Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Devil's Bounty - Opening Preview




The new Ryan Lock thriller goes on sale August, 2nd. It will be available in hardback and e-book in the UK and paperback and e-book in the US. A Spanish language version will be available later in the year.

Prologue



Santa Barbara, California

It was eight o’clock on Friday evening and the bars and clubs that ran the length of State Street were already filling up. Three frat boys wove an unsteady path out of the James Joyce Irish bar, before collapsing in a good-natured heap on the sidewalk where one of them grabbed his two buddies in a fraternal headlock. Outside the Velvet Jones nightclub, a bouncer carded two young co-eds, making a big show of examining their no doubt fake IDs before unclipping the red rope and letting them inside. He watched as they wiggled past him and into the club.
   Up and down the town’s main party drag, the same scenes of mostly good-natured youthful debauchery played themselves out, as they had done every year for about as long as anyone in the wealthy California beach community could remember.
   Charlie Mendez stood on the corner of State and West Haley and surveyed the scene. He plucked a fresh cigarette from the pack of Marlboro Reds tucked into the rolled-up sleeve of his T-shirt, dug out a Cartier lighter from the front pocket of his jeans and lit up. He pulled the smoke deep into his lungs as he continued to scan the street. A crowd of girls passed, one, a long- legged brunette, turning to smile at him. Charlie gave her his best California-surf-bum smile in return and ran a hand through his thick mop of blond curls. She giggled and looked as if she was about to say something to him, but her friend grabbed her elbow and pulled her back along the street.
   Charlie took out the small digital camera he always carried with him for just such opportunities and called after her, ‘Hey, beautiful! Smile!’
   The cheesy line and the picture-taking would have earned most men of Charlie’s age a raised middle finger or a look of disgust, but Charlie wasn’t most men. In his late teens and twenties, he had been good enough to work for a time as a model in New York, and despite his lifestyle, his looks were still merely faded rather than entirely departed. His hair and teeth were perfect, and his face, beaten by sun, sand and surf, was rugged.
   The girl blushed, whispering something to her friend, then walked on with the rest of her group.
   He gazed at the image on the screen. She must have been startled by the tiny flash because her eyes were closed. It gave him a shiver of anticipation for what might come later.
   These were the nights he lived for. There were many things he loved about the town where he had grown up, but perhaps none was greater than the opportunities it afforded a man like him. Every year the seniors left, and every year the freshmen arrived. The town was in a state of constant transfusion and replenish- ment. But Charlie remained constant. Watching. Waiting. Choosing his moment. Always ready to add to his collection.
   He glanced at his wristwatch, a very un-surferlike five- thousand-dollar Rolex Oyster Submariner. The night was young. He would go home and get things ready. Then, around eleven, he would return to see what the rest of the evening held for him. Tomorrow the students would begin to drift away, and over the following few days Santa Barbara would shift from college town to tourist town. The people who lived in LA or San Francisco but kept summer homes in the area would arrive. Couples. Families. None of them any use to him. They would crowd the beach he surfed every morning and generally make his life miserable.
   That meant he had to make tonight count. He had to make it special. Tonight would have to sustain him through the long, lonely months of summer before fall semester when fresh meat arrived.
He turned and walked back to his car, a low-slung red Aston Martin convertible. He jumped into the driver’s seat, gunned the engine and took off, heading northwards up the coast, eager to set the scene for what lay ahead.




Part One




One


Sixteen Months Later
Los Angeles, California

Heart pounding, Melissa Warner pushed her way through the crush of bodies towards the front of the stage. Almost directly above her, a sweet-faced black kid, dressed in baggy jeans and an LA Lakers top, was singing about bitches and hoes while two similarly attired DJs worked the decks behind him. Either side of the rapper, a dozen female dancers, in bondage gear and lingerie, gyrated in apparent ecstasy as the words poured forth.


Y’all know that hoes and bitches, They only after one thing.


   Two spotlights zigzagged across the mass of bodies filling the arena. The bass pounded so hard from the speakers that Melissa could feel the floor beneath her moving in time with it. The rapper grabbed his crotch with one hand, and waved a roll of dollar bills in the other. The crowd of mostly white suburban teenagers screamed and hollered their endorsement of the lyrics. Lyrics that reduced their sisters and mothers and girlfriends to what exactly? To prostitutes. To people who served only one function. To pieces of meat. Stay focused, she told herself.
   Remember why you’re here. To find him.
   Not that he had been an easy man to locate. Far from it. But she had stayed doggedly on his trail, ignoring everyone around her who had told her it would be best if she let it go. And now her persistence was about to pay off. He was close by. The man who would bring her justice and, with it, the chance finally to move on with her life.
   She scanned the barrier, and the line of muscular, T-shirted security guards. There was no sign of the man she was looking for. She pushed her way to the side of the stage, ducking under flying elbows and pushing her arms out, like a swimmer, to create gaps in the wall of flesh that surrounded her.
The press of bodies against her made her feel sick and light- headed. She was gasping for breath, but the air seemed to hold heat and moisture rather than oxygen. Then, just as she was starting to worry that she might pass out, she found a space and she was out of the crowd.
   A lone security guard, wearing a Triple-C tour shirt (it stood for Compton Clown Crew) and a laminated picture ID hooked to a black silk lanyard, stood next to the crush barrier. Beyond him, a wooden black ramp led towards the backstage area. Melissa dug out her cell phone and pulled up the only picture she had been able to find of the man. She showed it to the security guard. He looked at it and shrugged.
   ‘Don’t know that dude,’ he said.
   ‘But you must,’ she pressed. ‘He’s in charge of security.’
   ‘Not here, he ain’t.’
   ‘No, I mean security for the band.’
   He gave another shrug. ‘I don’t know nothing about that.’
   She stood on tiptoe and tried to get a glimpse of the backstage area. The security guard shifted his position, blocking her view. He had damp patches of sweat blossoming under his arms. She caught a whiff of body odour and her stomach churned.
   ‘You want to get backstage, huh? I can arrange it. Get you in to see the artists too,’ he said, with a nod towards the stage. ‘Gonna cost you, though,’ he said, staring at her breasts.
   She took a step back and closed her eyes, trying desperately not to cry. If only he knew, she thought. If only he knew what his leer- ing was doing to her. If only he could experience a tenth of the pain she felt.
   She opened her eyes, but his attention was elsewhere now. He was on a walkie-talkie, barking instructions and staring at the crowd.
   She turned to see people scattering in all directions. Music was still pouring from the speakers but the rapper had stopped rapping and now he was at the edge of the stage, one hand raised as if to calm the crowd. ‘Be cool, people. Be cool out there.’
   Following the security guard’s gaze, Melissa could see panic taking hold as clusters of concertgoers scrambled in all directions, a shoal of fish parting at the approach of a predator.
   She strained to get a better view.
   There must have been a half-dozen of them: young, male and Hispanic, they wore blue hats and bandannas – gang members. They pushed through the crowd, throwing punches and kicking out at anyone within striking distance. A kid, no more than seventeen, took a fist to the face and went down. Three of the gang members swarmed him, kicking him in the head and body, grabbing other people in the crowd to steady themselves and give their blows more purchase.
   At the edge of the group, a lone gang member stood perfectly still and watched the beating with cold detachment. He was smaller than the rest but he seemed the most in control. He called to the three delivering the beating and they stopped.
   He raised his head and, as he did, Melissa saw that it wasn’t a male after all. A young girl had been leading the rampage. She looked around, perfectly calm in the middle of the mĂȘlĂ©e as, on stage, the group made its retreat into the wings and security guards poured over the barrier in a futile attempt to restore order.
   The gang leader glanced at the stage. Her gaze settled on Melissa and their eyes met. She raised a hand and extended her index finger, pointing Melissa out to the others.
   In that moment, Melissa knew this was no random event. They were here for a reason. As she was here looking for him, so they were here looking for her. She began to edge away until she felt the cold metal of the crush barrier at her back.
   Now the gang members were shrugging off whatever resistance they were meeting, and starting to move in her direction. Melissa felt a wave of terror wash over her as the girl leading the gang lifted her T-shirt to reveal the dull black handle of a gun.
   The sight of it snapped Melissa back to the present. She looked around for an escape route. Twenty yards away, she saw it – a single-door fire exit.
   She sprinted towards it, not daring to look back. If she could get through the door, she could reach the parking lot. If she could make it that far, she could jump into her car, and get away.
   Her quest abandoned, Melissa Warner burst through the door and out into the warm Los Angeles night. She had to stay alive long enough to find him. What happened to her after that didn’t matter.





Two


In his line of work, Ryan Lock was constantly vigilant for two things. The first was the absence of the normal: a security guard missing from his post, a blank corner of an office, which had previously housed a security camera, a silent junkyard normally patrolled by a bad-tempered Dobermann. The second was the presence of the abnormal, something strange and out of place: an unfamiliar car appearing outside a school at pick-up time or a newly installed manhole cover on a parade route.
That evening, as he scanned the crowded hotel lobby, which was filled with revellers attending the after-show party for his latest clients, a double-platinum rap group called Triple-C, Lock spotted something that fell, most definitely, into the second category. Unnoticed by the rest of the partygoers, a young woman stepped gingerly from the barrel of the gleaming gold revolving door into the hotel lobby, and stopped, eyes darting around, searching someone out.
   In and of itself, her arrival was hardly worthy of note. The defining feature of Triple-C’s after-parties was the number of young women in attendance. They tended, he had noted, to out- number the men by at least six to one. But no one looked even vaguely like the young woman walking through the press of bodies towards him.
   For a start, their hair was perfectly coiffed instead of damp and matted on their foreheads. Their eyes sparkled with life, or excite- ment, or too much alcohol, while this young woman’s were like a doll’s: black and lifeless. And none of the other young women crowding the lobby had blood pouring from her abdomen, running down her legs and splashing, like thick scarlet raindrops, on to the hotel’s white marble floor.
   As she staggered across the lobby, people fell silent. Cocktail glasses and champagne flutes hung in suspended animation inches from lips. Eyes widened in disbelief and horror. People stepped back, unconsciously clearing a path, as the blood continued to pour from her belly, leaving a trail on the marble.
   As the silence washed behind her, the only person to react was Lock. Taking off his jacket, he half turned towards his best friend and business partner, the six-foot-two African American marine Ty Johnson. ‘Get the guys upstairs into the suite.’
   There had been a disturbance at that night’s concert, a series of brawls among the crowd, possibly gang-related, and he was taking no chances. Ty did as he was told, quickly marshalling the rap group and their management towards a bank of elevators. Their movement punctured the silence, and a babble of incompre- hension filled the void as Lock went quickly to the young woman, reaching her in four long strides.
   Her shoulders were hunched and she was shivering. She flinched visibly as Lock reached out to her.       He could see the pain pinching her face as he sat her on a nearby couch as gently as he could, hushing her whimpers with words of reassurance.
   Blood was oozing through a hole in her shirt and he could see where the fabric had charred. A gunshot wound – clear as day. Just the one by the look of it. He balled up his jacket and pushed it hard against the wound. She screamed as he pressed, talking to her while he tried to staunch the bleeding.
   A male receptionist had made his way over to them, lips puckered in apparent displeasure at the sight of so much blood on his formerly pristine marble floor – and now the designer couch. He nodded from the girl to the door, indicating, Lock assumed, that she belonged outside. He met the man’s eyes with a level gaze.
   That was all it took. Lock’s stare was frightening. He had blue eyes that burned with rage at lives lost or taken.
   The receptionist flushed bright red.
   ‘Call nine one one,’ Lock told him. ‘Tell them we have a gun- shot victim and she’s bleeding out.’
   As the receptionist ran, Lock looked around the lobby at the last of the stragglers. There was a knot of glamorous party girls in their twenties who had backed against a wall. He shouted across the lobby, ‘Ladies, check your bags and see if you can find me a tampon or a sanitary towel.’
   They stared at him, horrified.
   ‘Check your purses, goddamnit,’ he repeated, raising his voice. A willowy blonde in a black cocktail dress pulled out a pack of tampons. ‘Will these do?’
   ‘Perfect. Bring them here,’ he said, waving her over with his free hand.
   She tottered towards him on high heels, holding a still-wrapped tampon at arm’s length between thumb and forefinger.
   ‘Take the wrapper off,’ Lock barked, ‘and see if you can find me some hand sanitizer.’
   An Asian girl with the group piped up, ‘I have some.’
   ‘Good. Let me have it.’
   Lock turned back to the victim. ‘Okay. I’m going to take the jacket away, and then I’m going to have to take off your shirt so I can pack the wound. I’ll be as gentle as I can but it’ll hurt.’
   She looked up at him, her eyes tracing the contours of his face, like a finger running over a road map. Her pupils widened a fraction and life seemed to return to them.
   Up close, he could tell that she was younger than she had first appeared. Nineteen. Maybe twenty at a push. Her skin was pale and sallow. She had small, delicate features, and bright green eyes. Her hair was a deep chestnut brown, almost auburn.
   Finally she nodded. He looked at the blonde who had given him the tampon. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
   ‘Ashley,’ said the blonde.
   ‘Okay, Ashley, I’m going to need you to hold her jacket where it is for a moment.’
   ‘But I . . . the blood . . . What if she, like, has something?’ Ashley protested.
   Lock fixed her with the same gaze he’d used on the reception- ist. ‘If we don’t do this, she is going to die right here in front of us. So, please, just do as I asked.’
   She complied. He cupped his hands and the Asian girl pumped four squirts of sanitizer into them.
   He rubbed it in. ‘Okay, Ashley, you can move the jacket away now and give me that tampon.’
   She did as she was told and Lock began to peel away the cotton shirt from the edge of the wound. It was maybe a half-inch in diameter, bad but not the worst he’d seen. It looked as if the bullet had stayed inside – better than there being an exit wound and two places to lose blood. He pulled out the blue cord of the tampon and pressed the other end into the wound. Almost immediately it began to expand as it absorbed the blood, puffing out and filling the hole in the girl’s stomach. Blood seeped from the edges of the wound but just moments before it had been pouring out.
   He glanced at the desk. The receptionist had the phone at his ear. ‘They’re on their way,’ he called.
   ‘How long?’ Lock asked.
   The receptionist went back to the phone.
   Lock worked the numbers. Where had the girl been when she was shot and how long ago? Life or death would be separated by seconds rather than minutes.
   ‘Mr Lock?’ she said, tears welling in her eyes.
   She knew his name. He tried to place her. Had he met her before? He didn’t think so, but something about her was familiar. Had she been at the concert earlier, maybe at the stage door? Over the last month he had seen some pretty elaborate stunts to grab Triple-C’s attention, not to mention that evening’s near-riot.
   ‘You were looking for me?’ he asked her.
   Her chin fell on to her chest. ‘They tried to stop me,’ she stuttered.
   ‘Who? Who tried to stop you?’
   ‘He sent them. He wants me to stop looking for him. But I won’t.’
   The hairs rose on the back of Lock’s neck. He scanned the crowd, which was slowly drifting away, their backward glances a mix of disgust and curiosity. No one stood out. No one appeared to be a threat.
   ‘Who?’ he asked her gently. ‘Who does?’
   Her lips started to form a name but no sound came.
   ‘Is this person after you?’
   She shook her head, the deadness settling back in her eyes. ‘You have to catch him.’
   Lock’s patience was fraying. ‘Whoever you are, whatever this is about, I’m not a cop. I don’t catch people, I keep them safe.’
   ‘That’s why it has to be you,’ she said.
   ‘Why what has to be me?’ he asked.
   ‘The one who brings him back.’
   She was talking in riddles. Every answer she gave led to more questions. ‘Bring who back?’
   ‘Joe tried. But they killed him.’
   ‘Joe? Is that the name of the man you want me to find?’
   ‘It’s not fair. He should be in prison for what he did.’
   ‘Who?’
   She stared at Lock and a sudden intensity flared in her eyes, like the last burst of a candle flame before the wind snuffs it out.
   ‘You’re my last chance. If you don’t catch him and bring him back, they’re going to kill me.’
   Lock kept the pressure on her wound as best he could. The fire was dying down. She was blinking. If he didn’t keep her conscious, he would lose her before they made it to a hospital. He had to keep her awake, and the best way of doing that was to keep her talking. ‘Listen, let’s start over, okay? Can you tell me your name?’
   Her eyes focused. That was good. ‘Melissa,’ she said.
   A tiny victory. ‘Okay, Melissa,’ he said. ‘I’m going to come with you to the hospital, and on the way, I want you to tell me every- thing. But start at the beginning. Can you do that for me, Melissa? Can you tell me your story all the way through? If you do that, and I feel I can help you, then I promise I will. Do we have a deal?’
‘Deal.’
Lock turned back to the receptionist. ‘ETA?’ The man looked at him blankly.
‘How long until they get here?’
   ‘They said ten minutes.’
   Lock did the math. If the EMS ambulance had deployed from the hospital, that would mean at least another ten minutes. In twenty she’d be dead.
   He scooped the girl into his arms and ran for the door, struggling to stay on his feet as his shoes slipped on the bloodied floor.


1 comment:

  1. A great opening read, Sean. Intriguing story. Will add to my 'to be read' list

    ReplyDelete