Mask of the Serpent

Mask_Branding2A brutal battle of wills between two men driven to win at any cost plays out in secret, plunging House Phoenix into a tailspin of tension, in the third installment of the House Phoenix series…

Diego Mendez, drug dealer and self-professed saint, is a man of his word. So when he vows revenge on Angel and his friends for the death of his lieutenant, there isn’t a doubt in his mind that House Phoenix is going down.

But when he kidnaps stoic Jenner–intending to not just kill the man, but break him down until he begs for death–Mendez finds the challenge may be greater than he can handle. Because Jenner’s secret past has conditioned him for survival, and given him the patience to take vengeance on his own terms.

And Mendez has a secret of his own–one he’ll protect with his life.

Contains violence, wicked language, and torture.

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[Click here for the first 5 chapters of Mask of the Serpent in PDF format]

Though Diego’s arena wasn’t heated against the chill of late October, the crush of bodies filling it generated enough warmth to keep it comfortable. He saw no reason to bother heating the place. They only used it for fights; the rest of the time his girls and fighters lived in the hotel he’d permanently borrowed from a former associate. With four House arenas hosting the bouts on a rotating basis, they ended up here maybe six times a year.

Tonight, the barebones warehouse nestled in the center of a storage graveyard at Brooklyn’s west end lived and breathed as hundreds of lowlifes congregated to try and make a buck. Tonight, blood would flow in the ring as readily as alcohol flowed through the crowds. Tonight there was profit to be made from pain.

On the blue-lit marquee screen beside the betting table, the match-ups for the evening scrolled by. There were nine fights scheduled. Each of the four real Houses had four entrants, while Angel’s pathetic stable boasted only two, neither of which would face his boys today. Angel himself wasn’t even fighting this time—which was almost a shame, since the little hemorrhoid rarely lost. If nothing else, he was a safe bet.

Since he’d already placed his wagers with the bookie, he headed for the ringside tables. The first match pitted Aidan, one of his fighters and a strong possibility for lieutenant, against House Dionysus’s ebony giant Eddie. Long as Aidan won, he’d offer him the position when they went back to the House.

Minutes after he sat down, two figures split from the crowd and headed toward him, one towering above the other by a full head. Boomer and Cortez had a shared history. Before they joined House Prometheus, they’d attended the same juvie lockup, and on their release the two partnered for a string of brutal muggings that drove them underground. The shorter Cortez was as charming and outgoing as Boomer was brooding and silent. Both were devastating in the ring.

“Hey, boss,” Cortez called as they drew closer. When they reached the table, he pulled a chair out and spun it, then straddled it and leaned over to kick the chair beside him out. Boomer sat without a word, nodding to him in greeting.

“How we lookin’ tonight?” Cortez asked.

“Not too shabby, ’mano,” he said. “Looks like you got a tough draw, though. Tiger’s a slippery bastard.”

Cortez grinned. “I’m not worried about those Pandora pretty-boys. They all got black belts, so what. I’ll give him a pair of eyes to match.”

Chuckling, he went for an inside pocket and pulled out a slim metal snap-case. “How ’bout a little pre-game chill?” he said, sliding the case across the table.

“Sweet!” Cortez popped it open. Inside lay a row of rolled joints. He took one and held the rest in front of Boomer. “You tokin’ or smokin’?”

“Smoking,” Boomer said. “Gimme my Marbs back, you mooch.”

“Sheesh. Touchy, aren’t we?” Sticking the joint in his mouth, Cortez clicked the case shut and handed it back. “You see what I have to put up with?” he muttered with a smirk. “Oscar the Fucking Grouch. From now on, call me Big Bird.” He shook his head as he produced a Zippo and a red box he tossed on the table in front of Boomer.

“Thanks, Big Bird,” the taller man said. “Wanna hold my hand now?”

Cortez lit up and favored Boomer with a stream of smoke to the face. “Contact!” he crowed. “C’mon, let’s take off.” He stood and waited for Boomer. “Gracias for the grass, boss. Catch you later.”

He nodded. “Later, ’manos.” The crowd swallowed the fighters, then through a gap in the action, he noticed House Phoenix making its way en masse from the betting table toward the ringside seats. He glared into the mob at the mismatched bunch, hoping at least one would try to start something. That way he could honestly say they’d fucked with him first.

Angel and his newest pathetic excuse for a fighter, Teevo, were deep in conversation, and Akuma was occupied in steering some Japanese girl through the crush of spectators, a gesture the woman seemed to bear with mingled appreciation and scorn. They didn’t so much as glance in his direction.

Behind them all was Jenner, alone. No surprise there. The strange thing was, though Jenner had been with the organization almost since the beginning, the man rarely attended the fights—until Angel came along. Now he showed up all the time. Hell, maybe the old man was gay. That, at least, would explain his affinity for the pseudo-Asian silk getups he always wore.

The freak spotted him and fixed dead gray eyes on him. A smirk lifted one corner of Jenner’s mouth. The bastard was laughing at his inability to act. In the next second the crowd carried the man away, and he forced himself to stay seated. Not here, not now, he thought.

But soon.

Movement in the roped square ring drew his attention. Shifting for a better view, he leaned back and slung his legs on the table as a well-endowed blond woman wearing scraps of midnight blue nothing shimmied to the center, a cordless microphone clasped in one hand like a lover’s shaft. Gigi was one of his top draws, so renowned for her oral skills that when she licked her lips, half the men watching shot their loads. He’d sent her out to announce tonight knowing a lot of them would follow her back to the House after the fights, and his girls would have plenty of marks to pick from.

The tremendous commotion of the crowd dropped a few decibels when Gigi smiled and brought the mike to her mouth. She gave them a few seconds, and said, “Welcome to House Prometheus!” For a moment the noise increased again, then fell off when the bombshell blonde continued. “Nothing new to announce tonight, and so…let’s bring it on!”

As she spoke, Aidan and Eddie separated from the knot of fighters gathered in the pen beside the ring and approached the steps leading up to it. Around here, everyone knew the way things worked. The rules of the ring were simple: no weapons allowed, and you couldn’t kill your opponent. The fight ended when one man couldn’t scrape himself off the floor anymore.

“For our first match, please welcome Eddie of Dionysus, and Prometheus’s own Aidan!” Gigi gestured toward the stairs, and Aidan shoved in front of Eddie to come up first. When both men stood facing each other, the thunder of the masses drowned the girl’s command to begin. Neither needed the prompt. She slid between the ropes and out of the way, and the fight was on.

Aidan lunged forward, arms spread as though he planned to hug his opponent. As Eddie lobbed a fist in his direction, he stopped short and drew back just enough to miss the blow, then kicked the passing arm upward. Eddie stumbled, but managed to keep his footing.

Then Aidan lunged and brought him to the ground.

They rolled twice. Eddie wound up on top, wearing a triumphant grin as he brought a fist down. But Aidan’s head wasn’t where he’d anticipated and his knuckles crunched the mat instead. The force of his strike threw him off balance just enough for Aidan to heave him away and gain his footing. Before Eddie could get up, a boot slammed into his side.

Gasping, the bigger man crab-crawled away and tried to rise. Aidan kept relentlessly in step. Another kick sent Eddie sprawling flat, and Aidan stomped across his back to light on his opposite side.

With the next blow, Eddie flipped over, got up fast, and when Aidan came at him, caught the side of his head with a fierce roundhouse. Aidan bent but didn’t break stride, almost instantly connecting with a punch of his own. Both men stepped back to shake off the effects of the other’s strike.

Aidan flexed a hand and grinned. “You got a hard head,” he said. “There anything in it—or is your thick skull the only thing you got goin’?”

The answer was a wordless snarl as Eddie rushed him. With a shrug, Aidan drew aside and tripped him. “Guess so,” he said in mock sympathy as the other fighter found the mat again. “Too bad for you, ese. Better luck next time.”

Eddie groaned, a sound cut short by another well placed kick. The crowd muttered disapproval. Aidan obliged their lust for action by standing back to allow his opponent a chance to get up. “Come on, big guy,” he said. “You’re boring the shit out of ’em. Do something, will ya?”

“Shut up and fight, punk.”

“Whatever you say.”

Smirking, Aidan jerked forward with a fist forming at his side. When Eddie responded, he changed direction in mid-lunge and ducked under a wild swing. He came up knuckles first and plowed them into his opponent’s unprotected jaw.

First blood. The mob loosed a collective cry. Then the real fight began.

Blows flew fast and furious within the ropes. Adrenalin fueled punch after punch as both men shed sweat and blood to prove themselves. The one who would remain standing wasn’t necessarily stronger—just too stubborn to go down first.

This time Aidan’s obstinacy held out.

Accompanied by a satisfied roar from the spectators, the Prometheus fighter weathered a vicious gut jab without flinching. As Eddie sagged from the expended effort, Aidan clocked him square in the face, and followed up with a knee.

His breath leaving in a gasp, Eddie dropped and stayed there.

The crowd took up the announcer’s twenty-count.

From the sidelines, Diego grinned and offered a thumbs-up. Aidan had the muscle, no doubt about that. Just like all his fighters, the man was in top physical condition. But Aidan also had the balls to back it, and the brains to put things together. He was perfect lieutenant material.

Only one problem remained. He had to keep House Phoenix from killing Aidan too.

* * * * *

MASK OF THE SERPENT: Available now from Amazon — coming soon to all major ebook retailers


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