Chapter 1 - Redemption
Is Freedom anything else than the right
to live as we wish? Nothing else. – Epictetus
South Central, New Mexico
“Do you think it’ll be safe?” Brooklyn Adams’ raspy voice breaks the silence in the air. Raising a willowy arm, she points at a tilted, faded sign.
“For now, Brooke.” Nicolas Armani casts a shadow that stretches across the winding width of a two-lane highway. “But it won’t take them long to catch up.” His shadow merges with hers.
Brooke’s dark, untamed mane dances in the late afternoon wind. Her eyes dart back and forth, scanning the plowed fields. He knows the look on her face. He’s seen it more times than he cares to admit. It saddens him deep down to see her this way—on the verge of tears. He wants to tell her everything’s going to be okay. But he can’t.
“Mescalero isn’t far now.” He drags his feet across the pavement. “Come on.”
“I don’t want to go back.” Her jaw juts out. “I won’t because I can’t live that way—not anymore.”
Her words strike a chord, making his chest constrict. He doesn’t want to go back either. Living in the lab isn’t a life, not really. Sure, he had three meals a day and a bed to sleep in, but even the hellish conditions of Osiris’ underworld would be more preferable. Breaking out of the compound was his only option. It was the easiest choice to make, but he had to be smart about it. And for the most part, he was. But the people he went through will be searching for him—for both of them. They’ll be looking for payback.
The ground vibrates. A truck speeds by, kicking up a whirlwind of red dirt that sandblasts their clothing. He leads her to the edge of the road. From less than a quarter of a mile away, they stare down on a small, predominantly, Indian community—sanctuary within their grasp.
Indistinct music bellows within ear range. Hand-in-hand, they make their way deeper into the heart of the city. A summer festival is in full swing.
The aroma of barbecued chicken and turkey legs waft in the air. Armani’s stomach rumbles and his mouth waters. He hasn’t eaten since breakfast. A popcorn machine hisses nearby. Kernels of corn leap and dance in a golden pond of butter and salt.
A woman offers him a cone paper cup. She’s standing inside of a floral booth labeled Information. He gives the cup to Brooke. She drinks half of it and hands it back. The water moistens his dry tongue and washes down the dust in the back of his throat. A loud clang draws his attention to the left.
Hands raised overhead, a man strikes a metal plate on the ground with a large sledgehammer. The muscles in his arms ripple and bulge under the tightly pulled cotton fabric of his black T-shirt. Half of a tattoo of a cabaret dancer emerges from under his sleeve. Her legs move each time he flexes his bicep.
“Hey, youse guys.” The carny’s Bostonian accent draws out his speech. “Ring the bell and win a prize.”
“No thanks.” Armani plods past him.
“How about you, darling.” His tongue slides over his chapped, cracked lips. “Ya care to give it a whack?”
“We’re not interested.” Armani skirts Brooke behind him. He doesn’t even try to hide his building irritation.
The carny smiles a toothy grin. “Come on. The first one is free. What do youse have to lose? Unless, of course, youse don’t think you can do it.”
Armani takes the hammer from the guy’s oil-stained hands. It’s heavier than anticipated. The head of the hammer hits the dirt with a dull thud.
“Watch it boy.” His laughter triggers a wet cough deep in his chest. “I don’t want youse to hurt yourself, now.”
“Move out of the way.” Armani bumps into the carny and stops in front of the metal platform.
A series of multi-colored lights flicker up and down the frame. He tightens his grip and raises the hammer. A dim hue of blue light encases his hands, and he slams the blunt end of the hammer onto the metal. The ball at the base of the structure whistles. It sails up to the top and rings the bell.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” The carny slaps Armani on the back with a heavy hand.
“What do you want, Brooke?”
“That black and white puppy.” She points to a stuffed animal in the corner of the booth.
The carny yanks the dog off the rack and holds it out in front of her. When she reaches for it, he pulls it back, just out of reach. “Double or nothing.” A sly grin washes across his face.
“We’re done. Give her the damn thing.”
The carny spits tobacco-infused saliva on the ground. He tosses the stuffed animal overhand then turns his red, blood-shot eyes toward a couple strolling nearby.
“Here.” Armani hands her the stuffed animal. “Let’s go.”
Looping her arm through his, she leans into his body and whispers, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“You know what. You’re lucky no one saw.”
Armani shrugs. She’s right, but he’s in no mood to be lectured. There’re more important matters to attend to, like securing an escape route. He takes the lead, parting a trail through a sea of arms and legs. They pass several large pieces of carnival equipment under construction. The smell of oil and hot grease fills his nose. Rounding a corner, he runs into a group of people waiting to ride the swings, and Brooke slams into him. They navigate through the line and emerge in front of a series of game booths lining the freshly cut field. The men and women manning the booths chant and yell out to people passing by, trying to entice each customer in earshot to spend money.
In the midst of the excited crowd, he makes his way through the field, listening and watching the activities around him. Armani takes Brooke’s hand in his, guiding her toward an empty lot a block away. Her hand, engulfed by his, barely grips his inner palm. The warm air does little to break the chill of her icy, cold fingers.
Several deep wrinkles crease the blouse Brooke wears. Her jeans, faded and frayed, flare out over her sneakers. Almond-shaped eyes astutely study him, aware of every movement he makes. Dark lashes provide a sharp contrast to her fair, ivory skin tone. Even under the fine layers of dust and dirt covering her face, her sun brightened cheeks give her a natural glow. Discreetly, they pass the edge of the main part of the carnival grounds. The laughter of the festivities slowly fades into the evening air.
“What do we do now that we’re here?” Brooke tugs on one of the stuffed animal’s ears. Kneeling, she brushes some dirt off the curb with an unsteady hand. She plops down on the edge of the cracked sidewalk, hugging her knees to her chest. “Did you hear me?”
“Let me think.” Squatting, he kisses the top of her wind-blown head.
The hazel-blue irises of her eyes reveal her inner feelings. She’s scared and he knows it. Anger and frustration boils in the pit of his belly. The fear she feels, he knows, is all too real. He moves some stray hairs away from her face. A faint bruise lines the contours of her right cheekbone. It’s a reminder of where they came from and what waits for them back at the lab if captured.
“What? Now you want to think?” Anger flickers across her eyes. “Back at the compound, you said you had a plan.” Her body is rigid and tense. Murmuring a couple of unintelligible words, she springs to her feet. Turning away from him, she saunters away. Stopping under a faded awning of a deserted restaurant, she sits on a rocky window frame. The dog is held tightly under her arm. Her lower lip trembles. She wrings her hands together in her lap.
“I’m still working out some of the details.”
“You better think of something and fast.” The words stick in her dry throat. “Every minute we stand here puts us at risk.”
“Really, tell me something I don’t know.”
“What, like a plan?”
“Geez. Do you really want to do this now?”
“Don’t geez me. I got us out of the compound and onto the highway like I said I would.”
“I helped, and you know it.”
“Dr. Withers is going to find us if we don’t think of something and fast.”
“Fine. Then let me think.”
“And when he does, we’ll never see the light of day.” Brooke’s voice cracks.
His eyes feel hot. The heat spreads, shooting out across his face and forehead. His vision sharpens, but everything has a bluish tinge.
“He’ll separate us, isolate us.”
“Let. Me. Think.”
“It’ll be as if we never existed.”
Armani draws her into his arms. “They’re not going to find us.”
A blue surge of electricity emerges from the tips of his fingers and shoots through her body. She rips free of his grasp. Placing her hands on his chest, she shoves him away from her.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He raises his hands in the air. “I’m sorry.”
“Jesus, what’s wrong with you?”
“I didn’t mean to do that.” He casts his eyes downward.
“You could’ve hurt me—or worse.” She crosses her arms, hugging herself.
“I know that, but I didn’t. I’m stronger now. I can feel it.” He hauls her away from the rocky window frame to a standing position. “Look.” He holds his hand palm side up between their bodies. The hair on his arm stands on end. A small blue flicker of light emerges, dancing above the surface of his skin. “See, I can control it.”
“I hope you’re right.” Brooke diverts her gaze. Tears fill the corners of her eyes. “I pray to God you’re right.”
Brooke and Armani tread down a dimly lit street. The shadows dancing in the darkness provides a constant reminder of the danger brewing in the air. Armani’s shoulders roll forward under the emotional weight. The sense of freedom he craves and desires is at risk. Dr. Withers’ men are searching for them, he’s sure of it. He doesn’t want to go back to the medical compound. The lab holds a cold and inhuman existence. Touching the newly formed scars on the inside of his temple and behind his left ear, from the recent experiments, sends a shiver up his spine.
“Yeah.” His voice is distant.
“What now?” Brooke clasps the arm of his white T-shirt, bringing him to a sudden halt. She points to several black vehicles with exempt plates. “They’re already here.”
“We need to find a way to the reservation. I don’t think we’re far. Let’s keep moving.” Sliding a hand through his hair, he shakes his head. “If I know Withers, he’s already formulated a plan for our capture. He’s going to turn this into a full blown exercise.”
“I’m really scared.” Brooke’s voice shakes briefly, and then it evens out. “I can’t go back. I’d rather die out here than be a captive in there.” She balls her hands up into fists by her sides.
“Shh . . . we’ll be okay.”
Armani wipes away the remnant of a single tear staining her delicate face. His finger traces the tear line from the corner of her eye to the bottom of her pointed chin. She withdraws from his touch. Her stance stiffens. Bruises from her last physical contact with Dr. Withers and his men are still visible on her neck and face.
“You don’t understand, I can’t go back.”
Armani knows it’s hard for her to expose the raw emotions raging deep inside. The ones she’s guarded closely for so long.
“We’re not going back. I promise.”
He draws her into his arms for a hug then guides her into the shadows. A couple crosses the street in front of them. Armani monitors the man and woman. They’re walking hand-in-hand. The couple’s voices bubble in laughter.
Under the early evening cover of darkness, he climbs on top of a crumbling brick wall. Leaning over, he pulls Brooke up. Scanning the area from his perch, he contemplates their next course of action.
Brooke tips her head back then wrinkles her nose. “Do you think?” A look of longing flickers across her eyes.
She motions toward a group of teens no older than they are. “Do you think we can ever be like that again?”
“Normal.” Her voice wavers.
He stretches his arms overhead. “I don’t know. But I’d sure as hell like to find out.”
The group fades into the night.
Brooke only nods and hugs the stuffed animal tighter. She appears so small and frail. An appearance Armani’s not accustomed to. He puts his arm around her, speaking words of encouragement. Her body finally relaxes against his lean frame.
Armani feels the strength in her arms. He cradles her to his chest and ruffles the hair on her head playfully, and she laughs. She means the world to him. They’re not related by blood, but Brooke’s the only family he has left.
He leaps off the rocky structure. “We can’t stay here any longer.”
“Where’re we going?” Brooke scoots to the edge. Her legs dangle over the side.
“East.” He takes a few steps into the darkness. “Come on.”
“Armani.” Brooke’s eyes widen and she gulps.
The dog falls from her arms, tumbling to the ground. Teetering on the edge, she loses her balance and falls off the wall, landing on her side. Muttering a cry of distress, she rolls onto her left hip.
Armani rushes to her, extending a hand.
“God no, please.” She shakes her head.
She draws in a sharp breath and kneels. Her hand slides up her right arm, coming to rest upon her shoulder. Armani’s eyes are instantly drawn to a small red and yellow dart lodged in her right, upper shoulder. Dr. Withers’ men have found them.
‘No.’ The single foreign word echoes in Armani’s mind.
“Help me.” Her eyes tear up.
The desperation in his voice scares him. Armani grabs the dart still embedded in her shoulder and yanks it out, tossing it to the ground. He has to protect her—he promised. Dragging her to her feet, he pulls her forward and runs.
“Oh God, they’ve found us.”
His eyes zero in on some of Dr. Withers’ men. “Run and don’t stop.”
He darts out of the darkness of the lot, holding her hand firmly in his. Sprinting toward the festivities, he hopes to lose the advancing men in the crowd.
Over his shoulder, footsteps pound the ground. The men are quickly approaching. He searches the men’s faces for any trace of recognition. From the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of a familiar face. His heart sinks and his breath hitches in the back of his throat.
Armani locks gazes with Eddie Banks. “Shit. If Banks is here, then Lieutenant Harris and Sanchez aren’t far behind.”
“God, what are we going to do? The lieutenant and Sanchez will be looking to settle a score after what we did.”
“Flank them.” Banks maneuvers closer to intercept them.
“Is he here? Do you see him?” Brooke continues her search.
Armani glances down at her briefly. “What?”
“Do you see Praveen? If he’s here, we don’t stand a chance in hell.”
“I don’t see him.” A dart sails past the side of Armani’s face. He stumbles but regains his footing and veers to the left.
“Where you going, kids?” Banks flashes a sneer. “Play time’s over. There’s nowhere left to hide.” With precision, Banks and the other men come at them, hard and fast.
“Stay close,” Armani says under his breath.
Brooke’s foot slides sideways on a rock. Stumbling, she struggles to keep her balance. Her legs work overtime, taking two steps in order to keep up with his longer strides.
Armani surveys the area. His eyes glimpse her pale, colorless face. Realization hits home. He’s sure Brooke can’tkeep up the pace they’re going much longer. In desperation, he looks around for a place to hide. But the men are gaining. Soon, they’ll be out of time.
A line of trucks comes into view. He rushes toward them, hoping to lose their pursuers in the shadows. He sidesteps between two vehicles, bringing Brooke to a sudden stop against the tire of a black and red truck. His chest heaves with each breath he takes.
“Keys, please, let there be keys.” The words softly roll off the tip of his tongue.
Armani inches forward. Movement to his right draws his attention. His heart hammers in his chest. He motions for Brooke to stay put. Crouching down, he peers under the trailer, searching for their pursuers. But he doesn’t see anyone or anything. The men’s voices carry. He’s not sure which direction they’re coming from. Rising, he makes his way to the driver’s door, placing a foot on the rusted step. The metal groans under his weight. The cab is locked.
“Over here. They’re over here.” A short, stocky man makes his way around the front of the truck.
“Oh God,” Brooke whispers. “Stevenson is here.”
Armani springs off the side of the vehicle. He grabs Brooke, who is slow and sluggish to stand. They make their way toward the back of the truck. Brooke’s shoes slide over some loose dirt. She stumbles and falls, tearing her jeans and scraping her knee. The motion of the tumble knocks Armani off balance, and he topples over her.
Brooke’s hands slide across the gravel. Armani yanks her to her feet. Her knees give way, and she sinks to the ground.
“They’re coming. You have to get up.”
“I can’t.” Brooke’s words are slurred.
“Yes you can. Now get up on your feet.”
Brooke stands, but her wobbly legs buckle. With adrenaline pumping, Armani lifts her into his arms. Unsure of what to do, he runs. He knows he can’t keep sprinting for long. Already, heavy footsteps drum on the ground behind him, booming in his ears. The men are filling in the gap between him and freedom.
The warmth of his pursuer’s breath is hot on his neck. A firm hand grips his shoulder, groping at his shirt. The fabric rips under the tension. Armani’s body is rammed sideways. He loses his balance. Falling to the ground with a hard thud, he stares down at Brooke.
She’s lying unconscious on the ground beside him. A gash on her forehead, above her right eyebrow, stands out. The blood, seeping into her hairline, trickles down her temple past her jawline. She’s motionless. One of their pursuers crouches down and extends a hand toward her face.
Armani quickly rises to his feet. “Don’t touch her, Banks.” He shoves one of his captors to the ground.
Two men join the party. They lunge for Armani, grabbing his arms and legs. The men wrestle him to the ground.
Struggling against them, Armani strains to obtain a better view. “Brooke.” He has to save her. He can’t let her down—not here—not now.
She doesn’t move.
Banks cocks his head to the side and winks. He kneels before her.
“Leave her alone.”
“Now, why would I do that?” Banks removes a black fitted glove. Caressing her face, his fingertips slide over her chin and down her neck.
Armani closes his eyes and takes several deep breaths to clear his mind. Banks touching her ignites a fire deep within his body. His heart pounds in his ears. Taking in a deep breath, he struggles to calm himself. He has to remain in control. He can’t allow the rage to take over. Drawing in one last cleansing breath, his chest rises, and then he exhales slowly. A surge of energy rushes throughout his entire body. When he opens his eyes, the hair on his arms crackle and stand on end.
“Sanchez.” Banks leans over Brooke’s body. “Help the men restrain the male target.”
Stevenson peers wide-eyed at Armani. “Shit. What the hell are you doing with your hands?”
Sanchez slams into Armani, driving an elbow into his ribs. “Hijo de tu puta madre.” He wraps an arm around Armani’s neck. Holding him in a choke hold. “Stop your shit.” His Spanish accent is thick. “Or I’ll take your fucking head off.”
Armani twists free. He comes face-to-face with Sanchez. “What the hell did you just say?”
“I believe he just called you a son-of-a-bitch.” Stevenson reclaims a hold on Armani’s legs.
“You know what they say,” Sanchez whispers. “Payback’s a bitch and after what you did—”
“Hold him down.” Banks cinches Brooke’s hands and feet together with plastic ties.
Stevenson digs an elbow into Armani’s back. “Cut your crap, kid.”
“Banks, get your ass over here.” Sanchez rolls over, pinning Armani down under the weight of his body.
Laying Brooke on her back, Banks pulls a small pen syringe from his heavy woven slacks. He injects her thigh before rushing over to where the men are wrestling.
“Give it to him.” Sanchez wraps an arm around Armani’s neck. “The doc said to inject him with the damn drug.”
Banks fishes another tube from his pocket. “Here, you do it.” He holds the silver cylinder out toward Sanchez without breaking eye contact with Armani.
Sanchez’s grip slips. “Stop screwing around and give it to him.” Grappling, he shoves Armani’s face into the dirt.
Twisting his body, Armani shoves Sanchez to the side and takes a swing at the man’s face. The blow lands with a heavy thud, making direct contact with the side of Sanchez’s nose. His fist slides off the man’s shaved head.
Sanchez wipes the blood off his upper lip. “Puta madre! I’m going to beat the living shit out of you.” Sanchez elbows Armani in the mouth. “And Dr. Withers isn’t here to stop me.”
“I don’t think so. Not this time.” The metallic taste of blood fills Armani’s mouth and his lip throbs.
Stephenson laughs. “He just called you a motherfucker.”
“Hold him down.” Sanchez glances up.
“Dude.” Stephenson tightens his hold. “If you don’t stop moving, we’re really gonna kick your ass.”
Anger rises in the pit of his belly. “You didn’t stop me at the lab, now did you?” Armani sprays Sanchez with a fine mist of blood. “What makes you think you can do it now?”
“Shut up.” Stevenson holds Armani’s legs. “Just shut the fuck up.”
“What’s with the glowing eyes, puta?” Sanchez reclaims his hold. “That’s some new shit.”
“Give me the damn thing.” A dark-headed man approaches the group.
“You want it.” Banks holds the syringe out in front of him. “You’re welcome to it.”
“Who the hell are you?” Armani faces the man.
“Michael Malone. I’m one of Dr. Withers’ new field technicians, and I’m going to be your worst nightmare when we get back to the lab—yours and hers.”
Malone approaches, the syringe is wedged between his fingertips.
“Just hold him still. Can you schoolgirls manage that?” Malone secures Armani’s leg, and then he jabs the pen injector into Armani’s thigh with a quick jab.
The contents of the tube enter his thigh, leaving a cold heaviness in its wake. The rising anger makes his stomach muscles twist and contract. Using all the energy and strength he can conjure, Armani breaks free of his captors. Holding his hands to his chest generates static electricity that circles the air. The warmth of the current is comforting. It washes over his body.
The men freeze. A blue circle of energy forms between Armani’s hands. Heat warms his face and eyes. His changes. The surroundings trees, grass, and dirt have a bluish hue to them.
Banks’ voice booms. “How long before it kicks in, Malone?”
“Hell if I know. One can never tell with these lab rats. You can consider this a field test. But I’d get the hell out of the way.”
A ball of energy flies from Armani’s hands striking Malone in the center of the chest. The man’s mouth goes slack and he staggers back. Another spark of light shoots from Armani’s palm. The direct impact sends Malone flying several feet across the pavement of the deserted parking lot. He’s lying face up with gravel embedded in the side of his lifeless face.
Withers’ men back off a short distance. Armani turns his full attention toward Sanchez, who is now standing over Brooke. A blue circle of energy forms once again between his palms. Holding his hands out by his sides, it splits in two. Raising his arms, the orbs hover in front of him. Sparks of energy flick and leap from the spheres.
Stephenson races for the shelter of a nearby truck. Armani sends several controlled energy bursts into the air, striking the driver’s side door. The impact leaves a massive hole burning in the frame of the disabled vehicle.
Black smoke rises from the body of the mangled truck where Stephenson is hiding. The other men crouch down. Their eyes dart between the lifeless body of their colleague and the target still standing. Anger rages inside him, consuming him. He knows he has to pull back and control his emotions. This time, he can’t let his powers get away from him. There’s too much at risk.
A group of civilians gather around, taking in the scene unfolding. A woman kneels next to Brooke’s body. Armani approaches. Standing, the woman takes several steps back. Sliding his arms under Brooke’s body, he scoops her up, cradling her to his chest.
Glancing over his shoulder, a crowd of people closes the gap between him and Withers’ men. His mind clouds over. Shaking his head, he tries to clear the fog. Drained by the use of his powers, he staggers. The effects of the drug are now freely flowing in his bloodstream.
His eyes grow heavy with each step he takes. Dazed, he makes his way to the edge of the festival grounds, unsure of what to do next. Leveling his chin, he spots an elderly men sitting quietly, staring at him.
Armani shakes his head again, but the haze remains. His vision grows murky, edging the corners of his eyes with darkness. Staggering on weak legs, Armani falls to his knees. He holds Brooke protectively in his arms.“Help us.” Armani extends a single hand, palm side up. “I can’t fail her. Please, I promised.”