Jude Oliver hails from a long line of assassins. Tired of his family's treachery and wanting more from life than power, he escapes with their secret weapon, the Silver--an ancient artifact so potent, so evil, that it could plunge mankind into a permanent state of ruin and despair.
After fifteen years on the run, Jude receives a surprise visit from a cousin who planned to murder him to obtain the family treasure. So begins Jude's desperate quest to find another artifact powerful enough to destroy the Silver. His traveling companion is an unlikely friend, Mike Engle--a Catholic priest who found his calling on the brutal sands of Iraq. In the course of their journey, the two men clash with evil in many forms. Mike learns the details of Jude's incredible history and the family secret that reaches back 2,000 years.
Before their final, earth-shattering battle, the duo will find surprising allies and the strength to carry on against seemingly insurmountable odds. Will the lessons Jude has learned about love, friendship and sacrifice be enough to save him from his family and his destiny?
Book 1 of the Judas Line Chronicles.
|Publisher:||Epicenter Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.73(d)|
About the Author
Mark lives in California with his amazingly patient wife, Brandie, and their two sons, Aeden and Gabriel. You can find Mark on the Web at:
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Two air sprites flitted down the street, lifting random scraps of paper, tossing them about before moving on to the next bit of rubbish. Then they saw a little old man wearing a black fedora walking slowly down the sidewalk against the stiff winter wind, clutching his trench coat tightly to his skinny body. With whispery cries of glee they snatched the hat from his head, revealing a liver-spotted scalp. They tossed the fedora to and fro down the sidewalk.
I didn't want to interfere, but the old man's expression — sadness and frustration at knowing he didn't have the strength to run after his hat — tugged at me, so I whistled. Soft, like a breeze through aspens, the sound was still enough to distract the tiny elementals. Howling gusty cries, they dropped the hat and flew off. A scent like lemongrass tickled my nose.
The old man tottered to where his fedora had fallen and stooped to pick it up off the cement, damp with snowmelt. He carefully wiped off the brim and placed it on his bald head.
"What was that, Jude?"
I turned to the man sitting next to me. "What was what, Mike?"
"What was that?" he repeated, his shrewd blue eyes giving me a once-over.
"Just a couple of wind sprites messing with an old man's hat. I asked them to stop and they did."
My best friend for the past fifteen years snorted. A big man, still trim despite being on the wrong side of forty, he sported a black handlebar mustache and a flat-top haircut. His ski-slope nose jutted out under icy eyes that presided over high, sharp cheekbones and a chiseled jaw line. He was a classically handsome man still in his prime. That face had broken hearts all around the city, the reason being the accoutrement that rested comfortably around his neck: the collar of a Catholic priest.
"Always the crap artist, eh Jude?"
"Crap art is what I do best, man," I replied, watching the old man stumble away. "That's what you love about me."
Mike snorted and gave me a wry look. "You didn't call me all the way down from my warm church just to pull my leg while I freeze my butt off, did you?"
The park near Con Agra, normally so green and peaceful, looked dreary, brown, and sad on this cold January day. It matched my mood perfectly. "I had something stashed down here I wanted to give you, Mike. You know, to keep it safe until the right time."
His gaze was skeptical. He knew me far too well.
"Okay, okay, man." I pulled a folded manila envelope from the inside pocket of my brown leather jacket. "This is very important, Mike, possibly dangerous, so if you accept it, know that there are those who wouldn't think twice about killing a priest to obtain it."
Alarm replaced skepticism. "What is it?"
"If you don't hear from me within a month, you can read what's inside and then do with it what you will, reveal it to whomever you wish. Consider it my confession. Until then, keep it at St. Stephen's. My Family and their lackeys won't violate the sanctity of the church; they're scared of it."
His eyebrows threatened to join his hairline.
I sighed heavily. "Don't ask because I can't answer. I need someone I can trust and you're it, man."
As usual, he saw right through me. "It's not just about your family," he stated flatly.
"Yeah, not just."
The bench shifted slightly as he leaned his bulk toward me. "Come to the church, Jude." A beefy calloused hand landed with surprising gentleness on my shoulder. "All this time you never entered God's house, even though you've told me you're a believer. It's time, long past time."
"Long past time," I murmured softly. "Long past time ... long past time." I rubbed my face. "It has been long past time my whole damn life, Mike. It's not going to do any good now."
"God wants you to come to him. So just give in and come unto the Lord, Jude. He welcomes us all."
My smile was mirthless. "Me and the Family aren't on speaking terms with the Lord."
"Just because they don't believe —"
"Oh, they absolutely believe," I interrupted, shaking my head. "They just hate Him."
Mike stared at me, mouth agape. I don't know what made me reveal that fact. Perhaps my darkening mood, the feeling of impending doom, broke my give-a-shitter, but I spilled those few carefully hoarded beans with surprising ease. Things were going to come to a head and I desperately needed him.
"Do you hate Him, Jude?" Mike whispered, blue eyes holding a wealth of sadness.
"Aw, no, man. Of course not ... if I did, my best friend wouldn't be a Catholic priest, and I wouldn't want with all my heart to feel God's blessing on me. Naw, Mike, I just think God doesn't care too much for me." Christ! I was starting to sound like a Danielle Steel character. Next thing you know, I'd pull out a monogrammed hanky and delicately dab my eyes as they leaked bitter tears.
"You know, that's the first real thing you've said to me in over six years," Mike mused.
"What did I say that was so real last time?"
" 'I'm buying.' "
"Damn, what the hell was I thinking, opening up like that? Sounds like I almost grew a vagina right then and there."
"No need to be a misogynistic prick, Jude."
"Sorry, man, it's been one of those centuries."
"Seriously, what is up with your family?"
"You know that's been a touchy subject for me."
The manila envelope slapped me on the chest. "Then keep your secret documents or whatever they are."
A hard finger poked my chest and his breath, smelling of peppermint gum, washed over me. "You don't drop a bomb about your family hating God and His apathy toward you, then expect me to hold onto ... whatever this is. I'm a priest, not an idiot."
Well damn, not how I wanted this conversation to go. Had I been prone to panic, I might have. A thread of unease rippled up and down my spine as I realized that even though my Family might consider Mike the enemy, I had no one else to count on. After all these years of hiding in plain sight, I saw Mike as the only person I could sincerely call a friend. Julian wanted to use me, while the rest of the Family wanted me dead and gone in the worst way. All Mike wanted was the truth. Could I handle that?
No choice ... you take your friends where you can get them.
"Tell you what, amigo," I retorted, slapping the envelope back into his hands. "You go ahead and read what's in here. If you can handle it, if you think we still can be friends, then call me. The number to my new disposable is in there."
The fear that Mike would hate and revile me after reading the contents of the envelope blazed up inside, causing my stomach to clench. Nothing for it, however, but to trust him and hope for the best.
He clutched the envelope in one hand and stroked his ridiculous handlebar mustache with the other; something he always did when perched on the horns of a dilemma. "Okay, Jude," he said, folding and unfolding the envelope. "You got it, but I have to ask ... what's going on?"
My eyes trailed up the side of Woodman Tower to where wind sprites frolicked on high. "What about the holy water I asked for, Mike?" I hedged.
"Having a courier deliver it to your place. Should be there sometime this afternoon. I don't know why you keep asking me for ten gallons of holy water every six months, but the donations are appreciated. Now ... answer the damn question."
"What's going on? Well, I have Family business to take care of soon."CHAPTER 2
My place was a little white ranch-style affair on 61 near L Street, smack dab in a quiet middle class neighborhood where the houses are small, but the backyards are large. The kind of place you find newly married couples and the retired.
Omaha in winter is only slightly less windy and cold than the Ninth Circle of Hell, the frozen lake trapping the traitors to mankind. The previous day saw a wind chill of -65º F, cold enough to shatter the plastic quarter panels on my neighbor's blue Saturn coupe. I didn't mind the deep freeze, as long as the blessed cloak of anonymity covered me.
Before the keys left the ignition of my red Hyundai Sonata, my belt buckle vibrated slightly, sending a small thrill through my navel. The car filled with the aroma of lavender. Someone had tripped one of my many alarms. I had a guest.
"Damn." Just what the doctor hadn't ordered. My best guess ... Family visit.
Magic was out of the question. If I used a Word, it would be detected, a scent that any mage within a hundred feet would pick up. That suited me fine. I could do without, and I'd spent a great portion of my Family's vast fortune on alternative methods.
Molecular thread, one of my best, most enjoyable toys. Linked iron molecules held rigid by an inch-long magnetic bottle attached to a six-inch slim cylinder. Not great as a weapon — having such a short blade — but perfect for detail work.
You may have seen movies where the canny thief uses a circular glasscutter on a windowpane, removing a perfectly round piece in just seconds with hardly a sound thanks to clever editing and the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief. The molecular blade requires no such flouting of physical laws. It cut through my bathroom window in a moment, allowing me to unlock it and slither in quietly.
With just the slightest whisper I drew my K-bar from its ankle sheath, readying it in my left hand, my right hand carefully opening the door to my bedroom, staying low. One of my few indulgences was fine furniture crafted out of heavy, sturdy wood and polished to a high gloss. If you look hard enough, you can find someone in any good-sized town who specializes in woodworking. I had found an elderly gentleman who had been crafting furniture for decades and commissioned several pieces to the tune of several thousand dollars. The centerpiece of the collection was a queen-sized sleigh bed made of stained red oak. The auburn wood gleamed to perfection and smelled faintly of the lemon oil I used to polish it. When I stepped into the bedroom, I detected evidence of a new smell — thus a new occupant.
It was the blood that confused my eyes, enough that it took several seconds for me to recognize Eliza, my next-door neighbor. A round, happy woman, the kind that minded everyone else's business. As long as she was awake, the block didn't need a neighborhood watch. Her short, frizzy blond hair was crusted in red; blood covered every inch of her naked, flabby body, as if a particularly twisted artist had painted it on. That same artist had ripped open her ample belly and festooned my bedroom with her guts.
The smell was horrible.
"Goddamn it," I whispered, tearing my eyes away from the corpse. She'd been dead for quite some time — the blood had coagulated, turning black — so why had my alarm tripped only a few short minutes earlier? There was only one answer.
Whoever did this wanted me warned. It was an invitation to a private horror show and I had front-row seats. This was Family work. From the violence and the brutality of Eliza's death, I knew which Family member waited for me.
Shit, out of all of them, it just had to be him, the one guy I actually feared a little. Carefully, I lowered myself to the carpet next to the hall door. "Burke!" I shouted.
Four bullets tore through the door above my head, showering me with splinters and imbedding themselves into my oak armoire. There went another two grand.
The voice that drifted through my holy door dripped with contempt and amusement. "Did I get you, Olivier? Or should I call you Jude? That is the name you use now, is it not? Are you hurt?"
Sarky twerp. Family protocol dictated that no Family member commit violence on another, restricting assassinations to poisons and magic. Looked like things had changed in the last fifteen years. Burke was a cousin on the distaff line, unlikely to inherit the Big Title, but the only male of that branch in the past three-hundred years who had any real magical ability. That made him valuable to Julian, my father. That made him valuable to the Voice.
"You're still a lousy shot, Burke," I hollered back.
Four more shots, four more holes in my armoire. I gritted my teeth.
"You think you are oh so clever, don't you Jude? Always Daddy's little sm —"
My body blurred into motion as I voiced a Word that shattered the door into a thousand pieces, flinging the shards down the hallway. The woody projectiles caused Burke to raise his gun arm across his eyes for protection. The smell of burning insulation filled the air.
I was halfway down the hallway, legs pumping, empty left hand extended ready to grab, K-bar filled right hand held back, ready to stab the life from Burke's body. His gun hand came down, and his eyes widened at the sight of me barreling toward him like a defensive end going for the sack. I noticed a splinter cut on his chin. Thin lips skinned back from his teeth as he brought his gun to bear, certain in the knowledge I'd never get to him in time. He was right, I was too far away and not fast enough ... but my K-bar was plenty quick.
My arm flashed forward and the knife flew true, entering his shoulder with enough force to dislodge the silenced Glock from his hand. Grunting, I planted my shoulder in his breadbasket at the same time the 9mm hit the carpet. Both of us exploded into the living room and slammed hard into the couch, which flipped us over onto the coffee table. It gave way with a loud crunch under our combined weight.
Fortunately for my personal aesthetic, the living room furniture was little better than department-store specials, cheap cloth and pressboard, camouflage for a rich magus on the run.
Grunting, we stood staring at each other, me nursing a pulled groin muscle and Burke pulling the K-bar from his shoulder, letting loose a gout of blood that pattered to the floor. He spared the wound a quick glance and spoke a Word that sealed his injured flesh. A waft of cinnamon floated in the air.
I had to admit, he looked good for a man in his late thirties. Fit and trim, an inch over my own five-ten. Long lean muscles rippled under olive skin covered in a designer black t-shirt and silver/gray cotton slacks that swirled like liquid silk. Black handmade Crockett & Jones loafers caressed his feet while a Louis Moinet Meteoris Tourbillon watch circled his wrist in a show of sinful steely opulence. He looked like a guy trying too hard to look cool and rich at the same time.
If someone were to see us together, they might mistake us for brothers ... the same unruly midnight hair, dark, dark eyes and strong, firm chins. The main differences were the perpetual sneer on Burke's full lips and the hooked nose that came to a sharp point. Mine was much shorter with a small arch high on the bridge.
"Why warn me, Burke? You could've had me dead bang," I panted after muttering a Healing of my own, adding to the cinnamon smell.
His smile was pure concentrated mean. "I wanted to see if you still had some mustard in you, Olivier."
"The years away from the Family business hasn't made you completely incompetent, although your Botanical magic is second tier. Your alarm sprigs were simple to locate and bypass without dispelling the magic."
I stretched, working the kinks out. "And Eliza, my neighbor? Why her?"
Burke shrugged, performing a bit of stretching himself. "Why not? She saw me arrive at your door, so I invited her in for a ... bite." All fifty of his teeth flared at me, a jackal's smile carrying the devil's humor.
Suppressing the spike of anger that flared briefly through me took all my considerable training. Fight cold, not hot, that's how I'd been trained. Taking a slow, deep breath, I focused on my murderous cousin.
My face must've betrayed some of my anger because Burke smiled even wider, a shark ready for breakfast. My K-bar twirled between his fingers. "Where's the Silver, Olivier?"
"It's Jude now, Burke. Olivier was always so ... pretentious."
He snorted. "Have to agree with you there. Now, give it up, the Silver."
It was my turn to flash a hard and nasty smile. "You can search a thousand years and never find it, Burke, but something tells me that you won't be looking for too much longer." Quickly I reached down and tore off a leg from the cheap coffee table. "Let's dance, you and me."
He lunged, the razor edge of the K-bar whistling toward my chest. I blocked the knife with my improvised club, batting it aside and knocking Burke on the shoulder with the backswing. Stiffened fingers caught me in the throat and I stumbled backwards, gagging. Grinning savagely, Burke rushed in, stabbing for my eyes, but I fell to my knees and the knife swished above my scalp, missing me by millimeters.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Judas Line"
Copyright © 2018 Mark Everett Stone.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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