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Authors: Joshua Roots

Undead Chaos

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Undead Chaos
By Joshua Roots

The job was simple: decapitate the zombie, get paid, get out. Warlock Marcus Shifter followed the plan perfectly.

The corpse, however, did not.

Now there’s a body on the loose, accusations of illegal necromancy are flying, and the answers are waiting in the perilous alleys between the mortal and paranormal worlds. They’re no place for someone who mostly gave up magic after a childhood accident. And given his tendency to shoot off his mouth and his Glock, Marcus is having a hell of a time digging up more than just bodies.

When an apocalypse-minded megalomaniac threatens Marcus’s family, things get personal. Marcus will have to embrace the magic he’s been avoiding for years—and even that might not be enough to save the world from a hellish demise.

86,000 words

Dear Reader,

It’s possible I say this every year, but I love October. To me, this is the month that signals the start of a season of hot apple cider, evenings by the fire, and curling up on the sofa with a good book, dressed warmly in sweatpants and a comfy shirt and snuggled under my favorite fuzzy blanket. We at Carina Press can’t provide most of those things, but we can provide the good books, and this month we have more than a few good books!

In
Running Back
, the highly anticipated sequel to Allison Parr’s new-adult contemporary romance
Rush Me
, Natalie Sullivan is on the verge of a breakthrough most archaeology grad students only dream of: discovering a lost city. Her research points to a farm in Ireland, but to excavate she needs permission from the new owner:
the
Michael O’Connor, popular NFL running back.

If you’re like me, there are certain tropes in romance that you fall for every time. One of mine is the main theme of Christi Barth’s newest book,
Friends to Lovers.
(Gee, can you guess what it is?) Daphne struggles with revealing her longtime lust for Gib, sparking it all off with a midnight kiss on New Year’s Eve—only Gib doesn’t know it’s Daphne he’s kissed! Also in the contemporary romance category is
First and Again
by Jana Richards, which has a special place in my heart because this emotional story takes place in my home state of North Dakota.

For months, this Red Cross head nurse has been aiding Allied soldiers caught behind enemy lines, helping them flee into the neutral Netherlands. It’s only a matter of time until she’s caught in
Aiding the Enemy
, a historical romance by Julie Rowe. If you’re a fan of
Downton Abbey
, be sure to check out the rest of Julie’s historical romances.

We have two mysteries for readers to solve this month. British crime author Shirley Wells returns to the sleepy northern town of Dawson’s Clough with her popular Dylan Scott Mystery series in the next book,
Deadly Shadows.
And in Julie Anne Lindsey’s
Murder by the Seaside
, counseling is murder, but it’s never been this much fun.

Erotic romance author Christine d’Abo brings us the story of Alice’s obsession with a brooding lawyer at her firm, which takes Alice on a journey of self-discovery through the rabbit hole and into the world of BDSM in
Club Wonderland.
Also this month, the
Love Letters
ladies, Ginny Glass, Christina Thacher, Emily Cale and Maggie Wells, round up five sizzling-hot stories to finish off their sexy stampede through the alphabet with
Love Letters Volume 6:
Cowboy’s Command.

Edgar Mason is losing Agamemnon Frost despite everything they’ve been through—the passion, the torture, the heat. Frost’s fiancée Theodora is back, and Mason can feel his lover gravitating toward her. Every day he sees them together, it tears at his heart. Don’t miss
Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
, the conclusion to Kim Knox’s male/male historical science fiction trilogy.

Because October is the perfect month for the paranormal, we have a wide selection of fantasy, urban fantasy and paranormal to share with you. In Jeffe Kennedy’s fantasy romance,
Rogue’s Possession
, neuroscientist Gwynn’s adventures in Faerie continue in the long-awaited sequel to
Rogue’s Pawn.
And in the sequel to
Soul Sucker
, a powerful magic user is stealing people’s faces in San Francisco, and empath Ella Walsh and shifter Vadim Morosov have been called in to investigate in
Death Bringer
by Kate Pearce. Also returning with another book in her Blood of the Pride series is Sheryl Nantus, with her paranormal romance
Battle Scars.

Combining futuristic fiction, fantasy and urban fantasy,
Trancehack
by Sonya Clark is a compelling cross-genre romance. In a dystopian future where magic is out in the open and witches are segregated, a high-profile murder case brings together a police detective and a witch with unusual powers that combine magic and technology. But dangerous secrets, a political cover-up, and the law itself stand between them. Don’t miss this exciting new world of witchpunk!

Carina Press is pleased to introduce three debut authors this October. Science fiction erotic romance author Renae Jones gives us a
Taste of Passion
when lust strikes hard for Fedni, an empath who can taste emotion, but her off-worlder neighbor is horrified by the caste system that the former courtesan holds dear.

Two urban fantasy authors debut with us this month. In Kathleen Collins’s
Realm Walker
, a realm walker hunts a demon intent on destroying both her and the mate who left her seven years ago. Also debuting in urban fantasy is Joshua Roots with his book
Undead Chaos.
When warlock Marcus Shifter performs a simple zombie beheading, he soon finds that the accidental framing of an innocent necromancer, falling in lust, and burning down a bar are just the beginning of his troubles.

Regardless of whether you’re discovering these books in October or in the middle of summer, any time is the perfect time for reading, and I hope you enjoy all these titles as much as we’ve enjoyed working on them.

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to
[email protected]
. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James
Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com
www.twitter.com/carinapress
www.facebook.com/carinapress

Dedication

To Mom, the embodiment of love and support, and who, through her own struggles with cancer, always made me feel as if nothing, not even the challenge of becoming an author, was impossible. This is absolutely for you.

Acknowledgments

It’s cliché, but it’s no less true that this story would not have been possible without an army of supporters.

First off, thank you to my agent, Eric Ruben, for actually enjoying my words and for being a source of knowledge and humor in the murky waters of publishing. And who was kind enough to be the pack mule for Suz when she and her readers sent my squadron books. You’re a good man, Eric.

Thanks also to Carina Press for their wonderful feedback event, without which this manuscript would still be gathering dust in a drawer.

A huge round of thanks for two of my favorite girls: Tiffany Allee and Regan Summers. Both are not only amazing and accomplished writers, but also very good friends. Thank you to the ends of the earth for beta reading this and for kicking me in the britches when I needed it. Your advice, encouragement and laughter made climbing the Big Hill of publishing all the more enjoyable.

To all my Cantina friends at Absolute Write, thanks for making our day-to-day escapades both bizarre and hilarious.

Thank you to my editor, Mallory Braus, who is one of the most patient and understanding people I know. The fact that you don’t pull your hair out when I tell instead of show or abuse adverbs is a testament to your professionalism and enormous heart. You’re the one who deserves pie. (Long story.)

To Suzanne Brockmann, there are no words to accurately express my appreciation for everything you’ve done. From the early emails during my first deployment to the boxes and boxes of smutty romance novels you and your readers sent to tired, sweaty Marines in Iraq (which required a long explanation to the CO), you’ve always been there. You encouraged me to pursue writing and have been both an inspiration and a sounding board along the way. To say I wouldn’t be at this point without you is an understatement. Thank you and I love you.

And finally, to Amy, who was the one that got away and has been my partner in crime since we re-met. Thank you for putting up with my outlandish story ideas, for reading this, and for making each day together both an adventure and a memory. I love you, babe. And no, you can’t say “ditto.”

Chapter One

Never Wrestle the Undead

In all my years of squashing paranormal creepy crawlies, I’d learned two very important lessons. First, always keep a round chambered in your gun. Trust me, when you really need it, you don’t have time to load it. Second, never ignore your business phone. Mortgages are expensive and freelancer jobs hard to come by, so whenever that line rings, you answer it.

“I’m looking for Marcus Shifter,” the lady on the other end said in a hushed, hurried voice.

I paused
Stripes
and sat up
.
“You got him.”

“My name is Carly Banks, and my husband died a month ago.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. Another Normal hoping to resurrect a loved one.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Banks, but I’m a Warlock, not a Necromancer. I can’t raise the dead.”

“You don’t have to,” she said, quickly. “He’s on my front lawn with a shotgun.”

I arrived at her neighborhood twenty minutes later.

The Banks lived in one of the posh suburbs outside of Washington, DC, that catered to people with too much money and not enough imagination. Carly’s place was a clone of the others—a three-story McMansion with perfectly manicured landscaping and a neon-green lawn. The four-car garage was larger than my townhouse, and a fountain bubbled noisily in the middle of the circular drive. Huge iron gates stood at the entrance to prevent we common folk from walking up the driveway.

How the husband got in was anyone’s guess.

I parked a block down the road to ensure I didn’t anger the territorial undead, then gave my equipment a final check. The .45 caliber Glock rested comfortably in my thigh holster with three spare magazines strapped next to it. I drew the gun and slid the rack backward, loading a round into the chamber. I grinned as I re-holstered the gun, then I pulled a dented scabbard off the passenger seat and closed the door.

There was nothing fancy about my sword. It was almost two feet in length with a nondescript handle that I’d wrapped with athletic tape for extra grip. As plain as the sword was, it had a very special attribute.

It was sharp.

I tossed the sword on my back, tightened the straps, and headed toward the Banks’s gate. A bee zipped past my head, and I paused just long enough to smile at it before stepping up to the metal entrance. The late Anthony Banks, illuminated in all his glory by bright floodlights, stood on the front porch at the far end of the drive.

Carly’s description of her philandering husband was spot on. Early forties, overweight and balding, Tony was equally unpleasant in death as he’d been in life. His skin was gray and hung loosely around the legs and arms. Yet despite his month vacation underground, he still had a massive beer belly. His flab shook as he banged on the front door.

I just wish she’d told me he was naked.

I allowed myself a moment of childish snickering before getting serious about the job. Since there was no good way to initiate contact with the undead, especially one that was armed, I opted for the buddy approach.

“Good evening, Mr. Banks!” I hollered with the friendliest smile I could muster.

The corpse swung his head around and peered at me. His jaw hung open, and his tongue flopped out of his mouth. He groaned and brandished the gun awkwardly before shuffling toward me.

I tapped my foot and checked my watch several times while he covered the distance. When he finally stopped, he was close enough that I could touch him through the bars of the gate if I wanted. Which I didn’t.

But boy could I smell him.

“Nice evening, eh?” I asked.

Banks grunted.

“My thoughts exactly,” I said, thankful that he was responding. “Listen, Mr. Banks, my name is Marcus Shifter, and your wife hired me to deal with this haunting thing you’re up to. I’d like to talk to you about it if that’s okay.”

He shrugged.

“Any chance I can come through the gate?” It was always best to ask permission first. Forcing your way in was dangerous, both physically and magically.

Banks cocked his head and squinted.

“Anthony Banks,” I said firmly, “as a licensed Combat Warlock for the Delwinn Council, I swear that I am here at the behest of your wife and will act only to protect her or to defend myself. Do you accept my Word?”

Generally, my people don’t make binding oaths because of the potential blowback if they are broken. Betray your Word and you’re out of magical juice for a long time. Because of this, Soul Oaths are one of the most reliable treaties my kind can offer. Most magical creatures, and a lot of non-magical ones for that matter, understand that.

Thankfully, Banks was one of them. He paused, then nodded. I entered the code Carly had provided, stepping back as the gates swung open.

As I moved forward, I felt the barrier of the Banks’s property meet me. Thanks to the power of the oath, crossing the perimeter was like pushing through a wall of molasses. The magic sealed itself around me as I completed the transition, binding me to the laws of our deal.

“You know,” I kept my voice as soothing as possible, “you’re supposed to stay dead. Coming back isn’t kosher, especially in this neighborhood.”

Banks swung his head from side to side, gazing at the houses in both directions. His chest gurgled with decaying laughter.

“Yeah, property value may not mean anything to you now, but I’m betting the neighbors aren’t too thrilled. Plus, you’re making it hard for your wife to move on.”

Banks bared his yellow teeth.

“Okay, touchy subject. Point is, you shouldn’t be here. Besides, the Afterlife is supposed to be one long party. Why bother coming back?”

Banks waved the gun toward the house and grunted a few more times. The syncopation sounded like “boyfriend.” Or maybe “whore.”

“Really?” I chided. “Didn’t you have a mistress yourself?”

He lowered his head and nodded. As much as I hated to admit it, a part of me felt sorry for the guy.

“Tony, you and I both know that the time to make amends is while you’re alive. Once you’re dead, it’s game over. I’m sorry, but you need to return to resting in peace.”

Banks stared longingly at the house, then turned back to me. Tears filled his undead eyes and sparkled in the floodlights.

I frowned and took a step closer. “What the hell?” I whispered.

The door to the house slammed open. A woman who I assumed was Carly stamped out with a martini glass in one hand, bottle of clear liquid in the other. She wore a short, silky blue nightgown that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Her dyed black hair was teased into a high poof and her makeup was caked on in a vain attempt to fill the lines and crow’s feet. She must have been pretty in her youth, but a life of booze, food, and cigarettes had left a rounder, unhappier version in its wake.

“Tony, you fat, cheating bastard!” she slurred, waving the martini glass in our direction. “You listen to that man! I hired him, so do as he says!”

Banks turned and moaned softly at his wife, leaving me with an unpleasant visual of his backside.

“Please go back inside, Mrs. Banks,” I called, trying to ignore the massive mounds of rotting meat before me. “Your husband and I are getting along famously at the moment. Isn’t that right, Tony?”

Banks whimpered and took several slow steps forward.

“You sonnabish!” Carly screeched, her eyes widening. “You don’t get to have me anymore. You’re dead, and I’ll do whatever or whoever I want. Maybe even him!” she added, slopping what was left of her drink toward me.

Banks stopped.

“That’s right.” Carly said, “I may just add a little something extra to his paycheck for getting rid of you. I’ve been dying to break in the leather of my new Bentley.”

Banks roared and spun around. His face contorted with rage as he bellowed at me, and his hot, rancid breath turned my stomach. He snarled, then worked the pump on the shotgun.

Oh hell.

The blast shattered the relative calm of the neighborhood, and the recoil threw Banks onto his back. Thankfully his aim sucked. I’m not sure he could have hit his house from ten feet away.

“Dammit, Banks,” I shouted, ears ringing with pain. “It doesn’t have to be like this!”

My words were useless. Whatever negotiating power I’d had before was gone. Banks was all rage—nothing short of another death would slow him down.

While he flailed on the ground, I reached behind me and yanked the sword out of its sheath. The cold silver blade hummed as it sprang free. Along each side, rune etchings of a dead language glinted brightly in the harsh floodlights. I took half a second to appreciate the sword’s simple beauty, then swung it toward Banks.

Only he wasn’t there.

Something shuffled behind me, and I instinctively dove to the right. The stock of the shotgun narrowly missed my head, but made solid contact with my left thigh. I cried out and fell to the ground, dropping the sword on impact. Leg throbbing, I rolled onto my back, only to find Banks standing over me.

I cringed and prayed that I’d be able to purge the image of his small, decomposing package from my brain.

Gripping the barrel of the shotgun like a baseball bat, Banks wobbled as he lifted the weapon over his head. I swung my right leg upward and connected with the side of his knee. There was an audible snap, and the zombie lost his balance. He twisted and collapsed again, this time on me.

I didn’t much care for a
living
male to be naked on top of me, but an undead one was too much. Banks’s sickly pale skin was cold, and the folds squished against me as he squirmed. He stank of mold, decay and formaldehyde. The smell would take several washings to remove from my clothes.

“Banks, get
off!
” I barked and shoved against his rotted torso as hard as I could. Tony rolled sideways, snarling and snapping at me, but I scrambled away before he bit me. Zombie bites might not turn you into an undead drone, but they are highly infectious and painful to treat.

I recovered into a crouch and grimaced as I spotted my sword beneath the mound of writhing, decaying meat. There was no way to extract it, especially considering where the hilt was located. Instead, I drew the Glock and leveled it, pulling the trigger as Banks struggled to his knees.

The gun thundered and the recoil jerked my hands skyward. The hollow-point slammed into Banks’s side and exited in a shower of gooey green slop. He was yanked sideways and upright, providing me with a beautiful fat target.

I fired three more times. Two bullets hit him square in the chest while the third tore through the thigh of his good leg. The impacts threw Banks backward onto the manicured lawn, and he landed with a grunt.

Like the brass from the bullets, my frustration at the zombie was spent. With Banks neutralized and my sword finally exposed, I was ready to finish the job. I holstered the pistol and limped over to my blade.

“Anthony Banks,” I said with authority as the creature struggled to sit up. I shoved the blade into the ground and made the connection to the earth. “You have returned to this world against the will of Nature, and you are no longer welcome. Your place is elsewhere and the Earth demands your restoration.”

Dirt clung to the metal as I removed the sword and it began to shimmer with hazy orange light. The glowing runes illuminated the air around them. Banks stopped moving and stared at me with wide eyes as I raised the sword over my head.

“As a duly appointed representative of these forces, I hereby send you back. May you finally be at peace.”

I swept the sword downward and neatly lopped off his head. It fell to the grass with a dull thud and the body slumped to the ground. It twitched once and went still. The sword glowed orange a moment longer before flickering back to normal. I wiped the blade on my cargo pants and returned it to the sheath.

Only after my weapon was properly stored did I allow my shoulders to slump. The fight with Banks had winded me, and tapping into my Skill to perform the banishing spell wore on me even more. Between the rapid cooldown of adrenaline and the ache in my leg, I was in desperate need of a nap. But not before I tied up some loose ends.

The first call was to the county coroner. LaDell picked up on the second ring.

“Shifter!” he boomed. “I’m sick of crosswords. Tell me you have something.”

“Beheaded zombie,” I grumbled, rubbing my right temple to ease the pain building in my skull.

“You just made my night. What’s the address?”

I provided it, hung up, and dialed the local police. The woman on the other end was less enthusiastic about my news.

“You fired a gun in a residential neighborhood?” she asked.

“He started it.”

“We Normals may not have magical powers like you
special
people,” she growled, “but we do have laws.”

I apologized halfheartedly and ended the call with a promise to wait around for the inbound squad car.

Carly, struggling to remain upright in her heels, staggered toward me. She stumbled to my side and gazed down at what was left of her husband.

“He done?” she slurred, waving her refilled glass at the corpse.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“He ain’t coming back, right?”

“No. Removing his head guarantees that.”

Carly stared at the body for a good minute. Losing a loved one was hard enough. To have them return from the grave only to torment you and get decapitated on your front lawn was sensory overload. She closed her eyes and burped.

I placed a hand on her shoulder. “He’s at rest now.”

“Yeeeees!” she squealed, breaking into a huge sticky grin. “You are wonderful!”

She yanked my face toward her. I tried to pull away, but the woman was surprisingly strong. She attacked my mouth with gusto, violating it in ways I hadn’t thought possible. After a long, agonizing moment, she released me and flipped open a cell phone.

“Hey baby,” she warbled in a husky voice, stumbling a few paces away. I wiped the lipstick from my face and spat several times to remove her stale, cheap flavor from my abused tongue.

“Yeah, it’s done,” she continued. “Tony’s gone for good. Uh-huh, lopped his head off with a knife or something. It made me
so
hot. Want to come over and cool me off?”

BOOK: Undead Chaos
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