The file skidded across Jack Hunter’s desk, forcing him to catch it before it slipped off the edge. “Hey, what’s this?” He looked up at Frank Spencer while picking up the manila file and waving it at the agent.
Frank’s scowl deepened the hue of his green eyes. “New intel on your wife. Thought you should see it.” He picked up a thick white coffee cup, stained brown from use, and lifted it. “I’m going upstairs for a refill. Just don’t blow your cork over this one.”
A twinge hit Jack’s heart at the worried tone in Frank’s voice. “She’s okay, right?”
“Yeah, yeah...” Frank waved him off. “Oh, another news flash: Eidolon has vanished from Berlin.”
Jack fisted his hands. News about the shape-shifter always meant trouble. “Is he still in Europe?”
“Not sure, so watch your back.”
Frank slid open the steel door leading into a wine cellar with a flight of narrow steps. Even with all the renovations, a hint of wine permeated the walls. He paused and turned. “You want me to bring you a cup of joe?”
The restaurant on the street level served thick espresso that would put hair on anyone’s chest--the way Jack liked his brew. The food wasn’t so bad either, but he needed to step out of the confines of the stuffy office for some fresh air. “Nah, I’m leaving soon.”
Frank nodded and shut the door, blocking out the sounds of murmured voices and clinking plates and silverware. The diners had no clue secret agents were sequestered down in the cellar, going about their business of protecting citizens from the abominations that roamed the earth.
Jack lit a cigarette before opening the file. The last time he had news about his wife had been a few years ago. Alice had moved on. She had sold their Midwestern home and relocated to San Francisco to start afresh. Bits and pieces of information about Alice had made their way across his desk over the years. But once he had taken the oath to become a sentinel agent, he could no longer contact the people from his past, including his wife.
He removed a torn newspaper article dated last week, a black-and-white photo of Alice on the page. She appeared older and more sophisticated than he’d remembered. What hadn’t changed was her infectious smile. It still had a way of tripping up his heart.
When he read the headline, his chest grew tight: ENGAGED TO RANDOLPH SIMON.
A short bio of Randolph Simon followed: owner of RLS Plastics, from one of San Francisco’s oldest families, warranting news of his engagement in the Society
section of the Chronicle
A sorrowful laugh forced its way up Jack’s throat. He tapped the tip of his cigarette in the ashtray, his heart running at full speed. Alice had met another man, a man she wanted to marry. A successful, wealthy man, apparently.
He couldn’t blame her, exactly, but it hurt.
Jack dropped the article, and it fluttered to his desk.
From his back pocket he removed his billfold. He flipped it open and took out a dog-eared snapshot. He’d carried it through the war and afterward. The only object he permitted himself to keep after his “change.” A young woman grinned at the camera in front of a spanking-new convertible. A cascade of hair brushed her shoulders, her bangs swept to one side in the style of one of those movie stars. In dungarees and a striped shirt, she looked radiant.
The car had been a present for Alice’s twenty-first birthday. Jack had worked overtime at his dad’s hardware store to earn extra money to pay for it. It had been worth it to see her stunned but delightful expression. He traced the image of the girl, now a long-ago memory. Alice smiled back at him with joy in her eyes. His wife always shone from the inside out.
He looked down at the newspaper clipping again and read the word out loud: “engaged.” The word stuck in his throat, and he was startled by his intense reaction to the news. He’d left behind his past--all of it. His dad, his wife, and his dream of a family and home. Now another man carried Alice’s dream in his pocket.
He bent the edge of the photo back and forth. It had survived the Second World War, his capture by Eidolon, and his death and rebirth into a supersoldier living in obscurity. And what had his wife gotten in all this? She had received a telegram from the army, proclaiming him dead, and a gold star to put in the window of their home. Over seven years ago, and still the sharp pain of loss pitted his stomach.
He’d believed once that the right woman would satisfy him sexually, enough to prevent his perversion from surfacing. That was why he’d married Alice. If he hadn’t been captured in the war and come home whole instead, he’d still be married to her.
He shoved the picture back into his billfold and slapped it shut.
He tugged at his lower lip with his teeth. Maybe he should check out this Randolph. He’d promised to protect Alice, vows he’d taken to heart on their wedding day, and even afterward, he exacted a promise from his boss that Alice would be secretly guarded from the evil abominations he routed out and killed. How could this Randolph ever protect her from such creatures?
He picked up the article and scanned it for their marriage date. Damn. They were to be wed in two months. That didn’t give him much time.
He snuffed out his cigarette in the ashtray.
A plan of action formulated in his head. He’d have to go AWOL. X would not give Jack permission to pursue this, but his boss couldn’t stop him if he couldn’t find him.
And as for Antoine... What would Antoine think of his running off like some idiot knight in shining armor to save Alice from marrying the wrong man? Not that Jack planned to stop the marriage if he found out her fiance presented no danger to her. He scratched his chin. All he wanted was to make sure she was marrying someone aboveboard. That was all. He wouldn’t even have to contact his wife.
Jack stood and filed the folder into a satchel. He slipped the strap over his head and grabbed his wool coat and hat on his way up the stairs. Frank sat at the counter and waved to Jack. Jack nodded and strode through the door, not in the mood to chew the fat with his friend.
Energy buzzed around him the moment he stepped out to the sidewalk. Pedestrians hurried down the street, not making eye contact. Space was at a premium in New York City, and privacy was tightly guarded.
Freezing cold from the recent snowstorm, he buttoned his coat and slipped on a pair of leather gloves. The smell of grilled hot dogs wafted around him and led him to the street cart. He purchased a hot dog and made his way to Central Park.
Taking a green bench overlooking a grassy meadow, he sat and peeled back the thin wrapper. The first bite of the juicy beef frank always reminded him of the ballpark in his home town. Eating a hot dog on a park bench, he could be any normal man, taking a lunch break from the office.
In four bites he finished his frank and licked the mustard from his fingers. Antoine would have raised his nose at such a philistine meal. He laughed, and damn, he missed the pesky shifter. Missed him badly.
He knotted the wool scarf around his neck. Antoine had unwound the scarf and draped it around Jack’s shoulders before Antoine had stepped aboard the ship for France, telling Jack that he’d need a reminder of how much he’d be missed. Like Jack needed a reminder... Antoine constantly invaded his thoughts.
The fabric scratched his chin, and it smelled of his lover. Antoine and sex went together, like the ballpark hot dog and mustard. Couldn’t have one without the other. He understood Antoine was an indulgent sin, yet once Jack had given in to his baser desires, he couldn’t be denied. The need had been too great. And it still burned hot inside him.
Once Jack was forced to admit his attraction to the shifter, the confusing, maddening curse of craving Antoine produced many sleepless nights. Three months had passed since he’d seen him, and he’d thought the separation would cure him. Cure him of his desires for this particular man, but the memories of their lovemaking persisted as tenaciously as if Antoine were physically here.
A deep sigh stirred a puff of mist in front of his face. He checked his watch, storm clouds already dimming the sun. He started to rise, and a baseball skidded across the path and landed at his feet. A boy ran up, a wool cap rimming his bright blue eyes, and snuggled in a thick parka and high galoshes.
“Hey, Mister, can you toss the ball?”
Jack scooped it up and pitched it to the kid. The boy caught the ball, a mile-wide smile spreading across his face. “Thanks, Mister.” Then he waved as he trotted toward his mates.
Jack crumpled his napkin. The boy could have been Jack’s son if he and Alice had had a child before he’d left for the war--before he’d been turned into a freak.
He frowned as awareness of his surroundings came into focus. A group of children played tag, giggling at being chased. A father carried his daughter piggyback as she slept. A child tugged at her mother’s coattail.
He’d never have a child to carry on his name. Antoine couldn’t give him a family. Not like the family he’d imagined.
With his mind made up, he left the park for his apartment. He had less than two months to find out any dirt on Randolph Simon. Maybe he was a decent, upstanding man, but given Jack’s line of work, he knew everyone had secrets. Even if he couldn’t see Alice, he’d protect her from making a big mistake if he found out Randolph wasn’t aboveboard.