What Fire Cannot Burn


By John Ridley

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The bestselling author of “Those Who Walk in Darkness” delivers the second book of his action-packed series, featuring top LAPD mutant-hunter Soledad O’Roark, who teams up with rival Eddi Aoki when a vigilante starts killing metanormals without mercy. Original.



"Reads like a graphic novel without the pictures."

—Denver Rocky Mountain News

"Delightfully cunning . . . An exciting . . . superb fantasy tale."

—Midwest Book Review

"Exciting . . . taut and fast-paced . . . a gem."

—Black Issues Book Review

"Powerful . . . explosive, exhilarating, packed with action but also with morality and thoughtfulness."

—Sullivan County Democrat (NY)

"Fun . . . fascinating . . . a winner . . . A fast, exciting read which will keep you in suspense until the very last page . . . A science fiction story unlike any you've ever read before."

—Lebanon Daily Record (MO)

"Great beginning to an exciting series and I can't wait for a sequel."

—University City Review (West Philadelphia, PA)

"Moves at a brisk clip . . . It continues Ridley's tradition of lean, athletic prose intermixed with challenging new genres."


"His prose is tough and vivid, his characters ruthless, hard-boiled and beset by personal demons . . .

A fast, addictive read."


"Thought-provoking . . . absolutely riveting! I was hooked from the very first page . . . Soledad O'Roark just may be the first great antihero of the twenty-first century—in more ways than one."

—Roger Stern, New York Times bestselling author of The Death and Life of Superman

"Explosive, exhilarating, noirishly fun, slyly comic, and wound as tight as piano wire . . . Recalling the work of Alan Moore or Stan Lee, with dollops of Norman Spinrad and Walter Mosley, Ridley's near-future adventure successfully treads the same path so well established by The Watchman and The Dark Knight— and takes it a step further."

—Steven Barnes, author of Lion's Blood and Zulu Heart

"As both a screenwriter and a novelist, Ridley is one of the most versatile writers in the business. With sure-handed action and characters real enough to breathe on you, this is a thriller that delivers."

—Tananarive Due, author of My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood

"Sophisticated cop drama crossed with a postmodern take on the fondly remembered Marvel comics of your childhood. John Ridley's a genius, and his readers are in for a treat."

—Dwayne McDuffie, writer/creator of Static Shock

Also by John Ridley

Those Who Walk in Darkness


I'm alive for a reason.

I don't mean that with the cheap, feel-good populist existentialism daytime TV talk show hosts love to hand out: You're alive because even though you eat too much fast food and can't point to your own state capital on a map, we're all really unique and individual and speciablah, blah, blah. I mean: in the world we live, with what I do, there's a reason I've remained among the living. A reason I've survived.

Actually, a couple of reasons depending on what kind of survival you're talking about.

Regarding my physical endurance, science is my guardian angel. Science by way of an O'Dwyer VLe. An all-electronic handgun that can fire a four-shot burst in just 1/500 of a second. Ordnance that is designed, specifically, to deal with the problem.

Funny. Kinda. It's that easy to turn the struggle for persistence into catchphrases. "The problem." "After San Francisco." "Freak hunting."

Too bad it's not as easy to solve the problem as it is to label it.

Nothing's ever easy.

Not in this world.

This world is hard, it's bleak, it's unsure, it is filled with risk. It's fat with weak sisters who look for obvious morals, comfortable politics, and clutch themselves hoping that hope alone will deliver them soft resolutions to hard situations.


And the world's got people like me. People who do, rather than subsist because of the deeds of others.

And people who do what I do; we're good as dead.

Accepting that, accepting my mortality: It's the other reason I survive.

Venice, California.

Venice, California, was beachfront land bought up by Abott Kinney and Francis Ryan at the end of the 1800s.

Venice, California, was an oceanfront attraction the two men built acre by acre, canal by canal, that matrixed the vistas of Rome with an American boardwalk.

Venice, California, was, long time ago, a tourist attraction. A place to ride amusement rides on a pier, go to an aquarium.

Then the pier burned down. Then oil got discovered percolating under the ground. Then the city of LA did a land grab, snatched Venice for its own just like LA did with everything it wanted. Water from up north. The movie business from out East. Venice was like that. Worth stealing. A sweet piece of real estate.

Things change.

Turned out there wasn't all that much oil in Venice, California.

So the city of LA lost interest in Venice, California, let her fall just about to pieces same as an ex-mistress tossed aside 'cause it'd grown tiresome. And when it didn't fall apart completely on its own, the city tore down more than five hundred historic buildings.

Five hundred.

LA didn't care.

Progress doesn't own any sympathy. Why should the city?

Venice, California, became kind of a shithole for bangers and dealers. Wannabes when they gave up and quit wanting to be anything but what they were which wasn't much. It was a haven for illegals coming up from Mexico who couldn't get to anywhere better than Venice, California.

But, real slow, Venice turned itself around. Some.

Just because it was cheap didn't mean decent people couldn't end up there. Decent people need affordable housing as much as bangers. More than bangers. Bangers aren't usually long-term customers.

With reasonable renting rates, a laconic beach vibe, into Venice flooded artists both visual and unique as well as crappy.

And Venice gladly took in the oddball, mainstream hating artistes because like a lonely boy who was otherwise without affection, Venice was really happy for anybody who came to be with her.

Venice, California, was like that; mostly about the little guy or the bohemian, the actor or the failed male beefcake who ends up pumping iron down at the beach, spending his considerable free time getting bigger for bigger's sake. Venice said to them: Forget about Brentwood or West Hollywood or Sherman Oaks or any of the parts of the city where people aspire to reside. Come here, live here. We'll take you as you are. Happy that you came, we will offer you little stress.

Things change.

Mostly, what changes, property values go up.

At some point the little guy, the little guy in Venice—the artist and the bohemian—has gotta get with the fact he's sitting on prime, oceanfront real estate. The little guy's gotta get with the program. The program: get outta the way.

The program: That's when the developers move in. The malls and complexes go up. The little guy is invited to move to Van Nuys or East LA or anywhere that wasn't here where we've gotta put up a mini-mall with a sixteen-screen movie multiplex.

Most, most little guys—small boutique shop owners, mom-and-pop businesspeople—they took the hint, sold out, went their way.

No fighting things.

Progress's got no sympathy.

But in Venice, California, against the odds, there was still the occasional coffee shop that wasn't a Starbucks, the bookstore that wasn't a B&N or a subsidiary thereof. Every now and then there was someplace other than a Gap, Inc., LLC, trying to make a stand, trying to offer people some other kind of joint where they could buy retail. And there was even a bank on the corner of Rose and Main that wasn't part of some massive, interstate fiduciary corporation. The tellers worked through lunch and the loan officers—David and Carol and Rick—looked at more than your TRW before deciding if you were an acceptable risk. ATM fees were under two bucks. Diane Woodward had been doing her banking there since her divorce—she'd left her stay-at-home-dad husband for a partner at her firm—had forced her to make some new financial arrangements. Regularly, Mike Anderson strollered over with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter before stopping by the newsstand to pick up a copy of Chocolate Beauties. And there was old Mr. Roth, the sweet, septuagenarian widower whom life never seemed to get the best of though life never shared with him the best of anything. The bank was, in a city of far too many millions of people, where you could go for a minute, do your business, get a smile in return that wasn't based on the size of your deposit. Wasn't charged against your account.

It was also the kind of place, like a lot of banks in Los Angeles, where a couple of guys—White. Gaunt. Sweaty with nerves, sweaty on the tail end of a hard meth jag that was crashing—walked in, stood for a second, stood for a second as their waning high gave them fake courage, then yanked nine-mils from beneath their jackets.

The usual bank robbery confluence of events followed.

Sweaty Guys: "Get down! Everybody get the fuck on the floor!"

Nobody moved.

"Get the fuck on the fucking floor now!"

No movement. Minds were processing what was happening—men, men with guns. Crazy-looking men waving their gafs around—while bodies waited for further instructions.

Except for the security guard. The security guard knew what was going on. The security guard was also getting paid minimum. The security guard went down like the class whore on prom night, hugged the floor. He never even bothered going for the gun he hadn't used in the year and a half since he'd capped his two-week private security training course.

"Get fucking down!"

Shots fired in the air.

Screaming. Crying. The mental/physical debate was over. People, finally, got down.

Time wasted. Time wasted by the Sweaty Guys getting the shouldabeen relatively manageable situation managed.

Old days, you couldn't take that kind of time to get a job handled. Old days, too much time wasted, all of a sudden you'd have the Adjudicator punching his way into the bank through a wall. The Sweaty Guys' guns? Useless. Bullets were like spitballs to the Adjudicator's kind. Then the Adjudicator would've been all over your sweaty ass.

That was the difference between then and now. Now there was time to scream at people just trying to do their banking to get the F down. Fire off a few shots if they didn't get the F down.

These days, when all you had to worry about were outgunned LAPD cops, seemed like there was all the time in the world for bad things to happen.

Unless you're jagged on crank. You're hopped on tina. Then time's got a way of being trippy, unnervy. No matter how fast things happen, they don't happen fast enough.

For Mike Anderson, with his baby in the stroller, it took a swipe of a pistol to the head to hurry up his downward progress. Wasn't really much of a blow. Mike Anderson more or less went with the swing, went to the ground on his own and covered his daughter knowing, beneath his body, she'd be safe.

David, Carol, Rick: still screaming, but learning well from the pistol-whipping demonstration the rewards of noncooperation. They pressed themselves on the tile behind and below their desks. Would have pressed themselves through the floor if they could have. The tellers went down behind the counter.

In the whole of the bank only three were standing. The Sweaty Guys. Mr. Roth.

Mr. Roth was old, didn't move so quick. Mr. Roth's eyes were probably bad and his hearing most likely shot. There was a real chance Mr. Roth didn't know, didn't really understand, what was happening. For him it must've been like trying to figure out what's going on when you're watching the world from under five feet of Jell-O. The "fucks" screamed, the pistol whips given: It was all lost on him.

"Wha . . . what's—"

"Get down!"

"I, I don't—"

"Get the fuck down!"

It could be read in the Sweaty Guys' dilated eyes. Loss of control was on the horizon.

Mike Henderson saw it.

From where he was on the floor Mike Henderson, sensing the badness to come, had a variation on a single thought: I gotta do something. No matter his daughter was there, no matter doing something wasn't . . . wasn't right, wasn't safe, he could real easy see the sum of the equation before him: Old man doesn't move fast enough, jagged thugs don't react rationally. Bullets fly. Old guy dies.

"Get down on the fuck—"

"I don't . . . I can't—"

From the rest in the bank a modified Greek chorus chanting in frightened wails: "Please, Mr. Roth! Get down, Mr. Roth!"

One of the Sweaty Guys worked the slide on his gun. Should've done that before he hit the bank. Anyway, a round was chambered. He was, finally, ready for business.

"Goddamn it, fucker! Get the fuck—"

Consequences didn't matter.

It was coming to that.

Consequences didn't matter for Mike Henderson. A life mattered. Not his own. Mike Henderson had to—

"Told you to get the fuck down!"

A gun yelled twice. Deafeningly loud in the tight space.

The screams, the screams from David and Carol and Rick, from Diane and especially from the security guard, spiked and died. The bank was filled with a bed of sobbing.

All looked.

Even Mr. Roth, still standing, looked and saw the two sizable holes in his chest.

A couple more screams from someone at the sight, the sight of Mr. Roth with those holes.

The two guys, the Sweaty Guys, they weren't high anymore. Not so much so. Shooting someone can do that to you. Sober you up. Shooting someone in California where they execute people for such things will slap the fuzziness straight out of you.

Mr. Roth looked up, looked from his wounds to the formerly Sweaty Guys.

And then the wounds in Mr. Roth's chest, which were not wounds, but truly holes—tunnels opened to allow the passing of a couple of slugs—self-sealed.

And then Mr. Roth gave a smile. A smile that stretched, stretched itself across his face. The corners of his lips seeming to . . . not seeming to. They did. The corners of his lips touched the base of his ears. Teeth filled his mouth, swelled to fill his mouth. Twisted. They went jagged. Looked more like ivory claws then dentition.

For a second Mr. Roth's smile . . . it quivered. It quivered. For a second it was like Mr. Roth's smile couldn't contain its glee, its perverted anticipation.

And then Mr. Roth's smile, his jaw, had at the two used-to-be/now-again Sweaty Guys who'd tried to rob a bank and had only gotten as far as shooting at a seemingly old man. Mr. Roth's smile bit at them, tore at them, ripped, ripped and ripped them. Did not slow for the shrieking, the screaming, the spraying blood and flying flesh. And meat.

And Mr. Roth's smile accomplished all this mayhem while Mr. Roth's body remained a good thirty feet clear of the slaughter.

Somewhere along the way darkness got a bad rap, got itself associated with fear and malevolence. Bad things only happen in the dark.

Perception, not truth.

The dark was safe and warm. People calmed and closed their eyes and slept in the dark. The dark was as solacing as a womb. It was coming out of darkness into the light of the day when you could see just how fucked-up the world was.

The APC doors opened. Harsh white sunlight hacked its way into the vehicle's bay.

Soledad held up a hand against it, against the light. But there was little blocking of the sun to be done.

Every time.

Every time she spilled out of an APC on a call Soledad felt like she was dropping out of a Huey into a hot LZ deep in Charlie territory or exiting a Bradley for some foot patrol in Fallujah, dodging random IEDs.

It was an assumptive feeling. She'd never done either of those: urban pacification or hit an LZ. Hadn't even been in the military.

But Soledad was pretty sure the feeling of dread, of imminent unavoidable death that came with taking either of those locales was the same as rolling out of her APC. The same, 'cept for the fact that across the street, in Soledad's war zone, was a Quiznos where she'd once had an exceptionally adequate lunch. On the far corner was a computer store where she'd had her PowerBook worked on three times because the first two times the twenty-something the joint passed off as a tech expert had not one idea in hell what he was doing. In Soledad's war the battleground was here. Not a desert city, not a rice paddy halfway around the world. Here; her city. And the enemy didn't wear a uniform or in any particular way identify itself as a combatant or insurgent. The enemy looked like Soledad, or the kid working at the copy shop, or the mother of two out running with her jogging stroller.

The enemy looked normal.

The enemy, however normal-looking, was anything but.

LAPD squads surrounded the bank at Main and Rose. Uniformed cops used the squads for cover. A growing crowd across the street from the police action stood out in the open. Overhead news birds from Channels 4, 7 and 9. Circling low. Making communications difficult. Ensuring the viewing public would get "live team coverage" if anybody got killed.

The shit was, most definitely, about to get rolling.

The uniformed Officer in Charge waved Soledad over. Her element was right on her heels. Her element, Pacific MTac, she'd inherited in a command shuffle when its most recent sergeant was KIAed. It'd only been his third call on point. Third time's the charm.

Pacific MTac: Eddi Aoki and Jim Whitaker on HKs. Jesus Alcala, a probee, working a Benelli. Alcala was a baby MTac, but he'd proven himself on four previous calls. Without fear, with smarts and deadly aim on the Benelli. All that and the fact Manhattan Beach had one less freak walking around courtesy of a one-ounce slug was proof enough of Alcala's skills.

Eddi was a known quantity. Her, Soledad; they'd survived going head-to-head—no pun—with a telepath. Eddi'd come back from a nearly shattered knee to get a slot on an element. She was a cop Soledad had no problem giving her back to.


Whitaker had been transferred off Central MTac just prior to Central MTac being shredded by that telepath. Previously a little mousy, a little nervous, in the eight months since his almost near-death experience, Whitaker had gone at the job with a vengeance and without hesitation. BAMF twice in that amount of time. Knowing that you dodged a bullet by avoiding a telepath is a life-changing experience. Especially when it's just luck that kept you from standing in the spot where others died.

Soledad landed at the OIC, squatted, asked:

"What's the deal?"

"Two-eleven in progress. Turns out one of the civvies in the bank is a freak. Tore the shit out of the perps."

"Got an ID on the freak?"

"Won't do you much good. It's a shape-shifter."

Eddi, a noise of disgust, then: "Fucking shape-shifters."

Alcala: "One freak better than another?"

"Some are worse than the rest."

"Mouths shut, ears open." Soledad was all business. The business at hand: getting intel, staying alive. To the OIC: "What do you know?"

"The guy's name was Sidney Roth. Ran him with DMV. Age listed was sixty-eight, widower. No priors. Was a quiet guy."

"The bad ones usually are. It's inside?"

The OIC gave Soledad a nod to the affirmative. "The civvies are accounted for. Perps are dead. Black-and-whites responding to the silent alarm had the perimeter locked down before anyone got out."

"Description of the freak."

"Told you, it's a—"

"Just give me height and weight."

"Five-eleven, around one-seventy. That's from the civilians." The OIC's meaning: Civvies don't generally make for great witnesses. "So it could go a little either way."

Across the street: Commotion. Loud voices.

Uniformed cops, on edge, overanxious, turned, took aim with their sidearms. Would've sent bullets into the lookie-lous if they'd had just a touch more jitter to them.

The lookie-lous: Their ranks had swelled by a handful of protesters. Voices raised, placards waving. Homemade signs. The sum total of their message: Fuck the Police. Let Freaks Be.

Alcala, re: the protesters: "You believe that shit? We're manning the line, and they're acting like we're the damn problem?"

"Forget 'em." Soledad was plain with her order.

Whitaker was snide with his suggestion: "How about we take a couple of them along, see if they're still freak lovers when some mutie's trying to rip their—"

"How about we concentrate on the job?" Soledad didn't have the time, didn't have the patience for her element venting. "It's the Westside. What do you expect but the liberals are going to turn out? Lucky Susan Sarandon's not here."

"I like Susan Sarandon."

Soledad looked to Eddi.

Eddi's smirk: Yeah. Really.

Still, Soledad was pretty sure Eddi was just messing with her. Much as Soledad respected the girl, there was no getting on with Eddi.

To the OIC: "Got a floor plan?"

"Bank manager drew one up." Flipping open his duty log, showing a poor sketch to Soledad: "Not much to it. About twenty-five hundred square feet total. Desk, chairs on the north side just past the door. Tellers' windows, manager's office back here . . ."

"Vault open?"

"Vault was open."

Soledad, facetious with herself: That'd be fun. Trying to corner a freak that could shift its shape just about any way it pleased within the restricted confines of the vault. It'd be like taking a swan dive into a steel coffin. She hoped, Soledad hoped it wouldn't come to that. She hoped they could nail the thing in the relative open. About all she didn't hope for was that the freak was already gone.

Other cops, the uniformed cops who'd be staying on the outside hidden behind their cruisers, guns pointed at the bank; probably they were hoping the thing had split. Hoping that they could make it through the day without having to deal with a mutie. But that's why they were, would never be anything but beat cops. Uniforms. Good men all. But when it came time to really step up they'd rather step behind their cars. By the time Soledad, her element . . . by the time any cop goes MTac they'd long since given up wishful notions of avoidance and turned their fancy to the hope that one day freaks would be relegated to a portion of a museum right next to T. rex and they as MTacs would get the chance to play a significant part in the extinction event.

From her belt Soledad slipped a yellow-marked bullet clip. Slid it into the back of her modified O'Dwyer. Her gun. The gun. The OIC watched her actions with the same mythic reverence for Prometheus grabbing fire.

Soledad to her element: "Listen up!" Her voice punched straight from the gut. The tone: This is it. The meaning: Pay attention and live. Maybe. "The space is tight. Be aware, and don't get yourself between the target and a gun. We go two-by. I'll give the Civil, but this one's already got a body count. You got the shot, take the shot."

No inducement for questions. Far as Soledad cared, at this stage of things there had better not be any.

One thing more: "The safe word is 'cardigan.' Got it? Cardigan."

The safe word was the first word that popped into Soledad's head. The randomness didn't diminish its importance. Not when the freak you were going after could real easy mimic, among other things, an MTac; reshape itself as the cop who was supposed to have your back. It was good to have a way, a word, to separate the real from the imposter.

This call: cardigan.

Soledad called for a mike check, heard her element count off in her earpiece.

Then they were moving, moving for the bank. As always, this situation, this call, different than the last call. Different freak with different abilities. And even freaks with similar abilities came wrapped in different psyches. Like snowflakes, no two alike. Like real deadly snowflakes. But every call, in some ways, was the same. MTacs vs. some kind of thing. The MTacs with their guns, the thing with heat vision. The MTacs with one-ounce slugs, the thing bulletproof. Four MTacs, the thing stronger than a hundred men.

The MTacs. A thing that could, with as little as a thought, steal their lives.

And for any MTac, no matter how many calls they'd been on, how many freaks they'd previously chalked . . . no matter how many times they're BAMF. Every now and again a little self-prepping is required.

Soledad, to herself, but loud in her head: I'm not dying today.

The sound track, the sound that came with action for the MTacs creeping into the bank, was the sound of each other's breath—short, sharp—coming through their earpieces.

The sight: Chairs overturned. Deposit slips spilled on the cream tile floor along with phones, brochures to inform customers in four-color gloss about direct deposit and certificates of deposit and free checking that actually hit you harder with jacked-up service fees.

Some cash.

Some cash just lying among bloody, shredded bodies. Body parts. What was left of the two sweaty guys.

The place was empty of people.

Probably, it still held a freak.

So now it was about looking. Looking for movement where there shouldn't be any. A sign of life where there should only be inanimation. The freak could've melded with the wall. Easy. Obvious. How about that shitty hotel-quality painting hung on one side of the space? Could a shape-shifter duplicate something that bad?

The spray of deposit slips on the floor?


One of the dead sweaty guys: Was that really a freak in hiding?

Very clever.

A kiosk? A chair? The ashtray stand . . . ?

This; this is why, like Eddi'd said, shape-shifters were worse than other freaks. They're tricky. They play dirty.

Yeah but so could Soledad.

Soledad, to her element: "I'm giving the Civil."


On Sale
Jul 31, 2007
Page Count
432 pages

John Ridley

About the Author

John Ridley lives in Los Angeles and New York.

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