The bomb detonated while Grier was still two blocks away.
The shockwave propelled him backward into a brick wall, and his skull cracked against the masonry. Whipping his arms up to cover his face, he hissed as a wave of heated air rushed past, leaving a thick cloud of dust and debris in its wake.
As the rumbling faded and the screaming began, Grier pounded his fist against the wall. “No!” Ten minutes, even five, would’ve made the difference. Just that small amount and he could’ve reached the bomb to disarm it. Instead he was huddled in an alley several blocks away while the blaze licked the sky, coloring the lingering dust clouds red and orange. “God damn you!” He slid down the bricks, hands pressed to his eyes. “I won’t forgive you for this,” he whispered.
People stumbled onto the sidewalk, stepping over broken glass and choking on the smell of death, too shocked to do anything but stare or weep. Soon mournful sirens joined the chorus.
One sound stood out. Grier lifted his head, squinting through the polluted air. A child stood at the alley’s entrance. A girl. She was weeping, clutching her small arms to her chest while she turned in a circle. “Mommy! Mommy!”
Grier swiped a hand over his mouth, then pushed to his feet. His sudden appearance frightened her. She cried harder, biting down on one filthy, tear-stained fist. Grier stole into her mind, calming her fears. “It’s all right. Come here,” he said, adding a subliminal suggestion to the order.
The girl came. He hefted her into his arms and stepped back into the shadows. “Don’t be afraid,” he crooned, smoothing her hair. Pliant, she spooned against him, tiny hands clamped around the lapels of his coat. Still, she trembled. “Mommy?”
“We’ll find her,” he said, again reaching into her thoughts, convincing her it was true.
He had no idea if it was. Was her mother a victim? Had Grier’s failure killed her as well?
A voice sounded in his head. Report. The girl rubbed her face against his shirt, oblivious, but Grier snarled. He held her closer. Report, the voice demanded again. A split second later, Grier’s heightened senses crackled, and he flattened himself against the building. Four men passed the alley, their steps unhurried and purposeful, identical double-breasted trench coats swishing against their suit slacks. As they walked by, Grier brushed over their minds with a feather’s touch. He recoiled. All four were agents, searching for him.
The girl keened. “Shhh,” Grier whispered, rocking her as he watched the last man in line pause at the alley’s entrance. Grier tensed, but a moment later, the man moved on. Grier released the breath he’d been holding. The chaos was too thick, the emotions in the crowd too high. They couldn’t sense him.
Report, the voice demanded again. His Monitor was losing patience, but Grier’s threshold for deception had been destroyed as thoroughly as the bombed conference center. He set his jaw and severed the mental connection, warding his mind against further intrusion. Somewhere not too far away, his Monitor, his so-called safety net, was writhing in agony from the terminated bond.
Grier didn’t relish causing the man pain. The bond that a Gifted and his Monitor formed for their missions was intimate. They shared more than just thoughts. But the taste of betrayal was too sharp, and the air was thick with the smell of blood. The child in his arms might now be an orphan.
He pushed his hair off his face, grimacing when his hand came away caked with dust. He did the same for the girl, exposing her lax features. “Christine,” he said, reaching into her mind and plucking the name from her head. “We’re going to find your mother now.”
Dazed, eyes locked on some distant point, she nodded. Ignoring his burning lungs and churning stomach, Grier pushed off the wall and, after a thorough sweep of the street, mingled with the confused and terrified crowd.
He’d gone no more than a dozen steps when he heard the child’s name.
Across the street, a woman ran back and forth, hobbling on one high-heeled shoe. Her ripped blouse hung off her shoulder, exposing the white, lacy bra beneath. Tears carved jagged tracks on her soot-stained cheeks. “Christine!” she called again.
Christine lifted her head from his shoulder. “Mommy?”
Grier pushed through the crowd. The woman looked up when he stopped in front of her. “I have her,” he said, steadying her when she began to sob. “I have Christine.” He let the woman scoop the child out of his arms, then coaxed her to sit on the curb.
“Jacqueline,” he said to the woman, touching her mind.
The woman’s face relaxed under the force of his mental suggestion. Obediently, she answered, “Yes.”
“Stay here. Someone will help you.” He slipped his coat off and draped it over her shoulders, tucking it around Christine’s small body. “You’re both going to be fine.”
“Okay,” Jacqueline said. She hugged Christine to her chest.
After one last look, Grier walked away. Each step added to his rage and bitterness. So many lives destroyed. It should have never happened. This was the final straw. Whatever corruption was eating its way through the ranks, he needed to escape before it devoured him as well.
The Organization could go on without him. He refused to lease his talents and soul to terrorists. Escaping would be the most difficult mission he’d ever attempted, but he had motivation in abundance. There’d be no retirement party. No engraved gold watch. They’d hunt him like an animal. But he’d never expected to live past thirty-five, his job being what it was, so that milestone, passed three years ago, was something to be proud of.
A very small, twisted something, in wake of this failure.
His defection would likely end in his death. But he would use every resource, every gift, at his disposal to ensure that he lived through today. Then he would focus on tomorrow. And if surviving one day at a time guaranteed his freedom, then so be it.
Alec Devlin swung his car into the last available parking space on the street and turned off the engine. For a minute, he didn’t move, just listened to the quiet nighttime sounds of the neighborhood. His was a city address, but the area was wealthy and secluded enough to ensure some privacy and security. People kept to themselves, which was perfect for Alec. They didn’t ask questions—another perk. And because of all that, he’d been able to keep this apartment for over a year now, an unprecedented amount of time for someone like him.
The name on the mailbox read Jeremy Long. Alec bypassed it without looking inside. Even his junk mail came infrequently enough that emptying it once a month was sufficient. He was exhausted and sore and looking forward to some peace and rest. This mission had taxed him. His vision blurred as he fumbled with his keys, and he tried not to notice how his hand shook as he slid the key home.
Before crossing the threshold, he extended his senses, scanning the flat for anything unusual or out of place. The gesture was perfunctory; the stale smell was enough to convince him no one had been inside since he’d left two weeks ago. Still, he couldn’t afford to let his guard down—ever—so he completed the sweep, searching for any sign of life in the four connected rooms.
He sensed nothing. Alec sighed and ran a hand through his messy hair. Turning back to the door, he engaged the lock, which was state of the art, even for the rich part of town, and strode for the bathroom, not bothering with the lights. Keen night vision helped him navigate the apartment without so much as a stubbed toe. He stripped with economical movements, then reached across the large porcelain tub to open the faucets. A glance in the mirror revealed sunken, pale cheeks, dull blue eyes, and rumpled chestnut brown hair. Not a healthy looking reflection. Alec grimaced. More like a prisoner of war.
Gushing water slicked his hair flat as Alec stepped under the spray. He tipped his head back, letting it saturate his scalp before dipping forward and allowing the heat to soothe the bunched muscles in his shoulders. The rushing water lulled him into a light meditation. Soon, even the low-watt bulb became an annoyance, so he used his mind to extinguish it.
The mission had been long. Very long. Two agonizing weeks with a novice Monitor. Several times, Alec had been tempted to demand his removal. Carrying another person in his head for so long drained his strength.
Alec didn’t begrudge the constant monitoring. After all, how many people had the pleasure of saying they loved their job? And how many could truly say they made the world a better place? In his ten years with the Organization, Alec had traveled to every corner of the globe. He used his gifts and other abilities without fear of retribution or ridicule.
He was luckier than most. So he let the monitoring slide.
The cooling water roused him from his meditation, and he twisted the taps closed. Striding naked into the bedroom, he donned a pair of lightweight sweat pants, but as he pulled a T-shirt over his head, his cell phone rang. Bad sign. Already pining for the sleep he’d lose, he flipped it open, remaining quiet until he was prompted.
“Mr. Long?” a voice asked.
“Speaking,” Alec answered, cursing his hoarse voice.
“The safe house at Wallaby and Fifth. One hour.” Alec pressed his lips together as he listened to the static-peppered connection fall silent. Fantastic. One fucking hour.
He slammed the phone shut and threw it onto the dresser. In his bare feet, he padded into the main room where he’d left his duffel and exchanged the sweat pants for a pair of jeans. They weren’t clean, but they’d have to do. He buttoned them as he walked the few steps to the kitchen and helped himself to two potent painkillers. Stifling the migraine before it had a chance to develop was the wisest course.
He was in no shape for immediate reassignment. In a rare fit of insubordination, he decided that if they insisted on another Monitor right away, he’d refuse. The last guy they’d put in his head had rattled around like a ping-pong ball until Alec had gone nearly insane.
He needed a break. For once, the Organization was going to have to take no for an answer.
The safe house wasn’t close by, but taking the car he’d brought home from his last assignment might compromise security. And getting a cab within the hour wasn’t something he wanted to bank on this time of the night. He jogged the two miles across town. The night was cool and the run invigorated him. It had rained earlier and everything shimmered in the glow of the streetlights. The reflective puddles brought old memories to the surface.
Alec’s pace faltered. Reminiscing about his childhood never ended well. He tried damming the flow of memories, but they washed forward, seeping through his defenses like the rivulets rushing through the storm drains at his feet.
A car raced by, showering his ankles with a curtain of dirty water, and unbidden, a memory swallowed him.
“Come on, Dixon. Don’t be scared. That’s it. See? There’s nothing to be afraid of. The water won’t hurt you.”
At eight going on nine, Alec knew his family didn’t love him. His grandparents doted on his cousin, Dixon, but Alec was a burden, one thrust on them late in life from a daughter they’d forgotten long ago. Dixon was their pride and joy, the golden child of their golden child. Alec quelled a surge of jealousy as he watched his grandfather coax his cousin into the murky water.
“But I can’t see the bottom of it, Pap! How do I know what’s in there?” Dixon resisted when his grandfather tried to ease him off the dock and into the water.
“There’s nothing in the water that’s going to hurt you. Trust me.” As Alec watched, Dixon scrambled to his feet, out of his grandfather’s reach, and up onto the shore. “Dixon!” his grandfather yelled as the skinny boy ran for the lake house. “Get back here! I won’t let anything happen to you! I promise!”
He cursed as Dixon disappeared through the door. Alec opened his mouth, then shut it again. His grandfather paid him no mind, just muttered to himself and floated in the water next to the dock.
Alec gathered the tatters of his innate bravery. “I’d like to learn, Pap.”
For a moment he thought his plea had gone unheard. Then his grandfather stopped floating and stood up. The water, Alec noticed, was deep enough to lap at his beefy shoulders. “Would you, now?”
“Well, then. Come on over here, and I’ll teach you. Just because Dixon won’t take advantage of the opportunity doesn’t mean you should be left out.” He slapped the water with his hand and jerked his head, urging Alec onto the dock. Alec couldn’t believe his luck.
Grinning, he scampered from the grass onto the weathered wood and rushed to where his grandfather was standing. He sat on the edge of the dock and lowered his feet into the lake. The cool water felt wonderful between his toes. When he glanced up, his grandfather was staring at him. “Are you ready, Alec?”
Alec nodded and grinned even wider. His grandfather stared for another moment before reaching up and gripping Alec under the arms. Alec reached out and placed his hands on his grandfather’s shoulders, bracing himself. “Don’t worry. There’s nothing to be scared of,” his grandfather said.
Alec nodded, swallowing a nervous lump in his throat.
His grandfather’s eyes narrowed. “I said don’t be scared. Trust me, Alec.”
Alec relaxed his grip. Then, with no warning, his grandfather ripped him from the dock, hoisted him into the air, and threw him far out into the water.
Panic didn’t register until the water closed over his head. He held his breath, but his arms and legs felt leaden and unresponsive. When he bobbed to the surface a moment later, he saw his grandfather watching from a few feet away. Alec screamed and reached for him. The last thing he heard before slipping beneath the surface was laughter.
Alec clenched his teeth and forced the memory away. Fatigue was getting the better of him, tearing down his walls. He quickened his steps. The faster he got the meeting over with, the sooner he could sleep.
There was little activity on the street; the safe house sat nestled in the middle of a residential district. As soon as he turned the corner, he sensed the others. Five people were watching him: two on the street and three from surrounding buildings. The extra surveillance was troubling, but he was too well trained to be nervous.
The house at Wallaby and Fifth was an unassuming brownstone, exactly like a dozen others on the street, though its residents were anything but pedestrian. There was no bell or knocker. Alex was expected, as always, to let himself in. A subtle mental shove disengaged the lock, and he stepped into the elegant foyer.
Ethan Hunter, head of the Organization and mentor to the young man standing in the entryway, smiled. To an outsider, Alec would have appeared relaxed, bored even, but Ethan knew better. He could feel the coiled tension radiating from him.
“Greetings,” he called from the balcony, and Alec tilted his face up and smiled.
“I could feel you Ethan, although it was a very faint vibration. You’re getting very good at that.”
Ethan nodded as he moved around the landing and descended the stairs. “I have you to thank for such a nifty trick. I’ve worked many years to discover a viable way to conceal my presence from the Gifted. I would have never considered your approach. How did you ever discover it?”
Alec’s smile faded. “Necessity.”
Ethan frowned and tugged on his beard as he approached. “I didn’t mean to dredge up old memories.”
“It’s all right. The past is just haunting me tonight.”
Alec inclined his head, acknowledging the apology, and followed Ethan into a small parlor to the right of the foyer. Matching armchairs sat side by side in front of a marble mantle. As they settled themselves in front of the fire, Alec sighed.
“How are you feeling?” Ethan asked, not immune to Alec’s fatigue.
“Tired,” Alec replied with a terse smile. “I was looking forward to some unmonitored rest.”
Ethan nodded, and with a subtle gesture toward the sideboard, levitated two coffee cups to the small table between their chairs. Alec rested his chin in one hand, using the fingers to massage his temple. “Show-off,” he mumbled.
“Your gifts surpass mine in many areas. Far more important areas, I might add. Don’t be too impressed with my parlor tricks.” The two men shared a companionable laugh and for several minutes did nothing but enjoy the coffee in silence.
Surreptitiously, Ethan watched Alec. It was difficult to believe that the confident young man sitting next to him was the same shy, repressed boy he’d recruited at the age of sixteen. He stifled a sigh. He shared Alec’s exhaustion. Unlike his young friend, he wouldn’t be finding relief in slumber. His weariness ran deeper. “Trust is given freely once,” he whispered.
“And then it must be earned,” Alec finished for him.
Ethan dredged up a wan smile.
“I still remember that, you know,” Alec said. “The first time we met.” His eyes lost their focus. “I thought you were lying to me. You said you’d earn my trust.”
Ethan’s stomach turned over. “And have I?” he ventured.
“You have. But it took a while.”
“As all things of good quality do.” Another silence fell between them.
After a few minutes, Ethan spoke. “I understand there were some problems with the Monitors during this assignment.”
Alec snorted into his coffee and crossed one leg over the other. “You might say that.”
“I apologize. We will work to prevent any such unpleasantness in the future.”
Frowning, Alec set his cup down, then bent forward to cradle his head in his hands. Ethan set a soothing hand on his back. “Headache?”
“I’ve taken something,” Alec’s muffled voice answered. He straightened, dislodging the hand, and Ethan drew back without a word, knowing Alec could be uncomfortable with any act of kindness or comfort, even from a friend.
Alec’s shoulders were stiff. The boy had something on his mind, and it was best he aired it before Ethan dropped even more unpleasantness into his lap. He waited, sipping his coffee, knowing Alec would speak up when he was ready.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“Why the Monitors at all, Ethan? I’m hardly one of your borderline Gifteds. I have perfect control over my abilities. Why do you continue to insist I use one?”
Ah, the Monitors.
Not every Gifted was suited for Alec’s job. Many had little more than an increased awareness. But some had the ability to form a bond with another person, allowing them to maintain contact over large distances. Dubbed “Monitors” in the Organization’s early days, they were every agent’s lifeline. And the eyes and ears of the Directorate.
Ethan frowned. Valid as Alec’s point was, he lacked an understanding of the Organization’s scope. No agent operated without a Monitor, even the most gifted of them all, and very few operatives could boast Alec’s power or abilities. Only one really even came close.
Which brought him full circle to the matter, or rather person, at hand. But first, Alec’s question deserved an answer.
It would have to be a dishonest one.
“No agent operates without a Monitor. This is for your own safety, nothing else. How would we reach you if you were in danger, needed help, and couldn’t contact us through the usual channels?”
“Most of the rest of the world makes do,” Alec said through clenched teeth.
“You aren’t like the rest. You are special.” Ethan punctuated his last words by poking his thigh with a long, gnarled finger.
Alec shook his head, but didn’t answer. Ethan nodded. Subject closed.
Complaining wasn’t one of Alec’s faults. He was a model agent and an amenable Gifted. Most were difficult to work with, forever second-guessing their orders and too arrogant for their own good. Sometimes even dangerous.
“Alec, I’m afraid we have a situation.”
Alec pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “And that would be?”
“One of our operatives has disappeared. A Gifted. His name is Grier Crist.”
Alec sagged in his seat. He squinted at Ethan while rubbing circles on his temples again. “Can’t you track him through his Monitor?” he asked with a wry smile. Ethan ignored his sarcasm.
“No. He broke the connection with his Monitor before he disappeared.”
Alec shot up in his seat. “No. The termination must have been forced.”
“I’m afraid there was no coercion whatsoever. He did it knowing the consequences.” Ethan stroked his beard while he stared into the fire. “It was a most horrible death for his Monitor. I feel responsible,” he finished in a low voice.
Alec rose to his mentor’s defense. “It wasn’t your fault.” He leaned forward and placed his hand on Ethan’s knee. “Please don’t blame yourself.”
Surprise flickered through Ethan. Alec was not one for casual touch of any kind. Clearly, he didn’t like the thought of Ethan assuming responsibility for what had happened. Burying his guilt for taking advantage of the boy’s genuine concern, Ethan said, “I’m afraid I must accept some level of culpability for this situation. The clues were right in front of me. I just failed to notice them for what they were, blinded as I was by my affection for this particular man.”
“Do you believe he’s turned rogue?” Alec asked. “That he’ll somehow expose us?”
“Yes, that is exactly my concern, and the primary concern of the Directorate.”
Alec blanched and fell silent.
Ethan shared his disquiet. The world at large was not the problem. The public these days showed no more interest in another purported secret government agency than they did in anything else. Rather, it was the world’s governments, and the pressure they could bring to bear on the Directorate, that worried him. Should knowledge of the Organization become public, Alec would be snatched up like a lab rat, as would all Gifteds.
And that wasn’t the only worry. If Grier deduced what was really going on….
Ethan grew sick at the thought. He couldn’t allow the Organization to fall. Not now. Not with so much at stake.
“I won’t let that happen,” Alec stated, echoing Ethan’s sentiment if not his reasoning. “What do we know about Crist?”
“Nothing. Only his last location.”
“It’ll be enough.”