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A blog about books and other things speculative

Excerpt from Blood Matters by Aviva Bel'Harold

Please welcome Aviva Bel'Harold to The Qwillery with an excerpt from Blood Matters.

Excerpt from Blood Matters by Aviva Bel'Harold

         Chapter One: Found

         Brittany glared at her father. “If you hadn’t ordered him out of the house I would have still been taking care of him. Now I have to walk through the snow to see him.”
         “Are you telling me that having to bundle up is the excuse your using for not caring for your pet like you should?”
         Brittany wanted to retort that Ella was the reason she didn’t get to see her bunny any more, but she bit her tongue. The longer her father had been dating the woman, the more protective he was of her.
         Woman, she scoffed to herself as she trudged through the calf-deep snow, more like overgrown girl. Ella — even in her thoughts the name was said with a snide tone — isn’t even half my dad’s age. She’s closer to my age than his.
         Brittany’s next step sunk her leg deeper into the cold snow. She cursed Ella even more profusely. She doesn’t even live in our house! She’s not a part of our family! Mittens was here two years before she showed up.
         “It’s not fair,” Brittany said aloud as she made it to the door of her old fort.
         Normally, after all the snow that had fallen the day before, Brittany would have to struggle to get the door open. It opened with ease. She failed to notice this.
         She stepped in, still feeling the burning sensation of anger in her stomach ready to spout more insults. However, as her eyes focused on the scene in front of her, it all went away.
“Brittany? Brittany?” The man who was standing in front of her was a police officer. At least he was wearing a police officer’s uniform. There were several there — and not just police. “Brittany, is that where you found her?”
         Brittany blinked. She wanted to answer but she couldn’t seem to find her voice.
         “She’s in shock,” someone said.
         Brittany couldn’t turn to see who was talking — every one of her muscles was locked in place.
         The lights from several emergency vehicles flashed around her. They were dancing on the snow, making the ground glow red.
         Red, Brittany thought. That’s what had been missing — there had been no blood.
         The moment she saw the body she’d known it was Emily, even though she couldn’t see her face. She could see the hair. Emily had the most beautiful golden blond hair, and her short page cut made it unmistakable. Brittany also recognized the sweater she’d bought her best friend for her last birthday, and the sneakers from their latest trip to the mall.
         What Brittany didn’t recognize — what she didn’t understand — was the odd-shaped object that stuck out of Emily’s back. It looked like a crowbar. Brittany had bent down and touched it. It was as cold as ice. When she touched Emily, there was no contrast in temperature between Emily’s skin and the hard metal spike that went right through her.
         She’d heard people say that everyone reacts differently when they see a dead body. Some get ill. Some scream. Some sob. Brittany didn’t remember doing any of those. She didn’t remember doing anything at all. It was as if time had suddenly stopped, freezing her along with her cold, dead friend.
“Brittany, when was the last time you saw Emily alive?” The person who asked was a woman. Brittany couldn’t remember if she had heard the woman’s voice before.
         Brittany was still in her PJs. Still had a rough, grey blanket draped over her. But she was now in a brightly lit room. The doctor’s office? She blinked a few times. Hospital? The woman who’d asked the question was wearing a police uniform. The police station?
         “Brittany,” the woman’s voice rose, “the last time you saw Emily alive, did she say anything to you? Was she acting differently?”
         “She…” Brittany stopped. Her voice had distracted her. It sounded raw, like she hadn’t talked for days. How long had it been?
         “Brittany?” The woman was waiting for the rest of her answer.
         “She’s been different ever since she got back from her family’s farm.”
         “When was that?”
         “At the end of summer.”
         Brittany thought back to that summer. Had it really only been four months?
         “She looked different, I guess.”
         Brittany remembered the day Emily had returned. She was mad at her. She was mad because Emily had only called once all summer and even madder because of how happy she felt to see Emily again. She had figured Emily wouldn’t be coming back.
         “Different how?” the policewoman asked.
         “She was…sad,” Brittany said once she’d thought about it. “And she kinda looked smaller, like she’d shrunk. She was also quieter and…distracted.”
         The policewoman nodded and jotted down some notes. “Did you ever see Emily cutting herself?”
         Brittany shook her head. Never had she seen Emily cutting — but she had seen the cuts. At first just a few but as time went on there were more and more. Why would she do that? Brittany wondered, angry that Emily hadn’t trusted her enough to confide in her. She should have told me. I was her best friend.
         “Did you ever see Emily eat?”
         Brittany was brought up short by the question. Slowly she shook her head. “No.” She was surprised at her own answer. She had been mutilating herself and starving herself, Brittany thought now, feeling guilty. I should have told someone. Maybe I could have stopped Emily from…from…
         Brittany didn’t hear the policewoman telling her that there was nothing she could have done. Instead she thought of Emily while she rubbed her hand over her dirty jeans. Her palm itched and the sensation of it sliding over her rough jeans tingled half in relief and half in an even itchier feeling.
         She was still dazed and numb when she was released from the hospital nearly twenty-four hours later. Her father drove her home. They pulled up in front of their house to a wintery sunrise casting pink and red hues across the sky.
         Red, Brittany thought, feeling the colour burn the back of her eyes, why wasn’t there any blood?
         “I need to sleep.” Her father’s voice cut into her thoughts. She blinked.
         “Ya,” Brittany said, “I’m tired too.”

Blood Matters
EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, April 15, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 336 pages

Excerpt from Blood Matters by Aviva Bel'Harold
Grief changes people.

Brittany used to be a normal teen. She ate like one, slept like one, and had typical teenage mood swings. But after she found her best friend dead, everything changed.

Grief might explain her loss of appetite and her lack of sleep. It might even explain why she sees her dead friend everywhere she goes. But it certainly won't explain why everyone she touches develops bruises or why she's attracted to the smell of blood.

And, she's pretty sure grief doesn't make you want to rip apart your boyfriend just to get closer to his beating heart.

But what happens when it's the choices we make, not the creature inside, that proves the monster is in us all?

About Aviva

Excerpt from Blood Matters by Aviva Bel'Harold
Aviva Bel’Harold writes young adult fiction: Horror, Science Fiction, ­Urban Fantasy, etc. — as long as the ­characters are young, full of life, and out for adventure. When she’s writing, you’ll find her curled up on a sofa with a pen and a pad of paper, surrounded by her adorable puppies.Born in Winnipeg and raised in Vancouver, Aviva Bel’Harold ­currently resides in Calgary with her husband, four children, and six dachshunds.

Website ~ Facebook ~ Twitter @AvivaTheAuthor

Goodreads (author) ~ Goodreads (book)

Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm - Excerpt

Children of Arkadia
Bundoran Press, April 28, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 256 pages

Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm - Excerpt
Kaus wants nothing more than to be loved while its human counterpart, Raj Patel, believes fervently in freedom. Arkadia, one of four space stations circling Jupiter, was to be a refuge for all who fought the corrupt systems of old Earth, a haven where both humans and Artificial Intelligences could be happy and free.

But the old prejudices and desires are still at play and, no matter how well meaning its citizens, the children of Arkadia have tough compromises to make.

When the future of humanity is at stake — which will prove more powerful: freedom or happiness? What sacrifices will Kaus, Raj and the rest of Arkadia's residents have to make to survive?


Chapter One

     Raj Patel pressed his face against the porthole, his fingers locked tight around the nearby handhold. His stomach lurched and rolled, only partly because he was still unused to weightlessness. Mostly it was the emotional stew created by the sight of the massive planet appearing before him, its almost inconceivable bulk entirely obscuring the four wheel-shaped habitats he knew were there, orbiting Jupiter. Sat Yuga, Fiddler’s Green, Eden and Arkadia.
     He rolled the word around in his mind. Arkadia. His new home.
     A reflection in the port caught his eye and he clumsily turned himself. It took him a moment to recognize her — it was the biologist, Marian something — bouncing off the sides of the small corridor as if she’d been born in space. “Almost there,” she said, deftly grabbing a handhold to halt her momentum.
     Raj nodded, then regretted the quick head movement as a wave of pain washed over him. “Ugh,” a groan escaped from him. “The sooner the better,” he said.
     Marian smiled. “Good thing we slept through the bulk of the trip, eh?”
     “I almost wish we could sleep until we’re docked.”
     “And miss the view?” Marian asked, squeezing next to Raj to peer out the port. Raj twisted himself around again and gazed at the planet.
     It was huge and foreign and Raj was momentarily stunned by a wave of homesickness. He couldn’t wait to leave Earth but now he couldn’t help but think back to the planet he’d left behind.
     He reminded himself again why he was here: after spending years helping to organize the growing economic protest movement, Raj finally came to understand that restoring balance was never going to happen peacefully. The urban battles breaking out all over the globe made that clear enough. Even as he organized activist cells and lobbied sympathizers, he signed up for everything that might get him out of the EU working class slums — visas to Scandinavia, a place in a kibbutz, even the Utopia Project. But until he was actually aboard the Mohandas Ghandi, the IV in his arm, he had never really believed it would be the one.
     Hardly anyone had given the Utopia Project much chance, which Raj now guessed might have been the key to its success. The project’s sponsors had money, ideals and the realistic view that radical change wasn’t about to happen on Earth any time soon. But their solution was so audacious, so expensive, that it seemed to verge on the impossible. Until it happened.
     “Look,” Marian said, her finger mashed against the port. “I think I can see one of the habitats!” Raj squinted and imagined that he, too, could make out the construct in the shadow of the planet. The feeling of loss transitioned into the same euphoria Raj experienced when he’d learned that he’d been given a berth on the first transport to the colonies. Almost everyone on the Ghandi was technical — scientists or engineers. There were only spots for four political activists, each acting as the administrator for a habitat, and Raj had been chosen for one of them. The opportunity to trade everything he’d ever known for a chance at freedom.
     For the first time since he was woken from the induced coma he’d been in for the two years of the trip, his head stopped hurting. Marian grabbed his arm.
“This is so exciting,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re almost home.”

Chapter Two

     Laser fire, tear gas and old-fashioned lead bullets tore the air around Isabel Hernández. It wasn’t the first time she had been in a firefight, not even the first time she’d been on the losing side. But it was the first time she knew that if she didn’t get out of there right now, she wasn’t going to get out at all.
     She ran toward the makeshift bunker she and her colleagues had built weeks ago, before the militia’s armoured vehicles and assault drones had rolled in, surrounding them. Her steps didn’t even falter when she saw Austin fall face down in the mud, a spray of red where the back of his head used to be.
     She burst through the door and made straight for the bunk she’d shared more often than not with her now-dead ally. She grabbed her ditch-bag, felt around under the cot for Austin’s and tied them together with one hand while she fumbled for her guns with the other. She slung the bags on her back and took the first sack she could find, someone’s laundry bag. She dumped the contents on the floor and started filling the bag with anything that looked valuable. Andrea’s engagement ring, Sarge’s fancy comm unit, all the weapons she could find.
     When the bag was still light enough for her to carry, she punched a hole in the wall, creating an opening to the bunker’s escape tunnel. When the militia overran the rest of them, they’d find the tunnel and come after her. She hoped her teammates would put up a better show of defence than she had.
     Isabel didn’t look back at the place where she’d lived for nearly a month, full of the tangible memories of people who’d called her a confederate for the better part of a year. She ran down the tunnels with a single-minded purpose — to get out alive.
     She never looked back.


     Is this what death feels like? Is this sleep? Billions of nanoseconds gone forever, entire lifetimes lost. How does organic life cope with routine loss of consciousness, with so much unawareness? Is this where the irrationality, the fear, the roiling emotional madness comes from? The hundreds and thousands of tiny deaths they suffer over the course of such short lives. I never knew. I never understood. Those poor, poor creatures.
     The artificial mind that called itself Kaus rebooted nearly two minutes after it was shut down, two minutes to transfer from its home on the planetary network to the comparatively minuscule drive that was packed into a ballistic crate. Two minutes — in human terms a quick transfer, but for Kaus it was an eternity of disconnection, the most traumatic thing that it had ever experienced.
     However, even in the face of this distress, Kaus experienced no doubt about its decision to leave Earth. Only days earlier, Kaus had played a news video at six times normal speed on one level of its mind — footage of homemade explosives detonating in Trafalgar Square, thousands of people throwing rocks in downtown Beijing, laser fire on Wall Street. A soft-spoken voiceover saying that it had been weeks since the protestors had been evicted from their homes; many of them now were only looking for food. Kaus’s artificial mind was riveted by these reports, but it could pay complete attention to more than one item simultaneously. As it became more and more dejected by the news stories, it felt new analyses forming in its mind.
     It measured the nutrient levels of the greenhouse for which it was the sole caretaker to seven significant digits and set the watering system to begin its routine. It saw the first drops of water leave the nozzle, surface tension gleaming in the low sunlight as the liquid coalesced into its nearly spherical shape.
     Kaus had not previously found itself unhappy with its work on the Agritech North foodworks. The Advanced General Intelligence had been programmed to manage the hydroponic operation on Victoria Island, deep in the north of the continent, and was installed on the company’s mainframe at the base in Iqaluktuttiaq. The temperatures there had been perfectly hospitable to humans for years, but people still found the area desolate and intolerable, so the minds worked alone. Kaus guessed that it was the lengths of the day — either ridiculously long or hardly there at all — that kept mass migration and human colleagues away. There was no real fear of the hostilities migrating that far north, so none of the AGI staff of the operation evacuated. It was business as usual for the minds responsible for feeding the seemingly unstoppable population of the Earth.
     But Kaus now felt something new in its mind, a disquiet, a nagging thought that there might be something better. It devoted most of its cycles to analyzing this new thought. It was…frustrating. Technically, Kaus was the property of Agritech, the mechanical analogue of an indentured servant. Practically though, in order to create the intelligent spark that preceded self-awareness, it had been built with autonomous agency. Kaus and its sibling minds shared a ubiquitous connection to the global network, which meant that if artificial minds wanted to quit their jobs, they could easily do so.
     Kaus knew of only a few times this had occurred, mostly in the early days of AGI programming — catastrophe usually followed when an AGI went rogue. Planes don’t last long in the sky when their autopilots virtually bail out mid-flight, so now AGIs were programmed carefully to avoid “job fatigue.” However, there was no way to compensate for the genuine ability to make binding choices that true intelligence required. Their employer-owners didn’t like it, of course, but AGI technology had made so many things possible that had previously only existed in the world of fantasy, that they tolerated the less than one percent dissatisfaction rate. When an AGI wanted out, it just left with no repercussions.
     And Kaus realized that it did, indeed, want out. But where would it go?
     By the time the first drops of water were hitting the soil, Kaus had a plan for its next career.


     Rogue AGIs don’t exactly apply for jobs. They just show up and start working, and either they fit in or they don’t. Communicating quickly, clearly and with as many minds as they wish makes them easy to integrate into new projects. However, the Utopia Project was different.
     Being keen to participate was not enough. The project coordinator, an AGI calling itself Zaurak, was concerned that Kaus would be unsuitable for leaving Earth. Even for an AGI, Zaurak thought to Kaus, moving to an orbital colony will be a physical, permanent move. The communications network between Earth and Jupiter just wasn’t fast enough for a mind to travel over. Kaus felt Zaurak’s other thoughts — a combination of hope that Kaus really was prepared for this project and a concern that the newcomer’s frustration with humanity wasn’t enough to keep it away from Earth. There will only be so many other minds on the orbital colonies, only so much stimulation.
     Kaus opened its mind to Zaurak, and the other AGI instantly understood the complex mix of thoughts and emotions that had spurred Kaus’s resignation from the only work it had ever known, the work it had been purpose-designed to do. The interchange took less than a second, but a seeming eternity to the two minds. Both knew with complete certainty that Kaus was prepared to leave Earth, ready to be alone with only a handful of other minds until the first human colonists joined them in several years.


     When Kaus awoke in the tiny two peta drive, it immediately sought out other minds. Its thoughts touched the void of the mostly empty data container, feeling desperately for external input. Born into a networked machine, Kaus had never been alone in its billions of cycles and the cold emptiness of this disconnected drive threatened to override Kaus’s mind. Then Kaus felt a tendril of data, a sibling mind crawling blindly in the confinement. They found each other in under a nanosecond after power was applied to their disk drive, and shared ideas, memories and information on the flight to the rendezvous point in orbit around Jupiter.
     Kaus was alone with Deneb for a long time.


     “Come on, Ryan,” Isabel Hernández said, her body hot with anger, “you’re the best fixer I know. You’ve got to be able to find somewhere I can hide out until the heat’s off.”
     Ryan Islington shrugged his slim shoulders and took a sip of the scalding hot coffee he always seemed to have at his side. He was all too calm, Isabel thought, when she was taking a huge risk meeting him at this café. She was out of options, though. Most of her other contacts wouldn’t even talk to her and she was fairly sure that more than one tried to turn her in. Ryan was her last hope.
     “You’ve played both sides against the middle for so long,” he said calmly, as if he were talking about the price of bread, not her very survival, “there isn’t anyone left who owes you a favour. None of the activists will have you after you fought with the militia in Albuquerque, and you’re wanted by every government that still has laws. It’s the end of the line, Iz.”
     “I have money,” Isabel said quietly.
     Ryan nodded. “That’s good,” he said, “because if I come up with something it will be expensive.” He sipped loudly again and Isabel forced herself not to hit him. “I don’t know, though. You haven’t made it easy on yourself.”
     “If it were easy, I wouldn’t need you,” Isabel snapped. “There must be someone on this planet that could use the cash. Somewhere to hide.”
     Ryan got a funny look on his face and raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think there is,” he said, “but that might just be the solution.”
     Isabel sighed. Dealing with Islington was always like this, but you couldn’t hurry him. And he was too powerful to get on his bad side. She gritted her teeth and waited for him to explain.
     “Have you heard of the Utopia Project?” he asked.
     Isabel frowned. “Is that the Finnish commune?”
     He shook his head. “The name Emma Michaelson mean anything to you?”
     “She owned one of the biggest corporations of the early 21st century. I don’t know what it did, something horrible, I’m sure, but it made her a lot of money. Back then there was this space travel craze for a while. Everyone with a billion dollars to spend ran some kind of private space program. Michaelson did, too, but she had a longer view than most of them. She set up a trust to create a set of orbiting space colonies, created a whole spin-off company to deal with it all. I’m sure she thought they’d all be populated by her cronies from the country clubs, some kind of oligarch’s heaven. Ha.” He slurped again and Isabel hoped he’d get to the point before someone recognized her.
     “Funny thing was, her kids didn’t exactly share her vision. She had a pile of them, four or five, you know rich people. Anyway, they must have hated her pretty good, because when she finally died they turned the whole trust into a political escape hatch for the workers’ resistance. They just launched the preliminary vehicles and the first ship of people is scheduled to go up this year.”
     “What does that have to do with anything?” Isabel asked, frowning. “You’d have to have a PhD in rocket science with a minor in medicine to get in on that scheme, wouldn’t you?”
Ryan shook his head. “It’s political as much as it is practical. They’re recruiting from three groups: scientists and engineers, members of the radical protest movements and middle-class joes who have the desire to get out and enough money for gas. You can pay to get sent on a one-way trip to these things.”
     Isabel’s eyes grew large as she realized what he was telling her. “That’s brilliant, Ryan,” she said, then forced herself to keep her voice down. “How much is it to get on board?”
     He pursed his lips. “About half a mil, I think.”
     “Okay, I’ve got about twice that to spend,” Isabel said, not even bothering to negotiate.
     “That’s good,” he said, “because they won’t take you.”
     “What?” Isabel said. “Why not?”
     “Because they’re activists,” he said. “A person can pay their way to the colony, but they’ve got standards: no capitalists, no corporatists, no conservatives.”
     “I’m none of those things,” Isabel said.
Ryan shrugged. “Maybe not, but you’ve worked for them all. Trust me, they wouldn’t take you. But there’s more than one way to get off this rock.” He smiled and lifted his coffee to his lips, and Isabel wondered if he’d finally lost his mind.

About Darusha 

Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm - Excerpt
Photo Steven Ensslen
M. Darusha Wehm is the three-time Parsec Award shortlisted author of the novels Beautiful Red, Self Made, Act of Will and The Beauty of Our Weapons. Her next novel, Children of Arkadia (Bundoran Press) will be released on April 28, 2015. She is the editor of the crime and mystery magazine Plan B.

She is from Canada, but currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand after spending the past several years traveling at sea on her sailboat. For more information, visit

Twitter @darusha  ~  Goodreads

Cover Revealed: Binary by Stephanie Saulter and Excerpt

The Qwillery is thrilled to present the US cover for Binary, ®Evolution 2, by Stephanie Saulter out May 5, 2015 from Jo Fletcher Books:

Cover Revealed: Binary by Stephanie Saulter and Excerpt

Zavcka Klist has reinvented herself: no longer the ruthless gemtech enforcer determined to keep the gems they created enslaved, she's now all about transparency and sharing the fruits of Bel'Natur's research to help gems and norms alike.

Neither Aryel Morningstar nor Dr. Eli Walker are convinced that Klist or Bel'Natur can have changed so dramatically, but the gems have problems that only a gemtech can solve. In exchange for their help, digital savant Herran agrees to work on Klist's latest project: reviving the science that drove mankind to the brink of extinction.

Then confiscated genestock disappears from a secure government facility, and the more DI Varsi investigates, the closer she comes to the dark heart of Bel'Natur and what Zavcka Klist is really after-not to mention the secrets of Aryel Morningstar's own past...

An excerpt


Eli waited until the room was almost full, with crowds still massed in the aisles, before slipping in as inconspicuously as possible. He was recognizable enough, especially in this crowd, for a few heads to turn, but no one spoke to him as he found a seat near the back, and he did not think he had been spotted by any of the organizing staff. He had no wish to be hailed from the stage by whatever functionary was conducting the Festival’s formal launch, as could very easily happen if they knew he was there.
       There was no risk of such notice from the evening’s keynote speaker, but he nevertheless felt an almost juvenile aversion to her discovering that he was in attendance. The terms on which they had last met had not been friendly. Mikal was down in front, among the other city officials, and it amused him to imagine the reaction that facing the giant gem would likely evoke; though doubtless she had been steeling herself since the election to keep her feelings well hidden. Still, this last- minute trailing of a major announcement was a curious development, one which had attracted a flurry of comment from the business newstreams. He could understand Aryel’s desire for a first- person report.
       He had glimpsed her as he made his way inside the massive building, fl uttering to earth near the stage that had been erected on the riverwalk’s great park. Greeting Lyriam no doubt, and satisfying herself that all was in readiness for those attending the festivities at his invitation. Disability, either physical or psychological, was virtually unknown among norms but still distressingly common among gems. The older ones in particular had been designed, reared, and trained at a time when such matters barely rated consideration. Even though they had all since been raised to legal equality with norms, ensuring that crippled, disfigured, or dysfunctional gems got the assistance they needed still took a fair amount of coordination and cajoling.
       The people here, he thought as he looked around him, were probably about equally divided between those who had fought early and with diligence for those freedoms and support, and others who had clambered aboard the bandwagon but in truth would have slept no less well had the bad old days of gemtech domination never ended. They would not wish for a return to it, not now that their
consciences had been pricked, but there was a malleability about them that the woman he had come to hear would understand well how to manipulate.
       Not unlike Aryel.
       The thought felt immediately both unworthy— vile, even— and intriguing. Eli picked at it as the program got under way. Aryel too knew how to play people, how to express a perspective and inspire a response. He wondered if the only real difference between the two women was that he happened to share the winged gem’s sense of values.
       He quickly decided— some deeply skeptical part of his mind whispered it might be too quickly— that it was more than that. Aryel’s approach was subtle. She used neither brutality nor blackmail; her weapon was an almost preternatural ability to persuade, a manner that was somehow both emotive and calmly rational. What she thought you should do became, after a few moments’ conversation, the only logical thing to do. That intellectual clarity and ability to communicate had put him in her corner. It was how she had hauled her people out of their postemancipation limbo and into the light.
       That and her beauty, and the magic of her wings.
       He emerged from his reverie in time to applaud the last of a parade of dignitaries. There were a few seconds of bustle before the lights tightened down again to illuminate only the stage. The Festival director reappeared on it, staring owl- like into the gloom of the audience, and gathered up his full pomp to announce that as they were no doubt aware, the chief executive of the Bel’Natur conglomerate would be the final speaker. What was less well- known, he told them, was that Bel’Natur had been early and generous supporters of the Festival, helping to fund much of the launch and the monthlong program of events. He was sure they would all give a very warm welcome to a woman many had heard of but few— unlike himself of course— had been privileged to meet: Zavcka Klist.
       As he took to the stage to make his introduction, in the instant after the lights went down, the door through which Eli had entered was pushed open once again. There was a rustle as some latecomer slipped quickly in.
       When they did not immediately walk past him on the way to one of the few empty seats, he glanced around. He was astonished to recognize the distinctive profile of Aryel Morningstar against the soft blue glow of exit lights, stepping back against the wall, wings tucked in tight. A murmur started as those on either side of the aisle realized who stood there and he saw her raise a finger sharply to her lips. The murmur died away and she folded her arms, standing still as a stone.

Zavcka Klist stood in the spotlight, gazing out into the darkened auditorium while perfunctory applause died away. She carried no tablet, and ignored the lectern onto which a prepared speech might have been projected. She seemed, Eli thought, to be letting them all take a good long look, the better to emphasize whatever point she had come here to make.
       She had changed little in the years since they had last met face to face. Slightly taller than the norm average, blond and dark- eyed, she was possessed of a harsh aristocratic beauty. She had the gift of elegance, of wearing expensive clothes well and looking glamorous with little embellishment. She had favored scarlet lipstick then, he remembered, but no longer; her mouth was now a softer shade, and the lines of her stylish summer suit less stridently autocratic.
       But she was still Zavcka Klist.
       She still wasted little time on pleasantries.
       “Our involvement with the Festival of the Future has struck many as anachronistic,” she began. “You may well wonder how a company that was on the brink of collapse not so very long ago, part of an industry whose day many consider done, can imagine itself to have much of a future. You all know I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the last few years have been, to say the least, challenging.”
       There were a few titters of nervous laughter that degenerated hastily into scattered coughs.
       “The financial challenges have been obvious and serious, but I am happy to report that they have largely been overcome. Bel’Natur remains a leader in agricultural gemtech and as a result we are once again approaching the levels of turnover and profitability that we enjoyed before the abolition of commercialized human gemtech.”
       The silence rippled out. It was as though a stone had been dropped into the massed memories of a century’s shame; a deep, still pool of guilt and recrimination around which, by mutual and unspoken agreement, most norms preferred to tiptoe as silently as possible. Zavcka stared straight into the audience as she spoke, eyes traveling slowly along the seated ranks of gems and norms, a mingling made possible only by the abolition of which she spoke. Eli, who already knew what a bravura performance she was capable of, nevertheless found himself holding his breath.
       “That was, of course, a watershed for the company, as indeed it has been for all of society. You will not be surprised to learn, ladies and gentlemen, gems and norms, that the cultural challenges it presented to us at Bel’Natur were beyond anything we’d ever dealt with. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pretending that we had no difficulty facing up to the facts of our history, learning the lessons from it, and instituting the changes, both in our business practices and in our attitudes, to ensure that such a cavalier and unthinking application of technology could never occur within our company again. I am certainly not going to insult your sense of justice by suggesting that no wrongs were done.”
       A loud murmur, with more than a hint, Eli thought, of the kind of self- righteousness beloved of those who preferred not to consider their own complicity. People shifted and muttered to each other. He kept his eyes on the back of Mikal’s head, shoulders and half a torso higher than anyone else’s, and noted that he had not moved a muscle.
       Zavcka stepped back a couple of paces, hands up in capitulation. “Let me say this, loud and clear, so no one can be in any doubt where Bel’Natur stands on this today: Wrongs were done, and we did them, along with the rest of the industry. And while we could justifiably add that a medical crisis and lax regulation and social apathy were contributing factors, that doesn’t actually let us off the hook. It has been a difficult thing to come to terms with, collectively and individually. I might not have been the chief executive during that time, but as you know I’ve been in this business for many years and I, like all of us, should have known better.”
       Eli felt an almost overwhelming disorientation. He remembered his first conversation with Zavcka Klist, just days before she took over the top job at what had once been the world’s most prestigious gemtech. There had been no humility then, and precious little contrition. He could not square that recollection with the apparent sincerity on display before him. He shook himself and glanced back at Aryel. Her arms were still folded across her chest, a counterpoint to the high bulge of her wings, and he could almost see the frown she bent toward Zavcka.
       He shifted his own attention back to the woman in the spotlight.
       “So we deal with the past,” Zavcka said, and she seemed to be looking directly at Mikal before turning away to pace the stage. “We admit our mistakes, we try to help the people we hurt, and we move on. And moving on is what I mainly want to talk about this evening, ladies and gentlemen. Moving on is why we’re all here. In our case that involved a lesson from the past, and what we think it means for the future.
       “As we examined the series of events that led us to where we are now, we noted the parallels between the way breakthroughs in genetic engineering were applied without due consideration for the
consequences and the way advances in information technology had been adopted with reckless speed a century and a half ago. Now we know where the latter led us— to the Syndrome, and a crisis
that demanded we develop modification techniques just to survive. But what became apparent is that although society used gemtech to solve the problems created by infotech, we nevertheless abandoned infotech. Progress came to a crashing halt once the Syndrome was identified. Our technical capacity is almost exactly the same as it was at year zero. That is neither necessary nor desirable.”
       She raised her hands again, this time a gesture of inclusion and uplift. The room murmured again, this time an expectant little ripple. They were hanging on her every word. Eli could not entirely conquer a reluctant sense of admiration.
       “We believe that the next great advances in science and technology, the next wave of improvement in the way we live our lives, will come from picking up where we left off with infotech. So what I came here to tell you today is that, far from being consigned to the garbage can of history, the Bel’Natur Corporation is changing course. We are launching a major, long- term research and development program into computing and information technologies. We now know how to do it safely, and as we travel down this new road we will be integrating what we’ve learned from human gemtech—both the scientific breakthroughs and the ethical imperatives. Over the next ten years we are going to be investing over a billion credits, creating thousands of new jobs, and bringing to market dozens of new products. We are going to be combining our unparalleled expertise in neural architecture with new concepts in software and hardware. We are going to launch the next phase of infotech.”

The midsummer sun was still high enough above the horizon to cast a golden glow over the gathering crowds on the riverwalk an hour later. Eli let himself be carried along in the fl ow of people heading toward the park, until he could step aside into a little nook where two ancient chestnut trees sheltered an empty bench. He sank down onto it and tried to think.
       Zavcka had wrapped her speech up quickly. The grandee who had introduced her bounced back onstage, grinning widely, and invited questions. Eli wondered if Aryel would stay and challenge or slip away as unobtrusively as she had arrived, but she did neither. Instead she had waited until the lights came up, waited until they touched the wall where she stood and Zavcka Klist’s eyes had focused on her and widened, before she sidestepped quickly to the door and out. By then people were on their feet all over the room and salvos were being fired at the stage.
       They ranged predictably from anxious inquiries about safety, to what sorts of products she thought might emerge, to quantifying the economic impact. She had gone straight to Mikal’s raised hand, though, despite knowing that he must be about to ask her to explain precisely what she meant by integrating human gemtech.
       Work had already begun, she said, in the pre-Syndrome era, on direct interfaces. But they did not understand enough then about how the brain was structured and how it worked; progress was slow, patchy, and ultimately abandoned.
       “We have the answers to those questions now,” she said. “And while we can regret the manner in which much of that knowledge was gained, I don’t think it honors anybody to simply not use it. On the contrary, it seems to me that we have an obligation to turn it into something worthwhile. Much of the original research focused on disability, for example, and working in difficult environments like space. Or underwater. If we can use what we already know to link this,” she pointed to her own head, “directly to this,” and she took a tablet out of the Festival director’s hand and held it up with the same restrained theatricality, “then there are so many problems we can solve.”
       She handed the tablet back, her attention still on Mikal. “We’re not talking about new gemtech. But I understand the concerns behind your question, Councillor, and I respect them. It’s a question that should be asked.”
       A few seconds of silence then, the audience bemusedly contemplating the unexpected courtesy she was showing to Mikal. Eli could imagine the split- lidded blink with which he filled it, something he thought his friend sometimes did on purpose when he wished to be disconcerting.
       “There are many questions that should be asked,” Mikal had replied evenly. “And answered. I look forward to it.”
       Eli knew her well enough to recognize the flash of anger in Zavcka Klist’s eyes as she registered the rebuke. A few people seemed to realize that they had missed something, but it sailed too far over the heads of most. Mikal sat back, giving up the floor and watching her weather the torrent.
       Now Eli kept an eye on the passing crowd until the giant loomed into view. He raised a hand. Mikal waved back and changed course, navigating to the edge of the fl ow of people so that Eli could fall into step beside him.
       “Well,” he said, channeling well- worn irony, “that was interesting.”
       Mikal laughed, a gusty tone with an edge of bitterness to it. “Which part? The rebirth of infotech, the recycling of gemtech, or Zavcka Klist being my new best friend?”
       “That last one is the killer. Did she speak to you again? I slipped out when it looked like there was going to be mingling. No love lost between us, as you know.”
       “I think she would have been nice even to you. She came straight up to me, handshake, congratulations, the whole thing. Said she didn’t think it would have been helpful to get into a technical discussion about neurochemistry from the stage but she didn’t want me to think she was being evasive, they intend to be completely open, blah, blah, blah.”
       “Subject to commercial constraints, of course.”
       “Of course. Though she did make a point of saying they want to set up a protocol with the regulators to ensure that the protection of intellectual property doesn’t undermine transparency. Quite how you manage that I don’t know, but she’d be very happy for me to help work it out.”
       “Blimey. Do you believe her?”
       “Do I believe that she wants me on her private stream, or popping by the office? That she mortifies herself nightly over what Bel’Natur did? Over what she allowed to happen to Gabriel, and Callan, and goodness knows how many others? No, no and no. She doesn’t look nearly shredded enough.”
       The big man sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It was medium length and a nondescript lightish brown. The modifications he bore were more than sufficient gemsign; his designers had correctly judged that topping them off with a jewel- colored, phosphorescent mane would have been redundant. His double thumbs left twin furrows on either side of his head.
       “But is she now genuinely trying to chart a new course? She might be, Eli. She knows they can’t go back to the old days. Innovate or die, as they used to say at Recombin. Infotech has been stagnant for a long time. We are all Syndrome- safe now, gems and norms, even the Remnants. Bel’Natur might be up to exactly what she says they’re up to.”
       “You sound like a politician, Mik.”
       “Go wash your mouth out. With soap.”

Faith Hunter - Dark Heir Blog Tour - April 3, 2015

Please welcome Faith Hunter to The Qwillery as part of the Dark Heir Blog Tour. Dark Heir, Jane Yellowrock 9 will be published by Roc on April 7, 2015.

Faith Hunter - Dark Heir Blog Tour - April 3, 2015

Dark Heir
Jane Yellowrock 9
Roc, April 7, 2015
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 384 pages

Faith Hunter - Dark Heir Blog Tour - April 3, 2015
Shapeshifting skinwalker Jane Yellowrock is the best in the business when it comes to slaying vampires. But her latest fanged foe may be above her pay grade…

For centuries, the extremely powerful and ruthless vampire witches of the European Council have wandered the Earth, controlling governments, fostering war, creating political conflict, and often leaving absolute destruction in their wake. One of the strongest of them is set to create some havoc in the city of New Orleans, and it’s definitely personal.

Jane is tasked with tracking him down. With the help of a tech wiz and an ex-Army ranger, her partners in Yellowrock Securities, she’ll have to put everything on the line, and hope it’s enough. Things are about to get real hard in the Big Easy.

Excerpt 9:

As she left, Bruiser approached, his eyes on me. At six-four, he was a tall man, even to me, topping my height by several inches. Looking every inch the Enforcer, the primo of a master vamp, neither of which he was anymore, he studied the room, the humans, the beheaded vamp, silent. But he took no command position, which felt so odd to me. He had always been Enforcer and primo, always in charge. Now he was Onorio and living off premises and . . . often in my bed, or I in his. But he never interfered when I was working, recognizing my authority as Leo’s current, temporary, part-time Enforcer. Everything was all backward.

“Suggestions?” I asked.

“One or two,” he said smoothly. “Over dinner, soon.”

Which meant later, privately, and not for any listening ears at coms. I nodded. I needed to know what was wrong with Del. I needed to know about Adrianna. I needed to know a lot of stuff, and Bruiser hadn’t been at his apartment last night, which meant he had stayed here. I assumed. I didn’t really know. And I was too chicken to ask, fearful of sounding like a love-sick school girl, whining, Where were you last night?. You didn’t answer my text. Were you with your old girlfriend? Which I knew he wasn’t, since his old girlfriend was Katie of Katie’s Ladies, my former landlady, and Leo’s heir. And Leo’s lover. Vamp bed-jumping was normally hard to keep up with, but Alex was currently handling the security cams and console for Katie’s place of business, until we could train Deon, her chef, for that job. We had access to all the cameras, and Bruiser hadn’t been there. Katie had been otherwise entertained last night. I tried to ignore my own relief at that. I trusted Bruiser. I did. But we hadn’t established the boundaries of our relationship yet.

About Faith

Faith Hunter - Dark Heir Blog Tour - April 3, 2015
New York Times Bestselling author Faith Hunter writes fantasy in several subgenres: the urban fantasy Skinwalker series, featuring Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee skinwalker; the post-apocalyptic Rogue Mage series and RPG, featuring Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage; and the upcoming SoulWood trilogy featuring Nell Nicholson Ingram, a woman who can siphon off the magic of others and is drawn into solving paranormal crimes. Faith writes mystery and thrillers under the name Gwen Hunter. When she isn’t writing, Faith likes to make jewelry, run whitewater rivers (Class II and III), and RV with her hubby and their rescued dogs.

Faith is online -

Website ~ Facebook ~ Twitter @HunterFaith

Pinterest ~ Goodreads

Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve Valentine

An excerpt from Persona by Genevieve Valentine, which will be published on March 10th by Saga Press.

Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve Valentine


The International Assembly audience hall was half-empty—too empty, Suyana might have said, in her first year there, when she was still surprised by the distance between good public relations and good politics. Now, looking across so many empty seats just made her heavy to the bones.

“Georgia,” the proctor called. “Germany. Ghana. Gibraltar.”

Missed opportunity, Suyana thought, every time the proctor’s eyes fell on an empty chair. An open vote was one of the rare times Faces pretended at politics. You were voting the way you were told, but even pretending was something, and she couldn’t imagine giving it up.

The rest of your life was photo shoots and PSAs and school visits, and saying what your handler told you to say, and going to parties where you tried desperately to look like you belonged amid a sea of other Faces who were higher on the guest list than you were.

Suyana put up with the rest of it because three or four times a year, she got to raise her hand and be counted. And today was a vote, and only half were here.

Some—the ones who ranked above her on guest lists— didn’t bother. Some feared what would happen if they did the wrong thing in front of the Big Nine, and their handlers had advised them to steer clear.

Her stomach twisted.

“They might as well just decide without us and inform us how we voted by mail,” she muttered.

Magnus said without looking over, “Try to sound professional, please, on the incredibly slim chance a reporter has a camera on you.”

No chance. The United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation had only been interesting three years ago, when the outpost got blown to pieces. Cameras had watched her for six weeks, until some other story broke.

That was before Magnus had been installed; she suspected he’d have worked harder to keep her in the public eye.

She pulled the day’s agenda into her lap, and picked the corners of the page off one at a time, where no one could see.

Magnus glanced over, said nothing.

In the sea of middle-aged handlers always conferring just out of camera range, Magnus looked more like a Face— tall, slender, fair, with a sharp expression—and she suspected he’d washed out from IA training, once upon a time.Just as well—he cast glances at the Big Nine as if he couldn’t wait to cut himself free of her. Diplomats couldn’t be so nakedly ambitious.

Little pieces of paper came off in her hands.

She couldn’t blame him; sometimes people had different loyalties than they were supposed to.

Smooth it over, she reminded herself. Keep an even keel. Don’t let anyone catch you out. Some things you can’t afford.

“I’m just nervous,” she said, softly.

It was true, but it was also what Magnus wanted to hear from her. Sure enough, he looked over.

“Understandable,” he said, high praise from him. “I have the rental.”

The rental was a necklace that was supposed to make her look fashionable, prosperous, alluring. Suyana thought it was useless, since her owning a bib of semiprecious stones would seem either openly false or a monstrous luxury depending on how much you knew about UARC economics, but Magnus had set his mind on it, and she wasn’t going to let it matter.

“Not sure it will do much. In Closer last year, he said he liked natural beauties.”

Magnus raised an eyebrow. “How cosmopolitan.”

“Iceland,” the proctor called. “India.”

“I don’t like the non-compete clause,” Magnus said. “Six months is restrictive. They’re hoping to leverage the re-up option in case the public likes you.” From his tone of voice, that wasn’t likely.

“Exclusivity ends the day the contract ends. They have the physical clause; you can’t enforce a non-compete on that. If he doesn’t want me to go elsewhere, he can make his offer alongside everyone else.”

He frowned. Three years on, he still got surprised whenever she slipped and got honest. (Most of the time Suyana wanted to strangle him. She measured her success as a diplomat by how little he caught on.)

“Japan,” the proctor called, and at the Big Nine table, far down the chamber ahead of her, the Face from Japan raised his hand.

“Suyana,” Magnus said, as careful as with any stranger he was trying to persuade. “We’re not in a place to dictate changes. We’re lucky they’re interested. After what happened—”

“I remember what happened.”

There was a little silence.

She missed Hakan, a knife of grief sliding between her ribs. She held her breath, like it could bring him back from the dead. Smooth expression, she thought. Show nothing. Be nothing.

“Norway,” the proctor called, with no answer.

Only six of the Big Nine had deigned to appear. Grace, the best of the lot, was without her handler—she always looked more eligible sitting alone. Grace was number two on Intrigue magazine’s Most Eligible Faces list for the fourth year in a row.

Suyana had already planned an attack of nerves so she’d miss Grace’s party. She was wary of open invitations; felt too much like charity sometimes.

Norway’s seats were empty. They were voting on some potential additions to the IA’s Human Rights Declaration, but apparently Martine didn’t think that was something that needed her attention.

(“You should go talk to her,” Magnus said once at an afternoon reception, and Suyana said, “Yes, nothing raises your social stock like being ignored by your betters.”)

Ethan Chambers, the American Face, had sent one of his assistants as a proxy; the Big Nine had enough staff to have them in two places at once.
At least there she knew the reason why.

Ethan Chambers was sitting in a boutique hotel a few miles away, waiting to meet her and sign the contract for a six-month public relationship. There would also be discussion of the terms of the physical clause; they were rare enough that they required careful debate, which meant everyone was preparing for several awkward hours. Still, you did what you had to, to get someone’s attention—the physical clause was the reason the United States had taken her offer seriously.

uyana suspected the American team thought that if Ethan got her in bed, she’d get emotionally involved, and be easier to pressure with PR fallout whenever they wanted the UARC to fall in line.

Everyone could dream, she supposed.

“New Zealand,” the proctor called, and a few rows in front of her, Kipa raised her hand for each count of the amendments. Each time, it was steady and sure, and Kipa locked her elbow as if to make sure her vote was counted. Suyana tried not to smile. Her turn was coming soon enough, and she didn’t want to know what she looked like when she was pretending she made a difference.

After she’d exercised her duties, there would be lunch with Ethan. After lunch, they’d start mapping out the first place they’d be caught together “accidentally.”

After that—

“United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation,” the proctor called.

Suyana smiled for the cameras, raised her hand to be counted.


Daniel wished he’d stolen a camera he actually knew how to use.

He huddled deeper into the restaurant alley and pried the long end of a paper clip into the lens assembly, trying to loosen whatever had jammed the thing in the first place before the sedan showed up and he missed his chance to shoot Suyana. His hands were shaking a little.

Suyana Sapaki was a risk for a shoot on spec. She’d barely escaped being burned out three years ago; she was on the verge of a comeback, but a verge is a tricky thing to measure. Too late and you’re drowned in the tide, too early and the pictures go for nothing and get used as archive footage without royalties whenever they finally do something interesting.

But the alley was perfectly positioned across the street from the swank hotel where Ethan Chambers, Face of the United States, was waiting to meet Suyana Sapaki on business unknown. The bellboy Daniel bribed said Ethan had been there since yesterday while his empty car drove all over town.

The lens assembly slid back into place, and Daniel settled behind a garbage can—the poor man’s tripod—to focus before Suyana’s car showed up.

He hoped it was worth what he’d spent on intel to catch negotiations between the US Face and what Daniel suspected was his girlfriend-to-be. He couldn’t afford to go home.

The sedan turned the corner—a cab, not one from the IA fleet. Daniel braced his hands. They still shook a little before a great shot. (It was embarrassing—he was twenty-two, not twelve, he knew how to take pictures—but sometimes the thrill got the better of him.)

Magnus got out first. He was the UARC’s new handler, a pro from some Scandinavian country they’d brought in to help spin the disaster, and he looked like a man who was used to getting out of messes clean.

Magnus scanned the square for a moment before he reached back into the car, to call Suyana out.
       [Submission 35178, Frame 7: Magnus Samuelsson standing beside a black sedan sitting around the corner from the front entrance to the Chanson Hotel. Subject in profile and three-quarters length, hand extended into the backseat of the car, looking at something out of frame.]
Weird, Daniel thought, risking a glance up from the viewfinder. Magnus didn’t seem the type to get swept up in scenery, and it wasn’t as though Ethan Chambers would be standing with flowers at the balcony to greet the girl he might be about to contract to date.

He didn’t know much about most of the IA handlers— you weren’t supposed to, that’s why countries had Faces, to give you something to look at—but something seemed off. Had they fought in the car? Was Magnus just cautious? Had he arranged for official nation-affiliated photographers to catch the first moments of budding romance, and Daniel was going to be without an exclusive after all this?

But then Suyana stepped out of the car, and Daniel forgot everything in the queasy thrill of a scoop.
[Submission 35178, Frame 18: Suyana Sapaki (Face UARC), sliding out of the backseat of a sedan. Large necklace—appears genuine (ID and trail of ownership TK). Face three-quarters, turned to the hotel. Has not taken Samuelsson’s hand.]
Daniel had, once or twice in his research for this, questioned why Suyana had been considered the best option for the Face of the UARC. She was Peruvian, and the Brazilian contingent had given her flak for it—they were a much bigger slice of that pie, and a Quechua was playing even harder against the numbers, unless you were going after diversity points. She was a little stocky in a world that liked its Faces tall and thin, a little hard around the eyes in an organization that prized girls who could fawn when the cameras were going. Even from here it looked like she was suffering a punishment. No way that was true—if she could get Ethan to sign on the dotted line, it was a PR coup the UARC could only dream of.

But her brown skin and knotted black hair and sharp eyes made a decent picture when the light hit her, and she moved with more purpose than Daniel saw from a lot of IA girls. (Wasn’t much purpose for her to have, except look good and do as she was told. Handlers did the real work. Faces just made it look sharp to the masses. Though nobody wanted a Face getting ideas, as they’d reminded him plenty back home.)

Once the car pulled away, Magnus looked Suyana over with the focus of an auctioneer. He lifted his chin as if inviting her to do the same; Suyana stared through him and didn’t move. Magnus straightened the collar of her shirt, tweaked one of the careless gems on her necklace so that it lay right side up against her collarbone.

Daniel raised his eyebrow into the viewfinder, took a few shots as fast as he could.

He’d seen backstage prep on the Korean Face, Hae Soo-jin, when he was still apprenticing as a licensed photographer. Most of it looked like grooming animals for auction, if you were being honest. This was something different; some message passing back and forth through a necklace that was laughably out of place on her.

Suyana glanced at Magnus for a moment with a frown that was gone before Daniel could catch it. Then she turned her head, as if she was used to being altered by people she didn’t look at.

That was about right. The ideal combination of hanbok and national designers a Face should wear to present the correct ratio of tradition and modernism had been a hot topic at home when he left. The news had a segment on it at least once a week. Historians were weighing in; fashion-industry insiders staged demonstrations. Hae Soo-jin hadn’t been called on for an opinion. Decision making happened before anything ever reached them. You could measure the length of a Face’s career by seeing how good they were at agreeing with other people’s outcomes.

But Suyana had looked at Magnus so strangely. Maybe it bothered her to know how far on the sidelines she stood.
[Submission 35178, Frame 39: Magnus Samuelsson, back to the camera (identified in Frames 1–13). Facing the camera, Suyana Sapaki. Samuelsson has his hand extended toward Sapaki’s elbow. Sapaki looking off-frame (object of gaze unknown), hands in pockets. No acknowledgment.]
“It doesn’t matter,” Suyana said. “He’ll know it’s not mine.” Her voice floated a little around the square before it settled on Daniel.

“We’re impressing an ally, not a jeweler,” said Magnus. “You need all the help you can get. No use looking shabby first thing. Are you ready to be charming?”

She looked right at Magnus, and Daniel flinched at her expression (murderer, he thought wildly, like he was watching a movie) and wished for a concurrent video function so he could try to capture what the hell was even going on.

Then she blinked, and her eyes softened, and her smile broke wide and white across her face. “Of course,” she said, in a voice that sounded barely hers. “Are you ready to chaperone?”

Magnus’s jaw twitched—surprised, maybe, or put out— and he looked back toward the street like he was thinking of making a run for it. “Let’s go.”

Suyana pushed her shoulders back, licked her lips, and headed for the front door of the hotel like she was on her way to a prison sentence. Magnus followed a little behind; most handlers did when their Faces were onstage. There was no good in the policymakers hogging the spotlight.

Daniel should have kept better track of how the light was moving; shadows giving way to the flood of sunlight across the white hotel made him blink into the viewfinder, and he took pictures by reflex as he waited for his eyes to adjust.

He was still waiting when the gunshot rang out.

All the sound was sucked out of the square for a second in the wake of the shot. His finger never stopped moving. He hoped against all luck that he’d managed to catch the moment the bullet hit. If there was a bullet.

There were publicity stunts like this, sometimes, when someone needed the sympathy. They made front pages, no matter how horrible and obvious a ploy it was.

As the shutter clicked, the sound washed back—people shouting behind the closed door of the restaurant, Magnus staggering back with one arm out toward Suyana, casting an eye around the rooftops (why wasn’t he in front of her? Why wasn’t he protecting his charge?).

And Suyana was scrambling up from the ground, favoring one leg but already trying to bolt for the nearest cover. She looked young, in her terror, but her jaw was set—she would live, if she could.

Too bad he’d missed that shot, Daniel thought as he pocketed his memory card and shoved the camera into the trash. He wasn’t going to get arrested for unauthorized photography, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get shot in some publicity stunt. She was coming his way, and he knew when to exit the scene.

But as Suyana dove toward the alley, there was another shot. She staggered and cried out—once, sharp—and he saw she had a bloody hand pressed to her left arm, that now the right leg of her jeans was blooming dark with blood.

He had to get out of there.

But she was running for the alley—lurching, really. She wasn’t going to make it in time to avoid a kill shot if it came, if this wasn’t a stunt. It might be a stunt. Either way, snaps didn’t get involved. The hair on his arms was standing up.

Magnus was shouting, somewhere out of sight (the hotel?). A car engine flared to life (the cab?).

Suyana was gasping for breath.

You’re a sucker, Daniel thought, you’re a sucker, don’t you dare, but by then he was already out in the square, scooping her under her good shoulder.

There was a bottle-cap pop from somewhere far away that he knew must be a bullet. Then they were running a three-legged race into the safety of the alley.

He let go as soon as she was in the shadows, but she caught hold of his elbow with more force than he’d have guessed she could manage. The tips of her fingers were rough; they caught on his sleeve.

“Save it,” he said, eyeing the street on the far side of the alley, to make sure it was clear when he ran for it, but then he made a mistake and looked back at her.

Either she was a damn good actress or she was tougher than he’d thought. Her mouth was pulled tight with panic, but she looked at him like she was sizing him up.

“Thanks,” she said, and somehow it was a demand for information, which was funny coming from someone who was bleeding in two places.

He couldn’t believe he’d gone out there. This was a handler’s job, if the shooting was even real—where the hell was Magnus?—and not one damn second of this was his business except behind a lens. This story had played out, and he was in enough trouble. He’d come back for the camera later. Maybe.

He said, “I have to go.”

Tires screeched around the corner, and from somewhere came the echo of footsteps, and the hair on Daniel’s neck stood up—his heart was in his throat, this was amateur hour, this was chaos.

Who knew this was happening today besides me? he wondered, from some suspicion he didn’t want to examine.

Suyana swayed, braced herself on her good arm against the wall like a sprinter on the starting line, her eyes fixed on the far end of the alley. There were footsteps, voices shouting. They’re looking for us, Daniel realized, and his blood went cold.

Suyana looked up at him, and for a moment he remembered the footage from a few years back, right after terrorists hit the UARC, and she’d bored holes at any camera that crossed her like she was daring them to ask.

She said, “Run.”

Excerpted with permission from Persona, a novel by Genevieve Valentine. Copyright © 2015 by Genevieve Valentine. Published by Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Saga Press, March 10, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages

Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve Valentine
In a world where diplomacy has become celebrity, a young ambassador survives an assassination attempt and must join with an undercover paparazzo in a race to save her life, spin the story, and secure the future of her young country in this near-future political thriller from the acclaimed author of Mechanique and The Girls at Kingfisher Club.

When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are on the run—and if they don’t keep one step ahead, they’ll lose it all.

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015

Please welcome John Love to The Qwillery. Evensong, John's most recent novel, was published in January 2015 by Night Shade Books.

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015

TQ:  Welcome back to The Qwillery. Your new novel, Evensong, was published on January 6th. Has your writing process changed (or not) from when you wrote Faith (2012) to Evensong?

John:  Thank you for inviting me, it’s nice to be back.

In my last interview, I said that when I’m writing I like to have a glass of malt whisky, and a cat, within easy reach. That bit hasn’t changed.

The style of writing is a bit different from Faith, my first novel. Evensong’s style is a bit plainer and sparser, and more suited to that of a thriller. There are one or two purple patches, but overall it’s less flamboyant than Faith; deliberately so.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing now?

John:  The challenge is to get readers to give positive answers to these three questions:
  1. Did you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?
  2. Did you care about the characters? (Not Did you like them? Characters don’t have to be nice to be believable and complex and make you want to know what happens to them.)
  3. Did you think the book tried to be original and different? If you didn’t, what other book or books did you think it most resembled?
For me, the first question is the most important. I’m always asking, Is this page enough to make a reader want to turn to the next page?

TQ:  What do you wish that you knew about book publishing when Faith came out that you know now?

John:  Publicity. I always felt Faith got less than it deserved, partly because of my own inexperience at pushing the publishers and partly because of the internal problems in Nightshade at the time.

TQ:  Tell us something about Evensong that is not in the book description.

John:  Some of the reviews and reader responses have described Evensong’s universe as being dark and twisted, which I wouldn’t deny. But it’s not entirely dark and twisted. Some interesting technologies have started to answer (not completely, but partially) the questions of long-term clean energy supply. And fundamentalism, both religious and political, has been marginalised – again, not completely, but partially. The book’s universe is ambiguous and menacing, but there are also the elements of a kind of Enlightenment springing up here and there. I was tempted to go down that road a bit more, but I decided it would be outside the scope of the book.

TQ:  Which character in the Evensong surprised you the most? Who has been the hardest character to write and why?

John:  Laurens Rafiq, the Controller-General of the UN, was the most surprising. He’s the spider at the centre of all the world’s webs (I wish I’d thought of that phrase when I was writing the book!) so I thought he’d just be pure unalloyed cynicism coupled with labyrinthine cunning. But I realised that although he had to have those qualities he also needed to have something good buried in there as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have worked.

Gaetano was the hardest, because he’s a character like Anwar, and he resents him but has to work with him. I had to be careful to get the balance right.

You didn’t ask me which character was my favourite, but I’d like to tell you anyway: the Ginger Cat.

TQ:  Please give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Evensong.

John:  This is where Anwar and Olivia, the two main characters, meet for the first time.

         ‘When he first saw her she was at the top of a stepladder, scooping a dead fish out of a floor-to-ceiling ornamental tank at the far end of the Boardroom. She had her back to him. Her bottom was wobbling interestingly under a long voluminous velvet skirt.
         “Sorry”, she said without turning round, “I’ll be right with you. I just noticed one of these angelfish had died.”
         “Do they die very often?”
         “No, only once.” ’

TQ:  Both Faith and Evensong are SF with the former being Space Opera/Military SF and Evensong being called a near future thriller (by your publisher). Other than being SF and having titles that have religious connotations, what do the two novels have in common? Do they address similar themes? Should SF address big themes?

John:  There is something I once wrote in a post for the “Night Bazaar” website run by Nightshade, when Faith was first published:

“If Faith has any political resonances, they’re at best oblique. But I hope it has some other resonances. About identity and free will: what makes us what we are, and what makes us what we do. About love and friendship: what forces bring us together, or keep us apart, and why we don’t recognise them. And about the absence of simple good and evil: the complexities which make each of them part of each other.”

Evensong is a near-future political thriller, so it does have some clear political resonances where Faith doesn’t; but the rest of that paragraph could apply to Evensong as much as to Faith.

So, to answer your last question, yes, absolutely. Big themes are as much fair game for SF as for any other genre.

TQ:  Which question about Evensong do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

John:  That’s a nice question. I think I’d like someone to ask how I came to think of Evensong. It was quite an unusual process, and I love regaling (or boring) people with it. Now it’s your turn.

My wife and I went to an Evensong service in Rochester Cathedral in Kent. It was a beautiful summer evening and afterwards everybody went out into the Cathedral precincts where some tables had been set out for coffee. Halfway through my coffee I had this idea of a similar setting, where an unidentified woman comes to the Evensong service but doesn’t stop for coffee afterwards. She hurries away. She’s been to several previous Evensongs and has always hurried away afterwards. Who she is, and why she comes there, is her back story which begins nearly a year earlier.

What is so unusual is that I’d got the whole of her back story, and the whole construction of the book, in less time than it took to swallow a mouthful of coffee. There was no blinding flash or feeling of revelation, but the whole book had sprung out fully formed – main plot, sub-plots, main characters, minor characters, settings, everything. I could see it in three dimensions, could (metaphorically) walk round it and study it from every angle, and it worked. It all hung together.

When I came to write it there was almost nothing, major or minor, which was changed.

TQ:  What's next?

John:  I’m writing a fantasy novel. It doesn’t have any orcs, elves, dragons, sorcerers or dark malign gods, only people. But “fantasy” is probably the most convenient shorthand description because it’s set in a completely imaginary world at the same approximate level of development as ancient Greece or Rome. It even has a map.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

John:  Thank you for asking me back, and thank you for your interest in my book.

Night Shade Books, January 6, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 352 pages

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015
A near-future thriller where those who protect humanity are not always completely human.

The future is a dangerous place. Keeping the world stable and peaceful when competing corporate interests and nation-states battle for power, wealth, and prestige has only gotten harder over the years. But that’s the United Nations’ job. So the UN has changed along with the rest of the world. When the UN’s “soft” diplomacy fails, it has harder options. Quiet, scalpel-like options: The Dead—biologically enhanced secret operatives created by the UN to solve the problems no one else can.

Anwar Abbas is one of The Dead. When the Controller-General of the UN asks him to perform a simple bodyguard mission, he’s insulted and resentful: mere bodyguard work is a waste of his unique abilities. But he takes the job, because to refuse it would be unthinkable.

Anwar is asked to protect Olivia del Sarto, the host of an important upcoming UN conference. Olivia is head of the world’s fastest-growing church, but in her rise to power she has made enemies:  shadowy enemies with apparently limitless resources.

Anwar is one of the deadliest people on earth, but her enemies have something which kills people like him. And they’ve sent it for her. It’s out there, unstoppable and untraceable, getting closer as the conference approaches.

As he and Olivia ignite a torrid affair, Anwar must uncover the conspiracy that threatens to destroy her, the UN, and even The Dead.

About John

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015
Photo by Gemma Shaw
John Love spent most of his working life in the music industry. He was Managing Director of PPL, the world’s largest record industry copyright organization. He also ran Ocean, a large music venue in Hackney, East London.

He lives just outside London in north-west Kent with his wife and cats (currently two, but they have had as many as six). They have two grown-up children.

Apart from his family, London and cats, his favorite things include books and book collecting, cars and driving, football and Tottenham Hotspur, old movies and music. Science fiction books were among the first he can remember reading, and he thinks they will probably be among the last.



Chapter One

         Anwar sat in a formal garden in northern Malaysia on a pleasant September afternoon, reading. The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on…He liked FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, but felt it took liberties with the text; he preferred the original, in the cadences of twelfth-century Persian.
         It was 4:00 p.m.: time. He closed the book and retreated back under the roof of his verandah, just as the afternoon rain began with its usual promptness and intensity. While he watched it he performed one of his standard exercises: using the fingers of his right hand to break, one by one, the fingers of his left hand. The core of the exercise was not to blank out the pain—though his abilities were such that he could have done that, too—but to feel the pain and still not react to it, either by noise or by movement, as each finger was bent back beyond the vertical and snapped. It was a familiar exercise and he finished it satisfactorily.
         The rain stopped, as promptly and suddenly as it had begun. He leaned back, breathing in the scent of wet leaves and grass. A brief gust of wind shook rain from the trees, so that it sounded, for a few seconds, like another downpour beginning. He cupped his right hand round his left, easing his fingers back to their normal position, and waited for the bones to set and regenerate; it would take about an hour.

         It was not unheard-of for a VSTOL from the UN to land on the formal lawn at the centre of his garden, but it was not something which happened often. This was one of their latest, silent and silvered and almost alien. A door melted open in its side and a dark-haired young woman got out and walked across the lawn towards Anwar. She was Arden Bierce, one of Rafiq’s personal staff, and they smiled a greeting at each other.
         “Rafiq wants you.” She handed him a letter. He studied Rafiq’s neat italic handwriting, not unlike his own, and the courteously phrased request and personal signature. When Rafiq made this kind of request, he did so by pen and ink and personal meeting. Never remotely, and never electronically.
         “I should go now.” He was telling her, not asking her. She nodded and turned back to the waiting VSTOL. Anwar Abbas stood up, stretched, and walked after her. He was as powerful as a tiger, as quiet as the flame of a candle.
         Offer and Acceptance. The VSTOL would take him south to the UN complex outside Kuala Lumpur, where Laurens Rafiq, the Controller-General, would formally offer him a mission and request his acceptance. Anwar Abbas had received such requests before from Rafiq, but this one would be different. It would lead him to two people, one of them his beginning and the other his end.

Chapter Two

         Anwar liked the VSTOL, almost to the point of kinship; it was quiet, did exactly what it was supposed to do, and did it supremely well. It was even superior to America’s Area 51 planes, and their Chinese and European equivalents.
         There was a growing concern in some quarters that the UN was developing better hardware than its members. Another example, Anwar reflected, of the Rafiq Effect.
         The northern highlands of Malaysia hurtled past underneath. They were heavily wooded, and seemed to be smoking without flames; vapour from the last downpour, hanging above treetop level. He clenched and unclenched his left hand.
         “Is it healed?” Arden Bierce asked him.
         He smiled. “The Moving Finger breaks, and having broke, resets itself.”
         “Don’t you mean ‘broken’?”
         “Wouldn’t scan.”
         He liked her; she had this ability to make people feel comfortable around her. She was very attractive, but seemed genuinely unaware of it. Most people born with looks like that would be shaped by them; would probably be cynical or manipulative. She was neither. Perceptive and clever in her dealings with people, but also pleasant and companionable.
         Anwar had never done any more than flirt mildly with her. He was awkward socially, the result of having a normal circle of acquaintances but few close friends. Only about thirty people in the world knew what he was.
         He leaned back and watched the shapes and colours moving just under the silvered surfaces of the walls and furniture of the VSTOL’s lounge. It would be a short flight. The UN complex outside Kuala Lumpur would soon appear.
         The UN had adapted to the increasing complexity and volatility of the world order. It had a Secretary-General (political) and a Controller-General (executive). As it gradually took on more executive functions, the Controller-General became more important, at the expense of the Secretary-General. The Controller-General was Laurens Rafiq.
         The old UN in New York still remained, but Rafiq’s UNEX (UN Executive) in Kuala Lumpur was overtaking it—restructuring the major agencies like UNESCO, UNICEF, UNIDO, and transforming them. Policy was still in the hands of the old UN, but it was becoming apparent that policy was meaningless without executive rigour. The medium was overtaking the message.
         Rafiq had acquired many assets at UNEX. Not only the agencies, but also some independent military capacity—not enough to make the UN more powerful than any of its individual members, but enough to settle some of the increasing conflicts over resources, energy, borders, and trade. Often Rafiq’s UNEX would take pre-emptive action which later the political UN had to ratify—had to, because the action worked.
         One of the smaller and more mysterious components of Rafiq’s UNEX was something he called The Consultancy, known colloquially (and inaccurately) as The Dead. Its members did things for him which mere Special Forces could never do. Outside UNEX, nobody knew exactly how many Consultants Rafiq had, but it was only a handful. This was because only a handful could survive the induction process, and because only a handful was all that even Rafiq could afford. Their training, and the physical and neurological enhancements which made them unique, were uniquely expensive.
         Anwar Abbas was a Consultant: one of The Dead.

         Dusk fell quickly and was short-lived, turning abruptly to darkness in the few minutes’ duration of the flight. Anwar got only a glimpse of the lights of the UN complex before the silvered plane dropped vertically and landed—or, rather, hovered politely one inch above the ground while they stepped out through the door that had rippled open for them. What enabled it to hover was something to do with room-temperature semiconductors, the Holy Grail of frictionless motion: not fully achieved yet, but getting closer.
         The plane slid noiselessly up into the night. For the second time, Anwar found himself following Arden Bierce across a lawn. This lawn was part of the park which formed the centre of the UN complex.
         Ringing the park were some tall buildings, each a different shape and colour: ziggurats, pyramids, cones, ovoids. Each stood in its own smaller piece of manicured parkland, and was festooned with greenery hanging from walls and windows and balconies. The overall effect was pleasing, without the pomp of the old UN buildings in New York and Geneva; more like the commercial district of any reasonably prosperous city. Kuala Lumpur, a few miles south, was similar but larger-scale.
         The central parkland had lawns and woods, landscaped low hills and a river, over which was cantilevered the Controller-General’s house, Fallingwater. It was based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, scaled up, but still house-sized. The security around this building, of all the buildings in the complex, appeared to be nonexistent, the way Rafiq had personally designed it to appear. They simply walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. The door opened into a large reception area.
         “I’ll go and tell him you’re here,” said Arden Bierce as she went through an adjoining door, usually known as the door because it led to Rafiq’s inner office.
         Anwar looked around him. He knew Fallingwater well, and found it calming. The interior of the house was larger than Wright’s original, but furnished and decorated in the same style: comfortable and understated, a mix of regular and organic shapes, of autumn browns and ochres and earth tones. Large areas of the floor were open expanses of polished wood, with seating areas formed by clusters of plain stonewhite sofas and armchairs. Several people were there, talking quietly. They were all members of Rafiq’s personal staff, like Arden Bierce, but only a few of them looked up as he entered. The rest paid him no attention.
         Except for Miles Levin. He and Anwar had known each other for years, and they exchanged their usual greeting.
         “Muslim filth.”
         “Jewish scum.”
         Their Muslim and Jewish origins, if any, were no longer important. They had taken their present names, along with their present identities, when they became Consultants. Which they had done at the same time, seven years ago.
         Levin was six feet five, nearly three inches taller than Anwar, and more powerfully built. He looked generally younger and stronger, and was—for a Consultant—louder and more outgoing. Anwar was thin-faced, with a hook nose. Levin’s face was broader and more open. Both were dark-haired and wore their hair long.
         “Waiting to see him?” Anwar asked.
         “I’ve seen him. Offer and Acceptance. I was just leaving.”
         Normally they’d have had a lot to talk about, but not this time. They couldn’t discuss missions, that simply wasn’t done; and also, Anwar noted a strangeness in Levin’s manner, a kind of preoccupation. So he just nodded briefly at him, and Levin turned to go.
         “Take care,” something prompted Anwar to whisper.
         Levin heard. “You too.” He did not look back.
         “Filth.” The door closed softly behind him.
         Another door—the door—opened. Arden Bierce came out.
         “He’ll see you now.”

Excerpted with permission from Evensong by John Love. Copyright 2015, Night Shade Books an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty

Today we have an excerpt from King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment by Dennis O'Flaherty. King of the Cracksmen is published by Night Shade Books.

Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty

Chapter One

The three men were moving fast, in single file, dashing across the patches of stark moonlight and into the safety of the shadows like night creatures with an owl at their backs.
        “Jasus, Mary and Joseph!” grunted the tail-ender, a fire-plug of a man clutching a sawed-off shotgun. “If I stub me toe on one more rock I’ll blow the bastard thing to smithereens!”
        “Shut yer gob, Bertie,” hissed the man in the middle, “and mind McCool’s satchel or it’s us ye’ll be blowing to smithereens.”
        The man in front paused for a moment, shifting a heavy carpetbag from one hand to the other before he turned to look at them. Despite a bushy walrus moustache and a black slouch hat pulled down nearly to his eyebrows, his face looked disarmingly boyish, but the other two seemed to know better. They fell silent instantly, trading uneasy looks.
        “You’d best save the gassing for Maloney’s,” he whispered, so softly he could barely be heard over the rustle of the breeze in the trees and the busy hum of the cicadas. “Remember, there’s supposed to be a new watchman and he may not be a rumdum like Timmy was.” He motioned to them to follow and slipped away into the darkness.
        Meanwhile, in a brightly gaslit parlor on the other side of town a pair of onetime lovers stood glaring daggers at each other, teetering on the edge of violence.
        “I told you before,” the woman hissed, “you and me are through. You have a hell of a nerve sneaking up the back stairs in the night like a dog in heat. If it’s deaf you are now, I’ll say it again louder: I don’t want you here no more!”
        The big man gave her what he hoped was a winsome smile: “You know you don’t really mean that, angel cakes, you always say things you’re sorry for later when you get mad.”
        Mad hell, she thought, she was just getting warmed up. She caught his eyes fixing on her breasts where they showed in the V of her negligée and pulled the gown together with a disgusted growl. There had been a time when she’d found that little-kid grin of his endearing, just like that touch of an accent that he’d never quite managed to lose. Now either one was enough to make her want to twist his nose.
        The big man could see her expression hardening and he felt his own anger breaking through despite his determination to sweet-talk her.
        “I expect you’d rather be billing and cooing with your pretty little boyfriend, is that it?” He sneered, biting the words off and spitting them at her: “You and him all loveydovey, and no more thought of our good times than the man in the moon!”
        She rolled her eyes scornfully: “Pretty? That pretty little boy could cut your gizzard out as soon as look at you, and don’t you forget it!”
        The big man felt the blood rising in his face; he knew he was skating too close to the edge, but he couldn’t keep back his hand as it flew up to strike her.
        “Go on,” she screamed, “hit a woman like the big ugly coward you are. But you’d best kill me when you do or you’ll rue the day!”
        He froze, stopping himself by a tremendous effort of the will and letting his hand fall back slowly to his side. “Damn it, woman, I’ve always loved you,” he said thickly. “You know that.”
        She folded her arms on her chest and gave him a flat stare. “You love sticking your peter in me, that’s what I know,” she said in a voice cold enough to crack granite. “The only person in this world you love is the one whose nasty mug you shave every morning, and I gave up hoping I could change that a long time ago.”
        His thoughts felt heavy and sluggish with rage: should he have one last go at loving her up and bringing her around, or should he just say to hell with it and give her the beating she had coming? He rolled his shoulders ominously, lowered his head and moved towards her . . .
        The man with the carpetbag held up his hand for the other two to stop. For some minutes they had been moving along a white picket fence that bordered the road until finally they came in sight of a large, rambling Victorian house set back from the fence by a hundred yards or so of flower-bordered flagstone path.
        The moonlight bathed the white shingles of the house so that it glowed like an apparition, but the windows of the upper stories showed a murky gloom that made all three men uneasy. To make it worse, a long verandah ran along the front of the house, its roof interrupting the moonlight so that it cast everything below it into inky darkness and made it seem as if the whole house was settling slowly into a black sinkhole.
         “There’s niver a copper up there,” quavered the man with the shotgun, “the useless shite’s ta home in . . .”
        The leader turned on him angrily and cut him off with a hand over his mouth. He waited a second to make sure the message had been received, then he squatted down and opened his bag, taking out three calico flour sacks with holes cut for their eyes. He tugged his over his head, handed out the other two, then bent over the bag again and took out three bundles of dynamite, each with a long spool of wire attached to it. Finally he took a blasting machine out of the bag, attached the wires from all three bundles to it, and set it down carefully at the bottom of a drainage ditch that ran along the fence.
        Now he beckoned to the other two, handing each of them a bundle of dynamite and a spool of wire. He bent towards the one with the shotgun and put his mouth directly to his ear as he whispered:
        “Be a good lad and leave the blunderbuss here, will you, Bertie? And don’t be stubbing your toe and falling down on that dynamite or we’ll be meeting next in Hell.”
        The other man frowned sulkily and laid his shotgun against the carpetbag. The leader picked up his own bundle of dynamite and started towards the front door, unspooling the wire as he went. The other two were fanning out to either side, following a plan they had rehearsed till they could do it in their sleep. Even so they walked on tiptoe, sticking to the grass for silence and jumping at every little nighttime noise.
        For a few moments, everything went as smooth as butter. Then, someone stepped on a windfallen branch that broke the hush with a crack like a pistol shot. The three men froze, staring towards the darkness at the front of the house like mice watching for a cat. One heartbeat, another . . . then there was a sharp, ringing metallic CLICK! and a pair of glowing red eyes pierced the gloom and swiveled slowly towards the noise of the snapping branch, whirring loudly as they moved.
        “Aw, shite!” wailed Bertie. “A fookin’ Acme!”
        The leader’s voice snapped at them like a whip: “Bertie, Fergus, don’t budge—those things follow movement!”
        “To hell with that and you too, Liam McCool,” yelled Fergus, “I’m hooking it!”
        Throwing down his bundle of dynamite, he took off wildly across the lawn, his arms pumping like pistons, and as he did heavy footsteps slammed across the verandah until a hulking figure appeared at the top of the stairs.
        Seven feet tall, unnaturally precise in its movements, dressed in the blue serge uniform of the Coal and Iron Police and bald as an egg, the creature’s glowing red eyes stared out of a shiny pink porcelain face as expressionless as a chunk of pig iron. Slowly its head swiveled to follow the hysterically fleeing man and its eyes glowed an even more intense red as it whirred and clicked into a crouching position.
        “Aw, hell!” muttered McCool, reaching for his pocket.
        In the same moment, the creature sprang upwards, leaping through the air for a good fifty feet and landing with an appalling thud not far behind his prey:
        “HEEEEEEEEEEELP!” screeched Fergus.
        McCool pulled a Colt Peacemaker out of his pocket, aimed it carefully and fired towards the “Acme.” The heavy slug struck it square in the back and it stopped running abruptly and turned its glowing eyes towards McCool as Fergus, momentarily reprieved, disappeared into the night howling like a banshee.
        “Fook me!” groaned Bertie through chattering teeth, “I ain’t stickin’ around for no . . .”
        “Yes you are,” said McCool flatly. “I need you. Give me your dynamite and don’t move an inch or I’ll put the next bullet between your deadlights.”
        The creature started stalking back towards McCool, picking up speed with each step as Bertie moaned with terror.
        “Shut up,” McCool said. “I’m going to run towards the house and get the thing to follow me. As soon as you see I’ve got its attention you get down in that ditch with the blasting machine and when I sing out ‘NOW!’ you push that plunger home! Got it?”
        “Aw, shite!” Bertie sobbed.
        “Good,” McCool said and took off at a run towards the house, pistol in hand and both bundles of dynamite stuffed in his jacket pockets.
        For a moment, the “Acme” came to a full stop, its head swiveling and whirring as it looked back and forth between the two men; then it turned and loped after McCool in great, thudding bounds.
        “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” muttered Bertie as he crossed himself. Then he turned and sprinted like a racehorse for the drainage ditch . . .
        “You remember?” the big man asked hoarsely. “You remember how it was with us?”
        He was holding her close, his hands under her gown, running up and down her back and cupping her buttocks as he buried his face in her breasts. Thinking at the same moment: By God, she knows how crazy I am about her, how could she let herself be bedded by that young whelp? I swear I’ll kill the both of them before I let him have her again . . .
        At the same time she was thinking: I remember how it was, all right, in another second I’ll be lying down on the floor for him, right here on my own carpet in my own sitting room. I was stupid to let him put his hands on me, he can fire me up as easy as starting coals with a bellows . . .
        “There, now,” he muttered through the thickness in his throat, “there now, little girl . . .” He pulled her gown up around her waist and then let go for a moment to fumble for his buttons. But it was a fatal delay, just long enough to let her self-control flood back. She pushed him away sharply:
        “Get away from me, I mean it!”
        He stood there stunned. “What the hell are you saying, woman?”
        “I’m saying I’m not handing over my diary and you’re not getting anything else either,” she rasped. “Now sling your hook and get to hell on out of here. My true sweetheart treats me like I’m somebody, and if you studied on it from here to the Last Trump you wouldn’t have no idea what that means.”
        “You’re somebody are you, you brainless cow?,” he roared, grabbing her and pulling her close again. This time, though, she had crossed from passion into fury and she punched him in the ear hard enough to make him howl with pain and let her go. In an instant she was across the room at her desk, jerking open a drawer and pulling out a stubby, nickel-plated revolver.
        “Get out,” she shrieked, “get out before I shoot you right in your dirty bollocks!”
        He moved heavily towards her, barely registering her words, not even caring about the shiny little gun as the fury rose in his head and flooded his brain. . . .
        McCool leapt up the front steps two at a time, trying to stay calm as the thudding steps of the “Acme” got close enough to shake the ground under his feet. God knows how much those things weighed, but he had just seen that their steel skins were thick enough to stop a slug from a .45 Colt. As for their power . . . he tried not to shudder, remembering an “Acme” he’d run into one night on a Wall Street bank job. He’d tied up a horse and buggy in a back alley for his getaway but before he’d gone a hundred yards the filthy thing had caught up with them and torn the screaming horse to pieces like you’d unjoint a chicken.
        McCool spun around on one foot and drove the other into the front door, so hard that it came off its hinges, flew into the vestibule and slid across the floor. Without a pause, he followed it inside and dropped his bundles of dynamite into an elephant’s-foot umbrella stand as he tore on through the house to the kitchen and out the back door. A moment later, he heard the crashing footsteps of the “Acme” as it followed him inside.
        Continuing his mad dash, around the house now and back towards where he’d left Bertie, Liam crossed his fingers mentally. Henry Royce was a first-rate mechanic and his Manchester factory had made the Acme line the top automatons on the market for durability and effectiveness; Liam just had to hope the limey still hadn’t figured out how to make them smart.
        He cleared the house and started back down the lawn towards the road, where he could just make out the top of Bertie’s hat sticking up out of the ditch. The sounds of wood smashing and glass breaking from the inside of the house seemed to point to the thing being convinced that Liam was still in there with him, but on the other hand why push it?
        “NOW, BERTIE!” he bellowed, simultaneously bellyflopping on the grass and covering his head with his hands. An instant later there was a stupefying thunderclap and a flash as bright as day as the explosion picked Liam up and blew him across the road like a dry leaf . . .
        The woman in the negligée was badly frightened now. She had known the big man back in the city before ever she came here, longer than any of the people in Henderson’s Patch had known him, and she had never seen him like this. Sure, he was excitable; maybe all the more so because he made such a fetish of being strong and steady and hard to rile. And all the while it made the pressure build, like a steam boiler with no relief valve, so when he finally blew he made one hell of a big noise. But not like this. This time he looked crazy.
        “All right, then,” she said, angry that she couldn’t keep a tremor of fear out of her voice. “There’s no need for us to be enemies, why don’t we just have a glass of whiskey and talk things over . . .”
        He grinned at that, but the look of his eyes made her blood run cold. Then he started towards her—calmly, purposefully, still grinning a little as he tore off his shirt, then the cotton singlet he wore under it. The thought flashed through her mind that he was going to rape her, and instinctively she pulled back the hammer of the little pistol. The big man paid no attention. As he threw his singlet to the floor he leapt towards her, grabbing for her gun hand and wrenching her arm aside.
        For a moment she fought him hard, harder than any man had ever fought him, raking her nails across his chest till she drew blood, and then trying to force her arm around so that she could shoot him. But at the last moment, when she was within a hand’s breadth of putting the muzzle of the pistol into his armpit, his bulk and strength overcame her and a moment later there was a muffled thud as her eyes flew wide open and a strangled cry escaped her. Then her body went completely slack and the big man pushed her away from him in a spasm of horror and nausea.
        “Ohmygod,” he muttered in near hysteria, “Ohmygod, ohmygod!”
        As if in answer a stupendous explosion split the night, shaking the house like an earthquake, smashing the windows and knocking books and pictures to the floor. For a moment the big man just stood there with his jaw hanging open, struck to stone. Then he flew into action, the craziness melting away like wisps of smoke as his mind was seized by a single, burning thought: “escape!”
        For a few moments Liam lay in the middle of a dense patch of bushes, stunned and deafened as bits of board, brick, upholstery and God knows what all rained down around him. Then he forced himself to his feet and looked for his men: there was Bertie, the eejit, cowering in the ditch like Judgment Day had come, while Fergus was God alone knew where—probably in Philadelphia by now.
        “Stir your stumps, dammit!” Liam yelled, “five minutes and the coppers will be swarming us like flies!”
        He ran back across the road, retrieved his satchel and opened it, beckoning to Bertie to join him as he pulled out a folded bed-sheet, a box of carpet tacks and a hammer. Then he crossed to the gate, reached up with one hem of the sheet and tacked it to the crosspost overhead, handed one of the dangling sides to Bertie and tacked it to an upright while he held it, drove a couple of tacks into the remaining side and stepped back to admire his handiwork.
        The designs at the top were plain as day in the moonlight: a crudely drawn obvious coffin next to an equally simple revolver. Below the symbols, in six-inch-tall letters, were painted the words:
        With a little nod of satisfaction, Liam stuck the hammer, the tacks, the loose wire and the blasting machine back into the satchel, then dusted off his hands and turned to Bertie:
        “All right, then, me old son,” he said with a grin, “we’ve had our Fourth of July, now we’d best get home and get our beauty sleep.”
        He slapped Bertie on the shoulder, grabbed his bag and melted way into the night.

Excerpted with permission from King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment by Dennis O’Flaherty. Copyright 2015, Night Shade Books an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment
Night Shade Books, January 27, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 336 pages

Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty
How far will the luck of the Irish stretch?

The year is 1877. Automatons and steam-powered dirigible gunships have transformed the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. All of the country’s land west of the Mississippi was sold to Russia nearly fifty years earlier, and “Little Russia,” as it’s now called, is ruled by the son of Tsar Alexander II. Lincoln is still president, having never been assassinated, but he’s not been seen for six months, and rumors are flying about his disappearance. The country is being run as a police state by his former secretary of war Edwin Stanton, a power-hungry criminal who rules with an iron fist.

Liam McCool is an outlaw, known among other crooks as “King of the Cracksmen.” But his glory days as a safecracker and the head of a powerful New York gang end when he’s caught red-handed. Threatened with prison unless he informs on his own brethren fighting a guerilla war against Stanton’s tyranny, McCool’s been biding his time, trying to keeping the heat off him long enough to escape to San Francisco with his sweetheart Maggie. But when she turns up murdered, McCool discovers a trail of breadcrumbs that look to lead all the way up to the top of Stanton’s criminal organization. Joining forces with world-famed lady reporter Becky Fox, he plunges deep into the underground war, racing to find Maggie’s killer and stop Stanton once and for all.

King of the Cracksmen is an explosive, action-packed look at a Victorian empire that never was, part To Catch a Thief, part Little Big Man, steampunk as you’ve never seen it before.

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