I RUBBED MY HANDS TENSELY over my bare arms as I studied each person in the lobby, but everyone we passed was mortal. None of them was shielded or thinking about Unbounded. Their thoughts came to me loudly, their life forces glowing with the additional brightness I’d felt since Mexico, when I’d pushed my ability to its limits. The increased sensitivity made me jumpy since coming to New York, where there seemed to be a crush of people and stray thoughts everywhere I turned. My own mental shield was becoming conversely strong as I worked at keeping them out.
Keene McIntyre arched a brow, a question in his eyes, and I shook my head, indicating that I hadn’t located any Emporium Unbounded or Hunters. Of course we had yet to see our target.
I wondered for the hundredth time how Ava had talked me into attending this swanky political fundraiser in New York City. She or Stella would have been a much better choice for hobnobbing with the rich and famous, as well as ferreting out the truth about our target. I’d agreed only because a prominent Hunter and his cronies would be in attendance and I was one of the few Renegades not in their database—the only one who also had the sensing ability.
“Cold, Erin?” Keene whispered, amusement thick in his voice. As luck would have it, he was the only other experienced Renegade in our group who was likewise not in the Hunters’ database. In fact, before his defection from the Emporium, he’d worked undercover with the Hunters. That he was mortal was ironic, since it meant he was also one of the most vulnerable of our group, but he was good at what he did, coming by his fighting ability through sheer force of will and determination rather than by inheritance.
Not that we were left to ourselves. This mission was far too important. All the Renegades who could be spared were watching the grounds, ready to back us up if needed. Keene and I were here to gain information about our target, not take him out—unless we uncovered information that made his demise more important than our safety.
I rolled my eyes at Keene’s comment. “A strapless dress like this in December doesn’t make sense, and why did I have to check my fur coat?”
His eyes, their green color bright under the chandelier, roamed over the dress appreciatively. “Because people who spend five thousand dollars for a picture with the vice president of the United States always check their coats.” Easy for him to say since he wore a tuxedo and couldn’t feel the winter chill seeping into the gilded lobby.
Cold notwithstanding, I’d spent far too much time working lately not to enjoy wearing the dress. The silky folds hugged all the right curves and made me feel feminine and in control. Unfortunately, the last time I’d worn red, things hadn’t gone so well, and right now there were a lot of other places I’d rather be. Particularly with our Renegades not involved in tonight’s operation, who were several miles away keeping watch on the building where the Emporium had taken five of our people captive. We’d staked out the compound for three weeks since discovering their whereabouts, but so far we hadn’t found a way to rescue them.
My eyes went past Keene and the reception hall entrance, where men in stiff white suits were helping attendees to their destinations. With so much power and money here tonight, the Emporium would likely be represented in significant numbers, though we had yet to verify the presence of any operatives. That fact contrasted sharply with the uneasy feeling in my gut that told me something would go terribly wrong before the night was over. The sensation related to my ability and was one I’d learned not to ignore. I wanted to warn the others, but it wouldn’t make a difference to our plan. We all knew the danger. We were prepared for it.
“You ready to do this?” I asked.
For an answer, Keene extended his arm to me. He looked lean and attractive in his black tux, his longish brown hair combed back to expose the scar that ran along the right side of his face near his ear. He appeared comfortable, which was more than I could say for myself. At least my dress fell to the tips of my incredibly tall red heels, obscuring the knives in the sheath around my thigh, knives made not of metal but of plastic with 3D printers and nanotechnology. A couple of guns made of the stuff would have been better, but even we hadn’t found a way around exploding barrels and the metal required by firing pins and decent bullets.
We passed the Secret Service agents and through the metal detector at the door in front of the reception hall without incident. As I was replacing my dangling earrings and the glittering gold bracelet Stella had lent me for the evening, a man in a white suit appeared before us.
“May I have your ticket, please?” He extended his hand. Keene gave it to him, and he checked it briefly before handing it back. “Thank you. The photos are being taken behind that backdrop. Please wait with the others. It shouldn’t be long. After you pose for your picture with the vice president, please use the exit over there. However, if you wish to stay for the speech, you may still upgrade your ticket. I apologize, but all the dinner tickets have been sold.”
“Oh, that’s terrible news,” I said. “I was hoping there would be a last-minute cancellation.”
Keene almost laughed aloud. I’d been the one who refused to stay for the overpriced dinner. Not only was I an opponent of our current vice president, but I could think of a lot better ways to spend thirty thousand dollars, or the sixty it would have cost for both of us.
“I’m very sorry.” The man gave a little bow and moved aside so we could pass.
A wave of heat welcomed us as we approached the midway point of the room where photographers had set up their equipment. We couldn’t see Vice President Mann behind the backdrop from where we stood, but the line for photographs wasn’t too long when you considered he was likely to be president after the next election. Clusters of well-dressed people gathered all over the room talking, some holding a small digital copy of the photograph they’d taken with the vice president. I understood that event organizers would mail larger copies later to attendees, and I planned to use mine for target practice.
“Cort, can you still hear us?” I said, testing to make sure I hadn’t damaged the tiny microphone in the left earring when I’d removed them for the metal detector. Keene had another mic in a ring in case we were separated, but I didn’t want to depend on him.
“Both signals at full strength,” came the voice in my earbud. “And everything’s still a go.”
“Remember. In and out,” another more forceful voice reverberated in my ear. Ritter Langton, of course, making sure we stayed on task. He’d take any failure as a personal one. “No dallying.”
Dallying? I couldn’t help smiling. Who used that term these days? Only old people—and long-lived Unbounded apparently.
“Yes, Your Deathliness.” I’d started calling him that since our arrival in New York, in part because he was in charge of the operation to free our imprisoned Renegades but mostly because it bugged him. I was bugged, too. We were supposed to be figuring out our relationship, but all we’d been doing was working and training.
Ritter didn’t respond to my jab, as I knew he wouldn’t, but I’d probably pay for the remark later. I was even looking forward to it because I was beginning to see a downside to the possibility of living two thousand years. Decisions in non-life-threatening issues, such as intimacy and romance, seemed much slower to come by, and since my ability made me privy to his emotions as well as my own, I was pretty much a hormonal wreck. It didn’t help that Keene had been hanging around so much, adding to the tension.
Cort laughed in my ear. “We’ll let you know if anything happens on our side. So far everything looks calm.”
“Great,” I answered. “We’re almost to our target.”
Heads turned in my direction as we passed. Most Unbounded and mortals are unaware of the confidence exuded by all Unbounded, simply translating it as beauty or physical attraction, but to a sensing Unbounded like me, the pull was as clear as a neon arrow pointing out the identity of any quasi immortal. In fact, the early days of a Change were the only time I couldn’t definitively pinpoint an Unbounded.
There was the strong possibility that some of these milling people were Emporium plants. The Emporium had many new operatives that we didn’t know about, both Unbounded and mortal, a direct result from their active breeding program. Unlike the mortal Hunters, the Emporium was aware of my existence as well as Keene’s. If we were noticed and identified, getting out of the hotel alive could become a serious problem.
“That woman wants to meet you,” I whispered to Keene as we passed a brunette, whose black dress exposed most of her long, shapely legs. She stared at him intently from under long lashes. She was beautiful enough to be Unbounded, but a glance told me she was mortal.
Keene laughed and flashed me a crooked grin. “I’m more into blondes.” His stare made me flush, though that might be more because of Ritter’s possible reaction than my own. The men had a sort of uneasy truce at the moment, fueled by a grudging admiration for each other, but I worried that the fire simmering below the polite silences and gruff exchanges might flare into something dangerous at any moment.
We arrived at the end of the line, where two waiting couples turned to greet us. Mortals all, in their fifties, the men with thin, graying hair and expensive suits, and their coifed and expertly made-up wives dressed in silk and dripping expensive jewelry. They gave us falsely wide smiles.
One man wore glasses, and it was he who introduced the others. I nodded politely, hearing little of what he said; whatever corporation he and his partner owned didn’t interest me, and I certainly wouldn’t be having lunch with their wives.
Keene shook hands with the men and nodded at the women, giving our prepared spiel about some West Coast Internet startup that had made millions. The company was real, run by mortals we’d secretly helped with our advanced technology, but new enough that none of them should be familiar with the owners.
“Nice.” The man with glasses smiled, but inside he burned with resentment of young geniuses that made more overnight than he’d accumulated in years of sweat and toil. I shut out his thoughts and continued scanning the crowd. With so many pinpoints that signaled life forces, the room felt positively glowing.
There. I’d found one. An Unbounded man hovered near the exit, talking to someone from the hotel staff and carefully examining those leaving before the speech. He wore a black tuxedo and a tie the color of fresh blood. I leaned over to Keene, catching his eye. He followed my gaze and then said to the others without betraying any concern, “So you’re friends with Mrs. Mann, you say?”
“Oh, yes,” said the blonde next to the man with glasses, her pointed nose twitching slightly. “I’ve known Carolyn Mann for many years. Our daughter went to college with their son. From what I’ve seen, he’s following his father into politics. In my opinion, Carolyn will make a fine first lady someday.”
The second woman leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Actually, it may happen faster than we think. I hear President Stevens is very ill. It’s not been in the news, what with all those foreign conferences he has coming up, but I expect if things don’t change, they’ll have to make an official announcement soon.” Her tone implied that the announcement was long overdue, and that she’d love to see Vice President Mann take over for the president immediately.
Keene and I exchanged a look. Unfortunately, this information went a long way toward confirming our suspicions. Three weeks ago, on a thumb drive we’d stolen from the Emporium, the same drive that identified the location of our missing people, we’d found references to the vice president taking over the oval office. The encrypted information hadn’t been clear, simply citing meetings that had taken place earlier, but put together with intel we’d uncovered months back about a possible Emporium connection with the vice president’s son, it was serious enough to check out. It became even more important with the quickly approaching election year when no one had yet announced whether or not President Stevens would run for reelection. There didn’t seem to be any connection between the vice president and the Emporium, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t gotten to him, especially if the rumors about his son were true.
Keene chuckled. “Well, I’m sure an announcement will come through soon, or will if the press has its way. Is it me, or are there more of them than usual hanging around outside tonight?”
“Tell me about it,” the second woman responded. “But even vultures sometimes have a use.” She smiled, her dark eyes looking predatory, and I suspected she’d already had her say to the press—or planned to. Her annoying attitude gave me the urge to send a flash of light to her mind that would evoke a splitting headache, but doing so would seriously deplete my strength. The truth was, I didn’t know how much damage I could do, and mortals were so fragile. Annoying or not, she was one of those we were trying to protect.
Outside in the communications van, Cort was probably already relaying this new information to Stella, who would be on her computers with her neural headset connected, searching for additional information. If there was anything out there on the president’s condition, in printed or digital format, she’d find it within the hour.
The two couples ahead of us continued talking to each other, and we hung back slightly as the line moved forward, garnering a little space so I could report the Unbounded in the black tux to our listening friends. The man was still near the exit, though no longer talking to anyone.
“Well, we knew to expect them,” Ritter said. “Just keep your distance. At least you know where he is.” He was right. Finding the mortal agents was more problematic in a crowd this large.
The line moved again and we moved with it, nearly to the point where we could see the pictures being taken. One glimpse would be all I needed to decide our next move, though with the line growing behind us, I wasn’t at all sure that we’d be able to leave even peacefully without being arrested for some kind of rich society faux pas.
I kept scanning the crowd. No more Unbounded or mortals who appeared to be operatives. Wait, near the entrance of the room where the vice president would be speaking, I sensed several life forces that glowed dimmer than the others in the large reception room, a sign of thoughts being blocked. Four people stood out, the most prominent a man in the middle, who walked with an exaggerated swagger. His short stature was made less so by the pristine dark brown cowboy hat that looked incongruous on his head, despite his matching tuxedo, and set him apart from the crowd. I couldn’t see his front, or the insignia of a man with a rifle that was likely embroidered on his hat or lapel, but I was pretty sure I’d found the Hunter we were warned would be in attendance.
At his side walked a matronly woman with her grayish blond hair swept up into a tight bun. Her purple plaid dress might be ugly, but I’d crammed in enough study the past week to recognize it as one made by a top designer. She wore it uncomfortably, as though afraid she would trip on her high heels and ruin the dress. Two tall men flanked the couple, broad enough to be bodyguards and likely fellow Hunters. The only problem was that one of them radiated Unbounded confidence.
I swallowed hard, my hand moving instinctively closer to my knives.
Since Hunters’ sole purpose in life was to rid the earth of Unbounded, the bodyguard had to be an Emporium agent who’d infiltrated the organization. It was a dangerous game he played; if he was caught, the Hunters would take joy in cutting him into three precise pieces that would assure no regeneration. Of course, the rewards he’d receive from the Emporium for a job well done would be astronomical.
“Hunters?” Keene asked in a low voice.
“That’s my bet. But the bodyguard on the right is probably also working for our other favorite group. Definitely Unbounded, and he’s not one of ours.”
“Do you know any of them?” There weren’t that many Hunters in the world. At least I hoped not.
He shook his head. “I’ve mainly worked with groups on the West Coast, though the guy with the hat does look familiar. I’ve at least seen his picture before.”
The Unbounded bodyguard’s presence was definitely something we’d have to look into further. Hunters had kept records of Unbounded genealogy since their mortal ancestors had been abandoned by the Emporium during their early phases of genetic experimentation. If this guy was working for the Emporium, we couldn’t risk him infiltrating far enough to get the records that might also contain information about our descendants. Like it or not, we were often linked by blood to the Emporium.
“Copy that,” Cort said in my earbud. “Describe them, and we’ll start Stella researching their identities.”
I did, beginning with the purple dress and the cowboy hat that would likely be mentioned by gossip bloggers covering tonight’s event. “Maybe one of us should follow them.”
“No,” Ritter said. “Stay together. Keep your mind on the mission.” It was difficult to believe he’d be willing to risk losing this lead. Maybe he planned to track down the bodyguard after we cleared the party and question him personally. That would be just like Ritter. He didn’t kill Hunters except in self-defense, but his mercy wouldn’t extend to an Emporium agent who had helped murder Renegades.
Anger radiated from Keene at Ritter’s order. “Easy,” I murmured.
Keene frowned, his frustration quickly vanishing as his mental shield strengthened. Now his barrier was tight, but his lapse worried me. I hadn’t spotted an Emporium sensing Unbounded nearby, but that didn’t mean much because anyone with the sensing ability could mask life forces completely.
As if feeling our stares, the middle Hunter paused at the door and turned in our direction, scanning the room. I caught a glimpse of light red hair peeking from under the cowboy hat before I casually allowed my gaze to slide past them, pretending I was simply enjoying the crowd and the commotion. At the same time, I reached out mentally to the man. His shield was poorly erected, filled with gaps as though he didn’t quite believe anyone could delve into his private thoughts, and despite the space between us, it crushed easily beneath my onslaught. There was no sign of suspicion. He’d stopped only because his Unbounded bodyguard had paused.
My thoughts shifted to the bodyguard, who was searching the crowd. He was several decades younger than his employer, a handsome blond who looked smart in his tux. Not your typical uneducated Hunter. He has to be an Emporium agent, I thought. Yet his shield was as poorly constructed as his boss’s, and I swept it aside to find that he was simply searching for a fifth member of their party—a young lady, if I had it right—to make sure she was safe. Even as I found the answer, a red-haired girl detached herself from a young man and made her way over to the woman in the purple dress.
The others turned to enter the next room, but the bodyguard’s attention drifted to the reception room exit, pausing on the Unbounded in the black tux. A signal to a cohort? I started to check the bodyguard’s thoughts, only to find him now staring at me. My heartbeat increased, the pumping loud in my ears. If he recognized me or Keene from his Emporium briefings, he might choose to point me out to the Hunter, which would endanger our mission. Before I could decide what his scrutiny meant, he smiled and I received a strong impression of eagerness and curiosity. Nothing more. With a nod in my direction, he turned on his heel and followed his companions.
Keene gave a little chuckle. “Look who has an admirer. Do you think you could lure him into a dark room for me?”
“No!” The bark in my ear came from Ritter and caused me to wince.
That made Keene’s grin stretch wider. He put his hand up to the side of my face, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, and said, “Emporium agent or no, I don’t blame that bodyguard one little bit. For the record, I’d go into any dark room with you.” His hand left me as he stepped forward with the suddenly moving line. “Hey, we’re almost there.”
“Stop it with the feedback,” Cort crackled in my ear. “Remember, you have to keep the earring and the ring apart or all we hear is static.”
Keene gave me a wink. I glanced back at the bodyguard, who passed through the double doors, disappearing from sight, his thoughts fading. My range still wasn’t as far as I’d like, though it had improved drastically since Mexico. If I pushed, I could follow him a bit longer, but I needed my full attention for the task at hand.
“I’m pretty sure he didn’t recognize me,” I said. “But the way he was staring could have been a signal of some sort to the guy near the door.”
Keene’s eyes went past me. “Uh, speaking of the guy at the door, where’d he go?”
Sure enough, the Unbounded in the black suit was missing. Keene turned his body slowly, casually searching the room.
Ahead of us, the woman with the pointed nose uttered a soft exclamation and lifted a hand to wave at someone behind the backdrop. I stepped forward to see who she was looking at, and finally a balding Vice President Mann came into view. He was smiling widely for the camera, his arm around one of the guests like a best friend. His wife stood on his other side, her gaze leaving the woman who’d waved and going back to the camera just in time for the bright flash. Tonight, apparently, the pictures were a two-for-one deal: the Vice President and Mrs. Mann.
Next to me Keene’s body radiated readiness, but I shook my head. Whoever the vice president might serve, the man himself wasn’t Unbounded. Neither was Mrs. Mann with her pale, regal face, wide-set eyes, and chestnut hair. Both of their life forces also gleamed brightly, without any sort of barriers, so it was likely they’d never heard of mental shields. Of course, that didn’t mean the vice president was innocent of all connection with the Emporium. I pushed my thoughts toward the couple.
He was thinking about his speech and wondering why his son had been acting so strangely the past year—and if there was any way to fix whatever had gone wrong between them. She was wondering what the daughter of the woman in front of me was up to these days, and if she still had a habit of chasing older men for their money. While the vice president exuded strength, weariness leaked from Mrs. Mann like water from cupped hands. She wasn’t going to last the whole night, not without the help of drugs. Maybe her doctor was here somewhere behind the half dozen Secret Service agents.
“Keene?” I asked, wanting to know if he’d spotted the Unbounded in the black tux.
“No sign of him.”
I nodded, trusting Keene to keep watch while I did my job. I tried to delve deeper into the vice president’s mind, but the cacophony of voices and thoughts around me made it difficult to distinguish his thoughts from the others that pushed in around me. “I need to get closer.”
“The line should move soon,” Keene said.
I joined him for a moment in scanning the room but refocused on the vice president as a small group of friends finished their individual pictures and left together, leaving a large gap in the line. We stepped forward.
I pushed harder, and a throbbing began at the base of my skull, something I hadn’t felt in weeks. It only meant my brain was tiring from all the scanning, but I was nowhere near ready to give up. I began absorbing from the air, regaining my strength. A posh hotel right before dinner was a great place for absorbing, all those molecules with expensive, organic nutrients floating about begging to be taken in through my pores. In seconds, the throbbing eased.
Focusing more tightly, I watched the vice president shake hands with another couple and smile for the camera. More worry seeped from him. Something wasn’t right. The fact that he worried so much about his adult son, who was supposedly holding his own in politics, seemed to underscore our intel.
Keene’s voice, but the warning came too late. Hard fingers bit painfully into the flesh of my shoulder.