New from the national bestselling author of Roadkill
A sci-fi thriller that asks the questions...
What makes us human...
What makes us unique...
And what makes us kill?
Ten years ago, Stefan Korsak's younger brother was kidnapped. Not a day has passed that Stefan hasn't thought about him. As a rising figure in the Russian mafia, he has finally found him. But when he rescues Lukas, he must confront a terrible truth-his brother is no longer his brother. He is a trained, genetically-altered killer. Now, those who created him will do anything to reclaim him. And the closer Stefan grows to his brother, the more he realizes that saving Lukas may be easier than surviving him...
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“A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Jesus, how often have you heard that old saying? Slathered across sickeningly sweet greeting cards, beaming from manipulative TV commercials, it was a time-honored classic. A picture’s worth a thousand words. . . . Yeah? Right now I could think of only one.
Behind glass, framed in velvety rosewood, the photograph was one I hadn’t seen before. Not that I didn’t recognize it; I did. I might not have remembered ever seeing the picture, but I recalled all too clearly the moment it captured—the last Christmas. Not as in the one last year—no, it was a helluva lot more momentous than that. Think “the Last Christmas” as you would “the Last Supper.” In some ways it was much the same—an ending, a betrayal, and lives that would never be as they once were. I might have been an unwitting Judas, but the result had been the same. Consequently, I hadn’t felt much like celebrating on the twenty-fifth in the past ten years. You could keep the twinkling lights and the tree, but screw the presents and the eggnog; I didn’t want any part of it.
All those things were in the five-by-seven photo . . . along with two boys. One was fourteen; one, seven. There was no guessing involved in that. I knew those ages to the day, if not the minute. The older kid was obviously a cocky son of a bitch with black hair, mocking pale brown eyes, and a grin that just wouldn’t quit. My grin . . . I hadn’t seen it in a long, long time—not that version. The one I flashed these days had all the warmth of a jagged shard of ice.
The younger boy in the picture occupied a different end of the spectrum, in appearance and personality. He had unusual eyes, unique in their innocence and color. One green, one blue, they looked out calmly from beneath the fringe of pale blond bangs. His smile was smaller than my grin, but pure and happy. I touched a finger to the glass over that smile. It was my brother, Lukas.
We sat under a ridiculously huge tree. The lights sparkled among a thousand silver icicles and a thick coating of artificial snow. We’d insisted on the cheap and tacky spray despite our father’s snort of derision. It would be the only snow we were likely to see that year. Southern Florida wasn’t much for the white stuff—not that kind anyway. I had my shoulder slung around Lukas’s smaller shoulders and both of us sported eggnog mustaches, yellow and foamy. Mom had started the habit of making us alcohol-free nog three years before, and even though she’d died only a year later, the tradition was kept up. It kept her alive and with us for the holiday. And it made Lukas happy.
Kid brothers were always a pain in the ass. Any older brother or sister would tell you that. They tagged after you, asked a thousand questions, and bugged you endlessly. They took your crap without asking and narc’ed you out every chance they got. Lukas did all that, sure. He also looked up to me, brought me things—a sea-polished stone from the beach or a comic book he bought with his allowance—and didn’t think any cootie-ridden girl was good enough for his brother. If making eggnog made him smile, what the hell. I’d do it. And for those two years I did. Dear old Dad was always too busy, and the housekeepers . . . well, they weren’t Mom. The creamy drink pretty much sucked, but Lukas and I drank it anyway before opening our presents.
Of course, that year was the one the presents were too big to open. That year was the year we had to go to the newly built stable to see them. They came with fancy names, I’m sure, but I never learned them. I called mine Harry, after Dirty Harry. That was the year I wanted to grow up to be a cop. I’d never seen my father laugh before; not like that. “A mussor,” he’d choked, darkly amused. “I couldn’t show my face again, Stoipah.” He shouldn’t have worried. It had been a dream that didn’t have a prayer of lasting very long.
Lukas named his Annie for our mother, Anya. Those were our presents. Horses, two of them . . . a mare and a gelding. It would’ve been natural to blame it all on them, the horses, but it would’ve been a lie. And while I could lie smoothly without conscience to anyone I came across, I’d never figured out the art of lying to myself. It damn sure would’ve made things much easier. But if I knew one thing in this godforsaken world, it was that I didn’t deserve easy and I didn’t deserve to forget.
Others though . . . For them it seemed much easier to forget. The framed picture had come through the mail, boxed neatly with a short note from my father. For you, Stefan. It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t have to be. I recognized the bold slash of ink, the roughly spare sentiment. Anatoly Korsak had to pick and choose his words very carefully—an occupational hazard. You never knew who might be reading your mail or listening to your phone conversations. Actually, that was a little less than true. Anatoly was all too aware of who was reading his mail these days—and thanks to our connection, mine. Let them. Aside from my monthly Playboy, they weren’t going to find anything of interest. As for the postmark on today’s package, you could bet your ass that Anatoly was states away from that location.
The day before had been my birthday. The picture was my present. Maybe it was meant as a memorial, a reminder of better, sweeter times, or maybe Anatoly was just cleaning out his goddamn attic. Either way, I didn’t give a shit, because in reality it was none of those things. It was a gravestone, pure and simple. Unconsciously, my hand had already tightened on the smooth wood of the frame, a split second away from slamming it against the wall. It would’ve been a petty piece of violence wrapped around a large chunk of raw pain, but in the end I couldn’t do it. That smile, my brother’s smile . . . Smash it? I just couldn’t.
Sliding it carefully back into its sheltering box, I placed it in the bottom drawer of my computer desk. Out of sight, out of mind; not exactly, but for now it was the best compromise I could make. Leaning back in the leather swivel chair, I closed my eyes and tugged the tie from my hair and massaged soothing fingers into my scalp. I could feel the black waves brush my shoulders and felt my lips curl ruefully. I needed a haircut. One of the guys had called me malchik privlekatelnayo; pretty boy. It was a joke, of course. Despite the hair, I was anything but pretty. The scar that ran from the corner of my left eyebrow along my jaw to the point of my chin hadn’t precisely healed in the manner a plastic surgeon would’ve approved. Couple that with eyes as bleak and cold as a killing frost and I didn’t exactly make children run for their mother, but I definitely gave them second thoughts—mostly about the boogeyman and things that went bump in the night, I imagined.
I could’ve gotten my face fixed. Well, not fixed, but improved, yet I didn’t see the point. I’d learned it certainly didn’t hurt me in my current profession. Before that . . . I’d wanted to keep the scar. I wanted to be reminded . . . every time I looked in the mirror and every time I saw my reflection in the face of others.
My head continued to throb and I gave up rubbing it to head for the bathroom. Opening the medicine cabinet, I popped three Tylenol and chased them with a handful of sulfurous water from the tap. Through the wavy glass of the privacy window I could see splinters of a pounding slate blue surf and dirty white sand. I lived in a condo on one of the less-desirable stretches of the Miami shore. Even a life of crime wouldn’t pay for a beach house, not when you were on as low a rung on the ladder as I was.
Anatoly had been grudgingly impressed that I wouldn’t take his money, that I wanted to make my own way working for one of his allies. That wasn’t it, though. If I was going to take blood money, I wasn’t going to pretend it was anything but what it was. I wasn’t going to remove myself from the process and live like the prince I’d been born; a prince of crime and death, but a prince all the same—at least to my father’s peers. In the eyes of the police and the government, I was a little less royal. In the eyes of the victims, I was nothing more than a thug.
They were right.
But, hey, that was just my day job, so to speak. In the end I hadn’t been able to escape destiny. Dirty Harry was forgotten and I fell into the family business without much of a struggle. It was all secondary anyway, random noise that didn’t have a chance of interfering with my true calling of finding him . . .finding Lukas.
Bringing my brother home.
Changing into sweats, I moved into the kitchen to whip up some supper—“whipping up” being a nice euphemism for nuking leftover Chinese. As the microwave hummed, I considered picking up the phone to let Anatoly know how I felt about my birthday present. I could let him know what I thought of his giving up on his younger son. I could also beat my head against the wall; the result would be the same. It wasn’t worth the effort. Tracking him down now that he was indicted could take hours if not days, and that was if he was even answering the phone. Anatoly had numerous safe houses and refuges, and no one but he knew where they all were. I was no exception to the rule. And even if I did manage to find my father, I already had that particular conversation thoroughly memorized. My mouth flattened and I turned back to the microwave to pull out the steaming carton gaily decorated with red, green, and blue dragons.
I’d learned over the years that the majority of families of missing children never give up. They always look and they always hope . . . if not for a happy ending, at least for an answer—a resolution, peace.
Anatoly had obviously made his peace long ago. I’d never understood it. He hadn’t been the most demonstrative of fathers, but as ruthless crime lords went, he wasn’t so bad, I thought dryly. He’d been proud of Lukas and me, generous with presents if not with his time. At the age of fourteen, I wasn’t quite aware of what he did or who he was, but I was aware he wasn’t your average working Joe. And I had known he had resources that far outstripped those of the police. Why he hadn’t used them more after Lukas had first been taken and why he didn’t use them even now, I didn’t know. Damn it, I just didn’t know. Every time I brought up the subject, it ended in the same way.
I jammed the fork into soy-soaked noodles and twirled it savagely. Lukas was gone, he’d say implacably. We had to accept it and move on. Living in the past was useless and it was weak. It had no place in men like us.
He’d given up so easily, so goddamn easily. In ten years not a day had gone by that I hadn’t thought of Lukas. I had no illusions that it was the same for Anatoly. Taking the noodles to my computer, I sat down and clicked onto the Net. There were hundreds of user groups devoted to those left behind and those still searching. They offered support, a shoulder to lean on, and the words of those who’d lived through the same nightmare. Those were things I didn’t need or want. What I surfed for was information and techniques that could help me find Lukas.
These days, I mainly used the computer for e-mail, and I no longer searched alone. Money could buy anything. That wasn’t news to me, and now most of mine went to buy what Anatoly could’ve given me for free. And when the money ran out . . . well, let’s say I wasn’t a stranger to working out things in trade. I had skills. They weren’t the kind you bragged about in your alumni newsletter, but they were still valuable to certain people. Pulling up my e-mail program, I scowled. I was happy with my dick size, thanks so much. Deleting the spam, I moved on to the only entry that looked promising. It was from Saul.
Saul was the best at what he did, and what he did was find people. For those who loved them or for those who hated them—he made no distinctions. If you had the cash, he was your bloodhound of choice. Amoral as a shark and unstoppable as the IRS, they didn’t come any more relentlessly efficient than Saul Skoczinsky. It was nice when your friends shared your work ethic. The e-mail was short and succinct, scheduling a lunch meeting for tomorrow. I didn’t get my hopes up. Some days it seemed as if Lukas had never existed. If it weren’t for the picture resting in the drawer, today would’ve been one of those days.
Interrupting my train of thought, my beeper vibrated like a cheap motel bed, skittering across the surface of my coffee table. “Shit,” I said, exhaling. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow . . . The expression was coined for a mailman, but it covered the slightly shadier of us as well. Turning off the computer, I made a call, changed, and hit the street just as the sun started to go down.
Koschecka, the Pussycat, was a club located downtown. With twisted pink and green neon lighting, concrete walls, and a doorman straight out of the gorilla cage at the zoo, it wasn’t a place for tourists or timid locals. “Vas,” I drawled, lightly slapping the hulking shoulder, “how’s it hanging, cherepaxa?”
Sevastian ignored the greeting and opened the door for me. I wasn’t too hurt. Once I’d thought the man had the walking-talking-gum syndrome. With his lowered furry brows, shaved bullet head, and a neck that was long missing in action, it would be easy to peg Sevastian as one neuron-challenged son of a bitch, incapable of wrapping his tiny mind around more than one task at a time. But as I came to know him, I’d realized pretty quickly that wasn’t the case. Sevastian wasn’t stupid; he was a snob. Born and raised in the old country, he had little use for those of us born in the United States. And he had even less love for me and my winning personality. Hard to imagine, but there you have it. The fact I called him turtle didn’t seem to help matters much. But with that round, shiny head and bulked-up body as impervious as any shell, who could blame me? Apparently, a grudge-hungry poster boy for steroid rage, that’s who.
Inside, the bar was wall-to-wall sour sweat and horny, potbellied men. Colored lights blossomed, swam in circles, then slammed into the walls like suicidal fireflies. The stripper on stage, a gorgeous girl named Cleo, seemed to suddenly come down with a bad case of the measles as the cherry red disco ball on the ceiling spun into action. Slightly stomach churning, it didn’t appear to bother the guys next to the stage, who were rubbing greasy dollar bills between their fingers.
At the bar I stopped and caught the attention of the guy pouring the vodka. “The boss here yet?”
Dmitri nodded a hello at me and jerked his chin toward the back. “Yeah, the whole crew’s there. You’re the last.”
Great. That was bound to go over like a Gay Pride parade at the Vatican. Sevastian had been the one to call me, and you could bet your ass he’d put me at the bottom of his to-do list. Swearing under my breath, I motioned to the bottle in his hand. “Have a peace offering I could take back? Something a little better than that piss you’re pouring? What is that anyway, a specimen for your doctor? Damn, Dmitri.”
Dmitri had known me long enough to let that roll off his back, water to a soused duck. “It’s good enough for these jack-offs,” he grumbled, waving a hand at the Thursday-night crowd. It wasn’t a designation he gave frivolously either. There was many a customer who had one hand hidden from sight. Pity the waitress who had to take the tip from that hand later on. “Here.” From beneath the bar, he hoisted up two bottles of Mosko Crystall, one of the best Russian vodkas on the market. “A friend of mine smuggled them from his last trip to Moscow.”
That was the good stuff all right, almost impossible to come by here, and I was going to have to pay through the nose if I wanted it. Pulling out my wallet, I dropped a hundred on the bar’s scarred and sticky surface. Dmitri pursed his lips and looked over my shoulder, bored. Hissing in annoyance, I deposited another hundred on top of the first.
That got his attention, just barely. “I don’t know, Stef,” he said dubiously. “Do you know how hard it is to get this? The bribes, the risk . . . The backache alone is hell. Dragging a suitcase full of bottles can give you a hernia the size of a grapefruit—I shit you not. Not to mention . . .”
Reaching across the bar, I took the bottles from his hands and fixed him with an unblinkingly patient stare as his mouth finally flapped to a halt. “Dmitri,” I offered amiably, “I’m not in the mood to play bargaining babushka, got it?”
Perhaps not the brightest bulb on Broadway, he still knew enough not to press his luck. “Okay, okay.” Scooping up the money uneasily, he folded it and jammed it into his pocket. “Zhatky.”
Cranky. Shit. Maybe Dmitri hadn’t known me as long as all that then if that was the worst label he could put on me. Carrying one bottle in each hand, I headed toward the back without much enthusiasm. Konstantin Gurov, my boss, wasn’t the most forgiving of men. As the immortal Ricky Ricardo had once said, I was going to have some ’splainin’ to do. It was safe to say, however, that Ricky had probably never rammed a screwdriver in Lucy’s ear for any of her escapades, much less just for being late.
Sevastian hadn’t explained the reason for the unscheduled meet, and as I passed into a dingy hallway, the only thing I could immediately bring to mind was the trouble back in New York. Operations had spread from there to Miami many years ago, but as time went on, relations had begun to fray between the old school and those who’d once been seen as pioneers in a sunnier clime. Since I did mostly bodyguard work for Gurov, it was hard to reason why my cheerful self would be needed. Whatever the reason, I’d find out soon enough. At the end of the hall I nudged the door silently open with my foot and walked in, bearing gifts.
It would’ve been better if I’d been bearing a gun.
The room was where Gurov conducted most of his business and was soundproofed for all the obvious reasons. That was how three of our own could be lying on the floor with no one out in the bar any the wiser—lying there, motionless and bloody. Copper was thick in the air, saturating every molecule with slippery, gleeful fingers. It would’ve been easy to choke on the metallic taint and even easier to freeze at the sight before me. Luckily, my sense of self-preservation was stronger than that.
With my hands full, the gun resting in my shoulder holster may as well have been at home in my underwear drawer for all the good it did me. With the killer’s back to me, I had a split second to make my move. And I made it before I even consciously realized the identity of the one who propelled the motion. The vodka bottle in my right hand swung to a high arc, then plummeted down just as Gregori started to turn. It hit him at the base of his skull and dropped him instantly. The Glock in his hand was released by nerveless fingers and skittered across the tile floor.
Gregori . . . I’d like to say I didn’t believe it, but hell, I’d learned to believe anything. That loyalty could be bought and sold was a given on these streets—on any street for that matter. I recognized the killer just as I recognized everyone in the room. The three dead or injured on the floor were men I worked with almost every day. The one I’d laid out with the bottle, Gregori Gurov, was Konstantin’s cousin. Family. Konstantin himself didn’t look any more surprised by that than I did.
“You’re late,” came his gravelly voice. As I bent over to retrieve Gregori’s gun, the icy gray eyes fixed on me. Without a blink he’d stood facing certain death from his cousin. As Gregori had aimed his gun at him, Konstantin had calmly met his fate without emotion. When I’d walked through the door, there hadn’t been a twitch to betray my presence. Konstantin didn’t have ice water in his veins; he had Freon. Coolant for blood and vacuum for a soul; that was the man who signed my paycheck—so to speak.
“Sevastian seems to have a problem remembering my number,” I grunted, kneeling to feel for a pulse on the guy nearest to me. “I guess we both owe the shithead, huh, boss?”
The skin beneath my fingers was cool to the touch and unruffled by a beating artery. I gnawed at my lower lip and shook my head. Paulie, goddamnit. This had never been the life for you. You should’ve taken that pretty girlfriend of yours to Vegas, married her, and made lots of fat babies. He’d been a happy-go-lucky son of a bitch who’d been born into the business, same as I. Always one to go with the flow, he’d drifted here, drifted there, and now had ended up facedown on a sticky bar floor. When you drifted, you risked getting caught in a riptide. Paulie had been sucked down and gobbled up by a merciless sea. If it hadn’t been for that pain-in-the-ass Sevastian, I’d have probably gone down with him.
The other two were just as lifeless and I rubbed a hand hard across my face. For all my big talk, I hadn’t seen much death before, not like this. Before becoming a byk, a bodyguard, for Gurov, I’d gone to college for a few years and done some drifting of my own. In the end I hadn’t fought the recruiting of “Uncle” Konstantin. A friend of my father’s, he hadn’t cut me any slack. Clever and with an iron fist of control, he was a potent mix, and it tended to ensure that wholesale slaughter didn’t often happen. That sort of thing, he’d said on more than one occasion, wasn’t good for business—entertaining, but not profitable. The man had a style of management; there was no denying it.
“Go. Tell Sevastian to bring a cleanup crew.” Those transparent eyes moved from me to the stirring form of Gregori. “I wish to speak with my cousin.” The ice abruptly was stained the color of shadows. “Apparently he is unhappy with his current position.”
I left without a backward glance. One killer, two killers . . . and a bloodstained bottle of expensive vodka. It was like a very nasty version of a nursery rhyme, and I wasn’t particularly wild about catching the live show. It only struck me halfway to Sevastian and the door that I was still carrying one bottle of Mosko. Cracking it open, I took a swallow as I kept walking. It was going to be a long night.
Interview with Rob Thurman and Excerpt from Chimera
Your popular Cal Leandros and Trickster novels are both urban fantasy series, but Chimera is a science fiction novel. What drew you to write this different kind of story? Did you discover any new challenges in writing science fiction?
I'd always been very fond of Dean Koontz's older novels, especially Lightning and the Watchers. I actually didn't consider them science fiction as they were set in their current time period with only the addition of (spoilers) genetic manipulation and time travel (and the time travel was particularly ingenious as it was time travel that originated in the past, not the current time period of the book.) So when people say science fiction in regards to Chimera, I have visions of hard-core sci-fi fans chasing me down and beating me with their beloved, yellowed and worn copies of Dune.
I think the label science fiction when combined with action-thriller does cover Chimera best as it, too, is set in the current time period and the advanced technology is possessed only by the antagonist (and isn't that always the way? The bad guys get all the good toys.) And I'm drawn to write in nearly all genres…except romance. I can write an epic fight scene in a half hour and spend six hours trying to write one kiss. I'm hopelessly challenged in the romance department. That might be why I don't have a date this weekend (grin.)
Chimera is about the genetic alteration and brain washing of humans, and one of the novel's epigraphs, from philosopher Blaise Paschal, talks about mankind as "a novelty," "a monster," and "a chaos." What can fans expect to find in this sci-fi thriller?
All that and more. It shows how an ordinary man can be far worse than an enhanced human designed for killing and nothing but killing—that what we are counts for much less than who we are and who we choose to be. In a way, this book's theme is the opposite of The Cal Leandros Novels in which the main character is dragged down by his genes. In Chimera we see someone who rises above his manipulated genes.
Chimera has been praised as a "touching story on the nature of family, trust, and love" (Publishers Weekly) as well as being an action-packed read. Did you set out to delve into the nature of family when writing Chimera, and what related issues do you think are examined in this novel?
It's rare that I don't delve into the issues of family. I have no brothers or sisters, which makes those relationships a curiosity to me. And, of course, because I don't have siblings, I tend to put the best spin possible on what lies between them. If I actually had a brother who tortured me with wedgies and whatnot, I doubt I'd find that relationship so interesting.
Your novels are known for their snarky and sometimes sardonic main characters, who don't hesitate to share their every opinion. How much of your own personality comes through in your characters?
I once had a fan ask me how to write sarcasm or snark. I was at a loss. If you aren't by your very nature sarcastic, I'm not sure you could write it. I believe it to be inherent (pity those about me), not learned, but I could be wrong. While my snark may come through the main characters clearly, that doesn't mean we share the same opinion…it only means I find the appropriate sarcasm to slot into a particular situation an unwilling member of the Russian Mafia might face when forced to play miniature golf with a newly rescued, assassin-trained brother. The snark is mine; the opinions are theirs.
Who are the authors who have most influenced your own writing? Are they mostly science fiction and fantasy writers, or do you enjoy reading in other genres as well?
Stephen King (horror, horror/fantasy), Peter Straub (horror), Steven Brust (fantasy)—I love his Jhereg series and he has a fantastic 'voice', Robert Crais (mystery)—Elvis Cole series, Harlan Coben (mystery.)
Are you considering writing more novels in the Chimera universe? What do you imagine lies ahead for Stefan Korsak?
There's definitely quite a huge project for him should he choose to take it on, but the novel can stand alone as well. I also have another book, half-finished, set in the Chimera universe but with different characters and different situations altogether—linked in a very unusual way through one minor character from Chimera. It's interesting to see how one minor character can almost ruin the lives of people in not one but two books and do if quite gleefully.
What project are you diving into now? Can you share some hints about the novels you're writing next?
I just finished writing Blackout, book six in the Cal Leandros Novels, and it should be out next year around March. Everyone is making a mad rush to YA, so I have to think should I attempt one of those. I'd like to possibly do a direct sequel to Chimera (although, again, it stands perfectly well as a stand alone novel…no sequel necessary, simply fun to do.) It would be very intriguing for Stefan to come up with a plan to save the day—and a very bad day it would be. I do have my UF Trickster Novels series as well to contemplate continuing. Only two hands and so many balls to juggle.
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