A Lyrical Press Science Fiction Romance
Lyrical Press is honored to offer Up All Night Read All Day’s readers a preview of the first two chapters of A Small Degree of Hope by Lyndi Alexander
Even the smallest degree of hope can spark love.
Against her wealthy father’s demands, and the usual blockades of a male dominated profession, Kylie Sanderson proves worthy of her position as lead investigator of planet Andan’s Scientific and Investigative Research Taskforce. Someone is killing Andan’s women in an attempt to mutate them into reptiles. Kylie makes it her mission to discover who’s behind the murders and prevent more grotesque deaths.
Shapeshifting lizard Griff comes to Andan to stop his brethren from mutating other planets’ women into mindless breeding stock. Overcoming Kylie’s suspicious and defensive nature proves difficult, but he must in order to help the SIRT team thwart his planet’s scientists.
When Kylie is abducted and becomes the first human to survive the transformation, it’s up to Griff to rescue her so SIRT can restore her human form. On the run and desperate to unravel the mysteries of Kylie’s past to solve the crimes of their present, can she and Griff forge a future for themselves?
CONTENT WARNING: Language, Violence, Sex
The officer guarding the half-lit, reeking alley behind Restaurant Row directed Agent Kylie Sanderson into the shadows behind him. “Your partner’s already down there. And, it’s two of them, ma’am.”
Kylie, wearing designer alpaskin boots, picked her way through the mud and discarded piles of food. Her mother, who found these things so important, must have called in every favor she was owed just to get her hands on a pair. She’d hate her daughter wearing them in stinking garbage. The thought made Kylie smile.
Her smile faded as she approached the heavy black dumpster. Behind it, her partner puked the contents of his stomach. Based on the history of this case, though, his indiscretion was likely not entirely due to his rookie status.
It was bad, then. But they always were.
Steeling herself, she climbed up on the plastic fruit crate in front of the dumpster and looked inside. The odor rising from the mélange of trash, rotted meat and spoiled dairy products sickened her, too, but not as much as the two women’s bodies on top did. Or at least what used to be women.
Holding one hand over her mouth and nose, Kylie shone her flashlight on the pile. The bodies were similar to the six others who’d turned up in the last few months in different areas of Muraco. Each dead woman was naked, and horribly mutated. Their flesh and organs had transformed by varying degree into green, scaly reptiles. Others had lost arms or legs to the change, their bones elongated, their hands narrow with nails turned into hard claws. This was the first one whose face was gone.
Blank yellow eyes stared, her nose and mouth distorted into a pointy chunk of mottled green hide. Fangs protruded from under the desiccated lips.
Yeah, this one was bad.
Kylie stepped off the box, never so glad she’d skipped lunch for a drink with an old friend.
She composed herself while the local officers held off clamoring media. Word had passed quickly that the planet’s Scientific and Investigative Research Taskforce elite team had again been called in from their headquarters in the Jescoan subdivision, on the other side of the world. Everyone knew something big was up. The “lizard women” were news.
She straightened her heavy black jacket then fluffed her hair. One of three women on the SIRT, she knew she was judged on her looks as well as her skills. She’d studied six long years for her criminal/paranormal degree, craving the opportunity to investigate the oddest and most inexplicable cases puzzling the universe. Her father had forbidden her to do it, but her fierce pride had driven her to defy him. She got that pride directly from him; he should have expected no less. She even used it as an asset in the unit. Whenever she was spokesperson for a case, she remained conscious of her status as a Sanderson.
The Colonel wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Pax, hon, you all right back there?”
Paxton Loring, a new officer and most junior on the SIRT squad, muttered amid more vomiting.
“Guess you’ll skip the mushu next time, huh?”
More muttering, with several obscenities added in.
Poor kid. She dug in her bag for some hand wipes for him. She’d certainly had her own embarrassments in her early months with the squad. When one dealt with aliens, perverts and psychotics, anything could happen, and usually did. Better to laugh than to cry.
Giving Pax time to pull himself together, she took out a pad and quickly scribbled some notes she could refer to when speaking to the press. Nothing too specific, keep the details private. Enough to feed the hyena pack, but she’d save the rest for the SIRT team to pore over until they solved this repulsive mystery.
Still no clue who might be doing this.
She bit her lip to chase away the nausea crawling up her throat. Not knowing who, or really why, was the worst part of her job. The planetary subdivision of Muraco, population 150,000, had its share of sickos, no question. One DNA experiment might belong to a nutso or a whacker. Two, maybe. Eight seemed purposeful.
Why in the hells would someone want women to look like lizards?
Some ninety-five percent of Andan’s population was human. Most likely, a lizard the size of a man, or as smart as one, would have to come from off-world. Off-worlders moved freely throughout their planetary system. What brought one here with nefarious intentions? Kylie’s team had to figure out the ultimate purpose of these twisted corpses.
Bureau chief Jaco Rand expected answers yesterday.
Media buzz echoed along the cracked bricks of the buildings beside her, photographers’ bright lights flashing from the far end in staccato rhythms. She growled at the utter uselessness of their bloodlust. As the evidence collection workers in their olive drab uniforms approached down the alley, she stepped aside. Show time.
“Pax, get a move on. We’ve got to go. Crime scene team’s here.”
“Coming, coming.” Paxton stepped out, wiping his tie with a yellow handkerchief. His normally ruddy face was pale and his wide-set blue eyes bloodshot. His thin frame shuddered as he made a wide detour around the dumpster, pointedly avoiding it, headed back to their vehicle. “Sprechan’s balls, never again. Enough lizards for me. Not even the crocosaurs at the zoo.”
“Let’s hope not. Maybe these are the last ones.”
As the sun slipped behind a cloud, a shadow of doubt and foreboding slid over her. Despite her hopes and prayers, something whispered in her ear that those victims tossed away like meal scraps in a cruel metal box wouldn’t be the last.
Not by a long shot.
* * * *
The next morning, after the lab techs had analyzed the evidence, Kylie as the squad deputy supervisor, prepared to give the daily briefing. Wishing she could prop her eyes open with toothpicks, she settled for popping two amp pills, and yawned as the fifteen members of the team gathered.
Her team met in the largest conference room of their digs, which were the best available in town. Boxes of evidence piled onto the table in the center of the room, allowing each team member scant space for their computers. She sat on the windowsill, watching the street six stories down as the team grabbed their morning sustenance. The agents had set a huge desk in one corner of the room as a temporary buffet table, home to a shifting pile of crackers, cookies, snacks and several pots of stimcoff.
After the sleepless night she’d spent haunted by the woman’s hideous face, the buzz of male voices, men laughing and joking about the usual crap--sports, spouses or subordinates--got on her nerves. She activated the computer projector. The first picture on the screen a full-on picture of the two bodies in the dumpster. Without the smell to accompany it, the view was nearly tolerable. All the same, she didn’t look. Been there, done that. No one wanted the T-shirt.
The blood drained from their faces as the reality of the scene settled over them.
“Good. I’ve got your attention now.” She clicked through to the next picture, a close-up of the second woman’s arm, covered with reptilian green skin. The detail of the photos only increased their horror value.
“These are the most revealing photos we’ve received to date, with significant information on the alterations. Notice the texture of the skin isn’t scaly, like a snake, but something more akin to the old Terran Gila monster. The techs describe the nubs of bright color as ‘smooth and dry, almost bead-like.’”
She moved on to the next photo. “As with the other deceased we’ve found, these two were in varying states of change. According to the lab, the one with the altered face is farthest along in the transformation. Autopsy proves her internal organs have also been affected, her heart mutated to a three-chambered organ, her diaphragm atrophied and reproductive organs altered, in their estimation, from the human capacity for live births to that of an egg-laying species.”
Stocky veteran officer Sloan Vincent looked up from his third cup of stimcoff and frowned. “Now, hold on. You’re saying she was becoming a reptile?”
“So they’ve determined. These are not skin grafts or other limited conversions. Whoever’s doing this apparently means to make the vic over into a full reptile.”
“What in the name of all the hells for?” Akim Qilamen adjusted his stylish tie, fidgeting in his chair. “What good would a woman be if she laid eggs, hmm?”
“The question before us,” Kylie persisted, “is why? What purpose does the transformation serve? If we can determine why, maybe we can head off the perp before he strikes again.”
She sat on the edge of the table at the front of the room, shoving a box aside with her hip before she clicked through the next photos, a rundown of all their vics. “Over the last three months, eight victims. Different areas of the subdivision. Different mutations. The coroner hasn’t determined whether the mutation process is the cause of death. No outward signs of other trauma, however, so that theory’s the most likely. They’re still working on how the mutation is taking place, so--”
“So,” came a clipped male voice from behind the screen, “we have a terrified subdivision and nothing to give them. As you can imagine, this is not popular with the government types. Not that I care, particularly.”
Kylie’s boss, Jaco Rand, came out to join her. A scar graced his left cheek from eye to ear. Balding, wisps of wiry red hair clinging to his hairline like moss on the side of a deteriorating building, Jaco was short, squat and bristled with attitude. He’d grown up on the Rim, on one of the outer planets where life was wilder and less regulated. He believed in order, but not in authority.
He continued, “On the other hand, we have budget requirements and it would be delightful to come up with a big score. Especially if we want to purchase the new mobile crime lab we’ve been talking about. Nothing pays like success. So I want this done, and done right.”
He turned to Kylie. “You’ve got kits for each of them?”
Torn between anger because he’d minimized her and trashed her briefing, and relief that the display of gruesome pictures had concluded, Kylie gestured to the box behind her on the table. “I was getting there.”
Jaco studied her with beady blue eyes then broke into a smile. “You’re cute when you’re pissed off.”
Kylie’s face flushed and she turned away.
To the men, he said, “Study this information and hit the streets. Ask the local cops for their usual snitches then the unusual ones. Someone knows something about this. And I want it to be us. Dismissed.”
The men dutifully filed up to retrieve the dossiers.
Still burning at Jaco’s cavalier takeover, Kylie killed the power on the projector and threw on her shiny black leather jacket. Her sister Nissa had bought it for Kylie’s twenty-fifth birthday. It cost more than Kylie made in three months. The label wasn’t why she wore it, but the warmth.
Jaco hung around until everyone else left. Kylie packed the rest of the photos into an evidence box. She cleared her throat into the silence. “That was dirty.”
He came closer, staying out of arm’s reach, and shoved his thick hands into his pants pockets. “Yeah. It probably was. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Right.” She hadn’t expected him to take responsibility, even be almost apologetic. It wasn’t his usual way. It threw her off stride.
His foot tapped. “So, I’m sorry.”
She glanced at him, actually a look down, since he was a finger’s length shorter than she was. His lips pressed together as he stared at her, eyebrows raised and shoulders hunched up. His ‘poor me’ look. Did he really think that was the best way to get what he wanted?
“You sure are sorry,” she said.
He just smirked. “Dr. Astrid wants you down in the morgue. Time to put your dazzling exobiology skills to work. Hot date with some cold bodies.”
“You’re an incredible jerk, you know?” She left the box for him to stash. As she headed to the science section, she slammed the door, wishing his private parts had been in the way. That would have taught him to stomp on her bandwagon.
Heading across the street to the morgue to work with a local coroner, Sonya Astrid, a doctor who specialized in exo-autopsies, Kylie dismissed her confrontation with Jaco. Perhaps she should have challenged him, but the only purpose it might have served was to cuddle her wounded ego. More important was the solution of the mystery lizard women.
Maybe he was jealous that her scientific training gave her an upper hand in the investigation, unlike his business administration degree. This case gave her an opportunity to shine. She’d studied very hard at the academy, graduating third in her class despite her father’s efforts to keep her out of SIRT. He’d have preferred her hostess his corporate parties like her sister or her mother.
But he wouldn’t get what he wanted this time. Even if it meant spending all day with her hands buried in stinking, half-preserved entrails.
She entered the morgue building, the distinctive smells not much disguised by the heavy balsam-scented cleaning fluids used by the janitorial staff. Her footsteps echoed down the empty white halls. Usually by mid-morning, the place was crowded with medical students and others hoping to catch a glimpse of something with a “creepy” factor, but no one hung around today. When she arrived at Dr. Astrid’s lab, the entire observation gallery over her table was filled. People packed in three deep to watch the dissection of the lizard women.
Kylie changed into worn blue scrubs and hung her clothing in the staff locker room. She also switched her boots for a pair of cheap sneakers. More than one autopsy had included suddenly erupting innards launched at her shoes.
As she was about to grab a yellow scrub cap, she saw a memo from Astrid indicating no one should enter the quarantined rooms unless they were in a biosuit. NO EXCEPTIONS. Made sense, especially until they discovered the source of the metamorphosis. The suit pulled at her clothing and stretched around her elbows, but finally she checked the valves on the oxygen tanks, satisfied she’d keep breathing, and sealed the front of the suit before she went into the chamber. Dr. Astrid was already there, a land-bound astronaut in her own heavy gray suit.
“Welcome to the jungle,” the doctor said, a hint of amusement in her voice.
Kylie couldn’t help a glance up at the hungry, gawking faces. “Audience, huh?”
“All these years I’ve been slaving down here, thinking it was the bottom of the ladder. I hadn’t realized this would be my opportunity to be a star.” Her green eyes twinkled through the thin faceplate.
“Right. That’s why we’re doing this. For fame and fortune.”
Glad the basic autopsy had been done the night before, Kylie looked forward to the next steps. Maybe the tissue and fluid specimens would provide more answers. She readied glass slides for the microscope while the doctor prepared for chemical analyses.
Dr. Astrid adjusted the recorder at tableside then spoke clearly so it picked up her soft voice. “This morning we begin the toxicological screens in SIRT case ALBA-25, with an eye toward determining the mutagen that initiates the transformation of human to reptile.
“We’ll begin with the vitreous humor, performing parallel tests to double-check our results.”
Kylie sliced, spread and pipetted over the next five hours, using her very best technique to sample the tissues and fluids. She wanted this to be her best work ever, because she owed these victims no less. She even submitted genetic samples to the planetary database in an effort to identify their victims, hoping that the mutation hadn’t yet reached the DNA. Lizard cells were likewise submitted to see if they could be matched up with a known alien species.
By the time they finished, their eager audience had faded to a couple of diehards. Their extensive analyses yielded nothing significant. Whatever had changed those women had been completely absorbed by the body in the transformation process.
“Maybe it’s not a poison in the way we think of poisons, as in a toxic substance meant to kill.” She rubbed her forehead through the thick suit. “Since the reproductive organs are altered too, maybe what we’re looking for is more like a hormone.”
Dr. Astrid stepped back from the table, stretching her arms, rotating her shoulders. “That’s a good idea.”
Kylie sympathized with the doctor’s stiffness. Even in her sneakers, and with padded mats on the floor, her feet hurt and her muscles ached from the close work. She was definitely going to need a few drinks when she got out of there.
“That’s a good idea.” The doctor cocked her head, thinking. “We’d want to test for FSH, estrogen, androgens. Maybe testosterone.”
“We need more than the human hormones.” Kylie used a sterile plastic blanket to cover the sad remainder of what had once been a vital, breathing woman.
The doctor sighed. “Exactly, dear. I’m going to run that question by some of the eggheads upstairs, and we’ll try again tomorrow. We may have some sort of virus at work that only affects women. I can’t even imagine how they contract it.”
The doctor led the way to the decontaminant showers, where both women stripped down and scrubbed themselves clean before changing to their street clothes.
“Feel free to share our inquiry with any of your SIRT team that might be helpful. At this point, every avenue bears exploration. We’ve exhausted the standard routes. Let’s open our minds to new possibilities. You did good work today,” the doctor assured her, with an encouraging hug and a warm smile. “Let your subconscious chew on it overnight.”
“I’ll try,” Kylie said, though she’d rather crash and spend ten hours out cold. She put on her coat then followed the doctor to the street with its chilly autumn breeze. She shivered and hurried to her car then climbed inside and locked the doors. Her fingers sought out her music deck, finding something with a hard rock beat and a strong female voice belting out a song about betrayal and love being poison for the soul, and she turned it up loud. She laid her head back on the headrest, eyes closed, letting the music soak into her bones. After the second verse, her mind began to wander.
Had these women been betrayed? Had a lover done this to them?
She imagined how a woman might feel when she first noticed her skin changing, the internal changes that surely had to be painful. Did they wonder what was happening? Did they know what was coming? Had they agreed to the experiment, or had it been done without any consent or knowledge on their part?
Answers to these questions, too, would fuel the investigation. “Geez, Ky, when do you stop working and just be a person, hmm?”
Maybe if she wrote it down, she could let it go. She dragged out her pad and made notes. Search out clues in the BDSM community, subs willing to change to please a dom with sick tastes. It’d be worth a look.
Tonight, a bottle of Happy Jack waited with her name on it, elixir to erase the day’s smells and visions from her mind for a little while.
The thought of sitting in her tempartment alone didn’t appeal to her.
Most of the guys shacked in a hotel when they were deployed, not wanting to clean up after themselves or have responsibilities. She preferred to rent a furnished efficiency by the week, gaining a little more privacy, and space to bring some personals to make it feel more like home. But it wasn’t home.
She knew where she could find a comfortable place to go, though, where she could just relax in the presence of others who understood her life. She gunned the engine and headed for Hawthorn’s.
* * * *
Hawthorn’s watering hole was a favorite of law enforcement types. The tables and barstools were placed so no one had their backs to the single door. Robby J, the jovial owner of the place, knew he’d have free security around the sixty-hour clock. In a neighborhood like his, it was indispensable.
Kylie parked her vehicle across the street, and glared at her reflection in the rear view mirror. “Let it go, damn it.”
The matter settled, she crossed the busy street with long strides. Nefarious characters leaning against the wall next to the heavy plaz door stared as she passed them by. She ignored them, continuing inside.
Inside, she got the same treatment, that hesitation. People looked, but they didn’t glance away. She could have been a model, like her sister Nissa, but intrigue and innards fascinated her more than fashion and fame.
On the other hand, her appeal could be useful. Sometimes it got her free drinks.
She nodded at some of the local cops and took a stool at the end of the bar. Bright neon signs depicting the names of local brews reflected off those seated at the bar, giving them the appearance of aliens.
One of Robby’s girls, Lin, came to wipe the polished plaz counter in front of her. “What’ll it be?”
“Something quick-acting,” Kylie said. “Then a bottle of Jack.”
“You got it.” Tongue flicking out to wet her lips, the girl studied her. “You’re the lizard cop, aren’t you?”
Really? The lizard cop? Where was the dignity in that? Holy Sprechan’s ass.
“I can’t discuss cases, Lin. You know that.” Several others took an interest in their conversation, rattling her already-tense nerves “You got something for me, or not?”
“Sure, honey. Coming right up.”
The jukebox played an upbeat tune with stringed instruments and a strong drum beat. Kylie approved. She reached for the basket at the corner of the bar, the dim lights making her look twice to identify the contents as salty magneps.
About the time Lin returned with three blue pills in a small plastic dose cup, Kylie sensed a presence behind her left shoulder. Knowing they’d kick in almost immediately, she choked down the pills dry. She stretched and turned to find one of the local officers who’d been at the scene the day before. The young blond guy smiled.
“Something I can do for you, friend?” she asked, annoyed with herself because she couldn’t remember his name. He’d introduced himself when they first arrived on scene, but everything that happened afterward had claimed her brain cells.
He firmed up his jaw, took a deep breath. “Just wanted to say what a great job I thought you did. Can’t be easy investigating this spree.”
Kylie sized him up. Didn’t seem to be an opening ploy for sex, though he was seriously sucking up. He seemed nice enough. “Thanks.” Lin brought her a bottle and a shot glass, and she poured herself a drink. “Want one?”
He shrugged, but his eyes lit up like a puppy offered a new toy. “Sure.”
Kylie gestured for another glass, and she poured him one. “Cheers.” She held up her glass to clink against his. He obliged. They drank the shots. “What’s your name again? Yesterday was, you know.”
His look of delight never faded. “Sam James. Second level with the Muraco force.”
“Of course. Sam.” She smiled warmly. After all, they were comrades, right? Fighting for the side of truth and justice? His boyish face even started to appeal to her.
Now that was the drugs talking.
Satisfied her self-prescribed regimen was working, she poured herself another, and sipped it. Blues took the edge off and sanded down raw nerves. The effects would fade within the hour. Most people used them to fall asleep at night, but they were useful in situations like this, too, where alcohol wouldn’t work quite as fast as she wanted.
“So are you--SIRT, I mean--going to be in town long?” Sam asked.
“I hope not.”
“Oh,” he said, taking a step back.
The hurt tone and his retreat made her reconsider her answer. “I meant, I hope the investigation wraps up quickly, and we can stop these killings.”
“Oh.” That brightened his face again.
What was she doing? She’d only be in town a matter of days or weeks. No reason at all to encourage any young buck, even one as friendly as this one.
“But we’re usually pretty busy with the case, you know, not a lot of free time.” There, a gentle letdown.
He got it. “Yeah, sure. Your team has that kind of rep.” He fidgeted. “Just wanted to say hi, and, um, good work.”
“Thanks, friend. Sam.”
Beaming, he backed away, almost tripping as he returned to his buddies’ table. They ribbed him and eyed her enviously. She just smiled and raised her glass to them.
After her third shot, the memories of the photos and dumpsters started to fade. The music seeped into her, creating a pleasant haze. Background noise filtered in, the conversations making her feel she wasn’t alone. Cops knew how to treat other cops, especially on the worst days.
As she took another shot, she noticed a man at a table near the door stared at her, dissecting her in a way that felt not like he was undressing her, but more like he looked past her skin, into her psyche, or perhaps her soul. Kylie stared back, putting a forbidding expression on her face. Usually, that was enough to scare off a would-be masher. But it didn’t seem to faze this one.
The man’s persistence triggered a defensive response, and she lost interest in the alcohol. She left half a dozen plat coins on the counter, enough to cover her tab and something for Lin, and then headed for the door.
As she approached the man’s table, he stood up. “Please join me,” he said.
“No, thanks, I’m on my way out.”
“Please,” he said firmly. She stopped to look at him. That glance froze her steps. His eyes were the exact yellow tone of the dead woman’s. Exact.
She surveyed the room, but no one seemed to be paying attention. One gesture from her would have garnered assistance, but those eyes compelled her to wait. “Why should I?”
His voice softened. “I have information that could be of use to you.”
“Then perhaps you should come to the Cendiary. That’s where SIRT’s camped while this investigation is going on.” Her mind clicked along frantically trying to reject the half bottle of alcohol she’d consumed. There was something about this man, something about him. His eyes, but more than that. Taller than most men, and broad-shouldered. Hair, perfectly combed, his skin, without a blemish. Not even the hint of an old scar. Clothing, unremarkable. Hands, not quite perfectly proportioned, his fingers a little long, the nails even but lengthy for a man.
“No. I need to talk to you now.” His gaze continued to dance with hers.
She blinked and looked away. “This isn’t a good time, friend.”
He cocked his head, a, thin eyebrow raised. “You consider me your friend?”
His hesitation made her miss a beat, too. “No, I don’t consider you my friend.” She frowned. “Come to the Cendiary in the morning.” She turned to go, but her wrist was suddenly caught in an iron grip.
Tugging on her captured hand, she looked over her shoulder. He held no apology in his eyes, and his expression was grim. He nodded to the empty chair beside his. “I need to talk with you, Investigator Kylie Sanderson. Please hear what I have to say before any more females are damaged or killed.”
Wow! The author grabs you in the beginning of this amazing story and doesn't let go. I loved it. I loved the characters; Kylie she rocks, I'm in awe of her character shes tough, not perfect and totally loyal to her family (sort of) and job. Then of course Griff, so sweet and loving and sexy in both forms. This unique and utterly fantastic story was so insanely awesome I'm at a loss of words. Humans, lizards, different planets and so much more this story is action packed, wild and loving all in one. It's a must read if your into paranormal or even if your not it'll grab you. Can't wait to read more by this author, I hope there's more to Kylie and Griff's story (cross my fingers). 5 huge stars
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