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The problem with doing favors was that they had a habit of coming back to bite King on the ass. His current situation being a perfect example.
Years ago, King decided he was out for good. He’d served his country, made sacrifices, and allowed them to turn him into someone he barely recognized. While deployed, he’d lost his parents and hadn’t been able to bury them or even attend their funerals. Another chain added to the ones already wrapped around his heart, weighing him down. Then he lost his brothers-in-arms, and he was done. He loved his country. He did not love the men who asked for his loyalty and sacrifice but gave none in return, only empty promises. It was King who’d looked after his broken brothers on their return, not the men in Washington who’d turned their backs on them, offering hollow words of sympathy and condolences. He neither needed nor wanted their prayers. What he wanted was for them to stop using soldiers as their playthings, or at least have the decency to take care of their toys.
Yet here he was being escorted through a cold windowless concrete corridor by half a dozen armed soldiers at an undisclosed location in the middle of God-Knew-Where, Florida. Anyone who believed black sites on US soil didn’t exist was living a fairy tale. They were everywhere, belonging to various government agencies—some buried deep, some hidden in plain sight. This particular one was in plain sight. At least the top floors were. King had been to more black sites than he cared to think about.
No time for regrets.
King had given his word, and he never went back on his word. Had it been anyone else, he would have walked away the moment those armed soldiers approached him on the tarmac at the airport. Instead he’d allowed them to escort him to one of several government Suburbans lined up waiting for him. But it wasn’t just anyone who’d needed him. He and the General shared too much history, had suffered great loss, and were bound by a secret few people outside the two of them and the remaining members of King’s Special Forces unit knew about.
A dark-haired man in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie approached King. He had government spook written all over him. The guy extended his hand to King.
“Mr. Kingston. I’m Agent Ross Bowers. Thank you for your service.”
King nodded in appreciation as he shook the man’s hand. “Please, call me King. CIA?”
“No.” Bowers’s smirk said it all. NSA. He motioned for King to walk with him. “I’ll be your point of contact for this operation. I’ve been asked to brief you on the situation and escort you to the asset.”
Leopold de Loughrey was twenty-five years old, a freelance software engineer, and a coding genius. He had the misfortune of being the son of four-star United States Army General Leon de Loughrey. The misfortune didn’t lie with who Leo’s father was, but rather what he was—an Army General in a position of power within the United States government. The fact it took Washington this long to discover such a powerful asset had been right under their noses for years was a testament to the General’s love for his son, because there was no doubt in King’s mind it was the General who’d managed to keep Leo off government radars.
“I’ve been informed you know the identity of the asset and his relationship to General de Loughrey,” Bowers stated.
“What else do you know?”
Like with every classified operation, King knew only as much as he needed to know to perform his duty. Nothing less, nothing more. “I know who the asset is, that he’s working on something for our government, and that I’ve been brought in because there have been… complications.”
Bowers nodded. “The General trusts you. He believes you’ll be able to provide insight.”
Insight. Interesting choice of words. Then again, King supposed the General wasn’t about to tell his own government he’d brought in outside help because he didn’t trust them with his son.
“The code name for this operation is Avengers, and for unsecured communications, the asset is to be referred to as Spider-Man. You are Captain America.”
King stopped and turned to Bowers. “I’m sorry, what?”
Bowers’s lips curled up in the corner. “You heard me.”
“Captain America? The guy who fights with a shield and wears a giant star on his chest?”
Bowers appeared far too amused for his own good. “Fan, are we?”
“Not particularly.” The Kings had provided an important client with security for his son’s tenth birthday party. It was superhero themed. Unfortunately, the guy the event company sent to play Captain America had food poisoning and spent most of the gig puking in the bushes. King had been the only one who fit into the costume. He was pretty sure Ace had more fun at that party than the kids did. There were pictures and everything. King had been cheerfully informed he would never live it down.
Bowers shrugged. “Quite frankly, we could care less what the asset chooses to name the op if it means his cooperation. What he’s working on is groundbreaking and could mean a significant advantage in counterterrorist measures for our government. Operation Avengers is a joint op between the Pentagon and multiple intelligence agencies.”
King let out a whistle. “Wow, you boys are playing in the same sandbox?”
“Yep, and we’re playing nice and everything. That should tell you how important this is. We need the asset—”
“Leo,” King corrected. “We’re in a secure location. We can call him Leo.” Calling Leo an asset allowed those involved to detach themselves from the young man, making it easy for them to forget they were dealing with a human being, a citizen of their country, and not a faceless object or threat. King was familiar with the process. He wasn’t about to make it easy for them with Leo.
Bowers paused, studying him before nodding. “Okay. We need Leo to cooperate, and right now that’s not happening.”
“Not quite. The asset—I mean Leo is… well, a unique case. It takes a certain type of individual to be able to do what he’s capable of doing. Leo’s file didn’t prepare us for the real thing. We’ve brought in several experts in the hopes our people could learn how to effectively interact with him, but that only made things worse. Then there’s the disappearing.”
King frowned. “Disappearing?” When the General first approached King, he’d mentioned something about his son disappearing, but King figured he meant Leo kept leaving his station, not that he was actually vanishing. “Are you telling me that somehow Leo is disappearing from under the noses of the military and NSA?”
“Trust me, I’m as confused as you are. I don’t know how the hell he does it, but he does. Then he just wanders back in like nothing happened. Every time he disappears, we risk exposure because security protocol has to be initiated and everything is locked down. It’s a goddamn mess.”
“What about surveillance?”
“That’s the thing,” Bowers said as he stopped walking and faced King. “Every time he disappears, something happens to the cameras.”
“Are they being tampered with? I mean, the guy’s a computer genius after all.”
“Nope. We’ve had the footage screened and analyzed by our guys. No one has tampered with the cameras or the footage. During one incident, we found one of the camera lenses covered in strawberry jelly.”
King squinted at him. “I’m sorry, did you say strawberry jelly?”
“How the hell did strawberry jelly get on the camera?”
“We have no idea. One minute the kid’s there, the next minute he’s not. When we check the security footage, no one seems to be where they’re supposed to be when the kid walks out. We’ve investigated, and each time there’s a legitimate reason for the guards not being at their post, which makes this whole thing even stranger. We’ve noticed it seems to happen whenever he’s anxious, which quite frankly is most of the time. Kid’s jittery as hell. It doesn’t help that he and the team of analysts brought in to support him and the project don’t see eye to eye. He… um, he keeps correcting their work.”
King held back a smile. “I see.” He had to admit, he was curious. But if the NSA couldn’t keep track of Leo, what exactly did the General think King could do? He needed to meet Leo and assess the situation.
They reached a solid steel door and Bowers stopped. He pulled a black cell phone out of his pocket and handed it to King. “All communication is to be done through that phone. Leo has been on site just over two weeks, and he’s barely started the project. He spends more of his time questioning and correcting the analysts’ work than coding the damned program. As you can imagine, the higher-ups are getting antsy. They need to see some progress.”
And if they didn’t, it would only be a matter of time before they lost their patience and instead of treating Leo like the son of a General, started treating him like the asset he was. Leo would be moved somewhere out of his father’s reach, and the General would be lucky to see his son again. Leo wasn’t a soldier or a government agent. They would break him, and there was little chance he’d come back from the hell they’d put him through. King clenched his jaw tight to keep from saying something he’d regret. He’d promised the General he would look after his son, and that’s what he would do.
“I’ll get you everything you need inside, along with documentation for you to read through. If anyone on your approved list calls your cell phone, the call will be forwarded to the phone I just gave you.”
King nodded. Depending on how quickly Leo got things done, King could either be here anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Not exactly how he wanted to spend his holidays. It was in both their best interests that Leo get this done as quickly as possible so they could both go home. At least that was the agreement King signed and had been informed Leo had signed. Once Operation Avengers was complete, they were both free to return to their lives. King had no doubt he’d be cut free, but Leo? Just because the government promised to let him go, didn’t mean they would. If Leo was as valuable an asset as Bowers said, the government would find a way to keep him, and King couldn’t let that happen.
“The system only recognizes those persons authorized by the General himself, and for the door to open, it requires three forms of identity verification: fingerprint scan, retina scan, and voice match. If even one of those doesn’t correspond with what’s in the system, the person will be locked out and armed personnel will arrive to investigate.”
“I assume there’s some kind of emergency evac plan in place?”
“Three, actually. One by land, one by sea, and one by air. Emergency transportation is on standby should you need it. As soon as you meet the asset—I mean, Leo, you’ll receive a secure tablet with all the information you’ll need to perform your duties. Should someone suspect your involvement, which is unlikely, considering your name is in no way connected to this operation, the FBI has conveniently made our lives easier by providing the appropriate digital and paper trail showing you never left England and are there on vacation. Don’t worry, the rest of that case has remained sealed.”
As far as the world knew, King was still abroad. As per his insistence, the only ones authorized to know he was back in the country were Ace, Red, Lucky, Jack, and Joker. That was the extent of their knowledge on the matter. The less they knew, the safer they would be. King was under no illusion this whole thing couldn’t go sideways at any time, considering the parties involved. The security measures taken with Leo provided all the evidence King needed to know how important this project was to their government.
The door opened, and they stepped into what resembled a command center, albeit a secret one, located in a huge underground bunker. Before King had a chance to scan his surroundings, they came to a halt so as not to get mowed down by the half dozen soldiers charging past them.
“What the hell? Christ! Stay here. I’ll be right back.” Bowers took off, and King remained where he stood. He crossed his arms over his chest and pressed his lips together to observe what could only be described as a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Military personnel in and out of uniform darted from one place to another, some on cell phones, others on radios. A small group of what were clearly analysts stood arguing. Not exactly the kind of situation he’d been hoping to walk into.
A soldier hurried toward him, and King caught him before he could whiz by.
“What’s going on?”
The soldier looked him over, and King held up the ID hanging from the lanyard around his neck. “Ward Kingston. I’ve been brought in by General de Loughrey. Could you show me to the asset?”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that at the moment, sir.”
King cursed under his breath. “Let me guess. Leo’s gone for another walk.”
The soldier nodded before excusing himself.
Every security job came with unique challenges, but he could say with absolute certainty that none of his previous jobs revolved around someone pulling a Houdini act several times a day. Leo had to know the danger he was in, so why take such a risk? To anyone, this sort of environment would be daunting, and rather terrifying, but Leo was the son of a General, and King recalled plenty of instances when the General had mentioned having his son with him.
After the loss of his wife, it would have been easy for General de Loughrey to leave his son and daughter with someone while he was away doing his duty to his country, but he kept his children at his side whenever possible. If they couldn’t be in the same room as their father, they were still somewhere in the building or safely hidden away close by. How the General managed it, considering his position, was beyond King, but he’d done it, moving heaven and earth to take care of his grieving children. From the beginning, however, it became clear to King that the General was far more protective of his son than his daughter—not because the General loved one more than the other, but because according to the General, Leo was different.
From their friendly conversations years ago, King learned Leo was a soft-hearted boy whose vast intelligence made him vulnerable. He had difficulties socializing and communicating with others, and while he could do things at a level most adults couldn’t even fathom, he had trouble with smaller mundane tasks, leading to him being homeschooled by the best tutors so he could learn at his own pace. And more importantly, to keep him safe. One thing King remembered above everything else was the love and pride pouring from the General when he spoke of his children. King looked forward to his interaction with the mysterious and fascinating young man. But first, they’d have to find him.
Turning, King frowned down at his new guest. Where had the guy come from? “Hey.”
King stared at the guy and the little bag of—did he say Goldfish crackers?
“They’re not stale, which I guess is the most you can hope for, considering how often that vending machine is stocked up. Not a lot of people are the Goldfish cracker type, but hey, more for me, so I can’t complain.” The guy shook the bag at him. “Goldfish cracker?”
King shook his head, his brows drawn together as he tried to figure out what he was dealing with here. Could this be Leo? If it was, surely Bowers would have returned, and the chaos around them would have come to an end. From the looks of the younger man, King guessed he was one of the analysts. He was cute, just under six feet, with messy brown hair poking out from beneath the blue beanie on his head. His eyes were big and brown, his lashes long, eyebrows thick, and his mouth pink and wide. The little mole to the right of his lips drew King’s attention. He was in his mid-twenties at most, wearing trendy black-framed glasses, gray skinny jeans, black Chucks, and a yellow T-shirt under a navy cardigan of which only the center two buttons were fastened. He was lean, with a sinewy body. Oddly, the guy wasn’t wearing any kind of ID.
“Would you like a Goldfish cracker?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
The analyst seemed awfully serene, considering the chaos happening around him. “Goldfish cracker.”
“No. Thank you.”
The guy shrugged. He popped a cracker into his mouth, drawing King’s attention to his pink lips.
“Let me guess. SEAL?”
The word snapped King’s attention from those plump lips back up to his pretty eyes. The young man’s assessing gaze had King rounding his shoulders. What the hell was happening right now? Who was this guy? This was neither the time nor the place for him to be distracted by a pretty face. Not to mention, he was never distracted by a pretty face. It wasn’t something he did. King opened his mouth to reply, but the guy put a hand up to stop him.
“No. Don’t tell me.” He snapped his fingers. “Green Beret. Special Forces, am I right?”
Interesting. Then again, King supposed the analysts spent a lot of time around soldiers and military personnel. “I was. Yes.”
“I knew it. You give off that Green Beret vibe.” He wiggled his fingers at King and his general person.
King arched an eyebrow. “Green Beret vibe?”
“Yep. Also, it’s in your purpose.”
“Sorry?” Were the rest of the analysts so… peculiar?
The guy’s smile was wide, sweet. “Your purpose. You have a purpose. You’re not about to move, so everyone who comes near you senses that and they go around you. Anyone who gets in the way of that purpose has no one to blame but themselves when they end up on the floor. That’s amazing. That would never happen to me. Most people don’t even notice me. I could be standing right next to them, and they’d have no clue.”
King doubted that. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
The analyst opened his mouth to speak up, but King reacted, throwing his arm across the guy and taking two steps back with him just as a soldier stumbled forward, hit the floor, and skidded several feet past them.
“That looked painful,” his companion muttered, though it would have been more painful had the soldier stumbled into him and taken him down with him. He beamed up at King. “See. Green Beret.” He waved the bag at King again. “You sure you don’t want a Goldfish cracker?”
“I’m sure.” King’s frown deepened. The guy’s smile was bright, open, and friendly. “Why won’t you tell me your name?”
“I never said I wouldn’t tell you. What’s your name?”
“Ward Kingston, but everyone calls me King.”
The guy tilted his head. “Why King?”
“Long story.” One he was certainly not about to get into with a stranger, and here of all places. Though he surprised himself by discovering he wanted to know more about his odd little companion.
“I bet it’s fascinating.”
“Why do you keep distracting me from getting your name?” This whole situation was bizarre. How did he not have this guy’s name, position, and clearance level already? He wouldn’t be too hard on himself, considering he was in a secure location and wasn’t officially on the clock yet since the person he was supposed to be working with had disappeared. Normally he would have joined the search the moment he’d been told Leo was missing, but he had no idea what Leo looked like. The General—and King was certain several US intelligence agencies—had done a stellar job of erasing any trace of Leo from the internet. They left just enough details not to arouse suspicion, but there were no photos of Leo, no descriptions of him. Due to the classified nature of the op and Leo’s involvement, King had been given little to no information about him. That was to come after he met Leo.
“I’m distracting you?”
The guy’s startled words snapped King out of his thoughts. Why did he sound so surprised?
As if reading his mind, the analyst spoke up. “I’ve never distracted anyone before. Like I said, most people don’t even realize I’m there, much less find themselves distracted by me.” His wide smile lit up his face, and King sucked in a sharp breath. Whatever was happening had to stop. Now. King was about to demand answers when Bowers appeared. He thundered toward them, his murderous glare on the analyst and intent in his eyes. What exactly Bowers was going to do, King had no idea, but he wasn’t about to let it happen. He instinctively put himself between Bowers and the young man, ignoring the fingers curling around his forearm or the searing heat from the touch.
“Shit,” the guy muttered from behind King.
“Shit,” King repeated, looking over his shoulder at Leo, who was now sporting a sheepish grin. “Leopold de Loughrey?”
Leo worried his bottom lip with his teeth and waved. “Hi.”