Joe's spent his life being forgotten. Not even the IRS comes for his back taxes. He's a ghost, a perfectly average, perfectly forgettable man. It suits his purposes, though it's a lonely existence. He can live as he wants, plying his almost-invisibility for freelance jobs.
Then a pretty blonde finds him when no one else can, asking for his help solving a murder. He almost says no, despite his instincts to help a damsel in distress. But how did she find him? And who is she?
He takes the job to find out. But he bites off more than he can chew as he realizes a brutal secretive organization called The Phoenix Ring is behind the murder, and somehow they can predict his every move.
Can Joe defeat the shadowy Phoenix Ring? Or will his powers fail him when he needs them the most? Read Overlook today and find out!
•"Amazing story that has everything you could ever want in an awesome book. Heroes, fast-paced, action-packed, great characters, and an awesome story!"– Dr. Patricia Eroh
•"If James Bond lived in a world of superpowers, it still wouldn't be this awesome."– Russell Newquist
"I don't see anyone."
Joe glanced over his shoulder when the three young men entered the late-night convenience mart, but he had paid them no mind until he heard the menacing rumble of those four words. The undertones in the young man's voice caught Joe's attention. He had been standing, motionless and indecisive, before a bank of glass-doored drink coolers in the back of the shop. The menace of those four words caught his attention, and he turned to appraise the speaker. Three men had entered behind Joe, all three dangerous, if his years of experience judging potential threats in an eyeblink could be trusted.
Two of the three men worse matching low-slung jeans and nylon windbreakers that covered but did not disguise their bulk. They accompanied a third, slender and better dressed, young man who clearly called the shots in the threatening triumvirate. The big man at the entrance to the market clicked the lock shut and then leaned over to kill the power to a glowing red neon "Open" sign. His eyes scanned the aisles to verify the speaker's pronouncement the store held no witnesses. His gaze passed over Joe, who had taken two small steps to his right to stand in front of a life-size cardboard cutout of two busty, smooth-skinned, and bikini-clad women frozen in the act of laughing and holding aloft cans of domestic beer. Joe's own blue jeans and white long sleeve shirt looked out of place against the buxom pair, as did the wary expression he wore, and yet the three men had failed to notice his presence.
Whether blessing or curse, Joe had learned to live with his gift of eternal inconspicuousness. For all the trouble it had caused him over the years, it had also helped him get through numerous nights spent dancing on the razor's edge between life and death.
The smallest of them had dark, slicked-back hair that gleamed in the bright white halogen lights. A corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-grin as he swaggered over to the counter to face the attendant. She responded by sidling warily to one side and clutching her daughter to her side. Her eyes gleamed with tears, and her daughter stifled a frightened squeak.
Moments earlier, when Joe had entered the store, he had interrupted a minor family drama. The woman had been scolding the girl, around seven if Joe was any judge, in the clipped and harsh tones of an Asian dialect Joe didn't recognize. He did recognize the cause of the attendant's ire. The girl had been tossing a ball, and an errant throw had knocked the shop's security camera off kilter. The red logo on the side showed a bird inside a red circle, its wings stretched wide. It dangled by a single wire, its red status light blinked, but the girl's ball had left its lens pointed up toward the faded yellow ceiling tiles. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, the only witnesses would be those already inside the store.
Joe had seen the accidental damage occur as he approached the store. A twinge of guilt plucked at his heart that his arrival had precipitated the girl's predicament. He would have apologized and tried to explain how his talent had caused the damage, but he had learned long ago that such explanations rarely did any good. Instead of confusing them, he had simply gone about the business of stocking up on a few sugar and caffeine-laden provisions that would help him recover from his recent work.
But then the bell over the door, and the entrance of the three thugs it signaled had silenced the noise of the woman's sharp-tongued lecture.
The leader of the three brazenly plucked a bag of chips off a rack. He leaned his elbows on the counter, crowded with glittery trinkets and racks of small impulse items, and pulled the bag open. He delicately placed a chip in his mouth and crunched down on it, savoring the woman's distress. One of his heavy-set bodyguards cracked a door at the far side of the store on which hung a hand-printed, "No Admittance" sign.
None of the people at or behind the counter noticed Joe standing in the back corner of the shop near the drink coolers.
No sense risking anyone getting hurt if this was a simple robbery. They could take what they wanted and go. Joe would stick around until the cops arrived to give his statement if they would take it, and then he could get back to his dingy motel room and relax.
But he didn't like the insouciant way the leader of the three enjoyed his stolen snack.
"Please," the woman sighed. "Mister Gutierrez."
The man cut her off by snapping one hand up. He cocked his head to one side and crunched down on another chip. One of his enforcers circled the counter, cutting the woman off from escape. She edged back into the corner of her booth, blocking the child with her body.
Gutierrez shook his head in mock sorrow. "Ming, Ming, Ming," he crooned.
Tears welled up on the woman's eyes. "I'm so sorry, Mister Gutierrez. I couldn't do it."
"We had a deal, Ming."
"Yes, but please. They were so young. I, I just couldn't!"
Gutiérrez let her plea linger in the air. He didn't even look at the woman. He delicately placed another chip in his mouth and crunched down on it. Only after he finished chewing and swallowing did he finally address the woman.
"They were your daughter's age, Ming," he said and rubbed his fingers together to flick away unseen crumbs. "But I understand. You agreed to this for your daughter. Safe passage, fake documentation, and all you had to do was hold onto a few small shipping containers for a night or two. And you tried not to think about what was in those containers behind your shop, day after day. And then, one day, when you just couldn't ignore the furtive sounds coming from inside? You just had to take a peek. When you saw what was inside that container…" He shook his head. "Those girls. All you saw was your daughter's face. Didn't you?"
The woman nodded, a flicker of hope in her eyes.
He barked a short, chopping laugh. He wadded up the package of chips and tossed it at the woman, who flinched as it hit her in the belly and fell to the floor.
"Then what?" Gutiérrez sneered. "You turned them loose on the streets? How do you think your daughter would do on the streets, Ming? How would…" The young man stopped, and his predatory smile disappeared. "What's your daughter's name?" It was a demand, not a question.
"Jenny," the woman whispered.
The man laughed, a guttural sound. "Jenny? Really?" He cocked his head. "Maybe if she learns the language, ditches the bowl cut, and doesn't get into any…trouble. But have it your way. How would…Jenny…do on the streets of a strange city? At night. Where she doesn't even speak the language."
"Oh no," the woman protested, "I would not simply let them loose. My church. Father Encarnacion, he –"
She clamped her mouth shut, suddenly realizing she had said too much.
Too late. Gutiérrez leaned forward, one ear cocked mockingly. "Father Encarnacion, eh? So that's it." He exchanged a glance with his enforcers, who nodded their understanding. The one near the door pulled a cell phone from his pocket and began poking at it with one fat finger. When he didn't place it to his ear, Joe realized the man wasn't making a call. He must have been searching for the church where Father Encarnacion served as pastor so that they could pay him a visit too.
"Please," the woman pleaded as the second enforcer took a step toward her. "I'll do anything." Silent tears streamed down her face, and the words spilled out of her in a rush. "You want me to run the drugs, okay! You want the street women out front, I do that." She looked around in desperation. "I take you in the back, you do whatever you want to me. But please, Mister Gutierrez, not the children. This I cannot do!"
Gutierrez chuckled and hopped over the counter. Looming over the woman he sneered, "It's not up to me, Ming. I'm a lot like you. We're just little birds flying around in a great big sky. Your job was to sign for that container and hold the goods. My job was to come around and pick them up. My job is to deliver the goods to the final customer. How can I do my job if there aren't any goods to deliver? Can you tell me that, Ming?"
The woman's head had sagged. Speechless, she could only shake her head. Gutierrez put one finger under her chin and lifted it up, forcing her to look him in the eyes. She swallowed hard, shaking with the effort of not breaking down completely in front of her daughter.
"You made a brave choice, letting them go," the punk murmured. "You are a very brave woman. I respect that. Of course, if you knew the sorts of men you and I work for…if you knew them like I know them…you would not ask me to do this thing."
He abruptly stood back a step. "But don't worry, Mamacita," he announced as he turned away from the attendant. "I think I have a solution." He put his hands on the counter and hopped back over it.
Gutiérrez nodded at the enforcer, who sidled past him and lunged at the clerk. With a powerful shove, he pushed the woman aside and snatched the child from behind her back. As the woman begged for mercy and clutched feebly at her daughter, the young girl screamed in panic. Their protests went for nothing. The big man wrapped his arms around the young girl, who kicked and sent the contents of the counter scattering in a multihued clatter.
Joe sighed and patted the thumb drive in his pocket.
He had work to do, but this was more than a simple robbery. He couldn't let this slide.
Joe used the noise and commotion to cover his approach. He plucked a full bottle of liquor from the shelf at his side and brought it around, backhanded, with every ounce of strength he possessed.
He felt the impact as the bottle smashed into the temple of the thug at the door. Alcohol sprayed across the nearby shelves and drenched Joe's arm and the man's jacket suit as the thug toppled into the aisle.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Gutiérrez stopped cold, shocked by the sudden burst of violence.
The fallen thug made for a poor launch pad as Joe stepped on, and then over him to stab the jagged-edged neck of the bottle forward. Gutiérrez staggered back a step and got his hands up in front of him. The soft flesh of his palms made for a poor shield. The shards of glass bit deep and he reflexively clamped his fingers down around it. With a furious heave, he wrenched it out of Joe's grip. His balance gone and his hand burning with a pain only partly masked by a slow to arrive rush of adrenaline, the slender young man topped backward against the counter.
Joe didn't wait for the man to fall. His left hand struck out and caught him in the throat. Gutiérrez gagged and coughed and fell to the tile floor, both hands clutched at his neck as if to pry it open and let the air inside his lungs once more.
Joe turned, fists balled up, to face the second thug and found the young girl hurtling his way, arms and legs flailing. She squealed as she flew, thrown by the beefy thug, and Joe only just loosened his fists to catch her in both hands. She hit him hard, and he struggled to control her momentum and bring her to the floor unhurt. Together they tumbled down, Joe spinning to cushion the girl with his body. She gripped his shirt with two small fists and pushed hard. In her terror, she fought to free herself from his protective embrace.
The weight of the girl left Joe, and a much heavier weight fell upon his chest. A large hand grabbed his t-shirt, and the floor spun away from his back. A moment of weightlessness and a shelf passed beneath him as another shelf covered in row on row of bagged chips filled his view. He got his forearms up in time to soften the impact. The bagged snacks crackled and tumbled, and pain lanced up Joe's arm where a sharp corner dug into his forearm as he caromed off the heavy shelves and tumbled to the floor. He kicked out at the chips, no time to get to his feet, and shoved himself back across the dingy tiles toward the glass cases of beer and soda.
Around the corner, trusting to his luck, Joe set his back against a stack of bathroom tissue rolls at the end cap of the shelves. He squeezed his eyes shut, gripped the cut in his forearm, and listened.
The girl called for her mother and clattered through the wreckage of the store to reach her. Gutiérrez coughed, still unable to draw enough breath to do anything but fight for air. Beneath that chaos, he heard other sounds. Softer, and deadlier.
A dull click, followed by the metallic scape and crack of a firearm drawn, racked and made ready to fire.
Footsteps, louder as they approached.
"Come on out, hero," an intense voice hissed. "Let's see how you do in a fair fight."
Slow, steady footsteps, down the aisle. They crunched on fallen bags of chips and other snacks.
When they were just a few feet away, Joe eased around the corner of the shelving, into the next aisle. He heard the shoes pause, then a quick shuffle as the man rounded the corner. A low laugh.
The sound of Gutiérrez hacking and coughing increased in volume, and Joe glanced at the fallen man. He slapped at the floor, gesticulated wildly. His eyes met Joe's, but he could not form the words to tell his man where Joe crouched.
Fearing Gutiérrez finding his voice, Joe didn't hesitate. He exploded up from his crouch, both hands spearing into the stack of bathroom tissue. The soft, white cylinders exploded before him, startling the man with the pistol. He had turned to check on his boss and been unprepared for the flurry of white. The man's pistol barked twice, the shots wild before Joe landed on him.
The thug held his pistol in a two-handed grip, and turned at the commotion, powerful hips churning and his arms sweeping to the side. Joe found himself shoved to one side by the larger man and wrapped his right arm around the man's bicep. His momentum carried him around the man's back, and Joe managed to get one arm around the thick, corded neck. He trapped the big man's throat in the crook of his arm and grabbed his own right bicep with his left hand. Squeezing down, Joe heard the big man gag and choke for breath.
One large hand clawed at Joe's arm. Finding no purchase, no give, the thug threw himself backwards. Joe grunted with the sharp impact of his back against the solid glass door of the beverage cases and ducked as he spied the man's hand blindly wave his pistol over one shoulder.
Thunder boomed in Joe's ear followed by a shattering of glass and a tinny ringing. The pistol barrel shifted toward Joe's right shoulder. Joe let go of the man to slap down on the pistol with his left hand. The barrel descended two scant inches as finger clenched trigger, and this time the report was muffled by the man's flesh. A red mist burst from the man's upper back where it met his shoulder.
He jolted and staggered, and Joe slid free.
Blinded by his rage, Joe's assailant spun madly about, hunting for Joe, who danced back and forth, keeping behind him. Joe circled in a boxer's stance, amazed that the thug could still function at all given the size of the spreading dark stain on the man's shoulder and back.
Joe dropped to a crouch to avoid the man's wild swings, ducked beneath a crushing right backhanded blow, and then leapt up. His right hand thrust up and caught the man's pistol hand at the wrist, shoved it up to the ceiling where another shot rang out.
Joe followed that with a driving left hand, propelled with all the power of his legs and hips. A crack as loud as the pistol shot rang out on impact with the man's jaw, and his head whipped back. He tottered on his feet for a moment, insensate but too big and too stubborn to drop.
Joe heard another pistol shot and the snap of a round pass inched from his head. Glass smashed and a white stream of milk container arced out onto the floor behind him.
Gutiérrez had recovered enough to draw his own pistol and squeeze off a round. He knelt amid the litter of gum and mints and jerky, one hand tugging his collar as he hawked and gasped for air. His eyes bulged with effort as his other hand struggled to control his pistol.
The business end of the weapon wavered in Joe's direction. Momentary relief that it did not menace the girl and her mother poured through Joe – interrupted immediately by panic as the barrel came down to face Joe again.
He threw himself back against a shelf as another shot rang out. A lethal breeze caressed his cheek.
Joe slapped at a wire spinner rack loaded with potato chips, flung them and the rack headlong at the kneeling criminal, and dove in after them. The bright flurry of scattered packages and falling rack fouled the thug's aim – another shot rang out, and the hot breath of death caressed Joe's cheek, then the edge of his hand struck home. He felt the sharp impact of wrist bones, and the pistol clattered free. Joe drove his knee into the man's ribs and felt an arm wrap around his own legs, then the two men tumbled to the floor. They wrestled, each man trying to stave off his foe with one hand while straining above his head, slapping and pawing at the floor in a furious bid to grab the fallen weapon. They rolled, and Joe felt hot breath on his cheek and caught the oily odor of hair gel.
Joe's hand closed on the pistol a fraction of a second too late. He felt warm flesh in his palm, Gutierrez had snatched the butt of the pistol first, but Joe clamped his own hand around the trigger guard. Both held it, but neither controlled it.
Gutierrez growled as he brought his arms between his chest and Joe's. The barrel wavered about between them, only the random uncertainty of where it pointed from one instant to the next checked Gutierrez from firing. They lay side by side on the floor, cool white tiles pressed against Joe's face.
Joe's arms burned with the effort of fighting to control it, and he felt fresh blood spill down his arm where the shelf had pierced it. Joe skinned his lips back from his teeth in a feral grimace, fighting against a wave of nausea.
"Who. Are. You?" Gutiérrez snarled.
The gun bucked once, the sharp report startling both men.
Joe felt the pressure against his arms ease. He wrenched the hot barrel of the gun against Gutiérrez, but the man's finger had slipped from the trigger. Another heave and the gun clattered away.
As the fierce light in the man eye's faded, Joe answered.
Gutierrez blinked once. Sucked in a last final breath, and to Joe's shock, a faint grin danced across his lips.
"Nobody can defeat the Phoenix," he murmured.
And then he breathed no more.