Another raven, another case closed. I stood back from the marker board I’d assembled next to the door of my shitty apartment and stared at the stamp I’d just placed there. Well, the place isn’t so shitty. I mean, on a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a six. I’m in the middle of a bum-fucked desert—sand everywhere—nothing but Joshua trees, yucca plants to keep me company, and a bar I chose to stay out of, due to Window Rock’s notorious reputation, I had to deduct points.
I didn’t grow up here. I was raised in the northeast, near Baltimore. My parents were Edgar Allan Poe fanatics and believed they shared some weird kinship to him because my father shared his name, we’re raven-shifters and my mother’s great-grandmother’s middle name had been sweet Lenore—minus the sweet part. Every Halloween, my dad would shift and sit on the railing of our porch and screech out Nevermore in this hideously macabre tone, scaring the shit out of the neighbor kids. More than a few times, parents complained about the animatronic bird who frightened their poor Jimmy, days later.
Instead of my father being contrite about the incidences, he started planning right away for the next year, and what he'd do to terrorize the community. At one point, my parents also tried to buy the notorious Poe house, even though it's a museum. They wanted to host parties there all year round. Of course, it fell through, but you get the picture. There's not a sane bone in their bodies. I suppose, there isn't a sane one in mine either.
When I grew older, their shenanigans became too much for me. I love my parents to death. I’d take a bullet for both of them to make sure they lived, however, a guy could only be kissed so many times by his mom on the cheek while his friends were present. After the last time, I started looking for a job, someplace where I could find myself and give myself, and my parents, some room. Why I chose the middle of nowhere, in some dirt-water town, I don’t know, but the job was too much to resist.
The advertisement I’d seen at the local community college sounded intriguing. Join an elite squad of highly trained humans and shifters... blah, blah, blah. The rest, what hadn’t been said on paper, went deeper. Go places no one else can. Below the initial paragraph explaining, vaguely, who they were, was a list of jobs. Trackers, hunters, skilled marksmen, computer hackers aka: IT professionals, and grunts.
I had skills. I could hunt with the best of them, and since ravens were known for their scavenger skills, I could take nothing and make it into something. I was quick on my feet, too. I made several phone calls that day. I needed to know this new start-up agency was legit. After the third confirmation from a man named Rapier Dryer, I decided to take the test and see if I’d be a fit for the job.
That had been three years ago.
I never looked back. I might bitch about where I live, but I liked it out here. I also hated it. In the last three years, I learned just how depraved people could be to one another. On my first case with my new friends Mane and Crow, we found a little girl chained to a post in the middle of a room. The only thing she wore had been a three-inch thick black leather collar. She had a small waste bucket in the corner that I doubted the chain reached, and a teddy bear. She stunk to high heaven and on top of everything else, she was half feral. The little she-kitten had been taken from her pride in South America and brought to the states to experiment on.
The kitten had telepathic abilities, and the Paranormal Bounty Hunters wanted her. Twenty-five years ago, the PBH had been shut down after a rogue handler and his agent/lover left a trail of destruction in their wake. They killed a senator's son, chased two women to Window Rock and created twins with a shifter to try and make a super race of beings. The two women who showed up in Window Rock were the mates to Kalkin and Caden Raferty and ran the orphanage where Mane, Crow, and I brought the children we rescued. The twins were also mated now. Both had children of their own and worked within the community of Window Rock. Their shifter father was also a member of the sheriff's department.
Like I told my mom the last time I talked to her, I’d never find a more rewarding job than working for the Psychic Retrieval Agency—PRA for short. Not only did I free kids from a life of torture and sadness, I got to watch them change and come out of their self-imposed hells. Of the forty-five children we’d saved so far, fifteen of them were placed with families within the community. The others were either waiting on a judge to emancipate them, or, Maria—one of the intake workers for the orphanage—would try to track down all known next of kin for the kids, so they could be reunited with their biological families. And, each of those families were given the opportunity to join us in the desert. See, Window Rock and Apache County have become a stronghold. No one, and I mean no one, from PBH is allowed inside our county. The deal Kalkin struck with the then leader of PBH had been reinforced by the then Senator Winters, before he too became a mate and retired from the senate...
My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I reached for it. This last mission had taken two weeks. I was dead tired and could use about a month, if not a year’s, worth of sleep. The little boy was with Danielle being assessed for how serious his injuries were. If they were too bad, she’d have to send him to the hospital for care, which meant I’d have to go with him to protect him.
Kalkin’s ugly mug filled the screen of my phone, and I groaned. He didn’t have to tell me I was going back to work, I already knew it as I slid my thumb across the screen to answer it. “Parker not improving?” I didn’t even lead out with pleasantries, didn’t have to with the alpha. It was small talk, and he didn’t have time for it. Nor the temperament.
“He’s doing just fine. I think the pup has taken to Danielle. She is a magnet for strays.” I could hear the familial affection in his voice.
“What’s one more Raferty right?” I’d heard all of the elder Raferty men say it a time or two over the years.
“Exactly,” Kalkin answered. “Look, kid, I know you just got home, but I have a priority case I need you for. It can’t be anyone else but you.”
I hated when he called me kid, and I hated when he said only I could do a job. All of us were uniquely capable of doing the job, Kalkin just enjoyed giving me the shit jobs. I kind of thought he got off on it. “Are you sure you can’t get anyone else to do it?”
“I would if I could,” Kalkin replied. “I’ve emailed you the file on the girl. Her name is Haley, and she is a raven shifter like you.”
Color me shocked. I stood there not sure what to say. “You’re sure?”
“She’s been in the human foster care system for sixteen years. We needed her here yesterday. Jerome has made allowances for you to use the agency jet to reach her. You have twelve hours to sleep and pack up. The plane takes off at 0500 hours.”
A Raven shifter? I’d been stuck on the thought of another like me, out there without her family. Now, don’t think I went all mushy, I didn’t. I’d never heard of a familial conspiracy—don’t laugh, I know it’s a fucked-up name for what we’re called—not caring for one of their own. “0500,” I stated, still confused by my mission.
“Sleep, read over the information, and have your ass on the plane. Same protocol as always. You’ll have access to all the safe houses; a car will be waiting at the airstrip for you, and if you need them a field operative will be available to assist you.”
Kalkin didn’t even say goodbye, he hung up on me. Typical. Asshole. I went over to where I'd placed my laptop bag and grabbed it. Taking it, a bottle of Jack, and the dinner I'd picked up from the diner in town, I made my way to my room. If Kalkin said I had twelve hours to sleep and make it to the plane, I had more like ten. Might as well eat and research this raven kid. I placed my laptop on the small desk in my room along with my food before sitting.
My stomach gave an appreciative growl as I popped open the to-go box. My mouth watered. I ate a few fries while I waited for my laptop to boot up then poured myself a glass of whiskey. I earned it. Don’t judge.
After I scarfed the majority of my burger, I checked my email. I don't know what I expected in terms of information on Haley. However, I did curse under my breath at the code name given to her: Nevermore. Jerome Blackhorn, one of the co-owners of PRA and Kalkin Raferty were sick individuals, I’d give them that much.
Usually, when I received a file, I had a little more than three pages to go off of, and one of them wasn’t a report card, yet, I stared at it. The girl was bright. Straight A’s. She did have a temper, though, and that’s where things got a little hairy. Besides being a raven shifter like me, she also had the ability to control fire–pyrokinesis. Seems in the last few months, she’d used those abilities, putting herself out in the open.
She'd caught the eye of the PBH, Paranormal Bounty Hunters, after a video surfaced of her using her abilities, and they were tracking her—hard. The head doctors within the PBH agency wanted her. They would brainwash her, train her to be a lean, mean killing machine. She'd go off to war as a piece of property for the United States Government, not as a child who needed a family. The burger I'd inhaled, didn't sit right in my stomach anymore.
Any thoughts of sleeping went out the window the minute I stared at her photograph. All I saw was sadness. Isolation. Fear. She had long black hair like mine and the palest of grey eyes I’d ever seen before. She had fine-boned features—delicate cheeks, almond-shaped eyes, and heart-shaped lips. Her skin was a shade of warm honey, denoting her young beauty. In a few years, guys would be stepping all over themselves to date her. A part of me hated the idea, not in a sick twisted pedophilia way, but in protective sort of way. She’d already been through so much, I didn’t want to see her hurt anymore.
If I had to guess as I continued to read the non-existent file of hers, she didn't go to regular school either. Maybe the foster facility where she stayed did a sort of homeschooling thing or distance learning. Hell, it didn't matter anymore, the only thing that did matter was the girl needed to get to safety or else.
The "or else," scared the shit out of me. I shut down my laptop, then took a long hardy pull from my whiskey bottle. The remaining food sitting in front of me didn't seem all too appealing anymore. Kalkin was right. I needed to sleep because Haley was going to need me.
By the next morning, I still had a rock sitting in the middle of my stomach. I didn't like the idea of not having a complete workup of a mark, especially one so fragile. I could be strolling into a trap for all we knew. However, I also realized I couldn't not go. Haley needed me as much as I needed a vacation. I grabbed my go-pack, laptop, and keys and headed out the door.
Parked behind my truck, sat Kalkin’s sheriff’s vehicle. He leaned against the front quarter panel of SUV, pretty-as-you-please, sipping on a to-go cup of coffee. Smug bastard. “Kalkin.”
"Morning," he said. "Get in. I'll take you to the airfield. No sense in leaving your truck where anyone can see it."
"Why do I have a feeling this is a little more intense than previous cases?" I placed my stuff in the backseat then got in beside the alpha.
"It is." He handed me a stack of papers and a pen. "Sign these."
“What it is?”
He sighed. “For all intents and purposes, for this case, you will become Haley’s new father.”
I didn’t think I heard him right. “Uh, what?”
“You heard me. For the remainder of this mission, you will be Haley’s father. You will treat her like she is your biological offspring. Got it?”
No? Didn’t I get a say? “Mane might be your best bet for father of the year here, Kalkin.”
“Shut up and sign the damn papers. I swear you whine more than my sons did when I asked them to take the trash out.” Kalkin pulled out of the driveway and headed for the empty field five minutes outside of town.
“How is this supposed to work exactly?” I tried to focus on the words in the document in front of me, but they all became a jumbled blur of nothing.
“One of our people knows you’re coming. He will meet you at the orphanage and expedite the paperwork for you. He will explain to the person in charge that you’d heard about Haley and wanted to help her out.”
Sounded too easy. Whenever something appeared too “figured out,” that’s when things went south. I had a feeling the same would happen here. “And, how would I have found Haley or heard of her?”
Kalkin grinned. It wasn’t friendly either. The bastard knew how to go for the jugular, and the gut, when need be. “They like to tape their kids. Special ones like Haley also come at a price. You pay the amount they’re looking for, and you have yourself a pyro on your hands.”
“And that’s really how PBH found out. Fuck!” I could kick all of their asses in the foster care home.
“Yep. Since you’ve already made the initial payment for Haley, she’s all yours. Your contact will deliver the rest of the payment once Haley is released into your custody, hence why I couldn’t get Mane or Crow to do this job. It’s up to you to get Haley back here before those psychic bastards find out the truth and hunt both of you down.” He stopped the SUV beside the gate leading to the landing strip. “I trust you to bring her home. Keep the paperwork with you at all times. Don’t let the girl out of your sight.”
I nodded. “I’ll call after I make contact and we’re moving.”
“Good, get some sleep while you’re flying. You have a good six-hour flight ahead of you.”
“Where am I going?” I hadn’t even thought to look at the name of the city where she was living. I’d only cared about all the other, more important parts.
“New York,” he answered. “Should be right up your alley.”
“I’m from Baltimore.”
“Same difference,” Kalkin grumbled. “Now, get the fuck out of here. You’re wasting time.”
I grabbed my shit out of the back then double-timed it to the plane. Once we were in the air, I sent a text to my mom. It was a long shot, but if I could get Haley out of New York without issue, we could hole up at my parents’ place, then start the long haul of driving tomorrow morning.
Instead of texting me back, she called. “Midnight,” she chirped after I said hello. “Why are you calling so early, are you okay?”
As if she weren’t already up, embracing the day. “I’m fine, mom. I thought I might come by tonight, maybe stay there. I’ll have a... friend with me.”
She kind of knew what I did for a living, but I didn’t like to make her worry. I was their only child after all, and if she knew the kinds of scraps I’d been in more times than not, she’d have a coronary. “Of course. I’ll have the guest room made up, and we’ll make your favorite for dinner.”
Jesus, I hated when she made me feel equal parts embarrassed and loved. "Thanks, mom, I appreciate it."
“Not a problem. Do you know what time?”
"I don't. I hope not to be too late, though. I'll call when I'm on the way." The drive would only take a couple of hours, even with traffic. Still, with PBH nipping at Haley's heels I couldn't be too careful. I'd have to go the back way.
“Sounds wonderful, dear. Be safe. I love you, son.”
Shit. Right. In. The. Feels. “Love you too, mom. See you tonight.”