Beta, p.3
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       Beta, p.3

         Part #2 of Alpha series by Jasinda Wilder
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“And his daughter? She’s her father’s daughter in every way, cut from the same cloth: cunning, violent, dangerous, manipulative. And she had her hooks in Roth, had them in deep. He wanted out, though. From the start, he wanted out. He never wanted to get involved in that kind of business. He never wanted to be a criminal. He was just trying to make ends meet. That’s how he explained it to me, at least. He started out doing a favor for a friend in return for investment capital. Deliver some boxes, get paid, and don’t ask questions. So he did it. And then again. Then, sort of by accident, he discovered he was running boxes of small arms. Well, by then, the money he was making doing that started eclipsing his legitimate business income. For a kid in his early twenties, pulling in twenty or thirty grand for a single afternoon’s work? Easy choice. But then he met Gina, and everything spiraled out of control. ”

  “Sounds like Roth glossed over a few facts when he told me all of this. ”

  “One thing I have learned, working for Valentine Roth: He will never tell you an outright lie. But he will often leave out facts, keep the whole of the truth from you. I’ve seen this in his business dealings many times. It is part of his way. He doesn’t consider it lying, or even an omission. The flow of information is vital in any business. He learned early on in life to never reveal too much, and now it’s just…how he is. ” Harris shrugged.

  “I’m still not understanding how we got from that whole story about Vitaly and Gina to people shooting at me. ”

  “This is where my knowledge of events is somewhat sparse. Something went wrong. He tried to get out, I think. Tried to go legitimate. The Karahalios family wasn’t thrilled with that decision, I think. And now, for some reason, I think Gina is out for revenge, or to get him back, or something. I don’t know what she wants. I’m not even sure I’ve made the right guess, quite honestly, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to me, based on my limited knowledge. ”

  Page 7

 

  “So what do we do? How do we find him and get him back?”

  Harris didn’t answer for so long I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me. “I’m not sure. Number-one priority right now is to get you somewhere safe while I figure out a plan. The problem is, that chateau was supposed to be a safe house. It was purchased through a ridiculously complicated series of fronts and subsidiary companies. If Gina or her father or whoever it was could find you two there? I’m not convinced that any of our preexisting properties are going to be safe. The Karahalios reach is enormous. That man I just disposed of is only one of many. Probably the first one sent after you. There will be more. When he doesn’t report back, more will come. And soon. ”

  I let a few minutes pass, watching the landscape slide by the window. Eventually I had to ask. “So where are we going now?”

  “Marseilles. ”

  “And then?”

  “And then I make some phone calls. ”

  3

  MARSEILLES

  Harris drove us to Marseilles, and we arrived late in the afternoon. He seemed to have a particular destination in mind, because he wove through the narrow streets without hesitation. He stopped on a street that sloped steeply down toward the sea, parked the Aston Martin and set the handbrake, then popped the trunk and slid out. Harris closed the trunk, my backpack over one shoulder, and jerked his chin at me, indicating that I should follow.

  In other circumstances, I would have loved to have taken a few moments to appreciate the beauty of Marseilles. It was the Old World at its finest, ancient buildings rolling low over the hills in their march down to the Mediterranean, bathed in golden sunlight. The sea sparkled cobalt in the distance, white sails dotting the bay. As it was, I spared only a moment, and then I followed Harris through a low, narrow doorway into a dark cafe. There was a short length of bar on one wall, an aged slab of scratched, scarred, pitted, and polished wood with a brass foot-rail underneath running at ankle height. A few small round tables were scattered in a random pattern, each one empty. An old man stood behind the bar, a pipe held to his mouth, billowing sweet-smelling smoke. He had white hair, a neatly trimmed white beard, dark, deep-set eyes, and tanned, weathered skin, the wrinkles on his face etched so deeply that they looked like scars in his skin. His gaze raked over me, assessing me, and then he said something in low, rapid French.

  “Just long enough to make some arrangements,” Harris responded in English. “Couple hours, if that. Thanks, Henri. ” He pronounced the name the French way, Anhrrrree. The old man nodded, and Harris handed me my backpack, pointed at a stool. “Have a seat, Miss St. Claire. ” I sat, and he leaned against the bar beside me. “I’ve got to make some arrangements. See a few people. You’ll stay here with Henri. I won’t be more than an hour or two, hopefully, and then we’ll be on our way. ”

  “Wait, you’re leaving me here? Alone, with him?” I hated how panicked I sounded. “What if—what if they followed us? Or they find me?”

  “God help them, in that case,” Harris said, the ghost of a smirk on his lips.

  Henri clamped the pipe between his teeth, puffed a plume of smoke toward the ceiling as he reached under the bar and came up with a massive shotgun. I didn’t know much about guns, but I knew this one wasn’t a typical hunting shotgun. It was long and black, with a single wide-mouthed barrel and a shortened stock, making it resemble a machine gun or assault rifle. Another reach under the counter produced a box of shells, and Henri began calmly inserting them into the shotgun, and then into a series of loops on the side of the weapon. Then he lined up a dozen more shells on the bar top.

  “Oh. Oh. Okay. ” I swallowed and stared at the wicked-looking weapon.

  Henri twitched the corner of his mouth in a flash of a smile. “Safe. No worries. ” His accent was so thick the words twisted and curled in on themselves.

  “I’ll be back. Just sit tight, okay? Don’t leave Henri’s sight. ” Harris moved toward the door, then stopped and turned back to me. “You got a cell phone with you?”

  “Yeah, of course. ” I lifted my shoulder to indicate the backpack. “In my purse. ”

  “Turn it off and give it to Henri. ” He stood, waiting, and I realized he meant right away.

  I slung my bag around to my lap, unzipped it, and dug in my purse for my iPhone. I held the power button and swiped the phone off, then handed it to Henri, who turned and tossed it into the sink, which was full of soapy water.

  “Um. All right. ” I sighed wistfully.

  “Tracking a cellphone is the easiest thing in the world. Most people know this as a kind of abstract fact, having seen it on movies and TV or whatever, and for most people, under most circumstances, it doesn’t matter. You have nothing to hide, no reason to care. But you, in these circumstances? It matters. Karahalios has the resources to track you that way, trust me. Hopefully, he hasn’t already. ”

  “Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. ”

  Harris left, and I watched him go with a twinge of trepidation. I sat on the bar stool in silence as Henri smoked his pipe, seemingly content to merely wait.

  After what felt like half an hour of dead silence, no TV above the bar, no music playing, no conversation, Henri glanced at me. “Drink?”

  I shrugged and nodded. “Sure. Thanks. ”

  Henri twisted in place, grabbed a dusty brown bottle from a shelf and two wine glasses. He uncorked the bottle, and poured a generous measure of deep ruby liquid into each, then slid one glass toward me with a finger. He lifted his glass toward me in a silent toast and took a sip. I matched his toast and drank my own, and felt the rich, slow burn of a dry, expensive merlot.

  We drank in silence.

  I tried not to think or worry or conjecture. But it was useless. My brain whirled and spun, and the wine, even with as little as I drank, left me heady and loose. I pictured Valentine tied to a chair, being beaten, or tortured. The more I tried to block the image, the more it kept coming back, until it was all I could think about. All I could see, every time I bli
nked.

  Valentine was missing and presumed kidnapped, if Harris was right, by a violent crime lord. And I was sitting in a bar in Marseilles, drinking wine?

  An hour passed somehow. Another. So much waiting. I hated waiting. I’d always hated waiting.

  Tires squealed outside in the street, brakes protesting, an engine roared. Instantly, Henri was in motion, grabbing me by the sleeve and pulling me around behind the bar, shoving me down into a crouch. His hand on my shoulder, holding me down, was huge and hard, rough as concrete. I could see the shelf underneath the bar, and it was stocked with all kinds of things. A green rotary phone. Several boxes of shotgun shells. A huge silver pistol. A machete. A smaller black pistol, several other boxes full of rounds for the handguns, I assumed, as well as a stack of spare clips, some glinting with rounds, others empty. Bottles of alcohol, a pack of cigarettes, books of matches and ashtrays and a packet of pipe tobacco.

  Page 8

 

  I glanced up at Henri, who had the shotgun to his shoulder, pipe still in his teeth, aiming the weapon at the door. Car doors slammed, and I peeked up to watch Henri as he stepped out from behind the bar, moving in the slow crouching shuffle of someone who has had tactical training of some kind. He moved to stand beside the door so that when it swung inward, he would be able to blast whoever stepped through. I ducked back down behind the bar.

  My heart hammered in my chest, my stomach lodged in my throat.

  Hinges creaked slowly. A foot shuffled on the wood floor.

  BOOM!—BOOM!—BOOM! Three bellowing, deafening blasts of the shotgun, followed by the sound of wet splatter. Bodies hitting the floor.

  “Stay down,” Henri called out. “Do not move. ”

  I stayed down. My lungs wouldn’t work. I was close to hyperventilating, sucking in short, shallow breaths and letting them out with a whine in my throat.

  “They are done. Is okay. You safe now. ” I heard the sound of something sliding across the wood planks of the floor. “But still, stay down. Not good for you to see. ”

  No arguments from me there. I hugged my knees and waited, listening as Henri dragged three heavy bodies I didn’t want to see across the floor and down some stairs. I continued to sit on the floor behind the bar for another half hour as Henri mopped and scrubbed.

  Finally, he appeared behind the bar. “All done. Go sit, now. ” He washed his hands in the sink, dried them, then grabbed a book of matches and relit his pipe, sipped at his wine.

  And just like that, everything was back to normal. Sitting at the bar with a glass of half-finished wine. As if three men hadn’t just died.

  I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Henri shook his head. “Do not ask. You do not want to know. ”

  “The police?” I asked anyway. “Won’t they—”

  “Non. Not here. They will not come here. ”

  That was a mystifying answer, one that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know more about.

  My heart leapt into my throat again when the door opened suddenly and Henri jerked the shotgun to his shoulder. Harris stepped through. He’d changed out of the suit into a pair of blue jeans and thick black V-neck sweater, the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. “Just me. Just me. ” He sniffed the air, his eyes darting from the floor at his feet to the door, and then to Henri and the shotgun. “Something happen?”

  Henri set the shotgun on the bar, speaking in rapid French, gesturing at a door in the back of the bar.

  “Persistent fuckers,” Harris muttered.

  Henri barked a laugh. “Vitaly Karahalios? He does not give up. ”

  “You know anything about his daughter, Gina?”

  Henri spat on the floor, a spiteful, angry gesture. “Evil. Worse than her father. ” He glanced at me, speculation in his gaze. “Ahhh. Now I see. This is about the girl, non?”

  “That’s what I think. ” Harris gestured at the door in the back of the bar, ostensibly meaning the bodies beyond it. “They’re Vitaly’s men, yes?”

  Henri nodded. “Oui. I am as sure of this as one can be without knowing for certain. Who else could find her here, and risk my wrath?”

  “Good point. ” Harris gestured at me with his fingers, indicating that I should go with him. “Thanks, Henri. I’ll be in touch. ” Harris reached into the back pocket of his jeans, and it didn’t escape my notice that Henri tensed at the motion, his hand resting on the shotgun. Harris held up a thick white envelope, which clearly contained a thick sheaf of Euros, setting it on the bar near Henri.

  “I do not need this,” Henri said, shaking his head.

  “For your trouble. ”

  Henri winked at me. “Protecting a beautiful woman is never trouble. ” He pushed the envelope away, a gesture that contained a strong note of finality. “I owe Roth my life. This was my honor. ”

  Harris nodded and stuffed the envelope back in his jeans pocket. “All right. You know how to reach me. You hear anything, see anything, find anything out, let me know, okay?”

  “Oui. Of course. ” Henri held up a finger. “Wait. A moment, wait. ” He twisted to reach under the bar, set the small black pistol on the bar, then two clips and the box of rounds. “For her. Teach her. You and I will not always be around, non?”

  I shook my head. “I can’t. I wouldn’t—”

  Henri held up his hand, glaring at me, and I fell silent. “You can. You will. Those men? Mercy is a thing they do not know. Better to die than let them get their filthy hands on you, yes? Better yet, you kill them first. Learn. For Roth, learn. ”

  I picked up the handgun. It was heavier than I’d thought it would be, and cold to the touch. “Is it safe? To put it in my bag, I mean. ”

  Henri snorted. “What good does it do in your purse? Can you reach it there so swiftly? Non. Look. Your first lesson. ” He clamped his pipe in his teeth and puffed, then grabbed the gun from me, pushed a button on the side, and the clip ejected. He held it sideway, pulled back the slide. A round clattered onto the bar. “Now it is safe. ” He knocked the clip back in, pulled and released the slide, and then held the pistol so I could watch as he thumbed a switch near the trigger. “Safety on. Now it is safe. Push the button to shoot. And if you shoot? You shoot once, one time only, and you kill. Only shoot to kill. ”

  I swallowed hard and backed away. This was absurd. What was happening to me? How could this be my life now? A few short months ago, I was a broke and starving girl, alone in the world. And then I was collected by Roth, and everything changed. I became his, willingly his. He took me away from everything. He was showing me the world. We’d visited a dozen or so countries so far, and I’d discovered exactly how big the world was, and just how many places there were to see, and I realized I wanted to see all of them.

  But only with Roth.

  And he was gone. My idyllic little world—traveling with my Valentine, eating and drinking and fucking and sailing and hiking and living—had been shattered.

  I’d been shot at. Chased. I’d hidden behind a bar like something from a Hollywood movie as shotguns went off around me.

  And now I was supposed to take a gun and shoot people with it? I’d never touched a gun in my life. Not even so much as a BB gun.

  “Take the gun, Miss St. Claire. We don’t have time for you to have qualms about it right now. Take it and put it at the small of your back, just like in the movies. ” Harris was at my side, talking quietly to me.

  Page 9

 

  He took the pistol from Henri and placed it in my hand. The heft of it was the cold, hard weight of reality. This was not a toy. It was a weapon, meant to kill. I reached around behind me, put it between my underwear and the waist of my jeans. It felt alien and heavy resting there, cold against my skin. I tugged my shirt down over it. Surely everyone who looked at me would know I had it? I kept pulling at my shirt, pushing the handle this way and that. It was far more uncomfortable than I’d thought it would be. My jeans were tight-fitti
ng, so adding the barrel of a handgun stretched them so tight they pulled against my belly. And how was I supposed to sit down? Wouldn’t it fall out, or become even more obvious?

  “Put the sweater on,” Harris instructed. I did so, and he grabbed the spare clips, handed one to me, and then stuffed the rest and the box of shells into my backpack, rearranging things inside so they weren’t on top. “Put that in your pocket, and stop fidgeting with the gun. With the sweater on, no one can tell. ”

  “I can tell. ”

  “Good. That’s the point. I’ll give you some lessons once we’re in transit. ”

  “I feel stupid. I’ve never even shot a BB gun, Harris. ”

  “Then don’t touch it unless I say so. The most important thing to know is point it away from you and me. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be fine. ” He lifted a hand in a wave to Henri, and then pulled me out the door. “Now, we need to move. ”

  Out on the street, evening was giving way to dusk. Couples strolled down the steep incline, hand in hand. A businessman in a three-piece suit power-walked up the hill, a cell phone to his ear. Cars passed going down the hill, brakes squealing, engines idling high and gears downshifting. Harris pulled me into a walk down the hill, keeping hold of my arm. He said nothing, and neither did I. Down, down, down to the sea. The sound of waves lapping and seagulls cawing met my ears, and then I smelled the brine on a stiff wind. Lines clinked against masts, flags snapped. Harris guided us through throngs of people, past cafes and seaside bars, eventually leading us out onto the docks among hundreds of boats, some with sails and some without. Tiny fishing vessels and mammoth yachts and everything in between.

  One hand on my elbow, the other shoved into his hip pocket, Harris seemed deceptively at ease, relaxed. I could feel him scanning, however, and every once in a while he’d twist around to scan behind us, doing so casually, as if he was nothing more than a tourist taking in the sights. Pier after pier stretched out and away, each one with a dozen boats on each side. Marseilles stood above us, a massive, looming, and ancient presence in the lowering dusk. Harris led me past half a dozen piers before cutting over onto one, and then he took us to the very end of the dock and halted in front of a medium-sized boat.

 
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