Seriously, what was—Understanding dawned, and he growled with barely suppressed rage. The white flame was from a fucking camera phone. Humiliating.
Scowling, he grabbed the device and crushed it into multiple pieces.
A grinning Noelle bent down, looming over him and blocking the sun, becoming all he could see. “That’s okay, Agent Mean. I’d already emailed myself a copy.”
“Fuck me,” he breathed, the words slurred past his rapidly swelling lips.
He was … Ava’s? Wait. What?
“So,” Noelle said, grinning slowly, wickedly. “Do you want to know where you went wrong now, or should I wait and tell you later?”
EIGHT-YEAR-OLD HECTOR BECKHAM GRIPPED the bars of his cage and peered over at his ten-year-old brother, Dean. Dean lay in his own cage, not asleep but not moving either. He’d lost more weight. Bones protruded sharply on his bruised and dirty face, making him look like a skeleton with hair.
Hector probably looked just as bad. Why wouldn’t he? All the other boys and girls around him did. Also like him and Dean, they were trapped in cages and utterly helpless.
There were twenty-six cages in total, some lined side by side, some stacked on top of each other. Old, rusty cages once used to contain dogs. But then, that’s what they were. Dogs.
A week before every fight, they were all locked inside their new “home” and placed in this barn. That way, they were good and feral when they were released. They were purposely starved, even though that left them weak, because hunger made them do very bad things.
Plus, what better way to reward them for a job well done? Turn your friend’s face into pulp, and earn a sandwich.
Yeah, Hector had made friends with most of the kids in here. After all, some of them had been doing this for over a year and they were the only ones who understood his pain—the only ones he could ever talk to about what happened. Come tomorrow, though, when the fights started up again, he’d forget he liked them and they’d forget they liked him.
Until it was over and all any of them would want to do was cry.
What are you, a sissy? his dad’s voice suddenly screamed inside his head.
How many times had Hector heard that particular question? Too many to count. Not that he knew how to count. He’d never been to school, had never learned to read.
Well, he wouldn’t cry tonight. Or tomorrow. He was better than that. And, well, he just didn’t have the strength.
He hadn’t been fed today, and the only thing he’d gotten yesterday was a single scoop of slop. He’d hated the bitter taste but he’d licked the bowl clean—because they were never given a spoon. Now his stomach was twisted into itself, no longer growling but burning. Burning so bad.
Hector met his brother’s gaze. Tonight their cages had been placed one in front of the other. “Yeah,” he whispered back out of habit.
The Zoo Keeper—the man responsible for their “care”—had already done his nighttime check, so they didn’t have to be quiet. Besides, kids were moaning and groaning all around them, some even sobbing. One girl was praying for someone to help her.
This was her first time in the cages, and Hector didn’t have the heart to tell her that no one ever would.
“Dad told me I have to kill the first person I fight this round,” Dean said.
A sharp intake of breath. The smell of disgusting things filled his nose. From himself, from all the others. They were never taken out to go to the bathroom. “No.” He shook his head, dirty hair scratching at his cheeks.
“No!” That’s the one thing they’d never allowed themselves to do. Kill another kid. A kid in the same situation, locked away, forgotten when he was lucky, forced to fight for every scrap of food when he wasn’t.
Dean’s golden eyes—eyes so like his own—were grim. “You know what’ll happen if I disobey him.”
Yeah. Hector knew. A whipping far worse than anything they ever experienced inside the ring. “At least you won’t feel guilty or hate yourself.” Hector might cry sometimes after hurting another kid, but Dean shut down. He’d cut himself, and wouldn’t speak for weeks. Not even to Hector.
If Dean delivered that final blow … he would never recover. Hector knew that, too.
He and Dean had tried running away together, but their dad had caught them two days later. At some point during the beating that followed, Dean had thrown himself over a blacked-out Hector, and gotten his arm broken for his daring. An arm Dean had had to treat himself. An arm that was still bent at an odd angle, six months later.
“Who are you fighting?” he asked.
“Just… don’t kill him, Dean. Please. I don’t want you to suffer about it later.”
“I’ll do it, okay? I’ll do the killing. Whoever I fight, I’ll kill him, I promise. You just … don’t. Okay?”
Hector tried reaching his brother another way. He worked his arms through the bars, gripped Dean’s cage door and shook. Rattle, rattle. “Listen to me. After this round, we’ll run away.” Risking another beating had to be better than this. Living on the street would be better than this. “This time, he won’t find us. I won’t let him.”
“I just wanted you to know,” Dean finally said, his voice low and emotionless.
Hector spent the rest of the night telling his brother how wonderful things would be when they were on their own, but Dean never said another word. Then the sun was gleaming brightly in the sky, illuminating the crumbling barn filled with dirty cages, listless kids, and human waste.
Outside, Hector heard what seemed to be a thousand cars drive up, and even more doors slam. Footsteps shuffled. Carefree laughter drifted to his ears.
There was an arena set up in the surrounding field. The bleachers were always overflowing. Beer and popcorn would be sold. Just the thought of that popcorn made Hector’s mouth water.
People would watch the fights, cheering and booing. That always set Hector’s already raw nerves on edge. Why didn’t they help? Why didn’t they realize the cruelty of what they were doing? Watching? Why didn’t they care?
His own mother used the money she made off his and Dean’s fights to buy her drugs. Hector hated her for that. Why couldn’t she love him? Why couldn’t she love Dean?
Dean was the best person in the whole world. Smart, kind, generous. A few times, Dean had pretended not to be hungry so that Hector could have his portion of slop. Hector was ashamed to admit he’d actually accepted once.
Fear shuddered through him when the Zoo Keeper strutted in a few minutes later.
A short, squat man with thinning hair and a few missing teeth, the Zoo Keeper liked wearing overalls stained with blood his “animals” had spilled. Grinning with satisfaction, he rapped a stick against each of the cage doors.
“Rise and shine, my little mutts. Today’s your day to shine. Or not.” He chuckled cruelly. “We’re gonna kick things off with a big bang this go-round.”
He dropped the stick and grabbed two of the leashes hanging on the far wall—a pink one and a blue one—then he strode to Dean’s cage. Fear intensifying, Hector sat up. His mind swam with dizziness, sharp lances of pain making him grimace.
Dean just lay there as the Zoo Keeper unlocked his cage. Hinges squeaked as the door opened. The pink collar was strapped around Dean’s skinny neck, and Dean was jerked to the dirt-laden ground.
Dean dragged himself to his feet, swayed.
The Zoo Keeper tugged him forward—and stopped at the praying girl’s cage.
Oh… God. Oh, no. “Dean,” Hector said, his stomach threatening to heave, even though there was nothing inside it.
If Dean killed another boy, he’d hate himself and never get over it. But if he killed a girl …
The Zoo Keeper wrapped the blue collar around the girl’s neck, but she had enough steam to get herself out and to her feet without aid. She was Dean’s height, with matted blond hair and eyes glassy with fear.
“Boys are never pitted against girls,” Hector called, desperate to stop this. “Please, don’t make him fight her. You have to—”
“I don’t have to do shit, mutt.” The Zoo Keeper tossed him a scowl that promised he’d suffer later. “Boys and girls didn’t fight before. Now they do. And you’ll keep your mouth shut from now on if you know what’s good for you.”
Hector’s body began trembling as Dean was dragged away. What would happen? What would Dean do? He closed his eyes, fighting those sissy tears he’d told himself he wouldn’t shed.
He knew the moment the fight started. The crowd erupted, people calling out instructions. Things like, “Rip his ear off!” And, “Punch her in the face!” All he could do was huddle in the corner of his cage and wait to learn the outcome.
And when he did—
Barely able to catch his breath as the dream receded, he realized he was drenched in sweat, his body seemingly on fire. He did a quick scan of his bedroom. He was alone. His thick, dark curtains were drawn, and the only light source was the azure pulsing from his arms.
His arms. Shit! He jackknifed to his feet and studied both. The skin was raw from his determined scratching, the ink faded. Again.
Scowling, he looked over his bed. Despite his flame-retardant sheets, he’d left singe marks behind. Have to control yourself better. His heart drummed erratically against his ribs, his blood molten in his veins.
Hector hated dreaming about his childhood, but he especially hated that particular memory. At least you didn’t dream about what happened the next night.
Shaky, he lumbered to his kitchen. His tattoo gun, ink, various other paraphernalia, and gauze rested on top of his kitchen table, where he also had papers about his past scattered.
Articles about people with unexplainable abilities that had nothing to do with otherworlders. Things like skin turning to stone, and bone to metal. Things like eyes that swirled and hypnotized and voices that enslaved. Then there were the papers concerning his mother and father’s family trees. Hector came from poor, uneducated trash, and he’d even had to teach himself how to read and write.
Another reason you shouldn’t be with Noelle.
The stray thought didn’t exactly take him unaware. He’d thought about her the entire drive home yesterday. He’d thought about her while watching TV before bed. He’d thought about her when he’d fallen asleep. He was only surprised he hadn’t dreamed about her.
Annnd … there was his hard-on. The stupid shit. Hector had developed a very bad habit. Think of Noelle, and become aroused. No matter where he was or what he was doing.
You can’t have her. Why is that so difficult to accept?
To encourage that acceptance, he listed the reasons he needed to avoid her.
He did not.
He was not.
Actually, he was as rough and gruff as a man could be.
With the publicity a woman like her garnered combined with his soiled past—and present—they’d be headline news and none of it would be good. Mia had told him how the press had already phoned AIR about Noelle’s enrollment, asking how she was doing at camp.
No matter what happened or how much digging was done, no one would learn about the violence of Hector’s childhood. That, he’d buried and buried deep, ditching Beckham for his brother’s name. But the hooker thing? Yeah. That information was only a phone call away.
And if he was caught “dating” Noelle, his sexual practices would stare at him from every newspaper and TV screen he encountered. No, thanks. The fact that he knew was bad enough.
Plus, what better way to lose someone like Noelle? Not that you can ever have her. Once she learned the truth about him, she wouldn’t want him anyway. She’d stop looking at him as if they were alone and naked, the only thing keeping them apart a prayer that neither of them wanted answered.
A look he didn’t trust. Girl was tricky. Big-time tricky. A man would never know where he stood with her, what she was capable of, or what she truly wanted from him.
Not only was she was devious, but she was smarter than she appeared, tougher, a little bit cruel, and a whole lot prepared for whatever AIR threw at her. After the double tap she’d given him, there was no denying the truth: if something drastic wasn’t done, she’d make it to the end of camp and he’d have to deal with her for the rest of his working life.
His hands fisted, the glow intensifying. Damn it, stop thinking about her and fix your tatts.
Hector plopped into a chair, sorted through his supplies, clipped the ink gun together. He’d been doing this so many years, it was second nature. Honestly, he could have done it with his eyes closed.
The little needle glided over his skin, creating the Celtic symbol for peace over and over again. Every so often he would have to stop to wipe away the blood, but soon the glow died. Unfortunately, the heat never did.
Shit. Until he at last released the darkest edges of his body’s sexual needs, Hector realized, the tattoos wouldn’t help him. Because clearly, his desire for Noelle had made him sensitive to all other emotions. Especially anger. Now he was like a bomb ready to blow.
So. No question, he’d reached the danger stage. The do-something-now-now-now level. Or suffer.