Snippet Sunday – UNSETIC Files: Between Fang and Claw

This week’s snip is from one of the UNSETIC Files novellas currently available as ebooks.

UNSETIC Between Fang and ClawIt all starts with a secret–-one that former Ambassador Richard McCullough refuses to reveal to his eldest son.  Sometimes, even secrets kept for the best of reasons lead to unintended consequences…

James McCullough returns to England for the first time since joining the FBI, a last-minute speaker added to the roll for a conference at King’s College.  When he runs into old flame Bryn Knight outside of Heathrow, plans for a quiet, low-key trip are quickly dashed.  Lunch at a local pub leads to his recruitment into a shadow organization dedicated to protecting the world from all the things humanity isn’t quite equipped to understand yet, from vampires and psychics to ghosts and aliens and everything in between.

There’s a war brewing in London. Bryn and her parents are on the front lines and James is right there with them–-but is it a fight he can hope to survive?

Snippet below the break.


“Oi, nzuri!”  A dark-skinned man called from behind the bar.  “Usual or a table today?”

“Table today,” Bryn called back.  She boosted herself against the rim of the bar and gave the bear of a man a quick peck on each cheek.  “Two pints and two of your specialty.  Is the table back along the wall that I like available?”

“For you, I’d make it be open, nzuri.”  He was a huge man, dreadlocks dangling to his shoulders.  One half of his face was marred by a pair of wicked scars that sliced from his brow line down to his jaw.  Whatever had given him those scars had cost him his left eye, too, and probably in a fashion more unpleasant than I wanted to think about.

He turned his one-eyed gaze to me and asked Bryn, “Is this that bloke?”

She blushed.  “Geordie.”

“Well?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s none of your business,” she said, starting to go even more red as I watched.  I canted my head to one side.

What was she saying about me?  My senses skated over her surface thoughts and almost got me blushing.  She really thinks that I…?  I clamped down on the thought before she realized I was reading her.

The barman grinned, as if he’d already figured it out.  “All right, fine then.  Table’s open, go have a seat.  I’ll send Sandy over with the pints.”

“Thank you,” Bryn said, sounding eternally grateful as she seized my hand and dragged me away from the bar, through some shadows and toward another, slightly larger seating area beyond them.  She brought me to a small table for two pressed up against the wall near the opening of the larger room and seated herself in the chair that left her facing the door, her back to the rest of the room.

“What’s his story?”  I asked as I sank into the other chair.  “Seems like you’ve known him a while.”

“Since I moved to London,” she said, crossing one leg over the other and stretching.  “What d’ya mean, story?”

I gestured vaguely toward my face, glancing back over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t going to overhear us.  There was no way he could, I realized as I listened to the group of football fans erupt in another round of heartily cursing at the officials, as if they’d be able to hear them through the screen.

“Oh, that.”  Bryn shook her head.  “He was in the service and did a peacekeeping stint in Somalia or somewhere like that.  Big cat came up in the night while he was on guard duty and took a piece out of his face before the other sentry shot it in the head.”

“Oh.”  What the hell else do you say to a story like that?  “Royal Army?”

She nodded.  “He was born and raised in the East End.  Parents from god only knows where.”  She turned sideways in her chair, leaned back against the wall and propped her chin up on an elbow, peering at me.  “You don’t have to worry about my safety if he’s around.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  Her confidence is reassuring, but still…

The fingers of her free hand wrapped around mine and I forced a smile in her direction.  There was something that didn’t quite feel right about her friend Geordie.  I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Come to think of it, they all feel a little off.  There were more people eating in that rear dining room, men in jeans, some in sport coats like they’d just come in for a long lunch before going back to work, a few women here and there scattered among them.  Everyone looked normal, but something just didn’t feel right.  Their thoughts were guarded, for certain, as if they suspected that someone might at any time read their thoughts, but it was much, much more than that—though that alone was enough to set me on edge.  Most of the world doesn’t realize that there are people out there that could read their minds like books and are completely blissful in their ignorance.

There was just something strange about our twenty-odd fellow patrons that set my spine tingling and nerves on edge.

I tried to smother a frown before she could see it, aided by the arrival of a pretty blonde in a too-short skirt with two pints of lager.

“Thanks, Sandy,” Bryn said.

“Welcome to it, luv,” the girl said, grinning.  “Just put the main course down, shouldn’t be long, so don’t get too cozy.”

Bryn cast a quick look at me and grinned herself.  “We’ll try not to.”

The waitress gave me an appraising look that made me swallow as much as the fact that I knew she was imagining me stripped naked did.  I glanced at Bryn as I picked up my mug, trying to hide my discomfort and sudden reddening behind the heavy cup.

Bryn arched a brow at me curiously as I took that first deep draught of my drink.

“All right, fess up,” she said.  “What was she thinking about?”

“No way.”

“That bad?”

Damn.  Why the hell does she think this is so funny?  I glared at her.  Her sneaker-clad toe brushed against my calf.

“Sorry,” she said.  “I shouldn’t tease.”

Not like that, anyway.  I stared down into my cup, suddenly very keenly aware that my ears were turning red and very grateful that she couldn’t read my thoughts the way I could read hers.

“So what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” I said, closing my eyes for a moment.

She snorted humorlessly.  “You’re an awful liar, Jim.  Some things don’t change at all.”

“All right.  Nothing I can quite put my finger on, how’s that?”  I leaned back in my chair, watching her face.  She considered what I’d just said, then nodded slightly.

“That I can accept.”  She leaned back again, taking a quick sip of her lager before changing the subject.  “My parents want to see you before you leave the country again.  Mum still hasn’t quite forgiven you for leaving the last time.”

“I’ll have to try to arrange it,” I said.  “I’m not sure how much time I’m going to have around the conference schedule.”

“Why, it’s not like you’re giving any talks, is—you’re not.”

I winced.  “I am.  Thursday.”

She cocked her head to one side, studying me.  “When the hell did you get added to the conference schedule?”

I raised a brow. Was she going to come if I was speaking?

Of course she was.  I’m an idiot.  “Last-minute.  Dr. Kellerman couldn’t come.  Had to throw something together.”

“What’s it about?”

“The effect of cult mentalities on criminals.”  I shook my head.  “It’s just a chunk of my senior thesis that I gutted.”  It’s not even that good, but at least I won’t come off as some kind of laughingstock.  It’s something I know.  I’ll be able to answer questions intelligently, and that’s mostly what counts.

Her fingers knotted in mine, squeezing.  “I’m sure it’s a lot better than you think it is.”

“I can only hope,” I murmured, staring into my cup again.  “I just don’t want to make a—”

Heavy boots echoed on the floor, audible over the sound of the football fans and the hum of conversation in the dining room beyond us.  Bryn glanced past me toward the source of the sound and I twisted slightly to see.

The source of the footsteps wasn’t nearly as heavy as the echoing sound made him seem.  He was about as tall as I was, a bit broader in the shoulder, with deep-set dark eyes and a bristle brush of dark hair.  His gaze swept over me and then he dismissed me almost as soon as he’d realized I was there, turning his focus onto Bryn.

“Stay out of this, magetrix,” he said, his voice quiet but his tone commanding.  “This doesn’t concern you and yours.”

What the hell is this and who—or what—the hell is this guy?  His thoughts on the surface were well-guarded, but they weren’t the shields of another psychic.  Something felt off, and his words and tone were more than enough to set my teeth on edge.  Bryn clearly thought something was amiss, too, from the glint in her eye and the brief sense I got before I wisely shifted my thoughts away from hers.

“I decide what’s my business,” she said softly, even as she inclined her head to the man.  “Stay out of mine and I shall stay out of yours.”

He smiled a thin, feral smile.  “I promise, magetrix, this one is none of yours.”  He tipped an imaginary cap to the both of us and walked deeper into the dining room.

“What was that?”  I asked her, brow arching slightly.  “Something that happens often?”

“No,” Bryn said, her gaze following the big man.  “Not usually.”

“Do you know him?”  I was pressing, but I was confident that I hadn’t quite gone too far yet.  She’d let me get away with a little more from here.

“Of him,” she said, brows knitting.  “Not part of the regular crowd, but he’s here often enough.”  Her voice was quiet, thoughtful as she drummed a fingertip against the tabletop.  “Usually not in daylight and usually doesn’t say a damned word to me, either.”

“He’s up to something,” I said without meaning to.  She nodded.

“I know.”

She didn’t like it.  Something was going on and she didn’t like it.  I winced at the confusion and discomfort that oozed from her but reached for her hand anyway.  My fingers tightened around her hand and she sighed, exhaling and relaxing by a tiny fraction.

“But it’s probably nothing,” she said softly.  “I’m just being paranoid.”

I hoped she was right—she did, too.  She turned toward me, freeing her hand from mine and wrapping both hands around her pint.  I took a sip from mine before I asked, “Magetrix?”

She snorted humorlessly. “Don’t ask.  You’re happier not knowing.”

Why is she afraid of the question?  “You sure about that?”

“Pretty sure.”  She wasn’t sure, though, and she wasn’t looking at me.  Instead she stared into her cup so she wouldn’t have to look me in the eye, let me see into her soul.  I tried not to frown.

Why is everyone trying to protect me from something all of a sudden?  First my parents, now her?  What the hell is everyone so afraid of that I don’t see?  I see a lot more than they realize.  Don’t they know that it’s more dangerous to only let me see pieces of the puzzle rather than the full picture?

Something cried out in the dining room and I jumped, gaze snapping in that direction at the sound of the too-human cry and ripping cloth.  I shot to my feet, brain trying to make sense of what I thought I was seeing, of the panicked and angry thoughts that suddenly pressed against my mind like some kind of great, invisible weight.

A man I hadn’t seen walk in leveled a gun at a tableful of businessmen on lunch, his pale skin almost translucent even in the dimness of pub.  One of the businessmen lurched to his feet, flesh seeming to ripple, hair growing longer even as I stood there, blinking in shock, head suddenly pounding and mind crying out against the deluge of thoughts and emotions that weren’t entirely my own.  Inside, I was screaming.

What the hell is—

Bryn seized my arm, fingers digging in so hard it hurt.  “Keep your head down,” she hissed.

The place was dead silent and still for an achingly long moment before bedlam erupted.

The men in their football sweaters pressed past our table and poured into the dining room as the gun fired once, twice.  An inhuman howl left my head ringing and I couldn’t help looking.

“Bryn, is that—”  If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s a fucking werewolf.

But that shit’s not real—is it?

“Shut up and get down.”  She yanked me beneath our small table as a chair sailed through the space I’d just occupied.  “I have got to get you out of here,” she growled, gaze scything between the back room and the front door.

“There are people back there that need help,” I protested even as my head pounded.  There were too many thoughts, too many guards suddenly dropped, and I’d been trying too hard to read the minds around me to react quickly enough to stop the mental voices now.

“Just about everyone back there can take care of themselves,” Bryn snapped.

There were two thoughts in her head that were loud enough that she might as well have been screaming them in my ear.  The first was that she really did need to get me out of here before I got myself killed.  The other was that the stranger’s warning suddenly made a lot more sense.

She thinks that a war’s starting right here, right now, and we’re witnesses to it.

But a war between what?


UNSETIC Files: Between Fang and Claw is available wherever ebooks are sold.

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