ACE AND ROC BOOKS FREE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY SAMPLER

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1 ACE AND ROC BOOKS FREE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY SAMPLER

2 Published by Ace and Roc, divisions of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi , India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Excerpt from Dead Iron Devon Monk, 2011 Excerpt from A Soldier s Duty G. Jean Johnson, 2011 Excerpt from Working Stiff Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, 2011 Excerpt from Prince of Thorns Mark Lawrence, 2011 Excerpt from Bloodlands Chris Marie Green, 2011 Excerpt from Shadow Kin M. J. Scott, 2011 Excerpt from Sins of the Angels Linda Poitevin, 2011 Excerpt from Dead Mann Walking Stefan Petrucha, 2011 First Printing, Copyright 2011 All rights reserved. REGISTERED TRADEMARKS MARCAS REGISTRADAS Printed in the United States of America Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. PUBLISHER S NOTE This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content. If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as unsold and destroyed to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this stripped book. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author s rights is appreciated.

3 ACE AND ROC BOOKS SAMPLER DEAD IRON by Devon Monk 1 A SOLDIER S DUTY by Jean Johnson 17 WORKING STIFF by Rachel Caine 33 PRINCE OF THORNS by Mark Lawrence 43 BLOODLANDS by Christine Cody 67 SHADOW KIN by M. J. Scott 89 SINS OF THE ANGELS by Linda Poitevin 101 DEAD MANN WALKING by Stefan Petrucha 121

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5 DEAD IRON The Age of Steam by Devon Monk Available now in paperback from Roc In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle to claim the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, one man must fight to hold onto what is left of his humanity... Cursed by lycanthropy and carrying the guilt of his brother s death, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt is a man for hire. But when a trio of miners offers him the possibility that his brother may yet survive, Cedar isn t going to haggle for payment. All he has to do for them is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers from the realm of the Strange. The Holder is in the hands of Shard Lefel, a dandified railroad tycoon who s come to Hallelujah, Oregon, promising a civilized tomorrow. But what Cedar cannot know is that Lefel is an ancient Strange banished to walk this land for centuries. Now nearing the end of his sentence, Lefel is desperately searching for a way to fend off his own mortality and the Holder may be the key... Monk s writing is addictive and the only cure is more, more, more. New York Times bestselling author Rachel Vincent

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7 C edar had stared straight into the killing eyes of rabid wolves, hungry bears, and charging bull elk, but Mrs. Horace Small had them all topped. With dirt brown hair piled in a messy bun on the back of her head, and a pinch of anger between her brows, the storekeeper s wife always seemed half a tick from blowing a spring. Two dollars, she repeated, her fist stuck wrist-deep in the fabric at her hip, her jaw jutted out like a bass on a hook. Cornmeal, coffee, and a bit of cheese, Cedar said mildly. He knew better than to let his anger show, especially this close to the full moon, in a store full of townsfolk eager to get their hands on the fresh supplies and gears from the old states. Might be I m missing something. He looked back down at the receipt with Mrs. Small s tight penmanship. How again do they add to two dollars? He knew math knew it very well. He d spent four years back east in the universities and had plans of a teaching life. History and the gentle arts, not the wild metal and steam sciences of the devisers. He d done his share of tinkering had a knack for it but not the restless drive of a true deviser who couldn t be left in a room with a bit of rope, metal, and a hammer without putting them all together into some kind of engine or contraption. No, his needs had been simple: a teacher s life filled with a wife and a daughter, and his brother, Wil. But that life had been

8 4 Devon Monk emptied out and scraped clean six years ago, when he d been only twenty-two. Leaving him a changed man. Leaving him a cursed man. It s written plain enough, she said. You do read, Mr. Hunt? The part there that says fee, Cedar asked without looking up. What fee is that? The rail takes its due. You aren t part of the railroad, Mr. Hunt. Not a farmer, miner, rancher, or deviser. Not a member of this good community. I ve never seen you in church. Not one single Sunday the last two years. That fee for the rail is less than all those months dues you owe to God. Didn t know the collection plate took hold to my provisions, he said with a little more irritation than he d intended, and I don t recall offering my wages to the rail. The mood in the general store shifted. The men in the shop the three Madder brothers, dark haired, dark eyed, all of them short, bull-shouldered, and strong were listening in. They d stopped pawing and chuckling at the new metals and bits in the straw-padded crates, and were waiting. Waiting for him to say the wrong thing. Waiting for a fight. Rose, Mrs. Small s seventeen-year-old adopted daughter, stepped down off the stool where she d been dusting. She darted behind Cedar and out the door, silent as a mouse fleeing danger. She had good instincts. He d always admired that in her. Mrs. Small lowered her voice and leaned over the counter between them. You are a dirty drifter, Mr. Hunt. Any man out this far west with no plan of settling down isn t drifting toward something he s trying too hard to drift away from something. The good folk of this town want you to be moving on. You ve brought enough bad luck down on us. First the Haney stock got drug away by wolves. Then the little Gregor boy goes missing. Trouble like you needs to be moving on your way. Trouble like me? He tipped his hat down just a bit. No offense, ma am, but I took care of the wolf before the Haneys lost the rest of their stock. If I recall, there wasn t another man out tracking it. And if I d known about the Gregor boy wandering off, I would have been looking for him too. Animals aren t the only thing I am capable of hunting.

9 DEAD IRON 5 This time he did look up. Met her eyes. Watched the fire of her indignation go to ash. It never took much, no more than a glimpse of the thing that lived just beneath his civilized exterior, to end a conversation. Days like this, he liked it. Liked what his gaze could do. But it was easy to lose grip, to go from staring a person down to waking up with a dead body at his feet. He didn t want that to happen. Not today. Not ever again. Cedar blinked, breaking eye contact with Mrs. Small. He pushed the bloody memories away and gave her a moment, because he knew she d need one. He took a moment too. He meant it when he said he d look for the boy, would have been looking at the first sign of him getting lost. But Hallelujah wasn t made of trusting folk. They d seen too much hardship to think a man who kept to himself, and only rarely came to town, would go out of his way to do them any good. Except for the dandy rail man, Mr. Shard LeFel. Rumor had it all the town held him in high esteem. Rumor had it, when he or his man Mr. Shunt walked by, folk fought a powerful need to bow down on their knees. Cedar hadn t yet met a man he d be willing to bow to. The Madder brothers swaggered up, caulk boots hollow on the shiplap floor. The brothers worked the silver mine. Breaking rock all day never seemed to satisfy their need to bust their way through a man s bones every time they crawled out of the hills. How I see it, Cedar said, hitching his words down low, quiet, I ve been some benefit to this town, me and my drifter ways. Hunted wolves, mountain lions, and nuisances for ranchers and working folk alike. I ll be hunting for the lost boy. You can tell the Gregors that when they next stop in. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar and enough copper to settle the bill. Fee included. He placed the coins on the counter, plus a penny extra, and plucked a jar of ink from the shelf. Mrs. Small raised one eyebrow, but said no more. The silver filigreed bird perched on the edge of the high window sang one sweet chirp. Its head was the size of a child s thimble.

10 6 Devon Monk The gears and burner inside it were so tiny, it chirped once every hour and needed half a dropper of water a day to power it. Valuable, that whimsy. He wondered where she had come by it. That delicate of a matic, a fine thing of little practical use, never survived this far west for long. Beautiful things got crushed to dust out in these wilds. Outside, the steam clock blew the pattern for ten o clock. Town was mighty proud of that whistle. The blacksmith, Mr. Gregor, had put it in place of a clock tower right over his shop at the north end of town. Not half again as nice as the steam bells back east, it was still Hallelujah s pride and joy and could be heard clear on the other side of Powder Keg Bluff. Is Mr. Hunt troubling you, ma am? Cadoc, the shortest and widest of the Madder brothers, asked. Cedar picked up the flour with the two smaller bundles stacked on top. He tucked the ink in his pocket and nodded at the brothers, who all wore overalls, tool belts, and long coats loose enough to cover whatever it was they kept stuffed in their pockets. Just a discussion of good citizenship is all, gentlemen, he said. Afternoon. He headed out onto the stretch of porch that gave shade in the summer, and the chance of shelter against rain and snow in the other seasons. The Small Mercantile and Groceries was set on the corner of Main Street the only street with real gas lamps in the town. The other buildings, thirty or so of them with pitched roofs and walls of milled or plank wood, were laid out in neat rows following the curve of the Grande Ronde River north. A bustle of people were on the streets this morning, come into town for the new shipment, to pick up mail or trade harvest goods to settle their bills. It brought back his memories of the big cities, though there were more steam matics trundling about in the East. Horses, carriages, wagons, and folk on foot added to the clatter of the place, added to the living of the place, and reminded Cedar of things long lost. Even the ringing of a hammer on wood reminded him of the civilized life that was once his. He glanced up the street. His gaze skipped the bakery, butcher

11 DEAD IRON 7 shop, tannery, and mill, drawn, as it was always drawn, to the clock whistle atop a turret made of iron and wood and tin, sticking up like a backbone above the blacksmith s shop. A coil of copper tubes wrapped through the structure and supported a line of twelve glass jugs, round as pearls and big as butter churns. Water poured from the top of the tower downward, like sand in an hourglass, filled the glass jugs one at a time, until they spilled over into the next and turned the gears inside the tower toward the next hour. Town needed a thing to be proud of. Needed a thing more than wool and timber and silver to keep it alive. Needed something beautiful. Needed hope. Cedar looked past the tower to the mountains that cupped the valley, two ranges of snow and hardship, blocking Hallelujah from easier lands and the great Columbia River. He knew there was ground enough between the town and the rise of the Wallowa Mountains, an airship could land and lash, but he had never once seen a ship venture over these mountain ranges not even to deliver supplies or drop mail. Hallelujah was in dire risk of being forgotten by the world that traveled easier roads to brighter skies. A song piped out from near his elbow, soft and breathy. Cedar looked down. Rose was on the porch, her back pressed tight against the clapboard siding, one toe of her boot propped on the lower rung of the whitewashed railing. She was talking to herself, or maybe singing, her head bent, amber hair beneath her bonnet catching the gold out of the sunlight and falling in a loose braid over one shoulder, hiding much of her profile from him. Around her neck was a little locket the size and shape of a robin s egg. It looked made of gold and silver, though it might just be the shine of the morning sun upon it. He d never seen her without that locket around her neck. She balanced a small wooden plate with gears set flat atop it on the palm and fingers of her left hand. A tiny tin top with a copper steam valve followed the spokes of the wooden gears and gave off a sour little song that changed with its speed as it followed the height and width of each cog. Rose pulled a gear off the plate and

12 8 Devon Monk replaced it with another from her apron pocket, sweetening the song, all the while talking, talking. Clever, that. He d bet she fashioned it herself. She had the look of the deviser s knack a quick mind that trawled the edge of madness, and clever, busy fingers. She had practical smarts too, though, like knowing how to stay away from the back of her mama s hand. Reckon I put your mama in a sour mood, asking her about the Gregor boy, he said. I don t suppose you ve heard when he got himself lost? Last night is all, she said, stopping the top with her finger and slipping it into her apron pocket. Didn t run off, I heard. Didn t run? Think he flew out the window? She tipped a glance out from behind the brim of her bonnet. Those eyes were blue and soft and wide as the sea. She smiled, the corners of her mouth tucking dimples into her tanned cheeks. Folk around town had their opinions of the girl abandoned when she was a babe. Thought she had too many wild ideas spinning through her head as was proper for a woman. He d never seen her be anything but kind and steady in the years he d been here. Deviser or not, madness or not, she had a good heart, that was certain. Didn t seem the other men in town thought the same. A woman her age and unmarried was almost an unheard-of circumstance. No, Mr. Hunt, she said. I think he got took. Took? That what his folks are saying? She shrugged. They saying what took him? There wasn t a night predator brash enough to cross a closed door, and there wasn t a soul foolish enough to go without a lock or brace in these parts. Maybe the boy wandered when he should have been sleeping. Said it was the man. What man? The bogeyman. Cedar blinked and went very still. She wasn t lying. That was clear from the curiosity in her eyes. She s heard someone say that, someone who meant it. He just hoped whoever had said it didn t know what they were talking about.

13 DEAD IRON 9 Under his sudden silence, Rose clutched the wooden gear plate tighter and pulled her braid back so it fell square between her shoulders. She did not look away, but lifted her chin and studied his face, his eyes, the angle of his shoulders, his clenched fists. She weighed and measured his mood as if he were made of parts and the whole, more curious than cautious, though she rocked up on the balls of her feet, ready to bolt if need be. And for good reason. He d been staring at her. He knew what she saw in his gaze. Knew the beast that twisted inside him. He looked away. Mr. Hunt? she asked. Are you not well? Like he said, she had good instincts. Cedar found a smile and gentle tone left over from better days. Well enough. Thank you for your time, Miss Small. Do you think it was? she asked. The bogeyman? I think a lady like you shouldn t need to fret about the bogeyman. She did not smile. They say he came in the night, she said. Slick as a shadow. Took Elbert from his bed. Didn t even leave a wrinkle in the sheets. No one saw him. No one heard him. No one stopped him. Not even his daddy. It s unnatural. She nodded and looked him straight in the eyes. Strange. I think that might be worth a fret or two, don t you? Mr. Gregor was a big man. A strong man with hair and beard as red and wild as the fire he toiled over. Probably looked like a giant from the eyes of a girl growing up in this town. A crash from inside clattered out; then Mrs. Small s holler drifted through the doors. Rose flinched, tucked back down into herself, her hair falling once again to cover her face. He didn t sense fear from her. No, he sensed frustration. She took a breath and let it out like a filly settling to the chafe of bridle and cinch. Don t worry yourself, Miss Small, Cedar said. You re safer here in your home than if you hid away in the blacksmith s pocket. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. I m of a positive considerance not even the bravest bogeyman would dare cross the temper of your mother. That tipped a laugh out of her, sweeter than the top s song, and

14 10 Devon Monk Cedar couldn t help but smile in response. There was something about Rose that made a man want to smile. You have a way with words, Mr. Hunt. I best be going before that temper is aimed my direction. She started across the porch and opened the door just as her mother yelled for her. Rose, get the broom and pan. And I ll have you fetch the papers from city hall before the day s gone dead. The rail man s expecting them tomorrow. Are you listening to me? Rose! Coming, ma am, she called back. Cedar watched her step through the doorway, caught for a moment as a lithe silhouette between the light and darkness, a graceful girl no, he reckoned she really was a woman now who paused just long enough to glance over her shoulder at him, and give him a curious smile. Then the Madder brothers came walking out, each calling a hello to Rose, and each fixing Cedar with a hard look. Cedar got moving, down the steps and out into the busy street. He d come to town on foot, wanting the walk. But he didn t want to deal with the brothers. Not today. A cool breeze pulled down off the mountains and pushed a few clouds across the sky. Signs that summer s back would soon be broken by frost. No time left to plant, to harvest, to spend the days hopeful and hale. The season of the dead was coming round the way. Maybe the storekeeper s wife was right. Maybe it was time for moving on to better hunting grounds before winter took hold. Maybe it was time to run again. Cedar could feel the restlessness in the little Oregon town. Everyone twitching for a bit of sunlight that gave off enough warmth to last a day. Twitching for moving on, moving up to a better place in the modern world, to a better bit of luck. Before winter caught hold and locked the town tight between the feet of the Wallowa and Blue mountains. The people of Hallelujah had been holding out against hard times for too long now. Killing winters, broken supply trains and routes, sickness. They hung their hopes like threadbare linens on the iron track that was laying down, tie by tie, coming their way with the promise of a new tomorrow and all the riches of the east and south.

15 DEAD IRON 11 No wonder they bowed to the rail man. He was all they had left to hope for. Cedar strolled down the street, dodging a slow horse and a passel of kids chasing after a pig that must have gotten loose from its pen. The dirt under his bootheels was still hard from a season of sun, and he made good time crossing one street, then another. Didn t matter how busy town was today. The Madder brothers followed him like a pack of dogs scenting meat. He stopped at the end of the street. The western edge of forest crowded up here, making homesteading more difficult. His cabin was about three miles into those trees, up the foothills a bit, by a creek that flowed through the seasons. If the Madders had some business with him, he d rather deal with it here than at his home. He didn t want a fight, and he didn t want to draw his gun. But he d do both to keep the brothers off his heels tonight. There something on your mind, boys? The middle brother s name was Bryn. Cedar could pick him out of the pack because he was always covered in dirt and grime from the mine except for his hands, which he kept scrubbed from the wrist to fingertips, clean as a preacher s sheets. He stepped forward. We think maybe you lost something. He stuffed one of his clean, calloused hands into his overalls pocket and drew out a pocket watch. He gazed down at it longingly until the oldest, tallest, Alun, said, Go on now, Bryn. Make it right. Bryn Madder looked away from the watch and held it out for Cedar. It s yours. As much as. I... found it. A while back. Broken. I cleaned it. Didn t fix it, though. Wouldn t take to fixing, and that s a curious thing. The watch swung like a pendulum, stirred by the breeze: a silver disk, an accusing eye, cold and hard as hatred. A lot of men carry a watch. Cedar s throat felt like he d just swallowed down ashes of the dead. That watch was not his. But he would know it anywhere. It was his brother s. And he d last seen it on him the day he died. Bryn nodded. Tilted his chin so he could look at Cedar through his good left eye. This one you lost. We found it. Maybe eight months ago when that rail man dandy came to

16 12 Devon Monk town. Thought about keeping it... His voice trailed off on a note of longing. But it s not the sort of thing we d need, Alun said, more for his brother than Cedar. Now, if it had been something useful to us, like say that striker we ve seen you carry a time or two... Is that what you want for it? Cedar could not look away from the watch, gently swaying like an admonishing finger. The brothers paused. Cedar glanced at the oldest, Alun, who wore a heavier beard than the rest. How much? Alun did not look away. Instead, he did something very few could do beneath Cedar s glare. He smiled. Our blood comes from the old country, Mr. Hunt, he said. Before Wales had that name. And our... people... have always been miners. A man sleeps and breathes and sups with the stone, he begins to understand things. A wagon pulled by mule, not steamer, rattled past, taking crates and sacks and barrels of food, nails, mended shovels, and hammers out to the rail work twenty miles south of town. All things in this world eventually soak into the soil and stone, Alun said once the wagon had taken its noise up the street a ways. It gets to be where a man, one who knows what to listen for, can hear the stones breathing. It gets to be where a man knows what the stones have to say. The watch. Cedar didn t care if Alun thought he could hear rocks conversing. Hell, for all Cedar knew, he was telling true and he could talk to stones. The brothers had strolled into town a year ago, just ahead of the rail man, and quickly struck the richest silver vein in the hills. Maybe they d gone out and asked the mountain where the metals were hid. And maybe the mountain had sat down and told them. Talking to rocks wasn t near the strangest thing Cedar had encountered on his walk across this country. He had seen the Strange the true Strange creatures that hitched along from the Old World, tucked unknown in an immigrant s pocket, hidden away in a suitcase, or carried tightly in the darkest nightmare. He had seen what the Strange could do when set free in this new land.

17 DEAD IRON 13 He had seen it more clearly than someone fixing to blame the bogeyman for a missing child. He had seen the Strange personally, been touched by them. And he still hadn t recovered. It looked like the Madder brothers Strange had done them benefit. They were wealthy by any man s standard, even though they never spent much, never left the hills much, and lived like they didn t have a penny between them. They had a way with metal, that was sure. It showed in their buckles and buttons, each carved with a symbol of a gear and wrench, flame and water. It showed in the glimpses of brass and copper contraptions that rode heavy in the pockets of their oversized coats. And it showed in the customized Colt pneumatic revolvers glinting in handworked silver and brass, holstered at their hips. He was of a mind they were also devisers, though they d never come out and said such. Made him curious why they didn t want to admit to their skill. A deviser could make things of practical applications that stretched the imagination. Yet folk in town always turned them a blind eye, while looking instead with hope to the rail man, LeFel. The watch isn t yours, is it? Alun Madder said. Stones say this belonged to someone close to you. Someone gone. A brother? Cedar held out his hand for the watch. Those stones of yours talk too much. That got a hoot out of all three of them. What is your asking price for the watch? Cedar said. The striker. And a favor. What favor? The Madder brothers all shrugged at the same time. Don t know, Alun said. Don t need a favor yet. But when we do, you ll answer to us and pay it. Cedar paused. He didn t like being left owing to any man, much less three. But that was Wil s watch. Rightfully his now. He wanted it. More, he wanted to know how it had suddenly appeared, all the way out here, almost four years after his death. One favor only, Cedar said, not one for the each of you. I ll do nothing that brings harm to the weak, the poor, or to women and children.

18 14 Devon Monk Yes, yes. Alun rubbed his meaty hands together. And the striker. You ll have it next time I m in town. Agreed, Alun said. The Madder brothers leaned in and extended their right hands as one, palms pressed against knuckles so they all shook Cedar s hand at the same time. Practiced, unconscious they d probably been sealing deals that way since they could talk. Cedar held his hand out for the watch again. Bryn released the chain and sighed as the watch slipped his fingers into Cedar s. It should be cold, made of silver and brass with a crystal face. But the watch was as warm as if there were a banked coal tucked inside. It didn t tick, not even the second hand. It was still, dead. And warm as a living thing. He tried hard not to look surprised or look away from the brothers. Just a watch, you say? he asked. Bryn answered. So much as. Broken when we found it. Not much of a timepiece if it can t tell a man the time. He shrugged. Alun was still smiling. Enjoy your time, Cedar Hunt, he said. Don t forget our striker. Come on now, Bryn. He punched Bryn on the shoulder a hit that would have staggered a much bigger man, though Bryn barely seemed to notice and the two of them started back into town. Their brother, Cadoc Madder, lingered behind as Alun and Bryn angled south toward the saloon and the boardinghouse, whose rooms hadn t been full since the gold rush. Next to that stood the bordello that had never needed to worry about an empty bed now that the rail, and its workers, had come to town. Cadoc, who had been silent all this time, finally spoke. If you ever want to know what else the stones say, about... things and such... you know where to fetch us up. Didn t figure your rocks were quite so conversational, Cedar said. Cadoc rolled his tongue around in his mouth, pushing out his bottom lip, then top, as if washing the grit off his words before using them. The railroad is coming. Can you hear it, Mr. Hunt? Crawling this way on hammers and iron. Breathing out its stink and steam. Thing like that brings change to a place, to a people. There ll be more metal above the ground than below soon.

19 DEAD IRON 15 Leaves a hollow that needs filling. Scars more than stone deep. He paused and studied Cedar a little closer. But then you know about the things that can change a land, or a man, I reckon. You and your brother. Sweat slicked under Cedar s hatband. He didn t know what Cadoc knew about Wil. About the change. The curse. Didn t even know how the Madders could know. Cedar had not spoken of his brother in nearly three years. The wind laid a phantom hand between his shoulders, pressing there, telling him it was time to move on, move away, move west. Before his past caught up with him again. Before there was blood. But it was Cadoc who left, rambling down the street to join his brothers, not one of them with a care to look back at Cedar. Cedar fought the urge to go after them, to force them to explain the watch, and what they knew of his brother s death. To tell him why the metal was warm as spilled blood. Instead he stood there, a sack of flour on his shoulder, his fist clenched around the only thing of his brother s that remained, while the Madders bulled down the street through the crowd, looking like they d welcome a brawl just for laughs. He d come back later with the striker. He d see if their talk was crazy, or if they knew something more. Something true. By then he d have a firm hold on his anger and his hunger. By then he d be less likely to do them permanent harm. And he would find out just exactly what their rocks had said about his brother. Cedar took a deep breath, trying to calm the beast within him. In the distance, the pump and chug of the steam matics working the rail set a drumbeat as the brown jug whistle sounded out lonely and hollow, like dreams coming this way to die. He crossed the road to the trail that led to his cabin up in the hills. He d cook up some coffee, fry up some bread, and have a meal before the moon rose. After the moon set, he d hunt for the boy. Because that was what a man did. And Cedar intended to remain a man for as long as he could.

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21 A SOLDIER S DUTY Theirs Not to Reason Why by Jean Johnson An Ace August 2011 Paperback The national bestselling author of the Sons of Destiny novels brings her wildly entertaining * imagination to science fiction in a brand-new series. Ia is a precog, blessed or cursed with visions of the future. She has witnessed the devastation of her home galaxy three hundred years into the future, long after she is gone, but believes she can prevent it. Enlisting in the modern military of the Terran United Planets, Ia plans to rise through the ranks, meeting and influencing the right people and building a reputation that will inspire others for the next three centuries. But she needs to be assigned to the right ship, the right company, and the right place to earn that reputation honestly all while keeping her psychic abilities hidden from her superiors, who would refuse to risk such a valuable gift in combat. To save the galaxy, Ia must become someone else the soldier known as Bloody Mary. *New York Times bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz

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23 Prologue I t was horrible. Terrible. No fifteen-year-old and barely fifteen, at that should have had to face such a frightening, unrelenting truth. But she had to. She had no choice. Her eyes were open. She was sure of that much. But in the grey glow of pre-dawn, brightened occasionally by the usual morning electrical storm, her bedroom looked out of place: banal and slightly surreal compared to what she had just seen. Crowded, but banal. There were actually two beds, a narrow one for herself and a broad one that her brothers shared in quiet sleep, with a meager aisle between them. A long counter underneath the window served as part desk, part bureau. Every toy, every book, every data chip was tucked in its place, because there was literally no room for a mess. Neat and tidy. Innocent. Behind the evidence of her eyes, this whole building her parents small but prosperous restaurant lay in smoldering ruins. Inside her head, she could see the broken plaster boards, scorched plexi tiles... and the body of her birthmother, sprawled and bloodied, eyes open but unseeing. No... no! Covering her eyes, elbows braced on her knees, the girl on the narrower of the two beds tried to shut out the images. She couldn t banish them; she could only shove them aside. When she did... others took their place. Her elder brother fighting to survive, her younger brother dragged away by brute force, a laser

24 20 Jean Johnson bolt shaded in cruel dark orange arrowing for her own throat. No! No, no, no! She shoved harder at the images, tried to force her way around them, but it was like wading through a muddy river, a hard, cold, murky struggle that swept her relentlessly downstream. It didn t matter which fork she chose, the flow of Time itself dragged her inevitably to the end. To the horrific images of an inevitable end, where rapacious invaders tore whole worlds to shreds. Her world, and the others. Choked by the roiling, cold waters, she couldn t see the right way to go, the best path to survive, a way to escape the lifeless, frozen wasteland lying ahead.... NO! There had to be a way out. She refused to accept that this... this vision was unbreakable. That it was unstoppable, inevitable. Clasping her arms around her knees, squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she forced her inner self to climb out of the waters sweeping inexorably onward to their ugly end. To climb onto the banks of the river the banks of all the rivers in her mind, to stop herself from drowning in the ice-cold waters of Time itself. There has to be a way out. There has to be. Determined to find that way, some path that could be followed through the tangle of lives and possibilities, she searched through the stream-scattered plains. She didn t stop to check each creek; instead, she leapt from bank to bank, looking for the point where all the rivers turned into rivulets, where all of them ran into a dried, barren, hopeless desert. It was hard to see, though the more she moved and searched, the more light there was in this dark, grey, foreboding place inside her head. Slowly, as the grey of twilight changed to the amber-gold of dawn, she found a thin trickle, a single stream... a thread of hope that led through a tiny hole in the barrier of the desert, expanding into an oasis of triumph and beauty beyond that frightening wall of inevitability. Here this is the path! This is what I want... But when she looked back, the complexity of the path confounded her. It stretched well past anything she herself could affect in her own lifetime and not just her own life-time, but her

25 A SOLDIER S DUTY 21 own life-place, tying into yet more rivers and streams that ran through fields beyond this single, visible plain. Cautiously tracing her way back, she found nodes of influence, little nudges, artificial canals and bolstering dykes, levees built up to prevent the flooding of failure, and aqueducts bringing in knowledge from other realms. Twists and turns, knots and braids artificially plaited into the naturally woven strands of what should have been reality. Along every centimeter of the intertwining streams she followed, images flickered in the waters, showing her meager glimpses of the way to make that one slender stream of a chance survive. Make, not just help. My god... This will take more than a lifetime to make happen. She hurried back toward her entry-point, only to stumble and fall to her knees, seeing the drastic changes wrought in her own future, just to make all of it possible. No... no... No, there has to be a better way. Some side-stream I could take... some other option! Scrambling to her feet, straining to see through the shifting, flowing waters, she searched the currents in the meadows stretching out to either side. Time did not have the same meaning in this place as it had out there, beyond the boundaries of her mind she knew her brothers were now awake, that they were quietly getting dressed for breakfast and for school, somewhere out there beyond the edges of her consciousness but she couldn t stop searching. Couldn t stop looking for an escape. For a way out. There wasn t one. Not for everyone. With eyes that were learning to skim the images rippling and shifting in the lengthy tangle of waters crisscrossing the plains, she saw there was no safe path for herself. No quiet life to be led. No escape from her fate; not from what she had to do, not with this radical of a departure from all of her childish dreams and expectations. No avoiding what would happen to herself, nor what would happen to her family, to her friends and neighbors if she ignored this single, meager thread of possibility. Worse, when she turned to look back at the future, looking out across the other rivers and their subsidiary streams, the way they

26 22 Jean Johnson dried into curdled, cracked mud and crumbled into sand... there was no other hope for anyone else. Not a viable one. Nothing that would bear fruit. Just the one, rivulet-sized chance to avoid that distant, inevitable, widespread desert of destruction. One chance to stop everything from turning into nothing. One chance to avoid annihilation. But... if she redirected all those streams and rivulets, gouging out a new set of paths for the waters to take... If she changed the riverbeds of all those lives, both here and elsewhere, fighting to redirect the course of everything, there was hope. If she drastically altered the flow of her own life, she could have a chance at saving the rest.... Most of the rest. Some could be saved, she realized; many, in fact. But not everyone. Not everyone. It was a horrible, terrible choice for a fifteen-year-old to have to make.

27 CHAPTER ONE May 4 th, 2490 T.S. Melbourne, Australia Province Earth N ame? Ia. Back straight, hands clasped in her lap, she waited for him to comment. She pronounced it EE-yah, and not the EYEah most people assumed. Just like it says on my ident. The brown-uniformed recruitment officer quirked his brow and sat back at that. Light from the glow strips overhead gleamed off his service pins for a moment, allowing her to read the badge holding his name. Lieutenant Major Kirkins-Baij. I know what it says on your ident, young lady. But given how the Terran United Space Force has roughly two billion soldiers to keep track of, it helps to have more than one name. Usually, a Human has at least three: a family name, a personal name, and an additional name. Some even have two family names, like myself. So. What is your full legal name, meioa? he asked. My full legal name is Ia. Capital I, lowercase a. Ia, she repeated. Nothing more, and nothing less. The corner of his mouth quirked up for a moment. With a name that short, I don t see how you could have anything less. Glancing at the workstation screen displaying her stats, he frowned a little. Independent Colony World Sanctuary? Where s that?

28 24 Jean Johnson It s on the backside of Terran space, close to the border of the Grey Zone. Not quite thirteen hundred light-years from here, she told him. It s relatively brand-new. I m second-gen. We don t normally get recruits from any I.C., not here on Earth, the lieutenant major offered. I ll presume your Colony Charter permits its citizens to join the Terran military, and that you re prepared to sign the necessary waivers, but if your Charter was sponsored by the V Dan Empire instead, I ll have to get out a different set of forms. Sanctuary s Charter was actually sponsored by I.C. Eiaven, she clarified. That cuts the paperwork down to almost nothing. That doesn t make sense. Eiaven is almost the exact opposite direction from here, he pointed out, lowering his brows in a doubtful frown. Most sponsoring worlds are next to each other, not hundreds of light-years apart. Ia didn t let his skepticism faze her. Rather, she welcomed it as a positive sign that she was doing the right thing at the right time. That s true for most worlds, but most heavyworlds are sponsored by Eiaven. Sanctuary is merely the latest to prove itself viable. Article VII, Section B, Paragraph14, subparagraphs c, g, h, and j of the Sanctuary Independent Colonyworld Charter duly registered with the Alliance state that, as a Sanctuarian citizen, all I have to do to join either the Terran or the V Dan military is to take the Oath of Service as a recruit, and my citizenship will automatically transfer to the appropriate government. We re not so much an independent colonyworld as an interdependent one. Life on a heavyworld is tough enough without adding political troubles, and both Human governments recognized this long ago. Eiaven and its sponsored colonies are legally considered joint neutral territory. If I choose to serve in the Terran military, I automatically become a Terran citizen, with all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges thereof, and disavowing all rights to V Dan citizenship, should I choose to do so. Which I do, which is why I am here, she said. And you came all the way to Earth, almost thirteen hundred light-years from home, just to do so? he repeated, still skeptical. Exactly on your eighteenth birthday? Yes, meioa, Ia admitted, reminding herself to be patient. Pro-

29 A SOLDIER S DUTY 25 vided I am a full, legal adult which I now am I can join up at any Recruitment Center anywhere across the Terran United Planets. I just happened to pick Melbourne, Australia Prefecture, Earth. I d also like to join the TUPSF-Marine Corps in specific, which is why I m sitting here in front of you, meioa-o, instead of one of the other officers at this facility, Ia stated patiently. You are the local recruitment officer for the TUPSF-MC, she reminded him, pronouncing the acronym tup-siff-mick. Now, may I please do so? And your name is just... Ia? the lieutenant major asked dubiously. The military needs more than that to be able to identify you, meioa. I have an ident number, duly registered with the Alliance, Ia reminded him, nodding slightly at his workstation, which still displayed her civilian profile. Ident # All I need to join any branch of the Space Force is a name and a valid ident number, both of which I have provided, and to state which Branch I wish to apply for. My name is Ia, you have my ident number, and I would like to join the TUPSF-Marines. Sighing roughly, the lieutenant major typed a command into his workstation. It s not quite that easy to get into the Marines. Your background check hasn t turned up any legal troubles yet, but we ll still need to place a vid-call and confirm your citizenship status with the authorities on Sanctuary. You ll also need to take the Military Aptitude Test. You can apply for a preference in Service Branches, but depending on how well you score in the various categories, you might end up in the TUPSF-Navy, the Army, or even the Special Forces... though you shouldn t hold your breath on that last one. Very few are selected to join the elite Branch of the Service. Oh, I m willing to take the test, she assured him. I m ready right now, in fact. I also know I m well-suited for the Marines.... We ll see. There is a twenty credit non-refundable processing fee, whether or not you pass recruitment standards, Meioa Ia, Lieutenant Major Kirkins-Baij told her, his tone just flat enough to reassure her he had said this part to a hundred recruits before her, and would recite it to a hundred more once she had gone. On the plus side, your MAT scores are transferrable when applying for a government job, should you choose to look elsewhere.

30 26 Jean Johnson The look he slanted her said he thought she would be smarter to look elsewhere, being a strange, one-named woman who probably wouldn t fit into the orderly categories of military life. But he didn t actively try to dissuade her. Instead, he typed in a few more commands, accepted the two orange credit chits she dug out of her pocket and handed over, then rose from his seat. The testing booth is this way. A gesture of his hand showed her which way to turn as they left the small room that served as his office. I ll be placing that call to your government while you are undergoing evaluation. If you need to visit the bathroom, now is the time to go. Be advised that you will be tested for illegal substances from this point forward. I understand. She followed as he showed her to the facilities, leaving her alone for a few moments. If I didn t have to go to a specific Camp at a specific point in time, I would ve picked a more congenial recruiter... but this one needs to fill his recruitment quota. If I can antagonize him just enough, prick his pride, push the right buttons, he ll not try to push me into a different path, based on my testing. Using the facilities, she scrubbed her hands at the sink, knowing they would be subjected to sensors determining her stress and reflex responses via her sweat glands, impulse-twitches, blood-pressure, heart rate, and other detection means. A more congenial soul would be eager to help me, ruining everything I have planned. I cannot let him get in my way. That was an old mantra. A familiar one, if not necessarily a comfortable one for her conscience to bear. To it, she added a new, fresh thought. I cannot let these tests place me in the wrong Service path, either. That would be a disaster of unforgivable proportions. Not that it would be an easy thing. She had practiced at home with a makeshift testing center, thanks to the help of her brothers and the local chapter of the Witan Order. But the Kinetic Inergy machines the Witans had loaned her were old and most likely less sensitive than whatever the military could afford; at least, the military here on the Human motherworld. She would have to rely mostly on rote memorization to pass if she didn t want to trigger the wrong sensors.

31 A SOLDIER S DUTY 27 Squaring her shoulders, she emerged from the refreshing room and followed the lieutenant major to the testing booths. There were three of them, hatchway-sealed rooms with their doors standing open, each one looking in on a bulky, sensor-riddled chair ringed by view screens and the like. Outside each door, a quartet of helmets hung on a hook. Please pick the headset size which fits most comfortably on your head, and seat yourself in the chair inside this room, he instructed her, his tone reverting to that bored, done-it-a-thousandtimes tone he had used before. Follow the instructions you are given at all times to the best of your ability. You are expected to be proficient at reading and listening to Terranglo; if you are unable to do so, you must indicate which languages you are proficient at on the tertiary second screen. Inability to follow orders in Terranglo both written and verbal will affect your placement scores. You will be subjected to audio, text, and spatial questioning, your reflexes and strength tested, your ethics probed, your mind monitored for KI strength and other hallmarks of psychic ability, and you will even undergo timed testing at certain steps along the way. The entire testing session will last between two and a half to three hours, depending upon the untimed portions. If you are thirsty, you may access bottled water from the dispensary, but otherwise you will not be allowed a break from the testing procedure. If you have any questions about the equipment, the tertiary fifth screen, the one on the lower far right, contains a diagram of what to touch and when to touch it. The pertinent equipment on the diagram will light up with arrows when you are to touch it. Gesturing, the lieutenant major pointed at the screens. These vidscreens are arranged in the standard Terran pattern: primary is in the center, flanked to either side by secondary left and secondary right. Below them from left to right are the tertiary first through fifth screens. Please remember their positions, as they will be critical for some of your testing. You will also be subjected to pain threshold tests, and gravity stress tests. Please do not exit the booth during the gravity stress tests, as the gravity shear forces may cause undue injury. If you wish to end the testing at any time, simply repeat three times in a row, End the test, end the test, end the test, and wait for the screens to

32 28 Jean Johnson fall dark and the door to open before exiting the equipment. Your twenty-credit fee is non-refundable, and incomplete MAT scores are not admissible for military, civilian, or government jobs. Do you understand these things as I have explained them to you? Plucking one of the helmets from the rack lining the outer edge of the alcove, Ia nodded. Yes, Sir, I understand them. Your placement in the Service, if any, will depend almost entirely upon the machine s evaluation of your performance coupled with the current needs of the military. Some of the questions you answer may direct your career path, but placement is not guaranteed. I myself can make certain recommendations if an ambiguity shows up in your testing profile, but the Space Force has invested a lot of effort and experience in these testing centers to gauge your abilities with great accuracy. If there are no true ambiguities, I cannot sway the testing center s decisions for you. Good luck, he wished her, and don t hold your breath. Unless the test asks for it, of course. Ia knew he was expecting her to laugh. Most applicants did. She also knew he was serious. Settling the helmet on her head, she fastened the chin strap and climbed into the testing chair. The primary and tertiary fifth screens lit up, the former with a greeting and a list of instructions on how to strap into the equipment, and the latter with sections of the depicted chair displayed, lighting up as each point scrolled up the screen. Once her legs and right arm were strapped in, she inserted her left arm with its ident bracelet into its slot as directed, and waited while the machine pulled up her information file. It recorded her homeworld of Sanctuary without commentary, unlike the recruitment officer. It also revved up the gravity weave built into the alcove with the warning message, Adjusting gravity to native homeworld standards of 3.21gs for physical stress test. Please stand by, and do not exit the testing chair during the enhanced gravity phase. It d be rather hard for me to stand by and not exit the chair, Ia thought, letting her rare sense of humor surface for a moment. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, accompanying a faint hum from a new machine. Damn. They ve turned on the KI sensors

33 A SOLDIER S DUTY 29 sooner than I expected. Clamping down on her mind, she blanked it of all stray thoughts, and all stray abilities. Now was not the time to go off into an involuntary temporal fit. Not with the machine off to her left ready to record just how much Kinetic Inergy she might use, and what kinds. Now is not the time for the military to find out I m a psychic. Not for a long, long time, if I can help it. Meioa Ia. Are you ready to begin the Military Aptitude Test? the pleasant audio voice of the testing unit asked. I am. Begin, she instructed it. Section One: Physical Aptitude. Grasp the blue handles and pull them down as fast as you can, the recorded voice instructed. On the secondary left screen, a question flashed in white text. Section Two: Military Knowledge. 1) When was the Space Force founded? Grasping the overhead handles, Ia yanked them down, pulling hard and fast despite their pneumatic resistance. April 14 th, 2113 Terran Standard, by order of the newly formed Terran United Planets Council. Place both feet on the green pedals and push them far away from you, the voice instructed, while the secondary left screen printed another question. What is the primary difference between the Space Force and planetary Peacekeeper forces? This one, she also knew. Peacekeepers are civilian organizations with jurisdictions limited to a specific city, region, Prefecture, space station, and/or planet. The Space Force is a military organization with a jurisdiction limited only by the interstellar boundaries of the Terran United Planets, its sovereign territories, and its duly authorized activities. Text and voice switched, with the voice asking the next question and the text directing her to grasp the orange handles and twist from side to side. She complied, glad she had practiced taking verbal and written directions at the same time. The cuffs on her right arm and legs measured her physiological responses to the efforts, recording without surprise her overall strength and speed. Those two things were key to survival on a heavyworld, where bodies fell faster than expected and landed harder than preferred. Those were qualities the military liked to see, both V Dan

34 30 Jean Johnson and Terran. Strength and reflexes were bred into the survivors of heavyworld acclimatization. For as long as she could remember, Ia had seen recruiters from both the Terran Space Force and the V Dan Imperial Military visiting her homeworld, most with their lightworlder bodies wrapped in gravity webs so that they could withstand the pressure of being planet-side long enough to try and encourage her fellow colonists to join the military of either government. Sanctuary was more than twice as far from the V Dan worlds than the rest of Terran space, but the First Human Empire still sent their recruiters each year, scouting for the most physically impressive soldiers they could find. Heavyworlder soldiers, preferably from the heaviest gravitied world. Strength and speed weren t enough, though. They helped, but they weren t enough. It would take far more to make a civilian into a competent, disciplined warrior. For the sake of everyone else, Ia had to try. Lieutenant Major Kirkins-Baij studied the data pad Ia had just signed. He glanced up at her twice, each time returning his gaze to the results of her tests, then sighed and set the pad on his desk. Well. Congratulations, Recruit. You have just signed up for a three-year attempt at becoming a Marine. If your test scores translate into the real world, and if you can pass the training, you ll make a good soldier. But only if. There is a mandatory twenty-four hour Terran Standard cooling period. If at any time in the next twenty-four hours you wish to change your mind, you may contact me and sign the appropriate release forms. Tapping his military-issue wrist unit, he nodded at her civilian one, which chirped. I ve beamed you my contact information if you wish to do so. If you do not change your mind immediately, be advised that changing your mind after the twentyfour hour grace period will require you to reimburse the Space Force for any and all expenses incurred for your processing, transportation, training, housing, and so forth, up until the point of your discharge, as well as being liable for any other potential legal ramifications. Twenty-six hours from now, if you have not changed your

35 A SOLDIER S DUTY 31 mind, you have an obligation to be on the suborbital commuter shuttle to Darwin, on the north side of the continent. Your ticket will be downloaded to your ident half an hour before boarding begins you will, of course, have the costs of the ticket and all other transportation, housing, equipping, and other sundry needs deduced from your recruit pay, starting twenty-four hours from now. The Space Force doesn t give free rides; we even charge the Premiere of the Terran United Planets. She gets a discount, the lieutenant major allowed, but she still gets a bill. In Darwin, you will be met at the terminal by one of the instructors from Camp Nallibong. He or she will be clad in the brown uniform of the Marines, and will be easy to spot. Do not delay in looking for him or her. Once you have reported in, you will then be given transportation to the base, where you will begin your training. Rising, he offered her his hand. Good luck, Recruit. You ll need it. Standing up, Ia squared her shoulders and lifted her hand to her brow in crisp salute, just as she had practiced for the last three years in the bathroom mirror. Thank you, Sir. The lieutenant major quirked his brow, but returned the salute, giving her permission to drop her arm. Then he held out his hand again. No, thank you. Thank you for being willing to serve. Hiding her distaste, Ia clasped hands with him. She tried to clamp down on her mind, but caught glimpses of his future anyway. Snippets of his family, of him driving his hover car, of his offer to re-enlist in active duty... She retrieved her hand the moment he released her, glad to note that he didn t seem to have noticed what she had just done. Nodding politely, she turned and left his office, exiting the recruitment center. The burning heat of early afternoon pressed down on her head and shoulders the moment she stepped onto the sidewalk. Turning left, she started wandering back in the vague direction of her lodgings. It wouldn t take her long to return to the salle if she went there directly, but she knew she would have to get used to the Australian heat sooner or later. Twenty-six hours, she thought, looking around at the angular buildings of the city. She wasn t far from the spaceport; every few

36 32 Jean Johnson minutes, the bone-deep thrummm of some transport shuttle taking off could be felt, now that she was outside. Twenty-six, and I ll be living the life I need. Praying every step of the way for success. God... how am I going to get everything done? The city looked as banal as her bedroom once had, three years ago. Blissfully ignorant, most of the people around her went about their business with mindless happiness, or at least a facsimile of content. Hundreds of millions of people. Billions and trillions who didn t know the horrors lying ahead. No. I don t have time to wander. I have to prepare. Languid steps turning to purposeful strides, Ia headed up the street and turned right at the corner. She could have called for a hover cab, but physical exercise was as much preparation as anything mental. She had a lot of mental preparation left to do.

37 WORKING STIFF A Revivalist Novel by Rachel Caine A Roc August 2011 Paperback First in a brand-new zombie series from the New York Times bestselling author of the Morganville Vampires and Weather Warden novels. Bryn Davis knows working at Fairview Mortuary isn t the most glamorous career choice, but at least it offers stable employment until she discovers her bosses using a drug that resurrects the clientele as part of an extortion racket. Now, Bryn faces being terminated (literally) with extreme prejudice. With the help of corporate double-agent Patrick McCallister, Bryn has a chance to take down the bigger problem pharmaceutical company Pharmadene, who treats death as the ultimate corporate loyalty program. She d better do it fast, before she becomes a zombie slave a real working stiff. As swift, sassy, and sexy as Laurell K. Hamilton! Mary Jo Putney

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39 B ryn s first embalming instructor had told her, straight up, that two kinds of people entered the death business: freaks and true believers. Bryn Davis didn t think she was either one of those. For her, it was a prime career opportunity - a genuine profession. Oh, she d picked up odd paychecks during college as an office temp, dog-walker, and one memorable afternoon at a chicken factory, but none of those had ever felt real to her. Joining the Army after college had seemed like a good idea at the time (steady job, good wages), but four years in Iraq hadn t made her want be a career solider; it had, though, given her a bedrock understanding of the fragility of human life. After that, dead bodies didn t scare or disgust her. One good thing she could say for her time in the military: it had led her where she was now, to this job... a good, stable one, and even better, an important one. Bryn smiled a little at the thought. Maybe she was a true believer, after all. She smoothed the white lab coat with her name stitched right on the left breast and felt a warm surge of accomplishment. Bryn Davis, Funeral Director, Fairview Mortuary. Her business cards rested in a neat little cardboard box on her shiny new desk, all sober black ink in raised type, with the Fairview logo embossed in the corner. They wouldn t stay in the box for long; Fairview had furnished her with nice wooden desk accents, including a business

40 36 Rachel Caine card holder, and just as soon as possible, she intended to make that desk her own. She d never had her own office before. The cards and desk were elegant, like everything here. The room was neat and clean, filled with sober antique furniture and soft, dark cloth. Deep carpets. Subtle fragrances. Not a lot of flowers to overwhelm the already raw senses of the grieving. She was a little nervous, but she also felt proud, and happy. In fact, she felt ready. She tried not to feel too happy, though; it didn t seem appropriate to be so glee-filled about starting a job that was all about someone else s loss. The mirror on the wall confirmed that there was still a smile hiding in the corners of her mouth that she couldn t quite get rid of, and for a moment, she worried about the shade of her lipstick. She d chosen a light pink, but was it too light? A little too festive? She d spent too many years in khaki, far away from the fairy-tale world of Maybelline. There was a knock on her office door, and before she could say come in, it swung open to admit the head man... Lincoln Fairview. Mr. Fairview was the fourth Fairview to operate the funeral home, and he looked the part, from his sober, well-tailored suit to his impeccably cut gray hair and soft, kindly face. She felt her whole body jolt with adrenaline when she saw him. This was the man she had to impress with her professionalism. Hoo boy. She worried, again, about the lipstick. He crossed the room with a confident stride and shook her hand. Hello, Bryn, good morning. How are you settling in? She unbuttoned the lab coat and put it on the hanger in the small closet. Even the hangers were solid wood, and nicer than anything in her apartment wardrobe. Everything s fine, sir, she said, and glanced down at herself to be sure she still looked okay. Her business suit was new, and a little stiff, but it was a solid dove-gray color, and the soft pink shirt seemed like a nice match. Her new gray pumps pinched her toes, and she was afraid she was going to have to wear out the blisters they were bound to raise, but overall... she thought she was presentable. Except for the lipstick, maybe. Am I properly dressed? He gave her an x-ray stare, up and down, and then nodded. Perfect, Mr. Fairview said. Soothing, professional, everything I could ask. Perhaps a touch less on the lipstick next time; a pretty

41 WORKING STIFF 37 girl like you really doesn t need to emphasize her youth and beauty. Go on, have a seat, Bryn. Oh, she knew it, the lipstick sucked. Bryn tried not to seem nervous as she settled into her leather chair on the other side of the desk. Mr. Fairview stayed on his feet. He studied her for a few seconds, and then said, I assume that in your course work, you did live role play on handling difficult clients. Uh yes, sir. What an odd way to start... she d at least expected to get a tour of the building, maybe an introduction to the staff. At least she d thought he d show her the coffee machine and the bathroom. Pretend he s your new commanding officer, she told herself, and that steadied her; she d gone through plenty of those meetings, and she knew the drill. Impress them early, and a lot, and they ll never bother you again. Bryn felt her spine straighten to military correctness. Shall I be? You ll be you. I ll be your client. Let me go out and come back, and we ll get started. She steeled herself as he left the room, hastily blotted her lipstick with a tissue. She missed her lab coat. Her lab coat had given her an air of... scientific detachment, and there was always something comforting about wearing a uniform. This time, when the knock came at the door, Bryn stood and walked around her desk to meet him, shaking his hand and making and holding eye contact, just as she would have to establish her bona fides back in the war zones. Firm handshake, not too firm; chin up, eyes steady and straight. Convey a sense of solid competence and trustworthiness. Sir, thank you for coming to Fairview. Please, have a seat. How may I assist you today? She indicated the sofa and chairs grouped in the corner of the office. Mr. Fairview took a place on the sofa, looked around, and leaned forward as she settled into a polite, alert pose on the chair within reach, but giving him space. I m sure that this is a very hard day for you, she said, in her most soothing voice. This, at least, was something she felt confident doing, even on her first morning of the job. How can I help? Mr. Fairview didn t even give her a nod of approval. He stared over her shoulder instead. It s my brother, he said. He passed away yesterday.

42 38 Rachel Caine I m so sorry. Bryn knew how to steer the conversation; she d been through the training, and she knew better than to ask the emotional questions immediately. May I get you a coffee, or tea, or Fairview s gaze shifted to her face. He was hit by a truck. She had an instant, vivid flashback of the armored personnel carrier, of a screaming face outside the dust-smeared window, of the crushing thump of the wheels. Of the body in the dirt, blood leaking dark into the packed road, head crushed into a shape that was no longer human. Bryn took a deep breath and forced the images away. Focus, she thought. He s talking about reconstruction work. That was pricey, a definite plus for the business. That must have been a terrible shock. It certainly was for him. Oh God, was he trying to make her laugh? Bryn didn t feel any inclination to it; the memory of that body in the road had drained all the laughter out of her. Her voice, when it came, was just a shade too cool. I meant for you, sir. I never liked him anyway. Now I m stuck paying for him. Dumb son of a bitch never knew how to drive anyway. I want the lowest price you can give me, understand? I m not spending a cent more on his drunken corpse than I have to. Bryn opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She d had a course section on dealing with aggressive customers, but those brain cells had shut down and were refusing to cooperate. Mr. Fairview was selling the angry brother for all he was worth, and her instinct was to fight back which she couldn t do, in this position. She took a deep breath. I m sure we can work with you to find something within your budget, sir, she said. Oh God, that was weak. Let s talk about some options She reached out for the brochures and books, and realized that she d left them across the room, sitting on her desk. Of course. She felt her face grow a bit warm at the oversight, but covered it by calmly standing and walking to retrieve them, talking as she walked. I m sure you ll find the Paradise plan the one that fits your needs, sir, it s a good combination of quality and price. We can also work with you on floral choices, which can save you a great deal of money. She held out the brochure to him as she returned to her seat.

43 WORKING STIFF 39 He didn t take it. Fairview let her dangle and suffer for a moment, then suddenly sat back and relaxed, arms spread out across the top of the sofa. Good, he said, and nodded with a warm smile. Very good. You made me feel welcome, established trust, competence, and a human connection; you seated me where you wanted me, and offered me refreshment. You didn t let me throw you off when I showed you sarcasm and anger. That s always the worst part, I think. Did I forget anything? Tissues, he said. Always keep the tissues here, next to the sofa, where they re easy to reach. Make sure the trash can is visible, but discreet, so they know where to dispose of them. And, of course you ve already realized how important it is to keep sales materials at hand, but don t make it obvious; this isn t a furniture store. If you can t do the math in your head, keep a calculator with them so you can quickly update your figures; they ll always want to make changes to standard packages, and that will require re-pricing. She nodded. Anything else? Upsell, my dear. Always upsell. Higher priced options may not be within their budget, but they re certainly factored into mine. Mr. Fairview rose and offered her his hand. I ll introduce you to Lucy when she comes in, and of course you will have to meet Freddy downstairs, but later. For now, I think you re ready for your first intake session. I ll be sitting in, so don t worry; if you go off script, I ll bring you back. She wasn t fooled by that; he wasn t there to help, he was there to give her a job evaluation. Fairview had a reputation of being strict, a stickler for regulations, and for making the best profits in the industry. He also had a reputation for going through funeral directors like bags of dinner mints. She took a deep breath, smiled, and stood as Mr. Fairview went to get her first real customers. Upsell. You can do this! Right. The first one wasn t too bad; it was a middle-aged woman making arrangements for her father, and she seemed crisp and businesslike

44 40 Rachel Caine about it, or so Bryn thought, until she realized that there was a glaze of shock and misery over the woman s apparently clear eyes. Still, she didn t cry, didn t argue, bargained reasonably, and walked away with a relatively modest coffin, middle-of-the-road funeral package, and a slightly better than average floral package, as well as the higher-priced memorial notice in the newspaper and online. Mr. Fairview sat off to the side, saying nothing of any real substance, looking solid and helpful. After it was over, he saw the woman to the door and walked her out; Bryn watched from the window as he escorted her out to her car, head bent down as if he was listening. Halfway there, in the lovely little garden grotto with its beautiful angel statue, the woman just... collapsed, as if she d been hit in the solar plexus. Mr. Fairview didn t seem surprised. He eased her down to a bench and sat beside her. Bryn watched, fascinated by the silent drama of it. His body language told the whole story warm, kind, understanding. After a few moments, the woman managed to stand up and walk to her car, and Mr. Fairview came back inside. Wow, Bryn sighed; she was half admiring, half resentful. She hadn t read the woman as being ready to drop, but obviously Mr. Fairview had much more experience at this than she did. She had a lot to learn. And to think she d come in hoping to impress him. By the time he arrived back in her office, she d already gotten a good start on the paperwork and opened up the new folder with the deceased s name on it. Everything was paper here, still; she thought maybe she could teach them a thing or two about automating it. Maybe if they all had tablet PCs they could do all this at the initial meeting... so much simpler to avoid all this laborious writing after the fact... show the pictures of the caskets and floral packages right there, zoom to show the detail... Mr. Fairview came back inside and took the chair across from her. Bryn looked up, brows raised. She wanted to ask, but she was humiliatingly afraid what he was going to say. Relax, he said, and she although she would have sworn she really wasn t that nervous, she felt some hidden tension deep in her stomach slowly release. Wow. That felt good. You did well enough, Bryn. Not a perfect job, of course, but solid. If you con-

45 WORKING STIFF 41 tinue to sell that well, you ll have a bright future in the business. Do you know what you missed? Well, obviously, she was ready to collapse, Bryn said, and bit her lip. I didn t see it. You did. I ve had considerably more experience at reading the recently bereaved. Don t blame yourself. He smiled at her, and the striking gray of his eyes reminded her suddenly less of silver than of dead ashes. It was just a flicker, and then it was gone. Probably her imagination running away with her. Again. Her imagination had always been a problem for her, which was partly why she d stubbornly decided on a job in the death business... because imaginative people didn t usually choose working with corpses and grief. Bodies didn t scare her, no indeed, but she couldn t help but imagine the pain that had brought them to this last, painless end. Unlike most funeral directors, she d not only seen death, she d seen dying in many forms quick, slow, painful, painless. It was the wrenching emotional process of that she wanted to avoid. The dead didn t feel. Thank you for taking care of her, Bryn said. She seemed kind. Did she? There was something odd in his look, as if Bryn was speaking a foreign language all of a sudden. Well, I m sure we ll all have time to get to know her better over the next few days and see if your assessment is correct. She ll be back for the detail arrangements. I assume you re all right with handling those. Oh, yes sir. That would include deciding on music, speakers, choosing the display room, liaising with her chosen minister... the family is Lutheran, I believe... as well as things like funeral dress and makeup. There were a dreadful lot of details about being dead, Bryn thought. She d never had to arrange a funeral herself on the buyer s end, but it seemed almost as complicated as buying a house, and just as prone to larceny. Right, note to self, she thought. Don t ever care enough for anybody to have to do this for them. Oh, and don t die. Two very silly thoughts, but they made her feel better. Mr. Fairview seemed satisfied, because he checked his expensive Rolex watch and said, Ah, I see it s time for lunch. Plans, Bryn?

46 42 Rachel Caine I no sir. She d brought her lunch. PB&J, just as she d had all through her high school and college. After MREs, having a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich seemed like heaven in her mouth. Her tastes were pretty simple, but she didn t really want Mr. Fairview to think that; he seemed more the filet mignon type of guy. She bet he drank Perrier water, too. Well, then, you must join me to celebrate your first day. Do you like French food? She d no idea, so of course she nodded, smiling, and tried not to seem as out of her element as she felt. She was glad now she d gone with the nicer suit. Another note to self: buy way more business clothes. She hadn t thought about it back at her apartment, but now that she was here, she could see that wearing the same two suits five days a week was bound to get old not just for her, but for her coworkers, who d think she was a charity case. That was something that hadn t really occurred to her; she was used to having uniforms for work, same thing, different day all crisply laundered and starched, but nothing individual. Her credit card would stand another couple of purchases... well, barely; that last trip to Crate & Barrel hadn t been strictly necessary. When was payday for this job? Oh yeah, not for at least two more weeks. Damn. She hoped the bill wouldn t come due in the meantime. Awkward. Let me get my purse, she said. She retrieved it from the desk drawer a cheap leatherette thing, but as nice as she could afford. She hoped he wouldn t look too closely, or judge too harshly. He seemed very well tailored, the kind of man who paid attention to designer labels and the little details. She d never really been like that. If her shoes were cheap and made in China, well, so what, who cared... but she could already see that her attitude was going to have to change about such things. Permanently. She thought she d left all that spit-and-polish crap behind her, but she should have known; once in the Army, always in the Army. This was just an army that wore business suits, and her new CO was almost certainly going to turn out to be a total pain in the ass. They nearly always did.

47 PRINCE OF THORNS Book One of The Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence An Ace August 2011 Hardcover A lean, cold knife-thrust of a novel, a revenge fantasy anchored on the compelling voice and savage purpose of its titular Prince. Robert Redick, author of The Red-Wolf Conspiracy When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king... It s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father s castle treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

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49 1 R avens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallows-post and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching. The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, some peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage. Water! Water! It s always water with the dying. Strange it s killing that gives me a thirst. And that was Mabberton. Two hundred dead farmers lying with their scythes and axes. You know, I warned them that we do this for a living. I said it to their leader, Bovid Tor. I gave them that chance, I always do. But no. They wanted blood and slaughter. And they got it. War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing. If I d bothered to go over to old Bovid, propped up against the fountain with his guts in his lap, he d probably take a contrary view. But look where disagreeing got him. Shit-poor farm maggots, Rike discarded a handful of fingers over Bovid s open belly. He came to me, holding out his takings, as if it was my fault. Look! One gold ring. One! A whole village and

50 46 Mark Lawrence one fecking gold ring. I d like to set the bastards up and knock em down again. Fecking bog-farmers. He would too: he was an evil bastard, and greedy with it. I held his eye. Settle down, Brother Rike. There s more than one kind of gold in Mabberton. I gave him my warning look. His cursing stole the magic from the scene; besides, I had to be stern with him. Rike was always on the edge after a battle, wanting more. I gave him a look that told him I had more. More than he could handle. He grumbled, stowed his bloody ring, and thrust his knife back in his belt. Makin came up then and flung an arm about each of us, clapping gauntlet to shoulder-plate. If Makin had a skill, then smoothing things over was it. Brother Jorg is right, Little Rikey. There s treasure aplenty to be found. He was wont to call Rike Little Rikey, on account of him being a head taller than any of us and twice as wide. Makin always told jokes. He d tell them to those as he killed, if they gave him time. Liked to see them go out with a smile. What treasure? Rike wanted to know, still surly. When you get farmers, what else do you always get, Little Rikey? Makin raised his eyebrows all suggestive. Rike lifted his visor, treating us to his ugly face. Well brutal more than ugly. I think the scars improved him. Cows? Makin pursed his lips. I never liked his lips, too thick and fleshy, but I forgave him that, for his joking and his deathly work with that flail of his. Well, you can have the cows, Little Rikey. Me, I m going to find a farmer s daughter or three, before the others use them all up. They went off then, Rike doing that laugh of his hur, hur, hur as if he was trying to cough a fishbone out. I watched them force the door to Bovid s place opposite the church, a fine house, high roofed with wooden slates and a little flower garden in front. Bovid followed them with his eyes, but he couldn t turn his head. I looked at the ravens, I watched Gemt and his half-wit brother, Maical, taking heads, Maical with the cart and Gemt with the axe. A thing of beauty, I tell you. At least to look at. I ll agree war smells

51 PRINCE OF THORNS 47 bad. But, we d torch the place soon enough and the stink would all turn to wood-smoke. Gold rings? I needed no more payment. Boy! Bovid called out, his voice all hollow like, and weak. I went to stand before him, leaning on my sword, tired in my arms and legs all of a sudden. Best speak your piece quickly, farmer. Brother Gemt s a-coming with his axe. Chop-chop. He didn t seem too worried. It s hard to worry a man so close to the worm-feast. Still it irked me that he held me so lightly and called me boy. Do you have daughters, farmer? Hiding in the cellar maybe? Old Rike will sniff them out. Bovid looked up sharp at that, pained and sharp. H-how old are you, boy? Again the boy. Old enough to slit you open like a fat purse, I said, getting angry now. I don t like to get angry. It makes me angry. I don t think he caught even that. I don t think he even knew it was me that opened him up not half an hour before. Fifteen summers, no more. Couldn t be more.... His words came slow, from blue lips in a white face. Out by two, I would have told him, but he d gone past hearing. The cart creaked up behind me, and Gemt came along with his axe dripping. Take his head, I told them. Leave his fat belly for the ravens. Fifteen! I d hardly be fifteen and rousting villages. By the time fifteen came around, I d be King!

52 2 M abberton burned well. All the villages burned well that summer. Makin called it a hot bastard of a summer, too mean to give out rain, and he wasn t wrong. Dust rose behind us when we rode in; smoke when we rode out. Who d be a farmer? Makin liked to ask questions. Who d be a farmer s daughter? I nodded toward Rike, rolling in his saddle, almost tired enough to fall out, wearing a stupid grin and a bolt of samite cloth over his half-plate. Where he found samite in Mabberton I never did get to know. Brother Rike does enjoy his simple pleasures, Makin said. He did. Rike had a hunger for it. Hungry like the fire. The flames fair ate up Mabberton. I put the torch to the thatched inn, and the fire chased us out. Just one more bloody day in the years long death throes of our broken empire. Makin wiped at his sweat, smearing himself all over with sootstripes. He had a talent for getting dirty, did Makin. You weren t above those simple pleasures yourself, Brother Jorg. I couldn t argue there. How old are you? that fat farmer had wanted to know. Old enough to pay a call on his daughters. The fat girl had a lot to say, just like her father. Screeched like a barn owl: hurt my ears with it. I liked the older one better. She was quiet enough. So quiet you d give a twist here or there just to check she hadn t died of fright. Though I don t suppose either of them was quiet when the fire reached them...

53 PRINCE OF THORNS 49 Gemt rode up and spoiled my imaginings. The Baron s men will see that smoke from ten miles. You shouldn ta burned it. He shook his head, his stupid mane of ginger hair bobbing this way and that. Shouldn ta, his idiot brother joined in, calling from the old grey. We let him ride the old grey with the cart hitched up. The grey wouldn t leave the road. That horse was cleverer than Maical. Gemt always wanted to point stuff out. You shouldn ta put them bodies down the well, we ll go thirsty now. You shouldn ta killed that priest, we ll have bad luck now. If we d gone easy on her we d have a ransom from Baron Kennick. I just ached to put my knife through his throat. Right then. Just to lean out and plant it in his neck. What s that? What say you, Brother Gemt? Bubble, bubble? Shouldn ta stabbed your bulgy old Adam s apple? Oh no! I cried, all shocked like. Quick, Little Rikey, go piss on Mabberton. Got to put that fire out. Baron s men will see it, said Gemt, stubborn and red-faced. He went red as a beet if you crossed him. That red face just made me want to kill him even more. I didn t, though. You got responsibilities when you re a leader. You got a responsibility not to kill too many of your men. Or who re you going to lead? The column bunched up around us, the way it always did when something was up. I pulled on Gerrod s reins and he stopped with a snicker and a stamp. I watched Gemt and waited. Waited until all thirty-eight of my brothers gathered around, and Gemt got so red you d think his ears would bleed. Where we all going, my brothers? I asked, and I stood in my stirrups so I could look out over their ugly faces. I asked it in my quiet voice and they all hushed to hear. Where? I asked again. Surely it isn t just me that knows? Do I keep secrets from you, my brothers? Rike looked a bit confused at this, furrowing his brow. Fat Burlow came up on my right, on my left the Nuban with his teeth so white in that soot-black face. Silence. Brother Gemt can tell us. He knows what should be and what is. I smiled, though my hand still ached with wanting my dagger in his neck. Where we going, Brother Gemt?

54 50 Mark Lawrence Wennith, on the Horse Coast, he said, all reluctant, not wanting to agree to anything. Well and good. How we going to get there? Near forty of us on our fine oh-so-stolen horses? Gemt set his jaw. He could see where I was going. How we going to get there, if we want us a slice of the pie while it s still nice and hot? I asked. Lich Road! Rike called out, all pleased that he knew the answer. Lich Road, I repeated, still quiet and smiling. What other way could we go? I looked at the Nuban, holding his dark eyes. I couldn t read him, but I let him read me. Ain t no other way. Rike s on a roll, I thought, he don t know what game s being played, but he likes his part. Do the Baron s men know where we re going? I asked Fat Burlow. War dogs follow the front, he said. Fat Burlow ain t stupid. His jowls quiver when he speaks, but he ain t stupid. So... I looked around them, real slow-like. So, the Baron knows where bandits such as ourselves will be going, and he knows the way we ve got to go. I let that sink in. And I just lit a bloody big fire that tells him and his what a bad idea it d be to follow. I stuck Gemt with my knife then. I didn t need to, but I wanted it. He danced pretty enough too, bubble bubble on his blood, and fell off his horse. His red face went pale quick enough. Maical, I said. Take his head. And he did. Gemt just chose a bad moment.

55 3 T wo dead, two wrigglers. Makin wore that big grin of his. We d have camped by the gibbet in any case, but Makin had ridden on ahead to check the ground. I thought the news that two of the four gibbet cages held live prisoners would cheer the brothers. Two, Rike grumbled. He d tired himself out, and a tired Little Rikey always sees a gibbet as half empty. Two! the Nuban hollered down the line. I could see some of the lads exchanging coin on their bets. The Lich Road is as boring as a Sunday sermon. It runs straight and level. So straight it gets so as you d kill for a left turn or a right turn. So level you d cheer a slope. And on every side, marsh, midges, midges and more marsh. On the Lich Road it didn t get any better than two caged wrigglers on a gibbet. Strange that I didn t think to question what business a gibbet had standing out there in the middle of nowhere. I took it as a bounty. Somebody had left their prisoners to die, dangling in cages at the roadside. A strange spot to choose, but free entertainment for my little band nonetheless The brothers were eager, so I nudged Gerrod into a trot. A good horse, Gerrod. He shook off his weariness and clattered along. There s no road like the Lich Road for clattering along. Wrigglers! Rike gave a shout and they were all racing to catch up. I let Gerrod have his head. He wouldn t let any horse get past him. Not on this road. Not with every yard of it paved, every flagstone fitting

56 52 Mark Lawrence with the next so close a blade of grass couldn t hope for the light. Not a stone turned, not a stone worn. Built on a bog, mind you! I beat them to the wrigglers, of course. None of them could touch Gerrod. Certainly not with me on his back and them all half as heavy again. At the gibbet I turned to look back at them, strung out along the road. I yelled out, wild with the joy of it, loud enough to wake the head-cart. Gemt would be in there, bouncing around at the back. Makin reached me first, even though he d rode the distance twice before. Let the Baron s men come, I told him. The Lich Road is as good as any bridge. Ten men could hold an army here. Them that wants to flank us can drown in the bog. Makin nodded, still hunting his breath. The ones who built this road.... if they d make me a castle Thunder in the east cut across my words. If the Road-men built castles we d never get in anywhere, Makin said. Be happy they re gone. We watched the brothers come in. The sunset turned the marsh pools to orange fire, and I thought of Mabberton. A good day, Brother Makin, I said. Indeed, Brother Jorg, he said. So, the brothers came and set to arguing over the wrigglers. I went and sat against the loot-cart to read while the light stayed with us and the rain held off. The day left me in mind to read Plutarch. I had him all to myself, sandwiched between leather covers. Some worthy monk spent a lifetime on that book. A lifetime hunched over it, brush in hand. Here the gold, for halo, sun, and scrollwork. Here a blue like poison, bluer than a noon sky. Tiny vermilion dots to make a bed of flowers. Probably went blind over it, that monk. Probably poured his life in here, from young lad to grey-head, prettying up old Plutarch s words. The thunder rolled, the wrigglers wriggled and howled, and I sat reading words that were older than old before the Road-men built their roads. You re cowards! Women with your swords and axes! One of the crow-feasts on the gibbet had a mouth on him. Not a man amongst you. All pederasts, trailing up here after that little boy. He curled his words up at the end like a Merssy-man.

57 PRINCE OF THORNS 53 There s a fella over here got an opinion about you, Brother Jorg! Makin called out. A drop of rain hit my nose. I closed the cover on Plutarch. He d waited a while to tell me about Sparta and Lycurgus, he could wait some more and not get wet doing it. The wriggler had more to say and I let him tell it to my back. On the road you ve got to wrap a book well to keep the rain out. Ten turns of oilcloth, ten more turns the other way, then stash it under a cloak in a saddlebag. A good saddlebag mind, none of that junk from the Thurtans, good double-stitched leather from the Horse Coast. The lads parted to let me up close. The gibbet stank worse than the head-cart, a crude thing of fresh-cut timber. Four cages hung there. Two held dead men. Very dead men. Legs dangling through the bars, raven-pecked to the bone. Flies thick about them, like a second skin, black and buzzing. The lads had taken a few pokes at one of the wrigglers, and he didn t look too cheerful for it. In fact he looked as if he d pegged it. Which was a waste, as we had a whole night ahead of us, and I d have said as much, but for the wriggler with the mouth. So now the boy comes over! He s finished looking for lewd pictures in his stolen book. He sat crouched up in his cage, his feet all bleeding and raw. An old man, maybe forty, all black hair and beard and dark eyes glittering. Take the pages to wipe your dung, boy, he said fierce-like, grabbing the bars all of a sudden, making the cage swing. It s the only use you ll get from it. We could set a slow fire? Rike said. Even Rike knew the old man just wanted us angry, so we d finish him quick. Like we did at the Ronwood gibbets. A few chuckles went up at that. Not from Makin though. He had a frown on under his dirt and soot, staring at the wriggler. I held up a hand to quiet them down. It d be a shameful waste of such a fine book, Father Gomst, I said. Like Makin, I d recognized Gomst through all that beard and hair. Without that accent though he d have got roasted. Especially an On Lycurgus written in high Latin, not that pidgin-romano they teach in church.

58 54 Mark Lawrence You know me? He asked it in a cracked voice, weepy all of a sudden. Of course I do. I pushed both hands through my lovely locks, and set my hair back so he could see me proper in the gloom. I have the sharp dark looks of the Ancraths. You re Father Gomst, come to take me back to school. Pr-prin... He was blubbing now, unable to get his words out. Disgusting really. Made me feel as if I d bitten something rotten. Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, at your service. I did my court bow. Wh-what became of Captain Bortha? Father Gomst swung gently in his cage, all confused. Captain Bortha, sir! Makin snapped a salute and stepped up. He had blood on him from the first wriggler. We had us a deathly silence then. Even the chirp and whir of the marsh hushed down to a whisper. The brothers looked from me, back to the old priest, and back to me, mouths hanging open. Little Rikey couldn t have looked more surprised if you d asked him nine times six. The rain chose that moment to fall, all at once as if the Lord Almighty had emptied his chamber pot over us. The gloom that had been gathering set thick as treacle. Prince Jorg! Father Gomst had to shout over the rain. The night! You ve got to run! He held the bars of his cage, white-knuckled, wide eyes unblinking in the downpour, staring into the darkness. And through the night, through the rain, over the marsh where no man could walk, we saw them coming. We saw their lights. Pale lights such as the dead burn in deep pools where men aren t meant to look. Lights that d promise whatever a man could want, and would set you chasing them, hunting answers and finding only cold mud, deep and hungry. I never liked Father Gomst. He d been telling me what to do since I was six, most often with the back of his hand as the reason. Run Prince Jorg! Run! old Gomsty howled, sickeningly selfsacrificing. So I stood my ground.

59 4 T he dead came on through the rain, the ghosts of the bog-dead, of the drowned, and of men whose corpses were given to the mire. I saw Red Kent run blind and flounder in the marsh. A few of the brothers had the sense to take the road when they ran, most ended in the mire. Father Gomst started praying in his cage, shouting out the words like a shield: Father who art in heaven protect thy son. Father who art in heaven. Faster and faster, as the fear got into him. The first of them came up over the sucking pool, and onto the Lichway. He had a glow about him like moonlight, something that you knew would never warm you. You could see his body limned in the light, with the rain racing through him and bouncing on the road. Nobody stood with me. The Nuban ran, eyes wide in a dark face. Fat Burlow looking as if the blood was let from him. Rike screaming like a child. Even Makin, with a horror on him. I held my arms wide to the rain. I could feel it beat on me. I didn t have so many years under my belt, but even to me the rain fell like memory. It woke wild nights in me when I stood on the Keep Tower, on the edge above a high fall, near drowned in the deluge and daring the lightning to touch me. Our Father who art in heaven. Father who art... Gomst started to gabble when the lich came close. It burned with a cold fire and you could feel it licking at your bones.

60 56 Mark Lawrence I kept my arms wide and my face to the rain. My father isn t in heaven Gomsty, I said. He s in his castle, counting out his men. The dead thing closed on me, and I looked in its eyes. Hollow they were. What have you got? I said. And it showed me. And I showed it. There s a reason I m going to win this war. Everyone alive has been fighting a battle that grew old before they were born. I cut my teeth on the wooden soldiers in my father s war-room. There s a reason I m going to win where they failed. It s because I understand the game. Hell, the dead man said. I ve got hell. And he flowed into me, cold as dying, edged like a razor. I felt my mouth curl in a smile. I heard my laughing over the rain. A knife is a scary thing right enough, held to your throat, sharp and cool. The fire too, and the rack. And an old ghost on the Lichway. All of them might give you pause. Until you realize what they are. They re just ways to lose the game. You lose the game, and what have you lost? You ve lost the game. That s the secret, and it amazes me that it s mine and mine alone. I saw the game for what it was the night when Count Renar s men caught our carriage. There was a storm that night too, I remember the din of rain on the carriage roof and the thunder beneath it. Big Jan had fair hauled the door off its hinges to get us out. He only had time for me though. He threw me clear; into a briar patch so thick that the Count s men persuaded themselves I d run into the night. They didn t want to search it. But I hadn t run. I d hung there in the thorns, and I saw them kill Big Jan. I saw it in the frozen moments the lightning gave me. I saw what they did to Mother, and how long it took. They broke little William s head against a milestone. Golden curls and blood. And I ll admit that William was the first of my brothers, and he did have his hooks in me, with his chubby hands and

61 PRINCE OF THORNS 57 laughing. Since then I ve taken on many a brother, and evil ones at that, so I d not miss one or three. But at the time, it did hurt to see little William broken like that, like a toy. Like something worthless. When they killed him, Mother wouldn t hold her peace, so they slit her throat. I was stupid then, being only nine, and I fought to save them both. But the thorns held me tight. I ve learned to appreciate thorns since. The thorns taught me the game. They let me understand what all those grim and serious men who ve fought the Hundred War, have yet to learn. You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all. What have you got for me, dead thing? I asked. It s a game. I will play my pieces. I felt him cold inside me. I saw his death. I saw his despair. And his hunger. And I gave it back. I d expected more, but he was only dead. I showed him the empty time where my memory won t go. I let him look there. He ran from me then. He ran, and I chased him. But only to the edge of the marsh. Because it s a game. And I m going to win.

62 5 Four years earlier For the longest time I studied revenge to the exclusion of all else. I built my first torture chamber in the dark vaults of imagination. Lying on bloody sheets in the Healing Hall I discovered doors within my mind that I d not found before, doors that even a child of nine knows should not be opened. Doors that never close again. I threw them wide. Sir Reilly found me, hanging within the hook-briar, not ten yards from the smoking ruin of the carriage. They almost missed me. I saw them reach the bodies on the road. I watched them through the briar, silver glimpses of Sir Reilly s armour, and flashes of red from the tabards of Ancrath foot-soldiers. Mother was easy to find, in her silks. Sweet Jesu! It s the Queen! Sir Reilly had them turn her over. Gently! Show some respect He broke off with a gasp. The Count s men hadn t left her pretty. Sir! Big Jan s over here, Grem and Jassar too. I saw them heave Jan over, then turn to the other guardsmen. They d better be dead! Sir Reilly spat. Look for the princes! I didn t see them find Will, but I knew they had by the silence that spread across the men. I let my chin fall back to my chest and watched the dark patterning of blood on the dry leaves around my feet. Ah, hell.... One of the men spoke at last.

63 PRINCE OF THORNS 59 Get him on a horse. Easy with him, Sir Reilly said. A crack ran through his voice. And find the heir! With more vigour, but no hope. I tried to call to them, but the strength had run from me, I couldn t even lift my head. He s not here, Sir Reilly. They ve taken him as a hostage, Sir Reilly said. He had part of it right, something held me against my will. Set him by the Queen. Gentle! Gentle with him... Secure them, Sir Reilly said. We ride hard for the Tall Castle. Part of me wanted to let them go. I felt no pain any more, just a dull ache, and even that was fading. A peace folded me with the promise of forgetting. Sir! A shout went up from one of the men. I heard the clank of armour as Sir Reilly strode across to see. Piece of a shield? he asked. Found it in the mud, the carriage wheel must have pushed it under. The soldier paused. I heard scraping. Looks like a black wing to me... A crow. A crow on a red field. It s Count Renar s colours, Reilly said. Count Renar? I had a name. A black crow on a red field. The insignia flashed across my eyes, seared deep by the lightning of last night s storm. A fire lit within me, and the pain from a hundred hooks burned in every limb. A groan escaped me. My lips parted, dry skin tearing. And Reilly found me. There s something here! I heard him curse as the hook-briar found every chink in his armour. Quickly now! Pull this stuff apart. Dead. I heard the whisper from behind Sir Reilly as he cut me free. He s so white. I guess the briar near bled me dry. So they fetched a cart and took me back. I didn t sleep. I watched the sky turn black, and I thought. In the Healing Hall Friar Glen and his helper, Inch, dug the hooks

64 60 Mark Lawrence from my flesh. My tutor, Lundist, arrived while they had me on the table with their knives out. He had a book with him, the size of a Teuton shield, and three times as heavy by the look of it. Lundist had more strength in that wizened old stick of a body than anyone guessed. Those are fire-cleaned knives I hope, Friar? Lundist carried the accent of his homelands in the Utter East, and a tendency to leave half of a word unspoken, as if an intelligent listener should be able to fill in the blanks. It is purity of spirit that will keep corruption from the flesh, Tutor, Friar Glen said. He spared Lundist a disapproving glance, and returned to his digging. Even so, clean the knives, Friar. Holy office will prove scant protection from the King s ire if the Prince dies in your halls. Lundist set his book down on the table beside me, rattling a tray of vials at the far end. He lifted the cover and turned to a marked page. The thorns of the hook-briar are like to find the bone. He traced a wrinkled yellow finger down the lines. The points can break off and sour the wound. Friar Glen gave a sharp jab at that, which made me cry out. He set his knife down and turned to face Lundist. I could see only the friar s back, the brown cloth straining over his shoulders, dark with sweat over his spine. Tutor Lundist, he said. A man in your profession is wont to think all things may be learned from the pages of a book, or the right scroll. Learning has its place, sirrah, but do not think to lecture me on healing on the basis of an evening spent with an old tome! Well, Friar Glen won that argument. The sergeant-at-arms had to help Tutor Lundist from the hall. I guess even at nine I had a serious lack of spiritual purity, for my wounds soured within two days, and for nine weeks I lay in fever, chasing dark dreams along death s borderlands. They tell me I raged and howled. That I raved as the pus oozed from slices where the briar had held me. I remember the stink of corruption. It had a kind of sweetness to it, a sweetness that d make you want to hurl. Inch, the friar s aide, grew tired of holding me down, though he had the arms of a lumberjack. In the end they tied me to my bed.

65 PRINCE OF THORNS 61 I learned from Tutor Lundist that the friar would not attend me after the first week. Friar Glen said a devil was in me. How else could a child speak such horror? In the fourth week I slipped the bonds that held me to my pallet, and set a fire in the hall. I have no memory of the escape, or my capture in the woods. When they cleared the ruin, they found the remains of Inch, with the poker from the hearth lodged in his chest. Many times I stood at the Door. I had seen my mother and brother thrown through that doorway, torn and broken, and in dreams my feet would take me to stand there, time and again. I lacked the courage to follow them, held on the barbs and hooks of cowardice. Sometimes I saw the dead-lands across a black river, sometimes across a chasm spanned by a narrow bridge of stone. Once I saw the Door in the guise of the portals to my father s throne room, but edged with frost and weeping pus from every join. I had but to set my hand upon the handle... The Count of Renar kept me alive. The promise of his pain crushed my own under its heel. Hate will keep you alive where love fails. And then one day my fever left me. My wounds remained angry and red, but they closed. They fed me chicken in soup, and my strength crept back, a stranger to me. The spring came to paint the leaves back upon the trees. I had my strength, but I felt something else had been taken. Taken so completely I could no longer name it. The sun returned, and, much to Friar Glen s distaste, Lundist returned to instruct me once more. The first time he came, I sat abed. I watched him set out his books upon the table. Your father will see you on his return from Gelleth, Lundist said. His voice held a note of reproach, but not for me. The death of the queen and Prince William weigh heavy on him. When the pain eases he will surely come to speak with you. I didn t understand why Lundist should feel the need to lie. I knew my father would not waste time on me whilst it seemed I would die. I knew he would see me when seeing me served some end. Tell me, tutor, I said. Is revenge a science, or an art?

66 6 T he rain faltered when the spirits fled. I d only broken the one, but the others ran too, back to whatever pools they haunted. Maybe my one had been their leader; maybe men become cowards in death. I don t know. As to my own cowards, they had nowhere to flee, and I found them easily enough. I found Makin first. He, at least, was headed back toward me. So you found a pair then? I called to him. He paused a moment and looked at me. The rain didn t fall so heavy now, but he still looked like a drowned rat. The water ran in rivulets over his breastplate, in and out of the dents. He checked the marsh to either side, still nervy, and lowered his sword. A man who s got no fear is missing a friend, Jorg, he said, and a smile found its way onto those thick lips of his. Running ain t no bad thing. Leastways if you run in the right direction. He waved a hand toward where Rike wrestled with a clump of bulrushes, the mud up to his chest already. Fear helps a man pick his fights. You re fighting them all, my prince. And he bowed, there on the Lichway with the rain dripping off him. I spared a glance for Rike. Maical had similar problems in a pool to the other side of the road. Only he d got his problems up to the neck. I m going to fight them all in the end, I said to him. Pick your fights, Makin said. I ll pick my ground, I said. I ll pick my ground, but I m not

67 PRINCE OF THORNS 63 running. Not ever. That s been done, and we still have the war. I m going to win it, Brother Makin, it s going to end with me. He bowed again. Not so deep, but this time I felt he meant it. That s why I ll follow you, Prince. Wherever it takes us. For the moment it took us to fishing brothers out of the mud. We got Maical first, even though Rike howled and cursed us. As the rain thinned, I could see the grey and the head-cart off in the distance. The grey had the sense to keep to the road, even when Maical didn t. If Maical had led the grey into the mire I d have left him to sink. We pulled Rike out next. When we reached him the mud had almost found his mouth. Nothing but his white face showed above the pool, but that didn t stop him shouting his foulnesses all the way. We found most of them on the road, but six got sucked down too quick, lost forever; probably getting ready to haunt the next band of travellers. I m going back for old Gomsty, I said. We d come a way down the road and the light had pretty much gone. Looking back you couldn t see the gibbets, just grey veils of rain. Out in the marsh the dead waited. I felt their cold thoughts crawling on my skin. I didn t ask any of them to go with me. I knew none of them would, and it don t do for a leader to ask and be told no. What do you want with that old priest, Brother Jorg? Makin said. He was asking me not to go; only he couldn t come out and say it. You still want to burn him up? Even the mud couldn t hide Rike s sudden cheer. I do, I said. But that s not why I m getting him. And I set off back along the Lichway. The rain and the darkness wrapped me. I lost the brothers, waiting on the road behind. Gomst and the gibbets lay ahead. I walked in a cocoon of silence, with nothing but the soft words of the rain, and the sound of my boots on the Lichway. I ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It s the silence that scares me. It s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.

68 64 Mark Lawrence And there he hung, Father Gomst, priest to the House of Ancrath. Father, I said, and I sketched him a bow. In truth though, I was in no mood for play. I had me a hollow ache behind my eyes. The kind that gets people killed. He looked at me wide-eyed, as if I was a bog-spirit crawled out of the mire. I went to the chain that held his cage up. Brace yourself, Father. The sword I drew had slit old Bovid Tor not twenty-four hours before. Now I swung it to free a priest. The chain gave beneath its edge. They d put some magic, or some devilry, in that blade. Father told me the Ancraths wielded it for four generations, and took it from the House of Or. So the steel was old before we Ancraths first lay hands upon it. Old before I stole it. The birdcage fell to the path, hard and heavy. Father Gomst cried out, and his head hit the bars, leaving a livid cross-work across his forehead. They d bound the cage-door with wire. It gave before the edge of our ancestral sword, twice stolen. I thought of Father for a moment, imaged his face twist in outrage at the use of so high a blade for such lowly work. I ve a good imagination, but putting any emotion on the rock of Father s face came hard. Gomst crawled out, stiff and weak. As the old should be. I liked that he had the grace to feel the years on his shoulders. Some the years just toughened. Father Gomst, I said. Best hurry now, or the marsh dead may come out to scare us with their wailing and a-moaning. He looked at me then, drawing back as if he d seen a ghost, then softening. Jorg, he said, all full of compassion. Brimming with it, spilling it from his eyes as if it wasn t just the rain. What has happened to you? I won t lie to you. Half of me wanted to stick the knife into him there and then, just as with red-faced Gemt. More than half. My hand itched with the need to pull that knife. My head ached with it, as if a vice were tightening against my temples. I ve been known to be contrary. When something pushes me, I shove back. Even if the one doing the pushing is me. It would have been easy to gut him then and there. Satisfying. But the need was too urgent. I felt pushed.

69 PRINCE OF THORNS 65 I smiled and said, Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. And old Gomsty, though he was stiff from the cage, and sore in every limb, bowed his head to hear my confession. I spoke into the rain, low and quiet. Loud enough for Father Gomst though, and loud enough for the dead who haunted the marsh about us. I told of the things I d done. I told of the things I would do. In a soft voice I told my plans to all with ears to hear. The dead left us then. You re the devil! Father Gomst took a step back, and clutched the cross at his neck. If that s what it takes. I didn t dispute him. But I ve confessed, and you must forgive me. Abomination.... The word escaped him in a slow breath. And more besides, I agreed. Now forgive me. Father Gomst found his wits at last, but still he held back. What do you want with me, Lucifer? A fair question. I want to win, I said. He shook his head at that, so I explained. Some men I can bind with who I am. Some I can bind with where I m going. Others need to know who walks with me. I ve given you my confession. I repent. Now God walks with me, and you re the priest who will tell the faithful that I am His warrior, His instrument, the Sword of the Almighty. A silence stood between us, measured in heartbeats. Ego te absolve. Father Gomst got the words past trembling lips. We walked back along the path then, and reached the others by and by. Makin had them lined up and ready. Waiting in the dark, with a single torch, and the hooded lantern hung up on the head-cart. Captain Bortha, I said to Makin, time we set off. We ve got a ways before us till we reach the Horse Coast. And the priest? he asked. Perhaps we ll detour past the Tall Castle, and drop him off. My headache bit, hard. Maybe it was something to do with having an old ghost haunt its way through to the very marrow of my bones, but today my headaches felt more like somebody prodding me with a stick, herding me along, and it was really beginning to fuck me off.

70 66 Mark Lawrence I think we will call in at the Tall Castle. I ground my teeth together against the daggers in my head. Hand old Gomsty here over in person. I m sure my father has been worried about me. Rike and Maical gave me stupid stares. Fat Burlow and Red Kent swapped glances. The Nuban rolled his eyes and made his wards. I looked at Makin, tall, broad in the shoulder, black hair plastered down by the rain. He s my knight, I thought. Gomst is my bishop, the Tall Castle my rook. Then I thought of Father. I needed a king. You can t play the game without a king. I thought of Father, and it felt good. After the dead one, I d begun to wonder. The dead one showed me his hell, and I had laughed at it. But now I thought of Father, and it felt good to know I could still feel fear.

71 BLOODLANDS A Novel of the Bloodlands by Christine Cody An Ace August 2011 Paperback The New Badlands a desolate area in the West forged by the terrible events that altered the entire country. There a few frightened citizens retreated underground to shelter from the brutal weather and from a society gone mortally dangerous. Then the vampire arrived and they started calling it the Bloodlands. Not because Gabriel, the so-called monster running from his true self, was searching for his lover s murderer. Nor because Mariah, the woman who reluctantly took him in, was willing to do anything to survive in the changed world. The Badlands officially became the Bloodlands the moment a gun-for-hire who d decided to slay every monster left in the country came after Gabriel...

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73 1 T hey called this ravaged, sun-sucked place the New Badlands and, under the gray-hazed shine of the swollen moon, it certainly lived up to the name. Bad because of its dull, apocalyptic scape. Bad because of its throttling day heat. Bad because it allowed a night monster such easy, easy hunting. Hidden behind a boulder perched on a withered hill, one such monster waited patiently, its hunger knocking against its skin, its saliva stinging its jaws. Tonight, nature forced it to hunt, and someone was coming. Someone with blood, hot and nourishing. Someone who could quench a bitter, desperate thirst. Its mind went as fuzzy as ether-soaked cotton, pulled apart by fingers of appetite. As it gripped the boulder and felt the stone crumble under its fingertips, its vision, which turned the murky night into a blue-tinged, throbbing haze, caught small animals that looked like electric blurs while scurrying for cover. Heat. Food. Blood... The cadence echoed, called, invited the monster to feast. Its breath came faster, faster as the prey shuffled closer... Unable to help itself, the monster eased to the side, peering round the boulder, craving a look. It saw the buzzing outline of a human mazing through the Badlands scrub. The male was slim, almost painfully so, stick-legged and awkward-gaited. His face was

74 70 Christine Cody near featureless in the creature s neon sights except for lips gaped in a wobbly attempt at song. The creature s hearing picked up the low, whistled tune. Melancholy. Something that might speak to another wholly human heart, if one was beating within range. The monster s nostrils flared from the strength of the man s flesh, sweaty and musky beneath his tattered clothing: a wide-brimmed hat, a poncho, boots. There was also a trace of turtlegrape alcohol, cheaply made and readily available on the black markets found in any city that was still standing. Mouth even wetter, the creature ran a tongue over the pierce of its teeth. It recognized this smell. It had tracked the scent tonight. Heat, food, blood... Anticipation ran cold and urgent in its veins. Its body stiffened as the prey tripped on a rock, cursed at himself, then started to whistle again sad notes reminding the monster of something lost.... He was coming closer, closer. The wobbly song warped into a death dirge that competed with the quickening call in the monster s mind as the scent and pulse of blood became unbearable. Heatfoodblood... It winced, yearning, as the man pulled within mere feet A rock skittered from the creature s hiding place as it shifted. Then... Then the human startled to a halt, peered round. The creature heard the prey s heartbeat thudding, smelled his blood heating. Food-- Like dark mercury, the monster unfurled from behind the boulder, fully showing itself. It flashed its teeth. Heatfoodblood... With a thin cry, the man tripped into a run, his hat toppling off his head. But the creature was faster so much faster. It sprang, arcing through the air, grasping its prey s booted ankle and hauling him in. No-- the human begged, panting, clawing at the dirt for purchase and sending up abraded wisps of dust instead. Beyond pity, the creature pulled at the man s hair to expose

75 BLOODLANDS 71 his throat and, for one beautiful moment, the thing thrilled to the engorged strand of a jugular vein as it pounded. Food Just before the monster sank its teeth into the man s neck, it helplessly groaned, so hungry, so needy. The human swiped at his attacker, drawing red stings, scratching, scratching-- But he couldn t stop the feeding, the flood of hot liquid coating the monster s throat in frenzied comfort. The man s last stand didn t endure. Neither did his last screams. They gurgled to nothing as the monster ripped into his throat, sucking and tearing and reveling in wet, thick heatfoodblood-- When it was over, with the taste of fulfillment still vivid on its tongue, the monster sank to the dirt. A twinge of consciousness bit into it as the carcass of its victim sifted back into focus. The human, the prey, was staring at the sky, the shadow of what would soon be many carrion feeders blocking the moon and spreading darkness over a horrified death gaze. The monster closed its eyes, but then the scent of blood consumed it again and the moment disappeared, replaced by the hunger and thirst. Diving back to the man s neck, the creature continued gnawing, feasting. Glutting. That s all it knew, all it felt at least right now. Only when its body was heavy with satiation did it look back up, touching and testing the wounds its prey had inflicted injuries that were already healing. Then it scanned a wary gaze over the Badlands for other creatures that used this night to hunt. All that stared back was the blue-bathed desolation of a world gone terrible.

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79 2 Eighteen Hours Later W hen I saw the stranger weaving through the newly settled dusk on my visz monitor, he looked like a lie a mirage, half wavering fantasy, half dust in my eyes. Chaplin didn t even believe me when I told him about it, but then again, he knew that I d stayed partway sane only because of one altered version of the truth or another. It always took him some good thought before he ever put stock in what I did or said, and I wouldn t blame him, or anyone else, for that. Lies and omissions were how we lived out here in the nowheres. It s how we made sure strangers like this one on the visz never found us. We lied about reality to survive. Hell, I would lie to you anyone, even you. When I grabbed my old revolver from the wall arsenal, that must ve lent some credence to the situation for Chaplin. He looked at the visz, seeing that I was telling him true about a stranger coming toward us. Think he s another one of them? I asked, while keeping an eye on the screen. Think this guy s one of Stamp s? My dog chuffed, then padded over close to me, leaning against my leg. His long tail curled over my boot, like a child wrapping an arm round a protector. Not that I m all that good at protecting. Sometimes I even think

80 76 Christine Cody that Chaplin does a better job of guarding me than the other way round. There s a lot of ways a person needs to be protected. Strung tight with tension, I adjusted a knob on the visz s side to get a better look at the approaching stranger. The long view was gloomy with the surreal blur of the camera s night vision, streaking his movements as he lurched even nearer to my underground home. Could he somehow see this earthen dwelling, even though I d taken great care to disguise the entrance amongst the scrub and mounded landscape? Chaplin made a garbled sound, and I rested a hand on his furry head. Don t worry, I said. I ll bet he saunters right past us. I didn t even believe myself this time. My dog softly yowled, as if chewing on words. To anyone not trained in Canine, his sentiments would be inarticulate. But years ago, when I was no more than a pup myself, I d begged my dad for one of the Intel Dogs he bred and trained at his lab. Dad had obliged only just before we d been forced to flee our Dallas home much later; then Chaplin had become a necessary tool for survival a watchdog genetically tooled to be more intelligent than most humans. Stronger, too. He was also a balm for us after my mom and brother had been murdered right in the home we d abandoned. I guess I needed Chaplin more than ever now, long after the murders and one year after my dad had taken his own life. My dog wasn t just my best friend he was my only friend. In particular, he was nice to have round at night. Nice to have round whenever I thought about what waited outside the dirt-packed walls. Just thinking about outside made the phantom scars on my body itch, but I forced myself not to touch them. They d only bring back what had supposedly healed. Now Chaplin growled low in his throat, his brown-haired ears laying flat against his skull as he backed toward a door barring a tunnel that connected our domain to one of the underground caverns. I offered him a nod, a show of unity that didn t need to be voiced between the two of us. Then I turned back to the visz, which showed the stranger in post-stumble pause. When I found him staring right back at me, my heart jerked,

81 BLOODLANDS 77 sending my adrenaline bursting to a growl that I fought to contain. His eyes were rendered luminescent by the camera s night vision and... It was like he could somehow see the camouflaged lens. Like he knew we were in here. Pacing my breathing, calming myself lest I lose control God-all help me if I did I hefted down a mini-crossbow from the wall, then stuffed my revolver into a holster built into my wide belt. I loaded the bow with a bolt because it d be quieter than the bullets if I should have to defend my home. Bullets might attract attention. If he s one of Stamp s men, I said, I ll show him a lesson about coming here when he s drunk and looking for trouble. Stamp s got to be sending his crew to poke round, just like that other man who was already here. My dog didn t make a sound, and I was glad about that. Neither of us wanted to talk about Stamp s workers. Meanwhile, the stranger loomed closer on the visz, his features coming into shocking focus. Something in my stomach fisted at the sight of his facial wounds, but I battled back the clench, the emotion. Battled hard, until all that was left was a tremor that only reminded me I wasn t safe. Then my dog crept to my side and stared at the visz, too, almost like he d been drawn closer. He let out a long, sympathetic whimper. Hurt, was what Chaplin s sound meant. The man is hurt. I tried to glance away, but couldn t. The blood enthralled me, even more than it had when I was young, back before my family had been attacked and before the world had almost ended. Back when the media had first started entertaining the masses with violent news images, films of close-up war casualties in North Korea and public executions that people had clamored to witness in real life. Carnerotica, it had come to be called, until that form of amusement had become old hat under the new thrill of the subliminal fantasies I heard they were airing on TV now. This man was a lot like one of those old executions. The visz s pale night vision showed his face to be a wounded map to nowhere, etched with open gashes on his forehead and

82 78 Christine Cody cheeks. Blood and dirt seemed to crust his short-sheared hair. His battered mouth opened round a word. Help. Chaplin whimpered again. Hurt. Maybe that s what he hopes we believe. I gripped my crossbow all the harder, sweat breaking out over my skin, even though summer was a season away a dry, brutal time that made staying inside my shelter all the wiser. When Chaplin cocked his head, I realized that, for the first time, I couldn t exactly translate what his gesture meant. He was acting addled, off-kilter. Off-guard. Inexplicably, a sense of isolation expanded in my chest, filling me up so there was no room for much else. I didn t like this sudden lack of simpatico that separated me from my only real ally left from better days. You re posing like you re going soft, boy. Where s the wariness in you? Chaplin turned his big brown eyes in my direction, emitting a series of whines. I still didn t understand, even though I could translate now. It was his gaze that befuddled me, because it brimmed with foreign haziness, an utter lack of focus. The dog wanted to help the stranger? You think we should open the door and let him in for nursing and shelter? Chaplin wagged his tail. Jay-sus. He still wagged. Hell, it doesn t matter that Dad and I spent sweat upon sweat trying to disguise the dwelling so it d be quiet and unnoticeable. It doesn t matter that, if Stamp s sending his men round to search out more water for his property, he might resort to trickery to get one of his guys inside here and drag us off the property. Most of all, you know what we have to lose by letting anyone near. No, you re just sitting there cocking your head and flashing your browns and begging like none of that is of consequence. The dog just kept cocking and flashing while the stranger s visage hovered in the visz, as if gauging the hidden device.

83 BLOODLANDS 79 Chaplin gnawed out a few more muddled sounds. He asked for help. I turned away, forcing my concentration on the visz again. It was as if I was stuck in one of my nightmares, where Chaplin had finally given up on me and had decided to go his own way, leaving me behind. On the screen, the stranger crumpled to his knees and hunched over in what looked to be agony. Chaplin winced, then stamped round, fidgety. But letting the man in would be too much of a risk... in so many ways. Yes, he was wounded, and I felt for him. I d been wounded, too, way back when. But that s exactly why I couldn t drag him inside. I knew better than to welcome anything in. And I knew the rest of the community would probably feel the same way. From the news I often ascertained from the viszes, which were trained on the underground common area where other New Badlanders had begun gathering again recently, I could tell that the world hadn t changed fast enough for anyone to be trusting strangers. The bad guys were still out there, and Johnson Stamp might prove to be one of them. According to gossip, he d permanently moved here about a month ago, establishing a setup for uncovering water in the area, seeing as the earth didn t produce a whole lot of it for regular folk these days. Of course, corporations had the means to desalinate ocean water and seed clouds, but their services came at a steep price few could afford without indebting themselves body and soul. Water was life, especially in an out-ofthe-way place like the New Badlands. The stranger made one last pain-ragged appeal over the visz. No... harm, he croaked out, lifting his head back up in supplication. Then I saw something I couldn t be sure of. His eyes, already whitened by the camera s night vision, flared, reminding me of a gunslinger opening his jacket to show that he wasn t armed. I sucked in a breath when he hit the ground again, dust wisping up round his flattened body like smoke seething out of the earth. Chaplin whined deep in his throat, an accusation. Well, screw him and his dog brain. Maybe his Intel was rubbing

84 80 Christine Cody off of him, what, with living out here in the wilds. Maybe we d all have every last bit of sense bleached from us soon. Wouldn t surprise me, seeing as I was halfway there already. I ignored the visz and clung to my crossbow, still remembering that odd flash in the stranger s eyes, riddled by it. Chaplin put his paw on my boot and I said, I m not falling for his tricks. Hurt, he repeated. And his hurt trumps what might happen to us should we let him in, whether or not he s Stamp s man? No answer from Chaplin on that, because he probably had enough brain cells working to realize that this stranger could be a million things spelling a last mistake. Besides exposing our home, there was a chance that he was one of the bad guys himself and bad guys would pull anything to make their way in life. See, after old prophecies had come to a head things like pestilence and earthly change the bads had taken advantage of all the chaos. The mosquito epidemic had wiped out and separated much of the population in the old States, and terrorism had coerced the normal, law-abiding citizens to take homebound jobs, where they only face-to-faced with their core families. But that was only the start. U.S.-based terrorists had rigged massive charges along the quake faults of the west coast to blow off some of the devil-ridden area, and the government had extended full security for the good of the country. But a lot of people thought the government could be just as bad as any enemy, and they d left the urban hubs, seeking safety on compounds or isolated places like the New Badlands. From that point on, bad guys had risen from the ashes all over the place. There d been a spike in identity theft, so we d dug the ID chips out from under our skin. We stopped using the Internet and mass tools of communication. We basically wiped ourselves off the face of the society since the government who d even stopped pretending that it wasn t composed of many a bad guy itself had been too slow to regulate privacy information legislation. That was when bad guys seized even more identities and properties with impunity. Basically, to live nowadays, even if the govern-

85 BLOODLANDS 81 ment was said to have been weakened by out-of-country monetary sanctions, you had to decide whether to eat or be eaten. And, right now, I wasn t about to put myself on a banquet table. When I checked the visz one last time, I saw the screen was empty. A trickle of sweat slid down my temple. Eat or be eaten, I thought again. But Chaplin didn t seem to get it. If someone had helped you when you needed it... Stop, I said before he could really cut into me. Don t be talking about that. You know better. The dog merely waited me out, big-browning me with those eyes. It was almost like I could see exactly what he was thinking, too: images of my mom and pre-teen brother reaching out, screaming while covered with blood as the bad guys got to them. To us. If someone had helped us when we needed it... Damn it all. Maybe the only thing separating us from the world we were hiding from was moments like this, when you could make the choice to do more than just stand by while someone else fell. Could I just help the guy a little, then send him on his way? Was it possible? I did have an arsenal of weapons on my side, after all. I had a lot of things he d be afraid of, except I wasn t so willing to use everything at my disposal. He could thank me for that later. Damn it. Damn it. I raised a finger to Chaplin, but it trembled. You d better be right. If this man s fooling us with those injuries, I ll gun him off good and make sure Stamp knows we re not buying whatever he might be bringing. Then you and me are going to have a talk about common sense. My dog shifted from one paw to the other, happy as could be. His gaze seemed... what? Inappropriately misty? Bright? Adrenaline thudding, I sat down my crossbow and rechecked my revolver. It d been made in the early 2000s, but would work fine, bolstered by the modifications and the old ammunition, plus the homemade, I d loaded into it. I couldn t believe I was doing this. Stupid. But Chaplin would never let me forget that I was no better than a bad guy if I didn t

86 82 Christine Cody at least see if the stranger was truly wounded. The dog had put up with a lot from me, and someday, I d push him over the line. I didn t want that day to be now. With a hard glance at him, I tucked the revolver back into its holster, grabbed the crossbow, then moved toward the wooden ladder. I slowly climbed toward the exit panel, wanting to take the high ground in case I needed it. God-all, when was the last time I d willingly been outside? To hell with Chaplin for reminding me that this was the right and decent thing to do. To hell with him for playing that horrific card. I heaved in oxygen, held my breath, slamming open the panel and emerging into the darkening dusk. Through my night sights, I scanned the area for traps. Nothing amiss. Or maybe not. I scanned a second time while the night air baked over me: dragon s breath, they called the extreme conditions forced by all the changes. Heartbeat tangling, I smoothed myself out as I breathed. Breathed. At the same time, I kept thinking: Outside. I m outside. I should get back in... Trying to shove my doubts away, I maneuvered over the dry, rock-bitten hill until I slid to the ground. A few sharp blades of cockroach grass, named because it d sprung up in defiance of the harsh weather, pricked through my pants. Inside. Get back inside... Now I went a step further, shutting myself from feeling altogether: smelling, intaking, experiencing. Then I approached the stranger, aiming my crossbow at his chest. It d be quite a sight when he opened his eyes. Hopefully, he d report back to Stamp that there was nothing near here worth even a third look. Unless he was for real. Peering closer, I discerned that the stranger s wounds seemed genuine enough, not to mention his obvious pain. Then, as I knew it would, the blood on his skin zoomed in at me, and I clamped off the sight before I could have a reaction. A contained tremor

87 BLOODLANDS 83 blasted through me and, when I was strong enough to open my eyes, I saw that his knees were drawn to his chest as he clutched his long coat round him. His jaw was clenched, as if holding back another fruitless request to allow him inside. With a brief glance at the visz lens hidden amongst the scrub, I wondered how everyone seemed to be finding the equipment when I d done such an expert job at camouflage. Inside! Get yourself inside! I cleared my throat so my voice would come out strong. You one of Stamp s drunkards? I was still targeting him, my lungs so tight I could barely talk. The harmless moon caught a gleam in his eyes as he opened his gaze. He grimaced, dragging himself over to me. I stepped back. Shelter, he uttered. Definitely not faking. I d heard so many screams in my head over the years that I knew agony when I heard it. Even so, I scanned him over for weapons with my bow monitor. Unarmed. But a quiver reminded me to keep clamping myself off from his wounds, his hurt. The stranger stirred on the ground. Inside! Go! But I couldn t move. The sight of his blood was transfixing me again, owning me. Frantically, I grasped my mini-bow one handed and jerked a dust kerchief out of a pocket, holding it over my nose. Do anything dumb, I said, and you die. Understood. His whisper was barely discernable. I wondered if I should get my dad s old med equipment and take care of him out here, but that would mean lingering in the elements. That might be more dangerous than bringing him in. A sound behind me persuaded me to swing round my crossbow, but I yanked it up once I saw what was happening. Three feet away, a scrub-shrouded trapdoor that served as another entrance to the domain had spewed open. And damn it all if Chaplin wasn t waiting right there like the most hyper welcoming committee ever. He barked, intoning an invitation for the stranger to come in.

88 84 Christine Cody Chaplin! What was the mutt thinking? Before I could react, the stranger rolled to the opening, his body disappearing as the entrance swallowed him up. The thud of his weight hitting the dirt of my home pounded in my ears. I ran to the opening, peering down to find him sprawled near Chaplin, who was already licking the man s wounds. Are you crazy, dog? I jumped to the floor, too, crouching to ease the fall. Right away, I reached over to secure the trapdoor again. Then I pressed the kerchief to my face. You don t know what s in his blood! But that wasn t true. Intel Dogs had an even keener sense of smell than their ancestors, than any type of canine, in fact. Chaplin could warn me about the proximity of any intruders after taking an outside hunting trip; he could tell me if the man was carrying disease or not, too. My dog must ve known the stranger was otherwise healthy. Chaplin avoided me while tending to his patient. Keeping the crossbow in hand, I put some distance between me and the stranger as I headed for my living space. Breathe, I thought, thankful, so thankful to be back inside. Lucky to have come back without bringing trouble with me. You can breathe now. In the food prep area, I leaned against a cupboard, where I could still my racing blood, my tremors. Then, after getting a hold of myself, I pulled out some linen that could staunch the stranger s bleeding. I also ditched my bow and brought out antiseptic and a general first-aid kit, from which I opened a bottle of antiseptic gel and smeared the contents under my nostrils. Back in the day, I would ve been able to access the Nets to see if I was nursing a person correctly, but since the bad guys had taken over, that wasn t possible. I d trashed anything the computer, the phone, the personal devices that could possibly allow criminals access to my life. There wouldn t have been good reception out here in the nowheres, anyway. When I came back and sat down next to the stranger, I realized that Chaplin had licked off the blood, giving the man s features clean definition. Unhindered by crimson, there was something stoic and haunted, his nose slightly crooked, his barely opened

89 BLOODLANDS 85 eyes gray, his skin pale, just like everyone else s since day-walking without a heat suit was dumb business. Looking at him did something, curling me from the inside out until I felt twisted up. Heat surged through me, but I couldn t stop, even though I knew I should. It was just that... Well, in what looked to be all the clothing he owned a long, battered coat that matched the misery of his trousers, a frayed bag slung over his chest, plus three shirts layered and weather-beaten he seemed like one of those storied cowboys who used to wander the landscape of mid-twentieth century cinema. I d seen a few of those old movies Before, previous to the world s degradation. Hell, most all New Badlanders dressed in this kind of gear, but... it wasn t the same. Maybe it was the silver-star color of the man s eyes or his civil way of asking for help that d done it. Maybe I was a right fool, too. But there was something about him that brought back a link to the comfortable, the soothing fiction of myth. The stranger watched me just as well. Something seemed to tweak the front of my mind again, calming me down, making me think it was okay for him to be here. When Chaplin tilted his head at me, I blinked, pushing the stranger s influence out of me. I was real good at pushing. Feeling oddly unburdened now, I straightened up, then busied myself by pressing the antiseptic-dipped linen to the stranger s head wounds. Weird though. He didn t seem to be breathing. But he was alive all the same. I glanced at Chaplin. Does he ring familiar to you? I ve never seen him wandering round on any of the visz screens before. Chaplin shook his head, and I continued to apply pressure. The quicker I nursed him, the quicker he d be out of my hair. Just because he doesn t register, I added, it doesn t mean he isn t a part of Stamp s crew. Now, it seemed as if the stranger had fallen into a light stupor after expending enough energy to get himself past the trapdoor. He closed his eyes, his muscles relaxing. His lips opened slightly, and I found my gaze on the cuts and bruises that were making his mouth swell.

90 86 Christine Cody That weird heat started making me uncomfortable again, so I pushed it back. How do you think he got himself hurt, boy? I asked Chaplin. My dog growled out an answer. Beat up by one of Stamp s guys. Makes sense, I suppose. I grabbed another cloth, dipped it in the gel, then kept right on nursing. One of them could ve gotten blazed on turtlegrape and found a distraction in this unfortunate. Although Stamp and his men had been more aggressively exploring the area very recently, none of my neighbors were willing to fully reveal themselves so Stamp could be shooed off. They were still hoping to stay unidentified. But it looked like we d been discovered anyhow. I used a corner of linen to wipe down the stranger s face, then paused. Hadn t there been a scratch round his cheekbone? Chaplin wagged his tail faster, enthused about my willingness to nurse. Darn the dog. Bag, the stranger whispered, his voice raw. In my bag... I touched the leathered carry-all strapped over his chest, and he grunted in the positive. Unguent, he added before going silent again. I searched the contents of his bag, taking care not to discomfort him. A comb, a lump of soap, a scrap of fragrant pink cotton, a flask that seemed cool to the touch, a jar... I grabbed it, screwed off the porcelain lid to find a solidified pool of goo, then scooped out a gob. It tingled on my skin. As I slathered it over his wounds, I minded my breathing again. It d quickened in these last seconds, fighting with my pulse and making me much too aware of the scratch of slight beard on his face, the coolness of his skin. I caught a small smile right before the creases round his mouth went slack and he succumbed to rest. And that s how the next few hours passed, with the man resting. Oddly, his head wounds hadn t been as bad as I d first thought; they certainly seemed to have been humdingers at first, but I was no medic. Still, expert or not, I took care to mind every bit about him, even his lack of breathing. But he was alive enough, so I didn t search for lung activity too diligently.

91 BLOODLANDS 87 In the meantime, I brewed some loto cactus-flavored water for when he awoke. He d be sorely thirsty, no doubt, and it d make him heal all the quicker. As the water boiled in a stainless steel container I d once salvaged from an abandoned highway weight station a few miles distant, I sat on my ground couch. Chaplin cuddled up next to me and, out of enjoyable habit, I petted him between the ears. But I kept tabs on the slumbering stranger. In fact, I was so vigilant about watching him that something outside caught me by surprise. It took Chaplin s growl to shake me to the present to the other visitor showcased on a visz monitor. Chaplin kept growling. Even I felt myself tensing until I forced myself to better serenity. Lo? the second visitor called out in greeting. Like the other intruders from Stamp s camp these past few nights, he was speaking Text, the shorthand English that had become so prevalent because of chat rooming, texting, and the like. Since the Badlanders had long ago cut themselves off from all that crap, they d clung to Old American, just like the shut-ins who tucked themselves away in their urban hub homes and the business people who communicated also in Hindi and Chinese with the global community. I hunched toward the visz, my heartbeat tapping against my breastbone. Chaplin growled louder at the silhouette on the screen. The guy wore his long hair back, most of it secured into a bun by what looked to be chopsticks. C mon ot, the silhouette said, strolling round the area as the camera tracked him. A jangle accompanied every footstep. Clink, clink. He was still too far away to recognize in the night vision, and thank-all he wasn t looking straight into the visz s lens like visitor #1 of the night had done. Yet that didn t mean my defenses went down. I felt the threat of this one in my very cells, which collided and heated up. As I got off the couch, Chaplin followed, going to the sleeping stranger s side as if to guard him. I didn t have time to ask him why he thought that important. I also had no time to indulge in the disappointment of seeing my dog s loyalty spread to another.

92 88 Christine Cody For the second time that night, I took out my revolver from its waiting position in my holster, then headed toward the ladder. While passing the visz on the way, I gripped my firearm, palms sweating and-- Crash! I whipped round, my revolver aimed. But all I found was Chaplin barking up at the trapdoor as it closed, darkening the empty spot below where the stranger had just been resting.

93 SHADOW KIN A Novel of the Half-Light City by M. J. Scott A Roc September 2011 Paperback Imagine a city divided. On one side, the Night World, ruled by the Blood Lords and the Beast Kind. On the other, the elusive Fae and the humans, protected by their steadfast mages. A city held together by nothing more than a treaty and even then, just barely... I was born of a Fae mother, but I had no place amongst her kind. They called me soulless. An abomination. Perhaps they re right... I am a wraith, a shadow who slips between worlds. I was given into the service of a Blood Lord who raised me to be his most feared assassin. Still, I m nothing more than a slave to my master, and to the need that only he can fulfill... Then he orders me to kill Simon DuCaine, a powerful sunmage. In the blaze of his magic, my own disappears. Instead of seeking revenge, Simon shows me mercy. He wants to free me. But that s one thing my master and his kind will never allow. And even if I thought I could trust Simon, stepping from the shadow into the light isn t as simple as it sounds...

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95 They never hear me coming. Revenge is silent. Shadows make no sound. Nor do those whom I am tasked to visit. They only look surprised, at the last No wonder. My kind is legend. A tale told in darkness to chill the heart. But all legends have a basis in truth and so it is with us. Shadow Kin they call me, those who know. Wraith, they whisper as they look over their shoulders and tighten their defenses. Slave might be closer to the truth. Chapter One T he wards sparked in front of me, faint violet against the dark wooden door with its heavy brass locks, proclaiming the house s protection. They wouldn t stop me. No one has yet made the lock or ward to keep me out. Magic cannot detect me, and brick and stone and metal are no barrier. It s why I m good at what I do. A grandfather clock in the hall chimed two as I stepped into the shadow, entering the place only my kind can walk and passing

96 92 M. J. Scott through the door as though it wasn t there. Outside came the echoing toll of the cathedral bell, much louder here in Greenglass than in the Night World boroughs I usually frequent. I d been told that the one I was to visit lived alone. But I prefer not to believe everything I m told. After all I grew up among the Blood and the powers of the Night World, where taking things on faith is a quick way to die. Besides, bystanders only make things complicated. But tonight, I sensed I was alone as I moved carefully through the darkened rooms. The house had an elegant simplicity. The floors were polished wood, softened by fine wool rugs, and paintings hung on the unpapered walls. Plants flourished on any spare flat surface, tingeing the air with the scent of growth and life. I hoped someone would save them after my task here was completed. The Fae might deny me the Veiled World but the part of me that comes from them shares their affinity for green, growing things. Apart from the damp greenness of the plants there was only one other dominant scent in the air. Human. Male. Warm and spicy. Alive. Live around the Blood for long enough and you become very aware of the differences between living and dead. No other fresh smell mingled with his. No cats or dogs. Just fading hints of an older female gone for several hours. Likely a cook or housekeeper who didn t live in. I paused at the top of the staircase, counting doors carefully. Third on the left. A few more strides. I cocked my head, listening. There. Ever so faint, the thump of a human heartbeat. Slow. Even. Asleep. Good. Asleep is easier. I drifted through the bedroom door and paused again. The room was large, walled on one side with floor to ceiling windows unblocked by any blind. Expensive, that much glass. Moonlight streamed through the panes, making it easy to see the man lying in the big bed. I didn t know what he d done. I never ask. The blade doesn t question the direction of the cut. Particularly when the blade belongs to Lucius. Lucius doesn t like questions.

97 SHADOW KIN 93 I let go of the shadow somewhat while I watched him, holding myself halfway, not yet truly solid. Just enough that, if he were to wake, he would see my shape by the bed like the reflection of a dream. Or nightmare. The moonlight washed over his face, silvering skin and fading hair to shades of gray, making it hard to tell what he might look like in daylight. Tall, yes. Well formed if the arm and chest bared by the sheet he d pushed away in sleep matched the rest of him. Not that it mattered. He d be beyond caring about his looks in a few minutes. Beyond caring about anything. The moon made things easier even though, in the shadow, I see well in very little light. Under the silvered glow I saw the details of the room as clearly as if the gas lamps on the walls were alight. The windows posed little risk. The townhouse stood separated from its neighbors by narrow strips of garden on each side and a much larger garden at the rear. There was a small chance someone in a neighboring house might see something but I d be long gone before they could raise an alarm. His breath continued to flow, soft and steady and I moved around the bed, seeking a better angle for the strike as I let myself grow more solid still, so I could grasp the dagger at my hip. Legend says we kill by reaching into a man s chest and tearing out his heart. It s true, we can. I ve even done it. Once. At Lucius demand and fearing death if I disobeyed. It wasn t an act I ever cared to repeat. Sometimes, on the edge of sleep, I still shake thinking about the sensation of living flesh torn from its roots beneath my fingers. So I use a dagger. Just as effective. Dead is dead after all. I counted his heartbeats as I silently slid my blade free. He was pretty, this one. A face of interesting angles that looked strong even in sleep. Strong and somehow happy. Generous lips curved up slightly as if he were enjoying a perfect dream. Not a bad way to die, all things considered. I unshadowed completely and lifted the dagger, fingers steady on the hilt as he took one last breath. But even as the blade descended, the room blazed to light

98 94 M. J. Scott around me and a hand snaked out like a lightning bolt and clamped around my wrist. Not so fast, the man said in a calm tone. I tried to shadow and my heart leapt to my throat as nothing happened. Just to clarify, he said. Those lamps. Not gas. Sunlight. Sunmage, I hissed, rearing back as my pulse went into overdrive. How had Lucius left out that little detail? Or maybe he hadn t. Maybe Ricco had left it out on purpose when he d passed on my assignment. He hated me. I wouldn t put it past him to try to engineer my downfall. Damn him to the seven bloody night-scalded depths of hell. The man smiled at me, though there was no amusement in the expression. Precisely. I twisted, desperate to get free. His hand tightened, and pain shot through my wrist and up my arm. Drop the dagger. I set my teeth and tightened my grip. Never give up your weapon. I said, drop it. The command snapped as he surged out of the bed, pushing me backwards and my arm above my head at a nasty angle. The pain intensified, like heated wires slicing into my nerves. Sunmages are supposed to be healers, I managed to gasp as I struggled and the sunlight hells damned sunlight filled the room, caging me as effectively as iron bars might hold a human. I swung at him with my free arm but he blocked the blow, taking its force on his forearm without a wince. He fought far too well for a healer. Who was this man? Ever consider that being a healer means being exposed to hundreds of ways to hurt people? Don t make me hurt you. Put the knife down. I swore and flung myself forward, swinging my free hand at his face again. But he moved too, fast and sure, and somehow damn, he was good I missed, my hand smacking into the wall. I twisted desperately as the impact sent a shockwave up my arm but the light dazzled me as I looked directly into one of the lamps. A split second is all it takes to make a fatal mistake.

99 SHADOW KIN 95 Before I could blink, he had pulled me forward and round and I sailed through the air to land facedown on the feather mattress, wind half knocked out of me. My free hand was bent up behind my back and my other still holding my dagger - pinned by his to the pillow. My heart raced in anger and humiliation and fear as I tried to breathe. Sunmage. I was an idiot. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid and careless. His knee pushed me deeper into the mattress, making it harder still to breathe. Normally I don t get this forward when I haven t been introduced, he said, voice warm and low, close to my ear. He still sounded far too calm. A sunmage healer shouldn t be so sanguine about finding an assassin in his house. Though perhaps he wasn t quite as calm as he seemed. His heart pounded. But then again, normally, women I don t know don t try stab me in my bed. I snarled and he increased the pressure. There wasn t much I could do. I m faster and stronger than a human woman but there s a limit to what a female of five foot six can do against a man nearly a foot taller and quite a bit heavier. Particularly with my powers cut off by the light of the sun. Damned hell cursed sunlight. I ll take that. His knee shifted upwards to pin both my arm and my back and his free hand wrenched the dagger from my grasp. Then, to my surprise, his weight vanished. It took a few seconds for me to register my freedom. By the time I rolled to face him, he stood at the end of the bed and my dagger quivered in the wall far across the room. To make matters worse, the sunlight now flickered off the ornately engraved barrel of the pistol in his right hand. It was aimed squarely at the centre of my forehead. His hand was perfectly steady, as though holding someone at gunpoint was nothing greatly out of the ordinary for him. For a man wearing nothing but linen drawers he looked convincingly threatening. I froze. Would he shoot? If our places were reversed, he d already be dead.

100 96 M. J. Scott Wise decision, he said, eyes still cold. Now. Why don t you tell me what this is about? Do you think that s likely? One corner of his mouth lifted and a dimple cracked to life in his cheek. My assessment had been right. He was pretty. Pretty and dangerous, it seemed. The arm that held the gun was, like the rest of him, sleek with muscle. The sort that took concerted effort to obtain. Maybe he was one of the rare sunmages who became warriors? But the house seemed far too luxurious for a Templar or a mercenary and his hands and body were bare of Templar sigils. Besides, I doubted Lucius would set me on a Templar. That would be madness. So who the hell was this man? When I stayed silent, the pistol waved back and forth in a warning gesture. I have this, he said. Plus I am, as you mentioned, a sunmage. As if to emphasize his point, the lamps flared a little brighter. Start talking. I considered him carefully. The sunlight revealed his skin as golden, his hair a gilded shade of light brown and his eyes as bright, bright blue. A true creature of the day. No wonder Lucius wanted him dead. I currently felt a considerable desire for that outcome myself. I scanned the rest of the room, seeking a means to escape. A many drawered wooden chest, a table covered with papers with a leather upholstered chair tucked neatly against it and a large wardrobe all made simply in the same dark reddish wood offered no inspiration. Some sort of ferny plant in a stand stood in one corner and paintings landscapes and studies of more plants hung over the bed and the table. Nothing smaller than the furniture, that I could use as a weapon lay in view. Nor was there anything to provide a clue as to who he might be. I can hear you plotting all the way over here, he said with another little motion of the gun. Not a good idea. In fact... The next jerk of the pistol was a little more emphatic, motioning me towards the chair as he hooked it out from the table with his foot. Take a seat. Don t bother trying anything stupid like attempting the window. The glass is warded. You ll just hurt yourself. Trapped in solid form, I couldn t argue with that. The lamps

101 SHADOW KIN 97 shone with a bright unwavering light and his face showed no sign of strain. Even his heart beat had slowed to a more steady rhythm now that we were no longer fighting. A sunmage calling sunlight at night. Strong. Dangerously strong. Not to mention armed when I wasn t. I climbed off the bed and stalked over to the chair. He tied my arms and legs to their counterparts on the chair with neck cloths. Tight enough to be secure but carefully placed so as not to hurt. He had to be a healer. A mercenary wouldn t care if he hurt me. A mercenary probably would ve killed me outright. When he was done he picked up a pair of buckskin trousers and a rumpled linen shirt from the floor and dressed quickly. Then he took a seat on the end of the bed, picked up the gun once again and aimed directly at me. Blue eyes stared at me for a long minute, something unreadable swimming in their depths. Then he nodded. Shall we try this again? Why are you here? There wasn t any point lying about it. I was sent to kill you. I understand that much. The reason is what escapes me. I lifted a shoulder. Let him make what he would of the gesture. I had no idea why Lucius had sent me after a sunmage. You didn t ask? Why would I? I said, surprised by the question. He frowned. You just kill whoever you re told to? It doesn t matter why? I do as I m ordered. Disobedience would only bring pain. Or worse. His head tilted, suddenly intent. His gaze was uncomfortable, and it was hard to shake the feeling he saw more than I wanted. You should seek another line of work. As if I had a choice. I looked away from him, suddenly angry. Who was he to judge me? Back to silence, is it? Very well, let s try another tack. This isn t, by chance, about that Rousselline pup I stitched up a few weeks ago? Pierre Rousselline was alpha of one of the Beast Kind packs. He and Lucius didn t always exist in harmony. But I doubted Lucius would kill over the healing of a young Beast. A sunmage, one this strong if his claim of being able to maintain the light until dawn

102 98 M. J. Scott were true was an inherently risky target, even for a Blood Lord. Even for the Blood Lord. So what had this man who was, indeed, a healer if he spoke the truth done? His brows lifted when I didn t respond. You really don t know, do you? Well. Damn. The damn came out as a half laugh. There was nothing amusing in the situation that I could see. Either he was going to kill me or turn me over to the human authorities or I was going to have to tell Lucius I had failed. Whichever option came to pass, nothing good awaited me. I stayed silent. Some other topic of conversation, then? He regarded me with cool consideration. I presume, given that my sunlight seems to be holding you, that I m right in assuming that you are Lucius shadow? I nodded. There was little point denying it with his light holding me prisoner. There were no others of my kind in the City. Only a wraith is caged by the light of the sun. A smile spread over his face, revealing he had two dimples not one. Not just pretty, I decided. He was... alluring wasn t the right word. The Blood and the Fae are alluring an attraction born of icy beauty and danger. I am immune to that particularly charm. No, he was... inviting somehow. A fire on a winter s night, promising warmth and life. His eyes held genuine curiosity. You re really a wraith? Yes. He laughed and the sound was sunlight, warm and golden, a smooth caress against the skin. Is that so amusing? If the stories are to believed, you re supposed to be ten foot tall with fangs and claws. I tilted my head. I am not Blood or Beast Kind. No fangs. Or claws. He looked over my shoulder, presumably at my dagger. Just one, perhaps? But really... no-one ever said you were- He stopped abruptly. What? The question rose from my lips before I could stop myself.

103 SHADOW KIN 99 This time his smile was crooked. Beautiful. I snorted. Beautiful? Me? No. I knew that well enough. The Fae are beautiful and even the Blood in their own way. I am only odd with gray eyes a color no Fae or true demi-fae ever had and red hair that stands out like a beacon amongst the silvery hues of the Blood. That s because I m not. He looked surprised. I know the Blood don t use mirrors but you must have seen yourself. Maybe the Night World has different standards to yours. Then the Night World needs its eyesight examined, he said with another crooked smile. Gods and suns. Silence again. He studied me and I looked away, discomforted, wondering what angle he was trying to work by flattering me. Did he think I could sway Lucius into granting mercy? If so, then he was in for a severe disappointment. What happens now? I asked when the silence started to strain my nerves. That may well depend on you.

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105 SINS OF THE ANGELS by Linda Poitevin An Ace October 2011 Paperback A detective with a secret lineage. An undercover Hunter with a bullet-proof soul. And a world made to pay for the sins of an angel... Homicide detective Alexandra Jarvis answers to no one. Especially not to the new partner assigned to her in the middle of a gruesome serial killer case a partner who is obstructive, irritatingly magnetic, and arrogant as hell. Aramael is a Power a hunter of the Fallen Angels. A millennium ago, he sentenced his own brother to eternal exile for crimes against humanity. Now his brother is back and wreaking murderous havoc in the mortal realm. To find him, Aramael must play second to a human police officer who wants nothing to do with him and whose very bloodline threatens both his mission and his soul. Now, faced with a fallen angel hell-bent on triggering the apocalypse, Alex and Aramael have no choice but to join forces, because only together can they stop the end of days.

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107 Prologue I t was done. There could be no turning back. Caim stared down at the destruction he d wrought and held back a shudder. They would come after him, of course, as they had the first time. They couldn t allow him to succeed. Couldn t risk him finding a way back and opening a door to the others. They would send someone to hunt him, try to imprison him in that place again. His breath snared in his chest and for a moment the awfulness of the idea made him quail inside, made his mind go blank. An eternity of that awful, mind-hollowing emptiness, that nothingness. His belly clenched at the thought. It was a miracle he had escaped, and whatever happened, he couldn t go back. Could never go back. He focused his thoughts, made himself calm. He could do this. He could find the right one and return to where he belonged; it was just a matter of time. A matter of numbers. Caim gazed at the corpse by his feet. It was also a matter of being more careful than this. He crouched and touched a withered fingertip to the crimson that welled from the gash in the mortal s chest. He rubbed the viscous fluid between thumb and forefinger and studied his work, displeased at the lack of control he saw there. The haste. He scowled at the frisson of remembered, wanton pleasure that even now edged down his spine, making his heart miss a beat. He so disliked that side of himself, the part that thrilled at the destruction. He had never wanted this, had tried so hard not to give in to

108 104 Linda Poitevin what she had claimed to see. He wished he d had another choice; that she d given him another choice. But whether he was here by choice or not, he would do well to maintain better control. If one of her hunters had been near just now, his search would have been over before it began. He d been so caught up in his task, he wouldn t have felt an approach until it was too late. No, to stay ahead of her, ahead of the hunter she sent for him, Caim needed to rein himself in, to contain the bloodlust that clouded his mind. To be disciplined. He lifted his head and breathed in the alley musk, scented with rain and death. He needed to be faster, too. Finding one of the few he could use among the billions that existed now the task seemed nothing short of monumental. He wiped his bloody, clawed fingers on the corpse s clothing, and then, on impulse, reached over and spread the corpse s arms straight out, perpendicular to the body, and crossed the ankles over one another. Pushing to his feet, he surveyed his handiwork with bitter satisfaction. Perfect. Even if she never saw it herself, she would know of his contempt, know what he thought of the esteem in which her children still held her. He drew a breath deep into his lungs and stretched his arms over his head, letting his body begin to fill out again, taking on flesh and warmth. He reveled in the fierce pleasure of his own aliveness; the pull of wet cotton against his skin; the remains of the fierce summer rain dripping from his hair; the thick, sullen night air, unrelieved by the storm that had proclaimed his return. The sheer gratification of feeling. Then, casting a last, dispassionate glance at the remains on the pavement, he turned and started down the alley toward the street. His mind moved beyond the kill to other matters. Matters such as finding a place to stay. Somewhere to hide, where a hunter wouldn t think to look for him. Caim emerged from the alley onto the sidewalk and looked up the deserted pavement to his left, then his right. Somewhere He paused. Stared across the street. Smiled. Somewhere... interesting.

109 Chapter One T hat was the thing about a murder scene, Alexandra Jarvis reflected. It would be difficult to drive past one and later claim that you couldn t find the right place. No matter how much you wanted to. She wheeled her sedan into the space behind a Toronto Metropolitan Police car angled across the sidewalk. Alternating blue and red spilled from the cruiser s bar lights, splashing against the squat brick building beside it and announcing the hive of activity in the dank alley beyond. Powerful floodlights, brought in to combat the pre-dawn hours, backlit the scene, and yellow crime-scene tape stretched across the alley s mouth. And, just in case Alex needed further confirmation she d found the right place, a mob of media looked to be in a feeding frenzy street-side of a wooden police barricade, their microphones and cameras thrust into the faces of the two impassive, uniformed officers holding them at bay. One of the uniforms glanced over as she killed her engine, acknowledging her arrival with a nod. Alex took a gulp of lukewarm, over-sugared coffee and balled up her fast-food breakfast wrapper. She d bought the meal, if it could be called such, out of desperation on her way home, as a combined supper and bedtime snack. The nearest she could figure, it was the first food she d had in almost twenty hours, and she hadn t made it past the first bite before she d been called to this, another murder. Even knowing what she d have to view when she arrived at the

110 106 Linda Poitevin scene, she d gone ahead and eaten it. Working Homicide had that effect after a while. She dropped the wrapper into the empty paper bag, drained the remainder of her coffee, and tossed the cup in to join the wrapper. Then she slid out of the air-conditioned vehicle. The early August humidity slammed into her like a fist, rising from the damp pavement and the puddles that lined the uneven sidewalk. Alex grimaced. After a storm like the one that had raged from midnight until almost three, knocking out power to most of the city s core for the better part of an hour, surely they d earned at least a brief respite from the sauna-like weather. She fished in her blazer pocket for a hair elastic, checked that her police shield was still clipped to her waistband, and raised her arms to scrape back her shoulder-length blonde hair as she kneed shut the car door and started toward the alley. The media piranhas, scenting new prey, engulfed her. Detective, can you tell us what? Can you describe? Is this death related? The questions flew at her, fast and furious, and became lost in each other. Alex elbowed her way through the throng and shouldered past a television camera, wrapping the elastic around her fistful of hair. If they knew how many coffees and how little sleep she operated on, they wouldn t be so eager to get this close. She patted her pockets in an automatic check. Pen, notebook, gloves... Lord, but her partner had picked a fine time to retire and take up fly-fishing. Davis was a hundred times more diplomatic than she was, and she d counted on him to run media interference for her at these times. She hoped to heaven his eventual replacement would be as accommodating. Don t know, can t say, and no comment, she replied, and winced at the snarl in her voice, glad her supervisor wasn t there to overhear. We ll let you know when we have a statement for you, just like we always do. The uniform who had acknowledged her arrival lifted the tape so she could duck beneath it.

111 SINS OF THE ANGELS 107 Yeah, he muttered, and the sharks will keep circling anyway, just like they always do. Alex flashed him a sympathetic look and headed down the alley, her focus shifting to the tall, lanky man silhouetted against the floodlights, and to the scene he surveyed. Her stomach rolled uneasily around its grease-laden meal. Even from here, she could see the remains of a bloodbath: telltale shadows darkened the brick walls on either side of the narrow passageway; rivulets of the night s rain, stained dark, pooled on the alley floor; crimson reflected back from puddles lit by the floodlights. She flicked a glance at a sodden cardboard box, catalogued it as nothing out of the ordinary, strode deeper into the narrow passageway. A numbered flag, placed by forensics, marked a blurred shoe imprint in a patch of mud. Another sat beside a door where nothing visible remained, perhaps the site of something already bagged and tagged. Alex drew nearer to the scene and inhaled a slow breath through her nose. She held it for a moment before expelling it in a soft gust. If this was the same as the others, if it was another slashing... She drew her shoulders back and lifted her chin. If it was another slashing, she would handle it as she did any other case. Professionally, efficiently, thoroughly. Because that was how she worked. Because her past had no place here. She stepped over the electrical cables powering the floodlights and Staff-Sergeant Doug Roberts, in charge of the Homicide unit where Alex worked, turned. A smile ghosted across his lips but didn t reach his strained eyes. Alex made out the vague shape of a human body beneath a tarp stretched out just beyond him. Have a good sleep? Roberts asked. Even raised over the guttural thrum of the generator powering the lights, his voice held a dry note. He knew she d never made it home. Alex produced a credible return smile. Nah. I figured the concept was highly overrated, so I settled for caffeine. She ran a critical eye over her staff-sergeant s height, noting the two days growth along his jaw line. Perspiration plastered his shortcropped hair to his forehead and she felt her own tresses wilt in mute sympathy. If the air out in the street had been heavy, here in the alley it was downright oppressive. The man looked ready to drop.

112 108 Linda Poitevin What about you? she asked. Ditto on the sleep, but I missed out on the caffeine. That explained it. Given enough java in his or her system, a homicide cop could run almost indefinitely, but without... Alex s gaze slid to the tarp. Well? she asked. We won t know for sure until the autopsy. But? Silence. Because he didn t know, or because he didn t want to say? Chest ripped open, throat slit, posed like the others, he said finally. Damn, she muttered. She scuffed the toe of her shoe against a weed growing through the pavement. Four in as many days, with the last two less than twelve hours apart. One of the floodlights gave a sudden, loud pop, and the light in the alley dimmed a fraction. Underneath a loading dock, someone bellowed for a replacement bulb, his voice muffled. Alex pushed a limp lock off her forehead, scrunched her fist over it for a moment, and said again, Damn, damn, damn. She released her clutch on her scalp. Is forensics finding anything? After the rain we had? We re lucky the body didn t float away. Maybe the killer s waiting for the rain, Alex mused. Maybe he knows it will wash away the evidence. So what, he s a disgruntled meteorologist? How does he know it will rain hard enough? Roberts shook his head. The weather s too unpredictable for someone to rely on it like that, especially lately. None of these storms this week were even in the forecast. I think it s just bad luck for us. She sighed. You re probably right. So, has the chief called for a task force yet? Not yet, but my guess is that it s about to become a priority. I ll put in a call and get the ball rolling. The sooner we get a profiler working on this psycho, the better. You have a look around here, then go home, okay? I ve put Joly and Abrams on point for this one. You ve been on your feet longer than anyone else on this so far, and you need some sleep. Alex rolled her eyes. If this guy keeps up at the rate he s going, she muttered, I can pretty much guarantee that won t happen.

113 SINS OF THE ANGELS 109 If this guy keeps up at the rate he s going, I m going to need you on your toes, not dropping from exhaustion. So let me rephrase that: get some sleep. The head of Homicide Squad stalked away, dodging a police photographer who looked to be performing a weird kind of dance in his efforts to catalogue the scene s every angle. Alex watched Roberts cover the distance to the end of the alley in remarkably few long-legged strides, and then bulldoze his way through the waiting scavengers. With a sigh that came all the way from her toes, she turned back to the bloody, rain-washed alley. Roberts was right. The others were getting more down-time than she was on this case. They always did on slashings, because as much as she like to pretend that her past had no bearing on her present, no one else brought the same unique perspective to these cases that she did. The kind of perspective that made her drive herself a little harder, a little longer... That made sure she wouldn t sleep much until it was over. The Dominion Verchiel, of the Fourth Choir of angels, stared at the Highest Seraph s office door for a long moment, and then raised her hand to knock. As much as she didn t look forward to delivering bad news to Heaven s Executive Administrator, she could think of no way to avoid the task, and standing here would make it no easier. A resonant voice, hollowed by the oaken door, spoke from within. Enter. Verchiel pushed inside. Mittron, overseer of eight of the nine choirs, sat behind his desk on the far side of the book-lined room, intent on writing. Verchiel cleared her throat. Is it important? Mittron asked. He did not look up. Verchiel suppressed a sigh. The Highest knew she would never intrude without reason, but since the Cleanse, he had taken every opportunity he could to remind her of her place. In fact, if she thought about it, he had been so inclined even prior to the Cleanse, but that was long behind them and made no difference now. She folded her hands into her robe, counseled herself to ignore the slight, and made her tone carefully neutral. Forgive the intrusion, Highest, but we ve encountered a problem.

114 110 Linda Poitevin The Highest Seraph looked up from his work and fixed pale golden eyes on her. It took everything Verchiel had not to flinch. Or apologize. Her former soulmate had always had the uncanny knack of making her feel as though any issue she brought before him was her fault. Over the millennia, it had just become that much worse. Tell me, he ordered. Caim I am aware of the situation, he interrupted, returning to his task. Irritation stabbed at her. She so disliked this side of him. I don t think so. There s more to it than we expected. After making her wait several more seconds, Mittron laid aside his pen and sat back in his chair, giving her his full attention. Where Caim is concerned, there is always more than expected. But go on. The mortals have launched an investigation into Caim s work. They re calling him a serial killer. A valid observation. Because the police officers involved will be more likely than most mortals to put themselves in his path, I thought it prudent to warn their Guardians. Have them pay particular attention to keeping their charges safe. Verchiel hesitated. Yes? One of the officers doesn t have a Guardian. Every mortal has a Guardian. Actually, not every mortal has. Rejected his, has he? Mittron shrugged. Well, he has made his decision then. He is of no concern to us. That s what I thought at first, but I thought it prudent to make certain and well, she is of concern. Great concern. The Highest Seraph frowned. He sat up straighter and a shadow fell across his face, darkening the gold of his gaze to amber. Then the creases in his forehead smoothed over. She is Nephilim, he said. She is descended from their line, yes. That does complicate matters. Yes. What do you suggest we do?

115 SINS OF THE ANGELS 111 Verchiel shook her head, no closer to a solution now than she had been when she d first heard the news herself. She moved into the study and settled into one of the enormous wing chairs across from him. I don t know, she admitted. How far back are her roots? We re not sure. We re attempting to trace her, but it will take time. Even if the lineage is faint, however Mittron nodded even as Verchiel let her words die away. There may still be a risk, he agreed. Yes. Mittron levered himself out of his chair. He paced to the window overlooking the gardens. His hands, linked behind his back, kept up a rhythmic tapping against his crimson robe. Out in the corridor, the murmur of voices approached, another door opened and closed, and the voices disappeared. What about assigning a Guardian to her? he asked, his voice thoughtful. None of the Guardians would stand a chance against a Fallen Angel, especially one as determined as Caim. Mittron shook his head. Not that kind of Guardian. What other kind of Guardian is there? A Power. A Power? One of my Powers? With all due respect, Mittron, there is no way a hunter would agree to act Not just any Power, Mittron interrupted. Aramael. Verchiel couldn t help it. She snorted. You can t be serious. Mittron turned from the window to face her, his eyes like chips of yellow ice, and Verchiel s insides shriveled. She paused to formulate her objection with as much care as she could. She needed to be clear about the impossibility of Mittron s suggestion. She had allowed him to sway her once before where Aramael and Caim were concerned, and could not do so again. And not just for Aramael s sake. Hunting Caim very nearly destroyed him the first time, she said. We cannot ask him again. He is a Power, Verchiel. The hunt is his purpose. He ll recover. There must be some other way. Name one angel in all of Heaven who would risk a confronta-

116 112 Linda Poitevin tion with a Fallen One to protect a Nephilim, no matter how faint the lineage. Verchiel fell silent. The Highest knew she could name no such an angel, because none existed. Not one of Heaven s ranks had any love for the Nephilim, and Verchiel doubted she could find one who might feel even a stirring of pity for the race. The One herself had turned her back on the bloodline, a constant reminder of Lucifer s downfall; had denied them the guidance of the Guardians who watched over other mortals, and left them to survive or in most cases, not on their own. But where this particular Nephilim was concerned, surviving Caim was essential. For all their sakes. Verchiel felt herself waver. She rested her elbow on the chair s arm. It will consume him, she said at last. Caim already consumes him, which is why we will ask him. The moment you mention Caim s name, Aramael will do anything necessary to complete the hunt, even protect a Nephilim. Mittron left the window and returned to his desk. Apparently having decided the matter was closed, he lowered himself into the chair and picked up his pen. See to it. And keep me informed. Despite the obvious dismissal, Verchiel hesitated. The Highest s logic made a certain kind of sense, but sending Aramael after Caim for a second time felt wrong. Very wrong. He was already the most volatile of all the Powers, barely acquiescing to any standard of control at the best of times. How much worse would he be after this? The Highest Seraph lifted his head and looked at her. You have a problem, Dominion? She did, but could think of no way to voice her elusive misgivings. At least, none that Mittron would take seriously. She rose from her chair. No, Highest. No problem. Mittron s voice stopped her again at the door. Verchiel. She looked back. We will keep this matter between us. He put pen to paper and began to write. There is no need to alarm the others. * * *

117 SINS OF THE ANGELS 113 Mittron heard the door snap shut and laid aside his pen. Leaning back, he rested his head against the chair, closed his eyes, and willed the tension from his shoulders. He was becoming so very tired of Verchiel s resistance. Every other angel under his authority obeyed without question, without comment. But not Verchiel. Never Verchiel. Perhaps it was because of their former soulmate status, when, out of respect, he had treated her more as an equal. A mistake he d realized too late and had paid for ever since. The cleanse had been intended to provide a clean slate between them, between all the angels, but it hadn t been as effective in all respects as he would have liked. Not for the first time, he considered placing the Dominion elsewhere, where they wouldn t need to be in such constant contact with one another. Also not for the first time, he discarded the idea. She was too valuable as a handler of the Powers, particularly where Aramael was concerned, and particularly now. Mittron sighed, straightened, and reached again for his pen. No, he d keep her in place for the moment. As long as she followed orders, however grudgingly, it would be best that way. If she didn t, well, former soulmate or not, he was able to discipline an uncooperative angel. More than able.

118 Chapter Two A lex studied the scene in detail for several long minutes before she admitted to herself that she avoided the inevitable. The admission wasn t easy. In six years of homicide detail, she d seen just about everything there was to see, and had witnessed far worse than what they dealt with now. But this one unnerved her. This one, and the three before it. She eyed the tarp-covered corpse with distaste. She knew why slashings bothered her, of course. She didn t need a shrink to tell her that what she d seen twenty-three years ago had left its mark. She had learned to deal with it, however; learned how to shut off the memories and disregard the initial horror that threatened to swamp her whenever she viewed such a victim. She d had no choice not in this career. But this case, with so many of them so close together, and the near certainty that there would be more... Alex pulled up her thoughts sharply. After thirty-six straight hours on her feet, her resistance was bound to be a bit low. She d just have to be careful. She swallowed, steeled herself, and then started towards the body, pulling on latex gloves to protect the scene from contamination, steadfastly placing one foot in front of the other. She paused at the tarp. Every time she had a case like this, the memories threatened. Sometimes she could hold them back. She crouched and lifted a corner of the plastic sheeting. And sometimes she couldn t.

119 SINS OF THE ANGELS 115 Alex s breath hissed from her lungs. Despite her best efforts, images bombarded her, vivid, horrifying; resisting all attempts to push them away. She squeezed her eyes closed and gritted her teeth. Made herself think only of her mental door, made her mind force it shut again on the past. Waited for the heave of her stomach to subside and the nausea to recede. Seconds crept by. At last, her grasp on her stomach s contents still precarious at best, she opened her eyes again, careful to focus beyond the victim. She wiped her sleeve across her forehead, removing moisture she couldn t blame on the stifling air. Footsteps approached from behind and mud-spattered black shoes entered her peripheral vision and stopped at the edge of a murky red puddle. Alex looked up to find fellow detective Raymond Joly standing beside her. Christ, she said softly, Do you ever get used to seeing this, do you think? Some say they do. Joly shrugged, his face a closed mask as he viewed the remains. I think they re kidding themselves. Alex tasted a faint metallic tang and realized she d bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood. She licked away the droplet and, aware of Joly s presence at her side, forced herself to do her job and lift the tarp clear of the lifeless, wrecked young woman on the pavement. Under control once more, Alex examined the victim: the single, bloody gash that ran from ear to ear across the throat, and the other slices across the torso in groups of four, equidistant from one another that had gone through clothing, skin, and muscle alike to expose pale bone and now-bloodless organs. Roberts had been right. It was exactly the same pattern as the three previous killings and, like the ones before it, it wasn t an ordinary murder if murder could ever be ordinary. Alex chewed at the inside of her cheek as she studied the young woman s waxen features and the way she had been posed on the pavement, arms outstretched perpendicular to the body, legs together, feet crossed at the ankles. Simple death did not satisfy whoever had done this, whoever had done the same to the others. There was more here than mere disregard for human life, more than a desire to kill. This was... Alex

120 116 Linda Poitevin paused in her thoughts, searching for the right word. Obscene. Depraved. Another word jolted through her mind, and she shuddered. Evil. She dropped the tarp and struggled to her feet. Then, to cover her discomposure, she flipped open her notebook and put pen to paper. Joly plucked the pen from her. Go home. Excuse me? Alex looked up in surprise. Six inches shorter than she was, but with an enormous handlebar mustache that somehow made up for his lack of stature, Joly waved his cell phone under her nose. Roberts called and said that if you were still here, I was to kick your ass for him. He stuck the cell phone back into its holster on his belt. He also said that this was a limited-time offer. The task force meets at eleven. Alex glanced at her watch. That gave her six hours including travel time, first to home and then to the office. Given the fact that she lived a good forty minutes from work without traffic the allotment wasn t nearly as generous as it first seemed. Lucky me, she muttered. Take it. Joly handed back her pen. If this lunatic keeps up this pace, none of us will be going home again for awhile. Recognizing the truth of his words, Alex slid the pen into her pocket and closed the notebook cover. Do we have enough people for the canvass? We ll manage. We won t exactly be tripping over witnesses around here at this hour. Joly stepped around the tarp-covered body with the unspoken respect they all gave the dead and strolled away to join his partner, tossing a last disheartening comment over his shoulder. I hate to be the one to break it to you, Jarvis, but you won t miss a thing. This is one I ll guarantee we won t solve today. No. Aramael didn t turn around to deliver his refusal. Didn t care that nothing had been asked yet. He d sensed Verchiel s approach long before her presence filled his doorway, and knew she was there. He wouldn t do it. Warmest greetings to you, too, Verchiel said dryly. May I come in? Aramael shrugged and selected a slim volume from the shelf in

121 SINS OF THE ANGELS 117 front of him. Poetry? The flowery verses might be just what he needed to soothe his battered soul. Or they might drive him over the edge into outright rebellion. Kill or cure, so to speak and perhaps not the best choice in his current frame of mind. He slid the book back into place and, from the corner of his eye, saw Verchiel join him, her pale silver hair glowing against the rich purple of her gown. He ignored her. This is rude even for you, she commented at last, mild reproof in her voice. Aramael reminded himself that she was only the messenger, and that snarling at her would serve no purpose other than to alienate one of the few angels with whom he shared any kind of civility. He gritted his teeth, looking down and sideways at her. I m sorry. And you re right. I am being rude. But I m still not doing it. You don t even know why I m here. There is only one reason a Dominion visits a Power, Verchiel. Why any of the others would visit us, either, if they bothered at all. Aramael ran his finger down the title on the spine of a massive volume, paused, and moved on. Too heavy in the literary, as well as the literal, sense. So, yes, I do know why you re here. Verchiel fell silent for a moment, then admitted, I d never thought of it quite like that. I suppose it is rather obvious. Rather. You re right, of course. Of course. And I ve told you, I m not doing it. I ve only just come back from the last hunt. Find someone else. There is no one else. Aramael met the other angel s serene, pale blue gaze for a moment before he turned away. Ezrael is in the garden. Send him. There s more to it this time. Mittron wants you to go. Aramael caught back an unangelic curse and pulled a book from the shelf. I m tired, Verchiel. Do you understand? I m tired, and I m empty, and I ve just finished four consecutive hunts. I m not doing it. Send Ezrael. There s a woman A what? He pushed the book back into place without glancing at its title and eyed her narrowly. What does a mortal have to do with this?

122 118 Linda Poitevin She well, she Verchiel floundered, avoiding his eyes. Her hands fluttered in a way that reminded him of a trapped bird. Any hint of serenity had vanished. She s important to us, she finished. And? We think the Fallen One might attack her. He wasn t sure if he found it more unsettling or annoying that she seemed to have lost her capacity to give him a straight answer. And? We d like you to watch over her. That was straight enough. You want me to what? To look out for her. Make sure that the Fallen One doesn t reach her I m not a Guardian. I know. Verchiel s hands fluttered faster. We know. We don t expect you to protect her in any other way, just to keep... Her voice trailed off. I am not a Guardian, he repeated. He turned his back on her and glared at the row of books, but their titles had become a meaningless jumble of letters. We know that. Then you shouldn t be asking. Verchiel muttered something that sounded like I know that, too, but when Aramael glanced over his shoulder, she had closed her eyes and begun massaging her temple. He regarded her, toying with the idea of asking her to repeat herself, but decided to let it go. Whatever she d said had no bearing on a conversation he would prefer not to be having in the first place. A conversation he now considered finished. He turned his attention to the bookshelf once more. She didn t leave. Long seconds crawled by. Aramael s impatience surged and he rounded on the Dominion. I don t know why this woman is so important to you, Verchiel, and I won t even pretend to care. But I will not be sent on another hunt right now. Especially one where I have to act without explanation, I might add as a Guardian! Now, if you don t mind

123 SINS OF THE ANGELS 119 She s Nephilim. Aramael almost choked on the rest of his outburst as it backed up in his throat. He stared at the Dominion. She s what? Nephilim. The bloodline is very faint at this point, of course, but He held up a hand, cutting off her words. Narrowed his eyes. Clarified, You want me to act as guardian to a Grigori descendant. The Dominion slid her hands back into the folds of her robe. She nodded. Aramael left the bookshelves and began pacing the room s perimeter. His mind raced. Nephilim. The very name tasted bitter on his tongue, as it would on the tongues of all those who remained loyal to the One. He paused at the window, bracing a hand on either side of the frame, staring out without seeing. Nephilim. Seed of the original Fallen Angels, the Grigori, who were cast from Heaven for interference with the mortals they were to watch over. Reminder of all that had been lost in the ensuing exodus from Heaven, and of the enduring, irreconcilable split that remained between angelkind. And now Mittron wanted one of those reminders protected from one of the fallen? His belly clenched. His fists followed suit. He knew of only one former angel who would target the Nephilim, who could raise the concern of Heaven s administrator, the highest of the Seraphim. It s him, isn t it? He willed Verchiel to acknowledge that he was right without speaking the name. If she didn t say it, if he wasn t named, maybe Aramael might still escape. Deny the hunt. Retain his soul. Verchiel cleared her throat. Yes, she said. Aramael closed his eyes and braced himself, knowing what would come next. It s Caim. Ugliness rose to engulf him, a dark fury as timeless as the One herself. A pulsing, nearly living thing that wanted to consume him, to become him. The harder he fought it, the more he struggled, the more of himself he lost to it. The rage was as familiar to him as it was hated. It was what set him apart set all of the Sixth Choir apart from the others. What made

124 120 Linda Poitevin them Powers. Hunters. Now it had awakened in him and would drive him, relentlessly, until he found the prey that had been named to him. And not just any prey. Caim. No other name could have triggered a wrath of quite this depth; no other Fallen Angel could have aroused this passion. He knew that, and in a blinding flash of clarity, he understood that Verchiel and Mittron had known it, too. More, they had counted on it. Then you ll do it, Verchiel said, her voice seeming to come from a very long way off, hollow and flat. You ll accept the hunt and protect the woman. Aramael wanted to deny it. He wanted with all his being to tell Verchiel that she and the Highest Seraph had misjudged him, that he didn t care in the least about the hunt, and that he cared even less about the woman. But he wanted Caim more. More than anything else in his universe. His voice vibrated with the anger that now owned him. You knew I would. Yes. You promised I would never hunt him again. Verchiel s hands disappeared into the purple folds of her robe with a soft rustle. I know. He wanted to shout at her. To rage and yell, and fling himself around the room. To demand that she release him from the hunt; that she hold to the promise she had made four thousand years before. But it was out of her hands now. She had already inflicted the damage: she had designated his prey, and he had no choice but to complete what had begun, even as his every particle rebelled at the knowledge. Caim had escaped. After all that pain, all that torment, he walked the mortal realm as if none of it had ever happened, as if it had not torn Aramael nearly in half to capture him in the first place and would not destroy him now to do so again. Aramael gritted his teeth until his jaw ached. Then know this, too, Dominion, he snarled. Know that I hate you for what you ve done. Almost as much as I hate him. Almost as much as I hate my own brother.

125 DEAD MANN WALKING A Hessius Mann Novel by Stefan Petrucha A Roc October 2011 Paperback The debut series about a zombie private eye with a dark past. Here in Fort Hammer, the death penalty isn t a deterrent so much as a pastime. The name is, or maybe I should say was, Hessius Mann. I m dead. After I was executed for my wife s murder, suppressed evidence came to light and the verdict was overturned. Lucky me, I was brought back to life, thanks to the miracles of modern science. Not that anyone believes I m innocent. Hell, even I don t, seeing as how I can t remember. Livebloods would rather we zombies be unseen and unheard as well as undead, but now that I ve joined the ranks of Fort Hammer s pulse-challenged, I try to make a living as a private investigator. Not that I get hired often. So, when a lawyer brings me a missing person case and offers a whole lot of cash, I m not inclined to say no. But after a few zombies turn up cut to pieces, I start thinking someone s giving me the run-around and it s not like I m in any condition to make a quick getaway...

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127 Prologue I still dream, but wish the hell I didn t. It s the same one, over and over, in a kind of Technicolor that makes your skin crawl. I m in the suburbs of Fort Hammer. Lenore s there, alive. We have two kids playing out back. I don t know their names. I think it s a boy and a girl. The bell rings. I get a bad feeling about it, voice in the back of my head. But I open the door anyway, because it s silly not to, right? There s a mattress-wide guy on the front step. He s hairless, his rounded shoulders match the curve of his bald head. He s got waxy skin, thick brow and dead eyes. Dead eyes. He doesn t look at me. He looks off to the side, and he waits, like I m the one who s supposed to know what comes next. Telling myself I m crazy for being nervous, I ask, Can I help you, buddy? Now he looks at me, but I can tell he doesn t like it. Not me he doesn t like seeing anyone else s eyes. His thick lips part. He struggles to make some sounds. It s a big effort, frustrating in the extreme. It s making him a little angry to have to try. I feel bad, but I can t make out any words. Sorry, I don t understand. He does it again, makes the sounds, only slower and louder. His bare feet lift a bit as he shifts side to side. I can tell it s the same noises in the same sequence, but that s all. Sorry? He grits his teeth. His muscles tense. I m getting creeped-out

128 124 Stefan Petrucha big time and I m worried that if he smells it on me, my fear will add to his frustration. He repeats himself a third time, but still no go. I twist my head and look past him, hoping there s a neighbor out, someone who might know what this is about, someone I can ask for help. Instead, all over the cul de sac, I see more like him, dozens, like a plague. They re not exactly identical. One s a little shorter, another a little thinner, but they re all the same. There s at least one at the door of each house. I turn back to mine and realize he s been talking all along. Maybe he said it more clearly this last time and I wasn t paying attention. There s nothing I can do about it now, or about what comes next. When I shake my head apologetically, his eyes flare. His thick lips curl into a bestial snarl. He screams the sounds so loud it hurts my ears. I have to take a step back. The others hear him. In unison, they turn toward my house, toward me. They start walking, slowly, like the shadow of a cloud. Panting, he glares at me, wanting for my response. Our eyes meet. He can see my fear. I don t understand! The nearest of the others reaches my lawn. He looks angry, too. They all do. They re growling now. The one at my door steps in. I try to stop him but I can t, he s too big. I fall backwards. Not because he hit me. I fall because I m so afraid. I lie on my back, helpless as they come. I wake up alone. Lenore is still dead. There are no kids, there never were. At least the visitors are gone. The terror stays, though. It s so strong I want to curl into a ball and roll away forever. I try to fight it, distract myself, but part of me knows that sooner or later, it s going to get me. They re going to get me. And make me one of them.

129 1. S ixteen pieces. As soon as I woke up from the nightmare, I headed for the ratty recliner Misty had found at the dump and turned on the set, looking for something to calm myself. And what do I get for my troubles? Sixteen pieces. That s how many chunks the newslady said Colin Wilson was cut into. He was scattered across the desert like bits of burger-wrapping and left-over fries. The cops found them all. Except the head. That s unusual, seeing as how the police don t tend to get involved with Wilson s type no matter how many pieces they re in. Of course the news didn t play it like a murder. To the livebloods, it s more about litter. Lousy so-and-so s always leaving their body parts around, making the living waste their time picking up after to them. The candy blonde anchor shrugged. Must ve been an accident. Wilson s type are always getting into accidents. Cut to deodorant commercial. At times like this, you want to smell nice. Accident my ass. One or two pieces, maybe, and they would have found the head. Seeing as how there s no middle ground between accident and design, that meant something weirder; he was cut up purpose. That s a lot of work. First, you have to get Colin Wilson into a position where he can t disagree, and then you have to do all that cutting. Human bone, too. Probably needed special tools. It s sure as hell not the kind of thing you do on a whim, or

130 126 Stefan Petrucha even out of anger, like the bald men in my dreams. The reasons would have to run dark and deep. And then there was the head. I tried not to think about it, to focus on something else, but I didn t have a lot going on. I stared at my desktop, the stains looking like a faded Jackson Pollack. I tried to make animal shapes out of the Good Will shirts piled on the floor or see a tree in the cracks on the door. I even tried to think about the dream. By the time the news came back on, a late afternoon light, the dying kind, had intruded from the broken window, making the TV hard to see. It didn t help. I couldn t get Colin Wilson s head out of mine, images of it were crawling around my brain like freshly hatched baby spiders. I didn t know Wilson from a punched hole in the wall, but I kept seeing his severed head in some coyote s mouth, an eye socket pinched between two strong canines, its saliva slapping the skull. Colin s good eye opens and he realizes where he is. Cut to deodorant commercial. It didn t make sense. What would a coyote do with a head? Not much meat on that bone. What really bugged me made less sense: what if Colin Wilson s brain really was still thinking? What if it knew what happened, understood that it was a lot shorter and less mobile than it used to be? Weirder things are true. The official line is that decapitation ends it, but they don t know shit. Calling my memory bad is a compliment, but I do remember the strangest things, like my dream, or how I read somewhere that back when they used the guillotine, a French scientist asked a condemned murderer to blink twenty times after his execution, if he could. He did. When the scientist called his name, the head opened its eyes and looked at him. True story, true as anything. And that s the living. Wilson wasn t of that persuasion. His functions wouldn t necessarily ever stop. So maybe he s still out there. These days there are so many things worse than death it s not even high on the list. Thousands of years we look for eternal life and what do we get? Fucking zombies. First I ever saw was in Romero s Night of the Living Dead. Scared the crap out of me. These days all I have to do is look in a mirror. Yeah, I m one of those, too. Me, Colin Wilson, a

131 DEAD MANN WALKING 127 hundred thousand or so others. Livebloods call us chakz a mangled version of charqui, or, en ingles, jerky dried meat. If we re still oozing, which is pretty rare, they call us gleets or juicers. Then there are danglers, but I ll leave that definition to the imagination. It s not like the movies. We don t eat human flesh unless we go feral, and then it s more like we ll eat anything. We are tough to destroy, which is why I m so obsessed about that head. Cut off an arm or a leg, shoot us in the chest, we ll keep coming. That begs the question, who bothered giving Colin Wilson such special treatment? If they wanted to make sure he was gone, why not just incinerate him? Burning. Now there s an another great thought, watching your flesh curl until the heat took your eyes away. Brr. With all the love we get, why bring us back? Mostly because some idiots figured out how. Mammalian life is based on cellular metabolism, right? Ten years ago, the boffins at ChemBet s research labs came up with an electro-static something-or-other that keeps cellular metabolism charged permanently. They call it a radical invigoration procedure, RIP for short, ha-ha-ha. RIP a corpse, and hallelujah, the dead have risen! The rich and famous were falling over their adopted third world kids in the rush to bring back their loved ones. The feds gave ChemBet some huge tax breaks so the industry could grow and make the process cheaper. Everyone wanted in. Only, once the thrill died, livebloods started noticing how parts of mom would rot off if she wasn t kept squeaky clean, or how, if you didn t talk to Uncle Stu often enough, he d get all morose, go feral and plant his dentures into the dog or a neighbor s kid. People not only wanted their money back, they wanted the process reversed. That, ChemBet didn t know how to do. Neither did the government. They say decapitation is sure-fire, D-cap, but like I said, I m not so sure. It sounds too much like something a PR flak cut and pasted from a movie script. Point being, people stopped ripping for love, but they couldn t just D-cap grandma, not unless she went feral first. Those early revivals account for about half the chak population. The rest are another story. Me, I was still obsessing about Wilson s head when I finally

132 128 Stefan Petrucha got my distraction. Misty, my assistant, walked in wearing a tight blue number with fishnet stockings. She s a liveblood. Nowadays you can see it by the flush to her face. When we met six months back she was a crack addict, picking through garbage to survive and turning tricks when times got really bad. Things had gone so bad for her, she tried working my neck of the woods, the Bones, but her skin was so full of sores, competition from the chak-whores put her out of business. She was such a little, half-starved thing, I felt bad for her, which is saying something. Not always, but usually, chaks don t feel much, even physical sensations. Oh, sometimes a sock in the jaw still feels like a sock in the jaw, or a nightmare can rock your world, but everything tends to be at arm s distance. Maybe it was her hazel puppydog eyes or the cracked teeth, but feeling for her gives me something to pay attention to. I also figured there were places a liveblood could get to that a dead guy couldn t, so after I got some food in her, we made a deal, she d try to keep clean, I d try to keep from going feral. Our fingers remain crossed. She strutted toward me, modeling a tight blue number with fishnets. It was something new from the thrift store, cleaned so carefully you could only see the outlines of the stains. Aside from the fact she could stand to lose the stockings, she should ve known flirting with me was a waste. When I said she moved me, I didn t mean she moved my groin. Hell, I m afraid to look down there since they brought me back. Officially, chakz don t have a sex drive, arm s distant or otherwise. She meant well, wanted to keep me engaged with my environment, so I didn t get too morose over, oh, I don t know, my entire fucking existence. I appreciated the effort, and she was sort of fun to look at. Trying to play my part, attempted a wolf-whistle, it came out more like a spastic steam kettle. Chakz are bone-dry. I should ve taken a drink first, but the effect doesn t last long and the liquids slosh around inside so much you can never be sure when or where they ll come out. Misty got the idea, though. She winked. Then she flashed a business card. I leaned forward for a closer look. Nice paper, maybe

133 DEAD MANN WALKING 129 even linen. William Turgeon, Esq. No address, just the name, like it was a place all by itself. You find that in the street? She blew a raspberry. No, stupid, he s outside. Wants to see you. Me? Really? He s not lost? Nope. Asked for you by name. Says, is Hessius Mann here? I d like to see him. And he looks like an Esq., too. That s my name. The hand-painted sign on the door says I m a detective. I don t particularly agree with the title, but I keep that to myself. And I do get clients, sometimes among the living. Unfortunately, your average liveblood is about as knowledgeable about chakz as they are about how evolution works, so when one shows up, they usually want me to kill and eat someone they don t like. Then they get all incensed when I say no. Most likely, this was more of the same. On the other hand, it could be a blackmail case, especially with that fancy card. Those re good, but few and far between. See, it s best to tell your hired dick what you re being blackmailed for. Livebloods don t like chakz, but they don t seem to mind telling us everything. Not only are we dead, our memories are so wonky our testimony s not admissible in court. A plus for someone with a secret, a minus for me. When I was alive, my recall was photographic. It was half the reason I had my job. These days, I remember the weirdest crap. The Beatles last album? Abbey Road. They recorded it after Let it Be. My middle name? Your guess is as good as mine. Oh, I can have still have a decent conversation. It s the transition from short to long-term memory that s AWOL. Misty adjusted my jacket and straightened my tie. I felt like a rotting, life-size Ken doll. So, should I send him in? she asked. I held up a gray finger. Keep him busy a minute. Say I m on the phone. There s something I want to do first. Soon as she left, I forgot what it was. The television? I clicked it off. No, something else. Talking head? No. Oh yeah. The head.

134 130 Stefan Petrucha After I was ripped, one of the first things I realized I had to do was buy a little handheld digital recorder, to store all those the details I used to have at my fingertips. Took a week to remember to buy the damn thing. Now I was always losing it. I felt around on the desk, then my body and finally found it in my pants pocket. With a press of the red dot I rattled off what I was thinking about Colin Wilson, for future reference. If I ever remembered that I made the recording, that is. I was finished when the door swung open. Misty held onto the knob, stretching her thin arm across our guest, putting herself in the door frame along with him. She knew he d have to rub against her to come in. Poor Misty, she wasn t very subtle. I understood see why she was interested. His suit cost more than the building. It wasn t his looks. He was big, though not exactly fat. The word I d use is puffy. Unlike Misty, William Turgeon was not a lot of fun to look at, but it was unavoidable because he took up so much space. He was a six footer, rounded, not obese, but his proportions were off. Largish head, squat arms, oversize hands. The clothes helped. The lines of the suit matched his body snug as puzzle pieces, but overall he looked kind of like an over-dressed, overly large baby. As he squeezed past her, she tried to make eye contact, but either he wasn t interested or he was real good at hiding it. She gave me a No-playing-Pretty-Woman-today shrug and made herself scarce. It was late and my office didn t get much light to begin with. The room was dark enough for his Stetson to keep most of his features in shadow. I could see the whites of his eyes, but that was about it. What I could see of those pupils were all over me. He was checking me out for something: what I didn t know. Hessius Mann? he said. It was an even voice, not unfriendly, but high-pitched. On the phone I might think he was a woman. I stood and caught a glimpse of my bony self reflected in the window. The suit was decent, but something stuck up from the top of my head. Hoping it was hair and not a piece of scalp, I nodded a greeting. I didn t bother putting out my hand. Livebloods don t like to touch us.

135 DEAD MANN WALKING 131 What can I do for you, Mr. Turgeon? He took of his hat and planted himself in the smaller chair in front of my desk. The old wood creaked so loudly it may as well have been a fart, but it didn t collapse. A good look at his face did nothing to deter my impression of him as a giant baby. His head was a series of puffy ovals, fat little egg shapes. One oval for the skull, two for the eyes, another two for the nostrils, and a big one for the thin-lipped mouth. As for his hair, well, he should have kept the hat on. It was braided in tight cornrows. Not the fashion choice I d have made. You used to work for the police? he asked. He d done his homework. I didn t like talking about my past, but Turgeon looked like he had money and I wanted some. Yeah. It s no secret. Until you were accused of beating your wife to death after discovering she d had an affair with the chief detective, Thomas Booth? Nobody likes a show-off. Some things have emotional resonance even with a chak. That, for instance. Really strong feelings are physically uncomfortable for us, like forcing too much water through a thin, cracked tube. We don t like it. What s this about, Mr. Turgeon? He narrowed his egg-eyes. You can be offended. You re higher functioning than most. You re pretty high functioning yourself, for a liveblood. I m sorry. I need to be sure who I m working with. The apology surprised me. We don t usually get that. It made me relax, but just a little. Let me clear something up for you right now. I don t kill and eat people. The puffy lines under his chin wobbled as he shook his head. It s nothing like that. I have a touchy situation to resolve. I have to trust you first, though. May I ask another personal question? Try it and see how it goes. The chair creaked loudly as he shifted. At work one day you received an with a photo showing your wife, Lenore, engaged in coitus with your boss. He looked as if he were going to giggle when he said coitus.

136 132 Stefan Petrucha This time, I wasn t aware of having an emotional reaction, but my body disagreed. My knee started twitching. You put your fist through the wall, he went on, then raced home. Your boss, concerned, followed with some men. They found you hovering over your dead wife. She d been beaten with your baseball bat. You claimed you found her that way but no one believed you; you were known for having a temper. You were found guilty and executed. Point of pride, desire for the job, whatever, I struggled not to react, but my knee just wasn t doing it for me anymore. Fucking memory. It never rains, but it pours. Fractured images, burning pricks, stabbed my brain; the color photo of Lenore and Booth together, the side of her enraptured face making a shadow on the nape of his neck, the feel of plasterboard buckling against my knuckles, the twisted, almost clownish look of surprise on Booth s face as he bursts into our kitchen and sees all the blood. Then a blur. The next clear sensation was my execution, the needle sliding into my arm, fishing for a vein, the sense of relief that it was all over. But it wasn t. Next thing, it s a few month later and I m staring at the herpes sore on the lower lip of a chain smoker. He s giving me my ten minute exit interview, explaining how I was one of the lucky ones. A gravediggers strike left me on ice, refrigerated for three months. Between thick wet coughs he says that with the right makeup, if I kept the lights low, I d almost pass for a liveblood. Never tried it. Kept forgetting. He hands me my wallet and the little green vial I had in my pocket when I was arrested. Inside the wallet s sixteen bucks and two condoms. Lenore and I had been trying to have a kid, but when I didn t get a raise, she decided to wait. Now our only children are in dreams, and I can t even protect them there. The flashbacks retreated. Turgeon was still talking in his high sweet voice. Your fellow detectives were so eager to convict you, some DNA evidence was kept hidden from the defense. Between that and irregularities in your arrest and trial, you were exonerated and restored. Most people still think you re guilty. He paused. His eyes flared as if he felt guilty about dragging all

137 DEAD MANN WALKING 133 this up, but he didn t say anything else. I figured that meant it was my move. Is there a question in there? He rubbed the rim of his hat. Well... did you do it? I leaned back and twisted my head. Something in my neck cracked. I hoped it wasn t bone. I ll answer you, but first, I like to know who I m working with, too. Turgeon pulled out an envelope and tossed it on the desk. It slid a little before coming to a halt against a crack in the veneer. I didn t have to pick it up to see it was stuffed with hundreds. Decent amount for a liveblood detective. For a chak? A fortune. I don t know what sort of cases you usually get, but I m certain this isn t one of them. Your police background makes you perfect for what I need. I don t care if you lied to the jury, but I can t take the risk that you d lie to me. He moved his shoulders in what seemed an apologetic fashion, then lowered his voice to a boyish hush. So, did you kill your wife? Honestly? I told him. I don t remember. In the court transcripts you say you were innocent. Do they? I ve read them a few dozen times, but a chakz memory, right? I get flashes, but the actual moment? A total blank. That s why I never went looking for her real killer. I m afraid I ll find out it s me. He zeroed in on my eyes. Like that would help. Idiot, you can t read chak eyes. It s like watching someone zoned in front of a TV or vid game? They don t call it a zombie-look for nothing. You can t tell a thing by looking at our eyes or our faces. I met his gaze, nice and steady, but it was like that lame wolf-whistle I gave Misty, going through the paces out of politeness... acting, like a friend of mine says, as if. Turgeon s eyes were a weird baby-blue, the color so consistent he must have been wearing contacts. Funny thing to be vain about, but beauty s in the eye of the beholder. Finally, he said, I believe you, as if we were in his no-girlsallowed tree-house, making some kind of pact. A man of many pockets, he pulled a photo from one. It was a head-shot, posed, showing a square-headed forty year old with close-cropped curly hair, a few lines on his face and a decent smile.

138 134 Stefan Petrucha The top button of his blue shirt was loose, the collar not completely ironed, so whoever he was, he wasn t anal. Into himself enough to pose for a headshot, though. Frank Boyle, Turgeon said. His father, Martin, was a close friend of my firm s founder, Mr. Trent Derby. Martin Boyle passed away last week from lung cancer and left all his money, a considerable sum, to his eldest son. I have to find him and let him know about his inheritance. It was starting to make sense. Let me guess. Frank s a chak, right? On the streets somewhere, no known address? Turgeon nodded. Exactly. Even so, why hire me? Why not a liveblood, or go to the cops? He rubbed his hat again. It s complicated. He has a living brother and sister who are both contesting the will. They re people of influence who wouldn t think much of... getting rid of a chak to preserve their fortune. Mr. Derby is concerned that they may have already reached out to the local police and any real... uh, liveblood detective in the area. Sorry, no offense. None taken. I get your point. They d never hire a chak, right? I drummed my fingers on the envelope and tried to look as if I was thinking about it. You re leaving out the other complication. Frank might be feral. Turgeon made a funny little swallowing sound. Naturally, that is a concern. Natural s got nothing to do with it. I laid my palm on the envelope. I get paid whether he is or not, long as I find him for you before the sinister siblings? He nodded at the money as if embarrassed it was too little. That s for accepting the job. I ll pay the same if you find him first, feral or not. Time is of the utmost. You have to start now. I need... I... expect immediate action. They can t be allowed to find him first. For my first immediate action, I flipped through the bills. It was more than I d guessed. I looked up into Turgeon s eyes, trying to suss him out. Mostly he looked nervous, which pretty much matched his story. I picked up the envelope. I started to put it in my jacket pocket,

139 DEAD MANN WALKING 135 forgetting there was a tear in the bottom. Before it fell into the lining I pulled it out and shoved it into the top desk drawer, trying to make it look like that had been the idea all along. The drawer stuck. I cursed curse under my breath until I got it closed. You ll take the case? Egg-man asked. Hey, you re the egg-man. Goo goo g joob, I said. I don t think he got the joke.

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