Saturday, August 28, 2010

Predators of Darkness (Chapter one excerpt)

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: 2073

Dropping a cat from the top ledge of a ten-story office building wasn't the best way to remain hidden, but it was necessary.

Daniel Hutchinson assumed the cat was a shape-shifter--one of a thousand sinister prowlers roaming the streets, awaiting the proper moment to besiege him from a blind side and take him down.

As the cat dropped, its sinews and muscles popped, crackled.  Falling, it shifted from its cat form into a hideous creature.  The cat seemed to welcome its oncoming fate eagerly, without fear.  With forepaws outstretched, it leaned forward toward the pavement like a high diver straightens to break through the water's surface.  To Daniel's surprise, the impact against the concrete didn't kill it.  Instead, the cat landed on its feet, rolled and pivoted around to face him, altering more and more until it became the creature that had followed him the past six exhausting days.

The cat's head twisted, stretched.  Its snout elongated.  The feline resemblance faded, replaced by a more pointed nose.  Its muzzle contorted further.  Sharp fangs sprouted over its small teeth.

A delighted purr rumbled in its throat as the shifter understood the damage it could inflict should it span the distance between them.

The shifter's paws swelled, growing larger and wider with thicker claws lengthening outward.  Scratching the pavement with a raking swipe, it gazed at him with glowing red eyes, then it licked its forepaw with menacing mockery.

"You're a persistent one, aren't you?" Daniel whispered while searching his pocket for a cigarette.  "What about me intrigues you?"
The shifter, he feared, would eventually catch him and rip those angry talons into his flesh and kill him, leaving his body an empty shell--useless, lifeless, dead.

The creature waited for him to make an error of judgment that left him vulnerable.  The longer he trekked his mission without sleep, the more mistakes he'd make.  Yet, he wondered why this shifter pursued him with untiring determination.

Normally, shifters stalked scavengers less than an hour before abandoning their pursuit, observing more from curiosity than anything else.  But this one was different.  Different because it studied him--his movements, his mannerism, and mostly, his fear.

A new fear possessed Daniel.  The cat shifter had been the first to reach the rooftop.  How long before others accomplished the same?

The cat sat on the rooftop when Daniel arrived.  A yellow tabby.  Friendly in its approach, it mewed and cried, which struck a nerve for him.  the cat was identical to his cat, Morton, but Morton had died during Daniel's childhood years ago.

Daniel rubbed his tired, bloodshot eyes, trying to make sense of what he saw.  Deep inside, he understood this wasn't his cat.

The beast offered its ploy--toying with his mind--and hoped he'd let down his guard, but he hadn't.  No matter how tired and frayed his mind was, he had seen through the beast's weak imitation of Morton.

He called the cat.  It pranced eagerly and leaped into his arms.  He stroked the cat's neck for several seconds, satiating the creature's guise, before he tossed it over the ledge to prevent it from attacking him.  Not a difficult  undertaking for someone who'd allowed his emotions to shut down so he didn't have to deal with the depression of reality.

His true fear resided with the fact that shifters didn't die easily.  The shifter he had flung off the building brushed itself off uninjured and sat observing him without fear.

Daniel shuddered.  His solid, six-foot two-inch, muscled frame didn't provide any advantage over the shrewd intellectual shifter assaults.

Intellectual.  That the shifters were.  This troubled him, too.  Recent shifter dissections had shown evolutionary advancements within their brain structures.  Their brains were becoming more developed, like humans.  This discovery made Daniel and Dr. Helmsby wonder if shifters were incorporating human genome into their own, granting them a more advanced intelligence.
Unlike other predatory animals, shifters set ambushes.  They baited traps to snare humans, and in desperate circumstances, other shifters.  Using tattered bits of clothing and mannequin parts, they constructed decoys in dark alleys to lure humans from the safety of the rooftops.

This trickery Daniel learned early on.  If no reply came when he called to a decoy, he allowed no further investigation.  It was a game of hunter versus prey.  He wasn't sure which he considered himself.

Hunter or prey?

A cold breeze pressed against him, blowing his long, braided hair in riveting waves.  His piercing eyes, blue like shimmering ice, studied the streets.  Uneasiness rose inside him while he watched the dumpsters.  His nemesis was no longer alone.

The clouded skies were lightless, and the streets, darker.  Without electricity the alleys and streets were dens of ominous macabre devastation.

As the mist of evening settled, forming a thin layer of fog, all that penetrated through the haze was the bodiless, violent eyes glaring at him.  They dared him to enter their shadowed domain.

Illuminating eyes.  Eyes without visible bodies.  Eyes that continually haunted him.

True darkness only came when the creatures blinked in unison.  Soon, though, as nightfall came and the barometric pressure dropped, the mist would grow into a soupy thickness obscuring the brightness of their eyes and burying their gaze in an impenetrable darkness.

The Game of Pawns (Chapter one: sneak peek)

New Jersey: Winter 2076

Mech Cybernetics Laboratories

Mike Gunter locked GenTech’s genetically-altered tissue cultures inside a refrigerated chamber. Nervously, he shoved his hands into his lab coat pockets and sighed. His tired eyes glanced at the wall clock.

5:55 p.m.

With a swift swipe of his hand, he crudely combed his brown hair and glanced around the room. The other scientists paid him no attention as they wrapped up their projects for the night. He was thankful for the weekend ahead.

Mike wanted nothing else than to drink a few beers and forget about the stale laboratory atmosphere. Watching football playoffs on ESPN let his mind drift to something other than strange science. He didn’t want to concentrate on his current work project. He certainly didn’t want to think any more about the mutated cells growing in the cultures dishes. He wanted to think less about what GenTech’s new owner—Mech Cybernetics—planned to do with them.

Yet, had he known today was the last day he’d be alive, he might have opted to work a bit later or take a longer route home. Because tonight, two armed men waited in his apartment with orders to kill him.

By 7:09 p.m., Mike Gunter would be dead.

Downtown Newark, New Jersey

5:57 p.m.

Lucian drove along a quiet street with the windows down. The cold winter air flowed into the car. With his unique metabolism, his body radiated constant heat. While the outside chill made others shudder and wear heavier coats, he welcomed the icy weather. It soothed him, kept his thoughts sharp, and prevented him from burning excessive calories.

The radio station warned people to be wary of staying outdoors past midnight. Over the past week, more than a half dozen unexplained murders had occurred. These murders were connected, but no suspects had been named.

Puzzled city police worried they’d never find the guilty party that crept like a death demon in the night. An implemented curfew made the possibility of finding the criminal easier, but the matter had not come up for a vote by the city council. Newark residents disputed the idea.

Lucian’s cell phone rang, and he turned down the radio.

He answered the call while parked at a red light.

“You have a lead?” he asked.

“No,” Kat replied. “Kyle still believes the next victim will be in New Jersey.”

“Why is he so certain?”

“Fits the protocol. The last three Red Pawn murders occurred here. All were scientists from GenTech, before their rival, Mech Cybernetics, bought the company.”

Lucian sighed and turned left at the intersection. “Have you found Mech Cybernetics’ address?”

“No. We believe they’ve hidden their operation inside a fake business front. Kyle has managed to trace an email of one of the dead scientists to a renovated hospital.”

“A hospital?”

“It’s not one anymore. We’re not certain what they’re manufacturing. It’s possible they’re working on far more dangerous experiments than the shifters and genetic soldiers Idris created.”

Lucian laughed. “Worse than me?”

“Nothing’s that bad,” she said.

“Damn, I was hoping for some excitement. It’s been six months since Lucas destroyed TransGenCorp. We’ve had nothing but dead ends since. I want to help you find the people responsible for Tyler’s death.”

Kat became silent for a moment. “I want them stopped, too. We have to find their location first.”

“Idris kept GenTech’s location secret because he knew TransGenCorp was targeted to be shut down by the government. That’s why Brockton and I were never allowed to visit their headquarters. Idris always demanded GenTech’s scientists to come to us. Apparently the only tie the scientists had to GenTech was their work I.D. badges. Even the media can’t find a physical address.”

“So, somewhere in the files Lucas destroyed was GenTech’s location?”

“Probably, but New Jersey is the last place I’d think to look.”

“Major industries have always flocked to New Jersey. No difference for biotech companies to do the same.”

“Maybe so, but with TGC staying in the media’s scrutiny for years, you’d think anyone following similar genetic manufacturing would seek a smaller, less populated area.”

“True. You’re in the area where the last three murders occurred. Let’s see what further information Kyle traces, if he doesn’t get caught. He’s tapping into the FBI’s database. Carpenter is probably in New Jersey.”

“So? He won’t recognize me.”

“No, but he’ll be looking for anyone suspicious.”

Lucian smiled as he watched the sidewalks. “He’d suspect me?”

“He suspects anyone that seems out of place. Since you’re looking for the next possible victim and not familiar with New Jersey, he’ll sense you don’t belong there.”

“I’ll keep as low a profile as I can.” He drove slowly, watching the empty street ahead of him. No headlights appeared in his rearview mirror, either. “The streets are strangely dead tonight.”

“People are frightened.”

Lucas shrugged and watched the silent sidewalks. “Yes, let’s hope it makes finding the murderer easier.”

“It makes you a quicker suspect should the FBI or city police see you. Hopefully, we find GenTech soon, shut it down, and get you out of New Jersey before Carpenter discovers you.”

“Keep me posted. I’ll be watching for any unusual activity.”

“We’re working on it.”

Kat disconnected the call and sighed. She placed her hand on Kyle’s shoulder. Kyle didn’t seem to notice her touch. His mind was distant, with his eyes hypnotically focused on the Newark street grid map on the computer screen. From time to time, seated in his wheelchair, he uttered short sentences.

She looked at Brockton. He sat at the small circular table, reading a newspaper. “I’ll make coffee,” she said. “It’s going to be a long night.”

He nodded, never glancing up from the paper.

5:59 p.m.

Violet, a slender brunette, walked toward Mike’s workstation. Her hair was tied in a tight ponytail. The lab coat she wore didn’t diminish her beauty or her fit figure. Her eyes were her most flattering feature. Even if GenTech permitted Mike the opportunity to spend time talking to her, he’d never brave the words. One look in her eyes, and his world vanished. He was lost. Her radiant eyes possessed a depth of mystery that overpowered him.

Other eyes studied them as well.

Overhead surveillance cameras watched their activities. In recent days, security within Mech Cybergenics had heightened. Strange things had happened. Other scientists had been killed and four of these had transferred from GenTech with Gunter. They also worked on the experimental cell cultures he continued researching.

New orders from GenTech supervisors restricted interaction between coworkers. Each scientist received their mandated work orders through their computers and answered only to an assigned supervisor via email transmission. Even though this lack of privacy seemed severe, Mike didn’t mind. He hadn’t been at GenTech long enough to make friends with his new coworkers. They had as little interest in him as he did them.

Violet flashed a friendly smile as she passed his work station, and his throat tightened. He pretended to look at the data sheets on his desk. He didn’t want to appear rude, but with cameras trained on them, he feared the company’s repercussions if he returned the slightest hint of a smile. From the corner of his eye, he watched her pass his station to clock out.

An armed elevator guard instructed Violet to scan her thumb on a computerized clip board. Mike waited until the elevator doors closed before leaving his station. If he followed too closely, the guard and surveillance supervisors might suspect the two of them were divulging information to one another. Suspicions could terminate his job or worse—end his life. He didn’t dare risk the possibility, so he kept a safe distance between their departures.

As he placed his thumb on the identification scanner, his nervous face reflected on the guard’s mirror-tinted helmet. The posted guards intimidated him. However, not knowing what the person looked like, what his facial expression behind the glass was, frightened him far more.

Once the computer cleared him for the evening, the elevator doors opened and Mike stepped inside, alone. He released a deep sigh of relief after the doors hissed shut. For an unexplained reason, his heart hammered in his chest. He held no guilt to feel fear, but his unwarranted anxiety intensified.

Three floors down, the doors opened to the dimly-lit parking garage. The security camera caught his attention as he exited. Its deadlocked gaze froze him for an instance. Forcing himself forward, he tried to ignore the eeriness that a higher power projected through the electronic device. The camera followed his movement like a dark entity, like a predator studying its prey.

He walked past a newspaper stand. The main headline read: “12th Red Pawn Murder in Two Weeks: No Suspects Named.”

Wisps of white fog escaped his mouth as he hurried to his white company car. Cold air forced him to tug his lab coat tighter. He pressed his thumb against the car door panel and it unlocked. He climbed in and slammed the door.

Pressing his thumb to the ignition switch, the engine roared to life. For reasons unknown, Mike felt uncomfortable as he drove to the security post. Sweat beaded his brow. The gate arm lifted, and he drove into the darkening streets of New Jersey.

6:15 p.m.

Mike’s computer screen at his workstation kicked on. The screen glowed to life. An image materialized. A red pawn lay on its side. The number 13 etched into the round base blazed like smoldering embers breathing a strong wind. Blood oozed from the pawn and formed a thick, crimson pool under the chess piece.

6:17 p.m.

“Lucian, we’ve picked up something,” Kat said.


“Kyle traced a message through one computer in your vicinity. It’s an image of a red pawn. The computer is assigned to Mike Gunter.”

“Which building?”

“The renovated hospital.”

Lucian requested his map link on his dashboard console. After he demanded information for the building, a mini map popped up, showing the building and his proximity to it.

“I’m just a few blocks away.”

“Don’t go there,” Kat said. “Mr. Gunter isn’t there. He’s gone home for the night.”

“Where should I go?”

“Hold on. We’re pulling up his home address.”

Lucian pulled his car to the curb. While he waited for an answer, he checked the clip in his gun and slapped it back into place.

Kat said, “He lives at the Suncastle Highland complex, apartment 212.”

“On my way.”

Kat motioned for Brockton to come to the computer. Kyle still remained quiet, almost spellbound. She pointed at the computer screen map when Brockton stood at her side.

“What is it?” Brockton asked.

She shook her head. “Follow me,” she said, and led him to the other side of the room.

Brockton frowned.

“I just sent Lucian to Suncastle apartments.”

“So? Isn’t that where Kyle directed?”

Kat nodded. “Yes, but he hasn’t typed anything new into the computer. He keeps staring at the city map. Nothing else. I hadn’t noticed that the screen was the same until after I told Lucian where to go.”

Brockton looked over her shoulder at Kyle.

“You not find that odd?” she asked.

“It’s different, I agree.”

Kat placed her hands on her hips. “How do we know he’s correct?”

“Give it a few minutes.”

“On a hunch?”

“This is difficult to explain, but it’s more than a hunch. He knows things. I’ve noticed it a lot over the past few months. Something in his mind has altered and these new abilities are getting stronger.”

Kat muffled a small laugh. “Like a sixth sense?”

Brockton smiled. “No, it’s far more than that.”