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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 Three

NOT EDITED

Chapter Three

11:45 AM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, MORGUE

Bo stared down at Tess Brown’s body, half a frown set deeply on his face. Unless testing revealed something that was otherwise undetectable, the autopsy had brought forth little of interest. There had been nothing strange or abnormal in the woman’s stomach. He hadn’t found signs of chloroform in her throat. He hadn’t found any obvious signs of injection, so as far as Bo could tell, she hadn’t been drugged. But he’d run more extensive tests, just to make sure.

The potential for drugging aside, there were a few things he was absolutely certain of. She hadn’t eaten anything in at least the last six to eight hours leading up to her death. There were no signs of physical or sexual abuse. Really, she hadn’t even been harmed, if one didn’t count the large laceration of her throat. That hadn’t been done to harm her; it had been done to kill her. In most situations, Bo tallied the two in distinctly different categories.

Shaking his head, Bo finished moving Tess Brown’s body from the autopsy table to a drawer in the morgue. He pulled off his gloves and slid a tag with BROWN, TESSA written on it into the nameplate on the face of the drawer. With a fresh pair of gloves on, he set to work on cleaning the autopsy table.

Watching the woman’s blood swirl down the drain in the table, he couldn’t help but think how disturbed the detectives upstairs would be if they knew how little this all affected him. How he could cut these people open, weigh their organs, check for signs of assault or poisoning, and stitch them back up without feeling much of anything at all. There had been a time where he had felt connected to the victims he worked on, a time where he’d felt connected to their stories.

But that seemed like a lifetime ago. Every wall he had torn down over the years had been built up again the moment it had come out that his best friend was a serial killer. The walls had gotten taller and thicker the longer Dallas Silver had been gone, the longer Bo had been forced to sit in the basement of the LAPD and search every database he could in an attempt to find Dallas and Kathy. The walls had protected him the best they could, and he had no intention of ever bringing them down again.

He tossed his gloves and washed his hands. He grabbed his notebook and tape recorder from the metal tool tray and sat down in the corner of the morgue, on the floor. If he stood up and walked three feet to his right, he could open a door and step straight into the lab, where there was a large table perfect for note-taking. But he had always taken notes in the lab when he had worked with Dallas and Kathy, and things needed to change. Change was the best way to avoid memories, and avoiding was what had to be done if he had any hope of surviving.

He pulled back the red cover of his notebook. He’d pulled it fresh out of the package that morning before he’d left the hotel. Brand new, free of any notes about cases in Los Angeles, cases he’d worked with Dallas, cases he’d worked with Kathy. It was a blank slate.

Leaving the header blank, he skipped the first line and wrote Tess Brown’s name on the second line. He underlined her name and went about making notes of the crime scene. She had been found in a dumpster outside of the emergency room in Clinstone. The laceration had been six inches in length. It appeared to have started on her left, the blade pulled to the right.

He moved onto the autopsy. The lack of stomach contents. The lack of anything suspicious. No notes or signatures tucked away in her throat or in her clothes. The weight of her organs. The health of them. For the most part, the slit throat had been one of the few indications she’d been dead at all.

Bo closed the notebook, tucking his blue pen neatly into the spiral that bound the pages together. He set the book on the floor at his right and picked up a blue notebook from the pile on his left. He pulled back the cover and, with a fresh black pen, wrote Jacob Mason’s name on the header of the page.

Jacob Mason

  • Sapphire blue eyes
  • Brown hair
  • Glasses
  • Around six-foot tall
  • Most likely engaged
  • Has at least two children. One young girl and a boy, age unknown
  • Friendly. Extroverted. Loud. Blunt.

He flipped the page, wrote Carter Lehmann’s name in the header.

Carter Lehmann

  • Hazel-ish eyes
  • Brown hair
  • Wears contacts rather than glasses
  • Approximated at five-foot-nine
  • Presumably unmarried. No phone calls to or from a significant other
  • Presumably no kids
  • Friendly. Extroverted. Soft-spoken.

A new page.

Myra Cooper

  • Brown eyes
  • Blonde hair
  • Around five-foot-seven
  • Married
  • Presumably no kids
  • Friendly. Bright eyes. Soft smile.

Bo glanced up at the ceiling before closing the notebook. He hadn’t been present when the detectives had gone inside and interviewed the person who had found Tess Brown’s body. As far as he could remember, he had no other names he needed to write down.

When it came to this particular method of madness, there was a reason for it. Keeping tabs on every single person he met in Clinstone, Minnesota would keep him from ever making the same kind of mistakes he had made in Los Angeles. He would never let anyone into his personal circle ever again. He would never befriend a serial killer again.

12:23 PM; CLINSTONE POLICE DEPARTMENT, DETECTIVE JACOB MASON’S DESK

Jacob looked up as Bo stopped in front of his desk. He closed the folder in front of him and waved a hand toward one of the chairs between Bo and the desk. The other was occupied by Carter. “Austen, hey. Sit.”

Bo forced a smile. “I’m all right with standing, sir. If that’s all right with you.” He handed a folder to Jacob before passing the other to Carter. Clearing his throat, he retreated to a safer distance, about a foot and a half in front of the desk and a good chair and a half away from Carter.

“Jesus Christ, Lemon, the dude’s got even nicer handwriting than you do. Never thought I’d see the day,” Jacob said. Carter only snorted.

Bo tucked his hands behind his back, making a mental note to add ‘nice handwriting’ to Carter’s list once he returned to the morgue. Bo’s handwriting had always been… neat, borderline mechanical. In school, his teachers had compared it to the text on a computer. It took time and a bit of finger cramping, but it was worth the pleasant readability.

“That’s everything I know about Tess Brown,” Bo said with a slight nod toward the folder in Jacob’s hands. “She was killed December thirty-first around eleven PM. Before she was killed, she was chloroformed. Aside from the chloroform, I found no other drugs or foreign substances within her system, though I am still running further tests on her blood just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. She also hadn’t eaten anything in at least six to eight hours before she was killed. You can determine how important you consider that factor.”

Bo cleared his throat before continuing, “Tess Brown was reported missing on December twenty-third by her boyfriend, and said boyfriend died on the twenty-seventh. Because her boyfriend is dead, Tess Brown has no other family you need to contact. He was all she had left.”

Jacob and Carter shared a quick glance before looking back at Bo. “It’s… impressive you found all that in a couple of hours,” Jacob said after a moment. “Not to mention that you had time to write it down for us. That’s appreciated.”

“It’s… what I do,” Bo said slowly. He swallowed, ticking off yet another thing he had already screwed up in Clinstone. He should have taken less time, presented them with less information, done less work. Something. Anything other than what he had done. “It’s my job.”

Jacob set the folder on his desk and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. He raised a brow. “Tell me, kid, you sure that’s all you know about the girl?”

Bo found it a little odd that Jacob called him ‘kid’. He knew the detective was only about four years older than him. More specifically, three years and three months older. He assumed one of two things made Jacob feel older than he was: a new baby in the family—presumably the ‘Charlotte’ he had talked about on the phone, or the ‘Allie’ he had talked to was older than he was.

“About the girl?” Bo asked. “As in, the victim? Tess Brown. Yes, I’m sure that’s all I know. But I have profiled a few likely things about your killer.”

“Profiled?” Jacob echoed.

“You guys… don’t typically profile?” Jacob asked.

“Not in-house.”

“Oh,” Bo whispered. One more thing that makes you stick out like a sore thumb, Austen. Three for three. Are you sure you were aiming for NORMAL in this town? Bo shifted his weight between his feet. “I… I suppose I have a surprise for you, then. More than likely, Tess Brown is not the first person this killer has killed. There are no hesitation marks on the throat laceration. There are no practice marks anywhere else on the body.

“Despite this, it would seem that the killer doesn’t want their victims to feel any pain. They took chloroform to Tess Brown, and once she was unconscious, they slit her throat. She bled out incredibly quickly, as the killer made sure to hit her carotid artery, which is… essentially an off switch built into your throat. The killer knows what they’re doing, and they know how to do it well.”

“But the dude doesn’t want the victim to feel pain,” Jacob said. “Why? What’s the point of killing people if you don’t get some sort of joy out of it?”

“Anything I could say on that matter would simply be an assumption.”

“Is there a problem with that?” Jacob asked.

In the long run, there wasn’t really a problem with assumptions, but it was one of the few Kathy-isms that Bo had allowed himself to keep. She had believed assumptions got in the way of solving a case. Which, in hindsight, was borderline hilarious, as most things a detective did were hunches or assumptions until it was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the killer really was the killer. But it was still something she always said, especially if it meant shutting someone up before they could inject an idea she couldn’t take credit for.

Maybe it wasn’t the best Kathy-ism to keep, but he unfortunately didn’t get to choose what stuck and what didn’t.

“I don’t enjoy injecting my own assumptions into a detective’s work,” Bo said.

“What if I give you permission to?” Jacob asked.

“No, thank you.”

Jacob snorted, but he nodded. “Fair enough.” He gestured to the folder. “Thank you for all the info on Tess.”

“My pleasure.” Bo waited a moment longer to confirm neither detective had anything more to say—to his face, at least—before turning around and starting back toward the lab. He still had a few things he wanted to check out in regards to the crime scene. He was absolutely certain Tess Brown hadn’t been killed there, but a closer inspection of the photos and collected evidence would help guarantee he didn’t pass over anything that could be used to determine where she had been killed.

The case in Clinstone was the first time in quite some time that he didn’t go with a detective to question witnesses or suspects. He’d done it with Dallas from the first day the man had joined the LAPD. He’d attended questionings and interviews before and after Dallas, as well. But… Clinstone was a fresh start. No one expected him to do much more than look at bodies and photograph crime scenes.

A labor-intensive task like a deep dive into the crime scene photographs was just what he needed to distract him from going back to simply being a lab geek, tucked away in the basement.


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Surgeon – Chapter Two

NOT EDITED

Chapter Two

8:32 AM; CLINSTONE EMERGENCY ROOM, ALLEYWAY

Admittedly, Bo found himself shocked at the crime scene alleyway. He’d ducked under the yellow tape at an uncountable number of Los Angeles back alley homicides, and there was always an unmistakable feel to them. In Los Angeles, even before you saw the body or the blood, you knew this was the perfect kind of alley to kill someone in. They were poorly lit, even when the sun was out. They came to a dead end to make escape impossible for the soon-to-be victim.

But the alley behind Clinstone’s ER was… different. The back door to the ER was well-labeled, and a motion-activated light sat above it. No camera, of course—it was never that easy—but the place didn’t exactly feel like a death trap. It felt almost… safe.

However, given that there was a woman dead in the dumpster with a slit throat, safe was certainly an incorrect assumption.

Camera in hand, Bo stepped up on the bottom lip of the dumpster and leaned over the top. The lid had most likely been open ever since the body had been found. It allowed him a good look inside, but it wasn’t a great angle for pictures. He lowered his camera. The left side of the dumpster was still closed. Surely he could get up there without too much trouble.

He swung a leg over the dumpster and climbed onto the lid, his camera pinned to his shoulder.

Jacob raised an eyebrow as Bo leaned down to snap a picture of the victim. “You are far agiler than Misty.”

Bo snorted. It had far more to do with balance than agility of any kind. It was more about figuring out how far apart his knees had to be so he could lean forward without falling into the dumpster and onto the body. But that knowledge could stay inside his head. He knew more than most how much others hated genuine explanations about ‘complex’ abstracts and ideas.

So he settled for a simple, “Thank you.”

“What’re you seeing in there?” Jacob asked.

Bo preferred keeping assumptions and guesses to himself, only giving the detectives absolute facts once he had completed an autopsy and thoroughly examined the crime scene. But unless fate or god or whatever the hell there was struck down the detectives with a freak lightning storm, he’d always be expected to list things off as he saw them, to make educated guesses based on those same sights. Though he didn’t enjoy it, he was used to it.

“Our victim was most likely killed by a throat laceration. There’s a substantial amount of bruising and blood around the cut, so it happened before her death rather than after. She was alive when it happened, just not for long afterward.” Bo held out his camera. “Detective Mason? Can you take this?”

Jacob walked up to the dumpster, but he made no move to grab it. “I don’t know much, but I know I’ve never been allowed to touch Misty or Gwen’s cameras. You sure you want me to do that?”

Bo offered a smile. “I have faith that you can handle it.”

“Well, if I drop it, it’s totally on you.”

“That’s fine. I have no intention of suing you over a broken camera.” Bo gave the body of said expensive camera a light shake. “So?”

Jacob grabbed it and quickly lifted the strap over his head. “This is fucking heavy, man. How the hell are you toting it around while you’re balancing on a dumpster?”

Calculations of what it took to balance with the extra weight of the camera weren’t hard for Bo to run through. He knew how much his camera weighed with the addition of the external flash and his lens. He knew the force of gravity and what kind of angle he needed to help counteract it. Most importantly, he knew the width of the base–how far apart his feet were–he needed to balance. For Bo, it was practically second nature.

“I’ve had my fair share of practice,” Bo said. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dropped to his stomach on the garbage lid. He grabbed the victim’s hand and pressed her thumb against the home button on his phone. Slowly, he rolled her thumb across it, left to right. He carefully lowered her hand to rest against her stomach and pushed himself back up. He swung both legs over the dumpster’s edge, balancing himself on the thin lip of the dumpster.

“Austen, be careful. Please.”
Bo glanced down at Jacob. “I’ll be okay, Detective, I promise.” His eyes shifted back to his phone. “This here is Tess Brown. Five-eleven, blonde hair, green eyes, turned forty-four on the fifth of November.”

Carter raised an eyebrow. “Did you just do that on your phone?”

Dammit. Bo closed his eyes for a moment. This wasn’t Los Angeles. This was Clinstone. This was his fresh start. And he’d already ruined it. “Yes,” he finally said.

How?”

Bo held up his phone and offered a quiet, “The home button has a fingerprint sensor.” That wasn’t quite it. It did have a sensor, but only because he’d modified it to, only because he’d programmed it to send the fingerprint data to an app he’d created years prior. It took the readings and rifled through the fingerprints in the police database, working overtime to sort through those that held the same loops, scars, deltas, ridge endings, islands, and bifurcations as the one that had been scanned. It had taken years to get right, just like his portable DNA identifier and his phone’s facial recognition scanner.

But that answer was long and offered an inside look straight into his brain, and he didn’t want to do that. He’d already screwed up by using the fingerprint reader now instead of once Tess Brown’s body had arrived at the morgue. He didn’t intend to mess up his fresh start any further.

Clearing his throat, Bo jumped down from the dumpster’s edge. “There’s an app that takes the data from the fingerprint scanner and runs it against those in the system.”

Jacob cocked his head to the side. “ ‘There’s an app’ because you created it. Right?”

Bo let out a breath, shoulders falling. “Yes, sir.”

“Christ, dude. Don’t be ashamed of that shit. That’s amazing.”

“Theoretically,” Bo said after a moment. He shoved his phone into his back pocket and took his camera from Jacob. “I’d like to document the scene further while we wait for the coroner to arrive. Then we can get her back to the morgue, and I can see what I can get from there. It’ll be easier to get an idea of what happened once she’s… not in a dumpster.”

Jacob watched him for a moment, but he didn’t ask any further questions as Bo had feared he would. Instead, he nodded. “Okay. Lemon and I will head to the barricades and let you work in peace.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, toward the end of the alleyway. “If you need anything, holler. Sound good?”

For the first time in what felt like years, Bo’s shoulders relaxed. “Sounds perfect.”

Once Carter and Jacob had relocated to the other end of the alley, Bo felt at peace, in his element. What felt like a lifetime ago, he had worked almost exclusively surrounded by people. A detective, a beat cop, the chief, another analyst. It had always felt like someone was looking over his shoulder, waiting for him to mess up, waiting for their chance to prove he didn’t belong there. But here, even though he’d screwed up and used his fingerprint scanner out in the field in front of the detectives, they had simply… left him alone. Unsupervised. Heck, they were so far away that Bo could only just barely make out what Jacob was saying about lunchtime. Maybe Clinstone, Minnesota was far enough away from California to be different. Maybe it still had a chance to be the breath of fresh air he needed.


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Bartender’s Vampire – Chapter Two

NOT EDITED

    Kyle Barrett leaned back against the bar, eyes focused on the dance floor. More specifically, focused on Sabien. The short man was out there in the middle, dancing like no one was watching. But Kyle was definitely watching. Something about Sabien was absolutely alluring and demanding of attention. A group of young women danced around him, descending upon him like moths on a flame. They fawned over him, hands dragging over the beautiful black and gray gothic vest he wore, getting as close to him as humanly possible.

    Sabien didn’t seem to mind, though Kyle had initially assumed he was gay. He could be bisexual, of course, or in general, he just didn’t care if women grinded up against him. Anything was possible in the grand scheme of things, especially if the broken-hearted man was only at the bar that night to try and claw his way out of the depths of betrayal.

    Those betrayed eyes had been unreasonably sad when he’d been up by the counter, but Kyle had still thought he was a gorgeous man. Up close, Sabien was incredibly pale, something that made his blue eyes all the more striking. They stood out on his freckled face, looking almost unnatural. His jet black hair was slightly slicked back in some sort of messy side swept undercut. He was short, maybe only five-foot-six or so, despite the nearly dangerous flicker Kyle had caught in those strikingly sad blue eyes when he’d first come up to the bar.

    “Bro.”

    Kyle looked back over to his shoulder, a smile coming to his face. “Hey, man.” He turned the rest of the way around and stuck out a fist.

    The lanky man on the other side of the bar bumped it with his own. “Slow night?”

    Kyle shrugged. “Not too bad. Everyone’s just officially drunk enough that they’re more into the music than more drinks.”

    “Mm.” The man, Ellis Day, lifted himself onto a bar stool and crossed his arms over the counter, brown eyes shifting to the dance floor. “So… we both know you’re like, the worst liar.”

    “Rude and uncalled for, but okay.”

    One corner of Ellis’s mouth lifted as his gaze drifted back to Kyle. “Is it the one in the vest?”

    “Hmm?”

    “The super pale fancy gut out there. Dress pants, black button up, that gothic ass vest. Is that the one we’re watching?”

    “Would you keep your damn voice down?” Kyle asked in a whisper. He glanced back at Sabien, still dancing with his flock of college girls. “Yes, I’m watching him.”

    “Gonna ask him out for a drink? Coffee?”

    “No.”

    “Why not? Already ruled out an interest in guys?”

    Kyle shook his head. “No, he just got out of a relationship. It sounds like the break-up wasn’t too great, either.”

    “Is it ever?” Ellis asked, one eyebrow raised.

    “Well, no. But it seems like the guy was a total dick.” Kyle cleared his throat. “Can I getcha anything?”

    “Beer’d be great.”

    “Coming right up.” Kyle popped the cap off a beer bottle and set it down in front of Ellis.

    Ellis took a short sip before using the bottle to gesture to the dance floor. “Been a while since you had any fun, y’know?”

    “I’m not sure ‘fun’ with a guy who just got his ass handed to him is the route I wanna go.”

    Ellis snorted. “If that were true, you wouldn’t be drooling over him.”

    “I’m hardly drooling over him. I’m just… watching. There’s no rule against that, even if he just got out of a shitty relationship.

    “Well, I guess that’s true.” Ellis looked out at the dance floor, eyes no doubt scanning for a dance partner for the night. He was a bit too gangly to look like he knew what he was doing when it came to dance, but the man had been in some form of dance classes most of his childhood to work on his balance and coordination. It usually led to at least one success on the dance floor, so Kyle didn’t really see much point in poking fun at him for his lanky ass.

    “Think I’m gonna head out there and see if that gal by the jukebox wants a dance or two.” Ellis flashed a smile. “Don’t stare at the goth dude too much, yeah?”

    Kyle rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll do my best to control myself.” Admittedly, Kyle’s ‘best’ would be pretty low effort, but he did plan to make his stares a little closer to sneaky glances.

    Ellis threw out a thumbs-up and slid off his barstool. Once he made it out to the dancefloor, he did a lazy shimmy beind Sabien, one ‘you jealous?’ eyebrow raised in Kyle’s direction. Kyle mouthed an exasperated, “Stop that!” and made a quick shooing motion with one of his hands. Ellis flashed an annoyingly shit-eating grin and headed off toward the woman by the jukebox.

    Kyle’s gaze drifted back to Sabien and his dancing flock of ladies. There was something  undenibaly captivating about the man’s pale, freckled face, and clearly, Kyle wasn’t the only one who had noticed it. Or maybe it was just nice to see a new face around the bar. [TOWNNAME] wasn’t the smallest town around by any means, but only having a couple thousand residents meant most of the folks that walked into the bar were familiar faces. There was always something capitavating about a stranger when you were used to serving regulars and friends.

    But Sabien was oddly the most capitavating stranger he’d ever met.

***

    Well after last call, while all the night’s patron’s cleared out, Kyle went about wiping off the bar. Someone cleared their throat about the softest one could possibly clear a throat, but it still drew his attention. Kyle lifted his head, a smile coming to his face. “Hey, Sabien.”

    “Hello.” Again, the shorter man cleared his throat, tucking his hands into the pockets of his tight-fitted dress pants. “I… appreciate you being willing to talk about me, about my boyfriend. My… my ex-boyfriend. I don’t have may friends to talk to about things like that, so… Well, I appreciate it.”

    “No problem, man. Comes with the job.” Kyle scratched at his temple, shifting his wiegt between his feet. “If you need to talk again, I… work every night. Y’know, if you ever need a friend or somethin’.”

    “I might take you up on that offer. I suppose we’ll see how awful my boyfriend crisis seems by evening.”

    Kyle snorted. “Sounds like a plan. Boyfriend crisis or not, I’m pretty much always here to chat about woes.”

    Sabien offered a little smile, but it fell away fast. “Kyle, is it?”

    “Yeah.”

    “Thank you for affording genuine kindness to a stranger, Kyle. I’m sure that kindness has unintentionally saved a life before, but… but I can say for certain it savd one tonight. I thank you greatly for that.”

    Before Kyle could even begin to come up with a response, Sabien pushed a folded fifty dollar bill into the tip jar and walked out of the bar.

***

    Kyle woke up to the heart-racing sound of someone pounding on his door. Before the unfortunate barrel roll out of bed landed him on his ass, he heard the door open.

    “Jesus, Ellis. Put some pants on, kid.”

    Ellis snorted. “A man’s castle is his place to not wear anything more than his undies, Mister B. Besides, you totally woke me up.”

    “Is Kyle home?”

    “Yeah!” Kyle called from his room. A hand wrapped around the edge of his nightstand, he pulled himself to his feet. His tailbone was already beginning to regret his fall to the floor, but whatever his grandpa wanted seemed pretty damn urgent. He wasn’t usually a ‘knock down the apartment door’ kinda guy.

    The two little raps on his bedroom door were about a million times quieter than the damn battering ram fist of fury his grandpa must’ve used on the front door. “You decent?”

    “Yeah. What’s up?”

    His grandpa cracked the doo open and scanned the room before opening it the rest of the way. “I called you damn near a hundred times this morning.”

    Kyle sat down on the edge of his mattress, clearing his throat as he raked a hand through his hair. “I just got home a couple hours ago. It’s on do not disturb mode. And silent, I think. What’s goin’ on? Everything okay?”

    “Well, now that I know you’re home and alive, yes.”

    Kyle’s brow furrowed. “What’s wrong, Grandpa? Did something happen? Is everyone okay?”

    His grandpa let out a heavy sigh. “A kid was killed by the bar. I mean, not a kid kid, but a young man. Around your age. With how close we found him to the bar, I was worried about you.” Before Kyle could really digest the whole homicide next to the bar thing, his grandpa added, “Anyone strange come into the bar last night?”

    “No. Just… bar patrons. I’m sorry, you said someone was killed? Like murder?”

    “Yes, in an alleyway not too far from the bar. You sure you didn’t see anyone suspicious come in there last night? Maybe someone sweaty or agitated?”

    “Grandpa, I’m sure. Do I know the guy?”

    “No, I doubt it. I’ve only heard his name in passing. I didn’t even know what the kid looked like until I showed up at the scene this morning.”

    “Do I have anything to worry about? I-I mean, you busted in here like you were convinced I was gonna be dead when you got in. Are we in danger? Are…? What’s going on?”

    His grandpa held up both hands for a moment, a silent ‘calm down, it’s going to be okay’. “Everything’s fine. But we don’t get homicides around here often, so when a kid around your age gets killed near your place of work, it puts me on edge in regards to your safety, especially when I can’t get ahold of you. But that doesn’t mean you’re in danger. It just means I worry about you.”

    “That’s it?”

    He nodded. “That’s it.” A pause. “Disable that ‘do not disturb’ shit so your damn phone rings when I call you. Next time I’m not waiting for Ellis to answer the door. I’ll bust it down.”

    Kyle chuckled softly, scratching the side of his head. “Okay, I’ll make sure it’s set so it rings when you call.” He raised a brow. “You… think there’s gonna be a next time? Like a serial killer situation?”

    “Here? No. But not having some killer running around town on a rampage doesn’t mean I’m going to stop worrying about you.”

    “I know.” Kyle offered a smile. “But I’m safe, Grandpa. No one weird or murder-y came into the bar last night. If that changes anytime in the future, you’ll be the first to know.”

    “Good.” His grandpa pulled off his bal cap long enough to scratch the top of his head. “Sorry if I scared you, kiddo. But you’re about all I got left.”

    “I know. Don’t worry about it, Gramps. Thanks for making sure I was safe, really.”

    “Of course. I love you. You stay safe.”

    “I will. And you do the same. You’re the one working the homicide.”

    His grandpa snorted. “Yeah, I s’pose. I’ll be safe.”

    “Good. Love you too, Gramps.”


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Chapter Three

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Bartender’s Vampire – Chapter One

NOT EDITED

    “I dare you to lie to me again,” Sabien said through his teeth, fangs glinting in the moonlight.

    A wicked smile formed on the taller man’s face as he stared down at the pale Vampire. “I love you,” he said slowly. He offered the most dramatic shrug Sabien had ever seen. “That right there, darling? That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever tol to anyone in this world. And to think you believed it. Pathetic. You’re pathetic.”

    Sabien grunted, doing his best not to lose whatever sembalnce of calm he hadleft. He’d been alive for a couple hundred years. He had absolutely no problem with calmness.

    “My whole family knows what you are, Sabien. We’ve found people that would love your blood, your fangs. Christ, they’d pay an arm and a leg for them.” Finally, the an pulled his hand out from behind his back, fingers tight around a wooden stake. “My ‘love’ for you is gonna make us rich.”

    Sabien lunged at him, shoving him back against the building closest to them. In the alleyway, he sunk his teeth into the man’s neck, free hand clamped down over his mouth. When he finally stopped clawing at him, Sabien released him and watched him hit the ground. Sabien sank down after him, balancing on his toes for only a moment before the sudden weakness knocked him to his butt. Though Kolten apparently had never loved Sabien, he had certainly loved Kolten.

    They’d only made it ‘official’, as Kolten had always called it, six months ago, but Sabien had spent damn near an eternity prior to the declration convincing Mother and Father to allow him to court a human in the first place. And still, after all that time, Sabien had never sensed it was all fake. Had never sensed Kolten was out for his blood. His fangs. His life.

    Sabien didn’t have much real world experience, and Jesus, did it show.

    “I can’t believe you did this to me,” Sabien whispered. “And to you. Jesus, look what I did to you.”

    His mind couldn’t work out who was to blame. Kolten had intended to kill him. He had brought Sabien to a dark alleyway in the middle of the night witha stake tucked into the back of his jeans to kill him. Sabien had only defended himself.

    But it sure didn’t feel like self-defense when it was against your boyfriend.

    Though the cops wouldn’t be able to arrest him without exposing to the world at large that Vampires were real, Sabien knew it was still better the less time he spent at the scene of the crime. Mother and Father would be upset he’d left the body behind, but it was Kolten. He couldn’t hide Kolten away and toss him out to sea. He deseved to be found, to have a funeral, a prope burial. It was the least Sabien could do, though it’d never be enough. Kyle was dead, so far gone that Sabien couldn’t even bringhim back as a Vampire. He was just… gone. Forever. Nothing would make up for that.

    Sabien pulled himself to his feet and walked out of the alleyway, pulling his coat tighter around himself, like the warm enveloping hug woul somehow erase what he’d done. Unfortunately, it did not.

    He wiped his mouth wththe back of his hand, then his palm. When his palm came back clean, he crossed the road and crouched down on the sidewalk to wipe his hand in the grass. With his skin free of Kolten’s blood, he rose back to his feet.

    There was a bar about three blocks up the street. It’d be one of the few places open at this time of night that wouldn’t have blindingly bright lights. There, he could find a phone and call Mother. She’d be angry if she found out about Kolten’s death through any other avenue. If Sabien could avoid piling his mother and father’s anger onto his shoulders, he would.

    By the time he’d made it to the bar, the warmth and revigeration from Kolten’s blood had run its way through his veins, ridding him of at least some of the guilt, hurt, and anger. It would only last a day or two at a maximum, but the lively feeling of it would help him blend in at the bar. In any case, Sabien considered that a good thing, given the situation of the evening. The easier he could hide the guilt and pain from the people inside, the better. The last thing he needed was to be so suspicious that everyone inside remembered him when the cops came around to ask about Kolten.

    A little bell dinged above the door as Sabien walked into the bar. He made his way up to the counter laid his hands on it. “Excuse me? Do you know if there are any payphones near here?”

    The bartender turned to face him, a dimpled smile on his face, curly brown hair falling over his forehead. “No, sorry. I don’t really think those are around here anywhere anymore. Need to call someone?”

    Sabien offered a closed-mouth smile, his fangs safely hidden away. “Yeah. Mom lives a couple states over, and she gets rather worried when I don’t update her.”

    “I’m guessing you know her number, then,” the bartender said, stuffing a hand into the front pocket of his dark blue jeans.”

    “Yes.”

    “Here.”

    Sabien stared at the device in the man’s hand. He’d seen othe humans walking around with one in hand, eyes glued to the screen. Mother and Father had aways been rather anti-whatever-the-hell-that-thing-was. Rather, they’d always been against Sabien having one. Still, he grabbed it, eyes scanning the bright screen and colorful little squares all over it in neat rows of four. “Sorry, umm… I’ve actually never used one before.”

    “Oh. No problem.” He grabbed Sabien’s hand, moving it to tilt the device back toward himself. “Jesus, dude, your hands are freezing.”

    Sabien offerd another smile. “Poor circulation.” It was pretty easy to have poor circulation when one’s heart only beat fast enough to keep to keep him on his feet.

    “My grandpa’s got that in his hands and feet. You should try those copper compression gloves. I know a lot of people wear them for pain and arthritis, but I think they help with circulation too”

    Sabien, for only a moment, let his smile grow past closed-mouth safety. The guy was cute, helpful, and relatively non-judgmental—qualities Sabien both loved and hated. Kolten had seemed to be those things too. And look at what had happened with him. “Maybe I’ll give those a try. Thank you.”

    The bartender nodded. He touched a green square on the screen that looked like a phone and touched a dotted square to bring up a number pad. That, Sabien was familiar with. His landline had a nice little number pad on it too, though the numbers on his were worn away rather than pristine and clear like the digital ones. “So you just have to type her number in there, press the gren phone, and then you’re good to go, just like a normal flip phone. Or house phone… or pay phone. Your choice.”

    God, he smelled good. Bothon the cologne side of things and the ‘I vant to suck your blood’ side of things.

    Sabien looked down, clearing his throat. Breaking eye contact didn’t always fight the hunger that came alongside a fresh kill, but it usually helped. With his mind coming back around to focus on the task at hand rather than the beat of the bartender’s heart, Sabien typed in the number for Mother and Father’s house. He lifted his gaze back to the bartender’s green eyes and stuck out a hand. “Sabien.”

    The man flashed that dimpled smile again and shook his hand. “Kyle.

    “Mind if I take this call outside, Kyle?”

    “Nah, go for it, man. Long as you bring the phone back.”

    “I will.” Sabien pushed himself away from the counter, almost missing the flash of worry in Kyle’s eyes. The human had been kind to him. There was no reason Sabien couldn’t offer up a bit of reassurance. Sabien puled his wallet out of his back pocket and tossed it onto the bar. “I’ll be back in a few. Make sure my cards aren’t stolen, if you wll.”

    Kyle snorted, a smaller dimple-less smile coming to his face. “I’ll make sure.” Sabien nodded and headed out of the bar. He didn’t have a license or family photographs in his wallet, so Kyle wouldn’t be able to sound the alarm on the fact that Sabin ha been in his twenties for quite some time now. Humans could be noesy, but if—or when—Kyle went through his wallet, the only ‘shocking’ thing he would discover was that Sabien’s cards were registered with the last name Johnson.

    Sabien Johnson didn’t exactly have a wonderful ring to it, but he had Mother and Father to thank for that choice.

    Outside, Sabien rounded the corner of the bar, stepping into the alley. He touched the green phone button—though aggressively stabbing it with his index finger a million times was robably closer to the correct version of events—and pressed the devce to his ear. After four rings, he heard the phone pick up. He waited a moment, but they didn’t offer an introduction. Sabien took a shot in the dark, “Mother?”

    “Sabien.” The greeting was somehow even colder than Sabien had been prepared for.

    “I killed him,” Sabien whispered.

    “Good. It should have been done a long time ago.”

    Sabien closed his eyes, tilting his head back against the bar’s brick wall. “Mother, it’s not… I loved him.”

    “You never should have. It was stupid, Sabien.”

    “Whatever,” Sabien breathed, quiet enough that he hoped Mother didn’t actually hear him. “I lost my cool and just… did it. He said he had told his family what I was, what you and Father are. He had people waiting to buy my blood, my fangs. He was going to kill me, and I just…” Sabin shook his head. “His family knows. That’s what’s important. We need to take care of them before they find out Kolten’s gone and come after me or you and Father.”

    “You sure chose a real winner, Sabien.”

    “He was cute!” And he didn’t care that I was cold. He didn’t care that I couldn’t go out in the sun without covering every inch of sin. He didn’t care my heartbeat was too slow to hear. He said he loved me. “I don’t want to sit and talk about how shitty my boyfriend was, okay? I’m just letting you know that you and Father need to be careful.”

    “We always are, Sabien. This mess exists because of you, not us.” A pause. “Goodnight, Sabien.”

    Before he could even think about responding, she hung up. Sabien hit the back of his head against the wall, bottom lip caught between his fangs. Eyes closed, he pulled the phone away from his ear and held it to his chest instead. He always felt guilty on the rare occasion he almost needed to kill a human being, but this was different. This hadn’t been an almost situation. This had happened. His boyfriend was dead, the very blood that had kept him alive now flowing through Sabien’s veins. It didn’t matter what Kolten had said. Sabien had loved the man, even if Kolten’s reciprocation of it had all been a lie.

    Sabien forced  his eyes open and pushed himself away from the wall. Back inside the bar, he stopped at the conter and set the phone down. Once Kyle finished pouring a drink for another patron, he grabbed the device and slid Sabien’s wallet over. “Thank you,” Sabien said softly.

    “Mmhmm. Thanks for not running off with my phone,” Kyle said, holding the thing up before shoving it back into his pocket. Sabien offered a nod and watched the playful smile quickly fade from the bartender’s face. “Everything okay, man?”

    “Oh, I don’t think it’s your job to stand here and listen to all of my problems.”

    “Ah, but that’s precisely my job. Serve drinks, listen to crazy stories, give some bartender-ly advice. It doesn’t have to be perfect advice by any means. The listening’s where i get most of my tips.”

    “Mm.” Sabien knew he should leave, get back to his home in the country. The place was small compared to the mansion his mother and father lived in, but he liked the overall cozy feel of the place. It made it feel… homey.

    But he wasn’t ready to go back to an empty house just yet.

    With a sigh, he lifted himself onto one of the barstools. He crossed his arms over the counter, one hand covering his wallet. “I suppose I’ll take something that doesn’t taste like absolute shit.”

    Kyle smiled. “So not beer, then. I can do that.” One corner of Sabien’s mouth lifted. At least this guy got it. That was something. That night, Sabien would certainly benefit from a little something.

    Sabien wasn’t really much of a drinker. Though he knew there were quite a few Vamps around that drank themselves silly, Sabien didn’t see the point. Unless he was severely hungry or injured, the alcohol couldn’t numb him or get him drunk or buzzed. After repeating his college career a time or two, Saien had learned how to behave as a drunk from watching human afte human tip back shot after shot, but in the long run, drunken parties were only really any fun when someone else at the party was sober. Like when he’d been with Kolten.

    He let out a heavy sigh as Kyle set a drink down in front of it. “What’s it taste like?”

    “Think fruit punch if it were a little boozy.”

    Sabien nodded his thanks, wrapping a hand around the glass. He stared down at the light-red drink, tapping his index finger against the glass, his ring clinking to the tune of its own boring musical. “Why do this job if you just have to hear about the troubles of other people?”

    Kyle shrugged, crossing his arms ove the counter. His white button-up stretched at the new position, the fabric pulled taut across his chest and around his biceps. He wasn’t a bodybuilder by ant means, but he had more muscle built up than Sabien did.

    Of course, Sabien could still throw him across a field in one joyful swing, but he figured that didn’t count, since he was undead and all.

    “I like getting to talk to other people so many times a week. Human interaction and all that good stuff. And here in the bar, I get to talk to people from all walks of life. Rich, poor, middle class, happy as hell, sad, celebrating, drowning their sorrows. Some of tohse peple, I get to help them feel better for the night, and others I just get to serve a drink to, talk about their kids or their job. It’s nice getting to know people, gettin to help when I can.” Kyle shook his head. “I guess I like helping, is the short answer.”

    “Helping can be good.” Sabien took a small sip of the drink, thankful that Kyle hadn’t bulshitted him. It tasted a lot less like alcohol and a lot more like fruit punch. Drinks, unlike human food, he could get away with, alcoholic or otherwise. They ran through his system about the same way blood did, though he lacked the benefits blood offered. “Men suck,” Sabien finally said, the words quiet.

    “Yeah, sometimes we definitely do.”

    Sabien shifted on the bar stool, lifting a hand to scratch at his freshly shaven jaw. “He wasted over half a year of my life.”

    “Men suck,” Kyle echoed. sabien only nodded. At least Kyle could listen without blaming  his broken, slow-beating heart solely on his choice in men. It was better than discussing it withhis parents.  “What’d he do to you?”

    Sabien met his eyes, momentarily surprised that Kyle would ask a follow-up question. “He told me ‘I love you’ was the biggest lie he’d ever told.”

    Kyle winced. “Well, good riddance to he bastard, then.” Sabien forced himself to nod, forced himself to pretend, for just a moment, that loving Kolten Peterson was the biggest lie he’d ever told too.


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Chapter Two

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An Update

Hey, guys. It’s been a while, so before I start trying to post chapters and stories, I wanted to chat just a bit.

My relationship writing has been broken for quite some time, but Roxie’s passing in December broke it even more. Toss in some anxiety, depression, grief, insomnia, and a chronic illness, and you have a recipe for a gal who can’t write.

Even now, I still don’t really know where my problem lays. I don’t know if it’s my characters or my plots or my pain or my memory or my depression. I don’t know if it’s society or all in my head. I don’t know where the problem is, and that makes it hard to fix.

But with that being said, I am still writing. It’s just not nearly as much as before. I used to write over 100,000 words a month, and now it’s a good month if I manage to write 10,000. This means that progress on stories is incredibly, painfully slow. Which makes it hard to post stories, especially if I want to do it on a consistent schedule.

With that said, I’m currently working on a few things. I’m rewriting The Surgeon, book one of the Bo Austen series. I am yet again starting another rewrite of Truths and Chains, book one in the Minetti Boys romance series. I’m attempting a Little Mermaid retelling, currently titled The Amber Mermaid. And I’m also working on a rewrite of book one of the Dallas Silver series. This used to be Symbolically Carved, but at the moment, I’m testing out a new version titled Butchered Beneath the Street Light. Finally, I’m working on a vampire romance. Two of you have actually read the original draft of this romance, but I’m rewriting it and planning to finally post it here. Hopefully, the first chapter of that one will go up this week, but I still need to make a cover for it first.

Things have been less than great for a long time, both in terms of my physical and mental being. But I’m working on both the best I can.

I hope to see you later this week with at least one chapter. As long as all my animals have good days and I don’t have any massive crashes or downswings, it should be doable.

In the meantime, be good to each other and be kind to yourselves. I’ll see you soon.

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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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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