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Excerpt from Crimson Rogue by Liz Maverick

Crimson Rogue<br />Liz Maverick

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Chapter One
Someone was definitely following him, but Finn made a point not to look over his shoulder. He didn't have to; he could tell. Picking up the pace, he pulled his jacket closer around him and cut across the street.

It happened no more than once a month, but it wasn't something a guy really wanted to get used to: Someone would figure him out ... or at least think they had figured him out. And it wasn't' just the B-Ops teams. They were the least of Finn's worries. He could track them on his black-market scanner, even tap into their comms and listen to them talk on the job.

It was the rest of them-the bounty hunters. And every time he found himself in this position, there were only two questions he had to ask himself. Whoever was after him, did they work for the humans, the vampires, the werewolves or the demons? And the second question was: Do they know what I am? Being robbed was one thing. Being revealed, something else entirely.

The longer Finn lived in the heart of Crimson City, the more experience dulled his once razor-sharp instincts. There were so many sensations and emotions competing for his attention. When he'd first hit the streets and slipped the Grid, he could hardly think for himself.

The Grid was the network that served as the technological backbone of Crimson City's enforcement matrix; it was how the Ops teams communicated. Ops was Crimson City's human government's intelligence agency. Part FBI, part CIA, part Special Forces, they were the ones who handled everything. The Grid was how their Battlefield division out on the streets connected to the Intelligence division behind the walls of the base. It was how they supported their comm. Devices, how they lined up the computer systems ... and how they controlled their mechs. Having escaped the Grid, Finn might be a wanted man, but he wasn't traceable and no one could tell him what to do.

Everything had been instinct, programming, training. Everything he was supposed to know had been drilled into his head and body so many times that he'd never thought he could escape. But then he'd found himself in the middle of a veritable war zone instead of the antiseptic calm of the Ops barracks. It had been an assault on the sense ... and then he'd grown to appreciate it.

He'd spent most of his first free days rotating through the city's bookstores, attracting little notice as just another member of the city's large homeless population; then, rather quickly, he'd begun to assimilate to the new world. He wasn't living any longer on the few fragments of thought that some faceless organization allowed. Maybe that made him a weaker soldier, but it made him a better man.

"Drop your bag, put your hands on top of your head, walk into the alley, turn around and face the wall."

Finn froze in his tracks. Hell. He let the strap of his bag slip off his shoulder and slide down his arm. His satchel hit the sidewalk with a dull thud. He could just whip around and have done with it, or he could give the man a chance to be mistaken. "You've go the wrong guy," he said.

"I don't' think so. Move it."

Finn stayed where he was. "You've got the wrong guy," he repeated more forcefully. "Understand?"

Something blunt jabbed between his shoulder blades. Finn stumbled forward into the alley, pulling his hood up around his head more securely while raising his gloved hands. He heard the clink of the brass links on his bag's strap as the man picked it up and moved behind him into the dark.

And so it goes. Crimson City was more of a jungle than ever, the prospect of some kind of peace-real peace-far off in the horizon. The most anyone hoped for these days was less bloodshed.

With the kind of detachment that came from experience, Finn lay down on the ground on his stomach-too slow, of course, for the bounty hunter's taste.

A boot came down on his back, shoving him into the slime, but allowing Finn to hide his hands underneath his body without attracting attention.

Finn turned his head to the side, listening as the hunter fumbled with his equipment. Handcuffs, probably. Rope, perhaps.

It was more the simple lack of trust than a predisposition to hate that made the streets of Crimson City so very unpredictable these days. Which, in a roundabout way, was what had brought both Finn and the bounty hunter to this moment. In a world of "us" and "them," the lines of safety and inclusion were becoming muddy. Terrible things were happening, and rather than band together, the human, vampire and the werewolf inhabitants pulled even further apart, the vampires escaping into their old-world opulence and endless luxuries atop skyscrapers in the highest strata of the city, the werewolves burying themselves in a technological wonderland in the strata belowground, and the humans locking themselves indoors at street level.

Of course, maybe they were smart to do that. Urban unrest was the least of what Crimson City's citizens had to fear. There were also the demons who had broken through from the Underworld to launch an offensive on the city. It had taken three government agencies to put it down, and not before they'd wreaked a hell of a lot of destruction.

How, in the middle of a problem of that magnitude, anybody could care about one failed experiment like him was hard to understand. But they did care.

A sudden weight came down on Finn's back as the bounty hunter knelt on top of him. Good now the man was close enough for him to do something about it.

"Hello? Can you understand me? I said, take off your glove or I'll put a bullet in your head."

"I can't move," Finn pointed out.

The bounty hunter shifted a bit, freeing up Finn's right hand. Finn brought his hand to his mouth and pulled the leather glove off using his teeth.

The bounty hunter grabbed him by the wrist. There was silence. Then: "Holy shit. Holy shit! That's what I thought I saw. You are the one."

The hunter pressed Finn's arm back down on the ground above his head. Finn squeezed his eyes shut, working to master his rage. He didn't want to do it. He always gave them an out. Maybe this time, the guy would take it. "I'm going to beg here, okay? Please. Please, let me go. You've made a mistake. I don't know what you think you see, but you've made a mistake."

The hunter leaned over him, his mouth up to Finn's ear. "You're the biggest score in town. You're the Holy Grail. Do you even know how much you're worth?"

Finn frowned. He hadn't heard anything about that.

"Ops just increased the reward money. Those guys still want you, man. After all, you're what started this mess, yeah?"

They started this mess. I just couldn't stop it. But nobody controls me anymore. Nobody. "I'm a human being like you. Have a little mercy."

"I wouldn't know exactly what to call you, but you're definitely not human."

Finn's temperature instantly spiked, and wrath swept through him unfettered. "Son of a bitch. I am human."

The hunter snatched the hood off Finn's face, grabbed him by the hair and wrenched his head back, then ran the muzzle of an automatic weapon across the thin metal at Finn's temple. "My god." A greedy laugh burst from his mouth. "No dice, metal man. You're going down, and I'm the one who gets to take you."

With uncanny speed, Finn whipped out his left arm, grabbed the hunter's ankle and pulled the man's feet out from under him. The hunter yelled in terror, releasing an arc of bullets into the air as he lost control and was slammed back down to the pavement. Finn rolled to one side of the alley; the hunter rolled the opposite way. Each man stared at the other as the shower of metal slugs rained down between them. As the last slug hit the ground, the two men sprang forward; the hunter going for his weapon, Finn going for the hunter and slamming the man's face into the cement.

"We're in a serious bind here, you and I," Finn said. "Who told you about me? Who knows?"

"It's just me."

Finn slammed him face down into the pavement again. "I'll ask once more. Who told you about me?" he pulled the hunter's face back off the ground. Blood streamed from the man's nose and lip.

"It's just me! I'm working with someone, but they just know they want the mech that killed those vampire leaders, the Dumonts. They don't know who you are. I swear. I didn't saw who you were. It's the only way I could guarantee they wouldn't take the job themselves. Dude, you gotta believe me. I swear I'll forget the whole thing if you let me go. I swear it!"

Finn gently pushed down the hunter's face and tightened his grip around the man's neck. "How do you know about me?"

"A month ago I was taking this guy. Another freelance jobber," the bounty hunter confessed in a panicked rush. "he was on a job. He was my job. And, get this, you were in the mix. It was a fucking car wreck, with a three-way-intersection cat-and-mouse."

"Try making some sense."

"You hit him before I did the same thing. I watched you do it. And it was weird. The weapons you used ... Dude, that thing came right out of your arm-I'd bet on it."

Finn swore. "Who sent you?"

"Does it matter?" the man gasped. "Everybody in this town would kill for a piece of your bounty money. Kill or be killed. That's life in Crimson City, man."

"You're right," Finn said. He stared into the bounty hunter's eyes. I can't let you go.

Under the crush of Finn's grip, the man's eyes widened, and then suddenly his whole body relaxed, as if he were making a choice. He knew.

"What do you prefer?" Finn asked softly.

"A bullet," the man said, his voice cracking.

Finn raised his arm, then hesitated. "Like you said, it's kill or be killed. I'm sorry."

The hunter's lip curled. "You can't be sorry. You're not human."

The words themselves pulled the trigger. From the weaponry fused into the flesh of his forearm, Finn let the bullet fly, his aim true. The blast echoed down the alley. After a moment, Finn raised the back of his hand to his mouth, pressing the metal against his lips as he stared at the corpse at his feet. Leaning down, he gently swept a palm over the man's face, closing the eyes and then folding the arms over the chest.

"Yes," he replied. "I am."