Tasha Solomon's world turned upside-down when the psychic abilities she had tried so hard to live with in secret suddenly made her a target stalked by unseen enemies.
John Brodie is by nature, by training, and by instinct a Guardian. He is a member of an intricate and secretive network of individuals who have devoted their lives to the deadly struggle of saving psychics in danger of being taken or being killed. It is a war very few other people even know exists, and yet its tentacles stretch deeply and dangerously into every aspect of society.
Tasha has abilities not even she is aware of, abilities that the other side would give virtually all they possess to destroy. And if being hunted like an animal were not bad enough she has to learn how to become a warrior in a battle she did not choose, to save people she does not know, and possibly even the very world around her.
If John Brodie can keep her alive long enough.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Kay Hooper
The Bishop Files
To Whom It May Concern:
I hardly know how to begin this report. There are many reasons, not the least among them being that I myself got much more deeply involved in the situation than I had any idea of becoming when I first became aware of what was happening in the then loosely organized, almost entirely underground psychic “community” I was only peripherally aware of at that time.
I believed that not only could I remain on that periphery, observant and seeking to understand without interfering with what was happening, I believed it would be best for me to do so. Best for their struggle. Best for my own growing teams of psychic agents and investigators, the SCU and Haven. Best for these “civilian” psychics, living their desperate, secret lives alone for so long by necessity even as external events and a growing threat pushed them to reach out, to form connections between themselves and others like them in a response that was, I believe, entirely organic rather than in any way planned.
At least in the beginning.
I have come to understand that in ways I never understood before, I myself am a part of that psychic community, connected to it, linked in a way I had not believed was possible. It is something apart from the connections I feel for my teams within the SCU, a different sort of bond formed for a very, very different reason. But another organic, naturally evolving link that quite literally became necessary for the continued existence of psychics and even, perhaps, of our human species.
And the more specific links, links between myself and Miranda, between John Brodie and Tasha Solomon, between Sarah and Tucker Mackenzie, between a ten-year-old orphan child named Annabel and her unusual constant companion, and last but not by any means least the link all of us have with a remarkable woman named Murphy—those connections and others began to assemble, finally, the puzzle of what was really happening here, and why.
Even the “bad” actors in all this had their parts to play, and often very highly unexpected and even positive ones. Though I have often found a clear line of demarcation between good and evil, black and white, it more often seems there are many shades of gray, many complex combinations of both good and, arguably, evil.
Evil acts do not necessarily mean that all involved are evil. And seemingly benevolent acts are not always what they seem. Lessons hard-learned.
And perhaps it is simply a universal truth that if, between the goal and the reaching of it, too many years pass, too much distance exists, too many events occur, too much “new” history is built and old history lost, then those once obsessive goals begin to be questioned at least by some, previously ruthless methods begin to be questioned, then that, too, is another piece of the puzzle, and a vital one.
Understanding that puzzle and what it meant had finally come, but also understanding the part each of us had to play in order to triumph. And we had to triumph. There was so very much at stake in this battle. This war. Far more than most people will ever be aware.
Few of us are able to go through our lives feeling certain of why we’re here, of what part we’re destined to play in our lives, let alone in our world, our history. Few of us are ever granted the certainty of knowing that our actions have true meaning, not only for ourselves but for others, even for the whole of humankind, and perhaps even its destiny.
But if any mortal can know the truth, or at least part of the truth, an unexpected and wholly remarkable part of our history and our future, a small group of very special humans knows it now. I know it now. If any mortal can look at his or her world and be certain that their own acts matter in the existence of that world, even the continuance of it, that group of people and I know it now. If any mortal can be certain of his or her place, or his or her part, in defending the very existence of our own species . . . it is something of which we are utterly certain now.
The story is incredible. Some would never believe it. If I had not been a part of it, I am not sure that even I—with so much knowledge of the capabilities of the human mind, both “normal” and paranormal—would have, could have, believed it. But I was a part of it, I bore witness to what happened and why, and I am very much a believer.
I will set down as much of this knowledge and understanding as I feel I may as we agreed, here in these private reports, which may or may not be opened and read one day, depending on your decision and those who come after you. After us both.
Perhaps not would be better. But I will leave that call to you or to someone who comes after us to make. There will always, I fear, be the threat of some outside enemy determined to destroy us, and should that happen in the future, then perhaps our world will need to know that we are capable of fighting back. Even quietly, secretly, and without fanfare. Capable of fighting back, and of winning.
Despite even my own doubts as to the wisdom of revealing what lies herein my report, I only hope that one day the truth can be known.
I believe we owe that much to the warriors, to the fallen, to the silent, unnamed, unacknowledged, and largely unknown watchmen on the walls of our civilization who have guarded us, the most vulnerable among us, and even our society, without our awareness. As dangerous as the truth may prove to some, as unbelievable, as frightening, it is a truth all of humanity should know.
Noah Bishop, Unit Chief
Special Crimes Unit, FBI
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
—W. B. Yeats
You need to wake up.
Henry, you have to wake up.
They’re going to kill you.
Henry McCord had a lifetime of practice in hiding the fact that he saw dead people. A medium, that’s what it was called. He’d been a medium for thirty-six years, more or less. He could actually remember the first time he had seen the dead and understood just what he was seeing. At his grandfather’s funeral. The old man had stood on the other side of the casket and winked at him.
Henry had been six.
So, thirty years, really, of learning to cope in whatever way he could. Realizing early on that grown-ups didn’t want him to talk about the dead people, that it made them really uncomfortable. Which had puzzled a childish Henry, since it seemed to him they would have liked to know that they didn’t just go into the ground in a box and get covered with dirt, that there was something more than that. It had reassured Henry, at least then.
Now . . . he didn’t even know if he still believed that. And despite his several conversations with Bishop, he was still unconvinced that he could ever learn to control his abilities well enough to make some kind of better use of them.
He still didn’t get how seeing dead people could be put to any real use at all, far less some larger, more important use. Not even in investigating crime, since Bishop had told him somewhat ruefully that the dead, especially the murdered dead, seldom showed up to help in any way at all, far less to tell those investigating the crime who had killed them.
So what was the use in that?
What made that a larger, more important use of his abilities?
Having some sort of control over what he could do had appealed to him, if only when he’d thought he might be able to control it. He had tried. When he was alone. When he could try without fearing somebody would come along with a giant butterfly net and scoop him up and take him away to a mental hospital where his “gift” would be medicated away . . .
They took you. Not doctors. The others.
Others. The others. The others?
What the hell?
Henry had thought he was asleep and dreaming, but . . . it didn’t feel like it was a dream, that voice in his head. It didn’t feel like his soft bed beneath him. It felt like something cold and hard, something not a mattress. Something that was maybe metal.
And . . . he was almost sure he couldn’t move. Almost sure his wrists were tied down. His ankles. Something tight around his head holding it still.
They’ve got you, Henry.
Who’s got me? He wanted to ask it out loud, but something told him he should remain silent. And he wasn’t sure he could have said anything out loud anyway. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton and his entire face felt like he’d been shot up with Novocaine.
It meant nothing to him, and yet . . . and yet it did. It frightened him on a level so deep it was primal. It meant coldness and darkness and . . . and shadows. It meant shadows moving all around him, implacable and remorseless, bent on doing . . . whatever it was they meant to do to him. It meant something cold and slimy that had slithered into his life, into his mind.
Maybe into his soul.
Not spirits? Not the dead? He asked not knowing if there would be someone, anyone, to answer him. Not knowing if the voice inside his head might not be his own.
No, Henry. The dead aren’t curious to know how you’re able to see them. The dead don’t want to turn you inside out to learn what makes your ability work.
Henry felt an even deeper, icy jolt of terror.
Unlike what he’d seen in various movies and TV shows about ghosts and hauntings, Henry had never had to face a negative experience because of his ability. No angry or malevolent spirits, no spirits that looked disfigured or deformed or even showed the causes of their deaths. None who had made any attempt at all to frighten him.
Just helpful spirits dressed in period costume who led the way through basements and attics and storage buildings to things that belonged in whatever building he was restoring. That was all.
Henry had never been afraid of them.
He was afraid now.
They’ll use your fear. You have to—
Who are you?
Who are you? How do I know you’re even on my side?
What is your side, Henry?
It’s— I want to live. I want to go back to that house I was restoring near Charleston. I want to go back to my life.
Then you need to listen to me.
Because I survived what you’re about to go through. Because I didn’t let them break me. And you can’t let them break you.
Listen to me. You have to answer them when they ask you questions. You have to be helpful. Because if they can’t get any answers from asking, then they’ll start cutting. And burning. And . . . putting things inside you.
Things to . . . examine you. Things to help them get answers. So you have to answer them. You have to try as hard as you can to keep them talking.
But I don’t know much. About how it works, what I can do.
Don’t tell them that, Henry. Not until you have no other choice. Because when you tell them that, they’ll want to find out if you’re lying. They’ll hurt you. They’ll try to break you.
Just . . . don’t let them do that. Do you hear me, Henry? Cooperate. Answer their questions. Don’t make them hurt you.
Who are you? he demanded insistently.
A friend. Please, Henry, just . . . hang on.
* * *
Juno Hicks leaned against the hard wall, trying not to pant out loud because she’d been tired to begin with and the effort had been so great. To reach through walls, over an unknown distance, and touch another mind, a mind not hardwired as hers was to communicate like this.
Not another telepath.
Still leaning back against the wall, she looked around at the tiny cell that had become her world. Eight feet by twelve feet.
She had paced it off.
That was her world, and had been for God only knew how long. A narrow cot. The kind of stainless steel toilet-with-sink arrangement found in prison cells, right out in the open with no privacy. One chair, bolted to the floor.
She had never sat in it, avoided it instinctively for some reason she didn’t question. And none of them had ever sat in it. None of them ever came into this room, except to drag her out of it.
She knew they watched her, even though there was no observation window or port or camera she could see. But they watched her.
She knew they watched.
And maybe she’d taken a chance reaching out to Henry, talking to him, when all she’d intended was yet another desperate telepathic exploration of whatever lay beyond these walls, beyond the short hallway and the other . . . The Room . . . that was all she knew of this place, all they’d allowed her to see, at least with her eyes.
So she reached out, hoping to sense something that might help her. If she got the chance. If she could run. Silent, hoping none of the psychics who had sold their souls to them were nearby, or if they were that they were unable to detect her efforts.
She was very careful.
But today she had touched Henry’s mind. And recognized him as another prisoner, another . . . subject. New, frightened, bewildered. In no shape to answer the questions she had wanted so desperately to ask him.
Do they know about us?
Will anyone come for us?
Does anyone care what’s happening to us?
No, Henry could not have answered those questions, not today. Maybe . . . maybe later. She hoped. She hoped so bad. For some kind of news.
For some kind of hope.
But for now he was another victim. Someone she had to try to help, to try to warn. So maybe he would know just enough to escape their punishments.
She held up one hand and stared at it, at the bandage that made her hand a fist because it covered the stumps of what had been her fingers.
“Hold on, Henry,” she whispered. “Hold on as long as you can.”
* * *
Sebring stood before the group of her superiors, more relaxed than many might have been because she was a highly capable and confident woman.
Some would have said arrogant. Had said, in fact.
Brisk and impersonal, she said, “There have been increasing signs that the resistance movement is gaining strength. Their numbers grow almost daily, and it’s clear they have hidden assets providing them with important resources.”
“What kind of resources?” the man at the head of the table asked.
“High-tech equipment and access to information, contacts within various branches of law enforcement and the government, fast travel when needed, possibly weapons. Plenty of money.”
“How high up in law enforcement?”
He didn’t quite flinch. Not quite. “Bishop?”
“I believe he’s made contact with them, something we anticipated. He could very well be helping them, providing intel and support. He may actively be searching for missing psychics on his watch list.”
Another man said, hoarsely, “We agreed. We agreed to stay as far away from Bishop and his psychics as possible. Including those on his watch list.”
“Yes, sir. But since he has not exactly published his watch list, nor visibly branded any of the psychics on it, our only means of determining which psychics are in contact with him is observation over a period of time. Sometimes over months. Until he does or does not make contact with them, or we see some other sign that tells us they are not his.” Her voice was not at all disrespectful, merely matter-of-fact.
“Risk alerting Bishop if they touch the mind of one of his psychics. I’ve been given no reasonable explanation as to how he’s able to do it, but our scientists are certain that once he has made contact with a psychic, he knows when that psychic is . . . in trouble. When that psychic is taken. He knows, or they are able to call out to him somehow, even if they are not telepaths. So all we can do is watch, and wait, and follow our protocols.
“But we are tracking psychics we’re reasonably sure are not on his watch list. Those we can take.” She paused briefly. “You ordered me in recent months to increase the number of subjects, to locate and take more of them. You’ve been concerned with numbers. Higher number means we have to move faster. Haste means a greater possibility of mistakes.”
“We can’t afford mistakes,” a third man said harshly.
“Yes, sir. I am aware. My people know their jobs. I merely point out that the risks increase when we move faster than originally planned.”
“And the resistance? Do they know?” the same man demanded, his voice still harsh. “Do they know who we are? What we are?”
“Of course not, sir. And as yet, they have no idea why psychics are so important to us.”
Coolly, she said, “Logically, they will either work it out by putting together disparate pieces of the puzzle they’ve managed to acquire over the years or else will get on their side a psychic able to tell them what they need to know. It’s only a matter of time. It was always only a matter of time. Especially once their technology, primarily in communication and information-gathering, reached a certain critical stage. That stage, I believe, has been achieved.”
“We’re close,” one of the other men at the table muttered. “Too close to allow them to interfere.”
“My people won’t allow that to happen, sir.”
“I trust you’re as confident as you sound, Sebring.” It wasn’t a question.
But she answered it nevertheless.
“Of course, sir. There is no reason not to be confident.”
“There is Duran. And there is, still, Tasha Solomon.”
“I have factored both into my calculations, sir. Duran is being manipulated, his work interfered with, his progress slowed. And Solomon is wholly occupied with . . . personal concerns. Neither of them present any obstacle or danger to your plans.”
“It’s still an open question as to how deeply he means to involve himself in this. Even to search for psychics on his watch list he risks at the very least his position and authority within the FBI. He has spent too many years building his unit and Haven to risk both out of concern for a few missing psychics.”
“Of course, sir.” She was honestly surprised that anyone would even question that. Risk everything he’d built only to search for a psychic or two, likely dead by now anyway?
No, of course Bishop wouldn’t do that.
She was certain of it.
* * *
“Should you be so close to Charleston?” Murphy asked.
“Well, it does seem the place to be. For now, at least. Don’t worry, I’m shielded by more than my own abilities.”
Murphy nodded, confident in that, at least.
She should have been, since she’d help set up that very careful, multi-layered security.
The leader of their resistance sat back in her chair and looked across at the other woman, both of them alert despite the lateness of the hour.
“And we do have a lot to discuss. Especially since we know considerably more now than we did even just days ago. Good work, finding both of their main office buildings. And learning what makes them different.”
“I wasn’t the only one searching. We have some damned good assets.” Waving that aside absently, Murphy added, “I think that gives us an extra reason to push now that we know they don’t present the united front we believed they did. Maybe our best bet now, our best strategy, is divide and conquer. Or, at least, divide and confuse like hell.”
The other woman smiled faintly, but asked, “Are you sure it’s the best time to try this? Already a lot of balls in the air, and we can’t afford to drop any of them. For one thing, we have a major rescue operation set for less than a week away, probably the most important one of this war. And unless I’m misreading Bishop badly, he’s more than determined to find the missing psychics on his watch list.”
“If they’re still alive.”
“I think he believes they are. That he can still save them. And I don’t believe he’ll accept our experiences in that as a good enough reason to stop his search.”
“So we have that variable, that . . . wild card, to factor into our plans. The rescue operation is something for which we’ve been readying our people and other assets for many weeks now. And even that’s been adjusted, more people and assets called upon, as Tucker and others find more facilities.”
“I know. And I agree it could be and probably is the most important action we’ve taken in this war so far.”
“So is it the right time to push Duran? Is the risk worth the potential benefits of whatever intel he’ll part with?”
Murphy was frowning a little, but not with uncertainty as her response clearly showed. “I think a lot depends on what happens between now and then, as far as that rescue operation goes. Even as carefully as we’ve planned, it could all change in a heartbeat. We don’t have a single precog on our side able to see how that operation—or any other—works out for us. Which means all we can do is play the hand we’re dealt with the cards we have.”
“As for Bishop . . . I don’t doubt he has assets looking for those psychics, that he and Miranda are using their own knowledge and senses, especially now that we all agree Duran knows they’re in the game. They don’t have to use Miranda’s shield all the time to hide themselves, which means that, whatever they do for us, for this war, they also have their own agenda. And I hope they find them, Bishop’s missing psychics. God knows we’ve never been able to, once they’re taken.”
“If he finds them . . . it’s more than likely he’ll find where they’re taken and held.”
“Something else we’ve never been able to do,” Murphy noted.
“Their main offices plus the facilities where they take and hold psychics . . . if we had both, it could be a major turning point. Potentially a huge amount of intel over and above the chance to hurt them and get some of our own back. Knowing the locations of both could, at the very least, give us actual targets to hit, and hit hard.”
“You know their security’s going to be hell to breach.”
“And we both know we have some very, very bright people working on those problems, ongoing.” She shook her head slightly, but her eyes were bright. “We all knew Bishop could be a game changer. Maybe this whole thing is finally tipping in our direction.”
“Your relationship with Duran could be another key.”
Murphy winced. “Relationship. Gotta be another name for two enemies who trust each other about as far as either one of us could throw a Buick.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s been helpful. And now, perhaps . . . a lot more than helpful.”
“Well, I am pretty sure I’ve hit a tipping point with him, boss. If he isn’t ready for that one last push now, he never will be.”
“And afterward? Making the giant assumption that all this goes our way eventually?”
Murphy didn’t need the question explained. “He’s taken a lot of chances to help us, even risked his life, I think. Certainly risked his position. I don’t believe he would have done that only to see his own people destroyed if we won decisively and could . . . dictate what happens to them. I think it’s really about survival with him. Survival of his people. He wouldn’t be Duran if he hadn’t thought of a time after this war, win or lose.”
“But would he remain dangerous?”
“I’d want to keep a close eye on him for a while,” Murphy said honestly. “On his operations. Make sure we know what he and his people are doing. My guess would be some kind of business, a company, investigation and security, at least in the beginning. His people are already trained for that kind of work.”
“Not something I think we should ever agree to, at least for the foreseeable future. And I think Duran would know that.”
“What about the political aspirations?”
Murphy shook her head. “You know we’ve found evidence they’ve managed to place people on the very bottom rungs of that ladder, and worldwide, but I’d be very surprised if that was ever a part of their original plan, before some of them figured out they were stuck here. Surprised if Duran knows for sure what his superiors had in mind, have in mind, and pretty damned sure he wasn’t happy about the situation. He was . . . almost . . . too willing to get rid of Wolfe. I don’t think he approves of the political aspirations.”
The boss smiled faintly. “Why not?”
“For one thing, any mistakes are on far too public a stage to suit him. And bad mistakes would be costly.”
“And for another thing?”
“It was never about conquest with him. Never about domination, power. Like I said, he’s about survival. He genuinely believed, for a very long time, that the mission was to save his people. A positive goal, not a negative one. And I think that’s important, a vital distinction, especially now that we know about the other faction. Something we can add to all the times he’s had chances to kill, to destroy and didn’t. Duran doesn’t want to destroy. Maybe that’s his mother’s influence, whether or not he’s consciously aware of it. Or maybe it’s just the life he spent growing up here.”
“You think he admires us?”
“I think he doesn’t believe we’re inferior.”
“You do realize we’re banking a great deal on how this one man will respond to our plans?”
“Of course.” Murphy smiled suddenly. “But everything we’ve found out, especially recently, tells me we can do that.”
“With high confidence?”
Murphy’s smile widened. “With high confidence.”
Monday, June 3
Charlotte, North Carolina
The roar of the flames was ungodly.
Noah Bishop and his wife and partner, Miranda, were no more than half an hour later than planned in reaching the small, innocuous house in its normal Charlotte suburban neighborhood with its almost cookie-cutter houses, each with neat, spacious yards and the privacy of hedges and well-pruned trees, and the occasional nice, well-maintained fence.
The sort of fence that both maintained privacy and allowed several of the larger homes to also host quiet home businesses that were tolerated so long as they did not disturb the peace of the neighborhood. Because it was a nice neighborhood.
The sort of neighborhood where people were outwardly friendly and waved smilingly across streets and yards and fences but were basically uninterested in neighbors and kept their business to themselves and their noses out of other people’s business. Suburb or not, Charlotte was a huge city, with a huge city’s impassivity.
And this normal suburban neighborhood in this huge city naturally boasted good electronic security guarding most houses as well as a Neighborhood Watch, and many dogs inside the houses and patrolling fenced yards.
Not a sound came from any of those early warning systems.
The dogs, in particular, were almost eerily silent. Many had been visible as the couple had silently made their way to their destination, dogs standing at gates or on front porches or inside the houses peering through windows, turning their heads to watch the strangers passing, yet all of them otherwise unmoving and silent.
Bishop, who knew dogs, made a troubled mental note.
When the report was filed, everyone questioned, when what was left of the house had been poked and prodded and examined, it might or might not have been something noticed by others, perhaps commented upon, and if so would be listed as one more inexplicable thing in a world filled with them.
No one had noticed anything unusual, that’s what they would most likely say, what they’d tell the police and fire marshal. The peaceful house that served as a quiet short-term convalescent home for people recovering from surgeries was always quiet, more secluded than some of the other houses in the neighborhood and with a larger yard than most, its caretakers pleasant, the patients hardly seen at all by neighbors too polite to peer over the tall privacy fence.
Everything had been fine, had been normal, and why would anyone want to burn down that lovely house?
But it was burning. And they were late in arriving.
No more than half an hour late.
But it was enough.
The predawn morning was lit with a hellish glow because the roof was already burning savagely with hungry flames, burning too quickly, too intensely, too needfully, to be anything but deliberate. The drought of weeks past had left everything a tinderbox. And still there must have been the need for absolute certainty, the need to destroy utterly, because the house had, clearly, been liberally splashed with an accelerant of some kind, inside and out, just to make certain that the roar of the fire would be swift, hungry and fierce. And not just the roof, but the once-pretty shingle siding and the shrubbery planted near the house, and even where there seemed little to burn, fire blazed, blocking every window and every door.
Burning. Burning, all of it.
Bishop and Miranda could see nothing but flames as they raced toward the house already knowing they were too late. Every possible entrance—and exit—was blocked by the fire. A wall of flames no human could breach. The whole place deliberately turned into a living, writhing, gleeful hell.
They stopped only when they had to, when the wave of heat blasting back at them was searing even twenty yards away, nearly knocking them off their feet as the fire’s hungry roar increased. And even then, what stopped them was the inescapable certainty that there was no way in.
And no way out.
Dimly, sirens could be heard, so already a neighbor up early or awakened had noticed and called first responders. Because the house’s fire alarms would have been disabled, of course, detectors destroyed and lines to emergency services severed, just so there would be more time for the fire to take hold. More time to destroy . . . everything.
“Shit,” Miranda muttered, and went utterly still, her intense gaze fixed on the flaming pyre.
“Goddammit, Miranda, don’t—”
“I have to. You know I have to.”
And she was already reaching out with every one of her senses, as unable as he was to not use every tool at her disposal when lives were at stake. And she had to do this, her rather than him, because it was the shield she had made that protected them both, something organic to her, and only she could shatter it in a violent instant without harming both of them. The intensely powerful psychic shield created out of desperate need that had been in place for years to hide herself and her younger sister, Bonnie, from the monster that had destroyed their family. And more recently these last months to hide Bishop and herself from those who would be interested, if not horrified and panicked, at their involvement in this.
The force of Miranda’s emotions blasted through everything, the shield, the fire, the burning walls of the house, the very atoms of what remained inside, an almost visible wave of energy sent out by her to probe desperately inside that house. And the shattered shield or just the burst of energy jarred both of them nearly off their feet.
Neither of them really noticed, then, that walls that should have burned longer collapsed, some inward and some outward, from a new force that did not come from Miranda but from inside the house, a desperate, untaught, wordless terror reaching. That the few unbroken windows shattered in unison, which should not have happened, that the fire itself wailed suddenly as if in agonized protest, an eerily human cry of torment.
Miranda blasted through her shield and through nearly everything else until she knew for certain what they had already known.
Until her normal senses were no longer muffled, and the extra ones came alive all in a rush with all the stunning sensitivity of raw nerves; everything she saw was painfully bright and in painfully bright colors; the noises of the fire, the wail of sirens and the distant cries of neighbors finally awakened, the acrid smell of the fire that made it difficult for her to breathe; until the world around them became crystal clear once again, until she could feel her husband’s arm around her, feel the very heartbeat pulse of the earth beneath her feet and feel the swirling energies in the air around them, almost all negative because ash residue was the awful waste product of the evil and horrific crime tragically committed here tonight.
All that rushed at Miranda, stealing her breath for a moment, hurting her eyes, burning her nose. But she was experienced even in handling the deadliest of evil, and it was only seconds that she was vulnerable at all, until the dark energy could find no way into her, until her senses were all back to normal.
Until she was whole, herself. Until nightmare imagination became all too horribly real.
“Ah, Jesus, Noah, they left the girls.” Miranda’s voice was hard with the sort of iron control both had learned in unspeakable situations. “Deliberately. Nobody panicked. There was time to get them, save them—but that wasn’t the plan. At least three nonpsychics, the caretakers, probably drugged. The moms were all asleep in their beds, also probably drugged or conditioned to sleep through anything till morning. They didn’t have a chance.” Her voice was still hard, still controlled by an iron fist, because there had been so many horrors along the way, so many events they should have been able to prevent.
Like this one.
But this one struck a personal note for both of them, a deeply personal agony, because they had lost a child unborn not so very long ago, taken from them in violence, and such a loss could never be something about which they could ever again be impersonal.
Miranda’s beautiful face was a mask of control, her electric blue eyes unusually dark, as dark as holes in the world.
“All of them?” Bishop demanded hoarsely, his own abilities coming alive just moments more slowly than hers, muffled just a bit more, a bit longer by her powerful shield even after it was shattered. Until his mind and senses adjusted.
“We counted a dozen two days ago. There are a dozen in that house. They were already burning in their beds before we got here. Already beyond help.” She looked at her husband with those dark, dark haunted eyes. “The babies too. Three were close to term, very close. They’re gone now. They’re all gone now. Noah . . . they were psychic. Not latents, not the babies. They were powerfully psychic already, especially the ones close to term. They would have been born with every ability they would ever possess. That’s how they knew . . . how they understood . . . what was happening to them. But they didn’t have the control, the knowledge, to stop it.”
“I know,” he said. “I heard . . . the last of their screams.”
Bishop took her hand in his, and for an instant they stood with their gazes on the inferno before them, bearing the searing heat that struck them in waves physically as well as the searing heartbreak and rage that struck even stronger blows.
Perhaps if they had been on time . . .
“Did they know we were coming?” Bishop asked her.
“I’m not sure. All I know is that it was deliberate. That someone did this, knowing what they were doing. And that they aren’t here now, didn’t stick around to—to watch.”
There was nothing else they needed to say. Nothing more about what had happened here. Nothing more about their overwhelming pain and grief. No discussion or debate about the decision to fade back into the darkness, and make their way, silent and unseen, past exclaiming and horrified neighbors, and the first responders, and the first of the media, before anyone at all noticed their presence.
There was nothing they could do.
Not here, at least.
And not now.
* * *
Tasha Solomon woke with a scream locked in her throat, her arms held out as if reaching for something that was now forever beyond her grasp. Her heart was thudding against her ribs, her breath rasping, and in her mind were the heartbreaking echoes of something more than a nightmare.
What she felt had no language in her own mind just then, only pain, the worst pain she had ever felt in her life, tearing, ripping pain, a grief so overwhelming it was an actual physical agony, so much pain she wasn’t sure she could bear it.
“Tasha?” Brodie was in the open doorway of her bedroom, wearing only sweatpants, his dark hair a bit ruffled from sleep but wide-awake as he always was in the need of an instant. He rarely slept much except for catnaps, her Guardian, and insisted on remaining on the comfortable couch in her spacious one-bedroom condo where he could be ready for trouble should any come, but there had been no reason to be on guard tonight, no reason not to expect a peaceful night.
It had been weeks. Weeks of calm. No threat.
Now the threat felt overwhelming.
He came into her bedroom, turning the lamp on her nightstand down low, sitting on the edge of the bed, concern and something else in his sharp sentry eyes.
They hadn’t quite figured out what was between them, not yet at least, even after weeks spent almost continually in each other’s company. Both innately guarded people knew, and accepted however warily, that there was something, a connection that been forged weeks before, and right now all he was certain of was that she was suffering horribly and shouldn’t be alone.
“Tasha.” He wasn’t even aware that his voice had changed, had deepened and roughened.
She reached out before he did, unable to face this alone, blind and desperate for some kind of comfort, for the healing touch of someone else who understood, and he responded instantly, enfolding her in his arms, holding her tightly. He could feel her tears wet on his throat, feel the shudders racking her body.
“They’re gone,” she whispered against his skin. “All of them. Oh, God. They screamed. I heard them. John, they screamed. The babies. The babies understood. They knew they were dying. They knew they were burning alive and couldn’t save themselves.”
John Brodie had gone to great effort these last weeks, since becoming her Guardian, to keep his own mind quiet and still, to project the sort of shield he had been taught to protect his mind and his privacy, a peaceful surface that psychics tended to see as a calm ocean. Not because he feared any touch of Tasha’s—she had, in fact, already read him telepathically, and deeply enough that he still felt somewhat shaken by that unexpected intimacy—but because he was not a born psychic, was not sure even now what he was. Until he was certain of that he was unwilling to risk either the other senses honed to a deadly knife-edge sharpness necessary as a Guardian or any unconscious use of abilities he did not yet understand, far less control.
Especially when any of that was driven by emotion.
But he opened up just a bit in that moment, relaxing the ever-present guard because she was in such pain and it went against his very nature not to try to understand, to help.
He stopped blocking the new, untested, and distinctly unsettling connection between them for an instant, just an instant, opening the door on his end just far enough. And in that one instant he knew what had happened, and how, and he felt the shattering grief not only of lives lost, of innocent lives and new lives brutally taken, but of vast, untapped power destroyed with the casual cruelty of an uncaring foot crushing beneath it something not even recognized as being alive.
The jolt of pain he felt in her and shared with her was as powerful as a knife to the heart.
Gone. They were gone.
They were gone forever.
“Tasha . . .”
“I felt them . . . I felt them die . . . John . . . I don’t ever want to feel anything like that again. Ever.”
“I know.” He held her, his hands stroking her back, trying to soothe, the heat of his body trying to warm the bone-deep chill of hers.
He wanted to reassure her. Needed to badly. Not because she was his responsibility, his charge as her Guardian, but because she was more. Because these past weeks and a knowledge of each other deeper than words can ever be had made her more to him, so much more.
Because they were linked, connected, bonded. Because even though he had not told her so, she had become more important to him than anything had ever been in his life, more important even than the war to which he had dedicated his life, and the much-loved wife whose murder had been the catalyst for that decision a decade before.
She lifted her head from his shoulder and looked at him in the dim light, her normally pale green eyes darkened, wet, still suffering, and he would have done anything in his power to ease her pain.
So he did.
Without even thinking about it, he opened up the connection between them completely, opened the door he controlled all the way, instinctively sending through all the warmth and comfort stored for so long inside him. He sent caring and gentleness. He sent a strength she could lean on when she had to. He sent the utter certainty of an ultimate triumph even if that seemed far beyond reach right now.
And he sent sorrow, for the soldiers lost along the way, those who had fought at his side. For the psychics lost, stolen from them, taken in dark secret and in open violence. And sorrow for these recent tiny souls lost, for the pitiful, damaged women who had never been granted the chance to bear their special offspring, and for the tiny new souls who had never been granted the chance to breathe and live and be.
He sent to Tasha, shared with her, all that he was.
Tasha wasn’t even certain he was completely aware of the gift he was giving her, or whether he would later regret it, but for now she accepted it gladly. The awful pain eased as much as it could. All the dark, cold corners of herself began to lighten, to warm, to feel less empty, and she was so grateful.
She had been alone for so long, alone for most of her life even when her adoptive parents were alive and had loved her very much. Alone because she had always known she was different and yet had to pretend to be like everyone else. Alone and with no one to share the pain and loneliness of being different.
Tasha would never have believed he would be the one, when mere comfort and understanding were not enough, who truly reached out, physically as well as psychically. She was almost afraid to believe it now. But he was holding her in his arms, first only to comfort, she knew that, to share her pain and do his best to ease it.
But, somehow, when he opened fully the connection between them, when he felt and shared the agony she was nearly drowning in, the screams of unborn infants with whom she felt an odd kinship, something changed.
For the first time in his life, John Brodie saw into some else’s soul.
And what he saw moved him unbearably.
Tasha was, dimly, aware of that. Of his surprise. Of the complex tangle of emotions he didn’t try to hide from her. But then one of them or both of them took that last step separating them. There was a different kind of reaching, a sudden awareness when the moment of comfort became something else entirely.
She didn’t know what changed in that moment.
She didn’t care.
From the cold agony of tragedy and loss, Tasha felt more than comfort and understanding begin to fill her being. She felt herself changing. His mouth was on hers, seducing even though it didn’t have to, driving away the coldness and the pain.
He was who Tasha needed, what she needed, and everything inside her, every sense, every instinct, told her so. Her mouth was alive beneath his, her body straining to be closer to him. All their senses reached out, their minds, touching and twining and settling into place with an ineffable sense of belonging.
Still, she had to hesitate one last time, had to ask and to ask aloud, uncertain, fearful of more pain.
“John . . . are you sure?” she whispered.
“More sure than I’ve been of anything in my life.”
“We don’t know what it’ll be, what we’ll be after this.”
“We’ll be together. Stronger together. Better together.” He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly as though releasing burdens he had not even felt until that moment. “We’ll belong together.”
“I’m not the woman you lost,” she had to say.
“You are the woman I love. There are no ghosts between us, Tasha. No regrets. You are not second best to me. We were meant to be together. And you know that as well as I do.”
I love you, and I couldn’t bear it if it was just comfort.
“It’s more. It’s so much more.” His arms tightened around her, and his mouth covered hers again, this time with utter certainty.
Tasha had not known what to expect. Not because no man had kissed her with desire, with longing, but because Brodie had not. It was so much more than she had ever felt in her life. His strength flowed into her being, his gentleness. His ruthlessness and his compassion. His loneliness and the comradeship found here and there along the way. His rage and his sweetness. His pain and his joy. His commitment to his cause . . . and his utter and complete commitment to her.
He was right. It was so much more.
She was barely aware of her sleep shirt removed and flung aside, or his sweatpants following. Barely aware of the bed beneath them, covers pushed away. Of the lamp-lit room that showed them just enough soft light.
Tasha would have said Brodie was the most controlled man she had ever known, just as she would have said she was the most guarded of anyone she had ever known. But that night, in the last of the darkness outside and dawn’s promise only beginning to lighten the sky, she discovered how wrong she had been. About both of them.
He was not controlled when he touched her. His mouth burned and his hands shook and his body trembled. His heart hammered in his chest, and his breath came as quickly as her own did, because her guard came crashing down at the first touch of him.
He touched rich curves, his fingertips and his lips exploring silky skin with a hunger answered instantly, without thought, by her own fiery need.
She felt a hard body beneath her probing fingers and lips, firm skin over hard muscle earned in a lifetime of physical work that owed nothing to a gym. A powerful body marked here and there by the scars of battles past, by close calls in deadly encounters. She cried without meaning to, her lips pressed to each scar old and new, as if her love could heal those marks on his flesh and in his soul.
She gave as fully as he did, offering up everything she was to him. The triumphs and tragedies, the good times and the bad ones, the aching loneliness of a life lived apart from others and the joy of finding others who understood.
The utter joy of finding him.
Their connection, not one initially forged in love but in life-or-death need, grew in those moments. Evolved. It became more, stronger, surer, once-gossamer threads uncertainly linking their two minds becoming threads of something stronger than steel, something that could never be broken, weaving a more stable, permanent, immutable bond and anchoring it deeply inside both of them.
And along with all that was something new.
Something neither had planned and both needed.
Something that would change everything.