Authors: Jordan Dane
Rafe heard her get up, but he didn’t watch her, something he normally would have done. Instead, he stepped into the dark tunnel outside her place and waited. He clutched the wrapped box in his hand with his eyes shut tight as he listened for her.
He could have used his ability to sense her mood—something she might not detect him doing—but he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know. The new kid needed her doctoring. He’d been hurt, and Rafe knew she blamed herself for that, but shit happened. Everything turned out okay. No big deal. He wanted to see things like Kendra did—that big-picture stuff she always talked about—but that would never be him.
All he saw, or ever wanted to see, was Kendra. When she rounded the corner, he stood straight and faced her. She looked worried. Distracted.
“I got you something.” He forced a smile and flicked on his flashlight to shine it on the box he had in his hand. The glow off the shiny paper reflected onto her face like candlelight.
“Oh, Raphael. You don’t have to keep doing this.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and heaved a tired sigh again. “I thought we agreed you’d stop.”
“You agreed. I didn’t.” Heat rushed to his face. “Open it.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but when she touched his hand to take the box, she made him feel better. As she usually did, Kendra undid the paper and peeled off the bow to save it. She used it for the kids at Christmas. Her small fingers trembled as she pulled off the top of the box and lifted the white cotton. The light caught the silver charm as she held it in her fingers. It dangled off woven black leather.
“You told me once that eight was your lucky number, so I got you and Benny one. Me, too. See? We all match.” Rafe grinned and held up his wrist to show his larger one. He’d scored the matching friendship bracelets made with black leather.
“Silver plated,” he told her. “This won’t turn your wrist green.”
When he saw the eight dangling off the bracelet, Rafe knew he had to get it for her. He knew her favorite number because he remembered stuff she told him. He liked the idea that he’d bring her luck, and every time she looked at her new bracelet, she’d remember who gave it to her.
“Yeah, it looks like an eight, but you see how flat and stretched out it is?” she said, holding the bracelet up so he could see. “This is an infinity sign, Raphael.”
Rafe flinched for only a second, before he shrugged.
“Yeah, I knew that. I was joking,” he said. “Infinity, that’s like how big outer space is and stuff. Or Little G’s stomach when he scores a burger, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. Her soft chuckle stabbed at his heart. “But infinity is also a symbol that means forever.”
He liked that even better.
“You like it?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful, but why... How did you...?” Kendra always had questions about where he got stuff. Like usual, she dropped it quick. “Never mind. Can you help me put it on?”
She handed him the bracelet. In one smooth move that only girls knew how to do, she held up her small wrist and asked for his help. She could be strong one minute but need him the next. He liked that.
“You looked like you need cheering up,” he told her. “Maybe it’ll bring luck to...that kid in there.” He said that more for her.
His fingers were too big. Everything he did went slow, but that was okay, too. Her hair smelled like coconut, a shampoo he’d stolen for her. When he got the bracelet on her wrist, she smiled at him and played with the dangling trinket, wearing the infinity he’d given her.
“This had to cost you money, Raphael.”
Kendra had never accused him of stealing. Not outright, but she never faced the truth about him, either. His old man had been the opposite. To him, Rafe had always been something stuck to the bottom of his shoe. A piece of shit no one wanted. Being with Kendra had changed all that, and if he wanted her to have something special, he’d find it and get it for her.
“I didn’t steal it,” he said. “I saw it and thought of you.”
“Well, thank you.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re always so good to me. I’ll catch you later, okay? I gotta get back.”
“Yeah, later.” He jammed his hands into his pockets. “He’s lucky to have you. We all are.”
She left so fast he didn’t know if she heard him. Rafe stood in the shadows with his eyes closed, still feeling the touch of her lips on his cheek and smelling coconut in the air. He stayed in the dark long after she’d left him to go back to Lucas.
* * *
A blaring buzzer jolted O’Dell awake from a dead sleep. It hurt his ears, and a red light spiraled through the dark, washing him in its color as it spun.
“What the hell?”
O’Dell jerked his head up and winced. He’d jump-started a headache and his neck hurt like hell. He couldn’t turn without pain shooting down his shoulders. When he tried to get comfortable, he found his arms were strapped to the armrests of a metal chair, but even more disturbing, he had an IV punched into his left forearm and the whole contraption was plugged into a digital box like he’d seen on TV when a guy got axed on death row. If he had to guess, his future might depend on who controlled the remote.
With the ear-piercing alarm and infuriating red light, O’Dell let the intimidation get the better of him.
“Stop it! I’m up—I’m up already,” he screamed. “You have no idea who you’re dealing w—”
The siren came to an abrupt stop, leaving his ears ringing as O’Dell squirmed in his chair, fighting the ties cutting into his wrists. The red alarm rotated without sound now until a mechanized voice came over a microphone from speakers above his head.
“We know exactly who you are, O’Dell.”
The voice filtered through software that disguised whoever spoke. It could be a man or a woman of any age. Mr. Roboto sounded like the Terminator had a love child with a supercomputer.
“What’s with the IV? What do you have in that thing?” O’Dell couldn’t hide how he felt. Tension oozed from every word.
“That depends on your cooperation.”
What the hell does that mean?
O’Dell felt his head pulse with a badgering headache.
“Why the cloak-and-dagger?” he asked. “Show yourself. We can talk. Man-to-man.”
All this macho bullshit had to come from another guy. The high-tech, spy-craft gear and all the 007 tactics smacked of turf pissing, one guy impressing his superiority on another. The jerk had hijacked him and wasn’t about to flip on the lights and play nice. While O’Dell waited for a response, he peered beyond the bloodred taint spiraling through the gloom and used the faint light to catch a glimpse of where he was.
A small room. One chair for him, and the digital box on a table. One door. Without windows, he had no idea what time of day it was or how long he’d been knocked out. A mirrored panel stretched across one wall, positioned above where he sat facing it. He had no doubt whoever had taken him from his life stood behind that observation window—a faceless coward.
That pissed him off, but when the never-ending red beacon assaulted his eyes, his head hurt too much to do anything about it.
“You were assigned Lucas Darby. We expected results, but so far you’ve failed. How do you plan to rectify that?” Short and to the point, the voice demanded an answer.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” O’Dell took a risk. “Who’s Lucas what’s-it?”
Whoever hid behind the two-way mirror had funded his kidnapping with flair. The taxi setup had to cost money. None of this smelled like feds or cops. They didn’t have the brains to pull off something like this. He figured the guy with all the questions had to be a player higher up the food chain in the church.
They were testing him.
“You kidnapped me, but if you let me go now, I won’t report this to the cops.” Yeah, if they were testing him, he’d give them a good show of smarts and a dose of loyalty.
“We both know you’d never go near the police. Quit wasting our time.”
A blinding white light seared his eyes. It pointed at him from above and burned a ghost image on his retinas. He couldn’t see, and when the blaring alarm sounded again, it scared the hell out of him.
“Shut that damned thing off.” He squinted and yelled. When his ears popped, his eyes felt as if they were being stabbed with needles.
“Answer my question. What will you do about the boy?”
Under the blinding light, seconds felt like an eternity to O’Dell and everything hurt. After the intense lights and the racket from the alarm, he couldn’t open his eyes, and his eardrums felt busted. He wanted to hold out to show the bastard he wouldn’t be a pushover, but somewhere amid the noise and his exhaustion, he couldn’t muster his usual attitude.
“What’s the big deal about one kid? You’ve never questioned me like this before,” he yelled above the racket. “I’ve never failed you.”
As suddenly as the chaos had started, it stopped again and left his ears ringing.
“Yes. That’s precisely why you are here, O’Dell.” In the eerie quiet, the disguised voice sounded more macabre.
“What does that mean?” The sound of his own voice was muffled in his ears. “You hijacked me. Busted my eardrums. Is this your idea of a pat on the back for a job well done? You could’ve just given me a bonus. Money works.”
“Not good enough. The Darby boy is vital to our cause.”
“Then maybe you’ll want to hear what I got planned.” O’Dell decided to take a risk.
O’Dell told what he knew about the encounter Boelens had with a mystery girl and her crew. If he could line up the head girl’s ID and run her known associates or other faces his man Boelens had seen, then he’d have some real leads, but he added one more thing.
“But the way you got us working in territories, with me not knowing what others are doing, that could be a problem,” he said. “If you want me to run down the leads I have, I can do that, but I need more...authority.”
O’Dell waited for a reaction. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Ah, I see your point, but with more authority, there will be increased responsibilities and greater expectations from us. But that’s precisely why we’ve brought you here. We want to impress upon you the significance of a new task we’re giving you. Think of this as a...promotion.”
“What new task?”
“As you know, our structure is segmented for a reason. Each target-acquisition team works independently. Secrecy has been the key to our success, but with this boy, we have reconsidered our strategy.”
For once O’Dell kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t sure he liked where this was headed.
“From this point forward, you will be our lead acquisition team. We won’t split up the intel to other teams or limit your search area. You’ll have full control. The Darby boy will be your first test. If hunting down this girl helps with that objective, then so be it. Are you up for the challenge?”
“Hell, yeah. One hundred percent.” Instinct told him to answer straight up. To hesitate would be a sign of weakness.
“Good. You will be given the resources you need to broaden your search and you will answer directly to me through an encrypted phone. Don’t disappoint us.”
Before he could say anything, the box linked to the IV in his arm whirled into action. Red digital numbers flashed. After a long moment, he realized he’d been holding his breath—waiting to see what the box would do.
“We’re placing our faith in you,” the voice said. “If you fail, there will be no place for you to hide. You of all people know what we can do.”
The mechanical voice sent a shiver down his body when meds flooded his system to remind him how vulnerable he was. A remote signal switched on and the IV pumped something into his arm. Strapped down, he couldn’t stop it. He slumped into his chair and struggled to hold his head up.
O’Dell hadn’t given his job much thought except for the money. In truth, it helped not to have a conscience and he felt eminently qualified in
department, but as his body shut down and the lights faded into shadows, he knew things would have to change. Without his say, the organization had moved him up to the big leagues where losing wouldn’t be an option.
It couldn’t be business as usual. Not anymore.
Before he gave in to the dark, the voice jolted him with a question.
“Do you know what we do to these children?”
O’Dell could only answer with a shake of his head.
“Fail us and you’ll find out.”
Not even those chilling words kept him awake.
* * *
Behind the observation window, a man took off his headset and tossed it onto a nearby desk as he sat in a leather chair. Alexander Reese watched his men haul an unconscious O’Dell from the room below. He loosened his silk tie and undid his shirt collar as he considered his options. He could still back out of his plan to include O’Dell, his most ruthless team leader, before he initiated his most ambitious hunt yet. Even though the old reporting structure afforded his organization greater anonymity, he’d grown impatient.
He had personal reasons for bypassing protocol. No one knew that but him.