Okay, this is super exciting. I’m having trouble forming words, and as a writer that’s kind of a problem. So I’ll keep this kinda brief.
The editor has finished with The Seventh Seed and I’ll be spending this weekend furiously revising the final chapters. It will be ready for betas early next week, so be on the lookout for a post about that.
In the meantime, I thought you’d like to see the cover I’ve been keeping close to the vest for a month (which wasn’t easy, trust me).
Isn’t it creepy and awesome??
We’re still finalizing the blurb, so instead of sharing that right now I’ve decided to share the whole first chapter (I posted an earlier version of the first scene in an earlier post, so if it looks familiar, that’s why). You’ll see why this cover is a good match by the end of the chapter.
Oh, and if you like it, consider volunteering to be a beta reader so you can read the book early and for free. Be sure to check back early next week.
For now, enjoy Chapter One of The Seventh Seed!
Javier grabbed the headrest in front of him as the car peeled around another curve. Hale groaned, cranking the wheel and keeping them from flying over the mountainside. Craning his neck, Javier strained to see the dash between the two men’s shoulders. The speedometer was near sixty.
He squeezed the edge of the seat. If these guys planned to get him to Missouri alive, this was no way to do it.
“Shit.” Hale steadied the wheel with both hands and pressed himself into the seat as he mashed the brake.
The car didn’t slow.
Oh God. Javier held his breath.
In the passenger seat, Sanderson fumbled for the seat belt. “What are you doing? Slow down!”
“I can’t!” Hale grabbed the parking brake between the seats.
Jaw clenched, Javier checked the speedometer again—almost seventy-five. This old car won’t do well in a crash.
The car swerved into the oncoming lane.
A straight stretch of road appeared, and Hale gripped the brake. “Hold on!”
He yanked on the lever.
The car lurched forward. Javier’s seat belt smashed into his sternum. A bang and a jolt slammed him into his seat as the car resumed its race down the inclined road.
“Son of a—” Hale downshifted past second gear to first and when that only revved the engine, he squeezed the wheel as the car veered around another turn, heading straight for a van coming the opposite way. “Shit!”
Javier grabbed the headrest again. His heart pounded in his ears.
The van’s horn blared and Hale yanked the wheel, sending the car over the edge. Javier’s stomach jumped to his throat for the few seconds they were airborne.
It landed with a jarring crash then bounced over rocks and scraped trees, filling the cabin with a horrible cacophony of bangs, scratches, and yells.
Javier’s head smashed against the window. He cried out in pain. Black spots flashed in his vision.
Sunlight glinted off the new cracks in the tinted glass.
Javier stared out the windshield. When would they reach the bottom?
The trunk of a massive pine loomed ahead.
“Shit shit shit!” Sanderson thrust his arms in front of his face.
Hale jerked the wheel to the right.
Javier squeezed his eyes closed.
The groan of twisting metal and shattering glass covered the men’s screams. Javier’s head lurched forward and his seat belt dug into his chest. Then nothing but a hissing sound.
Opening his eyes, Javier ran his fingers over the stabbing pain in his forehead and the sticky trail coating his cheek and neck, ending at the wet patch on his collar.
The tree’s thick trunk rested against the dashboard on the driver’s side, having shoved the engine into Hale’s lap and crushing him into an impossibly small space. Sanderson was gone. Bloody glass shards surrounding the hole in the windshield told how he’d left the vehicle.
Javier shook his head, sending a jolt of pain down the back of his neck and a wave of nausea through his stomach. Fatigue threatened to take him, but he couldn’t stay here. Another pair of men in another old sedan could show up at any moment to finish the job these two guys started.
Pulling on the handle did nothing, so he slammed the door with his shoulder, sending a new shock of pain through his head. No good. Leaning across the seat, he kicked the cracked window until most of it broke free and fell to the ground. As he crawled through the opening, a remaining shard sliced his forearm. “Dammit!”
He tumbled over the glass and onto dry pine needles blanketing the ground. The gash on his arm oozed blood. Good. I’ll live. He trudged a few steps to the front of the car and froze.
Sanderson had saturated the forest floor with blood from a gaping neck wound. His bulging, dead eyes glared, relaying the horror they’d seen.
Javier’s stomach lurched. He fell to his knees and threw up.
In the days since the men had taken him from California, Javier had hoped to convince Sanderson to release him. Hale had been a hard ass. But Sanderson seemed conflicted about their task, as any reasonable human would when told to kidnap a young prodigy and drive him across the country. Javier had suspected Hale would kill him before reaching “the facility in Missouri,” as they had called it. Maybe this wreck was his attempt gone terribly wrong.
With his heart pounding, Javier rolled back onto his butt and squeezed his eyes closed while panting the chilled autumn air.
Then, a memory plowed into him: My case! He snapped around, sending another jolt of pain down his neck.
Rubbing his temple, he hobbled to the back of the car and pulled against the trunk lid. Locked, of course. He moved to the shattered driver’s side window. The key—and the entire steering column, for that matter—were indiscernible. Crap. Returning to his broken window, he eased back inside and examined the seat. These old cars sometimes had a way to access the trunk from here.
Gritty bits of glass moved under Javier’s fingertips as he examined the space between the seat and the rear window. If there was a release, it would be in this area. Reaching around the back of the headrest, his fingers found a rectangular piece of plastic. He pulled at the edges until it gave way with a snap. The seat pushed against him.
Javier moved to the floor and lowered the seat back, revealing an opening to the dark trunk and more importantly, his stainless-steel case, glinting just enough in the feeble light.
With shaking hands, he wiggled it through the gap and lowered it out the window to the ground. Careful to avoid the glass, he slid outside and reached for the key in his pocket.
He glanced up the mountain—it wouldn’t be long before more agents arrived. Better to wait until he was in a safe place to make sure everything had survived the wreck. Suppressing the compulsion to check, he pressed the key deep into his pocket, as if that would keep it from getting lost.
Grabbing the handle, he stumbled away from the car.
Head throbbing, he headed to a river at the bottom of the incline and walked alongside it, hoping it flowed into a town. Maybe he would reach a friendly stranger before he passed out.
Liz leaned towards the easel and squinted. With her stained fingertip, she smeared the colors of the acrylic paint, blurring the lines between land and sky.
She stepped back and scrutinized her work. Not a professional artist by any means, she got by well enough to instruct the shelter’s residents on Saturday mornings. This painting seemed easy enough for them to handle.
After washing the palette and brushes in the bathroom connected to her office, she clicked on the lamp on top of her bookshelf. The last rays of sunshine settled on the unkempt courtyard of the former high school.
At the wall-sized window, she lifted her glasses to the top of her head, making a mental note to ask for volunteers to clean the property before winter arrived. Tall grass crowded the area in the middle of a circle of benches, a place meant for friends to gather. The shelter’s residents rarely used the space, and it seemed to ache with loneliness.
A shadow to the right of the circle caught her attention.
A man, hunched over and carrying a case, trudged through the courtyard. Liz couldn’t discern his details in the dim light. He was probably looking for the way in, as so many wanderers did. “Go around the other side,” she said to the window. “Through the door marked ‘entrance.’”
He took a few more staggering steps and collapsed. When he didn’t get up, she bolted into the hall.
Liz burst through the exterior door and raced over the dead grass, reaching him in seconds. His eyes were closed, but he was breathing.
Her heart pounded. She’d trained for first aid emergencies but hadn’t had to use her skills. She patted his cheek. “Are you okay?” Stupid question. A gash stretched across half his forehead, paired with another cut on his arm. “Sir?”
Moaning, he opened his eyes halfway. “Water,” he said in a raspy whisper.
She added dehydration to her mental list of his ailments. “I have some inside. Can you walk?”
He nodded. He was young and skinny, so Liz guessed she could help him get to his feet. She crouched, pulling his uninjured arm around her shoulder. He dropped the case, and it hit the ground with a heavy thud.
She stepped towards the door.
“No.” He twisted around. “I need that.”
“Let’s get you inside first. I’ll come back for it.”
“It’s important.” He pushed away from her then stumbled back and fell.
Scowling, she snatched the case and helped him up again. What would he have that was so important he couldn’t leave it for a few minutes to get a much-needed drink? “I’ve got it, okay? Let’s get inside.”
He leaned against her as they entered the building, and Liz considered where to take him. The common area might not be smart. In his condition, the tougher guys could see him as easy prey. When she connected with his eyes, a familiar face flashed in her memory—Travis.
No. The common area wouldn’t do.
After leading him to her office, she put the case by the wall and sat him in her desk chair. She entered the bathroom and returned holding a plastic cup filled with water, which he grasped with both hands and downed in one long gulp. He exhaled and looked at the cup.
“More?” she asked.
He nodded and held the cup out to her.
She took it to the bathroom and repeated the process.
After swallowing the last drops, he scanned the room. “Where am I?”
“This is a shelter for homeless folks. What happened to you?”
He stared at the cup.
“Where you from?” She leaned against the edge of her desk.
His eyelids drooped.
“Hey.” She reached for his chin and lifted his head. “Stay with me, okay?”
“I have a headache.”
“I bet.” She opened a drawer and grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen. “Here.”
He swallowed a couple of pills, but they wouldn’t do much. His fatigue, confusion, and cut on his head suggested concussion, and since the crappy hospital would make things worse for him, it wasn’t an option. She’d have to ask the night nurse to keep an eye on him.
That would mean leaving him alone, though, which felt wrong. But why? This kid appeared to be Travis’s age, and he had dark eyes like her son’s, but the similarities ended there. The guy before her looked like a migrant. But he understood English, and migrants usually showed up in better shape and without shiny personal belongings.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“H . . . Hector.”
“I’m Liz. I’m a program director here. You want to clean up? Then I’ll take you to get something to eat.”
He nodded and pushed himself up from the chair. Swaying, he put his hand on the desk.
She stood and grabbed his arm. “Maybe sit down a little longer.”
“No. I just need a minute.”
He definitely wasn’t a migrant. He didn’t have even a hint of an accent.
After steadying himself, he walked into the bathroom and leaned his tall, thin frame over the counter. He touched the cut on his forehead as he looked into the mirror. “Do you have a towel?”
“Oh, yeah.” She pulled a hand towel from a small drawer under the sink and handed it to him, then retrieved some bandages from the cabinet over the toilet.
He wet the towel and kept his eyes on his reflection as he wiped away the blood.
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen.” Wincing, he cleaned the skin near the wound.
Just a little younger. “You homeless?”
He stopped wiping and looked at her reflection. “You can say that.” He rinsed the towel.
“Where’d you come from?”
He tilted his head and wiped his neck. “It’s better if you don’t know much about me, okay?”
She stared at him. “Sure, Hector.”
As he cleaned up, her initial impression about him changed. He was rather well put together for a guy who had collapsed in the courtyard of a homeless shelter. His black hair was cut short, he was clean shaven, and his clothes looked new and unstained, aside from the surface dirt and bloody collar. “Anything in that case I should know about?”
“Nothing dangerous, if that’s what you’re asking.”
She considered pressing the issue, but he’d have to leave it if he wanted to eat. His reaction would tell her everything she needed to know.
When he finished cleaning up and bandaging his wounds, he grabbed his case, and she walked him towards the cafeteria, stopping him at the door. “We’ll set you up in a bunk tonight. I can leave that on your bed.” She gestured to the case.
He shook his head. “I need to keep it with me.”
“You’re not allowed to bring it into the cafeteria. It’s a safety issue. Residents can’t bring personal items in here.”
He glanced into the room. Dozens of the shelter’s residents proceeded down a food line, filling their plates. He shifted on his feet and swallowed. “Then I won’t eat. Can you show me where I’ll sleep?”
Liz groaned to herself. Procedure said she should search his case. His possessiveness of it meant it likely held drugs or dangerous materials. But experience told her the residents never clutched such things so tightly, because doing so would guarantee a search. Either there was nothing dangerous in the case, or this kid had no idea what he was doing.
“Wait here.” She left him in the hall and entered the cafeteria, prepared a plate of food, and rejoined him. “Let’s go back to my office.”
Javier picked at the gooey, congealed mass on his plate and took occasional small bites. Liz had said it was stroganoff. The noodles must have been boiled into oblivion. He forced it down in the hopes that eating some carbs would help his headache.
Liz leaned on the desk and crossed her arms, seeming to pick him apart with her eyes. Javier guessed she was the same age as his mother, but she looked tougher. She was fit and kept her glasses on her spiky, salt-and-pepper hair. Her button-down shirt tucked into black jeans matched clothes his uncle wore.
Javier took a bite of the stale dinner roll. He wanted to start a conversation but kept quiet, fearing any little thing he said could put him and everyone here in danger.
“So where’re you from, anyway?” Liz asked after several silent minutes.
Javier allowed the glop to slide down his throat and sipped his water. “I told you. It’s better if you don’t know much about me.”
“Look, kid. I’m doin’ you a huge favor here. You’re not like the others we get. I want to know why, and I think you oughta tell me. We toss the guys who are uncooperative.”
Javier glanced at the case by his feet. If Liz kicked him out, he’d be wandering around God knows where with this conspicuous, silver thing in hand. Plus, his headache was threatening to rip open his skull. If he had a concussion, he’d be better off among an organized group, like this one. The homeless on the street would be more likely to relieve him of his earthly possessions, including the case.
“I’m from California.”
“You’re gonna have to do better than that. How’d you end up in Colorado?”
“Some guys drove me here.”
“Like . . . government guys?”
Javier suppressed a smile. Liz seemed wise enough to think around the nightly propaganda. “Sort of. I think.”
“Well, if that ain’t the most wishy-washy answer I ever heard.” She stood. “All right, Hector. Tell you what I’m gonna do. You can stay here. In my office. You’re too soft to last long out in the main hall. Most guys are decent, but we get the occasional assholes who stay just enough inside the lines to keep us from booting them. I wasn’t planning on staying over tonight, but I will.”
“Why? You don’t know me.”
“Not sure. But it’d help to know what you’re carting around there.”
“I can’t tell you. You’ll be in danger if I do.” That should keep her from pressing the issue. Plus, it was true.
“In danger? Seems like I really should know now.”
“The contents aren’t dangerous. What they mean is dangerous. You’re better off if you can play dumb about it.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Back to the government guys?”
“Fair enough.” She walked to a bookshelf and pulled a mat from under it. “I sleep here when I stay over, but you can have it. I’ll get blankets from the laundry.”
“Where will you sleep?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
Liz sat in her office chair, watching over Hector as he slept. She’d done the same thing with Travis when he was little, and repeating the practice now gave her an odd comfort.
Travis had been an average boy—smart enough to get by, handsome enough to stay attached, naïve enough for others to take advantage of him. Hector was different. He seemed detached somehow, like he knew more about the world than someone his age should. And that case had something to do with it.
He’d placed it next to him, between the mat and the bookcase.
She rocked with her elbows on the arms of the chair, tapping her thumbs together.
Quietly, she pushed the chair from the desk. She walked to the mat, grabbed the case, and lifted it over Hector.
He stirred, and she froze.
He rolled over and mumbled in his sleep.
She released her breath and carried the case to the bathroom, setting it on the counter.
It was heavy and solid, like one a photographer might use to store expensive equipment. Unlike Hector, the condition of the case was perfect. She analyzed the top, looking for the release.
The lock kept her from opening it.
She huffed but didn’t give up hope. She’d picked more than her fair share of locked items in her years here, mostly from transients who’d abandoned their belongings. The luggage usually contained nothing more valuable than a pair of dirty socks. She sensed this one was different.
After retrieving a small screwdriver from her desk, she went to work on the lock.
Breaking into someone’s property could get her fired, but she’d become less worried about her job over the years. There weren’t many others who would spend so much time among the homeless. Her coworkers often thanked her for her extra hours; a few even called her selfless. She didn’t tell them her devotion came from the need for an effective mental distraction. If she stayed home, she’d have nothing to do except think about everything she’d lost.
“What are you doing?”
Liz jumped, dropping the screwdriver into the sink. She looked in the mirror. Hector stood in the doorway, squinting in the light and unconcerned that he wore only boxers and a T-shirt.
“I . . . I need to know what’s in here.”
“So you’re helping yourself?”
“If it’s something dangerous, I need to know. I have a responsibility. If you won’t tell me, then you need to leave.”
He glanced towards the office door, then back to her. She expected him to take the case and go, possibly forgetting his pants in the process.
Instead, he went to the mat, retrieved something from his pocket, and returned to the bathroom. “Fine. I’ll show you, but you have to keep it quiet. I wasn’t kidding about it being a danger.”
He laid the case on its side, put a key into the lock, and two metal flaps popped open. Pressing those toward the handle, he lifted the top.
The padded interior held dozens of transparent plastic cubes, each one labeled and containing . . . a bug? “What are these?” She resisted the urge to pick up one of the cubes.
Hector grabbed one and held it in front of her. A small, dead bee was inside.
“Apis mellifera.” He rotated the cube in the light. The bee rolled along with it. “It’s a honey bee. These all are. I collected them from different regions.” He put the cube back in its spot and closed the case. “Are you happy now? I don’t think I’ll be killing anyone with dead bees.”
“What’s so dangerous about dead bees?”
“You’re nineteen. How complicated can it be?”
“I study them. It’s my job.”
“Isn’t your job to date girls and get into trouble?”
He laughed and shook his head. “I finished grad school last year. I have a doctorate in entomology.”
“At nineteen?” She didn’t try to hide her skepticism.
He ran his hand over his hair. “I can tell you I’m twenty-five, if that’s easier to believe.”
“I’d rather know your real name. And why I found you in the courtyard.”
He grabbed the case and carried it back into the office, returning it to its spot next to the bookcase. “Let’s say it has to do with those government guys.” He settled into the blankets. “And my name is Javier.”