Well, some of it, anyway.

What follows is an extract from my forthcoming thriller novel, “Xero Option.”

Hmm. Cool logo, yes?

“Forthcoming.” As in, “I have to finish the damn thing, first.”

In the meantime, here’s Chapter One.
Feel free to leave a comment if you like it, loathe it, or just want to pass the time of day.

And happy reading.

*  *  *  *

Earl Grey. Or jasmine.

Farrell nodded, grimly. That’s what she should have gone for.
Something simple. Not some “exotic blend of fragrant leaves, grown on
the rolling plains of Outer Tyberia”, or wherever it was. With “a
rich, yet delicate flavor, that…”

Yeah, right.

She scowled, stabbing the soggy teabag into the depths of the thermos
cup, for the umpteenth time.

The guy at the grocery store had sold her a lemon. Or – Farrell
grinned ruefully at this – he should have done. Would have had more
flavor in it, than this stuff. Farrell–

Paused. Head bowed. Still scowling at the offending mess in her cup,
as the short hairs at the nape of her neck stood on end.

Someone was watching her. Had been, for some time.

It didn’t take going on 20 years of police experience, to figure that
one out. The feeling was primal. That idiot, Vitale, would have
described it as gut instinct, street smarts, or some jassack cliche,
like that. The Lieutenant would phrase it more elegantly. He had a way
with words that Farrell frankly admired. A sense of style, about him.

Whichever way you put it; she was being watched.

Farrell looked up.

He was standing about a foot in front of the reception desk, in an
attitude Farrell would describe as parade rest: feet slightly apart,
hands loosely at his sides.

Average height. Average weight. Average build.

Not ugly; not handsome. Average.

There was something about him, though.

“I’d like to report a murder.”

His tone was mild, uninflected. No discernible accent. An average voice.

“Oh, yeah? Who’d you kill?”

Farrell’s question was as much a reflection of the cynicism that
seemed to worm its way into the DNA of every resident of Metro City,
as it was a genuine concession to the fact that this guy might
actually be dangerous.

And a way of easing her own tension.

That primal thing, again.

Farrell felt her hand sneaking involuntarily toward the shelf beneath
the reception desk – even as the guy opened his mouth, to respond.

“You. And every other person, in this building.”

Farrell’s hand completed its journey, fingers closing round the butt
of the 9-millimeter automatic stowed beneath the desk.

Since the terrorist incidents of recent years, Homeland Security had
made this – and several other precautionary measures – standard
procedure, at station houses across the city. Together with
recommended practices for dealing with alleged or potential
perpetrators of terrorist acts.

With her free hand, Farrell lined up a pen and steno pad, beside the
computer terminal on the desk. Fingers poised to scribble. Still
fingering the weapon below Mr. Average Guy’s line of sight.

“What did you say your name was, again?”

“I didn’t,” he replied. “It’s Psmith. John Psmith. With a ‘P’.”

Farrell went through the motions of writing this down.

“John… P… Smi–”

“No.”

Psmith smiled, a Zen-like tranquility oozing from him, as he shook his
head. He leaned forward, both palms spread flat on the desktop.
Friendly. Cooperative. Totally harmless.

It took all of Farrell’s strength of will, to stop herself from flinching.

“It’s Psmith. With a ‘P’,” he said. “P-S-M-I-T-H. Pronounced ‘Smith’.”

*  *  *  *

Shouldn’t it be “Smythe?”

Vitale wrinkled his brow.

“I mean, that’s how it’s spelt.”

Still frowning, Vitale cast a critical eye over the desk.
Preternaturally tidy. Custom stationery, designer ornaments. Gilded
plaque, in front: John Smyth.

Everything put in place, just so. Evidence of a fastidious nature,
which permeated the entire office.

Prissy, thought Vitale. That’s the word.

Polished bookshelves, neatly stacked. Plush furniture, like you’d find
in an old English gentlemen’s club. Everything spotless, and
positioned as if by design.

Except.

Behind the desk, an upturned swivel chair. Sprawled in it, the body of
John Smyth, a well-groomed man in his fifties. Polished as his office.
Save for the bloody hole, in his forehead.

On the wall above Smyth sat a circular depression, at the center of a
splatter of blood, bone, and brain tissue.

Some of the goop had splashed a series of frames on the wall above the
desk. A diploma. Certificates of Appreciation, from various Bar
Associations across the country. Photo of a fishing trip: Smyth and
the current Attorney General. Smug expressions on both men. Look at
us; we’re just a couple of regular guys.

Vitale grunted. “Hmph. Probably had an intern catch those bass, for ’em.”

“Privilege of power.”

Vitale almost jumped, as Garber stepped up beside him. A big
African-American man in his forties, the Lieutenant was remarkably
light on his feet. And quiet. Vitale often joked that he should start
a training program, at the precinct. Ninja Sneaking, 101. Could be a
useful skill.

“The man moved in exalted circles.”

The Lieutenant’s voice was dry. “Fellow of his standing, station in
life, he’d want to be a cut above. Set himself apart from all the
other John Smith’s, out there. Guys with solid names, like us –
Vitale, Garber – we don’t have that problem.”

“Hmph.”

Vitale was unmoved. “Why the hell doesn’t he spell it right. Did. Didn’t he.”

Behind the two detectives, Forensic Investigator Matthew Clapton
fussed around the body. A solidly built man in his thirties, Clapton
had the look of a teenage computer geek; he was that absorbed, in his
work. Plotting trajectories, doing scrapings, dictating notes into his
iPod. Clapton was meticulous. Thorough. Brilliant, on occasion.

Slow, thought Vitale.

“Hey, Matty. What do you say? D’you think he’s dead?”

Clapton interrupted his work-flow just long enough to respond.

“It’s Matthew.”

He didn’t even look up.

Vitale rolled his neck, as he adjusted the knot in his tie. Though in
his early thirties, Vitale seemed uncomfortable in the slacks and
sport jacket combo favored by so many male detectives (and a fair few
of the women; but that was another story) in this city. Like a brash
college kid gone formal to impress his rich girlfriend’s snooty
grandparents, or something.

He turned toward Garber, who was frowning over the nick-nacks on the
desk of the late Mr. John Smyth, pronounced “Smith.”

“So, Lenny–”

Vitale caught himself, as the frown on Garber’s face grew deeper.

“Len. Lennox. What’s it look like, to you?”

Garber nudged a drinking bird paperweight, on the desk. Like Vitale
and Clapton, he wore surgical gloves.

“I’m not sure.”

Nestled neatly behind the bird was a sleek little cell phone. Garber
picked it up, and hit last number redial. He held the phone close to
his ear, as a whiny, nasal voice piped up from the other end.

“Arnold Gleissner, paparazzo. Hello? Hello?”

“Hello. Mister–”

But Gleissner had cut the connection.

Mouthing the word, “Paparazzo?”, Garber turned toward the Forensics man.

“Anything?”

Clapton held out a clear plastic evidence bag, with a scrap of paper in it.

I pried this out of the victim’s hand,” Clapton said. “Had to smooth
it out, a little. Well, a lot, actually. See the edges, there?”

Garber held the bag up to the light. And grinned.

“Paparazzo.”

He passed the bag over to Vitale, who studied the paper. It was a
fragment from a glossy photograph. Vitale smirked, as he took in its
content.

“Hmph. Couple of exalted circles, there, all right.” His eyes widened.
“Hey! Isn’t that…?” He tapped a portion of the the image. A face.
Partly obscured, but recognizable.

Garber’s silent nod confirmed it.

Vitale gave a low whistle.

“You guys can go ahead.” Clapton studied the expressions of his two
colleagues, as they both turned to face him. “I’ve dusted for prints,
already.”

Vitale barked a harsh laugh, jerking a thumb toward the corpse behind them.

“Yeah. That’s what this guy was, looks like. Dusted.”

He held up the photo fragment.

“For prints.”

“Mm-hmm,” nodded Garber. “Let’s go pay a visit on an Arnold Gleissner,
photographer. See if he can put us in the picture.”

*  *  *  *

“Ten to one; Gleissner’s skipped.”

Vitale drummed a tattoo on the dashboard as Lieutenant Garber swung
the cruiser into the parking area of Metro West Police Department
headquarters.

“Guy knew we’d be onto him,” Vitale continued. “Knew his part in the
scam would be exposed. Left town.”

They had spent an unproductive hour and a half at Silver Lake Palace –
a set of low-rent condos, in an area of the East Side that was equally
low-rent. Silver Lake was home to one Arnold Gleissner, paparazzo.
Whose apartment was unoccupied. And whose neighbors hadn’t seen him,
in three days.

Garber killed the engine. “And which scam would that be?”

Vitale shrugged. “Blackmail. Extortion. You saw who was in that photo, right?”

“I did,” said Garber. “Do you think murder was part of the plan?”

“I dunno,” Vitale replied. “Maybe the pay-off went south. Smyth tried
to plea bargain his way out, short-change the guy.”

Garber shook his head. “Smyth and Gleissner were opposite ends of the
social spectrum. Gleissner wouldn’t have made it past Mr. Smyth’s
palatial front gate, even.”

He continued, as they exited the car. “All we have is a phone number,
a photograph, one word, and a hunch. To score a warrant to search
Gleissner’s apartment, we’ll need a whole lot more than that.
Something more…”

Garber’s eyes narrowed, as he looked toward the precinct house.

“Explosive.”

The circus was in town.

Bomb Disposal officers with sniffer dogs walked rounds of the parking
area, checking vehicles. At the entrance doors, cops and civilians
crowded the steps. A local news crew had set up at the base of the
stairs, shooting alternating footage of the security sweep and the
crowd.

No panic, though. This kind of scene was pretty common, now.

Heads turned as the barred shutters rolled back from the entrance
doors, and a Bomb Disposal officer emerged, megaphone in hand.

“All clear,” he said.

A collective sigh of resignation went round, as perpetrators,
complainants, and peace makers began to dribble back into the
building.

“Another day, in the business of law and order,” Garber noted.

Vitale nodded. “Yep. Life, in the big city.”

*  *  *  *

The crowd in the reception lobby had thinned out considerably, by the
time Vitale and Garber cleared the metal detectors, and approached a
glum-looking Sergeant Farrell, at the desk. Her expression brightened,
as she greeted the senior detective, with a respectful nod.

“Lieutenant.”

“Sergeant Farrell.”

“Hey, Sarge.” Vitale’s grin was cocky. “Still slurpin’ down the herbal tea?”

“Hmm.”

The thunder clouds descended on Farrell’s brow, again.

“Hey, what’s with the, uh… ?”

Vitale jerked a thumb back, to indicate the last of the Bomb Disposal
Unit, loping out of the exit doors.

This brought a smile, from Sergeant Farrell. The kind a snake might
wear, as it contemplates a clutch of chicken eggs in a deserted roost.

“I am so glad you asked me that, Detective. I think we’ve got a live
one, for you. Upstairs.”

*  *  *  *

At the third floor, they pushed past the bullpen housing the
Detectives’ Division. Fallout from the morning’s bomb scare had the
plainclothes investigators juggling between their existing work load,
and a fresh influx of new cases.

That wiseacre, Hashida, found time to whistle the theme from “The
X-Files” at them, as Vitale and Garber passed from view, into the
adjacent corridor – which was home to the SIU.

The Special Investigations Unit shared a name and a few structural
elements with a civilian oversight agency in Ontario, Canada – but
very little else. Its officers were charged with “the discreet and
thorough investigation of cases which – for reasons of national
security, procedural, technical, jurisdictional, or political
implications – might otherwise fall outside the remit of the
mainstream law-enforcement network.”

A polite way of saying “sensitive”. Or “outside the box.”

In practice, this meant the SIU would often work in tandem with the
Detective bureau. Occasionally, though, the Unit could be called upon
to act, independent of it.

The SIU had been set up by special order of the Governor – more or
less in direct consequence to Lennox Garber’s retirement from the
military, his relocation to Metro City, and his expressed interest in
continuing to work as an investigator, outside of the armed forces
umbrella.

At present, the SIU consisted of three officers: two Case
Investigators, and a Forensic Investigator. The team had scored some
notable successes (discreetly, of course) in the several years since
its inception.

Some pretty bizarre cases, actually.

The Unit had its own forensics lab, custom fitted to Clapton’s
specifications. And an interrogation room. Your standard double space:
observation room, with computer access to the online crime databases.
Santa hadn’t delivered yet, on the polygraph link-up Clapton had been
lobbying for.

So Vitale and Garber would have to rely on their wits – and their own
powers of observation – with the occupant of the room beyond the
one-way mirrors.

*  *  *  *

Not your average-looking terror suspect, Vitale thought.

But, that was just it. The guy seated at the table in the center of
the room looked exactly that.

Average.

Neutral expression, as his gaze swept over Vitale, ignored him, and
locked eyes with Lieutenant Garber.

Vitale felt it, then.

A ripple, in the atmosphere of the room. Scent of blood, in the air.

Growing up, in the neighborhood – the guys he ran with – it was often like this.

Couple of them would be horsing around, one minute. Yucking it up.

A wrong word or move, and BAM! One of the guys would pitch over, a
blade in his gut. Or worse.

It was there, for an instant. Then gone.

That feeling.

“John Psmith.”

Garber consulted the clipboard he held in his hand.

“P-S-M-I-T-H. Pronounced, “Smith.”

“Great.” Vitale rolled his eyes. “Another one.”

He felt Psmith’s gaze shift toward him. His expression, unreadable.

“Says here,” Garber frowned over the text. “You’ve confessed to the
murder of Sergeant Farrell, at the desk downstairs. And the murder of
every other person in this building.”

Psmith nodded, affably.

“I’ve also killed every man, woman, and child, on the face of the Earth.”

There was silence, for a moment, as the detectives took this in.

Catching Garber’s eye, as they took their seats either side of the
suspect, Vitale twirled a finger above the table top: “This one’s a
Looney Tune.”

“Hmm.” Vitale cracked a lazy smile. “I don’t know.”

He stretched out an arm. Flexed his fingers, as he looked at them.

“I still seem to be, you know, alive, right now. Pretty much. You’re
looking pretty chipper, too, Lieutenant. How’s it hanging there, Len?
You alive?”

Garber nodded. “It would seem so. Yes.”

Vitale turned toward Psmith.

“So, um, Mr. Psmith. When did you, uh, you know, kill us? Exactly?”

Psmith considered, a moment.

“Today’s Tuesday, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Vitale nodded. Let’s humor this guy, he thought.

“Thursday.”

Psmith’s tone was firm.

“Thursday.” Vitale struggled, to keep a straight face. “As in, two
days from now, Thursday.”

It was Psmith’s turn to nod, now.

“Yes.”

“Woo-ooooooh,” Vitale whistled. “End ‘o’ the world, huh?”

Psmith smiled, as he shook his head.

“The end of humanity, when it comes, will happen one death at a time.”

“That’s very philosophical.” Garber appeared to contemplate the idea.
“And it helps us, how?”

Psmith shifted his attention to the older man. That atmospheric
frisson, again, as their eyes met.

“1523 Highland Terrace'” he said.

A look flashed, between Garber and Vitale.

“Nice neighborhood.” Garber kept his tone mild.

Psmith’s smile didn’t waver, as he replied.

“Door’s open, I think.”

Another look passed between the two investigators.

“What’s going on, in Highland Terrace?”

There was an urgency to Vitale’s tone, now.

“Huh? What have you done? Answer me!”

Vitale slapped a hand down on the table. Hard.

Psmith regarded him mildly – as an entomologist might look at some
amusing new species of bug. His seraphic smile hardly faltered, as he
continued to stare.

Garber studied the two of them. He quickly concluded that the
stand-off wasn’t going to be resolved, like this.

“Gianni?”

Vitale broke eye contact with Psmith. He straightened, and rose from
his seat. It was Garber he addressed, as he opened the door.

“I’ll get ‘em to send someone. Check it out.”

But his eyes were on Psmith.

*  *  *  *

Highland Terrace. A quiet residential development, on the outskirts of
glamorous Metro City.

How the realtor’s brochure had described it, when Chavez toyed –
briefly – with the idea of renting accommodation, here.

One look at the house rents – and the figure on his monthly pay check
– put the kibosh, on that idea.

That was shortly after his transfer, to Metro West.

Glamorous Metro City. Yeah.

Chavez guessed it was all right. He had seen worse towns. Seen better.

No matter where you were, though, some things never changed.

Guys in the muster room took to calling him Hugo. Cracks about
slumming it; moonlighting from the White House, or whatever, in
Caracas, Venezuela. Hysterically funny. Yeah. The first six hundred
times you heard it.

A quiet, residential development.

Try suburb.

1523 was a neat two-story. Just like all the other houses on the street.

Chavez imagined the eyes of two and a half children on him, as he
stepped onto the porch. From their curtained windows. A neighborhood,
watching.

Paranoid, really. It was the middle of the morning; kids would all be
in school by now. Probably.

They had left the cruiser out front. Parkes was circling the back of
the property, while Chavez —

The front door was open.

Not gaping, but clearly unlocked.

Unsecured premises.

He addressed the presumed occupants of the building, as he approached the door.

“Hello! Metro PD. There’s been a report of– We’ve had a– Hell. Parkes!”

No answer. Parkes must be out of earshot. The structure blocking out
Chavez’ voice.

“Is anyone in there? Is anyone hurt? Shit.”

Chavez unclipped his service revolver. Thinking of the paperwork to
come, he nudged open the door. And entered the house.

“Oh, mierda!”

The smell hit him, first. Then, the visual.

In the front room (spacious lounge; that’s what the realtors would
say) lay the remains of a typical suburban family: Mom, Dad, couple of
kids. Not two and a half. Though it was difficult to tell.

They had bled a lot, when they died.

And they had died quite horribly.

“Oh, shi –!”

He couldn’t finish. Chavez turned, stumbling to the door. Bolted, for
the porch rail. And retched, uncontrollably, into the yard.

*  *  *  *

That’s all, for now.

Peace.

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