The Sheyote Reservation
Caleb O’Flare recognized the man as a Fed the second he stepped into the Kiva Bar.
Amid the roughly hewn furniture and scattering of primitive blankets on the wall, the guy’s pinstriped suit, conservative tie, and dark aviator glasses were dead giveaways. He was as out of place on the dusty reservation as a drag queen hanging with a pack of Navy SEALs.
Still, when the man removed his glasses, Caleb saw a weary experience edging his expression. He’d seen action on the field, not just behind a desk. He might even have fought in the War when Caleb had. If so, he deserved Caleb’s respect.
It didn’t matter.
Respect wasn’t the issue. Trust was. And Caleb didn’t trust anyone anymore, especially not a Fed.
As Secret Agent Man scanned the bar, Caleb purposely slouched lower in his seat—attitude, not evasion—spread his thighs wider, and nearly drained the rest of the whiskey he’d been nursing. He signaled the bartender, Nick, for another drink, then picked up his glass again.
The last drops of whiskey warmed his stomach, and unbelievably managed to make him feel almost mellow. The Fed spoke and that mellowness quickly faded.
The man stated his name with an arrogant certainty rather than as a question. Caleb swiped the back of his hand across his heavily whiskered jaw. Deliberately, he let loose an insolent burp. He grinned at the expression of distaste that washed over the man’s features even as he heard a snort and chuckle behind him.
“Whassa matter?” he said, purposely slurring his words. “Didn’t you do your intel? I’m half-Indian and half-Irish. You had to know the chances of finding me shit-faced were esp . . . est . . . extremely high.”
Another burp escaped him, this one so prolonged that the man narrowed his eyes.
“I’m Kyle Mahone, Director of the FBI’s Special Ops Tactical Division. I’m here to offer you a job.”
Abdomen muscles tightening, Caleb tilted his head to one side in an exaggerated manner and stared silently at Mahone. Neither of them blinked.
“Here you go.” Nick handed him a glass.
“Thanks, Nick,” Caleb said softly, taking the drink from his friend. He drained it in one swallow before silently placing the glass down. He twirled the glass in small circles against the scarred, wooden tabletop. Minutes ticked by.
He had to give Mahone credit.
The man didn’t shuffle his feet or try to break the awkward silence. He stayed put. Still. Until Caleb finally met his gaze once more.
“Somehow I don’t think you’re here because of my medical skills, and as I told you people years ago, I’m out of the torturing business.” He spoke clearly, loudly, knowing his statement would raise questions in the minds of the three other people in the bar, but also knowing none of them would dare question him about it.
Although he wasn’t expecting Mahone to look shocked by his verbal volley, neither was he expecting the man to keep his expression so bland. The word “torture” tended to make most people uncomfortable, even when they’d been the ones committing it.
Unofficially, of course.
“We’re asking you to join a team. One made up of Otherborn and humans.”
Now it was Caleb who struggled to keep his expression composed. This had to be a joke. Or a trap. Since humans first discovered the Otherborn almost a decade ago, there’d been attempts to befriend and integrate them, with the ultimate result being the Second Civil War and countless deaths among all the races. Yes, peace had eventually been declared, segregation had been outlawed, and progress had been made, but mistrust and bitterness still divided humans and Otherborn by miles.
A combined team of Otherborn and humans? Who’d authorized that debacle? Not Mahone. As a Bureau director, he was powerful, but not that powerful. The green light would have had to come from a higher-up. Hell, probably from the President of the United States himself.
But why? He couldn’t see the Feds voluntarily working with Others unless it was to manipulate them.
“Peace is tenuous. A Para-Ops team is our best way of protecting it. The team’s tasks will be varied. Force will be used only when necessary.”
His pulse accelerating with his irritation, Caleb caught Nick’s eye. “I’ve heard that line before.”
“I’m sure you have, but you haven’t heard it from me.”
He snorted. “Meaning you’d never ask me to lie, cheat, or steal to get the U.S. government what it wants?”
Mahone’s face tightened fractionally. “I didn’t say that. But this time, the judgment calls will be made by you. You and your team,” he amended.
Caleb’s “team” had once been the U.S. Army. He’d been a medic, mostly. Other times . . .
Maybe he should have guessed what they’d use him for, but he hadn’t. Not until . . .
Nick delivered Caleb another drink, this time with a glare of disapproval. Caleb ignored him. He stared at the drink, then cleared his throat. He told himself he was asking out of curiosity, not because he was considering the job offer. Even so, he couldn’t deny the way his heart was pounding with excitement or the way his blood was rushing through his veins with a vigor he hadn’t felt in years.
Five years to be exact.
“So what kind of Others are we talking about? Weres?”
Mahone’s nod wasn’t a surprise. Weres were the most aggressive Others, natural-born warriors. “Vamps?”
Caleb straightened in his chair. “Knox Devereaux?” he guessed, thinking of the one dharmire the FBI would be most interested in. While the rest of his vamp clan was wasting away thanks to an engineered vaccine, which prevented human blood from nourishing vamps, Devereaux ironically thrived because he had human blood running through his veins. What good was being immortal when it meant an eternity of starvation or, in Devereaux’s case, an eternity of watching those you love starve? If the FBI had convinced Devereaux to join its ranks, it was because it had something invaluable to offer in return. Sure enough, Mahone gave a terse nod, and Caleb whistled. “Wow. You’re recruiting big, Mahone.” Sprawling back in his chair with his legs stretched in front of him, Caleb folded his hands behind his head, blinking when his surroundings faded in and out. It was a sign that he was drinking too much, but he pushed through the haze. “So what do you want with little old me?”
“Don’t play coy,” Mahone snapped. “You’re a healer whose talent is as unique as it is inexplicable. You were a vocal supporter of Otherborn rights, even during the War. Plus you’re skilled in chemical weaponry. That’s a talent we can use—if it’s needed,” he emphasized.
“Any felines on this team?” Caleb taunted, already knowing the answer.
He reached for his drink and took a swallow, draining more than half of it. “Smart, considering so many of them want to kill me.”
“Given how out of shape you’ve become, O’Flare, killing you might not be as hard as one would’ve thought.”
Mahone’s caustic statement almost made Caleb laugh. Almost. “Reconsidering your offer?”
Staring down a man who was far more sober than him turned out to be fairly difficult. “So who else?”
After a brief pause, Mahone said, “Two females. I’m targeting a mage and a wraith.”
“A wraith?” He frowned. He’d never seen one, not in all his travels or years of service. But he’d heard about them. No pulse. No blood. No body heat or need to eat. What they did have was a common gender—female—and a whole lot of angry going on. Oh, and immortality. “Some dead chick? I thought the few in that species were isolated up in Maine, in that compound they’d built.”
“This one’s an independent thinker.”
Or, put another way, she was an especially heinous bitch who couldn’t be killed and who wouldn’t die.
Caleb studied Mahone. “By the look on your face, the ghost troubles you. Why?”
“Let’s just say she has an agenda, one I’m not sure I can help her with.”
“So your role is to fulfill agendas?” He smirked. “What’s mine?”
“What do you want?”
Caleb raised a brow at the man’s bravado. “Nothing you can give me.”
“Not even a name?”
What the hell was Mahone getting at? “What name?”
“The name of the person who masterminded Elijah’s death.”
Shock rattled through Caleb like Mahone’s words were a ball and Caleb the pinball machine.
Elijah—the feline prince. The bastards. Set him up and then use the situation to bribe him? He stood, palms pressed on the table, and sent Mahone a silent though unmistakable message: Do. Not. Fuck. With. Me. “Haven’t you heard? Elijah’s death was accidental. A foreseeable one, given he was being tortured at the time. But then, that was my doing, right? After all, I’m the one who could’ve stopped the questioning by confirming whether he was answering truthfully or not.” Caleb pounded the table so hard it shook. “No one masterminded his death, and the person universally blamed is me. Some made-up name isn’t worth anything at this point.”
Mahone shrugged with an obvious lack of concern. “Maybe. Or maybe the use of torture as a last resort was really an intentional execution, and your role began and ended as a convenient scapegoat.”
Caleb laughed, the sound mockingly bitter. Shaking his head, he sat down again. “How convenient. Too bad no one’s ever posited that theory before.”
“And that means it’s not true? Pity, but maybe you’re not as smart as I thought you were, O’Flare.”
“I’m plenty smart enough to smell crap when I hear it,” he muttered. “Go sell it to someone else.” He reached for his glass, then was shocked when Mahone reached out and tossed the contents on the floor.
Deliberately, Mahone set the glass back on the table. “You’ve had enough, son.”
Son? Mahone couldn’t be more than ten years his senior. Staring first at the man, then at the glass, Caleb gripped the edges of the table and struggled for restraint. The intensity of his emotions made his voice shake. “Get me another drink. Now.” But even as he uttered the command, shame washed over him. Shame because he needed the liquor with a biting intensity. Shame because he knew he was pissing away what could be his last chance to do something worthwhile with the rest of his life. But then he remembered . . .
“You saved lives, O’Flare. Fought for what was right.”
Caleb shook his head, rejecting his mind’s recollection of all the gruesome images it had collected over the years. “I don’t know what’s right anymore. And I took lives, too.”
“A few in combat. When you had no choice.”
“I had a choice toward the end.”
Mahone sighed. “One. One life. And it wasn’t deliberate.”
“One. One hundred. One thousand. Deliberate or not.” He swallowed hard. “Doesn’t matter. Culpability isn’t based on quantity. At least, not in my world.”
“All the more reason for you to get involved in what I’m offering. And you’re right about one thing. I don’t have proof that Prince Elijah was murdered, but I’m following a lead. If it pans out, you can be privy to the information I collect or not. Serve on the team, and I give you an IOU. If you decide you want something other than my intel, and it’s within my power to give it to you, it’s yours.”
Caleb ripped his gaze from the empty glass to stare at Mahone. An IOU could come in handy someday, but that was assuming Mahone was a man of his word.
“So what’s it to be, O’Flare?” Mahone pressed. “You can take another drink, or you can listen to what I have to say. What I have to offer. If you want to tell me to piss off, at least do it with all the information. That’s something you didn’t have before, isn’t it?”
The low blow took Caleb unawares. No, he hadn’t known Elijah was the prisoner being tortured for information or that his own refusal to act as a human lie detector would result in Elijah’s death. In his mind, doing the latter had been tantamount to condoning the methods used to extract Elijah’s confession. A lot of good Caleb’s principles had done Elijah in the end.
He hadn’t known Elijah very long before the War had started, but in the months he’d dated Elijah’s sister, Natia, they’d formed a swift bond. Caleb had liked Elijah’s humor and charm, and he’d respected Elijah’s loyalty to his family, especially to his sisters, whom he’d doted on. Despite Caleb’s place of honor within the reservation, his position as shaman had distanced him from his people. In many ways, being around the royal feline family had fed Caleb’s need for normalcy and affection and acceptance, things he’d missed after his mother and father had died. In truth, if forced to choose between his friendship with Elijah and his relationship with Natia, Caleb would have chosen the friendship. In the end, he’d lost both. He’d lost everything.
Caleb’s gaze returned once more to the glass on the table, then to the bottles of liquor Nick kept stored behind the bar. The amber liquid called to him, promising not forgetfulness but a type of lessening.
Forgetfulness was what he craved.
If he couldn’t have that . . .
The vision came upon him without warning, causing Caleb to close his eyes. He heard the whispers of his ancestors. He saw six auras, their forms ebbing and flowing, first together and then apart, pulsing so their energies sparked a riotous kaleidoscope of colors. His was there, burning a bright green, gravitating toward another shadow comprised of darkest black and purest white, the colors not cleanly divided but rather bleeding into one another.
Cursing softly, he opened his eyes, willing the whispers and vision away.
He had no idea what it meant. Whether the shadow’s duality represented another being or another manifestation of himself—light and dark, good and evil, healer and murderer.
As Mahone studied him with a cocked brow, Caleb sighed. He didn’t know what the vision meant, but he knew it had something to do with Mahone and the team he was forming. Caleb had a role in it, and for the first time in a long time, his body sizzled with anticipation.
Of course, he couldn’t let Mahone know that.
Kicking out the chair in front of him, he jerked his head toward Mahone, then the chair. “Talk fast before I change my mind.”
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