It all started one day earlier with a single silenced bullet out of nowhere.
Thomas Hunter was walking down the same dimly lit alley he always took on his way home after locking up the small Java Hut on Colfax and Ninth, when a smack! punctuated the hum of distant traffic. Red brick dribbled from a one-inch hole two feet away from his face. He stopped midstride.
This time he saw the bullet plow into the brick. This time he felt a sting on his cheek as tiny bits of shattered brick burst from the impact. This time every muscle in his body ceased.
Someone had just shot at him!
Was shooting at him.
Tom recoiled to a crouch and instinctively spread his arms. He couldn't seem to tear his eyes off those two holes in the brick, dead ahead. They had to be some mistake. Figments of his overactive imagination. His aspirations to write novels had finally ruptured the line between fantasy and reality with these two empty eye sockets staring at him from the red brick.
That wasn't his imagination, was it? No, that was his name, and it was echoing down the alley. A third bullet crashed into the brick wall.
He bolted to his left, still crouching. One long step, drop the right shoulder, roll. Again the air split above his head. This bullet clanged into a steel ladder and rang down the alley.
Tom came to his feet and chased the sound in a full sprint, pushed by instinct as much as by terror. He'd been here before, in the back alleys of Manila. He'd been a teenager then, and the Filipino gangs were armed with knives and machetes rather than guns, but at the moment, tearing down the alley behind Ninth and Colfax, Tom's mind wasn't drawing any distinction.
"You're a dead man!" the voice yelled.
Now he knew who they were. They were from New York.
This alley led to another thirty yards ahead, on his left. A mere shadow in the dim light, but he knew the cutaway.
Two more bullets whipped by, one so close he could feel its wind on his left ear. Feet pounded the concrete behind him. Two, maybe three pairs.
Tom dived into the shadow.
"Cut him off in the back. Radio."
Tom rolled to the balls of his feet then sprinted, mind spinning.
The problem with adrenaline, Makatsu's thin voice whispered, is that it makes your head weak. His karate instructor would point to his head and wink. You have plenty of muscle to fight, but no muscle to think.
If they had radios and could cut off the street ahead, he would have a very serious problem.
He looked frantically for cover. One access to the roof halfway down the alley. One large garbage bin too far away. Scattered boxes to his left. No real cover. He had to make his move before they entered the alley.
Fingers of panic stabbed into his mind. Adrenaline dulls reason; panic kills it. Makatsu again. Tom had once been beaten to a pulp by a gang of Filipinos who'd taken a pledge to kill any Americano brat who entered their turf. They made the streets around the army base their turf. His instructor had scolded him, insisting that he was good enough to have escaped their attack that afternoon. His panic had cost him dearly. His brain had been turned to rice pudding, and he deserved the bruises that swelled his eyes shut.
This time it was bullets, not feet and clubs, and bullets would leave more than bruises. Time was out.
Short on ideas and long on desperation, Tom dived for the gutter. Rough concrete tore at his skin. He rolled quickly to his left, bumped into the brick wall, and lay facedown in the deep shadow.
Feet pounded around the corner and ran straight toward him. One man. How they had found him in Denver, four years after the fact, he had no clue. But if they'd gone to this trouble, they wouldn't just walk away.
The man ran on light feet, hardly winded. Tom's nose was buried in the musty corner. Noisy blasts of air from his nostrils buffeted his face. He clamped down on his breathing; immediately his lungs began to burn.
The slapping feet approached, ran past.
A slight tremor lit through his bones. He fought another round of panic. It had been six years since his last fight. He didn't stand a chance against a man with a gun. He desperately willed the feet to move on. Walk. Just walk!
But the feet didn't walk.
They scraped quietly.
Tom nearly cried out in his hopelessness. He had to move now, while he still had the advantage of surprise.
He threw himself to his left, rolled once to gain momentum. Then twice, rising first to his knees then to his feet. His attacker was facing him, gun extended, frozen.
Tom's momentum carried him laterally, directly toward the opposite wall. The gun's muzzle-flash momentarily lit the dark alley and spit a bullet past him. But now instinct had replaced panic.
What shoes am I wearing?
The question flashed through Tom's mind as he hurdled for the brick wall, left foot leading. A critical question.
His answer came when his foot planted on the wall. Rubber soles. One more step up the wall with traction to spare. He threw his head back, arched hard, pushed himself off the brick, then twisted to his right halfway through his rotation. The move was simply an inverted bicycle kick, but he hadn't executed it in half a dozen years, and this time his eyes weren't on a soccer ball tossed up by one of his Filipino friends in Manila.
This time it was a gun.
The man managed one shot before Tom's left foot smashed into his hand, sending the pistol clattering down the alley. The bullet tugged at his collar.
Tom didn't land lightly on his feet as he'd hoped. He sprawled to his hands, rolled once, and sprang into the seventh fighting position opposite a well-muscled man with short-cropped black hair. Not exactly a perfectly executed maneuver. Not terrible for someone who hadn't fought in six years.
The man's eyes were round with shock. His experience in the martial arts obviously didn't extend beyond The Matrix. Tom was briefly tempted to shout for joy, but, if anything, he had to shut this man up before he could call out.
The man's astonishment suddenly changed to a snarl, and Tom saw the knife in his right hand. Okay, so maybe the man knew more about street-fighting than was at first apparent.
He charged Tom.
The fury that flooded Tom's veins felt all too welcome. How dare this man shoot at him! How dare he not fall to his knees after such a brilliant kick!
Tom ducked the knife's first swipe. Came up with his palm to the man's chin. Bone cracked.
It wasn't enough. This man was twice his weight, with twice his muscle, and ten times his bad blood.
Tom launched himself vertically and spun into a full roundhouse kick, screaming despite his better judgment. His foot had to be doing a good eighty miles an hour when it struck the man's jaw.
They both hit the concrete at precisely the same time-Tom on his feet, ready to deliver another blow; his assailant on his back, breathing hard, ready for the grave. Figuratively speaking.
The man's silver pistol lay near the wall. Tom took a step for it, then rejected the notion. What was he going to do? Shoot back? Kill the guy? Incriminate himself? Not smart. He turned and ran back in the direction they'd come.
The main alley was empty. He ducked into it, edged along the wall, grabbed the rails to a steel fire escape, and quickly ascended. The building's roof was flat and shouldered another taller building to the south. He swung up to the second building, ran in a crouch, and halted by a large vent, nearly a full block from the alley where he'd laid out the New Yorker.
He dropped to his knees, pressed back into the shadows, and listened past the thumping of his heart.
The hum of a million tires rolling over asphalt. The distant roar of a jet overhead. The faint sound of idle talk. The sizzling of food frying in a pan, or of water being poured from a window. The former, considering they were in Denver, not the Philippines. No sounds from New York.
He leaned back and closed his eyes, catching his breath.
Crazy! Fights in Manila as a teenager were one thing, but here in the States at the ripe age of twenty-five? The whole sequence struck him as surreal. It was hard to believe this had just happened to him.
Or, more accurately, was happening to him. He still had to figure a way out of this mess. Did they know where he lived? No one had followed him to the roof.
Tom crept to the ledge. Another alley ran directly below, adjoining busy streets on either side. Denver's brilliant skyline glimmered on the horizon directly ahead. An odd odor met his nose, sweet like cotton candy but mixed with rubber or something burning.
Déjà vu. He'd been here before, hadn't he? No, of course not. Lights shimmered in the hot summer air, reds and yellows and blues, like jewels sprinkled from heaven. He could swear he'd been-
Tom's head suddenly snapped to the left. He threw out his arms, but his world spun impossibly and he knew that he was in trouble.
Something had hit him. Something like a sledgehammer. Something like a bullet.
He felt himself topple, but he wasn't sure if he was really falling or if he was losing consciousness. Something was horribly wrong with his head.
He landed hard on his back, in a pillow of black that swallowed his mind whole.
the man's eyes snapped open. A pitch-black sky above. No lights, no stars, no buildings. Only black. And a small moon.
He blinked and tried to remember where he was. Who he was. But all he could remember was that he'd just had a vivid dream.
He closed his eyes and fought to wake. He'd dreamed that he was running from some men who wanted to hurt him. He'd escaped like a spider up a wall after leveling one of the men. Then he'd stared out at the lights. Such beautiful, brilliant lights. Now he was awake. And he still didn't know where he was.
He sat up, disoriented. The shadows of tall, dark trees surrounded a rocky clearing in which he'd been sleeping. His eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and he saw a field of some kind ahead.
He clambered to his feet and steadied himself. On his feet, leather moccasins. On his body, dark pants, tan suede shirt with two pockets. He instinctively felt for his left temple, where a sharp ache throbbed. Warm. Wet. His fingers came away bloody.
He'd been struck in his dream. Something had plowed into his head. He turned and saw a dark patch glistening on the rock where he'd fallen. He must have struck his head against the rock and been knocked un-conscious. But he couldn't remember anything but the dream. He wasn't in a city. He wasn't anywhere near a dark alley or traffic or guns.
Instead he was here, in a rocky clearing, surrounded by large trees. But where? Maybe the knock to his head had given him amnesia.
What was his name? Thomas. The man in his dream had called him Thomas Hunter. Tom Hunter.
Tom felt the bleeding bump on his head again. The surface wound above his ear had matted his hair with blood. It had knocked him senseless, but thankfully no more.
The night was actually quite bright now. In fact, he could make the trees out clearly.
He lowered his hand and stared at a tree without full comprehension. Square branches jutted off from the trunk at a harsh angle before squaring and turning skyward, like claws grasping at the heavens. The smooth bark looked as though it might be made of metal or a carbon fiber rather than organic material.
Did he know these trees? Why did this sight disturb him?
"It looks perfectly good."
Tom jumped and spun to the male voice. "Huh?"
A man, a redhead dressed like him, stood looking down at a cluster of rocks ten feet away. Did . . . did he know this man?
"The water looks clean to me," the man said.
Tom swallowed. "What's . . . what happened?"
He followed the man's eyes and saw that he was staring at a small puddle of water nestled in a boulder at the edge of the clearing. There was something strange about the water, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
"I think we should try it. Looks good," the man said.
"Where are we?" Tom asked.
"Good question." The man looked at him, then tilted his head and grinned. "You really don't remember? What, you get knocked in the head or something?"
"I guess I must have. I honestly can't remember a thing."
"What's your name?"
"Tom. I think."
"Well, you know that much. Now all we have to do is find a way out of here."
"And what's your name?" Tom asked.
"Seriously? You don't remember?" The man was staring at the water again.
"Bill," the man said absently. He reached down and touched the water. Brought it to his nose and sniffed. His eyes closed as he savored the scent.
Tom glanced around the clearing, willing his mind to remember. Odd how he could remember some things but not others. He knew that these tall black things were called trees, that the material on his body was called clothing, that the organ pumping in his chest was a heart. He even knew that this kind of selective memory loss was consistent with amnesia. But he couldn't remember any history. Couldn't remember how he got here. Didn't know why Bill was so mesmerized by the water. Didn't even know who Bill was.
"I had a dream about being chased down an alley," Tom said. "Is that how we got here?"
"If only it were that simple. I dreamed of Lucy Lane last night-if only she really did have an obsession over me." He grinned.
Tom closed his eyes, rubbed his temples, paced, and then faced Bill again, desperate for some sense of familiarity. "So where are we?"
"This water smells absolutely delicious. We need to drink, Tom. How long has it been since we had water?" Bill was looking at the liquid on his finger. That was another thing Tom knew: They shouldn't drink the water. But Bill seemed to be considering it very seriously.
"I don't think-"
A snicker sounded in the night. Tom scanned the trees.
"You hear that?"
"Are we hearing things now?" Bill asked.
"No. Yes! That was a snicker. Something's out there!"
"Nope. You're hearing things."
Bill dipped three fingers into the water. This time he lifted them above his mouth and let a drop fall on his tongue.
The effects were immediate. He gasped and stared at his wet finger with a look of horror. Slowly his mouth twisted into a smile. He stuffed his fingers into his mouth and sucked with such relief, such rapture, that Tom thought he'd lost his mind on the spot.
Bill suddenly dropped to his knees and plopped his face into the small pool of water. He drank, like a horse from a trough, sucking down the water in long, noisy pulls.
Then he stood, trembling, licking his lips.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm drinking the water, you idiot. What does it look like I'm doing, backflips? Are you that-" He caught himself midsentence and turned away. His fingers crept across the rock into the water, and he sampled the liquid again in a way that made Tom think he was intentionally being sneaky. This man named Bill, whom he supposedly knew, had flipped his lid completely.
"You have to try the water, Tom. You absolutely have to try the water."
Then, without another word, Bill hopped over the rock, walked into the black forest, and was gone.
"Bill?" Tom peered into the night where Bill had disappeared. Should he follow? He ran forward and pulled up by the boulder.
Tom took three long steps forward, planted his left hand on the rock, and vaulted in pursuit. A chill flashed up his arm. He glanced down, midvault, and saw that his index finger rested in the puddle of water.
The world slowed.
Something like an electrical current ran up his arm, over his shoulder, straight to his spine. The base of his skull buzzed with intense pleasure, pulling him to the water, begging him to plunge his head into this pool.
Then his foot landed beyond the rock and another reality jerked him from the water. Pain. The intense searing pain of a blade slicing through his leather moccasins and into his heel.
Tom gasped and dived headlong into the field past the boulder. The instant his outstretched hands made contact with the ground, pain shot up his arms and he knew he had made a dreadful mistake. Nausea swept through his body. Razor-sharp shale sliced through his flesh as though it were butter. He recoiled, shuddering as the shale pulled free from deep cuts in his forearms.
Tom groaned and fought to retain consciousness. Pinpricks of light swam in his clenched eyes. High above, a million leaves rustled in the night breeze. The snickers of a thousand-
Tom's eyes snapped open. Snickers? His mind wrestled between throbbing pain and the terrible fear that he wasn't alone.
From a branch not five feet above him hung a large, lumpy growth the length of his arm. Next to the growth hung another, like a cluster of black grapes. If he hadn't fallen, he might have hit his head on the clumps.
The growth nearest him suddenly moved.
Tom blinked. Two wings unfolded from the growth. A triangular face tilted toward him, exposing pupil-less eyes. Large, red, pupil-less eyes. A thin pink tongue snaked out of black lips and tested the air.
Tom's heart crashed into his throat. He jerked his eyes to the other growths. A thousand black creatures clung to the branches surrounding him, peering at him with red eyes too large for their angular faces.
The bat closest to him curled its lips to expose dirty yellow fangs.
Tom screamed. His world washed with blackness.