The seedy underbelly of the Durga System is back in Negative Return, which follows young bounty hunter Manu Juric on a mission that starts out shifty as hell . . . and quickly tumbles downhill from there.
Manu’s in trouble and weaponless but for his quick tongue and winning charm. They’re what’ll keep him alive — unless they get him killed, first.
I’ve enjoyed being in Manu’s head more than almost any other character I’ve written so far. So I’m very excited to share this book with you!
Negative Return will be released June 28. But if you want a sneak peak, I’m sending out review copies to my advanced reader crew now.
If you like high-stakes sci-fi adventures about witty underdogs, Negative Return is for you.
Interest piqued? Learn more about Negative Return here. Or scroll on down to get a preview of the first chapter.
Negative Return [Chapter 1]
The lounge singer is in over his head.
He has a decent voice when he stays in the right register, Manu Juric thinks, but every song he’s chosen tonight has been a challenge — a touch too high, the notes fraying around the edges. The Bronze Room is too cheap a bar to filter it through an autocorrect unit.
Manu’d chip in to buy them one, but he’ll never get invited back after what he’s about to do.
The singer’s crooning in a mismatched suit, his hair and makeup done expertly but cuticles scuffed and shoddy, nails flaking underneath the cheap lacquer. Not just overreaching his vocal chords — he’s overreaching his league.
Manu tipped him anyway, earlier this evening, his tagged one-mark token tumbled in with all the others in the jar.
Manu’s drinking whiskey, the bar’s cheapest over plenty of ice to water down the flavor of engine oil. He’s sipping it slow, taking his time, and already he’s starting to get looks from the bartender.
Nobody nurses shitty whiskey at the Bronze Room. The bartender is one poorly sung verse away from calling his boss and reporting his suspicions.
Manu knocks back the whiskey, tags the bottom of the glass, then raises a finger to the bartender. The bartender slides another whiskey across the bartop; Manu thanks him with a wink and a bit too lingering of a smile — it’s not faked, there’s plenty to admire, and the bartender’s tight shirt doesn’t require much of the imagination. Manu transfers him a generous tip from Sylla Mar’s expense account.
The bartender just turns away with a polite service-industry smile and drops Manu’s empty glass into the sanitizer without noticing the tag at the bottom. Let him come to the wrong conclusion about why Manu is camping at his seedy bar just outside the posh, touristy Tamarind District.
Manu can’t even remember the last time he came to this part of Bulari. He thinks it was when he was still a kid, just dropped out of third levels to help his dad with the business, barhopping on cash stolen from his dad’s till with some of his buddies from Carama Town, tallying up who could get the most colorful cussing-outs from tourist girls and toss-outs from bouncers. If he remembers right they got kicked out of six bars before the cops got called.
It was a good night.
Manu gives the Bronze Room another scan. This may have been one of those bars; he can’t remember. The end of that night’s a bit of a blur.
Manu taps a fingernail against the side of his glass, waiting. His nails are a poison acid green tonight, same as his hair. The color pops nicely against his black skin.
He goes over the dossier once more.
The mark tonight’s on the meaner end of the Bulari thug spectrum; he’s the type almost everybody’d like to see gone, though nobody but Manu’s been stupid enough to try. Small crew of riffraff, each uglier and crueler than the next. Got himself a live-in lady, a clean-looking type who must have a pretty low opinion of herself to end up with scum — but she’s hardly alone in this city. Manu’ll be doing her a favor, killing Willem Jaantzen.
Manu’s been gathering intel on his mark for two weeks, long enough that Sylla Mar’s started dropping hints that maybe his heart’s not really in it, that maybe Manu’s all talk and no action.
Those are the exact words she used, too, last time her goons brought him in. Lounging on that black velvet like she styles herself a goddess, smoke from her laced cigarette spiraling through her neon purple and pink locks. Dry, overpainted lips and eyelids weighed down with pigment, Sylla looked a caricature of a vid crime lord, right down to the thick-jowled musclemen who flanked her divan.
Even now, Manu tries to imagine those men as his co-workers, Sylla as his boss. Tries to imagine himself taking orders spoken in that husky undertone, punctuated by the cartoonish cracking knuckles of her goons.
Wonders if he’ll ever stop watching his back with them as his crew.
No. Joining Sylla’s crew isn’t ideal, but who ever said life was perfect? The city’s getting tight, lately. Strangling out the independent operators, choking out the way Manu used to exist. Too many petty alliances between the bosses, too many turning snitch on the little guys to build up their credibility with the government. Sometimes a freelance hitman needs a friendly crew to weather out the storm of crackdowns and backstabbings.
And Sylla’s crew will do.
Better than getting himself an indenture. Manu’d rather be free and hungry than owned by some corporation.
Provided he can handle this initiation she set out for him.
Killing Willem Jaantzen.
It’s a terrible idea, and Manu’s been thinking of walking away all week. He actually can’t decide if Sylla’s messing with him — maybe she’s one of those women who hates saying no outright, and this is just a convenient way to get rid of him for good rather than taking him in. She sure didn’t seem to think he could actually do it.
If he’s honest with himself, he hasn’t been thinking he can do it, either. He’s taken out his fair share of lowlifes and deadbeat ex-boyfriends, but he’s never had a mark this big.
You don’t know if you don’t try, though, right?
Because if he makes this hit, it doesn’t even matter if he sticks with Sylla and her band of shifty thugs. Killing Jaantzen will get him a job wherever he wants.
Killing Jaantzen with style might even get him a job with Thala Coeur, Blackheart herself. Now there’s a scary bitch — but she’s got a crew that actually watches out for each other. Joining Blackheart’s crew, now that’s a proper life goal.
Manu doesn’t need Sylla, but he does need this win.
The singer stops crooning to a smattering of applause that seems more grateful than appreciative, and he disappears into the back with his tip jar. Manu notes that with a frown. It’s not a big deal — Manu’s tags have been thoroughly seeded. Just, Manu hopes the singer hasn’t put all those tokens in his pocket. Nobody deserves that, even for botching show tunes this badly.
Manu takes another sip of shitty whiskey.
He’s gonna have fun busting this place up.
* * *
Manu doesn’t need to be watching the door to know when Willem Jaantzen walks in. The whole energy of the place shifts, gets thin and sharp as a razor. There’s two Arquellian girls a few seats down the bar, laughing too loud to hide their nerves, racking up stories of slumming it in Bulari to tell their friends back on Indira. They notice the hush but don’t mark its meaning; the one closest to Manu glances towards the door and raises a catty eyebrow before turning back in a cascade of black ringlets to whisper in her friend’s ear.
Manu shifts like he’s checking her out and sees Jaantzen walk past, all broad shoulders and barrel chest. He’s dressed more stylishly than Manu’s used to seeing, like a man taught young which social cues others respect and who’s now able to afford it. He’s got two silver earrings in his right ear, two silver rings on each hand — bright glimmers against his rich brown skin.
Jaantzen ensconces himself at an empty table, though he doesn’t seem possessive about it, not like Manu expects from a man at the head of one of Bulari’s most up-and-coming crime rings. It’s not the best table in the house, but it’s in the corner with a decent view of the door. And a proximity to the stage Manu’s sure Jaantzen will regret when the singer comes back for his next set.
Jaantzen’s not traveling with bodyguards, this deep in his own territory, but he does have companions. Manu recognizes them: a brother and sister pair a lot of Bulari’s bosses work with, the Lordeurs. They’re bankers, kind of. Laundering big takes and fencing stolen goods. Tossing money out and reeling it back in with fat fish like Jaantzen attached.
He hesitates now. You never know when you might need a loan — plus, the Lordeurs’ve got a lot more friends than a loner thug like Jaantzen. Manu wonders if he’ll ever need their services, decides probably not. And anyway, the whole bar is tagged at this point. If he walks away now he’s never getting another chance — and he’s out a small fortune in hornet tags.
Manu ignores that nagging, rational voice telling him that the smart thing to do is to walk away.
The singer’s gone back up onstage; Manu catches Jaantzen’s frown of annoyance at the first warbled notes, catches the singer’s furtive glances at Jaantzen’s nearby table. The boss is in the house tonight, and this guy knows he’s not getting invited back for another gig.
Manu pushes his glass back towards the bartender and waves off the raised eyebrow asking if he wants another drink. He slips his little transmitter underneath the bartop and clicks the sequence to arm it. Feels it pulse faintly under his fingertips to tell him it’s good to go.
No safe return now. Not until he kills Jaantzen.
Manu pushes off to the bathroom, a touch of whiskey sway to his shoulders and a sloppy nod to one of the Arquellian girls. She gives him a dirty look.
He’s counting, and as he draws level with Jaantzen’s table — a fraction of a second after he hits twenty — the bar shatters. The front of the glasses case blows off its hinges in a rush of smoke and fire. The long mirror beside the bathroom hallway and the picture window beside the front door both shatter, cascading shards of glass hitting all the high notes over the sound of screaming. At the back of the stage, the singer’s backpack explodes. That’s where that tagged coin ended up; Manu lets the thought slide past.
His attention is entirely on Jaantzen.
The Lordeur siblings have ducked to take shelter below the table — the little blasts from the hornet tags sound like gunshots, and all around people are diving to the floor.
Willem Jaantzen is not diving to the floor.
He hasn’t registered Manu as the enemy yet — Manu dropped like the others in the chaos. As Jaantzen turns away to scan his bar, weapon in hand, Manu takes his shot.
Jaantzen must have heard something, seen a flash. Anyway, he’s fast for such a big man, and as Manu squeezes off a second shot, Jaantzen kicks the pistol out of his hand.
No worries, Manu’s got a backup gun.
He draws it, springs back to his feet and away as Jaantzen charges him, feeling the situation slip. Had to be flashy to impress Sylla, he thinks. Had to be an idiot.
His third shot is an inch too low, hits square in Jaantzen’s body armor rather than in the throat, and Jaantzen only grunts, catches him with an elbow to the sternum, a meaty hand to the throat. Jaantzen lifts him off the ground by his collar, those dead shark’s eyes searching his, and all he can think is that he’s seen this scene in gangster vids, and it does not end well for the guy with his feet dangling over the glass-strewn bar floor.
Jaantzen lifts his chin to someone behind Manu, and a blast of pain hits him between the shoulder blades.