Pound of Flesh – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

I didn’t stop the guy as he pushed his way into the convenience store. Why would I?

Blowing a hole into the back of this son-of-a-bitch’s skull would let him know something was up. And I didn’t want him to know that. At least not yet.

So instead, I flipped a packet of Sugar Babies around in my hand, pretending I was one of those douches who read the nutritional information on the back of candy wrappers as though it could have possibly said anything other than “awesome sugary poison.”

This gutter trash bastard had hit up six convenience stores in the last four weeks, and his MO was always the same. Pull a gun, rob the place and, just as the sobbing guy or girl behind the counter thinks he’s going to take the cash and run, he guns them down along with anybody else in the store who might have been unlucky enough to be going on a beer run.

I had seen his type before, tangled with them on more than one occasion.

They never won. They wouldn’t start tonight.

Charlie made his way to the freezer, pretending he was trying to decide between a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a six-pack of Bud Light.

It was patently ridiculous. One, because anybody who cared to look could see the crease in the back of his jeans where he’d shoved his pistol, and two, because everybody knows that when faced with that decision, the only correct answer is both.

I guess, in the end it wouldn’t matter which one good old Charlie chose. He was about to meet a fate I reserved for only the sickest, most depraved individuals.

Which was to say, I was going to eat him.

Now, before anybody starts getting the wrong idea, I wasn’t actually going to eat him. At least, not in the traditional “fork and knife” sense of the word.

What I do, what I’ve always done since I was a little half demon kid trying to come to terms with the hunger inside of me, is a little more sophisticated than that.

No, what I do is much more humane. At least, as humane as someone who’s batting .500 on the demon scale can be.

Charlie settled on the two liter and started toward the counter.

There was a cute little blonde girl behind the desk. She was chomping on gum, eyes glued to her cell phone, with a nametag on that read “Staci.”

“Staci with an I,” I muttered.

She wasn’t paying attention, but she would be shortly.

Charlie Whitmore was planning on making “Staci with an I” his seventh victim in the Atlanta area in two months.

It was business as usual for him, old hat.

But it wasn’t going to be old hat.

And not just because I was a cop.

I shoved the packet of Sugar Babies into my pocket and headed for the counter behind Charlie.

No, I wasn’t going to steal the candy. What kind of cop would that make me? I’d toss the money on the counter after I made short work of Charlie. Though honestly, if Staci accepted it, I’d be a little pissed off. I mean, come on, saving somebody’s life is totally worth some sugary goodness.

Power welled up inside of me as I neared Charlie boy, causing me to sweat and giving me a touch of the shakes. It wasn’t my warlock half. Nah, that sort of energy was easy to control. At least in contrast to the other half.

This was the dark part of me, the demon part, the impolite part I wasn’t supposed to talk about at dinner parties, the part that absolutely, under no circumstances would shut up unless I fed it.

Well, put your lobster bib on, demon part. We’re about to dine.

Charles Whitmore settled in front of the register with his two-liter soda. Staci with an I paid him about as much attention as you might a buzzing fly that decided to keep its distance, which was to say she threw up an index finger, head still planted firmly in her phone’s screen and chomped, “One second, mkay?” through a mouth full of pink bubble gum.

But Charles Whitmore had no intention of waiting one second. As I said before, for him, this was old hat. While he might have been more cautious before, well, let’s just say he’d gotten cocky.

“Put the phone on the counter and open the register,” he said flatly, his eyes betraying the sort of hardness that could only come from having done this many times before.

And there it was.

I needed to wait, not because I needed proof. No. I just needed to be able to live with myself.

Sure, I had done my research. I was a good detective. I knew Charles Whitmore was the person responsible for all of this death, even if the rest of the department hadn’t quite figured it out yet. But I needed to see it happen. I needed to watch the offense taking place. In my experience, that sort of proof was the only thing that helped me sleep at night.

“What?” Staci with an I asked, finally looking up from her phone. What she found was a tall, blond, reasonably handsome man with a crooked grin on his face and pistol in his hand.

Things just got real.

“On the counter,” he repeated.

She did as he asked, her entire body shaking with fear. This had not been what she’d been expecting.

He smashed the butt of his pistol down on the phone hard, nearly snapping the cheap plastic in half.

“And you,” he said, equally calm, gesturing at me with the two-liter to let me know he was speaking to me. ”You’ll stop right there if you know what’s good for you.”

I wasn’t sure why, but the phrasing tickled me a little, and I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Loud.

If someone getting pissed off was something you could hear, I’d have been able to hear it coming off of Charles Whitmore like a marching band at 2 AM.

“Is something funny, prick?” he asked, his mouth twisting into an angry scowl. Oh, look at that. I could hear it. He stepped back and turned his body halfway between me and the girl so he could see both of us, and eventually shoot both of us.

Not that I was going to let that happen.

“There’s a lot of funny things, man,” I said, still walking toward him. ”Kevin Hart, Modern Family, when a guy slips on a banana peel.” I settled in front of him, still far enough away so he’d think I didn’t pose any real danger. “You know, I wouldn’t normally admit this, but I’m a fan of those Kate Hudson movies too. You know, the ones where she gets the guy at the end. Those things are funny as hell. But do you know what’s the funniest thing in the world to me? The thing that just puts me in stitches? It’s when some douchebag loser is in way over his head and he doesn’t even know it.”

Charlie boy narrowed his eyes at me, like he couldn’t believe someone was actually saying this stuff to him.

“Big words for a guy with a gun pointed at his head,” Charlie said, moving the barrel of the pistol toward me.

And why wouldn’t he? One look at the way Staci was shaking was enough to tell him she wasn’t going to try anything.

“Oh, you’re looking for a gunfight,” I said, smiling and opening my jacket just enough for him to see both my newly issued APD badge and the gun holstered at my waist.

“You’re a cop?” he said, grinning. “That’s awesome. I never killed a pig before.”

“I’m a detective,” I clarified. “Detective Roy Morgan. And don’t get too excited, scumbag. You never will.”

“Tell it to the angels,” he muttered, and I could see his finger twitch on the trigger.

There was no time to pull my gun, and certainly no time to conjure up an incantation.

Instead, I went right to business.

I lunged for the waste of space.

Grabbing the barrel of the gun, I jerked it upward as he fired.

A bullet whizzed right past my head, lodging itself into the market’s ceiling.

Staci screamed, but I didn’t have time to comfort her.

My hand was on fire. The jerk and heat of the firing gun caused me to stumble backward, but as I did, I reached for my gun.

Falling, I fired twice, but the angle threw me off and all I ended up doing was taking out one of those disgusting hot dog spinners.

I leapt up as Charlie ducked behind one of the store aisles.

“Get out of here,” I muttered to Staci with an I. My hand burned and my head was starting to pound. Both were signs my demon half was getting ready to play.

“He’ll shoot me,” Staci replied, her voice shaky.

“He’ll shoot you if you don’t,” I answered, trying my best to sound confident. “Now go. I’ll cover you.”

She didn’t move.

“Go dammit!” I yelled, frustration filling my words.

Yelping, Staci darted from behind the counter.

Because he was a sadistic bastard, Charlie Whitmore started to shoot at her. He didn’t care that it gave up his position, or that it wasted valuable ammo he was going to need if he wanted to get out of here alive. All he cared about was his prize, killing another innocent person.

“Shit like this, Charlie,” I muttered, shielding her with my body as I fired back at him. “Shit like this is why I’m going to eat you.”

Staci made it out the door as one of Charlie’s stray bullets found its way into my shoulder. I pulled back, wincing in pain.

A lot of movies lead people to believe demons are bulletproof. Those same movies might say something similar about warlocks. As a half-breed from both those communities, I’d like to set the record straight and call bullshit. Getting shot sucks.

As pain shot up my shoulder, I ducked behind a display of beer cases and shrugged my jacket off. I placed a hand to my shoulder and muttered some of the Latin I had learned while being taught the ways of the warlock.

It was a simple spell and wouldn’t do much to actually heal me. It would take a proper doctor for that, but it would ease the pain enough for me to get the job done. And that was what mattered.

“Charles Whitmore,” I said, letting him know I knew his name. “Charles Whitmore of 1537 South Hampton Street. Apartment 4D. You can’t hide from me.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to kill you,” he answered back. Which, to be fair, was a reasonable answer.

That’s right, you son of a bitch. Remind me how much you suck. Make it easy for me.

I muttered more Latin, this time to lock the doors and disable the security systems. There was no need for this to spill out into the street, and God knows, I couldn’t explain myself should a video of what was about to go down ever found its way to the public eye.

“You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that, Charlie boy,” I said, steadying myself.

Now for the big one.

I used to think that growing up as only half warlock would mean I would only be half as strong. What it actually meant was I would have to work twice as hard to be half as strong.

That was okay, because it meant while other witches and warlocks were out popping each other’s cherries and disappointing their parents, I got to learn crap like this.

Throwing my hands out in front of me, I muttered some ancient shit the Druids used when their enemies hid from them.

The aisles separating me from Charles Whitmore disappeared, leaving a charred wasteland in their place and opening up a clear path to this bastard.

The world went red for me, which meant my eyes had gone red a demon party trick that usually caused anyone in viewing distance to wet themselves.

Charlie was no exception.

As he brought his gun up, hands shaking so hard he couldn’t have hit the side of a barn let alone me, all the blood drained from his face, leaving him pale as a ghost. He didn’t fire. He should have, but he didn’t. That was the weird thing about people. Show them a monster and they become as useless as a wet parachute on a skydive.

“What-what the fuck are you, man?” His voice cracked mid-sentence, and for a moment, I almost felt bad for him. Almost.

“What you deserve, Charles Whitmore,” I said, feeling the heat of my body preparing for what was about to happen.

My hands began to glow, red to match my eyes.

As soon as I laid them on Charlie, I’d suck the energy right out of him. I’d take it all, hollowing him out and leaving him a literal husk of a person.

It was harsh, sure. But no harsher than what he wanted to do tonight, than what he had done to countless people before.

It was why I saved it for people like him.

Besides, it had been too long since I’d “fed.” It was starting to make me antsy. Starting to find its way into my head. If I let that happen, if I let the demon side of me go too long without getting its “lunch” on, I’d find myself losing control to it. My inhibitions, my sense of right and wrong, all of it would be skewed by the monster inside.

Charlie froze there, the gun slipping from his hands to clatter across the cheap laminate floor as I neared him.

I didn’t feel death around him, which was odd. Another of my demon perks was that I could sense whenever death was about raise his hooded head and stick his hooded sickle into somebody’s ass. It usually found its way to my victims by now.

Maybe it was the bullet. Maybe it was throwing me off.

Either way, this was almost over.

“Calm down, Charlie. It’ll only hurt for a second, but it’ll hurt a lot.” I tried to sound comforting although I didn’t know why I bothered.

He screamed as I laid my hand on him.

I felt him start to pour into me, the connection that would soon end his life as well as his reign of terror on Atlanta’s poorest district.

Then the doors flew open. I cursed. All of my energy had went to feeding, using up the energy from the spell I’d previously used to lock the doors. Oops.

Police poured in, guns at the ready.

Dammit. Staci with an I must have gotten help.

I figured she would, but didn’t think reinforcements would come this quickly. Atlanta was faster than Boston. Good to know.

I pulled myself off of Charles Whitmore, feeling like a kid pulled away from dessert as I severed the connection.

Damn. This was worse than if I hadn’t started at all.

Like blue balls for the soul.

“You have the right to remain silent,” I said, tossing him on his back and placing cuffs on his worthless wrists. I leaned in closer, so that only he could hear me. I suggest you use it, asshole.”

 

An interesting few days…

Well, it’s certainly been an interesting few days. Let me just say, I’m halfway through my release a book every week this month thing and man is it draining. In retrospect, NEVER AGAIN!

The new one comes out tomorrow, but it’s already up and you could grab it on Amazon if you liked, I suppose. It’s called Full Metal Magic and is an anthology put together by me and eight other fantastic authors featuring all new tales. Mine features Mac Brennan.

I’ve also just wrapped up the new Mac Brennan novel and that means I’ve written twelve novels this year. That seems insane to me.

I also finished up the outline for Annie 2. It’s tentatively called Blood and Thunder, and I am going to start writing that today. I’m hoping for a December release on this one. Let me just say, the reviews on Throne to the Wolves are just blowing me away! I’m so glad you guys like it!

If you have any ideas for items you’d like to see Annie use in book 2, please drop me a line. I’m totally open to suggestions!

Finally (and the most exciting thing for me anyway) is I’ve started research on the book that will follow Annie 2. I’m not ready to reveal many details, but know I am excited! You should see it sometime around January if all goes according to plan.

Throne to the Wolves – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

I sucked in a breath, drawing on my magic to slow the world around me down to ten frames per second. My target was up ahead, just coming out of the alley. He hadn’t seen me yet, and with any luck he never would. I sighted my sniper rifle on him and exhaled as I fired.

His head exploded into a cloud of red mist as what remained of his life splattered across the cinderblock wall behind him. As his body slid lifelessly to the pavement, a smile creased my lips, and I leapt to my feet in triumph.

“Boom! Headshot!” I cried, pumping my controller in the air as I did a little booty dance of victory.

Blair, my boss and the closest thing I had to a friend since I’d narrowly escaped getting brutally murdered a few years ago, glanced up at me from behind her D&D sourcebook and narrowed her eyes. She was sitting amid a plethora of dungeon guides, maps, and meticulously painted miniature figurines preparing for our nightly game. Evidently, she’d been too engrossed to pay attention to my stunning display of skill because if she had been watching, she’d be booty dancing in triumph too.

“This is a quiet space, Annie.” She gestured at the Do Not Disturb sign hanging beside her patched brown leather chair with one green-nailed hand.  She’d permanently borrowed the sign from our local library, which struck me as a bit horrible on the scale of things, but I’d learned to stop arguing about it with her. Every time I did, I got a lesson in taxes. Still, pointing at it while referring to me had become something of a pastime.

“Yeah, no one likes a braggart!” Badger said from his seat at the station next to mine. That wasn’t his real name of course, but ever since he’d perfected the voice of the guy from the honey badger video, that’s what we’d called him. He was a pretty normal looking guy with shaggy surfer-boy blond hair and a toothy smile. His brown eyes were perpetually dulled by something he’d neither confirm nor deny, but judging from his preference for stoner T-shirts, I was pretty sure I could figure it out on a timed exam. Hell, I wouldn’t even need multiple choice.

“You’re just mad because I’ve killed you ten times in a row, and now you have to buy me lunch,” I said, smirking at him as I gestured to his screen where his headless body was sprawled across the front of the alley. “Stop being such a scrub!”

I’ll be honest, I was about to taunt him some more, but the door at the front of our store chimed, signaling we had a customer. Actually, it probably wasn’t a customer. I mean, sure, Blair owned Wendigo’s Restoration Emporium, but no one ever came in here, and not just because it was tucked away on Magic Alley.

I mean, okay, technically we were in Los Angeles and normal people had stumbled in here on occasion, but chances were good anyone coming in had at least a little bit of magical chutzpah or they’d never wind up on our street.

Even though you didn’t have to tap a brick in the wall of a pub three times to enter Magic Alley, normal people tended to walk by our little street full of magical, mystical, and otherwise otherworldly shops like it didn’t exist. Hell, I’d had to stand at the corner more than once to physically direct a client down our street before they walked by it another hundred times. We didn’t even show up on the Los Angeles city maps.

The only reason Badger was able to even find the place was because he was a sensitive, which meant he’d drawn the short straw on the evolutionary scale. He had no magic of his own to speak of, but he could sort of sense it. Not enough to actually see magic per se, but enough to know Magic Alley was here. An enterprising artist, he’d wound up wandering in here a couple months ago looking for work because his Master’s in Fine Arts hadn’t opened many pathways for him, and he was buried under mountains of debt.

Thankfully, people like Badger were pretty rare, which was probably for the best since our shop was located next to the Black Arts Superstore. Non-mages buying bulk curses at discount prices? Not pretty.

To be honest, Blair put her shop here because she liked the way the other supernatural businesses kept the riffraff out. That was her rule number one: live around the rich and powerful, it might rub off. Or maybe that was rule two because I was pretty sure rule one was “if you can’t avoid paying taxes, at least make some creative deductions.”

Then again, while she might not have been powerful in the whole “blow up a building with a fireball” sort of way, since her powers practically made money grow on trees, she was really, really rich. That’s what happens when you get to be a couple hundred years old and have the ability to magically restore comics, artwork, and baseball cards to pristine condition.

Let’s just say, she’s on good terms with compound interest and collectors. So yeah, Blair didn’t need customers, but she loved writing off all her nerdy obsessions. See, more tax talk. Ugh. And I had to deal with said customers since it was technically my job. Double ugh.

“Annie, you better hurry up. Someone made an appointment to speak with our resident reader about now,” Blair said, glancing at her watch. “You don’t want to keep them waiting. Time is money, you know.”

“You mean, you booked me an appointment and didn’t tell me?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at her. “You hired me to read your merchandise, not for customer service.” I wasn’t exactly a people person, but if there was one thing I was good at, it was reading inventory in a magical sort of way, and Blair had need of a good reader, even if I wasn’t one in the way she thought I was since readers could do little more than talk to objects. I could do that, and a little more. Unfortunately, it was the little more that always got me in trouble. “Now you’re pimping me out?”

Blair raised one eyebrow at me. “I’m your boss, Annie. Pimping you out is my job.”

“What about my feelings?” I said, smacking my chest with my hand as I headed toward the front room. “I am more than the sum of my powers.”

“Not when we have a paying customer, you aren’t.” Blair was already looking back at her sourcebook. “Now get out there and make me some cheddar.”

I sighed and decided to get this over with. The sooner I read whatever object the person had brought in, the sooner I could get back to pwning newbs like nobody’s business. Besides, Badger wouldn’t be able to buy me lunch until after this was over, and I’d skipped breakfast. I know, most important meal of the day, but come on, who’s got time for that?

Still, I was a fan of money and having an otherwise cool boss so I sidled out of the alcove, intent on being as unfriendly as possible to said customer. As I made my way through the silver, beaded curtain that hung between the back room and the actual storefront, I stopped dead in my tracks.

Standing before me was an Adonis. His broad chest was covered by a Captain America T-shirt so tight it was more of an idea than actual clothing. I’d say it left little to the imagination, but combined with his deep blue eyes and wavy blond hair, it made a whole bunch of things run through my mind.

My cheeks reddened as he caught sight of me and flashed me a smile that made my heart speed up in my chest. And, I’ll be honest, my next several thoughts were a mixture of “OMIGOD he has to talk to me because he’s in our store!?” “What am I gonna do?” “Does my breath smell?” “How long have I been wearing this hoodie?” So, yeah, I found him hot. What of it?

Part of me wanted to sniff at both my hoodie and my breath, but I decided it’d look weird. Instead, I swallowed hard, trying to think of something interesting to say as two hundred pounds of muscle poured into skin-tight black jeans came toward me. Yummy.

“I know you guys usually do restorations, but I heard you might have a secret stash.” He cocked a grin at me. His voice was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Besides, I’d have remembered someone like him. “I was told it may or may not contain a CGC 9.9 Hulk #181.” When I didn’t immediately respond, he stopped mid-step and narrowed his eyes so his blond eyebrows made a cute little v. “You know, the first appearance of Wolverine?”

“Actually, he first appeared in Hulk #180. It’s a common oversight,” I replied before I could stop myself. My hands shot to my mouth in an effort to catch the words and shove them back inside, but it was too late, they were out, and like the rotten little bastards they were, they hit him full force. I know, I should have been totally cool with correcting a hot guy, but he wasn’t just any hot guy, he was a customer, and as Blair had told me a million times before, while the customer is always a jackass, he is always right.

“I know.” He shrugged, brushing off my unwitting jab with a sweep of his perfect hand. “But I already have 180 and 182. I’m just missing the crown jewel.” He was cute and had an awesome comic collection? God, would he just marry me already?

He took a step closer, still friendly. God, why was he so friendly, and so, so hot. I mean, jeez Louise. He was supposed to be someone I could kick out without a second thought. Instead, I was wondering how good he was at video games and if our future children would like StarCraft more than League of Legends. This was not going to end well.

“Do you think you can help me out?” he asked, flashing me a smile that made my knees shake.

“Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard. “It’s in the back, but it isn’t what I’d call cheap. It’s expensive. Like in the way buying a congressman is expensive.” I tried to smile. Usually when customers asked us about stuff like this, they didn’t expect our prices to be, well, astronomical. As I said before, Blair’s talent was as good as coining money. It wasn’t like she needed more, so it took an exorbitant amount of cash to get her to go through the hassle of selling from her private collection.

He made a show of checking his wrist. It had one of those blue fitness bands designed to capture your heart rate, steps, and stuff. “Pftt, I bought six of those in the time it took me to walk through the door.” He held his hand out to me. “Name’s Justin.”

His name sparked a surge of recognition that nearly knocked me from my feet. I stopped mid-movement, my hand halfway out on its way to meet his. No, it couldn’t be, but as I looked at him and pictured him with a goatee and eyepatch, I knew I was right. Holy fucksticks!

“Justin Bailey?” I asked, hoping I was wrong even though I totally wasn’t. Still, I was somewhat proud I managed to keep my squee locked inside. It was a near thing, let me tell you.

“Guilty,” he replied, that same grin on his face as he gestured at me in a way I didn’t quite follow. “You might remember me from such films as Werewolf Ninja and Vampire Undercover: Outlaw.” I’ll be honest, his Troy McClure was off the chain.

“But…” I said as he closed the distance between us and shook my hand. The moment he did, he went from being just some hot B-movie actor to something far, far worse. Because the cloying, tingling sensation that rippled up my arm and struck deep into the heart of my soul told me one thing.

Justin Bailey was a werewolf, and no werewolf would ever come into a shop owned by a mage like Blair, let alone step foot into Magic Alley. Not even for a CGC 9.9 Hulk 181. No, he was here for something else, and as much as I wanted to know what it was, I wanted to get out of here more. See, there was one thing I’d forgotten to mention about myself.

I’m a mage, but not just any kind of mage. No, I’m an animator, which meant I could take a model of anything fictional and make it work like it did in said fiction which was why I always carried around a toy lightsaber. As long as I had a good enough replica, knew what it was supposed to do, and had enough power, which was consequently why I had never managed to make Blair’s replica DeLorean real. Yes, I’d tried when she wasn’t looking. Unfortunately, way too much power was required for things like time machines.

In real life, shooting a werewolf with silver bullets wouldn’t do diddly squat to them, but I could shoot them with silver bullets and they would die.

Which is also why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been hunted by werewolves because even though my power could be used to make any monster equally dead, the werewolves had been affronted by it to the point of killing pretty much every animator that dared to breathe the same air as them.

In the end, it’s a convoluted story about blood feuds and such, but suffice to say, I was about half a second from sprinting into the back room. I wasn’t sure if Blair had any silver back there, but if she did, it’d be more than enough to stop this guy. The only thing that stopped me was cold logic. Werewolves were super predators so if I ran, he might chase me. After all, predators chased prey, and I was definitely werewolf prey.

His eyes flickered like he sensed what I was, and my gut tightened in fear. He was onto me. His nostrils flared as he unconsciously inhaled my scent, and as they did, amber colored in his blue eyes. Frak. Double frak!

Yes, okay, let me just say this right now. I’d never actually seen Battlestar Galactica, but my brother had loved the hell out of the show, and since he was dead at the hands of werewolves, I’d taken to saying it as a way to remember him by.

“Animator,” he whispered in a low, guttural tone that made the knife of fear stabbing into my guts twist violently. “I had hoped to find someone like you.” His lips curved into a grin that was downright predatory.

Well, screw logic.

As his grip tightened on my hand, I drove my knee into his crotch as hard as I could and sprinted for the door as he collapsed to the ground clutching his nethers.

Get a copy here!

Fists of Iron – Chapter 1

Here we are with chapter one of Fists of Iron, the exciting conclusion to the Frank Butcher saga!

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Chapter 1

 

“Thank you all for being here,” John Perez, the last and most annoying Peacekeeper in the world, began, “especially considering the troubles that have come down around us in the past day.”

I didn’t want to be there, not even a little bit. I especially didn’t want to be stuffed in Tabitha Marlowe’s office atop the Pendleton Building just for the honor of listening to John, the formerly deceased (though technically he was never actually dead) husband of the lady I was in love with.

It just rubbed me the wrong way, what can I say? Still, I’d put on my big boy pants and shown up along with the rest of the magical folks who had survived the mess that had gone down thirty-six hours ago.

Jealousy wasn’t the only reason for my attitude, of course. Frankly, I was sick to death of all the bullshit, betrayals, and backstabbing from all sides. The last straw had been Rabbi Joseph Krakowski. He had seemed like one of the few pure souls I’d run into ever since Dr. Gabriela Perez had put this ancient Aztec stone into my chest. He’d saved our asses right before sticking a dagger into our ribs in one swift motion.

Still, I was leaning against the wall, all nice and pretty with my scrapes, bumps, and bruises from the past week bound to listen. See, despite my misgivings, there were a couple of things I cared about here. Exactly two, as a matter of fact.

First, Joseph had taken off with Max Perez, Gabby’s son, as insurance that we wouldn’t go after him. Say what you want about me, but I don’t take kindly to people fucking with children.

Second, I still owed Gabriela my life. She’d saved my life with her magical surgery, and la Corazon’s power. Sure, if she hadn’t been a wizard, I might not have needed my life saved, but at the same time, she hadn’t been the one who cast the spell that blew the place up. Besides, she was now the only straight shooter I knew among all these mystical assholes.

All that navel-gazing had pulled me out of the moment. No big loss, it was some back-and-forth drabble between Tabitha Marlowe, the head honcho here in the building and former higher up in the End Society, one of the two clans of wizards I knew about, and John. More political garbage from what little trickled through. Certainly none of my business.

It was Gabby’s voice that brought me back into the conversation. “We don’t need to worry about the formalities, John. The clans are gone now and both of the elders are dead. All that matters is where our son is and what Joseph has done.”

“There is still a right way and a wrong way to go about this.” John glanced around the room, looking from her to every other face in the room. “In the face of this primal chaos, keeping order is of the utmost importance.”

Bluto a.k.a. Tyrone, the building’s head of security, and sweet Molly, ex-soldier for the Whites, the other clan of wizards that was currently falling apart, and full-time Irish spitfire, shared a grumble at that. Maybe they thought John was full of it or maybe they were as sick of the endless layers of bullshittery as I was.

Molly stole a glance at me from across the room, something I decided to ignore for now because even though John’s return had basically axed the slowly blossoming relationship between Gabby and I, well, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it just yet. Yes, I’m aware that makes me a horrible person, but at the same time… I held out hope, for what, I’m not exactly sure. This was the end after all, maybe he’d go out in a blaze of glory and I’d still get to ride off into the sunset with Gabby. The thought almost made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. That was never going to happen.

Abner, my favorite walking lump of clay, was the first one to say something and his deep, hollow voice rumbled through the room.

“This I understand, Peacekeeper, but we do not know the extent of my father’s plans nor the motivations behind them. Rabbi Krakowski is not a man of ill intent or of impulsive action.” I knew the big guy was attached to the Littlest Rabbi, the guy did create him after all, but it was hard to see how releasing the Lovecraftian monstrosities I had seen in that cube into our world was in anyway positive. “I cannot abide his taking of your son, Max, but we cannot be quick to judge his shattering of the cube. There must be a reason, we just don’t know what.”

“Abner, we have laws in place for a reason.” John’s brow wrinkled, and his face hardened. “If there’s something else afoot, and the evidence shows he had good reason for what he did, things won’t go badly for him.” He glanced in Gabby’s direction. “Kidnapping a teenager, even if he wasn’t my son, will be hard to justify.”

I finally gave enough of a shit to throw in my two cents. Pushing off the wall I’d been leaning against, I said, “Then why the hell are we all gathered up for debate club? Shouldn’t you people be doing something by now? Fuck the rest of it, get the kid back.”

Gabby gave me a warm look which I tried my best to ignore because there was no use salting my own wounds.

“Right on, boyo. I might still be a bit ragged around the edges, but I sure as hell think we oughta be out there doing some damage instead of twiddling our thumbs,” Molly chimed in, pumping her fist excitedly in the air.

“We aren’t going to ‘do some damage,’ Ms. O’Shaughnessy,” Tabitha announced, pushing her glasses up on her nose. “We are going to go about this in an intelligent manner. We need to not only find Krakowski and Maximilian and devise the best, safest way to retrieve the boy, but we also need to determine the exact damage and danger the destruction of the Cube poses to our world.”

“There’s no need for that, Director.” The Peacekeeper folded his arms over his chest. “We sealed off direct access for all the divinities for a reason, something both of the clans agreed on. We don’t need to do research. We need to bring the rabbi in, lock him up, and restore the seals.” Gabriela had turned her attention back to him, which John seemed to pick up on, causing him to tack on, “And rescue Max, of course. As for debate, this is called planning and organization.” He glanced at me before continuing. “I am going to deputize some of you and we’ll enact a plan to do exactly what I said.”

“So who’s on the team, Coach?” I wanted to give no shits at all, but I couldn’t pull away entirely. After all, I didn’t want the Old Ones or whatever to kill us all.

If John noticed my attitude, he ignored it. “In addition to the deputies I’ll be taking into the field, the rest of you will remain here with the director to look into and deal with the extra-dimensional incursions that are going to follow. The Great Old Ones might be eternal, and they’ve been waiting for this opportunity for eons. As we speak, they are enacting their plans. We’ve got no time left.” His tone was grim and rightly so. “Frank, you might be a bit ignorant about the mystical world, but you’ve seen these things first hand. You understand the threat.”

Gabriela stood up, those green eyes I so wasn’t looking at flashing. “I’m going with you.”

“Aye, me too.” Molly was giving me an expectant look as she threw her chips into the pot. I patently ignored it as she continued on. “Ye certainly ain’t leavin’ me behind when there’s nasty work to be done.”

John folded his arms over his chest. “No. I have a very specific list of people in mind and neither of you are on it.” His jaw set in preparation of the barrage he had to know was heading his way. I certainly did!

Molly fired off a knuckles-out V-sign (a European equivalent of a middle finger, for the uneducated out there) while Gabby’s reaction was more volcanic. She took a step toward her husband and half-shouted, “No, John. While you stuck yourself in a cube, I’ve been trying desperately to get our son back! There’s no way I am going to stay home and twiddle my thumbs when Max is still out there!”

I couldn’t help myself as I leaned back and grinned like a shark. It was amusing as hell to watch Johnny Boy flinch a bit under the doc’s tongue lashing, but I had to give the guy credit for holding his ground even though I really, really didn’t want to. “It’s a simple matter of priorities and effectiveness, Gabriela, not passion.”

Tabitha tried to hide the sigh between her teeth, but I sure as hell caught it. “Let’s not let this drag down into a mire of personal conflicts. We know how this always plays out between the two of you.” She focused her gaze on Gabriela. “I’ve already discussed this to some degree with John. The Peacekeeper is calling on my expertise in combat magic for this situation, so I need someone with an extensive background in magical research and academia to lead the investigations here.” She glanced at Gabriela. “You are the ideal person to lead that effort.”

I might not have cared much about this shit at the time, but I had to stir the pot when I saw one needing to be stirred. “So far, Tabby, all I’ve seen you do is direct people, figure shit out, and splash us with a ton of cold water. Not that I doubt your abilities in the field, but Gabby’s walked through fire and brimstone, and come out the other side with nary a scratch.”

Tyrone saw his own opening and took a shot. “On top of that, Director, we’re in a jam and a half here. Our defenses are screwed, we’ve got a list of casualties that ain’t going away anytime soon, and we barely have a clue as to how the Whites are handling having their leadership turned into salt pillars.” He pointed a meaty finger at Tabitha. “We need you here fixin’ things so these people don’t get completely fucked.”

We both had made some stellar points, but the nightstick I suspected was shoved up John’s ass was inflexible. Before Tabitha could make her own counterpoint, John raised his voice just a hair, but it was an effective hair. “That’s enough now.”

He had that presence that a seasoned cop has, that commanding voice that reminded you he had the full force of the law behind him. Of course, that was kind of a bluff. He was the last one of his kind after all, but it was still enough authority to shut the traps of all the magic types in the room. I was tempted to keep on coming, but I decided not to push all his buttons quite yet.

Shifting his posture to a more diplomatic one, he leaned forward as he grasped his hands behind his back and paced. He made eye contact with each and every one of us as he began to talk. “The Peacekeepers were destroyed to engender just this kind of chaos in the world. We need to stop this kind of squabbling to move forward, which means all of you need to listen and do as I ask.” He stopped and did a slow pan of the room. “We’ve dealt with this threat in the past, and we did it together. We can do it again.”

Maybe it was the simple fact my love life had been carpet-bombed by his return, but there was something that rang a bit hollow in what would otherwise have been a rousing performance worthy of any action movie hero. It was a little twitch of the eye, probably nothing, probably blown out of all proportion in my attempt to find the barest crack in what seemed to be an absolutely perfect shell. If it had really happened, no one else seemed to notice or mention it.

Instead, the audience was silent and at attention. Even the quiet grumbles from Molly and Tyrone had ceased.

Johnny Boy lowered his head, a gesture of respect. “Thank you. Now, as I said, we will have two teams. Going with me to apprehend Krakowski and free my son will be Director Marlowe and Abner. Our first move will be to go to the White’s enclave on the outskirts of San Diego to recruit more deputies.” As if to preempt any criticism, he raised his hands. “We need to do this as a unified front, White and Ender alike, so I need to go to them.”

Gabriela put out the point I was tempted to make myself. “John, the longer we wait, the more danger Max is in. We need to do this swiftly and in force!”

That was enough to bring me back into things. “Amen, sister. All this pussy footing around and playing all nicey-nice with everyone is only going to move our asses from the frying pan into the fire.”

Call me a sucker, which I certainly was, to fall into line behind Gabby. That ship had sailed, and while I was still spinning my oars in its wake, one thing was certain. Max was still in trouble. If John wasn’t concerned with him because of the bigger picture, that was his prerogative, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to get the boy back anyway.

John ignored Gabriela, going for the convenient scapegoat, me. “Butcher, I appreciate all you’ve done, not just for my family but for the world at large.” Yeah, there was a ‘but’ coming. “But despite the crash course you’ve had about magic and our society and all the things that were hidden from you for most of your life, you’re still vastly ignorant of what’s going on here. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know what I’m doing.”

While I might not have given two shits about how these wizards were going to fuck each other over again, Magic Cop had struck a nerve. I’d always hated guys who thought they knew better than everyone else. After all, that was pretty much what had started this whole mess.

From the Enders to the Rabbi, every one of them had thought they’d known best and plunged forward no matter how many people got fucked in the process. John may have been right, but at the same time, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I was pissed.

I straightened up to my full height, an effective gesture because I was a couple of inches taller than John.

“Yeah, and doing things the way you guys did worked out really well,” I grinned, allowing my words to hang in the air for a moment. “Was getting locked up in a living acid trip part of the master plan too?”

That had probably been uncalled for and a bit too soon, but it was the damned truth. Most of the room, Gabriela included, was shocked by that little pipe bomb, but Molly was trying her damnedest not to break out into laughter.

John’s jaw set as he tried to keep his anger hidden under a cool façade. “Well, Frank, if you’re not going to be part of a positive solution, I suggest you leave the meeting. We have a lot of planning left to do, and we don’t need your kind of disruption interfering with it.”

Well, if that’s how he wanted to play it, fine. I didn’t need him anyway. I’d gotten us this far by myself, and all he’d goddamned done was sit in a glass box.

“Sure thing, big guy.” I turned on my heels and headed toward the office door. “Good luck with that. When you actually decide to do something for real and get Max back, you know where I’ll be.”

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or at least it broke Molly’s control over her laughter. She started giggling like mad as I stalked out of the room, ignoring Gabriela’s belated attempt to defuse the situation. I stalked out of the room, more than happy to slam the door behind me as I left the office.