Chapter 1

Skip ducked around the corner, pressing his thin back tight against the alley wall, gasping for breath. Jesus, how could a mugger be so persistent? Especially in stalking a man who had a grand total of about a buck's worth of change in his pocket? Not enough for the drink Skip desperately wanted, not enough to pay his dealer for even the smallest taste of the drugs he craved so badly, not even enough for a fucking pack of cigarettes.

Certainly not enough for a mugger to chase him for over six blocks, through alleys and cul-de-sacs and once even through a decrepit building inhabited now only by winos. Unwillingly he'd fled deeper and deeper into the worst part of town, as if his follower had deliberately herded him there; still, it was a good place to lose a pursuer, and Skip knew that side of town pretty well. He'd counted on that knowledge and the abundance of hiding places to be found there.

But still Skip heard those footsteps, that slow measured tread, never rushing, never hesitating. Christ, it was as if the man had planted a homing beacon on him or something! And slowly, drugs and drink and cigarettes and anxiety and weeks of little or no sleep and eating junk food when he remembered to eat were beginning to take their toll. Skip was wearing down fast. He just didn't have much more fight or flight left in him.

He pressed his long, grimy blond hair back against the dirty bricks. Why run? It wasn't like he had any money or valuables to protect. But then, a disappointed mugger could get violent. At the very least he'd probably beat Skip to a pulp; at worst, rape him or even kill him. The third possibility didn't alarm him nearly as much as the first two. He'd endured them both often enough to dread another round. In a way, a quick death would be a relief. But he doubted it would be quick, and that thought was enough to lend a little more strength to his weary muscles. A little further. He could run a little further.

He trotted down the alley, hand pressed against the running pain stitching his side, then turned quickly down an even narrower alley, then turned again. He started to turn north, back toward open street and possibly more people, more safety – but damned if he didn't hear those slow measured footsteps coming from that way now! What the hell? The guy couldn't be two places at once! Unless – Skip swallowed. Unless it was a gang.

Or a group of enforcers. That possibility made his blood run cold. Skip owed money – a lot of money. He owed his dealer, he owed his bookie, he owed two loan sharks – hell, he owed his landlord, and even that fat fuck was probably connected.

Well, there was only one way to go now – south. Skip turned south. The alley abruptly jogged west, then south again – then terminated in a dead end.

Skip groaned, pounding his fists against the brick wall that cut off his escape route. He glanced around desperately. There was a fire escape nearby, but it was well above his reach and there was nothing to stand on to reach it, nor anything to pull it down with. But there were two doorways opening onto the alley. Maybe one was unlocked, or could be broken in. Even his shitty luck couldn't hold forever.

The first door was solidly locked, and even Skip's most desperate lunge against it produced not the slightest yielding. Skip could hear the footsteps approaching now, and terror lent him one last burst of strength and speed. He dashed to the other door and yanked hard at the knob. It was locked, but he could feel the slightest give in the door; it wasn't quite as stout as the other.

Some part of his mind dimly registered other things – a slight bluish glow shining out under and around the door, the eerie coldness of the knob when he touched it, the sudden wave of gooseflesh that stippled his skin. But eclipsing all that was the sudden burst of hope at the greater yielding when Skip applied his shoulder to the door.

Suddenly the footsteps were closer – a lot closer – and a tall, dark-coated form turned the corner into the alley where Skip was trapped. Skip couldn't see much of the man – the long dark coat hid everything but a frighteningly tall and strong outline, and some sort of hood hid most of the face except for a hint of wide cheekbones and an aquiline nose, but even that was more than Skip cared to see.

"Have a good run, Spencer?" came a voice. It was low, even, cold. It cut through Skip's bones and shivered them to mush, scrambled his thoughts, melted his will. It made him want to lie down and curl up, to freeze before that voice like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car.

Oh, shit, oh, fuck, he knows my name. He knows my name.

No mugger, then. Collector, hired muscle, hit man – spin the wheel, roll the dice, take your chance, ladies and gentlemen I do believe Spencer Thomas's number has come in at last.

Strong cold fingers actually touched his shoulder before Skip managed to pull himself loose from his terrified paralysis. He jerked free and rammed into the door with all his meager remaining strength – but it was enough. The lock groaned in protest, then gave abruptly, spilling Skip forward onto a filthy cement floor.

It was a storage room, something like that. But there was only one feature in the room that drew Skip's eyes, making him momentarily forget his pursuer. In the exact center of the room, suspended in midair between ceiling and floor, was a softly glowing, opaque bluish sphere, almost large enough to fill the space between floor and ceiling. There was nothing else in the room but some broken pieces of wood, remnants of a staircase that had once led to a second floor. The only other door Skip could see had been boarded over, more than a match for any assault Skip could muster.

A dry chuckle sounded from behind Skip, reminding him of his pursuer a split second before strong hard fingers seized his shoulder again, yanking him to his feet. Skip glanced helplessly down at the hand holding him – strong pale fingers, and a weird ring, two twined gold snakes with rubies for eyes.

"Another moment's patience, Spencer, and we could have spared the lock," the voice said drily. "Never mind, it's not as though this place will ever matter again. I wasn't quite ready for you yet, Spencer, but unfortunately I've got to take you in hand before you manage get yourself killed. I was so disappointed to see what you'd come to, such a piece of human garbage, but now that I think about it, perhaps it's for the best. I believe you'll be more . . . manageable now. Well, no matter. We'll see. Come along, Spencer. Time to come home."

That iron hand pushed him inexorably forward toward that glowing sphere, the touch of that hand against his skin for some reason so revolting that Skip was hard-pressed not to vomit, or soil himself, or maybe both. Something in that touch, that voice, he didn't know, maybe the smell of the man behind him – a spicy and sickly aroma reminding him of incense and funeral parlor lilies – terrified him to the depth of what was left of his soul. The only things he knew at that moment were with absolute certainty: First, that under no circumstances did he want to see the face of who or what had hold of him; and second, no matter what, no matter how, no matter where, he had to get free.

That meant doing something unexpected, and at that moment, there was only one unexpected thing he could do.

Desperately, with the last of his courage and way beyond the last of his strength, just as that cold hand pushed him into the blue sphere, he jerked away – forward.

And fell into chaos.

Colors, swirling colors. Bright lights that dazzled his eyes and boggled his mind. He couldn't feel floor beneath his feet, couldn't see walls or ceiling. There was a low humming all around him, a frequency that made his fillings vibrate painfully. Deprived of any possible reference point, some part of Skip decided that he was falling, endlessly falling, and his exhausted heart raced on the dregs of adrenaline overdrive, his overtaxed brain gave one final effort to keep some grip on sanity –

And then there was nothing left, nothing more he could give, no more reserve with which he could fight the abrupt drop into darkness.

Email: Shadow