Even though I figured it out, I’m still shocked as I stand in my uncle Sam’s flat. Not only is my biological father, Ares Von Allister, alive, but his father—my biological grandfather—was my mother’s CIA handler and the dean at Blackwood Academy. There’s Blake Cassleberry, the man who I thought had died in a car bombing. The man who I thought was my father.
I was raised to be a spy. Then trained to be a spy. And I know that a spy’s greatest asset is their ability to think quickly. To follow their instincts. To take action.
In my head, I know this should be a poignant moment in my life. I should probably rush into Blake’s arms. I should probably hug my grandfather. I should probably at least shake Ares’s hand.
But I’m not going to. Not yet. Why? Because I’m mad.
At all of them. For not being forthright with me. For lying. For killing my friends.
“Um, I have to go.” I point my thumb toward the door.
“You can’t,” my grandfather says. “Time is of the essence—”
“If time were truly of the essence,” I interrupt, “you would have read me in on all of this from the start. You wouldn’t have lied to me—repeatedly. And you wouldn’t have killed everyone at Blackwood Academy. I will be taking whatever time I need to process this and figure out what I’m going to do. I quit, remember? That means, you’re through controlling my life, so why don’t you get some sleep? I’m out.”
I go down the stairs, out the front door, take a seat on the stoop, and dial Ari’s number.
“Lorenzo called,” he says. “Told me that you were very upset about a stuffed dog and practically ran out of there. He offered me his plane, so I just landed in DC and am heading to Ares’s house. Are you there? Are you okay? What’s going on?”
“I’m fine. I’m at my uncle Sam’s loft.” I recite the address. “Head here. I’ll meet you out front.”
“You don’t really sound fine.” He gives his driver the address and then says, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“One of us needs to go out there and talk some sense into her,” the Dean says, watching the video feed from the front door.
“No. Give her a little time to process all of this.” Ares lets out a sigh. “I probably should have told her as soon as I knew.”
“You were right not to,” Blake counters. “She needed to figure out on her own that her mother had lied to her, before she ever would have believed any of us. It’s too sensational.”
“She’s making a phone call. Just gave someone the address for the loft. Should we be worried?” the Dean asks, wiping his brow.
Ares sits down at his computer and taps a few keys. “No, it’s fine. She called Aristotle. Interesting.”
“Maybe she needs backup,” he counters, which causes Blake to let out a laugh.
“I’ve seen her in action. She doesn’t need any backup to handle the three of us old guys.”
“Hey, I’m not that old,” Ares says jokingly, but then his expression changes. “She wants her brother with her. A twin myself, I understand why. When Ceres was killed in action, a part of me died with her. The rest of me died when Kelley was assassinated. I feel alive again. My children will both be here, together, with me. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
“After we stop The Echelon,” Blake says seriously.
“And, now, she’s leaving.”
“She’ll be back,” Ares states. “With her brother. I can almost guarantee it.”
I have another phone call to make, but it’s obvious that Ares has the loft rigged with security cameras. I look down the street, notice an open convenience store, and make my way there. This is a conversation I don’t want anyone to overhear.
“Do you have a phone I could borrow?” I ask the man behind the counter.
“Don’t you have a cell phone?”
“Yeah, but it’s dead.”
He grabs a packet from a peg and hands it to me. “Quick charger. Only twenty dollars.”
I give him a hundred instead. “Is there an office in the back where I could make a call?”
“Long distance?” he shrewdly asks.
He holds up two fingers, indicating his price. I place another hundred on the counter, causing him to point to a door behind him.
“Five minutes only.”
I quickly call The Priest, hoping he will answer.
“This is Henri,” he says.
“I don’t have much time. You know what’s about to start, and I don’t want your son anywhere near it. I’m sending my plane to pick you up and bring you to DC, where you will be reunited at my father’s house. It has a doomsday vault in the basement.” I give him the code.
“I was told to stay in my current location. That you might need my help here in the near future,” he says cryptically.
“I get what you’re saying. It’s going to start in Montrovia, and Intrepid has been preparing you for the worst, which is what I’m doing as well, just in a different way. Your son misses you, and he’s afraid you’re never coming home. I can’t bear for him to go through what I did.”
“Because of me,” he says solemnly. “I’m very sorry.”
“If it wasn’t you, they would have hired someone else to fulfill the contract. I understand that now.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me?” he asks, his voice full of emotion. I know it pains him not to be with his child.
“I do need you. I need you with your son. I can’t save the world, Henri—I can’t do any of this—unless I know Chauncey’s safe and with you.”
“Okay, I’ll go,” he replies. “Although DC is the last place in the world I should be.”
When I get back to the loft, Ari’s car is just pulling up. I take his bag, put it just inside the door, and make him walk around the block with me.
“I have a lot to tell you.”
“I have something I need to tell you, too, Huntley. I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
“Okay,” I say, readying myself for a possible fight. Ever since the video game, I’ve been wondering if he’s on my side. I’ve been questioning if he even is my brother. And I’ve been wondering if I can trust him.
“I’ve been here before,” he says, glancing behind us.
“That’s what you’ve been lying about?” I ask, my anger flaring. “You’ve known the truth all this time?”
“About who is inside.”
“Um, I assume it’s still Ares Von Allister’s attorney, Samuel Vanguard. That’s his office, where I learned of our mission. Of our legend.”
Well, that’s something I didn’t consider. Ares, dressed as my uncle Sam, must have posed as his own attorney.
“Is that why you always thought our cover was real?”
“It was subtler than that. On the doorplate, there is a Von Allister Industries logo.”
I look into his eyes and know that he’s speaking the truth. He was trained to be a good soldier, but they forgot to teach him how to lie like a spy.
“I’ve distanced myself from you over the last few weeks—since the shoot-out.”
“I know,” he says. “I could feel it. I thought—well, hoped—it was because you were upset about Lorenzo.”
“It’s not that at all. Ari, what you did in London makes no sense. You were shooting at the car I was riding in. A vehicle with four fully armed men. You should have followed them and tried to save me later. Instead, you endangered us both. Not only did you make yourself a target, but you also could have killed me. Did you know that two of your bullets grazed me? Were you trying to kill me?” I tilt my head and gaze defiantly into his eyes. “Was that the plan all along?”
“I already got this talk from Intrepid,” he says defensively. “I don’t need it from you. I just reacted, desperately trying to save you.”
“What did you lie about?” I say seriously. “You know what I’m capable of. Don’t even think about lying to me anymore.”
He runs his hand through his hair, looking more frustrated than nervous. “I didn’t lie. There’s just something I didn’t tell you right away. I’ll just say it. I asked Lorenzo to be my best man. Allie and I are getting married in five days. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but Allie is going to ask you to be her maid of honor.”
Matron would be more precise, I think, but no one knows that Lorenzo and I are married.
“I’m worried that might be awkward for you. Especially now that you’re engaged to Daniel.” He studies me. “What’s the deal with that?”
“It’s part of my mission,” I lie.
“I thought you quit?” He raises an eyebrow at me, knowing I’m not telling the truth.
“Why did you distance yourself from me then? Because you don’t trust me anymore?”
I tell him about the video game and how I relived my missions. “I know that you told Black X everything that happened.”
“Well, duh,” he says, looking at me like I’m an idiot. “Of course I told them what happened in my mission reports. I was required to. Were you not?”
He’s a little worked up about this. It sorta makes me smile.
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Well, that’s not fair! They were a lot of freaking work. Why didn’t you have to do them?”
“I don’t know. Probably because they knew I wouldn’t tell them everything, like you did.”
“Is that bad?” he asks, looking stricken.
“That depends. What was your mission?”
“Same as yours. We’re a team.”
“Your missions never varied from mine?”
“Missions, no. After the mission, apparently. I was required to file mission reports. I also had to update them on our findings.”
“But you didn’t tell them about Chauncey? Or that The Priest is still alive?”
He bites his lip. “I didn’t. You were pretty adamant about no one knowing.”
I can’t help but give him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Ari. But here’s the thing. You told me you never knew you were adopted. What if they lied to you? What if you really are a Bradford?”
“That would mean, we aren’t related,” he says. “It would mean that we aren’t twins and we aren’t Ares von Allister’s children.”
“I call bullshit,” he states emphatically.
“On which part?”
“We share the same birthdate, Huntley. Were born at the same hospital.”
“Supposedly,” I counter.
“DNA tests proved it.”
“You know my secret language.”
“I know a lot of languages.”
“And you feel like the half of me that I’ve missed my whole life,” he says, giving my hand a squeeze. “But is that real or what they wanted me to feel?”
“I’m not sure. You would think, the second we met, we would have known. We would have felt something.”
“I think I did know,” he says. “I wasn’t attracted to you, yet there was this pull that I didn’t understand. I felt like I knew you from somewhere before. I actually researched past lives, which is something I’d never believed in before. It was the only thing I could come up with as a possible reason for why I was so drawn to you.”
I let out a little sigh. “During one of our missions, I discovered something, something I thought to be true, something I didn’t tell you—because, I felt it, too. And I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Oh, so you’ve been lying.” He gives me a cocky grin.
“I did keep something from you that didn’t relate to our missions. When Malcolm and Aleksandr were telling me about The Society and reminiscing about Ares, I discovered that Ares needed permission to get his TerraSphere deal approved. And that it was your father who he needed to convince. Granted, it still had to go through government channels, but because my mother told me you’d died, it led me to believe that Ares Von Allister had told her that you’d died, and then he’d given you to the general as a bribe.”
“A bribe? Like, my biological father sold me, so he could get approval for some shack in the desert?”
“That’s what I thought, yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? That’s horrible. And my father … I can’t even believe … he was so honest. Like, to a fault.” He looks distraught.
“Ari, let me finish. It’s what I thought had happened. Ares told Malcolm Prescott that Bradford wasn’t sure about the project. There was talk of a bribe. Ares said Bradford was too honest. That the only thing in life he didn’t have was a baby. That he and his wife had tried for years. Ares had told him that unless he could produce a child, the deal might not go through. I knew the TerraSphere had gotten approved. I knew your father had changed his mind.” We’ve walked back to the loft, so I sit on the steps again. “Add to that the fact that my mother told me she never got to see you. That it was one of her biggest regrets. That they had taken you away while I was being born and that they’d told her you died. I followed the dots and came to that conclusion. But I was wrong.”
“And what changed your mind?”
I tell him what the man at the TerraSphere said. How Ares hadn’t found out about me until after my eighteenth birthday. How that meant he couldn’t have given Ari up for adoption.
“Our mother was a liar, too,” I finish.
Motion at the door catches our attention—a hand waving us in.
“That’s probably the attorney,” Ari says.
“How old was the attorney?” I sort of assumed that Ares, disguised as Uncle Sam, was the one who’d met with him, but I realize it could have been someone else.
“He was older. Like a grandfather. Nice guy actually.”
“Something else I need to tell you before we go inside. This is the place where I went after my dad’s car blew up. It’s where my uncle Sam lived. And there’s more. When I was in Iraq, there was a sniper. At first, I thought he was shooting at me, missed, and killed his own man. But then he stood up and gave me this gesture. An unusual two-fingered salute that my father, Blake Cassleberry, used to give me. And I think the man you met as an attorney was the dean of Blackwood Academy.” I put my hand on his shoulder, hoping it will steady him. “But he’s more than that, Ari. He was my mother’s CIA handler and”—I take a deep breath—“Ares Von Allister’s father.”
“What? Are you saying that he’s our biological grandfather?”
“Yes. And the stuffed dog Lorenzo told you about was mine. A gift from my uncle Sam when I was ten. I had it with me the day the car bomb went off. As soon as I saw the dog, I knew for sure that Blake was alive. We’ve been manipulated and lied to, Ari. I also have discovered something else. It was my uncle Sam who created Blackwood for me.” I pause. “And this is the doozy. That man is really Ares Von Allister. He’s not dead, Ari. He’s Black X. All three of them are inside the loft, waiting for us to go inside.”
Ari stands there in shock, confusion written all over his face as his brain is trying to assimilate the pieces.
“The three of them wanted to explain everything to me, but I didn’t want to hear any of it without you present.”
“In other words, no emotional reunion?”
“Not until we know if we can trust them. They have been lying to us at every turn. But there’s something bigger going on. I don’t understand why they manipulated us the way they did, but we need to at least listen to their story.”
“And be on guard,” Ari says, giving me a hug. “Thank you for waiting for me.” He opens his blazer and flashes a shoulder holster. “And if they aren’t on our side?”
“We take them out together,” I say, glaring defiantly toward the camera with the hope that those inside are watching.
I trek back up the stairs, Ari following behind me. He’s full of nervous energy, and his heart seems to have sped up. I know he’s mad, maybe even looking for a fight.
Which is not what we need.
I turn around and whisper to calm down.
All three men are standing in the same spots they were when I left them.
“I thought Ari should be here when we went over all of this. Obviously, we need answers. But, first,” I say, “Aristotle Allister Bradford-Von Allister, this is the man who I believed to be my father and who helped raise me, Blake Cassleberry.” They shake hands, and then I turn to our grandfather. “And this man, who you met as Ares’s attorney, is—I just realized that I don’t know your name.”
“I’m Alexander Von Allister, your grandfather.” He puts his hand on Ari’s shoulder and adds, “I didn’t know until recently.”
Ari nods at him. I feel a little like crying.
But I can’t.
I have to be strong. I have to be a warrior. The firestorm. Only this time, I won’t be killing. I will be using the other skills I was taught to separate fact from fiction.
I stand up straight and tall. “And this is Ares Von Allister.”
“Your father,” Ares corrects.
“Right now, as far as we’re concerned,” I say, “you were the father given to us in our cover story. Whether or not you are our biological father remains to be seen.”
“In other words, we have some explaining to do,” Blake says with a hearty laugh. “Chill out, Calliope. How about we move to the living room, take a seat, and discuss this calmly?”
“Fine,” Ari and I agree.
We sit. In a conversation area centered around a large brick fireplace with what appears to be an original of Gustav Klimt’s Bauerngarten hanging above it. It features a profusion of brightly colored poppies, daisies, and other flowers.
“My mother had a print of this painting in our home, and it was on the cover of a notebook she always carried with her.”
“Her love for that painting is what made me purchase the original,” Ares confirms.
I can see the love shining in his eyes mixed with the sorrow and pain he still feels over losing her. And probably the guilt.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” Blake suggests, turning toward me and allowing me a better look at his scars.
“No,” Ares disagrees. “We’re going to talk about more recent events. Huntley, you asked my old man if it was true that I told your mother that Aristotle had died at birth and then gave him to the general as a bribe.”
“Which he confirmed that you had.”
“And it’s what you told me,” Blake says.
“No, it’s what you told me,” Ares counters. “I assume it’s the lie that Kelley told you. I couldn’t prove differently, so I went along with it. And my father was only recently told that you were his grandchildren. I let everyone believe the worst about me because I loved your mother. We’re all fighting for her cause, and I didn’t want to disillusion anyone.”
Ares puts his head down. I can see his chest tremble as he tries to steady his breathing. It was hard for him to let them believe something like that about him.
When he looks up, his eyes are ringed with red, and it’s obvious he’s holding back his emotions.
“I will preface what I’m about to say with some evidence,” he finally says. “Six months before your nineteenth birthdays, I received a letter. Apparently, your mother had set it up to be delivered before she was killed. Being a covert operative means you never know when your life could end, and it’s clear that, on that specific date, she wanted me to know. I suppose she wanted you both to be legal adults before I learned the truth.
“It’s probably not a big surprise that I was a bit of a nerd in high school. Not that I didn’t enjoy social activities, but my head was so full of ideas. I was bored with school and always working things through on what would be my greatest inventions. I wasn’t popular but wasn’t unpopular either, and Kelley was my best friend. She was smart and beautiful, and I cared for her very much. Of course, I never told her outright, and we never dated back then, but I did everything in my power to help her, to be there when she cried—although she wouldn’t tell me why she was. I didn’t learn the extent of her stepfather’s abuse until the day I found her badly beaten. Don’t get me wrong; there were signs, but when I asked, she would always deny. She was always a good liar, I guess. Good at pretending to be in control when everything around her was falling apart.
“She called me her warrior because of my name. And she broke my heart in the hospital when she told me we couldn’t see each other anymore. Because I loved her, I understood. Her stepfather was a policeman. He was actively trying to find her. She was afraid that he would use me to do so. We didn’t have contact the entire time she was away at college under her new name, Charlotte Cassleberry.”
“After college,” our grandfather adds, “she wondered if the name would hold up to scrutiny for a job in the government. When I learned how she had been trained in martial arts and knew how to use a gun, I hired her on the spot. Back then, it was my job to recruit and train agents. When she moved on, I became her handler as well as continued to train. Before she died, she came to me, said she needed a holiday and would be taking a couple of weeks off. I didn’t hear from her during that time until she arrived home and told me she had discovered a plot that could end the world as we know it.”
“That was the night she was killed,” Ari states. “And the night Huntley managed to escape from The Priest.”
“That’s correct,” Ares says. “But let’s go back to when you were conceived. Kelley and I hadn’t seen each other in a while. I knew I was under scrutiny from the government and even under CIA watch when I traveled. I built high-tech military goods, but I was careful who I sold them to. I offered our government a first look and always gave them long, exclusive contracts. But I suppose there was always that worry.
“Your mother and I ran into each other at a party. I had started my business, made my first twenty million, and was on top of the world. I was enjoying the spoils of my hard work at the Montrovian Grand Prix with my best friends—”
“Jack, Malcolm, Aleksandr, and Gio?” I interject.
“Yes,” he says with a melancholy smile.
“And you shared a night of passion,” Ari adds. “We know. We read it in her letter.”
“What letter?” Ares asks.
“There was a letter in a Montrovian safety deposit box,” I explain. “Would you like me to read it to you?”
Ares squints his eyes in curiosity. “It spoke of our relationship? Yes, I would very much like to hear it.”
I pick my backpack up off the floor, pull the letter out of a secret compartment hidden in the bottom, and then read aloud.
“My darling daughter,
“If you are reading this, it means you have discovered the Zurich safety deposit box and found your way here. You know about my profession as a covert operative for our government, and more than likely, I have passed and taken my secret to the grave.
“I lied to you, and I’m sorry for that, but it was for my safety as well as your own.
“As you know, my stepfather was abusive. One day, in a fit of rage, I was beaten badly, way worse than usual, and was left to die. It’s a miracle that a friend of mine drove by moments later and noticed our front door ajar. He took me to a hospital two towns away where he lied about my name in an attempt to protect me. Charlotte was his dog’s name, and I’m not exactly sure where Cassleberry came from.
“Anyway, I was diagnosed with a cracked skull along with a broken nose, jaw, and cheekbone. It was a long recovery, and when the surgeries were over, I looked like a different person. My friend suggested that I continue to be Charlotte Cassleberry in order to hide from my family. Ares was good with a computer, and like most fathers in DC, his worked a government job. Between the two of them, they created a new identity for me—and, ultimately, you.
“Enclosed is your real birth certificate. Believe it or not, you have two real birth certificates. One in the name of Calliope Ann Cassleberry and one as Huntley Penelope Bond.
“The man you thought was your father was actually my partner. He wasn’t my love. That man was Ares Von Allister. At this point in your life, you have probably heard his name. He’s a wealthy inventor and businessman, but I just knew him as my high school friend. He wasn’t my boyfriend, but I did fall in love with him as he nursed me back to health and gave me the gift of freedom from my family. My mother, of course, was searching for me, and my stepfather was a policeman. He questioned Ares numerous times, and because of that, we couldn’t risk being together.
“One night, years later, we were reunited. Lust took over, and twins were conceived. I was thrilled when I learned I was pregnant, and although Ares had many passions, having children was not one of them. He was upset with me. You don’t need to know all the details, but we decided together that he would not act as your father. That I would raise you alone.
“So, now, it’s up to you to decide. You can continue life as Calliope Cassleberry or become Huntley Bond. Either way, I would encourage you to meet your father and show him the photos of our life together. He might not give you the love you deserve, but he is an incredibly brilliant human being who you should know.
“All my love,
“May I see that, please?” Ares asks, so I hand him the letter. He studies it and then looks up. “We shared a day of passion, not a single night, which turned into the best weekend of my life. I whisked her away to Paris and pulled out all the romantic things I could think of—a terraced suite overlooking the Eiffel Tower, caviar and champagne, a shopping spree. And, as the weekend was about to end, I presented her with an engagement ring and asked if she would marry me.”
I can’t hide my shock. “What did she say?”
He takes another deep breath. “I didn’t know she was a spy. I didn’t know she was told to get close to me by my own father in order to steal sales data from my computer. She cried when I proposed and told me the truth about her life and job, so I willingly gave her the data. I had nothing to hide, and although she refused to marry me, she promised to stay in touch, but for years, she didn’t.
“You might not remember, but I first met you when you were four years old. Your mother was with Blake Cassleberry, and you were introduced to me as Calliope Cassleberry. I never imagined that you were my child—actually, that’s not true. I very much wished the picture were different. That I were married to your mother and that you were my daughter.
“I spent time with other women during my life, but I never got over her. She was the only woman I ever truly loved. That was the day that she said she wanted you to know me, and that, if anything ever happened to her and Blake, I needed to take care of you. Of course, I agreed.
“I set up this loft just for that purpose. It was sort of a safe house for your family. Because it was a safe house, we hid the ownership of the home behind a bunch of dummy corporations, and whenever I met the two of you here, I wore a disguise and made sure I hadn’t been followed.”
“That’s why you pretended to be Uncle Sam?”
“Yes,” he says, his voice cracking. “Had I known the truth, I would have done things so differently.”
“Calliope, your mother raised you not to be a covert agent someday,” Blake says. “You have actually been a covert agent since birth. Everything she knew, she taught to you in pieces until it was just a part of your being.”
“And, when you showed up at the safe house with your story of your mother’s death, surviving an assault from an assassin and a car bomb, you should have been a wreck,” Ares agrees, “but you were confident and assured and very, very skilled, and you didn’t even know it because it was all second nature to you. When I asked you what you wanted to do, you didn’t say you wanted to live with me. All you wanted was to avenge your mother’s death. You told me you needed to be tougher to do that, so I created Blackwood Academy just for you. It was my way of allowing what you wanted even though it wasn’t the path I would have chosen for you. I got my father to train you, and I personally chose all your academic curriculum.”
“You were incredibly driven,” my grandfather agrees. “And being at Blackwood kept both of us safe.”
“Six months ago, a few things happened simultaneously. Blake found me. He had heard about the death of Gio’s youngest brother and was worried things were starting again, just like they had with Alessandro. Blake tracked down the assassin who had been hired for the hit—the man who posed as a hunting guide—and interrogated him. That man jumped to his death from a tall building, and all he would say was that, ‘It starts in Montrovia.’
“Around the same time, unbeknownst to my father and Blake, I received a letter from your mother. Although it’s deeply personal, I’d like you to read it.” He gets up, retrieves a sheet of paper from a nearby writing desk, and then hands it to my brother. “Aristotle, will you please do the honors?”
“Of course,” Ari says and then starts reading.
“My dearest Ares,
“I’ve been digging into the situation, and I can confirm that you were right. I won’t go into detail because that’s not what this letter is about. I have a secret that I need to confess to you. I’m hoping to tell you this when we return, but I believe we are being followed, and if something happens to us, well, I want to make sure that you know the truth when the time is right.
“I didn’t have just one child. I gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, just like you and Ceres. If you are reading this letter, it means that I have passed and that the children should now be eighteen and a half years old.
“You’re probably wondering why now, after all these years, I’m telling you this. And I’m just going to say it.
“The children are yours.
“I know you are going to be mad that I led you to believe Calliope was Blake’s child. I still vividly remember the pain written across your face. I’ve always loved you, but I knew we could never be together in the way you wanted.
“Being married and having a family was never in the cards for me. You know what my childhood was like. I wasn’t happy when I discovered I was pregnant. I considered all my options, but I couldn’t bring myself to terminate the pregnancy. I really didn’t know what I was going to do.
“Ultimately and possibly serendipitously, I had a random encounter at a coffee shop with a woman who commented on my growing belly when I was about five months along. She mentioned that she and her husband had been trying unsuccessfully for years to have a baby. She then got teary-eyed, wished me well, and rushed out. And something about her emotion made me curious, so I followed her home.
“I found out her name and did background checks on her and her husband. I tore apart every piece of their lives, looking for any hint of impropriety or possible scandal. I got ahold of her husband’s military file and scoured it as well. And only after a thorough vetting did I contact the woman and ask if they had considered adoption.
“Needless to say, they were overjoyed—not only would they be getting a child, but at that point, I also knew I was having twins. They were nervous, rightfully so—as, in the past, they’d agreed to an adoption, only to have the mother back out.
“I instructed the hospital staff that the adoptive parents should be the first ones to hold their babies. And things went as planned after our son, Aristotle Allister, was born. I didn’t have time to think about not holding him because I still had another baby to deliver. Things weren’t going well, and there was discussion of a C-section. Thirty-two excruciating minutes later, I gave birth to our daughter, Huntley Penelope.
“I hope you like their names. They were inspired by Greek gods and the literature of the Renaissance. I guess I hoped, if nothing else, you’d appreciate their names.
“Anyway, I did what I had sworn I wouldn’t do and asked to hold our daughter. The second they put her into my arms, I fell madly in love. At that point, I considered changing my mind and keeping them both, but I knew I couldn’t do that to the Bradfords, nor could I possibly continue my career in the field with twins. It was going to be difficult enough, making it work with one child.
“So, I lied to myself. Told myself our son had died at birth. You know that I’ve had to lie most of my life. That lying is second nature to me. And, while I’m sorry for lying to you, I knew I must.
“So, that’s it. The big reveal. I do hope you never receive this letter. But just in case … enclosed are copies of their personal documents, which have a few modifications pursuant to my cover and to simply protect us all.
“And Ares, my warrior, just know that I’ve always loved you.
Tears threaten as Ari reads. I can feel the pain in my mother’s words, and I can see the anguish on Ares’s face. Her lie affected every single one of us in this room, yet here we all are, together in spite of it.
“What’s with these numbers at the bottom?” Ari asks, holding up the letter.
“What numbers?” I ask, grabbing the paper and closely looking at it.
“She left you a code. Have you deciphered it?” I ask Ares.
“No. And trust me; I tried everything, including quantum computing, to break the code. I had no idea what the numbers were referring to.” He gives us a shake of the head and a grin. “Until just now.”
“It’s the letter she left in the safety deposit box,” I say suddenly, picking it up off the table. “Everything in it is true, except for one paragraph, isn’t it? She knew, if I brought you the photos, you’d ask to see the letter.”
I get a proud fatherly smile. “I believe you’re right. Shall we see what it says?”
“Yes! Do you have a sheet of paper?”
Ares takes a lined piece of notebook paper out of the nearby desk and hands it to me. I draw a table, making two columns to use for the order of the words from both beginning to end and end to beginning. After that, I add each word in the false paragraph to the chart in numerical order.
“Okay, so the first line says ETB, meaning end to beginning or backward. The first number is one, which corresponds with the word alone. Write down the letter A,” I tell Ari, ripping off the bottom of the sheet of paper and handing it to him along with a pen. “Next is fifteen-R.”
Ari is sitting next to me, leaning over my shoulder. “The word is together, but what does the R stand for?”
“Reverse,” I say, having done codes like this many times for fun with my mom. “That means the next letter is an R. Then, we have thirty-seven, which is a C; forty-three, which is another A; forty-eight reverse, which would be a D; fifty-three, which is an I; and fifty-seven, which is an A.”
“It spells ARCADIA,” Ari says, sucking in his breath. “She actually did leave a clue. Do you think we’ll learn their plan finally?”
“I sure hope so,” all four of us say in unison.
“All right, next word is beginning to end, so we start with number twenty-three, which is the word pregnant, so a P. Then, we have thirty-four, which is an O; sixty-three, which is an I; twelve reverse, so an S; another thirty-four, so O; and forty-four, which is an N. There’s a slash, so a new word starts. Thirty reverse is a G; sixty-five is an R; twenty-four is an A; nineteen an I; and two is an N.”
“POISON GRAIN,” Ari reads incredulously. “That’s what you thought, Huntley. You were right!”
“But we still don’t know how they are going to use poison grain to kill so many people. It seems like an impossible task.”
“Maybe the next line will tell us how,” our grandfather says hopefully.
“Okay, so this one is end to beginning and has four slashes, so four words.” I quickly decipher the letters. “M and then Y. New word: W, then A, then R, another R, an I, an O, and another R. New word: F, then O, then R, then G, then I, a V, and an E. Last word: M and then E.”
“MY WARRIOR, FORGIVE ME,” Ares says, covering his face with his hand, visibly breaking down.
And I can’t help but wonder if he will ever truly be able to forgive her for what she did.
I move to sit next to him, putting my arm around his back. “I’m sorry she did this to you.”
“And I’m sorry for what I did to you, Huntley. Your training. It was not what I would have wanted for you had I known.”
“What would you have done differently?” I ask sincerely.
“I’ve thought a lot about that the past six months. On one hand, I’m thankful for the skills you learned and knowing that they have prepared you for this war. On the other hand, I feel like you missed so much … love. We trained you not to have emotional attachment. To survive on your own. That’s not what I would have wanted for my daughter.”
“How did you find Ari?”
“Your mother included your birth certificates and Aristotle’s adoption papers. Finding him was quite easy. I learned his father had passed and that he was currently a brilliant military cadet student. Through old contacts, I got him sent to train with the CIA. Since I knew things were starting in Montrovia again, I wanted the two of you to be able to work together. I was planning on telling you the truth until we learned of the planned assassination of Prince Lorenzo while his father was dying. I thought, if I put you both out under your true identities in plain sight, then maybe you’d figure it out. So, I faked my death, and the rest, you know.” He chuckles. “Although I’m really a little surprised, Huntley, that you didn’t figure I was behind all of this on the day you were at my lab. The V over the A in the Von Allister Industries logo so clearly forms a black X.”
“I’m glad you sent us to protect Lorenzo,” I reply.
“I didn’t know you would fall in love with him, but that is a rather pleasant surprise. Had things been different, you would have met at a much younger age and, well, who knows? I’m sure you have more questions, but back to the mission at hand. As you have already determined based off your mother’s clues, they are going to poison food to cause an extinction event to create Arcadia, and we must figure out how to stop it.”
“Who is going to cause this extinction event?” Ari asks.
“The Echelon,” Ares and I reply simultaneously.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“While you answer that question for him, I need to go make a phone call.”
“Any chance I can finally get that hug?” my grandfather asks, standing up when I do.
I give him a nod, agreeing, and he holds me for a very long time. Upon releasing me, he gives Ari a bear hug while Blake wraps his arm around me.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you,” he says.
“You killed all my school friends, didn’t you?”
“Two former students did. They had to, sweetie. Your friend M was obsessed with the tabloids. As soon as she saw that you were on the cover, she tried to call them to get interviewed as someone who had known you then. She told the other students. I would have preferred they joined our fight, but at that point, Ares knew that you were his daughter. He couldn’t risk the truth coming out. We did it to protect you.”
I swallow a lump in my throat. The emotional side of me is upset they killed them. The girl who was taught to survive on her own understands completely. Either way, there’s nothing I can do about it now. Other than make their deaths mean something. And the only way I can do that is to stop The Echelon.
After we end our reunion, I ask Ares if I could use a secure phone to call Montrovia.
“Of course,” he says, leading me into a room lined with steel and probably all sorts of countersurveillance devices.
“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?” I ask.
“I try,” he says. “Text Lorenzo and be sure, if you are going to confide in him, that he is on a secure line.”
“I will. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you when I was younger, but with everything I’ve been through since I left Blackwood, I’m sure glad you let your father train me.”
“It’s not the life I would have wanted for my daughter, but in spite of everything, you have been truly incredible. And the way you handled yourself at the VA board meeting—yes, I secretly watched it—I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much pride.”
It’s then that I launch myself into my father’s arms and allow myself to cry.
And I think they are mostly happy tears. Because I’m not alone in this world anymore.
“You should have told us,” I tell him when I regain control. “From the beginning.”
“Yes, I should have,” Ares says, “but I knew you wouldn’t believe me. You would have thought you were being manipulated. I needed you to discover the truth about your mother yourself. I know how devastated I was when I read the truth.”
“Do you hate her?”
“I could never hate your mother. Ever. And she probably knew that. Knew she could get away with it. Although we met briefly when you were younger, I first got to know you when you were ten. I liked you right away. You were so smart. Your mother didn’t let us spend much time together. She said she didn’t want you to have any emotional attachments. I realize now why she said that to me.”
“You put my life in danger. I’ve been through things you don’t know about.”
“I’ve learned most of them, as you saw in the video game I created for you. Originally, it was simply to train you, but then I decided to monetize it. Running the school proved to be quite expensive.”
“I have a lot more questions,” I say.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” he replies. “I promise to answer them all after you make your call. I think I’ll go whip us up some breakfast.”
He steps out of the room. I send Lorenzo a quick text, and he responds right away, letting me know he’s in a secure location and I can call him.
“Thank you for having the forethought to send my brother here,” I say when he answers. “It was exactly what I needed.”
“When you left, you were an unsettling mix of upset and excited. Was your hunch correct?”
“Yes. I just called to tell you I’m okay, and all is good.”
“What was good,” he counters, “was the kiss we shared before you left.”
A grin spreads across my face. “To use one of your words, I didn’t think it was just good; it was quite exquisite.”
“I’m visiting the Olympic sites on Tuesday. Will you be here to join me?”
“Yes, I will. The only issue I’m worried about is that the press will see us together.”
“I have been concerned about that as well. And I’ve come up with a plan. Bring Daniel with you. We were all friends before the engagements. I think it will be good for the press to see that we all still are.”
“You want to take Lizzie and Daniel with us to tour the facilities?”
“No, my sweet. I need you alone for that, but if we are seen together in social situations, it won’t seem unusual for me to invite you alone to view something that was your father’s design.”
“You are a little devious. I like it.”
“And I love you, my darling. Until then—”
“You’ll keep tracking me?” I tease.
“As long as you will allow me to by wearing my words of love around your neck.”
“That will be for as long as I’m alive.”
“I do hope that is for a very long time. I have many plans for us.”
“As do others,” I say, knowing I need to get back to work and ending the call after telling him good-bye.
The Phoenix Releases February 19th!