Chapter One

 

“WERE WE that awkward as freshmen?” I asked Mitch as we drove toward my house. While I usually biked home, after the long practice, I took Mitch up on the offer of a ride. Coach had worked the team extra hard in an effort to get the newbies into the right flow. “I don’t remember being that slow or having Coach repeat himself so much.”

“We were quick to catch on to the drills, but we didn’t move very fast. It was a few games into the season before he actually put us in.”

When practice had started two weeks ago, the returning team members reelected Mitch captain. He deserved the recognition for his sportsmanship, leadership, and stellar gameplay.

I was proud to see my best friend get the title he deserved.

“Maybe I just want to remember the good stuff.” I shot a grin his direction, which he must’ve seen from the corner of his eye since he smiled too. “Why did Coach pick players who can’t follow instructions, though? Makes you wonder who tried out if these were the best choices.”

“They’ll catch on,” Mitch said. “We’re the seniors, so it’s on us to set a good example so they’ll improve like we did. And so they’ll do it when it’s their turn in four years.”

We did have great seniors on the team when we were freshmen. Of course Mitch wanted to be the same for these guys. “I’m sure we’ll do you proud.”

“Please let me talk to Coach about making you the alternate? Alternate Captain Theo Reese has a great ring to it.”

Mitch had pursued this relentlessly for days, even during our August hockey camp.

Camp had distracted me from what happened in New York earlier in the summer. Mitch and I had one conversation about it before the trip. After that I’d done my best to forget Eddie’s betrayal, but I’d still lost it a few times. Mitch helped me dry my eyes and put myself back together. Thankfully he didn’t push me to talk since I couldn’t give more details than the flimsy cover story.

Weeks later I knew nothing about the TOS investigation into the Cochranes and the double-cross Eddie had pulled. It was outside my clearance, even though it had happened to me. If Mom and Dad knew anything—and they might not—they justifiably kept me in the dark. Meanwhile, the mess created by what Eddie did hit a new level of drama once I returned to school.

Eddie was a constant topic of discussion—both to my face and behind my back. Eddie had been responsible for most of my social media content because he’d tag me a lot. With his Facebook profile deleted and him gone from school, everyone wanted to know what was up.

I’d deliberately posted nothing. The rumor mill kicked in while Mitch and I were at camp, though, because he tagged me in camp pictures. The story became that I’d ditched Eddie to go with Mitch. Iris, Mitch’s girlfriend, vigorously told commenters not to be stupid.

Iris was awesome that way. She also stayed away from the topic of where Eddie had gone.

The swim team questioned me relentlessly. Eddie was one of the stars, and they didn’t appreciate my silence.

Everyone expected I’d have a story to tell.

Uncomfortable didn’t begin to cover how I felt. I became more socially awkward than I could remember ever being because so many wanted to talk about the thing I didn’t. I’d had no idea how much the school paid attention to our relationship.

Mitch stole glances at me. “You better tell me you’re thinking about taking alternate. It’s high time the team had one.”

“Do you really think I’m a good choice when I’m already crazy busy?” I said, hoping to cover my Eddie spiral.

My watch pulsed with a notification, and I glanced at it. John went into my room.

Strange.

I couldn’t remember a time that he’d entered my room without me at home. My security system’s biometric doorknob would admit only four people—me, my parents, and John. What would he need in there?

I wasn’t on a mission currently, focusing instead on upgrades to the ways agent phones and TOS apps interacted with Siri for voice commands. It was an easy way to get back into the swing of TOS after camp.

Mitch kept looking over, and I recognized the look. He was about to say something he thought I didn’t want to hear. “Have you considered that you might work too much?” He capped the question with a smile.

“Yeah,” I said with a groan attached. “Camp was epic and exactly the reset I needed. So, yeah, it’s possible.”

“Could I convince you to be alternate just by reminding you that I’m your captain?” Mitch pulled into the driveway alongside John’s car. He put the car in park and gave me a stern look.

John and I had held down the home front for a week. Mom went to Portland to train agents on how to handle the effects of being deep undercover. Dad, meanwhile, continued on a mission somewhere in Europe. In an odd way it comforted me to know they were good going away at the same time since they’d watched over my emotional health so much, even after camp. It showed we’d all started to move pass the insanity of what had gone down before camp.

“Wouldn’t it be an abuse of power?” It was an honor that he’d asked, but I didn’t want to let him down if I had to put my attention elsewhere.

“All I’m doing is appealing to you as my friend, my teammate…. And someone who falls under my authority.”

He tried to hold a serious face and failed, which ultimately cracked us both up.

“You need to work on that if you’re going to try and influence people with that look.” I smirked at him as I grabbed my pack and opened the door. “I’ll see you in the morning. Thanks for the ride. Later, man.”

We traded a fist bump before I closed the door. The hatch lifted as I came around to the back to unload my bike.

After gently pushing on the hatch so it’d close, I moved out of the way, so he could pull out. We traded a last wave as he passed.

I triggered the garage door with my phone.

Something felt off.

I racked the bike and gave it the usual end of day once-over but couldn’t shake the odd feeling.

Nothing was out of place. Both cars were gone, and the stuff we stored—Christmas decorations, yard work tools, and random things in bins—looked undisturbed.

If I were Peter Parker, I’d say that my Spidey-sense was tingling.

My imagination must’ve gone off the rails. It had to be an overreaction to the notification about John going into my room.

In the kitchen the feeling intensified.

“John?” I called out as I grabbed a water from the fridge.

No response.

The office door stood open. Anxiety spread, tightening my chest.

The room was empty, though there was a smell I couldn’t place.

John’s laptop stood open on his desk and his screensaver with the moving clock ran.

A photo on Dad’s desk lay facedown. Weird. Maybe John had bumped the desk. I went to put it back in place.

I dropped the picture frame when I caught sight of his legs behind the desk. They were askew, one lying over the other.

“John!”

Had he collapsed?

I stopped short as I took in all of him. A pool of blood spread across his shirt.

That was the smell. I gagged, trying to keep from throwing up.

Shit.

His right hand was gone, blood spilled from his wrist. A cleaver lay next to him.

Jesus.

I stumbled backward, feet not working right.

Someone cut off his hand. He hadn’t gone into my room at all….

The office spun, and I grabbed Dad’s chair to steady myself. I couldn’t pass out.

Was he dead?

I dropped my backpack and knelt next to him.

I should call…. Call who?

John was the one I called when shit went down, and my parents weren’t home. We weren’t supposed to call 911 for agents, but this….

I breathed through my mouth to minimize the smell.

The pulse in his uninjured wrist was barely there. His chest showed a very slight rise and fall.

“John!”

I flinched at the volume. There could still be people in the house. People in my room.

“John?” I was quieter and shook him gently.

First aid training didn’t cover this. Maybe I could stop the bleeding. I needed something to tie off the arm. I unbuckled his belt, but it wouldn’t slide out.

“Theo.” He struggled to speak. His eyes barely fluttered open. “Run.”

“But….”

“Run.” His voice became crystal clear. “Now.”

His hand clamped on my arm. I wanted to scream… or cry… or both.

“Go!” His eyes focused intensely on me for a couple of seconds and then shut.

His hand dropped.

Training kicked in. We had protocols for this.

When I was thirteen, Mom and Dad decided we needed a plan “just in case.” I never imagined we’d use it, not even after Eddie’s betrayal.

I’d call 911 and TOS after I was gone. I hoped John could be saved.

John’s instructions couldn’t be ignored.

I grabbed my pack and ran upstairs, slowing when I saw my open door.

John’s hand was on the floor.

Fuck.

I listened. No sound came from the room. I approached slowly, quietly, ready to defend myself.

Inside all the electronics were gone, including the stuff that was just for show. How’d they get it out without looking like a robbery?

I pulled my phone and it shook. I hadn’t realized how I quaked.

It took longer than it should, but I sent the signal to fry the computers. I spared the phone and the laptop in my backpack, for now.

Frantically I threw stuff out of the closet—boxes of textbooks, my stash of Red Wings trading cards, spare computer parts, and other things I didn’t use much. At least they hadn’t been in here.

I removed a couple of the floor boards to reach my go stash—an unregistered phone, alternate ID, two thousand dollars cash, and some debit cards. I stuffed it all in one of the hidden compartments of my backpack.

The desk was a disaster with cables yanked from computers. Papers and knickknacks scattered across the surface and onto the floor. Drawers were pulled out too, and the contents were shuffled. They’d left behind what I wanted, though—the latest contact lens prototype. They were stored in a common lens case and that must’ve saved them.

My phone and watch beeped. The signal had gone out. Once any of my computers came online, they’d be toast. Between that and the security I had in place on the devices, no one should get anything sensitive.

The shakes intensified—adrenaline, shock, both. I almost dropped the phone.

I took a deep breath.

And another.

My voice had to be steady.

On the TOS phone, I placed an unsecured call to Mom.

She picked up after two rings. “Theo, what a nice surprise. You caught me getting some coffee between sessions. How was your day?”

“It was good.” Thank God I had practice trying to sound calm when I was anything but. “We had a grueling practice trying to whip the freshmen into shape. And Mitch is still trying to convince me to be alternate.”

“I think you’d be good at that. But I won’t say more. I’ll leave the persuading to him.” She was proud he asked me, and she’d done some subtle campaigning for it. All part of me being a teenager as much as possible.

I took an extra deep breath.

“Yeah, he’s really laying it on. Anyway, I wanted to let you know I’m going to Roger’s house to work on a project.”

Roger’s house was the code we’d set up in case I was in danger and going into hiding.

“Okay. Tell Roger’s mom I said hello.” Another pause. No doubt she had the same struggle I did—what to say given the circumstances. “My break’s wrapping up, so I need to get back. And you should go before it gets too dark.” Always a mom.

“Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

“Love you too, Theo.” I heard the concern, the slightest fault in her voice. I doubted anyone who might be listening would register it. “See you in a few days.”

We disconnected. I looked at the screen for just a moment before I pocketed the phone.

I had to go.