Following my grand announcement that I was giving myself more time to polish my next novel to my liking, life decided to intervene in a rather cruel way. I won’t go into the gory details. Let’s just say most of the extra time I allotted myself was lost to being physically incapable of getting out of bed, let alone working. I haven’t been that kind of sick for nearly a decade, so it was quite irritating to discover it could still happen.
Unfortunately, this does mean an additional delay in the release of The Innocents. Come hell or high water, though, I will have this book out by January 13th. I hope to get it out slightly before, but let’s just say January 13th for all our sanity.
For those of you who have not yet given up on this novel, bless your patient souls, and here is a sneak peek of the first chapter.
The Innocents – Chapter One
Bitter, unapologetic cold rolled heavy across the hills, clashing at ankle level with the warm air ghosting in off the Atlantic in a fog that cloaked the Irish Isle in a suspended state of dread.
Stealing vision beyond a few meters, it was the kind of cover in which a farmer could keep watch over only the nearest members of his flock, in which a pedestrian traveling alone on the city streets heard footsteps behind him when no one was there. An advantageous fog for predators.
Steel walls locking in the chill gave the abandoned fallout shelter the feel of an icebox, but it was the humidity on the sea air that brought wisps of breaths and goose bumps, and Garcia shivered as his skin grew increasingly clammy inside the heavy layer of his coat.
Repetitive thwack… thwack… thwack… bounding about the small space set his nerves on edge. Normally, the sound, each throw a perfect bull’s eye, reminded Garcia his crew was well-trained and provided some comfort before heading off into battle. There was no overcoming limited human strength and speed. Unfailing aim was the greatest compensation, which was why Jim always spent those moments between meet-up and deployment tossing his saw-tooth at the target – thwack… thwack… thwack… – with rhythmic accuracy.
Glancing toward him as Jim whipped the knife free, Garcia watched the glint of the blade against the low lights of the lanterns.
“Give it a rest,” he ordered, and, pausing in his sizing up of the target for another throw, Jim apparently decided it not worth discussing. Silver spinning in his hand, he sheathed the blade in the leather pouch that hung beneath his arm as the door opened the last expected time.
“Glad you could finally make it.” Garcia turned as Fiona made her less-than-enthusiastic entrance, bearing not an ounce of repentance.
“I’m right on time.” Shoulder-length brown hair swung into her face as Fiona dropped her gaze to the chunky watch that would undoubtedly reveal she had two minutes to spare.
“I wanted to be on the way out now.” It sounded petty even to Garcia.
“Then let’s go.” Fiona was unfazed. Hand sweeping dramatically toward the door, she bid them take their leave, and Garcia’s frustration grew as he heard Armand rise from his spot in the corner, where he had been sitting in silence since his arrival. Praying, Garcia was certain.
“I wanted to say something,” Garcia said.
“All right.” Fiona fell back against the rickety table with a screech. “Next time you intend to give a speech, set the time up ten minutes, will you?”
Casual reply a stark reminder that she was far more accustomed to this kind of work than the rest of them, Garcia fought to maintain some measure of calm, acknowledging the tension that held his spine so rigid it felt as if it might snap in two was only one percent Fiona’s lack of true commitment and ninety-nine percent his own apprehension. Not about the deed. If there was one thing in which Garcia was truly confident, it was that the deed needed done. A hundred things could go wrong, though, and if they messed up the first time, they would get no further chances.
“Everything has changed.”
Wind howling through the cracks in the door, it sounded like a condemned man screaming inside his tomb. It was a terrible night for such a chore, and no more perfect of one. The hazy shroud that camouflaged the city would keep the majority of the populace indoors with windows drawn, and fewer people on the streets meant fewer witnesses.
“And nothing has changed.”
Eyes trailing to the wooden benches along the wall, Garcia missed the weight of the weaponry they held in his hands and strapped against his body. Tonight, such firepower would be burdensome and overkill. A small pistol and a three-inch knife would do damage enough, and they were only in case something went wrong.
Nothing could go wrong.
“Our mission remains the same. We’ve been given a chance no hunters before us have had, the means to unequivocally alter the world in our favor. It may not be an easy task, but it is our responsibility, our duty, to do what we can with the knowledge we have.”
Searching past pre-hunt sermons for rousing nuggets to try to end on a high note, he found none that could be reused. Normally, this would be where he’d remind his crew of the evil nature of those they sought to eliminate. Tonight, though, that would be only a third-party truth. Inspiration felt hollow. Less pep talk, and more haunting prelude to certain success.
“Is that all?” Fiona made her displeasure with his non-rousing oratory known.
“That’s all.” Garcia was equally frustrated at having nothing worthwhile to say.
Checking the same barrel he’d checked countless times since descending into the steel box, he guided unnecessary bullets back into the chamber and secured the gun in his belt, feeling like a thug teenager with no access to the tools of the trade.
“Would it be all right if I…?” The dangling question interrupted the checking and relocating of small weapons into hidden recesses of clothes. “Could I say a prayer?” Armand finished to exactly no one’s surprise.
Sigh escaping at the request, Garcia didn’t know if he was irritated more by the further delay or the fact that, for the first time in his life, he felt he might actually need one. Reminding himself of the number of times Armand had saved his life, on one type of battlefield or another, he relented with a half nod, hoping not to prove too encouraging. “If you must.”
Head bowing instantly in response, it was clear Armand must. “Dear Lord,” he began, and, glancing to the other members of his team, Garcia watched Jim come to a polite, but unenthusiastic, standstill as Fiona rolled her eyes and turned for the door. “We ask that You guide our thoughts and our actions. The waters of evil grow stronger. They threaten Your shores. All we do, we do to fight the rising tide. And I do it in Your name.”
At least he hadn’t pulled them into that bit.
“Amen.” Garcia was just glad the moment was over.
“Advent,” he heard Armand whisper against the cold air that blasted into the shelter when Fiona threw the door wide and Jim followed her into the night. “We call for the return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to liberate the righteous and eliminate evil. Please, Lord, absolve our sins.”
Watching him in his personal appeal, Garcia wondered, for a moment, if Armand would be best left behind. As he lifted his head and grabbed his coat, though, pulling it over his shoulders with unflinching determination, Armand appeared as sturdy and ready as he always did when it was time to go and meet an enemy, and Garcia had faith he would do the right thing, regardless of what that enemy looked like.
Hands locked on the wheel of the battered black SUV, Fiona breathed relief as they made it through even blacker night and onto the lighted streets of Belfast. The handful of cars they passed sending blinding flashes off the sleet, she tapped the brakes, feeling the slide in her attempt to ease some exotic sports car off their bumper.
Inside, the SUV was silent, but for the sound of the wiper blades scraping against the layer of ice that had formed on the windscreen and sleet bouncing off rusted metal. Eyes returning to the rearview to ensure her lesson took, Fiona was glad to see the sports car’s driver realize he was going to ruin his pretty front end if he didn’t keep a more assured distance, before her gaze caught on Armand. Though she couldn’t see what it was clutched so tightly in the hand he held against his lips, she would wager a fair guess.
Gaze flicking to the largely empty street ahead, she risked another glance to Garcia, waiting for him to look her way, before tipping her head toward the backseat. Not exactly her style to tattle on members of her crew for praying, this crew was still too new to her not to be prudent. She had no intention of going to prison over someone else’s guilty conscience.
Turning his head at the urging, Garcia studied Armand for a moment, at last positioning himself sideways in his seat to fully take in the silent lament, and Fiona knew her concern was at least shared.
“Are you going to be able to do this?” The question Garcia should have asked long before finally made it to his lips, and Fiona looked to the rearview again, watching Armand’s eyes blink open as the rosary beads dropped from his clenched fist to dangle on his hand.
“The work of virtue must be done regardless of the price,” he responded, and Fiona scarcely contained a heartfelt scoff as the traffic light turned the sleet to sparkling gems of amber.
Eyes on the sports car as the light turned red, she tensed at the sound of a souped-up engine cutting through the night, rivaled in volume only by the long blare of a customized horn. Through sleet and glass, she watched as the red jeep, with its top open wide, came into view, weaving around the slow-moving cars into the intersection, and turned her head from its occupants as if she could keep the entire SUV from being seen.
Her wishful thinking as pointless as Armand’s prayer, it came as little surprise when the jeep took a sudden, careening turn, forcing two cars into fishtails, and barreled straight for them like the weather was ideal for such games of chicken. When the lunatic behind the wheel at last decided to hit the brakes, the jeep’s tires spun on black ice, sending it into a rather dramatic pirouette, and a massive jolt through the passengers of the SUV as its back bumper planted firmly in their headlight.
Hopping from the driver’s seat with a satisfied grin, six-and-a-half foot of scum stretched into view, and, as much as Fiona hated to give him any power over her, she couldn’t suppress the shudder as Sean’s empty blue eyes found her in the front seat. Even the frozen shower pouring through the open jeep top couldn’t rinse away the greasy, used-up look of someone who lived hard and never bothered to bathe afterwards.
It was only by comparison that the man who emerged from the passenger’s side looked well-groomed and diminutive. Standing over six-feet himself, Slade’s torso was roughly the width of one of Sean’s thighs, but the look of crazed enthusiasm on his face left it up in the air as to which of the two men was more dangerous. Only Fiona knew which she would never turn her back on again, and her knuckles locked more firmly on the wheel as Sean stepped up outside her window.
Nowhere to go with the jeep planted so firmly in their path, she kept her eyes on its remaining two occupants, cursed with the good sense to look miserable as the sleet pelted them through the open top.
How Slade ever managed to convince Amber and Katlego to join their less than reputable team was still a mystery. In Fiona’s experience, brains and brawn mixed only in theory. Amber and Katlego could never possess Sean’s brute strength, or Slade’s level of crazy. When an angel investor laid out the money for advanced technology, though, someone who could actually make sense of it became essential to operations, and Fiona guessed there was plenty of incentive in that many zeros on a paycheck, wherever one’s natural talents lie.
“What the fuck do you want?” Garcia’s feelings about being so aggressively delayed seethed in his tone as he put the window down.
“You’re not going to let Sean in?” Slade leaned against the door, his broad smile putting the solid platinum tooth to which he’d treated himself after a mission cost him the original and left them standing over a $1.2 million dollar stash on display.
Those were the old days, before Sean and Slade hooked back up in Lisbon, Slade imbedded Sean in their new crew, everything went to hell, and Fiona adopted a life of piety with Garcia largely to get back at Slade.
No intention of letting Sean in anywhere, the question alone was enough to make Fiona lower the window and simultaneously reach into her jacket. Hand jutting into the cold night, she felt a measure of satisfaction at the shock on Sean’s ape face as the metal barrel came to rest against the fly of his jeans.
“And here I thought our muzzles were never going to meet,” he managed after a few tense seconds. “You should know, I consider this foreplay.”
“Me too.” Fiona raised her eyes to his, refusing to be intimidated by a caveman. “Just wait and see what happens when I’m all played out.”
Slade’s small laugh at the exchange more wounding than she expected, or liked, Fiona kept her gaze on Sean’s face, her finger tight on the trigger, both just waiting for the slightest reason.
“What do you want?” Garcia was rapidly losing patience, and, when Sean shifted, Fiona fought the itchy desire to make herself feel just a little better.
“Just to chat,” Slade returned. “It’s been a while. You stop at red lights now? That’s cute.”
“Women drivers,” Sean uttered, and, arm quickly retreating, Fiona put the window up before the urge to blow his dick off became too powerful to resist.
“So, where you headed?” Slade glanced to the dead street ahead.
“None of your damn business,” Garcia replied.
“Hey, I’m just trying to help out.” Slade endeavored to sell his bullshit with another glinting grin. “You do have my ex-girl after all. And we’re all on the same side here.”
“We are not on the same side,” Garcia declared. “And whatever Fiona once saw in you, she’s over it.”
Sparkling grin widening at the response, Slade cast his eyes once again to Fiona. “How much time you been spendin’ in his lap?”
More upset by the questioning of his character than of hers, Fiona was certain, Garcia’s temper visibly flared. Grabbing a handful of shoulder-length blonde hair, he slammed Slade’s head into the frame above the door. Knife instantly in Slade’s hand, it came to Garcia’s throat, as Garcia’s knuckles poised to strike a deadly blow against Slade’s windpipe.
The sound of breaking glass adding to the outburst of violence, Fiona raised her gun from her lap, aiming it through the fractured window, and Sean froze in his attempt to provide Slade back-up.
“You want to get this over with now?” Slade’s voice trembled with what could easily be passed off as rage, though Fiona could hear the fear in it, slight, but genuine. Fairly confident she had the advantage over Sean, despite the close range and his five-inch blade, she was less assured in who would die first on the other side of the car, and was just glad Jim and Armand seemed to recognize any efforts to intervene would only exacerbate an already very bad situation.
“You’re not worth the time we’ve wasted on you.” Garcia released Slade with a hiss, though it was hard to say if he truly determined the fight futile or could hear the sirens from a distance. Waiting for the sound of Slade’s retreat from the car, Fiona didn’t lower her weapon until Sean sheathed his knife and backed away from her door.
“Just stay out of our way,” Garcia said.
“No problem. We all know whichever way you’re headed is the wrong way anyway,” Slade took one final blow to Garcia’s ego as he pushed off the SUV.
Back in the jeep, it took a relentless spin of tires to send Slade and Sean on their way – more attention – and Fiona’s fingers tapped an impatient cadence on the steering wheel as Garcia ordered Armand and Jim out.
“Did you get it all?” Garcia questioned as they climbed back in a few seconds later, tossing the crystals of glass they could clear off the street over the seat, and Fiona started through the intersection at a fast crawl, her eyes on the rearview. When police lights flickered into the reflection, she turned down a dark street, knowing she would have to circle back to more well-trod routes if she wanted to prevent a trail that could be easily followed.
“As much as we could,” Armand returned, and it was hardly a comfort.
Pulling along the curb five cars down from a similar-model SUV a few turns later, the sparse streetlights felt like the first stroke of luck they’d had all night. Under the glow of a pen light held by Armand, it took Jim less than two minutes to lift the bulb and headlight cover to replace the one Slade’s jeep had damaged. Fiona knew with absolute certainty, because, eyes shifting between the road and her watch, she was ultra-aware of each second as it passed.
The window a far trickier issue, they made do with two pieces of cardboard and duct tape. Throughout the quick patch job, Fiona watched the crossroads, waiting for Garcia to come to his senses and realize they had drawn far too many eyes. If they were going to act without consequence, they would have to wait it out a few days, let events cool and see if anybody could potentially recognize them. At the very least, they needed transport that didn’t bear obvious signs of having just been involved in an accident.
That was how the job was done. Risk everything for the reward, except yourself. There was no prize higher than freedom, no dollar amount that could buy one’s way out of the path of an enemy bullet. Whatever the job, it was never worth risking prison or your own life.
“Let’s get this done.”
Those were the old days, Fiona reminded herself, watching Garcia swing back into the passenger’s seat, and Garcia wasn’t that guy. He was the guy who thought it worth the risk, idiotic as it may be, and she was the one who’d teamed up with him by choice, which clearly made her an idiot too.
Brushing the remnants of glass in her seat onto the floor, Fiona settled back behind the wheel, and the window crunched as the door slammed shut.
Though seeing Slade and Sean was pretty much last on the list of things she wanted to do that night, or any night, she could say one thing about their run-in with her old crew. When witnesses started chattering, and they would, she imagined not too many of them would remember a boring black SUV, or anyone inside it, when there was a red jeep spinning through the intersection, horns blaring, a towering brute and a man with a glittering grin.
There was no sound, not a blip from a machine or a moan in the night. Margie woke on instinct, a sixth sense developed over thirty years of caring for those in no condition to care for themselves.
Arms sinking into the pink and blue polka dot robe she kept at the foot of the bed, feet into her slippers, she moved into the dim hallway. Before she even reached his room, she could tell Mr. Winters was awake, and that it wasn’t pain or thirst that had him staring into the night as she walked in, but a worry he shouldn’t have cause to feel.
“Trouble sleeping, Mr. Winters?” she softly asked, and, though the old man’s eyes turned to her, Margie didn’t need him to answer. “I’m sure her flight is just delayed.”
Walking to the bed, she wished she could believe it herself. Nothing bad had happened to Mr. Winters’ daughter, she was certain of that. It was far more likely Becky had simply decided not to come and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone about it. Margie didn’t know if the young woman was unable to recognize how ill her father was, or if she couldn’t cope with the reality. Either way, every time she failed to show, she was cutting into the precious little time she had left with him. And even if that meant little to Becky, it mattered a great deal to Mr. Winters.
Glancing to the window as sleet tapped against the panes, Margie picked up the water cup on the bedside table, putting the straw to Mr. Winters’ chapped lips. “Let me get some balm,” she said once he had his fill, but before she could make it around the foot of the bed, the anticipated knock came.
Mr. Winters’ face lighting instantly at the sound, Margie forced a smile for his sake, hoping Jesus couldn’t read her thoughts as she told Mr. Winters she’d be right back and went out the door to fetch his truant daughter. Aggravated as she was at Becky’s late arrival, though, she wouldn’t say anything. She never did.
Robe clutched tight in anticipation of the cold about to blow in, Margie glanced through the spyhole, frowning at the unfamiliar face in the oval frame.
“Can I help you?” she asked, and, through the eyepiece, the man gave a shiver against the wind.
“Uh…” He blinked in the direction of the door, and Margie’s gaze fell to his ripped coat, before the stranger leaned in so close, the spyhole filled with the top of his face. “I hope so, Ma’am.” Words slow and slurred, he sounded drunk. “I had some trouble in my car. It slipped in a ditch. I had a phone. I’m not sure what happened to it.”
Hands moving down the front of his coat as he leaned back again, as if in search of the elusive phone, the man’s face caught the porch light. Blood trailing from his hairline onto his cheek, he seemed unaware it was there, and, realizing those signs of perceived drunkenness might be actual symptoms of shock, the nurse in Margie opened the door to him at once.
“You’re hurt,” she said, but, when the man looked her way again, the confusion dissipated from his gaze, replaced by something solemn and unnerving.
“Are you Margie Jackson?”
Biting wind no match for the cold that gripped her insides at the question, Margie’s legs froze in place.
“I’m sorry,” the man uttered. “I wish you could understand this.”
“Understand what?” Margie whispered. It only occurred to her she should have used the chance to scream when the man’s hand pressed against her mouth.
Carried back into the living room by unrelenting pressure, Margie’s gaze widened as three more strangers streamed in, their wet boots trampling Mr. Winters’ clean carpet.
Mr. Winters, Margie remembered the old man helpless in his bed. Who would take care of Mr. Winters?
Fighting her hardest, she found the grip of the man who held her so firm she could scarcely bend within it, and when the woman with him punched a hole through the ceiling, peeling pieces of plaster away until she could loop a rope over a beam, Margie thought to scream again, but it was wasted effort behind the heavy glove.
One last opportunity coming as the noose passed over her neck, Margie seized it, but the tightening of the rope cut off the call for help almost at once, leaving her capable of producing no more than gasping sobs, until she was yanked suddenly off the floor and couldn’t cry at all.
Hands going to the rope, she tried to claw free, but her fingers felt weak, her heart aching as it tried desperately to keep beating. Spinning around, the blurry faces of the strangers appeared at every turn, until they blended into one, a single monster she’d let in from the night.
“Margie,” Mr. Winters cried out for her, but she had no voice left to answer.
Awareness blinking slowly away, a sense at a time, Margie had nothing left at all.
“Margie,” the old man called again, and something innate and frantic galloped in Armand’s chest as he stared down the gray hallway.
The name punctuated by haggard breaths, it clearly took the man a great deal of effort to produce it, and Armand couldn’t help but wonder if, left alone, he too would perish.
“Let’s go,” Garcia ordered, and, though Jim and Fiona filed instantly toward the door, Armand knew the command was meant mostly for him.
Pausing just one moment more, to whisper a prayer – that someone would find them soon, that the old man would live – he at last turned away, wiping the fake blood from his temple, and haunted by the parting image of the woman’s feet – one clad in fuzzy pink, one bare from her struggle – dangling two feet off the floor.