at last, Seraphus’ moment of triumph was nigh.

When the war was at its peak, Hermes found himself terribly overwhelmed. Grabbing Cassandra Federov, the blue-haired woman who had been The Chosen One’s partner from the beginning, he had hidden behind one of the many mountains decorating the otherwise barren landscape. There were bloodstains and burn marks littered throughout the surface, but it provided the Wise One and Cassandra the cover they needed. Cassandra, predictably, had resisted the urge to hide, but considering how many of the Divine’s soldiers were helpless in this battle, Hermes wasn’t about to let a mere mortal run into the line of fire.

But that was before the Chosen One had fallen. Minutes later, the image of the Chosen One’s neck being snapped in half was vivid enough to turn Hermes’ stomach. He closed his eyes and raked a shaky hand through his white hair. The scar on his cheek throbbed, and for the first time since the Primordial had informed him of the prophecy coming to pass, Hermes was at a loss. The Primordial had failed. The balance within the universe had shifted with this new development, the centuries-old stalemate between the Underworld and the Divine over. Seraphus had his army ready, and no matter what the Divine had done — aligned itself with the Chosen One, resurrected its most decorated warriors, nothing was going to stop Seraphus.

Especially now that he had the Gem of Notna.

As soon as Josef’s lifeless body landed, Hermes sank down to his knees. He cradled his face in his hands for several heartbreaking seconds, letting the emotion of the moment overwhelm him. His impossibly blue eyes, once the picture of clarity, were now clouded with tears. Tears of loss. Tears of mourning. Tears of failure. The Chosen One was supposed to be Earth’s salvation; instead, he suffered the same fate all mortal men did — albeit in a far more violent and destructive way. The screams of the dying filled Hermes’ ears, drowning out the roar of the hellfire. This truly was it. This was the night he was finally going to meet his end. For real this time.

“Josef is dead,” Hermes whispered with a shake of his head, staring skyward. A dragon roared by, one wing twice his size. Were the beast focused on Hermes, it would have itself an easy meal. Instead, the dragon swooped down low, gathering two Divine warriors into its mouth and ending their lives with its powerful jaws. The red spray made Hermes flinch; hundreds of years of war, and he still wasn’t used to the bloodshed. Perhaps this was why he never actually fought.

Hermes glanced to his left to see Cassandra where she had been ever since Seraphus had snapped the Chosen One’s neck. She was on her knees, practically catatonic. There was a distant, not-even-hear-here look in her green eyes. A scratch on her cheek trickled blood, but she didn’t notice it. She didn’t even blink. None of her muscles moved. Not even a twitch. So many times in recent months, Cassandra had been the one to insist on soldiering on, fighting the battles that needed to be fought. More than once, Hermes had wondered if the Gem of Notna had gotten it wrong. Jack Corbett had been a fine Chosen One, no question, but Cassandra had proven to be even bit as worthy as he… if not more so.

Just as obvious, though, had been Cassandra’s love for Jack. The devotion she felt to him was so strong, not even a war for the fate of the Earth could turn her away. But now, that devotion had led to her worst fear: the man she loved dying, right in front of her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Were the situation not so dire, Hermes would not begrudge Cassandra her moment of stasis; in fact, he felt the urge to go catatonic himself. But they couldn’t afford that. Not yet.

“Cassandra,” Hermes said, gently placing his aging hands on her shoulders.

No response.

The dragon returned overhead, its roar a blood-curdling shriek that vibrated in Hermes’ bones. He cringed and shook his head, making sure the monster wasn’t coming for him before turning his attention to Cassandra once more. “Cassandra, are you here? Are you with me? Say something!”

At first, Cassandra was as still and as silent as she had been. But without warning, her eyes turned red and began to glow. She lifted her gaze, chin held up high. The moment startled Hermes so much that he let go of her, watching in awe as Cassandra got back to her feet and began to float. She went from inches above the ground to several feet, until Hermes had to crane his neck to get a look at her. The energy surrounding her eyes was now encasing her entire body. Her hands had curled into fists. Hermes opened his mouth, but there were no words.

Instead, she looked down upon him.

We are here, O Wise One. There was an echo to Cassandra’s voice, as if she were no longer the only one occupying her mind. The Bearer has fallen. The Nomad has fallen. The Primordial was wrong not to interfere.

Hermes didn’t disagree, though this wasn’t exactly the time for an I told you so.

Returning to the ground, Cassandra grabbed one of Hermes’ hands and gave it a squeeze. When his eyes met hers, Cassandra nodded. Consider this our apology.

Cassandra pushed herself skyward, as if flying were something she had been doing for years. A force field of red energy surrounded her and she made a beeline for Seraphus, who was now back on his throne with Josef’s severed head in his lap. Seraphus! She called out, and Hermes couldn’t help the self-satisfied smile that spread across his face when Seraphus jumped to his feet, the head careening down the staircase back to the ground.

The Primordial has always acted in… indirect ways, Cassandra began, grabbing Seraphus by the throat and squeezing until black blood oozed out from under her fingertips. She lifted Seraphus into the air, almost reaching the same height the dragon had just moments before. But even we were helpless to stop this. Well… not so much helpless as stubborn.

Cassandra released her grip, and Seraphus plummeted several hundred feet back to the ground. He landed with a stomach-churning thud, several bones snapping in the process. Seraphus did not immediately return to his feet, barely able to get back to his knees. His nose was broken, a fountain of black spewing from his nostrils down his face. He grit his teeth and snarled before Cassandra landed behind him, grabbed a tuft of his dark hair, and smashed him face-first into the ground once more.

You will not win, O Terrible One. We will not allow it.

A tendril shot out from the gem still embedded in Seraphus’ chest, impaling Cassandra in the stomach. She doubled over with a grunt, her free hand reaching down to grab the strand of sinew buried in her gut. With another grunt, this one almost a scream, she yanks out the tendril and snaps it at a ninety-degree angle. The resulting hiss of anger and pain is sudden, before the strand recoiled back within the ruler. The red in her eyes was now white hot, and Cassandra flipped Seraphus onto his back before straddling him and choking him with both hands.

“I will take back what is mine,” the echo was gone from Cassandra’s voice, “and end this war!”

Reaching into Seraphus’ chest, Cassandra grabbed the gem and began to yank. The ruler’s skin was molded into the crystal itself, and the harder Cassandra yanked, the more Seraphus cringed and writhed in pain. Eventually, the skin began to tear away. Seraphus grunted and bit back several screams, but once Cassandra finally managed to pry the crystal from his chest, her fingers coated in black blood and the tendrils that had swiped at her disappearing, the ruler could hide the pain no more. His scream echoed throughout the abyss, catching all of his undead minions off-guard.

Hermes watched on in awe. Becoming a vessel for the Primordial had actually been her idea. Seeing everyone around her so supernaturally inclined had left Cassandra wondering if there was anything she could do to change that — and seeing as how she wasn’t going to abandon Jack any time soon, Hermes thought it wise to at least investigate the possibility. Gaia and the rest of the Primordial hadn’t been happy — Hermes long thought they were nothing more than lazy do-nothings who hated to be imposed upon — but given the gravity of the situation had reluctantly agreed.

Upon meeting Cassandra, Hermes had underestimated her. What she had lacked in physical strength, she more than made up for in cunning, intellect, and heart. In many ways, she surpassed even Jack, and Hermes felt that she would’ve been just as deserving of being the Chosen One. Even now, he had to chuckle at the memory of something she had once said: Why is the Chosen One always a he?

Well, because the world was an unfair place.

EXCERPT: Behind the Badge

A snippet from my current WIP, Behind the Badge. Note that this is an early draft and may change upon publication.

Jill watched as the van careened off I-83 and onto one of the countless side streets that connected North Baltimore with downtown. Her perch atop the John and Frances Angelos Law Center on the campus of the University of Baltimore gave Jill a perfect vantage point for the chaos, and she was glad she had decided to tail Colonel Downs after her conversation with Officer Carter. Not that she had considered Downs a suspect, but if he had anything that could have led her to one of the other perpetrators, then she was going to take every advantage she could.

Even if that meant breaking out the black leather and letting her hair down. The katana felt heavier than usual strapped to her back, a family heirloom that served as her symbol as much as anything else. Since the fallout from Vernon Delaney’s murder, Jill had kept her vigilante exploits to a minimum… mostly because far too many people now knew her secret. Sure, the vast majority of them were co-workers, people she trusted with her life, but the last thing Jill wanted was for her double life to become common knowledge. If that meant toning down the rooftop brooding and the bad guy pummeling for a bit, she had to make do.

But if any case begged for off-the-book investigating, this was it. If Jill’s hunch that cops were involved in Devin Buckner’s murder was correct, and if the pattern of behavior had been laid out before the brass downtown and nothing had been done, then something told Jill she wasn’t going to solve this case with her badge. Internal politics were her least favorite part of the job, and a large reason why she never showed any interest in moving up the proverbial food chain.

So why had she accepted Downs’ offer?

Sure, Captain Richards was desk-bound most of the time and got to go home at a decent hour most nights, but at what cost? She had heard some of his phone calls with the deputy commissioner and others at the Bishop over the years, and she decided long ago she wanted nothing to do with that. Jill became a cop to do good, not put up with bureaucratic hurdles. But still…

In the distance, Jill saw the van take the exit that led onto North Avenue, going far faster than any vehicle that size should. It almost toppled onto its side, and Jill wasted no time beginning her descent. This was one of those times where Jill wished Project Fusion had given her the ability to fly; at the very least, she wished she could afford to invest in a quality grappling hook. But she had to make do with fire escapes and improvising ways to get down off rooftops without injuring herself. Another multiple-story tumble was not something she needed.

Her infrared sight gave Jill the advantage of spotting the van from such a long distance. She had expected the van to keep on North, going westbound, but a sharp left took the vehicle onto Mt. Royal, and it was coming right toward her. Jill couldn’t believe how fortuitous that was, considering there was no way she could’ve made it from the University of Baltimore to North Avenue on foot and been able to keep up with the van. Then again, Jill wondered if maybe this was too easy.

But like Ramon once told her… gift horse, mouth.

◊◊◊

When Jill saw the van pull out from behind a black Cadillac, swerving into the right lane, she dropped into a crouch. She had to time this perfectly; otherwise, she would either bounce off the vehicle’s hood and wind up being run over by traffic behind, or she would miss the mark completely and possibly land in the middle of an intersection. Frankly, she didn’t want another trip to the hospital… especially considering what happened the last time. Not only did her secret get out to more people than she wanted, but Jill also had someone attack her in her own hospital bed.

Honestly, who tries to kill someone in a hospital?

Mentally counting down from three, Jill leapt into the air at one. She landed on the roof of the speeding van with a thud, trying to maintain her balance when the vehicle swerved in response. As expected, her stunt got the driver’s attention. Dropping to a knee, having an easier time balancing herself now that she had lowered her center of gravity, Jill pulled the katana from its sheath and pierced the sheet metal. She sliced through as best she could before using her free hand to pull the roof back like it was a sardine can.

She found Colonel Downs on his back, his face bloodied. He was still alive, writhing in pain. Jill was just about to drop down into the back of the van when gunfire erupted from the front of the vehicle, tearing through the partition. Jill lowered herself until her chest as flat against the roof, her free hand latching onto the peeled-back sheet metal. None of the bullets hit Downs, and none of them came up her way. Instead, the rear double doors had been hit, now resembling swiss cheese more than anything else.

Once gunfire had been replaced with the click of an empty chamber, Jill hopped into the back of the van, crouching beside the colonel and checking his pulse. It was faint, but it was there. He groaned in response to the leather-clad fingers pressed into the side of his neck, his eyes little more than open slits as he lifted a hand to point toward what was left of the partition.

Before Jill could turn around, one more gunshot burst through the partition. She ducked and covered Downs’ body with her own, squeezing her eyes shut before the realization dawned on her that neither one of them had been hit. Even with that knowledge, Jill needed a few seconds to gather her bearings — the sound of gunfire in such close proximity sending her back to a few months prior, when she had been chasing down a murder suspect downtown and wound up with a bullet in her gut. A bead of sweat rolled down Jill’s temple, her dark hair splayed out over her face. Her heartbeat thundered away in her ears, and Jill gulped in a deep breath to calm herself. But another gunshot rang out, this one clearly a shotgun blast. The concussive force dislodged her sword from the roof, and it fell to the floor with a clang.

Grabbing the weapon, and operating on pure adrenaline, Jill lunged toward the partition and sliced through it. She then reached through the hole the shotgun had torn through the metal, grabbing one of the masked figures by the neck and yanking them into the back of the van. She slammed the short man onto his back and pointed the tip of her blade at his throat.

“Keep driving!” the woman ordered, changing the clip on her pistol.

“I’d re-think that,” Jill warned. “Unless you wanna hear this guy gag on his own blood.”

“You wouldn’t,” the driver said, never once tearing his gaze from the windshield. Though the voice was muffled by the mask, it sounded an awful lot like the asshole cop she had questioned earlier that day.

“You really wanna find out?”

Silence filled the front compartment, and Jill hoped the masked attackers were reconsidering their strategy. Jill was flying by the proverbial seat of her pants; this was, by far, the strangest scenario in which she had found herself — which was saying something, considering she once had a man’s heart sitting in a box outside her apartment. She knew she wasn’t going to stab this guy in the neck, Colonel Downs probably knew she wasn’t going to stab this guy in the neck. But Jill needed the four in the masks to think she might.

What she hadn’t counted on was the press of the gun barrel into the back of her neck.

“What I want,” the female voice hissed, “is for you to put down that sword.”

Well, if this was ever an impasse… they wanted Jill to put down her sword, she wanted them to pull the van over. They didn’t appear willing to acquiesce, and Jill was worried pushing the issue further would get someone killed. But if she lowered her weapon, showed any sign of surrender at all, there was no telling what kind of signal that would send.

“How do I know you won’t pull the trigger even if I do?”

“You’ll just have to trust her,” the driver called out over his shoulder.

Jill swung her free arm behind her, her coiled fist hitting the masked woman in the elbow. The bone gave way and the woman howled in pain. The momentum of the blow sent her into the driver’s right side, their shoulders colliding before he yanked on the wheel and the van skidded across two lanes of traffic before hopping the median. The right front tire took out a fire hydrant, pressurized water shooting skyward before the van slammed back onto its wheels right in front of oncoming traffic. Cars skidded onto the sidewalk and crossed the median as they slammed on their brakes, and there were three crashes as motorists tried to keep from running into the van.

Jill reached for a metal bar on the left side of the partition, grunting when the force of the van almost popped her shoulder out of its socket. Fortunately, the four masked figures were too busy trying to hold on or control the vehicle to notice her, so by the time Jill gathered her bearings, she grabbed the sword again and reached around the driver, placing the blade flush against his neck.

“Stop the van!” she ordered. “Now!

“Or what?” the masked man in the back of the van with Jill asked. “We all know you won’t press down. That’s not your style.”

“You don’t have what it takes,” the man in the passenger’s seat, who to this point had been silent, added.

Even as they spoke, the van was decelerating, the front tires hoping over the curb as the vehicle bounced and teetered onto the sidewalk. Onlookers from across the road had pulled out their phones and were snapping pictures and taking videos — because apparently, a high-speed chase was social media fodder, but no reason to call the authorities. Not that Jill wanted the authorities here just yet; with any luck, they wouldn’t show up until she was already gone. That was seldom how it worked out, but Jill figured one of these days, it had to go her way.

Then again, it wasn’t like she could just tie up the bad guys in a makeshift spider web and just… leave them there.

She pressed the blade harder against the driver’s neck. It wasn’t yet deep enough to cut through skin, but if the van jostled just the wrong way…

“You know nothing,” Jill muttered under her breath. She didn’t need Carter recognizing her voice.

The man who had been on the ground behind Jill got up and punched Jill in her kidney. Though the blow caused her knees to buckle, and Jill bellowed in pain, she kept her grip on the katana and it moved just slightly against the driver’s neck. It cut through the material of the mask and came to rest against his skin. Carter tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and she felt him tense around the weapon.

Before Jill could react, though, she heard her attacker howl in agony before crumpling to the floor of the van. She frowned in confusion before seeing Colonel Downs, resting on his good elbow and holding onto a black taser. The anger and pain on his face made for a potent mix, and Jill reminded herself to never actually cross him. She also respected him a lot more than she had before; she had considered him part of the downtown cover-up that allowed these four officers to get away with these rough rides in the first place, but if they had kidnapped him and subjected him to a rough ride of his own…

Jill turned her head so that by the time Downs looked directly at her, he wouldn’t see her face. She so did not need someone from the Bishop figuring out who she was.

“You alright?” he asked.