TWO MEN STOOD IN the middle of a shadowed, barren field. Both were human. One was tall, muscled, with dark hair and a busted-up face. His syn-cotton shirt was torn, his jeans dirty, and his boots scuffed. There were telltale weapon bulges under his arms, at his wrists, and at his ankles.
Clearly, he was the bodyguard.
The other wore a perfectly tailored silk business suit, his Italian loafers freshly polished. His sun-kissed hair was expensively coiffed, and the only bulge he sported was the one in his pocket, where he kept his wallet.
Clearly, he was the money.
Acrid wind shrieked as if someone had cranked a hard rock song on a radio, dancing thick dirt granules in every direction, Money radiated impatience mixed with glee—until two other men materialized a few feet away, and the impatience vanished.
The newcomers had appeared in a blink, without walking a single step: a white-haired Arcadian—an otherworlder with the ability to teleport, among other things—and another human, this one wearing a suit as well, only his was ill-fitting and made from a cheap synthetic fiber.
The human’s arms were cuffed behind his back. He smelled of pungent fear and urine. Poor bastard must have pissed himself.
Without a word, the Arcadian pushed the trembling male to his knees.
Night’s about to get interesting.
The rust-colored sky appeared swollen, the storm-drenched clouds ready to burst. In the center, the sun was a hemorrhaging hook of gold, offering only a fraction of light. That hardly mattered to the witness. From high in the gnarled trees surrounding the field, his gaze cut through the gloom as easily as a knife through flesh.
“You think you can encroach on my territory?” Money snarled down at the kneeler. Another gust of wind created that perfect background music.
“N—no. I just … I … I’m so sorry. I never meant …”
“You never meant to offer New Chicago’s elite prettier girls? Better prices?”
“No. No. You have to believe me. I only thought … hoped …”
“You thought … hoped …” Money sneered. No question, he was a man used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. He held out his hand, and Bodyguard smacked the butt of a pyre-gun onto his palm. “Well, your thoughts and hopes just got you killed.”
“No!” Kneeler sobbed like a baby. “Please! Don’t do this. I’ll leave New Chicago. I won’t ever come back. I swear!”
Money nodded to the Arcadian, who jerked his T-shirt over his head and stuffed the material in Kneeler’s mouth. Kneeler shook his head, perhaps to dislodge the cloth, perhaps to attempt another plea for mercy.
Either way, he failed.
“You were right, you know,” Money said, smug now. “You won’t ever come back.” A blaze of yellow light erupted from the barrel of the gun, arrowing out and nailing Kneeler in his chest.
A muffled scream of agony pierced the air. As Kneeler toppled to the ground, twitching, dying as his organs fried to a crisp, Money returned the gun to Bodyguard and wiped his hands in a job well done.
Alien Investigation and Removal Training Camp Day One
TRAINEE AFTER TRAINEE EMERGED from the auto-bus. Some were in their late teens and had just graduated from AIR High, but most were in their early twenties, male, and obviously overwhelmed by the line of instructors watching unabashedly as they carried their bags to their new digs: a rundown, luxuries-are-a-thing-of-the-past bunkhouse in the middle of an isolated valley.
Isolated, and ugly. There was dirt, dirt, and more dirt, with the occasional knotted, naked tree to spice things up. Only thing that wasn’t a complete eyesore was the obstacle course woven throughout the entire mile-long stretch, with its tall but thin brick walls, elevated beams, and manmade holes and pools, but by the end of the day, everyone here would hate the course so much they’d want to burn it down and dance on the ashes rather than look at it.
The few females to disembark, well, they were in their early twenties, too, and just as overwhelmed. Except for the last two. They just appeared eager.
Poor, dumb kids. They’d learn.
Thirteen years ago, Agent Hector Dean had ridden in that bus himself. Everyone on it had been yelled at, demoralized, and slapped around, all in an effort to weed out the pussies. What those two girls didn’t know but should? The yelling, the demoralizing, and the slapping were just precursors for what was to come.
Poor, dumb, about-to-be-traumatized kids.
Hector didn’t have to check the roster to learn the identities of his eager beavers. He’d memorized the stats of all twenty-nine recruits, and recognized the pair from their photos. Ava Sans and Noelle Tremain.
Ava, a twenty-three-year-old fluff of femininity who was barely five nothing in a pair of heels. She had curly brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Cute in a Sunday school teacher kind of way. Which was ironic. She had a rap sheet with more pages than the Bible.
She’d grown up in Whore’s Corner, the poorest part of New Chicago, with a drugged-out mother and more stepfathers than fingers. Hector could relate. Not about the multiple dads, he’d just had the one, and a f**king terrible one who’d enjoyed watching his young sons prize-fight, but about the drugged-out mom living in Whore’s Corner.
The WC was where Hector had been born, chewed up, spit out, and reformed into the man—or weapon—he was today.
Noelle, also twenty-three years old, though she was a tall, reed-slender slice of elegance, with lighter brown hair that was straight as a board, and eyes of the lightest gray. The product of old money, she’d grown up in the wealthiest part of town, in a giant-ass mansion, with doting servants to attend her every whim.
Hector could not relate.
She was as lovely as a cameo, and appeared to be as untouchable as a goddess. Which was also ironic. She might have a shorter rap sheet than Ava—most likely because her money had bought her a cleaner file—but every one of her arrests had stemmed from touching someone. Violently.
He didn’t mind admitting he’d been somewhat impressed with her before he’d seen her. A former delinquent himself, he knew the gals and guys who’d get down and dirty when necessary, uncaring whether they were hurt—or worse—always made the best agents.
Now he had to reevaluate. She looked like a tasty after-dinner treat ready to throw a tantrum over everything, not a potential badass.
He watched as she stretched her shoulders, her white T-shirt pulling tight over the plump rise of her br**sts, the golden sun lancing down and worshipping flawless skin that somehow boasted a post-orgasmic flush. Hector stopped caring about relating and realized he wanted to do a little touching of his own.