I’ve come a long way…

I wrote my first novel in 9th grade, and for those keeping track, it was 1998. Yeah… I feel old now. It was called Revelations.

I don’t even remember how long it was, but I do remember I wrote it as this sort of screenplay-esque thing, which was little more than dialog with basic description and action tags.

After that, I wrote a bunch of ridiculously bad fanfiction, but I fancied myself a writer because I could use words like reverberate.

A year later in 1999, instead of partying like it was said year, I rewrote the screenplay as an actual book and hit something like 25k words. It was bad. Terribad.

I then started working on this sort of sweeping space epic fantasy. Even though the only science fiction I had been exposed to was Star Wars.

I wrote about 5k, maybe? I’m not sure, but I stopped because we had to write an origin myth for my Sophomore English class. I remember writing the myth, creating two pantheons that warred over something or another.

I turned it in and my teacher commented that it seemed like I was one of the few students who had even read the creation myth the assignment was based on. I still have no idea what myth she was referring to because I wasn’t exactly the most motivated high school student. I still feel guilty about this from time to time.

When I inexplicably became a junior, I decided to write a sidestory to the original Revelations story. It made it to a whopping 811 words (I looked it up.) The reason it made it only that far was because I had envisioned this three story trilogy for Revelations. This was because, you know, Star Wars was a trilogy. Writing a side story made no sense, at least until the original three books were written.

I wound up writing the second story that year and the third my senior year. They are both horrible, but not that horrible, considering I was eighteen.  I still have flashbacks to this scene where one of the MCs is fighting the Norse deity Fenris in the snow.

I graduated high school and started college. I also took this time to write about 5k of an actual swords and sorcery epic fantasy that was, in words, very bad.

I got worried I’d never be a writer at this time because of one teensy weensy fact. My stories weren’t very good. How could I become an awesome writer if my stories were no good?

In 2003, I went back to starting stuff and never finishing, mostly writing stories about a murderer named Donovan and a boy named Joshua. These… are not bad.

I got a little better and began rewriting the third of my novels, greatly expanding on it. Why? Because of the three, it was the best, and required less work.

It was a fool’s errand though because while I learned a lot from this process, I learned something else. No one is going to read book 3 first. LOL

I decided to bite the bullet in 2004 and rewrite the first book again. I added a llama as a character and because of that, called the draft Revelations llama. This story was the first one I actually showed people. Yes mom, it’s the ones where the kids fly over my high school.

In 2005, I got into fanfiction and wrote 850,000 words or more of that stuff. I’ve talked about this before, I think. Part way into this, I decided to redo my first story and worked on it until it hit something like 42k. This was a big deal for me because it was the longest cohesive story, I’d written.

My wife, who wasn’t my wife then, actually read this story in November of that year. She claims it isn’t terrible, but she has to say that.

I put everything aside then and worked on the first Dirge novel for over a year, until 2007. I gave up because it was just too bad. I still read this and cringe.

I wrote what would be the basis for Hatter is Mad next before scrapping it as unusable and wrote Kill it with Magic, hitting a whopping 55k on the rough draft. I wrote and rewrote this and in 2011 joined a critique group that tore me asunder.  The book wound up at 67k despite me deleting seven chapters.

So what did I do? I put the damn book in a drawer after 150 plus rejections. I kept a spreadsheet. It was a little frustrating because of those 150 rejections only two agents even asked for pages. Evidently, I suck at writing query letters.

During this time, I decided to write Hatter is Mad. I took all the flashbacks from the pre-Kill it with Magic book and incorporated them into Hatter is Mad. I also wrote about 5k of Fairy Tale and 10k of Abby Banks.

Then I got distracted for a year because of, you know, work and life. It didn’t pan out, and I realized something. It was the end of 2013, and I hadn’t written a word in over a year.

2014 came and I dusted off Kill it with Magic and began revising, finding two awesome critique partners to help me. I picked this story because it was the most promising.

And by September 2014 it was released.

Cue to now, well not now, but like Mayish. I picked up that first Revelations novel and read it. I decided, “Hey, I’m a lot freaking better now. I can make this work.” I rewrote it three times until it made my eyes bleed. I deleted a ton of chapters and rewrote basically everything else. I solidified the mythology of the book and found it much more cohesive after I did so.

I guess all this is to say, I just sent my first novel ever to my editor, and I’m scared to death it’s terrible. But, assuming it’s not, you’ll be able to buy Death’s Mantle: The First Revelation in August.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 1

I just got my Jet Novella, My Brother’s Keeper, back from the line editor and thought I’d let you all take a peek at the first chapter. It’s a lot different than my normal stuff since it is not supernatural and has an adult protagonist. I still think you’ll enjoy it, and if you don’t, it won’t make me cry… much.

**

Chapter 1

“You never forget the first time you kill a man with a waffle iron,” Enrique Ramos said as he flung the metal appliance onto the floor, splattering blood and thicker bits across the dirty cement. “So you keep trying to relive the feeling over and over again, but somehow, you can never quite recapture the magic of your first time.”

He smirked at Rudy and stepped over the broken, bashed in corpse, careful to avoid getting blood on the soles of his Italian loafers as he moved toward the bar spread out along the entirety of the La Cabana de Cabana’s left wall.

“You’ve seen how I deal with messengers,” Enrique added as he reached across the polished obsidian surface and swiped a dishrag from the counter on the other side. He wiped his hands, smearing pink goo on the tattered fabric before tossing it casually into the sink and unrolling his pristine white shirtsleeves. “You have twenty four hours to find my drugs, Rudy.” He grinned, his golden front tooth glinting in the sunlight streaming through the bar’s big open window as he finished fastening the buttons on his cuff and tapped one finger against Rudy’s passport. “Are we clear?”

Rudy nodded, his shaggy black hair falling down over his green eyes, concealing them from view. He swallowed, unsure of whether or not he trusted himself to say anything as he stared at the corpse on the ground.

“Crystal clear, sir,” Rudy replied, the words empty and hollow in his mouth as he turned woodenly and moved toward the bar’s exit. Despite the sunlight shining through the big plate-glass window in the front, and the near hundred degree temperature, the room felt dark and cold.

He glanced around at the pictures of cowboys and movie stars clinging to the dark wooden walls of La Cabana de Cabana, and swallowed. All of their eyes trained on him, studying him, judging him.

Rudy looked back at the stained floor in front of his feet and took a deep breath, trying desperately to ignore the truth hanging over him. If he couldn’t find the drugs, he was as good as dead. Only— only he had no idea how to find them. They were only supposed to pick them up and deliver them to La Cabana de Cabana, but their contact never showed up… How was he going to track down someone he had never met before?

“Good,” Enrique said, ice cubes clinking in his glass. “Normally, I’d make you dispose of your friend to teach you a lesson, but I’m feeling particularly lenient today. Besides, there’s no point in teaching something to someone you might kill tomorrow.” He took a long swallow. “If you’re still alive next week, maybe I’ll teach you a thing or two.”

Rudy stiffened, half expecting a bullet to the back of the head anyway, but as he pushed open the heavy wooden door, none came. “Thank you, sir,” Rudy whispered, though he wasn’t sure if Enrique heard him or if he had even spoken aloud.

He bit his lip and stepped outside. The sunlight hit his eyes, forcing him to squint and raise his hand to shade his face. He never should have come here, never should have agreed to help Marco collect the drugs from his contact. Why had he gone along with it? Because he had no choice. Marco had ensured that.

He paused, playing the conversation over in his head, trying one last time to make sense of what had happened.

“The job will be easy,” Marco had said as they lounged on the beach in Kingston, Jamaica, beer bottles in hand.

“It sounds dangerous,” Rudy replied, draining his Red Stripe in two gulps and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “We’re supposed to be on vacation. You know, one last spring break hurrah before college ends. We’re supposed to be getting wasted and scoring with loose women, not running drugs.”

“It’s easy. I did it last time I was here. All we have to do is show up, pick up the package and drop it off somewhere else. We’re tourists, and this place depends on tourism to survive. No one is going to mess with us.” Marco smiled his ‘trust me’ smile and waved one hand dismissively. “Come on, where’s your sense of adventure?”

“That’s what every single person who ever got shot in a dark alley told himself,” Rudy replied, shaking his head as he reached into the ice chest for another beer. “There’s no way I’m going to risk it. I’ll wait for you right here.” He popped the top off the beer bottle and gestured at Marco with it before putting it to his lips.

Macro frowned and rubbed his ruddy face with one hand. “Look, I already set it up. Enrique needed two guys, so you have to come.” Marco stared sheepishly into the surf, and a horrible feeling snaked its way around Rudy’s gut, twisting his insides into a knot.

“I’m not doing this,” Rudy replied, gripping the bottle so hard his knuckles turned white from the strain. “It’s a bad idea.”

“Rudy, I already gave Enrique your passport as insurance. If you don’t come with me, I won’t be able to complete the job by myself, and you won’t be able to get back home.” Marco wasn’t looking at him as he said the words, but the truth of them was clear. Marco had screwed him. Bigtime.

Rudy’s stomach sank into his toes as he leapt to his feet, flinging the beer bottle at his ‘friend.’ “Are you out of your damn mind?” Rudy clenched his hands into fists and took a menacing step toward Marco. “You stole my passport and gave it to a damn drug dealer?”

“I need the money, man. Not all of us are trust fund kids and college is expensive…” Marco threw his hands up, palms out in surrender. “It’ll be easy, I promise… I’ve done it a hundred times.” Only it wasn’t easy because the guy with the dope never showed up…

Rudy shook the memory away as one of the guys sitting at the tables outside La Cabana de Cabana looked him up and down with hungry, animal eyes.

“Hey, come over here and play with us,” the guy called, patting his thigh. “I like surfer boys.” He grinned, showing a metal-filled smile that gleamed in the bright light like a mouthful of knives.

Rudy swallowed, a chill crawling down the back of his spine despite the heat. The others turned toward him, looking him up and down. Prison tattoos covered their bare arms and most of them had the same sadistic look to them. The kind that reminded Rudy of reality television shows about hardened criminals.

“Don’t you hear me?” the man called, setting his rum bottle down on the table with a thump. The amber liquid inside sloshed up the sides before settling down into the bottom third of the container.

Rudy looked away and stared at his shoes, wondering if ignoring them would make them go away or piss them off more. He forced himself to take a deep breath. He took one step off the porch and into the blinding Jamaican sunlight. As it seared into his flesh, he wondered what had happened to his hat. Had he left it somewhere? He was pretty sure he’d had it when they went to the failed deal…

“Don’t worry, Mack, once the kid comes back empty handed, Enrique will let you have your way with him.” Another voice spoke, and Rudy tried to force his knees not to shake as he took another step, trying to get away without running. He did not want to become prey. People like this chased prey…

“He’s disrespecting me,” the first guy, Mack, replied. “I don’t have to take that from some kid.”

Behind him, a chair scraped against the floor as someone got to his feet with a grunt and people began shuffling around.

Rudy took off running, his sandals slapping against the broken asphalt street. He ran until his breath fled him, past that point even. He sprinted until his heart felt like it would burst from his chest. After what seemed like forever, but not nearly long enough at the same time, he stopped. He gripped his knees with his hands and sucked a super-heated breath into his lungs as he looked around warily.

Thankfully, no one was around. At least, no one who looked like he wanted to do horrible things to him. He took another deep breath and forced himself to be calm. He stood and shoved his hands in the pockets of his board shorts and walked as casually as possible to his hotel room. How was he was going to be able to find the drugs on his own? He was a rich kid from the suburbs, not some kind of detective.

No… the safer option was to run. He needed to get away, but how? He had no ID, no way of getting on a plane home. Hell, he didn’t even have anyone to call… unless…

“She did say to call if I needed anything,” he whispered to himself as he fished out his phone and thumbed through the contacts until he found the one for his sister. “This counts as an anything, doesn’t it?”

If he called his sister, she’d help him. She said she did this kind of stuff all the time. Sure, they hadn’t talked in a while, but that shouldn’t matter, they were family, right?

She’d help him, wouldn’t she?

Sidetracked

I was supposed to do things this month that I have not done. I blame me, mostly. See, I had this plan for finishing Death’s Mantle, writing a Lillim prequel, and starting on All Wrapped Up (Thes book #2).

Then Russell Blake had to go and announce the Jet Kindle World opening up at the end of July, and I thought to myself, what the hell, I might as well try and be a launch author. So I spent all the time I would have spent writing the Lillim prequel, writing my novella for the Jet Kindle world. It’s with the editor now for line editing and came in just shy of 30k words. Once I get it back from her, I’ll go ahead and post the first chapter.

Trust me. It’s awesome. Easily the best piece of fanfiction ever written… by me.

I also got through the first draft of Death’s Mantle and am working on the second draft. I think this will need three drafts before it goes out to the editor. The scary thing is, this book releases in August, and I’m still trying to get a cover done. We’re on version 4 now…

August is really close when you consider my editor hasn’t even seen the book… Ugh…

I just don’t see how I’m going to find the time to write the Lillim prequel, Wardbreaker, and the outline I have is jam packed with awesomeness. I’ll have to push back something if I want to do it. Unfortunately, the next two books on the agenda are the All Wrapped Up and Abby 3, Spy for the Spiers.

Decisions.

Marketing and Growth

I’ve been studying marketing for the last few weeks. You know, trying to figure out a way to increase the sale of my books. This isn’t to say I’m upset with my current sales. I’m ecstatic anyone wants to buy my books. In fact, I just hit 700 books sold on Amazon yesterday. Not too shabby when you consider I have no idea what I’m doing.

But I thought to myself, “hey self, you know what would be awesome? Selling MORE books.” Thus I began studying book marketing. Saying this makes it seem like I did no research beforehand, but that isn’t the case. I had a lot of the general principles correct, but I was sort of failing at the details, which if you know me at all, seems about right…

Thus, I began what I like to call a three pronged approach to jumpstarting my book marketing knowledge.

I started out by picking up a book called Launch by Jeff Walker. For those of you who do not know, he’s one of the pioneers of email marketing. He does sell a premium video course or something for a bazillion dollars, but I have no inclination to pay for something like that… yet.

Anyway, the book basically details email strategies to use for marketing a product, and honestly, it’s really good.

Following that, I picked up Nick Stephenson’s two books, Reader Magnets and Supercharge. Both were pretty good and provided me more specific information regarding keywords and the like.

I also signed up for Mark Dawson’s free online facebook video course and Nick Stephenson’s free 10k reader course mostly because they were both free and highly recommended by other authors who were selling way better than me. There is a lot of valuable information for book marketing in those two videos, and I’d encourage you to spend the couple hours (total) watching them if you want to sell books. Unless you’re awesome and caught lightning in a bottle. If you are, I want to be you.

You know what’s nuts? After reading Launch, I can actually see the specific moves used in both of those video courses to pivot into selling their premium courses. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s just interesting.

My third prong was to sign up for a bunch of other author’s newsletters, just to see what they were doing. I picked about six or seven and watched. It was interesting because they were mostly all doing the same thing.

So what did I do? I copied them… And I had my best month ever last month. To put this in perspective, let me show some numbers.

In February 2015, I had my second “major promotion” for Kill it With Magic to coincide with the release of the third Lillim book, Fairy Tale. It was, by far, my best month for a while because I moved 163 copies of my books on Amazon.

In April 2015, I ran my third major promotion of Kill it with Magic, because I set the book to free. I also ran free promotions on Hatter and Alone in the Dark. I also ran a major promotion for May Contain Spies. This led to a month where I moved 129 copies on Amazon. I moved another 30 or so on all other vendors. (Kobo, B&N, Apple, Google)

In May 2015, I put all my books back in Amazon select. I made a post about it. I ran no promotions this month. All I did was email my reader list like how Jeff Walker suggested I do it in Launch instead of the way I had been doing it. You know what? I moved 194 copies that month… with no promotions. And on top of that because there were no promotions, I moved books at full price. I wound up making over $300 that month on just Amazon.

Considering my best month before that was about $150, I’d say it was pretty freaking awesome. I remember talking to my wife and saying,”I might break $200 this month.” Then, just a few days later, saying, “Actually, I may break $300!”

Now, I know I’m not moving the copies like some of the people you hear about in the news, nor am I making enough money to do very much with, but wow, it felt pretty good to release a book to more than crickets.

I think one of the major differences was I began actively trying to build my email list in April using Mark Dawson’s method. I went from around 10 names (most of whom were my family members, I love you guys) to about 50 names in April. Right now, I have a hundred names on it. I knew everyone said the list was powerful, but it’s hard for it to be powerful when there’s no one on it.

I can’t even imagine what would happen if I got a thousand names on it, which at this rate, will happen in around January. Maybe sooner since growth seems to follow some kind of exponential curve I’m unable to calculate exactly. It seems to grow by about 20-30% per month per book… but there’s a lot of extraneous data I need to figure out still.

Still, all of this makes me really excited for the Under Wraps release.

Now, this isn’t to say I haven’t been marketing at the expense of writing books. I have 9 titles out now and two more on preorder. I’ll get another probably 8 out before the end of the year. It’s been a lot of work thus far and mostly depressing at that. It’s especially frustrating to spend every afternoon, weekend, and morning writing books only a handful of people are buying. (Which yes, is still amazingly better than no one buying them, though I know what that feels like too. I’ll take low sales to no sales any day of the week.)

This month, I’ve been focusing on optimizing my books keywords and sales page on Amazon using Nick Stephenson’s methods.

I’ll leave you with my data since I started in September 2014.

 

Month Year Total books (-free-promo) Total books (+promo) Release
Sep 2014 24 Kill it with Magic
Oct 2014 10
Nov 2014 5
Dec 2014 12 63
Jan 2015 28 Hatter is Mad, Alone in the Dark
Feb 2015 39 163 Fairy Tale
Mar 2015 52 Pursuit, Lillim 1-3 set
April 2015 71 129 May Contain Spies
May 2015 194 Caleb 1, Hardboiled

 

The Spy Within – Chapter 1

Just got Abby 2 back from the editor. She must have worked double-time. Anyway, in honor of that, here is the first chapter. Enjoy!

**

Chapter 1

Stephen kissed me like it was the last time he’d ever get to do it. He mashed his lips against mine, pressing my body against the passenger door of our beat up Ford as his hand slid around my waist, unbuckling my seatbelt and pulling me against him. His touch was like fire on my skin as his fingers trailed upward along my spine.

“Come on, Abby,” he whispered against my lips, his voice sending little tingles rippling across my flesh. “Let’s just go…”

“We need supplies,” I whispered back. Pushing him away was very nearly the hardest thing I’d ever done. My other hand slid to the door handle. “I’ll be quick…” I opened the door and shuffled out into the convenience store parking lot, my knees still shaking.

I threw one last glance at him. He was staring at me, and I had to tear my eyes away before his sapphire gaze pulled me back into the vehicle like a tractor beam. That wouldn’t do either of us any good because we were out of food. I steeled myself and turned back toward the store’s glass doors.

The lights flickered as I entered, and a chill scampered down my back. One quick look around the Ye Olde Kwik E Mart was enough to tell me there was no one else in here but the clerk. Still, the lights had given me the creeps. Stephen and I had been running for the better part of a week, and this was the first time I’d ventured into a place inhabited by, you know, people. Not that the clerk really counted as a person since he was way more interested in his cellphone than me. Which was good, I didn’t need him taking any special interest in me.

The lights flickered again, and I pulled my baseball cap down so it covered more of my face. I scanned the aisles one last time and had to force myself to calm down. Man, my nerves were really on edge.

“Get a grip, Abby,” I whispered, turning toward the glass refrigerators in the back and nearly leaping out of my skin. The reflection of Donovan’s leering face stared back at me through the glass. He was wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans, and like usual, he was covered in blood that leaked perpetually from the hole in his head.

“Hello, Abby,” he said. His words were like white fog on the glass, cold and unforgiving. “Miss me?”

I swallowed, shut my eyes, and counted to five in my head. Yeah, ever since I’d shot him, no… murdered him in cold blood, he’d been haunting me. At first, it made me hate him more, but since I had killed him, I was pretty sure this was my penance. Besides, did I really want to be the kind of girl who could kill without it bothering her?

When I opened my eyes, Donovan was gone. His ghostly specter had vanished like it’d never been there at all. Which, of course, it hadn’t been because I was a crazy person…

The glass door loomed in front of me like a frosty gate. I grabbed it by the black plastic handle and pulled it open. A blast of chilly air licked my skin as I reached in and seized a jug of orange juice that said ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ on it. For some reason, it sounded a lot better than the one proudly displaying it was “made from real juice.”

Why was I getting juice? Stephen still wasn’t feeling well after getting shot, which I guess was understandable. Orange juice was supposed to help with infections, right? Or was that just colds? Either way, he was drinking the damn juice. Besides, who knew when we’d be able to get some again?

I let out a slow breath and nearly leapt out of my skin when the clerk’s cellphone rang to the tune of Mandy by Barry Manilow. My heart hammered in my chest as I stared at the freckled, red-haired teenager as he tapped frantically at the device. Well, that was certainly an odd tune for someone my age…

I took another breath and made my way down the aisle, piling all sorts of junk food into my cloth bag. I didn’t want to risk using one of their baskets. It could have nano-machines embedded in the plastic that could track my location. Yeah, that was a thing. It was lame.

See, I was on the run from a powerful government agency. Apparently, when you steal helicopters from the government, they track you down. No. Matter. What.

So because I was paranoid about being found, I was using a lime green knapsack I’d purchased from a pot-smoking hippy a few days ago in a different state. He had been prattling on about aliens and government conspiracies so I figured his bag would be government tech free. Then again, I’d been wrong a lot since I found out my entire life was one big lie.

I turned back to the clerk as he put his phone down, green eyes strangely glassy. He wasn’t very tall, maybe five-foot-eight and built like a beanpole. I reached out to grab a candy bar still not taking my eyes off of him.

“Run!” Donovan’s voice mouse-whispered in my ear. “Run away! Now, Abby!”

The clerk reached down below the counter, his movements jerky and forced. I’m not sure what he was going to grab because I dropped my bag and sprinted back down the aisle. Which was dumb because the exit was in the opposite direction.

Should I have run for the exit doors? I guess so, but my first instinct was to create as much distance as possible between us. The lights flickered again. Only this time when they came back on, every fluorescent bulb in the ceiling shattered. Glass rained down around me as I dropped to the floor, covering my head and neck with my hands so that, hopefully, I wouldn’t be cut to ribbons.

The refrigerators behind me exploded in a blue fireball of flame and arcing electricity that pelted me with beer and soda. I threw myself down the nearest aisle, landing hard on my shoulders and rolling to my feet facing the busted freezers as acrid black smoke filled the air and pooled against the ceiling. The smell, like burning ozone filled my nostrils as Donovan’s ghostly form pointed behind me.

“Watch out.”

I spun just in time for the clerk’s shotgun fill my vision. I dropped as the gun went off, the sound exploded in my brain, blasting my hearing into a tiny pinprick of sound. Buckshot pinged off the back wall as my left elbow shot out, smashing into the twerp’s crotch. Only he didn’t budge, didn’t even act like it hurt. Instead, he cocked the gun and moved to point it at me. I popped to my feet, using the forced to drive my shoulder into his wrists.

The gun fired again, tearing a hole in the ceiling above our head as I slammed my forehead down into the clerk’s nose. His head whipped back in a spray of blood, but he didn’t lose his hold on the weapon. Hell, he didn’t even wobble, at least not like everything inside me told me he should have. He swung the gun at my head. It came so fast, I barely had time to dodge it. The super-heated metal skimmed by me so closely I could feel the warmth of it on my skin.

“Abigail de la Mancha,” the clerk said in a voice that seemed too robotic to be human. “You must turn yourself over to me.”

“Not happening, Beanpole,” I said, taking the opportunity to drive my foot into his chest. The blow caught him off guard. It was sort of like he didn’t expect me to fight back. That was crazy, right?

He fell backward, smashing a Chester the Cheetah display and spilling cheesy goodness all over the cheap tile. I leapt over him, hitting the floor hard just a few inches past his head, scooped up my treat-filled bag and high-tailed it toward the exit. Okay, yeah it was stealing, but he had just tried to kill me. Some stolen candy was the least of his problems.

I spun at the end of the aisle, my feet skidding on the linoleum as I crashed into the glass doors. They didn’t open. Why didn’t they open? I barely had the time to contemplate it when the ominous sound of a shotgun cocking another shell into place filled my ears.

Brake lights filled my vision. Everything seemed to slow down, distilling down to a single moment. I threw myself to the side as the backend of a 1980s Ford pickup that was mostly made from primer and rust burst through the double doors. I scrunched myself into a ball as glass rained down inside the tiny space for the second time in as many minutes. The truck fishtailed, cleaving through the register and throwing cigarettes and alcohol bottles to the floor.

I glanced over my shoulder to see the clerk lying sprawled and broken on the floor. But somehow, he was still trying to shoot me. Even though his leg was bent the wrong way and a shard of glass the size of a tennis racket was lodged in his chest. Blood gushed out of him, spreading out around his purposefully moving body as he tried to bring the shotgun up to bear. Shouldn’t he have been screaming or futzing with the wound? What kind of person could still try to kill me as his life spilled away onto the floor?

Stephen threw the Ford’s door open just as the shotgun went off, and the sound of buckshot pinging off the metal filled my ears and made my heart leap into my throat. That had been close.

“Abby! Get in!” he cried, gesturing for me to move it. He threw the truck into reverse and stomped on the gas pedal as I scrambled to my feet. The wheels spun, spitting potato chips and magazine covers into the air as the tailgate destroyed a cardboard model who, despite the bag in her hand, had never eaten a potato chip in her life. The Ford lurched forward with a jerk that practically shook the frame from the vehicle.

I sprinted toward it, throwing myself into the bed as another shotgun blast obliterated the truck’s back window. Bits of safety glass rained down on me as we hit the broken glass doors and skidded across the pavement in a turn that threw me against the inner wall of the truck.

My breath whooshed out. My shoulder screamed in pain. The tires squealed so loud it was hard to hear over them. The smell of burning rubber filled my nose. I ignored it and tried to claw my way forward. I grabbed hold of the side wall, clinging to it as the truck burst forward in a cloud of black smoke, weaving into traffic amidst a chorus of horn blasts.

I brushed away the glass clinging to the back window frame with the arm of my sweat shirt and threw myself through the broken window. I landed on the glass covered seat and scurried into a sitting position, ignoring the safety glass beneath my jeans.

“Did you get the juice?” Stephen asked, throwing me a smile that would have been cute if his face wasn’t sunken and pale. He was bleeding from a wound on his side, fluid seeping through his blue Hawaiian shirt, staining it.

“Yes, but it’s in the back,” I replied, buckling my seat belt so I wouldn’t get thrown through the windshield if something else happened. I wasn’t sure how long we were going to be in the truck because it was too hot to keep now.

“You had one job, Abby.” He shook his head, and the motion made him wince. “Get juice.”

“It’s in the back,” I muttered, glancing over my shoulder toward the Kwik E Mart, but it was too far in the distance for me to see much of anything. “What the hell was that, Stephen? I find it hard to believe your agency has pimple-faced agents in far flung rest stops just to track me.”

“You’d be surprised,” he replied, his face settling into a grim line as he stared out the windshield. “We’ll need a new car.”

“I know that. Stop avoiding the question,” I snapped. “I was almost shot full of holes by a clerk who didn’t even care he was dying.” I took a deep breath. “And you’re bleeding. You probably tore out all your stitches… again. Just tell me what it was.” I resisted the urge to add “unlike last time” because the truth was Stephen had so many secrets, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to tell me everything. At least not right now, not all at once. “Besides, is a bit of 411 on our attacker too much to ask for?”

“I really hope that wasn’t what I think it was.” Stephen looked at me even though he should have been watching the road. His lips trembled as he tried, and failed, to smile at me. Great. My super-secret agent was scared. That… that wasn’t good. Stephen wasn’t supposed to get scared. Even half-dead, he’d been more than a match for most of the guys the Agency had sent after us. What had changed?

“What do you think it was?” I asked, already dreading the answer. Whatever had him this scared was probably bad.

“I think that was the flit, Abby, and if it’s after us, I’m not sure how to escape it.” He swallowed, and his jaw tightened. Then he slammed his palm against the steering wheel so hard that the truck veered to the left. “Dammit!”

“What’s the flit?” I asked, reaching out and resting my hand on his knee. He was shaking.

“The flit is a computer designed to take over a person’s brain and make him or her do its bidding. Think of it like a program that turns your average Joe into the Terminator, and you’ve got the idea.” He shook his head. “It was still in development when I left…”

“You mean to tell me that guy had no idea what was going on? Some machine just downloaded itself into his brain and made him try to kill me?” I asked. “That sounds ridiculous.”

“More ridiculous than a sleeper cell guy hiding out in the middle of nowhere?” Stephen shrugged. “How many times has that happened in the last week?”

The gravity of it hit me like a wrecking ball. I had beat up an innocent guy. Hell, he was definitely, most assuredly dead, and why? Because he’d been around me when the flit decided to take him over. That made me responsible…

I was about to say something to that effect when a grey soccer van slammed into the driver’s side of our truck. Our vehicle pitched sideways, skidding across the asphalt and into the path of a tiny green Nissan. Brakes squealed, but it didn’t matter. The bed of our truck crumpled as the Nissan’s front end pretty much disintegrated. I was thrown into my seatbelt with so much force, the rebound smashed my head into the side window.

Everything went hazy as the red SUV in front of us slammed on its brakes. I watched it through the side window, everything going in slow motion. Its tires spun, spitting up gravel and smoke. It came rocketing back toward us.

I don’t know how I managed to get my seatbelt off, but the next thing I knew, I had thrown myself out of the truck. I hit the street hard on my shoulder as I rolled to my feet. My skin burned, and I knew I’d been scraped raw. I tried to force that out of my mind as the SUV drove through the pickup. Had Stephen managed to get out in time?

“Stephen!” I yelled, taking a step toward the obliterated Ford as the SUVs door swung open. An eight year-old girl with blonde pigtails and a red-riding hood cape stepped out of the vehicle. She stared at me with glassy, dead eyes that reminded me of the clerk. Blood trailed down her face from a cut above her left eyebrow.

“Abigail, do not resist!” she squeaked in a little mouseketeer voice. “You cannot escape.”

“Please…” I said, backing up, my hands out in front of me. “Don’t make me…”

She sprinted at me, tiny hands clutched into fists. I side-stepped her charge, but she lashed out with machine-like precision, catching me in the side of the ribs. Pain flashed through me as she followed it up with a kick to the back of my knee. I fell forward, pitching to the ground. I flung my hands out to stop myself, but she leapt on my back, using her weight to drive me face-first into the pavement.

I hit hard on my forearms and tucked my body into a roll. There was a horrible crunching noise as the girl smacked into the pavement, but amazingly, she didn’t let go. I came to my feet, and without thinking, used our momentum to send her flying.

Her nails tore at my sweatshirt as she careened through the air before slamming to the ground a moment later. The girl’s head smacked into the concrete, and for a moment, she tried to sit up, but fell brokenly backward to the street. My heart sank as I watched. I’d just beaten up a little kid. Oh. My. God.

I took an absent step toward her, my hands reaching out to pull the broken girl into a hug, even though I’d been the one to maim her.

“What are you doing?” called a deep voice behind me. I spun to see a huge guy on a purple Harley staring at me in shock. He reminded me of one of those old Hell’s Angels guys, only with way more tattoos.

Behind me, a girl’s screaming filled my ears, and I hesitated, shooting a glance over my shoulder. The girl was laying there crying and looking around in disbelief, one arm twisted at an obscene angle as she tried to get up and fell backward brokenly to the ground.

I ducked just as a crowbar cleaved through the space where my head had been. My leg shot out, catching the big biker in the side of the knee. A horrible crack filled the air. He fell, still swinging the crowbar at me. His face still set in cold, inhuman determination. I leapt backward, and the crowbar smashed into the asphalt a second before he crashed to the ground. His face changed in an instant. The dazed expression was gone in a moment, replaced by pain and confusion.

“My knee!” he howled, dropping the weapon and gripping his leg. I grabbed the crowbar and whirled around, looking for the next attacker when a gunshot went off. I spun toward it, my heart racing in my chest like an out of control train. Stephen stood there, bloody and broken with a smoking revolver in his hand.

I glanced in the direction of his weapon to see a police car spinning off the side of the road, one tire completely obliterated. A police officer was leaning out of the driver’s window, still trying to take aim and blast me.

My adrenaline shifted into overdrive as I sprinted toward Stephen. His lips were set in a hard line as he jumped on the biker’s Harley. I slid onto the seat behind him as he surged forward, barely giving me a chance to wrap my arm around him. Blood seeped into my sweatshirt as I pressed my body against his back. He was cold. Way too cold for it to be good.

We left the road in a cloud of dust. Behind us, people were either screaming, or looking around trying to figure out what the hell happened.

Either way, it didn’t seem like it mattered. How the hell were we supposed to outrun a soulless robot that could take over whoever it wanted? As the adrenaline left me, a horrible thought reared its ugly head.

Donovan leaned close to me, frigid breath kissing my flesh. “You just beat up an eight-year-old girl with pigtails. I’m pretty sure that makes you a monster.”