Cally O'Neal, from Ringo's best seller Hell's Faire, stars in this New York Times best seller—a fast-paced interplanetary adventure that finds the trained killer locked in a battle to reclaim her lost soul.
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By John Ringo Julie Cochrane
Baen BooksISBN: 0-7434-8845-8
Chapter OneChicago, Friday, May 10, 2047
His favorite sports bar in Chicago had taken an old prewar rectangular middle-of-the-room bar and replaced the central island of glassware, bartender, and drinks with a large holotank. Unusually for a bar, smoking was absolutely forbidden, as the wafting smoke tended to interfere with the image display. The surround sound was practically perfect, and the waiters and waitresses who delivered the drinks from a traditional bar retrofitted next to the kitchen took extra care to take patrons' orders discreetly so as not to interfere with the game. Instead of the more usual stale smoke, this bar smelled of a mixture of beer, fried food, and the lemon oil the staff used to keep the bar top polished to a high gloss. He seldom came here, because a man in his business needed to avoid patterns. Nevertheless, it was his favorite watering hole, to the point that he probably came here slightly more often than he ought.
Charles Worth liked hockey. It wasn't so much the violence when a fight broke out. Primal violence was old hat in his line of work. What he liked was the fast pace, the sheer competitive artistry of it. Hockey was a real guy's game with real music to back it up, not some tin-horned pep bands. No cheerleaders, but he considered himself something of a connoisseur of women, and he definitely preferred his women close enough to touch. He preferred the original, the genuine, the unusual, provided she was also beautiful. The blonde over to his left had caught his attention. He could spot a bottle blonde a mile off and made a point of never, well almost never, settling for the artificial. This one was clearly a natural blonde. Even a good hairdresser still had difficulty getting all the highlights of a natural hair color into a dye job-as he knew from his own frequent appearance changes. Her other assets looked natural to the extent that he could tell with her clothes in the way.
She was almost enough to take his attention off the game, even though Zurich was really pummeling Montreal. As a Toronto fan, there were few things he enjoyed more than watching Montreal take it in the teeth. She had the creamy fair skin that went with her hair color, and her eyes were a warm brown. Odd combination, that. Either her skin was bare of makeup or she was a better expert than any he'd seen. She noticed him watching her and smiled, her lips parting slightly.
She had excellent taste. That blouse was real silk and impeccably tailored, the top two buttons left open to reveal just a hint of cleavage. The deep forest green was perfect for her and he felt heat clench in his gut as she picked up her drink and walked around the bar to take the seat next to him, looking into the tank as she slid onto the barstool.
"You picked a good spot. Better view of the Zurich bench from here. Okay if I join you?"
"Be my guest." He gestured to her almost empty glass. "Guinness?" Definitely natural skin. The soft musk of her perfume was almost painful.
She smiled and nodded absently, eyes glued to the tank.
He caught a waiter's attention and gestured at her glass. A moment later a fresh Guinness arrived. He pressed the price of the drink and a healthy tip into the waiter's hand immediately, leaving the boy no excuse to linger over the woman Worth hoped he would be taking home.
"Thanks." She took a sip of the fresh glass of stout and licked the foam off her upper lip.
"So are you a big Zurich fan?" he asked.
"Nah. Toronto." She grinned. "Well, okay, and whoever's playing Montreal."
A slightly sick twinge bit into the pit of his stomach. Same team as mine. Too convenient? Or is it just the warning from the Tir's office making me paranoid?
The broadcast broke for a commercial. Some things even technology couldn't change. A pair of small, black-and-white still holos in one corner of the tank depicted a sixtyish man with a cane and a slightly older woman in a wheelchair. The main section of the tank showed the same pair, in full color and motion, healthy and fit and looking about twenty, in tailored BDU's and each sporting a brand-new grav-gun, walking through a waving field of wheat hand in hand.
"Tired of being old?" A cool but somehow friendly female voice asked, "Dead-end jobs taking the romance out of your relationship? The Epetar Group is looking for aggressively minded human colonists to join a multirace world reclamation expedition. Age and health no barrier, standard contract...."
"Damn juvs." One of the other patrons threw a beer nut through the holo-projection.
"Hi, I'm Sarah Johnson." The blonde had turned to Worth and was offering her hand. Her grip was warm and firm.
"Jude Harris. Nice to meet another Toronto fan." He smiled, fighting the urge to linger over her hand.
"Oh? Well then you've got excellent taste in teams. What do you do?" she asked.
"I'm a corporate troubleshooter. Basically, I travel a lot," he said.
"That sounds like an interesting job. Trouble ever shoot back?" she teased.
"Not if I do it right." His grin tightened. "So, what do you do, Sarah?"
"I'm a legal secretary." She grimaced. "Not very exciting, but it pays the bills. You said you travel? It's got to be great to, you know, get to go places." She looked up at him and took another sip of her stout.
"Just one hotel after another. Whups, game's back." His eyes focused on one soft hand wrapped around her pint glass. "Nice nails for a secretary."
"What?" She looked down at her immaculately manicured hand as if trying to figure out what he meant. "Oh yeah, the typing thing. Nobody has to type much anymore. They mostly want you to talk clearly. And you've gotta organize stuff and be good with details. That kind of thing."
"But still, there has to be some?" He took her hand in one of his own, meeting her eyes and holding them as he gently kissed her fingers.
"Well, a little." She smiled. "There's kind of a knack to hitting the keys just right so that your nails go in the spaces between the keys." She suddenly pulled her hand clear and pointed into the tank. "Did you see that? Shinsecki just sticked Schmidt right in the face! God, look at his nose, ohmigosh, the refs are going to have trouble breaking that one up." She clapped her hands over her mouth and her eyes were wide at the spatters of blood on the ice between the two combatants.
"Yeah, looks like he broke his nose. That's gotta hurt," he said. They watched the fight, the other players circling like sharks while the referees waded in trying to pull the two apart, one getting a probably inadvertent elbow in the face for his troubles.
"My God, the things we do for a little excitement, right?" She shuddered and gulped her drink.
"I dunno," Worth shrugged, turning towards her. "I enjoy the game, but I really watch it more for the strategy and the competition. The fights, I guess that's part of the darker side of human nature that's in all of us, really."
"You think so?" She tilted her head up at him, taking another drink. "I think that's more of a guy thing, the aggression thing. I think-" She flushed a bit, taking another fast gulp. "I think there's something just a little bit submissive, deep down, in almost every woman. I mean, I don't want some guy to drag me around by the hair or to spend the rest of my life washing his socks and underwear, but I think most women prefer a guy who can, you know, kinda take charge. And I think that men are, well, like that." She shrugged. "Like I said, a guy thing."
"That's very ... perceptive of you." He looked at her intently, holding her eyes. "I'll bet you're very good with people." He could see the pulse at her throat beating rapidly. She licked her lips and was oddly still, as if frozen by the tension between them. He leaned over and claimed a slow, tantalizing kiss, pulling back when he realized his hand was tangled in her hair at the nape of her neck, his jeans were awkwardly tight, and they were still in a very public place. For his preferred games, public wouldn't do at all. Besides, there was the warning from his control. She could be a very pretty piece of bait. Either way, if he had anything to say about it he was going to have one hell of a time making sure.
In the tank, the game had restarted after the referees finally got Schmidt and Shinsecki separated and sent Shinsecki to the penalty box. Zurich was clearly in a mood to take out their indignation on the ice. Montreal was now down by six and beginning to show signs of being rattled by the humiliation.
He noticed her glass was getting low and ordered her another drink, and spent most of the rest of the game teasing her thigh with one hand under the bar. By the time Montreal was down by nine he was starting to get bored with the slaughter and interested in more personal pleasures.
"Got a question." He leaned over and breathed against her ear. "You said you liked a man to take charge? I'm going out the front door. Don't follow. There's a back exit between the restrooms. It says an alarm will go off, but it won't. If you really meant what you said, wait five minutes and then leave the bar, come out the back door and I'll be waiting. You want me to take charge?"
She nodded rapidly. "Yeah, I think I'd like that."
"Okay, then that's what you do. You do that, and I will." He walked out of the bar without looking back, hoping she was tipsy enough and horny enough to do as he'd asked. He wanted her, bad, but he hadn't lived this long by being seen leaving bars with his victims. The night air smelled crisp as he walked past a couple of other bars to the parking lot, the crispness underlain by the almost imperceptibly faint tinges of stale urine, vomit, and sex that always linger in the streets outside popular establishments dedicated to the nightlife. The adrenaline rush was hitting his system and he wondered, as he always did, whether he had set the hook and played the line in just right. Would she come to him, or would she get away?
The timing was perfect. Just as he got the car pulled up to the curb in back, hidden from view on one side by the bar, on another by the large dumpster out back, she came tottering out the small back door. Another plus for him, the light was burned out back here, and he only saw her by the scattered illumination from his own headlights as she stumbled slightly, on a bit of loose gravel maybe, and opened the passenger side door.
She lowered herself with exaggerated care into the passenger seat of his low-slung Detroit Raver, while he pretended to be searching for a music cube. His nerve endings were sizzling with a mixture of triumph and anticipation that sent a chill down his spine as the door to his car clicked shut behind her. The beat of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" shuddered through the frame as he pulled out into Chicago's Friday night traffic.
Worth disentangled the blonde from around his neck long enough to get them from the elevator to his warehouse loft apartment. He pushed open the door and paused a minute to let her get the full effect. It had taken large chunks of even his generous salary to outfit the room in the vintage '70s "contemporary" style he preferred. Still, he was proud that he had managed to obtain every necessary item of furniture in black leather, glass, and chrome, set off nicely by flawlessly white shag carpeting that he'd had to order custom-made. Three walls were covered in faux-oak paneling-even for him, real oak was scarce. The fourth was covered in floor-to-ceiling black velvet drapes. The free-standing wet bar that ran parallel to one of the oak walls was topped with poured black marble and had faux-oak cabinetry that exactly matched the walls.
Matching red lava lamps-original, not reproduction-illuminated the room and provided a necessary hint of color. Track lighting emphasized the Dali and Escher originals on the walls. The scent of pine air fresheners mingled with but did not quite mask a faint odor of stale sweat, sex, rust, and leather.
She stopped still for a moment and looked around the room, blinking rapidly. She favored him with another of those blindingly perfect smiles of hers and quickly buried her face in his neck, shuddering softly against him. God, she must be really hot to trot....
"You want a drink? I'm having a martini." He smirked. "Shaken, not stirred, of course." He walked over to the wet bar and began pulling down various bottles off the glass shelves at the back.
"Why not?" She laughed, dropping her purse on the couch.
He poured her drink and handed it to her. "Cheers."
She took a sip and set the glass down on the chrome and glass end table, slinking up to him and sliding her hands up his chest. He wrapped his arms around her again and trailed his lips up her jaw to nibble lightly on her ear. He felt her knees buckle slightly and shifted his weight to support her as her hips seemingly involuntarily thrust against his. He felt the heat tighten in his groin as he buried his face in her hair and inhaled the clean, fresh scent of it mingled with her own soft musk.
His fingers trembled slightly as he unbuttoned the silk blouse, carefully, tenderly, savoring the opening strains of this overture that would end in so much sound and fury. Gently, now, building the trust that led them willingly into the trap-the purest and most exquisite test of his art. His hands slid inside and teased along the line of her spine and the soft, perfect skin of her back. He rubbed her jaw with his own, glad that he'd had an afternoon shave, and took her mouth, delving deep into the moist and the heat. God, he could drown in this woman.
Her slender fingers with those exquisitely feminine nails were playing with the hair at the nape of his neck and he felt himself breathing faster, impatient with the need to restrain himself and tease her into the next move. He drew one finger very lightly right up her spine before cupping his hands under her butt and pulling her, hard, against him as she shivered.
"So where's your room?" She nuzzled up to his neck and bit his shoulder softly.
He slid one hand up from her ass and tangled it in her hair, pulling her head back gently, nibbling the tip of her nose and shaking his head.
"Nah-ah. Bedroom is plain vanilla. C'mere." He took her hand and led her over to the velvet-draped wall, pressing a switch at the side and grinning as the drapes parted to reveal a wall set with four steel rings and a three-inch seat of obviously adjustable height.
"Once you try this, you'll never want to do it in a bed again. It's incredible." You won't be around to want anything, but that's not my problem, he thought.
"You're not gonna hurt me, are you?" She looked at him nervously.
"Never. Cross my heart." He cupped her face gently, his eyes holding hers. "That would just be no fun for me. My pleasure comes from pleasing you."
Excerpted from Cally's War by John Ringo Julie Cochrane Excerpted by permission.
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