A week away…

Excerpt

“In my line of work, how often do you think I tell people my name, Tia?” he snapped, irritation coming through loud and clear.

It amused me, satisfied something in me I hadn’t even known existed and I found myself giving him a look of wide-eyed confusion and the sort of puzzled smile Bianca liked to give people when she was about to teach them a lesson in what she called Smart-Ass 101. “I really couldn’t say because I’m not familiar with your line of work, Mr.…?”

He snarled, then abruptly started to laugh. “You hid that sarcastic bitch very well. Call me Spectre.”

“Is that a first or last name?”

“Neither.” He shot me a level look. “And I expect you know it.”

Instead of answering, I looked back out the window. I did it in time to see a sign, green and white, marked with the upcoming cities. “Where are we going?”

“I’d rather not tell you that,” he said softly.

A headache started to pulse behind my eyes and I pinched the bridge of my nose.

“When are you going to let me call my brother?”

“I have a secure sat phone at our target destination. I’ll call him from there and you can speak to him briefly.” He shot me a narrow look before returning his attention back to the road. “You’re not allowed to give him any information about where we are. I’ll end the call the second you try.”

“Perhaps you should try couching that in some other terms, Casper,” I said sharply. “I don’t respond to not allowed very well.”

He was quiet for a long, long moment, so long that I shifted in my seat to give him a wary look. He had a puzzled frown on his face and after a few seconds, he asked, “Why did you call me Casper?”

“Spectre…ghost.” I waved at him.

“I’m not following.”

I blinked. “Are you serious?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? What does Spectre, or ghost, have to do with the name Casper?”

“Were you dropped onto this planet by aliens?” I asked. “Or have you never seen cartoons before?”

My first comment had teased the start of a smile from him, but by the time I finished talking, the smile had faded. And unless I was mistaken, there was a faint but unmistakable tension now, in the strong line of his lean shoulders, in the forearms, left bare by the rolled-up sleeves of a plain denim workshirt.

“My childhood didn’t allow much time to indulge in cartoons, I’m afraid,” he said.

There were entire untold stories there, delivered in those simple words, in his bland, emotionless voice.

But for some reason, they left a strange ache in my chest. No, I told myself. He can’t make things in your chest ache, damn it.

“That’s kind of sad. Explains a lot, though.”

I directed my attention back to the front window and stared at the filthy back doors of a semitruck. Somebody had scrawled a giant smiley face through the dirt. Casually, I looked at the license plate and committed it to memory, then noted the time on the clock. It wasn’t much of a reference point but if I could get enough licenses stored in my memory, and a rough idea of the time, I’d have something to give my brother. I didn’t know how I’d pass the information on, but I’d worry about that later. Right now, I needed to focus on creating a moving path of breadcrumbs across the middle of America.

“What does it explain?”

His voice distracted me. Irritated, I looked away from the green Hyundai I’d picked out even as I’d tried to more carefully form a plan. Still in its abstract, the idea fell apart and I scowled at him. “What?”

“The cartoons I’ve never watched. What does it explain?”

This time there was something in his voice, an odd, almost wistful sort of curiosity and damn if that didn’t make that ache in my chest expand. Irritated even more, I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at the filthy semi with enough intensity that my will alone should have melted through the steel.

“That’s easy. It explains why you have more in common with a droid than a person. What kind of kid doesn’t have time to indulge in cartoons? Was your daddy too busy trying to build you into the ultimate assassin or something?”

Spectre’s mouth tightened. “No, Tia. His intentions were to make me into the ultimate monster. That’s even worse than an assassin.”

The ache in my chest was gone now, replaced by an awful cold.

I wished I hadn’t flung that last bit out at him. But it was too late to take it back.

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