The leader of Black X and The Ghost sit in a smoke-filled room, watching Ari and Huntley as they discover the truth about their birthdays.
“Are you suggesting that we are really brother and sister, like for real?” Huntley asks.
“Brother and sister? Huntley, if we share the same birthdate and are related, that would make us twins.” Ari stares at Huntley for a beat and then says, “What the hell?”
Huntley looks equally confused but very quickly puts on a smile. “Twins, huh?” she says with a laugh, moving closer to him. “That’s ridiculous. You’re messing with me.” She takes another step forward and runs her fingers through his hair. “I think you’re just pretending not to be attracted to me because of our mission. But you don’t need to. I can handle it.” She gives him the kind of seductive smile that would bring a man to his knees.
“But—” Ari says.
“No buts,” she says, taking him by the hand and leading him out of the kitchen.
“Oh my God,” The Ghost says. “We have to tell them. Can you imagine if they—”
The leader shakes his head and flashes a proud smile. “She’s good.”
“Good at what? Seducing her brother?”
“She knows we’re watching her. She took all the devices out of her room.”
“I’m glad about that. I don’t need to know about her sex life.” He pauses. “Although I don’t understand why you haven’t put them back. We need to know what she’s doing.”
“What she’s doing, my friend, is good spy craft. Ten bucks says, she leads him to the vault where she knows there are no bugs and not to her bedroom.”
The Ghost presses a few buttons on the computer, pulling up a screen full of views from different areas of the Montrovian villa.
“Damn, you’re right,” he says, pulling a bill out of his wallet and tossing it on the table.
The leader grins again. “Pretty impressive, don’t you think? She even fooled you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. He can’t help but grin himself. He’s proud of her, too. “Why didn’t you put cameras in the shelter? I’d like to know what Terrance is up to down there.”
“Terrance is too smart for his own good. We completely lucked out with that one.”
“Lucked out? Our last hacker was killed while trying to track down The Priest. Not very lucky for him.”
The leader takes another puff of his cigar. “It still worked in our favor. His relationship with one of the world’s best hackers could prove to be invaluable going forward. And, to answer your other question, I didn’t put surveillance devices back in her room or in the vault because I want her to feel safe.”
“Feel safe, as opposed to being safe,” The Ghost states, understanding the difference. “Do you think they will find the gold down there?”
The leader shrugs. “In due time. But, for now, I think we need to discuss their next mission.”
I lead Ari out of the kitchen, stopping for a moment in a spot where I know there are no cameras and holding my finger in front of my mouth to shush him.
He narrows his eyes but keeps quiet as I go straight out to the garage and down to the secret room where we find a red-eyed Terrance at work.
Once I know we can’t be overheard or seen, I look deeply into Ari’s eyes and allow my fingers to trace his face—a face much like my own.
“Um, you two need a room?” Terrance jokes.
We ignore his comment, Ari and I both knowing in our hearts that it’s true. We are twins. He’s really my brother. Tears rush to my eyes, quickly filling them, as he wraps his arms around me and pulls me into a tight hug.
“My mother had two children—twins,” I whisper. “She told me that you looked perfect when you were born but that I was stubborn and didn’t want to come out with you. We were born a full thirty-two minutes apart, and she was worried they would have to do a C-section. It wasn’t until after I was born that they told her you had passed. She didn’t know, Ari. She never would have willingly given you up. And I remember her telling me that they didn’t let her see you. That they told her it would be better that way. Easier on her. That she had a beautiful baby girl. But she always regretted it, Ari. Said she should have insisted. Said it would have given her closure and allowed her to grieve.”
“In the bio I was given about you, your birthday was different, and it said you had been adopted, too.”
“I don’t think so. No. I’m sure she was my real mother. I saw a photo of when she was pregnant.”
“What are you two talking about?” Terrance asks, interrupting our tearful reunion.
“Ari and I share the same birthdate. We’re twins,” I say.
“Twins?” Terrance asks, studying us. “I thought it was just good casting.”
“That’s what we thought, too, but it’s been more than that. We’ve felt comfortable with each other since we met; we just didn’t know why.”
“And Ari never seemed interested in you,” Terrance adds, “which I always thought was weird, since he seems to be into any girl with a pulse. But I don’t get it. If you’re related, does that mean you really are Ares Von Allister’s children?”
I stare at him for a moment, lost in thought, trying to put the pieces together.
“My parents never told me I was adopted,” Ari says. “I’m not sure if I believe it. Maybe they are manipulating us.”
“They lied to me about your birthdate, too. That’s something that could have blown our covers.”
“Do you think they knew you would figure it out soon enough?” Terrance asks. “And it’s easy to find out if you are related. We just need to do a simple DNA test.”
“We definitely need to do that,” Ari agrees. “Okay, let’s talk this out, starting with my side. All my life, I was told that I was my parents’ biological child.”
“Do you look like them?”
“I guess I never really thought about it,” he says. “But, yes, people would say I looked like my mother. She had the same color hair as me.”
“Did she color her hair?”
“Uh, yeah. Why do you ask?”
“What color was it when it wasn’t dyed?”
“Darker, I think.”
“Did she purposely dye it a dirty blonde?”
“You two, let’s try to stick with the facts,” Terrance says. “Your full birth name, Ari.”
“Aristotle Allister Bradford.”
“Your middle name is Allister?” I ask, shocked. “Like Von Allister? Isn’t that a bit of a coincidence?”
“I never thought of it that way.” He bristles. “But I suppose, in retrospect, yes, it’s a little unusual.”
“Did your parents ever tell you why they named you that?” Terrance asks.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that I was named for the Greek philosopher.”
“Ares was the Greek god of war,” Terrance fires back.
I’m still trying to take this all in.
“We have to go back to our birth,” I say out loud.
“What do you mean?”
“Terrance, you once said that my cover goes back to birth. Maybe they aren’t covers. Maybe they are the truth. Maybe that’s why they’re so good.”
“Do you think Ares Von Allister is really your father?”
I nod my head. “As hard as it is to believe, yes. Between Ari’s middle name being Allister, combined with the fact that my mother did have twins, one of whom she was told had died at birth. Look up the name Kelley Bond, Terrance. That’s the name of my mother in my legend. Maybe Cassleberry was my mom’s spy name. Maybe that’s all I was taught.”
“Or maybe you were adopted, like I was,” Ari argues.
“I don’t think so. This all started with her. Her death. That’s when they sent me to Blackwood.”
“You mean, created Blackwood for you,” Terrance counters.
“Whatever. Now, stop stalling and see what you can find out or scoot over and let me try.”
Terrance looks slightly offended and starts clicking away. “Where were you born?”
“District of Columbia,” Ari and I say at the same time.
“Walter Reed,” we reply simultaneously.
Terrance stops, looks over his glasses, and then shakes his head. “Give me a second.” He clicks some more, scowls, and then clicks around again. “Okay, here we go.” He turns the computer toward us. “Here’s your birth certificate, Huntley Penelope Bond. Interesting that there are no Greek references in your name.”
“Actually, there is,” I correct. “Penelope was the wife of the hero Odysseus.”
“Really? I didn’t know that,” Ari says.
“Didn’t you study ancient Roman and Greek literature in school?” I ask him.
“Not really. I take it, you did?”
“Yes. Almost obsessively. It was a huge part of my school curriculum along with the art and history of the Renaissance.”
“Did they tell you why?” Terrance asks.
“Because they wanted covert agents who could mingle with the rich and powerful, who could fit effortlessly into certain social circles. At least, that’s what we were told. Obviously, we all know now that I was lied to.”
“You might have been lied to, but I bet everything they taught you there was deliberate,” Terrance argues.
“So at some point in my career, knowing the difference between a Bernini and a Borromini will matter?” I scoff.
“I think what he’s saying, Huntley,” Ari interjects, “is that someone planned your schooling in great detail. And they must have had a specific reason for it. Your life and mine were very different. Things changed when your mother was killed. Maybe someone wants revenge as much as you do. I also think your mom was involved in something big, and it’s up to us to figure it out.”
“Our mom,” I say to him.
The room goes silent for a moment as the reality of that possibility sinks in.
Terrance watches us carefully and then looks at his computer again. “Huntley, your birth certificate shows today as your birthday, and the box is checked that you were a twin. Now, let’s see if we can find Ari’s.” He clicks some more. “Hmm, interesting. I changed the search slightly. A Kelley Bonde, spelled with an E on the end, gave birth to Aristotle Allister Bond. His last name is spelled without the E. Probably just a typo.”
“Doubtful,” I say.
“There are also adoption papers,” Terrance says, “showing his transfer to the Bradford family.”
“What about me? Do I have adoption papers?”
“I’m not sure. Let me check.”
While he does more clicking, I notice Ari staring at me. I reach out and put my hand on top of his.
“Did you ever speak a different language?” he asks me. “Like when you were growing up?”
My eyes get huge. “Yes, my mom always said I had an affinity for language because of it.”
“Do you remember any of the words?”
“A lot of them. Why?”
“I did the same thing. Did you know that twins often speak to each other in a language only they understand?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Tell me something.”
“Eader,” he says.
I don’t reply. I can’t. I’m instantly overwhelmed. I cover my face with my hand as tears fall. “Why did they split us up, Ari? Why did they tell my mother you’d died?”
“Your mother was a spy. My father was military. Ares was big into all of that, right? Maybe we were placed where we were for a reason.”
Terrance looks up at us again. “What does it mean?”
“What does what mean?” I snap back.
“It means sister,” I stutter out. “I can’t believe this.”
“Neither can I,” Ari states numbly.
“Let me see what I can find out about Kelley Bond,” Terrance says. “Give me a few minutes.”
We sit in silence and wait, the gravity of the situation weighing on us both.
“What about feefer?” Ari asks, trying to kill time.
“Cat?” I reply, causing him to grin.
“I have to admit, you two are freaking me out a little,” Terrance says. “Okay, so I’ve pulled her address—”
“You mean, she’s alive?” I blurt out.
“You didn’t let me finish,” Terrance says, getting frustrated. “Tell you what. Why don’t you two work together and see if you can find any clues in the stuff we got from Clarice’s house? Take your mind off all this.”
“It’s not going to work, but you’re right.” Ari gets up and stretches. “This is driving me nuts.”
While Terrance focuses on the computer, I follow Ari over to a table filled with a girl’s journal, a cell phone, a computer, a stack of cash, and a shoebox.
“Tell me about all this. Like where did you find each item, and why did you bring it?”
He picks up the journal, which is leather-bound and tied with a blue ribbon. “This was in her room, and I assume girls keep all their secrets in their journals. In theory, the answers should all be here.”
“Have you read it?”
“I tried. It’s mostly about the guys she has dated.”
“How far back does it go?”
“Did you find anything about her father’s death? Any mention of her sister or Montrovia?”
“I didn’t get that far. Honestly, I had a hard time even concentrating. You were going after the assassin alone, and I was really worried about you.”
“That’s what I don’t get, Ari. I was trained to thrive on my own. Why reunite me with my brother now? There’s something bigger going on. I can feel it.”
“I feel it, too. Remember when I told you that this was our new life? I’m starting to think it is actually our real life.”
“Maybe that’s why they kept saying our covers run deep. You don’t really have a cover. You’re just a guy who discovered he was adopted.”
“Do you think Ares is our real father?” he asks.
“It would make sense. It’s about the only thing that does.”
“Bingo!” Terrance shouts.
“What have you got?” I ask as we both run over to him.
“It’s amazing what you can discover on social media.” He pauses. “Kelley Bond is dead by the way. It says she passed away five years ago. I’m sorry.”
“How did she die?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he says, “but people were shocked. Although that’s not surprising, considering her young age.”
Ari and I drop our heads at the same time, the moment feeling solemn. We’ve both discovered who our real mother was and learned she was dead all at the same time.
“Are there photos of her?”
“Not many, which is a little odd,” he admits, turning the screen toward us. “Most of her profile pictures don’t show her face. Maybe she was camera shy.”
“Or maybe she was hiding. Where did she live?” I ask.
“I show three former addresses in the DC area.” He recites them. “Any of them sound familiar?”
“The last one. Can you pull it up on a map?”
“Sure,” he says, quickly entering it.
I study the surrounding area and then slide into the seat next to him, almost pushing him off, as I blow the map up to give me more detail. Then I dramatically lay my head down on the table in disbelief.
“What?” Ari asks.
I take a deep breath and point to a spot west of the blue dot indicating Kelley Bond’s last known address. “This is where we lived when my mother was killed. And this is the path I took after.” I trace my finger on the map—down the street, into the neighbor’s yard, down the alley, out to the main thoroughfare, and then down six blocks. “This is where I went—to my father’s office.” I tap the screen with my finger. “We were in the parking lot of his office when my father told me to get out of the car before it exploded.” I move my finger again. “And this, here, is where I went after that. To my uncle Sam’s place.”
“Your uncle Sam’s place is the same address as Kelley Bond’s?” Terrance asks.
“Yes, it is.”
“We need to figure out who Uncle Sam is and what kind of relationship he had with Kelley,” Ari suggests.
Just as we’re getting ready to do that, my phone pings with an encrypted message.
“A new mission,” I mutter as I click to see what it says.
Then I read it out loud.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
Track down the money man who paid the assassin known as The Priest, determine the target of the third hit, uncover who paid for the hits, and eliminate the threat. Please proceed to London today and await further instructions. And happy birthday.”
I’m about to comment when Ari’s phone pings. He clicks the link and reads it.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
Determine what, if any, information can be uncovered from the items taken from the second hit’s home. Track down further leads to discover the reason behind the hits. Please proceed to London today and await further instructions. And happy birthday.”
“Wow,” I say. “Is it just me, or does the happy birthday piss you off? All my years at Blackwood, I never got to celebrate a birthday. Now, they wish me one, proving they suck.”
“It also proves they wanted you to know,” Terrance says.
“Maybe we should just say no,” Ari suggests as he puts his arm around my shoulder to console me.
I lean my head against his broad chest. It feels good to have someone on my side.
“You can’t say no,” Terrance argues.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Whatever this is, it’s got to be big.”
“How big could it be? It took them six years to train me,” I counter.
“That’s my point,” he says. “Each of your missions has led you further up the food chain. Don’t you want to know why they spent six years training you? Don’t you want to know what your mother got mixed up in? It’s all got to be connected. Someone is planning something big. They tried to take out the Montrovian monarchy, and they killed the president of the United States. What’s next?”
“He’s got a point, Huntley,” Ari says, looking thoughtful. “I also think the more we learn, the more we will discover about our own pasts. I want to know who our biological parents were, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Maybe we should just ask them. Tell them we won’t go if they don’t give us the information we need.”
“I think we’re better off making them think we’re just doing our missions,” Terrance says. “That’s what they want. And, in the meantime, we keep digging.”
A memory flashes in my head. My mother down on her knees in the dirt, digging a little hole.
“What?” Ari asks me.
“I just remembered something. When Terrance said, ‘keep digging,’ a picture flashed in my brain of my mom digging up some dirt with her hands. But I don’t remember where we were or why she was doing that.”
“Honestly, Huntley,” Terrance says, “I think you are the key to unraveling all this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I checked your passport as Calliope Ann Cassleberry. You were in and out of the country all the time, but you were not during the three weeks prior to her death. Which brings us to the question of where were you, and what were you doing?”
“Did you check under the name, Charlotte Cassleberry?”
“Yes. Same thing.”
“That’s wrong,” I tell him.
“How do you know?” Ari asks softly, his arm still on my shoulder.
“I’m not sure,” I answer truthfully. “But I do remember sitting on her bed, folding a load of laundry, while she finished unpacking.”
“Was there much laundry?” Terrance asks, jotting down notes.
“The more laundry, the longer the trip, right?” Ari interjects.
“Wait.” I move away from them and pace across the room. “Don’t say anything for a second.”
There’s something in my brain. Something poking at it. But it doesn’t have to do with the trip. It’s more recent.
“I know!” I shout. “After I saved Lorenzo, his secret service gave him a background report on me. I suggested it was a dull read, but he found it interesting because of how much I had traveled. How I had been all over the world, even from a young age. When he said that, I freaked out a little because that wasn’t in my legend. And I remember wondering if my real story was my backstory, just with a different name.”
“I don’t get it,” Terrance says.
But Ari does. He’s nodding along with me.
“See if there is a Huntley Bond passport and compare it to Calliope’s,” he says.
“But, if that were the case, that would mean that my mom, our mom, was both Kelley Bond and Charlotte Cassleberry.”
Terrance considers that. “It’s not uncommon for covert agents to have multiple legends. It would also mean that someone kept up the Kelley Bond legend, even after she had passed. And isn’t there a Calliope in ancient Greek history as well?”
“Yes, and it’s a little creepy. She was the oldest of Zeus and Mnemosyne’s nine daughters. She was the muse of epic poetry and believed to be the inspiration of Homer, who wrote the Odyssey, which is the poem of Odysseus’s ten-year quest to return home to his wife, Penelope, after the Trojan War.” I pause and shake my head. I feel like I’m pulling threads, waiting for things to unravel. “But, if Kelley and Charlotte are the same person, wouldn’t that be stupid? I mean, all it would take is for someone to see a photo of my mom, and they would know that she and the spy they had assassinated were one in the same. And, remember, even the CIA thinks I’m dead. They couldn’t have known about Kelley either.”
“Let’s stop theorizing and take a look,” Ari says, moving back toward the computer.
Terrance stretches out his fingers and adjusts his glasses before he starts typing away. A few moments later, he says, “This is going to take a while. You should probably get some sleep if you have to be in London today.”
Ari grins at me. “I think we’re being dismissed.”
When we’re back upstairs, Ari follows me to my room and whispers in my ear, “Are we being watched?”
I nod and then pull him into my room. “But my room is clean. I took the surveillance gear out, and no one has put it back so far.”
“Is that why you took me downstairs?”
“Yeah. I just felt like it was a private moment. Normally, I don’t care, but . . .”
“You don’t have to explain it to me. I get it. I haven’t accepted my mission yet. Do you think we should?”
“I think, if we keep working for them, eventually, we’ll figure out who they are. Maybe they are in danger, too.”
“So they are sending us to London, because that’s where the money man is supposed to be?”
“We will be seeing someone else in London, too. Malcolm Prescott. In fact, we’ll be staying at his house. Remember that picture we saw in Ares’s office? His friends are dying. First, Ares, then King Vallenta, and then Jack Junior. All of them dead in the last six months. Maybe Malcolm Prescott or Viktor’s father will be next. Maybe one of them is the third hit.”
“Wait a second. We know the president was assassinated. Are you suggesting that Ares and the King of Montrovia didn’t die of natural causes?” he asks, his eyes bugging out.
“I think it’s a possibility. Something is definitely going on with Montrovia. Regardless of the official cause of death, four out of the top five in line for the throne are dead. Maybe Prescott is using us to figure it out. Maybe he knows all about us because Ares told him. Maybe he’s worried that he’s next.”
“It was his son who we were told to befriend,” Ari agrees. “That could have been an easy way to get us into his life that wouldn’t attract attention.”
“I say we do a little investigating on our own in London. Maybe Malcolm is the leader of Black X.”
“He’s got power and money,” Ari says. “But, if The Priest was telling the truth, Jack Junior’s dad ordered the hit on your mother. Prescott could also be the enemy.”
“Or he could have nothing to do with any of it,” I say, feeling exasperated. “In other words, we have no idea who we can trust.”
“Except each other,” Ari says.
A few hours later, I wake up in a cold sweat with Lorenzo on my mind. I had the strangest dream. I was at his castle, pulling flowers out of the ground, and he admonished me for it, saying they were his mother’s prized begonias. He was upset and ran off, so I chased after him. But, as I rounded the corner, I heard a gunshot and watched helplessly as he fell to the ground.
And I know what my subconscious is trying to tell me. He’s not out of danger yet.
I glance at the clock, noting the early hour but calling him anyway.
“My sweet,” he answers in his dreamy voice. “I am missing you terribly. Will you be arriving soon?”
“Our charter to London is scheduled to leave in a couple of hours. Shall we meet you at your home or at the match?”
“Let us meet at the airport. We’ll helicopter to the polo club and then spend the next few nights at Prescott Manor.”
“How’s Chauncey doing?”
“Spectacular. He will start school tomorrow, so his new nanny is taking him shopping for all his gear. Any word on his father?”
“No. I thought, if he were still alive, he would have contacted me by now.”
“It’s only been a short time, Huntley. Let’s talk about more pleasant things. Like what are you wearing?”
I can’t help but laugh. “Well, I am still in bed. That’s actually the reason for my call.”
“Oh, do you wish for me to be in it with you?” he asks, his voice sultry.
“I had a bad dream, Lorenzo. You got shot. I’ll fill you in when I see you, but until I can get there and protect you, please be careful. I’m worried that you could be the third hit.”
“If it means I get to hold you in my arms again, rest assured, I will be a very careful man.”
“It’s my birthday,” I whisper.
“Well, happy birthday,” he whispers back. “Is your birthday a secret?”
“No, I just—I guess I’ll see you soon.”
“Not soon enough,” he says.
Get: The Society