I was introduced to Last Kiss Comics when I went to the NY Comic Con (their booth was a hop, skip, and a jump from Pocket).
Oh, and here’s an excerpt from THE RED HEART OF JADE (with a strong language warning, because hey, this is Dean we’re talking about):
Night in Taipei. It brought out a different crowd. Dean rode the hotel elevator down to the main lobby, surrounded on all sides by the sleek and dazzling, men and women glittering at a high sheen like polished diamonds, airbrushed and ready for an evening of pretend fun and deadly earnest networking. Little games of the rich, with a wineglass in hand. Do a little dance, sing a little song. Get down tonight.
Nausea swarmed his throat. He pushed it down.
Smile, he told himself grimly. Not now, because it’ll freak out the pretty people, but smile. Get a fucking smile in your motherfucking heart, you son of a bitch.
Because that was the only way he was going to have the strength to get out of this elevator, walk out of this hotel, and face the rest of his night. No other option. If a man did not smile he just might cry—or lay down and die—and that was just no way to carry on. Dean had things to do. He had to keep on trucking. People were depending on him, lives had to be saved, and if that meant being the most cheerful son of a bitch on this planet then, goddammit, he was going to be that man even if it killed him.
Which it might. His chest still throbbed. Dean curled his hand against his thigh; he wanted to keep prodding the mysterious injury, had spent the past thirty minutes in front of a mirror, naked, doing just that. Staring at the curling incision, staring and staring until it was all he could see. No way to shrug it off, either. Might be he had witnessed enough shit over the past three days to qualify for nightmares, but this was physical, real, not self-inflicted. Dean’s nails were clean, and there was nothing around his bed that could have made that incision. Nothing to cut, nothing to scratch, not unless his mind was playing tricks. Riding high on insane.
The elevator doors opened. Dean entered an octagon-shaped alcove framed by dark marble and golden globe lights made of glass. He smelled orchids, lilies; the air tinkled with the fine murmur of quiet voices, the low melody of piano, the click of high heels and the chime of fine china. The ceiling floated more than one hundred feet above his head, emanating a sheer warm glow from tiny lights set like baubles in speckled white. Beyond the elevators, in a wide hall leading directly into the main lobby, men and women mingled in suits and evening gowns, causal chic; dressed for nights on the town, for the tropical heat, for the elegance demanded by wealth and good breeding and lives far from the street, the universal gutter with which Dean was so familiar, the violence and poverty and good old-fashioned dirt.
Some of the people looked at Dean like he was dirt. Which was fine. He knew the score. Expected nothing less. He did not look like a nice man. He did not look rich. Of course, that was the entire point.
The guns strapped to his ankles chafed. The rig beneath his t-shirt was not much better. Three illegal weapons, smuggled into the country, loaded and ready to go. Dean could already feel them in his hands—natural and perfect extensions. Practically the best parts of him. Right up there with his mind.
He let go of his control as he walked through the lobby, taking a circular path that led him directly through the crowd. His shields dropped, the world shifting as flesh melted into light, bodies quivering into comet trails, pillars of energy, leaving wakes in the air like strings and threads. Footprints, fingerprints, soulprints—echoes of the living, lingering vibrations quivering to some quantum jazz, making him feel like a musician as he moved through the light—tasting the world, trying to find the right color and note, the perfect combination of identity and murder.
But it was a waste of time. He found no fire as he stared through the eyes of the people around him. He found no death as he pulled himself along the fading trails of energy crisscrossing the lobby, nothing at all as he tracked the actions of every man and woman who had walked this floor in the past day. Picture shows flickered through his head—incontrovertible testimonies—remote views not barred by distance or time. Hard sex, fights, parties and national monuments and designer shops. Interiors of limousines and dance clubs, cigarette smoke and crying babies. Nothing incriminating. Perfectly boring. Not one person to use a bullet on.
And you were expecting what? A break in the case? A miracle? When everything else about this assignment has been shit in the drain?
Yeah, well. There was nothing wrong with being an optimist. Especially now, given that he was so totally and irrevocably screwed.
No traces in my room, nothing recent in the hall. I burned like there was a flamethrower up my ass, got sliced in the chest, and the bastard didn’t even leave a trail. Fucking uncivilized.
And unnatural. Just like everything else he had encountered over the past three days. Dean had been stymied before on particularly tough cases, but nothing like this. Taipei had a killer on the loose, an arsonist and psychopath – a cruel vindictive son of a bitch – but tracking the man was like trying to find a ghost; a creature with no energy left to share, someone who did not exist. Dean had found nothing of him at any of the crime scenes, just impressions from the lingering vibrations of the dead – their last visions, the world around them as they burned. The sensation of a man watching. Dark eyes.
Not much of a description. Nothing else to go on, though. Nothing about the energies crisscrossing the lobby that tickled Dean’s brain as he soaked in the light; nothing familiar, not even some gut instinct crying, there, you might just have him there.
He shut off his inner sight and the world snapped back into place. People had bodies again; the material had form, substance. All those bits and pieces of energy, invisible. He almost wished that was not the case. He liked seeing people as nothing but light. It put life into perspective, calmed him down, all zen-like. He needed some calm right now. Really badly.
His wandering had brought him close to the massive flower display arranged near the hotel entrance: a tanglewood, sprouting orchids and wild lilies, misted ferns and curling vines; other, more delicate, blossoms tucked away like pixies. Dean heard laughter. Women, voices low, husky, warm like whiskey with the rough burn. He peered around the flowers and saw short skirts, long golden legs, fake breasts, perfect hair. Some of the faces were nice, too. Six high-maintenance women, glossy mouths shining, clinging to the arms of a tall man in white—white linen pants, loose white linen shirt, long white hair framing a pale chiseled face sporting mirrored sunglasses. Definite dye-job. A diamond glinted from one ear. The women looked ready to tear open his fly and take him down like a fat juicy deer. Dean thought it must be nice to be that wanted.
The man in white smiled at th
e ladies, but not with his teeth; his mouth simply curved and curved, curved so much it was like looking at the rock star version of an albino clown. Very disturbing. Very familiar. Dean recognized him, had seen that pale mug on a billboard at the airport, on the covers of local magazines, on Taiwanese television, in a music video playing on monitors in a night market. He was the new hot tamale, the best man around town. Always in white, always with those glasses, with that same damn smile cutting his face like an upside down frown.
Bai Shen. White God. Singer, model, playboy. Not in any immediate danger of spending an evening alone. Bastard.
Dean backed away toward the glass doors. He studied Bai Shen, the spectacle surrounding him, and thought for a moment he was being watched through those mirrored sunglasses. Watched with the kind of intensity that could explain the sudden shift of that curving smile into nothing more than a crooked line.
Odd. Dean did not like it.
You’re being paranoid. He’s a pansy-ass pretty boy, who at the worst, thinks you’re white trash. He’s not some motherfucking psycho with pyromaniac tendencies. That’s just kooky.
Maybe. But it still rubbed Dean the wrong way, and he had no trouble matching that mirrored gaze. Pure stubbornness, defiance, a childhood spent dealing with Philadelphia steel men, gruff sons of bitches who worked hard, drank harder, and who could probably turn this rock star albino-wannabe into toilet paper with nothing but a spit and glare. All kinds of good times.
Bai Shen looked away first. He turned his head and said something to one of the women hanging onto his arm. A cheap save. Dean smiled and left the hotel.
The night air hit him hard; heat stuffed itself down his lungs, along with the scents of exhaust, smog, a singularly wet odor of humid cement, fresh with grease and some distant open sewage line. Cab drivers leaned out their windows, alternately spitting beetlenut juice on the sidewalk and whistling.
Dean ignored them. The latest crime scene was ten minutes away, easy at a fast walk. He had made the trip earlier that day, but at nine in the morning the area was too crowded: cops swarming, family mourning, nosy neighbors, journalists with their microphones swinging. Better to go back to the hotel, catch up on some food and sleep. Try again when things got quiet.
Yeah, right. What a joke.
Skyscrapers ranged tall and sharp, framed against a nighttime backdrop of light-reflected yellow clouds. At street level the roads narrowed and the shops transformed, high-end polished gems of austere beauty giving way to colorful crammed alcoves full of plastic jewelry, trendy cast-offs, and blasting music. Beetlenut girls, dressed in glittering shreds of almost nothing, tottered the street in six-inch wedge heels, calling out to cab drivers with their baskets in hand, giving Dean wary looks as he passed, ready to kick his ass if he tried anything. He wanted to tell them not to worry, that he knew they weren’t prostitutes, but he settled for not looking. Hard, given the amount of skin showing, but he was not a complete sleaze.
He was not alone, either. A crow cawed, swooping down low, skimming the top of his head with a wing. Dean caught the flash of a golden eye, winking light like a tiny sun, and then it blinked and disappeared into the hot night; a ghost, a shadow flying. Dean bit down a shout, wished he could call the bird back, give him a sign, tell him it was time for words and human flesh instead of just glimpses and wings. He needed to talk to someone about what had just happened. He needed to give a warning. His back-up needed back-up, because if the killer had pegged Dean�well, bad times. But it would be worse timing now to make an ass of himself trying to get that bird’s attention. It would bring attention to the bird. And Dean was not going to let that happen. Besides, Koni would find him again when he had something useful. Until then, the more distance the better.
Sweat rolled down his body. His jacket was too hot, but he needed the cover to hide the rig strapped beneath his shirt. The leather rubbed the edge of the cut, which continued to throb. He tried to ignore it. Tried not to think of fire, ash�but after a minute of wrestling with himself, gave up. He forced himself to embrace the memory, to turn it over and over in his head, examining every detail and sensation, the lick of fire that had rippled over his naked body. And as he thought of himself, he thought of the dead, the recent dead, moments of death and dying. Quiet murders, without struggle. Other men bursting into flame. Dean forced himself to relive the clips and fragments of those lives he had soaked into himself during his brief stays at the crime scenes.
It was good that his stomach was empty—good, too, that he was better at seeing the present than the past. He did not know how many times he had seen those deaths—too many, for sure—but someone had to watch, someone, anyone—because those people had died alone with a murderer, with no avenue of escape, no rhyme or reason or warning, and at least now there was another pair of eyes, another witness who could say, I see. I see and I will make it stop. I promise.
“I promise,” Dean murmured, sinking deeper into himself, rubbing his mind against memory, all that remained of flesh and blood and dream. Fifteen people lost, with nothing to show for their lives but the remains of fires that had burned bodies to black dust while leaving homes untouched.
Impossible, said the local authorities. No accelerants, no sources of heat, no witnesses reporting explosions or screams or voices through the walls. The only clue, the only observation in a week of death, was from an old woman, a neighbor to one of the early victims, who had reported hearing a roaring sound while standing on her balcony. The kind of soft roar one might hear when striking a match; the hiss before the flame. Except, louder. Much louder.
Ignition. Fire. Burning alive in silence, at heats matching those of a crematorium. Not just sparks or a dropped cigarette. Not just a well-placed match. And not, as some had speculated back home in the office of Dirk & Steele, some weird case of mass spontaneous human combustion, which, if it did exist, was still an extremely rare phenomenon that did not descend in bursts of fiery fury to strike down helpless individuals like fat marshmallows on sticks. There was simply too much fire in this case. Too many occurrences in one city, and within just a week. Which meant that something else was involved. Someone else.
And that someone has got me pegged.
Bad. Not part of the plan. Good thing Dean had orders to wrap things up fast, tight. Shoot to kill, even if the boss did want him to ask questions, find out why the murderer was burning people—make sure all that death was not some kind of big mistake.
Right. Tea and crumpets, a nice little heart-to-heart. Get all touchy-feely, just before the bullets and the fuckin’ fire. Jesus Christ. Dean did not take much stock in his own intelligence, but he wasn’t that dumb. He didn’t care, either, if he was supposed to play by the rules, be all noble. Bullets were better. Bullets were safer. They were more�just.
You’re not an executioner. You’re not judge and jury.
No, but he had a duty to protect others, himself, and Dean preferred life over death. He could make himself forget things like guilt and heroism and honor if it meant keeping people safe, if it meant another day with a beating heart, a whole body. Dean did not mess around. He had made that mistake once before—tried to do the right thing, been weak—and it had cost him everything. Made him dead in places, put holes in his spirit.
Not again. Not ever. Dean had enough scars. A charm hanging around his neck.
Dean turned down a darkened street, skirting bicycles, badly parked cars, fluttering laundry and plants too large for their cracked pots; old men sitting on plastic chairs with cigarettes in hand, t-shirts rolled up over their sweaty chests, shooting the breeze over battered mahjong tables lit by fluorescent lamps, with the click and clack tapping the night—and past them, old women gossiping on stoops, watching children kick balls in the darkness, screaming and laughing, voices ringing off the walls. Televisions sputtered through windows, pots and pans clanging; Dean smelled roasted meat. Packs of dogs scuffed through garbage, watching him with high whines in their throats.
The street twisted, curved. Dean did not get lost, though he imagined doing so on purpose: misplacing himself in the maze, putting off another night, becoming nothing more than a memory, a thread, his own energy just lifting off and dissipating like a cloud into the smog, into the heat, melting away like one big drop of nothing in the world.
But he ran out of time. Darkness fell away. Light entered, bright and artificial, and Dean left the quiet residential street for a world that blasted him with color, with crowds and whistles and battling scents; rolling neon and billboards that covered buildings, crowding for attention with American imports like a three-story McDonalds and a high-class Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders presiding like a fat white ghost. Young people pushed and shoved in their sexy finest, spilling out of booming clubs and stores, cell phones hanging from necks like silver bullets, laughing and smiling, unbothered by the heat, the crush, because it was night in Taipei and it was time for the wild to come out, the good times. Dean felt like an old man compared to the kids around him; thirty-six on his way to forty, with his first white hairs right around the corner. Pretty soon he’d be like some lonely cat lady, except with guns and Playboys and comic books.
God. What an image.
The crowds thinned, the people changed. The high-class entertainment zone was an island surrounded by rundown cozy residential neighborhoods; pathways and backstreets cutting across the area like dark veins. The apartment complex, the crime scene, was a dull gray building that rose on the edge of an alley, away from the glitz. Thick wires hung in tangled masses down its walls—electrical, telephone, television—swinging free and dandy around balconies and windows and satellite dishes.
He was just about ready to get down to business when something hard and small hit the side of his head. Dean clapped a hand over his scalp and whirled, staring. His sight shifted, but only partially; flesh mixed with energy, thrumming, and directly across from him, deep inside a narrow space cutting between two buildings like a dark vein, Dean found a golden humming thread cutting through shadow like an electric current. He stepped close, wading through bouncing teenagers, and reached out with his senses. Found someone familiar.
Dean’s vision shifted again, this time back to the real world. He blinked hard, but darkness perfectly concealed the hiding man. Dean hesitated. Another rock flew out of the alley. A small one. It hit him hard, just above his groin.
“Son of a bitch,” Dean growled, and left the sidewalk for the shadows, ignoring the strong scent of piss in the gutters. The light did not reach; for a moment Dean went blind, and then�movement, into the dim light. Dean saw a lean male face framed by loose black hair. Sharp jaw, high cheekbones, narrow nose. Eyes golden and bright and utterly inhuman. Skin, rippling, a line of soft black pushing through deeply tanned skin to course down neck and arm.
Feathers. Soft feathers. Disappearing in a heartbeat like a dream. Extraordinary, creepy, and out of this world. Kind of like everything in Dean’s life.
Something sharp jabbed his ribs.
“Honey,” Dean said. “Not in public. You know I’m shy.”
The knife dug deeper. “You’re a real bastard, Dean. You know that?”
“My mother put it on my birth certificate.” Dean pushed the knife away from his side. “Hello, personal space. No sharp objects allowed beyond the periphery of my toes. It makes my bladder nervous.”
“Then get ready to pee.” Koni shifted his weight and flicked his wrist; the knife disappeared into the loose pocket of his black linen pants. His white tank was rid
dled with holes; tattoos covered his arms. Dean wondered where he had gotten the duds. Last he checked, Koni was not much for packing or stashing clothes. Like, not even underwear. Which made sense, in a twisted sort of way. But still, more than he wanted to know.
Dean said, “You dive-bombed me earlier. What is it?”
“Change in plans. Behind you, on the street. There are some men watching, and I don’t think they’re armed with daisies. They’ve been with you since the Far Eastern.”
A sucker-punch. Dean’s stomach hurt. “I was followed?”
“Like a big dumb blonde joke. But if makes you feel better, they’re good. I might have missed them if I hadn’t been in the air.”
Small comfort. Dean glanced out at the street, scanning faces, the rumbling roving crowd. After a moment, he singled out two men standing just outside the slanted doorway of a chic rice soup bar. They were definitely not members of the youth movement; the men dressed like twins in tacky uniform: checkered short sleeve shirts, black pants with the waists hauled up high; dark leather man-purses clutched tight in their hands. They watched Dean. Stared at him. No mistaking that look, either. They knew exactly who he was, and were not bothering to hide it.
Yeah. This was turning out to be a great night. Dean thought about shooting himself just to get it over with.
“Over there,” he said. “The odd couple.”
“Yes.” Koni leaned away from the wall. Water dripped on his head from the old air conditioner rattling mercilessly above him. “At first I thought they were cops, that someone had seen you breaking into those other crime scenes.” Dean began to disagree, but Koni held up his hand. “I know. The set-up isn’t right. Cops wouldn’t just stand there like that. They would have made contact by now. Busted your ass. There wouldn’t be a reason not to.”
“I don’t like where this is going,” Dean said.
“Neither do I. I almost wish they were the police.”
Dean could not bring himself to disagree, even though he had promised, sworn on his life, made a blood oath that he and Koni would stay under the official government radar—and not only because what they were doing was slightly illegal. Drawing the attention of local authorities would mean something worse than jail time. Like, questions. Maybe even media attention. Bad, because there were quite a few people who might not understand why an internationally respected detective agency like Dirk & Steele would be interested in investigating the murderous efforts of a serial arsonist halfway around the globe, no matter how heinous the crimes. After all, no Americans had died, and this was a country where gun ownership was illegal and fire was just another weapon—as were household chemicals, knives, rat poison, rope, or whatever else a person with premeditation could wrangle.
Nor did it matter that Dirk & Steele had an understanding with certain key members of the Taiwanese government; the Taipei police would not appreciate the implication that they needed help in capturing their murderer, even if they did. Local law enforcement argued the lack of evidence was due to a genius perp or just dumb luck. Dean could not rule out either one of those possibilities. But after tonight, after the past few days, he was quite certain that intellect or luck had nothing to do with the murders themselves. Just power. Cruelty. If there was another reason to set people on fire, he wanted to hear it.
“So,” Koni said. “What’s the plan?”
“No plan,” Dean replied. “We finish what we started. Stop the fires. Stay alive. Anything else we play by ear.”
“Sounds dangerous. As usual.”
“You want fuzzy bunnies and happy endings, you better take to the air right now, buddy, and never look back. This is gonna be a rough night. It’s already been a rough night.” He hesitated, and lifted up his shirt.
Koni blinked. “You’re flashing me, Dean. Stop. Please.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Look. I’ve got an injury. I got it tonight. Someone cut my chest. Set me on fire. While I was in my hotel room.”
“No. I’m not kidding.”
Koni stared. “That’s impossible. You’re fucking with me. You have to be. There’s no way he could have pegged you. ”
No way at all, Dean argued silently. But expecting the unexpected was part of the game, and that fire and cut in his chest were signs. Signs that he had messed up, signs that the killer was just too good, signs that they were in over their heads. Signs and portents, a future that was too hot to handle. Literally.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything, Dean thought, but struck the idea down, fast. No doubt it would have been easier to keep his mouth shut, but that would be a lie—a lie by omission—and it was not just his own life at stake. If the killer knew about Dean, then Koni might not be far behind. And if those men out on the street were following them�
He had to know the risks. All the risks.
Dean waited, quiet. Koni studied his face, also silent, and then slowly, carefully, leaned close, studying the curving scar. He did not touch it.
Dean said, “I’m not lying.”
“I know,” Koni replied. “But it’s still impossible. I don’t see any evidence of fire. No burns. And you’re still alive. Our killer doesn’t leave anyone alive, Dean.”
“No one we know of, anyway.”
“And you’re sure it’s him?”
“I’m not sure about anything but, hello, fire? Us chasing a serial murderer who just might be a pyrokinetic? Tell me that’s not too much of a coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence. But I had to ask.”
“Trust me, if I could have blamed the fire on a nightmare I would have. But there’s nothing imaginary about that cut.”
“It’s deep. You should be bleeding. You need stitches.”
“It was a clean wound. No blood. Just the incision.”
“God. You’re screwed.”
Dean scowled. “If the murderer knows who I am, and now I’m being followed by those jokers out there—”
“Like I said. Screwed. Both of us.” Koni pressed back against the concrete wall and closed his eyes. “I need a drink. A goddamn cigarette. I’m too tired for this shit.”
“How do you think I feel?” Dean dropped his shirt. “You think those guys out there work for our killer?”
“If they do, then we’ve got a bigger problem on our hands than simple murder.”
“We’ve got an operation,” Dean said. “Organization. Not just a psycho who likes to play with fire.”
The two men stared at each other.
“Dean,” Koni said slowly. “We need a better plan.”
“Koni,” Dean replied. “I need to get to that crime scene. Right now.”
“You’ll be bait. You won’t be able to shake those guys.”
“I got no choice. We’re not going to find answers anywhere else.” Dean glanced over his shoulder. The men were still watching. Bold, conf
ident. A bad sign. He felt like giving them the finger or waving them over for a thumb-wrestling contest to the death. Anything to end the mystery, the possibilities of who those men might be working for.
Don’t think about it. Don’t you dare. Not now.
Koni said, “Fine. Okay, then. Let’s go.”
“You’re coming with me? On the ground?”
“Don’t look so surprised. My legs work as well as my wings.” And Koni pushed past him and headed out of the alley, turning right, moving quick and sparing only one hard look at the men standing on the other side of the street. The trackers did not blink, showed no reaction at all. Dean turned around to watch them, walking backwards, throwing in a moonwalk for good measure, because hell, acting serious and moody wasn’t going to make much of a difference at this point. He smiled at the men. Made the sign of a shooting gun. Pointed, and mouthed, Bang, bang. You’re dead.
Koni, glancing at him, said, “Every time I begin to have respect for your intelligence, you do something like that.”
“It’s a gift,” Dean said. “My powers of survival and intuition are endless.”
ARCS will be available at the Book Expo, and I believe we’re doing the buzz marketing campaign again. The Red Heart of Jade comes the first week of July. This was a difficult book to write. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it was. Thank goodness I have a patient editor.