Book Review – Dakiti (Ziva Payvan Book One) by EJ Fisch

Dakiti - EJ Fisch

Dakiti – Ziva Payvan Book One

By EJ Fisch

I came across this book during a random Twitter search and – given my soft spot for action heroines and science fiction – downloaded a sample. That pulled me in and the full book soon followed it to my Kindle.

A brief summary of the plot (minor spoilers for the early chapters):

Set in faraway star systems in (presumably) the distant future, Dakiti is the first title in a series of novels featuring Ziva Payvan: a cold-blooded, no-nonsense special forces operative. Not the nicest person in the galaxy, but if a dangerous assignment needs to be completed or someone has to be eliminated with no questions asked, she’s the go-to woman. If Jack Bauer (from 24) was an alien female with red eyes, he’d probably be Ziva Payvan.

Payvan is (in)famous among her fellow agents at the Haphezian Special Police (HSP). Most have never seen her face, let alone worked with her, but everyone knows her reputation. So when Aroska Tarbic – an agent still reeling from the loss of his team – is assigned with Ziva on a Special Ops joint task force, one might expect him to be pleased. But there’s one tiny problem: Ziva murdered Aroska’s brother Soren and he (quite understandably) hates her guts. And Aroska is not the forgiving sort – things are relatively cordial for about an hour or so, then he and Ziva are at each other’s throats.

However, Aroska doesn’t want to kill Ziva. Not yet – he wants some answers about his brother first. And Ziva gives the impression that toying with people is second nature to her, so the two operatives bury the hatchet (maybe half bury it) and work together. Pretty soon they’re involved in stopping an assassination attempt on a diplomat, who appears to be connected to a transmission that could blow the lid off a dastardly plot. And it seems someone at HSP tipped the would-be killers off.

With an unknown mole in the agency and enemies gunning for them both, Ziva and Aroska decide to work together for the good of the galaxy. That’s what they tell themselves, anyway – even though neither really believes it.

Thoughts and Opinions:

I don’t want to reveal much more of the story, as it would spoil the detailed world and twists that the author EJ Fisch has crafted. The best compliment I can give a novel is that it I didn’t want to put it down, and that was certainly the case here.

The pacing was pretty much spot on. Sometimes authors get bogged down in description, particularly with science fiction/fantasy as those genres require more world building that contemporary thrillers. EJ Fisch provided just enough detail about Haphez and the other worlds for me to create a mental image without going overboard. I particularly liked how the author handled long periods of expository dialogue – there were lots of actions mixed in, with characters noted as moving around/performing actions rather than simply speaking. This really helped me to picture the scenes in progress.

There were a couple of historical background elements regarding wars or other events that were a little confusing and possibly could have done with a few extra lines of explanation here or there, but overall Ziva’s world was an exciting and detailed one.

One of the highlights was the relationship between Ziva and Aroska – best described as hate/respect rather than love/hate, as there is certainly no love between the two at any point. Or even any hints at romance at all. In an era when romance seems to be obsession for action/adventure novels (regardless of whether it makes sense for the characters or not), it was a refreshing change to have a different dynamic. And as noted above, Ziva is definitely not the romantic sort. The only mention of romance is between Aroska and Saun, another fellow operative who may be more than a friend.

There are no major complaints from me, but one minor one is the predictability. The identity of the mole in HSP seemed obvious, and I expected a twist in the tale that never came. Also there were times when I knew what was coming next (if not always – thanks mainly to the Ziva/Aroska relationship). The villains weren’t quite as well developed as the (anti)heroes, but the traitor’s motivation was well explained, logical, and a bit meatier than what could have been the familiar HSP don’t pay me nearly enough for the sh*t I do.

The ending felt a bit anti-climatic in parts since the main bad guy and traitor were despatched a few chapters before the end. I was expecting a big drawn-out confrontation, but perhaps I shouldn’t have – Ziva was so deadly she didn’t need one.

There’s one particular plot development about Ziva (won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers), briefly told through an effective and well-told flashback. Suffice it to say it’s a game changer for her relationship with the HSP. You know it’s going to play an important part and it does at the very end. Ziva remains an intriguing character – deadly with firearms and blades, lots of secrets (including a hidden compartment in her boot and a past she’s killed to keep hidden), fellow operatives Skeet and Zinni who trust her implicitly, motives shrouded in mystery. Definitely someone I’d want on my side in a fight, though. You don’t want to be her enemy.

As things progress, Ziva and Aroska have the opportunity to save one another (multiple times), but just when you think they’re about to get along, they don’t. Even at the end of the book the relationship is strictly professional – a little more friendly than at the start, but lukewarm at best.

It will be interesting to see how the series progresses from here, and I’ll definitely be checking out Nexus – Book Two of Ziva Payvan.

Links to download the book:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Other Links:

EJ Fisch WordPress Blog

Follow EJ Fisch on Twitter

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Jade Dragon – Chapter Two

Jade Dragon 1000x1500

Jade Dragon

Part of the Action Girl Thrillers Series

Chapter Two: Ninety Minutes to Live

When Toshigi opened his eyes, the first image that shimmered into focus was the towering Amazonian figure standing over him, one boot either side of his waist. The woman called Jade looked down on Toshigi through the narrow eye slits of her balaclava. In the early morning light she was nothing more than a shadowy outline. Although he couldn’t make out her mouth, Toshigi knew she was smiling. For some twisted purpose known only to her, the kidnapper had kept him alive.

Toshigi’s initial reaction was to crawl out from underneath her, but his legs refused to move. A loud metallic clank alerted him to the chains Jade had fastened around his ankles. Even through his socks Toshigi felt the bite of cold steel. Each chain looped twice around his lower knees and through a concrete foundation brick. The links were industrial strength, a quarter of an inch thick, and secured with combination padlocks. Toshigi’s wrists and neck were similarly bound. He attempted to break free, but it was hopeless. There was no way he could escape.

Jade chuckled as she watched Toshigi’s futile efforts. With no forewarning, she grabbed his shirt collar and leaned in his face. The woman was so close he could smell a faint whiff of perfume coming from under her leather jumpsuit.

“It’s not very pleasant being someone else’s plaything, is it Toshigi?” she said venomously. Her voice sounded oddly familiar, but Toshigi couldn’t place it.

“If you’re going to kill me,” he snapped, “then get it over with.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it.”

On that ominous note Jade retreated into the darkness. Toshigi had been awake several minutes now, and his eyes were growing accustomed to the gloom. The prisoner took in his surroundings as best he could. He was being held captive in an abandoned warehouse, or so he presumed. Apart from puddles of murky water and rotten pallets, the storage space was vacant. The windows were dirty and obscured by cobwebs, and it was so quiet Toshigi heard rats scurrying across the stone floor. One of the unseen rodents screeched so loud he almost wished Jade hadn’t left him alone. That thought vanished the second he saw her wielding a katana. The masked woman stepped into the light, sword drawn and at the ready.

“No!” Toshigi screamed as Jade advanced towards him. “I’ll do anything you want. Anything. Please. Wait!”

In spite of his pleas Jade’s stride never faltered once. She stopped by Toshigi’s side, raised her sword two handed, and swung down at his neck. The weapon flashed before his eyes. Toshigi was certain he would die, but Jade halted her attack the instant her katana touched his skin. A lesser swordswoman would have stopped short of her mark or drawn blood, but this girl was a master of the blade.

“Anything?” asked Jade. “How about a game?”

Toshigi was still in shock, and could only muster a stuttered reply. “Game? I… I don’t understand.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot. You’re not really a games designer, are you? You’re an uncharitable businessman who likes taking credit for everybody else’s hard work. A common thief. Which reminds me. I’m feeling generous.”

Jade tossed her katana on the floor and unzipped her suit. She only exposed a narrow section of her body, but Toshigi could tell she wasn’t wearing anything underneath her jacket. Not wanting to offend this beautiful but dangerous woman, he closed his eyes. Toshigi felt her gloved fingertips brush his cheek.

“What’s wrong?” said Jade. “You’ve had sex with me before. You gave me special treatment. Don’t you remember?”

Something told Toshigi she wasn’t lying. He recalled the many girls he’d employed in his office – secretaries, personal assistants, call takers – and tried to connect a face to the voice, but his mind came up blank.

“Come now. Don’t be shy,” Jade said. “There’s nothing under my jacket you haven’t seen already. Except this, perhaps.”

Toshigi felt something long, round and heavy land on his chest. He opened his eyes to take a look. The object was a black cloth bundle tied with string. Jade carefully undid the knot and rolled open the pouch. Inside were tools that might conceivably belong to a thief: lock picks, wire cutters, and several others Toshigi couldn’t identify.

“Even though I think you’re a miserable, conceited bastard, I’m not completely without heart,” Jade told her captive. “If you’re able to free yourself, you can go running off to the boys and girls in blue. You might even live to say something original at next year’s annual meeting.”

Toshigi tried to wrestle his arms free of the restraints. One concrete brick toppled then returned to its former position. “Is this your idea of a joke?” he asked, eying the pouch. “How am I supposed to reach those things?”

“How indeed? I suggest you hurry, though. There is a time limit.”

Jade zipped her jumpsuit and stepped out of sight behind him. Toshigi resisted the temptation to ask her to elaborate. It was obvious this lady enjoyed stringing him along. A minute or so later, Jade returned with three items. Two of them Toshigi couldn’t see in detail, but the third was unmistakably a fuel can. Toshigi watched in horror as the psycho woman unscrewed the cap and doused him in petroleum. Jade emptied the clear liquid over his shoes, trousers and suit, deliberately taking her time. When she eventually got around to soaking Toshigi’s face, he’d already shut his eyelids. The anchored restraints prevented him turning his head. Jade took full advantage, shaking the can until she’d exhausted every last drop of fuel.

The kidnapper wound up a brass alarm clock, and placed it between Toshigi’s legs. Chuckling to herself, she fired up a cigarette lighter, and balanced it precariously on top of the bell. Toshigi saw the clock’s face clearly in the flickering orange light. Now he understood what Jade meant by a time limit. The alarm was due to ring in approximately ninety minutes, and when it did, the dislodged lighter would ignite the spilled petrol. Toshigi was literally watching his life tick away.

Jade pulled Toshigi’s handkerchief from his suit pocket and laid it flat on the ground. She waited for the material to soak up enough fluid, then rolled the rag into a narrow strip.

“Why are you doing this?” Toshigi screamed at the woman. “What do you want from me? What did I–“

Before he could complete his third question, Jade forced the handkerchief between his teeth. She tied the silk into a knot behind his head. Toshigi was forced to swallow the droplets that dripped down his throat. He coughed, choking on petroleum fumes.

“Chew on that,” said Jade. “Just imagine. If you fail, Mister Dragonsoft truly will breathe fire.” She knelt down, and stared straight into Toshigi’s eyes. “Oh. And since you’re playing the thief, you’ll need this.”

Jade smiled, pulled off the balaclava, and tossed back her blonde hair. At first the young woman seemed like a complete stranger. Then Toshigi saw through the abductress’ disguise, and a look of recognition crossed his face. The gag muffled his exclamation of surprise.

“All this time, and you never even guessed,” gloated Jade. “I hope the police are smarter than you.”

She lifted Toshigi’s head, pulled the balaclava over his face, and turned it back to front. He felt powerless, unable to see, speak or move. His nose and ears were covered too, but he could smell the petrol all around him, and hear his kidnapper walking away.

“You were wondering why I’m doing this,” she said. “Well, you’ve got eighty five minutes to figure it out.”

Footsteps echoed through the warehouse. Somewhere nearby, a sliding metal door opened and closed. Jade had left Toshigi alone, with only rats, spiders and a ticking clock for company.

***

The sun dawned behind Jade as she left the hustle of downtown San Francisco for the more scenic environs of Twin Peaks. After dealing with Toshigi, she stopped to dump the limousine and reclaim her motorcycle before heading west. From her present location the city by the bay could be seen in all its morning glory, a picturesque landscape of hills and skyscrapers. It was the perfect vantage point for a holiday season tourist, but Jade was here on business.

On the other side of the road traffic had ground to a halt. Agitated commuters beeped their horns, but there was no immediately foreseeable end to their frustration. Few paid attention to the hell’s angel who zoomed past in the opposite direction. The female biker weaved in between the occasional car or truck that obstructed her path. Jade was happy to avoid the congestion. She was racing against the clock, and didn’t want to be late for her appointment.

Jade arrived at her destination five minutes ahead of schedule. The Dragonsoft development labs were housed in a tower block modeled after a Japanese pagoda. The oriental architecture and slanted roofs would have pleased most visitors, but Jade knew it was just for show. Behind the fancy exterior, the offices were no different from any other games development company. Employees worked long shifts in mediocre conditions, while the greatest share of the profits went to the men who deserved them least.

“Well,” Jade said to herself. “Toshigi won’t be getting paid today.”

It was time to set her plan in motion. Jade left her motorcycle in the rear parking lot, and entered via the delivery door. This near to Christmas, the mail room was busy with temporary staff sifting through greeting cards in addition to the usual Dragonsoft fan letters. Jade showed the duty manager a manila envelope. The man gave the helmeted woman a curious glance, but relaxed when he saw the name she’d printed on the label.

“Nicole Tasoto,” he read aloud. “Assistant Designer. Makes a change from all the letters we get sent to her old man. Not that the Lord Almighty ever reads them, mind you. Private courier service, eh? What you got in there? Design secrets or somethin’?”

“Private means private,” Jade said bluntly. While she wouldn’t have minded sharing her negative opinions regarding Toshigi, she was in a hurry and couldn’t risk a lengthy, drawn out conversation.

Jade left the stunned manager to sort his mail, and rode an elevator to the top floor, the office space reserved for Dragonsoft’s assistant game developers. The job title was an insult, considering Toshigi only played a token role in the actual design process. Marble tiled backdrops and tiered fountains were a step up from the featureless cubicles given to low level programmers, but Jade knew from personal experience the reality was a lot grimmer than people outside the development community perceived.

The elevator opened into a long, narrow passageway decorated with framed posters. Every game Jade had ever designed was featured: Pirate of Trinidad, Ghost in the Night, Space Mercenaries and countless others. Her personal favorite, the martial arts themed adventure Jade Dragon, was there too. In effect the posters chronicled her entire life’s work, but Jade wasn’t interested in the past. Her name only appeared in small print near the bottom, if at all.

Jade walked briskly to the reception desk at the end of the corridor. The curly haired brunette seated behind was no stranger to her. Rebecca Masters had worked as a secretary at Dragonsoft for five years now and, like most women on Toshigi’s payroll, she was in her twenties, attractive and subject to the president’s strict dress code. Being encouraged to wear a skirt had always made Jade feel uncomfortable, but Rebecca didn’t seem to care.

“Is this the office of Nicole Tasoto?” Jade disguised her voice, just as she’d done with Toshigi. Rebecca was the inquisitive type, and the courier didn’t want to risk being recognized

“That’s what it says on the wall, isn’t it?” said Rebecca, not bothering to look up. She pointed her thumb at the brass plaque behind her desk, as if Jade would have trouble deducing which wall she meant, or seeing Nicole’s name engraved there in large print. The receptionist had lost none of her irritating sarcasm.

Jade decided to turn the tables. She slammed her manila envelope on the desk, rested her elbow on top, and waited in silence. The secretary glanced up from her computer terminal. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, clearly unnerved by her visitor’s stance.

“You want something?” asked Rebecca, with no trace of the steely wit that had been present earlier.

Jade smiled to herself, knowing Rebecca couldn’t see her face. She lifted her elbow and pushed the envelope between the secretary’s wavering hands. “Make sure Nicole gets this,” she said, then turned and walked away.

“Nice to meet you too,” Rebecca yelled after her.

Jade didn’t reply. She’d made her delivery, setting the wheels in motion. The real game would begin soon enough.

***

Nicole Tasoto arrived at her office in buoyant mood. She was a little later for work than usual, mainly due to a few errands she needed to run beforehand. With those taken care of, she could focus on play testing her newest game. Watching her completed endeavor in motion was sure to be more entertaining than the tedious development phase.

The eighteen year old couldn’t be further from the programmer stereotype. Not only was Nicole female, but six feet tall, athletic and stunningly beautiful. The brown skinned Oriental woman wore her hair long, split across the shoulders of her official looking, royal blue business suit. Like all women Dragonsoft employees, Nicole was discouraged from working in trousers. Her ankle length skirt kept her thighs covered, but with her good looks and soft blue eyes, she was still a temptation to many of her male colleagues. If Nicole wasn’t the company president’s daughter, she’d be the most popular date in the building.

Nicole greeted her receptionist with a cheerful smile. “Morning, Rebecca.”

“Hey, Nicole. Some crazy biker chick left this for you.” Rebecca indicated an envelope on her desk. “Actually, we’re indicated with psycho ladies this morning. See this weird e-mail I just got?”

Nicole stepped behind the reception desk, collecting the envelope en route. She followed the secretary’s gaze to a pop-up window on her computer screen. The typeface was small, and Nicole had to squint to read it. “Better brush up on your hacking skills, Silica,” she dictated. The sender’s name was Jade, and the domain name obviously bogus.

“Enlightening, huh?” Rebecca clicked the e-mail delete icon, and bellowed at her monitor. “Doh! Stupid bitch. You can’t even get my name right. It’s Rebecca, dumb ass.”

“We’re in the geek business,” Nicole said. “Weirdos come with the territory. Are you sure it’s a girl you’re shouting at?”

“Who the hell knows? Or even cares. So, what’s your secret admirer got to say?”

Nicole tore open the envelope and inspected its contents. Photographs showed her father onstage at the convention center. She flicked through the extensive album, keeping the pictures close to her chest so Rebecca couldn’t see. The final images were of Toshigi chained up in a warehouse. A typed note stapled to the last photo stated the kidnapper’s terms: 200,000 Dollars. 3526 Bayside. One hour from now. Come alone. Or he dies.

Nicole’s hands trembled. “When did you get this?” she asked.

“About ten minutes ago.” Concern lined Rebecca’s face. “Why? Everything all right? What does it say?”

“I have to make a delivery,” Nicole said, deliberately evading her secretary’s question. “If anyone asks, I haven’t come in yet. Got it?”

“You’re the boss.”

***

Ten minutes later, Nicole was navigating grid locked city streets. Morning rush hour was in full swing, and other drivers showed no mercy. Nicole’s flashy silver corvette was perfectly capable of exceeding a hundred miles per hour, but she was lucky to top twenty. She chose the shortest, most direct route she could think of: east along Market Street towards the Financial District. Somewhere ahead, the Sun was rising over the horizon, still low in the sky at this early hour. Thankfully, tall skyscrapers blotted out the blinding light. It was difficult enough to make progress without additional hazards to contend with.

Nicole checked her clock radio. Less than three quarters of an hour remained before the deadline. Taking no chances, she veered into the opposite lane, jumped the queue, and cut across a car waiting at an intersection ahead. Fellow motorists sounded their horns and yelled profanities, but Nicole hadn’t finished with her crazy maneuvers. She took advantage of a break in traffic, accelerated through a red light, and made a hard left turn. Her bank was two blocks to the north, in the shadow of the TransAmerica Pyramid.

Nicole parked in a restricted zone, glancing in her rear view mirror. She’d broken numerous laws on the way from the office, but somehow avoided attracting police attention. Nicole breathed a sigh of relief. Dealing with the cops would have been tricky. The toughest leg of her journey was over, but she couldn’t rest easy. There was a strong possibility a traffic camera had photographed her license plate, or some frustrated motorist had made a report. If so, a squad car wouldn’t be far away. Nicole calmed her nerves, got out of her corvette, and walked into the bank.

While Nagoya Savings didn’t have a client list to rival mainstream American institutions, more than ten thousand people held accounts there, including Nicole, her father, and a high percentage of his associates. Many had valuables stashed in safety deposit boxes on the vault floor below. Even in the lobby security was airtight. Closed circuit cameras monitored every cubic inch of the room, and a uniformed guard stood by the entrance, automatic pistol holstered by his hip. Like the majority of the staff, the man was of Japanese descent. He was young, hawk-eyed and in excellent shape, a strong deterrent to potential criminals.

Nicole nodded an unspoken greeting to the guard, and approached the teller counters. The bank had only been open for business a few minutes, so she had her pick of assistants. Nicole chose the odd woman out: a pale-faced American in her late twenties. An infrared motion sensor detected Nicole as she stepped up to the armored glass window, and a camera swiveled to point at her face. She smiled at the lens, trying to appear relaxed.

“Can I help you?” asked the woman behind the counter.

Nicole took a deep breath then replied, “Yes. I’d like to make a withdrawal.”

“Name and account number, please.”

The teller held her fingers over a computer keyboard in readiness, but Nicole’s attention was transfixed on an electronic ticker board above the window. Time was running out.

“Miss?” The teller waited until she got Nicole’s attention. “Name and account number?”

“Nicole Tasoto. Four seven nine, three six two.”

As the bank clerk entered the details, Nicole took the opportunity to look around. Besides her, there were five other customers. One in particular caught her eye: an old woman dressed in a tracksuit and dark glasses. The hunchbacked crone smiled at Nicole, and shuffled her Zimmer frame to a leaflet stand.

“Everything okay, Miss Tasoto?” inquired the cashier. “You seem kinda nervous. Is there something I should know about?”

Nicole whispered a hoarse reply over her shoulder. “I’m fine. Could you hurry up, please?” She was more concerned with tracking the old woman’s movements.

“Certainly. How much would you like to withdraw?”

Nicole faced the window, pressed her face close to the glass, and started to speak. Then she stopped. The woman was already suspicious. How would she react to such an unorthodox request? The teller frowned with impatience.

Nicole had stalled long enough. “Two hundred thousand dollars,” she said. “In twenty dollar bills. Will that be a problem?”

The woman hesitated, appearing to sense the anxiety in Nicole’s voice. “I don’t know. This isn’t exactly normal.”

Nicole was in no mind to argue. “The account’s in my name, right? It’s my money. Just get it ready.”

“Since you’re asking to withdraw such a large amount in cash, I’ll have to clear it with the manager first.”

The woman reached for a phone receiver.

“No! Wait!” blurted Nicole.

Her loud outburst got the teller’s attention, and several other peoples’ too. Almost everyone turned to stare in Nicole’s direction, including the old woman with the Zimmer frame. Suspecting there was something amiss, the security guard instinctively went for his gun. To Nicole’s relief, the teller raised her hand to let him know everything was okay, and he stood down. Now the excitement had passed, the other customers went about their normal business.

“Mind telling me what’s going on?” The cashier spoke in the same, polite voice as before, acting like nothing had happened.

“I can’t,” Nicole said. “Don’t you understand? It might put you in danger, too. She could be in the bank, watching us right now.”

The girl shook her head, confused. “She?”

“The crazy woman who sent me the note,” said Nicole, wide eyed with fear.

She knelt down and pretended to tie her shoelace while seeking out the old woman. Once again the hunchback responded with a grin. Nicole broke eye contact with her, stood up, and pressed her palms against the teller’s window. She was perspiring so heavily her fingers steamed up the glass.

“Just help me,” Nicole pleaded. “Talk to your manager if you have to, but hurry. It’s my father. The woman who sent the message said she’d kill him if I didn’t do as she said.”

“Kidnapping. Shouldn’t we call the police?”

“No! The note said to bring the money alone.”

The teller nodded and grabbed her phone receiver. Nicole had trouble seeing the number the woman dialed since the buttons were slanted away, but she was reasonably certain the call was to an internal extension.

“Put me through to Mister Miyahara,” the teller said. “Well, interrupt his meeting. This is urgent.” The cashier turned away and lowered her voice. Nicole overheard snippets of the subsequent conversation. “…customer out here. She needs two hundred… don’t have time… I realize what I’m asking… Yes, I think this might be…”

After yapping for a whole minute, the teller replaced the receiver and faced Nicole. “The manager’s getting your money ready now.”

Nicole saw an old Asian man through a partially open door behind the teller’s window. He worked quickly, stocking a leather satchel with banded wads of cash. It seemed the bank staff were responding to her request, but progress was painfully slow. Nicole tapped her fingers impatiently on the counter.

“We’re being as quick as possible,” the teller assured her.

“I don’t have all day, damn it,” Nicole said. “The note specifically stated–“

“Stated what? Miss Tasoto?”

Nicole wasn’t listening. A handsome, clean-shaven man who’d just walked into the bank had caught her eye. The new arrival looked to be in his late twenties. Given he wore a trendy suit, pressed trousers and black polished shoes, Nicole suspected he was something of a ladies’ man. He talked briefly with the security guard and flashed his wallet. There was no subtlety whatsoever in the man’s approach. His shiny detective’s badge was clear for all to see.

The policeman said something to the guard, and headed straight towards Nicole. She could smell his aftershave from twelve feet away, and his wavy, light brown hair glistened with traces of gel.

Nicole shot the teller a hateful glance. “I told you not to call the police.”

The teller backed away, shocked at Nicole’s sudden display of anger. She looked to the detective for assistance.

“Calm down, Miss Tasoto,” the young man intervened. “She wasn’t the one who called us. That was dispatch. Your father’s missing, but it seems you already knew that.”

The man opened his wallet, and presented his police badge to Nicole. She glared at him, not at all impressed.

“Nicole,” he said. “I’m Detective Kyle Travis.”

———

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Rising from the Darkness by D.A. Bale – Cover Reveal

Readers of my blog will know how much I enjoyed reading the Deepest Darkness series by D.A. Bale. So far the author has released the first two books of her trilogy: Running into the Darkness (reviewed here) and Piercing the Darkness (also reviewed on this blog).

D.A. is now putting the finishing touches on what should be a thrilling finale: Rising from the Darkness. As the author has given me a lot of kind tips (readers will know I’m new to the publishing if not the writing), I was happy to take up her request to spread the news about the new book.

The cover and synopsis have recently been revealed:

RFTD Front Cover

It’s finally here – the explosive finale of the Deepest Darkness series.

Samantha Bartlett has a new mission – and this time it’s one of her own choosing. Armed with information worth killing for, Samantha pieces together secrets spanning generations and uncovers the key to Debrille’s plans, including the horror of his true identity. But will it be enough for redemption? Especially when facing the bridges she’s burned?

Life was once clearly black or white, but now Joe Roberts has a target on his back – and it’s sighted by his boss at the FBI. It’s not just from running off with their primary suspect in President Warner’s murder and then allowing her to escape. No. He’s the Elite’s latest scapegoat. That alone begs the question. Is Sam a cold-blooded killer or a mere pawn used in a global chess game?

World War III looms on the horizon as the Middle East threatens to implode, world alliances are scrapped, and a once tenuous truce with a former enemy collapses – all under President Durksen’s watch. Shadowed by the Elite’s constant and vigilant guard, Durksen must find a way out of the hole he dug for himself long ago. But can he accomplish it in time, or will the United States die like so many nations before it?

Explosions light up the night. Friend becomes foe. Sister against sister. Lives are lost. Sacrifices made. But in order to realize true freedom, evil must be defeated.

No matter the cost.

The cover imagery suggests there is some proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for the heroine Samantha. I’m looking forward to see how things are resolved.

The book is due for release on 1st July, but is planned to be available for pre-order on 1st May at major online retailers.

For more information and updates check out D.A. Bale’s blog at http://dabalepublishing.blogspot.co.uk/

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Book Review – Piercing the Darkness by D.A. Bale

PTD New Front Cover

(Review contains some minor spoilers for this book and also for the first book in the series: Running into the Darkness which I’ve previously reviewed on my blog)

As I’ve noted in the past, the author of this series has provided me with many helpful tips which have been very useful in my (currently short) career as an independent publisher. So when D.A. Bale offered me a free review copy of the second book in her series, I gladly accepted the offer. And so here is the review…

—–

Piercing the Darkness is the second book of a planned trilogy, the first being Running into the Darkness and the third tentatively titled Rising from the Darkness (which the author is currently working on and hopes to release later this year).

The books are a continual series (one main story as opposed to recurring characters in unconnected stories) and it is assumed people will have read the first title before the second. Indeed, the second book (and review) contains major plot spoilers for Running so if you’ve stumbled across this review and haven’t read the first book you should probably stop reading this blog and go download it (for free!)

Piercing the Darkness continues the story of Samantha Bartlett, a former doctor who got involved with some thoroughly nasty people who trained her to be a cold-blooded killer. Implicated in the assassination of the US President, Samantha finds herself hunted by both the FBI and those who trained/used her. Still reeling from her own morally questionable actions, she hides among the homeless in New York City and puts her medical talents to use helping the needy and destitute. But it’s not long before evildoers are on her tail…

Writing the middle part of a trilogy can be difficult, as the major inciting events tend to be in the first part and the big conclusion in the third. Which can sometimes leave the second being a set-up/filler. At times the book does feel a little like that, with a lot less action and more soul-searching from Samantha. There are few – if any – major revelations we don’t already know from the first book. But despite that, the book is very fast-paced and tight (clocking around 60,000 words) with plenty of thrills along the way. And Samantha is now less of a puppet and more of a shot-caller taking back control of her life.

In addition to Samantha, the book also focuses on her ex-lover Joe Roberts (now an FBI agent) and his investigation into the mysterious past which somehow ties in with the present. The trail takes him to Russia undercover as a university professor, where he doesn’t know who to trust and finds himself in perilous situations at every turn. Joe’s sections are probably the best parts of the book, as he generally gets more involved in the action and suspense than Samantha. At times Piercing reads like a well-executed cold war spy thriller with CIA, KGB and double agents (though set in modern day).

Samantha has another potential love interest / colleague in Chris, a doctor with a shady Government past. In Joe’s absence, he plays a pivotal role as a mentor / friend character to Samantha. And you just know – given the author’s tendency to kill off characters – that some of their friends will end up in the cross-hairs. But I won’t say what happens to them…

The book is much tighter in many ways than Running was. The author has the advantage here that Samantha starts as a trained killer and so she doesn’t have to delve into the backstory or mix in some assassinations to keep up the pace (as happened at the start of the first book). So it feels a smoother package overall.

There were a couple of sections that weren’t quite up to the overall standard. One scene in particular featured the villain in his elaborate underground lair talking to associates around the world. Very Ernst Stavro Blofeld / Spectre (from James Bond) in tone and I almost expected a white cat to jump on his lap! The new President’s sections felt disconnected as they mainly involved new characters not in the first book – though at the end it does become clear why he was included, and the final twist sets up things nicely for the finale.

I’m hoping the third book will feature more action for Samantha, who spent much of this book hiding and not fighting (though plotwise it made perfect sense). With key underlings now eliminated, the third book should feature an exciting conclusion for the kickass heroine.

Fans of the first book should definitely pick up the second. This book is also lighter on the sex than the first, so people who found that off-putting but liked the rest should still carry on with the series.

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Termination Notice – A New Suspense Thriller from Action Girl Books

TN-v2 1000x1500 A serial strangler. A detective with a conflict of interest. Solving this case could be murder.

When a reclusive musician is strangled with a computer cable, the most promising clue is a contract termination notice from Taurus Studios: a game design company headed by Adrian Pryce, a successful entrepreneur who is the police’s number one suspect.

The lead investigator is Lucy Duvall, a career-driven detective whose frosty personality makes her difficult to work with. Her Philadelphia PD colleagues are as shocked as anyone when she shows a more compassionate side, but for Lucy this case is personal. Years ago when they were at college, Adrian saved Lucy’s life and they became lovers, but their relationship ended sourly when she found out he’d been sleeping with another woman.

After a second victim is discovered, all the evidence points to Adrian. Suspended for misconduct, Lucy begins to doubt his innocence. As more employees are terminated by the ‘Taurus Strangler’ – and Lucy narrowly survives an attempt on her own life – she must decide whether to trust the man who betrayed her. Is Adrian the victim of an elaborate frame-up? Or a scheming, cold-blooded killer?

Termination Notice is a mystery suspense/thriller written in cinematic style. For a sneak preview, see the excerpt at the bottom of this post. Those who wish to purchase the full ebook can do so from:

Amazon Kindle

Barnes & Noble

Smashwords

KOBO

——–

Excerpt – Chapter Seven

Suburban Philadelphia was a different world from the inner city: low-rise detached houses, leafy cul-de-sac lanes, and serenely peaceful. Except for the occasional SUV driving past or excited dog bark, it was a quiet evening in this wealthy part of town. Moonlight pierced silvery clouds, adding a shine to the Taurus bull decorating Adrian Pryce’s front garden. There were no signposts outside the mini-mansion, but the layout of the road-encircled lawn and horned statue was identical to the scenic approach of the Taurus Studios tower. If the palatial, white-brick home with the classical-pillar facade, iron-fenced front yard, and arched windows wasn’t the private residence of the company president, it belonged to a very obsessed fan.

The garden and pool at the house’s rear were fully enclosed by a picket fence, slatted white panels attached on the inside with rigid steel brackets. The wooden planks were ten feet high with only hairline gaps between, and the sharpened-to-a-point tips made it clear trespassers weren’t wanted. The swimming pool was just as unwelcoming: a sheet of still, impenetrably black water within a moderately lighter, tiled border.

The back yard was monitored by a surveillance camera fixed to the temple-like pediment that covered the patio. Motors whirred as the lens box swivelled in a pre-programmed arc. It took approximately ten seconds to complete a sweep of the pool area, then the reverse rotation started.

A white plastic sheet flew up into the air, thrown by someone beyond the fence. It landed atop the spikes, and flattened against the wood. Even if the camera had been directed the right way – at the corner immediately right of the patio – the blink-and-miss-it movement would have been tough to spot for even the keenest-eyed observer.

A fence panel creaked under the tarpaulin. There was a grunt of exertion – faint and muffled – and two leather-gloved hands gripped the sheet. A balaclava-masked head came into view, slowly rising until the eye slits cleared the fence. Shrouded by darkness and almost impossible to see, the killer held position, completely motionless as the camera rotated toward the corner. There was no alarm siren, or any indication the masked intruder had been detected.

As soon as the camera started to turn away, the killer mounted the tarpaulin-covered fence, used a powerful push to gain altitude, and swung a booted leg between two cushioned spikes for leverage. For someone so physically fit, clearing the ten-foot obstacle was no real challenge. The intruder dropped down into the garden, and sprinted across the frost-hardened grass to the patio. By the time the camera reversed again, the masked figure was stood in a blind spot under the pediment.

Pausing for the lightest of breaths through the mouthpiece veil, the killer opened a metal box mounted on the house’s exterior wall. An insulated cable linked it to the security camera, making it obvious what the numeric keypad inside controlled. The intruder typed in a six digit code, and a message appeared on an LCD screen: SYSTEM DEACTIVATED. The camera stopped rotating, lens pointed at the swimming pool.

The killer closed the control box, and threw a nearby electrical switch. Underwater light discs along the pool bottom powered up. With the gloom dispersed, the water was transformed from black to clear, turquoise blue. The intruder flipped a second switch beside the first. Steam rose from tiny vents around the pool’s edge, generating a fog effect that reduced visibility to mere inches.

***

A flashy sports car – a sleek, yellow convertible with its roof covered – drove through the front gates of the Pryce residence, around the bull statue, and stopped just outside the front porch. Sophie exited wearing a milky-white evening dress with a short skirt and string-thin shoulder straps, glittery high heels, and a pearl necklace. Her lips were so heavily coated in gloss they appeared almost bloody.

Sophie closed the car door, and stopped to check her appearance in the side mirror. She made a minor adjustment to her dress, pulling it tighter around her waist to expose even more cleavage. Smiling in satisfaction, Sophie strutted up the porch steps, heels clacking the polished marble. She reached for the buzzer – a simple button set in a carved brass, bull-headed fixture – and was about to press it when she noticed a rather obvious note taped to the door frame.

Sophie gently raised the bottom to read the message typed on the yellow paper: Waiting in the pool. Warmed the water up just for you. A.

“Adrian, you naughty boy,” Sophie said affectionately. She peered into the security camera above her. “All right. I’ll play your game.”

Sophie gripped the doorknob, gave it a deliberately slow, drawn-out turn, and pushed. She stepped through into the hallway: a long corridor decorated with silver-framed posters of Taurus Studios games. The wall lights were on. Candle-shaped bulbs glowed yellow in crystal pyramids, lighting a straight path from the entrance to the rear patio. The doors at the far end had been left half-open, windows steamed up by the artificial mist.

“Out… here.” Adrian’s voice came from the pool area, words broken by a jarring pause.

Sophie seemed not to notice the odd speech. She stepped out of her high heels, and slid them under a coffee table with a toe-prod. “I’m coming,” she said, walking barefoot down the hall. “Don’t want to be late for an appointment with the boss.”

Four sliding, black-glass-panelled doors led to ground floor areas of the house, and a chrome railed staircase to the upper landing. Sophie ignored those and proceeded directly to the patio, dress rustling against her knees. Water vapour condensed on her face as she stepped through the swirling steam. She wafted the air, looking around the foggy garden.

“Adrian?” Sophie called out.

There was no reply.

“Adrian?” she repeated, more apprehensively.

“Take your… things… off!” was the pieced-together response. The three snippets were all different volumes, the last word shouted dramatically as if part of an edited speech.

Sophie jerked back. She looked round again, but the steamy mist made it difficult to see anything other than shifting, blurry shapes.

“Why do you sound so weird?” Sophie asked tentatively. “So… scary?”

Nothing could be heard except Sophie’s heavy, irregular breathing. Her dress was wringing wet, starting to stick to her knees. She made no attempt to pull it loose. Water dripped from her damp hair as she swivelled on the spot.

“Adrian!” Sophie wailed in fright. “This isn’t funny. And it’s freezing cold.” She shivered as if to make her point.

“Taurus Studios invite you to play a new kind of game.” It was Adrian’s voice again, but the sentence sounded normal, without any gaps or change in tempo. Faint cheering was audible in the background.

“Stop it!” Sophie shouted. “You’re freaking me out.”

“A game without checkpoints or continues.”

Adrian’s voice was louder now. The mist parted, and Sophie saw a dark, vaguely human shape. A fully black figure, little more than a silhouette. The steam thickened, obscuring the mystery stalker. Sophie slipped on the tiles, almost falling back into the pool. She clumsily regained her footing.

Sophie saw the shadow again, larger and more clearly defined. The masked, leather-clad killer stepped through the steam toward her, approaching from the direction of the house. Sophie looked on, quivering in fear as a gloved hand lifted up an object. It was made of white plastic, flat and oblong in shape.

“A game with true consequences,” the voice said, now obviously a pre-made recording. “Where death is permanent. Just like real life.”

The killer shut off the playback, and threw the MP3 player down on the frosty grass. Sophie backed away, mouth open in an expression of pure terror. Her feet were now dangerously close to the drop-off. She was trapped, with the pool at her rear and the menacing figure in black obstructing her path forward to the house.

The killer’s eyes moved across the oval slits, observing the environment, and then focused directly on Sophie. Looking at the balaclava, she saw the wearer’s lips press against the mouthpiece veil, twisted into an evil smile.

Sophie screamed. She made a diagonal run toward the house corner in an effort to evade the killer. The black figure crouched down, and vanished into the mist. Pausing to look around, Sophie retreated toward the perimeter fence and rubbed her watery eyes.

The masked killer rose behind her, grabbed her necklace, and yanked it taut. Gloved fingers pulled the pearls apart, forcing them along the threading. Thin steel wire bit deep into Sophie’s windpipe. Her scream turned to a choked gasp. Eyes bulging, she squirmed in the killer’s grasp, toenails scraping up frost and dry mud.

Sophie’s hands flailed at the garotte, but she couldn’t even get a firm grip, let alone pry it off her reddening skin. The killer was much stronger than her. Boot heels dug into paving stone cracks, the masked figure dragged Sophie across to the swimming pool, spun her about so her feet dipped in the water, and then let go. With the necklace loosened, Sophie managed to scream for about half a second. Then she landed with a splash, and her desperate cry for help was literally drowned out.

Sophie coughed, spitting out water as she surfaced. The killer was waiting, gloved hand in position to snatch the necklace. The assailant inserted an arm through the gap at the rear, gloved palm sliding down Sophie’s lubricated back into the water. Increased tension made the wire tighten round Sophie’s neck. Loose pearls rattled together on the threading.

Sophie pounded the killer’s arm, screams silenced once more. Her blows were timid, made even less effective by water resistance. Still smiling behind the veil, the killer forced Sophie down, dunking her head underwater.

Air bubbled from Sophie’s nostrils. She watched helplessly as the killer took out a tablet phone and used its camera to record her dying moments. After another failed attempt to loosen the necklace, Sophie reached up at the kneeling killer. Her wet hand slipped on the leather jacket, unable to get a grip. Sophie reached higher still, pulling at the balaclava. It stretched, and came away in her hand.

A large air bubble rose from Sophie’s open mouth, and popped on the surface. The shock upon recognising the killer’s face was clear in her eyes, every detail recorded by the phone’s camera. Sophie’s limp hand slapped down on the paving stones, splashing water over the assailant’s boot. Then it slid back into the pool, and her struggles ceased.

The killer reached into the pool to reclaim the floating balaclava, and pulled free of the necklace. Sophie’s face-down body floated away from the edge, her drowned black hair waving like tangled seaweed.

The black-clad figure placed a Taurus-logo-headed letter on the paving stones. Water soaked the paper, but the typed words were perfectly legible.

Sexual liaisons between Taurus employees are strongly discouraged, and could bring the company into disrepute. You behaved inappropriately, Miss Gallier. Consider your employment terminated.

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Book Review – Running into the Darkness by D.A. Bale

Running into the Darkness - Cover

(Review contains some  story spoilers – mainly from the early part of the book)

I came across this author through social media networking, and would first like to point out she offers a lot of good advice for independent writers/publishers, and is also very positive in her correspondence which is just what authors need sometimes.

D.A. Bale authors a blog where she often reviews books, mainly in the mystery and thriller genres. So be sure to check this out if you want more information on the author.

Because of her helpful and encouraging advice – and the badass female protagonist preference of mine 🙂 – I downloaded a free copy of her novel Running into the Darkness. I should point out this wasn’t a special gift from the author, and she hasn’t asked for this review. The book is free on most if not all major retail sites (electronic format).

With the introduction out of the way, onto the review:

The novel is an action thriller with some mystery elements, and focuses primarily on a young woman named Samantha Bartlett. When the book begins, she is a resident doctor at a hospital who soon comes into conflict with her boss over her treatment of a patient. From there things quickly get complicated after Samantha receives some tragic news regarding her grandmother, and her life takes a very different – much darker – turn.

The opening chapters are something of a whirlwind journey, involving a tragic accident (or was it?) from the past, revelations about Samantha’s family, the assassination of a congressman, a mysterious stalker in dark glasses, and an adulterous President of the United States who abuses his power. At times it became somewhat difficult to follow, with new characters introduced all over the place and seemingly unconnected events. However, the action did help break up what could have been a slow burner beginning, and it kept me reading to find out how it all tied in.

After a while, Samantha is led to a mysterious letter from a deceased relative. I won’t spoil the contents, but suffice it to say the note reveals she has a personal connection to the aforementioned President, and the tragic ‘accident’ was in fact murder. After that the main story soon kicks in, and Samantha is recruited into a shadowy organisation called the ‘Elite’ who operate from underground. There is she transformed into a sexual beauty / deadly assassin (that classic combination), with an explosive chip implanted in her head just in case she disobeys her new employers. The training sequences reminded me of La Femme Nikita (without the other recruits to keep Sam company). And when she’s done with all the kickboxing, political history lessons and seduction, the Elite send her after the President. How’s that for a first mission?

One thing that really impressed me were the frequent action sequences. They were very reminiscent of many bestseller thrillers I’ve read, excellently paced and with just enough detail to picture the scene without bogging it down. Dialogue was often snappy and almost movie-like, with a lot of brief, tense scenes thrown in among the longer exposition and plentiful conflict. There are lots of mysterious characters with equally mysterious agendas, double dealings, moles, and brutal assassinations of unfortunate people who get too close to the truth.

That truth remains very elusive throughout the book, as it soon becomes clear the Elite haven’t told Samantha everything. In addition to her point of view, the book also follows her ex-lover Joe, a cop turned FBI agent. He’s attempting to piece together the mystery from a different angle, and track down Samantha who almost everyone believes is dead except him. I particularly liked these sections of the book. At times it read like an intricate conspiracy thriller with shady century old companies and super-secret groups up to no good – and more than one attempt to silence Joe.

One thing I should point out is this is most definitely an adult book. There are VERY explicit descriptions of sexual acts and violence throughout, particularly the former (won’t add any more details because it would spoil the story). Suffice it to say the author holds nothing back. While a certain character is portrayed as despicable, he also has more depth than is first apparent and felt surprisingly fleshed out by the end. Various political figures are presented as less than pleasant, to say the least. Given the author’s own political background – and possibly life experiences – it certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture of our leaders (but did we ever think they were squeaky clean anyway?)

Some of the later revelations / plot developments stretched disbelief well past breaking point. I can’t really say too much because it would spoil the story, but the identities of two villains felt a little much. And the novel veered well into sci-fi territory with an anti-aging formula, elaborate underground lairs, and nanotechnology. Having said that, most action books and movies are over the top, and the characters/action kept me reading all the way to the end. If you can suspend your disbelief, you’ll find Running into the Darkness to be a very satisfying thrill ride.

The book is part one of a series of three I believe, with this book followed by Piercing the Darkness. Not all loose ends are tied up, and it’s not a complete victory for Samantha. To her, survival is a victory in itself. She finishes in a much darker place than she began. Hence the rather apt title. The book is very dark indeed, delving into the bad side of human nature with few – if any – truly good guys/gals around. Joe comes about the closest, with Samantha herself involved in scheming, heinous sexual acts and murder (if not entirely willingly).

I’d recommend any adult thriller fan try this book (especially if they can get it for free). The author has an excellent sense of the action, and has clearly put a lot of work into this book. I found maybe one typo and the various viewpoints were distinct, making me feel I was there with the heroine on her wild adventures, and the various evildoers perfecting their ultimate plan.

Some Links to get the book:

Amazon (US) – Should link to international sites

Barnes and Noble

Smashwords (the site also has an author page and interview)

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Jade Dragon – Kindle Countdown Until December 30

Jade Dragon 1000x1500

SAN FRANCISCO IN FEAR AS SAMURAI MURDER SPREE CONTINUES

So far there have at least ten fatalities – possibly more – in the so-called “Jade Dragon” case that began with the abduction and brutal murder of renowned games developer Toshigi Tasoto in a South Beach warehouse. In the week since that shocking crime, a number of his employees have been murdered – including his personal chauffeur and maid – with several more missing and now feared dead.

Police will not give any official comment, but recent reports suggest the killer is a Caucasian female, highly athletic, and skilled in the use of a samurai sword. Official sources have also refused to comment on the condition of Detective Lakeysia Symons – currently in hospital following a close encounter with death – or respond to rumours that her partner Kyle Travis is romantically involved with Tasoto’s daughter Nicole.

Since the killer brazenly claimed her last victim at a police station, nowhere seems to be safe in this city. Residents are advised to remain indoors where possible, avoid traveling alone, and report any suspicious circumstances to the police immediately.

—————

Jade Dragon – Kindle Countdown until December 30

E-book Available from Amazon US ($0.99) and Amazon UK (£0.99).

Discount for a limited period only.

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