ATTENTION: DIRECTOR WALSH [“EYES ONLY”]
FILE STATUS: TOP SECRET [LEVEL 5]
CASE: #34687 (AKA—PHOENIX INQUIRY)
FILE TYPE: SURVEILLANCE REPORT (CONVERSATION RECORDED WITHOUT THE SUBJECTS’ KNOWLEDGE UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF INFORMATION CONTAINMENT PROTOCOL 12.C (“ICP 12.C-1.1”).)
DATE: APRIL 8, 2014
SUBJECT(S): BRENNAN, VICTORIA G. (“VB”); CLAYBOURNE, CHANCE A. (“CC”)
PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATING AGENT(S): J. SALTMAN, B. ROGERS
RECORDING AGENT(S): J. SALTMAN, B. ROGERS
RECORDING LOCATION: 74 BEE STREET, CHARLESTON, SC
HEADQUARTERS—CANDELA PHARMACEUTICALS, INC.
ADDITIONAL NOTE(S): INVESTIGATING AGENTS BELIEVE THE PHOENIX INQUIRY SHOULD BE ELEVATED TO ACTIVE-MISSION STATUS. REQUESTING OPERATIONAL RESOURCES AND FIELD PERSONNEL.
TIME: 10:34 AM
VB: When did you learn how to flare, Chance?
CC: Over the last few days. Though “learn” is fairly generous. I have almost no idea how it works. My powers can snap on without warning, or fizzle in seconds.
VB: Still, that’s . . . incredible. It took me weeks to gain even that much control. [PAUSE] How’d this happen? How’d you suddenly become . . . Viral?
CC: I was careless. Didn’t take proper precautions in the lab. Then, last week, I got terribly sick. Could barely function. Strange things started happening to my body—unnerving side effects you won’t find on WebMD. By that point, I no longer had any illusions about the cause.
VB: The weird sensation I’ve been experiencing lately—an odd kinetic force, like my mind is connecting to things around me—it spikes around you. Because of you, I’m sure of it now. How can that be?
CC: Don’t ask me. I’m new to the species, remember? [PAUSE] Maybe it involves whatever sets you apart from normal people. Sets us apart, I should say, now. Perhaps your unconscious mind innately recognizes the presence of another Viral.
VB: That can’t be it. I’ve had this feeling for months now, off and on, since right after the hurricane. I noticed it at least a half-dozen times before last week.
CC: Yeah. Um, about that. [PAUSE]
CC: Well. You know I’ve been following you. [PAUSE] But you probably don’t know for how long.
VB: What . . . for months? [PAUSE] Months!?! Seriously? Are you saying you were in Charlotte after the storm?
CC: Had to go somewhere.
VB: What about Morris Island?
CC: I’ve visited a few times, unannounced.
VB: Even to our . . . private retreat?
CC: You mean that hill bunker? [LAUGHTER] Nice place. I love the décor. How’d you get all that stuff in there?
VB: Jesus. [PAUSE] How’d you find it? Because of me?
CC: I don’t pretend to understand any of this. But sometimes, if I concentrate really hard, I can pinpoint exactly where you are. I sense your presence, perhaps in the same way you detected mine. I can’t explain it, either.
VB: I . . . that’s . . .
CC: Also, I’m fairly certain I’ve been infected for a while. Months, most likely, probably since the first few days of the Brimstone experiment. What you just said—that you’ve been sensing my presence for some time—all but confirms it.
VB: How is that possible? How could you carry a supervirus that long and not . . . change?
CC: I have a guess. The parvovirus strain used in Brimstone was slightly different from the one that infected you. Better, we thought, though we obviously had no idea what we were doing. I think our pathogen has a longer incubation period, which would explain the course of my infection. This viral deviation must’ve caused other differences, too.
VB: Your eyes glow red, Chance. Not golden. Why?
CC: [PAUSE] I don’t know. I wish I did. I’m just glad I stopped puking all day.
VB: How do you feel now?
CC: Great. My fever broke yesterday. The chills and sweats are finally gone. I can actually stand without feeling dizzy. But I have no idea what’s happened to my body.
VB: Yesterday? [PAUSE] Interesting.
VB: Because our flares were a mess last week. Erratic. Unstable. Mine backfired more than once. We couldn’t understand why, but it seems like the trouble occurred during your worst symptoms.
CC: You think my sickness was somehow related?
VB: I don’t know. But our powers stabilized at the same time you recovered.
CC: Could be a coincidence.
VB: Maybe. [PAUSE] Or maybe your . . . transformation was disrupting whatever shared mind-space Virals inhabit. We don’t really know how any of this works either. Perhaps your evolution created a ripple in the telepathic framework of our pack. That makes as much sense as anything.
CC: Our pack? Does that mean I’m one of you?
VB: I . . . I don’t know. That’s not up to me alone. It might not even be something we can choose.
CC: Well, I hope we can choose, Tory. I hope your friends will accept me.
VB: I’ll try to convince them. I promise that much.
CC: Good. Because I . . . I . . . [LONG PAUSE][MUFFLED NOISE]
CC: I haven’t told you everything yet. [PAUSE]
VB: Oh my God. [PAUSE] The night on the beach!
CC: I was wondering when you’d remember.
VB: When I was attacked on Morris Island, afterward I saw three sets of red eyes in the dunes. Three, Chance!
CC: Yes. I’m afraid you did.
The Trinity peered down from atop a church tower.
They sat stone still, watching the sleek black skyscraper across the street. Brilliant white lettering along its apex labeled it the worldwide headquarters of Candela Pharmaceuticals.
The Four had entered hours ago. The sun had set, yet they remained inside.
Night blanketed the city. Cloaking the figures in darkness.
A low growl floated on the wind.
The largest turned bloodred eyes on two companions.
A jerk of the head motioned them to follow.
They were ready. Determined. But it would have to be another day.
As one, the trio crept across a narrow ledge, ignoring heart-stopping drops to either side, and vaulted gracefully onto a lower roof. Moving like ghosts, they leaped to a willow tree in the yard below, then dropped into a small cemetery.
The smallest hissed softly.
The largest grunted in agreement.
The Four lived on a remote island.
The Trinity had observed their alpha there once before.
She and her mixed-blood beast.
A second growl escaped, louder than the first.
With preternatural grace, the figures melted into the shadowy field of tombstones.
Three haunting calls echoed down the streets of Charleston.
My adversary charged at full speed, intent on running me down.
Not this time.
I nudged the ball left, deftly sidestepping the girl’s clumsy challenge. Keeping my head up, I spotted Ella twenty yards ahead, streaking for the corner. The field opened like a book, and for once, I knew what to do.
I booted the ball into Ella’s path, then cut behind her, racing to a pocket of space across midfield. As a fullback I rarely ventured forward, but I was tired of playing it safe. The game was deadlocked at zero, and goals don’t score themselves.
Plus, the blonde, ponytailed freak who just missed spiking my ankle had been attacking relentlessly all game. Four hard fouls were enough. Time to put her on the defensive.
Ella corralled the ball, dancing between two hopeless opponents before noticing my run in support. She pulled the ball back, drawing the defenders closer, then lofted a cross over James Island Charter’s entire back line.
I experienced a brief moment of panic as the ball arced toward me.
Don’t embarrass yourself, Brennan.
Thankfully, I didn’t. Chesting the ball down, I was shocked to find myself completely unmarked. Thirty yards of open grass separated me and the opposing goalie.
“Push forward!” Ella shouted.
Oh crap oh crap oh crap. But I drove the ball ahead.
To say I lacked confidence in my soccer skills is an understatement. I’d only been playing a few months, and charging the other team’s goal without support, during the biggest game of the season, was not something I’d planned.
Please, God. Don’t let me trip over the ball.
As I neared the eighteen-yard box, a defender barreled over. I tapped the ball between her outstretched legs and raced around the awkward slide tackle, nearly stumbling in surprise when the move actually worked. The keeper charged, a look of desperation on her face.
Chip it over. Score. Win!
But before I could exploit the opening, my legs were ruthlessly hacked out from under me. I fell forward, slamming into the turf with a groan. A cleat dug into the small of my back as someone flopped over me from behind.
My head spun. The whistle blew.
I heard Ella shouting. What sounded like shoving.
I looked up.
Blonde Ponytail was standing astride the ball. She and Ella were nose to nose, and they weren’t discussing favorite boy bands. The harridan even had the gall to protest when the official showed her a yellow card. Unfortunately, Ella got one, too.
I rose unsteadily, wiping dirt from my purple Bolton Prep uniform. The official stepped between Ella and Ponytail and signaled a free kick for our side.
“You okay?” Ella was staring at my tormentor, face red with anger.
“Never better.” Gulping air into my lungs. “She seems nice.”
Ella laughed, but the humor didn’t touch her eyes. “That bitch knows you’re better with your feet, so she’s bull-rushing the ball, trying to intimidate you. Don’t let her.”
The official placed the ball fifteen feet beyond the edge of the box, then paced off ten yards. He glanced at his watch. There were only moments left in the match.
As the James Island defenders formed a wall, I began to retreat to my fullback slot.
Ella grabbed my arm. “Want this one? You definitely earned it.”
A generous thought, but Ella was worlds better than me. And everyone else on the field.
Not to mention that taking a game-deciding free kick was too terrifying to contemplate. I’d probably find a way to knock it into our own goal.
Ella frowned. “Well, at least get up there. Look for a rebound.”
Before I could react, Ella cupped her hands to her mouth. “Maddy!”
Madison Dunkle turned. Ella pointed at me, then at Madison, then jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Madison nodded without hesitation, jogging back to cover my position.
“Take her spot in the middle.” Ella’s rope of black hair brushed the ground as she knelt to position the ball on the grass. We both knew it’d take a miracle to score from this distance. “If the ball bounces your way, just blast it on goal.”
“That I can do.”
Joining the line of players jockeying for position, I felt an elbow dig into my back. Right where the cleat had struck.
I spun, knowing who I’d find. My temper slipped a notch.
“Be careful, ginger princess.” Ponytail’s eyes glittered with malice. “No more dancing. Things can get rough up here.”
My anger was reaching a boil. “Thanks. I’ll be fine.”
The hateful girl shouldered into me, forcing me outside the eighteen-yard box. “Even without your mommy to protect you?” She nodded toward Ella, who was lining up her strike. All eyes were on my friend as she prepared to take the free kick.
Maybe it was ninety minutes of abuse.
Or Ponytail’s smug attitude. Or the hard foul. Or the fact that I was hungry.
Maybe it was her referencing my mother.
I felt a rush of adrenaline.
A thousand suns torched my skin, followed by an ocean of freezing rain.
Energy poured into my muscles. My senses blazed with hyperacuity. Smell. Sight. Sound. Feel. Taste. Each shifted to superhuman clarity and perception.
Golden fire ignited in my eyes.
In public. In the open.
In the middle of a freaking soccer game.
I quickly averted my eyes. Thankfully, everyone was watching Ella.
This is crazy. CRAZY.
But I ignored common sense. I was going to show this bully what’s what.
Head lowered, I was about to push back into the scrum when a message winged into my brain.
I was wondering when you’d go wolf style on that beast.
I stopped short, gaze darting to the sideline.
To where Hiram, Shelton, and Ben were lounging on a grassy hill.
Hi! You shouldn’t be flaring in public!
Oh, you’re one to talk. Hi tapped the sunglasses covering his eyes. Like Shelton, he still wore his Bolton Prep uniform, though he’d ditched the jacket, loosened his tie, and removed his shoes and socks. Which of us is standing in a group of strangers?
Okay. Fine. And I’d connected our pack mind without thinking.
I lost my cool, but—
Shh! Just listen. Hi pointed a chubby finger. There’s no one on the back post.
I glanced to my left, pretending to shade my eyes from the sun. He was right—expecting a direct shot, the James Island defenders were clogging the middle of the box.
No one was guarding the flank.
You’re welcome. Hi’s message carried a distinct note of smugness.
Ella was lined up over the ball. I had only seconds.
As casually as possible, I moved along the wall of defenders until I stood farthest right. Then I stuck an arm behind my back, waggling frantically for Ella’s attention.
At the last moment, she spotted my signal. Her eyes narrowed in confusion.
I nodded right. Spun my finger in a circle. Tapped my head.
Ella dipped her chin, then took two steps to the left.
What am I doing? I can’t pull this off!
Noticing Ella’s shift, Ponytail glanced down the line. Spotting my position, her eyes widened. She surged toward me, barreling over a teammate in the process.
Ella shot forward and struck the ball.
At the same moment, I spun, looping around the wall and behind the defense.
The ball arced through the air—not toward goal, as everyone expected, but to where I waited at the corner of the six-yard box.
The goalkeeper tried to adjust, scrambling off her line with a muffled curse. Ponytail backpedaled desperately as the ball cut across the clear blue sky.
I leaped high, my flare-powered muscles firing me up with ease. The black-and-white sphere seemed to hang forever. I could smell yesterday’s rain on the wind, could see the cross-stitching on the ball. Heard a collective intake of breath.
I rose. The keeper rose. Ponytail rose.
Then I rose higher still.
I headed the ball as lightly as a feather, directing it into the open net.
My first ever.
I landed less gracefully, since both James Island girls slammed me in midair. I hit the ground hard, jamming my knee and tumbling backward, flipping ass over teakettle before rolling to a stop. Then my teammates mobbed me in a giant dog pile.
In the confusion, no one got a good look at my face.
The official consulted his watch, then blew the whistle three times. Game over.
Nice one, Pelé!
As the crowd went nuts, Ella dragged me up and smacked my butt. Hard.
“Ow!” Woozy from the loss of my flare.
“You have more hops than any girl I know!” Ella shot a nasty look at Ponytail, who was chewing out her teammates. Catching the girl’s eye, I winked. She practically snarled in frustration before stalking away.
“That was awesome, Tory!” Madison beamed at me as she shook out her wavy auburn hair. We exchanged an awkward hug. I tried not to cringe.
Things were different now—Madison and I had become friendly over the last few weeks—but old habits die hard.
“Thanks, Maddy. And thanks for letting me get forward.”
“When my captain commands, I obey.” Madison squeezed Ella’s arm before trotting toward the sideline. We watched her go with matching headshakes.
“I’m sold.” My shoulders rose and fell. “I can’t explain it, but she really is different.”
“Or she’s after something. But I can’t for the life of me guess what.”
“Maybe she finally had enough of Tripod life.”
Ella grunted noncommittally, eyes heavy with skepticism as she began unstrapping her shin guards. “In my experience, girls like that never change.”
I didn’t respond. Honestly, I felt the same.
Madison and I had history. A dangerous one, for me and my friends.
She’d seen things I fervently wished she hadn’t.
Afterward, Madison had spent months avoiding me. Terrified of me. Scheming against me when she could. But now she’d simply let it all go, just like that? It didn’t seem possible.
Ella nudged me, crashing my train of thought. “Look alive, Brennan. Your cheering section is in full effect.”
Hi and Shelton were standing shoulder to shoulder, clapping and chanting my name. In response to my wave, Hi attempted a running cartwheel, only to stall halfway and flop on his back. Shelton leaned over his prone form and began an exaggerated ten-count. Ben—lying on the grass with his legs crossed—just shook his head at the two of them.
I snorted, pawing through my tangled red hair. “That’s my fan club, huh?”
“Better than not having one.”
“Like you’d know anything about that.” Ella was one of the prettiest girls in school.
“True.” My friend grinned wickedly—she’d recovered her spark since last month’s ordeal, something I was extremely happy to see. “But your followers will have to be patient. Our fearless leader wants us. He looks like he might propose.”
I glanced at our sideline. A grinning Coach Lynch waved us over to where the rest of the team huddled. A look back at the hill. Hi and Shelton were dousing Ben with water bottles as he howled in protest.
My eyes rolled. “Doofuses.”
Ella hooked her arm through mine. “Come on. Time for a well-deserved bow. After all, you’re the man of the match.”
A smile spread across my face. “I am, aren’t I?”
“Flaring! On an open field! With dozens of people watching!”
Shelton Devers shivered as if spiders were crawling down his spine. Boxy, black-framed glasses nearly tumbled from his nose. “That’s not like you, Tor. To be so reckless. So irresponsible. Thank God no one saw!”
I dodged his eye as we strode along the sidewalk. Azaleas, dogwoods, and long-limbed willow trees shaded Gadsden Street, tucked close to the historic homes lining both sides. Warm May sunshine had Charleston’s gardens looking and smelling their finest.
Not that Shelton could be distracted.
He was right, and we both knew it.
“It was stupid.” I wilted under my friend’s unrelenting scowl. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“More than stupid.” Shelton tossed his uniform jacket over one bony shoulder. The heat had cranked up to match the humidity, reminding everyone that summer was nearly here. Shelton’s dark skin glistened with sweat as he lowered his voice. “I know our powers are humming right now, but that doesn’t mean we should get crazy.”
“I thought it was awesome.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Ben Blue’s dark eyes twinkled as he flashed a rare smile. “You shot up like a kangaroo. That James Island troll nearly lost it.”
I smiled, but quickly looked away. Ben’s compliments had the tendency to make my pale, freckled skin burn like a supernova, matching the shade of my unruly hair.
Things had been awkward between Ben and me since that night at the police station, though I tried not to let it show. Still, at times his mere presence could fluster me. Conflict me. Pull me in different directions.
Ben was a packmate, practically a blood brother.
But, lately, there were times when I thought of him differently.
Not now, you moron.
“Thanks to me.” Hiram Stolowitski was plodding along at Ben’s side, his Bolton Prep uniform unbuttoned to the maximum extent allowed by public decency. He toed the line between chubby and portly, a red-faced jokester with sharp chestnut eyes, wavy brown hair, and a wickedly sarcastic tongue. Hi reached over and patted his own back. “I should get an assist. Or at least an assistant coach gig. Although the girls wouldn’t be able to concentrate once they saw me in my game shorts.”
Ben smacked Hi’s head without breaking stride. “Dope.”
The four of us were walking north, up the peninsula, bound for Charleston’s cozy medical district on the eastern edge of downtown. A trip we now took three times a week after school.
We had an appointment, though we couldn’t tell anyone about it.
“You shouldn’t have been flaring either,” Shelton grumbled, unwilling to let it go. “Things are getting way too loose around here. Too casual. We’re still genetic freaks, remember? Dog-scrambled mutants, one step ahead of the Man, trying to keep a low profile?”
“You’re right.” My palms rose in surrender. “Unacceptable risk. Won’t happen again.”
Though, being honest, I felt less guilty than I should have.
Flaring came so easily now. So smoothly.
These last few weeks, our powers had been responding as if we were born to them. I could sharpen my senses in a blink. Linking with another flaring Viral—a struggle for so long—now came as easily as closing my eyes. Telepathy worked without a hitch. As if a storm had passed, leaving behind blue skies and clear sailing.
The odd connected feeling I’d been experiencing had disappeared as well.
None of us knew what to make of things.
Was the viral transformation complete? Had our hybrid DNA finally stopped churning?
Or was this simply the prelude to some new phase? A pleasant spring sojourn, before the wolf came back with a vengeance. The final pit stop on our evolutionary roller coaster.
I didn’t know. But I was damn sure going to find out.
And finally, maybe, we had someone who could provide us with concrete answers.
At Calhoun Street we turned left, then took a quick right onto Courtenay Drive. Three more blocks brought us to our destination on Bee Street—the gleaming headquarters of Candela Pharmaceuticals.
“He better not make us wait again.” Ben’s customary scowl was back in place. Freed from school uniforms—Ben had been kicked out of Bolton Prep, and now attended Wando High in Mount Pleasant—he wore his typical black tee and jeans. A brooding, muscular boy with copper skin and shoulder-length black hair, nearly everything about Ben was dark.
Except his heart, of course.
I tried for diplomatic. “Chance is under a lot of pressure. He’s in the same boat as we are now, and running a covert medical experiment can’t be easy.”
Ben snorted. “Why not? He owns the damn place.”
“And did it once before,” Hi quipped.
“He’s just a stockholder, yo.” Shelton peered up at the black-windowed monolith looming before us. “Chance Claybourne might own the biggest chunk—which scores him a nice gig at his father’s old company—but Candela is run by a board of directors. We’re lucky he’s in charge of special projects, or Chance probably couldn’t help us at all.”
“‘Lucky’?” Ben crossed his arms, making no move to cross the street. “The whole reason we’re stuck with that douchebag is because of his ‘special project.’ And his father’s special project before that, which is what infected us in the first place!”
“That’s not Chance’s fault.” Unsure why I was defending him.
“Without Claybourne, we don’t have access to a medical lab.” Hi shrugged, indicating the conversation was pointless. “We need his fancy machines to find out what’s wrong with us.”
“Nothing’s wrong with us,” Ben snapped. “And we could’ve used LIRI to run the tests. We don’t need Claybourne for anything.”
“LIRI?” I gave Ben an exasperated look. “My dad’s realm? Not a chance. We’d never get within ten feet of the necessary equipment. Like it or not, using Candela’s resources is the only way we’ll ever get answers. You know that.”
Ben shook his head but didn’t reply, his jaw tight with frustration.
Ben hated needing Chance. Or anyone else, for that matter, but especially Chance.
But this was a tired argument.
“We can’t just stand here.” Hi stepped into the crosswalk. “We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, remember?”
The Candela building rose thirty stories, with shiny glass doors accessing a marble lobby patrolled by security guards. Not good for our purposes. Too public. Therefore, upon reaching the opposite curb, we glanced both ways, then slipped into a narrow service alley running alongside the office tower. Halfway down was an unmarked steel door.
Hi dropped to a crouch and spun a quick 360, shading his eyes while humming the Mission: Impossible theme. “The coast is . . . clear!”
“Hush.” Removing a key card, I swiped it through the attached security box and typed a ten-digit number. A soft beep. The door swung open. We hurried down an empty hallway to a service elevator, then rode to the twenty-fifth floor.
Chance was waiting when the doors opened.
Tall and lean, with a strong chin and dark, piercing eyes, Chance Claybourne was as close to perfect as a guy could look. My stomach flipped upon seeing him, just as it always did.
Without speaking, Chance turned and strode down the hall, moving with the effortless grace of a jungle cat. I couldn’t help watching him the whole way.
Beside me, Ben’s shoulders tensed. I could practically hear his teeth grinding.
A sigh escaped. Was today the day they’d finally come to blows?
Chance occupied a corner office on a corridor that was empty most days. He’d chosen the twenty-fifth floor for that very reason.
Chance waved us inside, locked the door, then lowered the shades facing the hallway. We took seats on a couch and chair set surrounding a glass coffee table, waiting with varying degrees of patience. Chance always conducted the meetings.
“All right, then.” Chance clasped his hands before him, not deigning to sit. “News?”
“Nothing to report, captain.” Hi snapped off a mock salute. “The enemy is quiet.”
Chance shook his head wistfully. “Our enemy has already stormed the gates, Hiram. He’s inside our cells, wrecking shop. It’s just damage control at this point.”
“Speak for yourself.” Ben leaned back and placed his feet on the coffee table. “You might be damaged. For all we know, you’re barely Viral. A newborn pup, all alone, with silly red eyes.”
Ben waved a lazy hand at the rest of us. “My pack is just fine.”
Chance’s coal-black brows dipped in mock consternation. “You sure of that, Benjamin? I’d love to see your research. The medical tests you’re basing that opinion on.”
“You can shove your stupid tests.” Ben flashed an icy smile as golden light exploded from his eyes. “This is all the proof I need.”
“Ben, enough!” I slapped my knee in irritation. “Quit acting like a child!”
Ben’s neck flushed red. His glare slid to me for an instant, then he jerked his head away, scowling at the window. In the reflection, I saw the yellow fire fade from his irises. “Whatever.”
“We need to know what’s going on in our bodies.” Shelton spoke softly but firmly to Ben’s back. “If only to understand what happens next.”
“A few tests can’t hurt,” Hi seconded, hands locked behind his head as he lounged on the couch. “If Chance wants to give us superduper secret physicals, we should let him. Don’t punch gift horses in the face, and all that.”
Ben didn’t respond. Continued staring out the window.
For his part, Chance didn’t seem to care. “Moving along. I was able to slide our blood samples onto the DNA-sequencing schedule. I marked them as urgent for Special Projects, under Candela’s strictest proprietary R&D protocols, so I’ll be the only one to see the results. We should have them back sometime this week.”
“So nothing new,” Ben muttered. “Wonderful.”
“What blood tests did you order?” I asked Chance, in no mood for another round of bickering.
“A full battery.” Chance raked slender fingers through his dark hair. “I didn’t want to tip my interest in the DNA sequencing.”
I nodded. “The other tests might tell us something anyway. Our blood chemistry. Antibody loads. White and red blood cell counts. I just wish we’d thought to flare before giving the samples.” I was still kicking myself over that oversight.
“Next batch,” Chance promised. “First we need baseline results.”
“It’s all about the DNA.” Hi steepled his fingers as he spoke. “That’s where the wolf is hiding. That’s where the changes are buried.”
Shelton, Chance, and I nodded in unison. We knew the supervirus had scrambled our genetic material—Karsten had said that much, before he was gone. But we’d never gotten any specifics. I’d never imagined we ever could.
Then, suddenly, Chance Claybourne opened a door.
In a few short days, we’d learn the truth. For the first time, we’d have an accurate picture of what the virus had done to us. Maybe even catch a glimpse of what we’d become.
Maybe find a way to stop it.
I stood abruptly. Crossed the office. Tested the thought.
Was that what I wanted? Was that the point of all this?
Distracted by the unsettling notion, it took me a moment to notice what was sitting on Chance’s desk. When I finally saw, my hackles rose. Goose bumps covered my arms.
“What is this?” I demanded.
“That is what we need to talk about today.” Chance rubbed his eyes with both palms before continuing in a tired voice. “It seems our new friends paid Claybourne Manor a visit last night. Left me gift.”
I swallowed, mouth suddenly dry.
Oh no no no no no . . .
They looked like crime-scene photos.
Three hi-res, glossy eight-by-tens, recently printed, spread neatly across Chance’s otherwise empty desk. Each provided a different angle of the same subject: a frowning marble statue on a raised dais.
I recognized the setting immediately. “This is inside your house.”
“The grand foyer,” Chance confirmed, joining me by the desk. “The beating heart of Claybourne Manor. You remember my great-uncle Milton, don’t you?”
The room in the picture was like something out of the Italian Renaissance. Murals covered the walls, bordered by ornate frescoes and exquisitely carved crown molding. A grand staircase circled the airy chamber, which was capped by a seventy-foot stained-glass dome high above.
The room’s centerpiece was an eight-foot chiseled representation of Milton Ignatius Claybourne, the mansion’s original architect. He scowled down from his perch, face bandaged and dressed for war, an ancient musket clutched in one hand.
The pictures triggered a flood of emotions. The first time I encountered this statue, I’d broken into Claybourne Manor to spy on Chance’s father. In the process I’d learned that Chance was playing me for a fool. The memory still burned.
That was back when Chance had been an adversary. Before he’d become Viral, like me.
So what was he now? What were we now?
Things change so fast.
But the familiar statue wasn’t what had grabbed my attention.
“What happened here?” I whispered, shoving my nose close to the first shot.
The other boys shuffled over, forming a loose circle around the desk as we tried to make sense of the images.
“As you can see, my ancestor was painted red.” Chance frowned, thumb-scratching the side of his nose. “Except for his eyes, which are blacked out with shoe polish.” He reached under the desk and pulled out a grocery bag. “And if that isn’t delightful enough, I found this hanging around Uncle Milton’s neck.”
Chance removed a torn cardboard square, punctured on both ends by a knotted shoelace. Painted on its face were three black wolf heads—red eyed and bordered in white—hanging over a single word.
Simple, direct, and to the point.
“It’s them.” I could barely breathe. “Virals.”
Chance laid the sign beside the photos. “We don’t know for sure there’s more than one.”
“Maybe you don’t.” I hugged my arms to ward off a chill. “But I know what I saw on the beach that night, Chance. There were three sets of red eyes in those dunes, not just yours.”
Ben glared at Chance. “And you know nothing about that, huh?”
“I’ve told you a dozen times,” Chance snapped defensively, “I was there on Morris Island that night, but I didn’t see the attack. Then a flare erupted out of nowhere and I could barely control it. By the time I spotted Tory, it was just her and the wolfdog. She looked right at me, so I bolted.”
“You were there all right,” Ben growled. “Stalking Tory like a psychopath.”
Chance’s tone grew sarcastic. “That morning I’d discovered I possessed mutant superpowers. Excuse me for thinking I had a right to pry.” Then he shot me a guilty look. “But I didn’t see anyone else that night, and no one was with me. If you saw other eyes in the dunes, the bastards must’ve been following me. And avoiding me.”
“Like your buddy Speckman?” Ben needled. “Was your partner in crime in the bushes, too?”
“He’s not my buddy!” Chance snapped. “And I told you, I don’t know.”
I held up a hand. “Enough.”
Chance had explained this all before, and I’d accepted his story. More or less.
Ben, however, likely never would.
“I saw three sets of red eyes,” I said firmly. “You make one pair, which means there were two other Virals in those dunes.”
Hi pointed to the primitive symbols painted on the cardboard. “The vandals painted three wolf heads on this sign. Seems specific. I’m guessing a trio of bad boys.”
Chance shook his head reflexively, but didn’t respond.
The chill in my arms spread throughout my body.
Besides Chance, how many new Virals were out there? How did they catch the virus?
We only know of one.
Shelton tapped the nearest photo. “This all went down inside your house. Don’t you lock your doors at night?”
“Locked and dead-bolted, with the alarm engaged.” Chance blew out an exasperated breath. “My security system is military grade, with motion sensors, cameras, even laser harmonic sensors. Good enough to protect a freaking bank. And yet . . .”
“What do you think the message means?” Hi tapped the lone word on the sign.
Chance snorted. “It means, Hiram, that whoever did this thinks I’m a traitor.”
“Join the club,” Ben said.
“We know who did this,” I cut in, unwilling to endure another macho pissing match. “It’s obviously Will Speckman. Who else but the lab tech that worked with you?”
Chance nodded unhappily. “He’s the only person that makes any sense. But it’s been months since we accidentally infected ourselves. Why he would suddenly make such an elaborate . . . whatever this is . . .” Chance trailed off, waving a hand at the photographs.
“Months since Speckman was infected,” Ben pressed, refusing to let up. “Yet we first heard about him a few weeks ago.”
“I didn’t know before then,” Chance shot back. “I’m not psychic!”
Shelton tugged his earlobe, a nervous habit. “This isn’t a love note, y’all. It’s a warning. Maybe even a challenge. Why would this dude—and who knows who else—break into your palace and vandalize a damn statue? How pissed was this guy when you fired him?”
Chance’s expression soured. “Extremely.”
“I’m no psychologist,” Hi said, crossing his arms, “but this seems like the actions of someone both super–pissed off and not right in the head. That’s a bad combo, especially if he can sneak into your house like a ghost.”
“Not just Speckman,” I repeated. “There are at least two of them.”
“Well, I can only identify one,” Chance replied irritably. “Will Speckman worked for me at Candela. I knew him from Bolton Prep. When I began Brimstone I was trying to keep the project quiet, and wanted to use only outside people. Speckman was at Charleston University by then. He seemed perfect, so I hired him part-time. He was the only person besides me who came into direct contact with the new supervirus. No one else touched it. No one.”
“Which means Speckman must’ve infected someone else.” I caught and held Chance’s eye. “Maybe more than one person. For all we know, lots of people could’ve accidentally caught the bug. You could be spreading it, too.”
Chance shook his head firmly, but his eyes were troubled. “It’s not possible.”
I didn’t let him wriggle off the hook. “There are at least two others out there. Red-eyed Virals, just like you. I saw them. Coop saw them. It happened, Chance. You need to accept the truth.”
“If Will were . . . if we were . . . contagious—” Chance grimaced, barely able to say the word, “—there’d be more evidence of it. People getting sick. Patients going Viral. I’ve been monitoring the hospitals every single day, and nothing like my symptoms has been reported. Our experimental parvovirus strain was specifically designed to transmit only through blood-to-blood contact.”
“I think we can safely dismiss whatever you guys ‘designed’ at this point,” Hi countered. “Things clearly didn’t go as planned.”
Chance gave him a hard look. Then he seemed to fold, slumping back in his chair with a frown. “We tried a different formulation than Karsten’s. Our experiment still used Parvovirus B19, the human form, but we tweaked the canine strain slightly. We thought the newer hybrid would be more stable, and more palatable to a host’s immune system. Of course, we didn’t know what Karsten’s creation actually did. The odds of two different designer viruses, both suddenly capable of making the jump to human hosts . . . it . . . it boggles the mind.”
Chance took a deep breath, then met each of our eyes in turn. “I screwed up. I admit it. I didn’t know what I was dealing with and jumped in too soon, with too little caution. But I knew something was wrong with you guys. After everything I’d seen—everything you’d done—Karsten’s experiment was the only thing I could guess at.” His lips tilted in a sheepish smile. “You have to give me a little credit for making the right connection.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Idiot.”
Chance half rose, but I waved him back into his seat.
I wheeled on Ben. Spoke calmly and coolly. “We are trying to solve a problem right now. Either help, or leave.”
Ben flushed scarlet. His jaw worked, but he only nodded.
“Good.” Turning back to Chance. “We need to focus on finding Speckman.”
“I haven’t been sitting around playing Candy Crush.” Chance yanked open a drawer and removed a dog-eared folder. “William Thomas Speckman. Born in Goose Creek, attended Palmetto Scholars Academy, a local charter school for gifted children. Transferred to Bolton Prep his junior year to join our lacrosse team.” Chance dropped the folder onto his desk. “He was a year ahead of me, but I knew Will was studying molecular biology and had the rep of a computer whiz. When I decided to investigate Karsten’s files, I hired him in Special Projects as my primary lab tech on Brimstone.”
“Great screening work.” Hi flashed a thumbs-up.
“I knew Will,” Chance replied flatly. “I wanted a tight ship, was new to Candela, and figured I’d better limit the number of Candela personnel who could figure out what I was up to. Hiring an old teammate part-time seemed perfect.”
Shelton sighed. “Until he got infected.”
Chance nodded. “It must’ve happened early in the process. I didn’t experience symptoms until much later. By the time I suspected the virus, Will was already gone.”
“You mean fired,” Ben said.
“Yes.” Chance shifted in his chair. “Will became unreliable near the end. He stopped coming to work on time, but would appear at odd hours, acting strangely in the lab and attempting to access files he wasn’t cleared to see. I had to let him go. A few weeks later, when I realized I’d been infected, I tried to contact him. By then he’d stopped answering my calls and texts. He’d even moved out of his dorm. Will never contacted his parents—I inquired discreetly, not wishing to set off any alarms. But as far as I can tell, he just blew town.”
“But now we know different.” My eyes strayed to the vandalized statue.
Ominous, empty black eyes. And why paint the rest red?
What happened to Will Speckman?
“Too true.” Chance laughed without humor. “It seems Will paid me a visit, while I slept.”
I arched a brow. “Or the other did. Or both.”
Chance said nothing. Silence stretched as I considered our next move.
“The lab work will be ready this week?” I said finally.
Chance shrugged. “I had to be cautious, but that’s my best guess.”
“What does that matter?” Ben sneered at the photos. “Obviously, we have to deal with this nonsense first, thanks to our master scientist.”
“Enough!” Chance shot to his feet. “If you four hadn’t lied to me at every turn, messing with my head, making me think I was crazy, this never would’ve happened.” His voice went ice cold. “Would you have let it go, Blue? Would you have walked away?”
Ben looked away. Then, ever so slightly, he nodded.
“Okay, then!” Hi flashed a used-car-salesman smile. “So we’ll look into this little piece of modern art. Suggestions?”
Eyes slid to me.
Of course, I have to figure it out.
“Take samples of the paint,” I said. “And bag the cardboard.”
A thought struck me. “You said Speckman was enrolled at CU?”
“Up until a month ago.” Chance opened the folder and shuffled through papers until he located a student transcript. “That’s where I convinced him to come work for me.”
“Then we start there.” Spoken with more confidence than I felt. “Let’s meet after school tomorrow and check out his dorm room.”
“Do we need disguises?” Hiram’s eyes sparkled with anticipation. “I’ve got one of those sweatshirts that just says ‘College,’ and we could buy some croakies or something.”
“Street clothes will be fine, Hi.”
Shelton’s hand fluttered nervously. “And what do we do if we find him?”
“We need to know who broke into Chance’s house.” I crossed the room and scooped up my backpack. “And why they called him a traitor.”
I brushed hair from my face, steeling my voice.
“We need confirm that Speckman is Viral. Identify the others.”
“And if these puppies make trouble?” Ben asked. “If they want to play loose with our secrets?”
I looked him dead in the eye. “We persuade them otherwise.”
Coop was up on his hind paws, wet doggie nose smushed against the glass.
“Back it up!” I pushed inside and closed the front door behind me. Then I wrapped my arms around the frisky wolfdog. “I missed you, too, dog face. But Whitney’ll freak when she sees that snout print.”
Ben had driven us the thirty minutes home to Morris Island. Thankfully, that night he was sleeping at his dad’s place, just seven doors down our lonely block of townhouses. Most nights Ben stayed with his mother in Mount Pleasant, a trip of almost an hour.
Shelton had just gotten his license, but didn’t have a car. Hi had yet to take the test. Still only fifteen, I didn’t even have a learner’s permit. So we relied on Ben to cart us around—either in his beat-up Ford Explorer, or across the waves in a sixteen-foot Boston Whaler runabout currently tied up at the neighborhood dock.
“That you, kiddo?”
I climbed three steps, found Kit lounging on the couch, watching Through the Wormhole on the Science Channel. Muting the TV, my father patted the spot next to him. “Come veg out with me. Morgan Freeman is explaining how aliens might think.”
A last scratch behind Coop’s ears, then I dropped my bag on the floor and flopped down beside my father. Coop trotted to his doggie bed, circled three times, and lay down. In seconds he was sound asleep—a light-switch napping ability I thoroughly envied.
“Everything good on Loggerhead?” I asked.
My dad is director of the Loggerhead Island Research Institute, one of the world’s most advanced veterinary research facilities. I loved visiting the place, but hadn’t been out there in weeks. Loggerhead Island is even more remote than Morris, and lately I’d had less than zero free time.
“Same old,” Kit replied lazily, eyes on the screen. “We had a weird rash break out among the rhesus monkeys, but it seems to have tapered off. The wolves got into a storage shed and ruined the seed for the bird feeders, but I blame myself for relying on an old padlock.”
Outside of the fenced LIRI facility, Loggerhead Island is a giant nature preserve. Birds. Alligators. Sea turtles. Rhesus monkeys living free in the interior forest. It’s as close to paradise as you can find.
I was about to follow up when a singsong voice floated from the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready! I made enchiladas.”
My eyes rolled. Then darted to Kit, but he hadn’t noticed.
Kit paused the DVR, popped up from the couch, and hurried to the table. “Looks like we’re the big winners tonight!”
“Oh yes,” I muttered. “Big winners.”
Whitney DuBois glided into the room, a serving tray effortlessly balanced on her slender arm. She wore a springy tangerine sundress that complimented her figure. Perfect blonde curls formed a bun that appeared casual, haphazard, and insanely complex all at once.
My father’s girlfriend was undeniably beautiful. A woman of impeccable Southern taste.
She drove me bonkers. We couldn’t have been more different.
“Welcome home, darling.” Whitney flashed a megawatt smile. “Did you have a productive study group?”
Was there the slightest whisper of a doubt?
Kit never asked questions about my after-school SAT prep course. But Whitney did.
Can’t say I blame her. When it comes to accounting for my whereabouts, I don’t have a great track record. And, being honest, I’m always slightly disappointed in Kit for being so gullible.
“Yeah.” Taking my seat. “We covered analogies, which I’m already good at.”
This cover story was airtight. The class existed. I was enrolled. There was no method of taking attendance. Perfect.
“Of course you are,” Whitney said agreeably.
“I’m really waiting for the math portion. Need to brush up on my geometry.”
“Side-angle-side,” Kit announced, draping a napkin across his lap. “A squared plus B squared equals C squared. That’s all you need to know, right?”
Whitney giggled as she finished setting the table. “You’ve lost me already.”
I plastered on a smile. Gotta make the best of things.
“I just hope it’s worth three afternoons a week,” Whitney murmured, her tone carefully neutral. “We’ve missed you here at Casa de Howard.”
“I’m a Brennan anyway,” I quipped, but the joke fell flat, even to my ears.
I’d come to live with my father a year ago, after my mother was killed by a drunk driver. Prior to the accident, Kit Howard and I hadn’t known the other existed, but fate can deal strange hands. Before I could process the loss of one parent, I learned of the existence of another.
Good-bye, Massachusetts. Hello, South Carolina.
Moving to Mars would’ve been less of a culture shock.
After some initial disasters, Kit and I had settled into routines that worked. We’d grown to like each other, and to enjoy spending time together. The faint tinglings of family began to flourish. To my continual surprise, Kit and I actually see most things eye to eye.
Except Whitney. On that point we did not agree, and having my dad’s ditzy gal-pal force me into debutante life hadn’t improved the situation. Even so, over the previous year we’d managed to strike a balance.
Until Hurricane Katelyn destroyed Whitney’s home and moved her into mine.
I now had the pleasure of her company 24/7.
Kit broke the awkward silence. “This looks delicious, honey. You’ve done it again.” Grinning, he raised his fork in a mock salute.
My dad, the dork.
I suppressed a sigh. If this silly, white-gloved dingbat made my father happy—and I knew she did—it was my solemn duty as his progeny to suffer it.
“Now, Tory,” Whitney began, distributing salad with giant metal tongs, “your committee assignment for the Magnolia League came in the mail today. And I have good news!”
But sometimes it’s so hard . . .
“Yes?” Voice level.
“You’ve been selected for churchyard floral arrangement!” A near squeal.
I stiffened. “But that’s—”
“That’s right!” Whitney smiled in triumph as she set down the bowl. “My committee! I pulled a few strings so we could work together this year. Isn’t that fabulous?”
I didn’t trust myself to speak.
Why dost thou test me, oh Lord?
Whitney misread my silent horror. “I’m excited, too! And don’t worry, I snagged your friend Ella Francis as well. We can all hang together.” Emphasized in that clueless way adults speak when trying to sound hip. “Like girlfriends.”
I found my voice. “But I signed up for Habitat. Home building, for homeless people. Not decorating wreaths and bouquets for . . . whatever.”
“We put them in historic graveyards, and adorn soldiers’ tombs, of course.” Whitney reached over and squeezed my hand. “It’s a highly sought-after committee. There will be many disappointed girls tonight, I can assure you. But not you!”
Shock gave way to anger. I’d only agreed to join this stupid organization because it was charitable. Though riddled with frivolity and wasted time, there was good, honest community service buried within the Mag League’s endless catalog of parties, committees, and bureaucracy.
But she had to butt in. The tactless dolt interfered with the most basic of my choices. Now I was stuck with the least useful nonsense imaginable. In a way, it was perfect. Whitney, to a T.
I put down my utensils. Sucked in a breath.
Kit caught my eye. I saw the pleading there.
Floral arrangements? This time, I had no intention of holding back.
At that moment, Kit’s program ran out of “pause” and blipped from the TV screen. A reporter’s breathless voice interrupted our meal. “Park officials say it’s the first reported case of vandalism in decades at the venerable island fortress, one of Charleston’s most visible landmarks.”
I twisted in my chair for a better look.
The image shifted to an elderly park ranger frowning in disapproval. “It’s a despicable act, and no mistake.” The furious senior pointed to a stone wall behind him. “I don’t know what kind of sick mind would do this, but they have no respect for history.”
I rose and crossed to the living room. Was surprised when Kit joined me.
“That looks like Fort Sumter,” he muttered.
The camera zoomed in on the stonework, which was slathered with paint.
An electric jolt traveled my spine. My hand flew to my mouth before I quickly snatched it down. Kit grumbled under his breath, eyes on the screen.
Chiseled into the rock, and daubed jet black, was a trio of wolf heads.
Each was outlined in white, with bloodred eyes.
My mind shot back to the pictures on Chance’s desk. These carvings matched.
Unbidden, I thought of that night not long ago, on a beach less than a hundred yards from where I currently stood. Three sets of red eyes, watching me in the darkness.
The other Virals.
Will Speckman? Someone else?
The camera panned up to a single line painted above the wolf heads.
ONE TERRITORY. ONE PACK.
The newscaster returned, but I barely heard.
What did that mean?
A taunt? A warning? A challenge?
I heard a low growl.
Cooper was standing by the window, golden eyes staring eastward across the island.
To where Fort Sumter rose from the harbor like a shark’s fin.
I walked over to my wolfdog. “What is it, boy?”
Coop’s head whipped to me, then back to the window. The growl repeated.
A buzz in my pocket startled me. I pulled out my phone to find a text from Hiram.
As I read, two more messages arrived. Shelton. Ben.
Then my ring tone sounded an incoming call. Chance Claybourne.
Seems everyone had caught the news.
“Gotta take this call.” I was already hurrying upstairs. “I’ll eat later.”
Ignoring Kit’s and Whitney’s protests, I locked myself in my bedroom.
As I answered, three wolf heads danced in my brain.
I felt a sudden urgency. A need for action.
Whatever was happening wouldn’t wait until tomorrow.
ATTENTION: DIRECTOR WALSH [“EYES ONLY”]
FILE STATUS: TOP SECRET [LEVEL 5]
CASE: #34687 (AKA—PHOENIX INQUIRY)
FILE TYPE: INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
DATE: APRIL 11, 2014
SUBJECT(S): WHYTHE, HANNAH M. (“HW”)
PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATING AGENT(S): J. SALTMAN, B. ROGERS
INTERVIEWING AGENT(S): J. SALTMAN (“JS”), B. ROGERS (“BR”)
INTERVIEW LOCATION: LEATH CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION
WOMEN’S LEVEL 3—MAXIMUM SECURITY
GREENWOOD, SOUTH CAROLINA