The Third Alex Noziak Novel
“This agency is finished,” M.T. Stone snarled, surprised he managed to get the words past the rage clawing through him. Ops that went fubar were one thing. Ops that were suicide missions were another. “I’m not sending out anymore recruits until they’re prepared.”
The IR, for Invisible Recruit, Agency Director, Ling Mai, calmly set down her Mont Blanc pen and turned from the paper she’d been notating. She looked at home in this Parisian hotel, the Hotel Le Meurice. Elegant, cool, remote. The room’s shades of blues and white complimented her Anglo-Asian features, highlighted the blue-black tones of her hair swept back from her face, the fineness of her bones. She could have been about his age, mid-thirties, or a very young fifty. Hell, when she was in her seventies she’d probably look the same way. If he didn’t know better, he’d have guessed he was the only one controlling deep emotions. With Ling Mai, you had to look closely to see she battled her own demons, metaphorically, not physically.
“Define prepared, Mister Stone.” Her voice sounded as calm as a lake. One teeming with ghost sharks and giant squid just beneath the surface. He paced across the room. Large by hotel standards, with an obstacle course of satin-striped couches, velvet chairs, and coffee tables as well as a white grand piano. His hands curled, wanting to toss all the crap through the nearest window. To destroy something, anything. One team member dead. One near enough. Wasn’t going to happen again.
His back to the director, he stilled his voice until he matched Ling Mai’s, word for word. “Sending humans against preternaturals is a recipe for disaster. The fact these women are barely trained as agents compounds the problem.”“A challenge, Mister Stone, not a problem.”
It was tempting to release a crude snort. He wasn’t here to play semantics games. He was here to save his remaining team members. Turning to face the director, he made sure to keep the length of the room between them. “We’ve already lost one. Two are on the injured list.” He didn’t have to spell out Mandy and Vaughn’s names. Ling Mai knew he’d just returned from the Hôpital Pitié Salpêtrière, where Vaughn was receiving the best care possible. Not that it was enough. He added, “And that’s not counting what occurred to Alex.”
“I too am mourning Miss Noziak’s unfortunate death,” Ling Mai murmured.
There were undertones beneath her words but Stone couldn’t pin them down. Alex and Ling Mai had butted heads more than once, but the death, or technically the disappearance and presumed death of their only op with proven preternatural abilities, was a tactical disaster. Without her skills, they’d have to rethink their whole approach to fighting preternaturals.
Ling Mai’s voice broke through to him. “I have taken several steps that will address your concerns.”
She’d surprised him. Ling Mai wasn’t a dense woman. Far from it, she could be cold, calculating, and ruthless. Every move she made was layered with strategic awareness. What Stone hadn’t expected, though, was her easy acquiesce to the problem at hand. Finding, training and equipping more recruits would take time and money, a lot of both. Up until now, Ling Mai’d had the agency operating on a short-term mentality. Preternaturals threatening to expose their existence to humans had forced her, and through her, the Invisible Recruit Agency, into several immediate crises. A jump-first, learn how to swim later approach.
So why the sudden about face?
“What steps are you taking?” he asked, knowing he sounded wary. Screw it, he was wary.
“I’m bringing on board an additional recruit whose skills should compliment the team.”
He crossed his arms. “Meaning?”
“You’ll see when you meet her.” Ling Mai’s brow arched, as effective a communication as shouting is-that-enough?
“A start.” Maybe. “A recruit strong enough to go up against the strongest preternaturals is the minimum I’d expect.” Having at least one agent capable of fighting preternaturals was a step. But only a small step.
Ling Mai offered a sharp smile that would have had most people stepping back. Stone wasn’t most people. “It’ll be your responsibility to see that she can.”
He nodded, but held his thoughts. The new woman might know how to fight, but in any animal kingdom there were stronger animals and lesser animals. Give him someone with some fighting skills or preternatural talents, a fae, one of the lesser demons, even a Nondi pixie, and he could work with her.
“What about equipment for the existing team members? You send David up against Goliath enough times and Goliath will win.”
Ling Mai turned in her chair and punched a button on her cell phone. The knock on the hotel room door came immediately, as if someone had waited in the hall for the summons.
Stone crossed to open the door, but only after acknowledging Ling Mai’s nod. Only years of compartmentalizing his emotions kept his face straight as he swung the door wide to a gangly young man who had barely hit puberty. The kid stood almost eye-to-eye with Stone, but a weak breeze could topple him. He had that whole nerd air about him, dandelion blond hair, a large Adam’s apple, hunched shoulders that might someday fill out, and limbs that looked barely attached. Human? Or something else?
“Come in, Hercules,” Ling Mai called, waving the newcomer forward.
Hercules? The kid had been damned from the start with that kind of moniker.
The boy-man edged closer to the door jam, squeezing himself past as if Stone had bared his teeth. On second thought, a well-developed sense of self-preservation was probably the only thing the kid had going for him.
Stone gave him a what’s-up chin nod, having no idea what Ling Mai had hidden up her well-tailored sleeve. But if this was going to be the team’s deep, dark secret, they were all in a worse level of hurt than he’d imagined.
“Miss Mai,” the kid stammered, scuttling across the floor, putting as much distance as possible between him and the biggest predator in the room—Stone.
First mistake. Stone was a badass and was okay with that. But Ling Mai played in a league of her own, way above Stone’s pay grade.
“Mr. Stone—” Ling Mai did the introductions.
“Stone?” A shit-eating grin bloomed on the kid’s scrawny face. “As in Stoner?”
“No, kid, not like that. More like rock hard and not budging.” Stone’s expression wiped that look off the nerd’s face in less than a second.
Ling Mai continued, “This is Hercules. He’s—”
“Herc,” the kid stammered, his gaze ping-ponging between the director and Stone. “Everybody calls me Herc. It’s easier.”
Was this kid for real?
Ling Mai canted her head as if being interrupted by a snot-nosed kid was an every day occurrence.
“As you wish, Herc.” Ling Mai sounded like she was at the Queen of England’s court, and Stone found his first glimmer of a smile since . . . well, since Vaughn had been hurt and Alex killed. Ling Mai continued in her formal, prissy tones. “Herc has been tasked with creating tools to help the team against preternaturals.”
Stone snorted. “He makes gadgets?”
“Technically, no.” Herc focused on Ling Mai. “According to design critic Reyner Banham, a gadget is a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires. Whereas what I develop are offensive and defensive tools designed to increase the life expectancy of a weaker being against a stronger being.” He ducked his head before adding, “I specialize in human-preternatural interactions.”
Stone unclasped his arms. “Fine, kid, whatever. You make shit that kills the bad guys.” As if this punk would know a preternatural if he tripped over one. This was the best Ling Mai could find?
“Forget it, kid.” Stone wiggled one finger between himself and Ling Mai. “The grownups have to talk. Why don’t you disappear for a moment.” It wasn’t phrased as a question.
The kid’s eyes tightened before he looked to Ling Mai. At her slight nod, he didn’t cross to the door he’d come in, but turned on his heel and headed to the spare bedroom. Stone didn’t know who or what this kid was, or if he could hear through walls, but it didn’t matter. Protecting his team was Stone’s responsibility and trusting that to a wet-behind-the-ears punk was not in the plans.
As soon as the door closed, Stone marched to where Ling Mai sat, her back straight, her expression closed. She raised one hand to halt him. “Before you make a wrong judgment, you should know he’s half fae.”
Didn’t care. Fae were not known as fighters. Slick, sneaky bastards, yes, but not warriors. It took a soldier, with experience, to know how to stop another soldier.
Before he could spit out his objections, Ling Mai stopped him. “Give him this opportunity.”
He looked at her, then at the door, snatching a second to get the frustration growling through him under control. Hot heads didn’t win arguments and he meant to win this one.
“You willing to stake another team member’s life on that . . . that kid?”
Ling Mai nodded. “I am.”
Stone stepped closer, lowering his voice, aware that anyone who knew him for more than a day, understood that the quieter he spoke, the angrier he was. “I’m not.“
“Without knowing anything about him except his age?”
“Creating a defensive weapon for someone to stop a charging Were or blood thirsty vamp, was not something handed to anyone who had never faced either.” Before Ling Mai could interrupt, he continued, hammering home his point. “That’s the real world out there.” He jammed a finger toward the windows. “Not the latest role-playing fantasy game.”
“What would it take for you to give him a chance?” Ling Mai’s voice was controlled. Not that he expected less. She was a Jedi master of control. Didn’t make her right though. Not in this situation.
“Pit him against a pissed off Were or shifter,” Stone countered. She wouldn’t. He was counting on the fact Ling Mai wouldn’t kill a kid. It was more suicidal than what she’d done to the team so far, and even the director had to have a line she wouldn’t cross. “Put his life where his mouth is and then we’ll talk.”
Ling Mai shrugged. “So be it. You set up the Were or shifter and we’ll see how Hercu . . . how Herc’s weapons work.”