CHIMERA [The CHIMERA Novels #1]
From Rob Thurman, NEW YORK TIMES Bestselling Author of The CAL LEANDROS Novels, comes a sci-fi thriller that questions what makes us human, what makes us unique…
…And what makes us kill.
Ten years ago, Stefan Korsak’s younger brother was kidnapped. No one knew who took Lukas, or why. He was simply gone. But not a day has passed that Stefan hasn’t thought about him. As a rising figure in the Russian mafia, he has finally found him.
But when he rescues Lukas, he must confront a terrible truth-his brother is no longer his brother. He is a killer. Trained, brainwashed, and genetically transformed into a flesh-and-blood machine with only one purpose-assassination. Now, those who created him… will do anything to reclaim him.
And the closer Stefan grows to his brother, the more he realizes that saving Lukas may be easier than surviving him…
“A contemporary thriller with science fiction underpinnings that blends elements of medical speculation à la Cook and Crichton with the breakneck pacing and psychological suspense of novels by Koontz and Kellerman.”
-Paul Goat Allen, Barnes & Noble Book Reviews
Five hours later, I nearly lost my brother again.
It was in a public restroom. Forget the eye-watering stench of the flowery disinfectant that was worse than the smell it was meant to cover up. Ignore the tile colored a puke green that made your stomach heave and gave you a desire to check the bottom of your shoes. Concentrate instead on puffy white feet, one in a cheap loafer, one bare and twisted to the side. Take a look at those as they show beneath the stall door. White, white skin splotched with purple veins and resting in a puddle of blood so fresh that the warmth of it steamed against the icy tile.
Yeah, take a good look. Here’s someone in the wrong place at the worst of times. Much like Michael found himself. I couldn’t know exactly what that felt like to him, but I could hazard a guess. His stomach would be stretched comfortably full with a mystery meat hamburger and an order of fries that would’ve foundered an elephant. I would bet he stopped at the mirrors over the sink, still started by the blond hair that flashed at him from the corner of his eye. Maybe he looked at his reflection and tried, despite himself, to remember a young boy with the same blond hair. Or maybe he just groaned at the bleached mop and cursed me under his breath.
I’d take three to one on that second option.
With the door shut behind him, he didn’t see the man who slapped an out of order sign over the universal little stick man that made the bathroom safe for penis carrying men everywhere. He didn’t see it, but I did. And that was something they did not expect. They waited until I was around the corner buying Michael another apple pie with a chocolate shake to chase it down. It wasn’t the brightest move on their part. My body may have been around that corner, but my mind wasn’t. I hadn’t kept Konstantin alive, no matter how temporarily, by standing around with one thumb up my ass and the other in an apple pie. Jack fucking Horner I was not.
The sun hit the plate glass that lined the boxy building at the exact angle for a clear if phantom reflection of the rest of the so-called ‘restaurant’. My eyes were glued to it as I handed over a five to the cashier. As I paid, I’d seen a veritable parade of the full bladdered. There had been a pudgy old man in high waters and a white belt who’d entered the restroom at an urgent clip. He was followed by a man in jacket and jeans and then by Michael. My brother now took any and every opportunity at a toilet without leaves and bark.
I didn’t think much of the guy in the jacket. We were well into northern Florida by now and it had cooled into the forties and fifties. A jacket was the rule here, not the exception as in Miami. It was when the second man, denim jacket and baseball cap, taped the sign on the door with the speed and panache of Houdini that I immediately realized just how many guns one could hide in those jackets. The bastards had traded in their khakis, forsaking the Gap for Walmart.
They’d found us. In one damn day, they had found us. Again.
Leaving the shake on the counter, I shoved the boxed pie into my pocket and walked to the bathroom. In a bit of sleight of hand of my own I’d pulled my gun from the small of my back and hid it against my leg as I moved. That concealment would only buy me seconds at best before the cops were called considering that I planned on making one helluva of a commotion when I passed through that door. But that few seconds could mean the difference between getting away and being stuck behind bars as Jericho walked out of the police station with Michael. It might be with real government ID, bought and paid for, or with the expertly forged kind. Either way, they’d be gone. It took ten years to find my brother; I doubt I would be able to find him a second time. And that was making the rainbow fantasy assumption I’d live out the week to even try.
Jericho wasn’t that stupid and neither was I.
I kicked open the door hard enough to rip it from one hinge. There was an immediate reaction, in front of me and behind.
If life had taught us anything in the past few decades, it was that you could die violently in a public place long before you’d win the lottery. Psychos were everywhere. These fast food fans were at the top of their class on that news headline. To the back of me I heard fish patties and cheap plastic prizes hit the floor as lunch patrons stampeded. Good for the herd. If the aerosolized fat in the air didn’t kill them first, they just might survive.
The bathroom was fairly large. There was more than enough room for the two men to keep a safe distance from Michael. In the confines of the Institute he’d been obedient, but now he was an unknown. He’d gone along with his rescue and then ignored Jericho’s demands to return with him. They may have thought he’d been confused, inexplicably gone rogue, or simply transferred his submission to me. It could be that I’d already been identified as his brother and his sudden stubbornness could be pinned there.
The speculations didn’t matter. The two of them weren’t about to let Michael get close enough to make contact with them. No way, no how. They had him blocked into a corner by the urinal. He had his arms folded with his hands tucked tightly out of sight. He had even less desire to touch as they had to be touched. His life was at stake, yet he was desperate not to take the life of anyone else. That alone proved that Jericho, despite all his efforts, hadn’t tainted him. Couldn’t taint him.
One of the bastards aimed a peculiarly shaped pistol at Michael’s chest as the other pointed a gun that was completely familiar and completely lethal. The explosion of sound that was the door shattering had their heads whipping around. Michael’s eyes, as blankly impassive as his face, rose to meet mine. “I think I should’ve waited for the tree,” he said with darkly forced cheer.
Hopefully, I’d be able to remind him of that later. For now I slammed a foot into the back of the first man’s thigh before the startled expression had time to register on his face. Catapulting across the room, he crashed head first into the stall, but not before he’d pulled the trigger of his weapon. A dart flew through the air and hit the tile next to Michael’s shoulder. That’s why I hadn’t recognized it. It was some sort of tranquilizer gun. Jericho would take Michael out permanently before he’d risk exposure, but if he could recover him alive, safely and secretly, that could only boost his profit margin.
The second kidnapper was turning, attempting to shift his gun in my direction. He did come close, I’ll give him that. A definite A for effort, but I doubted that was much consolation. I fired the Steyr, and a bullet in his chest bowled him over backwards. A fine red spray flew from his mouth to dot the white porcelain of the sink. I didn’t know if he was still alive or not and truthfully I didn’t have time to wring my hands over it. The one who had cracked the stall like cheap cardboard was trying to climb to his knees. I could’ve shot him in the back easily enough. But the words I’d said to Michael came back to me. It’s not what you can do, but what you choose to do.
I chose to beat him senseless.
Grabbing a handful of his short brown hair, I cracked his skull repeatedly against the tile until he stopped twitching. It was the lesser of the evils. Unconsciousness and a fractured face, it beat death hands down…from the spit-bubble blowing vegetable’s point of view anyway. From my perspective leaving any of Jericho’s men alive wasn’t exactly in my best interest, but that was the price you paid to walk the path of the righteous. Yeah, world’s biggest frigging humanitarian, that was me.
“Come on, Michael,” I rapped. “Let’s go.”
Inscrutable gaze on the fallen men then on me, he flowed past me as insubstantial as a ghost. I followed behind him, my shoes flattening fries into greasy yellow skid marks. The restaurant was empty, but the glass doors were still swinging and people were sprinting through the parking lot. Taking Michael’s arm, I held him back and moved ahead of him as we reached the doors. “Stay behind me.” I scanned the lot with sharp, hard eyes. “And if I go down, run.” I tightened my grip on him. “Okay? Run like hell and find a Saul Skoczinsky in Miami. He’ll help you.”
He pressed his lips together, but reluctantly nodded when I gave him a quick prompting shake. “Don’t go down,” was all he said.
I’ll do my best, kiddo, I thought silently. And then I hit the door and the ground running. Michael shadowed my every step. People were everywhere, running or starting their cars to careen over curbs. It would be nice to think we blended in with them, but the guys inside had spotted us quickly enough despite our cosmetic changes. I didn’t have any reason to believe we’d be any better off exposed in the bright noon sun. We bolted between parked cars, their colors streaking in my peripheral vision like those of a bad abstract painting. Within a few steps I had to shove one hero wannabe with a hunting knife out of my way. He landed on the hood of a shiny Ford T-bird and slid across the ice slick wax job to drop out of sight on the other side. I kept going without missing a step. His good luck was our bad; we were halfway home when disaster struck. The sound of the gun firing came as I was already falling. A searing pain tracked across my side as the world rolled from beneath my feet. And then, despite my silent promise to Michael…
I went down.
“Not your fault.” His eyes focused on me long enough for me to catch the flash of automatic rejection before they dropped to the remote he picked up from the table. “And not my family.”
That merry-go-round again. It still showed no signs of stopping, but I hadn’t given up the hope it might at least slow down. One day. “You’re a stubborn little bastard,” I sighed as I twisted and flopped back onto the pillows. “Just like me, believe it or not. If that’s not a family trait then what the hell is it?”
I laughed. It was something else how in the middle of this huge mess the kid could make me laugh. Really something else. Rubbing the back of my hand across a five o’clock bristle that just wouldn’t quit, I admitted fondly, “You’ve got me there.”
Considering the loss of our money and the tripling of our travel time, I should’ve been in the worst of humors. But I wasn’t. I might be on the run and broke as hell, but I was still ahead of the game. I was still worlds away from the nightmare the last ten years of my life had been. Then I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I could.
It was enough.
The light chose that moment, not surprisingly, to wipe the complacent smile off my face with a few seemingly innocent words. “Stefan, I was wondering.” Casual pause. “Have you ever had sex?”
Okay, perhaps not so innocent, depending on how rigid your upbringing or how high your monthly porno budget. Covering my eyes with my hand, I gave a groan straight from the grave. “That’s a big subject change from Uncle Lev, Misha,” I pointed out hoarsely. “What brought this on?”
“This and that,” he answered with irritating cheer. “There’s my natural curiosity of course. We talked about that a few days ago.”
Yes, we had. And I’d given him the remote to the TV, free educational rein as it were. You would think that would satisfy him, but no.
“And then Fisher…that girl, whatever her name was, was…you know. Her eyes…her mouth. At me.”
I didn’t have to uncover my eyes. I could feel the heat of the blush fill the room. “Flirting,” I filled in hastily before he stumbled on.
Recovering smoothly, he said, “Flirting. She was flirting with me. That sort of thing isn’t done at the Institute. Flirting. Intercourse. It isn’t allowed.”
Intercourse. Jesus. No, I couldn’t imagine that it was. No horny teenagers were going to splash around in Jericho’s carefully crafted gene pool. Although it wouldn’t have been too long before he arranged something himself, a breeding…simply to see what it might produce.
“I know the mechanics of course.” He was relentless, horrifyingly relentless. “That was in the biology books. But I was curious about the specifics. So, if you have had sex….”
“Yes,” I spit out somewhat defensively before rolling over and covering my head with the pillow. With muffled voice, I went on, “I’ve had girlfriends, and I’ve had sex.” And please God, I begged internally conveniently forgetting my semi-agnostic ways, let that be the end of it. Naturally, it wasn’t.
At the fascinated tone in his voice, I flinched. Then with resignation I lifted the pillow just enough to gaze at him with one reluctant eye. “Yeah. When I was twenty-one, just like the law says.”
Confused, he tilted his head to one side. “Law?”
“It’s like drinking,” I lied without compunction. “You can’t drink or have sex until you’re twenty-one. We’ll buy you a book before then. A really explicit book with all the gory details. I promise. The Kama Sutra two point oh.”
“Oh. I see.” Settling onto his own bed, he leaned back against the headboard and gave me a look of overt sympathy. “If you’re a virgin, Stefan, you don’t have to be embarrassed or make up stories. Maybe we could both buy a book. Or a movie. There seems to be lots and lots of movies. If we watch enough, we’re bound to learn something.”
I had been neatly wedged into a corner by a psychologically adept, offensively trained brat-on-wheels. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want him to know the big picture beyond simple anatomy. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been involved in my share of locker room exchanges with my high school buddies. Hell, one of my bases of operation for the past three years had been a strip club. I may not have had a girlfriend since Natalie but that didn’t mean I didn’t get laid now and again. The thing was…I was Michael’s brother, not his father, and I didn’t want to get this wrong. It was important.
But if he didn’t have me to ask, then who did he have? Retreating completely under the pillow, I surrendered, “Jesus. Fine. Ask away.”
“Great.” The thin layers of cotton and foam insulating my ears did nothing to hide the triumph. “Let me get a pen and some paper. I want to take notes.”
Notes. He was going to take notes. This was shaping up to be a long night.
A long, long night.