Paranormal Romance and Beyond welcomes A.D. Starrling today to learn more about her book, Soul Meaning.
Seventeen Series Book One
Genre: Supernatural thriller
Number of pages: 420
Word Count: 108,187
Cover Artist: Streetlight Graphics
A half breed immortal. An international manhunt. A race against time to stop a terrifying plot that threatens to kill millions. The gripping, action-packed debut novel by AD Starrling and the first in the supernatural thriller series Seventeen.
‘My name is Lucas Soul.
Today, I died again.
This is my fifteenth death in the last four hundred and fifty years.’
The Crovirs and the Bastians. Two races of immortals who have lived side by side with humans for millennia and been engaged in a bloody war since the very dawn of their existence. With the capacity to survive up to sixteen deaths, it was not until the late fourteenth century that they reached an uneasy truce, following a deadly plague that wiped out more than half of their numbers and made the majority of survivors infertile.
Soul is an outcast of both immortal societies. Born of a Bastian mother and a Crovir father, a half breed whose very existence is abhorred by the two races, he spends the first three hundred and fifty years of his life being chased and killed by the Hunters.
One fall night in Boston, the Hunt starts again, resulting in Soul’s fifteenth death and triggering a chain of events that sends him on the run with Reid Hasley, a former US Marine and his human business partner of ten years. When a lead takes them to Washington DC and a biotechnology company with affiliations to the Crovirs, they cross the Atlantic to Europe, on the trail of a French scientist whose research seems intrinsically linked to the reason why the Hunters are after Soul again.
From Paris to Prague, their search for answers will lead them deep into the immortal societies and bring them face to face with someone from Soul’s past. Shocking secrets are uncovered and fresh allies come to the fore as they attempt to put a stop to a new and terrifying threat to both immortals and humans.
Time is running out for Soul. Can he get to the truth before his seventeenth death, protect the ones he loves and prevent another immortal war?
My name is Lucas Soul.
Today, I died again.
This is my fifteenth death in the last four hundred and fifty years.
I woke up in a dark alley behind a building.
Autumn rain plummeted from an angry sky, washing the narrow, walled corridor I lay in with shades of grey. It dripped from the metal rungs of the fire escape above my head and slithered down dirty, barren walls, forming uneven puddles under the garbage dumpsters by my feet. It gurgled in the gutters and storm drains off the main avenue behind me.
It also cleansed away the blood beneath my body.
For once, I was grateful for the downpour: I did not want any evidence left of my recent demise.
I blinked at the drops that struck my face and slowly climbed to my feet. Unbidden, my fingers rose to trace the deep cut in my chest: the blade had missed the unusual birthmark on my skin by less than an inch. I turned and stared at the tower behind me.
I was not sure what I was expecting to see. A face peering over the parapet of the glass and brick structure. An avenging figure drifting down in the rainfall, a bloodied sword in its hands and a crazy smile in its eyes. A flock of silent crows, come to take my unearthly body to its final resting place.
Bar the heavenly deluge, the skyline was fortunately empty.
I pulled my cell phone out of the rear pocket of my jeans and stared at it. It was smashed to pieces. I could hardly blame the makers of the device: they had probably never tested it from the rooftop of a twelve-storey building. As for me, the bruises would start to fade by tomorrow.
It would take another day for the wound in my chest to heal completely.
I glanced at the sky again before walking out of the alley. I found a phone booth at the next intersection, closed the rickety door behind me and dialled a number. Steam rapidly fogged up the glass wall before me. There was a soft click after the fifth ring.
‘Yo,’ said a tired voice.
‘Yo yourself,’ I said.
A barely suppressed yawn travelled down the line. ‘What’s up?’
‘I need a ride,’ I replied. ‘And a new phone.’
There was a short silence. ‘It’s four o’clock in the morning.’ The voice had gone blank, devoid of all traces of emotion.
‘I know,’ I muttered in the same neutral tone.
The sigh at the other end was audible above the pounding of the rain. ‘Where are you?’
‘Corner of Cambridge and Staniford.’
Fifteen minutes later, a battered tan Chevrolet Monte Carlo pulled up next to the phone booth. ‘Get in,’ said the figure behind the wheel. I opened the door and climbed into the passenger seat. Water dripped onto the leather cover and formed a puddle by my feet. There was a disgruntled mutter from my left. I glanced at the man beside me.
Reid Hasley was my business partner and friend. Together, we were co-owners of the Hasley and Soul Agency. We were private investigators, of sorts. Reid certainly qualified as one, being a former Marine and cop. I, on the other hand, had been neither.
‘You look like hell,’ said Reid as he manoeuvred the car into almost nonexistent traffic. He took something from his raincoat and tossed it across to me. It was a new cell.
I raised my eyebrows slightly. ‘That was fast.’
He grunted indistinct words and struck a match. ‘What happened?’ The orange glow of a cigarette flared into life, casting shadows under his brow and across his crooked nose.
I transferred the data card from the broken phone into the new one and frowned faintly at the bands of smoke drifting towards me. ‘That’s going to kill you one day.’
‘Just answer the question,’ he said testily.
I looked away from his probing gaze and stared blindly at the dark tower at the end of the avenue. ‘I met up with our new client,’ I muttered.
Reid looked at me expectantly. ‘And?’
‘He wasn’t happy to see me.’
Something in my voice made him frown. ‘How unhappy are we talking here?’ he said guardedly.
I sighed. ‘Well, he stuck a sword through my heart and pushed me off the top of the Cramer building. I would say he was pretty unhappy.’
Silence followed my words. ‘That’s not good,’ said Reid finally.
‘It means we’re not gonna get the money,’ he added, clearly heartbroken by the news of my recent passing.
‘I’m fine by the way. Thanks for asking,’ I said wryly.
He shot a hard glance at me. ‘We need the cash.’
Unpalatable as the statement was, it was regrettably true. Small PI firms like our own had just about managed before the recession. Nowadays, people had more things to worry about than what their cheating spouses were up to. On the other hand, embezzlement cases were up by a third; unfortunately, the victims of such scams were usually too hard up to afford the services of a good detective agency. As a result, the rent on our office space was overdue by a month.
Mrs Trelawney, our landlady, was not happy about this: at five foot two and weighing just over two hundred pounds, the woman had the ability to make us quake in our boots. This had less to do with her size than with the fact that she made the best angel cakes in the city. She gave these out to her tenants when they paid the rent on time. A month without angel cakes was making us twitchy.
‘I think we might still get the goods if you flash your eyes at her,’ said my partner thoughtfully after a while.
I stared at him. ‘Are you pimping me out?’
‘No. You’d be a tough sell,’ he grunted as the car splashed along the empty streets of the city. He glanced my way. ‘This makes it what, your fourteenth death?’
Further silence followed. ‘Huh. So, two more to go,’ he murmured.
I nodded mutely. In many ways, I was glad Hasley had entered my somewhat unnatural life, despite the fact that it happened in such a dramatic fashion. It was ten years ago this summer.
Hasley was a detective in the Boston PD Homicide Unit at the time. One hot Friday afternoon in August, he and his partner of three years found themselves on the trail of a murder suspect, a Latino man called Burt Suarez. Suarez, who worked the toll bridge north-east of the city, had never had so much as a speeding ticket to his name before: he was later described by his neighbours and friends as a gentle giant who cherished his wife and was kind to children and animals. That day, the giant snapped and went on a killing spree after walking in on his wife and his brother in the marital bed. He shot Hasley’s partner, two uniformed cops and the neighbour’s dog, before fleeing towards the river.
Unfortunately, I got in his way.
In my defence, I had not been myself for most of that month, having recently lost someone who had been a friend for more than a hundred years. In short, I was drunk.
On that scorching summer’s day, Burt Suarez achieved something no other human, or non human for that matter, had managed before or since.
He shot me in the head.
Sadly, he did not get to savour this feat as he died minutes after he fired a round through my skull. Hasley still swore to this day that Suarez’s death had more to do with seeing me rise to my feet Lazarus-like again than with the gunshot wound he himself inflicted on the man with his Glock 19.
That had been my fourteenth death. Shortly after witnessing my unnatural resurrection, Hasley quit his job as a detective and became my business partner.
Over the last decade we have trailed unfaithful spouses, tracked down missing persons, performed checks on employees in high profile investment banks, took on surveillance work for attorneys and insurance companies, served process to disgruntled defendants, and even rescued the odd kidnapped pet. Hasley knew more about me than anyone else in the city.
He still carried the Glock.
‘Why did he kill you?’ said Reid. The car had stopped before a set of red lights. ‘Did you do something to piss him off?’ There was a trace of suspicion in his tone.
I grimaced and scratched my head. ‘Broadly speaking, he seemed opposed to my existence,’ I murmured. The rhythmic swishing of the windscreen wipers and the dull hiss of rubber rolling across wet asphalt were the only sounds that broke the ensuing lull. ‘He called me an abomination that should be sent straight to Hell and beyond,’ I added drily and paused. ‘Frankly, I thought that was a bit ironic coming from someone who’s probably not that much older than me.’
Reid crushed the cigarette butt in the ashtray and stared at me with narrowed eyes. ‘You mean, he’s one of you?’
I hesitated before nodding briefly. ‘Yes.’
Over the years, as I came to know and trust him, I had told Reid a little bit about my origins.
I was born in Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Renaissance was at its peak. My father came from a line of beings known as the Crovirs, while my mother was a descendent of a group called the Bastians. They are the only races of immortals on Earth.
Throughout most of the history of man, the Crovirs and the Bastians have waged a bitter and brutal war against one another. Although enough blood has been shed over the millennia to fill a respectable portion of the Caspian Sea, this unholy battle between immortals has, for the most, remained a well kept secret from the eyes of ordinary humans, despite the fact that the latter have been used as pawns in some of its most epic chapters.
The conflict suffered a severe and unprecedented setback in the fourteenth century, when the numbers of both races dwindled rapidly and dramatically; while the Black Death scourged Europe and Asia, killing millions of humans, the lesser known Red Death shortened the lives of countless immortals. It was several decades before the full extent of the devastation was realised, for the plague had brought with it an unexpected and horrifying complication.
The greater part of those who survived had become infertile.
This struck another blow to both sides and, henceforth, an uneasy truce was established. Although the odd incident still occurs between embittered members of each race, the fragile peace has, surprisingly, lasted to this day. From that time on, the arrival of an immortal child into the world became an event that was celebrated at the highest levels of each society.
My birth was a notable exception. The union between a Crovir and a Bastian was considered an unforgivable sin and was strictly forbidden by both races: ancient and immutable, it was a fact enshrined into the very doctrines and origins of our species. Any offspring of such a coupling was thus deemed an abomination unto all and sentenced to death from the very moment they were conceived. I was not the first born half-breed, both races having secretly mated with each other in the past. However, the two immortal societies wanted me to be the last. Fearing for my existence, my parents fled and took me into hiding.
For a while, life was good. We were far from rich and dwelled in a remote cabin deep in the forest, where we lived off the land, hunting, fishing, and even growing our own food. Twice a year, my father would venture down the mountain to the nearest village, where he traded fur for oil and other rare goods. We were happy and I never wanted for anything.
It was another decade before the Hunters finally tracked us down. That was when I learned one of the most important lessons about immortals.
We can only survive up to sixteen deaths.
Having perished seven times before, my father died after ten deaths: he fought until the very last breath left his body. I watched them kill my mother seventeen times.
I should have died that day. I did, in fact, suffer my very first death. Moments after the act, I awoke on the snow-covered ground, tears frozen on my face and my blood steaming as it stained the whiteness around me. Fingers clenching convulsively around the wooden sword that my father had given me, I waited helplessly for a blade to sink into my heart once more. Minutes passed before I realised that I was alone in that crimson-coloured clearing, high up in the Carpathian Mountains.
The crows came next, silent flocks that descended from the grey winter skies and covered the bloodied bodies next to me. When the birds left, the remains of my parents had disappeared as well. All that was left was ash.
It was much later that another immortal imparted to me the theory behind the seventeen deaths. Each one apparently took away a piece of our soul. Unlike our bodies, our souls could not regenerate after a death. Thus, Death as an ultimate end was unavoidable. And then the crows come for most of us.
No one was really clear as to where the birds took our unearthly remains.
‘What if you lived alone, on a desert island or something, and never met anyone? You could presumably never die,’ Reid had argued with his customary logic when I told him this.
‘True. However, death by boredom is greatly underestimated,’ I replied. ‘Besides,’ I added drily after a pause, ‘someone like you is bound to kill himself after a day without a smoke.’
‘So, the meeting was a trap?’ said Reid.
His voice jolted me back to the present. The car had pulled up in front of my apartment block. The road ahead was deserted.
‘Yes.’ Rain pounded the roof of the Monte Carlo. The sound reminded me of the ricochets of machine guns. Unpleasant memories rose to the surface of my mind. I suppressed them firmly.
‘Will he try to kill you again?’ said Reid. I remained silent. He stared at me. ‘What are you gonna do?’
I finally shifted on the leather seat and reached for the door handle. ‘Well, seeing as you’re likely to drag me back from Hell if I leave you high and dry, I should probably kill him first,’ I said wryly.
I exited the car, crossed the sidewalk and entered the lobby of the building. I turned to watch the tail lights of the Chevrolet disappear in the downpour before getting into the lift. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken the stairs to the tenth floor: dying, I felt, was a justifiable reason to take things easy for the rest of the night.
My apartment was blessedly cool and devoid of immortals hellbent on carving another hole in my heart. I took a shower, dressed the wound in my chest, and went to bed.
A persistent ringing brought me out of a deep sleep. I blinked away dreams about avenging angels, rolled over and stared at the clock on the bedside table. It was ten am. Sunlight streamed into the room between the curtains opposite my bed. The sky beyond was a vivid cerulean blue.
I slid to the edge of the mattress and picked my new cell from the floor.
‘Yo,’ said Reid.
‘Ah-huh.’ I rubbed my eyes and yawned.
‘The address Haus gave you was a dead end. So was the phone number. I did however find someone by that name staying at the Parker Hotel.’ Cain Haus was the immortal who had contacted our agency two days previously and who more recently had stuck a sword through my heart. ‘How do you wanna play this?’
I yawned again. ‘Pick me up in twenty.’
Thirty minutes later, we were sitting in a booth in Betty’s Cafe.
Betty’s opened forty years ago in what is now a prime location in Roxbury. It was around the corner from the Mission Hill station and had become the unofficial haunt of the cops who worked there: Betty’s husband was a retired member of the Boston PD. Eight years ago, the couple retired to Florida and left the coffee shop to their son Joe. Apart from adding a fresh lick of paint to the front of the building, Joe never changed the decor: the honey-coloured wall panelling still contrasted nicely with the linoleum floor, whilst the weathered black and red Formica tables gleamed in the soft light of the lamps hanging from the wooden-slatted ceiling. Even the menu had remained untouched: these days, if you asked for a latte in Betty’s, you still got a funny look.
Reid nodded at old acquaintances while we waited for our orders. ‘So?’ he said finally.
I dragged my gaze from the busy street beyond the glass window and studied my partner. Despite having lived through a divorce in the time that I had known him, Reid had not aged much in the last ten years. There were a few more wrinkles around his eyes and a slight deepening of the cynical twist that hovered almost constantly near his lips; otherwise, he had retained the sturdy build that had made him such a good Marine and cop.
‘I think we should tail him first, find out whether there are others with him,’ I said with a shrug. ‘Hunters normally work as a pack.’
Reid frowned. ‘And how do you intend to kill him?’
I avoided his eyes. We had had this conversation enough times for me to know exactly how the next few exchanges would go.
‘You need to get a gun,’ said my partner.
‘I don’t like guns.’
His frown deepened. ‘You’re a first class shot.’
I sighed. ‘That doesn’t mean I have to carry a gun.’
There was a calculated pause. ‘What about a sword? You’re good with swords.’
I looked at him steadily. ‘Where do you propose I keep it? Besides, I’ve told you before. I don’t like violence.’
‘Unfortunately, violence likes you,’ said Reid doggedly. ‘How many people nursing a bottle of whisky on the end of a pier and grieving the death of their best friend get accidentally shot in the head by a random gunman?’ Another sigh left my lips: my partner was being unusually vocal. ‘And what about that drug dealer in New York, the one who stabbed you in the back?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Oh, and let’s not forget Rudy.’
I grimaced. Rudy Lomax was a fifty-year-old bald and middle-aged accountant who used to work for a large international merchant bank in Boston’s financial district. Despite owning a penthouse in Back Bay with views over the Charles River and wearing thousand dollar suits, Rudy had defaulted on his alimony on more than one occasion. When the collection agency retained by his ex-wife hired us to tail him, the accountant became enraged at the breach of his privacy and ran me over with his Lexus.
‘To be fair, he only broke my leg,’ I muttered into my coffee. ‘And I was fine by the end of the week.’
‘Really?’ said Reid shrewdly. ‘What about Louisiana?’
I looked away from his piercing gaze and shifted uneasily in my seat.
Even I had to admit that Louisiana had been an ugly affair. We had gone looking for a missing fourteen-year-old girl called Carly Jennings, a bright-eyed and vivacious child who was the apple of her parents’ eyes. Jennings had met a man through an internet chat room a few months before her disappearance. The trail led us to New York, DC, and finally to the southern state of Louisiana, where we uncovered a child prostitution ring with connections to South America and the Far East.
Things started to go wrong when the Feds got involved. By the time the gun smoke cleared, two agents had died and I had been shot twice. Jennings was found at the bottom of a ship’s cargo hold bound for the east coast.
‘Louisiana was a fluke.’ I looked at the pancakes that had just landed before me, thanked the waitress and reached for a fork.
Reid grunted. ‘Lots of things in your life are flukes.’ The conversation was thankfully cut short by the arrival of a serving of artery-clogging fried food. He ignored my disapproving tut-tut and dug into his eggs.
We left the cafe a quarter of an hour later and drove across town to the Parker Hotel. On our left, the Hancock Tower gleamed against a clear sky. Reid pulled up behind a hot dog vendor and went inside the building. He returned within minutes and settled in the driver’s seat.
‘Haus is still inside,’ he said briskly. ‘Doorman said he arrived two days ago. Alone.’
I frowned at his words. This was unusual behaviour for a Hunter: from the various attempts on my life over the centuries, and inside knowledge provided by a couple of very close friends, I knew that the minimum number of assassins assigned for an execution-style mission was normally two. Both the Crovir and the Bastian Orders had strict rules on these matters: any member going beyond their remit was severely punished, usually by a death. Was Haus acting by himself?
I had wondered briefly that morning which side he belonged to. Then again, it hardly mattered. I was only surprised that the immortals were after me following almost a century of silence; it was becoming apparent that at least one faction still wanted me dead.
At four o’clock, Haus had still not left the hotel. The hot dogs had proven to be sickeningly greasy and three cups of coffee were burning a hole in my stomach. Reid was on his fifth cigarette. At this rate I was going to die from second hand smoking.
The sudden purr of the engine finally jolted me from my semi-comatose state. ‘Is that him?’ said Reid. I looked across the street. A pale, skinny man with ash blond hair and a black overcoat had walked out of the hotel and was hailing a cab.
‘Yes,’ I murmured. ‘That’s the man who murdered me.’
Reid manoeuvred the Chevrolet into peak time traffic. Twenty minutes later, we had barely moved two blocks. The cab eventually crawled onto Interstate 93 and headed towards the Zakim Bridge and the Charles River. Shortly after, it pulled off the highway and turned into a side road. Reid slowed down and followed.
We drove through a series of increasingly rundown neighbourhoods. Snatches of hip hop music drifted sporadically through the Chevy’s half-open windows from the streets outside. Homeless people scoured the alleys behind shops and stores, some pushing their worldly belongings in shopping carts. We stopped at a set of traffic lights and earned a battery of hostile stares from a gang of teens standing next to the intersection. Less than a mile away, sunlight glinted on the steel work of the Tobin Bridge. We were not far from the water.
The roads became deserted. Stretches of disused land appeared on our right, graveyards for the corpses of burnt out cars and broken white goods. By the time we entered the maze of derelict buildings that bordered the Mystic River, Reid had put the Chevy into a crawl.
Red tail lights flashed up ahead. The cab pulled to a stop next to an abandoned warehouse. Haus stepped out and stood watching as the car drew away. He turned briskly and disappeared into an alley at the side of the building.
The Chevy rolled to a standstill. Reid turned the engine off. We glanced at each other and slowly exited the car.
Sandy loam crunched softly beneath our boots as we made our way towards the alley. The blares of car horns carried on the wind from the distant toll bridge. In the blue skies above, a seagull screeched and whirled smoothly on invisible currents, unheeding of the daily chaos of human life hundreds of feet beneath its wings.
I heard the crack of the bullet before it hit the ground next to us. Reid swore as I pulled him sharply into the lee of a building.
‘I thought you said he had a sword.’ He frowned and took the Glock out of his holster.
‘Hunters are trained in the use of a range of weapons,’ I said quietly.
Another bullet whizzed out of the alley. It was followed by a wild cackle.
Reid looked at me with a puzzled frown. ‘Why is he laughing?’
‘I don’t know. I asked him the same question last night. All he did was laugh louder and call me a half-breed.’ I paused. ‘It doesn’t sound like healthy laughter to me.’
‘I know what you mean,’ said Reid. ‘It kinda reminds me of that Jack Nicholson movie.’
‘“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”’
‘No, “The Shining”,’ said Reid. Another cackle followed. ‘Now what?’
Before I could muster a reply, Haus’s words drifted on the breeze towards us. ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are!’ he shouted from the alley.
Reid’s frown deepened. ‘He does a bad Nicholson impression. Just for that, he deserves a bullet.’
I touched his shoulder and silently indicated the roof of the adjacent building. He nodded. We turned and headed for the broken side door we had walked past earlier. There was a tortuous creak of metal against metal as we squeezed through the narrow gap between the frame and the doorjamb.
The inside of the warehouse was unusually warm. The air was fetid and smelled of death. We strolled past the rotting carcass of a racoon and headed for the rickety stairs at the south-west corner of the building. Broken bottles, crushed cans, and dirty syringes littered the corridors on the upper floor. Beyond a roomful of damaged mannequins and rust-covered sewing machines, a door opened out onto a fire escape. It was a short climb to the roof.
The wind had picked up. It brought with it a range of smells. The organic stench of the river. The rank odour of oil from a nearby refinery. The chemical stink of the tannery half a mile away. The acrid reek of gunpowder.
I pushed Reid behind an air vent just as the bullet ricocheted off the hot asphalt yards from where we stood.
‘He’s a smart bastard,’ grunted my partner.
‘North-east corner of the roof?’
‘Yes,’ I murmured.
‘I can smell you, half-breed! You stink higher than a skunk!’ shouted Haus from the neighbouring rooftop.
Reid looked at me pointedly. ‘I showered this morning,’ I said sedately.
He rose on one knee and fired two rounds at the opposite building. An answering volley scorched a series of cracks in the rooftop five feet from where we hunkered down.
‘He’s either a crap shot, or he’s playing with us,’ he said, frowning.
‘I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.’ Neither Order forbade their Hunters from playing with their prey. In fact, the Crovirs were famed for it.
Reid cocked his head questioningly. I nodded. He let off another five rounds. Before the last bullet left the barrel of his gun, we were up and running towards the next vent. ‘Why isn’t he shooting—’ he started to say as we reached the metal tower.
Without warning, a section of the roof collapsed beneath us. In hindsight, it had been a pretty obvious trap.
We landed in the room with the mannequins with a thunderous crash. Above the noise of falling debris, I heard a harsh grunt from Reid. I dug my way out of a pile of inanimate figures, wincing at the sharp stabs of pain radiating from several cuts and bruises, and turned towards him.
Reid was lying stiffly next to the bank of industrial sewing machines. A forty-inch steel rod rose through his left thigh and pinned him to the floor.
‘That’s not good,’ I said bleakly, meeting his eyes. He gritted his teeth in response.
A dull thud drew our gazes to the ceiling: Haus had cleared the gap between the two warehouses. Rapid footsteps sounded above our heads and a shadow appeared against the patch of blue sky visible through the jagged hole in the roof.
‘Found you, you dirty half-breed,’ hissed the immortal.
My eyes widened as I looked past the barrel of an M9 Beretta pistol into the face of a madman.
‘Go!’ shouted Reid.
The deafening noise of the semi-automatic filled the confined space. I darted across the room, deadly shards erupting around me. A jagged piece of metal tore a gash across the back of my left hand. I reached the far wall, hit the fire door with my shoulder and emerged into bright sunlight. Haus’s wild cackle reached my ears as I sailed over the railing of the fire escape and dove into the river.
Bullets riddled the water behind me. I swam further into the murky depths and twisted around until I floated in the eddies. Shells scored the surface of the river once more: by the look of things, Haus had loaded another magazine into the Beretta.
I debated my options. The Hunter would not kill Reid. This I was certain of. Instead he would use my partner as bait to lure me out. That’s what I would do if I were in his shoes. I turned with the faintest misgiving and let the current carry me north.
It was two hours before I got back to the apartment. Night had long since fallen across the city. The driver of the cab that I eventually managed to hail sniffed at me suspiciously before reluctantly allowing me onto the backseat of his car. His disposition did not improve when I handed him a wad of soggy dollar bills at the end of the journey.
After checking the rooms for signs of forced entry, I showered, redressed my wound and changed into fresh clothes. I then did something that would have surprised Reid had he been able to see me: I headed for the painting of Monet’s 1906 “Water Lilies” that hung above the mantel piece in the living room.
Pausing beneath the canvas, I gazed at the mesmerising shades of blue for silent seconds. Of all of Monet’s works, this was the one I found the most soothing. It had taken several years and a considerable amount of money to convince the artist to make another copy for me.
I took down the painting and carefully laid it on the couch before turning to face the wall again. I touched an ordinary looking section of the cool white stone. A small electronic pad emerged soundlessly beneath my fingers. I keyed in a code and watched a ten-inch wide partition slide open next to the pad. I pressed my right hand against the fingerprint recognition screen and stared into the retinal scanner above it. Seconds later, the entire wall retracted by a foot with a ponderous noise and a metal panel descended from a hidden recess in the ceiling.
No one knew that I owned the apartment complex. Ten years ago, following the death of my best friend at the hands of the Hunters, I set up a company made up of twenty fictitious shareholders and named it Baldr Inc., which I then used to buy the building and the freehold for the land it stood upon. Over the years—at times using independent contractors, but mostly doing the work myself—I modified the tower block for my own personal use. I performed detailed background checks on all prospective tenants and only selected the ones that would cause me no trouble. As it was, the apartments on the ninth and eleventh floors were never leased, and mine was the only apartment in use on the tenth floor.
I considered the display of weapons that now occupied what had once been the east wall of my living room with a frown. Although I abhorred violence and opted not to carry a gun, my life as an immortal had taught me that it was a necessary evil. I hesitated briefly before selecting a Glock 17 and a Smith & Wesson .45 ACP. I tucked them into the holsters on my thighs and loaded a handful of magazines in the belt at my waist. My gaze was finally drawn to the center of the panel.
In the first half of the seventeenth century, during the early Edo period, I spent several formative years in Japan: I had been travelling through Asia at the time and had come across a few interesting rumours concerning a man called Miyamoto Musashi. Miyamoto was a samurai who hailed from the then Harima Province of Japan and was reputed to have won all the duels he had ever participated in, beginning with his first one at the age of thirteen. To this day, he is still considered one of the most famous sword masters in Japanese history.
It took me an entire year to convince Miyamoto to take me on as an apprentice; during that time, I became proficient in the country’s language and its various dialects, and immersed myself into its strange new culture. Once under Miyamoto’s tutelage, I learned the art of Niten Ichi-ryu, a two-sword fighting style that he had perfected using a long blade, the katana, and a shorter blade, the wakizashi: in combination, the two blades were known as the daisho. Miyamoto was a hard task master and it was almost a decade before he came to be satisfied with my technique, and this only after I defeated him in a duel. When I left Japan, he had a daisho made for me as a leaving present. Carved into the blade of the katana was an identical copy of the intertwined alpha and omega birthmark branded into the skin over my heart.
I lifted the ancient swords from their stands in the middle of the metal panel, grabbed a long coat from the closet in the hallway and headed out of the apartment. At the end of the corridor, a keypad operated door opened onto a private lift that took me eleven floors down to the basement below the building. I stepped out into a dark void, turned and flicked a series of switches on the wall to my left. Light flooded the large subterranean space before me.
The basement was off limits to the other tenants. Bar the lift access and the virtually invisible security doors that opened out onto a side alley, there was no other way in or out of the lower floor of the apartment complex.
As I crossed the concrete floor briskly, my steps echoing off the distant walls, my thoughts turned to the events of the last twenty-four hours. One question overrode all others in my mind: why were the Hunters on my trail again? I wondered briefly whether I had crossed their territory in some way and involuntarily brought myself to their attention once more. The idea was so ridiculous I discarded it straight away. If the Hunters had wanted to find me, they could have done so with maddening ease in the last hundred years.
The more I pondered the matter, the more I felt the urgency to know the answer: I was not usually one for premonitions, but I could sense storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
I finally stopped in front of a sleek machine that looked like it had been built for speed. The GSX1300R, known simply as the Hayabusa, was launched by Suzuki in nineteen ninety-nine. The original model had a 1299 cc, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine, and could do zero to sixty mph in two point sixty-seven seconds. It was, and still is, the best hyper sport motorbike ever made by Suzuki. I was one of a lucky few who had managed to get their hands on a limited edition midnight black version.
Moments later, the Hayabusa roared through the dark streets of the city. It was raining again. I ignored the wet spray rising from the asphalt and headed swiftly across town. The roof of the Cramer building soon appeared between the maze of dark office blocks that crowded the stormy skyline: as the scene of our last battle, I had no doubt that Haus would be waiting there for me. I grimaced slightly. He probably thought it was poetic justice or something.
The alley behind the tower was blessedly empty. The low growl of the Hayabusa whined into silence as I braked to a stop and switched the engine off. I parked the bike behind the dumpsters and studied the fire escape several feet above my head. I crouched, leapt upwards and caught the lowest rung of the ladder with my right hand. It slid down smoothly to the ground. I started to climb.
At the top of the flight of steps, I hunkered against the side of the building, slid the guns from the holsters on my legs and carefully strained my ears. Other than the harsh patter of the rain, the clamor of traffic from the avenue behind me, the roar of distant thunder and the dull thrum of blood in my skull, I could hear no other noise. I raised my head cautiously above the concrete parapet.
‘Welcome, half-breed,’ said Haus from somewhere in the darkness.
A gasp left my lips as I was abruptly lifted from the stairwell by a pair of unseen hands and hurled through the air. By the time I landed on my back and skidded halfway across the water slicked rooftop, I had fired half the rounds in both guns.
They all hit their target.
‘Hey, Cain, you never told me he was this puny,’ said the giant in front of me in a heavy European accent. He looked down and fingered the holes in his fine wool, roll neck sweater. I caught a glimpse of a bulletproof vest beneath it. Of more immediate importance, however, was the weapon he held in his right hand. It was an impressive single-edged Chinese sword, a dao. A flash of lightning illuminated the sky and caused the curved blade to gleam ominously in the rain. The canted hilt looked small in the grip of the man who held it.
The giant was a much taller and wider version of Haus. Muscles bulged across his shoulders and rippled under his tailored trousers. His small, red-rimmed eyes displayed the dull glimmer of an arrogant bully pumped up on steroids. He was also very fast: in all my years as an immortal, I had only come across a handful of Hunters who had surprised me as swiftly as he had.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Haus sneer. ‘What did you expect? After all, he is a half-breed.’ The Hunter paused, his expression hardening beneath his pale skin. ‘Finish him, Abel,’ he said coldly.
I glanced behind Haus. Reid sat leaning against an emergency door at the far end of the rooftop: there was a bandage around his thigh and a fresh bruise next to his mouth. His right hand was cuffed to a bolt in the door frame. ‘Cain and Abel?’ I muttered wryly as I rose to my feet.
Reid shrugged. ‘And they’re brothers as well,’ he said, grinning weakly. ‘Go figure.’
The words had barely left his lips when the giant bellowed and charged. My eyes narrowed. I drew the daisho from my waist, my feet gliding across the concrete rooftop as I twisted my body and shifted to my right. The wakizashi blocked my attacker’s sword. I moved the katana once and stepped back smoothly.
Blood gushed out of the Hunter’s chest in a crimson flow from the wound I had inflicted with my blade: as I suspected, the vest had not been stab proof. A puzzled frown crossed the large man’s face, as if he was debating a difficult conundrum. He fell backwards slowly and hit the ground hard. He did not rise again.
‘How—’ Haus mumbled, eyes widening in an ashen face.
I watched impassively while the immortal’s last breath left his lips and his face sagged into the waxen expression of the dead.
It had taken two centuries for me to understand the real reason why the immortals hated me so. It was not, as I had originally presumed, because of racial prejudice, bigotry, or even repugnance at the bloodlines getting tainted in some way.
The principle reason they loathed me, and their single-minded motivation for wishing me dead, came down to one thing and one thing only. Fear.
As far as I knew of our extensive history, I was the only immortal who had the ability to truly kill another immortal.
It did not matter whether it was their first or their sixteenth death. If the weapon I wielded bore a direct physical connection between my body and their heart, they would lose their immortality instantly and be unable to regenerate and live again.
It was as if I could shatter their entire soul in one strike, like Azrael, the Angel of Death.
Haus raised the blade in his right hand, screamed something unintelligible and came at me across the rooftop. I blinked water from my eyes, gripped the daisho tightly and shifted into the fighting stance taught to me by my Edo master. Our swords clashed under the pounding rain just as a bolt of lightning streaked across the dark heavens.
It took only seconds for me to realise that Haus was the better fighter of the two brothers: I narrowly missed decapitation twice. In the end, however, the daisho proved stronger than his blade. A roll of thunder tore the skies when the katana finally slipped past his guard moments later. Haus froze, his body stiffening. His eyes widened while he stared uncomprehendingly at the sword protruding from his chest.
I never looked at his left hand.
Reid’s shout reached my ears at the same time the bullet punched through my rib cage, trailing a river of fire into my body.
‘Olsson was right. You’re weak, half-breed!’ hissed the Hunter with a distorted grimace. The gun and the sword clattered out of his grip. He slid to the ground, his unblinking gaze turned towards the heavens and his features fixed in a rictus of rage.
I felt my heart slow down. My vision dimmed. My knees gave way beneath me. My last thought before darkness claimed me was the name Haus had spoken with his final breath.
~ * * * ~
I gasped and opened my eyes. It was still raining. A few crows spiralled out of the night sky and landed on the rooftop.
‘Yo,’ said Reid.
Meet A.D. Starrling
AD Starrling was born on the small island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and came to the UK at the age of twenty to study medicine. After five years of hard graft earning her MD and another five years working all of God’s hours as a Paediatrician, she decided it was time for a change and returned to her first love, writing.
Soul Meaning is her debut novel and the first in a supernatural thriller series entitled Seventeen. She currently lives in Warwickshire in the West Midlands, where she is busy writing the second novel in the series while drinking gallons of tea.
She still practises medicine. AD Starrling is her pen name.
a Rafflecopter giveaway