Thanks for stopping by - I'm participating in Week 2 of the Feature Friday Block Party Blog Hop, which is co-hosted this week with author MJ Schiller! Please Twitter #FF us with @ParaDimensions and @MJSchiller. Today I've brought Watermelon and Strawberry Lemonade and the book Darkness Haunts by Susan Illene!
8 cups cubed seeded watermelon
1 cup fresh strawberries, halved
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1. Combine the watermelon, strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, and water in a blender. Blend until smooth.
‡ About Darkness Haunts ‡
Book One of The Sensor Series.
Melena Sanders faced her fair share of danger with insurgents and terrorists when she served in the U.S. Army, but now she is about to go up against a new threat. Her best friend, Aniya, has disappeared while on a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska—a supernatural haven. Most humans have no idea darker races lurk amongst them. Mel knows better. If she wants to get her friend back, she’s going to have to go in alone—but not unarmed.
Melena has a few special skills the Army didn’t provide, but the odds are still against her. She’s got to come up with a plan fast that doesn’t involve her, or her friend, dying. But danger likes to play it rough. A war for power is about to rise in Fairbanks and if she wants to get Aniya back, she’s going to have to step right into the middle of it.
‡ Book Excerpt ‡
A true friend will always be there for you when you need them, but they’ll also be the first to drag you into a pit of vipers. If snakes hung out in this place, I doubted I’d get out of here in the same shape I went in.
“The Mouse Trap” was the newest and hottest club in Monterey, California. At first glance, nothing about it appeared out of the norm. No windows broke the smooth-faced façade out front, and the loud music spilling through the open door was the same as any other establishment of its kind. But it hid a darker element.
The patrons who stood in line had no idea they shuffled impatiently to enter a place owned by supernaturals, or “sups” as I preferred to call them. Hell, they didn’t even know such things really existed. They’d dressed up in their tight-fitting clothes, chains, and leather, believing they were going to have a good time. Little did they know—nothing is ever as it seems.
My nails dug into my palms as the line inched forward.
Lisette, one of my two closest friends, stood next to me. She’d picked our destination for the night, and true to form, she chose one with a mixed species element. Whenever you dealt with sups, anything could happen. I had to hope for the best and continue to play my ignorant human role with her. She didn’t know that I knew.
Blinking red neon lights from the club’s sign illuminated the excitement on her pale face. She hopped up and down, trying to see over the taller humans in front of her. I couldn’t figure out how she kept her balance on the high heels she wore. Then again, she only came up to my chin—maybe being closer to the ground helped. Pixies tended to be on the short side.
“Ten more people in front of us.”
She stopped hopping—to my relief. “Thanks. I hope they hurry and let us in soon.”
I scowled, but didn’t reply. My temples were throbbing. The result of being too close to a large number of sups. They’d hit my senses like a storm of fire, ice, and jagged glass as soon as we’d neared the place. I rubbed my forehead in an effort to get rid of the pain. It would pass, given enough time. My movement drew Lisette’s attention.
“What’s wrong, Melena?” she asked, frowning. “It’s not going to be that bad. Besides, with Aniya up in Alaska, there’s no one else who can come with me.”
“Aniya is a stay at home and drink red wine kind of girl. You know she wouldn’t come to a place like this.” I paused. “Speaking of which, have you heard from her? She hasn’t been answering my calls.”
“No, I haven’t.” Lisette rolled her eyes. “But don’t try changing the subject. Unless something is seriously wrong, you’re going in here if I have to drag you by your hair.” She reached out, as if to do just that.
I jerked the vulnerable locks over one shoulder—the farthest one from Lisette—and edged a few inches away. I’d have to let the topic of Aniya go for now.
My teeth ground together as the line inched forward—five more people in front of us.
I had to hope this place wasn’t as bad as my paranoia made it out to be. Most supernatural clubs maintained strict rules involving their treatment of humans. It was just good business, but until I went in, I wouldn’t know if this one did. A risk for someone like me. It could be said my kind, sensors, were the paranormal equivalent of most wanted criminals. The main thing that kept us safe was that we appeared human.
In fact, we were, except a bit more enhanced. The few differences we had included the ability to sense supernaturals nearby, immunity to magic, and some empathic traits. For having those gifts, the sups had hunted us for centuries. Lisette had known me for eleven years, since our sophomore year in high school, and even she didn’t know my secret. It was safer that way.
My heart skipped a beat—only three people left.
A brawny werewolf bouncer stood as the gate guard to the dark abyss beyond. His alert brown eyes checked the IDs handed to him, but he did little more than skim their details. Subtle sniffs flared his nostrils as he came into contact with each human. You could fake an ID, but you couldn’t fake your natural smell, not even with perfume. A werewolf could detect your age down to a year with little more than a whiff or two.
He pulled a young brunette out of the line who wore a tiny red dress. It didn’t cover up much and left plenty of curves to show. She stood off to the side with her hands on her hips.
“I’m twenty-one. You have to let me in.”
He flung her ID at her. “This is fake. Get outta here.”
She squealed in outrage, grabbed her ID off the ground, and stomped off. I envied her. She had an excuse to leave. Sups rarely messed with underage humans. Even they had lines they avoided crossing.
As I took my next steps toward the entrance, my feet itched to make an all-out run the other way. Even the military hadn’t made me strong enough to deal with this kind of crap. One would think if I could survive being shot at and nearly blown up, a nightclub wouldn’t be that bad.
It was my past experiences with them that was the problem. They’d killed Wanda, another sensor I knew, eight years ago. The memory of her murder at a sup’s hands flashed in my mind often and served as a constant reminder of what could happen to me. I’d known Lisette since before the incident, making her the only supernatural I could tolerate.
We stepped up to the bouncer and handed over our IDs. I pretended not to feel the claws raking against my psyche from being so close to him. Lack of regular exposure to sups made them more difficult to be around. Slow, deep breaths brought some relief.
The werewolf did the same cursory check as he had with the others while sniffing us out. He gave my friend a subtle nod. It must have been some kind of supernatural acknowledgment. His eyes didn’t even linger on me before he waved us inside.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the lengthy hallway. Black walls enclosed me tightly. Only the solitary words “Mouse Trap” written in dripping blood-red letters decorated one side. I suppressed a shiver and tried not to think of their implied meaning. No wonder I was paranoid.
Several humans crowded the corridor, already caught in the supernatural snare. They had the glazed eyes of those who had imbibed one too many drinks, or maybe more, since one fell down. I stepped over him and kept going.
Once we moved into the main room, we found ourselves sucked into a huge crush of dancers. The capacity had to be close to the max, despite it being almost the size of a basketball court. Did they want us packed in like sardines?
Lisette split off from me with a small wave. I fought my way to the bar and ordered a drink. The vampire attending it had shaggy brown hair and dark eyes. An ice-cold feeling came from him, shocking my senses with its frigidity. Deep subtle breaths pushed the feeling down. If I stopped avoiding his kind so much, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.
The vampire produced my grenadine-laced Long Island Iced Tea with a flourish moments later. His smile, though fangless, showed more than a little interest. I gave him some cash and hurried away to find a semi-quiet corner as far from any non-humans as possible. That turned out to be about fifteen feet, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
Lisette had already joined the throng of dancers. She fit right in while gyrating with a guy sporting tri-colored hair and multiple piercings. Her bob of freshly colored pink didn’t stand out much in this place. Our styles differed as much as our personalities. I preferred to keep my dark auburn hair long and natural. She changed hers the way others did their clothes.
The level of my drink continued to go down as I leaned against the wall. A nearby vampire waitress with long blonde tresses moved about the room. She sashayed through the congested dancers with fluid grace while keeping her serving tray steady. I kept hoping she’d drop it when someone bumped into her, but to my annoyance, she didn’t.
Well-placed cameras scanned the scene from above. I didn’t see a single spot they didn’t cover. Keeping my gaze fixed on the scene before me, my hand slid along the waistband of my black club pants. The pocket knife I’d clipped there earlier remained tucked inside. Keeping it on me for safety reasons had become natural over the years. I didn’t feel secure without it.
As the minutes ticked by, nothing disturbing occurred. The pain in my head subsided to a dull ache, and my muscles started to unwind. I knew I needed to get a grip and stop being so sure the monsters would come to get me. Lisette changed partners a few times before my drink ran out. When I set it down, thinking to order another, she came over and tugged on my arm.
“You’re not standing there all night,” she yelled into my ear. “I’m going to make sure you have a good time if it kills you!”
“It just might,” I said.
She didn’t hear me, which didn’t matter anyway. I let her drag me along until we found a minuscule opening on the dance floor. People pressed in close, making it impossible to move without bumping into someone. I normally liked dancing, even in a crowd like this, but having bloodsuckers and wolves at my back tended to make me edgy. Lisette didn’t show any concern for the predators lurking all around. She had to have known they were there—sups had ways of recognizing each other.
We stayed together for a while until my dancing loosened up. Satisfied with my progress, Lisette moved away to rejoin tri-color hair guy. I kept her within visual range to be on the safe side. By the fifth song, the place didn’t seem that bad anymore. They played my kind of music and the men who danced with me weren’t the clumsy or groping types.
My enjoyment didn’t last. I sensed the change in the environment before it even reached me. Swirls of magic entered the room. It curled out of the vents and surged across the crowd—impossible to see or smell, but there nonetheless. Goosebumps ran across my skin as it touched me, feeling oily and foul, but otherwise having no effect. Normal humans weren’t so lucky.
As people breathed it in, the mood changed. Everyone began dancing in crude ways better suited for a strip club. Sweat poured down their bodies as they peeled their clothes off and flung them away without a care. I had to duck when a bra went flying by, cherry blossom pink not being my color.
Magic pervaded the crowd. The kind that came from a powerful witch who concocted just the right spell for humans alone. None of the sups inside the place were affected and couldn’t sense it like I could. Lisette was immune as well, but she had joined in the craze by rubbing her body all over her partner. She’d always enjoyed a good scene. It didn’t even occur to her that something wasn’t right. That trait about her was something I both loved and hated.
I moved toward her, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the club staff figured out one human stood untouched by their magical cocktail, particularly with those cameras in place. We needed to leave, now.
“I’m getting out of here, Lisette. Are you coming?” I shouted.
Lisette had eyes only for the guy holding her close. They moved against each other sensuously with no regard for those around them. She didn’t even glance my way and several stubborn people wouldn’t move so I could get closer.
Dancers everywhere had either stripped off all their clothes or were well on their way to it. Their empty eyes stared at nothing, but their bodies managed lewd acts with impressive skill. The heat and passion pulsing through the room grew at an alarming rate, assailing my already overwhelmed senses. It wouldn’t be long before it turned into an all-out orgy.
I kept trying to elbow my way through the crowd, but the already dim room suddenly switched to strobe lights, bringing me to a blinding halt.
It took a moment to adjust to the change, but when my vision cleared the macabre scene before me appeared something akin to a horror movie, or really wicked porn. A few of the vamps joined in to take advantage of the changed atmosphere with their own special brand of “fun”. I thought I caught sight of a set of fangs flashing, but couldn’t be sure.
With a final hard shove, I reached Lisette. “Hey,” I yelled in her ear, “we gotta go.”
Lisette frowned and opened her mouth to argue. She still didn’t get it and time was running out. I grabbed her face and turned it toward the crowd. “This is not normal. We have to go now!”
She stopped dancing and took a serious look around. A flicker of realization crossed her eyes. Ignoring her partner, who’d begun to do unseemly things with his tongue to her bare legs, she shuffled closer to me. “Mel, listen. I’m going to stay, but you should definitely go. Maybe we can catch up later or something?”
“You’re not coming?”
“No way.” She shook her head. “This is even better than I expected, but I wouldn’t have brought you if I’d known. I’m sorry.”
“You’re really going to stay for this?” I asked. I’d known she had a kinky side, but didn’t think it went this far.
“Yes. Now go!” She shoved me in the direction of the entrance. “If I have to haul you out, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“Fine, but be careful,” I warned.
“Always,” she said with a naughty grin. There would be no changing her mind, but she could take care of herself. I had to believe that as I began working my way back toward the entrance.
Getting through the mass of people made the army obstacle courses I’d done years before look easy. Almost every inch of the floor had human bodies twisting and bending in ways that defied logic. I tripped right before reaching the entrance hall when a pair of bare legs shot out in front of me.
My chin almost smacked the floor, but I managed to stop myself a bare inch before impact. While trying to untangle myself from the loose limbs, I felt a strong presence draw close. His aura filled me with coldness and dread. I peered up through my hair, which had swept in front of my face, to see a dark-skinned vampire standing at the edge of the crowd.
“You’re wanted upstairs.”
I gulped. “Now?”
A flash of fangs and darkening eyes gave me the only answer I needed. My senses told me he hadn’t been undead for more than ten years, but he would still be far too strong. I wouldn’t win in a fight against him, but my need for escape kept me searching for a way out. I made a quick sweep of the room. There had to be another exit.
The vamp didn’t wait for me to find one. He grabbed my arm in a firm grip and pulled me out of the twisted mess of limbs. Everything moved in a blur as he propelled me toward a set of stairs not far from where we’d been moments before. I almost lost a shoe in the process, but managed to retain it with the grip of my toes.
We reached the top and went straight for a door at the end of the hall. My senses alerted me to who waited on the other side—the same witch who had concocted the magic spell. The vampire shoved me through and entered behind me before shutting the door. With him blocking my escape, I was forced to face the coldly beautiful woman standing across the room in front of an ornate mahogany desk. Only the tiny crinkles around her eyes gave away her age as being somewhere in her forties.
Waves of powerful black magic emanated from her and I could smell the putrid remnants of a recent animal sacrifice. The odor made my nose wrinkle. A quick search revealed it to be in the corner, but I didn’t linger on the mess that had to have once been a bird. Brown feathers were the only thing that gave it away now. The poor creature must have been part of the ingredients needed for the spell downstairs. PETA would have a field day with this woman.
“Here she is, Madam Noreen,” the vampire behind me announced. I figured him for one of her minions. All the powerful sups had an entourage of “lessers” to do their bidding.
Noreen wore a designer pantsuit, minus the jacket. The white silk shirt she had on was sleeveless and low-cut, hugging her slim curves in a flattering way, and her highlighted hair had been swept up into a fancy twist. She stood with confident authority. I set my face in a neutral expression, not wanting to give away any signs of fear. Nothing could be done about my rapidly-beating heart, though.
Her lips curled up. “Are you enjoying my club, little one?”
“Of course, but I just remembered I left my stove on.” She didn’t need to know I couldn’t cook a hot dog without blowing it up into chunks. “It runs on gas, so I really should get home and shut it off.”
I swiveled on my heels to leave, but didn’t make it more than two steps. The vampire by the door shoved me back in the direction of the witch, making me stumble before catching myself. I turned around to find Noreen had moved in closer. When she spoke next, her tone might have come off as pleasant, but a hint of malice laced its edges.
“This shouldn’t take long, don’t worry.”
Right, I felt really reassured.
“Good to know,” I said instead, glancing back at the door, “but it would really suck if my apartment caught on fire. I really do have to get going.” Maybe if I said it enough times, she’d believe me.
The witch ignored my protest and hit a button on a small remote in her hand. What had been a wall in front of me slid open on silent tracks…
‡ About Susan Illene ‡
Instead of making the traditional post high school move and attending college, Susan joined the U.S. Army. She spent her eighteenth birthday in the gas chamber — an experience she is sure is best left for criminals. For eleven years she served first as a human resources specialist and later as an Arabic linguist (mostly in Airborne units). Though all her duty assignments were stateside, she did make two deployments to Iraq where her language skills were put to regular use.
After leaving the service in 2009, Susan returned to school to study history with a focus on the Middle East. She no longer finds many opportunities to test her fighting abilities in real life, unless her husband is demanding she cook him a real meal, but she’s found a new outlet in writing urban fantasy heroines who can.
A video blog (vlog) interview of Susan can be seen here: http://youtu.be/DTQpJEpwwXg
For a listing of her books on Amazon, you may click here.
For regular updates on Susan and her books, check out her Facebook page.
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