Thursday, 11 November 2010

Excerpt Day – Synapses © Ashley Mann



Chapter One




Keep your head down. Don’t look him in the eye.

From under cover of dark, untidy bangs, Joey flicked her gaze in his direction. Nokey cut a tall, stern figure in all black. He was a middleman, not the drug dealer himself, or Carl probably wouldn’t have sent her. That didn’t make this any safer.


The street was empty. One side held abandominiums, vacant houses that someone occasionally found a use for, the other side was the back of a warehouse.



Butterflies in Joey’s stomach started to do the lambada as she studied the asphalt. I don’t care what Carl says. I’m not doing this again.

“You’re late,” Nokey growled. “I don’t wait for no juggler.”


Juggler? Joey froze, the words of denial freezing in her mouth. She had done this because Carl didn’t give her a choice and because she’d thought it was a money drop-off. Who put drugs in a dainty pink satin bag?


“You lit? You been jonesin’ for some of my T?”


Frantically she shook her head, grabbed the small purse from her pocket and thrust it out to him. “Take it. Just take it!” His dark eyes went flat and his upper lip curled. He didn’t take the purse.


Oh no. Immediately the meltdown of the butterflies in her stomach began. They morphed to a seething yellow ball, hot as boiling butter.


“You kep’ me waitin’ so you could get baked.” He snatched the purse and the top of her arm at the same moment, squeezing to the bone. “Nobody keeps me waitin’!” She was being pulled off the street, writhing, fighting in vain.


“I didn’t. Carl just sent me. I swear!” Couldn’t he tell she wasn’t high? The energy inside was pulsating now, threatening to take over. “I came straight here!” With that last word, she jerked hard and tried to twist away, but Nokey grabbed her around the waist and hefted her in the air. The metallic tang of his scent washed over her.


“Now, why would he do that?” Nokey whispered harshly in her ear. “What you think? You think he’s tryin’ to get rid of you? That why he sent you late?”


“I don’t know! Let me go.” She kicked at him without effect. He was going to kill her. She knew it. Joey took a deep breath and stopped struggling, focusing instead on keeping the energy under control. “Please let me go.”


He dropped her suddenly but shoved her back against the wall with a rough hand before she could escape. “I don’t wait for nobody.” Nokey’s hands seized her throat, squeezing. She looked into his face for the first time and saw his dark features swimming before her eyes. A roar built up from the broiling mass of energy in her core. She felt it reach out with long tentacles, stretching through her, finding its target easily.



Nokey went rigid. His hands clenched tighter on her throat. No! She couldn’t breathe. His hands convulsed as he shook hard, digging into her flesh. Air. She had to get air. Her arms flailed against the cement wall, scraping off skin. Bright spots of color flashed before her eyes. She clutched at his shirt, held it as the power drew in one last convulsive breath.


And then Joey’s energy exploded outward, driving Nokey and his grasping hands away, sucking her slowly down into a darkness that went on…and on.


* * * * *


Nick Ingram shook his head, feeling a strange dizziness wash over him. Students brushed past him, part of the between-class delirium at Laureate Prep High. Talk buzzed around his ears, then morphed into a dull rumble. Nick gripped tighter on his backpack, blinked furiously. The feeling slowly faded.


“Having another panic attack?” Taylor Genum was suddenly beside him, propelling him forward, tossing an irreverent smile his way. “Relax, man. The test is over. You can go back to being an ordinary citizen again.”




“I mean it—no more Supergeek.” Taylor flopped his blond bangs back. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt your image to flunk something once in a while. I’m only saying this for your benefit.”


Nick sighed, edging his way past the cluster of jocks in front of the girls’ bathroom. They liked to grade the girls coming out. Sometimes it got ugly.


“Or if you’re not going to stoop so low as to let that G.P.A. of yours slide, then perhaps you might consider helping someone else get their G.P.A. up—”




“I’m not finished yet. Help someone else get their G.P.A. up by slinging an answer their way every—”


“I said no, Taylor.”


Taylor cursed loudly. “Would you at least let me finish?” Nick stopped and gave Taylor a guarded look. “Thank you. Dad’s taking away the car if I don’t get higher than a D in chemistry.”


“I’m not going to help you cheat, Taylor. I’ll help you study, all—”


But Taylor was gone, brusquely knocking into Nick’s shoulder on his way down the hall. Nick watched him go, noticed the way he jumped to bash the ceiling tile and the way a P.A.—Principal’s Assistant—started off after him immediately.


Nick followed, angling his body through the crowd, noticing that somehow the jocks had moved up ahead of him. Taylor. There were times like these lately, when the six-year friendship between them seemed destined to dissolve. It was difficult to remember exactly why he had been drawn to his friend back when they first met. Probably it had something to do with the fact that Taylor could talk to anybody—never intimidated by the situation or the approval or disapproval of the adults around him. That drove Nick crazy. But maybe that was just what happened. Maybe sometimes friendships dried up like mud puddles under a summer sun.


Still walking as he brooded, Nick heard heated words spill from the next open doorway on the right. Several students stopped to look. Better to not get involved if somebody was—



Pain crashed through Nick’s right side and he went flying. Someone had been thrown into him. Thrown? He slammed into the lockers and hit the ground, catching himself just before his face hit the floor. Someone landed on him, crushing the breath out of him, pressing his face farther into the cold tile, rolling over him. Nick fought his panic, hearing nothing but a roar in his ears that heightened into a scream. His bones were ground into the floor as the body rolled off him, and then it was over. Wonderful, cleanser-filled air slid into his lungs.


The next thing he knew, hands had gripped the back of his shirt, lifting him up. Taylor’s face was the first thing that registered, followed by what sounded like Rod Jacobs mumbling an apology. “You all right, man?” Taylor asked.


“Yeah.” Nick was still working out what had happened. Rod Jacobs, the two-hundred-pound lineman who had crashed into him, was now launching himself at another tall, solid-looking guy in a football jersey, rearing his fist back to—


Rodrick Clemson Jacobs—don’t even think about it!”


Rod froze and every head turned. Molly McGlone was striding toward them, scowling. Everyone else had been standing out of the way of this brawl, but she marched right up. Nick had to smile. There was something attractive about a girl five feet three inches who was fearless. Petite—that was what his mom would call her—but she muscled her way in between the two huge football players like she was their equal. Amazing. Nick knew Rod and Molly had dated last year, so that was why she was keeping him in check so easily. But why had the other guy stopped?


Nick didn’t know him. He must be new this year. Taller than Rod, though not nearly as thick, with corded arms and the dark, dangerous look of a street fighter, he was intimidating even in his football jersey and jeans. Yet he had backed away from Molly and was now looking down at her with a wary smile as she snapped at him.


“Are you Neanderthals? What are you thinking?” Nick heard a few laughs. But he was taking another look at Molly. Her ivory skin was flushed with anger, making her snapping brown eyes stand out even more than usual. Old territory. It was easy to see why he had once had a crush on her. She really was pretty, but—


“I was going to ask you the same thing, Molly McGlone.” Rod’s opponent dragged out her name as if tasting it on his tongue. “You came very close to getting hurt. And then what would you have done?” She leveled him with an upturned look.


“I think I have a few ideas, Scott.”


“I’m sure you do.”


Molly looked confused then stepped out from between them. “I don’t know why I even bothered. Please kill each other, and Coach Frampton will have you running laps until you puke. Both of you. You’ve been warned about fighting before.” A few ooos were heard. The two football players eyed each other.


“She’s right,” Rod said abruptly. Molly watched Scott back off a hair and then moved to join a waiting friend, who looked awed that Molly had survived the intervention. Rod started to walk away. “I’m impressed, Rod.” Scott smiled mockingly. “You trained her good. Does she do all your fighting for you?” Rod’s face was beet red as he looked back and pointed at Scott.


“Back of the field tomorrow. Three o’clock. Books!” This last word he directed to a blonde freshman who had just appeared on his right. She gave Rod an embarrassed look but collected his books nonetheless. Scott slouched off, smirking at everyone, as he had apparently gotten what he wanted, and the crowd began to disperse.


Nick looked around but didn’t catch a glimpse of Molly’s red sweater anywhere. Well, he’d see her in English Lit, if not before.


“So…Supergeek, why’d you stay all mild-mannered?” Taylor hung his arm around Nick’s neck and handed him the backpack he’d dropped. “If you keep this up, all they’ll ever see is overachiever, underrated, subcool Nick Ingram.”


Taylor was trying to make peace in his own way. Nick rubbed at his aching side. “Yeah, well, maybe that’s all I want them to see.”


“Did you see Molly McGlone back there? She’s in fine form today. Fine.” Taylor grinned, sliding his arm off Nick.


“Not interested.” As soon as Nick started walking, a stab of pain radiated from his right side. It quickly settled into a gentle throb, which his head enthusiastically returned. “Ouch.”


But this was no time to check out, not with a Trig test coming, no matter how fuzzy his head seemed.


* * * * *


Far beyond reach lay the tiny, calm, white world—a pinprick of perfect white drowning in a whirl of shadow. The darkness quickly formed itself into a tunnel, now moving past her, propelling her toward the steadily growing light ahead. It was bigger than Joey thought, and grew to envelop her with chilling cold and a muffled clap that faded to an annoying chattering.


If only that stupid noise would stop, she thought desperately, wanting to disappear into the blankness around her, for some reason needing it. But the sound continued, getting louder and louder until her aggravation forced her awake.


Immediately the earth heaved under her. The noise was gone.


Joey was lying on her back…on hard cement, freezing cold, staring at the dirty, rough ceiling of a…parking garage?


How long have I been here? Her jaws ached. It was her teeth that had been chattering. Why—

There was a dead body beside her.


Joey jerked, stifling a cry. The man’s dark face was slack, cap gone, unblinking eyes empty. Electrified, scrambling backward, Joey gasped out ragged breaths. Nokey. I killed Nokey.

She stood, the space around her warping, receding, then pulling her in close like a fist. Breath tangled with emotion in her throat. Jagged memories cut through her mind in random order, senseless. She was trembling, shocked, maybe in shock, and there were voices—what?— carried by the wind. There was no way she could explain—


Joey ran. She pumped her legs furiously back up the alley, looking around for someone—anyone. But it was deserted until she hit the sidewalk. No one had seen. She was safe.


But come on, that won’t last long. With one thoughtless act she’d rendered all the caution of the past year meaningless. And Nokey—

She couldn’t think anymore. The school bus stop was ten blocks away and Joey didn’t stop running until her side cramped and weakness made her legs shake. Images tumbled through her mind as Joey jerked to a breathless, heaving stop.


She needed a pill. She needed help, but people were staring and they wouldn’t—couldn’t—understand. Joey forced an unnatural calm on the outside and walked on to the bus stop. She had to go to school. Fake it.


She could do this. She’d once been homeless for three years at a stretch. Then she’d had to fake a lot.


* * * * *


Joey slouched off the bus and found herself melting into the crowd outside George Streeter High, where at least half the populace looked poised for a wanted poster. Dressed to distress. Streeter was home to the public school system’s leftovers—the not-wealthy kids, the not-gifted kids, the ones who didn’t have someone to help them make the cut into the upper-level schools. Here, Joey was the skinny loner, the tall kid who wore the same pair of jeans every day and who never wore make-up. No piercings. No tattoos. Just a tall white girl who actually did her homework.


Not a murderer.

Joey sucked in a ragged breath and slipped into the doorway of her second class just before the bell rang. The other students ignored her as she took her seat. She let her black, tangled curls fall down past her shoulders, a rarity for her. One hand slid to her collar and tugged it up to hide bruises from Nokey’s clutching hands. She tried to stop imagining them still around her neck.


As the teacher began, Joey forced herself to tune in. Whenever guilt or fear would surface, she buried it.


She didn’t break down the whole day, though she came close once, when she suddenly remembered why Carl had sent her to see Nokey in the first place. The drug money. Nokey owed Carl money. Joey had left the drugs in Nokey’s pocket and hadn’t gotten the money. All the way home, the thought eclipsed all else—Carl was going to kill her. Frozen by a strange emotional exhaustion and unable to think of a solution, she crawled up on her bed in the silent house.


Hours later the slamming door woke Joey with a start. When had she fallen asleep? Blearily she tossed off the knobby quilt and bent to pull on her sneakers, her heart beating small and light. It might not be him, but if it was—


There was a knock at the door.


Nexie stuck her head in, blue eyes wide, frizzy blonde hair askew. “Carl’s here.” She adjusted the skintight pink spandex holding her breasts up and looked intently at Joey before running off.


“What about Samson?” Joey hissed after her but there was no answer. She scrambled about the room in a half panic. She grabbed the usual survival items—her blue cardigan, a change of clothes, the backpack with the bottle of pills in a zippered pocket and a package of crackers. It only took her twenty seconds to be ready and at the door.


Cautiously she peeked out. Stilted laughter and a boisterous cackle sounded from the kitchen. She tiptoed to the front door through the den, desperate to put this off for any amount of time. If she could just be quiet enough…


Joey stopped short. Carl’s guard, Samson, was there, standing by the door—a huge, black mountain of a man. “Whazzup?” rumbled out his deep, toneless voice.


“Where you goin’, Baby Girl?” Joey froze. Footsteps came closer.


Stay in control. The couch creaked. Steeling herself, she turned around. There was Carl, lounging, smiling up at her—dark against the powder blue sofa.


“So, Baby Girl, how’d it go this mornin’?” His smile showed two rows of neat, white teeth, two of them capped in gold.


“Not so good. Nokey was angry that I was late.” Behind her Samson chuckled. Nexie and Sylvia laughed nervously as Carl swept a look in their direction.


“That’s what I heard,” he turned back to Joey with a long, calculating look in his slanted eyes. “So, did you give him the purse?”


“Yeah. Right before he attacked me,” she said evenly.


“Attacked yo?” Carl’s eyes were wide with something like shock, but a spasm of excitement had briefly passed over his face. Joey was suddenly struck by the thought that Carl might have actually sent her late on purpose, like Nokey said. “But yo got away all right. Look at yo. That’s good. That’s real good, but I’m wondering how. You see, Nokey ain’t no wanksta. He’s more thug than Samson here. So how’d yo get away, Baby Girl?”


“He collapsed. I think he had a heart attack.”


“Before or after yo got the money?”


“Before. But he attacked me because—he kept saying I was late.”


“Yo got the purse?”




“That bag was good for one G, and yo tellin’ me that I ain’t got nothin’ to show for it?” He stood and Joey shifted back, balancing lightly on her feet, ready for anything. Was he angry? He didn’t look angry. He was peering into her eyes, moving closer. “What yo thinkin’, Baby Girl? Come righ’ ou’ and say it now. Yo think I did it on purpose? ’Zat what yo think?” He shook his head. “I been investin’ in yo for years, Baby Girl, and I plan on gettin’ a return on my investment. Yo costin’ me money every day yo live here and don’ make me no money. Don’t shake yo head at me! I own this house! I own them,” he paused, pointing at Nexie and Sylvia, “and after three years of investin’, I own yo too, and any particular abilities you have.” Joey went numb. Abilities?

“Even Nokey can’t disappear without somebody noticin’, Baby Girl,” Carl continued, moving closer until she finally stepped back. “He has family. Yo think they’re not out lookin’ for the murderer right now?”


“I didn’t kill him! I don’t know what happened. I-I…it was a heart attack. And he was trying to kill me!” Joey’s gaze skittered past Carl to the kitchen and the only unguarded escape. Nexie and Sylvia were standing there, looking shocked.


“Yo think you can prove that in court? Think you can prove that a dead man was tryin’ to kill yo before you murdered him? Got any witnesses? No? Well…I do. I knows someone who saw yo kill that man.”


The room went dark in Joey’s eyes. Her heart pounded slow and hard. “I didn’t touch him.”


Then Carl was there, so close that she jerked back into the wall with a soft thud. “Yo didn’t have to, did yo? That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, Joey.” She stared at him. He’d said her real name. His voice was oily, smooth. “How did yo do it? Come on. I don’t care ’bout the money. I jus’ want to know the truth. Nexie and Sylvia need to hear the truth. They must be thinkin’ terrible things about yo right now.”


I didn’t kill him.


There was a sudden, violent slash of motion and Joey’s cheek exploded with blinding pain. She found herself on the floor, clutching at the rug while the room leaned horribly.


“Yo ain’t goin’ nowhere ’til yo tell me the truth. And then yo may not go anywhere for a while, not ’til we get this…thing figured out.” She stared at the floor emptily, hating him, hating those greedy eyes, even hating his alligator-skin shoes as they came to a stop in front of her. “The way I see it, now I own yo and I gots some mo’ jobs for yo to do.”


Her stomach heaved. Jobs? He set me up. This whole thing… He knew all along.

“Nexie, Sylvia,” he barked out, “do yo girl-talk thing and get me some answers!” As soon as he backed off, Sylvia was beside Joey, helping her up, grabbing her bag and guiding her to the kitchen. Nexie had disappeared. Carl was berating Samson loudly.


As soon as they were out of sight, Sylvia stopped and took Joey’s hands, staring deeply into her eyes. The blue frosted eyeshadow looked ghastly in the fluorescent light, but her voice, laced with a soft Mexican accent, was kind. “Joey, we know you didna do it on purpose. It was an accident.” As she spoke Joey’s vision blurred with tears. “But you still must go.”


Nexie appeared beside Sylvia with Joey’s canvas duffel bag, stuffing her blanket inside.




“Here.” Nexie thrust the bag into her frozen hands. “This is no place for you anymore.” Joey was speechless. Carl would kill them for this. They were supposed to be getting information out of her. But then, after three years here, Nexie and Sylvia were as close as she had to family


They pulled her to the door. Joey stopped them but didn’t trust herself to speak. If Carl heard them—


“Chica,” Sylvia whispered as she turned to head toward the den. “I will miss those bee-yoo-tiful eyes of yours.” Then she walked out of sight, to Carl. Joey’s gaze went to Nexie, who was already moving to the counter. Joey watched her ready the coffeepot as she had seen her do a thousand times. Then silently, knowing Sylvia could only keep Carl busy for a minute or two at best, Joey slipped out the door and disappeared into the darkness.


© Ashley Mann


Author: Ashley Mann

Publisher: Cerridwen Press

Genre: Paranormal Romance

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Mutation has a way of changing things.

Like who is watching you.

Joey Falcione doesn’t look like a murderer. Sure, orphaned, homeless for years, she’s learned to blend in at Chicago’s tough Streeter High. But killing someone is not part of her plans for today. She won’t be given a choice.

Like how you see yourself.

At Laureate Prep, Molly McGlone—cheerleader, semi-spoiled rich girl—seems too shallow to be a superhero. But when evil strikes someone she loves, the changes inside her suddenly make sense. If she can help someone now, shouldn’t she?

Like what you fear.

Until the night his body betrays him, Nick Ingram is so focused on schoolwork that the rest of his life is a shadow. But now his destiny has changed to include danger, power and two very different girls. One of those girls will claim his heart from the very moment he sees her.

Mutation changes everything.

Even how you fall in love.

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