This is it, a sampling of the story I never shut up about. Here's hoping it gives you a taste for the real thing when it arrives later this year. Questions and comments are welcome, but I warn you that it's Monday and I may not be able to answer coherently until the meth kicks in.
“Alpha, this is Phoenix. Are you in position?”
“I’m in a position,” August answered.
The swords on his back sat tangled between a network of pipes as he crawled above the subway tracks. He dislodged them with a tug, nearly costing him his balance.
Coburn’s rocky voice broke through the comm link embedded in his ear. “Cut the chatter, Mr. Dillon, and call out your position.”
August pointed his flashlight down the length of the pipes. A rat scurried into the shadows. “Still trying to find a comfy spot.”
The southern end of the Brooklyn G line was mercifully quiet. Even at three o’clock on a Sunday morning, he had expected more foot traffic. With any luck, it would stay empty.
He settled along a run of pipes above the center bench, away from the fluorescent light. He checked the display on his comm device, a paper-thin touchscreen sewn into the forearm of his suit. The black screen read Incoming Target Dossier in monochrome green letters.
A familiar knot formed in his stomach. Who would it be this time? Some government contractor who’d been too loose with state secrets? A paraplegic nun? He could count on two fingers the number of times he’d actually felt good about doing a domestic kill job. Most turned out to be some random foreign national the FBI decided to label as a threat, one they didn’t feel like dirtying their hands with.
Enter the mercs of Phoenix Paramilitary.
While the picture uploaded, he scanned the platform below. Something streaked by his vision on the left side, a blue and white blur that disappeared behind a pillar.
“Base, am I alone down here?” he whispered.
“No sign of movement,” Coburn answered. “Eastern entrance still blocked.”
He kept his eyes trained on the pillar. I’m seeing things. There’d be a shadow if someone was there.
Coburn again. For whatever reason, the old man was more vocal than usual. It was a rare event for him to make the trip on a slash-n-dash, let alone to have him take over communications.
“Still here. Must’ve been a rat.”
“Dossier delivered,” Coburn replied.
August closed his eyes behind his black goggles and took a deep breath. He brought up his comm device and checked the screen. “Shit,” he muttered. “She’s just a kid.”
“She is your target,” Coburn answered. “Complete the job and get back to the rendezvous point through the eastern exit. Do you hear me?”
August deleted the image. He felt a layer of sweat forming beneath his mask even though the height of New York’s summer heat was still half a day away. “I want to know who the client is,” he said.
“I’m not killing a teenager because somebody in the FBI doesn’t like her after-school activities.”
“I won’t do it.”
“You won’t?” Coburn asked calmly. He let the channel stay open as he stretched out the silence. “I don’t need to remind you of the penalty for insubordination, do I, Mr. Dillon?”
The penalty for insubordination was ten minutes spent as the Horsemen’s personal punching bag. The quadruplets were Coburn’s pet squad of assassins—the pride of Phoenix and his personal tool for punishment. While August was sent in on single-kill jobs, the Horsemen specialized in taking down multiple targets. It didn’t matter if there were four or four hundred. No one was a match for the brothers.
“Contact,” Coburn announced.
August hung his head. When he looked to his left, he saw a mousy teenager sneak down the tiled subway steps carrying a small duffle bag in one hand. She wore a Jets t-shirt and a red Giants hat pulled down over sunglasses too big for her face. She couldn’t have been more conspicuous if she were floating.
The girl settled onto the bench beneath him. She clung to her bag and looked nervously at both sides of the platform. Her hands shook as she checked the time on her phone.
“Confirm visual on the target,” Coburn ordered.
August’s finger hesitated over the communicator’s screen. He tapped it once to confirm.
There was a moment as he hooked his belay line around the pipe that he entertained the idea of running away again. I can do it, he said to himself. I know the way they work. I can get away.
Then he thought of Coburn. The old man would never rest until August was found. He would turn down every contract Phoenix ever got until the man he considered his adopted heir was back home with the Phoenix family, and punished as any unruly family member should be.
Beneath him, the girl pretended to be busy on her phone.
Just get it over with.
He moved silently off the pipes, twisting in the air until his legs dangled over the concrete. He lowered himself on the wire. When his feet touched the floor, he unhooked the line from his belt and slowly unsheathed one of his swords. The blade slid silently out of the leather. His fingers wrapped around the grip as he moved the sword in place behind her head.
He tried twice to force his hands to move. His reflection stared back at him in the polished metal.
God damn it. You’re an idiot, Dillon.
With a flash of his blade, he whipped the edge of his sword under her throat and pulled her up to standing.
“Oh, God. Oh God, no,” she whimpered.
“Shut up,” he hissed.
Coburn’s voice snapped on the line. “August, what are you doing?”
He dragged the girl off the left side of the platform into the shadows of the subway tunnel, keeping his blade pressed into the loose skin where her chin melted into her throat.
“What did you do?” he asked her.
“August!” Coburn yelled.
August ripped the comm device out of his ear and threw it onto the tracks below. It shattered, sending up sparks from the electric rails.
“I’m going to ask you one more time,” he said. “What did you do?”
“I…I didn’t do anything,” she croaked.
“Look, you and I don’t have a lot of time here. They don’t send me in to kill random commuters at three in the morning. What did you do?”
The girl choked back tears. After a few gulps of air, she caught her breath enough to speak. “I’m a deserter.”
“From Phoenix. Phoenix Paramilitary.”
It took him a few seconds to process what she said. When he did, he nearly dropped his sword. “Where were you stationed?”
“Main base. North Carolina. I was in Dispatch.”
No wonder he didn’t recognize her. Dispatch was only partially under Coburn’s control and kept to themselves in a building away from the main base. They were the office that took contract requests from clients. He was beginning to understand Coburn’s interests.
“Running makes you look guilty. You could’ve just quit and walked away.”
“What do you mean you tried?”
“I couldn’t work there anymore,” she said. “I hated it. The things I had to hear and be a part of—I couldn’t keep going. I told them I wanted out and they said they could transfer me. When I said I didn’t want that, they sent me to the Coburn man. He said that no one with the knowledge I had could leave Phoenix. Not ever.”
He released some of the pressure from his sword. She craned her head to look at him.
“You don’t have to do this, mister. Please. I just want to go. I won’t say anything.”
Coburn’s men would be on them soon. August sheathed his sword. This isn’t going to be ten minutes with the Horsemen for insubordination. It’s gonna be ten weeks. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
She coughed as he led her back onto the platform. “Where are we going?”
“Just follow me and don’t make a sound.”
He took off his mask and goggles and threw them into a trashcan. Behind him, the girl shuffled across the cement floor. He guided her up the eastern steps. When they got close to the entrance, he put his finger to his lips and motioned for her to get behind him.
A Phoenix guard hovered over an open manhole in front of the subway entrance. Four sawhorses blocked anyone from getting through.
“Hey, Bob,” August said.
The guard looked up. “Bob? I’m not B—”
August whipped out a sword and slashed it across the back of the man’s knee. He shoved him into the open manhole before dragging the cover on top to muffle the screams.
“This way,” he said as the girl looked on, wide-eyed. “We gotta move.”
They ran across Church Avenue toward a stand of sleeping brownstones. He pulled her into an alley beside a school.
Before he followed her through, he looked back to see if they were being followed. His eyes flashed across a blue-flowered skirt on the opposite corner. The shade of blue was exactly the same as the one he’d seen on the platform.
A string of cars cut across his line of sight. When they passed, the corner was empty.
He shook it off and followed the girl into the shadows.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“Two blocks south. You’re getting in a taxi.”
“Where were you headed before?”
“Port Authority bus terminal. I thought I could go to Canada.”
He came to an intersection in the alley and looked both ways before rushing her through.
“You can’t take public transportation,” he said. “They’ll find you. Are you using credit cards or bank cards? Anything they can trace?”
Her eyes shifted away from his stare.
“Don’t,” he said. “When you get in the cab, tell him to take you to Diamond Car Rental on 101st. Do you have any cash?”
“A guy named Kenny runs the place. Tell him you want to make a donation to his daughter’s college fund and he’ll keep your real name off the books. Drive as fast as you can and don’t stop until you’re over the border. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” she answered. She looked down the alley. Her eyes widened when a taxi pulled up to the curb at the other end. “There’s one!”
She took off through the maze of trashcans. Her Giants hat fell, landing in a puddle.
“Cash!” he called after her. “Don’t forget!”
She ran from the alley and onto the sidewalk. When she turned around to face him, a sound like thunder ripping across the sky echoed down the alley as the side of her head exploded in a spray of blood and bone. A woman’s shriek from the apartment building above filled in the silent scream on the girl’s face. She fell to her knees with her eyes still wide, staring at August. Her body slumped to the ground.
Coburn stepped into view. He gave her body a cursory glance before stowing his gun in the pocket of his full-length tan leather jacket. A cigarette burned beneath his white mustache.
The cab screeched its tires as it pulled back into traffic. Coburn walked down the alley toward August. His cigarette died in a hiss as he flicked it into a puddle.
“Jesus Christ, is this what we do now?” August asked. “Kill people who want to walk?”
Coburn wrapped his fist around the front of August’s uniform and pushed him against a wall. He locked eyes with August, breathing in quick bursts through his nose. “What we do is what I say we do. Not what August Dillon thinks is best.”
“She was just a kid.”
“Was she?” Coburn asked. “That young woman had access to private data, Mr. Dillon. Valuable data that could be used to compromise our client’s interests, as well as our own.”
“So she deserved to die?”
“I don’t ask you to dole out what people deserve. I ask you to kill people who are a threat. She was a soldier and a traitor.”
“Bullshit. This wasn’t some goddamned Marine who got bought off by the Chinese. All she wanted was to leave.”
Coburn stifled a wet cough. His blue eyes looked sunken in a face more gaunt than usual. Drawn cheeks created wide shadows across his jaw. “Do you know why you were assigned this mission?” he asked once he caught his breath.
August stayed quiet.
“I wanted you to understand what it took to run this operation,” he said. “Our company is entrusted with information that could topple empires. The protection of that information means the survival of our way of life. This wasn’t about killing an innocent, it was about protecting our legacy. My legacy. I have worked too hard to see this company fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t have the strength to lead it.”
“I never said I wanted to,” August answered. “I’m not your kid. I’m not waiting around for the day you kick the bucket so I can take over the family business. I don’t want this.” He looked toward the girl’s body. “I don’t want any of it.”
Coburn raised the corner of his mouth in a smile. He shook his head. “This was always my fear with you. So much potential. I thought you might eventually find a way to realize it, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe you never will.”
August knocked his hand away. He had half a mind to grab his sword and cut straight through the bastard’s neck.
“This is an important time for you,” Coburn said. His eyes dared August to act. “So many directions you could choose. You should consider your future.”
“And what if I don’t want a future like this?”
Coburn’s eyes shifted toward the girl before coming back to August. “Then it would be a shame to see you go.”
Outside, police sirens blared in the distance. Coburn straightened the lapels of his coat.
“Find your own way back to base,” he said. “You won't be going with us. Use the time to decide what it is you want. I will expect an answer when you return.”
He stepped into the shadows and turned down a dark intersection.
August leaned over to rest his hands on his knees. He cocked his head and caught a glimpse of the girl’s lifeless legs. I never even got her name. A puddle of blood collected around her knees.
Without looking back, he took off down the alley until he got back to Church Avenue. After dodging a few honking cars, he waved down a taxi and ducked inside.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked in a thick Nigerian accent.
August let out a heavy breath. He grabbed the comm device on his arm and ripped it away from the fabric, tossing it through the open window. “The hell if I know.”
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror.
“Sorry,” August said. “Uptown, please.”
“Anywhere special?” He caught the man looking at his swords.
August tapped one of the handles. “Costume party,” he said. “Just get me over the bridge. I’ll tell you where to stop.”
The driver shrugged and pulled away.
They were barely into Manhattan when August had the driver drop him off on a side street. He wasn’t totally sure where he was, but it didn’t matter. He wanted time to think, and the old office buildings had plenty of dark gaps between them he could use to get his head straight.
He chose one and settled into a quiet spot out of sight of the street. When he looked down, he caught a glimpse of the white embroidered Phoenix logo on the sleeve of his jacket.
“What the hell am I doing here?” he wondered aloud.
Footsteps echoed down the alley to his left. He took out his swords to scare away whoever it was.
A woman wearing the same flowered dress he’d seen earlier stepped into a window of light cutting across the alley. She had tawny brown skin with straight shoulder-length brown hair framing her face. Her blue eyes had an unnatural electric quality that made them stand out in the darkness. She never once looked at his swords.
“You’ve been following me,” he said.
She nodded. “For some time.”
“What do you want?”
“I want what you want,” she said.
“Cheetos for life?”
“To take you away from here.”
He sheathed his swords. “No offense, lady, but I’m not in the mood for crazy. Take another pill and go back to bed.”
“You are August Dillon,” she said.
He gave her a second look. “Do I know you?”
“No, but I know all there is to know about you. You were born to Adam and Leigh. Your father left before you could speak a word and you were raised mostly in the absence of your mother. You have trained as a fighter since an early age. You are strong, determined, intelligent, and wasted in a life that uses your talents for ill.” She stepped closer. “More than anything, you are a good person.”
Right. She talked like a reject from Masterpiece Theater, but she had to be from Phoenix. No one else knew that stuff about him. “You had me until the end,” he said. “I’m not a good person. Good people don’t do what I do.”
“Perhaps that is why you wish to leave.”
He scoffed. “Is this some sort of HR intervention? Because this really isn’t a good time.”
“My name is Meryn,” she said, “and I have come to ask for your help.”
For a quick second, he almost believed she was sincere. He shook his head. “Look, Meryn. I don’t know how you got here, I don’t know why you’ve been following me all night, and I sure as hell don’t know how you got a hold of my Phoenix profile, but—”
“Think of something,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Say what?”
“Think of something. Picture a scene, something I could not possibly know.”
Even though he tried not to, his mind immediately jumped to a well-worn memory from his childhood, of sitting with his toys surrounded by pictures torn from comics, with his name scrawled across the capes of his favorite characters. He arranged the evil villain’s army of action figures around his hero—who had blond curls just like his—and then took them down one by one while he made jokes about their names because…
“Because villains make mistakes when they are angry,” Meryn finished.
He stared at her in disbelief. “You can’t know that.”
She smiled. “Will you hear me now?”
“Wait a second, how did you do that?”
“August, I need your help,” she said again.
“Help with what?”
“This world—your world—will soon become a battleground,” she said. “I want you to help defend it.”
“Battleground?” he asked. “Lady, who are you?”
“A god to some, one of the nine immortals of the Circle in truth. Our Circle is led by Amara, the oldest and most powerful of my kind. Amara has…lost her way. She believes it is her divine duty to rid us of our immortal curse. She would commit genocide.”
This woman is insane.
“I know how this must seem to you,” she said. “But by the time you have proof, it will be too late. Amara has created a weapon on this Earth that will grow into something so powerful, nothing will be able to stop it.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“A man,” she said.
“A man’s not a weapon.”
“To the gods of the Circle, a man is our only weapon. We choose our champions and our champions fight for our lives. I’m asking you to fight for mine, and for the lives of the people of this world.”
He wondered if he was too deep in crazy to come back up for air. What the hell. Can’t hurt to ask. “Let’s pretend for a second that you’re not completely bonkers. If all this is true and I agree to be your champion, what happens then?”
“You will not fight this fight alone, but for now, I would ask you to find this man Amara has chosen. If you can kill him before the war begins we may be able to keep it from ever happening.”
“Just me and my swords, huh?”
“You will have other gifts,” she answered. A light flashed across her blue eyes.
“Like what?” He suddenly became aware of the wall behind him as he tried to take a step back from her advance.
Her skin began to shimmer, filling with small lights as bright as stars. The hair on his arms stood on end beneath his uniform as though he was standing next to a bolt of lightning.
“I will give you strength,” she said. Her voice seemed to be coming from both inside and outside of his head. “You will have the power to heal from any wound.”
His muscles vibrated against his bones. “What the hell are you doing to me?”
“Do you wish to leave this life behind?” she asked. Her words were hypnotic.
He found his answer through a cloud of confused thoughts. When he spoke, his voice sounded far away. “Yes.”
“And do you long to become the hero you dreamt of as a child?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then give yourself to me.” Her skin glowed white hot. “I will make you more. So much more.”