Hey all! Sorry for my absence in the past months–I’ve been busy working on getting Arie’s last book, Surviving to the End, polished and ready to go. If I’m honest, it may be my favorite thing I’ve written…I’m so excited to share the last chapter of this story with you!
The book will be available soon (like here in a week or so) which means I can finally release the first chapter sneak peek! Scroll down to see the beautiful cover and start the beginning of the end.
Buckle up–this one’s a roller coaster from first page until the grand finale.
I darted down the darkened hallway, my eyes barely able to make out the shapes of the slick walls around me. Massive picture frames and lopsided fake plants threw lumpy shadows along my path, standing silent, like grave onlookers lined up to watch a grisly execution. I pretended not to notice them, ignoring their judgmental stares boring into my skin. There was nothing in the thick silence—my quick footsteps had been practiced into soundlessness—but I could hear the verdict the shadowed onlookers gave me like the pounding of drums before the guillotine: guilty.
A shiver went down my spine without my permission. I pushed it away, willing my fraying nerves to harden and mold into something strong. Indestructible.
Focus, I told myself, scolding, like my brief moment of weakness was a sign of bad behavior. Down this hallway and take the second right. It’s the second right.
Are you sure it wasn’t left? my inner unwanted consultant chimed in, her snarky voice feigning innocence. It would be such a shame to screw this up. And by a shame, I mean I really want to see you bleed.
It’s right. I’m sure, I snapped back. Except now, I wasn’t sure at all.
The uncertainty filled my head like the rising tide despite my efforts to keep it down. She fed off any and all negativity, especially in me, and I felt her rise up. I saw as the grotesque image of her formed in the corner of my head, the image of a nightmare but one that was unfortunately all too real in ways I couldn’t explain: nearly a perfect reflection of me. At least, what used to be me. Her skin was ridden with scars and torn to expose electric blue flesh, half her hair had been ripped out, and the left side of her face was marred nearly beyond recognition. My right eye looked back at me, but her left was just a brilliant solid blue orb in the socket, and she gave me a smirk with her half disfigured lips.
Oh, but princess, you sound less sure now.
Shut up, Vanessa. You’re not helping.
Whatever you say, princess. After all, I live to serve.
I rolled my eyes at her, trying to ignore her continuous presence. Months back I had named her Vanessa, mostly because I needed something else to call her besides “Monster Me” and thought it was fitting since that was the name of the sea witch in The Little Mermaid. At first, she was really annoyed by the name, which was why I kept using it, but now she had embraced it. As she put it, naming her meant I was accepting that she wasn’t going anywhere. I always got nauseated at the thought.
Trusting my gut, I continued down the hallway and took the second right. Sure enough, my comrade was there waiting for me, standing against the wall with a loose but alert stance.
“The system’s disabled,” I breathed, barely audible. “We’re good to go.”
Micah nodded and straightened up, not hiding the boredom in his bright green eyes that seemed to glow in the dark: radioactive, unstable, and ready to blow. “After you then.”
I complied, taking the lead down the corridor. It was two lefts, stairs, and a right—I knew that—but I still found myself mentally running through the map I had memorized the day before just to triple check. Micah didn’t allow for mistakes on assignments. That was easy for him until I started accompanying him. Now if anything went wrong it was usually my fault, and I paid for it.
Making my senses focus again, I concentrated on where I was. Feet against shoes, shoes against marble. Musty atmosphere. Faint tropical freshener staining the stagnant air. Micah following close behind, his pace rapid but his breathing even. The shadows that watched us, silently waiting in stoic anticipation for judgment to be passed. Left. Stairs. Right. Never making a sound. Focused on putting one foot in front of the other, leading, tensing, recoiling from what would happen when I reached my destination. The shadows shouted soundlessly at me, exposing me for what I was despite the long sleeves I wore.
A shaky breath escaped me, and I felt Micah’s disapproval without even seeing his face.
Stop it, I commanded myself. Don’t think. Focus. You just have to focus.
I stopped at the immense black double doors with gold letters immortalizing the name ‘Laurent Bridges.’ How nice of him to put his name on the door, like an invitation beckoning us in.
You don’t want us to come in, Laurent. You want to run.
Micah lifted his arm to push me out of the way; I stepped aside on my own. He put his ear up to the door, listened for about twenty seconds, then signaled with his fingers.
Three guards in there, he told me. Piece of cake for us. Poor Laurent thought hiding out in his expensive office with a personal detail would help his situation.
Micah took out his precious knife and started working his magic on the locked handle. Though assignments often made me feel like a spy in need of dart guns, elaborate wigs, and fast cars, my comrade preferred the simplistic approach. Hands-on. For Micah, it’s just about him, his weapon, and his target. Anything else—even cool gadgets—were just unnecessary annoyances. He didn’t need them.
I made myself count while he worked. Counting helped in lots of situations. There was something calming about the succession, the order, the absence of chaos without the terror of dreading inevitability. Six came after five, and it would always come after five, and there was never a reason for anyone to be upset that it did. Numbers had such a deep-rooted foundation that even the universe bent around them, allowing them to exist as they were without forcing change.
Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Six—
The handle clicked, my adrenaline spiked, and we stormed in. The look of shock on the guards’ faces would’ve been hilarious in any other circumstance. I knocked out two of them before either could get their guns out; the third got a shot off—I ducked just in time—before Micah took him out.
We both turned to see Laurent sitting at the desk, face pale and clammy, as his entire corporate life flashed before his wide eyes.
“I’ll give you anything you want,” he blurted, his reedy voice shaky. “Anything. Money? New identities? A private plane anywhere you want to go. My investments. Anything.”
Laurent continued to attempt a bargain, but Micah couldn’t care less for the dead man’s last words. He walked toward me and pressed the flat side of his knife against my cheek, too soft to actually cut me but threatening nonetheless. I stopped myself from cringing away.
“You take this one.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up at the dark murder of his tone. “Let’s see what you can do.”
Translation: don’t mess up or you die too.
I swallowed myself down, letting a coldness overtake me, numbing me from the core and distancing myself from the situation. Settling into something less Arie but not quite Vanessa, I shifted my glare to Laurent, repeating the thoughts that it was either him or me, and I was stronger, I was more powerful, and I couldn’t care what happened to him. This is what I’d come to do, and once I got it over with, it would be done. Just like counting. Six would come after five, and we’d move on to seven.
My muscles tensed as I took steady steps forward, gaze zeroing in on the target, and he shrunk back into his black leather chair as I got closer. The space between us grew smaller while I climbed onto his desk, keyboards and monitors and paperweights crashing to the floor. I stopped and sat on the edge, digging my boot behind one of the wheels on his chair leg so he couldn’t back away from me. He couldn’t seem to look away either. Laurent Bridges stared at me, hypnotized with fear because he knew exactly why I was there.
Leaning forward, I rested my elbows on my knees and stared into Laurent’s eyes like I’d been taught, like I could reach down into him and crush everything in its wake. A shudder went through him when I parted my lips to speak.
“Where is it?”
Each word was its own cold thing, my voice sharp but lifeless, like a dead snake’s fangs still dripping with venom. Empty but no less dangerous. I barely even recognized my own voice because it wasn’t really me. For these tasks, I had to become something else entirely.
It took Laurent twelve seconds to answer, and even then his words stuttered and faltered and tripped over each other. “I, I don’t…I don’t know…I don’t know what you mean.”
My eyebrows rose at his bold decision, and he flinched.
This’ll be too easy.
Child’s play, Vanessa echoed. It’s almost not even fun.
Faster than Laurent could follow, I jerked my hand out and snatched the closest weapon to me—a long silver letter opener, sharper than was safe—and drove it into Laurent’s leg. His scream ricocheted off the walls of the spacious office, and I found my mouth twisting with disgust. This man had no concept of real hurt.
“Where is it?” I asked again.
Laurent was already crying—seriously?—and blubbered something in response. Not an answer, though. Not what I asked for.
Lifting my free leg, I slammed the heel of my boot down on his good knee, just like I’d been taught, and heard a deafening cracking sound. Laurent shrieked and doubled over. I leaned forward further, clasping my hand around the letter opener, and Laurent screamed again before I even moved it.
“Laurent,” I said, forcing the name off my tongue because I hated the taste of it. “Do you know who I am?”
Laurent looked at me through his tears for a moment before finally nodding.
“So then you know who sent me.”
Another cry burst through his teeth, and he nodded again, miserably.
I held his gaze with a warning glare. “Where is it?”
I gave him thirty seconds to answer, which was generous—I heard Micah huff in impatience behind me—but when Laurent stayed quiet, I jerked the letter opener around, and he howled in response. Something inside me winced when I saw his hands clutch the armrests, like my soul was reminding me that I’d been the one in the chair too, screaming through number six and begging for seven. For the counting to keep going. For the pain to stop.
Please make it stop.
The thought made me slip, a lapse in the charade, and I had to shake my head to focus. That’s when I saw it. Subtle, but still there: the shift of Laurent’s eyes away from mine. Just for a split second. Just enough.
I straightened up and raised my voice a notch, so Micah would know I was talking to him. “It’s somewhere in here. He wouldn’t part with it.”
A crashing sounded, then a smashing, clattering, more crashing, as the tornado that was Micah tore through the place. I didn’t flinch at the chaotic symphony, but Laurent did, wet eyes wide while he watched Micah destroy the beautiful office that stood for his pride and had probably cost a fortune on its own.
“Better tell me now,” I said softly, too low for Micah to hear, and Laurent’s gaze snapped back to me. “Give yourself a chance.”
It was getting warm in the office—uncomfortably warm. Sweat beaded down Laurent’s face, his cheeks flushed, as he’d probably never been uncomfortably warm in his life. He opened his mouth, hopefully to speak, but a last crash from Micah sent the words back down his throat. I turned to look. Behind an abstract painting Micah had torn off the wall, there was a cutout nestling a small black safe.
I actually snorted, a chemical reaction between the two sides of me that were never meant to go together. “Behind a painting? Seriously?”
Micah snapped his fingers at me while he inspected the safe. “Code?”
I turned to look at Laurent, and he recoiled under my gaze. Taking a breath, I steeled myself, preparing to go deeper and darker than some flimsy little letter opener, because I was trained to do much worse.
Laurent must’ve finally got his head screwed on straight because he let it all out in a gust of painful breaths. “Nineteen, Ninety-one, sixteen, twelve, five, six.”
That was it. Micah must’ve put in the code because I heard a pop and turned to see him holding up a black plastic rectangle with fancy silver embellishments. A flash drive. Neither of us knew what was on it, but we weren’t supposed to. Assignments were for what, not why.
Micah pocketed the drive, then turned around to face us, jade green eyes locked on Laurent. I stood just as Micah stepped forward.
“We have it,” I said, trying to bring the cold cruelty back to my voice. “Assignment complete. Let’s go.”
Micah shook his head and jerked his chin at Laurent. “No, he’s the assignment. Anything else is just extra meat.”
My mouth went dry. “We have what we came—”
“Arie,” Micah growled, drying the rest of me up, and I actually took a stumbling step away, nearly tripping over the end of the desk. A flash of surprise went across Laurent’s glazing eyes at my fear. I wasn’t supposed to be scared. I wasn’t supposed to care whether he lived or died.
In fact, I was supposed to kill him.
Stay tuned for the rest–Surviving to the End hits shelves soon!