The Aberration of Eden Pruitt

Eden Pruitt’s parents are alive. They are safe. But not Eden. She won’t be until they hunt down the high-stakes gambler known as Mordecai. Eager for redemption, Cassian Gray won’t rest until they succeed. 

Together, they follow a trail of clues that thrusts them into a dark, dangerous, and twisted reality. At its center stands an enemy far more powerful than they ever imagined. 

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Book 2 Teaser

Chapter One

Eighteen-year-old Eden Pruitt walked toward a set of stairs that weren’t hers, away from a father that wasn’t hers either. At least not in the way she’d always thought. 

Seven days ago, her not-father almost died. 

Seven days ago, she’d handed herself over to the enemy.

Seven days ago, that enemy got away, and she was reunited with the two people she’d always called mom and dad. In the process, that dad was shot twice. The first bullet hit his left thigh and grazed his femur, barely missing his femoral artery. The second entered his chest and exited his back, barely missing his heart. If not for the circumstances that led to the life-threatening altercation, one might call him lucky. For against all odds—thanks to a retired military doctor, the world’s most brilliant neurosurgeon, and the fast-acting instincts of a once-lethal fighter—he survived. 

Eden pushed thoughts of that fighter aside. Feelings, too. 

Behind her, Mom and Benjamin Norton, the retired military doctor, encouraged Dad to rest. Instead, he asked for his spirometer. Over the past hour, he’d been alternating between leg and breathing exercises, his frustration mounting every time he inhaled or flexed his quad muscle. Dad didn’t typically swear, but the last sixty minutes had turned him into a sailor. 

The real enemy had escaped so he made fatigue his scapegoat. He seemed to be operating under the delusion that seven days was enough time to recover from a collapsed lung, extraordinary blood loss, cardiac arrest, and emergency surgery. A ridiculous assumption, even if he hadn’t been unconscious and on a ventilator for three of those seven days. 

Her father was a regular man with normal, human limitations. Unlike Eden, his composition didn’t include microscopic robots that made things like getting shot no big deal. And yet, he pushed himself like his body should be better, stronger. Eden suspected he wanted to be up and walking by the time their enemy stepped out of the shadows.

Mordecai.

He was out there somewhere, plotting and planning his next move. Eden knew this as certainly as she knew Erik spelled his name with a K. As certainly as she knew the Eiffel tower had one-thousand-six-hundred-sixty-five steps. He wasn’t going to hide forever. Not when he’d gone to such great lengths to get her. Whatever plans he had, he wouldn’t let them go so easily—an unspoken understanding that had the tension in the home thickening by the hour. Not her home. But Dr. Beverly Randall-Ransom’s, the brilliant neurosurgeon.

“When can I get out of this bed?” Dad growled.

“As soon as you’re okay with using that,” Dr. Norton replied.

Her father scoffed.

That was the wheelchair. 

“You have broken ribs, Alaric.”

The name came like a jarring hiccup.

Alaric. 

Her father’s given name. One she didn’t know until recently. To her, he was Alexander Pruitt—a fit, fifty-three-year-old accountant. But to Dr. Norton, who had known her father before he changed his identity, he was Alaric Taylor, a fellow soldier turned CIA agent. 

Eden shook her head. How was this her life—gunshot wounds and parents with different names and an enemy lurking in the shadows? She was supposed to be in school. First period in the first quarter of her senior year. In Iowa. She thought the worst part of her senior year would be missing Erik. Never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined getting drawn into an illicit world of gamblers and fighters and hackers and terrorists. Not just any terrorist but the most notorious of all terrorists. Karik Volkova. A man responsible for an incomprehensible number of deaths. Somehow, he was her beginning and because of that, she wasn’t in first period in the first quarter of her senior year. She was here. In the brilliant neurosurgeon’s home, trying not to think too hard about this new reality lest she lose her mind completely.

“You can’t support your weight with crutches or a walker,” Dr. Norton said. “Nor are you supposed to bear any weight on your leg. Not unless you want to impede your recovery. Which means, it’s the bed or the chair.”

Dad swore.

Mom sighed.

Eden climbed the stairs, shifting her focus to the sounds above her. Concordia in the Morning played on the television, a show her father watched every day for as far back as Eden could remember. 

“Time will bring it back,” a familiar voice said. It belonged to Brenna Lemming, one of the show’s most beloved hosts. “In my opinion, it’s not a matter of if but when.”

“You really think we’d let ourselves get back to that place?” 

“I think it’s already happening. Look at the rising crime rate. Look at what happened at the SafePad compound right here in Chicago.” Brenna was referencing the place Mordecai had been imprisoning her parents. She was referencing the break-in and the dead guards. Eden hadn’t killed them. She’d rendered them unconscious. At some point after Cassian left, the guards were killed. “Listen when you’re out and about. Just the other day, I overhead two people talking about approval ratings for our Board of Directors. Does that sound familiar to anyone? The whole point of having a Board of Directors was to avoid such nonsense.”

A debate ensued. All four of the morning show hosts broke out into a robust, short-lived argument, which in and of itself proved Brenna Lemming’s original point. 

Her voice rose above the others. “Look, I’m simply stating that human memory is short. History loves to repeat itself. And if we’re not careful, we could find ourselves in familiar territory. I think it’s safe to say that we can all agree—none of us want that.”

Her voice was familiar. Comforting. Mingled with one that absolutely wasn’t. 

Eden stopped. 

Intellectually, she understood that this voice didn’t belong to an enemy. But her body wouldn’t listen to intellect. Her body responded in the same visceral way it used to respond to Jack Forrester. Her body needed time to adjust to what her mind already knew.

Jack Forrester was on her side. 

So was his wife, Annette.

The two people who arrived at Eagle Bend’s police station pretending to be her parents.

Earlier this morning, Jack had returned from Dr. Norton’s secluded cabin in the woods, several miles northwest of Milwaukee. He arrived beneath a cloud of frustration, reeking of cigarettes and sweating nicotine. While her father dove into rehab like a bull seeing red, Jack had been spending his time trying to crack into the networks of Subjects 003 and 004—a pair of eighteen-year-olds just like Eden. Freaks of nature. Experiments that shouldn’t exist. 

Subject 004 was Barrett Barr, a boy whose face had been splashed across national news ever since his disappearance in July. Subject 003 had no name at all. She was an unidentified girl they were calling Jane Doe. Unlike Barrett, Jane wasn’t listed anywhere as a missing person. All they had was her face and the information in her file. 

Her parents’ names were listed but like Alaric Taylor, those names appeared to have been abandoned long ago—after receiving what must have been the most bizarre phone call of their lives. They had a child. A biological child. A frozen embryo stolen from an IVF clinic, then grown in a test lab. What kind of parents took that child in—put their safety in jeopardy—only to let that child go missing sixteen-and-a-half years later without filing a report?

Perhaps they had hired a private investigator to find her like the once-lethal fighter had been hired to find Eden.

Cassian Gray.

A boy she hadn’t spoken with in seven days.

A fact that filled her with equal parts confusion and betrayal. Eden set her teeth against the unruly emotions and focused instead on Annette Forrester’s voice.

“When will that be?” she asked.

“When it’s safe,” Jack replied. “We’re working as hard and as fast as we can.”

“Ellery is struggling.”

Eden closed her eyes, her hearing so good she could practically see with her ears. Jack was on a video call, sitting on a chair in Beverly Randall Randsom’s state-of-the-art kitchen. Eden could hear the unique hum his computer made whenever he connected via live video feed. She could hear the subtle creaking of wood as he shifted in the chair. The slice of skin against scalp as he shoved fingers into his thinning hair. 

“It’s her senior year, Jack,” Annette said. “She wants to be with her friends. She doesn’t understand why we’re here. She doesn’t understand why you’re not with us. She keeps asking questions. I don’t know how much longer I can go before I give her real answers.”

“You can’t give her real answers, Annette. It’s too much.”

“Well, you’re going to have to talk to her then. I can’t lie anymore.”

“Put her on,” Jack said. 

With a start, Eden crept up the remaining stairs. If Ellery Forrester was coming on the video feed, superhuman hearing would no longer do. Eden had to see her. When she reached the landing, she pressed her back against the wall and peeked into the kitchen, waiting with bated breath as Ellery took her mother’s spot on the screen. Eden had only seen her in a photograph. An age-progression photo. Now here she was in real time, with long, auburn hair and the same flawless skin and faultless symmetry as Eden. They possessed the kind of perfection other girls envied. And yet, Eden would trade hers in a heartbeat if it meant getting rid of the reason for it.

“Hey, Peanut,” Jack said, learning toward the screen like a father who wanted to fall through to the other side, where he could hold his distraught daughter.

“I don’t understand what’s going on.” Ellery’s light brown eyes filled with frustrated tears. Eden’s were a combination of blues and grays with specs of green.

“I know, sweetheart. But you have to trust us. As soon as it’s safe for you to return, I’ll make sure you and your mother are on the first flight home.”

“What does that even mean, Dad? Safe from what?”

“Elle.” He spoke her name on a weary sigh.

“It’s my senior year! I was supposed to be going to the homecoming dance tonight.”

Jack’s knee began to bounce beneath the table. The second this call ended, he’d probably let himself outside to smoke another cigarette. “You’re in Rome, Elle. Rome! Enjoy yourself. Go sightseeing with your mother. You don’t want to look back on this time and regret the missed opportunity.”

Rome.

Jealousy flashed like a bolt of lightning.

Eden tried to fathom it.

Being overseas with her mother—oblivious to the truth of who and what she was.

Her life swapped with Ellery’s.

Instead of Eden, Ellery made a dumb choice on the cusp of her senior year. Ellery ended up with a rap sheet and a mug shot. And because of that, Cassian Gray found the redhead instead of the blond. Would Eden be somewhere across the Atlantic with her mom while her father helped the Forresters hunt down a high-stakes gambler who went by the name Mordecai? Would Eden care about missing her senior year if she was in Paris? Would she push for answers with the same ferocity that Ellery was pushing now, or would she take advantage of the unexpected opportunity and go sightseeing? 

A stair creaked behind her.

“Good morning, Eden.” Dr. Norton stepped past her into the kitchen.

Eden cringed.

“Who’s that?” Ellery asked.

“Sorry, Elle. I’ve got to go. Talk soon.” Without giving Ellery any time to object, Jack snapped his laptop shut, as if the mere glimpse of Eden would be the death of his daughter.

Eden joined them in the kitchen.

If Jack was upset by her eavesdropping, he didn’t let on. Maybe he’d wanted to get off the call and her arrival had given him a reason. He leaned back in his chair. “How’s the patient?”

“Ornery.” Dr. Norton poured himself more coffee and tipped his chin at the laptop. “Have you made any insightful discoveries?”

He was referring to the networks. The ones that belonged to Subjects 003 and 004.

Before Jack could reply, Milly—the Randall-Ransom’s housekeeper—bustled into the kitchen, bringing their conversation to an awkward halt. While Milly loaded dishes into the dishwasher and wiped down the stovetop, Concordia in the Morning continued playing in the next room. 

Another pipe bomb was sent in the mail. This one resulted in a casualty. According to Dr. Beverly Randall-Ransom’s daughter—Cleo the Conspiracy Theorist—these bombs were a scare tactic enacted by their own government in an attempt to lull the stirring public back to sleep. Eden, who hadn’t yet reached that level of cynicism, had a hard time getting on board with the theory. She wondered what Brenna Lemming might say.

Milly pulled the carafe from the coffee maker and held it up in the air, the black liquid swishing inside. “You want rest?” she asked in her thick, Bulgarian accent.

Dr. Norton raised his mug. “I’m good, thank you.”

She shut off the machine and rinsed the carafe in the sink. Eden watched her work, wondering what Milly thought about her employer. Wondering what she thought about the swearing patient in her employer’s basement. He wasn’t the first patient to be treated here. Milly picked up a piece of mail from the counter and stuck it to the front of the stainless-steel refrigerator. She muttered something about Dr. Beverly needing to RSVP, then exited the room as abruptly as she’d come.

Eden glanced at the invitation.

Dr. Beverly Randall-Ransom was invited to attend the Prosperity Ball on October the Fourth, the twenty-first anniversary of The Attack. The date was quickly approaching. Only a few weeks away.

“Is it me,” Jack said, running his hand down the length of his haggard face, “or is it starting to feel crowded here?”

Dr. Norton smoothed his mustache. “It’s not you.”

If Eden were to look up the word mansion in the dictionary, there might be a photograph of Dr. Beverly Randall-Ransom’s home. A grand estate on the Gold Coast of Chicago. Five stories high with meticulously manicured grounds. It didn’t seem possible for such a residence to feel crowded, but somehow, Jack was right. And sooner or later, the neurosurgeon’s hospitality would have to end.

“My place is better suited for rehab,” Dr. Norton said. “Less stairs, with the right equipment, too.”

“And privacy,” Jack added, eying the entryway where Milly had disappeared.

Dr. Norton took a sip of his coffee. “I imagine it will be easier to do your work with all three in the same place.” 

Jack nodded.

The two men turned to Eden, as if she had the final say. The thought of leaving Chicago tied her stomach into knots. Not because it felt safer here but because this was where Cassian Gray had left her. If she returned to Milwaukee, would she ever see him again?

She didn’t know where he was or what he was doing or why he hadn’t called. According to Jack, he was looking for Mordecai. But Jack hadn’t heard from him in a few days. A fact that tied Eden’s stomach into knots.

Cassian had been hired by the high-stakes gambler to find her and instead helped her find the high-stakes gambler. He betrayed a man who put a single, cold bullet through a bookie’s head like remorse was as foreign as Jupiter’s rings. For all they knew, Cassian had met the same fate.

“Eden?”

She blinked away the cloying concern and the unsettling imagery that came with it. 

“What do you think?” Dr. Norton asked.

She knew why he was asking.

How did she feel about being in such close quarters with Subjects 003 and 004? Ever since learning the truth about what she was, she’d felt like a grenade without the pin, clutched tight in someone else’s hand. If she returned to Dr. Norton’s, there would be three grenades under one roof. It was a recipe for disaster. But Eden couldn’t deny the morbid curiosity bubbling inside of her any longer. Barrett Barr and Jane Doe were exactly like her, only they were stuck in some unnerving state of unconsciousness. Maybe seeing them would help her see herself. Whoever and whatever that was. 

“If you think it’s a good idea,” Eden said. “Then we’ll go to Milwaukee.”

Dr. Norton set his mug on the counter. “I’ll get the patient ready. We can head out in an hour.”

Chapter Two

Cassian Gray stepped off his bike and strode toward his destination with a decisiveness that contradicted the weather. It had gone from sunny to cloudy, hot to cool, then back again like a fickle child unable to make up its mind. 

After a week of searching, he’d finally found him.

Mordecai’s real name. 

First and last.

He reached Cleo’s residence hall as two girls exited. They looked from him to each other, exchanging approving looks as he snagged the door, bypassing the retinal scan needed to unlock it. He walked through the lobby and into the elevator, behind a skinny kid with a stocking cap and scruffy facial hair. 

They reached for the same button at the same time, their fingers knocking into one another. With a pitchy laugh, the kid yanked his hand away. Cass jabbed the button with his thumb and lifted his gaze to the numbers above the door. He felt surly. On edge. The last week had been a brand of torture to which he wasn’t accustomed. He didn’t miss people. He made sure that kind of attachment wasn’t a part of his life. And yet, he missed Eden Pruitt in a way that made him want to bury his head in a pillow and growl. 

“You know,” the kid said in a voice as pitchy as his laugh, “if this was a rom com, that would be our meet cute.” 

Cass had no idea what he was talking about. Nor did he care to inquire. He kept his gaze on the escalating numbers while the kid shifted nervously and stared from the corner of his eye. 

“I have a girlfriend,” he blurted as the elevator came to a slow stop. “I’m not gay, I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. I just … didn’t want you … to think … that I was … hitting … on you.” He spoke the words in awkward intervals, like he wasn’t sure if he should keep going but kept going anyway, then grimaced when he was finally done.

The elevator doors slid open. 

Angry punk rock thumped from down the hall, filling Cass with relief. Cleo wasn’t at a lecture or a study group like most college students tended to be on a Friday. She was in her room, listening to music at the ear-splitting decibel she seemed to prefer.

He strode to her door, then pounded on the wood like he had when he arrived with Eden a few weeks earlier, when he still wasn’t sure whether he should help her or finish the job he’d been hired to do. How could so much have changed in only a few weeks? He pounded again, then shoved his hands into the pockets of his motorcycle jacket. 

The scruffy-faced kid stopped beside him. 

He gave Cass an apologetic look. “You know Cleo, too?”

Cass blinked at the guy, then raised his fist to pound a third time when the door flew open. Cleo stood on the other side with her hair in its usual style—Bantu knots, she called them—and a stick of licorice tucked into the corner of her mouth. 

He let himself into her room and shut off the music.

“Please, come in,” she said with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “Make yourself at home.”

“Did I get the wrong time?” Cleo’s visitor asked the question with lips that barely moved, as if talking like a ventriloquist might conceal his question.

“Nope,” Cleo said. “But could you give us a second?”

The guy took a giant step backward. “I’ll just be right out—” 

Cleo shut the door before he could finish. She pulled on the licorice stick, taking a bite with her. “You met Finn.”

Finn.

Her partner in crime. The two were working together on an illegal newspaper called The People’s Press, a deviant act that could get them both expelled. Maybe arrested.

“He’s a total freak. But you should see his writing. Wicked funny in the most honest and brutal way.” Her attention dropped to the papers Cass was pulling from his back pocket. 

“I’ve got his name.” He handed the articles he’d printed to Cleo. For the past week, he’d been searching. Determined to find Mordecai’s real identity so he could then find Mordecai. “It’s Nicholas Marks. He’s thirty-four.” 

“That’s young,” she said.

Too young to be in league with Karik Volkova, the infamous leader of Interitus, the terrorist regime responsible for The Attack. The terrorist regime that had created Eden. At thirty-four, Nicholas Marks would have been thirteen when America was brought to its knees. Sixteen when Eden was born. Seventeen when Volkova was publicly executed. And yet somehow, he knew about Eden. “He works for SafePad.”

“Think Oswin Brahm knows that one of his employees is a psychopath?” Cleo asked.

Oswin Brahm was, among many things, the founder of SafePad Elite—a company that built luxury bomb shelters, which skyrocketed in demand after The Attack. There were compounds all over the country. One was located outside of Chicago. This was where Mordecai had kept Eden’s parents. This was where Mordecai had taken Eden. 

“His credentials are impressive. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in finance. Worked his way up the corporate ladder until he became SafePad’s chief investment specialist.” 

“With access to their facilities.”

“His home address isn’t listed in public records. But he works in SafePad’s office headquarters. Downtown Chicago. Every time I call, his voicemail answers.”

“Think he’s out of the office?”

“He could be in meetings.”

Cleo scanned the second article and pulled another bite from the licorice, tapping her snakebite piercing with the tip of her pinkie as she did.

“The building requires retinal scans upon entrance.” Cass couldn’t have his retinas scanned. Cass didn’t have an identity. The second the infrared light touched his pupils, the police would be notified. Living off the grid was as illegal as Cleo’s newspaper. 

“Which means you need someone to do your dirty work,” Cleo said.

“You interested?”

Her face split into a grin. “Let me reschedule with Finn and we can hit the road.”

###

Cass watched from the passenger seat of Cleo’s Tesla as she exited the front doors of SafePad headquarters and crossed the busy street. Overhead, the sky darkened. Cleo climbed into the car, a gust of cool wind swinging the door open wide. She sat behind the wheel and wrestled the door shut as raindrops splattered the windshield. 

“He’s not in. And they wouldn’t tell me whether or not he would be. Which means …” She reached into the back seat, yanked up her backpack, and began pulling out items from inside. A bag of warheads. A bag of Takis. A pair of binoculars. “We’ve got ourselves an official stake-out.”

Cass raised an eyebrow. “Why do you own a pair of binoculars?”

“So I can watch people in the residence hall across the street when I’m bored.” 

“Do you ever study?”

“I inherited my mother’s brains. Do you think I need to?” Peering through her binocs, Cleo popped a Taki in her mouth. “Maybe he’s out for lunch.”

The rain turned into a sudden and violent downpour. Not even the windshield wipers could keep up. For two minutes and thirty-one seconds, they could see nothing outside other than the deluge. Then it came to a stop as suddenly as it started, a ray of sunshine peeking through the passing clouds.

“We could have missed him,” Cleo said.

Cass tapped his foot impatiently, his attention zeroed in on the front doors as people peeked out from beneath their umbrellas and Cleo unwrapped a warhead. 

“So, fill me in.”

“On what?” Cass said.

“What’s been going on. I know the basics. Six’s parents are safe …” Six. As in, Subject 006. Cass didn’t like the nickname. He didn’t think Eden liked it either. “Her dad’s a little beat up. Mordecai got away but left behind some important contraband.”

By contraband, Cass assumed she meant Subject 003 and 004.

“One of which is Barrett freaking Barr.”

The kid who had been on Concordia National news since his disappearance this past summer.

Cass wondered who had provided Cleo with the basics—her mom, who was currently playing houseguest to Eden and her parents? Or Eden? He pushed his finger across his bottom lip, resisting the pathetic urge to ask Cleo if Eden had said anything about him. Whoever had coined the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” was an idiot. It had been seven brutal days since he’d seen her and the longer she remained out of sight, the more space she filled up in his mind. 

He cracked his knuckles and relayed what he could to Cleo. He told her about the unconscious guards. About interrogating the man with the tattoos. He told her about the cyanide pill and the odd thing the guy said before swallowing it.

For the Monarch.

Cleo made a face like she was trying to place something. Or maybe it was a reaction to the warhead. “That sounds vaguely familiar.”

“The Monarch?”

“Yeah.” She brought the binoculars into her lap. “Do you think it’s another name for Mordecai?”

“How many names does a guy need?” Cass shook his head, his agitation growing. “What’s his end game? What does he want with them?”

“The guy’s a gambler. Maybe he wants to invest in some fighters who can’t lose.”

Cass frowned. It seemed like a lot of trouble for someone who was doing more than okay without the sure thing.

Cleo peered at a man heading toward the front doors of SafePad. “It’s not him,” she said.

Cass scratched his ear. “So … how’s her dad doing?”

Cleo stared at him. He could feel the heat of her gaze boring into the side of his face. “Wait. Have you not talked to her?”

He pled the fifth.

“Cass?”

“What?”

“When’s the last time you spoke?”

The night they kissed. The night she left. The night he watched helplessly from inside Beverly’s home, unsure if he’d have to do what Eden had invited him back into her life to do—carry out a command that would end her existence. The memory haunted his sleep. “Last week.”

Last week? Why haven’t you called her?”

Cass clenched his jaw.

“Seriously, what are you waiting for?”

“Mordecai’s head on a stick.”

“How very Macbethian of you.” Cleo resumed her people-watching. “And here I thought you were more informed than me. Turns out, I know more than you. They left this morning, you know.”

“Who?”

“Eden. Her parents. The whole crew.”

“Where’d they go?”

“Back to the doc’s place.”

“Why?”

“Why don’t you call her and ask? I’m sure Six would appreciate it.”

“Can you stop calling her that?”

“Fine. Eden. Eden would appreciate it.”

Cass pulled at his collar. He wasn’t sure what Eden would appreciate. Not long ago, she told him she never wanted to see him again. She only invited him back into her life to do the work nobody else was willing to do. The kind of work perfect for a guy like him. “I will. Once Mordecai’s dead.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be today.” She glanced at the clock.

Lunch hour was long gone.

Still, they remained. 

Long enough for the stake-out to lose its shine.

Cleo took a bathroom break.

Went on a beverage run.

Took a call with Finn.

Now, she was scrolling through her phone with one foot on the dash. “Maybe we should write him a letter.”

“Who?”

“Oswin Brahm.” 

Cass kept a steady eye on the front doors of SafePad’s office building while Cleo launched into an idea.

“Someone should fill him in. Let him know one of his employees is a big time gambler in the world of Underground Fighting and was carrying out his schemes on company property. For all we know, this Mordecai has ties to the very terrorist who made things like SafePad necessary.”

Cass wondered if Cleo’s idea didn’t have merit. 

Oswin Brahm helped rebuild the nation after Karik Volkova attacked it. He even started a foundation that served those suffering from chronic health problems because of that horrible day. Maybe the quickest way to take down Mordecai was to call SafePad’s founder and leave an anonymous tip. 

A lady and a gentleman exited side-by-side. Cass peered at them, wishing he had a better angle on the man.

Cleo took her foot off the dash and sat up straight. “Holy freak.”

“What?” Cass said.

“Look who it is.” She turned her phone screen to him. She’d pulled up a guest list for the Prosperity Ball. Talk of Oswin Brahm had undoubtedly given her the thought. 

Good thing, too.

Because right there, in the very middle, was Nicholas Marks.

Chapter Three

Eden stood on the threshold with her breath in her throat. One more step and she would see them. Subjects 003 and 004 lying like cadavers on gurneys in Dr. Norton’s medical room. Only they were warm. Their vitals steady. 

Dr. Norton entered the room from behind her. “The patient is resting. Your mother is with him.”

The patient was Eden’s father. The fact that he was resting, a testament to how difficult the short trip from Chicago to Milwaukee had been for him in his fragile state. By the time they reached the secluded cabin, Dad had been pale and clammy. 

Jack swept past, giving Eden’s shoulder a small squeeze of support as he went. Perhaps he was remembering the last time Eden had stepped into this room, when she thought Jack was the enemy and Dr. Norton was Mordecai. Or the time before that, when she was a four-year-old operating under the assumption that she was getting tubes in her ears. Eden could remember how scared her parents looked, and how hard she worked to hide her own fear to be brave for them. She had no idea that in actuality, the retired military doctor was about to insert a microscopic scrambling device in her ear. No idea that her parents were afraid not because the procedure came with any danger, but because of newly circulating rumors of weaponized humans.

Who had started them? It was just one of the many questions to which they didn’t have answers.

Now here she was for the third time, about to see a boy and a girl who had never received scrambling implants. And because of that, they were in the states they were in now.

With a steadying breath, Eden stepped inside, her attention moving to Barrett first.

Subject 004. 

She’d seen him plenty of times on the news—round-faced and smiling the kind of smile that made his eyes disappear. A strategic photograph that depicted a happy, well-adjusted kid, circulated by distraught parents who didn’t believe their son ran away and didn’t want the public to think so either. 

Ever since she discovered the missing eighteen-year-old was Subject 004, Eden had done a significant amount of research on him. Unlike herself and Ellery, Barrett Barr had siblings. Two older brothers—fraternal twins who attended Boise State University, one on scholarship for football. According to his mother, Barrett had a creative mind and was a budding entrepreneur who’d already started two businesses and designed his own website. His family made their home in Idaho and had been vacationing in coastal Maine when Barrett disappeared. He was last seen on the beach. There was no evidence of foul play, which was why most of America believed he ran away. Despite the happy picture.

But Barrett Barr hadn’t run away.

Barrett Barr had been taken.

And now here he was, in Dr. Norton’s basement. Not smiling a smile that made his eyes disappear, but unconscious. His face relaxed—almost serene. His hair longer than the pictures in the news, curling slightly with the length. The strangeness of his coma made Eden so unsettled, her bones felt cold. He’d been forced to sleep against his will. For how long, none of them knew.

With a shaky exhale, she turned her attention to the question mark. The girl. The Jane Doe. Subject 003. With raven hair cut into a shag—choppy layers and fringe bangs with wide set eyes and a fan of straight, dark eyelashes. She looked like she might be of Asian descent. At least, partially. Not Filipino like Erik, but somewhere further east. Other than the name of her parents—who were no longer on the grid—they had no idea who she was or what her life had been like these past sixteen-and-a-half years. 

Dr. Norton shined a light into her eyes, one at a time, as Jack set up his laptop on the desk. Norton checked her vitals, then set to work inserting a scrambling device into her ear. The same kind he’d reinserted into Eden’s last week. 

“You can take that off,” Dr. Norton said, nodding toward the device clipped to the girl’s finger. It reminded Eden of a pulse oximeter, but was in reality a makeshift scrambler useful in a pinch. In case Mordecai was monitoring their location. Now that Dr. Norton was here, he was giving them something more permanent.

“Can you help me move her to the flat bed?” Dr. Norton said.

Subject 003 was going to have a body scan in hopes that the result would provide something useful for Jack. Some insight into how and why Barrett and Jane remained in their unresponsive states. As Eden slipped her hand beneath the girl to lift her, a brush of cool metal rubbed against her thumb. Upon contact, a strong shock jolted against her skin.

Eden yanked her hand back. 

“What is it?” Dr. Norton asked.

She rubbed the spot on her thumb, then lifted Jane’s head, swept her hair aside, and found a small disc adhered to the back of the girl’s neck. It was a disc Eden had seen before.

Are you sure you should take that off?

The gruff voice played in her memory. The man with the rough hands and the tattoos. The man who was now dead because of a cyanide pill. When he asked the question, Eden had registered a missing blip of time, like the world had momentarily lost reception, noticeable because of the drone. One second, circling overhead. The next, floating right beside her. 

“Eden,” Dr. Norton said, bringing her back to the present.

“This disc.” She lifted Jane’s head so Dr. Norton could see it. “Mordecai had one with him at the abandoned power plant in North Allegheny. I think he used it on me.”

Dr. Norton came around the gurney and bent close to inspect the new discovery. Then he moved to Barrett Barr and found that he had one, too. 

“What did it do?” Jack asked. 

“I don’t remember,” Eden said. “I think it made me black out.”

Jack sat up straighter. “Do you think it’s the reason I can’t find a signal?”

“We could take them off and see,” Dr. Norton suggested.

“No,” Eden quickly replied. 

Jack and Dr. Norton looked at her.

“That could be exactly what Mordecai is waiting for. Maybe he wants us to take them off.” Maybe this was the reason he left Subjects 003 and 004 behind. Mordecai was waiting for them to take off these discs and when they did, he would force the pair to attack. Who would win between Eden and another one of Volkova’s weapons? The problem was, there were two of them and only one of her. The fight wouldn’t be fair. And her dad was upstairs—weak and sleeping. Mom by his side. “I think we should do the scan first.”

So they did.

Unfortunately, the scan didn’t work. Not a single image loaded on the screen. 

Dr. Norton checked the machine to make sure nothing had malfunctioned.

When all appeared to be in working order, they tried Barrett. The same thing happened. Whatever was blocking Jack from breaching their networks must have blocked the scanner, too. 

They were stumped. It seemed too dangerous to remove the discs without getting more information but they couldn’t get more information without removing the discs. 

“What about tranquilizer?” Jack finally said.

Eden looked at him.

“We know sedation works for a short time.”

He was right.

Sedation had worked on Eden. 

Jack himself had administered it. Inside the Eagle Bend police department. And again and again and again in their home in Milwaukee.

Dr. Norton nodded slowly, looking very much like a man who couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of the idea first. “We could use a continuous steam of anesthetic gas.”

“Remove the discs while they’re under sedation,” Eden said, “and see if anything changes.”

The three of them looked at one another excitedly.

It was their best option.

Dr. Norton made the preparations. When he finished, he slipped the mask over Jane’s mouth and nose. They counted from ten to one. Then he removed the disc. 

Eden watched warily—her entire body on high alert—as Jack hunched over his laptop and opened the list of available networks. His eyes widened, like something had changed. 

She stepped behind him and sure enough, there it was, right beneath Eden’s network. Tres. The Latin word for Three. Only … “Why is her signal so weak?”

“I don’t know.” Jack’s fingers flew across the keyboard. Then he stopped, sank back, and stared in disbelief. “I’m in.”

He’d done it.

After a week of dead ends and frustrating failure, Subject 003 very suddenly had a visible network and Jack was in. The same method he’d used to hack into Eden’s network had gotten him into this one. After the short, stunned moment, Jack’s fingers flew back into motion. Eden didn’t understand anything he was doing. But he worked quickly and efficiently, like a man who’d been practicing for this very situation—pulling up windows, loading lists of code, copying and pasting and hitting various keys. Then, he released a disbelieving squawk. “She’s disconnected.”

“What does that mean?” Eden asked.

“There’s no sign that she’s connected to the host.” Jack set his hand on top of his thinning hair. “If Mordecai is out there waiting to control her, he can’t. He needs to be connected to her network to control her, and he needs her location to re-connect with her network. Her location is scrambled. We should be safe.” 

“Let’s try the scan again before we wake her,” Dr. Norton said.

This time, it worked. A treasure trove of images loaded on the computer, ready to be studied. But first, they needed to wake the patient. 

With a great deal of caution. Dr. Norton turned off the gas and removed the mask.

Eden waited, oxygen stagnant in her lungs.

A moment later, the girl squeezed her eyes.

She scrunched her nose. 

She blinked—several times in rapid succession—her confusion giving way to fear as she jerked upright, her attention darting left, then right. 

All three of them held up their hands in a gesture of no harm. 

But the girl jumped off the table and skittered into a corner.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Dr. Norton said in the same soothing voice he’d used on Eden after she sliced her hand open and watched it heal before her eyes.

The girl was not soothed.

She patted herself. Looked down at her clothes. Reached deep inside her pockets. Then cowered like a wild animal in a cage, her attention jerking from Barrett on the gurney, to the medical equipment in the room, then back to them with their hands held aloft. Erratic movements that filled Eden with apprehension. If they were grenades, she was an unstable one.

“You were taken,” Eden rushed to explain. “By a man named Mordecai. We got you away from him and you’ve just woken up.”

The girl squeaked. 

“You’re safe,” Eden said, staying in place. Not daring to step closer. Trying to imagine how disorienting it would be to have been unconscious for as long as this girl was, only to wake up in a completely foreign environment, surrounded by strangers. “We aren’t going to hurt you. We’re on your side.” 

Jane Doe didn’t move. 

She stayed in the corner, crouched in her defensive position, her hooded eyes partially hidden beneath the choppy layers of hair that had fallen in her face.  

“What’s your name?” Eden asked.

The girl’s attention darted about the room once again—from Eden to Jack to Dr. Norton to the unconscious Barrett to the medical equipment all around. With another squeak, she squeezed her eyes shut.

Eden tried again. “Can you tell us what you remember?”

Nothing. 

Dr. Norton scratched his mustache. 

And another sound came.

Not from the girl. 

But from above.

From outside..

A sound Dr. Norton and Jack Forrester couldn’t hear. But Eden could hear it. And judging by the way Subject 003 opened her eyes and tilted her head, she could hear it, too.

The distinct rev of a motorcycle.

###

Cass shut off the motorcycle.

Cleo parked behind him. As soon as she made her discovery, they returned to Milwaukee. He jumped on his bike, which he’d left parked outside her residence hall and Cleo followed him here, to Dr. Norton’s cabin in the woods on the lake at twilight.

Crickets chirped.

Geese honked.

The sinking sun peeked through remnants of storm clouds, creating a masterpiece over the water.

For the past week, Cass had hunted. His vision, a tunnel leading to one goal and only one goal—find Mordecai. Currently, Eden was safe. Reunited with her parents. Mordecai had not possessed her. He hadn’t touched the core of who she was. But the threat remained and would remain for as long as Mordecai remained. So Cass searched harder than he’d searched for anyone, determined to stay away until he eliminated the threat.

He failed.

The threat wasn’t eliminated. But they had a promising lead. And he couldn’t stay away any longer.

The front door swung open.

Eden stepped outside.

Cass drank her in like a man in the middle of the Sahara without a canteen. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been covered in her father’s blood. Now she stood silhouetted by the cabin, her eyes wide, her lips parted, her long hair a tumble around her face—innocent, unguarded. Much too young. Staring back at him as if the past seven days had tortured her as relentlessly as they had tortured him.

He imagined striding forward, pulling her to him, and repeating the kiss they’d shared outside Beverly’s home. His body flooded with the acute need to do so. But Cleo’s car door slammed shut—a reminder that they weren’t alone. 

“He’s going to the ball!” Cleo exclaimed.

Forrester stepped outside with eyes like an insomniac, the screen door slapping shut as Cass and Cleo came forward to meet them. 

“Who’s going to what?” Forrester asked.

“Mordecai,” Cass said, cutting a quick glance at Eden who was refusing to meet his eye. “His real name is Nicholas Marks. He’s the Chief Investment Specialist for SafePad.” 

“He’s on the guest list for the Prosperity Ball,” Cleo said. “My mom can get us tickets. We can surround him on all sides like an old-fashioned ambush.”

“You think he’s still going?” Eden asked, her attention trained on Cleo.

It was a question Cass had asked himself. Mordecai could have RSVP’ed when his plans were succeeding. Maybe now, with those plans in disarray, he no longer had anything to celebrate.

The hinges of the screen door groaned as Dr. Norton stepped outside in his tweed flat cap, coaxing someone to join them like one might coax a frightened animal.

A girl appeared—slight and skittish, shielding her eyes like it was high noon. 

“Jane,” Cleo said.

Cass gaped. 

Subject 003 was awake.