FINN MAYER was so excited, his hands shook as he tried to open the official-looking letter. This was what he’d always wanted. This was what he had dreamed about every day. This was why he did six long years at college while slogging his ass for minimum wage. Regretfully we have to inform you…. The rest of the words blurred as his heart plummeted. He held the letter out so he didn’t get tears on it and blinked furiously. It wasn’t possible. He’d convinced himself it would be a conditional offer of acceptance, which was almost a guarantee. He’d just had to get through the poly, the personal interviews when they called him back, and references. What had happened? What had he done wrong?

The screen door slammed, and Finn stuffed the letter in his pocket quickly before his older brother, Deke, saw it.

Deke stood in the doorway, absently scratching his crotch. He was thirty-seven but looked a good ten years older. His balding sandy-brown hair was going gray at the temples. His double chin burst from his collared shirt, just like his beer gut spilled over his wrinkled suit pants. Finn was too distracted to even crinkle his nose in disgust.

The screen door slammed again, and his mom’s voice piped up. “Finn, did you start supper?”

“Yeah, Finn,” parroted Deke. “Did you start supper?”

Finn ducked his head and brushed past Deke into the kitchen. He knew Deke wouldn’t get into anything with him while his mom was there. Not that he was convinced she would care if he did. “I just got in, Mom. I’ll start now,” Finn said woodenly. He needed to think, but he couldn’t disappear until they were eating.

His mom narrowed her eyes and followed Finn with her gaze as he opened the cupboard and took out a bag of potatoes. “Finlay,” she sighed disapprovingly. “You know your brother works incredibly long hours to support this family. It isn’t much to ask for a little help around here while he’s providing a roof over all our heads.”

Finn didn’t reply and quickly started peeling potatoes. The “incredibly long hours” were a joke. Deke took twice as long to do anything because he was too lazy. Finn knew he and his other two cronies—Albert Crawford, the bank manager, and Desmond Attiker, the local deputy sheriff—could always be found in Alma’s Café on Main Street, having at least a two-hour lunch every day. It was pointless to argue anyway, and his mom knew full well half of Finn’s wages also went to pay for the upkeep of the so-called roof. The only thing that had stopped him from moving out years ago was the fact that he wanted Deke not to make waves with his application when the FBI did the family interviews, and even the rent Deke charged him was cheaper than getting his own place.

What had he done wrong? He knew he wouldn’t have failed the poly. His boring existence contained no secrets to keep. Well, maybe one, but Finn was so far in the closet, he was almost able to pretend it wasn’t real.

And Deke would never think Finn had a chance of getting accepted into the FBI, so he wouldn’t have bothered trying to sabotage it by giving him a crappy reference.

Finn fisted his hands, the peeler cutting into his palm. It was impossible. They’d made a mistake. Deke couldn’t have been right, not now, not after all this time.

He’d laughed hysterically when Finn told him the reason he wasn’t joining him at the insurance company Deke owned, as his mom and brother expected, was because he needed to attend college full-time. Deke had insisted college was a complete waste of time and Finn just needed to join the real world, but Finn could think of no greater torment than working with Deke for the rest of what he knew would be a miserable life. There were only so many online courses he could cope with for another reason, which meant he had to be physically present in class at least three days a week. The entry requirements for the FBI were tough, and as law and order, languages, and computer sciences were all impossible for him, the only other recommended professional field they would take from was accounting.

Finn had stacked shelves at the local Z-Mart since he was thirteen. Mr. Jacobson was blind, and Finn had discovered accidentally that he was being robbed by his CPA. Finn had been asked to copy some papers for Mr. Jacobson, and Finn, quick with numbers, had noticed the discrepancy straight away. Mr. Jacobson was eternally grateful, and Finn had taken over his bookkeeping when he was seventeen, then studied it at college. In return Mr. Jacobson had exaggerated his professional ability on his references.

Mr. Jacobson had recently accepted an offer for his two stores and had told Finn he was retiring. The thought that he had a prospective FBI agent stacking shelves for him for years had always tickled the old man, and he’d been happy to help.

Finn could feel the letter rustle in his pocket as he moved to fill the pan with water. Ten years. Ten years since his school had two agents come and talk to their class as part of a college awareness scheme. Cookeville High School, Iowa, had a really low rate of seniors going to college, and the new principal had tried to change all that by bringing in what he thought might be tempting job opportunities.

It worked with Finn. At fourteen he was hanging with an increasingly wilder crowd. His reading challenges just about turned him off school. He was lucky, really. Were it any major city, his crowd would already be doing drugs and probably stealing. It was only the lack of opportunity that kept his nose clean up to that day. He walked out of that lecture theater completely changed. He wasn’t stupid, though. His dad was the only one he told, and his dad promised not to mention it.

His dad. The knife trembled in his hands as he chopped the potatoes. Three years didn’t dim the memory of him coming home one day to find his dad had finally lost his battle with depression and blown the back of his head off with his old service revolver. Another souvenir he got from the Vietnam War.

He never forgave his mom for her part in it. Every day she was out on one of her committees or seeing her friends. Her hair done, her nails carefully manicured. The cab fares because she never learned to drive and wasn’t willing to. It never occurred to her to get a job, to help his dad when he needed a newer power chair. The endless arguments Finn could hear because his bedroom was right next to theirs. How, if his mom could drive, they could start going out together.

He never forgot the last one, though. When his dad quietly asked if the reason they never went out together anywhere was because she was ashamed of being seen with a cripple, as he bitterly called himself.

Finn had held his breath as he lay in his dark room, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the denial that never came from his mom’s lips. The next day he came home early from college because a tutor was sick and found his dad. The powder burns around his mouth, the blood, and brains all over the wall behind him.

Finn nearly threw the peeler in the sink. His mom got out the store-bought pie she purchased that morning. He laughed giddily. He could go rob a bank, take drugs, have sex….

Tears sprung to his eyes, and he blinked rapidly so his mom wouldn’t notice. No one knew he was gay. No one. Not the FBI because he’d read on an Internet forum that, while they didn’t discriminate, it could sometimes be the difference between being accepted or not. Apparently it was something guys could be blackmailed over. So he played the game. Took a girl to prom. Had occasional college dates. Nothing serious. No one knew he’d never slept with a guy. No one knew he’d never actually had sex with a girl either. He had plenty of jerking-off material in his bedroom and made sure he had enough copies of female tits in case Deke ever came snooping. His favorites he could pass off as sports magazines. He never even dared get a porn subscription. He was pathetic.

Finn dried his hands and mumbled to his mom about not being hungry. He was going to start right now. He was going to get a decent job, move to a big city, and subscribe to the most expensive porn site he could find.

“Des Attiker told me he had one of those weirdos in lockup today,” Deke said as he passed.

His mom made a sympathetic noise.

“Should have ’em put down at birth.” Deke took a swig out of the beer bottle he was holding. “There’s actually some talk about them being allowed in law enforcement.”

His mom followed Deke into the lounge. “What, actually to become cops, you mean?”

“Yeah, Des says they’re lazy bastards and he’ll never accept one working for him.”

Finn tried to tune him out. Deke was like 50 percent of the human population: completely against the enhanced humans being trusted to do any sort of government work whatsoever. Finn never usually rose to anything he said, but keeping the peace didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t need to shut up and take whatever crap came out of Deke’s mouth. Finn was going to shoot him down when his mom spoke up and silenced him.

“You remember Adam, Finlay? If you ask me, his poor mother should have disowned him years ago for all the trouble he brought their poor family.” His mom clucked unsympathetically.

Finn’s feet froze just as he was about to disappear into his room. “Adam? Adam Mackenzie?” Finn added for clarification, but he knew it wasn’t necessary. He knew exactly who his mom meant.

Finn and Adam had been best friends all through elementary school. They pored over the old car magazines Adam’s brother got. They played on the same soccer team. Finn found math easy and helped Adam, and Adam explained his English questions to Finn when the words never seemed to be in the right order on the page. He also read to Finn when Finn struggled to do it himself.

Then he went to Adam’s house one morning, as he always did to catch the bus together, and heard hysterical screaming before he was halfway up the path. Adam’s big sister opened the door, crying, and said Adam was sick and wouldn’t be going to school that day. Finn bit his lip in worry. It sounded like something awful was happening inside, and he wanted to make sure Adam was okay. But at eleven years old, there wasn’t much he could do, so he spent a miserable day at school and then rushed back to Adam’s as soon as he jumped off the school bus and his feet hit the pavement.

Finn arrived to find an ambulance and two black cars parked outside. His heart nearly bounced out of his chest, and he dropped his schoolbag and ran down the path just as the door opened.

Finn screeched to a halt and stared in horror as Adam was led outside with his hands tied. Special zip ties, the sort Finn knew were used on the enhanced because some of them could do clever things with locks and metal. He knew that because Deke’s friend Des had just gotten a job at the sheriff’s office and told him how they were taught to use them on the vermin, which Deke had thought funny. Finn didn’t understand then who Deke meant by vermin, but everything was crystal clear now, and he spent the next thirteen years remembering that moment.

Adam was crying hysterically and pulling against the two cops leading him away. He was in such a state that he never even saw Finn, and after the cops unsuccessfully tried to make Adam walk, one of them just picked him up, and Finn saw his face and finally understood.

The small jagged mark under his left eye was livid on his skin. That was when Finn started crying as well, because he knew Adam would never be back at school and he’d just lost his best friend.

Finn never saw Adam again. Adam’s family moved away shortly after. Finn’s mom said they couldn’t deal with the stigma, the shame.

“I heard he might get locked up for good, finally. New York. They’ll throw away the key. Good riddance, I say.”

Finn rounded on his mom in fury. “Good riddance? He was a child when they took him away. Eleven fucking years old and sent to live in a prison for doing nothing wrong other than waking up one morning with a mark on his face. How would you feel if it had been Deke or me? Would you have called the cops on one of us?” It wasn’t compulsory. The police only ever got involved if the child’s abilities were deemed dangerous and the parents couldn’t cope.

His mom started spluttering about Adam turning out no good, in and out of prison for petty crimes after he aged out of the foster system, and how his mom was a saint for still going to visit him.

The horror of his mom’s words finally sank in. “You told me you didn’t know where they’d moved to. How do you know his mom is so upset?” Finn pressed his lips together in anger as his mom reddened slightly. “You knew,” he accused. “All these years you’ve known where they lived.”

He could have gone. Maybe found out where Adam was. Told his best friend a small scar made absolutely no difference to him. That he was important to Finn, even if he was no longer important to anyone else.

“How could you? All those years I begged you to try to find out.” Finn swallowed the bitter taste of betrayal.

“You don’t want to go near any of their sort,” Deke said, unimpressed and uncaring. “They might infect you, give you something.”

“Infect me?” Finn repeated incredulously. “It’s a genetic condition, not a fucking disease,” he shouted. “You really are as fucking stupid as you look.”

Deke opened his mouth, but his mom bet him to it. “Finlay Mayer, I won’t have such disgusting language in this house. While your brother is providing a roof over your head out of the goodness of his heart, you will show him proper respect.”

Finn laughed shortly. That was it. The only upside of the fuckup his life had become. He could leave. He was finally free. He didn’t have to worry about any interviews anymore or swallow Deke’s daily insults and goading. He didn’t even bother to respond to his mom. He just walked toward his room to pack his stuff.

He could feel his phone vibrating in his pocket as he headed to his room and absently answered it. He wasn’t really listening to the man on the other end of the call; he was too busy seeing Adam’s face in the same nightmare he’d had for thirteen long years.

 

 

FINN WAS exhausted. Two days later he was still reeling from the telephone call that threw all his plans for porn sites out the window. Apparently they had made a mistake, and should he want to discuss a possible future with the FBI, he should be present at this meeting. He also should tell no one except his next of kin, which was all kinds of weird. He had absolutely no fucking idea why the hell he was currently standing outside the FBI field offices in Tampa, Florida. Since when did new FBI recruits get trained in field offices?

He even challenged the agent he spoke to on the phone, not trusting Deke to have found out and somehow set the whole thing up as an elaborate joke. Agent Gregory, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, as he had introduced himself, just sounded amused and told him to call back on the telephone number he was sending to his phone. After Finn was directed back to the same agent after calling a very official-sounding main switchboard, Finn’s apologies were cut off with another laugh, and he was told being cautious was a good attribute to have in a trainee.

His second connecting flight from Des Moines was grounded due to “technical difficulties,” which meant he was on standby for over eleven hours because it was spring break, and they wanted him to go to one of the busiest tourist areas in the entire Western Hemisphere.

He left home before either his mom or brother woke up and decided to leave a note just saying he was going to do some traveling. He wouldn’t give either of them a chance to jinx this until he found out exactly what this was.

Which was why, after over twenty-four hours, he was standing there, sweating in what felt like hundred-degree heat in a very rumpled suit and tie. It was his only suit, the one he got for his dad’s funeral. He had no idea what to wear, but the agents he met all through the interview process were dressed in suits, so he copied them.

Finn stared at the huge building in front of him. It looked new. At least four stories high and next to one of the many Florida lakes. The access from the road was dominated by a big gatehouse with guards stopping every vehicle that tried to enter. Finn heaved his bag, which hadn’t seemed that heavy yesterday when he started carrying it, but now felt like there was an elephant nesting in there. He blew a breath out and wished he hadn’t finished his last bottle of water in the cab. He walked toward the guard, who carried a very respectable-looking MP5 slung over one shoulder. He put his bag down and introduced himself and tried to explain why he was there.

Finn was completely convinced he sounded more and more suspicious until he mentioned Agent Gregory’s name and the guard checked the list of expected visitors and immediately waved him forward. Another guy in a suit, looking a lot cooler than Finn, met him at the door.

“Hi, I’m Agent Fielding—Drew Fielding.” He seemed pleasant, with reddish brown hair and brown eyes. Clean-shaven and “buttoned up,” as his brother would have said—not always a compliment, coming from Deke. Finn grimaced at his sweaty palms and resisted the urge to wipe his hand down the front of his pants before they shook. Agent Fielding didn’t seem to notice anything, though, and led Finn through a door past a large reception desk. He waved at a couple of doors as they went past. “I’ll give you the proper tour after you’ve spoken to Agent Gregory.”

And eight hours sleep, a shower, and a gallon of water.

Finn licked his dry lips. He debated whether to ask why he was here and not at Quantico, then thought discretion might be in order and he should wait until he saw A-SAC Gregory. Agent Fielding took a turn to the right and started up some steps—some very narrow back stairs he thought no visitors were ever likely to see. In fact, Finn was convinced they were the step version of the service elevator. It was getting weirder and weirder, and he was getting hotter and hotter, despite considering himself physically fit and despite the air blasting out. At least there was no way he was going to take his jacket off, even if it was appropriate. His shirt would be soaked through.

Agent Fielding stopped at what seemed to be the fourth floor, and they entered a plain unmarked door into a small, unmanned reception area. Just a few chairs and a vending machine graced the lobby. Agent Fielding waved toward a chair. “Take a seat.”

Finn swallowed and looked at the vending machine. “Do you mind?”

Agent Fielding followed his gaze. “Sure, sorry. I should have asked.”

Finn put his hand in his pocket for some change, but Agent Fielding continued. “It’s free. It’s just a good way of keeping it cold.” He smiled and disappeared through another door.

Finn eagerly pressed the button on the machine, and it dropped a bottle of water. He’d gotten the cap unscrewed before he sat, and half the contents drunk before he stretched his legs out. He could feel the water cooling his throat. He stared around him. Not what he imagined a field office would look like. He expected it to be busier somehow. If it weren’t for the official phone call he’d made, he would still suspect this was all an elaborate hoax. Finn finished his water and looked again at the closed door Agent Fielding had disappeared through.

He sighed heavily and rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. He was never able to sleep when he was traveling. Not that he’d done much except by car. He’d flown more in the last twenty-four hours than he had in his life. Finn stifled a yawn and got to his feet stiffly. If he wasn’t careful, he’d be asleep.

“And what use do you think he’s going to be?”

Finn turned and faced the closed door the angry voice could be heard from. Finn’s heart sank. He hoped to God they weren’t talking about him. A quieter voice he couldn’t make out responded briefly. It sounded like a third voice joined in.

Finn was wondering whether to risk sitting down again when the door burst open and Agent Fielding stormed out. Without so much as a look in Finn’s direction, he disappeared through the door to the stairs they had come up. Finn swallowed. Now what had he done?

An older man appeared at the doorway. Finn would put him in his fifties, at a guess. About the same height as his own five foot ten. Quite a stocky build, brown eyes, hair graying at the temples. The same ubiquitous suit. He put out a hand to Finn and flashed a tight smile. “Mr. Mayer? Good to meet you, and I’m sorry you have had such a trying journey. Agent Gregory.”

Finn stepped forward in relief and shook Agent Gregory’s hand firmly. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” Finn responded.

Gregory waved Finn in front of him. “Come in, take a seat. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Finn walked in, sat, and looked up, a pleasant smile fixed on his face. Two seconds later the smile went, and Finn could barely hear Gregory’s words over the pounding of his heart.

A man lounged in the corner of the room. Finn wasn’t sure exactly if “man” described the giant he faced. Certainly the office chair, substantial enough for Finn, looked like dollhouse furniture because of the guy who was sitting on it. Pale blond hair was tied back in a leather thong at his nape. He had on a suit, but this one was obviously tailor-made. No suit off the rack would fit the most powerful shoulders Finn had ever seen, and that’s when, as far as Finn was concerned, the shit really hit the fan. He couldn’t even swallow. He never registered the piercing blue eyes that stared in challenge. He barely noticed the stubble surrounding his jaw or the tightly pressed full lips.

All he’d heard about enhanced humans came flooding back into his mind. The height. The build. The—as if to confirm Finn’s thoughts, the man turned to his right—birthmark. The small mark under his eye that looked like a lightning bolt.

He fixed his blue eyes on Finn, and Finn felt completely pinned. His arms grew heavy. His legs felt like lead. He strained to inflate his chest to pull oxygen in. Sweat broke out on Finn’s brow; he couldn’t breathe.

“That’s enough, Talon. Dammit,” Gregory cursed, and in an instant, the weight crushing him lifted, and Finn took a gasp of oxygen. Then another.

“You see?” The huge man—Talon—lurched to his feet, and Finn couldn’t help but wince.

“And how is that test at all fair?” Gregory spluttered. “No regular human can withstand you—you know that.”

Finn had had enough. He got shakily to his feet. “Can someone tell me just what the hell is going on?” he demanded.

“You just proved what I have been saying for the last thirty minutes,” Talon said in disgust. “That enhanced don’t partner with regulars.”

Finn looked in astonishment at Gregory.

Gregory sighed. “Finlay Mayer—” He gestured over to Talon. “—meet Talon Valdez. Your new partner.”

Finn gazed in horror at Talon. Everything he had spent the last ten years working for had just come crashing down around his ears.