Free read: Work in Progress

Hi! I’m posting whatever I write, on whatever days I write, below. This is first-draft stuff, which may or may not be functionally equivalent to published versions.

Two caveats:

  1. Only one work at a time will be here. I’ll post links to the most-recent content in my blog, so subscribe to that if you want to follow along. Or wait till things are published. Or contact me and get on the beta reader and/or early reviewer list for a free copy. Or, you know, buy the thing later, or just drink some coffee and pet the cat.
  2. Most likely I’ll only do this with novels, since short stories wouldn’t be up long.

Here we go!

Witch, Blooded: Incandescent Iron Throne

Coming Dystopia of the Vampire Gods, Book One

I’m Liberty Bell Parker. I’m a witch, though just barely…by choice. Magic isn’t my favorite thing, for a lot of reasons. Don’t even get me started on vampire sorcerers.

This is my first trip to Vegas, and I’m here to kill a man–sort of. A bloodsucking fiend, anyway. Or so I’ve been told.

Turns out the situation is more complicated than I’ve been led to believe. Worse yet, this is my first mission as an agent of the Grand Coven. All of a sudden my brand-new team and I are up against the end of the world. Which just might happen before we can even get started–thousands of years ago, in fact.

Didn’t see that one coming.

Chapter One

Two o’clock in the AM. I was new to Las Vegas, brand new in fact, but this bar looked just about perfect. Not too close to the Strip or the downtown casinos, not too tony a neighborhood, with plenty of vehicles parked out front and in the small back parking lot. Not too much of a crowd, but not the kind of place where you walk in and see three other people either. Anonymity, maybe. For a price. Same as everything.

I’d been walking for a couple of hours and told myself I could use a break. Maybe even a drink. Though I knew it was stupid…as if that had ever mattered to me. Just the thought made me smile.

I was in town a day early. I was supposed to wait for my team. But I wasn’t going to. They could yell at me later. If I survived, anyway. But hey, it was only surveillance. And the best way to hide my backup was to do this without them.

I paused briefly to touch the heavy silver ring hanging between my breasts on a long leather cord that had once been my husband’s shoelace, then headed for the door. No handle, so I pushed. First surprise: the door didn’t move. At all. It felt solid, like something that had never opened and never would. I looked up and spotted what was probably a camera. Then I found a button, likely a doorbell of some sort, on the wall to my right.

As a lefty, I find that sort of thing irritating. But I stabbed the button with my finger anyway. Then looked up into the camera, belatedly realizing I should probably smile–but a buzz sounded, and the door opened, towards me, a not-too-inviting couple of inches.

Hmm. I grabbed an edge and pulled the door open further, suddenly more nervous than I should have been. About the door anyway. It was heavy, sure, but stepping inside the building felt more serious than it should have. Another world, once I entered? The place felt…clean and safe. Which couldn’t possibly be the case, given why I was in town. I shook my head and walked in.

Inside I found a younger crowd than I’d expected for such an out-of-the-way place. Maybe Vegas had unusual night life? Well, obviously, but…

The bartender, a young-looking guy, appearing to be in his early 20s, redheaded, barely glanced at me as I walked in. The door made a loud click-thunk as it closed firmly behind me–I guessed that could be considered ominous or reassuring, depending on which direction the patrons wanted to escape from. I walked slowly to the bar, scanning the crowd. Mostly guys, not exactly a surprise, but there were a few women. So, probably not a gay kind of place…well, I allowed, it still could be. But I doubted it.

Huh. I had a theory about bloodsuckers and who they attracted. Not this time, not this place.

Plenty of conversation, with probably not too many predatory-type customers. The human kind, I mean, who were generally just after sex. I got checked out, sure, I’m used to that–being female and not obviously crippled. Though come to think of it, maybe the not-crippled part wouldn’t matter either. Guys, you know?

But nobody jumped up to wave me over, offered me a seat next to them, or so much as made eye contact.

I sat at the left side of the bar, and noticed I was getting a good vibe off the bartender. He seemed…chill. Plus, he didn’t rush over to take my order, and considering that he wasn’t very busy I figured that meant he was happily married, otherwise involved, or possibly gay after all, any of which were good for me. I just wanted to sit, and check the place out.

Somebody said something loudly behind me, something about a sports team–definitely not my field of expertise–and a few other people laughed. Seemed like a friendly place. So why the locked and ridiculously heavy door? I mean, I was pretty sure I knew why. But how did it look to customers?

Or maybe the door was just a Vegas thing. Maybe all the bars would be like that, once you got away from the glamorous zones.

The bartender came over eventually, still giving off waves of tranquility–so I began to suspect he was actually stoned, his calm deriving from recreational illegality, and therefore potentially still single–and set a napkin in front of me. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.

Um, sure.” I hadn’t thought about it. What would be normal? For a single woman in her mid-20s, walking into a bar in the middle of the night? “Cranberry juice and vodka? But…”

He’d begun to nod, but stopped and met my eyes. I looked into his, too. Nice. Brown, flecked with fiery gold. Reasonably alert, friendly, and no sense of threat whatsoever. He raised his left eyebrow, for which I hated him a little, and smiled at me, now giving me his full attention – which made me uncomfortable.

“But?” he asked.

I shrugged, lifting a finger and looking past him to the rows of bottles behind the bar standing cheek-by-jowl on eight levels of what looked like granite shelving, the upper shelves towering impossibly high above the drinkers below. The ceiling was perhaps a normal 10 feet high for most of the room, but starting along the outer edge of the bar itself it rose to what looked more like fifteen.

To the right, I spotted an ornate wooden ladder that appeared to be permanently attached to rails running along the full length of the shelves. Somebody involved in this place seemed to have money to spare. I decided to push my luck.

“Not to rush into things here,” I began slowly, “but I just got into town tonight, and I don’t know my way around yet, and I’m looking for–”

His tentative smile had turned into a full-on grin. I checked out his teeth…couldn’t help myself. Normal. “One of two things,” he said, helpfully raising two fingers on his right hand and waving them in front of my nose. To help me count, no doubt. “Either you walked into my bar and immediately fell in lust with me, and this is your version of a pickup line, or you’re trying to get around to asking me for a job. Either way, it’s bold. I like it.”

I blinked. I’d been about to ask about single-malt Scotch…not that I wanted any Scotch, it all tasted like cough syrup to me, but I was wondering just how upscale a customer the place could reasonably handle. But whatever. I decided to go with it, and raised my brows as if asking a question.

His eyes had left mine. Traveled lower for a bit, which might have answered the gay question, but they didn’t linger. Much. “Ever done this sort of work before?” he asked, meeting my eyes again. “Tended bar? Cleaned up disgusting messes in a bathroom, where the puke and shit sort of bleed together? Tracked inventory and managed orders from distributors?”

I pursed my lips, trying to ignore what the word “bleed” had spurred in the depths of my brain. This was so not the time…“All of that,” I said, which was true but so not the direction I’d planned this conversation to go. “But I do have preferences, and–”

He waved his hand in front of my nose again. I wanted to tell him that was annoying, but maybe it wasn’t the time for that either. “Yeah, preferences are out,” he told me. “We don’t do those here.” Then he smirked. “Related note? No dating the customers here. Or, unfortunately, the staff.”

Now he was waggling his eyebrows. Both of them. Independently.

I decided to overlook his annoying quirks–of which he had apparently many. “Not really into dating,” I told him. I almost reached to touch my husband’s ring, but stopped myself.

He pursed his lips, shrugged a little, and gave me a disbelieving look. “Guess that works for me,” he said. “Your name?”

Oh crap. I was supposed to have a cover for this job, but I wouldn’t see the paperwork till tomorrow. So I didn’t know my new name. And what if he asked for ID? Since I was apparently trying to get hired, here. “Liberty,” I said after a moment. “Liberty Bell Parker. But you can call me Parker.”

Then I waited. What were the chances this guy had heard of me? Next to nil. I hadn’t given my name out while hunting before. I bit my lip. Shouldn’t have done it now, either. What I got for rushing in, unprepared.

Meanwhile disbelief emanated from the guy in waves. Large, strong, amused waves. “Seriously,” I told him. “That’s my name. There’s a story, but I don’t–”

Hey, Jake,” a customer called from down the bar to my right. “Can you hit me up with another Firestone?”

Apparently that was the bartender’s name, because he raised his left hand to give a thumbs-up to the customer behind him, but didn’t turn his head. “Okay. Parker?” he asked. How many times was he going to ask for my name? Was it hard to remember?

Parker,” I said again as I reached for the right rear pocket of my travel-worn jeans. “And yes, I have ID. In my full name. Want to see…?”

Okeydokey,” Jake said, waving off my offer, clearly deciding not to challenge me. “You heard the guy, right? So let’s see if you can pour a beer.”

Wow, that was fast. But it worked for me. So I got up, walked over to the left where there was a gate between the bar and the rest of the room, pushed my way through, and headed toward the customer–this guy was older than most of the clientele, wearing a Stetson hat inside at 2 AM. Either bald, Texan, or both, I decided. I scanned the taps. “That’s the IPA?” I asked the guy.

Sure is, little lady. You’re a pretty young thing, aren’t you?”

I could feel Jake’s laughter behind me, though I heard nothing–the entire bar had fallen silent–and the customer gave off a mischievous vibe. Okay, so they were testing me. “Sure am, partner,” I said. “Does your wife know you’re here?”

“Which one?” he asked.

I gave a little laugh, assuming this was more humor/hazing for the new girl, then stopped cold as he raised his left hand and waggled it from side to side about 6 inches off the long, wooden, and oddly immaculate bar.

Two rings. The first a fairly ordinary gold band; but the second ring…I forced myself to take a breath.

The second, either white gold or polished silver, was a near-twin to the one I wore around my neck. My husband’s ring seemed to swell and throb, heavy as always but now feeling as if it were the center of my universe, pulling the bar and surrounding city of screaming lights and quiet desperations into a slow, massively dancing swirl of regret…and hate so powerful my heart shredded itself in my chest as I stared.

I felt a feather-light touch on my left shoulder. “You okay?” Jake asked from behind me.

Not really. But my left hand had found a 16-ounce glass and my right hand had tilted the tap handle back to begin a professional pour. Not my first rodeo. “Sure,” I said over my shoulder, trying for nonchalance. I quirked an attempt at a quick grin toward the customer. “Nice rings,” I told him.

He stared back at me, clearly shaken by something he’d seen in my face, but with what appeared to be habitual old-school courtesy he gave me a rueful smile that nearly reached his troubled eyes. “That sometimes surprises people, a bit,” he said. “No shame in it.”

Something about this guy just seemed…right. My fake grin turned into a real smile as I put a coaster emblazoned with “Jake’s bar” – the first time I’d noticed the name of the establishment – on the bar in front of him and carefully placed his beer on it. “Your wives are very lucky women,” I said.

“Ain’t that the truth,” the guy agreed, clearly sincere. “Frank Norbert,” he went on, the grin soaking into his eyes this time and spilling out. “Nice to meet you, Miss…?”

“Liberty Bell Parker,” I said again, figuring one personal revelation plus full name deserved another, and sighed.

Jake giggled behind me. My new friend Frank just grinned some more. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.

“Sure, and that Firestone looks good, but I ought to stop there,” I said, as Jake placed the sparkling red drink I’d asked for earlier beside me. I reached out with my right hand and pushed the glass back toward Jake with my index finger while maintaining eye contact with Frank – I didn’t push the glass far, just half an inch or so. “I’m working here.”

Jake rolled his eyes, flipped a bar towel over in front of me, and walked away as I dumped the red stuff in a sink and poured myself a beer.