“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.
ONCE 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.
He was Allorian—a race the humans knew nothing about—and because of the power of the guardian given to him by his biological parents, he healed quickly.
He forced his eyelids to part, grimacing as tender flesh pulled. He blinked once, twice, then again and again. Someone had flipped on a too-bright lamp and was shining it directly into his eyes, blistering his corneas. He could make out nothing but blinding white and gold.
He closed his eyes again. Sounds penetrated his ultra-sensitive ears. The rattle of metal against metal. A moan of pain. Multiple sets of footsteps. The slosh of something being dumped into a bucket.
His still-burning nose twitched as smells assaulted him. Dirt, grass, old oats, body odor, stale perfume, even the tang of corroded copper. Blood.
No longer caring about the damage from the light, he opened his eyes and kept them open. Gradually the stinging ceased, for which he was thankful. He looked around, only to realize no one had turned on a lamp. He was outside, the sun responsible for the high beams now spotlighting him.
And . . . he was inside a cage.
The knowledge hit him with the electrical power of a lightning bolt, and he jerked upright. Dizziness set up camp in his mind, but he didn’t allow himself to react. He’d experienced worse a thousand times before, and with the life he led, he would experience worse a thousand times more.
All around him, men and women were locked in cages similar to his own: big, with thick bars, a red roof on top and four wheels on the bottom. The men wore loincloths and nothing else, and the females wore some type of transparent fabric over their br**sts and around their hips.