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Into Focus (Focus Series Book 1)

 

Copyright 2016 Fritzen Media. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Cover Artwork – © 2016 L.J. Anderson of Mayhem Cover Creations

Cover Model – Mirish – www.mirish.deviantart.com

Shakespir Edition

 

[]Prologue

 

The kid they sent to meet me was nervous. He was pale, sweaty, nearly shaking with anxiety. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen. I doubted that he had done anything like this before—not alone, at least. He was wearing a baseball cap, extremely dark sunglasses, and had his hood up, obscuring his face in dark shadows.

In July.

In Miami.

The kid couldn’t have been more obvious if he had a neon sign flashing the words HEY, I’M HERE TO MEET A SPY.

I ground my teeth in frustration before calming my nerves. The kid was probably just a cutout, someone paid to meet a contact in public. The idea was for the parties involved to hide behind multiple layers of people, so that they could maintain deniability.

It was also so to protect them if the contact was violent.

I don’t really have that problem. I’m my own cutout; I almost never look like myself anyway. And it would take more than these guys could put together in a public café to kill me. You know, probably. I hadn’t really tested it.

I squashed down my professionalism for a moment, stuck it in the back of my head, and ambled over to the kid. He sat rigidly in his chair, hardly moving, his eyes darting left and right, desperately tracking both available exits and the people around him. They eventually focused on me, and I saw his eyes widen behind the tinted lenses of his sunglasses.

I paused a few feet away from the chair across from him. “Sagittarius,” I said quietly.

I saw his eyes widen even further. They must have been in danger of falling right out of his head.

“G-Gemini,” he stuttered. He gestured weakly at the seat across from me, and I sat down slowly, taking care to keep my hands in full view. I didn’t want the kid to vapor-lock on me. I placed my palms on the table, and looked at my contact.

“You’re Deadhead, right?” the kid stammered.

That was what they called me in the industry. You have to have some kind of name in order to build a brand, you know. My real name was Rick Torin. You don’t just give out that kind of information, though. With my abilities, all I needed was an alias, and I was all but uncatchable. I didn’t even like the Grateful Dead.

But the kid should not to be so cavalier about divulging details in public, so I simply stared at him for a few moments, not moving a millimeter. I wasn’t actively trying to scare the poor kid, but I had a reputation to uphold.

“You have something for me,” I said. I kept my voice low, steady.

The kid gulped audibly, then reached into the front pocket of his sweatshirt. He withdrew a plain manila folder, and placed it on the table. With a single finger, he slid it across the surface toward me.

I accepted it with casual professionalism, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you meet a rookie (or anyone else, for that matter), and flipped it open. Inside was a series of photographs of a facility, a group of buildings about four stories tall, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. An aerial photograph showed the overall layout of the compound, like that even mattered to someone like me.

Behind the photographs was a small pile of documents, detailing the kind of security I could expect to encounter at the target. There wasn’t a letterhead on any of them, which was typical. Any corporation or outfit who hired me wouldn’t want to have any kind of easily identified paper trail attached to the job.

“What’s the target?” I asked quietly.

“Blackstone,” the kid mumbled.

“Mercenary outfit?”

He jerked his head in disagreement. “Private security and consultation.”

“Mercenary outfit,” I said with a snort. “There’s nothing in here about what you need.”

“Client list and bidding information. Should be on one of the higher-ups’ computers.”

“Deadline?”

“Ten days. That’s all they told me.”

I nodded my head. “My fee?”

“Cash. Black valise under the table.”

I groaned quietly. “You might as well have stuck it into a big burlap sack with a dollar sign on it.”

“Is… is that a problem?”

I shook my head. “I’ll see to it.” I reached down and snagged the handle of the valise, then rose. “Go order something. Sit here for a few minutes. Drink it slowly. Then pay and leave.”

He nodded his assent, swallowing loudly again.

“Relax, kid. You did fine. Next time don’t pick something so conspicuous. And for God’s sake, don’t wear a hood in the middle of July. Or in Miami. And you might want to consider some kind of anxiety medication.”

The kid laughed nervously. I stared at him evenly for a few moments, then sniffed and turned away.

I headed into the bathroom of the café, near the back of the building. I went in, checked to make sure that it was empty, then slid into one of the stalls, locking it behind me. I opened the clasps on the valise, and peeked inside.

Five stacks of hundred dollar bills lay at the bottom. The case was absurdly large for its cargo. I had no idea what the kid was thinking. Maybe he thought that fifty grand would take up a lot more space than it did. Sighing at the ignorance of youth, I took the money out, flipping through each stack casually, making sure that nobody had slipped in a ten to try and skim something off the top. Then I simply stuck the cash into the pockets of my jeans. It was tight, but they fit without anything sticking out.

I left the valise on the toilet, unlocked the stall, and moved over to the mirrors above the sink. I gazed at my reflection, which actually told a lie that nobody would expect, and concentrated. Ripples slowly began flowing over the surface of my skin, undulating waves that were almost hypnotic. As I watched, my face began to change.

The eyes went first, shifting from a rather striking blue to a dull, unremarkable brown. They drew slightly closer together, and my brow sank by half an inch. My nose narrowed, the bulge at the bridge shrinking noticeably. My hair grew about three inches, shifting from a bright blonde to a dark brown. My ears shrank, too, and slid up the sides of my skull a bit. My chin, which I had kept strong and intimidating, narrowed, weakening.

The rest of my body followed suit, and in a matter of seconds, I shrank five inches, my arms losing the tough, corded muscle I had kept for the benefit of anyone looking. I kept my feet the same size so I didn’t have to change shoes, though.

If this seems weird, then it should. There aren’t a whole lot of people like me. Skinchangers, people who can change their bodies at will, who can become anyone or anything that can be conceived, are few and far between. Aside from my family, I knew a handful of others, people who were part of a small community across the country. We aren’t really sure why we can do what we do, though my parents always said it had to do with our Native American heritage.

Honestly, I don’t really care how it works or why I can do it. All I know is what I can do with it. It made me one of the most effective freelance espionage agents in the world. With enough planning, I was able to simply walk into anywhere I wanted to go, and if that didn’t work, I could sneak in and out with nobody being the wiser.

Now I had a new job to do. The client was probably some kind of rival mercenary company to Blackstone if they wanted a list of their customers and bidding information. The only thing they could do with the data they wanted was undercut Blackstone and steal their contracts. It was no skin off my nose, so long as nobody got hurt.

I bent down and rolled up the cuffs of my jeans, which hung too low now that I had shrunk a few inches. I unbuttoned my shirt and tossed it into the trash can, keeping only a gray, unremarkable (and unlikely to be remembered) undershirt. Then, money in my pocket, I left the bathroom and stepped into the hot Miami sun.

 

[]Chapter One

 

Espionage is easy. Don’t let the movies make you think otherwise. High tech security systems, redundancies, backups, passwords, biometric scanners, and whatever other fancy things they like to throw into every script all have the same weakness.

They’re made and monitored by people.

People are easy to fool, and anyone with more than a rudimentary understanding of fieldcraft knows it. Someone with enough confidence and audacity can do more in an afternoon than a dozen drones in a week, if they’re in a decent position and know what to do. We’re social animals, like it or not, and we’re all conditioned from birth to respond in certain ways to certain people. We listen to older people, ignore landscapers, sign whatever the delivery guy sticks under our noses, and move on with our lives.

If you were to ask someone what their opinion of their plumber was, they’d probably remark on the quality of his or her work. They may mention a few side details, like oh, he’s a nice guy, but they don’t really know anything about their plumber to share.

But everyone has a strong opinion about their boss. Whether they work in an office, a construction site, or one of those new tech startup companies that operate out of someone’s garage, everyone works for someone, and everyone has something to say.

These are the kinds of things that nobody really thinks about much, if at all, and it’s something that, regardless of how much training someone has, can be exploited.

After I got the details and the payment for the job, I spent the next week getting ready. The target was in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, a few dozen miles away from any towns. I wasn’t sure exactly what they did there, but there were always several guards on duty, patrolling the perimeter in shifts. The guards carried actual assault rifles, not the civilian ones that politicians talk about banning every few months—these were ones that could unload a thirty round magazine in less than three seconds. I was extremely durable, but I was not anxious to experience what it felt like to be turned into Swiss cheese.

The other security measures looked fairly basic, limited mostly to the fence and strong doors, which made sense. In the middle of the desert, particularly a flat desert, it was not only unlikely that anyone would show up to cause trouble, but it would be nearly impossible to do so without being spotted by one of the guards on duty.

I knew all this because I flew over the compound myself. I was a buzzard at the time.

Shapeshifting is excellent for reconnaissance. But it’s not always enough to see what’s going on, because, as I said earlier, it’s really about people. So, to remedy that, I watched the guards from a perch on the roof of one of the buildings long enough to see one of them drink from a flask.

He may as well have handed me a picture of him sleeping with the First Lady. Liking to drink is one thing, but drinking on duty usually indicates something deeper than that. This guy liked to drink. If an outfit like Blackstone caught wind of one of their employees drinking on the job—especially when he isn’t even in the field—he’d be fired and blackballed in a heartbeat. This guy wanted a drink badly enough to risk his career, such as it was. That made him a target.

So, when he left the compound and headed home, I followed him from the air, then waited unobtrusively for him to go out for the night. He didn’t disappoint; he was only home long enough to shower and change out of his clothes before driving to the local bar, a dive called The Rusty Badger, which was a stupid name. The place was almost empty, because it was a Tuesday evening, but the bartender seemed to know him, and they struck up a conversation over a shared beer.

I left long enough to scrounge some clothes I had stashed before starting my recon, and returned, this time as a human, though I didn’t look like myself at all. I made myself a little taller than normal, though not tall enough to be too intimidating, and changed my features enough to be unrecognizable. Nobody got to see my real face except for me and my family. It wasn’t professional.

I went inside, and, after I bought the guard (whose name turned out to be Sam, though his friends called him Lucky) a few drinks, then a few more drinks, I started to learn some things. Lucky had washed out of the Marines, for example, because he had had “disagreements” with the CO. He had worked for Blackstone for two years, though he had never seen any action. He and most of the guards were bored most of the time.

And they all hated their boss, Josh Breckan, to whom Lucky referred as “a pencil-pushing pencil-neck.” Josh Breckan, according to the file provided by my employer, was high up enough in the organization to have the information I was looking for on his personal computer in his office at the compound.

Lucky, who plied me for about a dozen drinks in exchange for information that he thought was worthless but was actually worth at least fifty grand, eventually was driven home by the bartender, who had apparently done it often enough that he wasn’t particularly bothered at the prospect.

That was how, eight days after I had had a conversation with a nervous wreck in the humid Miami heat, I stood across the street from the home of Josh Breckan, Pencil-neck of Blackstone’s New Mexico compound.

 

[]Chapter Two

 

Okay, so when I said that espionage was easy, I may not have been clear. See, it isn’t particularly difficult, especially not when you can change your face into whatever you want, because it involves skills that just about anyone can learn. But there is a lot of legwork involved. I was faster and better at it than just about anyone, but that was because I could spy on people as a bird, or a lizard, or a fly. But, if anybody had access to the same information I did, they would be able to get Lucky to tell them whatever they needed. I simply knew what Lucky liked, and followed through to get where I needed to go.

None of that was hard for me, but even easier was breaking into Josh’s house. The guy had a state of the art security system, motion sensors covering every bare inch of the exterior and the perfectly manicured lawn, sensors on every window and door, and even one covering the skylight above his bedroom. And those were just the things I could see. For all I knew, he might sleep with a gun under his pillow. He was, after all, in a dangerous business.

But none of that mattered to someone like me. It doesn’t matter how secure you make the obvious entrances to a building; spiders, flies, ants, and even larger animals like mice could virtually always find a way inside. They only needed the tiniest crack, and they’d be in. Something that size with the intelligence of a human was even harder to keep out.

I waited until the wee hours of the morning before I did anything. Then, under cover of darkness, I shifted into a squirrel.

Shifting doesn’t exactly hurt, but you know it’s happening. One of my brothers who was too stupid to realize that he could literally replace any teeth he wanted had had a particularly large cavity filled at the dentist once, when he was fourteen. He said that the grinding, drilling sensation against his numbed tooth was really, really close to how it felt, except it was experienced everywhere. I have no idea if that’s true, and I don’t plan on letting anyone go prospecting around in my mouth long enough to find out.

And, before anyone asks, I have no idea what happens to the extra mass of my body when I shift into something smaller than my normal human form. The cells that don’t get used have to somewhere, I guess, but it’s not something I’m keen to find out. The only way I would be able to really learn would be in a laboratory, and, if I’m being honest, the thought terrified me.

If a scientist of any kind found out about skinchangers, even if there was only one of us, it would not go well. We weren’t just proof of the supernatural, we would be regarded as a finite resource, and treated as such. I’d be stuck in a lab for the rest of my life—which could, potentially, be a very long time, if my grandfather was any indication—probably held under constant sedation. My individual cells could be harvested to produce all kinds of things.

Stem cells, for one; a limitless supply, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Maybe even more obscure things, if they figured out what allowed me to shapeshift. Organic fibers, carbon nanotubes… hell, I could probably provide enough internal organs to take care of every patient on the transplant lists.

Maybe it’s selfish of me to not do that. I don’t exactly work in a friendly industry, but I’d never killed anyone, and only ever used force if there was no other option. Generally speaking, I don’t hurt people. I’m a skinchanger, and though I can look like one if I really wanted to, I’m not a monster.

But I never felt guilty about refusing to sacrifice my freedom, my life in the name of science and progress. I’m not a lab rat.

At that moment, I was, in fact, a squirrel.

I scampered across the lawn, too small to trip the motion sensors, and skittered up the fence enclosing the backyard with careless ease. Quickly, I hopped over to the patio, about a foot away from the back door. Then I concentrated once again, shifting back to my original body.

One of the limits of my abilities is that I usually have to revert to normal before I can shift again. When I shift to double someone, I’m still a human, and am really only moving parts of my body around. That means I can do it quickly and on the fly. But shifting from one animal to another was something entirely different, and can have really nasty consequences. One of my grandfather’s brothers did it too many times, and wasn’t able to quite get back to normal again. He looked normal enough, if you didn’t count the excess hair, but he wasn’t the same anymore; something in his mental state had changed, and nobody was sure exactly what it was.

He never really laughed much after that, and always seemed tense, ready to run at a moment’s notice. It took us a while to realize that he had shifted from a polecat to a deer for some reason. It looked like some of the basic instincts of the animals—the hardwired fight or flight reflex in particular—had carried over when he shifted back out of it. He was never able to get his head back on straight.

Anyway, I had to shift back before I could shift again. I wasn’t about to end up like that.

Once I was human, I looked around to double check that everything was clear, then moved right up to the door. The bottom of it rested about half an inch above the ground, and had a black rubber flap that prevented rain (what little of it fell in New Mexico anyway) from flowing into the house. I checked around, and, making sure to stay as close to the house as possible to avoid the motion sensors, found a barbecue fork on the patio table. I picked it up, then leaned down and wedged it under the door, holding the flap open at its corner.

I concentrated once more, felt my skin ripple and my bones collapse upon themselves, and plummeted toward the ground at a lunatic, breakneck speed. My arms split into two, my legs did the same, my head shot backwards, receding toward what had been my shoulders, and my torso widened, even as it shrank. In less than a minute, I had gone from a tall man to a tiny wolf spider.

All I needed to get through the door without tripping any alarms was a body small enough to fit under the gap in the rubber I had made with the barbecue fork. A layman might wonder why I didn’t simply shrink myself down until I had enough clearance to get through. Theoretically, I absolutely could do it. There really isn’t a limit on how much I can shift; I can rework individual parts of my body, or, if I felt like it, could transform into some massive Lovecraftian monster. But skinchangers tend to avoid the latter.

The problem is one of physical limitation. I’m no expert by any means, but I made sure to pay close attention in biology in school, given the nature of my abilities. And the truth is that geometry plays a greater role in biology than most people realize. There’s something called the Square-Cube Law, which was outlined by none other than Galileo himself. Basically, as something shrinks or grows in size, the volume of it shrinks or grows at a faster rate than the surface area. That doesn’t sound too important, right?

But we keep our body temperatures stable mostly through our skin and our circulation. When the ratio gets disrupted too much—like if I shrink down to the size of a gnat—I’d actually lose body heat faster than I could replenish it. I’d freeze to death pretty quickly, in a matter of minutes at most, seconds at best. It’s why smaller people always seem to be cold.

And if I instead decided to grow myself into something larger than a house, my lungs wouldn’t be able to draw enough air to handle the extra volume. I’d suffocate pretty much immediately. Then there’s the problem of having a skeleton that’s actually strong enough to support the extra weight. It’s why elephants don’t look like giant mice; they have to be different in order to be that big.

In other words, when you hear some guy say that an ant the size of a car could lift the Chrysler Building, just tell him that the ant would die in seconds. That usually shuts them up.

So, yes, I have to shift into things that could exist or I’d die, and spiders aren’t all that complicated. And before you ask, no, I don’t understand how I can still have my own mind when I’m walking around as a freaking spider without an actual brain. By all rights, I shouldn’t, but I shouldn’t be able to turn into a spider in the first place, right?

It’s freaking magic. Clap your hands if you believe.

Anyway, I scuttled across the short distance, pumping my eight legs madly. I made it through the gap beneath the door, and found myself in a small kitchen. My eyes as a spider were designed to see movement, mostly, and I couldn’t really get a good look around. So I crept to one of the corners that seemed to be out of the way, and shifted back to normal.

The kitchen was nicely furnished—granite countertops, a lovely little kitchen island, and a gleaming gas range all shone from recent cleaning. The table across the room was made of some kind of highly polished wood, maybe oak, and looked large enough to seat ten people comfortably. I looked around a bit, hoping to get a sense of my target, and opened the door to the refrigerator. It was fully stocked, the shelves filled with fresh fruit and vegetables.

And, I noted, with a groan of displeasure, juice boxes.

Kids. The guy has kids.

Crap.

That complicated things. I don’t like violence generally, but I’m willing to break a few bones if I have to put someone down. Kids, though… that was a different story. Hell, I don’t even want to scare kids, let alone actually hurt them. I liked them. Sue me.

I’d have to change my plans. If the guy had been a bachelor, I would have just marched into his bedroom, turned my hand into a sword, quizzed him about his work, knocked him out, impersonated him, gone into his office, and dumped the files onto a portable hard drive. Easy enough.

My head buzzed as I made adjustments. After a few minutes, I had a new plan. I made the decision, and left the way I had come.

 

[]Chapter Three

 

Josh Breckan was an early riser. He briskly walked to his car that morning at six-thirty sharp, dressed in an immaculate pinstriped suit. His tie was held in place with a rather lovely stick pin, which, if the diamond was real, probably cost him as much as the car. His hair was neatly groomed, parted on the left, and his face was perfectly clean-shaven.

I noticed this from my vantage point in the backseat of his car, a rather comfortable sedan with windows so tinted that I wondered if they were legal. Before he actually opened the door, I shifted once again, into a gecko.

Don’t look at me like that. Geckos are hard to spot when you aren’t looking for them, and I needed to be both small and aware enough to know when it was time to take the next step.

I darted to the floor, where he would have no chance of seeing me, and settled down to wait. He’d be in the car for at least an hour before he got to work, assuming he drove within speed limits, and judging from the way he dressed and groomed himself, I thought that was a fairly safe bet. I needed to wait until he was out in the desert before I did anything, away from anyone who would be able to help him.

Away from his kids.

I used an old trick to keep track of time: music. When I was a kid—not that I’m exactly old or anything, but younger than I am—I went through a pretty intense classic rock phase. The old bands—Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, and a hundred others—all had one thing in common: they really liked long, sprawling songs that had plenty of time to shred a few good solos in between bridges. And I had listened to enough of them to have the exact runtimes of each permanently ingrained in my head.

So I sang—mentally, I mean. Geckos can’t sing. That would be crazy. I let the music play through my head, taking care not to miss a single note. It was a lot easier than counting, at least for me.

Several songs later, just under a half hour, I finished the final riff of “Crossroads,” thanked Eric Clapton silently, and made my move.

I shifted back to my human body in a matter of seconds, concentrating as hard as I could on doing so as quickly as possible. As I finished the shift, I kept my face ducked down low, obscured behind the headrest of the driver’s seat. Rapidly, I contorted the features of my face, disguising myself adequately, assuming that my new friend Josh would have a decent memory after today’s events. As I did that, I swung one arm around the front of the seat, wrapping my elbow around Josh’s windpipe before he could react.

He jolted in surprise and panic, jerking the wheel in shock, and almost went off the road before he righted the sedan, and slammed on the brakes instead. I hit my nose on the headrest in front of me, though not hard enough to do more than cause a few involuntary tears to fill my eyes. I blinked them away, and spoke to my target for the first time.

“Don’t move. Don’t scream. I am not going to hurt you unless you make me. Do you understand?”

Making small mewling sounds of protest, he nodded rapidly.

“Good. That’s good, Josh. Pull over here, on the side of the road.”

Cautiously, moving as slowly as possible, obviously trying to avoid any sudden movements, he complied.

“Now, Josh, I know you aren’t much of a fighter. I want you to consider two things before we move forward with this conversation. First, there is very little that you can do to stop me if I am forced to hurt you. I outweigh you by at least sixty pounds, and even if you get a few lucky hits in, that won’t stop me for long.”

Slowly, I eased the pressure off of Josh’s throat. I kept my arm in place, but let him breathe more comfortably.

“Second, I could have had this conversation with you back at your house. With your family. Do you understand what I mean?”

He met my haze in the rearview mirror, his eyes wide with fear. Slowly, he nodded. “Y-yes,” he said. “Yes, I understand.”

“Good, Josh. Thank you.” I relaxed, removing my arm from him completely, and sat back, eyes on his. “I’m going to ask you some questions. I want complete answers from you. If you give them to me, I won’t hurt you. Do you understand?”

He nodded once again, the motion jerky.

“Good. Let’s begin.”

 

***

 

I didn’t feel great about threatening the little guy, but he had information that I needed, and it saved time. He had been more than willing to listen once I had explained the situation to him, and gave me complete, concise answers.

He didn’t even question how I had managed to hide in his backseat for a half hour in the middle of the desert. Or why I was naked. Honestly, that would have been the first thing out of my mouth if it had happened to me, but at that point, I don’t think he was thinking about that. He was probably just grateful that I had gone out of my way to keep his family out of things.

But that didn’t stop him from protesting severely when I told him to strip to his underwear and left him on the side of the road with a water bottle and stole his car. I simply leveled my gaze at him and stared for a few moments before he complied.

God bless the cowardly.

I drove the rest of the way in silence, comfortable in my new disguise. Josh was a lot shorter than me, and it felt odd to be in such a small, skinny body. It was actually odd that it even felt odd, considering that I had been a freaking lizard a little while ago, but my mental state isn’t really all that important. Anyway, the suit fit me well, and I wouldn’t have any trouble getting into the Blackstone office. It would be a couple of hours at least before anyone happened to spot Josh on the side of the road. He’d be fine as long as he didn’t guzzle the water down in the first few minutes. The desert got hot really early, but if he had lived here long enough he’d know what to do.

At the end of the day, it really just wasn’t the guy’s fault. He had a job, and was just a paper pusher. His company didn’t do very nice things, but that wasn’t really on him.

My job wasn’t particularly nice, either. But it paid pretty well.

 

***

 

People see what they expect to see, and I managed to get into the Blackstone office without incident. I flashed an ID badge at the gate, though the guard didn’t even look twice at me once he recognized the car. I parked, and strolled right through the rest of the security, and found Josh’s office from the directions he had given me.

It was still early, and it didn’t look like Josh’s bosses, two men named Mr. Roberts and Mr. Plonsky, were in yet. According to him, they normally rolled in around nine-thirty. I wanted to be gone by then, so I moved quickly.

I sat down at his computer, punched in the password he had graciously provided, and had access to all of the information I needed. I opened the briefcase I brought with me (which I had stuck in the trunk of Josh’s car the night before), pulled out the hard drive I’d be working with, plugged it in, and started cloning.

The process of cloning a hard drive wasn’t exactly fast, but it would’ve been unbearably slow even a year or two before this. I guess people got tired of spending two days backing up their pirated movies, and figured out ways to cut down on the hassle of petty larceny.

I kept my head on a figurative swivel, looking around the office building, alert for signs that anything had gone wrong. If one of the guards had come in late for his shift—or, God forbid, showed up early—it was possible that they would be the ones to find Josh. That would be an interesting conversation, to say the least.

But I wasn’t particularly worried. It wasn’t like I didn’t have virtually limitless ways to escape.

Skinchangers are rarely, if ever, caught.

I stood up from the chair when the process was at about twenty percent. It was a few minutes after eight o’clock, and I still had plenty of time to finish up and be gone before anyone was the wiser.

I walked around the office building casually, keeping an ear out for shouts of alarm. I poked around for a while, trying to see if there was anything significant that I should know about. You know, secret labs hidden in the lower levels of the building in which Blackstone grew hideous biological creatures that would serve as foot soldiers in a bid for world domination, that kind of thing.

But it was just an office. Alas, the real world is often far less interesting than we hope. I mean, hell, I was a freaking skinchanger walking around an honest-to-God mercenary company, and these flatfoots didn’t even have the courtesy to be part of some kind of horrifying conspiracy.

Just once, once, I’d like to find out something that wasn’t completely boring. But all I turned up was human resources complaints, tax information, personnel files, and, on one of their computers, a surprisingly varied and meticulously organized folder filled with pornography.

Lame.

I went back to good old Josh’s office, and flopped back down in front of the computer. The building itself was totally empty except for me. The guards apparently were posted in positions to keep people from getting into the compound at all, not to monitor what happened inside. They probably didn’t particularly care what happened inside. It’s not like there was anything interesting.

The transfer was up to ninety percent, which was good. I wanted out of there. If I had to hang around for much longer, the sheer boredom might just kill me. I checked the desk clock. It was just after eight-thirty. That was fine. I’d be gone before the work day officially started.

Just as the transfer reached ninety-six percent, I heard a chorus of shouts from the courtyard outside the building. It sounded like hurried demands, voices giving orders that should be followed, and that most sane men would obey.

Shit. They must’ve found Josh.

There wasn’t much I could do just yet; the transfer wasn’t complete, and you never know what the client was really looking for. I didn’t want to have to do this again, so I didn’t scrap everything and bug out. Besides, it was almost finished. And it’s not like they wouldn’t spend some time figuring out what had happ—

Ka-WHAM.

An explosion, impossibly loud, erupted from the direction of the shouts. The blast shook the building, and the windows of the office rattled in their panes, threatening to shatter. I jumped up from my chair, almost frantic, trying to remain calm. It’s hard to do that when the fucking building shakes.

I staggered to the door and closed it, but there wasn’t a lock on it. I cast about for something to barricade it, and as I considered the heavy file cabinet against the wall, a hail of gunfire shattered the relative quiet. Renewed shouts of alarm were barely audible in brief pauses between the gunshots, but they sounded panicked.

I forced myself to look at the situation rationally. It didn’t make sense. If Josh had returned, then they would have come for me. There shouldn’t be a freaking battle breaking out.

The compound was, it seemed, under attack.

I didn’t know why it had happened, or who had done it. It didn’t particularly matter to me, either. I had a job to do, and getting myself involved wouldn’t get that done.

Cursing the awful timing of paramilitary conflicts, I practically dove over the desk to get to the computer. The transfer was, I was happy to see, just about complete, hovering at ninety-nine percent. In my experience, that could have either meant it was done or would hang there for an hour.

I didn’t have an hour.

I stood over the desk, staring at the little progress bar, wondering what pencil-necked code monkey had designed this to estimate remaining time so poorly, when the door swung open and a white-faced guard burst inside.

He held an assault rifle in his hands, an honest-to-God assault rifle, not just a civilian one that was semi-automatic. That one would rip a man to shreds in a few seconds, and might even kill me if he got lucky enough. I sized up the distance between us, and was about to strike when the guard closed the door quietly and crouched down where he couldn’t be seen.

His eyes found mine, and he mouthed “Get down!” with startling sincerity. I obliged him, ducking behind the desk. I crawled around it, and looked at my new friend.

“What’s happening?” I whispered. I wondered why we bothered being so quiet; there was still gunfire aplenty to cover the sounds of our voices.

The guard shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “A few guys showed up, laughed at us when we asked for ID, and then a fucking bomb went off. They must’ve planted charges or something. We shot at them, but…” He shook his head again. “I don’t know. Nothing seemed to get through. They didn’t get hit.”

That wasn’t normal. If they had been fired at by a bunch of panicky civilians with weapons they weren’t trained with, well, that would be one thing. But these guys all had military backgrounds, and they knew what they were doing. They were paid to fight, and there were over a dozen of them. They should have made short work of a few men, bomb or not.

“A bunch of guys went down. I didn’t see how,” he continued. He was almost babbling, the stress of a sudden combat situation on comfortable, safe ground obviously getting to him. “It didn’t look like they had any guns or nothin’. Maybe snipers or something outside the compound.”

The gunfire abruptly ceased outside.

That was either very good or very bad.

“Ssh!” the guard said, which was totally unnecessary. I hadn’t made a sound.

We both listened closely, and we heard a calm, mocking voice from the courtyard. It was impossible to make out, but the tone was unmistakable. Someone was having a very good day, and I doubted that it was Blackstone.

“What are we going to do?” I asked the guard. It seemed in character for Josh to defer to whoever had the most experience in life-and-death situations.

The guard shook his head. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know what their objective is. They just started fighting. They’re probably going to search the buildings next.”

Well, that wouldn’t do.

I nodded. “Well, we’ll have to get out of here. We can’t stay where we’ll be found.”

“Nowhere to hide, man. This place isn’t exactly built for something like this.”

I shook my head slowly, then crept around to the computer. Lucky for me, the transfer was complete. I unplugged the portable hard drive, stashed the cables in my suit pockets, and rose to my feet. I shut down the computer completely, and pushed the chair back in, so it looked like nobody had been here at all.

“What are you doing?” the guy asked.

“Escaping,” I said blithely. “Want to come?”

The guard’s mouth fell open, and he shut it firmly a few seconds later. Then I saw him visibly calm himself down, taking a deep breath with his eyes closed for a moment. When he opened them, there was steel in his spine, and he rose cautiously from the floor, and nodded to me.

“They’re at the front of the complex, right?” I asked, my voice low.

“Yeah, last I saw. Three or four guys, max.”

I nodded. “Okay. We’re only on the second story. We can get out through the window, pop over the fence, and call for help.”

He shook his head. “Barbed wire, man. Do you think that—“

“It’s either get a few cuts or get killed. Which do you prefer?”

He shook his head once again, but didn’t say a word. I took that as acceptance, and stepped over to the window. I opened it up slowly, a little surprised that they were the kind that slid up all the way rather than the weird narrow ones office buildings usually had. I poked my head out cautiously and looked around. I didn’t see anyone, but the voices were a bit louder outside.

I placed both hands on the windowsill, swung my feet over, and hung down. The drop was only about twelve feet, and if I landed right, it wouldn’t even hurt.

I let go, and kept my knees loose on the way down. I collapsed to the ground, which wasn’t exactly comfortable, but Josh was a lightweight, and I didn’t even have a scratch.

The guard followed a moment or two later, his impact significantly louder with all of his extra weight. I pressed a finger to my lips, and he nodded. Together, we crept toward the chain link fence. It wasn’t all that high, only about ten feet. My main concern was the noise it would make.

Nothing I can do about it now.

I could just leave the guard behind. I didn’t owe him anything, and he worked for a company that probably did very bad things for very big piles of money. He wouldn’t be much of a loss, if you judged things solely by the numbers. I could turn into a bird and fly away. Who would be the wiser?

But the guard hadn’t done anything wrong, not really. He was just a guy who had a skill set that wasn’t in demand by nice businesses. A lot like me, when you think about it. If I could escape with him too, why not? I’d have to leave him behind eventually, but I could at least get him out.

So, rather than do the smart thing, I tried to do the noble thing, and attempted to save us both.

I swept the suit jacket off, making sure to switch the hard drive to my pants pocket, and flung it over the top of the fence. It rested over the barbed wire, and the heavy cloth (why on earth would a guy wear a suit that warm in the middle of the fucking desert, I have no idea) should prevent most of the damage.

The guard grinned and nodded at me, then motioned for me to go first. I nodded, and quickly scaled the fence, taking care to be as quiet as possible. I carefully went over the opening Josh’s jacket provided, and dropped to the ground on the other side, the next best thing to silent.

The guard made a lot more noise as he went over, but I didn’t hear any cries of alarm, so I chalked it up as good enough.

Once we were out of the compound, we both breathed sighs of relief, and moved quickly toward the desert, not quite running. There wasn’t a whole lot of sand out there, and most of the surface was hard, rock or packed sand and dirt, so we had to be careful until we were far enough away.

After about three hundred yards, sweat pouring down our faces, we came to a halt.

“That,” the guard panted, “was some quick thinking. Good job, Mr. Breckan.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said, keeping my voice casual. “Can you call for help? I don’t have a phone.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Let me catch my breath, and we’ll see what I can get from the home office.”

I nodded, pretending not to find it odd that the guy wouldn’t just call the police. It’s not like their business was illegal… was it?

Heh. Better to handle things internally, I guess.

“Got a pair of binoculars? I want to see these guys,” I asked.

He nodded, and reached into one of the pockets of his vest. He handed me a small pair of binoculars. I looked through them back toward the compound, scanning the area, and saw something that was odd.

Damn odd.

The guards, about eight of them, knelt on the ground, their hands laced together behind their heads. Their weapons were gathered into a pile off to one side. In front of them were three people, two men and a woman. One of the men was talking to the disarmed guards.

None of them held a weapon, which was… unsettling. There had been a lot of gunfire, a storm of bullets that had lasted for several minutes, at least. I figured that at least some of them were coming from whoever had stormed the compound, but… if they didn’t have the guards under weapons, why had they surrendered?

Hell, if they were unarmed, why didn’t the Blackstone guys fight now? They could overwhelm three unarmed people pretty quickly.

The three strangers were wearing normal street clothes, jeans and shirts. One of the guys, a tall, skinny man with long hair that fell past his shoulders, was wearing sandals for Christ’s sake. It didn’t look like they were wearing suicide vests, and unless they had planted charges everywhere and held a switch or something, it just didn’t make sense.

What the hell had happened here?

The weight of the hard drive in my pocket suddenly seemed very, very heavy.

A chill went down my spine, and I started breathing a little faster. I had some suspicions as to who—or, I should say, what— these people were, and it made my mouth dry up.

Evidence. I might have some evidence on the hard drive I had copied. Until then, these were just three people, but if they were what I suspected…

My life could get complicated, fast.

There were a lot of things that I could reliably fight, but some of them… some of them you just ran away from. Some things you don’t fight, and the best you can hope for is to survive.

The guard was talking into a radio, a murmur that I didn’t really pay attention to. He seemed canny enough, and had obviously thought to switch channels before calling for help, or I suspect I would have seen some sudden activity in the compound.

One of the buildings was obviously a total loss, its walls barely holding together as it burned merrily. The smoke was probably enough of a signal to get someone’s attention eventually, but we were in the middle of nowhere. I doubted that it would be any time soon.

I saw the guy wearing sandals grin at something the woman said, and they both burst into obvious laughter. It looked like they were having a good time.

“How many guards were with you today?” I asked my companion quietly.

He had evidently finished with the radio, because he answered quickly enough. “Twelve, me included.”

I counted again. There were only eight guards kneeling down. Either the other three had escaped like us, or they had been killed in the fight. I swallowed against a lump that had formed in my throat.

I didn’t say anything to the guard. I just passed him the binoculars, and stepped away while he looked. I saw him take in what he saw, do the math, and come to the conclusion that I had. His face fell, but I saw his jaw clench.

“What’s your name again?” I asked.

“Brett, sir. Brett Childress.”

“You can drop the ‘sir,’ I think, Brett. Just Josh is fine.”

“Josh, then.” He took in a breath, and his voice barely contained his rage. “Looks like they got three of ours. Home office is sending in help. I told them to come in heavy.”

“That sounds appropriate.”

“Who the hell are these people?” He turned and eyed me carefully. “What did you guys get us into?”

I shook my head. “Son, I have no idea.”

I debated what I should do next. Brett didn’t strike me as a trigger-happy idiot looking for an excuse to kill people, which is what most media tend to think of mercenaries. But these guys were veterans, ones who did their service and either washed out, were drummed out of service, or just wanted a better paycheck. I couldn’t really blame them for joining up with an outfit like Blackstone. Three years could provide what the military paid in twenty, and they mostly did the same job and fought the same people.

Today, if the President needed an oil field secured in the Middle East, he was just as likely to call someone like Blackstone as he would the Joint Chiefs. Well, I doubt that he’d make that call personally, but still.

These guys weren’t just a bunch of assholes. They were just soldiers who did it for money rather than country.

I could stick around for a while, but whatever backup was on the way would be likely to pick up Josh where I had left him. I’d be found out eventually.

I had to leave, but I’d have to shift to do it. I wasn’t about to walk across several miles of desert. Brett would see me. He’d either freak out and shoot me, or freak out and have a breakdown.

I could kill him. But I really didn’t want to do that. Like I said, he wasn’t an asshole who deserved a bloody death.

So I did the next best thing, what I hoped would preserve his life. I turned my eyes back to the compound, and stepped back a few feet.

“Something’s happening,” I muttered.

Brett stepped ahead, looking intently through the binoculars. While he was distracted, I stretched out one arm, and concentrated. My hand widened and flattened out, but didn’t harden; I wanted it to be heavy and soft. The fingers joined together, and it looked like I was wearing some kind of bizarre mitten. I ground my teeth, and made the bones of the hand dissolve, turning them into something quite like fine sand. I piled more muscle onto my biceps, the skin of my arm bulging weirdly, straining against the fabric of my shirt. It took me all of six seconds or so to get what I needed.

“I don’t see what—“

I swung the improvised flesh-and-bone blackjack across the back of Brett’s head, and he dropped like a stone. The impact actually split open my skin, and I bled for a few seconds before I closed the wound, shifting my hand back to normal.

I knelt down next to Brett’s still form, and rolled him onto his back. He was still breathing, but was knocked clean unconscious. He’d be down for a while. I reached down and found his canteen, and spilled a little water onto his lips, making sure he had some go down his throat. It was going to be hot soon, and I didn’t want the guy to die of heat stroke before help arrived. I probed the back of his skull, and didn’t feel anything broken, which was good. He would probably be fine after a few days. I rolled him back onto his stomach to keep his eyes out of the sun.

I’d done all I could for Brett and myself. I needed to get away, as fast as I could. If those people were what I thought, it was possible I was in huge trouble. If they knew about me, I was definitely in trouble.

So I took the hard drive out my pocket, placed it on the ground in front of me, stripped down, and shifted again. A few moments later, wearing the shape of a buzzard, I picked up the hard drive in my talons, and flew to safety.

 

[]Chapter Four

 

Several hours later, I was seated in a cheap motel room in front of a laptop. I was extremely careful in my line of work, and I made sure that I had had a place to go and a car after the job was complete. Aside from the benefit of having a place to run to, I had set it up so that I could go over whatever data I recovered.

See, clients are just as dangerous as marks in my business. In the “clandestine services,” itchy trigger fingers often led to dead freelancers, and I found that usually people were more likely to be twitchy if they had asked me to steal something especially important.

To avoid situations that would end with sudden and acute lead poisoning (which probably wouldn’t kill me, but it’s not like I would enjoy the experience) I made it my policy to examine anything I stole for a client. If the information was too dangerous for me to know, I disappeared. I’d done it three times in the past, all when extremely dangerous people wanted to know extremely dangerous things.

One of them, it turned out, had been planning a terrorist attack. I managed to piece together the details of what they were going to do, and turned the information over to the Secret Service anonymously. They must’ve stopped the plot in its tracks, because I never heard anything about it again. If you live in Virginia, you’re welcome.

Anyway, this time was different. I wasn’t just looking for something that was vaguely dangerous, I was looking for something that would lead to three unarmed people attacking a paramilitary organization. So I read with as much attention as possible, thoroughly going through each document I had recovered across a full terabyte of data.

And it was freaking boring.

Do you realize how much a terabyte of data is? When most of what you’re looking through is emails, that’s an insane amount of things to read. To put it in perspective, it’s about three hundred and fifty thousand copies of War and Peace. More, if they’re compressed adequately.

I paid closer attention to messages that had been sent in the past couple of months. If there was anything dangerous, it would probably be recent; most of this stuff pertained to jobs already completed. So I read.

And read.

And read.

The light in my hotel room, half a state away from the seedy motel where I had stayed during the job, was uneven and particularly annoying. One of the lamps flickered occasionally, and, frankly, it drove me nuts. I glowered at it every so often, trying to impress upon it the scope of my displeasure. The lamp remained unimpressed, and continued to flicker lamely at me.

No respect.

It took the rest of that day and half of the second, about thirty hours before my deadline, for me to find something that made my heart race.

I read through the email chain carefully, blinking away my weariness. Then I shook my head, got up, and made a pot of coffee in the little one that the hotel provided. I splashed some cold water on my face while it brewed. Then I made myself a cup, took a few sips, and sat back down, rubbing my eyes. I took another few minutes to make sure that I was firmly awake, alert, and conscious.

Then I read through it again.

By the time I finished, a cold weight had settled in the pit of my stomach.

Shit.

The email chain was similar to the others. It was calm, quiet, and extremely professional. The sender had requested an estimate of costs for a contract, and Josh and his cohorts had provided a simple, conservative bid to complete the job.

Words like “disposal,” “cleanup,” and “covert” jumped out at me. Plans for digging large, bafflingly huge trenches were included. Diagrams showing the exact dimensions and estimates for the total amount of volume clearly showed the practicality of the plan. Timelines, work schedules, and all of the logistical data were included, in a coolly professional manner.

One word was used just a single time, in the initial estimate request: “cadavers.”

Someone had requested an estimate for the secret disposal of a large number of corpses.

An impossibly large number of corpses. Thousands. Tens of thousands.

And they wanted it completed out of sight of any surveillance satellites.

Mass graves. Burning trenches.

Thousands of people. The population of several large towns, or a small city was going to die.

This was something that someone would want to cover up. This was worth attacking a facility like Blackstone’s, if they were looking to erase their trail—or if they were trying to track down whoever was responsible.

But no, that didn’t track. They had had grins on their faces, and two of them had actual burst into laughter. If they were looking for clues, they probably wouldn’t be so happy about it. Unless they were insane or something.

Information. I need more information.

Resolute, I began searching for other messages pertaining to the chain of emails.

 

***

 

A few hours later, I had only learned a few things. First, the estimate request didn’t have a fixed date attached, which meant that the buyer wanted to know Blackstone’s capabilities, but didn’t have the plans in place yet. That was good; it meant that whatever was going to happen might be preventable. Second, I learned that I was never going to uncover the identity of the person or group who was going to do this on my own.

The email address used was relatively anonymous, hidden by virtue of being freely available to anyone. I didn’t know enough about cyber… things? Cyber security? Whatever you call it, I didn’t know enough about it to track it down without help.

So I called a friend. Max wasn’t the most stable person on the planet, but he owed me one, and he was way better with this kind of thing than I was. He’d either be able to tell me something, or would be able to put me in touch with someone who could.

“What do you want?” his watery voice demanded when he picked up.

“Hello, Max,” I said calmly. Half of Max’s personality was bluster.

“Rick,” he acknowledged.

“Max, I need your help with something.”

I heard a soft groan. “Rick… the kind of things you get mixed up in, I’d rather not be anywhere near.”

“Max,” I cautioned.

“Don’t give me the sales pitch, kid. I know all the moves already. You can’t just—“

“Max, you owe me one. Istanbul,” I reminded him.

He was silent for a few moments. “Istanbul,” he growled. I let him remember what had taken place that night, and the scars across his chest he had acquired there.

“Fine,” he finally said. “What do you need? It’ll be a few days before I can meet you in the field.”

“I don’t need anything like that. I just need you to track an email address for me.”

He grunted in surprise. “That’s it?”

“That’s it. I need to know who sent it, or at least where it was sent from. Can you manage it?”

“Depends. Do you have the address?”

“Better. I have archived message files.”

“Good. Send them to me.”

I considered for a moment how much Max should know. He’d be in danger if it got out that he had done this. Hell, I was in danger for reading it.

But he’d be able to do the job faster if he was given the whole file.

“Max,” I said after a few seconds. “I’ll send you the files, but trust me on this one: don’t read them.”

He snorted. “I’m not interested in getting mixed up with anything that’s got your panties in a twist. Just send the damn files.” He hung up on me.

 

***

 

A few hours later, Max called back.

“Okay. So whoever sent those messages bounced their IP address through a whole bunch of proxy servers before they even made the email account. I had to go through and eliminate everything that I know for a fact operates as a proxy for the public.”

“For the public?”

“Yeah. Anyone who wants to can use a proxy. Whoever sent these messages used ones that were publicly available and accessible to just about anyone. Sloppy.”

I grunted. That was good. It meant that whoever was behind it was cautious, but not an expert. “Okay. Give me the rundown.”

“I don’t know what these emails are about to make an educated guess as to exactly where they came from, but I narrowed it down to three points of possible origin,” he went on, his voice professional. For all of his complaints, Max liked his work, and liked showing off. “One of them is a listening post operating in the middle of the Pacific. Listening to whales or whatever, I guess. Another is in the middle of Australia, somewhere in the Outback, I think. And the third is linked to an office building registered to Focus Incorporated.”

My heart just about stopped.

Focus. Oh God, no. I was right. Oh God, I wish I wasn’t right.

Max continued, but I wasn’t really listening. “I did a little digging, and I think this Focus outfit is probably what you’re looking for. They’re some kind of philanthropic organization, trying to save the planet or whatever. Like Green Peace. Or PETA. One of those stupid little places with more hope than funding, probably.”

“Max,” I said quietly. He stopped talking immediately. “Thank you. I want you to delete everything I sent you. Don’t mention this to anyone, please. And…” I sighed. “And you might want to take a quick vacation.”

He grunted in acknowledgement. “I guess this means you heard something you don’t like, kid?”

“Yeah. This could get ugly.”

“I’ve seen ugly before,” he said, his voice steady. I recognized the statement for what it actually was: an offer of help. Max liked to complain, bluster, and annoy just about anyone who worked with him, but he was both competent at his job and was more than willing to stand by your side if he liked you. He was offering to come and give me a hand with whatever came next.

But he couldn’t stand with me on this. Not against Focus.

“Not like this, you haven’t,” I said. “Consider us square, Max.”

He was silent for a few moments before he responded. “Okay, kid. Play it how you like. But if you need something… well, you know how to reach me.”

“Thanks, Max. I’ll keep it in mind.”

We hung up, and I just about dropped the phone as mind-numbing panic threatened to send me running into the street in fear.

Wizards. Freaking wizards.

 

[]Chapter Five

 

Focus was, by all appearances, a simple philanthropic organization. They were mainly focused (pun not intended) on conservation efforts, trying to save the rainforest and the pandas and all other kinds of warm and fuzzy things.

They were also wizards.

Wizards, like skinchangers, were born with a degree of magic, though theirs was dramatically different, and infinitely more terrifying. I could shapeshift, heal rapidly, and basically can take on just about anyone in a one-on-one fight, because… well. I can shift my body however I want, pretty much, and can make my muscles insanely dense, and can rearrange the carbon in my skin to something like organic diamond if I have enough time.

Wizards could slap me down without barely a thought.

They were able to control the elements: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. From what I knew about them, some of them could influence minds. A wizard who knew what he was doing could level a city block in a few minutes. They could cause earthquakes, rain fire down, create tornadoes, and bring forth freaking tsunamis if they so desired. If a wizard felt like it, he could make any terrorist attack look like a mild disagreement.

The three unarmed people who had attacked Blackstone were wizards. I had suspected that they might be, because they were the only thing I can think of that could take on twelve armed men without firing a shot, or being shot in return. Even I’d be likely to get hit if I fought a dozen professionals. Those three didn’t have a scratch. And it’s no wonder why they didn’t carry guns; they were weapons. A single candle, to a wizard who could use fire magic, is enough to incinerate a small building. Air wizards always had access to their medium, and earth wizards didn’t need to do much to start an earthquake. I doubted that they used any water magic, considering that they were in the desert, but… well, the human body is mostly water. Do the math.

If my instincts were right, and I had been through enough to trust them, then it wasn’t just three wizards who had attacked Blackstone; it was three wizards who worked for Focus who had attacked Blackstone in order to cover up a message inquiring about how to dispose of tens of thousands of bodies.

They were certainly capable of creating that many.

My family… didn’t like wizards very much. Wizards and skinchangers knew of each other, but we basically kept to ourselves. We left them to their own devices, and tried to live quietly, in peace. My grandfather had had a run-in with one who almost killed him—something about a disagreement over a woman, if he told it right—and had hated them ever since. My dad had inherited the old prejudice, and so did my brothers.

I didn’t particularly care one way or the other. My brothers were too busy pretending to be Bigfoot to screw with people to learn much about the world. I was really the only one in the family who used my abilities for profit. They all worked regular, honest jobs, salt of the earth kind of people. They made a hell of a construction crew, though.

But I’d seen things in my line of work. I’d seen people get hurt, seen the evidence of violence often enough to hate it.

And Focus, up till now, stood against it.

Though they looked like a regular old non-profit, they weren’t. They were responsible for saving thousands of lives—probably millions, actually. I knew that Focus had been around for centuries, in one form or another, and they had always stood for humanity. When a natural disaster struck, they sent people to mitigate the damage. Half the time, when a hurricane looks like it’s about to hit the East Coast before suddenly changing its path and heading out to sea? I’d bet dollars to donuts that Focus is responsible.

From what I knew, they also were the people who had kept the polar ice caps from melting all the way. And violent despots were mysteriously killed in the war-torn areas of Africa from time to time, usually in freak accidents involving fire. Hell, California might have fallen into the Pacific if it weren’t for them, for all I knew.

Focus helped people, at the end of the day.

So why now? Why plan to kill thousands of people? They could certainly do it if they decided to, but it didn’t make any damn sense.

I didn’t understand it. They were good people, or so I had learned over the years.

I sat in my hotel room, trying to puzzle things out. I stared out the window, considering what I knew, what I had learned, and what I was going to do.

Why Focus wanted to do these things didn’t matter, I decided. Either they had decided to go from philanthropy to world domination without anyone realizing it, or there was a separate faction gaining who knows how much support within the organization. I didn’t know if I was about to go up against all of Focus or just a few insane members of it, but someone had to do something.

And, at the moment, it looked like that someone was going to be me.

I went to the mini bar, and pulled out several tiny bottles of liquor. I twisted off the tops one by one, and drank swiftly without bothering to look at the labels.

God. Wizards.

When I finished my drinks, I dumped the empty bottles in the garbage can. Then I gathered up my things, went to the front desk, and checked out.

I had work to do.

 

[]Chapter Six

 

A couple of days later, I was perched on a power line across the street from an unassuming office building, home to Focus. Wizards, or agents, as they called themselves, bustled in and around the place, hurrying from one job to the next. There was certainly no lack of activity, and I hadn’t seen any slowdown since I had started watching the building the day before.

I stretched my wings in discontent. I had taken on the form of a sparrow, which had excellent distance vision and even sharper ears. I had been watching the activity, trying to spot one of several people, but none of them had shown up yet.

I tallied up everything I knew about the organization once more, keeping my eyes peeled.

There were about six hundred wizards working for Focus, though the real number could have been higher. They recruited young, mostly, which made sense. I figured that a young wizard going through puberty with access to power over the elements might be dangerous if that kind of thing isn’t taken care of quickly. Skinchangers were similarly trained young.

Each wizard was aligned with one of the elements when they grew up, which seemed odd to me. From what I had been able to scrape together between stories from my family and a few contacts who were clued in on the supernatural world, wizards of a certain age could only do magic with one element. Apparently there was some kind of tradeoff, though, because they were universally stronger than those who were younger, though whether that was age and experience or something to do with the way their magic developed, I wasn’t sure.

The younger ones, the ones who were trained but whose power hadn’t fully developed, were called initiates. They were on a kind of rotating apprenticeship, according to a skinchanger friend who knew a few wizards. They worked with the agents of different elements, trying to figure out what kind of job they’d do when they finished growing. I didn’t really understand all of it, but I knew what it meant: access.

Initiates were expected to travel between the different branches of Focus, doing different jobs and seeing different people. It might have been odd for an Air wizard to work with a Fire wizard, I reasoned, but not for an initiate to work with both.

I had… two-thirds of a plan. I was watching the building until I saw an initiate leave. Then I was going to follow him or her (there were an awful lot of pretty women coming and going, and apparently Focus didn’t discriminate) home, knock them out, take their place, and gather whatever information I could.

The fact was that I just didn’t know what was going to happen. I was completely in the dark about what kind of catastrophe was being planned, and unless I found out, I wasn’t going to be able to do a damn thing to stop it. The responsibility on my shoulders was severe, and it constantly pressed on me, creeping up when I least expected it. Every so often, I felt a jolt of fresh fear and apprehension as the enormity of the task and the consequences of failing it was swept into my thoughts.

So. Take the place of an initiate, infiltrate Focus, find out the evil plan, and then… stop it, I guessed. I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do to stop a wizard from doing whatever he or she damn well pleased, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything unless I learned what it was I was stopping.

Hell. Maybe I’d just call the police or ATF and let them handle it.

Espionage was kind of my thing. I was good at it. I was confident that I could get inside eventually, maybe get onto a computer, copy whatever information I could find, and bail. What came after that, though, left me with the copper taste of fear in my mouth.

Or beak, actually.

I knew of three people who were definitely initiates, or who had been a few weeks ago when my friend last heard. I guess wizards felt pretty free to talk to people who already knew about them. Hell, my friend had pulled a group photo off of the guy’s Facebook page. Their names were even tagged.

God bless social media and the Information Age.

So I watched and waited, staring at the parking lot, waiting for one of my targets to appear.

 

***

 

She finally did after five o’clock that evening. She came out of the building, wearing a pair of blue jeans and a no-nonsense shirt, her short blond hair blowing faintly in the wind. My literal bird’s eye view gave me an excellent close-up of her face, which was…

Well.

She was lovely.

She had these bright eyes that seemed both intelligent and kind, which is a rare enough combination. She wasn’t exactly smiling, but she seemed to be in a good mood nonetheless, and it showed in the way she walked, practically bouncing to her car, a small, functional, and unadorned sedan. She didn’t wear any jewelry, and didn’t look like the type who would do so regularly anyway. She was young, around my age, somewhere in her mid-twenties.

She really didn’t look like someone who was planning to kill thousands, possibly millions of people.

But, I reminded myself, she was definitely dangerous. Anyone who could make it into Focus, even as an initiate, was able to wield terrible power. Though she may not be able to nuke a city with her mind, she’d have no trouble burning down a building, or pounding me into a slurry of unrecognizable flesh and bone.

I did not want to turn into a puddle of goo.

I didn’t know if I could trust her, and I couldn’t take the risk anyway. So I stuck to the plan I had made.

I flew from the power line to the silver SUV I had parked off the road, near a small wooded area. Moving quickly, I shifted back to human, then rearranged my features significantly. I changed into the clothes I had prepared, shoving my pants on and throwing the button down shirt over my shoulders. I leapt into the car and started it as I buttoned the shirt fully.

Then I turned my eyes toward the parking lot in my rearview mirror.

I saw the girl pull out, signal left, and drive past me at a leisurely pace.

I gathered my nerves together, ground my teeth and followed Nora Tress, initiate of Focus, as she drove down the road.

God, I hope this works.

 

 

[]Preview of Shifting Focus

 

Focus Series – Book 2

 

Available Now at Your Favourite eBook Retailer

 

 

 

 

Magic can’t fix everything. You can’t use it to bring back the dead, or to turn back time. It’s a force of nature, sure, but it has laws and limitations. I can cause a small earthquake, for instance, but the bloodstains on my jacket would prove impossible to remove by magic.

But that’s why I have bleach.

The men on the operating table were wounded badly. Shrapnel had penetrated the shoulder of one of them, who was still awake and groaning in pain. The other was unconscious, burns across his chest, cuts marring the flesh, presumably from debris during the blast.

I had helped carry them in from the Fire entrance, a massive gateway in the south wing of the office building. The mission had gone poorly, but I wasn’t allowed to know the finer details of operations, not yet. I was only there to learn, not to participate fully. That was reserved for full members—secret societies have secrets even from themselves.

Despite the bloody scene before me, the atmosphere was remarkably calm. Four Healers, members of the Air faction, worked on the men quietly and carefully, with practiced ease. One of them leaned over to the groaning man, and whispered into his ear. As he did, a faint breeze swept through the room, only perceptible by the sound and a slight stirring of my hair. The man on the table stopped groaning, let out a contented sigh, and slipped into unconsciousness.

The work continued quickly after that. One of the Healers braced the shoulder while a second removed the shrapnel. Together, they held their hands over the wound, and, as I watched, the ragged hole knitted itself closed while a wind picked up, stronger than the breeze that had aided the patient’s sedation. I steadied myself against a gurney with one hand.

As the shrapnel wound was closing, the other two Healers worked on the burned patient. More wind kicked up, pulling my hair out of place and scattering blonde strands across my face. I tucked it hurriedly behind my ears.

I need to remember to put it into a ponytail next time. Or a braid. Or just cut it off.

The charred flesh visible on the man’s chest began to heal, the gashes where the skin had split closing slowly. His breathing, which had been rapid, slowed to a more normal pace. A faint moan of relief rattled past his lips. I couldn’t imagine the kind of pain he had been through.

I noticed that the burned skin was healing, but was still mottled, warped, still plainly scar tissue. I kept it to myself, intending to ask about it after the work was finished. The best thing I could do to help was stay out of the way, and keep quiet. This kind of job required far greater power and control than I possessed.

“I think that about does it for this one,” said one of the Healers, a tall, thin man named Jake. He looked questioningly at the two working on the burn victim. “Do you need a hand over there?”

“No, we’ve got it. Just about done.”

“What the hell were they doing?” asked a woman working on the burned man. I never learned her name. Her brow was furrowed in concentration. “Blowing up a building?”

“You know we aren’t supposed to know details,” said Jake.

“They show up in my O.R., burned and bleeding, I think I’m allowed to ask a few questions,” said Peter. He wiped an alcohol swab around the shrapnel wound, cleaning the skin as he checked for other injuries. “I know that we send Fire agents into the field for dangerous work, but this is getting ridiculous. We went four years without any injuries, and in the last eight months, we’ve had two dozen. It’s only a matter of time before one of these guys winds up dead.”

“They—“

“Don’t tell me they know the risks, Jake,” snapped Sarah as she began to clean the soot off of the burned man with a cloth. “It’s bad enough that we have to send agents to the ass end of the world to stop tin pot dictators from killing half of their own people, but these guys were coming from Manhattan. That’s not the Third World. That’s here. What the hell are we doing sending guys into the field here?”

“I don’t—“

“Peter, I get it. I know you don’t like it,” Jake cut in. “You’re a Healer. It’s in your nature to stitch wounds up, not make new ones. I’m the same way. But the fact is that some people need to be stopped. And sometimes the only way to do that is to hurt them so badly they can’t get back up.”

Peter’s lip curled in distaste. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we were still living in the Stone Age.”

Sarah grunted in agreement. The woman across from her looked unsure.

Jake heaved a sigh. “It is getting worse. We’re sending out more and more Fire agents every week, and fewer and fewer Spirit agents. I don’t know what we’re going to do in the long run, but something has to change.”

Silence filled the room, stifling further discussion. The Healers continued cleaning up the wounded agents without speaking. After a few minutes, Jake looked up from his work, and nodded at me.

“You can go. Gabriel will want to counsel you.”

“Yes, sir.”

Everyone who had undergone the Bonding was called sir or ma’am. As somewhere between initiate and full member of Focus, I wasn’t addressed by any titles. Soon, however, I would make my choice, and join one of the five factions.

I turned and walked out of the operating room, heading down the hallway toward Gabriel’s office, in the center of the building. Gabriel was the leader of Focus, though that sounded more impressive than it actually was. The majority of the decisions were made by the leaders of all five branches of Focus—Jason Butler represented Fire, Connie Praeger spoke for Water, Mark Dundry for Earth, Simon Merrick for Air, and Gabriel headed the Spirit faction, which was responsible for diplomacy and negotiation. As such, the head of the Spirit branch had served as the Director of Focus for centuries. His job was mainly to prioritize missions, and keep daily operations running as smoothly as possible.

I smoothed back my shoulder-length hair before I knocked on Gabriel’s door. Working with the Healers in the Air faction had a certain appeal to it. I loved the idea of saving lives with my magic, of using it for an undeniably good purpose, but it was a bitch to keep your hair straight with all of that wind blowing around.

“Come in,” Gabriel said when I knocked. I opened the door, and sat down across from his desk.

His office was a collage of different cultures. The walls were lined with Native American ceremonial masks, Chinese pottery on little shelves, Indian statues depicting Ganesh and Vishnu, and dozens of others I couldn’t name—history was never my strong suit. Gabriel had spent a long career establishing ties between cultures that were normally at odds using a combination of standard negotiating tactics and magic.

The Spirit faction used the soul of the user as the source of their magic. Because it essentially used humanity itself as its source of power, Spirit magic was useful for affecting the mind. Some of the more experienced members were capable of outright mind control, but using it in such a way was not allowed, except to directly prevent injury or death of an innocent. Most of the time, it was used to open minds, not control them. Gabriel, for instance, could use his magic to convince a card carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan to reconsider his ingrained bigotry, and marry an African-American man.

Yeah. Gabriel had scary levels of power.

But the man himself would never inspire fear. He was a kind man, and had patiently mentored me from the time I was ten and first coming to terms with my magic. Plus, he looked like your favorite grandpa. Powder blue eyes sat above a rather large nose, and his mouth was permanently fixed in a warm smile with laugh lines on either side, like a happy set of parentheses. Half of the times I saw him I expected him to greet me with a batch of cookies, hurriedly handed to me while making me promise I wouldn’t tell my mom.

“How was the operation?” he asked me, still smiling.

“It went well. The Fire agents will be fine.”

He shook his head. “I mean for you. Is it something that you think you can do, long term?”

I was silent for a few moments as I considered the question. At my level within Focus, I was eligible to undergo the Bonding whenever I felt it was appropriate. Currently I was observing each of the factions, a different one every week, while I weighed my options. It was like an internship that didn’t provide college credit. Or that I could put on a resume, for that matter.

I had a surprising level of control over my magic for someone who hadn’t undergone the Bonding, which would amplify and focus it. The drawback was that my magic would then become permanently bound (hence the name) to one of the five elements. I was currently able to use whatever kind of magic I wanted, but with far less power than even the lowest-ranking full faction member. The Bonding might be restrictive, but the tradeoff was well worth it.

But it wasn’t just a matter of choosing an element; I had to choose a role. Each faction was specialized for their branch of magic, and their roles within Focus were determined by the best applications of their talent. Spirit, for instance, was responsible for diplomacy. Air magic was best suited for the treatment of wounds and diseases, so they were the first responders during anything from a mass casualty event to a pandemic alert. Earth magic, which drew power from the planet itself, was excellent for reducing the damage caused by natural disasters, so they stopped earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, even hurricanes. They were also the reason that California hadn’t broken off of the mainland United States and fallen into the sea—we had two agents permanently posted at the San Andreas Fault.

Water magic was the most diverse. They responded to ecological threats, from ending draughts and famine to preserving wildlife. The bald eagle was making a comeback partially thanks to their efforts. Unfortunately, it was difficult to master, and was thus the smallest branch of Focus. Fire magic was the most straightforward: combat. Members of the Fire faction were highly trained operatives, something like Special Forces. They were sent into areas of conflict, where negotiation was not an option, and carried out missions designed to bring a swift end to the bloodshed, either taking out high-value terrorist camps, or, it was rumored, assassinating enemy leaders. Occasionally, they were responsible for covert protection details. For centuries, they had been the least active faction of Focus, and were typically viewed as a last resort. Over the past several years, however, we had begun sending out more and more operatives into the field. Terrorism had escalated to unprecedented levels in human history, and Focus could not sit idly by while innocent lives were at stake. Even the Spirit faction was having difficulty in convincing some of these terrorists to stand down; their brainwashing had gone beyond psychological suggestion, and had started to become genuine belief.

Jake was right about one thing: something had to change. Focus was only able to do so much.

“I… think I might be able to join the Air faction. I like the idea of saving lives.”

Gabriel’s grin widened. “It is an admirable pursuit, Nora. The Air faction has done great things for humanity over the years.”

I shook my head. “I know. They’ve helped so many people… but I can’t help thinking that they’re just a Band-Aid.”

My mentor’s head cocked to one side. “A Band-Aid?”

I laughed before I could stop myself. I was normally careful to be respectful around Gabriel, but the old man was so nice that it was easy to forget how important he was to Focus, to the world, and to me. “It’s hard to explain, because I know it’s a worthwhile job, and that saving lives is the point of everything we do here.”

“Do your best, then.”

“Well, say that you’re a doctor. And while you’re out to dinner, a man has an allergic reaction to something he ate. You do what you can, and save his life. That’s one in the ‘Win’ column, right?”

“Certainly.”

“But say that ten people come into your E.R. because they were caught in the blast of an explosive set by a terrorist. Even if you manage to save them all—which would be extraordinary—the terrorist can always plant another bomb. And another. And another. No matter what you do, even as a Healer directly saving lives, it’s nothing but a stall. You’re treating the wounded, but it’s like giving cough medicine to a man with lung cancer. Treating the symptom, not the disease.” I paused once more, closing my eyes briefly and taking a steadying breath. I hadn’t realized exactly how I felt until I had said it out loud. Conversations with Gabriel tended to go this way.

“You have, I think, articulated the whole reason Focus was founded,” he said. His smile had disappeared, and was replaced with a contemplative look, his eyes slightly distant. “We have power, but it isn’t earned—we are merely born with it. As a result, we carry the burden of ability. Because we can do so much, much is required of each of us. And, if we were each acting alone, as our kind used to, I doubt we would make much of a difference to the world.” His gaze refocused on me, and he leaned forward in his chair. “We don’t act alone, Nora. We each play our part, and fulfill our roles. Because of that combined effort, Focus doesn’t just treat the symptoms; we treat the disease.”

I felt inexplicably ashamed of myself. Gabriel wasn’t yelling, or even expressing disappointment in my feelings. He was just responding to my concerns with information I already knew. And it made me feel like a kid again.

“I know that, sir. You’re right. I’m just… I can’t make a decision just yet.”

Gabriel nodded. “I don’t expect you to. None of the other candidates have chosen yet either. The important thing to remember is that you cannot choose incorrectly. No matter which faction you join during the Bonding, you will be doing important work.” He rose from his seat and, taking my cue, I did the same. He guided me to his office door. “There is no reason to rush yourself, Ms. Tress. Take your time, observe the factions, and when you are confident that you have done all you can to prepare yourself, then make your decision.”

That’s what I was already doing, but thanks anyway.

“Of course, sir. Thank you.”

“Until next time, Ms. Tress.”

I left the office, headed downstairs and outside, into the normal world, where normal people did normal things without knowing that they were watched, cared for, guarded and protected by a centuries-old organization dedicated to using magic to keep them all safe…

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Preview of Shifting Focus

 


Into Focus (Focus Series Book 1)

Into Focus, the first entry in the Focus urban fantasy series, sends readers head-first into a world of wizards, shapeshifters, and terrorist plots. For someone who can look like anyone he wants, espionage is easy. Set in modern-day America, Into Focus brings you along for the ride as Rick Torin, skinchanger and freelance spy, infiltrates a corporate mercenary office building full of armed guards and secrets. He’s supposed to steal some information, but finds a lot more than he bargained for, and is faced with a choice: let thousands die, or do something about it. Fans of The Dresden Files will love the humor and action in this novella, a story of intrigue, magic, and espionage. Who hired Rick? What are their intentions? Can Rick figure out who is behind a plot to kill thousands? Buy Now and Find Out What Happens Next...

  • Author: Fritzen Media
  • Published: 2016-07-26 18:35:10
  • Words: 15557
Into Focus (Focus Series Book 1) Into Focus (Focus Series Book 1)