“You could try to explain to me how you figure things out, how you figure people out, Cassie, but the difference between you and the rest of the world is that to explain how you just figured out that I’d rather get a bloody nose on the basketball court than tee off with the boss, you’d have to backtrack. You’d have to sort out what the clues were and how you’d made sense of them, because you just do it. You don’t even have to think about it, not the way that I would, not the way that my team would. You probably couldn’t stop yourself if you tried.”
I hadn’t ever talked about this, not even with Mom, who’d taught me the parts of it that could be taught. People were people, but for better or worse, most days, they were just puzzles to me. Easy puzzles, hard puzzles, crosswords, mind-benders, sudoku. There was always an answer, and I couldn’t stop myself from pushing until I found it.
“How do you know any of this?” I asked the man in front of me. “And even if it’s true, even if I do have really good instincts about people, what’s it to you?”
He leaned forward. “I know because I make it my business to know. Because I’m the one who convinced the FBI that they need to be looking for people like you.”
“What do you want with me?”
He eased back in his chair. “What do you think I want with you, Cassie?”
My mouth went dry. “I’m seventeen.”
“Natural aptitudes, like yours, peak in the teen years. Formal education, college, the wrong influences, could all interfere with the incredible raw potential you have now.” He folded his hands neatly in front of him. “I want to see to it that you have the right influences, that your gift is molded into something extraordinary, something that you can use to do an incredible amount of good in this world.”
Part of me wanted to laugh at him, to walk out of the room, to forget that any of this had ever happened, but the other part just kept thinking that for five years, I’d been living in limbo, like I was waiting for something without knowing what that something was.
“You can take as much time as you need to think about it, Cassie, but what I’m offering you is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Our program is one of a kind, and it has the potential to turn Naturals—people like you—into something truly extraordinary.”
“People like me,” I repeated, my mind going ninety miles an hour. “And Michael.”
The second part was a guess, but not much of one. In the two minutes we’d spent walking to this office, Michael had come closer to figuring out what was going on inside my head than anyone I’d ever met.
“And Michael.” As he spoke, Agent Briggs’s face became more animated. Gone was the hardened professional. This was personal. This program was something he believed in.
And he had something to prove.
“What would becoming a part of this program entail?” I asked, measuring his response. The enthusiasm on his face morphed into something far more intense. His eyes bored into mine.
“How would you feel about moving to Washington, DC?”
How would I feel about moving to DC?
“I’m seventeen,” I reiterated. “A better question might be how my legal guardians would feel about it.”
“You wouldn’t be the first minor I’ve recruited, Cassie. There are work-arounds.”
Clearly, he had not met my Nonna.
“Five years ago, custody of Cassandra Hobbes was remitted to her biological father, one Vincent Battaglia, United States Air Force.” Agent Briggs paused. “Fourteen months after your appearance in his life, your father was transferred overseas. You chose to remain here, with your paternal grandmother.”
I didn’t ask how Agent Briggs had come by that information. He was FBI. He probably knew what color toothbrush I used.
“My point, Cassie, is that legally, your father still has custody, and I have every confidence that if you want this to happen, I can make it happen.” Briggs paused again. “As far as the outside world is concerned, we’re a gifted program. Very selective, with endorsements from some very important people. Your father is career military. He worries about the way you isolate yourself. That will make him easier to persuade than most.”
I started to open my mouth to ask how exactly he’d determined that my father worried, but Briggs held up a hand.
“I don’t walk into a situation like this blind, Cassie. Once you were flagged in the system as a potential recruit, I did my homework.”
“Flagged?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. “For what?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t the one who flagged you, and quite frankly, the details of your recruitment are moot unless you’re interested in my offer. Say the word if you’re not, and I’ll leave Denver tonight.”
I couldn’t do that—and Agent Briggs probably knew it before he asked.
He picked up the capless pen and scrawled some notes on the edge of one of his papers. “If you have questions, you can ask Michael. I have no doubt he’ll be painfully honest with you about his experience in the program so far.” Briggs rolled his eyes heavenward in a gesture of exasperation so universal that I almost forgot about the badge and the suit. “And if there are any questions that I could answer for you …”
He trailed off and waited. I took the bait and started pressing him for details. Fifteen minutes later, my mind was reeling. The program—that was how he referred to it, again and again—was small, still in its trial stages. Their agenda was twofold: first, to educate those of us selected to participate and hone our natural skills, and second, to use those skills to aid the FBI from behind the scenes. I was free to leave the program at any time. I would be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“There’s one question you haven’t asked, Cassie.” Agent Briggs folded his hands in front of him again. “So I’ll answer it for you. I know about your personal history. About your mother’s case. And while I have no new information for you, I can say that after what you’ve been through, you have more reasons than most to want to do what we do.”
“And what is that?” I asked, my throat tightening at the mere mention of the m-word. “You said that you’ll provide training, and that in exchange I’ll be consulting for you. Consulting on what, exactly? Training for what?”
He paused, but whether he was assessing me or adding emphasis to his answer, I wasn’t sure.