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Announcement: Thank You and Progress Update

Hey, guys. I just wanted to take a moment today to thank you all and to give a quick update on writing and my books in general.

First and foremost, I know updates have been lacking greatly, and I thank you all for my patience. When I was posting on Wattpad, I would get messages every single day asking when the next update was. This was despite updating at least once every day. So when I say I appreciate you for your patience, I mean it. It’s about the only thing in my life right now that doesn’t stress me the hell out, and that goes a long way.

Secondly, I’ve had a strange relationship with writing for quite a while. That’s partly because of Wattpad. It’s partly because of my Letters from a Madman rewrite, which greatly changed my relationship with the crime genre. And it’s partly to do with my work being associated with my last name.

Though I can’t change my past with Wattpad, much as I wish I could, I can work on the other issues. I’ve been in the process of changing my name on my published works for about a month now? Give or take. It’s a long process, lol. And I’m currently working on trying to reignite my love of the crime genre.

I’m writing a new story called “Promise Not”, and I’m about 5,000 words into it right now. You can read a bit more about it here on my Instagram. I don’t start posting it just yeat because there’s still a chance I won’t be able to finish it.

Now, let’s talk a bit about the stories I’ve been posting on my website here.

If you read “The Happy Face Killer”, you probably saw the note about me wanting to–needing to–restart the story again. I currently have absolutely no passion for the story, and I can’t even remember the last time I worked on it. It’s a rewrite as is, and that should make it the easiest book on my list, but it’s actually the most difficult. Once I read through the Bo Austen series, I’m going to decide some things about the series. In the meantime, I’ll keep you as updated as I can on all of it.

I’m also struggling with my romances. I’m 100% stuck on “Hashtags and Homicide”, ad I have been for a very long time. I’m not sure how to fix that one right now, but I imagine it has something to do with my issues around the crime genre at the moment.

I’m also struggling with “Truths and Chains”. Though I have some days where I make good progress, most of it is being forced. The story was supposed to focus on Elias researching for his story, and that hasn’t been there. Things are moving way too fast for Vito, and that’s entirely out of character for him. Time needs to be expanded there, and that’s something I’m going to work on fixing ASAP so we can get back to the story. I know you guys love Elias and Vito, and I love the hell out of them too. I just need to do some rewriting and tweaking before I can move forward with the story.

In the meantime, I have a short story I can post for you all. I was going to wait until we hit 2K reads in a month, but until I start posting more, that’s going to be impossible. So, instead, shortly after this post goes live, the short story “Fighter 13” will be posted. This is a story about Luca from the Jamal Pitman series, and it focuses on how he joined the mob. It’s something I’m pretty proud of, despite how long it took to write, and I’m hoping you guys will enjoy getting some back story on Luca.

For now, this is about all I have for an update, but I’ll do my best to keep you guys as in the loop as possibly can. I suffer pretty heavily from brain fog and memory issues, so you might have to remind me to give you a progress update on my books every now and then. Until the next one, I hope you guys enjoy “Fighter 13”, and I’ll see you soon. Thank you for your patience and understanding. 💜

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No updates this week

Hey, guys.

I’m currently trying to get through to my vet to take Willie and Selene in today, one for a check-up for his heart and fluid retention, and the other for an urgent medical issue. Unless I get some super great news today, I’m not planning on updating this week. Depending on how today goes, it might be a little while, but I’ll do my best to keep you posted, either here or on my other social media.

Thank you for your patience, and I hope like hell things go so well today that I post a chapter. But I don’t see that happening. So I’ll see you guys… soon.

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When Toxicity and Mental Health Affect a Story

Hey, guys!

Sorry for getting this post out to you much later in the day than planned. The power company cut our power so they could cut down tree branches almost immediately after I posted today’s chapter of The Spectator, and we were without it for almost two hours, and then it was tragically time for bed. But anyway, let’s get into it, shall we?

As all of you know, I’m sure, posting on Wattpad was initially something I enjoyed. I enjoyed sharing my stories there, even when I had no readers, even when I only had one (Gabby). I’ve always loved interacting with respectful readers, and I still do enjoy that part of it. But as you know, Wattpad eventually grew to be incredibly toxic for me.

In between the constant changing environment on Wattpad (Oh, we’ll do ads to pay our writers! No, we’ll do nothing. Oh, what if we make readers pay for coins that they can use to pay for chapters and we give the writers with that feature a small cut? Yeah, most of them are in their teen years and don’t have jobs, but it’ll be great!), the toxicity of many commenters, and the sexual harassment story I don’t often talk about, it was no longer enjoyable.

For my own sake, I won’t say much more than the sexual harassment was directed at me from a man who is now an ambassador at Wattpad. Funny how that works, huh?

Anyway.

“Finally, an update!” It’s been six hours since I last updated. Finally isn’t an appropriate word, but you can bet it was always the first or second comment on most chapters I posted. When people comment things like ‘finally’, you come into the mindset that the only thing that matters is finishing a story so readers don’t have to ever wait for updates. And eventually, that’s the mindset I hit. Hitting word count milestones was worthless to me. Finishing a chapter was worthless. Finishing a book was the only real joy I ever felt in the last two or so years on Wattpad, and even that joy only lasted for the five minutes before I started the next one.

Not being able to feel any happiness from finishing a book starring a character you’ve loved sucks, and it takes its toll, both on you and on the story.

That’s where we come to today.

I’ve written ten books in the Bo Austen-Taylor series, and although I love the characters, there are many aspects of some of the books I flat-out don’t enjoy. I rushed through many of them so I could hit those five minutes of joy, and it shows. Some of the resolutions are rushed. Some of the killers have half-baked backstories that, while included in the story, make little to no sense, there are far more plot holes than usual, and far worse of a crime: I took away all of Bo’s character development from the Bo Austen series because I couldn’t write a character healing while I was worsening.

And that hurts.

Bo worked so hard to hit this place where he didn’t need to be normal all the time because Jensen wouldn’t love him if he was normal, because Jensen loved him because he was Bo, because he was Eli. And I took it away because… how the hell are you supposed to write a character on his way to better mental health when you can’t even take care of your own? When you don’t even put your own mental health at the forefront of your concerns?

For Bo, I feel that I need to rewrite the Bo Austen-Taylor series. For myself, I feel that I need to rewrite the B-A-T series. I haven’t written a single word in book 11–or a single word in book 5 of Young Bo–in almost two months. They’re both hard to look at, and they both remind me that I failed Bo every single time I open them. I need to fix it.

This is where my question to you guys comes in. I have ten books written. I can either A. continue posting the current B-A-T drafts while I rewrite the series or B. remove all of the B-A-T books and begin posting them the same way I would have on Wattpad, as they are written.

This brings me to issue two: Killer in Training.

I love Freddie, Paris, and Preston, but adhering to the backstory laid out in the B-A-T series has caused an issue in that book two of the series has no actual plot until about 5K words before the end. Even if it’s enjoyable to read, the first 25,000 words have no plot, and that’s not fair to those characters or the reader (even if you’re enjoying it, which is okay!).

If I rewrote book one, the main thing that would change is the ending. Hell, it’s probably the only part I would rewrite before diving into a new book two. I won’t spoil it here in case you haven’t read the current ending, but for those of you that have read it, I’m sure you can imagine what a change in the ending means, what a slight change in his backstory means. Hint: it involves Paris.

So this one isn’t so much a question as it is a statement. I’ll be rewriting the ending, at the very least, on Fedkenheuer, and then I’ll begin book two again, this time with a brand new premise, and I hope you guys will be excited for that.

In regards to both of these rewrites, July 1st will be day number one. Which means that if I post B-A-T as it’s written, the prologue of Happy Face will, more than likely, go up on the first or the second.

But anyway, that’s all my thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours, as well. Thanks for sticking with me, guys.

Surgeon – Chapter One

NOT EDITED

Chapter One

Thursday: January 2, 2020

8:00 AM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, LIEUTENANT MYRA COOPER’S OFFICE

    “I’d like to be the first to welcome you to Clinstone PD, Mister Austen.” Lieutenant Myra Cooper brushed a lock of blonde hair out of her face, brown eyes brightening as she smiled and held out a hand. “We’re very lucky to have you.”

    Bo Austen shook her hand. “I appreciate you hiring me on.”

    “Of course. My pleasure. You came highly recommended.” She cleared her throat. “Most days, you’ll be replacing our usual forensic analyst, Misty. She’s pregnant, due in a week or so. She’s supposed to be taking it easy for a bit, and that’s why you’re here.”

    Bo nodded. He knew the job was temporary, that he’d have to go back to Los Angeles once their regular analyst came back from maternity leave, but he was appreciative of the opportunity regardless. “Thank you for everything you’re doing here.” Bo offered a smile. “I’m in desperate need of a break from the City of Angels.”

    “I can certainly see why.” Myra snorted. “One day working under Jamal Pitman, and I think I’d leave the field forever.”

    Bo offered the smallest chuckle he could force out. “Where am I off to?”

    Myra pointed to the open door of her office. “The detectives you’ll be working with today are out there on the main floor. Mason and Lehmann.”

    “Thank you.” Hands tucked behind his back, Bo walked out of her office. The strap of his satchel cut across his left shoulder, the satchel itself settled at his right hip. In his left hand, his camera case was clutched, leaving his right hand free for the necessary handshakes without the need for any fumbling or rearranging. The smoother things went, the better.

    Bo’s eyes landed on a man dressed in a suit and a blue tie. His face was lit up with a wide smile. He stood behind his desk, one hand pressed to the top of it, the other holding a cell phone to his ear. “You’re kidding? Did he really?” His smiled broadened. “That’s amazing. Christ, you better be taking tons of pictures for me, baby.” His eyes settled on Bo, and he lifted his hand from the desk to offer a two-fingered wave. Bo waved back, unwilling and unable to match the man’s smile.

    His tie was the same sapphire blue of his eyes, which hid behind a pair of plastic-framed glasses. “Good. I’m gonna want you to send all of those to my phone. Like, now. Yes, seriously.”

    Bo’s gaze shifted to the man seated at the desk beside the blue-eyed man. He was less muscular than the one glued to his phone. The blue-eyed man leaned over and smacked the other man’s shoulder with the back of his hand. He mouthed something that Bo couldn’t quite catch. The other man nodded and rose to his feet.

    “You’re just making me sad, babe,” the blue-eyed man said. “Hey, I’ve got a wild idea. Ready? You come to work for me, and I’ll be a stay-at-home-mom for you. Sound good?” He chuckled as he pushed himself away from his desk. “Was that a no? It kinda sounded like a no.” He walked over to Bo and held out a hand, moving the bottom half of his phone to his cheek. “Detective Jacob Mason. You’re with me and Lehmann today. Got a crime scene downtown.”

    Bo shook the detective’s hand. “Bo Austen. Forensics.” It only struck afterward how pointless the introduction was. The detective already knew who he was. That was why he had come over. That was why he had said Bo was with them today. It made him look nervous or incapable of paying attention. He only hoped the detective was still too busy with the person on the other end of the line to notice.

    Jacob looked away for a moment. “How about tomorrow?” he asked into the phone. His eyes shifted back to Bo as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Partner, Carter Lehmann.”

    The man in question stepped up behind Jacob and shook Bo’s hand. “You’re Misty’s replacement, then?”

    “Yes, sir.” Bo couldn’t help but lock onto Carter’s eyes. They were hazel without being, well… hazel. There was a ring of blue and a ring of green in each one, speckled with little dots of brown in the middle of the ‘hazel’ color in the middle.

    “Awesome. You’re replacing our ME today too. Think you can handle that?”

    “I can handle nearly anything you throw my way, Detective.”

    “Good. Come on, I’m driving.”

    Phone still pressed to his ear, Jacob laughed as he followed Carter out of the station. “No, you’re right, I shouldn’t laugh. But come on, Al. You gotta admit it’s a bit hilarious.”

    Al. Short for Allison or Alice, maybe. Bo glanced at Jacob’s left hand. No ring. Fiancée or girlfriend?

    “Okay, fair, but you’ll realize how funny it is in a day or two.” Jacob elbowed Carter’s upper arm. “Charlotte pissed on Al after I left this morning.”

    Carter snorted. “You are not nearly cute enough for that woman to put up with your shit and your kids pissing on her.”

    Jacob scoffed. “I’m fucking beautiful. Don’t know what kind of shit you’re on, Lemon.”

    Lemon. Throw in the exchange of cute, beautiful, and the accusation of drug usage, and there was no way in hell the pair weren’t great friends outside of the station, as well.

    “No, the rule is that I can’t swear in the house,” Jacob said into the phone. “I’m in a parking lot, babe. You aren’t in charge of the parking lot. You don’t even work here anymore.” He yanked open the passenger door of a police cruiser and slid into the seat. Bo climbed into the backseat, shutting the door behind him as Carter got into the driver’s seat.

    “Where’d you come in from, Austen?” Carter asked as he started the cruiser. He cranked up the heat against the cold that had seeped in throughout the early morning.

    Bo shifted. He had hoped they’d save this conversation for at least day two. “California.”

    “Hold up a sec, babe.” Jacob turned around to look at Bo, his phone held away from his ear. “You were Baker’s forensics guy during her last case, weren’t you? That Wings shit down in Iowa?”

    Obviously, even Minnesota wasn’t far enough away from California to escape the Kathy ordeal. Choosing a state bordering Iowa had been a mistake. He’d learn from that for next time. “Yes, I worked her last case with her.”

    “Damn.” Jacob shook his head. “Glad that was a shitfest I wasn’t invited to,” he muttered.

    Most days, Bo wished he hadn’t been invited to the ‘shitfest’ either. He cleared his throat as Jacob turned back around. “What’s this scene we’re heading to?”

    “Dead gal,” Jacob said, briefly meeting his gaze in the rearview mirror.

    Carter nodded. “We don’t know much yet. A woman was found dead in a dumpster outside of the ER downtown. I don’t know much more than that.”

    “Her throat was slit,” Jacob added.

    “Where the hell did you hear that?” Carter asked.

    “I dunno. They just tell me more than they tell you.”

    Carter snorted. “Bullshit.”

    “Nah, I’ve been here longer, so they like me more than you. Example, I get told way more than you do.” Bo caught the end of Jacob’s eye roll in the mirror. “Al told me to apologize.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Didn’t say I had to mean it, though.”

    Carter backhanded Jacob’s arm. “Dick.”

    Blue eyes smiled his response.


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Surgeon – Prologue

A/N: I wanted to post this earlier, but between client edits, formats, and sanctuary animals, I’ve got my hands quite full! Anyway, Sunday was Bo’s birthday, and even though I’m not yet done with the rewrite, I can’t help myself. For the first time in a long time, I feel connected to Bo again,and I’m so excited to finally share him with you all once more. thank you so

NOT EDITED

Prologue

Wednesday: January 1, 2020

12:00 AM; MINNESOTA, NEW YEAR’S PARTY

    He had been studying her for weeks. She had been a backup, just in case something went wrong with the other girl. She was a spare. Like waiting for a tire to blow out, she had been there as a fallback.

    Well, the tire had blown the hell out, and he needed her. Now. Tonight.

    Drink in hand, he walked over to her. His steps faltered the closer he got, and, as her attention shifted to him, it felt as though the air had been knocked from his lungs. God, she was beautiful, almost perfect.

    “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.

    She smiled faintly, but it didn’t hide the sadness in her green eyes. “I’d like that,” she said.

    “Bartender, another of what she’s having, please,” he said softly.

    “Coming up.”

    The man shifted his gaze back to the woman’s face, a soft smile lifting either corner of his mouth. It softened his features, defined his strong jawline. He was well aware of the effect his smile usually had on women. It made them trust him, for better or for worse. And tonight, he needed that. “Tell me, who was foolish enough to leave you all by your lonesome?”

    She looked up at the bartender, thanking him as he set her drink in front of her. She shook her head, scoffing. “Some guy I met on the Internet. I let my friends talk me into the online dating shit.” She rolled her eyes. “That was a mistake.”

    “Ah. Prefer meeting someone the old fashioned way, huh?”

    She nodded, reaching up to tuck her blonde hair behind her ear. “Yeah, usually. It wasn’t working well enough for my friends, though. They want another option for double dates.” She took a small sip of her drink. “Can’t really trust most people you meet on the Internet, though. Learning that pretty quickly.”

    It was good she felt so betrayed by the man who had stood her up. He had made sure the man from the Internet would be staying away, but he had feared it wouldn’t bother her much. But, oh, it had. And that was damn good. “I could show you a good time, if you wanted. Couple drinks, little dancing… The night’s yours.”

    She laughed, soft and delicate. It was like music to his ears. Her laugh was absolutely perfect. “You know, it could be the margaritas talking, but I think I’m all for that. But I’d like to get the hell outta here instead.”

    He smiled and held up his drink. “To twenty-twenty, then. Let you finally find your true love.”

    She snorted, clinking her glass against his. “To twenty-twenty,” she echoed. He downed his drink, and she quickly followed suit. The man paid for both of their drinks and held out an arm. She slid off her barstool, smoothed out her dress, and linked arms with him.

    Outside the bar, the soberingly cold air of a Minnesotan winter hit them in the face. She wrapped her free hand around his arm, stepping a little closer for the illusion of warmth. He couldn’t help but smile.

    He unlocked his car and pulled open the passenger side door. She thanked him and slid into the seat. He smiled down at her and closed the door. He smoothed both hands over his suit jacket as he walked around the front of the car. Letting out a breath, he pulled open the driver’s side door and slid into the car. He pulled his seatbelt into place, fingers lingering even after it clicked. Safety first. Always. He had learned that lesson the hard way. “Buckle up, darling,” he said as he started the car.

    They had places to be, and through a windshield sure as hell wasn’t one of them.

12:23 AM; MINNESOTA, THE SURGEON’S HOUSE, BASEMENT

    She didn’t fight him on the way down the basement stairs. She didn’t fight him as he led her into a bedroom in the far corner of the basement. It wasn’t until he shut the cell-like door that she realized it wasn’t exactly a bedroom, per say. While the door looked like it belonged in a prison, the interior of the room was decorated like that of an actual bedroom. A king-sized bed, a vanity, a dresser, bedside tables, art hanging on the walls, an area rug on the floor.

    “What the hell’s going on?” she asked, each word louder than the last.

    The man wrapped his hands around the bars of the cell door. “I’m making my new year’s resolutions come true a lot sooner than they usually do.” He titled his head to one side, eyes scanning over the woman. It was the first time he could stare for as long as he wanted. It didn’t matter if she caught him now. She was thin and tall. An inch more and she’d be six-foot. She was a runner, athletic, and boy, did it show. “You’re almost perfect. Almost. You need to put on a little extra weight here.” He poked her just above her hip bone. “Not much. Just a little. I say we get started with a rather early breakfast.”

    “Somebody help me!”

    His shoulders lifted as he drew in a breath for a sigh. “Darling, nobody can hear you. It’s just you and me here.” He reached through the door and touched her cheek. She jerked away from him before he even had the chance to feel the warmth of her face. “That’s all right. You’ll get used to me eventually.” He smiled. “I’ll go make you some breakfast, darling. I won’t be long.”

    As soon as he was up the stairs and out of her sight, she grabbed the cell bars and rattled the door, screaming for help. Off to her left, someone sighed. “I-is somebody there?”

    “Yes.” A pause. “He’s right. Nobody can hear you scream down here. I’ve tried,” a girl’s voice said.

    “Who… are you?” the woman questioned, turning toward the voice. The room was empty, a wall separating her and whoever the voice belonged to.

    “The girl he kidnapped before you.”

    “H-how long have you been here?”

    “What’s today?” the voice asked after a moment.

    “January first.”

    “Oh. Then… about eight days, I think.”

    The woman pulled her bottom lip into her mouth, closing her eyes. “What’s your name?”

    “Natalie. But when he’s around, you have to call me Brooke,” the voice said quietly. “What’s your name?”

    “Cleo. I-I’m Cleo.”

    “Welcome to the party, Cleo. Here, though? Here, your name is Lauren. If he calls you Lauren, you answer him. When he tells you to do something, do it. Don’t complain. Don’t resist. Don’t try to starve yourself out. Just do what he says.”

    “Why?”

    “Because about an hour ago, there was another woman who was supposed to be you. Supposed to be Lauren, I mean. But she refused to eat, said she’d rather starve. Well… now she’s dead.”


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Chapter One

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An Update

So, it’s been a while. Again. But it’s not because of writing this time.

On the 13th, about a week ago now, our ten-year-old Boxer lost her battle with suspected cancer. I still don’t have the words to even begin to express the pain of losing her or the hole it’s left in my heart.

Roxie could be a pain in the butt sometimes, but she was a pain I loved with every damn fiber of my being, and I’m still figuring out how to live my daily life without her.

For the last five years, I’ve spent every waking moment with Roxie. Once I graduated high school, my waking moments were at home instead of behind a school desk, and that meant I was home with the dogs. With Roxie.

I’ve spent the last five years being her comfort human until Mom came home from work. I spent the last five years awkwardly standing in the kitchen in silence so she could eat without worrying that, for some reason, I was going to disappear forever. I’ve spent the last five years doing all of my writing with a grumpy brindle boxer snoring beside me or behind me, creepily staring at me until I acknowledged her looking at me, wining at me the moment I started writing because she decided she actually did have to go outside, even though I’d asked sixty seconds before.

I don’t know how to write without her beside me. I don’t know how I’m supposed to fill in the silence between the clicking of my keyboard’s keys if not with her snores, grunts, and groans.

I just don’t… know.

Am I going to get back on the horse? Eventually, of course. But I don’t know when eventually will be. And I don’t know how fast the words will come once I bring myself to sit down and try to write them.

I’m mostly typing this up to let you know where I’m at right now, and emotionally, it’s a horrible place. But when I’m ready, you’ll know, and I thank you for your patience until then, and for your patience between updates from there forward.

Truths & Chains – Chapter One

A/N: I’m so sorry to be doing this again. Hopefully this rewrite sparks something that the others haven’t, but my relationship with writing had been off for a very, very long time, so I can’t make any promises.**

NOT EDITED

Chapter One

A vibrating cell phone clattered against… something. Vito Minetti cracked open an eye, waiting. How the hell was it fair that out of the three people in the bed, he had been the only one to hear the damn phone? He pulled his arm out from under the dark-haired gal and untangled his legs from the redhead behind him. With a groan, he crawled over the redhead and hit the floor a little harder than intended.

Okay. So maybe he’d had a little too much to drink last night.

Vito crawled around the bed and found his phone on the floor, the vibration of a call rattling against the belt buckle dangling from his discarded jeans. He squinted at the bright light, barely reading his brother’s name on the screen. He sat up on his knees before accepting the call and pressing the device to his ear. “Yeah?” he asked in a whisper.

“Where the hell are you?” Tito asked.

“Umm… depends. Why?”

“Because I’ve got coffee for you, and we agreed you’d meet me behind Starbucks an hour ago.”

Vito scratched the top of his head, clearing his throat. “Did I?”

“You did. You can keep dicking around if you changed your mind, but I’m not buying another cup of coffee for you.”

“No, no, I totally–Look, give me a sec to get dressed. Don’t throw my coffee away.”

Tito chuckled. “I won’t. Where are you? I’ll swing by and pick you up.”

“Just, umm, I’ll meet you at the Starbucks, okay?”

“I can just come get you, Vi. We don’t have to play the hotel bingo game. I’m not judging you for winding up at one. Wouldn’t buy you coffee and pick you up in the mornings if I gave a shit about you screwing around all the time. Just tell me where you are.”

“I know.” Vito cleared his throat, pinning his phone between his shoulder and ear as he rose to his feet, jeans in hand. “I, uh, I’m at Royal Nature.”

“All right. Meetcha in the parking lot, Vi.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem, brother. See you soon.”

Vito ended the call and shoved his phone into his pocket. He pulled his jeans on and buckled his belt, a little too hungover and a little too uncaring to zip his fly or button his pants. Once he found his shirt and pulled it over his head, he turned to look at the two people in the bed. He was a solid fifty-percent sure the guy’s name started with a C, and that far exceeded his certainty that the woman’s name began with a C.

Honestly, it was a toss-up, but he figured the guy would be less offended at a wrong guess.

He squatted down on the redhead’s side of the bed. “Hey, uh… Carl?”

“We’ve covered this. It’s Lars,” he mumbled.

Damn. Fifty-percent on C had been way too confident of an assumption.

“Right, right. Lars. I gotta head out for work, but you and, uh… Gal can order whatever you want from room service. It’ll be put on my tab.”

Lars snorted. “Gal. Caroline.”

“Shit. I knew one of you was a C.”

Lars smiled. “You’re lucky you’re cute, Matteo. ‘Cause you’re a dumbass.”

“Didn’t see you complaining about it last night.”

Lars opened his eyes long enough to roll them. “See you again in a couple months?”

“Mmhmm. Just you or bring a friend again. Whichever suits you best,” Vito said.

“Okay,” Lars whispered. He snuggled deeper into the pillow, sniffling. “Thanks for last night. I needed it.”

Vito nodded. “You too. And… so did I.” Briefly, he considered pushing Lars’s hair away from his forehead, but that was a kind of intimacy he wasn’t really into. He settled for patting the man’s shoulder instead before pushing himself to his feet. He made his way downstairs and stopped at the front desk. The receptionist, a young woman Tito had told him more than once not to sleep with, handed him his gun and knife. “Thank you.”

“Mmhmm.” She smiled. “Enjoy your day, Mister Minetti.”

“You too, Rachel.” Vito clicked his tongue at her and walked out of the hotel, tucking his gun into his waistband. He fastened his shealth to his belt, eyes scanning for Tito’s car. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for his twin to pull into the parking lot and drive up to the curb. Tito leaned across the center console and pushed open the passenger side door.

“Aww, Ti, you’re such a gentleman.”

Tito chuckled, shaking his head. “Get your ass in here before I change my mind.”

Vito slid into the passenger seat, closing the door behind him. “Which one’s mine?”

“The one without the heart on the lid.”

“Ooh la la.”

“No, not ooh la la. You keep your ooh la las in your pants.”

Vito laughed as Tito pulled away from the curb. “Would you bone her?”

“I don’t like that question, and I’m not answering it.”

Fine. I’ll innocent it up for you. Was she cute?”

“I dunno. I guess.” Tito cleared his throat. “I’m not sleeping with her, and neither are you.”

“Rude. You get one not-girlfriend to say I can’t sleep with, and you already used that on Lillian. I even let you take Rachel off my list.”

“Good, Rachel always needs to be off your list. And, well, I don’t want you sleeping with people I’ve slept with. It’s not about her being my… my not-girlfriend. It’s just fuckin’ weird, that’s all.”

“I doubt you’ve slept with Starbucks girl, prude,” Vito said. Tito shifted in his seat. “No way.”

“Shut up.”

“Ti! Tell me more. What was she like, huh?”

“Ugh.” Tito reached over and backhanded his chest. “You’re unbearable. I slept with her in high school, dumbass. I took her to prom.”

“Sadie? Your girlfriend?”

“She totally was not my girlfriend.”

“Oh, Ti, dude…” Vito laughed. “Ti, she broke up with you because she was heading off to college and you were going to basic training. She was absolutely your girlfriend.” He took a sip of his coffee. “She was cute back then. Bet she’s hot now, right?”

“Yes, okay? She’s hot. But keep it in your pants, and don’t sleep with my ex-prom date.”

“You’re right.” Vito tapped a finger to the little heart drawn on the lid of Tito’s cup. “You should sleep with her.”

“You know how I feel about that.”

“Yeah, I’m more than aware of your ‘I’m scared of being a monster’ bullshit.” Vito rolled his eyes. “All the other soldiers sleep around, and I promise you, they have never ‘turned monster’ and killed the chick they were screwing.”

“I-I’m not scared of killing someone, Vito. I’m a lot of things, but someone who isn’t in control isn’t… isn’t one of them. I just don’t want a girl screwing around with a man she doesn’t know is a monster.”

“What they don’t know doesn’t hurt ‘em.”

“But it will if we ever get found out. It does if they watch the news and hear the shit they say about us. It does if their family finds out they’re sleeping with a monster. I won’t be the person who ruins a woman’s life just so I can stick my dick in something.”

Vito dropped the back of his seat, leaning back as he kicked his boots up on the dash. “You’re no fun, Ti.” Tito’s fingers tightened around the steering wheel, but he didn’t respond. Vito let the silence hang between them for two minutes before remembering why the cold shoulder never worked on Tito–he was much better at that whole ‘being quiet’ thing than Vito had ever been.

“When’re you seeing her again?”

“Lil?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Tomorrow night. I’m flying out in the afternoon.”

“Cool. So I should count on driving myself to bars and shit for a couple days?”

Tito shook his head. “No, you’re my baby brother. I won’t risk you getting behind the wheel when you’re drunk and getting yourself killed. I already asked Bo to put one of his men on you. He’ll drive you around like Jensen used to do for Bo.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem.” Tito cleared his throat, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. “Can I talk to you about Lil?”

“Sure.”

“Until today, I hadn’t heard from her in over two weeks.”

“Why’s that?”

“She keeps asking me why I think I’m not allowed to have a white picket fence dream.”

Vito took a sip of his coffee, giving himself a moment to think. He didn’t usually consider thinking before giving an answer, but hungover Vito was a slightly more gentle giant than his drunk and sober counterparts. “Sorry I mentioned it to her, but it was fuckin’ years ago. She’s gotta let it go at some point, dude.”

“Well, ‘letting it go’ doesn’t seem to be her speciality.”

“Because she likes you, dumbass.” Clearly not too much of a gentle giant, though. “Stop leading her on if you’re never gonna do anything for her. Let some other guy swoop in and marry her.”

“I am not leading her on. She knows I’m not going to sleep with her, and she knows I don’t date. She’s known that since we slept together. We’re friends. That’s all we are, and that’s all we’ll ever be. That’s it. End of story.”

“That ain’t it, though. You love her, and she probably loves your incapable ass too.”

“I am not incapable,” Tito said through his teeth, the words coming out in Italian. Somewhere, Vito had crossed a line. He had it on pretty good authority ‘incapable’ had been pushing it. In English, Tito added, “For someone who binges romance novels like they’re candy, you’re the worst fucking person to talk to about relationships.”

“The characters in the books I read are less annoying than you.”

“Right.” Tito cleared his throat. “You can be a real bastard, you know that?”

“I know.” When it came right down to it, Vito wasn’t an asshole on purpose. Most of the time. It was just that his charming filter only really worked for people he intended to sleep with. Filtering his thoughts for someone he wasn’t going to sleep with had always seemed like a waste of time.

Vito turned to look out the window. The sun was still a good twenty minutes beneath the horizon, the oranges and pinks slowly seeping into the sky as the sun approached the true morning of the day. “Hey, can we get pancakes? I’m buyin’.”

Tito let out a breath before clearing his throat. “Yeah, Vi. We can get pancakes.”

“Awesome. Thanks.”

“No problem.”


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Chapter Two

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Riley’s Zombie Thing – Chapter One

A/N: This is one of those ‘I don’t know what will come of it’ stories, but the majority of you were okay with that in the polls, so here it is! I don’t have a cover or an actual title for it right now, so we’re just going to go with what I have it titled in my drafts, lol. I hope you enjoy chapter one!**

NOT EDITED

Riley barely managed to get one salsa-dipped tortilla chip to their mouth before the door to the break room opened. They lifted their head, eyes finding a relatively short black man in the doorway. He wore a laminated ID card around his neck, but he was too far away from them to read it.

“I don’t recognize you. Are you the new intern?”

“Yes, ma’am. Are you Mrs. Johnson?”

“It’s actually Mx. Johnson or Doctor Johnson, but yes I’m the Johnson you’re looking for.”

“Oh, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know”

Riley smiled. “It’s not your fault. Whoever sent you to find me could’ve told you, and they didn’t. That’s not on you, so don’t sweat it. What can I help you with?”

“Umm, Doctor Murphy wanted me to tell you, and I quote, ‘Lunch break is over, get your ass to the lab now’. Umm… end quote, I guess?”

Riley couldn’t help but snort. “Yeah, that sounds like him. Thank you.” They shoved the chip into their mouth. They couldn’t have lunch yet–not until well after suppertime, if they knew anything about Murphy–but they could have one damn chip, if nothing else. Murphy owed them that much for all the hours he worked them without giving them the lead position in a new assignment. Or any assignment.

Riley folded down the top of the chips bag, clothespinned it, and put their salsa in the refrigerator. It’d still be there waiting for them when Murphy was done with whatever he wanted. Still fresh and homemade.

They walked toward the door, flipping off the light as the intern backed into the hallway. “So”–Riley glanced at his ID–“Morgan. What brought you to Cromwell Labs?”

“My mom worked here for a while before she got sick. Sick enough she couldn’t work anymore, I mean. I changed my whole game plan after that. I was gonna be a lab geek for some police station, do the whole crime scene analysis thing, but… Well, I wanted to make Mom as proud as I possibly could. Cromwell is the way to do that.”

“Well, we’re happy to have you. It’s always good to have young people around that are still interested in science and research, even more so when it’s at our facility.” Riley stopped at the elevator and swiped their ID card through the reader. The doors dinged open. “Are you coming down?”

Morgan shook his head. “Doctor Murphy said I’m not to come down to the lab until further notice.” Morgan rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t mean to… pry or be a bother, but do you know why that is?”

“He’s probably just feeling you out.” Riley stuck a foot in the track of the elevator doors to keep them from closing. “Murphy can be… suspicious of new people, even the ones he hires. He probably just wants to make sure you’re legit in your interest in working here instead of trying to steal company secrets or something. He can be a bit paranoid.” Riley smiled. “Don’t worry, Morgan. You’ll be downstairs in the lab in no time.”

Morgan offered a smile of his own, one far less timid or nervous than his voice. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“No problem.” Riley stepped into the elevator, pressed the button for the lab, and offered a little wave as the metal doors slid closed. With a sigh, they leaned back against the wall, hands wrapped around the bar that ran along it. Admittedly, the bar in an elevator gave Riley far more anxiety than comfort. Bars were usually reserved for stairs, where people could slip or fall. They were usually reserved for handicapped stalls for people who needed help standing or sitting. They were usually reserved for ‘oh shit we’re gonna die’ situations.

And if an elevator ever entered the ‘oh shit we’re gonna die’ roller coaster, the bar sure as hell wasn’t going to help Riley survive.

But they tried not to think about that. Sort of. It was kind of hard not to think about it, actually.

The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened. No oh shit roller coaster this time around, either. Riley stepped out into the hall, letting out the breath they’d been holding on the ride down.

The next inhale caught in their throat. The hall was dead silent. No doctors chatting. No equipment running. No music playing. It was eerily still and sterile.

Riley ran through a quick list of the bad things that could happen down in the basement of Cromwell Labs. Scientist thievery. Ghouls. Flickering lights. Power outage. Zombies. A mugging, surely. Good ol’ fashioned human-on-human homicide.

Or,” Riley whispered, “maybe you’re just crazy and everyone else decided now was a good time for a lunch break, too.” They clutched either side of their lab coat and forced themself to start down the hall. “You aren’t the only person who gets hungry around noon, Johnson.”

They stopped in their tracks as the door at the end of the hall opened. It was to the decontamination chamber that connected to the main lab in Cromwell. Riley couldn’t remember the last time it’d been used, the last time something had been considered dangerous enough or viral enough to require the extra precautions.

Two men walked out of the chamber, assault rifles in hand. Riley backed up toward the elevator, as if being silent and walking away  would keep the men from seeing them in the well-lit hall.

A third man stepped out. He wore the same black suit as the other two, but he lacked the BFG. “Doctor Johnson?”

Riley lifted their head, rifling through their mind in search of any answer that wasn’t acknowledgment. They settled on, “That’s me.”

Which was… so not cool.

The man and his armed goons came down the hall, and Riley did what they could not to shit their pants. “Doctor Johnson, you’ve been chosen for a very important job. You’ll be tasked with creating a vaccine for a new… virus. Disease. Sickness. We don’t care what you call it, so long as you fix it.”

“Did Doctor Murphy put you up to whatever this is?” Riley waved a hand in their direction. “Fake guns to try and scare me out of asking for an assignment of my own?”

“No. Mister Murphy knows nothing about what this assignment is. All he was told was to send you down here to speak with us. End of story.”

Riley shoved their hands into the pockets of their lab coat, hoping it hid at least some of the fear rolling off of them. “If the assignment isn’t from Murphy and it isn’t a joke… then what is this?”

“That would be the U.S. government, Doctor.”

“Oh,” Riley whispered. “What… does the government want with me? I-I mean, why me? I’ve never been a lead scientist on anything in Cromwell. Anywhere, for that matter.”

The guy in the middle–the shorter one, the one without the gun–chuckled, shaking his head. “Your government doesn’t care about which scientist Mister Murphy considers the best or the worst. We don’t care who he deems important. We care about who will do the best at this job. And that’s you.”

Why?”

“Doctor Johnson, do we have to play this game?”

“Yes, we do. Because… because two of you have guns and just came out of the decontamination lab, and I can’t even remember the last time something we worked on was so dangerous that it was through decontamination.”

The shorter man sighed, but he tried to cover it with a smile. “Can you let me explain on the walk to the lab? You don’t have to go in until we’re done talking.”

Riley forced themself to nod. “I can do that.”

“Perfect.” He turned and started back toward the lab, but his goons didn’t move until Riley was in front of them. “You’ve done a lot of research that’s of great interest to us when it comes to this vaccine. You have a lot of theories you can finally test, too.” He offered a smile. “To say the least, you’re the only scientist we are currently aware of that has such an interest in such a unique situation. We need that interest. We need that intrigue, that curiosity. Curiosity drives discovery, and discovery is incredibly important.”

“I-I don’t understand. All of my research has been with other scientists here. It’s all been done with other people. They have the same ‘interests’ under the belt that I do,” Riley said.

The shorter man slid an ID card through the reader at the lab, and the glass doors of the decontamination room slid open. “It’s better if I can show you. It’s one of those things you really have to see to believe. So, Doctor Johnson… what do you say?”

A part of Riley–a very large part–wanted nothing more than to run away, but they couldn’t outrun bullets or goons. They couldn’t even outrun their neighbor’s dog, and he was a thirteen-year-old tripod who barely even walked out the front door to take his morning pee anymore.

Riley swallowed, forcing themself to nod. “Okay. Let’s see it and believe it.”

The man smiled. “Great.” He turned and walked into the room. With a harsh release of breath, Riley followed. “You’ll only need to go through actual decontamination on your way back out of the lab. On the way in, I need you to put on the neck gaiter mask, the face shield, and the gloves. You should also button up your lab coat in case your shirt rides up or lifts when you raise your arms.”

Riley glanced back over their shoulder as the doors closed. “That’s a lot of safety equipment for something I have to see to believe.”

One corner of his mouth lifted. “You want your skin covered, believe me.”

Riley stared at him for a moment before letting out a breath, shoulders sinking. Unless they had a death wish, there was no way out of the room. Doing as they’d been told was the only option now. They buttoned up their lab coat and put on the gaiter, pulling the mask portion up over their nose. The gloves felt like kevlar, like they were designed to be cut proof, and they went up to their elbows. They grabbed one of the face shields from the bench, though ‘shield’ didn’t quite do it justice. The damn thing looked form-fitted, more like a helmet than the standard shields they had in all the labs.

Once all four of them were outfitted with the required gear, the shorter man swiped his ID card and walked through the decontamination room. Riley followed him through the room and into the lab.

The usual hum of the lights was overcast by something else. Something low. Something rumbling. Something… dangerous.

Riley stepped out in front of the man. When he didn’t stop them, they kept moving toward the noise. The curtain by the back examination table had been pulled, but they could make out a shadow through it. A person sat behind it, rocking back and forth slowly. As Riley drew nearer, the shadow’s head shot back, and the terrifying scream stopped Riley in their tracks, hands flying up to their ears.

They flinched as a hand touched their back. The shorter man stepped past them and grabbed the curtain with one gloved hand. “Prepare yourself, Doctor Johnson. Even when you see it, it’s still a little hard to believe. But we need your head in the game. Okay?”

Riley forced themself to nod, hands still covering their ears, though the screaming had stopped.

The man pulled the curtain back.

Riley’s hands fell to their sides. “Oh… my… God.”


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back to book details

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The votes are in!

The votes are in, and the majority of those who voted are totally okay with me posting books that aren’t guaranteed to be complete.d. This means I can post books as I’m writing them (like I usually do) instead of needing to wait until they’re completed to post them.

Because writing and I have such a weird relationship at the moment, that’s great! I appreciate your support so damn much. Expect to see something zombie-related later today!

Teaser: Searching for who the hell knows

A/N: I don’t have a chapter of The Surgeon ready for you just yet, but I wanted to thank the two people who have donated to help keep the website up and running. I’m about 18% of the way there now! If you’d like to help make sure I can keep posting free stories for you guys, you can read the whole post here, and you can find donation links at the bottom of that page.

I’m hoping to get The Surgeon updated today as a thank you, but in the meantime, here’s the first chapter of a new crime book I started. Not sure if it’ll go anywhere, but we’ll see!

NOT EDITED

The morning rain hit the awning outside the window with a soft pitter patter. As the day wore on, the pitter patter would grow heavier, sounding more like hail than rain, but for now, the pitter patter was easy to tune out. It was only day two of an expected week-long storm, far from Atticus’s favorite event to see in the summer forecast. How some people liked heavy rain and thunderstorms always escaped him. There was nothing appealing to him about a dark, overcast sky, thundering booms, or strikes of lightning exploding bursts of light into the sky.

Atticus reached down and scratched the top of Benny’s head. The pitbull threw his head back only long enough to confirm the touch belonged to Atticus, his chin quickly returning to its place atop his outstretched front paws.

A heavy knock broke up the soft pitter patter behind him. He glanced up at the ceiling, waiting for the sky to finally break, but it didn’t. He cast a look out the open office door, gaze landing on the angled mirror in the hall. The door knob of the front door was still, and he couldn’t see a shadow in the frosted window, either. When no one called out and another knock didn’t sound, he shook his head and dismissed it as the house settling. His paranoia over visitors had increased greatly over the years, and it always worsened even further–if that was actually possible–in March, but the facts always remained the same. Atticus lived out in the middle of nowhere. He could count his unexpected visitors over the last twenty-something years on one hand.

His eyes drifted away from the door’s reflection, falling back to the coin held between his fingers. The shiny piece of metal–a perfect circle with one triangular chip in one edge–served as a smoking gun for him. It was proof that the Lost City of Z was out there somewhere in Brazil.

He had found precisely two treasures in his lifetime, coin aside, and he planned to make Z his third.

Another heavy knock interrupted the rain and his plans for the day. With a sigh, he flicked the coin out of his fingers and snatched it out of the air as he rose to his feet. There was one girl scout that came around a few times a year–a short blonde who dealt Thin Mints and Samoas like they were drugs–but she had never stopped by in the rain. Atticus didn’t see a reason why she’d start now. Surely she wasn’t that desperate to break ahead in the leaderboard.

Atticus nudged Benny’s shoulder with his foot. The dog lifted his head, hauling himself to his feet as soon as he saw his human had already done the same. He followed Atticus out of the office and through the hall, where Atticus signaled for him to sit and wait with a simple lift of his palm. Benny dropped to his haunches, that worried look in his eyes. Sometimes, Benny looked at him in a way that no dog–rescue or not–should be capable of. Atticus had decided more than once that Benny had been a human in an old life. Often, he wondered if Benny’s reincarnation had been a reward or a punishment.

His placement with Atticus seemed to lean toward the latter.

Benny nudged Atticus’s thigh.

“I know, bud,” Atticus whispered, the three words falling on deaf ears. He gave the top of the dog’s head a good scritch and headed for the front door. He cast one last look at the coin, at his plans for the day, and pocketed it. Z would still be there after his unwanted visitor left. Just as a third knock sounded, he pulled open the door.

The woman standing on his doorstep was most definitely not a girl scout. Her dark hair was soaked with rain, little water droplets forming at the tips of the tendrils that had fallen around her face. A droplet fell from her hair and raised down her cheek, falling to the bag she held to her chest.

Atticus lifted his eyes back to her face. “Can I… help you?”

She held the bag out to him. Well, that was being a bit too kind. She had shoved it into his chest hard enough that he’d grunted his response. But Atticus did his best to give her the benefit of the doubt on her aggression, on her strength. She didn’t look… well. The bags under her eyes seemed to carry luggage of their own, and the expression on her face was empty and simply… off.

“My son’s gone missing.”

Gently, Atticus pulled her hands from his chest and pushed them back toward her. “I don’t work with Missing Persons anymore. I’m just a—”

“An adventurer. A treasure hunter.” She nodded. “I know. That’s why I came to you.”

“I’m, umm… I’m not following.”

“The bastard who took my son has been sending these riddles to me. Riddles. The police haven’t gotten anywhere with them, and the public’s been no help through the tip line. But you found Forrest Fenn’s treasure using his riddles. Y-you found the Golden Owl using his riddles. You’re my last shot at finding my son alive.”

Atticus watched her for a moment, unable to stop his brow from furrowing. It was so damn specific, so manipulative. But there was no change in her expression. No ‘Oh gosh I can’t believe I said that’. No ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry’. The woman either had no shame, no guilt, or she just… didn’t know.

He cleared his throat. “Four days?”

“Yes, four days. And I already know what you’re gonna say, and I know. I’ve been told. The first twenty-four hours are the best hours for search and rescue, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. The police haven’t given up either, but they need help that no one else has been able to give them.” She shoved a wet, tangled tendril of hair back behind her ear. “They need you. My son needs you.”

Atticus bit back the initial response that sprung to the tip of his tongue. This woman and her son weren’t his problem. They weren’t his job anymore. They hadn’t been for a long damn time. But it was hard to say that to a worried mother, to a terrified father, to a grieving parent of any variety. It would always be hard. “Look, ma’am, I’m sorry about your son–I am–but solving riddles in poems and pictures doesn’t mean I can help find a missing child. I haven’t been a part of that for a long time.”

“I’m sure it’ll come back to you. Just like riding a bike.” Again, she held out the bag. “Please.”

Atticus stared down at the piece of plastic in her hands. It was a bag from the grocery store in town, the material so thin he could see the photocopied letters inside. He wondered if they had come individually wrapped in brown paper, each one tied off with a little bow of twine, or if they had arrived on her step in a box or a gift bag. Maybe they’d shown up in the damn plastic bag. Who the hell knew.

A part of him wanted to ask, wanted some answers, but the much larger part of him wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.

He let out a sigh and grabbed the bag. “I’ll look into it.”

“Thank you so much! Oh, my God.” She practically lunged into the house, throwing her arms around him. Atticus tensed, and Benny growled from the hall. It was low, barely audible to most people. Atticus held a hand out behind his back, palm extended toward the dog. With a heavy exhale, the growling subsided.

The woman stepped away. “My number’s in the bag. Everything you need is in there. Thank you so much.”

“Don’t… don’t get your hopes up. I’m not a miracle worker.”

She smiled. “I think you’re a lot more than you think you are. You’re a very kind man. Thank you.”

Before Atticus could throw out another reminder about the dangers of high hopes, she turned and ran for her car. Atticus closed the front door and dropped the wet bag to the floor. He looked down, peeling his rain-soaked shirt away from his skin.

A change of clothes before he ripped open an old wound seemed like the least he could do for himself.


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Fighter 13

NOT EDITED

“I’m gonna die.”

The older man snorted, shaking his head. In the same Spanish tongue, he said, “You ain’t gonna die.”

Luca Gutiérrez looked down at his bruised hands, running a thumb over the still-healing crack across his knuckle. “I’m not a death match fighter, Papa. I don’t know… how to do it.”

“How to what? Fight? ‘Cause we both know that’s bullshit.”

Luca shook his head. “How to kill a man.” He turned away from the mirror to look at his father. “Fightin’ is one thing. How the hell am I supposed to kill someone?”

“You fight, but you keep doing it till the guy’s dead. It ain’t rocket science, son.”

“Why do I have to do it? You’ve fought in death matches before.”

“You know why.”

Unfortunately, Luca did know why. His father had been sick for a little over two years. Cancer, whatever the hell that meant. His dad wouldn’t give him specifics on the disease, but Luca knew the treatment wasn’t cheap. The cost was why Luca needed to take his father’s place in the fights, something he’d been doing since he’d shot up to well over six and a half feet soon after he turned twelve. He’d gotten his ass kicked a number of times since, but he had gotten better at winning. Enough nose bleeds and busted hands served as pretty good motivation to stop sucking at fighting.

“What happens if I lose?” Luca asked.

“You won’t lose.”

“It’s a fight to the death, I’ve never fought more than one round at a time, and I’m scrawny as hell.”

“You’ll get past that inability to gain weight and muscle when you get older. It’s your metabolism eating away at all of it.”

“What if I’m killed in one of these matches before I get to that point?”

A knock at the locker room door pulled both of their attention away from the focus of death. The man in the doorway said something in English, but the only part Luca caught was, “Mister G.”

Luca’s dad nodded. “Thank you.” After the man ducked out of the room, he turned back to Luca. Switching back to Spanish, he said, “Stop thinking about your death. You’ll get stuck in your head, and if you’re in your head, of course you’re gonna die.”

“Comforting.”

“You had to get out of your head to win the normal fights. You have to do the same for this.” Luca’s dad held out his hand. Luca blew out a harsh breath and crossed the room. Standing in front of his father, he stuck out his hands. His dad grabbed the wrap from the bench and used it to point at the boy. “You have done this before. The rules are different. The game goes on a little longer. But it is the same. You’ve done it before.”

“It’s not a game, though. It’s a fight. And someone will die.”

His dad stared wrapping the bandage around Luca’s wrist. “Yes, and it will not be you.”

Luca looked down, watching his dad wrap up wrists and hands. It was something Luca would eventually need to learn to do. If he didn’t die tonight. “You have far more faith in me than I do, Papa.”

“Because you’re my boy. Because I know you and your potential even better than you do.” His dad tightened the wrap before lifting his hands to Luca’s face. “Gutiérrez men are fighters, Luca. They will always be fighters. My generation, yours, and the next dozen down the line. It runs in our blood, my boy. I have faith in you because I know better than anyone what you’re capable of. You can do this. Just stay out of your head.”

Luca searched his dad’s face for what felt like an eternity before forcing himself to nod. “I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I can ask.” His dad dropped his hands to his thighs. “Well… I think it’s time to go, Luca.”

Luca looked toward the locker room door, where the guard from before stood, arms crossed over his chest. “You’ll be in the stands?” Luca asked, turning back toward his dad.

He nodded. “I will be. I always am.” He grabbed Luca’s arm and pushed himself to his feet, using the boy for support. “Stay out of your head and you’ll be fine. Don’t focus on fear or it’ll eat you alive. You go out there, and you win this. That’s all there is to it.”

Luca figured it was pretty easy to treat it like an ‘all there is to it’ situation when you weren’t the one going out to fight someone else to the death. Luca tried not to even think about the fact that, unlike himself, the guy he would be put up against wasn’t going to be a teenager. They were never teenagers. Not in the normal fights. He doubted they’d switch that up for the death matches.

“Go out there. Win it. That’s all there is to it,” Luca repeated.

His dad smiled and gave his shoulder a tight smile. “You’ll do great, mijo. Just like you always do.”

Luca forced himself to nod. When his dad released his shoulder, he turned and walked toward the door. The man asked something in English, nothing more than a word or two, but it wasn’t directed toward Luca. The man was still looking back at his dad. Luca turned to look back at the old man too, who only nodded. The man at the door laid a hand on Luca’s back only long enough to push him forward and through the doorway.

The boy’s heart pounded in his chest as he followed the man down the long, dark hallway. As they walked, the bass of the music from the cage pulsed beneath his feet. He didn’t know if it was his heart or the music that made his chest tighten, that made it so difficult to breathe, but he tried not to focus on it. Focusing on the tightness and the breathing difficulty meant trapping himself in his own head, and his father was right.

That was a damn good way to get himself killed.

The man stopped walking and held out an arm to keep Luca from walking through the doorway into the main arena. The room itself was huge, filled to the brim with bleachers and a crowd of shouting drunks. In the middle of the room, down at floor level, the cage sat. It was a large battling area surrounded with tall metal fencing. Luca wasn’t sure what the fence had actually been made for, but it sure as hell wasn’t cage fights. He’d been shoved back into the wire more than once, the sharp edges ripping open the back of his shirt or digging into his arms.

Two men dragged another from the arena, his body thudding down the small set of stairs there. Luca swallowed. Maybe it was all a show for the audience. Maybe the guy wasn’t actually dead. Surely you couldn’t kill a man in front of hundreds of people and not be arrested for murder.

Right?

The men came toward the hall, still dragging the bloody man alongside them. Luca’s breath caught in his throat, nearly choking him. It wasn’t a show. The gaping slit in the man’s throat was proof enough of that. The gash was deep, so deep, in fact, Luca was certain he could see bone.

“Not happening to you.”

Luca looked up at the man that had practically led him to his death. Those words had been Spanish. “You speak Spanish?”

The man held up a hand, thumb and forefinger held close together. “Little bit.” He nodded to the corpse before it disappeared further down the hall. “That won’t happen to you. You’re strong.”

“Strong in fights. But I’ve never fought a murderer.”

The man tilted his head to the side for a moment before clearing his throat. “You have. You… you definitely have.” He grabbed Luca’s arm again and pulled him forward. The announcer said something, but Luca only caught the use of his own name. The man led him up the stairs and pulled open the cage door. “It won’t happen to you. Be strong and… and swift.”

With a less than gentle shove between his shoulders, the man pushed Luca into the arena. Luca couldn’t help but flinch as the door was pulled closed behind him, as the lock was forced into place.

Luca’s brow eyes settled on the pool of blood on the floor first, the bloody rag in his opponent’s hands second. He forced his gaze up to the man’s face. The man was shorter than Luca–most people were–but he was bigger. More muscular. Luca was tall and agile as hell, but he was a scrawny little shit, as his dad liked to say.

The announcer practically shouted into his microphone, but Luca picked up on absolutely nothing from it. His dad had been pretty firm in his belief that Luca shouldn’t learn English. Luca was certain that had more to do with being able to have secret conversations than anything else.

The thundering bass of the music grew louder, shaking the sides of the cage. The man pushed himself away from the metal and shoved the bloody rag out through one of the diamond-shaped spaces between the ragged metal wires. Unlike ‘legitimate’ matches, there was no bell or genuine signal to the beginning of a match. The deafening music served as the cue to attack.

The cue to try and kill each other.

The man snorted something from the back of his hand, shook his head, and charged at Luca. Luca jumped to the side, shoving the man into the cage wall. He growled, flinging himself off the fence. Luca barely managed to dodge him the second time. The third knocked him to the ground. Luca scrambled back, driving his boot into the man’s knee until he knocked the man down. He was used to doing little more than tiring the men out until he could get a few swings in and knock them down, but this guy was a lot faster than most of the others.

This guy had already killed at least one person during the fights tonight alone. Who knew how many lives those hands had taken in total.

Before Luca could get to his feet, the man charged him and knocked him to his back again. Luca pulled his knee up between them and drove it into the man’s chest, but the guy didn’t budge. Luca’s heart thundered in his chest. It was the only damn sound he could hear. It drowned out the music, the crowd, whatever the hell the guy was shouting at him.

He’d never been so fucking scared.

A hard shake on the cage drew Luca’s attention to his father. He had exactly enough time to register the confused anger on his face before the man drove a hard elbow into Luca’s throat. Luca gasped, his chest and stomach seizing, struggling for air. Tears clouding his vision, he clawed at the man’s face until his nails sunk into what felt like an eye.

God, he hoped it wasn’t an eye.

The man jumped away from Luca, stumbling back into the fence around the cage. Luca scrambled away on shaking hands until his back hit the fence. The clatter of something behind him pulled his attention away from the man again.

A knife.

Luca rolled onto his stomach and shoved one shaking hand through the fence. His fingers brushed over the handle of the knife, but he couldn’t get a grip on the damn thing. He let out a desperate sound, shoving his shoulder into the pointed metal tips of the fence to try and give himself enough room to grab the knife.

A hand on his ankle yanked him back. Luca grabbed the fence with both hands, wincing as the points dug into his palms and tore at his fingers. He kicked at the man’s hand with his free foot, but it didn’t do any good. He tried to shake the man’s hand off. Nothing.

With a distressed groan, he drove the tip of his boot into the man’s jaw over and over again. It was the slip of his foot into the man’s throat that caused his grip to loosen. Luca yanked his foot free and drove both boots into the man’s chest. He stumbled back into the fence. Luca shoved his hand back through the fence. “Come on!”

He grabbed the knife just as the man yanked him away from the fence. Luca rolled onto his back and kicked at the man with his free foot, fingers tightening around the handle of the knife. Don’t get stuck in your head. Try not to think about it. Just don’t think about it. Just do it. Do it. Luca lifted the knife with a shout, driving it toward the man’s head.

The man caught his wrist, a twisted smile on his face. He jumped forward, twisting Luca’s arm. Luca tried to fight the knife coming toward him–the knife he still held in his own damn hand–but the man was a hell of a lot stronger than he was.

Luca’s breath nearly strangled him as the knife pierced his chest. He kicked at the man with everything he had left, shoved at him with his free hand. When the man fell to the side, the knife came out with him. Luca’s hand flew to the wound as he rolled to his stomach, reaching for the knife with his other hand.

His fingers closed around the handle before the man could get back to it. Do it. Just do it. Hauling himself to his feet, Luca drove the knife into the man’s chest over and over again, only stopping when the referee grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet, announcing him as a winner.

Luca’s chest heaved, his stomach convulsing with each labored breath he took. He dropped the knife and forced himself to step over the body and walk out of the ring.

His father grabbed his elbow and practically dragged him down the hall. “What the fuck was that?” he asked in Spanish.

“I-I’m sorry, Papa. I tried to stay out of my head. I—”

“Not you. He was high. Not you.” His dad pointed at the guard near the door to what served as a medical area. “What the fuck?”

The guard offered a shrug and said something in English. Whatever it was hadn’t been a good enough answer for Luca’s father. The rise in volume of his own English was proof enough of that.

His father shoved the man to the side and pushed open the door. Switching to Spanish once more, he said, “Go sit down. Doc will take care of you. I’ll be back, okay?”

“Okay,” Luca whispered.

His father moved his hands to Luca’s shoulders and gave them a tight squeeze. “You did great out there. I know it was scary. I know it was not easy. You did great. I just need to figure out what the hell happened.”

Luca forced himself to nod. His father squeezed his shoulders again before heading down the hall. Luca walked into the room, and the guard closed the door behind him.

“Gutiérrez?”

Luca turned to the man seated at the desk. The white coat insinuated he was some kind of doctor. The bottle of whiskey in his hand begged to differ. “Umm… yes?”

He gestured to the exam table with his booze hand. “Let’s get those cuts looked at.”

Okay. Somehow, the whiskey was wrong. Luca lifted himself onto the exam table. “You speak… You speak Spanish?” Luca asked.

The guy snorted. “Someone has to.” He took a swig of his drink and set the bottle on the table. He rolled his stool over to the table and pulled Luca’s hand away from his chest. “This one probably hurts the most, huh?” Luca nodded. “How old are you, kid?”

“Umm…” Luca cleared his throat. “I-I’m not supposed to answer that.”

The doctor glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised. “Tells me about all I need to know.” He rolled back to his desk and prepared a rag soaked with something. If Luca had to guess, it was probably alcohol. Maybe even from the guy’s personal supply. “You know our fights are for soldiers eighteen and older?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re over eighteen, huh?”

“This isn’t my first fight. I’ve been doing these for over a year.”

“I know. But we only figured out how long you had been taking your father’s place very recently..” The doctor came back to the table. He pulled Luca’s hand away and pressed the rag to his chest. Luca hissed. “How old are you? And don’t fucking toy with me. Don’t fuck with the guy in control of your healthcare.”

Luca stared at the doctor for a moment before shaking his head. “Withhold whatever care you want. I’m not a tattler.”

***

“How long have you had your son subbing in for you, Javier?”

Luca’s father, Javier, crossed his arms over his chest. “Who cares? How about instead we talk about that drug addict you put up against him tonight?”

“If we’d known a child was fighting, maybe we would’ve made sure the guy he was put up against wouldn’t be snorting anything mid-match, eh?”

“Fuck you,” Javier said through his teeth. “You almost got my boy killed.”

The suited man shook his head. “No.” He shook a finger at Javier as he lowered himself into his desk chair. “No, see, Javier, you almost got your boy killed tonight. You know how many soldiers we have that go through these fights. You know we add new rotations every single week, new fighters. You had no idea who he would’ve been up against tonight, and you still sent a child out to fight to the death. That isn’t my fault. You made that decision.”

“You’re going to come down here and start enforcing rules now, Lucchese?”

Antonio Lucchese Senior shook his head. “Not necessarily. But I did come down here to make you an offer, one that will keep your son alive.” He waved a hand vaguely in Javier’s direction. “One that will continue paying for your treatments.”

Slowly, Javier sat down in front of his desk. “I’m listening.”

***

Luca turned toward the door as it opened. His father walked into the room, a suited man behind him. The suited man said something in a language that wasn’t English, and the doctor stood and left the room. Clearing his throat, Luca’s father closed the door. Luca’s brow furrowed. “Papa?”

“Things are going to change, and they’re going to change fast.”

“What… what do you mean? What’s going to change?”

Luca’s father sat down on the stoll and rolled it closer to the exam table. He clasped his hands between his knees. “You know these fights are supposed to be closed to anyone below the age of eighteen.”

“I know.”

“Well, that rule is… It’s to keep kids safe. Street kids. Kids of immigrants. It makes sure they aren’t getting themselves killed. But because we’ve been breaking that rule, we aren’t keeping you safe. And tonight, I… I almost lost you to a fight I signed you up for.”

“I’ll get better at fighting, Papa. Now I know that not all of my opponents will be slow or easily tired.”

He shook his head. “He wasn’t slow because he was high. He wasn’t easy to tire out because he was high. He was difficult to shove away because the drugs messed with how his brain registered pain. He isn’t the only soldier you’ll face that will be high, and I can’t have you risking your life to pay for my treatments.”

“I-I’d risk my life all day if it kept you alive.”

“I know you would. But you shouldn’t have to.” He pushed himself to his feet and moved his hands to either side of Luca’s face. “It’s my job to take care of you, to keep you alive. Not the other way around. And right now, while I’m sick, I can’t do that the way I’d like to. So… so things are going to change. You’re going to work for Mister Lucchese.”

“But… he’s a mobster. Papa, he is the mob,” Luca said.

“I know.” Luca’s father nodded, dropping back into his seat. “But it’s the only way I can make sure you’re fed, that you have a roof over your head. And you won’t have to do death matches ever again. You’ll be safe. It’s the only way I can guarantee that.”

“But what about you?”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “Lucchese needs new soldiers, and someone of your height is appealing.”

“But I’m weak. Papa, come on, you’ve said it yourself. I’m scrawny as hell! I’m not intimidating. I can’t be a mobster.”

“You’ll be a soldier, a bodyguard. Your height gives you all the intimidation factor you need for now. They’ll train you for anything else they need you to be able to do. You’ll learn to fight, to defend yourself. You’ll learn everything you need to know to survive there.”

“What about you?” Luca asked again. “Your treatments. Y-you can’t work, Papa. Who’s going to take care of you?”

“Lucchese will be paying for my treatments for as long as you’re working for him. And in the meantime, you’ll have a room and three meals a day. And hopefully no more knives to the chest.”

“And you’ll have a room too?”

He let out a breath. “I’ll be at the house. You’ll be living with Lucchese. It’s easier that way. But I’ll make the trip out there every weekend.”

“Papa,” Luca whispered. I-I can’t—”

“You can. You’re a Gutiérrez. You keep fighting. You’ll win. Yeah?”

Luca swallowed roughly, forcing himself to nod. “Yeah.”

“That’s my boy.” He gave Luca’s arm a tight squeeze. “The doctor’s going to fix you up, and then I’ll… I’ll stick around to see you off. And then I’ll see you soon. Okay?”

“Okay.”

***

The goodbye had been hard, but Luca had done everything he could not to cry. Crying was a emotional response not granted to men. In men, it served as a weakness, as proof that one was easy to defeat, easy to break. Luca didn’t want to stand for any of those things. He was a Gutiérrez, and he only planned to make his dad proud. If his dad thought working with Mister Lucchese was the right thing to do, then he’d do it. If it kept his dad alive, he’d do it.

The car pulled into a long, curved driveway, and the driver cut the engine in front of one of the biggest houses Luca had ever seen with his own eyes. As he climbed out of the car, Antonio Senior said something in the language Luca couldn’t identify.

The doctor cleared his throat. “Let’s go inside. Lucchese wants you to see your room.”

“Okay,” Luca said quietly. The doctor pushed open the back door, and Luca followed him out of the car. Hands shoved into the pockets of his ripped jeans, Luca followed Antonio Senior into the house, the doctor trailing behind them. Luca did his best to ignore the suited men staring at him, but it was easier said than done. He was used to getting stared at to some degree, but his experiences had only involved two or three people at a time. There were dozens upon dozens of men lining the halls and rooms they walked past, and almost every single set of eyes was on Luca.

“Why are they staring at me?”

“They prefer the idea that the mafia remain Italian,” the doctor said. “We have one other non-Italian serving as a made-man. You will be our second.”

Antonio Senior opened up a door and said something in the language Luca couldn’t place–though he was beginning to think it was Italian.

“Mister Lucchese would like to welcome you to your room. Go ahead and make yourself at home. Supper will be brought to you so you don’t have to eat around a bunch of strangers, and tomorrow we’ll work on a few introductions and get you slotted into some training sessions. Until then, enjoy the room.”

“Thank you,” Luca said. He walked into the room, and once the doctor closed the door, Luca wrapped his arms around himself. The room was empty, save for a bed. Luca’s room back home had been pretty empty too, but the emptinesses were different. The empty room he’d spent his life in felt like home. The empty room here felt… empty. Lonely.

The empty room here just made him miss his dad.


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