Going rogue in an effort to rescue her kidnapped parents has cost Reagan Hillis her automatic ticket to the Training Academy. But becoming a Black Angel is the only way Reagan will be able to exact revenge on her mother’s merciless killer, Santino Torres.
When Reagan is given a chance to prove that she’s worthy of training to be a Black Angel, she also gets the first chance she’s ever had to be her true self. No aliases. No disguises.
But when her friend Luke joins her at the Black Angels training compound, Reagan finds herself once again torn between the person she was and the person she wants to be. Reagan has to prove that she's as good as her parents trained her to be, because she’ll never find Torres without the Black Angels’ help.
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About the Author
Writing is one of the great loves of Kristen Orlando’s life and she has been lucky enough to make it her living, first as a television producer, then as a marketer, and now as a novelist. Kristen graduated with a BA in English literature from Kenyon College. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with the two other great loves of her lifeher husband, Michael, and daughter, Samantha. This is her second novel, following You Don’t Know My Name.
Read an Excerpt
My eyes flip open and meet the black. There's not a trace of pale light in this windowless room. The first two seconds are bliss. With my first conscious breath, I forget. But the next breath comes, tighter this time; that feeling of dread, a dark cloud, a shade deeper than this room, coils its way around my lungs. And I remember where I am. Why I'm here. What I've done.
I was a sound sleeper as a child. Mom said I wet my bed until the age of five, not because I didn't know how to use the bathroom, but because I slept so hard, even that urgent pulse in my bladder couldn't stir me awake. I haven't had a restful night of sleep since I was eight. Not since my parents sat me down over a scalding plate of chicken pot pie and told me what they really did for a living. Those long, dense stretches of shadowy sleep vaporized like the steam off my plate. Even as a kid, I think I was waiting for something bad to happen. I'd startle awake in the middle of the night, listening. Waiting. Watching. My fingers would search for the knife behind my headboard, and only until I felt its cool blade on my skin could I fall back asleep. The pluck and buzz of its steel was my screwed-up lullaby.
For the last six months, there's been no getting me back to sleep. Sam has tried with her tiny blue pills. I let them knock me out night after night because without them I'd never sleep. But once I'm awake, I'm up. There's no lulling me back into the misty gray of drug-induced rest.
I can hear Sam breathing somewhere in the darkness. I shift my weight, searching for her clock, and the military-style bunk bed creaks beneath me. The bright red digital numbers read 4:00 on the dot. It's the first time I've woken up on such a clean number. Last night it was 3:24. The night before: 4:51. The night before that: 5:42. I've been making mental notes of those times, memorizing the numbers, like they're going to mean something or decode some important secret. I know they won't. But locking in those numbers, tracking the time my body jolts me awake, feels like the only thing I've had control of since the fall.
My body slowly rises, my muscles rigid as I try not to make a sound. If Sam wakes up, she'll tell me I need more sleep before the Tribunal. She'll place another blue pill into my palm and stand over me while I choke it down. My feet leave the warm cocoon of blankets and find the icy, concrete floor. Goose bumps rise on my skin as my toes search for my slippers. My hands feel for the sweatshirt at the bottom of the bed, on loan from one of the Black Angel operatives. When the watchers transported me from the safe house yesterday, it was an unseasonably warm April day. Eighty degrees by noon. But several stories belowground, I've lost all sense of warmth. Of time, too.
I carefully pull on the door, cracking it just enough to slip my body through without letting too much hallway light spill into our cavernous, nearly empty dorm. The dorm is where all the female Black Angel trainees sleep when they're stationed at CORE. But their year in the Black Angel Qualifiers is nearly up and most have either been cut or are stationed all over the world, fighting for those last spots in the Black Angel Training Academy.
The sight of the empty hallway forces a cold and steady breath through my pursed lips. When I'm at CORE, all I get are questions in the form of words or looks. The concerned queries may be even worse than the debriefing questions from senior leaders, judgment and anger wrapped like barbed wire around every word. Those, I can handle. The "how are yous" I cannot. It's not even what they say or how they say it. It's the expectant body language that makes the tide of bile rise in my stomach. Head lowered and cocked to one side. Watery eyes. Lips creased into a sympathetic frown. A hand that carefully reaches for my shoulder. Most of the time I pull away. But if I'm feeling compassionate, I let them touch me. I remind myself they've lost her too.
My fingers brush alongside the cinder block walls in the tunnel beneath Langley. Thousands of the world's best spies track terrorists or intercept threats against the United States several stories above my head, having no idea this tunnel, these Black Angel situation rooms and training facilities even exist.
Six months ago, I never thought I'd see the inside of CORE. I was ready to turn my back on the Black Angels, escape into the warmth of a normal life. But now I'm back in the shadows, desperate to reclaim my place here. The people who once applied the most pressure to get me into the training academy are the ones pushing me out. It's been a long fall off the precarious pedestal they forced me upon. And I don't even know if I've hit bottom yet.
"What are you doing up?" a voice says from behind me. I turn around to see Sam mid-yawn, her hands fumbling through her sleep-matted blond hair.
"Can't sleep," I answer quietly. Sam walks toward me in plaid pajama bottoms and an oversized Georgetown sweatshirt.
"You really need your rest," Sam answers, looking toward the digital clock stationed at the end of the hallway. "You've got a long day ahead of you. I could give you half a —"
"No," I answer and shake my head slowly. "I'm fine. No more pills tonight."
Sam's eyes scan my face, her eyebrows raised, not believing me. The crescent gray moons that cradle my dark eyes give away my exhaustion. I lower my eyelids and dig my teeth into my sore, inflamed lips. I've been picking them again, an anxious tic my mother broke me of years ago. It's like my nerves know she's not here to gently grab my hand, pull it to my side. Without her, I've been pulling at long strips of dry skin until my lips are either completely smooth or red with metallic blood. Each tear is a risk with conflicting outcomes. There is no in between.
"Well, I guess we're both up for the day," Sam says, taking a seat on the steel bench outside one of the situation rooms. "Breakfast doesn't start for two hours. So come sit with me."
She pats the space next to her. I don't answer. Just stare at the cement floor, my legs pulling me toward her. I grasp the cold, smooth surface and lower myself down. The hallway's fluorescent lights' incessant buzzing burrows into my ear canals, sending a shiver down my body. I pull the collar of my borrowed sweatshirt toward my face and get a whiff of something floral. I breathe it in again, trying to decode the scent of a stranger. Lavender? Or maybe jasmine?
I wait for Sam to speak. She waits for me to do the same. My eyes stare forward at the white cinder block. I count the number of paint globs that hug the curve of each stone. One, two, three, four.
"They're going to tear me apart, aren't they?" I finally ask. In my peripheral vision, I can see Sam's face turn toward mine, but my eyes stare straight ahead, fixed on those tiny white globs.
Sam breathes in a heavy sigh. "I can't lie to you, Reagan. I can't tell you about the questions they asked me either. But my testimony yesterday was ..."
"Brutal," I answer and suck in a painful breath. She doesn't need to answer. I know it was. I saw it all over her face when she hugged me hello in the dorm after I arrived. She smiled, her voice brimming with forced cheerfulness. But fear lingered in her two pools of blue and no matter how many times her eyes fluttered, she couldn't blink her worry for me away. "It's okay. I already know what will happen. I know they're going to question every single move I made. Pick apart every little choice until they can prove I got her killed."
"Don't say that, Reagan," Sam says and grabs for my wrist. "You did everything you could. You were willing to trade your life for hers. You have to fight to stay here or you're as good as gone. They want you out. You couldn't save her, but you can still save yourself."
"I know," I reply as an icy breath filters through my raw lips. Jagged pieces hit me all at once. That flash of light. That waterfall of blood. Mom's eyes, pleading and afraid. I put my free hand to my face and furiously shake my head, trying to erase the memory before I hear the echo of my own screams.
"But maybe they're right," I continue as the memory breaks apart. "Maybe if I had done one thing differently she'd still be alive. Maybe if I hadn't gotten in a fight with her, they'd have pulled me out of New Albany earlier and Torres would never have found them. Or maybe if I hadn't gone to Colombia at all or stayed on the truck or ..."
"Stop," Sam says, her warm hands tightening around my freezing skin. "If you hadn't made those choices, they'd both be dead."
"Yeah, but maybe if I had let Laz go after her or shot Torres when I had the chance ..."
"Reagan, no," Sam says, her gentle voice giving way to the beginnings of exasperation. "You can't do this to yourself. You can't or you'll go insane."
"Then I guess I'm insane," I say, my voice monotone. My breath becomes slower, shallower. Soon, the only sound I hear is the tick, tick, tick of Mom's favorite watch, which I've kept permanently on my wrist since Colombia; a present from her parents after medical school that she always kept in her go-bag.
Sam's fingers slowly slide off my wrist. She leans her back against the cold, cinder block walls and we settle into a heavy silence.
"I can't believe I'm even here," I say softly, searching up and down the deserted hallway.
"In this position or in this building?" she asks.
"Both, I guess. After all my training. After all the bullshit they've pumped into my head, trying to make me believe I'm special or something. The training camps and pep talks and money they've invested. I can't ..."
A toxic mix of anger and sadness bubbles up my throat, stealing my voice. I face Sam; her kind eyes urge me to continue.
"I can't believe how fast they've turned on me. You should have seen the look on their faces when I said I still wanted into the academy. You'd have thought I told them I put my own gun to my mother's head."
After days of debriefing post-Colombia, Thomas Crane, my parents' main contact at CORE, and the other senior leaders were ready to hand me my new life, confined to a single manila envelope. New name, new passport, new driver's license, new cover story. Reagan Olson. Seventeen-year-old high school senior with a dead mother and government official father. They had secured a spot for me in a foreign boarding school. Said they'd get me into the University of Oxford or the Sorbonne, far out of the reach of Torres. Provide me with my own security detail. I told them that wouldn't be necessary. That I'd be attending the training academy with the new recruits this summer. With that, every eyebrow in the room rose in unison. Their mouths unhinged. I don't know if they were surprised I still wanted to be a Black Angel after everything that had happened or if they were just stunned by my nerve. I can only imagine what they're saying about me behind closed doors. The girl who breaks every rule, defies orders, gets her mother killed, and still thinks she belongs. Ballsy move, chick.
Thomas had put his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed on the ground. Seconds ticked by. Perhaps he was waiting for me to say I was joking. How could I imagine I'd still be allowed in? After what I just did?
"That decision is no longer yours to make, Reagan," Thomas finally said. "You have lost your automatic bid into the training academy. You'll have to plead your case before the Black Angel Tribunal and see if they'll even allow you into the Black Angel Qualifiers. If they let you in, you'll have to try out like everyone else."
And that was that. Only two spots in the training academy are offered to Black Angel children right out of high school, and the female spot that had been promised to me now belonged to someone else. And there was nothing I could do or say to get it back.
After my debriefing, I was shipped off to a farmhouse in rural Virginia. With Torres off the grid and promising revenge, I've spent the last several months cut off from the world, surrounded by security cameras and guards but no real people. Just online high school courses and Netflix to occupy the endless hours alone. Dad and Sam made the two-hour trip to check on me when they could. But my body still ached with loneliness for my mother, for my friends. Luke was whisked off the plane after we landed from South America and transported who knows where. I haven't been allowed to talk to him or Harper or Malika. We are ghosts to one another. Half memories and unanswered questions. It's hard to even think about them. But I'd do it all over again; I'd alienate myself from the world for twice the time for the chance to become a Black Angel. Because it's the only way I will find him. And kill him.
My fate now lies in the hands of five senior leaders. Five votes determine if I'll ever be able to snuff out the rage that flickers at my core. It's a slow-burning ember now, but its smoke has begun to fill my body, choke my lungs. This fire will soon engulf me and won't stop until I put a gun to the head of Santino Torres and watch his crimson blood pool from his brain.
What is he saying in there?
My nerves are on fire, heating my body in the chilly underground bunker. The heels of my black, unpolished boots clack against the acid-stained concrete floors, echoing down the East Hall, which is lined with a dozen high-tech situation rooms, several boardrooms, one large lecture hall, and the Tribunal chamber.
I slow my cadence as I walk past the heavy chamber doors. But I hear nothing. Not even muffled debate. It's completely soundproof. Dad has been in there for hours. Over forty minutes longer than they had expected. I glance down at Mom's watch ticking steadily on my wrist. My testimony was supposed to have begun at eleven o'clock. It's nearly noon. What is taking so long? What is he saying about me?
Sweat gathers beneath my armpits and rises to the curve of my neck, and even though it's freezing down here, I wish it was ten degrees cooler. I run my fingers along the front of my carelessly pressed black button-down shirt, silently scolding myself for not taking more time to iron it this morning like Sam insisted.
"So, what are you in for?" a voice says behind me. I turn around to see a boy about my age leaning against the cinder block wall. Well over six feet tall, with dark skin and teddy-bear brown eyes, he's dressed in a crisp, white button-down shirt, navy slacks, and a matching jacket. He catches me eyeing his outfit and smiles. "My mother told me I needed to wear a tie if I wanted to be taken seriously, but I just can't stand those things. Feels like being slowly choked to death."
The skin of my neck singes with a sense memory, panic quickening my pulse. I close my eyes and try to stop it. But it comes anyway. Heavy hands on my neck. The hot spray of spit on my skin. Metallic, bitter blood in my mouth. I see his face, the silvery specks outlining his body and beyond that, black. Death. I bring a hand to my forehead, shielding the terror that must be written on my face, and shake my brain until the memory from Colombia breaks apart.
When I open my eyes, the boy's smile has fallen into a crooked line. I force the corners of my mouth to rise into an I'm-okay-and-not-going-mad smile.
"Yeah, I can see that," I answer, the words louder than I meant them to be. The sound of my own voice catches me off guard because I'm not used to hearing it. At the safe house, I could go days without speaking a single word.
"I'm Cam Conley," he says, walking toward me. "Fellow in-trouble trainee. And you are?"
"I'm Reagan ... Hillis," I say, my voice hesitant, realizing it's the first time I've ever introduced myself using my real name.
"Oh, so you're Reagan Hillis," Cam says, his eyes widening. He offers me his hand, which I quickly shake. His skin is warm.
"You know who I am?" I ask, raising my eyebrows.
"Of course," he answers, pushing his smudged black-rimmed glasses farther up the bridge of his nose. "Everyone knows who you are."
"And why do I feel like that's a bad thing?"
"It's not," Cam replies and shakes his head. "If you're a trainee, you know who the elites are. You're one of the elites. For those of us lower on the totem pole, present company included, we've been compared to you our whole lives."
"By who?" I reply.
"Our parents, leaders at CORE," Cam answers, shrugging his shoulders. "They dangle your names and accolades out in front of us to try and make us better."
"Oh yeah. There's a whole Black Angel hierarchy, but I guess if you're at the top, you don't really need to know that."
Excerpted from "You Won't Know I'm Gone"
Copyright © 2018 Kristen Orlando.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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