Beta, p.2
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       Beta, p.2

         Part #2 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
 
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How? Who? Why? If there had been a demand or something, I could have understood a little. An old enemy out for revenge, someone whose business Roth had taken over and chopped up. Someone simply wanting a ransom. But the feminine handwriting had me stumped. How could a woman kidnap a huge, muscular, powerful man like Roth? It didn’t make sense. It shouldn’t be possible.

  I fidgeted. Paced. Repacked. I stared at the note, trying not to hyperventilate. After an eternity, I checked the time on my phone; barely an hour had passed. Even breaking every speed limit between here and London, Harris couldn’t be here in anything less than four hours. What the hell was I supposed to do until then? I’d be insane in four hours.

  I needed to get out of the chateau. I had to. I couldn’t stay here for another minute, not with that note and the ominous presence of the knife. But Harris had specifically told me not to leave, not for anything.

  I tried to distract myself with the TV, but most of it was in French, with a couple of UK channels coming in rather poorly. I clicked it off. The man I loved was missing, and I was supposed to just cool my heels watching TV?

  Hell, no.

  So I paced some more, refusing to check the time. I sat, knees bouncing, chewing my nails, thinking my girlfriend back in Detroit, Layla, would be furious if she saw my fingernails all chewed up.

  Page 4

 

  I managed to pass another hour, and then a third.

  Then I heard tires on the gravel drive, the low rumble of an engine, the quiet thunk of a car door closing. I leapt to my feet, scrambled to the window, and peeked out. A low, sleek, black two-door Audi with darkly tinted windows sat in the driveway. A man stood leaning with his back against the hood, holding a cell phone to his ear. Tall and thin, dark hair slicked back, swarthy features, clean-shaven and wearing a slim black suit with a narrow black tie, white shirt. He nodded every once in a while, then thumbed the phone to end the call and shoved it in his pocket.

  Two things worried me: one, he wasn’t Harris, and two, he had a handgun held casually in his right hand. As I watched, he ejected the clip out of the bottom of the pistol, glanced at it, replaced it in the chamber, and then pulled back the slide. He did this with a practiced ease that made my gut churn. This wasn’t right. Not right at all.

  I didn’t stop to think. Slinging my backpack over my shoulders, I dashed through the house to the garage. I snatched the Rover’s key fob off the hook, stuffed it into my pocket, and went to hit the button that would open the garage door. But then I paused and listened. The front door was locked; I knew that for a fact. I’d locked it myself while waiting for Harris.

  Silence, long and thick.

  And then the smashing of glass. I imagined a pistol butt going through the small squares of painted glass in the front door, a hand sliding through to unlock and open the door. I waited until I heard the door creak open and close again before sliding into the driver’s seat of the Rover. I waited another few moments, hoping that the man, whoever he was, would check the upstairs bedrooms first.

  I put my foot to the brake and touched the ignition button, opening the garage at the same time. The engine purred to life, and the garage door rolled up on oiled tracks. Thank god Roth kept everything he owned in pristine condition. As soon as the door was open high enough, I threw the Rover in reverse and gunned the engine, cutting around the Audi parked directly behind me. The truck bumped onto the grass, tearing up the sod, but then I was on the gravel of the drive, jerking the gear shift into drive and flooring the pedal. Dirt and gravel sprayed out, and the Rover leaped forward.

  Crack. Crack. Crackcrack.

  Was that gunfire?

  I looked in the rearview mirror just in time to see the rear window splinter into a spider web as a bullet hit it. Then it collapsed altogether as a second round hit the glass. I screamed as a third round ricocheted off the side mirror, mere inches from my face. I spun the wheel, hit the brake, and then gunned the engine to bring the Rover around in a tight ninety-degree turn onto another side road. I heard an engine roar, and I knew the Audi was not far behind me.

  I didn’t have time to even be afraid. The wind whistling through the shattered back window was evidence enough that this was no joke and that each choice I made from this moment on would determine whether I lived or died. I jerked the Rover around a left turn and then a right, driving too fast down the quiet early morning streets of a sleepy little French village. I didn’t even know the name of the town—I just knew it was somewhere in the far south of France. Near Marseilles, maybe? My knowledge of French geography was pretty much nonexistent. I was used to sitting in the passenger seat as Roth drove, letting him take me where he wanted to go.

  A street sign ahead of me snapped backward, the metal dented with the impact of a bullet.

  What was going on? Who was shooting at me, and why? Where was Harris?

  I yanked the SUV into another left turn, and then a right, and I was out of the village and onto a straight two-lane highway leading out and away, vineyards on either side. I floored the gas pedal, feeling the powerful Range Rover engine bolt the vehicle forward. The needle quickly passed the forty miles per hour mark, then fifty. I risked a glance in the rearview mirror and saw the Audi behind me, about a quarter mile away and closing fast.

  I’d watched Roth make a few phone calls in this car, so I knew what to do. I hit the command button, and told the system to call Harris.

  The trill of a ringer filled the car, once, twice, and then Harris’s voice. “Miss St. Claire. Is everything all right?”

  “No. It’s not all fucking right, Harris. ” I gripped the wheel in both hands, the gas pedal floored, and the speedometer needle passing seventy. “A guy showed up. A black Audi. He had a gun. It wasn’t you, and it didn’t feel right, so I took the Rover and left, but now he’s chasing me. He’s shooting at me. I’m scared. ” I tried to stay calm, but only managed to sound robotic.

  “Shit. ” I heard a rustling on the other side of the line, and then the roar of an engine and tires squealing. “Are you hurt?”

  “No. But he shot out the back window, and one of the side mirrors. He’s right behind me, and he’s gaining on me. I don’t know what to do. He’ll kill me if he catches me. I know he will. ”

  “Drive as fast as you safely can and don’t stop for anything. I’m coming for you. I’m not far away. ”

  “I don’t know where I’m going, Harris!” The Rover was doing over a hundred now, and my ability to control the vehicle at this speed was shaky at best.

  “There’s only one highway where you are. Which way did you turn out of the village?”

  “Right. ”

  “Then you’re heading toward me. You’re in the Rover?”

  “Yes. ”

  A pause, tires squealing again, a horn in the distance. Sirens. “Good. Just keep going. Plow through anything that tries to stop you. Just go. ”

  “I am. ”

  At that moment, the right side mirror shattered and I shrieked, my hands jerking on the wheel. The Rover wobbled, and I fought to correct it, tapping the brake and wrestling the wheel to keep the vehicle from flipping. I was fishtailing all over the road, the tires screaming. As soon as I felt the Rover stabilize again, I hit the gas and was pushed back into the seat as the engine roared forward. The Audi was right behind me now, and I heard the reports of the pistol barking behind me.

  There was a slow-moving truck ahead of me, a semi groaning up the steep grade. I slid out into the oncoming traffic lane and flew past it, then had to swallow a scream as I jerked the wheel to the right once more, cutting in front of the semi and narrowly avoiding a tan sedan of some kind. The semi blared its horn and flashed its lights, as did the sedan. I risked another backward glance and saw that the Audi had passed the semi as well.

  Another pistol shot echoed, and I heard the impact as the bullet hit somewhere in the rear, one of the brake lights maybe, or the trunk hatch.

  Page 5


 

  I’d never disconnected the call, and apparently neither had Harris, because I heard him cursing. “What was that? Are you okay?”

  “Yeah, yeah. He’s still right behind me, and he’s shooting at me. ” I checked the rearview mirror. “He’s catching up, Harris. ”

  “Keep going. Don’t let him catch you. Ram him off the road if you have to. ”

  I had the gas pedal floored, and I was inching back up to over a hundred miles per hour, the countryside and other traffic flying by in a blur. Several drivers were honking and gesticulating wildly at me. I approached another car from behind, this one a little Peugeot or something, puttering along without a care in the world. The road began to curve, the grade falling away to one side, vineyards arching into the distance in endless rows. I eased off the gas, letting the needle sink back down, but the Peugeot was still ahead of me, and I knew I’d have to pass him. I waited until the last second, trying to peer as far around the curve as I could, which wasn’t far. I slid out into the opposing lane, gunned the engine, and began to accelerate past the tiny vehicle. My heart was in my throat, my stomach revolting in terror as I saw a line of heavily laden flatbed semis approaching, lights flashing, horns blaring. The driver of the Peugeot was pissed that I was trying to pass him, and he attempted to accelerate and block me.

  “Let me the fuck over, asshole!” I screamed.

  Harris’s voice filled the car. “Do what you have to do, Kyrie. Don’t think. Just do it. ”

  I was nearly past the Peugeot, the tail end of my Rover just barely overlapping his front quarter panel. I shoved down my emotions, gripped the steering wheel in two shaking hands, twisting the leather and taking deep breaths. Milliseconds were passing like hours. The semis were less than a hundred yards away and closing quickly. The Peugeot was still trying to outpace me. I wanted to close my eyes, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the luxury of another breath, or of even thinking about it. There was no time for hesitation. I pulled the wheel to the right and felt the crunch of metal on metal. I heard the squeal of tires and the frantic blare of the horn.

  Crackcrackcrack. Gunshots echoed, three of them, and the passenger seat of the Rover exploded in a burst of cloth and stuffing, the windshield spider-webbing low near the dashboard, and then I heard another squeal of tires, glanced in my rear view mirror to see the Peugeot spinning, fishtailing, and then the front right tire caught and it went flying, launched toward me. The semis were beside me now, horns going as if honking would stop the unfolding horror. The Peugeot somersaulted through the air and slammed into a passing semi with a deafening crash and a fiery explosion.

  “Ohshitohshitohshit…. ” I was hyperventilating, screaming. “I killed him, I killedhimikilledhim—ohmygod what did I do?”

  “Enough!” Harris’s voice cut through, loud and sharp, silencing me. “You’re staying alive. That is your only concern. Keep driving. Don’t stop. ”

  “I—I—Harris, people are—are dead because of me!”

  “Better them than you,” he said, his voice cold and emotionless. “Besides, you’d be surprised at what people can survive. ”

  “But the Peugeot exploded!”

  “Is the Audi still behind you?”

  I glanced in the rearview mirror, seeing only billowing black smoke and yellow-orange flames. “I don’t—I don’t think—” I never got to finish. A low black shape emerged from the smoke and the wreckage, weaving onto the shoulder and back onto the main road, and then gunning the engine. “Shit! He’s still back there. ”

  I risked another backward glance, saw a hand extend out of the driver-side window, a silver pistol clutched in the fist. I watched the pistol jerk, a brief bark of flame, and then heard the thunk of a bullet hitting the body of the Rover.

  “I see the smoke ahead. I’m almost there,” I heard Harris say. “Honk your horn and flash your brights. ”

  I laid on the horn and tugged the brights lever, keeping the pedal floored, trying to stay ahead of the Audi. The gun cracked again, and I heard another thunk. Looking ahead, I saw a silver BMW approaching, lights flashing.

  “That’s me,” Harris said. “Silver Beamer. Now, here’s what’s gonna happen. When I count to three, you’re gonna hit your brakes. Ease off the gas right now. Keep the wheel straight. When I say ‘three,’ you stand on those brakes. Let him rear-end you. As soon as he does, you hit the gas and take off. Got it?”

  “Got it. ” It was all I could say.

  “Ready?”

  “No!”

  “Too bad. One. Two…THREE!” He shouted the last word.

  I’d eased off the gas when he told me to, bringing my speed down to below seventy…sixty…fifty, and the Audi was right behind me, black grille and silver rings growing larger in my rear view mirror. On “THREE!” I put both feet on the brakes and leaned all my weight on the pedal. The wheel jerked and shuddered, the back tires fishtailed, and I fought to keep the Rover straight. I felt a sickening crunch, and the Rover was thrown forward. I glanced in the rearview mirror, and I could see the driver, the man from the chateau, hooked nose, deep-set black eyes, lip curling in a sneer, showing white teeth. It was a fractional image, seen in a split-second glance in the mirror, but it was burned indelibly on my brain.

  And then I heard a secondary squeal of tires from somewhere ahead and to the left. I threw my weight onto the gas pedal and felt the Rover bolt forward, throwing me back in my seat. I caught a glimpse of Harris in the window of the BMW, arcing in a sliding curve as he slammed on his brakes and threw the wheel over. Another momentary tableau, a panic-burned Polaroid image flashing into my skull: Harris, spinning his steering wheel hand over hand, face calm and emotionless. And then…crunchCRASH.

  BMW met Audi, and the black vehicle went tumbling sideways, roof-tires-roof-tires, metal crumpling, and glass flying. Harris’s car stuttered and rocked to a stop, and I was stopped too somehow, fifty feet away, and watched as smoke, thick and black, curled and coiled up from the overturned Audi. Harris stepped calmly from the driver’s side of the BMW, leaving the door open. I watched, my hand over my mouth, as he reached into his suit coat with a gloved hand and withdrew a huge black pistol, then moved to kneel by the smashed-open window of the Audi. I shook my head, whether in denial or horror, I wasn’t sure. Harris twisted low, peering into the front passenger side of the Audi. He shoved the pistol through, and I saw a flash, heard the bark, and saw a red mist spatter through the shattered driver’s window.

  Page 6

 

  As if nothing had happened, Harris stood up, replaced his weapon in the holster at his shoulder. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, wiped his hands, then placed the cloth in his back pocket. He pointed at me, held up one finger, which I took to mean wait. So I waited, watching. He leaned into the open door of the BMW and pushed a button, freeing the trunk hatch. He crossed around, lifted two black duffel bags from the trunk. He left the trunk open, left the door open, and strode calmly to where I waited in the Rover. He opened the passenger-side rear door and tossed the bags inside.

  “I’ll drive,” he said, then shut the door. Gratefully, I shoved open my door and moved around the hood. Halfway around, my knees gave out, my stomach heaving. I fell to the asphalt, bile on my tongue. I felt Harris lifting me to my feet. “We don’t have time for you to break down just yet, Miss St. Claire. Where there’s one of that sort of man, there’s more. We need to move. ”

  He helped me into the destroyed passenger seat and buckled me in. I was out of it, adrenaline receding, leaving me shaken and shaking, dizzy, nauseous. I blinked, and the Rover was moving, air rushing past my face from the shattered window, then I blinked again and we were weaving through the wreckage we’d just left behind—twisted and jackknifed semis, a crumpled Peugeot. Once we were out of the wreckage, Harris gunned the engine, and then I blinked again and we were bouncing over a dirt road and approaching the chateau. Then we were in the garage and Harris was helping
me out, putting me in the passenger seat of the Aston Martin, buckling me in.

  “Wait here. Let me check out the scene upstairs. ” He tossed the two duffel bags and my backpack in the trunk, and then vanished into the house.

  I concentrated on breathing in, breathing out. I tried to block out the horrific images: the twisting, spinning Peugeot. The jackknifing semi. The rolling Audi. The spitting spray of blood.

  What the hell was going on? Where was Roth? Why were people shooting at me and chasing me?

  Harris slid into the driver’s seat, threw the car into gear, and backed out. He said nothing, only brought the sleek red sports car onto the road, pointing us in the opposite direction from where we’d come. Sirens howled in the distance.

  Fifteen minutes passed, and we were rolling between rows of grapevines, the sun shining, and the land peaceful and silent. As if nothing had happened. As if Harris and I were merely two friends out for a drive.

  I couldn’t take it anymore. “Harris? What the fuck is going on?”

  He let out a sigh, the only sign of emotion a slight twitch in the muscles of his jaw. “It’s complicated. ”

  “This is Roth we’re talking about. Everything is complicated. ”

  “Well, obviously he was kidnapped. ”

  “By whom? How? Why? Who could take him out of our bed in the middle of the night without waking me up?”

  “Do you know much about the world Mr. Roth came out of?”

  “A little. He was an arms dealer, wasn’t he?”

  “Correct. But that’s not a world one simply walks away from. ” Harris paused for a long moment, considering. “I think we have a case of jealousy going on. ”

  “Jealousy?”

  “Miss St. Claire, you know how private Mr. Roth is. I’m somewhat stuck in that I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to tell you. What has he or hasn’t he told you, what does he want you to know?”

  “Harris. That’s bullshit. I was almost killed several times just now. I was shot at. Roth is gone. He was taken from me, taken out of our fucking bed while I slept! I think I have a right to know what’s going on, don’t you?”

  “I understand that. However, the problem is, I myself do not know very much. ” He pinched his lower lip between thumb and forefinger. “Here’s what I know. Roth dealt in crates of assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades. Small things like that. Nothing huge. In the circles Roth operated in, he was a small but important fish surrounded by some big, man-eating sharks. Back then, he was a young man with a big attitude. He’d made some good decisions, some good investments early on, built up a good client base and a decent stash of capital. ”

  Harris paused to slow the Aston Martin and make a right turn onto a wider highway, and then resumed speaking. “But then he got involved with a girl. Gina Karahalios. He met her in a discotheque in Athens, had no idea who she was. Just thought she was another pretty Greek girl he could have a fling with for a night and move on. Well, turns out Gina was the daughter of one the most dangerous men in the world, Vitaly Karahalios, a drug dealer, smuggler, and major arms dealer. When Gina brought her new boy toy home with her, Vitaly recognized his promising talent. That meeting? It was Roth’s downfall. He ended up working for Vitaly, running errands and doing dirty work. It was never part of Roth’s plan, to hear him tell it, but he didn’t have much choice. You don’t say no to a man like Vitaly Karahalios.

 
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