Hey! I’m experimenting with sharing snippets of my upcoming work here on the blog. This preview is from the start of Hostile Takeover, book three in the Emerald City Spies series. My editor hasn’t had a crack at these chapters yet, so there may be changes in the final, published version.
The City (Prologue)
When darkness falls, I rise.
Illumination comes from within. Run the tip of your finger along my sharp-edged skyscrapers, wreathed in chilly fog. For you, I wear blue and gold wrapped in a black velvet sky. Smell my perfume, the musky damp of petrichor on asphalt. Hear my voice, the wail of a siren, the cry of a gull, the slow lapping of water against the rocky shore. Delight in my laughter, the patter of raindrops on steel and glass. Run your hand along the smooth curve of the distant mountain.
Jessica… Jessica! Feel my heat as I feel yours. Your ambition has burned hot and bright since the day you set foot on my streets. Ever since, I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting…
Here. Now. Tonight.
Our kings and queens slumber, their dreams untroubled, their spirits weak. What use is all that ambition without dry tinder to burn? Take it from the city that hungers, nothing is so flammable as the past.
Jessica… Jessica! Your reign will be long and victorious. Strangers will pen books about your achievements. The wise and the powerful will take your calls and heed your warnings. Your power will beam out from magazines, from newspapers, from tiny screens held by those who will beg to serve at your feet. Money will flow through your hands like a cool, smooth-flowing river. With me in your corner, child, you cannot possibly fail.
You know what I want.
I have what you need.
Let’s sign on the dotted line, shall we?
Jessica Warne hurried through the intersection on foot, her heartbeat pounding like a fist on a locked metal door. Heavy raindrops pelted her thick, honey-blonde hair. They melted through, slithering cool down her scalp. On the next block, a homeless woman huddled beneath a dirty comforter, a torn umbrella forming a rough shield between her head and the busy sidewalk. Seattle was in a shitty mood. Rush hour rushing. Pedestrians jockeying for position at the crosswalks. Drivers peering through their rain-streaked windshields with bitter fury on their sun-starved faces, inching toward the congested freeway. Another day. Another dollar. Seattle wore layers against the autumn chill. Wet concrete. Filthy asphalt littered with cigarette butts and pigeon shit. Clouds overhead like dirty cotton, hanging low, obscuring the stars.
Her feet, resentful after a long day of imprisonment inside Balenciaga heels, throbbed hotly inside her running shoes. Dull pain tugged at her shoulder where the strap of her black duffel dug into her soft flesh. She pulled the collar of her trench coat higher, covering bare skin with soft, camel-colored fabric. Her neck was smooth and unblemished, the bruises long gone, every remaining injury rendered invisible by the inexorable movement of time. Her time was running out. Every day, she felt the consequences of her actions nipping at her heels. Every night, she trained herself, inward, outward, preparing with all her heart for the final bout in the only showdown that mattered.
She forced her hands down into her pockets. In the left pocket, she felt for the sharp edges of her keys. In the right, she fingered a compact container of pepper spray. She wove two of the keys through her fingers like spikes. Her right thumb felt the hard edge of the pepper spray’s safety cap. The eyes. The instep. The soft bulge at the center of the throat. What strength she lacked, speed and surprise might make up for.
Having been caught flat-footed once before, she knew what it felt like to be helpless, to gasp for a breath that would never come. Yes, her time was running out. Win or lose, she’d know the trajectory of her life in a matter of months, if not weeks. Until then, she stood on the precipice, always ready. Up ahead, near an intersection, commuters waited at a bus stop. A floodlight was stuck to the outside of a medical-dental building like an old wad of gum. Rain slashed down through yellowish light, illuminating the crowd. The water formed dots and dashes, a coded message that no mortal was fast enough to read. She twisted her shoulders to slip through the crowd. Her shoulder jerked as her gym bag clipped someone’s shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she murmured.
The stranger didn’t seem to notice. Not the apology, or even the way she’d shoved him. He wore a heavy, black wool overcoat. She hated his stupid, squirrel-like face.
Across the intersection, a tall electric billboard flashed brightly on the corner of a concrete parking garage. She pounded the walk button with the side of her fist and glanced back at the bus stop. Her stomach sizzled with acid as she caught sight of the guy she’d clipped. Only an idiot stood on a city street, insensible to the world. Maybe you’d be lucky enough to make it home in one piece. Hell, maybe you’d be lucky a thousand times. No one was lucky forever.
He clutches his side and stumbles. When his body hits the dirty sidewalk, he gasps. He didn’t even realize he was falling, but the pain in his shoulder is overshadowed by the bright agony beneath his ribs. Shallow, painful breaths do little to satisfy his hunger for air. His hand goes up. His fingers tremble in the cold air. Fresh blood coats his hand and the cuff of his jacket. His phone is on the ground, shattered. A bystander screams. “Someone! Call 9-1-1!”
Jessica squeezed her eyes shut.
She turns the corner onto sixth avenue, her heart pounding. After dropping her shiv into an empty Starbucks cup, she tosses the whole thing into a street side trash can. There’s a commotion at the bus stop behind her. She pauses, glancing over her shoulder, wearing a mask of surprise before blending into the crowd of evening shoppers ahead. It was so easy! Dana would be pleased.
She gripped the plastic buckle on her shoulder strap and squeezed until the edge bit into her palm. The pain was bright and clarifying. Slowly, the world came back into focus. Traffic lights swayed in the wind. A car with muddy wheels waited impatiently at the corner, then crept around the edge. The driver slammed the gas and a cyclist, mere feet away, flipped him the finger and swore.
I’m all right.
The walk signal chirped like a manic bird and she broke into a slow jog, crossing the street, then another block, one more street, and before long she was pounding up a hill, feet heavy like bricks, lungs burning. Her chest expanded like billows and she sucked in the cool, rain-tinged air. When she reached her destination she tipped forward, hands on knees, breathing hard.
The warehouse had been a community center, once. Later, an office supply business. The sides and back of the concrete structure were littered with blue and silver graffiti, but the front was pure white and unblemished. She’d figured the taggers were afraid of getting their asses kicked by the proprietor, but now she knew differently. Rachel offered the local delinquents free lessons in exchange for keeping her business pristine. The building was still an aging shitbox in a broken-down part of town, but the forest green door was unblemished, decorated with a simple white circle surrounding four block letters printed in black: BBJJ.
Belltown Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Thunder rumbled overhead like an eighteen wheeler and the rain fell harder than before. Jessica pushed herself upright, shook out her wet hair, and went inside.
Jessica flexed her bare toes against the rubbery black mat and listened to Sensei Gunderson teach. The dojo always smelled like old sweat, cheap plastic flooring, and diluted chlorine bleach. The air was chilly, but soon they’d all warm up.
At five foot six, Gunderson wasn’t outwardly imposing. The fortyish brunette had soft shoulders and thick thighs, like a stay-at-home mom. During the day, she taught algebra to middle school kids in the Central District. She looked better suited to pushing a stroller than to teaching a martial art. But after seeing Sensei toss a volunteer across the mats like he weighed no more than an oversized pillow, Jessica had few doubts about her skills. An underpowered woman who knew how to apply leverage to fuck-up a much larger adversary? That’s exactly what she needed.
Gunderson’s ponytail whipped around as she demonstrated how to break free from her partner’s choke hold. Her eyes crinkled with pleasure as she made her escape. She favored her student with a nod of approval. “That was great, Wayne!” She turned her attention to the dozen students who watched and waited. “Now, let’s give this a try, everyone. partner up, and let’s roll.”
Jessica turned to the guy standing closest to her. He was about her age, mid-twenties, with eyes the color of fresh mud. His expensive haircut, skinny arms, and smug, self-satisfied smile marked him as a typical tech bro. His handshake was mushy, like oatmeal. As a courtesy, she pretended not to notice.
“Do you want to guard or attack?” he asked.
“Guard,” she said.
They went down to the mat. He scooted close and wrapped his legs around her from behind, his chest resting against her back. One of his arms went over her left shoulder, and the other snaked beneath her right arm, brushing past her breast.
He grabbed the lapels of her uniform, pulling them together across her neck, trying to choke her with the fabric. His legs squeezed her middle, hard. He was bruising her ribs, but the choke was ineffectual.
“Move your hands higher,” she said. He responded by tightening his legs around her ribs. She breathed out and found she couldn’t take a full breath in. “You’re just yanking on my uniform,” she said. “Move your hands higher.”
He grunted in acknowledgement. Nearby, a silver-haired guy with a square jaw tapped his partner on the leg three times as she cut off his air. His sparring partner, a fiftyish woman with a torso like a heavy sack of flower, grinned and let him go.
Meanwhile, her partner’s boa-constrictor legs were trying to crack her ribs like a walnut. His breaths were heavy and hot at her neck. She felt a thread pop in the armpit of her gi. He still wasn’t doing the move correctly. “Get off,” she said.
“You have to tap,” he said. “That’s how you submit.”
She grit her teeth. Her current client was a thin-skinned little bully, and she’d stroked his ego all day long. Didn’t she deal with this crap all day long? At work, she pretended to be demure, sweet, and pliable because that was the job. But this guy wasn’t a client. He was nothing but an impediment. Jessica swallowed her frustration like it was vomit. She formed her voice into a facsimile of respect. “I’ll submit to the choke when you do the choke. You’re just squeezing the hell out of my tits, dude.”
“Oh! Sorry.” The pressure around her middle lessened. She scooted forward and turned around. The guy’s cheeks were bright pink. Had she embarrassed him by saying the word tits?
He was wasting her time.
“May I?” she asked, gesturing behind him.
He quickly nodded. Scooting close to him, she wrapped her legs around his waist and slid her arms into position. She crawled her hands up the edge of his jacket, tighter, tighter, and tighter. He struggled a bit. “That’s go—” She pulled tight! He jerked his body to the left. He leaned hard to the right. His hips tried to twist inside the careful vise she’d created with her legs, but he couldn’t break free. She had him pinned. She had his air! She gave his torso a little squeeze, just once, a tiny reminder of who was in charge. He struggled, but she didn’t give an inch. This stranger outweighed her by thirty pounds, easy.
And she’d rendered him helpless.
Good. But I need to learn how to escape this. Maybe we can switch partners in the next round. Then—
“Jessica!” Sensei had been watching from the front of the room. Now she ran toward them, her eyes wide, her hands outstretched.
Jessica quickly released her arms and legs. “What?”
Her partner broke away, gasping, rubbing his neck, swallowing hard. “I was submitting! Why didn’t you stop?”
Gunderson tried to control her frustration with a quick turn of her head. But there was no doubt; she was pissed.
Jessica took care to look abashed. “I didn’t feel you tapping.”
He slapped the rubber mat with his hand repeatedly. His eyes were like stones. “Do you hear it now? Christ! You just about choked me out. Everything was turning gray.” He glared at the Sensei as if it were all her fault. “I need some water.” He stalked back toward the locker rooms.
Sensei avoided looking at Jessica directly. Instead, she spoke to the whole room. “Listen up, everyone. This is a good reminder. When you submit, tap on your partner’s body if you can. They might not hear if you tap the mats. Also, if you’re attacking, it’s your responsibility to pay attention. Safety first. Please.”
At the end of class, she waved Jessica over. “Stick around for a minute, will you?” After the room emptied out, she locked the front door, resting her back against it. “We need to talk.”
Jessica winced. “I’m sorry about what happened. My mind wandered for a minute, but I won’t make that mistake again.”
Gunderson’s mouth quirked up on one side. “That’s good, Jess, but that’s not what I need to talk to you about. We need to address that attitude of yours.”
“Excuse me? What attitude?”
Rachel tilted her chin down. “That attitude. The one that says you’re too good for my intro class. You show up, and you walk around this dojo like you’re the cock of the walk. I won’t have it. I can’t. Everyone in this class here to learn. That means, when someone struggles, we all slow down to help. This is a school, not a fight club. If you want that kind of thing, there are other places you can go.”
Jessica bit her lip. She’d visited those schools. Several of them. They’d had rows of heavy trophies on the walls and they talked a good game. None had an instructor half so good as Rachel Gunderson.
“I didn’t realize I came across that way.”
Rachel loosened her ponytail and shook out her hair. “I know. That’s why we’re having this little chat.” She picked up her right foot, stretching her quadriceps muscle. Switching sides, she winced as she leaned into the stretch. “Listen up. There are two kinds of bullies in the martial arts. The first type is obvious. They’re the ones who saw an MMA fight on television once, and they think it would be fun to beat people up. They’re bristling for a fight because they enjoy violence. Those people like feeling powerful. And as soon as they see we’re all about self-defense, they’re out that door.”
“And the other kind?”
Gunderson rolled back her shoulders, wincing a little. “The other kind has the potential to change. They don’t want to be bullies, not really, but they’re afraid of something. So afraid that they lash out with their fists and their mouths until they can finally prove to themselves that they’re safe.” She shrugged. “Of course, that strategy never works. You can’t stop being a victim by turning into an aggressor. And in the end, the impact on the people around you is exactly the same. You become the very thing you were trying to protect yourself from.” She raised both eyebrows. “Do you get what I’m saying?”
“You think I’m afraid of something?”
Gunderson chuckled. “Everyone is afraid of something, Jess. That’s the human condition. But we only lose when we allow it to control us."
Gunderson meant well, but she was out of line. She’d seen too many martial arts movies, the kind where the wise old teacher guides the young hothead away from trouble.
But her attitude wasn’t about ego, or fear. It was about survival. Explaining this was pointless, so Jessica dropped her gaze. “I hear you. And I’ll think about what you’ve said.”
“Good! If you need to talk, let me know. And if you don’t want to talk to me, I can make referrals. Counselors. Therapists. Life coaches. You can pick your poison. But let me be clear. If you ever, ever, take out your issues on one of my students again, you will not be in this class. Understood?”
Gunderson jerked her head toward the door. “Good. In that case, I’ll see you next week.”