Darkness Torn Asunder
“Hey, Sloan! Haul ass. You’ve got visitors. Seems they want to talk to our local celebrity.”
Emmett muttered an obscenity, keeping it under his breath. His time behind bars was winding down, and mouthing off to one of the prison guards would jeopardize his chance for freedom. Ever since the news had broken about his innocence, reporters had been after him for an interview. He’d let his attorney deal with them, hoping some other story would draw their attention before the slow wheels of justice finished turning and set him free.
He counted off the last few reps before dropping the barbells back on the rack, taking comfort from the familiar routine. After wiping off his sweat with a towel, he turned to face Josh, one of the more easygoing guards. “I’d rather not talk to any reporters.”
“I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to those jackals. These guys aren’t reporters, though.” Josh opened the door to let Emmett pass through. “But considering how few visitors you’ve ever had, I’d think you’d be happy to see anyone just to break up the monotony.”
Emmett shrugged and started down the corridor that led to the visitors’ rooms. Josh took the lead while a second guard followed a few steps behind Emmett, keeping his distance. Though Emmett never went out of his way to cause trouble, everyone knew that crowding him wasn’t a good idea.
A short distance down the hall, Josh stopped by a locked door. “I was told their visit was cleared by the warden. Something about a job after you get out.”
Okay, that was unexpected. Emmett studied the two strangers through the reinforced glass while Josh fastened the restraints around his wrists and waist. Emmett hated being trussed up like a crazed animal, but he kept his mouth shut. Each minute he controlled himself put him that much closer to walking out the front door a free man. Hope was a dangerous emotion, one he hadn’t felt in more than fifteen long years. He wouldn’t blow his chance now.
“We’ll be out here when you’re ready to go back to your cell. I hope they aren’t yanking your chain about that job.”
Emmett nodded. “Me, too.”
When he walked into the room, his two visitors rose to their feet. Both were well over six feet tall and powerfully built, with the kind of muscles that came from hard work, not just pumping iron. He liked that they were both able to look him straight in the eye. Towering over everyone around him got old pretty damn quick.
The one with black hair and piercing green eyes gave him a quick smile. “Mr. Sloan, my name is Devlin Bane and this is my associate, Blake Trahern.”
Neither man offered to shake his hand. No surprise there. Josh or one of the other guards would have made the rules clear to them before letting them anywhere near him. Still, he couldn’t resist the odd impulse to play host. “Shall we have a seat?”
He waited until they parked themselves on the chairs on the opposite side of the table. “So what’s this about a job? And why me?”
The one called Trahern leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, his hard gaze meeting Emmett’s directly. “I’ll start with the second question. You don’t age like most folks, so you’re older than you look. Any injuries you have disappear in a matter of hours, unless they’re life-threatening. Then they take a day, maybe two at the most. You don’t much like being crowded or even touched.”
A small smile played around the edges of the man’s mouth. “And you’ve got one hell of a temper, coupled with a strong urge to protect those that you view as weaker or innocent.”
The man’s assessment was right on the money, but most of that info could have come straight from the transcript of Emmett’s trial. That last part was what had landed him in prison in the first place. He glared right back at the pair. “I’m not impressed.”
Bane laughed. “Okay, hard-ass, I get that you have no reason to trust anyone, much less us. To let you know we’re on the up-and-up, here’s a letter from your attorney.”
Emmett skimmed the single page, which didn’t say much beyond the fact that his attorney was vouching for both men and their employer. Interesting. “Why didn’t he come with you today?”
Trahern snorted. “Truth be told, I think we scared him.”
Bane laughed along with his friend, but his smile faded as he glanced in the direction of the window. Josh was still out there, talking on his cell phone. Bane lowered his voice, as if unsure if the room was bugged and their conversation being recorded. “Here’s what I can tell you, Mr. Sloan. The organization we work for is always on the lookout for guys with our particular talents. I’m not at liberty to tell you more than that right now, or what the job would actually entail. I assure you that it’s legitimate, the pay is good, and the benefit package is top-of-the-line.”
Emmett’s bullshit-o-meter started blaring. Who the hell cared if an ex-con had dental and a 401(k)? “Again, why me?”
Bane stood up. “We’ll tell you everything you want to know when you’re released. Say the word and one of us will be waiting for you when you walk out of here.”
What did he have to lose? Besides, maybe they did understand what made him tick. If so, he had questions they might just be able to answer.
He stood up and walked over to knock on the glass. Josh nodded and ended his call. While Emmett waited for him to open the door, he glanced back at Bane and Trahern. “My attorney can let you know when my release comes through.”
“We’ll be here, Mr. Sloan. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad that cowardly bastard finally came forward to clear your name.”
“Me, too.” Although nothing would give him back the fifteen years he’d lost serving time for a crime he hadn’t committed. “Thanks for coming.”
Even if they ended up blowing him off, Josh had been right about one thing. Talking to them had broken up the brain-rotting monotony that had been his life from the day he was locked in a cell.
• • •
Two weeks later, Emmett strolled out of the prison gate with a paper bag holding all of his worldly goods. His lawyer had offered to pick him up, but Emmett had told him he already had a ride. If Bane and his buddy weren’t waiting for him, he’d find his own way back to his old neighborhood. He didn’t have any emotional connection to the place, but at least some of it would be familiar, even after a fifteen-year absence.
From there, well, he’d have to see. It depended on whether he really did have a job waiting for him, or if he’d have to start looking for one on his own. He blinked against the glare of the sun and tried to shield his eyes with his hand. He’d always had a sensitivity to bright lights, but his sunglasses seemed to have gone missing from his belongings. He’d almost decided to start walking when a truck roared into the parking lot and came to an abrupt halt a few feet in front of him.
The darkened window on the driver’s side rolled down, and Trahern leaned his head out to look down at Emmett. “Sorry I’m late. There was a wreck on the highway that had traffic backed up for a mile.”
“Get in, and we’ll leave this place in the dust.”
After Emmett got himself settled in the cab of the truck, Trahern glanced at him and then pointed toward the console. “There’s a spare pair of sunglasses in there if you want to use them.”
Emmett dug them out and shut the lid. “Thanks.”
Meanwhile, Trahern put the truck in gear and made good on his promise to get Emmett away from the hellhole that had been his home for a decade and a half. They’d gone several miles before Trahern tossed Emmett a credit card. “Bane wants to meet with you later this afternoon. In the meantime, he booked you into a motel close to where we work and paid for two weeks in advance. He said to tell you the room was yours for that long even if you decide to turn down the job, no strings attached. That card is preloaded with twenty-five hundred dollars. You can use it for whatever you need: clothes, food, or a deposit on an apartment. The same rules apply.”
All right, this was getting weirder by the second. No one threw money around like this without expecting something in return, and most likely something illegal. He tossed the card back. “Let me out at the next exit.”
Trahern kept on driving. “Don’t get all bent out of shape. Give the man a chance to explain everything, and then decide. You’re probably not ready to hear this, but we take care of our own. If you accept the job, you can pay back the money out of your first month’s salary if you want. If you turn it down, you can try to work out a payment schedule with Devlin. I’m telling you right now, though, you’ll have a difficult time convincing him to let you do that.”
“There’s nothing saying I have to use the card at all.”
“Yeah, good luck with that. The man’s sneaky and has a stubborn streak a mile wide to go with it. Devlin’s also hardheaded, short-tempered, and known for getting his point across with a strong left hook, but you won’t find a more loyal friend. If he says he’s got your back, he means it. Bottom line, he’s the best man I’ve ever known.”
Trahern glanced at Emmett. “And if you tell him I said that, I’ll kick your ass. Got that?”
And he did. Maybe these guys did have a lot in common with him. Only time would tell whether he wanted to hook up with them long term.
• • •
Six hours later, Emmett walked back into his motel room hungry, tired, and pissed-off. He resisted the urge to punch the wall. It wouldn’t solve anything, and he’d worked hard the past fifteen years on how to control his temper.
But damn it all to hell! He should have known better than to think Bane and his buddies were on the up-and-up. They were full-on whack-jobs. His only question was why they’d invited him to their crazy little party in the first place.
After swearing Emmett to secrecy, Bane had shown him around their headquarters, located in the Seattle Underground, of all places. He’d explained about Regents and Paladins. Next, he’d taken him into a huge gym where the two of them had watched a bunch of other guys working out with swords. Okay, maybe they were all into some off-brand form of martial arts. He could’ve dealt with that; it might have even been fun.
Then Devlin had introduced him to three long-haired guys with freaky pale eyes and announced they were illegal aliens. And not the kind who came over the Mexican border. No, they’d entered Seattle from another world by crossing an energy barrier. To prove his point, Devlin had taken Emmett on a stomach-turning elevator ride way the hell down to some tunnels deep below the streets. Once there, Devlin and his buddies had put on one hell of a light show just for Emmett’s benefit. Even now, hours later, he could swear he felt the buzz of that shimmering sheet of energy straight through to his bones. He’d played along with the man, pretending to believe every outrageous lie they’d told him.
At the end of the tour, Devlin’s wife, who was some kind of doctor-slash-scientist, had taken samples of Emmett’s blood and swabbed the inside of his cheek. Something about trying to track down who among the Paladins might be related to him. Even if they found someone, did they really expect them to hold a family reunion? He’d been on his own since his mother had died when he was in his teens.
So Emmett had ended the tour with a “thanks, but no thanks.” Devlin didn’t argue, and Trahern had escorted Emmett back out of the complex. Before dropping him off at the motel, he’d handed Emmett a blank business card with a handwritten phone number on it and instructions to call anytime, night or day, if he changed his mind or just wanted to talk. He also said they’d share anything interesting the tests showed.
Back in his room, Emmett considered throwing the card away, but in the end he shoved it in his wallet. For now, he’d settle for a shower and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow he’d use the money Devlin had given him on some decent clothes and a few other necessities. After that, he’d start the hunt for a place to live and a job. One that didn’t involve nutcases swinging swords.