For those who know me on facebook, I've been talking about Water Viper a lot lately. It's an urban fantasy of sorts, where magic and limited technology blend. Thanks to Starfall, a meteor event in the upper reaches of Canada, Earth has been flooded with magic. Technology involving combustion is unreliable at best, but humans have found a way to blend the mystic and the mundane.
With power in the hands of many, governments around the world rely on mercenaries to keep the peace and take on the jobs their police and military can't–or won't–do. Jesse Alexander isn't just a mercenary. A single impulsive decision exposes her identity as the Water Viper and plunges her into the dark and murky world of Charlotte's politics and intrigue. If she plays her cards just right, she'll escape with her life.
With the deck stacked against her, time's running out until she finds herself on the wrong end of a bounty.
Cover Art by Holly Heisey.
The chapter below is for your entertainment and has not been edited. (c) 2016.
A black, pitted stone bounced across the bar. I leaned back, picked up my beer, and made way for the rock, tracing its trajectory towards the front door.
The first beer bottle it broke belonged to a mercenary like me, and his wail drew everyone’s attention. The rock smacked into the bar, left a black smear, a gouge, and a few golden sparks before continuing its haphazard flight. Several more glasses and bottles fell to it, and frothy brew decorated the old, dull wood before spilling over the lip to the water pooled on the floor.
Curses chased after the stone, and out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed several men taking chase. They were cloaked, an annoyance for someone like me, who wanted to keep track of everyone nearby in case of trouble.
In the sunken ruins of Miami, where only the brave, the foolish, or the desperate stayed, trouble was aplenty. Today’s variant worried me more than most.
Where a Starfall stone went, catastrophe surely followed in its wake. Three men hunting for its sort of trouble meant someone was about to get hurt.
After the day I had, if I lost my hard-earned beer, I’d be the catastrophe. I fought with many weapons ranging from staves to swords. In a pinch, I could even use a gun, although I worked damned hard to make sure people never realized combustion technology functioned in my hands.
The man beside me spat curses, twisted his body, and cradled his pint to his chest. Taking another swig of my beer, I kept an eye on the stone and its trio of pursuers. I couldn’t blame the damned thing for wanting to make a getaway. There were dives, then there was Oyster Bay. If one of the usuals came after me, I’d run, too. As though losing hope of escape and finding me the best option in a room full of bad choices, it rolled to a halt in front of me.
The barkeeper stared at me, stared at the rock, and swept his bare hand over the bar to send a shower of broken glass splashing into the water washing over the floor of his establishment. “That yours?”
All three men splashed to a halt beyond the range of my sword. I twisted, pondering how much of a calamity I wanted to rain down on Petey and his wretched little bar if I lost even a single drop of my beer.
I met him stare for stare. Stupid questions didn’t deserve an answer, and maybe if I got real lucky, Petey would forget he asked. After a month of me haunting his bar and renting a space in the communal flop in the back room above the water line, he’d stopped asking for my name.
The name most knew me by would only draw the wrong type of attention. No one liked knowing they shared a bar with an assassin. I didn’t like having to explain why I, a woman, had a man’s name. Jesse could go either way, something I was eternally grateful for, but the instant Alexander left my mouth, the questions started.
Everyone in the place watched me, and I took another swallow of my beer. If I wanted, I could break the bottle and get to work, turn the sea pink with their blood, and be done with the fetid sinkhole that had once been Miami, Florida. The bottle would complicate things for me, and after the sort of dry spell I’d had on paying gigs, I needed a challenge to restore my reflexes and edge.
Why had I thought moving south would do me any good? The warmth was a selling point, but when the seas rose and every building still standing flooded out, it reminded me everything came with a price.
What the ocean claimed, it didn’t like giving back, and in another year or two, there wouldn’t be a Miami at all. Dying cities made a horrible place for a mercenary wanting to make an honest living killing dishonest people.
“No games. That yours?”
I leaned back, and the metal stool shrieked a protest. “If it were mine, Petey, I wouldn’t be using it to waste beer.”
The stone sparked and flared, and blue-white light zapped through the brew spread over the bar. Several of the men yelped, jumped off their stools, and splashed into the seawater on route to the door. Lifting my feet, I hooked my boot heels onto the stool’s foot rest.
When a Starfall stone glowed, wise men ran.
I was neither wise nor a man, so I stayed put and watched the show. Running wouldn’t do me any good, not if the stone decided to burst. It’d shine its light for over a mile or more and likely do so before I reached the front door.
“Fuck!” Petey dived behind the bar.
Two of the cloaked men recoiled, but one darted forward, gloved hand stretched out to claim the stone. I gulped down the rest of my beer, flipped the bottle, and smashed it into his forearm. The glass shattered, reflecting the stone’s light throughout the molding, decaying room.
“You’re in my space.”
The Starfall stone kept sparking, and its glow intensified.
Backing out of my reach, the man shook his hand. Shards of brown glass tumbled into the sea, and beneath the water, they continued to shine with the rock’s golden light. “Move, then.”
Most men hated when I defied them. My opponent waited, intriguing me with his hesitancy to force me out of his way so he could take what he wanted. Men liked to think they ruled, and in their opinion, the strongest men got the best women, and that was that.
Wise men realized some women conquered their own mountains and tossed off every man who challenged her.
One day, I’d figure out where I stood in the grand scheme of things. I’d been raised to be a man, a warrior above other men, the strength and pride of my clan. I should have become a man when I had turned ten, but thanks to my stupidity, I had ended up a woman instead.
It pissed me off enough I either needed another beer, a fight, or both.
The bar cleared out, and Petey numbered among those bailing. I arched a brow, shrugged, and reached across the bar to snag myself another beer, careful not to touch the Starfall stone. “When I’m done drinking my beer, I’ll move.”
Within a minute, Oyster Bay emptied, leaving me with the three cloaked figures and a man at the other end of the bar too stupid to run or too brave for his own good. When he spotted me looking in his direction, he lifted his bottle in a salute.
Men were a dime a dozen, but sometimes, a pretty one came around, and my flavor of the month was tall, dark, and handsome enough to remind me there were a few perks to being a woman. He smirked at me, likely anticipating the fireworks from the stone or the brewing fight between me and the three men who wanted it.
I liked his mouth, and my gaze locked on his lips before I managed to force my attention back to my trio of unwanted guests.
Outside, thunder rumbled, rain pattered on the bar’s metal roof, and the storm stirred the ocean’s ire, splashing against my feet.
“Move.” The man took one step forward, and his voice remained emotionless and calm.
“Cheers,” I said, lifting my bottle towards my lone spectator. If he wanted a show, I’d give him one, and when I was finished with the three men determined to invade my personal space, I’d leave him a little memento to remember me by. I scooted my stool back, stepped into the water, and met my adversary’s gaze.
I set my beer down beside the Starfall stone. “You’re not going to let me finish my beer in peace, are you?”
He took another step and leaned forward, his breath hot on my face. “No.”
Walking away would’ve been smart. Leaving the Starfall stone to burst and cause mayhem without me in the general vicinity would have been wise. Instead, I unsheathed my sword and rammed it into his gut.
I smiled and went to work. All I’d leave for him were bruises and his life. He didn’t deserve anything else from me, not even a scar.
I left the three cloaked men slumped over the bar, lined up in a neat row as an offering to the glowing Starfall stone. Their bodies twitched in the sparking water.
Maybe the rock would wait to burst until I was clear of its blast radius. I had enough problems as a third generation shifter of the Blade Clan. I didn’t need anything adding to them.
I sighed and regarded my victims with a wrinkled nose. Why couldn’t they have put up a real fight? If I had wanted to kill them, I would have saved myself a great deal of time and effort. Letting them live meant I’d have enemies at my back.
There was a thin line between killing for profit and sport, and I meant to stay on the right side of it, even if it meant leaving a few extra unwanted adversaries nipping at my heels. Sighing, I dried my sword on their cloaks before sheathing it, then I went to work patting them down.
It didn’t take long to locate the cash hidden inside their clothes. Someone had paid them well, probably to retrieve the Starfall stone. The rock pulsed while I counted bills. Between the three of them, they had over two thousand dollars.
The sum was only a fraction of the stone’s worth. Starfall stones could do a lot more than charge water and glow in the dark. Some exploded. Others imbued those who held them with magic.
A rare few healed.
Why would anyone hire those three to collect the stone? They hadn’t given me much sport. Why would anyone pay incompetents so much money? Shaking my head, I took all but five hundred as compensation for their lives.
Tall, dark, handsome, and smirking rose from his stool and strode towards me, coming to a halt just beyond arm’s length. “Aren’t you supposed to take all their cash?”
If he came a single step forward, he’d be in perfect range to take out. I stuffed the money in my jeans, and while I still had my hand in my pocket, I slid a sedation needle out of its sheath around my wrist hidden beneath my blouse’s sleeve. “I took my retainer fee.”
Raising his dark eyebrows, he looked me over head to toe, and I noted his gaze lingered on my hips. Working as a mercenary kept me lean and muscular, but I still managed to have curves—curves men liked.
I blamed my shifter heritage. With my luck, when I discovered my inner beast and learned to transform, I’d end up a cow. I’d already screwed up my gender, so it was only a matter of time before I fucked up the rest, too.
“You’re for hire, then?”
“Depends on what you need.”
Bursts of green and gold lit the man’s dark eyes. “I wouldn’t mind you guarding my body at night. You know how to fight. You toyed with them. If you’re bored, I could keep you amused.”
At a glance, I couldn’t tell what he was or what magic he possessed, but his interest in me and my fighting likely made him a shifter. Shifter males, especially of predatory species, liked women who challenged them and refused to submit without a fight, preferably a violent, bloody one.
Unfortunately, too many shifter males played for keeps, and when they took interest in a female, it was because they wanted to breed. Some species of shifters mated for life. Others waited long enough to ensure they had viable offspring before drifting away until the next mating season and a new female to spread the love around.
Shifters were a pain in my ass. Until I discovered the nature of my inner beast, I’d remain infertile, which worked well when I hunted down non-shifter males for a mutual itch scratching.
Like me, they only wanted a wild night and nothing more.
“What makes you think you’ll give me any sport?”
“You’ve the pride of a queen. How do you know if you’ll give me any sport?”
I leaned against the bar and relaxed. I’d heard every line in the book, and as far as come ons went, his were among the more intriguing ones. I had no doubts he’d been aroused during my fight with my sleeping trio of victims.
He’d join them as soon as he stepped in my range, and I’d have fun with him before I left the sinking ruins of Miami for new territory.
“My retainer fee is how much I require as a deposit when I’m hired to kill.” I offered the courting male my best smile. “I thought it was a fair price for their lives.”
“Intriguing. I’m Nate. Beer?”
“They did spoil my first two,” I admitted, hooking my stool with my boot and dragging it closer. “Water Viper.”
If he recognized my mercenary name, Nate showed no sign of it. He reached across the bar to snag a pair of beers, and when he offered me mine, I palmed the needle, scraped a nail against his skin to mask when I dosed him with the sedatives. I dropped the sliver of metal into the sea, secured my hold on my beer, and popped the top.
“Cheers to a good fight,” he said, opening his bottle before lifting it.
Tapping mine to his, I chuckled and slid onto my stool. Within five minutes, the effects of the drug would kick in. It didn’t matter what type of shifter he was; it would knock out an elephant for an hour. Until he dropped, I’d enjoy my beer and his company while I watched the Starfall stone pulse. “Think it’ll burst?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Most people would call us insane for sticking around for the show. Hoping for stronger powers?”
“Too early in the morning for a run.”
“But not too early for a cold one?”
I regarded the brown beer bottle and arched a brow. “If you think this is cold, you need to get out more.”
“For Miami, it’s cold.”
One of these days, I would learn not to play with fire—or with handsome shifter males I had no business toying with. Instead of arguing with him, I shrug and drank my beer. Wherever I went, it’d be a city with reliable electricity or magic. Either would work, so long as I could have something cold to drink.
When I didn’t speak, Nate rested his elbow on the bar with his bottle hanging loosely in his hand. “Staying long?”
His relaxed posture put me at ease. In another few minutes, he’d succumb to the drug. Sedation was my first method of dealing with unwanted attention from men. A scratch of a needle and a few minutes, and I left. Would he, a shifter male, rise to the challenge I would present him when I marked him and left? “Only a fool would stay long in a sinking city.”
Nate chuckled and set his beer on the bar. “Are you going to lie me out with your friends here if I take the stone?”
Starfall stones scared away those with common sense and lured fools and the brave in equal measure. Which was Nate?
I blamed my species and gender for my curiosity.
“Be my guest.”
I’d have the rock back soon enough.
Reaching around me, he picked up the stone and held it in his palm. If the sparks it emitted bothered him, he showed no sign of it. “It’s amazing such a small stone can cause so many problems. It’s hard to believe this is a source of magic. If it bursts, what do you think it’ll do?”
That was the real problem with Starfall stones; no one knew what each stone could do. The weakest fragments often did nothing at all. The stronger ones—the ones worthy of being named—could change the landscape. Cities rose and fell from their power.
No one knew the name of the stone responsible for sinking Miami.
Nate watched me, waiting for an answer.
Whatever Nate was, he wasn’t a cute little bunny; a rabbit would’ve dropped over snoring within a minute. Since my sedatives weren’t working fast enough, I replied with my default answer of, “Scare the piss out of everyone in a mile radius.”
“Right you are. Maybe it’ll have a two-mile radius. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
What sort of madman sounded excited at the prospect of a Starfall stone influencing such a large radius? I eliminated prey species, and a thrill ran through me.
Predator shifters lived for the hunt, and I was about to give Nate several excuses to nip at my heels. “That’d be something, but I’m not sure fun is the word I’d used.”
“What generation are you?”
The fourth generation was just being born, and no one knew if their magic would swell or die away to nothing, leaving them closer to human. The first generation included those who had survived Starfall and the children born within the first few years following the meteor bursting over Canada and drowning the world in magic.
The second generation, in some ways, had been stronger than the first. Mine had drawn the short lot, relying on bursts from the Starfall stones to develop strong enough powers to survive.
In a way, I was the weakest of the weak, and I would remain so until I discovered my animal and earned the ability to shift. Choosing my gender at age ten had started the process. I hadn’t remained with the Blade Clan long enough to learn when—or how—to become a true shifter and find my animal.
I’d have to figure it out on my own, one way or another.
With my luck, I really would become a cow.
“Never dreamed of rising in the ranks? One lucky burst and you could be a first gen.” Nate slipped the Starfall stone into his pocket.
I’d been hired to take out a few first gen during my career. A single hit had paid for my life in Detroit for an entire year, setting me up in a real house with a yard. I’d learned the hard way I hated mowing, my thumb was blacker than sin and coal, and I grew bored of suburban life in a month.
“What’s someone like you doing in a dive like this?”
Nate frowned. “Someone like me?”
I allowed myself a smirk of my own. “Nice clothes, pretty face, decent manners? Shouldn’t you be above sea level? A flying castle in the clouds or at least a mansion somewhere.”
Propping his chin in his hand, Nate watched me through half-lidded eyes, and the first hints of a drug-induced glaze set in. “Turns out, the ivory tower only has pretty pampered princesses, so if I want intelligent conversation, I have to go get my feet wet.”
I leaned back and made a show of looking him over, focusing on his boots. “Hope you left your good shoes at home.”
With a murmur and a sigh, Nate slumped against the bar. In sleep, his expression relaxed, and a small smile curved his lips. Rubbing my hands together, I dug into his pants for the Starfall stone.
The rock warmed my hand, and the jolts of electricity I expected didn’t come. I slipped it into my front pocket. As one of the few drifters using Oyster Bay as a flop, Petey had charged me a pittance for a lock box, and with a merry whistle, I dug out my keys to fetch my bag.
Setting the leather satchel on the bar, I rummaged through it until I found my tattoo box. When I killed someone, I took time and care with the job, leaving little evidence behind, except for my mark. When I was hired through official channels, I left my mark on the center of my victim’s forehead as a warning to their associates.
When I wasn’t, my mark went over their heart.
Unless Nate gave me reason to, I had no intention of killing him. However, I wanted to find out just how good of a sport he could be. It wasn’t often I got to play with a shifter male, especially not a good looking one.
Too many embraced their animals so much they rarely allowed their human side to emerge untouched by their beast.
I tattooed a coiled water viper below his navel. Since I liked him, I used my golden ink, which blended well with his rich tan. When I finished leaving my mark on him, I smeared my finger into my jar of healing cream, which I smeared over the fresh tattoo, ensuring its permanency. I dosed him with the sedative’s antidote and erased the scratch marks of my needles with my ointment.
I ran my fingers along the line of his jaw, dedicating his face to my memory in case he rose to my challenge and hunted for me. “Sleep well. Sorry, but I gotta run. Thanks for the beer.”
Dropping a twenty on the bar for Petey, I headed out of Oyster Bay and into the storm sweeping in from the sea.