Hi folks,
For those of you who are following my journey, first on Facebook and now here… THANK YOU!
It’s been quite the journey so far and it feels like 2020 could be the most exciting time for me so far. So, even though the book is NOT published yet (that’s my 2021 task!), I thought I’d treat you guys to a little taster of what I’ve been working on.
So, below, you’ll find the Prologue and Chapters 1 & 2.

**NOTE** If you want to know more about the world I’m writing in before you read below, then please check out all the stuff in the ‘Songbird‘ menu at the head of the page. There’s LOADS to see, including some character profiles, concept art, backstory and more.

I hope you enjoy them and it piques your curiosity for the book WHEN I get it published.

**FURTHER NOTE** The book is an Adult Sci/Fi Fantasy series, so be prepared… there is profanity in these previews. If you’re okay with that, then READ ON!



– Prologue –
HUNTED
– Kareena St. Claire –

– Friday – Domaine Saint-Bernard, Pack Nation –

     She ran.

     Willing already exhausted legs to keep moving, her heart drummed against her rib cage as the thumping sound reverberated in her ears. Her lungs burned. She was already as good as dead, so why was she delaying the inevitable?

     Fear.

     The primal instinct drove her onwards even when her rational mind told her it was hopeless. She cursed at every thorn that snagged her delicate skirt or left ugly scratches on her exposed skin. The uneven ground worked against her, threatening to trip her every panicked footfall.

     I should never have come out here.

     Yet what choice had she been given after what happened at the commune? She fled to the forest, because it had always been a place of safety for her before. She felt the keen sting of its unexpected betrayal.

      Stupid, stupid, stupid!

     Her fantasies of being a princess in a fairy-tale forest were now cruelly exposed as a childish delusion.  Ironically, as her terror played out in ragged gasps, she realized she was living a fairytale. The one with the Big Bad Wolf. But there was no woodcutter coming to rescue her.

     Who could save her? The monster had killed everyone she had ever cared about. She alone had survived simply because she fled. However, the same escape that kept her alive also caused the panic that rendered her hopelessly lost. A moment was all she needed to get her bearings, but it was time she simply did not have.

     A root grabbed at her foot, sending her sprawling into a small sunlit clearing. She twisted to survey the tree line behind her. Surely this was it? Surely, she was caught.

     She waited, trembling, trying to control her breathing. The forest was deceptively quiet, yet she knew the monster was still out there. He wouldn’t give up. Not now. Would he?

     She choked on a fearful sob and slowly crawled backwards, her eyes anxiously scouring the forest in front of her. A gentle breeze ruffled the leaves, but of her pursuer there was no sign. Hope blossomed.

     Please…

     Maybe she had lost him.

     As she held her breath, she became aware of a throbbing pain in the palm of her hand. 

     No!

     She sobbed; her flowering hope cruelly crushed by the crimson droplet gathering at the edge of her palm. It dripped to the floor of pine needles beneath her. Another bead of blood followed. Perhaps she could have gotten away with a scratch, but this…

     Any glimmer of escape, however fleeting, was irrevocably gone.

     She ran.


– Chapter 1 –
LONDON
– Gayle Knightley –

– Monday – London, England –

     “Bollocks,” she cursed under her breath.

     Big Ben chimed the hour as Gayle snatched her phone from her coat pocket, glaring at the screen. It confirmed what the bells were already telling her. Noon.

     Fuck!

     A missed call message begged for her attention. Her father. He could wait – she was late as it was.

     The rain was settling in hard, matting her hair against her face. Scowling skyward, she noted that the dark thunderclouds mirrored her current mood. The sharp beat of the heels she wore echoed loudly as she crossed a deserted Marlborough Road, brushing an errant pink strand behind her ear as she checked for nonexistent traffic. London wasn’t the city from the old movies she loved. Its days as a European hub of trade and culture were long over. Tourists no longer visited for its rich history, stunning architecture, and a glimpse of the Monarchy.

     The United Kingdom’s place in the global theater was now broadly defined by how it had contributed to the War and to the future security of the world. It was where the fight back had truly begun. The history books made it sound vaguely heroic, billed as the Battle for Britain. Heroic propaganda was created to make the survivors feel better, when in reality, it had not been a pleasant time through which to live.

     The Rising had been terrifying, and The Hunts had been dreadful.

     The Purification… Well, that had been pure hell. No one ever talked about that these days.

     It had truly been the darkest of times.

     As Gayle approached the Victoria Memorial, she contemplated the nature of the ‘invitation.’ Her optimism regarding a change of her operational status had been tempered over the last nine months, with inactivity driving her to a place of bitterness and anger.

     Stepping off the curb to cross Constitution Hill, the stiletto heel of her right boot skidded on the wet road. She gritted her teeth as her surgically repaired knee gave a painful reminder of why she had been removed from active duty.

     “I warned you years ago about your impractical choice of footwear, Knightley.”

     Gayle pursed her lips.

     “You’re just pissed you don’t look this good in heels, Torbar,” she retorted.

     “How come you’re walking the Mall anyway? Don’t you live over in Chelsea?”

     She didn’t answer; getting into a personal conversation with him was not on the morning’s agenda.

     “Ah,” he said after a beat. “Charing Cross…you’ve come from your parents place in Ely.”

     Evidently, he wasn’t just going to leave her alone. With their history she shouldn’t have expected anything else.

     “What do you want, Torbar?”

     “I thought you’d quit.”

     “Vicious rumor.”

     “Really?” Torbar said sarcastically. “That’s not what I heard. A little bird told me that Admiral Hawk wanted you drummed out of the Service. But that you beat him to the punch and resigned.”

     It was hard to argue since it was pretty much exactly what happened. Except the resigned part. Not that she hadn’t tried, but she had been persuaded that maybe a ‘medical leave of absence’ would be a better option until cooler heads prevailed.

     She didn’t look at Torbar. She didn’t need to. They’d known each other for the better part of a decade, and had once been…intimate, for want of a better word.

     Gayle straightened her leg, gingerly testing the knee, and winced.

     Could this day get any worse?

     “I thought I’d misread the security memo when it said you were coming back to the Academy,” Torbar continued nonchalantly. “But here you are.”

     She knew what he was doing. Their shared history meant she could read him like a book. His face may be displaying the blank look of innocence, but he was actively trying to push her buttons. Probing to see what she knew. Attempting to prod her into a reaction with such a benign, yet leading statement.

     “Security memo?” she asked against her better judgment.

     “I thought perhaps they were warning us.” His annoying grin informed her of his pleasure that she had taken the bait. He was enjoying this as much as she was hating it.

     Bastard!

     In the interest of trying to keep a low profile today, she resisted the ever-growing urge to punch him in his square-jawed face. Tuning out his continued prattle, she instead refocused on her destination – Buckingham Palace.

     Shunting aside the pain in her knee as best she could, she quickened her pace, knowing from experience that Torbar would struggle to match her lengthier stride. She was approaching the guardhouse when something he said re-engaged her attention.

      “Word is that they’re starting up the program again. That they want you to teach the new cadets.”

     She came to an abrupt halt as the security guard began to step forward from the small hut that was sheltering him from the rain. As she searched her coat pockets for her long unused Human-Fae Alliance identification, she finally turned to look at Torbar.

     “Norbel’s recruiting again?”

     “I guess they’re supposed to be your replacements,” he said flatly.

     Gayle’s jaw tightened and she felt her nails bite into her palms. “Where did you hear that?”

     “Is it true?”

     It had better not be.

     She assumed she was being summoned to receive a bollocking about something she had done. Or, more likely, something she had neglected to do. Gayle knew High Command considered her a maverick, and only her track record of getting results forced them to turn a blind eye to her often unconventional tactics.

     Until Bloody Valletta.

     They couldn’t ignore that.

     She swallowed hard and shoved the memory aside.

     “I highly fucking doubt it. Can you really see me teaching a bunch of bloody kids?”

     “Maybe you’re right,” Torbar shrugged. “I thought they might ask me to teach the new up and coming generation. But then again, my team’s still on active duty.”

     “Piss off!” she growled, her fist tightening further.

     “Although, if you teach them, they’d also get free tuition on how to use profanity creatively.”

     “I’m sorry, princess. Am I hurting your delicate fucking ears?”

     He ignored her sarcasm. “Just remember – you were one of those kids once…”

     She flashed her security pass at the disinterested guard who waved her through with little more than a cursory examination. Her reputation apparently still preceded her.

     “We both were,” she said. “But you’re right on one point. The last thing they need is to be taught the bad habits of the ‘Bitch…

     “…of Bulgaria,’” Torbar finished. “It always did have a ring to it.”

     “Smartest thing to come out of General Adams’ mouth.”

     “Credit where credit’s due – that Sofia mission was impressive.” Torbar’s tone hinted at genuine sorrow. “The 137th… they were really something.”

     In his own way, Torbar was expressing his condolences for her loss. Gayle wasn’t sure how to respond to his gesture. This was virgin territory for them.

     “Well, General Adams certainly didn’t agree with you,” she said softly before hardening again. “Anyway, I don’t know anything about new recruits. All I know is that my orders are to report to General Norbel here at midday, a meeting I’m already late for, so be a darling and piss off.”

      Torbar shook his head. “One day I’ll teach you how to make friends and influence people.”

     “What the fuck do I need friends for?”

     “Everyone needs friends.” Torbar turned, waving a casual farewell. “See you around, Captain.”

     Gayle didn’t bother reciprocating his gesture as they parted company, heading down opposite corridors.

     Her footsteps reverberated off the polished marble as she entered the Grand Hall. Gayle glanced around the empty room. Norbel kept time like a Swiss watch, so it seemed damn peculiar that, despite her tardiness, she arrived first. With a deep breath, she resolved herself to waiting, tapping her foot impatiently.

     World leaders and royalty had been among the first casualties of The Rising. While The Purification brought a peace to the country again, and the stability of a government in the Palace of Westminster, the Royal Family were simply irreplaceable. An empty Buckingham Palace became a redundant landmark, albeit one with a sizable grounds near the seat of democratic power. It was perfect for the needs of the Fae.

     They repurposed it to become the headquarters of the Human-Fae Alliance, incorporating the HFA Academy. These halls and corridors were seared into her memory, as it was where Gayle had learned how to harness her genetic gifts. A school for hybrids, special children with both Fae and Human parentage.

     The focal point of the Grand Hall was the stone shield featured prominently high on the wall. A fist with the wings of the Fae was centrally sculpted, the motto of the HFA engraved elegantly beneath it: ‘Fortitudinem per unitatis.

     ‘Strength through unity.’

     Idealistic words that represented something she had once believed true. Now, she was no longer sure. Valletta taught her a tough lesson: unity only gets you so far.

     Stylized glyphs representing Earth, Air, Fire, and Water surrounded the winged fist. The Fae could manipulate these elements and, by extension, so could their hybrid offspring. Gayle could burn this whole Palace to the ground or unleash a tornado powerful enough to rip it apart brick by brick if the mood moved her. She closed her eyes, and absently scratched her cheek with a bitten fingernail. She hadn’t used her powers for months.

     She had been the Hunter they all aspired to. Holding all the Academy records and setting all the benchmarks. A quirk of her birth, to be fair, but it had still been a perverse source of pride for her.

     Pride, however, often preceded a fall.

     Her tumble had been bloody, and brutal.

     Valletta. Fucking Valletta.

     It haunted her, never straying far from her thoughts. She was now a tarnished example of what happens when power corrupts you. Did she have regrets about Valletta?

     Honestly?

     “Captain Knightley.” His utterly perfect baritone broke her train of thought.

     “General,” she acknowledged.

     Seeing him triggered a conflict of emotion. Anger, but also guilt.

     Settle down… Take a deep breath.

     “I was truly sorry to hear about Vaylur. I…I should have said it sooner, but…”

     Words ran dry. No, she didn’t want to be there, but despite the resentment burning within her, General Norbel was family. Her mother’s brother. On the day she shipped out to Valletta with the 137th, her uncle had been involved in a flyer accident with one fatality – his husband. She found out about it three weeks later…after she woke from her medically induced coma. She had meant to contact him, but somehow never got around to it.

     Grief, anger, injury…she could blame many things, but as time passed, reaching out to express condolences felt too long overdue. Awkward.

     Norbel’s eyes flickered for a moment as an emotion she couldn’t place crossed his perfect face. His hands drifted together unconsciously as he touched the platinum band on his ring finger, turning it slightly.

     “No apology is required…or necessary. Vaylur is now at one with the River. I lost a husband; you lost a team. You had your own feelings to process. I understood that, and our first meeting after…” He paused for a moment before saying it. “…Valletta was not conducive to family business.”

     His magnanimity gave Gayle a tiny pang of guilt. A sliver of empathy that cracked her dark mood briefly. Yet, as she followed her uncle to his office, the seething cocktail of resentment and anger swiftly reestablished itself.

     “I am very glad you accepted my invitation,” Norbel said, making small talk to break the silence as they walked.

     “I wasn’t sure if it was an invitation…or an order.” Even as she said it, she inwardly cursed herself for seeming so petulant.

     But truth be told, these feelings had been bubbling away inside her for too long now. She’d always had a temper, but this level of fury was new. Valletta had fundamentally changed her. The rage felt like an integral part of her now.

     Norbel sighed, indicating he hoped that Gayle would be a little more compliant than she had been at their last meeting nine months ago. Her stare dared him to confront her directly about the reason she had been side-lined so long, but as she looked into his eyes, she saw them harden to flints. He wasn’t going to bring it up.

     “Please. Come into my office. We should talk.”

     Gayle took a deep breath before heading through the impressive wooden doors, entering the room beyond.


– Chapter 2 –
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER
– Zarra Anderson –

– Monday – Havana, Cuba –

     Why is there so much goddamn runnin’ in this job?

     The sun was fresh over the horizon. It cast long shadows across the deserted early morning streets, creating a thousand dark hiding places. Ample opportunity for her prey to conceal himself if she let him out of her sight. Fortunately, he seemed more interested in running. Still, time was against her. As the sun continued its inexorable rise, the city would begin to wake up. Civilians on the streets would complicate matters considerably.

     Zarra had to admit, as much as she hated the running, she was physically built for the chase. Long legs made quick work of covering ground, while her brain instinctively evaluated her pursuit options, mentally cross-referencing them with her quarry’s escape route and rejecting the options that didn’t help her. If he was a local, then he would have the distinct advantage of familiarity with these streets and the possibilities they presented. Not an unusual set of circumstances…this was the nature of the job. It simply meant that she had to be smarter than him and predict the choices he would make.

     Somehow, it always ended up with her running.

     Dammit, he’s fast.

     The worn rubber soles of her objective’s battered sneakers kicked up dust from the road surface as he abruptly altered course, veering off the main street through an opening in a low brick wall. He disappeared down the side of a ramshackle-looking house and into the sunset shadows of the alleyway. Even as he was making his turn, Zarra was already evaluating her options. She deviated sharply to the left, heading toward the closest point of the wall in a direct line to where he had disappeared.

     “You got him?” came the voice in her ear.

     “Not yet!” she growled back, not breaking stride.

     She paced her last pair of strides to the wall like a triple jumper, timing the push-off with her left leg to perfection. Planting her hand, she flicked her legs up and slid over the wall smoothly, brushing it almost imperceptibly. As her limbs cleared the dusty bricks, she pushed off with her hand to keep forward momentum. Hitting the ground on the other side, still sprinting, she passed the corner only a handful of seconds behind her prey.

     She saw him, closer now. He cast a glance back at her and was startled to notice the diminished gap. Redoubling his efforts, he feverishly cast his head around looking for new avenues of escape.

     “Getting slow, Zee!”

     “Shut up, Becka. I’d get him faster without your constant yammerin’ in my ear!”

     He was fast…but she was faster. She was built like an athlete, where he was built like a wrestler. Under these circumstances, that was working against him.

     Her thoughts flicked momentarily to her split lip, and the lingering taste of her own blood.

     Fuck him.

     She had tried to do this the easy way – talk first – but he wasn’t interested. That lucky shot was the only one he was going to get. She shouldn’t have let him tag her at all, but he was quicker than he looked. In the moment it had taken her to shake off the hit, he had smartly taken advantage of her decidedly ungraceful sprawling fall to make his escape.

     They always ran.

     Fuck ‘em all.

     But she was gaining, and he knew it. Which meant that very soon things were inevitably going to get punchy again. Yes, they always ran, but the other truism of the job was that they also never went down without a fight.

     He had shown no evidence of being armed in the bar where she found him, but just in case she popped open the safety locks on her holsters, one on each hip. It was best to be prepared. She’d done this too many times to expect a peaceful resolution.

     Her target repeated his previous maneuver, dodging desperately into another alleyway and disappearing momentarily from her view. However, while he was clearly acting on a base instinct to elude capture, her brain was already processing his possible getaway options.

     Zarra was a master of the hunt. Her thought processes were similarly instinctual but guided by a veteran’s savvy gained from the experience of hundreds of similar pursuits. As she closed on the abrupt turn he had just taken, she glanced down the parallel alley immediately preceding it, swiftly evaluating its features – a dead end blocked by a wall too high for him to clear. Zarra smiled inwardly. If the passage he had chosen was comparable in construction, he was trapped. There was nowhere left to run.

     If he’s gonna stand and fight, then this is the time to do it!

     She instantly calculated the time it would take her to cover the distance from her present footfall, to turning the corner than led to her prey – a handful of seconds at most. Yet, in that scant time he could easily have come to a halt and be waiting for her. Even unarmed, Zarra knew he easily had the strength to quickly gain the upper hand if allowed the element of surprise.

     In a smooth motion, she drew the gun on her left hip and hit the ground just before the alleyway, right shoulder first. She rolled and came up on one knee facing down the passage, weapon brandished in the direction of her prey’s only way out. Her heart pounded and adrenaline surged as she waited for the expected attack.

     Nothing happened.

     Her eyes snapped to him instantly, further down the alleyway than she had expected and rapidly approaching the high wall at the end. The bigger surprise was that he wasn’t Human anymore. As she watched, he finished smoothly shifting form into a dark feline shape and moments later, free of the remains of his clothing, bounded over the wall with animalistic ease.

     She surged back into motion, legs pumping again as she gave renewed pursuit.

     “Fuck!” she muttered. “Becka, he’s a shifter. T-seven…possibly an eight.”

     The ‘T’ was MercNet code for ‘therianthrope’ – Humans that could shapeshift into animals. Werewolves and their ilk. The following number was a designation of their transformation speed – the higher the number, the faster their ability to shift forms.

     “You can’t tell?” her companion replied with a hint of incredulity.

     “He was mid-shift when I clocked him, but he’s damn fast.”

     She slid her weapon back into its holster, thumbing a setting on the grip as she did so. She approached the wall at top speed and, without slowing, leaped to grab the top of the wall, hoisting herself up and over in one fluid motion.

     “That was not on the warrant.” Becka was all business now. “Class?”

     “Five,” Zarra answered immediately.

     Class four was your standard Werewolf-sized animal form; lower numbers were smaller beasts, higher numbers larger. This one was definitely bigger.

     “Form?” Becka asked.

     As Zarra hit the ground on the other side of the wall, she stopped. The alley opened onto a courtyard. She eased slowly forward, hands resting on gun grips, ready for any sign of aggression. The courtyard had three different exits, and no sign of her target.

     “Some kinda really big cat. Like a lion, or a cougar, maybe…”

     With his enhanced pace while in animal form, the smart choice would have been to go for the furthest door to try and throw her off his scent. Zarra’s gut, however, told her that while he was strong, he was not especially bright. He would likely choose the shortest path.

     She took off running toward the closest door, leading into an apartment building to her right. As she approached it, her hunch was confirmed by the splintered wood lying on the floor from the broken frame where he had used brute force to smash through it. She lowered her own shoulder and followed suit into the narrow corridor beyond.

     “There are no cougars in Cuba, Zee.”

     “I ain’t no expert on big cats, Becka. I’m just tellin’ you what I saw,” she growled. “Just get me somethin.’ Anythin.’ Check the goddamn ‘paedia!”

     “I’ll check… Doesn’t ring any bells, though.”

     “I just need to know what I’m dealin’ with here ASAP!”

     “Okay, keep your knickers on. I’m working on it…” As usual, Becka was unflappably British.

     Zarra dashed along the tight corridor as fast as she could, thinking that the narrow space surely would have impacted his speed

     Ahead of her, the doors to each apartment seemed undisturbed. The corridor turned left at the end, and if she was going to catch him, another shortcut was required.

     “Becka, pinpoint my GPS – apartment…3A. I’m about to ruin someone’s day…”

     Skidding to a halt, she braced herself against the right-hand wall and lashed out quickly with her boot at the closed door for apartment 3A. She expected screams of panic and dismay from the family living within, but instead silence greeted her. No one was home.

     Good. Makes things easier.

     “I take it that was a door?” Becka surmised from what she heard over the comms channel. “You realize that smashing up other people’s property cuts into our profit margins.”

     Zarra spent a moment gauging her surroundings. Moving again, she ran down the hallway heading toward the lounge and its large window. In most old action movies, the hero would place their arms protectively in front of their face and dive through the transparent material, emerging miraculously unscathed on the other side.

     Zarra knew better.

     This wasn’t a movie – that cheap plate glass would slice her neatly to ribbons if she tried it.

     Her eyes darted around the room and settled on a square, thick-bottomed glass vase on the coffee table, three quarters full of water and holding a bouquet of colorful flowers of a type Zarra didn’t recognize. She wasn’t a flowers kind of girl.

     Whoever lives here, I’m real sorry!

     “Pencil us down to replace a vase. And a window, too.”

     As she passed the coffee table, she snatched it up, and whipped it toward the window ahead of her. As planned, the heavy vase with the extra weight of the water shattered the glass on impact, raining deadly shards outward onto the pavement beyond.

     She lifted her lead leg like a hurdler, clearing the sill, her trailing leg following suit. No fancy hitting the ground and rolling back up to a sprint like in the movies here – she knew better than to roll around in broken glass.

     Zarra grimaced as her left shoulder blade caught a shard still lodged in the frame on her way past, slicing neatly through the leather of her combat suit and scoring her flesh. She ignored the pain and evaluated the injury calmly.

     Minor flesh wound; may need stitches later, but I’ve had worse.

     The shortcut paid off handsomely.

     There you are! You big, ugly bastard!

     The look on his face as she appeared from the shattered window was priceless. He had shifted back to Human form and was heading directly toward her but caught himself and skidded to a halt in his bare feet. She tightened her grasp on the grips of her weapons.

     Here it comes.

     It always came down to the final stand…and they always decided to fight.

     “Got it, Zee,” Becka said. “Possible type match on your runner. Harimau Jadian, if I’m pronouncing that right. Malaysian or Indonesian in origin. It’s a shifter, all right. Big jungle cat…often a tiger.”

     She yanked her firearms clear of their holsters, training them on the fugitive shapeshifter in an attempt to make her intentions crystal clear.

     Don’t mess with me.

     From the look on his face, she didn’t think that he got the message.

     “He’s a long way from home,” Zarra mumbled.

     “Warrant says alive, Zee.”

     “I don’t think he plans to come peacefully, Becka. I may have to spill a little blood here.”

     “Just reminding you,” her partner replied. “Says here that they’re not usually hostile – only when driven by hunger or revenge. Try talking to it?”

     Talk to it? That was her advice? Yeah, because that went over so well in the bar earlier.

     Rising from her crouch, she drew a deep breath and relaxed her stance. The aim of her weapons remained an unspoken and overt warning. All his attention was now directly on her – a silent evaluation. She had an intuition for when a situation was about to slide sideways and paying attention to it had kept Zarra alive this long.  She gripped her guns just a smidgen tighter.

     He was being…twitchy.

     She hated it when they were twitchy.

     “Becka…if this situation slides, do we got any idea what will take this guy down?”

     No answer was forthcoming. She looked at her opponent who was flexing his hands and closing them into cinderblock-sized fists.

     Nothin’ ventured, nothin’ gained.

     She took a deep breath.

     “My name is Zarra Anderson. I’m a licensed Freelance Peacekeepin’ Agent working for the Federated States of Europa. You’ve been cited on an FSE Track and Retain Order as a person of interest in regard to some attacks reported in the area. Believe me, it’s in your best interest to come quietly so we can conclude this without any bloodshed. So, I’m orderin’ you…to stand down.”

     His face remained implacable. Either he didn’t understand her, or he didn’t care.

     “Kenapa awak memburu kita? Kami tidak melakukan apa-apa kepada anda. Kenapa awak tak tinggalkan kami?”

     He growled at her in a language she didn’t understand, while walking menacingly toward her. An intimidating specimen, seven-foot plus of nakedness, wide and lean with muscles to spare. His hands remained balled into fists. Intuition confirmed.

     “Becka?” she said uneasily, backing up slowly.

     “No data on take-down criteria yet, Zee. Try the silvertips. Works on Werewolves…maybe it’ll work on him, too.”

     The Webley & Scott F21 Freelancer was the firearm of choice for people in her profession. It could be loaded with a primary magazine of twenty untipped rounds, and a supplementary cartridge of twenty custom tips. A selection mechanism on the grip could be programmed to change the type of load attached to the rounds before firing. When it became clear he was a shifter, she had already thumbed the setting to give her the Werewolf incapacitating silver-tipped rounds.

     “No shit,” she hissed back. “Thanks for your help. Really. Any idea what he said?”

     “Nope. Don’t even know what language that was.”

     “Jesus, Becka!” Zarra grumbled as she took another step back from the advancing behemoth. “Tell me again why I keep your useless ass around.”

     “My sunny disposition?” came the glib reply. “Chill ya boots, boss. I recorded it to run through linguistics later.”

     He was starting to shift back to his animal form, and now that she had a clear view, she could quite clearly see that Becka had been correct.

     A goddamn tiger.

     “Back it up, big fella!” Zarra shouted, but the creature paid no heed. “That’s your last warning!”

     He launched himself at her with unmistakably vicious intent – a blur of orange and black, fangs bared, and claws unsheathed. Every inch the cornered predator looking to fight its way out with deadly resolve.

     Zarra dipped to the side and rolled smoothly off her shoulder to evade him. She heard the scrabble of claws on the smooth paving slabs as her foe tried to turn, but the footing wasn’t working in his favor. Her rubber-soled boots, on the other hand, provided the grip she needed to easily pivot.

     Her left arm followed a smooth trajectory, and as her sidearm came to bear, she squeezed the trigger calmly. Her shoulder braced for the familiar recoil as the single shot was fired and the shell casing ejected.

     She rarely missed.

     The silver-tipped projectile struck fur at the creature’s shoulder blade. Zarra waited on the reaction. Silver, while not lethal to a Werewolf, would cause an allergic reaction that was extremely painful and almost instantaneous. Yet, other than the crimson smear spreading slowly across his auburn fur, her prey showed no signs of being affected in the slightest by the flesh wound.

     Zarra squeezed the trigger again and watched the second silver-tipped round hit her target, this time striking the other shoulder, producing the same bloody result. By now he had completed his turn.

     “Dammit…” she muttered to herself and thumbed the grip back to the more numerous standard rounds. No point in wasting the silver-tips if they had no effect.

     “That’s a no-go on the silver-tips, Becka. Ideas?” There was an even greater sense of urgency in her voice now.

     “Just not the hi-ex rounds, Zee. Alive, remember?”

     “Yeah, yeah. No promises,” she retorted, before muttering to herself, “Might come down to you or me, big fella.”

     Zarra had tangled with many a beast over the years, but she had to confess that this was the first time she’d picked a fight with a tiger. He was more measured in his approach this time as he prowled toward her. She watched the muscles ripple down his back. Cornered and wounded, with nothing to lose.

     This was dangerous territory.

     Zarra backed up, slowly distancing herself from her prey-now-turned-predator. She brought the second gun in her right hand to bear, too, hoping the threat of dual pistols would be enough to get the creature to back down. He continued to advance, apparently unimpressed. She continued her slow retreat.

     Well, bang goes that theory.

     Zarra squeezed the triggers of both guns simultaneously unleashing a round from each. The two bullets kicked up dust from the street just ahead and to either side of her opponent. He hesitated for a moment before continuing forwards, albeit with a hint more reservation.

     This ain’t gonna end well.

     She briefly considered letting loose a volley of shots into his wide, flat skull, a result that would absolutely stop him in his tracks but would also diminish his value. The warrants paid out the most for targets brought back alive. The life of a mercenary wasn’t a cheap one, and she couldn’t afford to let money simply slip through her fingers when she had so many expenses to pay for, including the repairs to apartment 3A.

     The FSE prided themselves on their moral stance of life preservation and, hence, the bounty for a live capture was a little above market price while the termination bounty was a long way below.

     It’s okay for them, she thought bitterly, sittin’ in their ivory wallpapered offices. But out here when you’re faced with the teeth and the claws…chasin’ the money is likely to get you killed.

     “Becka?” she grunted. “Any word on the warrant about icing?”

     There was a brief pause on the line before Zarra heard the reply.

     “Usual Federation bullshit. Alive by preference, minimal fee for a termination. Nothing in here about icing. You want to risk it?”

     Zarra didn’t respond. Her attention was now fully focused on defending herself as her target pounced. She backpedaled quickly, dropping the Freelancer from her left hand while her right arm jammed her other sidearm between the drooling teeth of the jaw reaching for her head. Falling backwards, she heard the tearing of leather and felt the white-hot touch of claws sinking into her right shoulder. She grimaced as she felt the blood begin to ooze from deep gashes.

     Curling into a ball, she braced her legs against the torso of the giant feline, pushing, trying to hold it at bay long enough for her left hand to reach for the pouch on her belt. The distraction of trying to avoid being clawed to death had her normally nimble fingers fumbling at the fastener.

     He was so strong! Her muscles screamed as her legs compressed and her arm folded inexorably toward her own face while the powerful jaws crushed down on her gun. She cursed under her breath as the case of the weapon audibly cracked. Expensive repairs were going to be needed. The Harimau Jadian was so close she could feel his foul breath on her face as his saliva dripped onto her cheek. Zarra grimaced in disgust, but at last her left hand found what she was searching for.

     “Fucker!!” she growled at the creature.

     Not the pithy one-liner she’d been hoping for, but then real life wasn’t a movie or comic book. Sometimes all your brain can find in times of stress is an expletive. Her hand whipped up and smashed the beast on the head…hard. She heard the breaking of glass and the sudden look of shock on his feline features as a subtle, ice-blue frost effect spread rapidly across his fur. Eyes grew wide, the deadly jaw slackened, and his body immediately became rigid. Dramatically frozen in place, his blade-sharp claws mere millimeters away from Zarra’s face.

     She hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath until the sigh of relief whispered past her lips.

     “Zee?” Becka hissed urgently into her ear. “You okay?”

     Her head dropped back to the ground and she closed her eyes, summoning all her strength and shoving hard against the dead weight of the creature atop her with a grunt. The body rolled off to her side and lay still.

     “Zarra!” Becka went up another notch on the urgency scale.

     She lay on the ground for a second, composing herself while easing her damaged Freelancer back into its holster.

     “Yeah, Bec… Yeah, I’m good,” she said finally.

     She reached out with her left hand, her wounded shoulder blade complaining mightily, and retrieved her other firearm. Weapons secure, she did a mental check of her condition. Nothing immediately life threatening. The flesh wound inflicted from jumping through the window seemed to have stopped bleeding, but the fresh claw wounds on her right shoulder were another matter entirely. That injury would require stitches.

     “Gonna need a little of your needlework, but otherwise I’m dandy.” A thought crossed her mind. “There any record of these things being venomous? This cut is pretty deep…”

     “Two seconds…” Zarra heard the sound of Becka’s fingers tapping on a screen over the open channel. “Nothing in the records. Claws, teeth, brute force. That’s all we got on them. You should be fine. I’m dusting off to head your way.”

     “There’s room on the street here. Bring Diana around and help me load him up. Ready the class-one containment. He’s a big, strong bastard, so I’m not sure how long he’ll stay iced for.”

     “On it,” Becka confirmed. “Inbound to your location – ETA three minutes.”

     Zarra could already hear the engines of her dropship thrumming in the distance, getting subtly louder as it approached.

     Rolling onto her side with a groan, she used her good arm to push herself to a sitting position. She pressed hard on her right shoulder with her left hand, trying to keep the wound as closed as possible. The warmth of her own blood oozed through the torn leather, slick against her fingers. She wasn’t unduly concerned; this wasn’t the first time she’d been wounded and certainly wouldn’t be the last. That said, as the adrenaline high of the chase started to wane, the pain was becoming more acute and she was profoundly aware of the pounding of her own heart. She clenched and unclenched her fist repeatedly, trying to shunt aside the pain.

     Closing her eyes, she imagined the feel of a stream of torrid water on her skin, soothing away the aches and pains of today’s pursuit. She just wanted to load up their bounty, drop him off to the Federation base in Fort Nassau, get their money, and then grab a hot shower.

     The dust swirled in the down draft of Diana’s engines as it hovered in closer, its running lights blinking rhythmically. The artificial wind started to whip up around her, ruffling her short ebony hair as Becka expertly guided their aircraft into a position to land in the street only a few meters away with the loading ramp pointed in the direction of Zarra and her prisoner.

     Time to get paid, she thought and allowed herself a smile.

 

And that’s your lot for now!
Hopefully I’ll get it published soon (aiming for early 2021) and you can all read the rest at your leisure.

Love & Books