So with my fifth novel, Civil War, releasing this Saturday, I’ve decided to share a chapter for your reading pleasure. If you want more, and you likely will, you know what to do. Order your copy! For now, happy reading!
Two days earlier…
Athena stood with her fists at her sides, and her eyes closed as she listened for the oncoming attack. She heard nothing, but she felt the air shift from the fast movements around her. She followed the changes until she pinpointed her opponent’s location. She then swung a punch and hit Achilla’s forearm when she blocked. Achilla countered with a low kick that Athena caught with the bottom of her foot before throwing another punch to Achilla’s nose. Achilla grunted and spun a backfist into Athena’s left cheek. They both stumbled away from each other before dashing to opposite sides of the white-walled room.
Achilla darted to the right and bounced off the wall with a leading fast. Athena leaned back and slipped the punch while aiming a high kick for Achilla’s jaw. Achilla blocked the kick, rolled in mid-air to her feet and tripped Athena’s balancing leg. Athena bounced off her back, blocked a punch, and landed a one-two combination to the head before Achilla grabbed her right arm and threw her. Athena somersaulted, landed her feet against the wall and launched toward Achilla, who sprinted to meet her halfway. The crashed their forearms against each other and pushed. Athena gritted her teeth before smacking Achilla’s lead arm down and vertical punching her chin. Achilla grabbed her punching hand and aimed a finger jab for Athena’s throat.
Just like she thought she would.
Athena blocked the finger jab by raising her forearm and kicked Achilla’s instep, causing her to split. Before Achilla regained her balance, Athena kneed her cheek, spun around and held her in a rear naked choke. She held her grip as Achilla struggled. She was going to tap soon. She knew it. Just a little bit longer—
A shrill beeping echoed around the room and Athena let go, slamming her hand on the floor.
“Shit!” Athena hissed.
“Good try,” Achilla huffed.
“Yeah right!” Athena said with a chuckle. “You lost on points, and you know it.”
“There are no points in a real fight, I keep telling you that.”
“There’s no rule against body shots either,” Athena quipped. “But I understand your stomach doesn’t feel good. Can we agree that you lost on points anyway?”
Athena helped Achilla to her feet and dusted her off. She then smiled wide as Achilla rolled her eyes. She loved her aunt. She truly did. She also loved beating her at anything she could and rubbing her nose in it. Athena walked with a skip in her step as they headed for the door.
“Get all of your gloating out of the way now,” Achilla said. “Next time, I’ll kick your ass, and we’ll be even again.”
“I don’t know,” Athena replied as she flexed her right bicep. “I’m feeling pretty strong. I might score two in a row.”
“In your dreams,” Achilla snapped.
“In yours,” Athena said as she twirled her index finger in Achilla’s face. “After I put you to sleep.”
“Consider yourself lucky you’re my favorite niece,” Achilla replied as she smacked Athena’s hand away.
“I’m your only niece,” Athena said. “I deserve a better compliment than that.”
“You’re not getting one.”
“Uh-huh,” Athena said as she blocked Achilla’s path and smiled in her face. “Admit it. You love me.”
“Athena, go away!”
“You. Love. Me,” Athena sang as she hugged Achilla and rubbed noses with her.
“Athena, get the fuck off,” Achilla barked as she shoved Athena away and pointed at her. “Cut the shit, and I’m not joking!”
“Give me a hug,” Athena replied with her arms outstretched. “Come on. You know you want to.”
“You’re seriously doing this right now,” Achilla said. “What is it with you and forced affection? You’re worse than my husband.”
“Dahntay never had to force anything on you,” Athena said with a snort. “Can I get a hug from my aunt? Come on.”
“Oh for God’s sake, here!” Achilla said as she squeezed Athena around the shoulders and walked out the door. “Now leave me alone.”
Athena skipped behind her as they moved down the hall. They stopped at the locker room, and when Achilla pushed open the door, Athena pulled it shut, laughing as Achilla shoved her away and walked through. Now that she was older and just as strong, Athena no longer feared Achilla’s wrath. She sparred with her every morning and teased her with reckless abandon. It was part of her routine like brushing her teeth.
Jacob’s Ladder’s locker room contained shiny blue lockers and a white tile floor. Athena made sure the founders had their names ingrained in the lockers closest to the showers. Mary’s locker was right next to hers, but she gave Achilla a corner locker across the room. She watched Achilla change and frowned as she pulled off her sweaty shirt, exposing a gray bra over her black yoga pants.
“What?” Achilla asked. “Still talking shit?”
“No,” Athena said. “You just look different. Never thought I’d see you gain weight like the rest of us mere mortals.”
“What are you talking about?” Achilla replied before looking down at a slight bulge in her stomach. It looked nothing like the flat, tight abs that coiled around Athena’s midsection like a flexible sheet of armor under her skin, but it did at one point. Athena grew up wanting abs like Achilla’s. As a little girl she stared at her stomach in the mirror, and when she didn’t see her aunt’s six pack, she dropped to the floor and banged out thousands of crunches.
She never gained Achilla’s muscle mass. If they both pursued professional boxing, Athena was a lightweight, and Achilla was a super welterweight. But Athena always matched her abs until now. Achilla’s bulge subtracted her six pack to four, and Athena frowned at the body she didn’t recognize.
“You used to get on me for eating pancakes because of all the carbs,” Athena said as she pointed at her stomach. “But I always burned them off and then some.”
“What’s your point?” Achilla snapped with her hands on her hips.
“What’s going on here?” Athena asked as she pointed at Achilla’s bulge. “Is the almighty health freak in the family cheating a little on her diet and skipping her ab routines? Hard as you were on me about that, I should’ve hit you in the gut anyway.”
Achilla glared at Athena until her eyes flickered. She then shook her head.
“Bloated,” Achilla replied as she grabbed a towel and covered herself before unclipping her bra, letting it drop to the floor, and pulling her pants down. “You mind not staring like I’m a whale at Sea World? We both know it’s a normal part of human physiology, and I’m a martial artist, not a model.”
“Touchy,” Athena said with her hands raised as she opened her locker and grabbed her body wash. “Not a model, huh? Wish I could’ve use that excuse as a kid.”
She frowned again as she watched Achilla amble to her shower stall in her black sandals. Unlike Esther, who writhed in pain every month, Achilla never complained about her period and never looked bloated before. Maybe her age was finally catching up to her, and maybe she was still irritable about what happened to Mr. Freeney. Or maybe she was just hormonal. Athena shrugged as she pulled her shirt over her head.
After they showered, Athena changed into a red blouse and gray slacks with matching red flats. After her speaking event at Stratford High School, she decided to step up her wardrobe a little with some new clothes. Presentation always mattered to Mr. Freeney, so now it mattered to her. Athena ran a finger through her wet hair as she waited for Achilla in the hallway and smiled when she saw Mary approach in her black scrubs with a white binder.
“This couldn’t wait until I checked in?” Athena asked. “Must be a big deal.”
“That and I thought I’d meet you here,” Mary said as she handed Athena the binder. “So I can speak to both of you since I can’t get a sit down otherwise.”
“Mary, come on…”
“I’m just saying–”
“What?” Achilla asked as she walked out and stood next to them with her arms crossed over her black t-shirt and gray sweatpants. “Mary, please don’t start this again. I am not in the mood.”
“You irritate our clients,” Mary said as Athena sighed and flipped through the binder. “A lot, Achilla.”
“Athena doesn’t seem to mind me and neither does Samuel,” Achilla replied. “What’s your problem?”
“They’re your immediate family,” Mary snapped. “And they’re not addicts looking for help and a community. Just because they know how to put up with your shit doesn’t mean my patients should have to.”
“Mary,” Athena said in a stern tone before looking at Achilla. “Achilla, I have gotten a couple complaints. Please just use a softer hand during your self-defense classes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
“Softer hand?” Achilla asked with a scowl. “I’m teaching them to fight, for God’s sake, and I’m a lot easier on them than I was with you. It’s not my fault they’re a bunch of wussies.”
“A bunch of wussies,” Mary said as she threw her hands up and looked at Athena. “This is why I don’t want her around my patients. This is why. This is it. Right here. You heard it.”
“You handled my training just fine too,” Achilla snapped at Mary. “Why do you coddle them so much?”
“I defected from Harris Militia and so did Peter,” Mary shot back. “All we knew was combat. These are people who can’t relate to that yet. You have to bring them up gradually, Achilla. Meet them where they are, not where you assume they should be.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Achilla said. “And don’t presume to tell me how to train people.”
“Somebody has to before you turn this place into an emergency room,” Mary snapped.
“It’ll be a cemetery if Harris Militia attacks, and no one can defend themselves!” Achilla yelled.
“God, you’ve gotten soft too, haven’t you?”
“Achilla!” Athena barked. “That’s not necessary!”
“I’ve what?!” Mary replied with a scowl. “You want to test me?”
“We’ve got a training room right over there,” Achilla said with hard eyes. “I am ready when you are.”
“Both of you!” Athena shouted as she dropped the binder and raised her hands. “That’s it. I’m changing your shifts because I can’t take this fighting. It’s toxic, and I need a positive environment here. We have to be an example.”
Achilla and Mary glared at each other before taking a simultaneous breath and lowering their heads. They then crossed their arms and leaned against the wall. Athena relaxed a little and held her hands on her hips. She then picked up the white binder.
“Choose or I will,” Athena said.
“I have to work afternoons with Samuel,” Achilla said. “If you take me off mornings, I can’t do it.”
“Not exactly a loss,” Mary muttered before glancing at Athena. “But whatever, I can do afternoons.”
“Thanks, Mary,” Athena said before nodding at Achilla. “Your students will be here any minute. Whatever you think is too soft is probably just right. Please just try.”
“They won’t get kid gloves if and when Artemis attacks them,” Achilla said. “Mr. Freeney didn’t.”
“I know,” Athena sighed as she blinked back tears. “I know that, Achilla, but–”
“That is such a low blow,” Mary said before pointing at Athena. “You know she feels responsible for what happened, and you’re using his death to get your way.”
“His death showed us that we need to be ready,” Achilla said. “But I’ll do things Mary’s way today because obviously, she cares more about their feelings than their survival.”
Athena lowered her head, and Mary threw her hands up.
“Really, Achilla?” Mary called as Achilla waved her off and stormed down the hall. “I work in medicine. Survival is all I care about.”
Athena watched Achilla walk. She never had the nicest demeanor, but she had a point. After their attack in Stratford High School, Harris Militia gained more members according to Peter’s intel. It was only a matter of time until they struck again. They just didn’t know when. Athena asked Achilla to teach self-defense for that very reason. In order to refuse allegiance to Artemis, you needed the strength to fight her forces off if necessary.
But Achilla’s wisdom in battle was no use to anyone if they left her class. Mary wasn’t wrong either. Athena sighed as she flipped through the binder of photos. They would find a healthy medium later. Athena frowned at a few close-up photos of houses around the state. Some of them were within a hundred feet.
“I’m sorry for fighting like that,” Mary said. “But someone has to stand up to her, and it can’t just be you. I try to tell Peter that, but–”
“He’s getting a little too close for my liking,” Athena said with a cocked eyebrow. “He’s going to get himself captured at this rate.”
“I’m pissed at her right now, but Achilla at least did a good job teaching him how to move unnoticed,” Mary said. “You see the results, right?”
“Yeah, I went through the same training, and I’m telling you this is too close,” Athena said as she pointed at a photo of a house in Ansonia taken from just outside the backyard. “On the bright side, at least we know every manna house in the state now. I’ll instruct Peter on his next assignment. Thanks, Mary.”
“You know we’d have a lot less to worry about if you gave this info to Apollo’s Army,” Mary replied as they walked down the hall. “I’m sure Apollo could think of a few ways to deal with Artemis.”
“They have their own spies,” Athena said as they reached a door and she opened it. “More of them. He knows where these houses are. He just hasn’t beaten her yet.”
“Do you think he can?” Mary asked.
“Yep,” Athena replied as she stepped into an office space with a desk to her right, a front door to the street, and another hallway to her left that led to the infirmary where Mary and Esther worked. Esther took off today to celebrate her and Samuel’s anniversary. After she worked every day for two months straight, and only taking off for Athena’s speech or the funeral, Athena told her to take as much time as she needed. Besides, Mary was a medical genius in her own right and better equipped to restrain an unruly patient. It was a good thing she didn’t object to working a double.
As Mary walked into the office behind her, Athena set the binder on her desk next to a pile of forms that Peter left for her to review. When he wasn’t spying on Artemis’ outposts, he used his intel to recruit clients before Artemis indoctrinated them. Sometimes Athena told him to stop spying and focus solely on outreach. Sure, it boosted Athena’s numbers and made it easier to pitch for government grants and private donations, but after moments like this, it was clear that Peter was getting too ambitious with his investigative work. His role was to learn how, and where, Artemis was selling manna to vulnerable citizens and turn those people into clients for Jacob’s Ladder before they joined Harris Militia. It was not to get so close that he might as well go in undercover.
Athena still smelled Mary’s hair products and the scent of her plastic gloves. She hadn’t left yet.
“What else you got for me?” Athena asked without looking up. “You and Peter work together. There’s no way he found something new and you didn’t. That’s why you’re here, right?”
“Yeah, that was the next part,” Mary said. “And it’s going to make you mad.”
“You know it takes a lot to make me mad, Mary,” Athena replied as she folded her hands and smiled at her.
“It’s a lot,” Mary sighed as she looked at the ceiling. “Peter might’ve…stolen a sample of manna from Artemis in Hartford. He said it looked and smelled weird, and he wanted to learn more.”
Athena glared at Mary before crossing her arms.
“Before you get all Achilla on me,” Mary said with her hands raised. “I tested it and found something interesting. Peter’s hunch was correct.”
“It better be,” Athena said. “That’s the kind of shit that leads Artemis’ troops here with a reason to start a conflict. I don’t want that drama without something worth fighting over.”
“I know, and I told him it was a huge risk, but you know how he is,” Mary said. “He saw a chance and took it as far as he’s concerned.”
“Peter and I are going to have a long talk,” Athena said. “What did you find?”
“I’ll have to give it to Esther for her final review,” Mary replied. “But it looks like Artemis modified the manna again into a formula with some weird technology in it.”
“Best way I can explain it, it looked like little robots swimming in the sample,” Mary said. “My guess is–”
Athena darted around her desk and clamped a hand over Mary’s mouth as she shot a look out the door. Cars passed by every day. Some parked across the street for while, and this early it could be a number of reasons: listening to the radio, waiting to pick up a friend, flat tire, sex in the passenger seat. But this time, Athena heard the faint static-like sound of a microphone.
A small microphone.
“We’ll talk later,” Athena said. “And tell Peter he’s on my shit list and might have to scrub toilets to earn his way off.”
“Got it,” Mary replied as she looked out the door too and switched to advanced frequency. “Did I reveal too much to our audience?”
“Nope,” Athena said at the same frequency as she adjusted her shirt. “But it’s best that I take care of our friend outside anyway. Check on your patients. Good job.”
“You’ve got it,” Mary said as she turned and speed walked down the hall. Athena shook her head at the unmarked cop car sitting across the street. She never understood why law enforcement felt the need to monitor Jacob’s Ladder after the attack in Stratford. Athena wasn’t attacking anyone. She kept her documentation in order and obeyed all regulations. What was the deal? Athena opened her door and stepped into the cool, Connecticut Fall air, waited for a car to pass by, and crossed Boston Avenue. When the unmarked car revved its engine and drove off, Athena darted behind and grabbed its bumper, lifting the back wheels off the ground. She set the car down when the wheels stopped spinning, and a tan-skinned man with brown hair wearing a green t-shirt that hugged his muscular, tattooed arms stepped out.
Athena squinted her eyes at a fresh eight ball tattoo on his right bicep as he grabbed a light jacket with his left arm and exposed a thirteen ball on the other bicep. She couldn’t count how often she saw that tattoo, or something like it, on Harris Militia members in Peter’s photos. Harris Militia used to wear green contacts in honor of Ares, but tattoos were a better test of loyalty and “8:13” was their code based on the numerical order of “H” and “M” in the alphabet. The pool balls just promoted their self-entitled badass image. Athena was used to seeing it on civilians converted to Artemis’ ranks. A police officer was a different matter, and it lined up with Apollo’s and Peter’s warning about compromised law enforcement.
“Now that I have your attention, I would like to know why you’re watching me,” Athena said. “Answer quickly and honestly, please.”
“I don’t know what you’re–”
“Rudy, I’ll never forget your face no matter how many tattoos or muscles you gain over the years,” Athena said. “Don’t try to play me. You’re undercover, probably because you transferred from Stratford after you got them sued for wrongful death, and the only way anyone will hire you is if you take the job nobody wants, and nobody wants to spy on an advanced human like me.”
Athena stepped forward, and Rudy drew his gun. She rolled her eyes and held her hands on her hips. Most police officers in Connecticut were friendly toward her. Despite Tania Laetner’s social media barrage of insults accusing her and her father of promoting a “war on cops.” Athena shook hands with officers every week who thanked her for making their jobs easy. But there were always a few who disliked her, especially in Bridgeport. A handful of black officers who grew up during Ailina’s reign of terror gave her unforgiving stares in the street. Athena didn’t know how to explain that she was conceived because Samuel was another one of her victims without making her father uncomfortable, so she just ignored the nasty looks.
A few white officers like Rudy were big fans of Tania’s show and blamed Athena every time a manna addict attacked someone in a drug-induced rage, but there was always a racial component they liked to ignore. Black men like Athena’s father were threatening to bigots. Samuel was smart and outspoken, especially against police brutality. Black advanced humans like Athena were even worse in the eyes of a trigger-happy cop like Rudy.
“You’re really doing this right now?” Athena asked. “Rudy, it’s six in the morning, and you’re pointing a gun at a woman in the middle of the street.”
“You’re no woman,” Rudy replied.
Athena raised her eyebrows. She always knew he felt that way, but now he was getting blatant. She focused on his hand when she noticed his finger closing in on the trigger. Rudy steadied his gun and pointed at her chest. Center mass. Athena took a deep breath and gulped. He killed Travis. He wasn’t killing her too. Athena did not come all this way and put in all this work to die in the street like a dog.
“Actually,” Athena said before darting forward and snatching Rudy’s forearm, sending his shooting arm the side with one hand and snatching the gun with the other. “I am very much a woman.”
Athena squeezed the gun into a ball with one hand before dropping it as Rudy threw a punch that she caught. She then gripped Rudy’s fist until he dropped to his knees. She knelt down in front of him and looked him in the eye. The redness around his pupils, the flush in his face showed everything she needed to know about his threshold for pain…and humiliation.
“Maybe I’m a little too much woman for you, hm?” Athena said with narrowed eyes. “Are you going to play nice, or am I going to have to break a bone or two?”
“Assaulting a police officer,” Rudy grunted.
“Not if you attempt to shoot me without a reasonable threat to your life or others and then swing a punch,” Athena said. “I am unarmed, and all I’ve done is defend myself. The fact that you’re alive shows I have no interest in harming you, so cut the crap.”
Athena let go of Rudy’s hand and stood up, leaving him on the ground writhing in pain. She jumped on top of the car and crossed her legs. When he finally recovered well enough to stand, Athena smiled and kicked her legs as she rested her hands on the roof. Rudy shook his head.
“Now,” Athena said. “Let’s try this again. What brings you to Jacob’s Ladder, Rudy? How can I help you?”
“Your people are so weird,” Rudy said. “One second you’re about to break my hand, and the next you’re a happy-go-lucky schoolgirl.”
“Woman, Rudy,” Athena replied. “Remember who you’re addressing.”
“Whatever, where’s all that anger from before?”
“You’ll have to do a lot more than that to make me angry, Rudy,” Athena said. “Got an answer to my question?”
“We’re investigating possible terrorism,” Rudy said.
“I’m…flattered?” Athena replied with a chuckle. “This is a nonprofit organization designed to help manna addicts get back on their feet. What the hell makes you guys think we have the inclination, or even the means, for terrorism?”
“Achilla Johnson’s been teaching martial arts here,” Rudy said. “You said it yourself.”
“So what?” Athena replied.
“We both know Achilla has a history of violence,” Rudy said. “And she just killed Rich McBride.”
“The man she killed at Stratford High School.”
“Oh, sorry,” Athena replied with a shrug. “I stopped caring who he was the moment he murdered Mr. Freeney for no damn reason. Have you considered investigating Richard’s ties to Harris Militia? He yelled, ‘Eight-thirteen, motherfucker’ before he attacked me.”
“The fact of the matter is Achilla Johnson is teaching people how to fight like her,” Rudy said. “How to kill.”
“Which I’m sure is only a bad thing when it isn’t government-funded,” Athena said with raised eyebrows. “Right? Maybe we should slap a police uniform on her and see if you complain then.”
“Look I’m sorry about your boyfriend, all right?” Rudy snapped. “But it’s over.”
“Travis,” Athena said. “His name was Travis.”
“No,” Athena growled as she hopped off the car and faced him. “You will say his name unless you really do want to see me angry!”
They stared at each other for a few seconds until Rudy took a deep breath and nodded his head.
“Fine,” Rudy said with a wave of his hand. “Travis.”
“Look you’ve got to admit this looks suspicious after his death,” Rudy said. “Starting a nonprofit for manna addicts. Killing a man in front of high schoolers. Training these manna addicts in martial arts? Retaliation isn’t all that far-fetched for a chick who shot at cops before.”
“Are you referring to Achilla or me?” Athena asked.
“Whoever comes first,” Rudy said. “Look, you always judge cops for the mistakes we make, but maybe if you saw what we deal with on a daily basis, you’d understand better. The fact that you don’t is a serious problem, and it lends itself to a war on cops with you guys leading the charge.”
Athena stared at Rudy before walking toward him. She stood face-to-face with him and looked him in the eye.
“I watched Travis die in my arms because you bombed my apartment,” Athena said. “Do you know how it feels to watch someone die right in front of you, to watch his frightened, tear-filled, eyes just go cold and lifeless until they don’t even flinch no matter how hard you shake him?”
Rudy looked away.
“Look at me,” Athena said with a finger pointed in his face. “You have no moral right to ignore the people you’ve hurt.”
“So you want revenge or something?” Rudy asked. “Is that it? Has this idea of corruption emboldened you?”
“If I wanted revenge, I would’ve gotten it a long time ago,” Athena said. “Revenge won’t bring Travis back or make you a better man, so what’s the point?”
“I’m man enough to be a damn good cop.”
“You’re a joke,” Athena said with a slight snarl. “One I hope to never see again, but if I kill you, another corrupt cop takes your place. If I work to improve things that you won’t, then the conditions that breed punks like you no longer exist. That’s how I honor Travis’ life. I make sure guys like you are obsolete and more trouble than they’re worth.”
“What’re you talking about?” Rudy asked. “Look every–”
“Cop isn’t corrupt, yeah, I know,” Athena cut him off. “But the good officers around here don’t seem to bother me, probably because they’re more interested in investigating actual criminals like Artemis and Harris Militia, like you should be doing right now.”
“Or your brother?” Rudy quipped. “Apollo’s Army isn’t a bunch of angels.”
“You are more than welcome to say that to his face,” Athena said. “Instead of bothering me.”
“Like you two aren’t connected?” Rudy replied. “Not a chance. I’m here to stay, especially since you’re so threatened you felt the need to confront me.”
“If I felt threatened, I wouldn’t have come out here to speak with you,” Athena said before grinning. “Besides, I believe you were the one who tried to drive off.”
Athena tucked her hands behind her back and sauntered back toward the car. She picked up the balled-up gun and walked back. When she extended it to him, he stared at her. Athena smiled and pushed it into his chest. He lowered his head and took the gun.
“I recommend getting a new one,” Athena said. “It’ll be hard to kill innocent people with a busted gun.”
“Maybe you should give it to Apollo so he can shoot at some cops.”
“Apollo’s Army doesn’t use guns,” Athena said with a frown. “The fact that you said that means you’re either ignorant or dishonest. Either one is possible for a piss-poor excuse for a man like you.”
“You and your brother are both the same,” Rudy replied as he shook his head. “No respect for the law.”
“Artemis doesn’t respect the law,” Athena said. “She sent someone to kill Mr. Freeney, and yet you’re investigating me of all people. You’re asking me if I’m emboldened when I’m not the one murdering people. Rudy, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“Boy, you love to play victim–”
“I don’t think you respect the law either, Rudy,” Athena cut him off, “not when it comes to friends of yours.”
“What?” Rudy asked with a scowl. “You better watch what you say–”
“Make me,” Athena said without breaking eye contact. “Unlike Travis, I can defend myself physically and legally, and I hope you force me just so I can make sure you’re thrown in prison. You’re not the only investigator in these streets, and I will clip your nuts in court.”
“You’ll regret every word of that,” Rudy replied.
“Have a good day, Rudy.”
Rudy glared at Athena, and she smiled at him one last time before crossing the street to Jacob’s Ladder. Athena looked over her shoulder and watched Rudy step into his car as she pondered what could provoke the police to monitor her outside of straight up bias. Athena shrugged and walked into her building. Once inside the door, she noticed the familiar scent of body spray and deodorant. She stopped and snatched an ear with her right hand, pulling Peter close without even looking at him.
“What have I told you about stealing?” Athena asked. “Mary told me everything this morning.”
“Ow, Athena! Let go!”
“What did we discuss?” Athena asked.
“I know you said not to steal,” Peter replied. “But this was huge, and I knew Esther and Mary needed a sample. Can you let me slide this time?”
Athena let go of Peter’s ear and faced him. He wore the white-collared shirt he always threw on when he wasn’t out in the field. His body spray told Athena he just got out of the shower after his overnight assignment, but he applied more than usual. The scent burned her nose a little.
“I’m sorry for grabbing you,” Athena said. “It just scares the shit out of me when you pull stunts like this.”
“Why?” Peter replied. “Look, I have to take risks to bring in clients. You knew that before you asked for my help.”
“And I appreciate your discovery,” Athena said. “But do you know why I said no stealing?”
“Because you want a better life for me than what I did in the past?” Peter asked with a shrug. “I get it, but I’m not some punk kid stealing food anymore. We needed this. I can feel it.”
Athena stared at him before grabbing his hand and pulling him past the desk and through the door into the hallway. She pushed him against the wall and held him there by his chest as she pulled her smart phone from her pocket and downloaded photos from her cloud. When she found a crime scene photo showing a dead woman with her throat slit from ear to ear, her jaw split in half, and a Duke t-shirt stuffed in her mouth, Athena shoved the phone into Peter’s face.
“You know who that is?” Athena asked. “She helped Apollo escape and Artemis found out, remember?”
“Come on, Athena,” Peter said as he looked away. “I get it, all right?”
“No, you don’t,” Athena barked. “Look, you’re like a brother to me. I don’t want to see a photo of you like this. I don’t want to watch you get killed like Mr. Freeney. Do you understand?”
“Do. You. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” Peter said. “But I have to say this.”
“What is it?” Athena asked as she let him off the wall.
“Mary, doesn’t know,” Peter said. “I wanted to report this to you directly. You were right. I got caught, but Apollo saved me.”
“Really?” Athena replied with a frown. “Details please.”
“Look, these guys followed me and jumped on me in Ansonia,” Peter said as he pulled his shirt up and exposed a purple bruise. “I held my own, but there were too many. I’m good enough for three or four, but not eight, man. Apollo came through and completely decimated them. He’s incredible.”
“Decimated?” Athena asked.
“It means what it sounds like,” Peter replied with a straight face. “I don’t know what he was like before he left, but this guy’s a killing machine now. I don’t know if anyone can stop him.”
“Can he beat Artemis?” Athena asked. “One-on-one, I mean.”
“No telling,” Peter said. “You and Achilla are the only people I can confirm can do that, but he’s a Johnson, so anything’s possible. You folks are crazy talented.”
Athena crossed her arms and paced the hallway. The fact that Peter got caught could still bring trouble to Jacob’s Ladder. It was probably trouble that was coming anyway though. Tania continued her propaganda on social media that further desensitized her followers until they held no regard for any human life that looked different than them. From there Harris Militia attacked Mr. Freeney and her. The fix was in. It was only a matter of time.
“You understand that Artemis is onto you now,” Athena told Peter. “You can’t go back out. Stay here. Stay safe. I’ll talk to Achilla about making preparations.”
“Peter, you’ve been following her for years, and she just now attacks?” Athena replied. “They likely tracked your moves and tried to kidnap you for information. Artemis is planning another attack, and we’re the targets.”
“Whoa,” Peter said as he lowered his head. “I’m sorry, I–“
“Disobeyed my orders, yes,” Athena snapped. “But they would’ve tried that anyway, and Apollo knew it.”
“Keep up, Peter,” Athena demanded. “Apollo had people following you too. How else would he just happen to be there to save you?”
But if Apollo made a personal trip, that spoke volumes about Peter’s importance to him. He couldn’t have held any emotional value. They didn’t know each other all that well. For some reason Peter was an important part of Apollo’s plan that he needed alive, and considering he had his own spies, it couldn’t have been intel. Athena marched down the hall way and stopped and stared at Peter when she noticed he didn’t follow. Peter lowered his head and walked with her until they reached the training room where Achilla was just about to finish class. Athena opened the door just in time for a brown-skinned Asian man to lunge at Achilla with a lead right hand. Achilla blocked, tripped him to the floor, and swung a finger jab to his throat, stopping just short.
“Nice aggression, Chris,” Achilla said as she helped him up. “We just need to work on your defense.”
“Achilla, where’s the rest of your class?” Athena asked as she stepped inside.
“You told me to go easy,” Achilla replied with a shrug. “So I did. I asked their opinions, and everyone but Chris wanted to leave.”
“What?” Peter said with his hands on his head. “But why?”
“Achilla, what did you actually say?” Athena asked with her hands crossed over her chest.
“I asked who was ready to fight if the need arose,” Achilla said. “Anyone who wasn’t willing to fight could leave–”
“That wasn’t what I wanted,” Athena snapped.
“Well considering Mr. Freeney’s death and Peter’s unfortunate incident, it looks like what you need,” Achilla said. “I’ll take one warrior over fifteen cowards in a fight.”
Achilla helped her opponent up and dusted off his gray shirt.
“Chris has a long way to go, but the will is there,” Achilla said with a smile as she patted his shoulder. “He’s always the first one here and the last to leave. He always asks the most questions. He’s the first to volunteer. Give me two weeks with Chris, and he’ll be ready. Give me a year, and he’ll be unstoppable.”
Chris was a new patient who showed up a month ago. He said he bought manna from a local gang. Upon further investigation by Peter, that local gang was Harris Militia, and they told him to buy manna and take it or they would attack his parents. Chris caved and took the manna. They then forced his family to take it too. After his sister went manic and forced a cop to shoot her, he came to Jacob’s Ladder seeking help before he shared her fate.
Athena looked Chris up and down as she approached. So far, he was recovering well. The manna expanded his muscles, but his hands no longer twitched, and his heartbeat sounded normal. He had a higher tolerance for the drug than most. Only Dahntay handled it better.
“I already have some background in karate,” Chris said as he looked at Athena then Achilla. “I’ll learn whatever it takes.”
“That’s the spirit,” Achilla replied as she patted Chris’ shoulder again. “I shouldn’t say this, but you’re my favorite student, Chris. I mean that.”
“Thanks,” Chris said. “I’m just trying to do my–”
“Achilla, how did you know about Peter?” Athena asked as she stepped forward with a smile and squeezed Chris’ shoulder. Achilla frowned and backed away from Chris.
“When you have a moment, I’ll discuss that with you as well,” Achilla said.
“I have a moment now,” Athena replied before rubbing Chris’ muscular arm. “Go get changed, Chris. Good job today.”
When Chris walked out of the room, Athena shut the door and glared at Achilla.
“Maybe you’re not used to taking direction from me because I’m your niece,” Athena said. “But in this building, I’m the authority. You don’t pull stunts like that without telling me first.”
“Look, I’m a volunteer here,” Achilla replied with a shrug. “And my class is voluntary. For all I know, a few will come back after they sleep on it. I’m confident ten of them will do exactly that. They only left because they were pissed off at me. They’re not afraid to fight at all.”
“Do that again, and I’ll be teaching the class instead,” Athena said. “Now, how did you find out about Peter?”
“My source is waiting out there,” Achilla replied before nodding at Peter. “I had her trail you, and she warned Apollo. You should thank her.”
“I’ll sign her in at the front desk,” Athena said as she opened the door and jumped at Artemis’ face staring at her. No, her nose was flatter, and her eyes were hazel. But damn did she and Artemis look alike. She had the same slanted eyes and skinny frame, but this woman was a little darker with a messy pixie style in her black hair. She also wore black jeans and a long-sleeved gray t-shirt that would’ve made her indistinguishable from one of Athena’s clients. Whoever she was, she snuck past everyone, and Athena didn’t sense her presence. The brown-skinned woman extended her hand. Athena shook it and noticed her tight grip.
“Before you say anything,” Achilla said. “What do you think of what I did with her hair?”
“Seriously?” Athena replied with a frown at Achilla. “You ask that now?”
“Well I think I did a good job,” Achilla said. “What do you say? You can tell me.”
“Ignore her,” Athena said to the woman in front of her. “She think she’s a hair stylist, and she’ll experiment on whoever lets her.”
“I style your hair,” Achilla quipped. “You’re just being nasty because you’re pissed at me.”
“I’m Athena,” Athena told the stranger in front of her. “You are?”
“It’s a pleasure to officially meet,” the woman said with a projected whisper. Her high-pitched voice had a breathiness to it combined with a polished inflection that made Athena wonder if she seduced men for a living. Still she had no accent Athena could recognize. Nothing about her even hinted where she was from or going, not even her voice.
“My name is Delilah,” she said. “And I’m Artemis’ sister. I find Achilla’s hair styling skills exceptional. My hair grew down my back and–”
Athena jolted and turned to Achilla who stared back and shrugged.
“Your source is Artemis’s sister?” Athena asked. “What were you thinking letting her in here?”
“She hasn’t betrayed us once,” Achilla said as she pointed at Delilah. “And she just saved Peter’s life. Oh, and I didn’t let her in. Technically.”
“How did you get in here?” Athena asked Delilah.
“I arrived before you and Achilla started sparring,” Delilah replied. “Amazing work as always. You’ve improved over the years.”
“Wait, what?” Athena asked as she looked back and forth between Delilah and Achilla. “How long has this been happening?”
“Since Artemis set her sights on your establishment,” Delilah said as she stepped inside. “She’s been onto Peter for quite some time, but she didn’t care until he got a little too close. I must commend him for managing to steal from her and leave with his life.”
“Thanks?” Peter said as he scratched his head. “You’re the one who saved me…even though I don’t remember seeing you there.”
“You and Apollo fought eight men,” Delilah said. “There was originally twelve. I happened to arrive before Apollo, so I started early before they got too close.”
“Damn, I didn’t hear a thing,” Peter said.
“You weren’t supposed to,” Achilla said. “She’s the best silent killer in the business.”
“You flatter me,” Delilah said before looking at Peter. “But it is you who deserves praise. You’ve forced Artemis’ hand earlier than expected.”
“What does that mean?” Athena asked.
“Artemis plans on attacking soon, but we’re not sure when,” Achilla said. “I think Peter’s surveillance put pressure on her to protect her secrets. Now that she tried to hurt him, we know what he found was valuable.”
“Vital,” Delilah said. “New manna technology that I couldn’t access now that I’ve completely defected.”
“How can we be so sure you have?” Athena asked.
“I can confirm it,” Achilla said. “I had to help her escape to Apollo.”
“No one fools Artemis forever,” Delilah muttered. “I was overconfident.”
“Can we just pause for a second?” Athena asked with her hands raised. “How long have you two been communicating?”
“Since Achilla got married,” Delilah said pausing as Athena stared at her. “Oh, did you mean Apollo? We met before that.”
“Whatever,” Athena replied. “All of this happened without my knowledge, and I don’t appreciate it.”
“We decided it was best that her identity remained a secret to as many people as possible while she was a double agent,” Achilla said. “Now that she’s with Apollo, no need to protect a cover.”
That explained everything. Despite no invitation, or even conversation, Apollo kept popping up at every important event in Athena’s life because he and Achilla shared a middle woman. She also happened to have insider intel on Artemis. How does someone like this live long enough to meet Athena?
“Achilla wanted me to introduce myself today,” Delilah said. “She also wanted me to test your security. Respectfully, it’s lacking.”
Athena squinted her eyes at Delilah. Their security wasn’t lacking at all. She was just too good for it. There wasn’t a security system built for someone who could kill four people before Peter even knew they were following him.
“Wow,” Peter said with a chuckle. “And I thought I was good. I can’t even walk in the door without Athena knowing where I am.”
“Then you’re not quite good enough,” Delilah said. “I’d be happy to help you with that. But first…”
Delilah disappeared and Athena frowned. The entire room fell silent. Athena looked around and heard nothing, smelled nothing, saw nothing but Achilla and Peter. She then felt the air shift behind her and turned in time to see Delilah’s foot swinging for her head.
Well, that’s one chapter down, plenty to go when you order your copy of Civil War at Smashwords.com. Pre-order it now while it’s $.99. Sale ends on June 10th when the novel releases!
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