Last Kiss Goodnight
Author:Gena Showalter

chapter Eight



Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men.

—PROVERBS 2:12

THE MORNING SUN CRESTED in the sky, flames of gold, orange, pink, and purple streaking in every direction. Fluffy white clouds dotted the never-ending expanse, and a single black bird flew past them while crying a song of loneliness and despair.

Solo understood.

He was still trapped inside his cage.

He, an expert lock picker, a man stronger than ten extraordinary humans combined, who had once sprung John No Name from a prison in Shanghai with only a toothpick and a stick of chewing gum, and, okay, Blue at his side, had failed to free himself from an old rusty pen for animals.

He . . . had no words.

Actually, he did have words, he realized a second later; they were as black as night and full of barbs. He wanted to unleash them, but he also wanted a target and the otherworlders were sleeping, Jecis nowhere to be seen. How was this situation possible? It should not have been possible. He should be long gone. The circus should be nothing more than a memory. He should be free!

Why wasn’t he free?

After trying to disable the lock and failing . . . after trying to cut through the bars with his claws and failing . . . after trying to punch his way through the floorboards, then the roof, and failing, he had allowed his temper to get the better of him. He had shaken the entire cage—but he hadn’t even managed to turn the thing on its side.

He’d been too weak. And the madder he’d gotten, the weaker he’d become. Dr. E had snickered the entire time, only to vanish a few hours ago. X had stayed with him far longer than he’d liked, sighing every so often, radiating only sadness, before finally vanishing as well.

I’m actually stuck here.

No. No way. He would not accept that.

“Kitten,” he said, using her name when she had not offered it, trying to reveal the fact that he knew she was an AIR agent with skills. She had experience with the circus; she might not have had the strength to free herself, but she would have observed the comings and goings and would know what to do. And two were always better than one—or so X had already tried to tell him.

She stretched awake, sitting up a few minutes later, her long hair knotted at the base of her neck. “Do yourself a favor, big guy, and preserve your energy.”

“I know your coworkers,” he said.

“Wait. What?” Eyes wide, she wrapped her fingers around the bars of her cage. “Who are you? Who do you know?”

Good. He had her attention. “We’re going to have a conversation, you and I, about what I wish to discuss, until I’m satisfied with your answers. All right?”

An eager nod.

“Vow it,” he said.

Kitten gave another nod and said, “I do. I vow it. Now tell me what I want to know!”

He watched her, waiting, and knew the exact moment the vow took root and grew branches through her spirit, soul, and body—branches that would force her to do what she’d promised, or suffer terribly. Her eyes widened and a gasp parted her lips. Her hand fluttered over her heart, baby-bird delicate.

“What just . . . how did . . . you did something to me! I know you did something. I felt a jolt of electricity go all the way through me.”

For Solo, vows were binding whether he spoke them or received them. They attached themselves inside him and the other person, a compulsion that refused to be ignored. Did he try, he hurt. Did the other person try, they hurt.

The ability, he’d learned, could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it was used. He’d noticed it as a child, had experimented with it, tested it, and it had only grown stronger over the years. In the end, he’d learned he was either saved or snared by the things he promised—and others were saved or snared, too.

“I know your coworkers,” he repeated.

She snapped her teeth in frustration. “You said that before and I’m ready for something new. This conversation is . . . is . . .” Deep grooves formed at the corners of her mouth, her frown intense. “This conversation is . . .” Her eyes closed, and a groan of pain left her. “Why can’t I say the words I want to say?”

Because the words would have broken her vow, leaving him unsatisfied. Even the thought of such a thing pained her spirit, the source of her life, which in turn pained her soul, or her mind, will and emotions, and lastly her body.

She cast him an accusing glare as she gritted out, “Fine. You think you know my coworkers. I think you’re wrong.”

“I’m right. These people, they miss sitting around the fire with you and can’t wait to have you back.”

It took her a moment, but she finally caught his meaning. AIR agents carried pyre-guns, weapons capable of shooting streams of fire. Her coworkers missed her. They were on the case.

She pressed her forehead against the bar, beside her hands, trying to get closer to him. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“Tell them I said hello.”

Translation: Was he in contact? “I would, but they stopped taking my calls.”

Her upper lip lifted, baring her teeth, and she gritted out, “That’s probably for the best. As much as I travel, they’re pretty much dead to me.”

He knew what she meant. The circus moved around so much, AIR would never be able to track them fast enough. And she was right. AIR wouldn’t. But John and Blue? Yeah. They could do anything—if they had survived the bomb.

Don’t think that way. They survived.

“Tell me about your abduction,” he said. “Every detail.”

“No way. That’s private.” She turned away from him, trying to end the conversation. A moment later, she groaned and swung back to face him. Scowling, she said, “I will never vow to do anything for you ever again—so I was at home, relaxing.” The words rushed from her. “Someone must have snuck in and drugged the beers in my fridge, because I had one, only one, and passed out. That had never happened before, not even when I was fourteen and had my—argh! So then, when I woke up, I was . . . I was . . .” She drew her arms around her middle. “I was soon sold to Jecis.”

There was a lot she wasn’t telling him.

“What happened between waking up and being sold? I need to know.”

Red suffused her cheeks, and her gaze darted to the other captives to see if they had awakened. They had, and they were listening unabashedly. “Why? It’s not like you can help me,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Were you beaten? Raped?” Solo asked softly. They’d needed code to discuss a potential rescue, not to discuss events that had happened in the past. Events that could help Solo profile Star, figure out his motives, his means, and his agenda.

“No, but I was . . .” Again she stumbled over her words. “It doesn’t matter.” A groan. She closed her eyes. “Please. It doesn’t matter.”

“All right,” he said, taking pity on her. Immediately she relaxed, unaware that the conversation would resume when everyone fell asleep tonight. “Do you know a man by the name of Gregory Star?” He described the looks of the human he’d seen in the photo. “Do any of you?”

All but the Targon jolted into action, pretending to be too engrossed in counting specks of dirt to listen. The Targon blew him a kiss.

Kitten’s brow furrowed as she ran the image through her mind. “No. I don’t, and no one else has ever mentioned him. Why? Was he the one that . . . that arranged for me to be taken?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

He nodded. To the Targon, he said, “What’s your name?”

“Kaamil-Alize. Why?”

“I was tired of referring to you as the Targon, but I think I’ll stick with that.”

“Aw, how cute. You have a crush on me and can’t get me out of your mind. I’d love to say I’m surprised, but I’ll just say I’m not interested and leave it at that, ’k?”

Solo rolled his eyes. Were all Targons as irreverent as this one? “How were you captured?”

Amber eyes lit with amusement. “As if anyone could capture me. I handed myself over.”

Hardly. “Why?”

“I thought it’d be fun. Turns out, I was right.” But a hard gleam had entered his eyes, draining the amusement.

No, he hadn’t thought it would be fun. That gleam said he was here for a reason. But what? “I don’t believe you.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Kitten said. “I was here when he arrived. Most of the others Jecis brought in himself after someone else brought them in and sold them. From what I’ve been able to gather, that someone has been different each time.”

He wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“So why would this Star person abduct me?” she demanded. A moment later, she added, “Unless . . .”

Solo pounced, insisting, “Unless?”

“I woke up and . . . someone was in my house. Someone I’d hurt a long time ago. After she . . . finished with me, I was drugged and later woke up while some strange guy negotiated my sell to Jecis.”

Details, and he hadn’t had to wait. Details that actually helped him. Michael had mentioned the symbol of revenge, but had assumed it was a means to throw them off. What if Michael had been wrong? What if people . . . what? Took their revenge, then hired Star to do clean up? Or maybe Star actually arranged everything. “Thank you.”

Again, shame colored her cheeks but she nodded. “Which of my coworkers do you know?”

“Dallas.” During their meeting, Michael had only mentioned one name in association with this girl’s unit, and that was it. He only hoped the two knew each other.

She grinned with relish, saying, “Dallas. Things are gonna get ugly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to close my eyes and dream of all the pain he’ll cause.”

As she lay down, he picked up a few of the rocks on his cage floor and tossed them in the air and caught them, tossed and caught. Time to think. To plan.

“Be careful with those.” As beautiful as a spring morning, the Cortaz leaned against the side of her cage. “You might need them later.”

Or not.

“To hurt Vika?” he found himself snipping.

She flinched at the harshness of his tone. Afraid of him?

She should be.

Steady. Calm. He still blamed her for her too-harsh treatment of Vika, yes, but he also needed her on his side. In a situation like this, allies were important.

“Well, why not?” she said, lifting her chin. “That girl deserves it. And are you really so stupid that you don’t realize we’ve tried every trick possible to bust free of this hellhole? Yet here we stay, and here you’ll stay, too.”

“You’re wrong,” he said. He just needed more time. Soon he would be completely healed from the explosion. Nothing would stop him, then.

“I’ve been here two months. I promise you, I’m not wrong.” She moved her arm through the bars and twisted her hand in the light. “It’s the cuffs. Whatever drugs they’re pumping through our bodies keep us weak, and our superhuman abilities useless.”

He studied the metal circling his own wrists—metal he’d forgotten about in his quest for freedom. He could still feel the thin rods embedded in his bones, screwing with his range of motion, annnd yes, he could feel a slight warmth drip, drip, dripping into his system.

The otherworlders weren’t just drugged for their baths, he realized. They were drugged every minute of every day.

Anger returned, a hot fire in his chest.

Doesn’t matter. You’ll overcome. You always overcome.

A sad, you’ll see smile curved the corners of her lips. “I’m Crissabelle, by the way, but you can call me Criss. Call me Crissy or Belle, and I’ll cut out your tongue.”

He didn’t offer his own name. He wouldn’t. The less these people knew about him, the better. Besides, he’d been named after one of the wisest males ever to live, and yet he’d often acted like the dumbest. Well, not here. Not now. Not anymore.

“Who has the key to the cuffs?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with an easy shrug. “I’ve never seen it. You’d think Jecis or his spawn would taunt us with it, but no. They never have, and I’m not sure whether that’s been a mercy or a cruelty.”

He dropped the rocks rattling in his palm. Thump, thump, thump. “How were you brought in?”

Fury mixed with regret, flaring in her eyes. “I was out late at night, partying with my friends, and had a little too much to drink. Matas showed up, and somehow talked me into going home with him. I say somehow, because he’s sick and disgusting and I’m not into sick and disgusting. Only, he didn’t take me home. He brought me here.”

Matas again. The name was beginning to bug him.

“So . . . what should I call you?” she asked.

“Bob.”

A slow smile bloomed. “No way you’re a Bob.”

“Fred, then.”

The smile grew. “That’s even worse. But go ahead. Keep lying to me, and I’ll start calling you Jolly Red Giant.”

He wouldn’t give her a reaction, he told himself. He wouldn’t rip her head from her body when he escaped, either.

“Has anyone successfully removed their cuffs?” He tucked the fingers of his left hand into the right, and the fingers of his right hand into the left—

“I wouldn’t do that,” Criss rushed out.

—and jerked. Immediately pain exploded through him, sharp, cutting from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. He fell to his side, spiderwebs of black weaving through his vision, colliding with pinpricks of white and forming a dizzying kaleidoscope.

“Told you,” he heard Criss sing. “When you pull on the metal, a different type of chemical is shot through your body. One that causes pain rather than lethargy. And don’t think you can leave and remove the things with bolt cutters or something. I was here when a guy got hold of a pair, and when he snipped, the needles in the cuffs motorized, chopping off his hands.”

Eventually the black and white faded and Solo could see clearly again. He slowly eased to a sitting position. He looked at his wrists and discovered he’d done more harm to himself. The cuffs were still there, still firmly in place, but blood now trickled from underneath the metal.

“Next time, listen to Auntie Criss. She’s very smart. And beautiful. And talented.”

And modest.

“There are tubes running through the metal,” she said, “and if you look closely, you’ll find a little hole in each cuff. That’s where the drugs are administered. We’re put to sleep every few days so that the tubes can be refilled.”

His frustration and anger intensified, bubbling up, another white-hot fire wanting to spill from him; somehow he managed to hold himself in check. Now wasn’t the time for another temper tantrum. Especially when that temper tantrum would do no good.

In the distance, he could hear clomping feet, chattering voices, and the roar of car engines.

“And so it begins,” Criss said with a sigh.

A deep breath in, and he caught the scent of coffee in the air.

He found coffee too bitter to enjoy, yet still his mouth watered for a taste of it, and still his stomach twisted hungrily. Yesterday evening’s grain had tasted like dirt, and yet, if he were given another bowl of the stuff—or another piece of chocolate—he would have eaten every morsel. He had to keep his strength up. Obviously.

“How does this work?” he found himself growling.

Criss slid into a pool of light and stretched out her legs. Green eyes glittered with resolve, pearlescent skin shone, and finger-combed black hair tumbled over both of her shoulders, shielding what lurked beneath that transparent fabric. “In a few hours, the circus will open and there will be a steady stream of people walking through this area for the rest of the day. Some will simply look at you.” Her voice hardened as she added, “Some will command you to lift your clothing or to turn around and bend over. Jecis will station two armed guards here, and no one will be allowed to touch you, but if you fail to do as you’re told . . .”

Yeah, he remembered: a bullet to the brain. His skin darkened, and his teeth and claws elongated. The fire burned ever hotter, singeing everything in its path.

“Don’t give him pointers,” the Bree Lian called. “Let him learn firsthand like the rest of us.”

Solo already had a beef with him. That just sealed the deal.

“Let him take the burden for a while,” the Mec added.

Yeah, Solo had a beef with him, too.

Several others murmured their agreement. Meaning, they all wanted Solo to occupy Jecis’s mind, so that they could act out without fear. Nice. But fine, whatever. He understood survival.

He also never forgot a slight.

Criss waved away their commands, saying, “Little Miss Mouse won’t feed us until after the circus, and then only if we’ve behaved.” She air-quoted the last word, the motion stiff with barely leashed rage.

That rage would soon tear free, he was sure, and it would make her reckless, willing to do anything to die. Not just throw rocks, but more. A whole lot more. And Little Miss Mouse—Vika, beautiful Vika, with the wounded eyes and the bruised face and the siren’s body and the angel’s kiss—would bear the brunt of it.

He’d been so careful not to think about her last night. Now . . . there was no stopping the mental tug-of-war that followed.

She’s mine. I want her.

Are you stupid? She’s not yours. She belongs to Jecis—you don’t want her.

I deserve her. After everything I’ve suffered here, she will be my reward.

She’s not a prize.

He was as bad as X and Dr. E.

“Uh-oh. I recognize that look,” Criss said with a moan.

He forced the muscles in his face to relax, revealing nothing more. “What look?”

A derisive snort. “Please. Vika’s the big guy’s daughter, you know, and nothing but trouble.”

See? Vika is a bad apple from a poisoned tree.

“Besides, I thought you were interested in our sweet little Pussycat,” Criss said with a tilt of her chin.

His gaze darted to Kitten, who still sprawled on the floor of her cage.

“Vika does what Daddy says, when he says, and even if you were handsome . . . uh . . . well, anyway, she wouldn’t help you,” Criss said. “I don’t mean to be cruel, just honest.”

“Enough with the honesty,” the Targon called. “Let’s go for amusement! I’d love to see you try to charm our little Vika, Mr. Fugly.”

All but Kitten and Criss snickered.

As if on cue, Dr. E arrived on the scene, settling atop Solo’s shoulder like a bird on a perch. He was paler than usual, a little wobbly on his feet. Why? “They dare tease you? Well, it’s time to teach them better, don’t you think? If you tell Jecis you’re willing to do a little cage fighting free of charge, you can rip these creatures into a thousand pieces without earning a punishment. It’s win/win.”

“They are as frustrated and angry as he is,” X said, appearing on his right shoulder. He was tanner than usual, for once steady on his feet. “They are lashing out at their circumstances, not Solo.”

“Enough!” he growled, suddenly sick of the captives, of X, of Dr. E, and all of his many recent failures. He wanted out. He needed out. Drugged or not, there had to be a way.

Each of the otherworlders peered over at him with differing shades of emotion. Some with terror, some with glee. But no one castigated him, and Dr. E—laughing and suddenly alive with color—and X—sighing with regret and suddenly pallid—once again vanished.

Solo wrapped his fingers around the bars and shook, shook, shook. Of course, they held steady, causing frustration to rise and eat at what little remained of his control.

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that, either,” Criss said. “You’ll regret it.”

He didn’t stop. Couldn’t. I’m strong enough for anything, even this. Another shake. But again, the bars held steady. Anger blazed into rage, and the frustration formed jagged edges that sliced through him, making him bleed.

Now, now, now. Another shake, a harder shake. Shake, shake, shake.

Rage . . . melding with a sudden burst of weakness . . .

Frustration . . . blending with a sudden spring of icy water . . .

The drugs, he realized as his mind hazed. The drugs must activate with stronger emotions, because with every moment that passed, the weakness grew and the icy water flooded another part of him, until he no longer had the strength to grip the bars.

His arms fell heavily to his sides, and his head lolled forward, his chin hitting his sternum. He lost track of his surroundings and just sort of tipped over. Right before landing, he thought he heard Criss say, “I told you so.”