The staircase she waited on was chilly and damp, a result of the rain that was still falling. It wasn't an ideal location or circumstance to be in, but it would have to do. She had seen how wrong the events of the evening would go, and there hadn't been time to warn anyone. It was something she was just going to have to take care of on her own. Now here she sat crouched in the shadows, waiting to perform a task that hadn't been assigned to her.
There were the footsteps. One of her colleagues would be not far away, and Aidan Murphy wouldn't have to wait more than mere seconds until it was time to step in and prevent everything from going horribly, horribly wrong.
If only she had seen the bigger picture, she would have realized the death she was about to prevent was small fish compared to the ultimate result its solicitor sought to obtain.
Reagan Byrne never felt so at home as when he woke up to the smell of his mother's cooking. This morning it seemed to be pancakes, bacon, and coffee. The scent wafted his way, tinged with the smell of eggs frying in the same pan his grandmother had used for years before. He rolled over on the comfortable mattress he had slept on since he was in middle school and stretched. A yawn escaped from his throat, and he smiled contentedly for a moment before lifting himself from the bed and making way for the kitchen.
He padded down the hall, a chill running down his spine. Reagan certainly didn't remember the house being this cold. As he continued to walk, his feet felt heavier; they were no longer bare but instead were covered with the weighty combat boots that were part of his camouflage uniform. His muscles became weighed down with the Kevlar vest and helmet he wore and the heavy rifle slung over his shoulder. The warm, homey scents that had woken him were now masked by the smell of gunpowder and blood.
Just like every other night, the screams invaded his ears. Reagan covered them with his hands, but it didn't drown out the dying sounds of his comrades. Bombs were going off all around him, and one hit so close that it knocked him to the ground; his ears no longer burned with deathly screams, but rung out in the wake of the explosion.
Normally the dream would end there, but something else was happening now. Snow fell all around Reagan on the ground. He could still see the destruction around him, but instead of ash and shrapnel, the snow covered everything around him. Instead of death and explosions, all he could smell was sunshine. The ringing slowly subsided and the screams were again within an audible volume. Before the sound raged again, a girl – or perhaps woman, as she didn't appear to be much younger than Reagan himself – approached him, offering her hand to help him up off the ground.
Her skin was soft and left him feeling comforted and peaceful; it was much like he would imagine death to feel.
"Who are you?" Reagan asked.
The woman smiled. "They call me the Angel of Death."
But it couldn't be. She was flawlessly beautiful, dressed in a white cloak and with eyes that were a strange mix of brown and green he hadn't seen before; a black ring circled the irises that were covered with some sort of metallic sheen.
A crash outside of his barracks room startled Reagan from this new image. He shot straight up in his rack and tried to orient himself. The time on the clock next to him told him that he had another hour of sleep before it was his turn to take over in the duty hut, but the scuffling sounds following the crash spurred him out the door.
"Tyson, get out here!" Reagan urged his best friend and roommate as he followed the sounds.
Reagan didn't wait to hear confirmation of Ben covering him, just followed the running footsteps he could still hear. He took a shortcut through the barracks building and caught up just a few feet behind the two intruders; he didn't recognize either person, and one appeared to be female.
"Stop!" he ordered behind them, but it was in vain. They continued down the street and into the shadows behind another building.
I didn't sign on for this, Aidan thought to herself as she chased after her colleague. Nick Mastema had never been her favorite to work with anyway, but as he was one of the strongest fallen angels, he was the only one to nearly parallel her value to The Division. To find him now trying to kill the only lower-rank personnel who would one day be key in preventing an attack on the President, that really grated on Aidan's nerves.
"Mastema!" she yelled. "Slow down!"
But he didn't even attempt to slow himself down. They rounded a corner of the barracks building and Aidan was suddenly aware of more running footsteps behind them. There was no time to try and figure out who it was or why he was following them, although by his shouts she was guessing he was a comrade of Mastema's target. Focusing on Mastema's next move, Aidan pushed herself off the sidewalk, into the air and up to the roof of the building.
There's going to be some questions to answer after this, she thought as she jumped from one building to the next, trying to get ahead of Mastema. If she could be in the alley before he got to his hiding spot, then there might be a chance to stop him.
Reagan nearly toppled over on the sidewalk when he saw her jump to the roof and leap to the next building as though she was jumping hurdles on a track field. He had never seen a human feat like that, and it certainly caught him unawares.
While he was trying to figure out what natural abilities would allow the woman to jump so high and so effortlessly, he lost track of the man. He slowed to a complete stop and peered around a couple of corners but didn't see anything.
"Who do you think you're following?" a male voice sneered in his ear, quickly followed by a brawny arm wrapping around his neck. Reagan tried to wriggle loose from the chokehold, but it was nearly impossible. The best he could make out was that the man he had been following somehow ended up following him.
"I'm on duty," was the best he could manage.
"It may be your last, Corporal Byrne," the man replied.
Fight though he tried, Reagan could not free himself from the other man's grip. He dragged his feet and even tried to bite and claw at the other man, but it was no use. They soon found themselves in an alleyway that Reagan was only vaguely familiar with; his head pounded into the nearby brick wall. His ears rang out like the bomb exploding in his dream.
He saw the other man's fist rear back and even though he braced himself for it, the punch to his gut hurt like nothing he had ever felt before. The next strike split his lip, and the following one connected with his eye, although it felt like it cracked his entire skull.
A shadow over them diminished what little light was left in the alleyway. Reagan's attacker was distracted for just a second, but it was enough time for Reagan to make a strike of his own. It barely fazed the other man, but it was enough of a distraction again for the shadow to drop down on the attacker, both bodies toppling onto the wet cement.
"Get off me!" Mastema yelled, fighting to gain control over Aidan. She straddled herself over him, pinning his arms to the ground.
She snarled near his face. "What are you doing, Nick? You know how vital Anson is!"
Mastema was able to get one hand free and back-handed Aidan, freeing himself and causing her to lose balance. Her hands stung as they scraped on the cement. Nick picked her up and threw her further down the alley, smirking as she crashed into a row of heavy metal barrels.
"No, Murphy, you know how vital Anson is to keeping the President alive. The rest of us only know that he is vital in the ruin of an important conspiracy."
"Conspiracy?" Aidan repeated. "Who exactly are you working for?"
"The Division," Mastema grinned back to her; an evil grin that made Aidan's skin crawl – and one that flared her anger like nothing she had experienced before.
Mastema flung himself at her, but her anger had fueled her on to be prepared. Without moving her stance, Aidan reached for Mastema's head, turned him around and swiftly ended his existence.
The snap of his attacker's neck was like nothing Reagan had ever heard before. Oh, he was aware that a person's neck could be snapped by another person, but he'd never seen it done before – and never imagined it to be so swift and effortless as this woman made it happen.
She approached him slowly and with a weary glare. Reagan opened his mouth to assure her he meant no harm, but speaking was too much for his aching head. He fell to his knees, holding his arm out to ward her off. The ringing in his ears resumed, and Reagan winced in pain.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she told him, holding out her hand to keep him from falling face first to the ground. "You need medical attention, Corporal Byrne."
She knew his name. Reagan grasped her hand; her voice was like Heaven and her skin was softer than anything he had ever felt. Something about her scent was so familiar … like the sun coming up after a long night.
"Who are you?" he asked, sputtering blood from his lip as he spoke.
She lifted him from the ground, wrapping her arms around his waist and positioning his arms around her torso to keep him from falling over. His face was incredibly close to hers, and although his eyes were growing heavy, he managed to catch her familiar, comforting look before he couldn't keep them open anymore. Just before he blacked out, Reagan heard her answer.
"They call me the Angel of Death."
Aidan entered her apartment and threw her weapons belt across the room. Her frustrations were in multiple places. First with Mastema; what had he meant, that Anson was going to ruin a conspiracy? What conspiracy could Mastema possibly be aware of that she hadn't already seen? She was going to have to answer to the higher-ups for Mastema's death, but Mastema had been confident in his answer that he was working for The Division in his attack. Perhaps it was better to play dumb until someone contacted her.
Then there was the matter of the Corporal. He had seen both Mastema and herself, and the killing. She knew that Byrne's fellow Marine, Jared Anson, wasn't in great shape either; one Marine in a bad condition could be explained away. But two, yards away from each other? That was going to take some fast-talking.
"And what was I thinking, leaving him there like that?" Aidan scolded herself.
She knew why. In the seconds-long gaze they shared before Reagan Byrne blacked out, she saw them working together, fighting a force her visions had yet to name. It was nearly in a panic that she had gently laid him down in that alleyway and fled as his fellow Marines finally caught up to them, yelling for Reagan.
Shaking her head again and grabbing for her car keys, Aidan fled her apartment and headed for the once place she felt like her life couldn't touch her.
The three men met in the shadows and hushed voices. Mastema's death meant that his target was still alive; the conspiracy was still vulnerable to interference.
"Do we know who killed him? Certainly not Anson."
One of the other men shook his head. "No. From the looks of things, it wasn't a human kill."
"And the Corporal?"
"Still unconscious. We won't know what he saw or what he knows until he can tell us."
The third man nodded. "Then let's make sure someone is there when he wakes up – in fact, make it Aidan Murphy. If anyone can get information out of anyone, it will be her."
"Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. It has been … one day since my last confession."
"Tell me your sins."
Aidan took a deep breath and began to unload her soul. There was no holding anything back from this priest; he had known Aidan since birth. He was aware of how her existence came to be, and assured her that she had a soul worth saving. With his guidance, she had become a devout Catholic at a young age. Father Jerome had performed her baptism, her first communion – every rite she had gone through since her life began, and there was not one secret Aidan possessed that this man did not know.
"Something else is troubling you?" Father Jerome asked when they stepped out of the confessional.
"Mastema was talking about a conspiracy. His target is to be the preventor, but Mastema said he wanted the conspiracy to go through. I asked him exactly who he was working for, and he said The Division. The way he said it though …" She shook her head, unable to find the words to complete her thought.
Father Jerome frowned. "I thought the mission of The Division was to not let those conspiracies happen?"
"It is," Aidan nodded. "I don't know. I've got to report in to the office. I'm sure I'll see you soon, Father."
"Go in peace," he bid her.
Aidan didn't turn around as she exited the cathedral. Her supervisors would tell her what was going to pan out on the Mastema situation; in the meantime she would do just as she planned and play dumb. Now if she could just figure out the situation with the Corporal.
Ron Botis, her immediate supervisor, was the first to approach her when she took a seat at her desk and booted up her computer.
"Murphy," he barked. "Anything new to report?"
She looked at him as though it was a trick question. "I did have one vision last night …"
"Did it involve Mastema? That cranky bottomdweller was murdered last night, and we need to know who did it." He took a deep breath. "George Uvall is having a fit. Roman Asmoday himself is going to come down from the Pentagon and investigate."
Aidan took a deep breath. George Uvall was the head of The Division, and Roman Asmoday was even above him – the connection from their small office directly to the Pentagon. She didn't need to be a psychic or have the intellectual capacity of a fallen angel to know that killing Mastema was going to end her career.
"No. Just something for the log books, sir."
"All right. Keep me updated. Oh, and there was a Corporal left on the scene. He's unconscious at the Naval Hospital right now. Asmoday requested specifically that you be there when he wakes up."
The frame of the bigger picture took up place in Aidan's mind. She was vaguely aware that the thing she wasn't comprehending about Mastema's attack was right in front of her face. Without letting on to anything, she nodded, picked up her keys and badge and headed back for the base.
"He's been in and out of consciousness, but only mumbling things we can't understand," Reagan heard a nurse inform someone. "I'll leave you to wait here."
The door shut quietly, and he squirmed in the hospital bed. His head ached ferociously, and his mouth was dry. Whoever had been left in the room approached the bed; as his eyes focused, he thought for sure he was slipping into death and that this angel was coming to claim him.
"Corporal Byrne?" the woman spoke.
That voice was familiar. He'd heard it not once but twice before and it had the same comfort as the previous times. The smell of a warm sunrise filled the room, and he glanced up at the metallic hazel orbs staring down at him.
"Angel of Death," he managed to get out. "Right?"
The woman looked a little shocked, but nodded. "Something like that. My name is Aidan Murphy and I work for a little-known division of the Department of Defense. I have some questions for you about what you saw."
Reagan struggled to sit up, so she helped him reposition the pillows so he was in a more comfortable spot. "I saw you."
"Why don't you start from the beginning, Corporal."
"Reagan," he told her. "Call me Reagan, please. Can I have a drink of water before we start this? My mouth is incredibly dry."
Aidan nodded and grabbed for a plastic cup on a table nearby. "I think it's probably that flat lemon-lime soda they always give you in hospitals."
"From what I saw earlier, I wouldn't have imagined you'd have many hospital run-ins."
"Very few beings are indestructible," she answered. "Please, tell me what you saw."
"Not much, really. I was on the sleep shift in my room. Ben Tyson had about an hour to go before I relieved him, and I heard a crash outside. Never did see exactly what it was. Then I saw you and the other guy running. I tried to keep up, but you two are incredibly fast. When you jumped up to the roof, I got distracted and the guy got some hits in. Then you jumped him, and then next thing I know, his neck is broken."
"Did he say anything to you?"
Reagan shook his head. "Only asked me what I was doing. I told him I was on duty."
Aidan swallowed hard. "Are you sure it was me you saw in the alley? Perhaps the concussion has confused you and what you remember."
"No, I'm sure it was you. There's no way I could forget."
"You sound awfully confident."
"I had seen you once before," Reagan answered. "It sounds crazy, but it was a dream."
"Yes, a dream. There were bombs going off and one explosion knocked me out. You were there. Your voice, your touch, your smell. Especially your eyes, I remember. It was you, Ms. Murphy."
"Aidan," she corrected.
"It was you I saw in the alley, and it was you in my dream, Aidan."
"Fair enough." She stood, taking a deep breath. "I have to apologize to you, Reagan."
He was confused. "Apologize for what? You haven't done anything. Unless maybe it was you who pissed that guy off and got him running."
"Take another drink," she urged him. "It sounds like you're slurring a little; maybe your mouth is becoming dry again."
Reagan hadn't noticed, but he did feel somewhat groggy. He took the cup as she offered it and drank down the rest of the contents. Almost immediately he was feeling sleepy again, and he couldn't gain control over his eyelids.
"When you wake up," Aidan assured him, "You'll definitely want the apology."
She was surprised that her credentials were enough to get Reagan dismissed from the hospital and released into her care, but it worked out for Aidan. She managed to get him in her car and took him back to her apartment while she decided where else they could go. Once her co-workers at The Division realized she'd gone fugitive with the only witness to Mastema's death, there was going to be hell to pay.
Although that nagging feeling that she should understand what was going on still plagued her, Aidan still had yet to see how The Division was tied to the future conspiracy. Perhaps it was because her mind was preoccupied with the realization that the one entity besides her mother she had come to trust over the years was not so infallible as she thought.
Aidan's home line rang, and it not only startled her to attention but woke her charge as well. While trying to assure Reagan to stay calm and she would explain everything, she grabbed the wireless receiver and waited for a number to show across the display.
"Mom," she breathed. Aidan was hit with relief that it wasn't someone from The Division at the same time fear overtook her at her mother's well-being. "How are you?"
"I'm all right, darling. I didn't expect you to be home; I was just going to leave you a message."
"You didn't call the office line, did you?"
Aidan could hear the frown in her mother's reply. "No. Why?"
"Look, Mom, it's nothing to worry about. Just don't call the office, at least for a few days. If you need me, call the mobile."
Tanya Murphy wasn't sure at all what to make of her daughter's caution. "Aidan, if there's something going on, then you need to tell me."
"I can't talk to you about it right now. I'm fine, and I'm going to be fine. I just need to figure some things out." Taking a deep breath, she braced herself for how contradictory her next words would sound to that statement. "But I think you should take a few days off work and go to Uncle Eric's. If anyone from The Division tries to contact you, tell them that besides a brief conversation when I said I couldn't talk to you, we haven't spoken. All right?"
"You're scaring me, Aidan."
Aidan closed her eyes. "I know, Mom, and I'm sorry. I promise you, I'll explain everything as soon as I can. Just get to Uncle Eric's and I will meet you there in a couple of days."
Tanya let out a slow breath. "All right. One more thing."
"I love you."
Aidan let go of a small smile. "I love you, too, Mom. I'll see you soon."
With that, she ended the call and turned back to Reagan who had pushed himself into a sitting position.
"You're right," he told her. "That apology is appreciated."
"I had to do something to knock you out again," Aidan told him in an apologetic tone. "No one from my office can find out I'm the one who killed Nick Mastema."
Reagan frowned. "I'm not following you at all."
"There are things about the government you don't know. Somehow and for some reason though, you and I have both been played into the whole thing. I just can't figure out what's really going on yet. Until then, I think it's best that we lay low."
"'We?'" Reagan said, pushing off the couch. His knees wobbled slightly, but he managed to gain balance. "What do you mean, 'we'?"
"I mean just what I said. You and I, we've been caught up in the middle of all of this, and at least one of us wasn't supposed to be."
"I'm assuming you're the one of us who wasn't supposed to be caught up in this?"
Aidan just held his gaze for a moment before shaking her head. "There isn't time to explain everything right now. We've got to be prepared for what's coming, even if I'm not entirely sure what that is just yet. If you come with me now, I swear, I'll explain everything in due time." If we wait long enough, it won't need much of an explanation anyway, she thought to herself.
Reagan took a deep breath. His head was spinning and he wasn't entirely sure that it had anything to with the injuries he'd sustained.
"All right. I'm in – for now."
Aidan nodded and found her car keys and mobile before ushering him out to her car. There was only one safe haven from all of this that she could think of, and that's where they would have to go.