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I know what I’ve done to her by bringing her here, but seeing her in that room makes it real. She’s angry, and has every right to be. She saw the real me and compared me to Dante. I don’t know how I feel about that. Exiting the room, the first face I see is the General’s. Walking up to him, I stop, clasping my hands in front of me, and wait.

“How is our newest recruit?” The General asks.

“Defiant,” I reply.

“It’s always overwhelming for a newborn when introduced to new life.”

Sonja, she thinks she’s so clever.

Shyira referred to her as ‘the psycho bitch that was just in here.’ I can’t help but smile as the thought floats across my mind.

Sonja’s face remains neutral as she speaks again, “I hope you know what you’re doing, Michael.”

“I do,” I assure her. “I’ve seen her potential.”

“Potential isn’t enough to keep her alive. If she fails you know what you have to do,” the General states.

“I understand.”

As I say the words I feel sick to my stomach. It isn’t as if I haven’t already thought about it, but hearing the General order it, again, makes it real. The General, and Sonja; who is second in command, and in charge of tactical and psychological ops, turn to leave. Sonja stops after a few steps, calling over her shoulder, “Give me five minutes with the prisoner then he will be ready for you.”

That one statement makes my day. “I would like to come with you.”

Sonja nods as she continues to the room where Agent Randolph awaits. He’s strapped down to a metal chair in the center of the room.

“What is this place?” He asks as we enter the room. He focuses on Sonja as he asks the question. Maybe he thinks she’s the nicer of us. His mistake.

“You don’t get to ask the questions here, Agent Randolph,” Sonja states, curtly. “All we want are answers, and it’s up to you on how we get them.”

“I’m not telling you shit!” Agent Randolph states, defiant.

“I was hoping you would say that. Remember, this was your choice, Agent Randolph,” Sonja says as we exit the room. The idiot has no idea what’s about to happen to him.

As we leave Daniel and David enter. The two scrawny identical twins, who I can never tell apart, are complete sociopaths. Their small circular black rimmed glasses, short spiky sandy blond hair, and cleanly shaven faces give them the appearance of innocent teenage boys, but the things they’re capable of quickly clear up that misconception. Their attire reflects that guise. They waltz in wearing light-colored blue jeans with black and grey Volcom t-shirts, sporting black Vans. The twins always dress alike, always. They each carry a silver briefcase and place them side by side on a silver tray. Sonja’s part is done. She has made her presence and power known. The next part is mine. I stand outside the door waiting for the screams to stop when finally, the door opens.

“He’s ready for you, Michael,” the twins say in unison.

I round the corner, stopping in front of Agent Randolph. He’s slumped in the chair, and bleeding from two small cuts underneath his eyes. He tries to lift his head, but his eyes roll back as sweat trails down his ashen face. No, no, no. There will be no escape here.

I reach into my jacket pocket, pulling out a small capsule of smelling salts. Placing them under John’s nose, I crack it. He comes to with a jolt.

“Welcome back, John,” I say, pacing in front of the restrained man. “I have good news and bad news, John. The good news is, if you cooperate you’ll die quickly. The bad news is: there is no real good news, but make no mistake, I will get what I need from you one way or another.”

Agent Randolph briefly closes his eyes, inhaling deeply. I’ve been in this situation enough times to know he’s weighing his options. As if he has any.

“Your threats don’t scare me, Michael, or whatever your real name is. I’m not afraid to die, so what’s my incentive?” Agent Randolph asks, arrogantly.

“I understand you have a meeting with a man named Sandoval,” I continue as if Agent Randolph never spoke. He will soon realize, he does not dictate terms here.

“We want you to keep this meeting, except I’ll be accompanying you.”

John laughs. “Sandoval will never go for it. He doesn’t do business with people he doesn’t know,” he explains.

“Not my problem,” I state plainly. “I understand your brother and his beautiful wife just gave birth to a healthy baby boy.” I stop in front of him, keeping eye contact. “If you want him to stay that way you will do this.”

“You wouldn’t,” John says in disbelief.

“I will. Right now, we have a team stationed outside a cute little two story house in Austin, Texas address, 2110 Brookdale Ave.” My tone speaks for itself.

“You bastard,” John grits his teeth.

“Save your insults, John. Just give me what I want,” I state, calmly.

I walk away from Agent Randolph to lean against the wall. I watch the slew of emotions race across his face, finally settling on concession. I’m not surprised. They always give in at the end.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, defeated.

I start toward the door saying over my shoulder, “You’ll know when it’s time.”

The door opens, and I can’t help but taunt him before leaving the room. “Oh, by the way, Shy will be staying here . . . with me.”

Hearing Agent Randolph struggle against his restraints, brings a smile to my face. “I’ll be sure to take excellent care of her.”

Stepping over the threshold, I turn to face him. “I guess us pretty boys do get what we want after all,” I say bitterly, holding Agent Randolph’s gaze until the door closes.

Focusing on the pleasure of Agent Randolph’s demise keeps my mind from dwelling on Shy’s condition. My head must be clear when I give the General the results of the interrogation. The door slides open to the General’s office. He’s staring intently at whatever is on his computer. Neither of us speaks. There will never be the, hello, how was your day? From anyone here, it’s always straight to the point. “He’s willing to cooperate.”

“Good, assemble your team. There’s a briefing in ten,” he states, never looking up from his computer.

Walking out, I head for medical. It’s only been a few hours since Shyira learned of her new life and I want to see how she’s doing. Entering the infirmary, I stop and just watch her. She’s beautiful, even when sleeping. Quietly, I pull up a chair to sit next to her as she sleeps. I find it calms me. It’s a euphoria I’ve never experienced before, and I don’t want to disturb her. Not only for her benefit, but mine as well. A few short minutes later she starts to stir.

“Shy,” I speak her name softly.

She slowly opens her eyes. “Michael,” she says, groggy. “I had the strangest dream; you were in it. I had been shot and you told me I was no longer with the FBI. That I was part of some covert government agency.” She stops, licking her lips. “My mouth is so dry,” she comments.

The calming effect she has on me dissipates when I get up and walk to the silver tray stationed next to her bed. I grabbed a pitcher of water and a cup, pour the water, and hand it to her.

“Thank you,” she says, taking a sip before continuing, “A woman came in. She was all grace, but lethal, like a predator. She threatened to kill me if I tried to leave.” She takes another sip of water.

I don’t say a word, only watch and listen.

Finishing her water, she hands me the cup and continues, “You kidnapped me, and took me to London.” She stops then, taking in her surroundings. Sitting up a little straighter in bed, she finally looked down at her leg, which is elevated and wrapped in white gauze.

Now it’s my turn to speak, “The woman you spoke of, her name is Sonja. She’s an expert in interrogation and psychological operations. You are in London, and no, you’re no longer an FBI agent. If time permits you’ll be more.” I stand, heading toward the door.

I figure that’s enough for now. I stop before reaching it, not turning around. “I have to leave the country for a few days, but when I get back I’ll have more time to answer some of your questions.”

I turn then, looking at her with warning. “And, Shyira, if you try and leave, they will kill you.”

I figure her mind must be on overload with everything she’s just learned. I want her to be comfortable, so I push the button on the wall allowing the machine to distribute morphine before I leave, knowing the warm heavy feeling will take her.

I’m the last member of my team to arrive at Tactical. Vivian walks up the same time as I do, and within seconds the General is here. I take my seat at the large rectangular table as the General pushes a button on the remote he holds in his hand. A schematic of a warehouse comes up on the big screen mounted on the wall.

“This is a warehouse in the Bronx, New York, where the meeting between Agent Randolph and Sandoval will take place. Sandoval is supplying our good FBI agent with a bomb that Black Hail is to use in the attack. They plan on another 9/11. Michael, you will be going in as his bomb expert. As soon as you get confirmation on the package the team will move in and clean house,” the General pushes the button and the image shuts down.

“The details are on your phones,” the General states as he walks away.

My team and I stand at the same time to exit Tactical. They head towards Weapons to collect their artillery for the mission, but I head to see Sonja. There’s something I need cleared up before heading out. I punch in the five-digit code to her office, and the door slides open. The office is all earth tones with small plants and flowers placed here and there to give it a friendlier feel. It would’ve worked, except I know all too well the woman sitting behind the huge glass desk isn’t friendly at all.

“Michael,” she says, looking up at me from behind her desk. “Don’t you have a mission you should be preparing for?”

“I’m ready,” I answer. “I need to know something before I leave.”

Sonja stops typing on her computer. Lacing her fingers together, she places them in her lap. “You want to know if she’ll be here when you get back,” she states, glaring at me.

I swear the woman can read minds at times. I hate when she tries to get into my head.

“You wouldn’t have formed a bond with her while in the field?” She probes.

What the hell? How many times have I been on a mission where sex is a requirement? Too many for me to count, and never has she asked if I formed a bond with those POIs, or targets. Shy and I never even slept together. What is she playing at?

“No, but she is my material. I want to make sure I have the chance to train her. To give her the opportunity to prove herself before you deem her unworthy,” I say free of emotion.

Sonja watches me, studying me a little longer before she answers, “The General and I won’t be hasty in our judgment, Michael. We will give her the time she needs to either fail or succeed.”

With that said Sonja turns her attention back to her computer, resuming her typing. Feeling a brief stint of contentment in her answer, I make my way to Weapons to retrieve my Glock 18, knives, and XDM9.

Stepping into the van, I spot Agent Randolph sandwiched between Beck and Delaney with a black satin bag over his head. And just like that my contentment is gone.

Laci Somers, the only female member of my team, sits in her usual spot--across from me. The 5’4” ex- junkie, who OD’d after her sister committed suicide, ended up in a hospital in Seattle, Washington. After her stomach was pumped, she was told she would enter rehab, but the next time she came to she found herself in London, and the newest recruit of the Collective. She trained under me, and after she passed her final test, about six months ago, she became an official member of our elite little club. I believe it was the first time I knocked her on her ass in training she fell for me, and fell hard. She truly believes I’ll one day love her back. That’s very naive thinking on her part.

The drive to the air strip where the Collective houses their private jets takes quite a bit of time to get to. No one is chatty during this drive. The team reserves their time to go over the profile and do weapons checks. It’s always a different vibe when we transport a prisoner. We’re a tight knit unit and enjoy shooting the shit when it’s just us, but in front of the enemy no humanity is shown. Humanity equals weakness. We reach our destination and the team stands, preparing to disembark.

Delaney, who is a good two inches taller than me was my first trainee after I hit tier five status, and he is the person I trust the most on my team. He’s had my back from day one. His story is similar to my own, with him being an orphan. There’s a sort of kinship in that. Both his parents died of drug overdoses, forcing him to grow up in the mean streets of Chicago, where he warred with rival gangs starting at the age of eight. Nothing scares this man, not even me, I think. He challenged me from jump, and when I finally earned his trust, I earned it for life. I saved him when an op went horribly wrong. He knows I should’ve left him for dead. After all, the op failed because he went off book, trying to prove how much of a badass he was. He never questioned anything I said from that point on. We’ve been a well-oiled machine, he and I, since then.

Delaney stands, heading toward the door with Agent Randolph firmly in his grasp. He stands a little more at attention as I approach. We’re close, but he still gives me the respect I deserve. No, earned.

“I got him,” I say, relieving Delaney of the prisoner.

He nods, releasing Agent Randolph’s arm before stepping out of the van. Taking custody of Agent Randolph, we clear the van door. I slam Agent Randolph into the side of the van, hard.

“Remember why you’re here, John,” I speak low and violent. “Your family’s lives depend on it.”

“I remember, you fuck,” Agent Randolph bites out behind the black satin bag, covering his head.

I grab him forcefully by his arm, pulling him toward the plane. Five minutes later the plane is airborne, and I remove the bag from Agent Randolph’s head. He blinks a few times trying to adjust to the light as he looks around, taking in his surroundings as well as all of us. His gaze finally settles on me. Fantastic.

“Where is Shy? She has nothing to do with my deal with Sandoval. She doesn’t know anything about this.”

He does his best to try and protect her. I can respect that, although I don’t think he’s ever heard the phrase, a day late and a dollar short.

I stare at him, feeling nothing. He doesn’t deserve an answer. Fear is a powerful emotion. One that makes people do stupid things, which is why I think Agent Randolph makes a move toward me when I don’t respond to his question. But before he can slide to the edge of his seat, I have my XDM9 cocked and aimed at his head.

“That wouldn’t be the smartest decision you’ve ever made,” I inform him, calmly.

Agent Randolph sits back in his seat, face blistering red. My team’s eyes are laser lined on us, all of them with their hands resting on their weapons. They all know not to open fire on an airplane, but it’s the inference that holds the weight. I slowly remove my gun from his head, placing it back in the holster. Straightening the jacket of my tailored black Italian suit, I sit back making myself comfortable. My team takes their cue from me only relaxing once I have.

His plea for Shy’s safety isn’t wasted on me. One last wish for a dead man isn’t too much to ask. I decide to answer his question. “She’s safe.”

The rest of the flight is relatively uneventful. The team rests during the seven-and-a-half-hour flight, while I keep a close eye on Agent Randolph.

We touch down at a private air strip in upstate New York. Looking out the window of the plane, I can see a black on black SUV parked outside. Limo tinted windows with black rims and black interior. The Yukon is empty and the keys are inside, as the profile indicated. My team, along with Agent Randolph pile into the SUV, and I take the wheel. We head into the Bronx, and the warehouse district where the meeting is to take place. The warehouse looks abandoned, which isn’t a surprise because it’s located in one of the worst parts of the Bronx, but unsafe areas are our playground.

Parking the car, I turn to my team. “Laci, you’re on mobile comm. Keep the perimeter clear. Delaney, you’re at point. Beck, find a perch and hold. Laci, how many hostiles?”

Laci opens the computer using the Collective’s satellite uplink. “All warm bodies are located on the inside. I got six large thermals huddled in close proximity to one another,” she explains.

“Easy pickings,” Beck retorts.

Frances Beck is what’s considered Black Irish, and stands no taller than 5’11”. With his bulkier muscle mass, he reminds me of a WWF wrestler. He’s a lot more dedicated to his job than most people think. The other operatives outside of the alpha team view him as a loose cannon. He jokes a lot, so they feel he doesn’t take his job seriously. He doesn’t give a fuck what they think, and neither do I. I know better. He’s very loyal, not just to the Collective, but more importantly--he’s loyal to me. He’s one of the stronger individuals I’ve ever met, and his brawn is matched only by his quickness.

I watch him as he zips up the bag housing his sniper rifle. My eyes land on the scar, just above his right brow. I’ll never forget that mission in Morocco. He damn near saved my ass. I got into a fist fight with one of our target’s goons, and soon found myself rolling on the ground with several men (not my personal style, I’d much rather roll around with women). Luckily, I had something better than a weapon. I had Beck. He jumped in and threw one of the assholes off me--threw him right onto a desk, knocking a lamp over. The idiot picked up the lamp and clocked Beck in the side of the head--his second mistake. His first was fucking with us. The impact left a scar, but Beck always used to say the scar gave him an interesting story to tell--and the story changes every time he tells it. I think I’m the only one who knows how he really got it. One thing is for certain, I can always count on Beck to be there when I need him. To our inner circle, Beck’s known as the silent assassin. The enemy will never know he’s there, up until the moment it’s time to pull the trigger, and make no mistake . . . Beck always pulls the trigger.

“Don’t get too cocky, Beck. Keep your sights on your scope,” Delaney warns him.

Beck snickers at Delaney’s comment. “I always hit my mark,” he points out.

I give them both a look that says quit fucking around before actually speaking,

“It’s go time.”

Agent Randolph and I walk into the warehouse side by side. Other than planks of wood stacked atop each other the industrial sized warehouse is empty. The only thing we hear is the echo of our footsteps on the concrete floor. A small table is set up next to a white stretch limo. We stop just shy of the table when the limo doors open and a tall Latino man steps out. He’s dressed in an all-white suit with a black dress shirt under his jacket. The hat he’s wearing is white as well, trimmed with black. It’s very ostentatious, and screams syndicate. Four other men disembark from the vehicle, fanning out around the man in white. The last man to step out of the limo is carrying a silver briefcase. I understand now why all the thermal images Laci saw on the satellite were huddled so close together.

“Agent Randolph, you didn’t tell me you were bringing a date. You know I don’t conduct business in front of strangers,” the man in white comments in a strong Latin accent.

“And you know I don’t conduct business without knowing what I’m getting. He’s my bomb expert,” Agent Randolph explains.

“It seems we’re at an impasse then,” the man states.

Okay, this asshole is stalling. All I need is a confirmation that this is Sandoval. He’s swiftly changing my mind about killing him quickly. Laci obviously feels the same, because I hear her loud and clear over the comm, “Michael, get him to make the confirmation.”

“I don’t think he wants to do business, John. Who is this guy anyway?”

Agent Randolph doesn’t look at me. He holds the gaze of the man in white.

“No impasse here. I came to do business. What about you, Sandoval?”

There it is, the confirmation we need. Laci comes over the comm, “We have confirmation.

Alpha Team, move in.”

Sliding behind Agent Randolph, ever so slightly, I pull out my Glock 18. Holding it a few inches away from the back of his head, I remind him, “I promised I’d kill you quickly,” I say before pulling the trigger.

At the sound of my gun Beck opens fire, hitting Sandoval in the chest and causing his white suit to bloom red. Sandoval’s men go crazy, scattering and firing frantically. They use the limo doors as cover as they shoot wild shots. I’m forced to drive for cover. The pile of wood I saw upon entering makes for good cover. I take refuge behind it, getting off shots when I can. I’m able to take out one more hostile while Beck picks off two more from the perch he took. Delaney takes out the rest. The gun play last no longer than two minutes tops, but in the midst of it, it seems like a lifetime. I head to the table picking up the briefcase; opening it, I examine the contents. It’s exactly what we thought it would be, enough explosives to take out a whole burrow.

“Vivian, we have the material. All the hostiles are down. Send in the cleaners.”

“Copy that, Michael,” she responds.

Making a whirlybird motion with my hand, the team falls in and we leave the building as a unit. Laci rides shotgun on our way back to the airfield. Beck and Delaney file in the back, throwing jabs at one another, still high with adrenaline. Laci remains calm as she sits next to me. She gently places her hand on my thigh to get my attention. Saying my name would’ve had the same effect, but thank God she doesn’t let it linger.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Michael,” she shakes her head. “You’re one hell of an operative.”

I really don’t need, nor want her praise. What I want is for her to get over this obsession with me and just do her damn job. The Collective has no tolerance for emotional attachments, especially between material and handler. Laci knows the rules. She calls herself being discreet, but people know. I respect her as an operative, she always does her job without question. The sooner she realizes there will never be anything between us the better we will all be. I don’t respond to her praise that will only add fuel to the fire. I put the car in drive and head back to the air strip.

The elevator doors open from the vehicle access tunnel. The General and Sonja are there waiting for me, as expected. The team continues on, heading toward Weapons to return their hardware before debriefing. Handing off the briefcase to the General for inspection, he clears it before handing it off to our weapons expert, Godfrey.

“Everything go as planned?” The General inquired.

I nod my response.

“Agent Randolph?” Sonja asks.

“He’s been put to bed,” I confirm.

I start toward Weapons when I hear Sonja speak, “In a week I want Shyira to start training, at least in linguistics, and anything else she doesn’t need the use of her leg. You should also know, she’s been asking about her former partner.”

I stop at that, turning around slowly. “And what did you tell her?”

“I told her you would explain everything when you returned,” she replies, smiling before walking away.

Only one thing comes to mind in this moment. This is just one of many nails to be placed in the coffin between Shy and me. All I want is to go home, shower, and sleep. I’m spent, and the thought of facing Shy right now is more than I want to handle. The hate I will undoubtedly see in her eyes as I tell her I killed her partner can definitely keep. She will never believe John was a terrorist that needed to be put down. No. I’ll be a murdering son of a bitch. I know I shouldn’t give a flying fuck what she thinks, but I do.

It’s been a week and I still haven’t been to see Shy, but the time has come. I can’t put it off any longer. My mind remains focused as I walk to medical. There’s no preparation for the news I’m about to deliver. There’s no hesitation as I open the door to enter Shy’s room. Being timid isn’t in my nature, and this will be no different. She watches me carefully as I enter her room. Her eyes are filled with accusations and questions as I take the chair next to her bed.

“How are you feeling?” My concern is genuine.

“I’m feeling better, thank you,” she states, continuing to stare at me.

The tone of her voice suggests she’s calm, although the look in her eyes gives everything away. One of the many things we will need to work on, but first things first. The truth.

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