The Border keeps infernals at bay. That’s the official line.
Infernals are immortal, supernaturally strong, and resilient, as long as they can feed on the energy of living souls. The worst part is, they look human.
Peace in the decaying metropolis of Ash is built on the belief that infernals can’t slip past the city’s defenses, so when Gwyn Hawthorn barely survived an assault by one, most people dismissed her story as a fluke or a lie. The church knows the truth. After nursing her back to health, they trained her to quietly execute the monsters hiding in plain sight.
Now, an unexpected discovery points Gwyn toward the killer who left her just this side of dead and puts vengeance within reach—until a brutal attack dumps her neck-deep in the troubles of a hunted man. Together, they might solve their problems, if their problems don’t find them first.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
“Speak of Ashes” is set in a future version of our world with supernatural and science fiction elements. The underlying idea of the supernatural elements was what initially motivated me to tell the story, but it hasn’t been fully explained in the series yet, so that’s all I can say. Once I got going, the main character essentially grabbed my wrist and dragged me straight to the end.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My characters came up with themselves. They decided who they were and what they would do. It wasn’t until the editing process that I was briefly deluded into thinking that I’m in control of my writing.
I looked like an easy mark. One arm held a primitive flip-phone to my ear. The other was busy with a grocery bag. The forest green apron around my hips suggested I could be a waitress, returning home from a closing shift with pockets full of tips. The man’s footsteps sped up behind me.
“He’s moving in,” Quin said on the phone.
A bundle of fresh carrots tipped out of the paper bag, but I caught the phone with my chin and grabbed them. “Yeah,” I spoke carelessly as I shoved the carrots into the bag. “I know he’s hot.” I palmed the phone and tossed my head to get the black-brown hair off my shoulder. “But he’s also kind of a dick.”
Quin snorted. “I thought you learned that lesson with Keith. It’s the next door on your right. Pull out your keys like you mean to use them.”
“Alright, listen to me,” I said as I reached into my apron. “You think you can keep it physical this time, but you can’t.” The steel door was less than ten feet away when my stalker’s shoes started clipping the cement at a light jog.
“Wait. I’m the one dating this guy?” Quin laughed.
“I’m just saying it would be a mistake.” I kept my face straight.
“What will I tell Dana?”
“It’s your sex life,” I sighed as I pulled my keys out of my apron.
Someone’s obnoxious neighbor was playing music so loudly that it drowned out the footfalls behind me. My heart quickened, even though I knew Quin had eyes on everything. He’d tell me if the guy got too close.
No street lamps intruded on the road, but the light from business signs and billboards was more than enough to see. The lights in the City of Ash never went out; they just changed from natural to neon with the dusk. As a result, there were few places I could walk down the sidewalk in the middle of the night without being seen by anyone. I was on that dank, dirty, little street because it happened to be one of them.
So, I would guess, was the man coming up behind me.
I was five feet from the door when Quin said, “He’s slowing down. Thinks he’s sneaking up on you.” He clearly expected me to stop and fiddle with the lock. He hadn’t noticed that it was electronic, but my keys weren’t.
Keys still in hand, I grabbed the door handle, swept inside, and closed it quickly behind me.
The handle rattled, but Quin had already relocked it. I faced the grungy corridor and shoved my keys into my apron while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I passed a pile of garbage bags that hadn’t quite made it to the dumpster, keeping silent until I was sure the man couldn’t hear me through the door.
“Are you tracking him?” I said as I pulled a pair of gloves out of my pocket.
“All resources are on you,” Quin said.
I strode down the empty corridor toward a bank of elevators. Gripping the bag with the crook of my elbow, I wiggled my fingers into the gloves. “I can handle a few minutes off—”
“No. Absolutely no.” Quin opened one of six elevators when I was still ten paces away. I switched the phone from my shoulder to my free hand and watched the destination floor flash from G to sixty-two.
“That guy was clearly following me,” I said as the elevator shot up.
“He lost you.”
“I’m saying he’s dangerous.” Quin’s silence stretched, and I added, “To other people.”
“What do you want me to do? Call city security?”
“Of course not.”
“Because I can probably track him down if I send you home.”
“No,” I said quickly. “But if he hurts someone else, it’ll be our fault.”
“It’ll be his fault, actually.”
I fell into helpless silence, and Quin said nothing more. The elevator slowed, and the door slid open. The hall in front of me was brightly lit, and the clean, tan walls and deep plum carpet were a far cry from the peeling gray paint, vinyl tile, and garbage bags that decorated the ground floor.
“So this is a good neighborhood?” I said to ease the tension as I started down the hallway.
“That classification is relative,” he said absently.
“I live in a roach-infested dump.”
“I’m not judging your lifestyle choices.”
“Five of my last seven neighbors left for the free rent in prison.”
“Why haven’t I tried that?” Quin wondered.
“Cause you’re too pretty for jail.”
“Remarks like that are why we’re friends,” he said.
I smirked at a security camera as I passed, confident that Quin was the only person who’d see me.
“My point is, I’ve been living in that dump for years.” Floor to ceiling windows glinted with the light of the billboards outside. “And I don’t always keep decent-people hours.”
“You are on the phone with me at one AM,” he agreed.
“And I’ve never had trouble walking through my own neighborhood at night. Not once.”
“You’re dressed extra harmless tonight. Maybe the thugs in your area are intimidated by your usual look.”
“No one’s intimidated by any of my looks.” I took a turn and walked toward the glass double-doors at the end of the hall. “You were scared shitless of Mel’s cat, and you’re not afraid of me.”
“That cat was half my size.”
“It was a cat.”
“It was small and fuzzy.”
“Those things are killers.”
“It had three legs.”
“And four fangs.”
I smiled into the phone. The doors unlocked with a loud click as I approached, and I pushed my way through to step onto an empty skyway. It was ten feet wide and stretched seventy feet across the gap between towers. The building’s subtle sway had been imperceptible, until I started walking across that narrow bridge of steel and glass. I grimaced.
The glass walls around me reflected the night, and the cheshire grin of the waning moon had just crested the eastern skyline far above. Quin stayed silent as I crossed the skyway, and neither of us spoke until I’d passed through the next building.
“Elevator’s clear. Change in plans, though. You’re going down to floor fifty-two to avoid a guard in the hall. Take that skyway across and go back up.”
I walked up to the bank of elevators and into the one he opened for me. When the elevator stopped, the door stayed shut.
“Someone in the hall,” Quin explained. “Hold on.”
I kept quiet until the door opened into another barren corridor.
“No more talking,” Quin said. “Unless you want to give me more fake relationship advice.”
“I said what I needed to say.”
The conversation devolved into me muttering random words of assent and the occasional, “whatever,” until I reached the last skyway. My goal waited across eight lanes of sparse, distant traffic.
“Are you good?” Quin asked as the doors to the skyway slid open.
“Am I?” I walked out over the night.
“Yeah. Everything’s clear. Be safe.”
“I’ll be quick.” I hung up, turned off the phone, and dropped it into my apron pocket. Private security inside would pick up any signal my cell sent out if I left it on. It might not cause me a problem that night, but it wasn’t best practice to leave a trail that could be easily avoided.
Shifting the grocery bag from my hip to both arms, I strode across the walkway. The last elevator waited open for me, and it took me up to another sleepy hallway on the fifty-ninth floor. I hung a right and passed three doors before a quiet click announced that Quin had triggered the fourth door open.
The barren apartment smelled of new paint and bleach, and open blinds across the room let in the only light. I walked into the kitchen and set the groceries down by the garbage chute. I tossed the food from the top of the bag into the chute and pulled the brown wig off my head, then stopped everything to rub the itchiness out of my scalp. The plastic bag that had been hidden under the veggies, I emptied onto the counter.
My black stealth boots and mask might have drawn the wrong kind of attention in the street. A sixteen inch curve of steel wrapped in a black towel might have drawn eyes too. I pulled on a long black coat that was bulky enough to hide everything I carried, as well as the fact that I had hips, then dropped everything that wasn’t going with me down the garbage chute. If Quin was still doing his job, all evidence that I’d been there would be ashes inside of a minute.
The balcony door had a mechanical lock. Opening it was easy. Locking it once I stepped outside was impossible, but no job ever went perfectly. And who was likely to worry if the windows weren’t locked fifty-nine stories up?
The balcony was walled with a thick stone balustrade. I set my palms on it and leaned forward. Even that high up, buildings obscured most of the city. Brilliant white billboards and neon advertisements drowned out the starlight, leaving the moon looking lonely in her sky. Far to the east, the dome of the industrial district filled the gaps between buildings. Its massive, blast-proof shield produced no light, but the moon lit it up like a spherical mountain at the edge of town. In two different directions, at wildly different altitudes, red signs warned me that it was after midnight and not safe to be out.
Before I made another move, I whispered four syllables. Ice kissed my lips as I repeated the chant, and cold crept across my face, shrouding my flesh in a wild pattern that I could feel but not see. The invisible lines and whorls crossed my cheeks. They cut over my scalp, where the pattern blurred into a flash of bliss and searing pain that spread down my neck and over my body. It was a fight to keep chanting, but the pain subsided, and the pleasure faded, until all that remained was a dull chill that spiked in rhythm with my heart.
Still chanting, I climbed over the rail and told myself that the drop was closer to one foot than seven hundred. I stuck my feet between the posts and carefully lowered myself until I hung from the edge of the balcony. I was just tall enough to get my toes onto the stone barrier below, and I leaned inward as I let go, falling into a crouch while I grabbed the heavy stone for stability. Quashing the desire to sigh in relief, I stepped down on the balcony and moved toward the double-paned glass doors. The room was dark, still, and hopefully empty. The door slid open when I checked the lock, and I moved inside, making no sound but the quiet chant on my breath.
Vaulted ceilings. Hardwood floors. Original art on the walls. Once I eased the door shut, rosewood blinds blocked much of the night’s neon glow. I felt a pang of desire when a glance into the kitchen revealed a dusky marble counter and mahogany cabinets. My kitchen was plywood and chipped ceramics. I’d broken into more expensive apartments, on higher floors, but none had such an elegant aesthetic.
Other tags I’d seen shared a reliable set of bad habits. Their extravagances were symptoms of the hubris that had brought them to my attention in the first place. This guy was smarter. He’d learned to rein in the ego that comes from finding out other people’s rules no longer apply to you. Evan Larken had no wall-to-wall computer screens, no gold doorknobs and self-portraits. No statuary.
A little smarter, and maybe I wouldn’t have paid him a visit.
I moved into his living room in a fluid half-crouch. I saw no cameras or motion detectors. No alarm sounded, and no feet pounded down the hall. I’d have been shocked if they did. Quin hadn’t failed me yet. If he did screw up, the mask covered my hair and face, and my ID chip was rigged to be unreadable. At worst the investigators would get my gender and a rough estimate of my height.
Actually, in the worst case I’d be killed, but that was the risk of messing with Larken’s kind of power.
In front of me, a black leather corner couch faced a mirror that probably concealed a large screen. Bookshelves lined his living room, sporting an expensive array of titles in old-fashioned paper and ink. Light seeped under a closed door to my left, and I crept toward it.
The quiet click of the doorknob vanished under the background noise of vents and running water. The lamp in his bedroom was dim, but vibrant light emanated from a cracked door across the room. Through it, I heard the shower and glimpsed a tile floor.
I hardly had time to glance around his room before the stink of defecation hit me, souring the musky scent of sex. My stomach lurched, but years of training kept my chanting steady.
A woman lay in his bed, obscured except for a slim pale arm over the dark sheets. I froze. He was supposed to be alone. I might have run, but the stench and her stillness stopped me. There was a void, a depression around her body that I couldn’t see or hear, but I felt it. It was a palpable absence. It was death.
She was a victim, not a potential witness. I could still do the job.
I stole into the bedroom and closed the door. The sheets wrapped around her legs and thighs. Her bare skin shone with sweat.
With the chant breathing for me, I shouldn’t have smelled much, but the scent of her death grated at my calm as I approached the bed.
Her slack jaw, glassy eyes, and the foul smell should have been enough, but I pressed the vein in her exposed wrist. Her skin felt warm through my thin gloves. Warm and utterly still. Her wrist was supple, her fingers limp. She had died recently, and without obvious injury.
The shower went silent. I slipped around the bed so I’d have a clear view of Larken and he of me. If he saw through my invocation, I had a clean shot at the exit. But I didn’t think he would.
I caught a flash of skin as he stepped past the crack of light, then he threw the door open and walked into the room. He was tall, with smooth skin for a man who was supposed to be pushing fifty. The towel around his waist showed his thick muscles, and water spiked his short hair. His eyes absently slid over the room before focusing on the body in his bed.
He didn’t see me.
Adrenaline burst through my veins and gave life to an aching fury in my gut.
I let my voice normalize, and the chant left my lips at a comfortable volume.
He didn’t hear me.
Evan Larken wasn’t human.
Before I started writing my own stories, I was a reader. My earliest memories all involve books – at first being read to me, later being read by me until I fell asleep on my glasses. I habitually smuggled them into classrooms, movie theaters, and parties. It’s a lifelong addiction.
I received my bachelor’s in anthropology, and now I live and work in the desert southwest. My hobbies include staying inside the air conditioning and reading all summer, and venturing out to hike a bit when the weather has less in common with an oven.
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