The first one happens on Saturday morning. The sound of my phone ringing jerks me out of sleep and I groggily grope for my phone as my mind surfaces from the dream I was having. The alley scene from Monday night has been haunting me all week. “Hello,” I mumble.
“Gen!” Reid’s voice is frantic and he sounds like he has been awake for hours.
I remember the way he had spoken to me the last time I saw him. He was excited and happy because he and Esmera finally have no secrets to keep around one another and he was relieved at the outcome of the events that followed his mission against her.
Now though, he sounds anything but happy and a lot more scared and angry than relieved.
“I’m here,” I answer him somewhat groggily.
“Something happened. There’s an agent dead.”
This wakes me up immediately. “What? Wait,” I rub my eyes and sit up. “What happened?”
Reid sounds as though he is shuffling papers. Then he yells something at his dad that sounds like “Shut up, I’m on the phone. No it’s not Esmera. I told you I broke up with her.” Then he returns his attention to me. “Frederick Unger was killed. My father says the murder weapon was a glass bullet with a note inside.”
My jaw drops. “What did the note say?”
“If the sabotage continues, more shall die,” he murmurs.
A chill runs down my spine. Reid told me all about the missions against Esmera that he has been going on, and she expanded on the subject later when I asked. Apparently, Marcos has agents going after CAA agents and beating them to their targets. “What does your dad say about it?”
“He’s weirdly calm,” Reid admits. “He hasn’t said anything about it since he told me this morning.”
I frown. “That’s weird.”
Reid grunts in agreement. “I have to talk to Esmera. She had to have known something about this.”
“Maybe,” I admit. “But she could also have known nothing. Her parents might not actually talk to her as much as you think. I mean, she didn’t know who you were until Monday night.”
Reid sounds distracted as he says, “True.” Then his attention snaps back to me for a moment. “I'm going to her house.” He hangs up.
It takes me five minutes to get dressed. Then I throw my hair into a bun and down some food before heading out the door. I run the short way to my friend's house and I arrive a split second after Reid does.
"Reid," I call as he stomps up to the door. "Think about what you're doing."
Reid bangs on the door and Esmera opens it only minutes later. She looks bewildered as though, like me, she just woke up. I glance around and see the garage empty, her bike the only vehicle parked in the yard.
“What’s going on?” She asks, scooping her hair back. She must have been in the middle of braiding it.
“A BAA agent was killed,” I begin to explain.
Reid jumps in, frantically gesticulating as he speaks. “Frederick Unger was killed by a CAA glass bullet - we know because there was a note inside written on signature CAA red paper. The note said that if the sabotage continues, more agents will die.”
Esmera looks appalled. “When did this happen?”
“Last night,” he says. “I only found out this morning.”
I clear my throat. “Did you know anything about it?”
Esmera hesitates but shakes her head. “I knew my dad was mad and wanted to retaliate but I thought he would just start sabotaging back. I didn’t think anyone would die.”
Reid lets loose an angry shout and punches the railing beside him, bending the metal in the shape of his fist. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn't you stop your dad from taking such measures?”
I recognize the defensive note in Esmera’s voice as she glares and snaps back at him. “I didn’t think it would be this bad. I didn’t know anything would happen.”
I know both of them have huge tempers with short fuses, neither able to contain themselves when they feel that someone is attacking them or their own. But the two are already shouting before I can prevent the fight.
“You could have warned me!” Reid bellows.
“I didn’t think I’d need to!”
"How could you keep such a thing from me?" Reid cries, throwing his hands in the air. "I could have prepared my agents for such a thing, told my dad about a retaliation to make his attempts stop."
"Oh," Emsera adopts a sarcastic tone and her expression turns into a twisted smile. "Like you told me about the sabotage? So we could prepare ourselves accordingly? Did you know that there have been agents committing suicide because they think they are inadequate agents?"
Reid balks for a moment and his eyes soften for a millisecond. "No, I didn't know that." Fire seems to ignite again as his mind reverts to the fight they were engaged in a moment before. "How dare you change the subject! How dare you twist this around to make me the guilt party."
"You son of a-"
“Guys,” I cry.
“What?” They demand at the same time, simultaneously turning to look at me.
I step between them before weapons can be drawn. Good thing too, because Reid’s hand has covered the hilt of his short knives, and Esmera has a dart in her hand. Neither would actually hurt the other, but defensive habits die hard.
I take a deep breath. “We are all on edge because of this, okay? Let’s not tear each other apart before we can think of a solution.”
Esmera whirls and her hair slaps my stomach. “I’m not taking the blame for this and I'm not letting you guys make me feel guilty. I didn’t do anything wrong.” She slams the door and I hear the lock click.
Reid is breathing hard as he stares at the closed door. “I knew it was a mistake to trust a CAA agent.” He spits on the step and stomps off.
“Reid,” I gasp. I turn to follow him and run to catch up, finally reaching his side at the end of the street. “You know she isn’t to blame.”
The boy turns to stare at me. He is a full foot taller than me so he should be intimidating, but I match his glare and step closer. I’ve always been able to talk him down until he is not angry any longer. “Your father is under reacting and you are over reacting. You know it. You also know Ez is not responsible for what happened to Frederick. Stop doing this. You’re tearing her apart and you know you’re hurting yourself. Both agencies are being heavily affected by this whole thing.”
Reid’s eyes seem to flicker momentarily. The uncertainty is plain in those grass green irises as his expression softens.
I keep talking, taking a more soothing tone. “You’re trying to make up for the emotions that your father does not feel. But the anger inside you is not directed at Esmera. They’re directed at your father. You don’t really think she is responsible for everything and you know there was no way she could have warned you about this.”
“You’re right,” he sighs. His hands hang unclenched at his sides and his knife is safely untouched at his belt. “I need to go apologize to her.”
I stop him with a hand to his chest as he turns back the way we came. “Give her time to cool down. And work on forgiving yourself for what you said.” I added the last part because I can read the expression on his face as though it is a sheet of paper with words typed in size 72 font. He feels guilty for blaming her and claiming that he never should have trusted her.
Reid nods and rakes a hand through his hair. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
“Swing any harder and you’ll cut right through it,” my mom calls down the stairs.
My arms ache as I swing the giant sword back for the thousandth time. I’ve been hacking at the large wooden dummy in the basement with my father’s old sword. Each time the metal meets the wood, it makes a satisfying sound that makes my anger dissipate slightly. I pause to examine the damage I have done. I’ve cut almost halfway through on one side, and there are so many marks across the body of the dummy that the details of arms and legs are almost imperceptible.
“We should get a new one,” I call back. “It’s ruined anyway.”
I swing again and this time, a gaping crack appears through the middle of the dummy. With a final swing, I remove the top half. The wood tumbles to the floor with a satisfying thump that reminds me very much of the sound Ross’s body made as he fell beside me.
“Time to order!” I call.
My mother appears at the top of the stairs. “I wasn’t serious,” she exclaims with a laugh as her eyes fall on the wood splinters everywhere.
“I know,” I sigh. I replace the sword on the stand and wipe the sweat off my forehead. My hair swung free of the braided bun I pinned it into at some point, and the long rope of blond swipes against my bare thighs under the hem of my shorts.
Mom steps close and examines my expression. “What’s wrong?”
I bite my lip and frown at her. “Why did you kill a BAA agent?”
She looks surprised for a moment. “You weren’t supposed to find out…”
“Well I did,” I exclaim angrily. “Do you have any idea what this could do to us?”
She nods. “I tried to talk your father out of it but he just wouldn’t listen. He wanted to avenge you, and the rest of the agents being sabotaged.”
“Killing one isn’t the same as sabotage,” I snap. “We aren’t supposed to murder innocent people. We are supposed to follow Karma's directions as she gives them to our leaders. That's what we are here for - that's what dad is leader for.”
“I know, honey,” she closes her eyes briefly. “But your father doesn’t see any of those agents as innocent. Each of them is as much to blame for the sabotage as the next, and you know your father doesn’t take well to competition.”
I shrug. “He could have just started sabotaging back.”
“How did you find out, anyway?” My mother asks, crossing her arms.
I hesitate. “You can’t be mad,” I say after a minute. “And you can’t force me to stop seeing them.”
“Them?” She raises an eyebrow.
“Reid and Genevieve,” I answer. “Both of them are BAA agents as well as their families, but I guess you already knew about Reid and his dad.” I add an accusatory note to the end of my statement to emphasize the point that she did not tell me about this.
Mom shakes her head at me. “Little Genevieve… Are you sure?”
I nod. “She showed me their arsenal.”
I wait for her to get mad at me and forbid me from seeing either of them again. However, she only nods and turns toward the stairs. “Clean up the wood, will you? And move the dummy to the back door. We can chop it up for firewood.”
I stare after her in confusion. Why didn’t she yell at me? Forbid me from ever going to school again, where Fate knows how many other agents lurk?
My mind returns to the kiss Reid gave me and my cheeks heat. Suddenly I do not care what my mom thinks about him or my best friend. Someone evil does not hold you like that.
Then my thoughts are filled with the words Reid said to me at the school. Anger tries to flare but I push it down and just feel like throwing up. I feel a strong wave of nausea wash over me as I think about what I said back. I squeeze my eyes shut, willing the feeling to go away.
He is likely still angry at me, beating up a dummy like I just was, getting his anger out at whoever else he might be mad at for this. Probably his dad.
I need to talk to him. But how would I know if he is still mad at me? If he is, I can't just go and talk to him; it would just end in an even bigger fight. I finally just reach for my phone and call Genevieve.
“Hey,” she says quietly. "Are you okay?"
I sigh. "I'm not mad anymore, if that's what you mean."
"Good," she answers.
There is a long silence before I open my mouth again. “Is he still mad?”
She shuffles and I hear the rustle of bedsheets. “No, but I told him to give you space until you were cooled down. He’s driving aimlessly around town right now.”
“Any idea where he might be right now?” I ask guiltily.
“More than likely around your block.”
I smile and the nausea subsides slightly. “Why does fighting with him hurt so much?”
Genevieve laughs quietly, almost sadly. “Fighting with someone you love is the hardest thing in the world. Trust me; I know it feels like someone kicking in your insides.”
I nod and take a deep breath. “Well this was our first fight, I guess.”
"Yeah, it was... If you don't count the missions where you two didn't know you were fighting one another." She giggles.
I smile and nod. "Those don't count."
Another pause. Genevieve sighs and I can picture her nestled against her pillows with her blankets up to her chin.
“Ez?” She says after a long minute.
“Do you love him?”
I pause as I think of the words that tumbled off his lips so easily, but I have not said it back. “I don't know.”
The steering wheel slips under the sweat on my hands. The clock on my dash says three thirty, and my gas meter says almost empty. I’ve been driving in circles for so long that I’ve wasted a quarter tank of gas.
When I round the next corner, I nearly drive straight into a garbage can as my eyes find the girl sitting on her front steps. Her hair falls down the stairs beside her and a small smile splits her face when she sees me stop.
It takes a matter of seconds before she is in my front seat, though she leaves her door open as though she is expecting another fight. She leans close to me and pulls me by the front of my shirt so that our lips meet. “You’re stupid,” she says when she pulls away.
I give her an apologetic smile. “I know.”
She smiles back. “Where are we going?”
“Anywhere you want,” I answer. “I’m paying. I owe you.”
Esmera shakes her head at me. “We aren’t going anywhere you need to pay then. Let’s just go somewhere and talk.”
I readily agree and throw the car into drive. As I pull away from the curb, I reach across the console and take her hand, lacing our fingers together. She turns her head to face the window and slides her fingers out of my hand.
"So," I say awkwardly, replacing my hand on the steering wheel. "I guess I should have dealt with this whole thing differently."
"Yes, you should have."
"And I am sorry."
"I know." She picks at a hole in her jeans. "I am too."
"I know." This time, when I reach over to hold her hand, she does not pull away.
Esmera directs me onto an overgrown old logging road where she says we can park and stay for a few hours. She assures me that no one comes this way anymore and that it is very unlikely that anyone will see my black car. Just to be sure, I flick a switch under the steering wheel to turn my car’s chameleon paint on, which will allow us to blend in with the trees and not be seen.
“How did you know this place?” I ask.
My girlfriend shrugs. “I’ve lived in this town basically my whole life, remember? This is the path I like to take around town when I have to go on missions.”
I suddenly remember following her down this road in the dark on foot. I shake my head at her. “You probably know all the good hiding places.”
She nods in agreement. “There’s a sturdy tree by the pool that is great for climbing, and no one can see you if you stay close to the trunk all the way up. Or there’s a back alley between the grocery store and the hardware store where the security cameras don’t reach. Oh, and there’s a tiny building behind the school that everyone assumes is the outhouse but is actually the entrance to a staircase that leads to the basement and the ventilation system.”
I stare at her in awe. “You’re amazing.”
She blushes in response.
“Any secret hiding places you want to show me sometime?” I ask.
“Well,” her blush deepens and suddenly I realize the implication that could have gone with my words. Nevertheless, she nods. “I know of an old house toward the north end of town where the landowner actually still takes care of the building. There’s no heating, electricity, or running water, but the house is beautiful - three floors and a basement. I’ve met the owner before since he’s one of my dad’s agents. He and I have an agreement where if we see the other’s vehicle at the place, we leave and say nothing and let the other have the house for the day.”
I grin. “I’d love to see it sometime.”
The smile that she turns on me is so brilliant that it lights up her green and blue eyes. She begins animatedly speaking, telling me about her adored house. “The first floor is beautiful. There are old fashioned chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and when the sun hits it just right, the whole room lights up in rainbows. The floors are still hardwood, but they’re starting to decay and the walls are papered but peeling. There’s a cute kitchen with all the appliances from way back before electricity; a wood burning stove, a fireplace with a stand to hold a pot over, and about the same amount of counter space as in my house.”
I smile and lean back in my seat, rubbing my thumb over the back of her hand as I listen intently.
“There’s a lounge with huge windows that looks over the hill at the town and the room always gets so warm. It’s the best place to read in the summer. Oh, and the thunderstorms I’ve watched from there…” she sighs happily. “And the bathroom has a claw foot tub! You have to fill it with the kettle or a bucket, but it’s huge.
“Opposite the door is a huge staircase that leads all the way to the third floor. There’s a landing that goes to the second, which has four bedrooms and two bathrooms on either side - both Jack and Jill style with their own claw foot tubs. All bedrooms have the same layout: a canopy double bed against the far window, a bookshelf that stretches the whole wall opposite the bathroom door, and a couple white wicker chairs next to the large wardrobe. My favorite bedroom is the one decorated in red.”
I smile. “What are the other colors?”
“Across the bathroom from red is blue. Green is across the hall with pink beside it.”
“They sound beautiful.”
She nods in agreement. “The master bedroom is actually on the third floor. It’s decorated in gold. The bed is also canopy but it’s king sized, and it’s arranged basically just like the other bedrooms, just on a larger scale. There’s another bathroom, and a huge walk-in closet up there. The only other room up there is the study. I love the desk and the number of books in there.”
“We should go there,” I say quietly. I watch her expression carefully as I lean toward her. “I want to see this house.”
Esmera’s smile widens and she nods excitedly. “I’ll give you directions.”
A short drive and a huge hill later, we are parked outside the building. House was the wrong word to use for this structure; mansion would have been a better choice. My eyes sweep over the short metal gate surrounding the property as Esmera pushes through. The snow covers the yard in a perfectly clean white blanket, though the walkway leading to the door has been carefully shovelled. I follow the girl up a short flight of steps to a wrap around porch with a swing beside the door. Everything has been rid of snow, and the swing has new chains.
The door complains slightly as Esmera pushes it open. I marvel at the brass knocker and knob both decorated with some sort of family crest. Indeed, the interior of the house is as beautiful as she described, though her description couldn’t do this place justice.
I turn in a full circle, admiring the chandelier on the ceiling, the engravings in the door jams, the paintings on the walls, the brass sconces shaped like leaves, the wood that once would have been gleaming and beautiful, the patterns in the ceiling made when the stucco was still wet. My mind is filled with different thoughts as I notice new items the landowner must have replaced and I find Esmera watching me, biting her lip in an amused smile.
“I’m glad you like it.” she wraps a hand around the banister at the bottom of the stairs. “I want to live here one day.”
I smile as I move toward her. “It would be an amazing house to live in.”
“Of course,” she sighs, “It will have to be updated. Electrical, plumbing, getting rid of asbestos… It’s going to get expensive.”
I run a hand over the old wall and the paper crumbles under my touch. “I’ll help you,” I offer. “Together we can update the house, renovate it, and then make it so w- you can live here.” I clear my throat, hoping she did not pick up on my almost saying “we” could live here.
Esmera’s eyes are wide. “You’d do that for me?”
“Anything,” I answer, closing the distance between us. I slide my hands over her shoulders and down her arms, causing her to drift closer. Her hands flutter to my chest as her eyes close and her head tilts up.
My cell phone ringing interrupts us just as our lips brush. With a groan, I pull the device from my pocket to see the screen and frown. “Kat is calling me.”
Esmera seems just as confused. “Answer.”
“Hello,” I say slowly. “How did you-”
“It doesn’t matter how I got your number, Reid,” Katherine’s voice is strained and she alarmed. “What matters is what I just overheard.”
I put my cell on speaker phone so that Esmera can hear. “What is it?” I ask.
Katherine hesitates for a moment. “I can’t say it here. Not now. Can I meet you somewhere? Gen needs to come, Esmera too.”
“I’m already here,” Esmera says. “Do you know the Mortman House on top of the north hill?”
Katherine makes a noise of agreement. “Good idea. It’s secluded enough that no one will hear us talking. I’ll get Gen to drive me and we’ll be there in five.” She hangs up without another word.
“What was that about?” Esmera asks.
I shrug. “You know as much as I do. Whatever it is, it sounded important.”
The girls arrive within four minutes. Katherine is so worked up that she can barely utter a full sentence, and Genevieve seems just as confused as Esmera and I.
“What’s going on?” I ask as soon as Katherine is within hearing range.
The girl only shakes her head with a glance around. We follow her as she moves quickly toward the house and disappears inside. Only her footsteps indicate where she is headed. I watch in confusion as she investigates each room on each floor, the three of us in her wake, and eventually settles in the study on the top floor. Even though we all know that no one else is here, she closes the door and places a chair in front of it.
“Kat,” Genevieve rolls her eyes. “What is going on?”
Katherine’s brown eyes look to each of us in turn. “I heard mom and dad talking on the phone with someone. They didn’t know but I picked up the cordless in the hall and listened. Mr. Knox was on the other end.”
I frown at the mention of my father. “Why would it seem so odd that he be on the phone with them? He is their boss, after all.”
Katherine shakes her head. “That’s not what was weird,” she says shakily. “I heard them mention Gen, then you,” she points at me. “I picked up to listen in. I wish I hadn’t.”
Feeling fear settle in my gut, I glance at Genevieve and feel Esmera’s hand find mine with a squeeze. “What did you hear?”
Katherine takes a long time to open her mouth, but when she does, her words seem distant as though I am a thousand miles away.
“The two of you are siblings.”