Beta, p.19
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       Beta, p.19

         Part #2 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
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A quiet word in Greek from the captain, and we were all awake immediately, collecting our gear and moving to the stern. Alexei and Matteo pushed the Zodiac into the water as the fishing vessel drifted to a stop. The two mercenaries held the boat in place as the rest of us climbed in, and then we pushed off, the powerful outboard motor buzzing. I heard the splash of an anchor, and the fishing vessel’s lights winked out, leaving us to slip across the Aegean in the moonlit darkness. No one spoke a word.

  Page 52

 

  Dawn stained the sea with a pink glow. I sat in the back of the Zodiac, fighting panic and nerves and seasickness as the tiny boat zipped across the water, lurching up over waves and crashing back down. I had a Steyr AUG bullpup assault rifle in my hand, spare magazines in the pocket of my tactical vest, a pistol in a hip holster, and a Kevlar vest beneath my clothing. Harris was beside me, similarly attired and armed, as were Henri and the other three mercenaries.

  The island loomed in the distance. A quarter mile away, Matteo cut the motor and handed out paddles. We pulled through the water silently now, Henri and Harris kneeling in the bow with assault rifles aimed at the island. I heard the distant whumpwhumpwhump of the helicopter skimming over the water on the other side of the island.

  As we approached the shoreline, the crash of waves against the rocks became a roar. Alexei lifted his paddle from the water, gestured at us with his four-fingered left hand—his pinky finger was nothing but a stub—and we all stopped pulling. Sasha cut his paddle into the water, angling us toward to a fold in the rock face of the island. Once the rubber bow of the Zodiac bumped against the rock, stopping us, Alexei tied the mooring line to a rusted ring driven into an outcropping of rock.

  He gestured up at the rock face. “This used to be a fortress in centuries past. There is a stair in the stone. We go up. ”

  Staring up, I could well believe there used to be a fortress here. I’d seen a satellite image of the island: it was a finger of bare rock thrusting up out of the Aegean with a narrow beach on the south side, along with a small natural bay. High above, was a massive house built directly into the rock itself, a glass-and-steel structure constructed over the ruins of the ancient fortress.

  We were on the north side of the island, facing a nearly sheer vertical slope of bare rock. It seemed impossible to ascend, but I watched as Alexei slung his rifle around his back and climbed up with the agility of a billy goat. Looking closely, I could see a narrow set of grooves carved into the ancient stone. It couldn’t be called a “staircase,” but it would allow us to climb up unnoticed. It took us an hour to scale the face, and as we topped the rise behind the mansion, I heard the helicopter nearing, the thump of rotors loud now.

  BOOM! The MSR cracked, shattering the glass window beside the front door.

  Men streamed out of the building, wielding Uzis and AK-47s, shouting at each other. They saw us, then, and opened fire, sending rounds whizzing and snapping at us.

  The MSR boomed again, and I watched a man tumble forward. BOOM! A second body dropped. Alexei darted forward, spraying bullets in short bursts. He leaped through the space where the window had been, boots crunching on glass, and I could see him pivoting, scanning—crackcrackcrack—then shouts were cut off, and bodies hit the floor. I was right behind him, then passing him, my MP5 rattling nonstop, jarring against my shoulder.

  Kyrie was here, somewhere. I had to find her. I had to find her. Reason left me, then, and I took off running.

  Voices behind me called out for me to wait, but there was no waiting. Shapes moved in front of me and I cut them down. I pushed through door after door, heedless of the danger, spraying rounds at anything that moved, kicking bodies out of the way as I sought the entrance to the lower levels. My actions were automatic, instinctive, rage-fueled. My only thought was to find Kyrie. There was nothing else. I didn’t care what happened to anyone, even myself, as long as I found her.

  Alexei called out, gesturing to me. “Here! The stairs down. ”

  I shoved past him, bounding down the steps recklessly. Alexei followed behind me more cautiously. We descended a winding staircase down into the fortress, moving through narrow hallways and into empty rooms, a labyrinth leading us downward in a series of concentric circles.

  At one point, we came to a T-intersection, and Matteo pushed ahead of me, rounded a corner to the left, rifle to his cheek, firing. Blood sprayed, and he was rocked backward, clutching his throat. Alexei pulled him back around the corner even as Matteo gargled and went still. Alexei rolled out around the corner in a crouch, fired, and pulled back hastily, wiping at his forehead with an uneasy, disbelieving bark of laughter. A bullet had creased his face, missing his temple by a fraction of an inch.

  I peered around the corner, saw daylight through a doorway. A man stood in the doorway, a rifle aiming at me. He fired, the bullet cracking into the wall beside my head. I aimed at his torso and squeezed the trigger, and he dropped.

  Silence, then, apart from the helicopter circling in the distance.

  The doorway led us out onto a balcony carved into the rock face itself, the Aegean blue and turbulent fifty feet down. Another open doorway loomed to our left, a black mouth leading further downward into the bowels of the ancient fortress.

  Sasha, Henri, and Harris headed back up, searching the rest of the rooms once more, making sure there were no surprises waiting.

  I heard the crack of a pistol echo up the staircase. A momentary pause, and then crack…crack…crack…crack. It was a big pistol, by the sound of it. Silence. Then one more booming report.

  My throat tightened, and my gut churned. My heart pounded; Kyrie was down that staircase somewhere.

  I knew it. I felt it.

  But was she alive?

  17

  THE FORTRESS FALLS

  Just before Tobias pushed into me, I lunged up off the ground, wrapping my legs around his neck. I ignored the screaming, wrenching agony in my knee, the haze of blurring pain of his blows, and clamped my thighs around his throat, squeezing with every ounce of strength I possessed. He thrashed, kicked, punched, and I silently accepted the pain, each smashing punch rolling into the mass of torment that was my entire body.

  And then…I cut loose, let my bladder unleash all over him. I felt my urine splatter against his chest and my legs, then arched my hips up so the stream hit his face. He was bellowing, thrashing, cursing in whatever language he spoke, fighting me. I held on, held on, gritting my teeth against the pounding, tearing pain in my knee, even as the relief of my now-emptied bladder swept through me.

  Abruptly, I released him and reared back, lashed out with my good leg, felt my heel connect with his face, and kicked again. And again, and again, as viciously as I could, letting my rage take over. I rocked forward, struggling, groaning, and made it to my feet. Tobias was cursing, gagging, but more surprised than really hurt. I had mere seconds before he would be up on his feet, bashing me with his huge fists. I stomped on his crotch as hard as I could, and then grabbed the butt of the pistol from his shoulder holster and hopped backward, stumbled and nearly fell. Bumping up against the wall, I gripped the gun in both hands, finger resting on the trigger, the gun held out in front of me at arm’s length, the way Harris had showed me.

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  BANG!

  The pistol jumped in my hands, nearly jerking out of my grip. Tobias flinched and grunted, red staining his chest. I brought the barrel back down, not bothering to aim except for the center mass, like Harris had told me.

  BANG!

  Another red circle beside the first. Tobias was groaning, cursing, gasping, crying.

  This time, I aimed. I centered the front sight over his crotch, squeezed the trigger…and then changed my mind. Adjusted aim upward, hesitated, held my breath, and squeezed. His head exploded, and my stomach heaved, rebelled, lurched. I let the pistol hang in one hand as I leaned to one side, dry-heaving, nothing in my stomach to bring up exc
ept bile.

  I set the gun on the ground and quickly stripped Tobias of his pants and tugged them on. They were way too big, but I used the belt to cinch them around my waist, tying the end of the belt around itself near my hip and rolled the cuffs up around my ankles. Gagging at the sight of the gory mess that was his head, I rolled his body to one side, struggling with his bulk, and worked his blazer off one arm, then let him flop back down and worked it off the other side, then donned the coat myself, buttoning it to cover my torso. It was wet with blood at the shoulders, lapel, and collar, but at least I was covered.

  Next, I loosened and untied his necktie, gagging at the stench and the sight of brain matter. I dry-heaved again, fought it, shoved it down. I wrapped the tie around my knee and knotted it as tight as I could stand it, choking back the sobs of agony. But once it was tied, the throbbing in my knee lessened slightly, enough that I could hobble to the door. Remembering the way Henri had stood behind the door of his bar, I positioned myself to the left of the opening, so the door would hide me when it opened. I waited, standing on my good leg to spare my wounded knee. Something hard and heavy weighted down the pocket of my appropriated coat; I dug it out and found an extra clip for the pistol. Not knowing what awaited me, I exchanged it for the partially depleted one.

  The door flew open and hit me, knocking me into the wall.

  “TOBIAS! What the fuck are you doing?” Gina was shouting even as the door was still swinging open. “They’re here! We don’t have time for—” She stopped when she saw Tobias’s body. “Shit. Shit. SHIT!”

  I was hidden behind the door, waiting, the heavy silver pistol held in both hands. I settled my weight on both feet, teeth clenched against the pain, involuntary tears of physical anguish streaming down my face. Blue-lacquered nails clicked against the edge of the door, pulling it away from me.

  As the door swung away and revealed me, I brought the pistol up, blinking away the tears of pain, and fired as soon as the barrel was aimed at center mass.

  Gina jerked as the bullet hammered into her, and then twisted in place, clutching her side where the round had hit her. Expensive blue silk went dark with blood.

  “You?” she mumbled, her voice faint with shock and pain.

  “Me, bitch. ” I fired again at her torso.

  She stumbled backward, bumped up against the wall. Rage swept through me, blinding me, taking over. The gun was exploding, jumping in my hands as I shot her, once, twice, a third time, a fourth. Gina’s entire body was a mess of red now. She slid to the ground, eyes glazed.

  “That was for Valentine,” I said.

  I blinked, felt the gun heavy in my hands. Saw in my mind what Tobias had done to Lisa. What he’d tried to do to me. What Gina had done to Valentine.

  I ran one palm over my scalp, feeling blood and scabs and stubble. “This is for me. ”

  BANG!

  The wall was covered in crimson, my final shot going through her skull and pitting the wall behind.

  She was dead, finally dead. And yet…it seemed almost anticlimactic; a single squeeze of a trigger, and she was dead.

  My knee gave out, my strength ebbing, and I slumped to the floor on my hands and knees, coughing, sobbing.

  Valentine.

  They’re here, she’d said.

  I couldn’t give up now.

  Get up, I told myself. Get UP!

  I forced myself to my feet, hopped and hobbled to the door, swung it open and limped through it. I lost my footing, and had to lean against the wall for support. I groaned through clenched teeth at each step away from the doorway, stumbling along a dark, low, ancient corridor lit by dull yellow bulbs in wall sconces every few feet. I saw a stairway ahead of me, a bright rectangle, indicating daylight.

  I heard gunfire chattering. Automatics rattling, pistols barking. In the distance, a slow and rhythmic BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…BOOM, a heavy rifle.

  The stairs would be my downfall. There was no way I could make it up that many steps. My knee was bleeding through the pant leg, aching and burning and weak. I was dizzy, thirsty, starving, my entire body throbbing with a million points of pain. Blood was salty on my lips, sticky at my nose and mouth, drying and tacky on my neck and head.

  I heard a step above me, a voice shouting in…Greek, maybe? Or Russian? I wasn’t sure. Prone on my stomach on the stairs, I craned my neck and peered up, saw sunlight on a gun barrel, a silhouette of man standing at the top of the stairs. I’d made it too far to give up now. I still had the pistol in my hand, I realized, so I rolled to the side, brought my gun up and struggled to aim. The barrel wavered, and I squeezed the trigger. The explosion was deafening.

  He ducked backward out of sight as my gun went off, and this time the recoil jerked it out of my hand. It arced over me and landed on my back with a sharp impact to my spine, and then tumbled between my body and the stairs. I scrambled and twisted to reach it, but my strength was waning, fading. I felt it, scrabbled for it, felt the cool wood of the butt against my palm.

  But he was there already, right above me, two steps up. He had a machine gun pointed toward the floor. I rolled to my back and lifted the pistol one more time, sobbing with desperation as he lifted his machine gun. But instead of shooting me, he swiveled his weapon around behind his back and bent toward me. The sun was a blinding orange ball framed by the stairway entrance, making it impossible to see anything but shadows and silhouettes.

  I was going to die, now.

  “Good thing you missed,” a deep, sweetly familiar voice said.

  I blinked, dizzy and confused, and tried to focus on the figure above me.

  Valentine?

  It was my Valentine.

  I sobbed and collapsed to the steps, relief sapping me of any remaining strength.

  I felt myself lifted into Valentine’s arms, and this was familiar now, his brawny arms cradling me against his chest, his gorgeous pale blue eyes worried and fearful and reddened and leaking tears as he gazed down at me.

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  “Kyr—Kyrie. ” His voice broke. “What did they do to you, my love?”

  I blinked slowly, feeling darkness threading through me. “Should see—you should see the other guy. ” I even managed a smile.

  He smiled back at me. “My girl. You’re safe now, love. You’re safe. I’ve got you. ” His lips trembled as he pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I’ll never let anything happen to you again, I promise. I promise. ”

  That was all I needed. I let go of consciousness, let darkness pull me under.

  * * *

  VALENTINE

  I felt something hot and wet under my hands as I cradled Kyrie’s head in my palm. I felt tears slide down my cheeks at the sight of her battered face.

  She was alive, though.

  Her hair had been shaved off, leaving her head covered with nicks and cuts. Blood trickled past her ear, down her forehead and along her nose. Her face was bruised, her cheeks swelling, black eyes forming. Her nose was broken, blood oozing from her mouth, chin, and throat. She was wearing a man’s trousers with a belt tied around her waist, and a blood-stained jacket. She was naked beneath the blazer. She stank of urine. She had a . 45 Smith and Wesson in one hand, which I gently pried from her grip.

  She was limp in my arms, head lolling.

  Alexei was stealing down the stairs, rifle swiveling. I let him go. He could take care of things down there.

  “Valentine. ” Alexei, from the bottom of the stairs. “You must see this. ”

  I refused to let her out of my arms, so I descended the stairs with Kyrie, carefully angling her head through the doorway at the end of the hall.

  Tobias was on the ground, two bullet holes in his chest, and the back of his head blown off. And then there was Gina, her torso riddled with bullets and a hole between her eyes.

  “She did this. ” Alexei gestured at Kyrie with his chin. He crouched, sniffed, wrinkled his nose.
“Clever girl. Brave. Very, very tough. ”

  I could only nod in agreement, my throat too thick to speak.

  I could read the scene as well as Alexei: Tobias’s underwear pulled down around his knees, the stench of urine, his soaked shirt and hair, his broken face, the blood on Kyrie’s feet. I could see the respect in Alexei’s eyes as he glanced at her, unconscious in my arms.

  He moved past us, rifle at his shoulder. I heard scattered pops of gunfire here and there. Harris and Henri were undoubtedly mopping up above. Alexei popped his head into a few doors here and there as we ascended, making sure they were all empty. He paused in one, stopping in shock, and then backed out, anger on his face.

  “It is good for that pig down there that your girl kill him first. ” He gestured into the room. “He was a monster, I tell you. ”

  I glanced in, and saw what had, at one point, been a girl. My stomach heaved, and I had to turn away.

  We made slow progress back up through the dark labyrinth, up and up and up to daylight. There we found the helicopter waiting on the landing pad on the far east side of the island. Andrei lay prone in the open door of the chopper, MSR at the ready, scanning for threats. Henri’s friend, the helo pilot, was refueling the chopper, courtesy of the Karahalios family.

  Henri emerged from the smashed window, stepping over bodies. “All is clear. ”

  Harris wasn’t far behind him, trotting over to me. “Kyrie? Is she—?”

  “Alive. Roughed up, but alive. ”

  “And the bitch?” Henri asked.

  “Dead,” Alexei answered.

  “You?” Harris asked.

  I shook my head. “Nope. ” I lifted Kyrie slightly. “Her. ”

  Harris frowned, looking her over. “Did they…?”

  I knew what he was asking. “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. ” I moved toward the helicopter, shielding her from the downdraft as the rotors began to whirl and whine. “Let’s get her out of here. ”

  Andrei had his rifle cradled in his arms with casual familiarity. “Matteo?”

  Alexei shook his head and then twisted in place, gesturing with a thumb at Sasha, who emerged from the house with Matteo’s limp form over one shoulder. Alexei provided a brief explanation in Russian, gesturing sharply at his throat with a middle finger. Andrei dropped his rifle and cursed viciously in Russian, pacing back and forth in front of the helicopter, and then slid to a crouch, shoulders shaking.

  Alexei glanced at me as if in apology. “His brother. ” He pointed to Sasha. “My brother. ” Then he gestured at all four of them, his finger moving in a circle. “Cousins. ”

  “I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

  He only shrugged. “You go. Take Matteo with you. ” Alexei motioned for Sasha to follow him. “Fishing man will return us to Athens. We meet you there for payment of the rest. ”

  Andrei laid Matteo in the back of the chopper, and then shrugged out of his shirt, leaving his arms bare with just the Kevlar vest over his chest. He covered his brother’s face with the shirt.

 
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