Sneak Peek: Ferocious by Paula Stokes

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Paula Stokes returns to the world of Vicarious in this sequel, a high-action psychological thriller with a protagonist out for vengeance.

When Winter Kim finds out that her sister is dead and that she has a brother she never knew about, only two things matter—finding what’s left of her family and killing the man who destroyed her life. Her mission leads her from St. Louis to Los Angeles back to South Korea, where she grew up.

Things get increasingly dangerous once Winter arrives in Seoul. Aided by her friends Jesse and Sebastian, Winter attempts to infiltrate an international corporation to get close to her target, a nefarious businessman named Kyung. But keeping her last remaining loved ones out of the line of fire proves difficult, and when all seems to be lost, Winter must face one last devastating decision: is revenge worth sacrificing everything for? Or can she find a spark of hope in the darkness that threatens to engulf her?

Ferocious will become available August 15th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter 1

My name is Winter Kim. Today I killed a man. Soon I hope to kill another.

As the MetroLink train shimmies along its metal tracks, I repeat those words over and over in my head. I recently found out my sister, Rose, was murdered. Her ex-boyfriend, Gideon Seung, suggested we attend a bereavement support group together. But before I could even think about that, Gideon was killed too. And then I killed his killer.

I close my eyes and envision telling a room full of strangers that the only two people I loved were both murdered. There would be the obligatory sympathetic cooing and perhaps a gasp of shock. Then I’d tell them I’m a killer too and I’m not finished yet. The expressions of bland disinterest would twist into disgust. The woman who comes mostly for the free food would choke on her coffee cake.

“You’re a monster,” she’d whisper, before quickly averting her eyes.

Maybe I am a monster.

As far as I know, there’s no support group for that.

The train hisses slightly as it pulls into the next station. Snowflakes batter the windows, sticking fast to the cold glass in tiny deformed clumps. Beyond the platform, the streets of St. Louis stretch out empty and cold. And dark. It’s only six p.m., but it might as well be midnight.

A man pushing a metal cart ducks through the open doors, the wheels leaving trails of grayish sludge on the patterned floor of the train. He takes a seat across from me and folds back the lid to his trolley, exposing items for sale—perfume, neckties, designer purses. The strange combinations of what people sell on the train remind me of the subway stations back in Seoul. You could buy almost anything there.

The train starts moving again. The man steps out into the aisle and begins pushing his trolley toward the front of the car, stopping occasionally to address specific passengers. Turning toward the window, I pull an envelope out of the center pocket of my hoodie. My name is written on the front in black ink. My eyes water as I consider Gideon’s neatly printed capital letters. I’ll never see that handwriting again.

I run my thumb along the flap of the envelope and the paper slices into my flesh, leaving behind a thin trail of red. I lift my hand to my lips and taste the metallic flavor of blood. My fingers brush against the rose pendant that hangs in the hollow of my throat. The necklace used to belong to my sister.

I wrap my fingers around it, grip it so tight that the metal cuts into my palm. Rose died so that I could escape our past.

And now I am free.

But alone.

Vengeance is all that I have left.

Monster, a voice hisses from inside my brain.

Monsters don’t get happy endings.

The train reaches the end of the line—the airport—and I stay tucked in my seat as the other passengers disembark. A pair of security agents passes by in their navy uniforms, followed by two teens in NFL parkas. After them, a group of people wheel suitcases up the wet floor, most of them looking down at their phones as they trudge along. Finally it’s just me and the man with the trolley. He gestures at me and I slide out of my seat. Behind me, his wet, metal wheels bump into the back of my ankles. The man grunts an apology. I nod an acknowledgment without looking back.

Outside, the sharp air cuts through my hoodie and the T-shirt beneath. I exhale a puff of white, half expecting the droplets of my breath to freeze and fall to the ground like a tiny ice storm.

“Cold, huh?” Trolley Guy says as he slides past me. A dark red necktie dangles from the top of his rolling cart.

“Yes.” My voice is barely audible. My eyes hone in on the red slash of fabric. I am thinking about the man who took everyone I love away from me. Kyung. His name is a knife blade, but I’m done being stabbed by it. It’s my turn to inflict the damage.

The red tie vanishes from sight as Trolley Guy disappears behind a pillar. Kyung wore a tie that color the first time I met him. Rose and I stood side by side in the center of a room while he evaluated us like we were farm animals. Not exactly what I was hoping for, but I guess they’ll do. My sister’s face burned with shame as he circled us, touching her hair, lifting her skirt to examine her legs. I didn’t understand what was happening yet, but she did.

A set of sliding glass doors opens and the stream of people funnels me into the airport and up a set of narrow escalators. I glance back at the MetroLink tracks through a wall of glass windows. It was probably foolish of me to come here. All I have with me is the envelope from Gideon, the ViSE headset and editor I took from the penthouse, a handful of recordings, and my throwing knives. I don’t even have any luggage—no place to check my knives and hide my spare IDs. I couldn’t go to my therapist appointment, though. If I had, I would’ve broken down and told Dr. Abrams everything. She would have been obligated to put me in a psychiatric facility and warn Kyung that I had threatened his life. Plus, she would’ve gone to the police and they probably would have figured out what really happened in the penthouse.

What really happened is this: Kyung sent a man named Sung Jin to coerce Gideon into giving up the ViSE technology. Gideon tried to refuse and Sung Jin killed him. Sung Jin also shot my friend Jesse Ramirez and Gideon’s head of security, Baz Faber.

And then I killed Sung Jin.

I should probably feel something when I think about that, when I think about pulling the trigger on the gun. When I think about his sharp, mercenary eyes turning to black glass. It’s no small thing—ending someone else’s life. There should be some sort of gravity to that, shouldn’t there? My insides are heavy, but it has nothing to do with what I did. It is only about what I have lost.

I take a seat in the ticketing and departures lobby and watch travelers mill back and forth, their suitcases trailing behind them like obedient toddlers. A cell phone buzzes in my pocket. Sung Jin’s phone—it’s a text from Kyung.

Kyung: Should I arrange for a car to pick you up at LAX tomorrow?

Me: Tomorrow is too soon. Gideon told you the ViSE technology was stolen, right? I know who has it but reacquiring it will take time.

I actually have both the neural editor and recorder headset that Kyung wants me to bring him. Gideon lied to Kyung and said they were stolen to try to buy more time to figure out how to protect the technology. I’m hoping I can use his lie to my advantage.

Kyung: Two more days.

Me: That’s not enough. I need a week.

Kyung: Five days. Bring the tech to me at UsuMed by Wednesday, or else.

Kyung and I have struck a deal of sorts. He claims I have a younger brother, Jun, who works for him, and that if I turn over Gideon’s ViSE technology, he’ll introduce us. ViSEs, or Vicarious Sensory Experiences, are neural recordings that allow a person to experience an activity via someone else’s brain—all the thrills of rock climbing or bungee jumping or running from the police with none of the risk. I don’t know what Kyung wants with the tech, but he wants it badly enough that he’s threatened to kill Jun if I don’t hand it over.

I hate that I’m risking my brother’s life—assuming he’s real—by not turning over the tech immediately, but I’m fairly certain Kyung is just trying to intimidate me. He won’t really hurt my brother, as long as I don’t push him too far. If he does, then he’ll never get what he wants.

I switch to a browser window and do a search for “Jun Song” in Los Angeles. There are several screens of results, but none of them seem like they could be my brother. I try “Jun Song” and “UsuMed,” but there’s no overlap as far as I can tell.

I call up an airline website and search for flights to L.A. But then I get a better idea. Kyung is expecting me to fly into LAX or perhaps one of the local Orange County airports. I don’t know how powerful he is, whether he might have men looking for me there. I clear the search box and search for flights to San Diego instead. I can drive up to Los Angeles. That way I’ll have the element of surprise on my side.

There are open spots on two flights that are leaving later tonight, but my mind wanders back to the envelope from Gideon. I flipped through the contents but I didn’t read all the documents. I should find somewhere to go through it in detail. There’s no need for me to get to L.A. tonight. It makes more sense to find a place to stay, to make a plan.

I book myself on a flight leaving late tomorrow morning, using a fake name on one of the IDs Gideon left for me. Then I take the escalators down two floors to the baggage and ground transportation area. I try not to focus on all of the people down there reuniting with loved ones, but when a group of men—boys, most of them—in tan camouflage stroll past with green duffels slung over their shoulders, my legs go wobbly beneath me. Jesse was one of these guys once, so proud to be a soldier, so sure that he could make a real difference.

I pause for a moment, lean back against the cool concrete of the airport wall and close my eyes. “Please don’t let Jesse die,” I whisper.

Focus, Winter.

Right. Jesse is in the hospital being taken care of by doctors and nurses. I need to take care of myself.

I take a cab to one of the motels that are just across the highway, a run-down, seedy sort of place where a girl who just killed someone can be invisible. I check in under an alias and dead-bolt the door. Then, I lay out everything that was in the envelope from Gideon onto the bed:

A bundle of hundred-dollar bills.

Three sets of fake ID.

Bank statements from multiple bank accounts in both of our names. Just the money in these accounts would be enough for me to go to college and buy a small house—to live a life.

A business card from a lawyer who undoubtedly has additional paperwork for Gideon’s business and personal assets.

And then something I’m not expecting: a blue memory card with my name on it.

It’s a ViSE recording. It can’t be of my sister, because she died before Gideon ever developed the technology. So it has to be a message from him to me. Which means that he must have known this day might come.

I pull in a deep breath and then let it out in fluttery little gasps. Retrieving my headset, I unfold the lightweight metal apparatus, slip the recording into the slot on the back, and adjust the prongs over my neural access points. I lie back on the mattress and press PLAY.

Gideon is sitting at the desk in his study, his laptop open in front of him. His black hair is slicked back like he just got out of the shower. He smiles slightly and a lump rises up in my throat. My eyes burn with tears.

I pause the recording. Sometimes when you’re vising, you can’t distinguish what you’re feeling from what the recorder is feeling. The lump, the tears—are they mine or someone else’s? I lift a hand to my cheek. My fingers come away wet.

Crying is difficult for me. Dr. Abrams says that it takes more courage to express emotions than to hide them away, but it’s hard to feel brave in this moment. I’m split between desperately needing Gideon and knowing that a ViSE of him won’t be enough. It’ll be like standing outside in a frigid St. Louis winter with nothing but a picture of a coat to keep me warm.

I give up and remove the headset. I’m not ready to play this recording. Dr. Abrams also used to tell me that love strengthened people. Right now my love for Gideon feels like a weakness, just like my tears.

I set the headset down on the bed and remove the memory card. As I slip everything back into the envelope, my fingertips brush against something cold. There’s a thin metal chain at the very bottom that I missed when I went dumped out the contents. I loop my finger around it and hold it up to the light. It’s a necklace with a snowflake pendant. Why would Gideon buy me this? It’s pretty, but everything else in this envelope is essential.

As my fingers trace the snowflake’s detailed prongs, I notice there’s a crack in the middle. Not a crack—a seam. The pendant pulls apart to expose a micro flash drive. My mind whirls as I turn the tiny storage device over in my hands. What sort of information could be so crucial that Gideon felt the need to disguise it in jewelry?

Copyright © 2017 by Paula Stokes

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