Seventeen years ago . . .
When the father arrived at Enforcers' Headquarters, he was pale and drawn. He was also nearly inconsolable as he desperately tried to explain what was wrong to the lobby receptionist. Finally, at a loss, the young woman simply called up to the top floor. She relayed what she knew and listened to the answer. She hung up and said only, "Mr. Mason will be down in a minute."
Lucas Carmichael found himself unable to sit as he paced back and forth through the lobby. All eyes watched him in concern. Though he was only part of 3rd District by marriage, he was a member nonetheless. Everyone in the District stuck together.
A tall and distinguished man walked into the lobby a minute later. His calm ice blue eyes missed nothing. The sharp sensation of fear stung his skin, but it came only from the outside and not within. He walked over and firmly got in Lucas' path, forcing the other man to pull up short. "Sit down."
No one had ever refused to listen to an order from Eric Mason, particularly when he spoke in the firm tone of command. Lucas sat down. He gripped his shaking hands together and stared at the floor. "You protect everyone in 3rd District," he finally blurted. "You and Ms. Taber have gifts. You can—you can forcefully interfere with outside forces and powers."
Eric sat down beside him and lifted an ash colored brow. "Yes," he conceded. He offered nothing further. "What happened?"
As before, Lucas could not stop the words from spilling out. "You know my wife and I have two daughters."
"Rayna and Mika." Warmth filled Eric's voice. "They are well loved by those who meet them. Mika should be nine now, and Rayna four?"
"Someone wants them dead."
The words dropped like bombs into the lobby. Everything came to a halt. All eyes shifted. Horror filled some gazes. Fury filled others. The young receptionist immediately left her post and went to fetch a glass of water. When she brought it over, Eric took it without looking away from Lucas. "Drink this," he ordered.
Lucas shook his head. "Why would anyone want my girls dead? They're so beautiful. So giving." The glass was firmly pushed against his mouth and it was drink or choke. He drank. As the water slid down his throat, it brought a cooling sensation that helped to steady his mind and emotions.
The receptionist watched him critically for a moment before going back to her post. Eric set the glass aside and braced his arms on his legs as he leaned forward. "How do you know someone wants them dead?"
"I saw it." He drew a ragged breath. "Neither girl has a lick of modesty. When I told them they could go swimming if they got their suits on, they were pulling off their clothes before they got to their room. And I saw it." His voice dropped so low even Eric almost couldn't hear him. "The Bloody Check."
"Son-of-a-bitch." Eric raked a hand through his ashy hair and stirred the white streaks over his ears. His mind automatically attuned itself to his partner's, and her rage almost shook the building. Almost at the same time, they both calmed and began to think logically. There was only one course. The details would be tricky, though.
Rhianna Taber walked into the lobby a few minutes later. A folder was in her hand. She walked over to the two men and inclined her head. "Let's go into a conference room." She gestured across the hall.
The two men stood. Lucas went first, still almost dazed despite the water of clarity. Eric gestured Rhianna to go before him, like the old-world gentleman he still pretended to be. She arched a red brow and then just shook her head and went into the conference room. He went in behind her and shut the doors firmly.
"Mr. Carmichael," Rhianna began as she sat down, "you know your wife was prophesized to give birth to two exceptionally powerful beings. Two very special children that we of the Enforcers fully intended to recruit eventually."
"What are they?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "My touch on the future is vague at times. Impressions and hunches mostly. All I know definitively is that Rayna and Mika are critical to the peace of the entire world, let alone the peace of our District."
"Is," his voice broke for a moment, "is that why someone would issue a Bloody Contract for them?"
"It's a strong likelihood." Eric leaned back in his chair. "But we're going to have no way of knowing why someone is so afraid of what are clearly powers of good until the girls are at least twenty-one. Their powers should fully manifest at that time. It won't be sooner. They are only half-3rd District. We just need to be sure they make it to that age."
"I'll do anything!" Lucas vowed.
Rhianna and Eric exchanged a long look before he took the folder from her and opened it. He pulled out the stack of papers inside and slid them to Lucas. "Here is what we are offering. It is a two-fold deal. When the person who ordered the Bloody Contract makes an attempt for Rayna, she will emerge miraculously from a mere accident...except she will be asleep. She will remain in a coma until her twenty-first birthday, cared for at a strictly controlled Enforcers' hospital. Once she awakens, her powers will combine with ours to nullify the Bloody Contract."
Lucas drew a bracing breath. "And Mika?"
"We can't use the same contract for both." Eric rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It would be too obvious. Hers will have to be slightly different. She will survive however many accidents necessary for her to reach twenty years of age. At that age, one of the accidents will place her within a matching coma. She will remain asleep until Rayna awakens. And the same will happen for her that happens for Rayna."
A little chill went down Lucas' back. "They could sleep for...for years! They won't know anything of the world they enter as when they left it! And what if something happens when they are children? How will they grow and learn?"
"Enforcers have been investigating the possibilities associated with subliminal learning," Rhianna offered. "We have learned, conclusively, that things heard while asleep can remain. It may be a shot in the dark, but we could use these study results to formulate learning tapes for the girls. If their minds can learn, then they will wake with only a few hang-ups to their development. Reading would be a big one, but not insurmountable."
"I'll take care of the details of the tapes if needed," Eric promised quietly.
Lucas took a long, bracing breath. The idea of his babies being stuck in a coma for potentially years was terrifying, but it was more terrifying to think they might die. Without letting himself think, he signed his name across the bottom of the contracts. Eric and Rhianna signed as well, and the girls' safety was officially in Enforcers' hands.
Outside the building, it almost seemed as if something screamed in fury. Rhianna's eyes didn't waver though something came and went in Eric's eyes. Something that sent a chill down Lucas' back and yet simultaneously reassured him. If his girls were to be saved, then only these two could do it.
A few days later, only just arriving back from a trip, his daughters were happily riding with their mother and aunt in a car zooming down a freeway; neither had any idea of the danger and their parents had no intention of telling them unless necessary.
They had gone out of town to visit the girls' uncle and give him support in the family's difficult times. Lucas had nearly lost the family company. At a loss for what to do, he had turned the reigns over to his brother in the hopes that a fresh start would pull them back from the brink. Thankfully, it seemed to be working. The entire family was relieved.
Aunt Yvonne was Lucas' sister-in-law. She had picked up the girls and their mother and was now bringing them home. Rayna and Mika both liked her a lot. She always smelled like cookies, and if there was anything better to smell like, neither girl could envision it.
It was late at night but they still hit a snarl of traffic. As they continued along, bumper to bumper, Rayna pressed her nose to the window to look at New York City. It glowed and sparkled with millions of lights.
Her attention was diverted when she saw shadows moving along the side of the road. Frowning, she tried to see better. She was an exceptionally small girl, and she was still in a toddler's car seat at four years old. Her height in no way detracted from her mental growth. Her mind was much further along than her young age indicated. With precise clarity, she said, "I see people."
"On a freeway?" Yvonne's voice was warm. "At night? I hope they don't get hit."
Mika tried to lean over to see what Rayna was watching. She was in a special seat for older children, but she was also small for her nine years. She was also quite nimble and smart, and she wiggled out of her harness to scoot over to her sister. "Let me see!"
"Mika!" their mother ordered sharply. "Get back in your seat, young lady!"
"You sure she isn't Houdini reincarnated?" her sister-in-law groused.
The two girls peered out the window. The people were doing something. They seemed to be acting weird, too. They weaved back and forth as if dizzy, and they staggered up onto the freeway. A chill went down Rayna's back as the car began to move faster, the traffic finally clearing. "Mommy . . ."
At the note of fear, both adults glanced back at her. Something, no one would ever know what, made Yvonne jerk her gaze back around to the road. With a shriek, she slammed on her brakes as she saw the figure crossing the freeway on foot.
The car went out of control and careened across the lanes, causing horns to blare and brakes to screech. Miraculously, no other cars were hit. Not so miraculously, the uncontrolled car hit the side of the embankment...and went into the air over the side.
By the time the ambulance arrived, a crowd had already gathered. Motorists had pulled over to rush to the wreck to provide help. The mother had been killed on impact. Yvonne was only alive because one of those who had stopped knew CPR. The quick thinking motorist relinquished her position to the paramedics and jumped into the on-going search. Yvonne had tried to say something about her nieces before losing consciousness.
The car was a mangled mess, but it was clear where a car seat had been torn free. Flashlights illuminated the area as did floodlights when copters arrived. People called for the girls, but there was no true hope of finding them alive.
When Eric arrived on the scene, he joined in the search as well. He made his way down the steep slope of grass as he headed for the gully at the bottom. It was the line marker between private land and state highway. He didn't cross over as he moved down the gully with confidence. The wind shifted and it led him swiftly to a slightly hidden shallow that most eyes would have passed over.
He found Rayna in that shallow. She had been torn out of her car seat and was lying like a broken doll. Though he knew she would be fine, his fingers trembled slightly as he checked for a pulse. It was there. Unsteady but strong. A quick look told him that she had only bruises and scratches from the ordeal.
He shrugged out of his jacket and gently wrapped her up. Almost possessively, he lifted her into his arms and kept her close. She was truly tiny, her Faeriekin blood evident. He softly rubbed his cheek over her white hair. "It’s okay, sleeping beauty," he murmured softly. "You’ll be fine now. I promise."
He made his way back to where the paramedics were located. He nearly had to force himself to let her go so that she could be examined. There was just something about her that had grabbed onto his heart and not let go. He watched her be taken away to the Enforcers’ hospital and then turned his attention to finding Mika. Oddly, he wasn’t entirely surprised she could not be found, even as dawn approached. There was no such thing as coincidence.
He went to the hospital as soon as the search party disbanded for sleep before trying again. He said nothing to them of their futile efforts. In truth, it always warmed his heart that so many strangers would pull together to give help where it was most needed.
He found Lucas sitting outside Rayna’s room. Grief had aged him within a matter of hours. Eric walked over to kneel in front of him. "I am sorry," he said quietly, "but we are not gods. We can’t stop everything. If we could, we wouldn’t even have needed the contract that has likely saved her life."
"She’ll wake as a four-year-old in an adult body." Lucas looked at him with dull eyes. "How will she ever cope?"
"She will be an adult," he disagreed. "I will arrange for the subliminal tapes to cover everything from regular schooling to modern events to pop culture to as much as she might have learned simply being in school. She will be completely innocent," he warned, "and trusting, though. Some things simply cannot be taught by anything other than experience."
Lucas said nothing. What could he say? He had no control over anything, not even his own life. Not even the precious lives of his babies or his beloved wife. "Will they find Mika?" he asked faintly.
Eric gave him the truth though it was a painful one. "No. But she will live. You will see her again. I swear it." When there was no response, he got to his feet. His eyes drifted to the room where Rayna slept. Heart aching, he went inside and shut the door.
She was pale and still. She breathed on her own but she was not awake. Once the hospital was sure she would not wake, she would be hooked up to other machines to provide nourishment for her growing body. It seemed almost obscene, the thought of a little girl confined to a hospital bed for years.
Something about her felt achingly lonely. Her world had fallen silent. Even when she listened to her tapes, her world would be alone. It broke his heart. He pulled the visitor chair over and sat down beside her. Gently he covered her hand with one of his. "Hey," he said softly. "I know you’re scared. But you’re not alone. I’m here with you now. I won’t let anything happen to you. You like flowers, don’t you? Well, when you wake up, I know a garden I can take you to see. It grows against a castle in the mountains, covered by clouds and sheltered from even the harshest snow and rain . . ."
One year ago . . .
Eric walked in the hospital room with a bouquet of flowers in his hand. It was Saturday at two. Every week, at that exact time, he always came to visit Rayna. He had never missed a single day. He came on holidays too. Her birthday and Christmas. Any day that she deserved more than usual to have someone by her side.
As he sat down beside her, he gently covered her hand with his. He talked to her of anything and everything in the world. He told her some of the funny moments of trying to upgrade all the computers in Enforcers, and of the world events that might interest her. For fifteen years, she had grown like a flower in a greenhouse. He told her of that too, describing how her face had matured and her hair had grown. He laughingly told her that she still wasn’t tall. At twenty, she might be five-foot even but likely no more.
There were times where he felt as if she was listening to him. He felt as if she truly heard him. His powers of the mind, the abilities that picked up on the signals of the minds of other beings, always seemed to hum louder when he talked to her. And he talked to her of everything he could. It felt as if he could tell her anything, even things he had never told anyone else.
It would be another year until she awoke. Another long, lonely year. He so badly wanted to see her smile, to hear her talking back to him. She seemed to be a light in the darkness to him. He brought her hand to his cheek and closed his eyes. "I wish you could wake up, Rayna," he murmured. "This world needs you. There’s so much you have to do and see. You never deserved this future. I just wish . . ." His voice trailed off. Wishes were useless. Her contract bound her.
Her hand moved. Shocked, he stared at her face, sure he had imagined it. Her hand moved again, distinctly more deliberate than a muscle twitch. The machines monitoring her began to record the signals of a waking mind. In his own mind, he could feel the feathery brush of a strong presence reaching out. She was waking up, but it should have been impossible!
He leapt to his feet and rushed out into the hall. "Doctor!" he barked, and the tone of command made everyone leap to do his bidding.
When Rayna opened her eyes a few minutes later, her gaze was blurry at best. Odd images swam above her with faces distorted like a funhouse mirror. One of the faces looked like her father but he seemed much older. Another face was attached to a body in a white coat; a doctor, probably. No other faces looked down at her. "Who . . ." Her voice broke against her will.
"Easy, little one," the doctor soothed. He was already checking her pulse and examining her eyes. "Your voice and eyes haven’t been used in a long time. It will take a while for the nerves to come up to speed."
She drew a deep breath and focused. She could see and understand hundreds of dozens of things in her mind. She had no memories to associate to her knowledge. It was just there. She remembered going to preschool and learning about numbers. Suddenly here, in her mind, she knew how to multiply and divide complex equations. She knew what an equation was.
There was more than that, though. Something more important. A garden near a castle in the mountain. It had been described so clearly that she felt she had already been there. She drew a breath and concentrated. "Who?" she asked again, stronger.
The doctor and Lucas exchanged a look. They knew what she was asking. Carefully, Lucas asked, "What who, Rayna?" Firm orders still rang in his ears.
"With me. Who? Talked." Her lashes fluttered closed. "He called to me...so lonely . . ."
"There was no one here, Rayna," he lied softly. "It was just a dream."
She didn’t doubt her father but she also didn’t entirely believe him. A dream didn’t leave her hand tingling with the warmth of being held and it didn’t leave her heart aching with the loneliness for another being.
Present . . .
Everyone in New York City knew Rhianna Taber on sight. She was the face on the front of Enforcers that handled day-to-day tasks and oversaw the usual meetings and business problems that came with running one of the biggest companies in America.
The opposite was true of Eric Mason. Only his name was known by many since it was on everything she signed. They were equal partners and co-owners, but he never attended meetings and never handled the casual business. His duties were more detail oriented. If he showed up at a business owned by Enforcers, then it was because someone had screwed up, and everyone knew it.
He and Rhianna had a give and take relationship. They gave each other hell and at the same time took care of each other. They were the same age with only a few months separating them (with Rhianna being older). They denied a familial connection, but anyone who met them knew that they were more like twins than partners. They worked seamlessly together.
It was why, when she tapped a scarlet fingernail on the document in front her, he was already reaching for it before her finger was done moving. Both were sitting at her desk going over some...interesting developments. "Look," she offered. "A coincidence."
A wry smile crossed his handsome face. "Rhi, there's no such thing as coincidence around people from the 3rd District."
"Still blame me for that?" she asked idly.
"At least you're reliable in your opinions."
He shook his head slightly and then raked a hand through his hair in agitation. "So let me get this straight. Budgets Inc. has gone on along merrily without a single restructure or reorganization for several years. Now, when they have at their fingertips one of the brightest minds around, they don't want to promote her up through the ranks?"
She regarded him with a smile. "Riku," she used the nickname with the affection of a longtime friend, "you're going to worry the rest of your hair white."
He glowered at her. "The streaks are not because I'm old," he reminded her. "It's genetic."
"Yes, but we are old, Riku."
"Shut up, Rhi." He leaned back in his chair and studied the report intently. "Something smells rotten and it's not that perfume you're wearing."
"Audra's idea of a crank gift. I had to wear it at least once." She swiveled to face her computer and began to type quickly despite her long red nails. "I got my hands on the personnel data for Budgets. From the day she started there, mysterious accidents have kept occurring. They're documented, but it's as if no one wants to see a pattern. But that isn't surprising considering the other thing."
He glanced up at the note in her voice. "What other thing?"
"I got into the manager's email."
"Do I want to know how?" he asked ruefully.
"No." Her black eyes snapped with the sparks that meant her temper was on the rise. "This manager is the one that works directly over Rayna. In his inbox and trashcan, I've found emails dating back to the beginning of her employment six months ago. Every single email is a litany of the same. Harassment. Her coworkers seem to be taking vicious delight in terrorizing her. She attached any relevant emails and attachments to her emails to her manager, and since the latest was as of this morning, I'd have to say he's done absolutely shit."
That alone told him that it was severe: she never swore. Eyes narrowed, he leaned forward to look over her shoulder. A little electrical hum filled the air around him, evidence of his own growing anger. "And we've received no report. How nice. What kind of harassment?"
"Well, several of the emails are lists of statistics on coma victims. The percentage of who wake up, the amount of mental damage, the erosion of mental and motor skills." Her voice reflected her disgust. "There are photographs of CAT scans of coma victims' minds, showing the places where brain matter deteriorated. It's disgusting. And then there are those who make snide comments about her not being a miracle and how it must be a scam because no one could wake from a sixteen-year coma without a lick of damage."
"So she’s being harassed," he said quietly, "and there are mysterious accidents occurring. Nearly fatal accidents that everyone is turning a blind eye to. Why does she stay there?"
"No one else would hire her," she admitted simply. "And it was the only one of our companies that had an opening we could get her into without the experience most other places demand. The girl is brilliant, Riku. But she’s very innocent and that puts her at a big risk. These accidents should not be happening. Her contract was solid."
"She woke up too early," he murmured, an unknown note of wistfulness in his voice.
"And whose fault was that?" She lifted a brow.
He sighed and got to his feet. "Mine, yes, I know. It’s not like I intended to wake her up," he added defensively. "Hell, Rhi, you know I’d never do anything to hurt that girl! I’d sooner drown myself."
"You can’t drown, Riku."
"It was a metaphor, dear." He raked a hand through his hair again and ruffled the aforementioned white streaks. There really was no other option than to go and take a look at the company and find out not only what the hell was going on, but also to find out what was happening around Rayna Carmichael. Her contract was not completed until her birthday arrived, and she was not safe from the death that she had been marked for. It was a week to her birthday. He could take care of things for a week.
"I’m going to head over there tomorrow," Rhianna said suddenly and caught his attention. "It shouldn’t be a problem."
He cleared his throat. "Sorry, it slipped out. Sometimes I forget to be tactful and erudite. What I meant to say was, I’ll go instead of you. Your face is far too well known. I’ll get a feel for the layout, the people and such, and keep an eye on our sleeping princess. If I go in undercover then no one will tense up and put forward their best face. I’ll be able to see things as they really are."
She watched him head through the connecting door into his office, and she covered a smile as she turned back to the papers on her desk. She had no doubt that he would indeed see everything clearly. He would be with Truth, and Truth always laid bare everything to the light.
©S. J. Garrett. All rights reserved. Do not reprint/publish without permission.