1

 

NOT FOR the first time, Kaede wondered what would happen if he decided to burn everything down. Just set it all on fire.

He wouldn’t—Fleur De Lis was a great restaurant, his favorite in Paris—but sometimes he wondered what his father’s limit was. Would he find a way to bail him out of everything? It wasn’t a boundaries thing; he wasn’t a child craving them. He was just curious if there was a line he couldn’t cross. Maybe when your dad was a supervillain, you just got used to the evil after a while.

Even though he was currently attending university under a fake identity, his father still made sure enough people knew he had some kind of connection that he was always treated like a VIP. Kaede found it awkward and tiresome, although he knew he shouldn’t complain about superior service. But the elitism of it all did bother him.

Currently, he was the only lone diner in the VIP section. There were two couples, one older and one younger, although they were a study in contrasts. The older couple looked like longtime-married folks out for an anniversary dinner, while the younger couple was a guy with slicked-back hair and a thousand-dollar suit, and a fancy, coiffured woman whom Kaede was willing to bet was a working girl. A high-class one, to be sure, but still a hooker. What kind of douchebag was that guy? Was he living out some kind of Pretty Woman fantasy? He was probably a stockbroker or something like that. Kaede hated him on principle.

Otherwise the VIP section was empty. They had faint piano music and two waiters all to themselves. The rest of the place—the noisier, more crowded part of the restaurant—was separated by a doorway that most people probably didn’t know existed. You entered and exited through a private door so you never had to associate with the riffraff. Kaede wondered if his dad liked this, and that’s why he insisted on him getting the same treatment.

Kaede’s soup arrived, and he shared polite smiles with the waiter, who was handsome enough, if on the short side. Was he gay? Kaede might have been the son of a supervillain, but he had no gaydar at all, and his father had never invented a thing that could do that for him. Or had he? Kaede should ask, if he ever saw his father in person again.

He might not. Kaede sporadically saw his father… and with little warning. It had been that way his entire life. Because so many people wanted to kill his dad or blackmail him into working for them, Kaede had been a target from day one. So his father kept him moving, with new lives on new continents with new names and new guardians, most of whom were professional nannies. His father hadn’t raised him in any respect, and Kaede had no idea who his mother was. Every time he asked, he got a different name. Since his father worked so much with cloning, he did wonder if he was his dad’s clone and not actually a son, in spite of their different names. He knew there were rumors, but he also knew better than to expect any real answers from his brilliant but certifiably crazy father.

He tucked into his soup, which was decent enough, but he found himself craving the excellent hot-and-sour soup he’d found at his favorite Chinese place downtown. It was probably home to more than a few health-code violations, but the soup was fantastic, abundant with tofu and mushrooms. Even though he was enjoying this fancier concoction, he knew he’d probably stop after dinner to get a bowl of the cheaper hot and sour. Although his father often insisted that the more expensive the better as far as food and booze were concerned, that simply wasn’t true. Well, at least not all the time.

Kaede was finally trying his wine, which he’d been letting breathe, when he heard the distant sound of breaking glass.

It wasn’t someone dropping a glass. This was a solider sound, heavier, and it seemed to be out in the public part of the restaurant. Now, it was possible a bottle of wine or a particularly loaded platter had hit the floor, but Kaede had developed something of a sixth sense for trouble. Which could have been an actual thing his father gengineered in him, but he’d never asked.

Kaede had slipped down beneath the table when the inner door of the VIP section slammed open and bullets started flying. He heard brief, aborted screams, and he was really sorry for the other diners. Well, okay, only the older couple and the working girl. Wall Street Boy could eat a bag of dicks.

“We know you’re here, Hayashi!” a man bellowed, as the sound of gunshots still rang in Kaede’s ears. “We’ll burn this place down if we hafta! Show yourself!”

What were his options? Kaede didn’t like to bring his dad’s weapons with him as a matter of principle, but he did carry a couple of small ones; he wasn’t a total idiot. In his pocket he had a small pouch that felt like it weighed about twenty pounds, but that was only because it was made with a synthetic fiber four thousand times stronger and more bulletproof than Kevlar and spider silk combined. Inside it were ten round discs that looked kind of like silver dollars, but they were, in fact, his father’s update of throwing stars, with an edge so sharp he had to be very careful when handling them. Also, they were coated with a special polymer that violently resisted anything adhering to it, so one would pinball around inside a person until it forced itself out. They were almost always fatal, no matter where they entered the body. If he could throw them at the gunmen before getting shot, it would take care of the problem. But how could he pull that off? He should have put on some bulletproof armor before going out.

Kaede was still trying to figure out how to proceed when he heard the unmistakable thud of a body hitting the floor, quickly followed by a burst of gunfire. Somehow, despite the noise, Kaede heard more thuds, but these were wet and bloody. He then discerned footsteps moving across the floor, and he braced himself as the man—he was pretty certain it was a man—moved closer to him.

“I’m not your enemy, Kaede Hayashi,” the man said. His voice had a light, curious accent Kaede couldn’t place. “Your father sent me here to help.”

“Prove it,” Kaede said, reaching for the bag of discs. It could be a trap, and if it was, he might have just given away his location.

Something metallic hit the floor with a small noise and then slid underneath his table. Kaede saw immediately it was a pin, a gold double-helix swirl against a silver background he recognized as the logo of his father’s secret lab, called Shinka (or Evolution in English). And while it just looked like a commemorative pin, the kind that might be given out at Christmas by supercheap companies, it was actually an all-encompassing ID. Coded with a person’s DNA and a special chip, it was only readable with one of his father’s custom-built scanners that not only told you everything about a person, but automatically let them in at certain labs and bases up to their security level. Kaede didn’t have a scanner on him, but making a passable fraud of these was difficult, because they were coated with a special polymer that made them rough to the touch, even though they looked perfectly smooth. And each had a special tiny Japanese character on the back that could be felt but not seen. Kaede could feel that symbol. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t have been stolen off a corpse.

Warily, Kaede lifted the burgundy tablecloth and peered out. Standing approximately three meters away was an average-sized man with surprisingly delicate features, honey-colored eyes, and bright white hair. Actually, strike “man.” Teenager? Kaede was twenty, and he would be shocked if this guy was a day over that. He wore all black, which made him appear slighter than he probably was, and Kaede almost laughed. He looked… well, not exactly frail, but close to it. Why had his father sent this guy to help? What was he supposed to do, be cannon fodder in Kaede’s stead?

But then Kaede’s gaze drifted toward the rest of the room. He had a limited vantage point, but he could see the dead body of one gunman, lying on his back with a ski mask over his face. His head was twisted at an angle that was impossible unless he didn’t have a spine, and he was still clutching his AR-15 like a lost love. At the table nearest the gunman, Stockbroker Boy was splayed dead in his entrée, his blood dripping down the tablecloth like spilled wine.

The white-haired boy stood perfectly still, waiting. Finally he asked, “May I approach?”

Kaede eyed the boy with suspicion. There was no way he could have made the gunman’s head do a three sixty. Not without help. “You can get closer, but stay away from the table.”

The boy acknowledged that with a curt nod and then took a few steps forward before stopping again. He showed his hands—slender, long-fingered, a pianist’s hands—to let Kaede know they were empty. Or at least appeared that way. Kaede thought the kid had a spray of freckles across his ghostly skin, but after a moment he realized it was just a sprinkling of blood.

“Who are you?” Kaede asked.

“I am called Ash. I should get you out of here before the police arrive.”

That made sense. Kaede came out from under the table, Ash’s identity pin clenched in his hand. “Who were these guys?”

Ash glanced at the nearest dead body. No emotion crossed his face. “They seemed to be acolytes of the Brotherhood of the Red Dagger. Most likely they wished to kidnap you in exchange for materials and items from your father’s lab.”

“Oh great.” Kaede wondered what kind of ransom they could possibly get for him. He doubted his father would trade a designer virus or one gengineered soldier for him. The Brotherhood might have been overestimating his worth to his father. “So they were stupid?”

Ash smiled faintly, his lips barely curving upward. “It’s fair to say that stupidity is a boon in the Brotherhood.”

Kaede smiled at the weird white-haired boy. He still didn’t get how Ash had taken out all three gunmen, even if he did have a gun. But now that Kaede had a view of the entire room, it didn’t appear as if any of the Brotherhood men had been shot. They were all sprawled on the floor, some body part bent at an untenable angle, their guns not far from them. The curiosity of it all was eating at him. “How did you do all of this so fast?”

“I’m a weapon,” Ash said in a tone as deadpan as everything else he had said.

Kaede would have laughed, except it wasn’t a joke, and he had no reason to believe this was an exaggeration of any sort. Yes, Ash looked dainty and didn’t seem to have a bulging, muscular body hiding beneath his clothes, but Kaede knew from his father that you could take absolutely nothing at face value. Just because Ash looked like a teenager didn’t mean he couldn’t be thirty; just because he looked like a ninety-eight-pound weakling didn’t mean he couldn’t kill you with a snap of his fingers. Being the son of Dr. Terror, Kaede had quickly learned to distrust every goddamn thing.

Still not completely convinced this wasn’t some kind of elaborate, strange trap, Kaede gave Ash his identification pin back and said, “I don’t suppose you know a back way out of here, do you?”

Ash dipped his head. His curt, modest gestures made Kaede think of several Asian countries, even though Ash appeared to be roughly Caucasian. “If you’ll follow me.”

Kaede did, as Ash stoically stepped over bodies and puddles of blood. “Where are we going?”

“Kamani has a safe house nearby,” Ash reported. The Kamani Corporation was one of Kaede’s father’s shell companies, a hard-charging multinational corporation that was, in truth, the cover for an even eviler empire. But if you were rich enough and had the right lobbyists, you could hide in plain sight. It probably didn’t hurt that his father faked his death every few years, just to keep everyone off-balance.

“Can we make a stop along the way?” Kaede asked, although if Ash was indeed an employee of his father, that meant he worked for Kaede too. But making it seem like a question was only polite. After all, Ash had probably saved his life.

 

 

ASH CLEARLY didn’t like stopping at a Chinese restaurant on the way to the safe house, but Kaede was still hungry and still craving that hot-and-sour soup. He did wonder if it was callous, since people had just been murdered around him, but that was simply another side effect of being supervillain spawn. You got used to murder and mayhem, until your skin became as thick as rhino hide.

The safe house was actually a safe condo in a swanky building with a piece of sculpted art in the courtyard that looked very much like the body of a car, warped by heat and pressure and painted a strangely cyanotic blue. It was ugly and probably cost a couple million.

The color scheme in the condo was blue and white and chrome, austere and icy, suggesting his father had something to do with it. Dr. Terror preferred everything around him have an air of sterility to it, like he never left the lab. Which was probably more or less true.

Kaede sat on the white leather couch and ate while Ash paced the room, nervously checking the door with its multiple deadbolts and the blackout curtains that kept anyone from getting a view. His obvious anxiety was making Kaede nervous.

“Sit down,” Kaede said. “Have a fried wonton.”

“I am not hungry,” Ash replied, but he did respond to the order by sitting down on the matching sofa across from Kaede.

“Tell me how you’re a weapon,” Kaede suggested, still having a hard time believing this delicate creature could be.

For a moment, he didn’t think Ash was going to tell him. But Ash folded his hands on his knee and said, “I’m from Devishna. I was raised and trained by the Tabaah Karna.”

Kaede almost dropped his chopsticks. When he discovered his father was “Dr. Terror,” Kaede had dug up all he could find on him, including internal stuff the press had absolutely no access to. Such as the fact that his father, through his shell company Genginetics Inc., owned a five-mile-long island in the Indian Ocean named Devishna, one that appeared on no maps. It was home to a lab where his dad, Goro Hayashi, did genetic experiments, ones that supposedly led to his creation of the H133 designer virus, the one that got him the tabloid-inspired Dr. Terror name in the first place. But he didn’t limit his experimenting to viruses.

He bought children, mainly from India, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, and used them as guinea pigs in his gene-alteration trials. Those who survived were sent on to be raised by an ascetic religious order in Indonesia called Tabaah Karna, or Karna for short. Karna was considered a terrorist organization by many governments. About seven years before, it had been raided by a coalition of military forces, supposedly to rescue the children being “held” by the cult. Several of the soldiers were killed, mainly by the children, who had been trained in multiple brutal fighting techniques by Karna, whose adherents believed the end times were near and their children should be ready to be rulers and warriors of the coming world, by any means necessary. Many of these children, who killed adult men in hand-to-hand combat, were as young as twelve. Some were taken into custody, but some of the children scattered, escaped to who knew where. There were rumors—good, solid rumors—that the kids were way too strong and way too fast to be merely human.

“I didn’t know that any of you had been released from rehabilitation,” Kaede said.

Finally a shred of emotion played across Ash’s face. Surprise, mixed with confusion. But after a moment of concentration, wrinkling his brow, he said, “Oh, do you mean the captured ones? I was never captured.”

Kaede felt a bit like the floor was shifting beneath him. He wasn’t sure how to take this information. If this man was telling the truth—and why would he lie?—he was so dangerous it would actually be difficult to quantify. He’d be the equivalent of a trained shark with Ebola-tipped missiles in a launcher on its head. “Then how are you here?”

Ash met his gaze fearlessly, no recognizable emotions in his honeyed eyes. Kaede thought he saw a tinge of red in them, but maybe it was just the way the light was bouncing off the chrome. “Your father, Dr. Hayashi, hired investigators to find us. One of them discovered me in Laos, and I was adopted by the family of one of his managers in Genginetics, Seok Han. He and his wife were kind to me, but it was clear they expected me to become a normal teenager, which was never going to happen. So Dr. Hayashi offered me a job, and I took it. I didn’t know then that my job would be to act as a bodyguard for you, but it is appropriate to my skill set.”

He was speaking at a normal pace, but it still took Kaede a few moments to absorb all of this. “How old were you when you were adopted?”

“Fifteen.”

“How old were you when the raid on Karna happened?” Kaede sorted through his various containers until he found the ones with the noodles.

“Thirteen.”

Kaede was almost afraid to ask, but he kind of had to. “Were you… involved in that whole fight?”

Without blinking, Ash said, “Of course I was.”

“Did you fight any soldiers?”

“Several. Guns are cowardly weapons. They require no skill or thought. They’re blunt, idiotic tools.” Ash said this without emotion, neither bragging nor ashamed. He was simply stating a fact, and this convinced Kaede he was telling the truth.

Kaede also felt suddenly cold. This man sitting across from him—and some quick math in his head had him at twenty, Kaede’s age, or maybe twenty-one at the oldest—who looked so dainty, was possibly one of the most dangerous men in existence. The fact that he’d fought soldiers and had not captured meant one of two things: he’d had a few fights and escaped in the general chaos of battle, or he’d fought his way completely through a whole group of soldiers and there had been no one left to stop him from leaving the scene. But it was safe to assume he’d at least killed one, most likely more. At thirteen.

“This troubles you?” Ash asked.

“No, I’m just trying to take it all in.” His noodles were cold, so he put them on the glass coffee table. He wasn’t sure how to ask the next question politely and figured there was no way to ask such a thing in a way that didn’t seem rude. So he forged ahead. “Were you… altered? By my father.”

“I am genetically altered,” Ash said, as casually as if he were discussing the weather. “I’m stronger than the average human. I have greater muscle density, and from what I understand, my lungs and bloodstream process oxygen more efficiently. There may be other alterations, but those are the main ones.”

“Does that explain your hair color?”

Ash shrugged. “Perhaps. It’s always been this color.”

Like all of this was nothing! As if admitting he was a gengineered supersoldier trained by a death cult wasn’t a remarkable thing. “Umm….” Kaede was kind of flabbergasted. He wasn’t sure what to say. “And, uh, why did my father send you along now? It was really convenient timing.”

Ash dipped his head again. “He told me there were credible rumors that the Brotherhood and Dr. Blood were planning something. Along with my arrival, he thinks it might be time for you to relocate.”

Kaede snorted, the spell of strangeness broken by the fact that sounded exactly like his insensitive, easily distracted dad. Of course his father did have something of an excuse. He injected himself with a serum that was supposed to triple his intelligence, and while it did, it also had what he dubbed an “unfortunate” side effect: madness. The serum that made him so smart also made him nuts, and maybe that was why he seemed to forget Kaede existed for big chunks of time. Either that, or he honestly didn’t care about his son in any respect, which Kaede figured was closer to the truth.

“And where does he expect me to go?” Kaede asked.

Ash reached into his coat pocket, and for the first time Kaede realized how tailored his clothes were. They were tight to his body, making him more aerodynamic, and black, making him both seem slighter and harder to see in the dark. He was built for lethality. Ash pulled out an envelope, which Kaede took, his fingers briefly brushing Ash’s. His hand was cold, almost unexpectedly so.

“He thinks you should return to the States,” Ash answered. “A private plane will take us out of here tomorrow.”

“Us?” Kaede replied with a small smile. The envelope contained what he expected: a new passport and driver’s license in the name of Jason Tanaka. Kaede wondered how long this would fool anyone. Two days? Three?

“I am your bodyguard,” Ash said. “Where you go, I go.”

“I see. And what’s your identity, Ash?”

“Ash Han. No one knows me from anyone.”

Kaede could believe that. “You might want to change your last name, or at least the spelling.”

“Why?”

“You don’t look Korean. People might ask more questions than you’d like.”

“Do people always appear to be the race of their surname?”

Ash had him there. Kaede dropped the envelope on the coffee table, his new identity cooling beside the cold noodles. “No, but people are nosy assholes. I learned that the time I was Adam Jordan. Do you have a passport under that name?”

Ash nodded. He didn’t verbally respond.

“Okay. I’ll fix you up a new one, under the name Ash Han… son. Ash Hanson. That good with you?”

He shrugged. “It makes no difference to me. You can make false identification papers?”

It was Kaede’s turn to nod. “Dad may be the mad scientist, but I’ve picked up a few useful skills. Mostly making fake IDs and repurposing some of Dad’s works to suit me.” He held out his hand over the table, and Ash looked at it for a moment as if unsure what he should do. So Kaede said, “The passport? Yours?”

“Oh.” Ash reached inside his trim coat, pulled it out, and placed it on Kaede’s palm with the utmost delicacy. Kaede was starting to notice how economical Ash’s movements were, how still he could sit, and his mind once again went to martial arts training. They had a smorgasbord in Karna, didn’t they? Many brutal martial arts taught, as well as a few other hand-to-hand combat disciplines. Kaede was beginning to find him fascinating, if only because he seemed so alien. Of course, there were also rumors that his father worked with alien DNA, but he’d never found any proof of that. Didn’t mean it wasn’t possible—just unlikely.

Taking Ash’s passport, Kaede went off to the hidden room—every single one of his father’s safe houses (or apartments, bungalows, suites, or condos) had a secret room—and made quick work of the change. It wasn’t anything to add “son” to Han, and when he called Ash in, Kaede got his driver’s license and did the same thing.

The room looked very much like a small lab—they all did—and Ash looked around like he was searching for something or looking for something familiar. Kaede had no idea if he found it. In spite of looking around, Ash was standing very still, waiting patiently for Kaede to finish. Now he was getting the sense that while Ash was kind of fascinating, he was also kind of creepy. He hadn’t learned to blend in with normal people yet, had he? You’d have thought his adopted family would have taken care of that first thing. Maybe it just didn’t take.

As soon as Kaede was done forging the documents, Ash asked, “Can I see your bedroom?”

That was an unexpected, and sort of weird, question. “Uh, sure,” Kaede replied, wondering what Ash had in mind. Kaede had picked up not one bit of interest from this guy about anything. If this was a sexual overture of some kind, it was out of the blue. Was Ash even interested in him? Or anybody, for that matter? He seemed to show no emotion whatsoever. He had a poker face that could break Las Vegas.

Kaede led him back to his bedroom, which exhibited the same clean, austere sterility as the rest of the place. He went straight to the window. He traced the window grating, and Kaede told him, “It’s retractable, but it only opens from the inside.”

Ash attempted to shake the grate and nodded, as if satisfied by its strength. “It’ll do.” He then spun sharply on his heels. “I’ll sleep in the living room.”

“Sure,” Kaede agreed. He went to the closet and pulled out one of the folded blankets on the top shelf. All the safe houses were stocked with pretty much the same things in the same places, although Kaede had generally memorized all the differences by now. He’d lost count of how many times he’d traveled the globe or stayed in any one of these places. He gave the blanket to Ash, who took it without comment. If Ash was revealed to be some kind of android, he wouldn’t be surprised. “I don’t think I have any pajamas or anything—”

“I don’t need them,” Ash said and left the bedroom. Just like that.

Now Kaede was intrigued. What did he mean he didn’t need them? Was he going to sleep naked on the couch? Or sleep in his clothes? He kind of wanted to sneak out later and find out.

Count on his dad to finally send him a bodyguard, but one so strange he was equally attractive and repellent. Kaede would say he knew how to find his own bodyguards, but he didn’t. Sadly, Goro Hayashi knew how to make them. Kaede wondered, not for the first time, if that included him as well.