Authors: Gena Showalter
He would have released the boys from his employ, but they would have told him to go screw himself. They were brothers by circumstance rather than blood, and deep down they truly loved each other. Michael, too. Besides that, they knew of no other way to live. He hadn’t let them learn. A mistake on his part, yes, but one it was too late to rectify.
At least John and Solo would not make the same mistake as their friend. The pair had waded through too much filth to try the marriage thing, and Michael knew they both felt as if they were tainted all the way to the bone. And Solo . . . well, he wasn’t wrong about that.
Other agents made messes, and Solo was the one to clean everything up, destroying evidence that was
never meant to make the light—whether living or not, whether guilty or innocent.
Michael would call him, give him a location, and tell him what had gone wrong. A few days later, Solo would have everything in order. And oh, the things he’d had to do to succeed . . .
“What’s got your panties in such a morose little twist, boss?” Blue asked. He’d always been the most observant of the three. “You thinking about my wedding? Wanting to cry because you didn’t get an invite?”
“Cry, when I’d rather kill myself than attend?” he asked, already knowing he would be there, hidden in the shadows. “Hardly.”
His gaze returned to Solo. Would
go? The guy was slouched in his chair, his shoulders slumped in a wasted effort to make himself appear smaller. His eyes were narrowed and still locked on Michael, now piercing as sharply as a sword.
“All right, moving on,” Michael muttered, taking the hint. He punched a few buttons and a screen appeared on the wall behind him. Images formed. “Meet Gregory Star. Human. Thirty-three. Married with two children, a boy, twenty-one, and a girl, nineteen. Both are heavily into drugs. We’ve traced the disappearance of several Alien Investigation and Removal agents to Mr. Star’s door.”
“Location of the agents?” Blue asked.
“Scattered. We haven’t yet acted because we aren’t yet sure if they’re dead or alive.”
A few more buttons were punched, and a picture of each agent flashed over the screen.
“So you have no idea what Star wants—or does—with those agents,” John stated bluntly.
“But you’re sure it’s him?”
“We are. We had him under surveillance for something else and overheard a few phone conversations. While we can pin him to the crimes, we can’t figure anything else.”
“Well, I’ve spoken with him at several parties, and I gotta say, I’m baffled,” Blue said. “He’s a wealthy businessman with an eye for the pretties. Gambling is a weakness and drugs are a hobby, which is probably why the kids are addicts. Bodyguards are a staple, and mistresses as disposable as underwear, but he seems harmless enough.”
Solo snapped, “Yes, and everyone is always exactly what they seem, aren’t they? Why don’t you think before you speak?
Blue, who sat in the middle of the boys, twisted to face him. “Why don’t you say hello to the cherry slushie I’m about to make from your brain?”
He could do it, too. He possessed extraordinary abilities no human, and very few Arcadians, could even dream about.
“Go for it,” Solo said, unconcerned. “Unlike you, I’ve got a few cells to spare.”
“Children,” Michael said, clapping his hands. “Enough.” If they decided to reenact the gimpy-gazelle-versus-hungry-lion scene from
Animals of Old Earth,
Michael would be down two agents and probably missing a few limbs after trying to pull them apart.
Hired guns were
“Just let them play,” John said, his tone now edged with an emotion Michael couldn’t name. Something spiked with poison . . . deadly. “They need to get it out of their systems. They’re due.”
“Uh, that’s not happening.” Blue knew how to play; Solo did not. Blue would unintentionally insult Solo (more than he already had), and Solo would leave—with carnage in his wake. Nothing and no one would be able to bring him back until he was ready. But he would never be ready. “If it does, I’ll have to pull all three of you from this case and assign you to work with my daughter, Evie.”
“Enough!” John shouted, and the other two immediately zipped their lips.
They might be able to dismiss Michael, but they’d dance through fire for John.
“We good now?” Michael asked.
Solo ran his tongue over his teeth . . . teeth slightly longer than they’d been a few moments ago.
Michael knew Solo had been insulted by people all of his life. Because of his height and muscle mass, the kids at his elementary school had called him Ogre Boy—until his temper had gotten the better of him and he’d partially morphed into his other form. Then they’d called him Monster Mash and Ugly-O and had even thrown rocks at him.
Once, to protect himself, he’d nearly beaten a kid to death.
His mother had been phoned, and she’d arrived in
time to calm him before he’d harmed another child, but the damage had already been done. He was pulled from the school system, and would have been locked away for life if Michael hadn’t intervened.
“We’re good,” John said, his face pale. “Evie is now off the table.”
A well-known secret: John would protect Evie with his life as long as he didn’t have to talk to her. It was Michael’s fault. He had spoiled his youngest daughter, and she now felt as if it was every man’s duty to do the same.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible, Michael,” Blue said with a shudder, “but Evie needs to be put down.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.” Michael cleared his throat. “Now, as I was saying, the agents were snatched while on the job.”
“Human? Otherworlder?” John asked. His color hadn’t yet returned to normal.
“Both,” he replied. “Male and female, too. The only common thread is the fact that they work for AIR.”
“Are they young? Good-looking?” Blue asked.
“Some of them, yes.”
“Maybe they’re being sold into the slave trade. That’s the best way to hide multiple living bodies, as well as the best way to make fast cash when you’re trying to support a drug habit.” Blue worked two fingers over the smoothness of his jaw. “Have any civilians been taken?”
“Yes,” Michael said, impressed by the jump his quick mind had made. It had taken Michael two days to connect that particular dot. “We don’t think this has anything
to do with trafficking, though. We have men on the inside of every major auction and whorehouse, but none have seen any hint of the agents or the civilians.”
you have?” Solo asked. “How do you know the victims were snatched by the same guy?”
Another excellent question. “Mr. Star has a calling card. He uses the victim’s blood to draw the Chinese symbol for revenge somewhere in their home.”
Blue rolled his eyes. “Are you sure the symbol is for revenge? A guy I know got a tattoo of what he thought was the symbol for strength, but it was really the symbol for indigestion.”
“A guy you know? Dude, I’ve seen your back,” John quipped. “The tattoo is yours.”
Unapologetic, Blue said, “I thought the story had more spice the other way.”
Anyway. “Yes, we’re sure,” Michael interjected. “We think he uses it to throw us off and confuse his motives. There’s no reason for him to seek revenge against the seventeen people who were abducted. None of them have any connections to him or each other. Outside those from the agency, of course.”
John pursed his lips. “Let me guess. You want us to find out what Star has done with all seventeen people before we kill him. Well, forget that. If we end him now, no one else will be abducted, and the problem will be solved,” he said, spreading his arms. “You’re welcome.”
“When one of those people is a senator, we don’t take out the only man who might know where she is.”
But there was no question Star would die when all was said and done. “So here’s how this will go down. John, you’ll join the New Chicago AIR team as a transfer from Manhattan. They’ve lost two agents to this catastrophe.”
“And no one can know who you really are or why you’re really there. Not your new boss and not your partner, Dallas Gutierrez.” Michael tossed him a mobile folder with all the information he would need.
John caught the device and immediately dug in. “And why am I really there?”
“To listen to office gossip, and to study the agents. If someone’s got a connection to Mr. Star, I want to know about it and I want you to make friends. Sleep around. Whatever.”
“Blue, the world is about to find out about your new drug habit.”
The pro-baller’s eyes slitted dangerously. Good. He understood. He’d have to pretend with the fiancée, too.
“Now that you’re spinning out of control, you’ll throw a party. You will invite Mr. Star’s kids, and you will make nice. If you can, become the son’s new supplier. And if the daughter’s interested, sleep with her. Just be careful. I’d hate for you to disappear, too.”
Like John, he nodded.
At least he hadn’t protested the affair.
Michael focused on Solo. He was still slumped in his chair, his gaze still narrowed. “You will become
Blue’s new, most trusted bodyguard. The man who gets things done. The one Blue relies on for the darkest of deeds.”
A flash of panic before Solo’s features smoothed out, revealing nothing else. “Very well.”
He hated going out in public, and Blue led a very public life. His photo would be taken, would be plastered across every newspaper, and he would have to relive every moment and tolerate every insult. But he would do it. He always did what Michael told him.
“Good,” Michael said. “You each have four days to prepare. On the fifth, I expect you to be entrenched in your roles. Dismissed.”
In unison the boys popped to their feet. As they stomped to the door, Blue grumbled. John rubbed the back of his neck. Solo was quiet, his arms at his sides, his footfalls purposely soft.
The sensors above the door caught their movement and caused the soundproof metal to unlatch and slide open. Blue crossed the threshold first, John right on his heels, and Solo right on his.
A sudden, violent gust of heat slammed through the entire office, lifting Michael out of his chair and propelling him into the far wall. Fire licked at his skin, and lances of pain battered at him as he slid to the floor. He tried to breathe but couldn’t. Something heavy pressed against his chest, and he blinked rapidly in an effort to focus. A desk was now on top of him, he realized. What the . . . How . . . ?
The answer clicked into place. Someone had bombed his home office.
He laughed at the unlikeliness of such a situation, and blood bubbled from his mouth. As he coughed and fought to suck air past the liquid obstruction, his pain intensified and his eyesight dimmed.
Where were his boys?
he wondered dazedly.
Were they . . . ?
Darkness closed in on him . . .
hurt . . . hurting . . . was hurting so badly now . . .
The boys had been closer to the blast, and he wasn’t sure they could have survived . . . but they were so strong, so vital . . . surely they had . . .
The darkness finally reached him and he knew nothing more. . . .
• • •
For Solo, consciousness arrived in slow degrees. There was smoke in his nose and down his throat and his body throbbed as if every bone had been broken. He wasn’t sure where he was or what had happened to him.
“—with this one?” a voice he didn’t recognize was saying.
Despite the fog hazing his vision, he was able to distinguish two males leaning over him. One was tall, thin, and around thirty years old, with dark hair and dark eyes. The other was a living version of the man Solo had seen in the picture projected on Michael’s wall. Gregory Star.
Star was a short human with silver hair, brown eyes, and skin tanned and lined by the sun. “Look at him,”
he said, his lip curling in disgust as his gaze roved over Solo’s body. “Sell him to the same circus we sold the AIR agent to. He’ll fetch a decent price.”
“And this one?”
Both men vanished from Solo’s line of sight, yet still he heard Star sigh. “Finish ashing him. As fried as he is, there’s no way he’ll survive transport anywhere else, and that way, there will be nothing left of him for anyone to find. A shame, though. I kind of liked him.”
“And this last one?”
A pause. A purr of relish. “Do nothing. I’m keeping him.”
Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
NCE AGAIN, CONSCIOUSNESS ARRIVED
in slow degrees for Solo. Darkness gradually faded from his mind, little thoughts forming.
I need to wake up. Something’s happened. Something’s wrong.
He was enveloped by heat, sweating, his skin stinging. With every inhalation, the inside of his nose burned. With every exhalation, his chest throbbed as though it had been scraped with broken glass. He flexed and straightened his fingers. The joints were stiff, swollen. He arched his back, stretching. Every vertebra cracked, some even popping back into place with painful force.