Enjoy the prologue and first chapter from Book #2. If you’re hungry for more, click HERE to start the series with Book #1!
The U-Haul weaved through traffic like a top-heavy sports car, cutting a path through sheets of rainwater and spraying oncoming cars with its misty wake. Its heavy bulk veered precariously from the left to the right, on the edge of tipping over as a torrent of wind and rain pelted its cold, metal exterior. Despite the obvious danger, four kids clung to the careening truck’s narrow, slippery roof, bracing themselves for what was to come next.
One of the kids, a large teenager with a shock of wet brown hair kneeled toward the front of the roof, glaring back at the other three kids, taunting them to come closer and smirking at their fear.
The object of the teenager’s taunts, a lean, shirtless boy with a backwards-facing, red hat, dared to come closer and found a grip near the front, while another shirtless boy – a blonde, frail one with freckles – suddenly lost his grip and slid with a metallic squeak across the drenched roof. Just as one of his legs dangled over the edge, the girl next to him snatched his arm and pulled him into her grasp. The freckled boy pawed at her, gasping for breath and shaking, but kept one eye open to watch the confrontation at the front.
Greyson, the boy in the red hat, wiped at the mixture of blood and rain that dripped from his nose and glared at the larger boy. This boy would never surrender. He wasn’t the type. But neither was Greyson.
“Get out of my way!” he shouted at the larger boy.
The teen laughed and sneered. “You can’t stop this! They can’t stop it!” He gestured at the police cars trailing them from behind, whose sirens had long ago blended into the hiss of the wet road, the roar of the engine, and the shrieks of jets screaming overhead.
The U-Haul swerved around another car and Greyson’s knuckles clenched white as he grasped the top of a bolt sticking from the roof – his only grip.
He turned to the shrill voice, its fright giving him chills and flashbacks of his last night of sports camp. It was the girl, Sydney, calling him, pointing ahead with one arm, her other arm draped over the frail boy named Liam.
Greyson followed her panicked gaze. The city’s skyline loomed through the storm clouds that glowed in shades of orange and black in the setting sun. The U-Haul was getting closer, approaching the last major bridge before the suburbs.
Sydney didn’t need to say anything else. He had run out of time.
“I don’t want to kill you!” he warned. “But if I have to…”
The teen laughed and lowered his brow. “I dare you…”
With a burst of rage and nerves, Greyson scrambled toward the larger boy and dove into him with fists flying. Limbs and wet clothes flailed as blows struck him in the ear, the jaw, and the nose. He landed blows, too, catching the teen’s neck exposed and placing a fist in his Adam’s apple. The teen erupted with a gasping choke, but he didn’t lose his grip on Greyson’s neck, shaking him and jabbing elbows into his sides and face.
Greyson tried to stay close to dampen the blows, but the stronger teen would only push him away, strike him again, and bring him into his elbows again and again. Lights splattered Greyson’s vision with each blow and he could feel his consciousness slipping away. He covered his face with his hands and managed to block some direct blows, but they were rocking his skull. If this were a boxing match, the referee would call the fight, but there was no referee in the middle of the bridge.
Suddenly the blows stopped coming. The teen’s attention had shifted. Greyson sensed movement behind him and heard his breath as his friend came at them, stumbling to his rescue.
The delay gave Greyson just enough time to recollect himself, find his vision, and remember his training. His hands shot to the teen’s wrist and pressed it toward his forearm with all his strength. The bigger boy screamed and used his other hand to grab at Greyson’s arms, but Greyson had expected it. With the teen’s arms both occupied, Greyson slammed his palm into the boy’s nose with a sick crunch. His eyes glazed over and his hands cupped the blood as it dripped from his nostrils.
But Greyson couldn’t stop. The teenager had to be out of the way for him to stop the vehicle. And he deserved more. Greyson shuffled closer to him, grabbed his shirt collar, and began to pummel him with blows of revenge, hateful words escaping without filter. Blow after blow, he rammed the teen’s face until his fists were bloody and bruised, but he wouldn’t stop until he could throw him over the side without any resistance.
It would be over soon.
Suddenly the truck lurched to the left and sent them all sprawling. But it was nothing compared to the next lurch. The driver overcompensated for the first move and jerked the wheel to the right, sending the U-Haul slamming against the bridge rail in a shower of red and yellow sparks.
With the impact, Liam and Sydney’s bodies were instantly hurled to the side and into the air, disappearing into the darkening sky.
Greyson would have been with them, but he had kept his grip on the teen’s collar as they both fell to their sides on the wobbling truck. Out of the corner of his eye and as if frozen in time, he saw his friends’ writhing bodies become smaller and smaller, falling toward the dark water below.
They’ll never make it.
Greyson pulled the teen up with him, but the teen could barely manage to keep his head straight on his neck. Their eyes met in a cold stare.
Every second that passed took him further from his friends and took the truck even closer to the city. He only had a moment to think – to weigh the options. Thoughts raced through his brain, yelling at him louder than the wind whipping at his ears, louder than the jets screaming overhead. Almost every ounce of him wanted to finish off the teen and to stop the truck, but that last ounce – the one still voice whispering to him – whispered louder than the others.
The teen’s mouth curled in a bloody, mangled smile, his crooked nose breathing heavily through clogged nostrils. He spoke with a dripping, nasal laugh. “You can’t save everybody.”
Sneering at the boy and turning on his knees, Greyson pointed toward the back of the roof, jolted into a sprint, and leaped toward the watery abyss below.
Three days earlier…
Wind whipped at his face, sucking at his eardrums and pushing the tears from his eyes. Greyson would have had his helmet’s visor down, but he had pushed it away after a barrage of mud had rendered it useless.
Trying to ignore the remains of mud still dripping down his shirt collar, Greyson held tighter to the handlebars as he buzzed around the farm. The dirt bike’s engine whirred at top speed and its tires kicked gravel and dust behind him until it quickly dispersed in the humid wind.
He was focused. Kip’s words bounced around his mind and he repeated them to himself, trying to ignore the fear of crashing at this speed. “Stay focused at the edge of the present and the future.” The bike sped past the stables, where someone’s family used to keep horses. “Keep balanced.” He cut through two gleaming metal tractors, so close to each one he could almost feel the pain of his fingers being mangled against the side if his steering was off by a few inches. “Be prepared for anything.”
He burst into open territory and rounded the driveway toward the barn. He glimpsed to the left and the right. He scanned the dark windows. He watched the mirrors behind him, half expecting some sort of vehicle to burst into pursuit. “And most importantly…”
He skidded around the grassy corner, expecting the same path as the last lap, but this time there was a masked man poised to intercept him. He raised his hand toward Greyson, holding a black, metallic object. It was a gun.
Greyson clinched every muscle and slammed on the brakes. The bang blasted the muggy air and knocked away any focus he had once had; and the man still stood in the path.
The bike careened toward the man, and Greyson jerked it away at the last moment; the handlebars wobbled left then right as the wheel jammed into the dirt. He panicked. He knew he was going down.
In an instant he dove from the twisting bike and screamed as he vaulted face first into a stack of hay bails. The impact punched the wind from his lungs and the stack collapsed in a scratchy, hot avalanche.
He was buried. “Most importantly…don’t panic.”
He could barely hear Kip’s voice through the yellow bails. Realization kicked in and his fear was replaced with anger. He kicked at the bails and spat the dirty fragments of hay that whirled into his helmet and already itched down his muddy shirt and pants.
The masked man dragged him out to the dirt where he could see the downed bike. Groaning, Greyson rubbed his sore collarbone and wheeled his arm in circles. It had healed enough over the last few weeks to begin adding strenuous activities, but every now and then the pain would prickle his nerves and remind him of the horrible crack when he had dove into Emory’s shin, keeping the terrorist from detonating the missile and destroying the town of Morris.
Holstering his weapon, Kip removed the floppy mask from his head revealing his short, black hair and characteristic frown.
“You panicked,” he repeated, offering an arm to get up.
“You shot at me!” Greyson retorted, angrily pulling at his tight helmet and ignoring Kip’s extended arm. I can get up on my own.
“It was a blank, of course. And it worked. What can you learn from this?”
Greyson ripped the helmet from his sweaty hair and threw it into the hay. “That I thought you were supposed to protect me, but I guess you’re out to kill me.”
The middle-aged FBI agent leaned back, his brown eyes examining the boy’s angry features. He had a right to be angry, he supposed. It had been a dangerous exercise. But it had gone according to plan. Kip had received much more dangerous training when he had applied for the FBI. Many times he had thought he was going to die, and oftentimes he would have preferred death to the training. But he had come out a stronger, wiser agent.
“No. You learned the results of panic. Think – the mud didn’t make you crash. Why? Not as scary. And you’re fully capable of avoiding obstacles. So, it wasn’t just the fact that I was standing in your path that made you crash, was it?”
Greyson scrunched his forehead and wiped his hand through his messy brown hair. He wanted to say it was the gunshot, or that he had not wanted to smash into Kip’s old, yet burly body, but Kip was right. As always. But geez, he hated to admit it.
“Yeah, I panicked. So? Wouldn’t everybody?”
Kip leaned down close enough that Greyson could see the wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes and the greying forest of stubble on his black cheeks. “Yes, most would. But you aren’t going to be like them. If he comes for you…” Kip paused, searching for words. “If he comes for you, you have to be ready. Hesitation – panic – can mean that one extra second that lets you survive.”
Greyson let the words sink in. He was annoyed by this man and needed him at the same time. It had been a long month and half since sports camp, a long time since he’d faced death – his own, his friends’, and those he’d defeated.
Wait. Defeated? Is that what death is? A game with winners and losers? I came out on top, and SquareJaw, Mantis, Emory…they just fell short? And now what? I’m training in the offseason for the next match-up against a far superior rival, except if I lose, I will never play again? Just like Dad had lost.
Greyson snapped out of his daydream. “Huh?”
“You hear me, Nolan?”
The name still hadn’t sunk in. The FBI had assigned it to him, but it hadn’t grown on him yet. And it wasn’t the name his dad had given him.
“Yeah, yeah. And can’t you just call me Greyson around here at least?”
Kip sighed. “We’re not going through that again. Get your helmet. It’s getting late.”
Greyson rolled his eyes and snatched his helmet. But before he put it on, Kip threw him his red hat with a white ‘G’ stitched on the front and smiled at him. “I’m letting you keep the hat, remember? You were supposed to lose everything that could identify you. And the hat’s a dead giveaway.”
Greyson’s anger finally began to melt. He smiled back. “But you couldn’t do that to me.”
Kip laughed and picked up the dirt bike, beginning to wheel it toward the farmhouse that had begun to feel familiar to them. “That’s right. I can shoot at you and laugh as you flail into a haystack, but I would never take your hat.”
“Wait. You said you shot a blank.”
“Yeah, well,” Kip started, walking away in the dimming sunlight. “I missed, so what does it matter?”
Greyson grimaced and ran after him. “You missed? What does that mean?”
Kip laughed. “I guess I should say I hit what I was aiming for – the oxygen molecule a yard to your left. But why worry about that? We should really worry about what your mom made us for dinner.”
Shaking off the thought of a bullet whizzing by his head a moment ago, Greyson raised his nose to smell the roast beef wafting from the screen door of the single-story, red farmhouse where paint was chipping away at every edge and the wooden porch was drooping like the back of an old donkey that had seen its share of heavy riders. Other than the normal wear and tear of aging wood, the farmhouse had sturdy character – like a grandmother – hospitable, warm, and toughened through experience.
Even the inside was welcoming, with fading, patterned wallpaper, ornate, hand-made chairs, trinkets of tractors and farm equipment and cattle, and even blue and red ribbons from various competitions. Greyson had examined each one, trying to imagine the winning show horse or blueberry pie. Whoever had lived in this quaint home before the FBI had secured it for them had lived well – peacefully, successfully, happily.
“Crock pot’s set on warm,” Greyson’s mother called from her usual spot in the corner office next to the kitchen. “Roast beef stew. Plenty of carrots for you Kip, and onions for you, Greys.”
They both reached for the ladle at the same time and peered in through the foggy, glass lid. Their eyes met and they laughed. Kip retreated first and pulled some hay from Greyson’s shirt and tossed it in the trash. “I’ll check on your mom. Try to get her to eat with us.”
“K. I’ll make her a plate.”
Scooping generous portions onto the plates, Greyson set the table for three, inwardly hoping they could enjoy a meal together. It had been a few days since they had last convinced her.
She was obsessed. Something had tripped in her mind one day and set her back months of progress. Before sports camp she had been slowly getting over Dad’s likely death, with crying episodes coming further and further apart, but suddenly she was back into full investigation mode. Long phone calls – international and domestic – emails to reporters and diplomats, researching, persuading, hounding, and researching more. She had done everything in her power except to leave and hunt down her husband’s body personally.
And Greyson knew why she didn’t leave. It was his fault. He kept her here. But now that they had Kip, maybe that could change.
When he had been assigned to them and had helped them erase their past and set up a new life, they didn’t know whether to thank him or hate him. Their opinion of him had been especially low when he had them destroy most of their memories and keepsakes while forcing them from the only home Greyson had ever known.
Though he had managed to convince Kip to send his Morris paddle with the perseverance brand he earned at sports camp to his counselor, Brandon, he had to hide a picture of him and his dad from Kip by stitching it into the inside of his hat. The lowest of low points had been when Kip informed them he had given away their dog, GrayHound.
But now, after Kip had spent the early summer days teaching Greyson evasion strategies while he had been healing, and hand-to-hand combat and weapon training once he was healed, the Grays knew that he was the only thing keeping them alive and sane. Now, perhaps it was possible his mom would leave someday. Leave him with Kip.
Greyson sat at the table, listening to Kip and his mother’s conversation. Much of it was over his head – various names and titles, laws and procedures, locations and dates – but he gathered enough to know that his mother would not be able to join them.
Hearing his mom make excuse after excuse began to wear on him. What would happen to me if Kip left instead of Mom? Would I become obsessed with tracking down Dad as well?
No. Why would I waste my time with that? He’s dead. He has to be. And his body, it’s somewhere they’ll never be able to find it. Either in sand or in the ocean. How will Mom find his body there? Would they even be able to identify the remains? What is she really hoping to find? Isn’t it enough to believe he’s in a better place? He’s dead!
“Nolan.” Kip stood over him, a troubled look in his eyes. “Relax.”
Greyson followed Kip’s gaze to his hands where he had a fork and a knife gripped so tightly that his palms hurt. He set them down and felt the release of tension travel from his arms to his neck where he hadn’t realized it had been.
“Are you alright?”
Kip nodded with shifting eyes and grabbed his plate. He had already started shoveling a carrot in his mouth before he sat down.
“You know everything, right, Kip?”
Kip choked on the carrot and laughed. “I already think you’re the coolest kid I know. You don’t have to butter me up anymore.”
Greyson smiled meekly, playing with the onions on his plate. “I’m the only kid you know. And I’m not; I just have a question.”
“Where do you think we go when we die?”
Chewing loudly, Kip kept nodding and pointing at Greyson with his fork. “That. That is not a question I can answer. Sorry, little buddy.”
Greyson shrugged his shoulders. “That’s okay. That’s what I thought.” He scooped at an onion and pressed it into a mash of beef.
“That is a question for a priest or pastor or rabbi,” Kip continued. “I’ve only studied how to get people to that point, not what happens afterward.” He cut into the roast beef and added more to the amount already in his mouth. “I tell you what. Promise me you’ll ask the first priest you see, okay? He’ll let you know.”
Disappointed, but relieved at the same time, Greyson nodded. “Will do.”
“Good. I hope he tells you that people like the Emorys – they go straight to hell. People like your dad – they go to heaven. That’s where they belong in my opinion.”
Greyson faked a satisfied smile and began to eat. It was delicious, but he wasn’t very hungry any more. There was something about realizing that he may have sent someone to hell that didn’t sit right with him – even if it was an Emory. He looked up at Kip. How many had he sent to hell? He looked down at his own hands – and the knife. Will I ever kill again? Or will I die first? If I do die soon, where will I go? After all, I am a murderer.
“Hey. I got a call today,” Kip said, breaking the somber mood.
“Oh yeah, Mr. Popular.”
Kip smiled. “Actually, it was for you.”
Scraping his plate for the last bit of gravy, Kip nodded. “A girl, too.”
A new energy started in his chest, but he didn’t want to show it. “I bet she was looking for Greyson Gray, not Nolan Schroeder.”
“That’s right. But she really wants to see you.”
It had been so long since he’d seen any of his friends. He couldn’t call them, email them, or anything. He was supposed to not even exist. How could they contact him when he didn’t exist? He had almost given up on seeing her – and the rest of them – ever again.
“Can I please talk to her? I won’t give away where I am, or say my new name, or anything! I can…I can lie. I don’t care. I just…”
“She’s coming over tomorrow. And you’re going with her for a few days.”
“Yeah. I set it up yesterday. You need a break. It’ll be safe. I’ll be with you and you’ll be blending in with a lot of people.”
Greyson could barely contain himself. More people? “Where?”
Kip took a deep sigh, prolonging the boy’s anticipation. He eyed Greyson’s mom who stood in the hallway, smiling. “The Iowa State Fair.”
The Iowa State Fair sign shone in the dark, its new annual motto blazing underneath: “Legendary.” The last guests had left for the night, some stumbling after having too many beers, others still giddy with excitement after the late-night concert in the Grand Stands. The carnival rides had stopped spinning and their bright, colored lights had gone black. The Skyride had ground to a stop and the performers had retreated to their RVs for a restful night’s sleep. The gates had been closed to the campgrounds and the other entrances. They’d open once again for the early guests the next morning, but for now, they were locked and abandoned. A security guard or two wandered the fairgrounds at night, but there had never been much of a concern except for the time a few animal-rights protesters had hidden away in the Varied Industries Building and wrote “Freedom for All” on the butter cow display before dousing the buttery bovine statue with blood-red paint.
Tonight, a more dangerous intruder had hidden himself away. Dressed in black with a wide, shark-like grin, the assassin watched the night guard, his target, pass beneath his perch in a two-trunked maple tree. He debated how to kill the target, wavering between using his red combat knife or his bare hands, but decided against it altogether.
The assassin knew the importance of a good plan and the dangers of a conscience. Conscience made you hesitate – made you soft. Conscience restrained you. But he wouldn’t be restrained. For years he had mastered his own way of defeating a conscience. He tricked it. Human beings were not people. They were things. Objects. Hazards. Animals. Its. Not ‘he’s or ‘she’s. And he could do with things as he pleased.
Don’t waste energy hiding its body. Wait. Wait until it moves closer to an area it can be disposed of quickly.
An idea struck him and a smirk played at his wide, cracked lips.
Dropping from the tree as light as a feather, he followed the target and passed it through the maze of wooden vendor huts. Minutes later he found the area he was looking for and took up a hiding spot behind a set of bleachers overlooking a large pit of dark, shimmering water. The guard came into sight.
The assassin played out what would happen in his mind. Knock it to the ground, face first. The move to kill – smooth and quick to the neck, letting the evidence of the kill spill to the grass. Remove its uniform and personal items. And then the feeding.
He watched as the night guard aimlessly meandered toward the chain-linked security fence, shining its flashlight on the warning sign with scary, green letters: “LIVE GATOR TAMER!”
The assassin drew his red, serrated knife and widened his lips into a long, twisted smile.