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2015
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Shay Savage, LLC
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Evan Arden 4
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Isolation

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Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop

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Copyright © 2015 Shay Savage

All rights reserved





Cover art design by LJ Anderson of Mayhem Cover Creations

Formatting by LJ Anderson of Mayhem Cover Creations

Editing by Chayasara





All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems-except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations embodied in review or critical writings without the expressed permission of the author, Shay Savage.





The characters and events in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.





DEDICATION


For the fans of Surviving Raine/Bastian’s Storm and the Evan Arden original trilogy. You all wanted to know just what happened to Evan afterward, so this story is for you!

Huge thanks to my team for pushing me along and keeping me on track! I’d never get anything done without all of you!





AUTHOR'S NOTE


Though I try to make each and every one of my stories a stand-alone, sometimes you just need to read the other books first. This is intended to be read AFTER Bastian’s Storm, and it’s definitely a plus if you have read the entire Evan Arden trilogy first. That said, I’ve tried to incorporate enough information that you shouldn’t be lost if you haven’t read the other books first, but it’s highly suggested. Enjoy!





TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

EPILOGUE

AUTHOR'S END NOTES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

OTHER TITLES BY SHAY SAVAGE





CHAPTER ONE


Unexpected Truce





It’s fucking cold.

My head is spinning, and I can’t focus on anything around me. Just a few moments ago, I’d fired my assault rifle into rock and snow with the intent of triggering an avalanche. It was either that or be strangled by Sebastian Stark, the reigning champion of illegal tournament battles to the death.

The trick had worked, but I’m not so sure I’m in better shape now.

Th; e avalanche itself has run its course. Somehow, I’d ended up on top of the snow, painfully pressed against some rocks but not buried. I can’t explain why, but I’ll take this over being covered in ice. Stark is presumably buried somewhere underneath the snow. I find it somewhat ironic that he’ll likely die of suffocation, considering he had been trying to strangle me.

I breathe frigid air into my lungs and shake my head to clear it. The movement causes me to scrape my temple on a rock, and I glance down to get my bearings.

There is rock and ice wrapped around the left half of my body. My leg and arm are totally buried, and as I try to shift around, I find out very quickly that I’m stuck. When I try to move my arm at all, shooting pain runs from my neck to my fingertips. It’s the only way I know my arm is still attached to my body.

Random thoughts about phantom pains reported by amputees enter my brain, but I choose to ignore them. When I tense the muscles in my fingers, I can feel the movement. I’m pretty sure my arm is still attached.

I can move my leg a little but not enough to get it out from under the rock. I try to push some of the ice away with my free hand, but I accomplish nothing. The wind whips around my exposed face, and I realize my facemask is somewhere down below, buried in the snow along with the GPS locator and the camera that might have told someone where I am.

Maybe I will be found lying here and maybe I won’t. It’s not a large island, and a helicopter might spot me. It’s the only chance I have at this point; I can’t free myself.

Maybe that’s best.

I close my eyes and rest my head on the rock. It is far from comfortable, but at least it isn’t sand. I’d spent months in a hot, sandy hole as a POW, and I prefer anything to that.

The cold is seeping into me, and I realize hypothermia is going to set in quickly. I try to recall if that’s considered a good way to go or not, but I can’t remember.

A good way to go.

Have I given up? Am I going to just lie here and let myself die?

There are no answers to my internal questions. I’m as cold inside as I am outside. I can’t deny that it would be easy to just let go. I’m tired, hungry, and freezing to death. My Barrett M82 sniper rifle, my pride and joy, was damaged in the fighting, and I was forced to leave it behind so I could move faster. Without it in my possession, letting myself slip away does have a certain appeal. At another time in my life, I probably would have done just that. It’s different now. Now I have a reason to return home.

Lia.

Before she came into my life, I’d only gone through the motions. I killed because it was my job, but I never felt anything about it. Not good, not bad. I like shooting, so there has always been that level of enjoyment about what I did. The bodies that stacked up in my wake are just a part of that. Lia gave me a reason to kill—to protect her.

She also gave me a reason to live.

It’s so easy for me to picture her face. Maybe that isn’t unusual for other people, but I never thought about women’s faces. Even when I was intimate with them, I preferred them face down. I would give them what they wanted, but I didn’t really care who they were. There were a couple of exceptions during my life but not many.

I love to look at Lia’s face when I fuck her. Or make love. The term matters more to her than it does to me. I know how I feel when I’m inside of her. The sensations are beyond orgasms and the act more than just physical. It’s peaceful and calming. It’s centering and relaxing. I sleep without ominous dreams when she’s with me.

A slight scraping sound in front of my face brings me out of my thoughts. At first I think it’s just snow and rock settling, but a moment later, a hand pops out of the snow beside me. With wide eyes, I stare in disbelief as Sebastian Stark’s gloved hand begins to push the snow around, making a hole.

The fact that he has survived is surprising enough. Landing literally two feet from me is simply fantastic. I watch him push snow around to give himself a wider opening, listen to him take some deep breaths, and then go back to digging himself a hole. When a handful of snow hits me in the face, I realize I’m still staring at him.

Slowly and quietly, I reach down my side and grip the butt of the Beretta at my waist. I unclip it with my thumb and then pull it up close to my chest. Stark has his head uncovered at this point and is trying to look around a bit, but I’m pretty sure he can’t see me from this angle. As I extend my arm, I can just reach him.

An unaccustomed hesitation hits me.

I pause to try to get as good a look at him as I can. I’d done this the night before during the pre-tournament festivities, but I wasn’t nearly as close as I am now. I do see similarities though they are subtle. There’s something about the curve of his jaw that reminds me of my own, and our eyes are the same shape though different colors.

I’d done minimal research on the other competitors, but when I realized Stark was my main threat, I’d looked up everything I could find on him. Jonathan, my cohort in crime and only friend, had done some digging as well. With his cyber-sleuthing genius, he always seemed to be able to find something on anyone. Finding Stark’s organized crime history, his reasons for secluding himself on a sailboat in the Caribbean, and his subsequent status as a rescued castaway were easy enough to find.

There was something else in all the information Jonathan dug up—something I found far more personally interesting.

Sebastian had taken the name Stark after he began fighting under the tutelage of Landon Stark, but that wasn’t his actual surname. He wasn’t even from the Seattle area like Landon Stark and his boss Joseph Franks were. Sebastian had been born in Chicago and abandoned by a young woman trying to escape her abusive husband. She’d ended up dead shortly afterward, most likely at the hands of her estranged spouse. Her name meant nothing to me, but the man listed as her husband was a name I recognized—Alexander Janez. The same name appeared as the biological father on my own adoption certificate.

Sebastian Stark was once called Sebastian Janez. And he is my half-brother.

I’d stared at the papers for hours, trying to make sense of it all. I suppose I should have realized before then that I might have a sibling out in the world somewhere; it’s every orphaned kid’s fantasy that there is a family out there to be found. It was never anything I gave enough consideration to warrant a search.

Maybe I should have. Maybe if I’d taken the information Jonathan had discovered about my own parents and looked for any remaining ties, I would have found out about Stark sooner. By the time I knew, I was already locked and loaded for this tournament.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I have a job to do, and I am going to do it. Guilt never plays into my motives, and our vague blood relationship is irrelevant. Stark doesn’t seem to have any idea of his own lineage, and there isn’t any reason for me to change that now.

I release the safety and press the end of the gun to Stark’s temple. His neck stiffens as the rest of his body goes motionless.

“Aren’t you supposed to give me some kind of ‘ha-ha-I-knew-I-was-going-to-win-the whole-time’ kind of speech first?” Stark asks.

I stifle a laugh and shake my head. “Not really my style.”

I have nothing else to say to him. As a veteran hit man for the largest crime organization in Chicago, I never hesitate or play games with those I intend to kill. In my mind, he’s already dead. I pull the trigger.

Nothing happens.

“Fuck.” I pull the weapon back to my chest and check to make sure there’s a bullet in the chamber. There is, but there’s also a lot of ice and rock around the barrel. I knock it against my chest a couple of times to dislodge whatever is causing the malfunction. Some of the ice falls away, but it still won’t fire.

“Run out of ammo?”

“No.” I don’t know why I even bother to answer him. “Jammed. Probably from the ice or a rock or something.”

Just as I say it, I see a chip of rock that is likely causing the problem. I try to use one finger to pry the fragment out, but it’s jammed tight. With my gloved hand, I can barely hold the weapon. There’s no way I can dislodge the rock even if I take off my glove. I only have one hand available. If I take the glove off, I might not be able to get it on again, and that would be worse than the lack of firepower.

“Motherfucker.” I clench my teeth and smack the Beretta against the ice beside me. Nothing seems to work; the rock stays firmly lodged.

“Having a problem?” I can hear laughter in his voice, but I don’t find anything terribly amusing.

“A bit,” I admit. I pull the gun up close to my face, wondering if I can get a grip on the rock with my teeth, but it’s in too deep.

“Something I can help you with?” Stark asks.

You can die on your own, I think but don’t say anything aloud. I take in a long breath and let it out slowly as I look around and consider my options. My lack of mobility is the biggest issue, and I don’t see a solution to it. There’s nothing around me to use as a digging tool, and with only one arm available, I won’t be able to dig effectively anyway.

I rotate the weapon in my hand, grasping the barrel tightly. I don’t have enough reach for a bludgeoning to be horribly effective, but it’s the only option. I pull back my arm and slam the butt end of the Beretta against the back of Stark’s head.

“Ow! Motherfucker!”

It isn’t a good hit, and I try again a couple of times before Stark manages to grab my hand and scuffle for the gun. I keep my grip as best I can, but when he slams my hand against a rock, I lose my hold and the weapon tumbles out of sight.

“Fuck,” I mutter.

“Why didn’t you just fucking shoot me?”

“Still jammed,” I tell him.

“I thought you were a fucking gun expert,” Stark replies. “You telling me you can’t unjam a gun?”

“Not with one hand.” My words are a mistake, and I realize it almost immediately. I’ve just given away my weakness.

Stark shuffles around enough that he is able to turn and appraise my situation. I meet his eyes for the first time, and his expression is hopeful. He lets out a short laugh.

“Well, you’re fucked,” he states.

I can’t argue with the sentiment. I need to stop giving him information. Anything I tell him can be used against me. Even my expression could tell him how bad off I am.

What difference does it make now?

I’m completely without weapons. In a bare-fisted fight, Stark would certainly beat me. I’m stuck in ice and rock, and I can barely feel my left arm. I’m immobilized; the temperature is well below deathly cold, and I have zero chance of digging my way out. Stark, on the other hand, appears much more hopeful. He pushes more ice and snow out from around him, clearing his shoulders and part of his chest.

I’m completely screwed.

I lay my head against my shoulder, trying to keep my exposed skin off the ice. As I close my eyes, I realize how easy giving up can be. It’s tempting. No, it’s beyond tempting. It’s downright appealing.

Stark is going to free himself, and then he is going to use whatever is handy to beat me to death—probably just his fists. I won’t be able to do anything to stop him. That thought pisses me off. If I’m going to die, I’d at least rather be able to fight back to the end. This way will suck.

I open my eyes and look down the edge of the cliff where something catches my eye. There’s a layer of rock lined up in the ice, surrounding a darker shape. As I squint, I realize the dark shape is actually Stark’s leg. I look up at his face and at the angle of his body. His leg is badly broken, possibly crushed. It’s also lodged against one rock at a tight angle. Even with Stark’s strength, he’s not going to be able to pull his leg out.

He’s as trapped as I am.

The thought offers me only a little comfort. At least I won’t be helplessly beaten to death. Instead, we will both die of exposure, and there will be no winner in this tournament. Rinaldo Moretti, Joseph Franks, and the other tournament organizers might not even find us, considering the cameras and GPS locators are buried in the avalanche.

They will still know I outlived the other Chicago-based organizations. Maybe that will be enough for Rinaldo to get what he wants. It shouldn’t matter to me, but it does. I’m not in this for myself; I’m in it so Rinaldo can win. I’m not even supposed to be involved anymore.

“This is supposed to be my fucking retirement,” I mutter under my breath.

“Mine, too,” Stark says with a humorless laugh.

“Oh yeah?” I shift my head lower to rest it on the snow and sigh again. “What are you doing here, then?”

“Killing your ass is the plan.”

I roll my eyes. In my opinion, the whole banter thing these tournament veterans find so entertaining is simply tedious. They are all so casual about it, but the puffing is annoying and pointless. It makes them sound like characters out of a Marvel comic, and I’d never enjoyed those for the same reason. All those elaborate plans and plots the villains would conjure up just to have the heroes escape at the last minute in some ridiculous way.

I tend to go with the straightforward approach—aim and shoot.

“I’ve heard that before,” I say. “Everyone who ever said it is floating in the Chicago river.”

“Everyone I’ve ever said it to is six feet under.”

I look at him and try to gauge his expression. Though the words are cocky, I don’t see the same cockiness in his face. He’s just stating facts, not bragging. He’s got history on his side as well. He’s out of practice, though, and skills do fade.

“So I’ve heard,” I say, “but you’ve been out of the games for a long time.”

He doesn’t respond, and we lapse into silence for a time. I keep picturing Lia and wondering what she is doing right now. She would be back from her trip to her mother’s and at home in our cabin. Right now, she’s likely taking our dog, Freyja, out for her afternoon stroll through the wooded area nearby. I wonder where she thinks I am.

If I don’t return, how long will she wait? Days? Weeks? Will she try to reach out to someone to learn what happened to me? Would anyone tell her the truth?

She’s going to be seriously pissed off.

I look over at Stark and wonder if his girl is pissed off at him. She knows what’s going on, but does that make it better? He’d been out of the games for so long, I have to wonder what made him decide to play again.

When I ask, the answer doesn’t surprise me. He’s fighting for her and his son. I didn’t realize Franks was actually holding the two of them hostage, forcing Stark to participate. I thought he was in it for the money or glory or whatever.

When he inquires about my reasons for being here, I see no reason to lie.

“Rinaldo asked me to do it.”

“You always do what he asks?” Stark asks as he eyes me.

“Pretty much,” I confirm.

“Why you?”

I smile a little to myself though I certainly don’t feel any joy. Rinaldo already had a tournament player lined up, but the guy had gotten in my way, pissed me off, and I put a bullet in his skull. If I had any kind of control over my temper or if that guy had just been somewhere else that day, I wouldn’t be here at all.

“I killed the guy who would have otherwise done it,” I admit as I look skyward. The cloud cover is thick enough to block the sun, and everything above me is gray.

“You killed one of your boss’s men?”

I just look at him in response. I don’t feel the desire or need to repeat myself.

“You got balls,” Stark remarks.

“He was an asshole,” I say.

“There are plenty of those around. You can’t kill them all.”

“Maybe.” I’m not sure I agree with him. I’m actually pretty good at removing the assholes in my life. It’s easy when you don’t feel any remorse for what you do.

As we talk about how we got here in the first place, the similarities are all too obvious. Both of us intended to be out of the business, but here we are—freezing to death for a cause neither of us cares about. We both share loyalties to the father figures in our lives, which is my reason for being here. Stark has additional reasons. Franks has his woman locked up along with his son. All that research I had done, and I hadn’t discovered much about Stark’s kid other than he was brought back to the States after his mother and her husband were killed. I had assumed Franks was using him as leverage against Stark. I’d gone as far as to threaten Stark’s kid right to his face just to see how he would react. He’d attacked me right in the middle of the tournament conference, confirming my suspicions.

Sebastian Stark is fighting for his family.

Well, there’s one difference. Though I want to live and return home to Lia, I’m not here because of her. No one is threatening her life, and I have no reason to think anyone will harm her after I’m dead. I’m here because Rinaldo asked, and what Rinaldo asks for, I give him.

It doesn’t matter. Neither of us is going to get out of this. As Stark takes out a child’s drawing of a couple and a little boy, I wonder if he realizes this and decide to state the obvious.

“You’re never going to see her again, not the kid, either.”

I watch as he balls his hands into fists. There’s a vein in his neck that starts to pulse. Almost as quickly as his body tells him to fight, I can see him drop back into the hole slightly. His eyes glaze over as he stares at the snow.

“Fuck you!” he yells at me, but there’s no fire in his eyes. “I’m getting out of this, fucking you over, and going home to them.”

“No, you aren’t,” I say with a shake of my head. I want to push him. It’s the best way to determine his mindset. “You know it, too. You just figured it out.”

My words have sunk into him, and he’s teetering on an edge inside his mind. I can feel it inside myself as well. We are survivors, my half-brother and I, but we also know hopelessness when we encounter it. Our options have dwindled to nothing.

Part of me is okay with that.





CHAPTER TWO


Risky Deal





“How do you know that?”

Stark glares at me, and I shrug with my free shoulder. My words might have hit home with him, but he doesn’t want to accept them.

“Your posture just changed,” I tell him. “You slumped down, and your eyes dropped. There’s no way to dig yourself out, and we aren’t going to help each other, so there will be no winner for this tournament. You were looking at that crayon drawing when you realized you’d never see her or your kid again.”

I watch as his eyes widen, and he stammers at me.

“I’m pretty perceptive,” I state.

He starts yelling at me again, but I’m only partially listening. He’s determined, at least in word¸ to win this game. When I point out the futility of it all, he denies it over and over again. I admire his resolve. He seems convinced this will be his last fight and that he’ll be allowed to go live out his life in peace when it’s done. I find the notion ridiculous even though I had once thought it possible.

I know better now.

“We’re too good for them to just let us go,” I say. “Even if they really want to, they’re always going to need us for something one last time.”

I watch his posture change again as my words sink in. He knows I’m right even if he can’t admit it out loud.

“Fuck you.” Stark bares his teeth a little, and I raise an eyebrow. There’s no more bite in his words. He goes back to mumbling. “I’ve got bigger priorities now.”

I remember the picture I’d acquired of his girlfriend, Raine. She’s cute and about half his size. She may be Frank’s prisoner right now, but he won’t have any use for her when this is over. I wonder if either Raine or Stark’s son will be allowed to live after they find us dead. At least Lia is safely out of harm’s way. She’s never going to know what happened to me, but at least she will live.

Despite our similarities, I can’t help but notice how different our motives are. Stark didn’t want to be involved in this game but agreed to fight to save Raine and his son. My reason for being here is…

Is what?

Because I have been in this life for too long. I don’t know any other way.

The next thing I know, I’m telling Stark all about Lia. I can’t say why I’m talking about her at all—I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I know I’m going to die, and I want to go thinking about her and not how I got here in the first place. I play dumb when Stark brings up Raine, but I slip up a little, and he calls me out on it when I act as if I don’t know Raine isn’t his son’s mother. I am a little surprised when he accuses me of killing the mother of his child.

“Franks put the hit on her,” I tell him. I don’t have any loyalty to Franks or his organization, so I don’t care if Stark knows who is responsible. “Rinaldo told me about it.”

I lay my head back, trying to stretch out the muscles in my neck. They’re stiff from the cold and the angle of the ice. I see movement up above me, and the vision of a teenage boy dressed in plain, tan clothing appears on the ledge above me.

I close my eyes for a moment, but he’s still there when I open them.

I don’t know his name. No one ever knew who he was or where he came from. When I was in Iraq, he had walked up to the camp where my unit was stationed with a bomb strapped around his chest. I killed him with a single bullet from my sniper rifle before he could get too close.

Apparently, being dead isn’t enough to keep him away from me. His specter follows me everywhere.

Stark is still talking about Raine, calling her a saint for putting up with him. It doesn’t sound like he’s much of a boyfriend, which just comes with being wrapped up in organized crime. Our relationships, if we have any at all, are never good ones.

When he says something about Raine’s friends not liking him, I realize Lia doesn’t have any friends at all. In my desire to always keep her safe at my side, she’s sacrificed anything that ever might have looked like a normal life. At least Stark had attempted to try to be a boyfriend. I am probably better described as a keeper.

A fucked up keeper.

I tell Stark about how I plan my hits around Lia’s school schedule; he says I’m crazy.

“Yeah,” I say with a laugh. “I’ve got the diagnosis to prove it.”

He stares pointedly into my eyes.

“PTSD,” I tell him, not seeing any reason to lie about it. “I’m a certified nut.”

“From being in the Marines?”

“From being a POW, yeah.” I take a breath and hold it for a minute, trying to keep my mind from immediately going back to that hole in the sand where I spent a year and a half. Maybe it is an excuse for how I act with Lia, but there are things in my head I just can’t control. Considering the other characteristics Stark and I seem to share, I wonder how he justifies his actions, so I ask. “Why are you such a dick to your girl?”

“I just…have a nasty temper. I used to drink to make up for it.”

“Not anymore?”

“That’s the one thing she’d leave me for,” he admits. “If I drink, she’s gone.”

“And that’s enough to keep you off it?”

“Yeah,” Stark says. “Well, mostly. I’ve fucked up but just once.”

“She forgave you?”

“She did.”

I wonder how many times Lia has forgiven my misdeeds. There are the number of deaths she knows I’d had a hand in and countless others she knows nothing about. If she had any idea I was still working for Rinaldo, would she forgive me? No, probably not.

“I don’t think Lia would be so forgiving if she knew I was still in the business.”

“If she’s anything like Raine, she’d have your balls.”

I have to laugh because it does sound like Lia. Apparently, Stark and I have something else in common—the women who put up with us would probably be great friends. Of course, they might compare notes and decide to just get the fuck away from both of us.

The mounting similarities between my half-brother and me are interesting, especially since we hadn’t grown up anywhere near each other. There are a few times I’m tempted to tell him, but I don’t. There is no point. Instead, I watch him become agitated as he finds new energy to try to dig his way out of the hole he’s in. There’s no way—not with his leg stuck the way it is. I give a half-hearted effort myself, but I know it’s pointless.

“I want a fucking cigarette,” I say out loud.

I can’t hide my shock as he hands me one.

As the smoke fills my lungs, I think about how pissed off Lia would be if she caught me smoking. The irony that I worry about that instead of the fact that she’s never going to know why I never came home isn’t lost on me.

As Bastian and I continue to discuss how pissed off our women would be at us and the various ways we are likely to die, he says something that does catch my attention, a quote from his father figure, Landon.

“Victory is in your head first. If you decide that’s how it’s going to be, then that’s how it will be.”

Even as I spout off the possible outcomes—all bad—other thoughts creep into my head. I look at Bastian’s leg caught in the rocks and realize I could reach it with my foot easily enough. If I could kick the rock away, he just might be able to pull his leg out. It would hurt like a bitch, but if anyone could handle the pain, he could. If he were freed, he could free me. There’s no camera for anyone to see what happened to us.

And then what?

I think back to how things have been over the past year: living a double life with Lia on one side of it and Rinaldo on the other. I’d be just as trapped between the two of them as I am trapped between rocks and ice now.

Death seemed like the only way out. As long as I am alive, Rinaldo will still have a hold over me. I will still feel obligated to him, and I will still do whatever he asks me to do. Lia will eventually catch on to what I’m doing, and I have no idea how she’ll react.

Well, I have some idea. It won’t be good; that’s for sure.

I’ve been a selfish bastard. I want her and I want my ties to Rinaldo. When we first left Chicago, I really did intend to live life on the straight and narrow, but I’m not capable of denying Rinaldo what he wants from me. It’s just not possible. Now I keep her in the dark about my activities, and she is stuck with me when she’d probably be better off if I never came back. She could move on then, live a normal life without my interference, except I can’t go on without her.

Selfish asshole.

If Rinaldo would really let me go, maybe it could be different. He won’t do that though—not as long as I’m alive.

What if he thinks I’m dead?

If he really, truly believed me to be dead, our relationship would be severed. I wouldn’t be called on to do his bidding, and he would no longer have a hold over me. Without the obligation, I could be a real partner to Lia. No more lies. No more hiding.

I can feel my energy shift. I want what Bastian has managed to achieve despite his temper and other transgressions. He is here to fight for his life with her, and I realize that I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave Lia like that. I need her, and if Bastian Stark and I work together, I can finally be there for her. Always.

A plan begins to form in my head. There’s only one thing to do, only one hope left. It will be tricky, but it’s possible. The loss of my Barrett might prove to be a positive thing—it will help convince Rinaldo that I’m really gone. All I need to do is convince Stark that this could work.

I decide to strike a deal with him.

“A deal?” Bastian Stark is hesitant. More than hesitant, really—he doesn’t believe a word I’m saying.

“Yeah,” I say, “a deal where we both end up retired for real with the women we fight for.”

“The only way that happens is when one of us dies,” he says. “There isn’t a prize for second place.”

“Yeah, I get that.” I take a breath and look at him. He’s not thinking beyond the norm, and I have to convince him to consider options that wouldn’t usually be possible. The loss of our cameras in the avalanche has left us in a unique situation. Without any communication to the group, we have freedom of movement. We can plan without their knowledge. Bastian’s only thoughts are of winning, but that isn’t my priority. “You can have the trophy—I don’t give a shit about that. I just want to walk away with people thinking I’m dead.”

He’s not convinced and argues with me, calling me insane. I can’t refute the facts there and decide to let him know just how far gone I really am. Maybe it will be enough to convince him that I’m crazy enough to make this work.

“Look over there,” I say as I point near the top of the ridge. The kid stands there, staring down at me with his hand pressed against the bomb at his stomach. “You see anyone?”

He looks quickly before telling me he doesn’t.

“I still see him,” I say. The kid crosses his arms over his chest and glares as if he can’t believe I’m admitting to his existence.

“Who?”

“A kid I killed in Iraq. He follows me everywhere. He’ll go away for a while—sometimes for months—but he always comes back when shit gets real.”

Bastian stares at me with an open mouth for a moment and then glares.

“Dude—there’s no one there.”

“I know,” I say with a shrug. “I still see him. I have nightmares all the time about killing him. Not just him, but being in the desert, tied up in a hole for months. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about it, and when I do, I can’t sleep at all—sometimes for days. When I’m with Lia, I sleep better.”

Bastian’s shock is apparent, but even I am surprised when he says he also has nightmares, and that Raine makes sleeping easier. It becomes clear to me that we both rely on our women to survive mentally, and I have to get him to see a way for both of us to come out of this alive without our pasts continuing to follow us. My devotion to Rinaldo holds me to the life, and I realize who has a hold over Bastian.

“I’ll kill Franks,” I tell him.

I can practically see the little wheels in his head spinning. I’d do it far away from wherever Stark ends up and wait several weeks before completing the task. It would never be traced back to the tournament, and Stark still comes out the winner. Franks would be my last kill.

I come out presumed dead, which is exactly what I want.

“So what’s your plan?” Bastian asks although it’s clear his guard is up.

“Neither of us can move without help.” I point out the obvious and continue. “I’m guessing you can’t see what I see.”

“A kid I’ve killed in the past?” he says with bite. “No, I don’t see that.”

“Not him.” I shake my head, not wanting to think about the vision on the ledge above, let alone talk about it. “The position of the rock next to your leg.”

“Where?” Bastian twists his neck around.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to see it, but it’s jammed up against your leg, holding it to the ice. With that angle, there’s no way you can pull it out. The rock has to go.”

“So what are you going to do? Yell at it?”

“I’m pretty sure I can move the rock up against your leg out of the way with my foot. Once it’s gone, you should be able to pull yourself out and keep your leg intact. Well, as intact as it is now. It’s broken.”

“Yeah, I can tell that.”

As much as it has to hurt now, it’s gonna hurt a lot more when I kick it out of the way, but he knows it’s better than dying where he is.

“Do it,” he commands.

I don’t hesitate.

“Fuck!” Bastian yells. His body tenses as he grips the edge of the hole with his fingers.

“Almost got it,” I tell him.

“Fucking hurry.”

I raise an eyebrow at him.

“That’ll hurt more.”

“I don’t give a shit!” he yells back. “Just fucking do it!”

I pull my leg up to my chest and slam it forward as hard as I can. He screams like a wounded animal as it rips its flesh on the teeth of a trap. The rock tumbles down the edge of the mountain, and Bastian manages to move his leg a little.

He looks like he’s about to pass out from the pain. I can see him fighting against the urge to vomit, but he manages to get himself back together.

“I think that did it,” I inform him as he curses.

“I should have asked for a bullet to bite on.” He shakes his head and blows out puffs of vapor from his mouth.

“I have a few,” I say with a smile. “I should have offered.”

“Bastard.”

He tries to pull his leg out again as his face goes red with the exertion. My stomach knots as I begin to think he won’t be able to do it—he’ll pass out before he can free himself. He doesn’t. He grits his teeth and keeps pulling even though I can hear tearing sounds as he finally moves another couple of inches.

There’s one more rock, and I start to tell him to hold on a second so I can kick it away but decide to just do it instead. He screams and curses at me, but he finally gets his leg loose before he drops his head against the ice, panting.

Bastian’s eyes are closed, and I think maybe he did finally pass out from the pain. He only takes a few seconds before he opens his eyes again, twists and turns his body, and eventually pulls himself out of the hole and drops to the ground beside me.

I’m beyond tense as I wait for him to catch his breath. There was no avoiding this moment, and I don’t know what he will do. As it is, he has the option to just pick up a rock and bash my skull. There’s no way I can stop him if he decides to end me now.

I can see the debate in his eyes, and my mind considers all the things I might be able to say to convince him to live up to his end of the deal. I can remind him about my promise to kill Franks, but he already knows that. How will he react if he knows we are half-brothers? I lick my lips, and just as I’m about to give him that little piece of information, he grins at me.

“Shall we get you out?”

Fucker.

I let out the breath I’m holding and nod. Bastian grabs a flat rock and starts digging out my arm first and then my leg. With both arms free, I can help with the last part. Once I can stand again, Bastian pushes against my shoulder, and it pops back into the socket as I wince.

“You okay?” he asks.

“Yeah, I’m good.” I look him over as my whole arm throbs. I know the pain he’s feeling is much worse. “Your leg is a mess.”

He glances down, and I wonder if there is any chance he’ll be able to keep the leg. It looks completely crushed.

“How are you going to climb?” I ask.

“I’ll manage. How are you going to get out of here?”

“I’ll manage.” I give him a smile and a raised eyebrow. He laughs and looks down the mountainside.

“Keep out of sight,” he says, surprising me with his concern.

“I’m pretty good at that.” I lick my lips and stare at him. “You’re going to tell them I’m dead, right?”

“That’s the plan,” he says. “I don’t think they’re going to spend much time looking for you.”

“They won’t,” I agree. I think about my Barrett sniper rifle, abandoned at the bottom of the cliff. “Rinaldo knows me too well.”

Bastian looks as if he’s about to ask what I mean, but his attention is directed at his leg again. He tries to set it on the ground and lean into it, but he nearly falls. Balancing himself, he reaches for his waist, and I tense as he brings out a long bolt. He must have retrieved it from the dude with the crossbow.

I relax as he holds it up against his leg, checking the length. It will make a pretty decent splint.

“I can do that,” I say as he starts looking for something to hold the bolt to his leg. He looks at me suspiciously, and I shrug. “I do have some training as a medic.”

I set his leg with the bolt and the wire he’d tried to garrote me with a few hours ago. It works better than I expect, and I think it will at least give him a fighting chance. That’s all he seems to require.

“It’s going to have to be reset,” I tell him. “A few more hours, and it’ll have to be broken again to get it to heal right.”

“I’ll deal with that when I get to the bottom of the mountain.”

“Yeah, I was wondering how you were going to do that,” I say as I look down the steep slope. “I’m going up and over, away from where they might try to land a helicopter.”

“You know there’s no other way off this island,” he says. “It’s not like you can swim it.”

“I have an idea,” I respond. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m not,” he says. “I don’t give a shit about you, but I do have a vested interest in your survival now.”

Again, I am tempted to tell him about our relationship. I’m curious as to how he will react. His eyes narrow at me, as if he’s trying to figure out what I’m thinking. He’s paranoid, but with good reason, I suppose. My brother and I have that in common, too.

I will get off this island, and I will kill Franks for him. I think I’d do it even if we hadn’t made a deal.

“I’m going now,” I tell him.

“You’re not going to make it,” he states as he looks up the side of the mountain.

“Yeah, I will,” I say, making a promise to myself as well as him. “You’ll know it, too—as soon as you hear the news about Franks.”

He nods, but there’s still mistrust in his eyes.

I want to tell him. I want him to know. Just as I have myself convinced, I realize there is no way he’ll believe me.

Instead, I reach out and shake my brother’s hand before I turn and walk away.

I don’t look back until I reach the top of the mountain.





CHAPTER THREE


Frigid Escape





I reach the top of the slope and glance down at the dark shape of Sebastian Stark as he makes his way down the side of the mountain. I have no doubt that he’ll make it despite his injuries. He’s one tough bastard, and I admire him.

I sigh as I look down the side of the snowy ridge and swing my legs over to start my own descent. I need to find a good hiding spot until anyone who might be looking for me is gone. As I make my way slowly down the rocks, I wonder how long it will take for them to decide I’m buried in the snow.

There aren’t a lot of options for hiding, but as I hear the whir of helicopter blades, I duck behind a ridge and press my back against the rock. The movement jars my dislocated shoulder, and I have to grit my teeth against the pain. All things considered, I’m lucky to be alive. I know it, but I don’t feel it. Just an hour ago, I was ready to die. It would have been a relief. Giving up, even briefly, had felt good.

I probably just need a decent night’s sleep.

A vision moves beside me, and as much as I want to ignore the specter, he stays in my sights, looking over at me with dark hair hanging in his innocent eyes.

He’s not there. I know he’s not really there.

Even with the intense cold, his presence makes my palms sweat. I let myself look in his direction even though I don’t want to. The kid looks the same as he always does—disheveled, dressed in a simple cloth shirt and trousers, no shoes. There is fear in his eyes as if he knows exactly what is about to happen to him.

“Don’t you have some other poor asshole to harass?” I ask aloud.

The kid tilts his head but doesn’t speak. He rarely does.

I use the back of my glove to rub at my eyes. The snow melts on my skin, causing a chill as the wind hits my face. I need to stay dry, so I use the strip of cloth covering my mouth to wipe the melted snow away and then yank up my gloves.

The helicopter passes over my head and out of sight. I glance over my shoulder at the icy mountain behind me. Mt. Windsor is the only actual land formation that makes up tiny Buckingham Island in Canada’s unorganized Nunavut territory. On a good day, the temperature might reach zero, but it’s not a good day.

Soon, it’s going to be a really shitty night. I don’t think I’ll live through it.

Shuffling away from the rock, I rub at my sore shoulder and start down the side of the mountain again. It’s slow going. Balancing with one arm basically out of commission isn’t easy, and the terrain is rough. The wind is at my back, trying to push me over, but I manage to stay on my feet.

The vision of the kid, occasionally kicking at rocks that don’t move, follows me all the way down.

My head pounds along with my heart. I close my eyes and shake my head, but he’s still there. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do anymore. I can’t get rid of him. When I first started seeing him, before I realized what he was, he would disappear soon after I first saw him. Now he lingers, taunting me with the memories of the boy I killed overseas.

He doesn’t bother to hide when the helicopter passes over again, but I have to duck underneath a rocky outcropping. When I drag myself back out, he still stands there, staring at me. Maybe he’s feeling bolder since I told Stark about him.

“Fuck you,” I mutter.

Before I trudge on, I pull a small black box from my pocket. I have to take off my glove to tap at the keys, and my hand is nearly frozen by the time I’m done.

“Always have a contingency plan.” I nod to the kid. The words make me tense as I listen to myself say them. Maybe if the kid had bothered with Plan B, he’d still be alive. I close my eyes and rub my temples as I keep walking down the slope.

Exhaustion is setting in. With all the hours trapped and immobilized, I should feel rested, but I don’t. The cold is seeping into me. I barely notice when I reach the bottom of the mountain, and the terrain levels out. My eyes burn from the sting of the frigid wind. I can no longer tell if I’m shivering or not; my body is too numb. That’s probably for the best, all things considered. My shoulder has definitely popped back out of its socket again though I can’t remember what I did to make that happen. If circumstances were less lethal, I might have thrown myself against a rock to get it back in place, but if I pass out from the pain, I’m screwed. I’ve tried to wrap my arm up as best I can to keep it close to my body and unmoving, but the flashes of sharp pain I had been feeling before have been replaced by the slightest of aches.

I have to keep moving. I know if I stop, the cold will kill me.

It’s been hours since I used a small satellite transmitter to send a single, coded message. I have no idea if it reached its intended recipient or not, and all I can do is wait.

The kid keeps pace as I walk toward the ice, look out as far as I can see, and then walk back toward the foot of the mountain. Because there is nothing else for me to do but wait, I pace back and forth across the rocks and think about how I got here.

Tournament games—organized crime’s favorite pastime. Each of the organizations’ best fighters battle against those from the other groups. In the end, there should be only one man standing, but this time there were two: me and Bastian Stark, my half-brother.

I smile to myself and shake my head at the ludicrous circumstances that have finally brought us together.

Weeks ago, I’d been so tempted to end Stark on the beach in Miami from a quarter mile away. From the rooftop of a construction site, I’d had my finger on the trigger of my sniper rifle, and he’d been in the crosshairs. I hadn’t done it though. The night before, I had learned about our shared lineage, and I wondered if that was going to change how I felt about killing him. It hadn’t. At least, I didn’t think it had. Regardless, I didn’t shoot him. I’d gone down to the beach to taunt him instead. I’d sat in the sand with the sound of the waves surrounding me, trying not to think of the hole in the desert where I’d spent eighteen months of my life as a POW.

It hadn’t worked. I’d had nightmares every night after that, and by the time the tournament was imminent, I’d barely slept more than two hours at a time. I knew I had to do something to help myself sleep, so in Canada, I’d brought a hooker back to my room.

I never fucked her. I felt guilty enough just having her sleep beside me. Visions of Lia consumed me as the nameless brunette slept coiled around my torso, but I’d slept without dreams. I did the same thing the night before the tournament with one of the groupie whores I’d met at the gathering of tournament players and investors. Winning meant being able to focus, and I couldn’t stay on my toes without sleep. I knew my competition would be rough.

It was, too. Well, at least Stark was. I’d mostly sat back and let my competition take each other out.

Stark fought harder, hid better, and his constant movement made it difficult to get a lock on him from a distance. My aim wasn’t as accurate in the frozen environment, and I needed to be closer to get a clear shot. Unfortunately, he’d found me first. I think about the desperation I felt when presented with my own death, and they only thing I could do was to trigger an avalanche, nearly killing us both in the aftermath.

I think about the deal we cut while lying trapped in the middle of rocks and snow. By now, he has been deemed the winner, and I am presumed dead. My ties to Rinaldo are severed, and I can finally be with Lia without the distraction of my obligations to Rinaldo Moretti.

I can only hope Stark was convincing enough.

It feels like leaving an arm behind, but I don’t go back for my Barrett sniper rifle, broken at the bottom of the mountain and left as proof of my demise. Rinaldo would know I’d never part with it willingly. I am still tempted to go seek it out, but he probably took it with him.

Stark would emerge victorious, and in turn, I would kill Joseph Franks—the leader of the Seattle mob. Stark would be free to go off and live his own life with the woman he loved, and so would I.

Lia.

The idea of missing someone when they were away is foreign to me. The other times I have been away from her over the past year were short, and I never felt the sense of loss I do now. I was always glad to be back and in bed with her, but I didn’t think about her while I was away. Now I want to see her face, look into her eyes, and run my hand over her cheek. I want to feel her body give way as I slowly enter her from behind, the bedroom of our small cabin filling with the sound of her moans.

I close my eyes as I trudge across the frozen rocks, memories of our last time together flowing through my brain.

She’d made barley stew that night. It was warm and delicious as we sat on the floor in front of the fire and ate. She was all smiles and laughs, looking forward to seeing her mother the next day. I’d surprised her with a two-week trip back to Arizona to cover my own absence. I even had Freyja, our dog, booked to go with her.

I’d watched her be all domestic as she cleaned up the dishes and put away the leftover stew. When she was nearly done, I’d wrapped my arms around her from behind and inhaled the scent at her neck. She’d giggled as I nipped at her skin with my lips, then picked her up and carried her to the bedroom.

I’d undressed her slowly, taking my time to kiss every part of her as her clothing fell to the floor.

I run my tongue over my chilled lips, wishing I could still taste her there, and the cold wind stings the flesh near the cut on the side of my mouth. My arm throbs, and I hold it a little tighter against my body.

She’d looked so beautiful lying on her back beneath me. Before Lia, I’d almost always taken women from behind. Seeing their faces just didn’t matter to me, but Lia was different. Everything about her was different.

I loved watching her move under me and feeling her push up to meet every movement I made. I’d moved slowly in and out of her, watching her face as her head tilted back against the pillow and her mouth opened to take my tongue. I’d taken my time, fucked her slowly and gently, brought her to the brink and back over and over again until she finally came apart in my arms.

I’d gasped as I thrust into her one more time, holding myself against her as the orgasm rippled through me, leaving my body trembling as I’d collapsed on top of her, panting. She’d wrapped her arms around my neck and shoulders, humming in contentment as she pressed her lips to the skin at my temple.

I’d slept so soundly afterward.

I shake my head to clear it and look back over the icy Arctic Ocean. I replay the last few hours in my head as I continue to pace over the rocks. I’d spent the first couple of hours just staying out of sight of the helicopters as they picked up Stark first and then the bodies of the other tournament players. There isn’t a lot of cover—Buckingham Island is far above the tree line—and I have to settle for ducking behind the vertical ridges running up and down the mountain. The only way I know for sure that I haven’t been spotted is because no one comes down to retrieve me.

The plan must have worked. Rinaldo would now believe I’m dead and would be returning to Chicago as the loser of the tournament overall but still the Chicago winner. I served him well, even as the loser.

I will still have to complete my end of the bargain I’d made with Bastian. I will kill Franks if and when I return to the civilized world, but I will worry about that when the time comes. It isn’t going to be a rush job, and I will have plenty of time to make up my absence to Lia first.

I walk a little faster as if my quickened steps will bring me to her sooner. They won’t, but maybe they will keep me alive long enough for my ride to show up. In the meantime, there’s nothing but me and my thoughts—never a good combination.

My young hallucination continues to follow me through the snow. My shoulders are tight as I keep waiting for him to speak, but he says nothing. It’s the anticipation of what he might say that has me on edge.

I’m running out of energy. The meager sustenance I had is long gone, and I’m feeling the lack of calories in my body. I don’t feel hungry, and I assume that’s because I’m far too cold to notice. I’m likely dehydrated, and I wonder if I should find a way to melt some of the snow.

Where is he?

As if in answer, a sound reaches over the wind to my ears, and I look out toward the water as a black shape emerges from the depths. I expect it to be louder, but after the initial crack from the ice, there’s little more noise than the icy waves already make.

A tall cylinder emerges, followed by a long, flat shape at the top of the water. I’d been on a submarine once before while on duty near the Persian Gulf, but this one is tiny in comparison.

I let out a breath and nearly fall to my knees. I am going to survive this.

Don’t stop moving.

I want to walk farther out, but I don’t know how thick the ice over the ocean might be, and I can’t risk going out too far. I know I’m already suffering from hypothermia, and getting even a little wet will likely kill me.

I can make out movement at the top of the submarine, but it appears blurry. I hear voices but can’t make anything out. I keep walking back and forth as I hear a motor start, and a small vessel makes its way toward me. There is a hand on my arm before I realize they’ve reached the shore.

“Holy shit, LT!” I barely comprehend Eddie-boy’s words though I recognize his face and voice immediately. He is the only person I trust from my life in the Marines. As the communications expert, he had been off gathering data and absent from the compound when the rest of my men were killed, and I was captured.

I can see his hand gripping my good arm and holding me steady, but I can’t feel the pressure from his fingers. He speaks softly as he leads me to the small craft, lowers me down into it, and starts the motor.

My vision blurs again as we approach the sub. Eddie-boy helps me out of the boat and into the hatch. I hear voices speaking Russian but don’t recognize any of the faces of the crew.

“Can they be trusted?” I ask through chattering teeth.

“Of course,” Eddie-boy assures me. “Mercs. Skeleton crew with no direct ties. No one here has any idea who you are.”

I nod. At this point, I’m too cold to care. I’ll worry about it later.

As soon as Eddie-boy leads me over to a cot along the narrow hallway, I slump down into it and welcome the blackness.





CHAPTER FOUR


Secretive Travel





Darkness. Coldness. Disorientation.

Strange noises flood my ears. I can’t place them. The sounds are mechanical but not quite familiar. I feel trapped and sense danger, but I can’t move. Panic sets in. My arm throbs as I try to reach for my waist, searching for the gun that should be there, but there is nothing, not even a holster. My chest feels tight, and it’s hard to breathe. My head swims, and the darkness overwhelms me.

I felt the tug of the rope wrapped around my wrists as I was pulled backward through the compound. They had just beaten me, and I could barely walk. They didn’t seem to care about asking me questions anymore—I’d never given them anything. As far as I could tell, they were just in it for the fun now.

Back in the hole, face first. I pushed myself up as best I could to keep my mouth from filling with sand. The heat was unbearable, and I knew my back had to be covered in blisters from the sun. It would be dark soon at least. Maybe they would let me sleep a while.

I jerk awake, the pain from the dream a near scream on my lips. For a moment, I have no idea where I am. Voices speaking in Russian startle me, but one of them is familiar. I sit up and look over in the direction of the noise and see Eddie-boy leaning up against a panel of lights, chatting away with a man I don’t recognize.

I’m on the submarine.

I swallow hard and take a few breaths to get myself together before I take inventory. The parka and other cold-weather gear have been removed, but I still have a woolen cap on my head, and my body is covered with an electric blanket. I pull it back a bit and see that I’m dressed in sweatpants and a button down shirt that is way too big for me. The left sleeve has been cut out, and my arm is dressed up in a sling held tightly against my chest. I can feel bandages around my left leg as well.

I’m sore everywhere, and there’s a chill deep inside of me despite the temperature of the room. Well, hallway, actually. The sub is small, and there aren’t a lot of furnishings to be seen. I’m sitting up on a small bunk just off the main walkway.

Eddie-boy notices me and comes over. He’s followed by a tall blond man in blue trousers and a white jacket. A cigarette dangles from his lips. It’s the same man Eddie-boy had been speaking to when I first woke up and presumably the captain of the vessel.

“Hey there, LT,” Eddie-boy says quietly. “How are ya feelin’?”

“I’m good,” I say. He eyes me, knowing full well that I’m lying.

Another man approaches, this one in overalls and boots. He speaks to Eddie-boy in Russian and then checks out my arm and leg. He shoves a thermometer at me, and I roll my eyes as I place it in my mouth.

“Medic says ya gotta keep warm,” Eddie-boy tells me.

“Yeah, no shit,” I respond. “How much training did he get to tell me that?”

“Don’t be an asshole, LT,” Eddie-boy says. “He’s been watching you for hours.”

I glance at the man and try to take in everything I can. My head hurts, and I don’t seem able to process much information. He’s got a wedding ring on his left hand. The ring is worn, but clean. When he’s not tending to me, the medic uses his thumb to spin the gold ring around and around his finger.

He misses his wife.

He hasn’t seen her in a long time; I’m sure of it. I can’t say how long it has been but more than just the few days they’ve been waiting around for me. Maybe she left him a long time ago, but he can’t bring himself to remove the reminder.

He speaks, and I look to Eddie-boy, who shrugs at me.

“He’s surprised you weren’t ripping your clothes off,” he says, translating.

“What the hell does that mean?”

More Russian words are exchanged, and Eddie-boy smirks.

“Apparently, some hypothermia victims tear off their clothes,” he says. “You were a little delusional but not quite that far gone.”

“Well, there’s a plus.” I don’t bother to hide the sarcasm.

I’m handed two hot water bottles and a jacket to wear. It’s not easy to get the jacket over the sling, but I manage. Eddie-boy thanks the medic for me, and he gives me a tight-lipped smile before gathering up his stuff and hauling it out of my sight.

The captain of the sub speaks in my direction, and Eddie-boy, the communications guru, translates.

“He says your life isn’t a meadow.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Ah, I think he’s glad he’s not you.”

I look the man over briefly. He seems to be good-natured enough, and he wins me over when he offers me a cigarette from his pack. I inhale deeply, and Eddie-boy waits for me to finish before he speaks again.

“So, did you win?”

“Not really,” I admit. “As far as anyone knows, I’m dead. I need to keep it that way.”

“For how long?”

“Forever.”

Eddie-boy stares into my eyes for a long time. It’s very possible that this is the last time we will work together or ever see one another again, and he knows it.

“Well, let’s get some food into ya,” he suggests, his voice rough with emotion. “I kinda thought I’d lost ya for a minute there.”

The food is meager but warm. I down about a gallon of water along with it. My leg is sore, and my arm hurts like a bitch, but I feel a lot warmer after getting something in my stomach. Eddie-boy brings me an extra blanket and drapes it around my shoulders. He also hands me a backpack.

“Everything ya had on ya is in there.”

I open it up and try to hold it with my left hand while I reach in with my right. There isn’t much—the transmitter I had used to call Eddie-boy, some ammo, matches, and my cell phone. A wad of cash has been added to my things as well. I don’t have to count it—I know exactly what’s there. I’d given it to Eddie-boy before this whole tournament shit started.

Always have a contingency plan.

“Is there someplace I can plug this in?” I ask as I pull out the phone. I want to hear Lia’s voice even though I know she’s going to be pissed off. I’m not about to tell her over the phone about anything that’s been going on, but I still want to talk to her.

Eddie-boy looks at the captain, points to my phone, and then translates my request.

“Da,” the captain says.

I plug it in, but nothing happens. I give it a few minutes to warm up, but after an hour, there’s still nothing. I bang it on the counter a couple of times, but the action is fruitless.

“Fried?” Eddie-boy asks.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“I’ve got a sat phone you can use.”

I shake my head. At this point, I’ll be home in three days. Lia will have been back from her trip for the past five days and will undoubtedly be pissed off at me. A couple days can’t make that much difference. It will be easier to talk her down when we’re face-to-face anyway.

I’m not looking forward to the conversation, but I still can’t wait to be back in our cabin with her and Freyja. I can already feel my patience wearing thin, and a submarine is not a fast way to travel. It is, however, quite secretive, and that’s exactly what I need.

“Do I owe this guy any money?” I ask Eddie-boy.

“Fifteen,” he says. “I told him you’d be providing it when you were safely on shore again.”

“You paid him the rest already?”

“Every cent ya gave me. Had to pay a little extra for the medic, but I figured ya might need him.”

“You were supposed to keep some of that for yourself.”

“You can owe me,” Eddie-boy says with a shrug.

“I think I already do.”

He waves his hand dismissively.

“I’ll wire it to you,” I tell him. If I have to pay the sub captain fifteen grand, I’ll only have five left in cash to get me home. I hope it will be enough.

I’m still exhausted, and after I’m checked over by the medic again, I decide to try to sleep a little. I’m not sure what the upcoming days will hold for me, and I’ll need whatever sleep I can get.

Should’ve had Eddie-boy bring a hooker along.

I lie on the bench-like bed in the hallway and cover up with the blankets. I wrap my good arm around the tiny, square pillow and tuck my face up against it. I still can’t seem to get warm, and though the medic says I’m mostly recovered from the moderate hypothermia I had suffered, I’m not sure I believe him.

I doze off.

I was hog-tied, and every part of me had ached for days. I’d been given a little water, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually eaten anything. At that point, my stomach might have just rejected it. I wasn’t even feeling the hunger anymore, only the pain. It hurt just to breathe in the hot air around me.

I jerk awake, sweating. Shoving the blankets off of me, I jump from the hot bunk and find myself with my back against the opposite wall, breathing heavily. I’m not sure how long I’ve been asleep. It feels like only a few seconds.

It’s quiet in the hallway. There are a few lights along the floor to keep people from tripping over things, but it’s mostly dark. I catch movement out of the corner of my eye, and the specter of the kid I shot shuffles down the hall toward me.

I close my eyes, and he is thankfully gone when I open them again. My mind is still spinning out of control, and I slump down on my ass on the cool floor. I can hear gunfire, tanks moving across the sand, and screaming. The sub’s engines hum in the background, and I try to focus on the sound of the craft instead of the sounds in my head. It works but only enough to allow me to get back on my feet and sit back on the bunk.

I lie down but don’t sleep again.





“We’re ready to surface,” Eddie says. “This place is isolated enough, but stay on your toes anyway. There’s still a hint of Canadian military in the area.”

“What town?” I ask.

“Churchill,” Eddie-boy says. “There’s a good-sized airport there. You should be able to get wherever you’re going. You sure you don’t want a phone?”

“Yeah, I’ll pick one up later.”

He gives me a roughly drawn map of the area that shows where he’s dropping me off along with the location of the airport. It seems simple enough. I just need to get myself a flight close enough to home to locate a car and get back to the cabin and Lia. I’m getting jittery though I’m not sure if it’s from the anticipation of seeing her again or just the lack of sleep.

The sub resurfaces, and Eddie-boy operates the small motorboat to get me to the rocky shore on the north side of town. I can’t help but get wet getting out of the boat. The sun is shining, so I should dry off fast enough.

“Anything else you need?” Eddie-boy asks as he hands me the backpack with my gear.

I look through the pack and notice the Glock and holster Eddie-boy has included with everything else. I look up at him and nod slightly.

“This should be it.” I sling the pack over my good shoulder and shift the weight around until it’s comfortable.

“Stay sharp,” he says with a nod. I return the gesture.

“Thanks for all the help.” I reach out and shake Eddie-boy’s hand. He gives me a smile and a nod.

“Anytime, LT,” he says. “You know that.”

“Yeah, I do.” I return his smile. “I think you are currently the only person I can really count on.”

“That’s ‘cause I’m the only one who knows you’re alive!” He laughs.

“Let’s keep it that way.”

“You got it, LT.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Yes, sir!” He straightens up and gives me a salute. “Whatever you say, Lieutenant Arden, sir!”

I roll my eyes and shake my head.

“Take care of yourself, Eddie-boy.”

“You too, LT.”

I turn and walk up the beach toward the nearest road as Eddie-boy climbs back into the small boat and starts up the motor. I don’t watch him leave but focus instead on the small map he’d given me. The airport is just a little over a mile away to the south.

I walk past Fort Churchill along the way and wonder if it has anything to do with Eddie-boy choosing this location as a drop site for me. If memory serves me correctly, it had been used as a communications test site back in the day. The place is deserted now, no longer able to maintain funding for research projects or satellite launches over the arctic. The runway for the airport is just on the other side of the fort.

I have very little luck at the airport departure gates. For this area, Churchill Airport is pretty big, but they don’t have a lot of flights going to smaller towns. I could get myself to Winnipeg pretty easily, but I’d have to get another plane to Thompson or drive a lot longer. The more stops I have, the more of a footprint I leave. I don’t want to risk it. If I can find a flight immediately, I would get back in time for supper, but that doesn’t seem too likely.

As I meander around, I notice a service counter for small charter planes. The worn posters in the area boast of fabulous glacial views, polar bear sightings, and trips over the Wapusk National Park.

Worth a look.

There is only one guy in the area. He’s leaning against a doorway and thumbing through a magazine with a pair of snowmobiles on the cover. I can’t see the title, but the copy is crumpled and looks like it’s probably last year’s issue. The guy is in his early forties and sports a full beard. His clothes are scruffy, and he looks bored.

I approach and stand at the counter, watching him. He’s staring intently at the page, but his eyes don’t move, so I know he’s not actually reading an article. He’s definitely deep in thought about something because it takes a few minutes for him to notice me.

“Oh, hey,” the bearded man says, “you need some help?”

“I need a flight,” I tell him.

“Well, I do have a plane,” he replies with a laugh. “What are you wanting to see?”

“Can you get me to Thompson?”

He scratches at his chin and eyeballs me.

“I don’t actually fly to Thompson,” he finally says. “I mostly just do the tourist thing around here, ya know? The main terminal has flights to other cities.”

“Yeah, but not until tomorrow.”

“In a hurry?”

“A bit.”

I watch as he licks his lips, glances out the window, and then looks down at his gloved hands. He rubs at the hole in one of the fingers. The overalls he’s wearing have seen better days, and his boots are worn nearly all the way through the leather at the toes.

“Tourism is a little slow this time of year,” I remark.

“Yeah, it is,” he says.

“How long is the flight to Thompson?”

“A little over an hour air time.” He straightens his shoulders. “Each way, of course.”

“What do you usually charge for an hour of your time?”

“Five hundred.”

He’s lying, but I don’t care.

“Well, I don’t seem to have any Canadian cash on me.” I reach into my pocket and pull out a roll of hundred dollar bills in U.S. currency. “Let’s say I pay you two grand U.S., and hopefully that will cover your time and whatever the exchange rate is.”

I count out the bills and lay them on the counter. He stares at them suspiciously for a moment, then picks one up and looks at it closely. I would give him a higher offer, but after paying off the sub captain, I have limited funds. I’m still going to need to find transportation from Thompson to the cabin, and it’s not like I can just go buy a car on credit and keep my movements untraceable.

He fingers a couple other bills, checking them for consistency. The guy must be satisfied that the cash is real because he looks up at me and nods.

“Yeah, that’ll work.”

“Let me know when you’re gassed up and ready.”

“Thirty minutes.”

The plane is a tiny one and only seats six people. I’m the only one in the passenger area, and that suits me fine. The flight is short and bumpy, but we arrive in Thompson almost exactly one hour after takeoff.

It’s early evening by the time I’ve thanked the pilot and headed out of the airport. I’m starving. The walk into Thompson is a good three miles, and I’m not in any shape to get my ass there. There’s hardly anyone around, and lifting a car is out of the question—it would be noticed far too quickly. I hang out in the parking lot for a while until I find a guy who looks pleasant and has his keys in his hands. He agrees to give me a lift into town after I tell him I just flew in to visit my sister. He yaks about how boring his job is loading and unloading luggage and eventually drops me off at the local Pizza Hut.

Pineapple and mushrooms on cheese-stuffed crust—it’s exactly what I need. I savor every bite until the entire pie is nearly gone. I’m tempted to just sit there for a while and watch the people go in and out, but I don’t want to delay my homecoming any longer, and I still need to find transportation.

There’s a neighborhood just north of the restaurant, and I find a house with dimmed lights and a four-wheel drive vehicle parked outside next to the garage. There aren’t any windows facing the vehicle, and its absence probably won’t be noticed before morning.

I drive into the night, pass the airport, and cruise down the small highway out of town. I fiddle around with the radio, but I can’t get much of a signal. In the center console, there’s a collection of CDs—mostly rock from the seventies and eighties. I pull out The Who’s Quadrophenia album, slide it in, and crank up the volume.

“The girl I used to love

Lives in this yellow house.

Yesterday she passed me by,

She doesn't want to know me now.

Can you see the real me, can ya? Can ya?”

I tap my fingers against the steering wheel and resist the urge to crank up the heat. I’m tried, and I need a bit of a chill to keep me awake. Highway 391 is a decent road, but it also winds around a lot. There are a dozen frozen lakes and bridges along the way. In the dark, I definitely have to pay attention to what I’m doing to avoid going into a ditch.

As I pass by a sign for Leaf Rapids, the tiny mining town near our cabin, I feel lighter. Two hours, tops, and I’ll be home. I run my tongue over my lips as I think about what she might be doing right now. It’s late, and she may have already gone to bed by the time I get there, but sometimes she stays up. I can almost see her leaning up against a stack of pillows on the bed or maybe propped up in front of the couch near the fire, reading one of those smut books she likes. Freyja would be lying next to Lia with her nose on her paws.

I won’t have to leave her again.

I smile at the thought, turn the music off, and crack the window. I like the smell of the cold air. The sky is clear, and I look up at the constellations: Orion, the Big and Little Dippers, Draco the Dragon. Without the light pollution of cities, the stars in the sky are bright and clear. I can even see the sparkling river of celestial bodies that make up the Milky Way.

Maybe tomorrow I can take the dog out for a long hike in the woods. She loves running around and shoving her nose into every rabbit hole she comes across. When I get back, Lia will probably have something warm cooking on the stove. I’ll bring in a fresh load of firewood from the stack outside to make sure Lia’s warm enough as the night winds howl around the cabin. I’ll wrap my arm around her shoulders as we sit on the couch and watch some stupid chick flick. If I bitch about it enough, I’ll convince her to watch an action movie instead.

Fuck it. She can have the chick flick. I don’t really care.

I just want to be home with her.





CHAPTER FIVE


Completely Alone





It’s late when I arrive. I’m tired and in too much of a haze to focus on what’s around me, but my brain catalogs information anyway. The meaning just doesn’t register with me yet. The snow on the ground is fresh. There are no recent tire tracks, no footprints around the door. Everything is quiet. Cold.

Empty.

Trudging onto the porch, I tap my feet against the wall near the door to knock the snow off my boots and then open the door. It’s warmer inside but not warm. There’s no fire going in the fireplace and no sound from the back room or the television. I’m not greeted by barking or a wet nose on my face.

“Lia?”

Silence.

The kitchen is immediately to the left as I walk in. There are no dirty dishes in the sink or clean ones drying in the rack. The scent in the room is bland and sterile—no evidence of recent food preparation.

I glance back at the entryway, and the empty coat hook finally holds meaning.

Is she outside?

I walk slowly to the sliding door that leads to the back porch. There’s a clear view of the woodpile out back, but no signs of Lia or Freyja. There are no tracks in the snow going to and from the woodpile. The porch is devoid of snowy boots.

“Lia?” I call again.

Nothing.

Back in the kitchen, there is only one item left out—a sheet of notebook paper on the counter near the stove. My throat tightens as I drag my feet across the linoleum floor, and my hand shakes as I reach for the paper.

Dear Evan,

It’s been weeks since I last saw you, and more than ten days since every one of my calls went straight to voice mail. I don’t know where you are or even if you are alive. I know you’ve been lying to me. I think part of me has always known. You leave for days at a time without any real explanation, and when you return, your eyes are always dull and blank. I’ve seen that look too many times not to understand what it means.

I have no one I can confide in. Even the idea of having a friend feels strange to me now. I thought you would be enough, but when you leave, I am left alone to imagine what you might be doing. I keep wondering why I bother with school. What will I do when I complete my degree? Where would I work when we have to live in secret?

I can’t do this anymore, Evan. I love you with all my heart, but I can’t cope with this. I can’t live wondering where you are, what you are doing, or if you’re going to come back home at all. I can’t reconcile what I know you are still doing with my conscience. I can’t be okay with it.

I’m going back to Arizona. There are some job openings at the local hospital, and my mom is going to help me find my own place and get settled in.

I wanted to do this in person, but I had no idea when you’d return. I don’t even know if you’ll return. I’m sorry, Evan. I thought I could do this, but I can’t. I will always love you, but it isn’t enough.

Lia

There’s no date on the page. I have no idea how long ago it was written. Days? Weeks?

I place the paper back on the counter after I’ve read through it four times. There’s tightness in my gut, and for a moment, my mind flashes to blazing heat, the feeling of sand on my torn knees, and the grip of a rough hand around my throat. I try to swallow past it, but I can’t. I can’t even draw breath into my lungs.

Previous thoughts of food, warm beverages, and the heat of a body next to mine as I sleep dissipate. I walk absently to the bedroom at the back of the cabin and stare at the neatly made bed. I drag my fingertips over the bedspread, tracing the abstract pattern.

Her scent is long gone from the room.

I slump down to the bed and grab her pillow. It only smells like laundry detergent. Still, I hold it against my chest and bury my face in it. My body is exhausted, but my mind is racing. When I look toward the nightstand, something catches my eye.

It’s a slender, silver chain. Threaded through it is a quarter.

Aside from the lamp, it’s the only item on the nightstand. It is laid out neatly and deliberately. In my head, I can see Lia slowly taking it from her neck and displaying it there. It is the symbol of our first encounter. Seeing it there feels like a punch in the gut.

Shoving the pillow away, I push myself off the bed and stomp back into the main room. I stare at the fireplace and the handful of logs stacked neatly beside it. Grasping one of them, I clench my fingers around it and feel its weight against my palm.

“Evan, that’s not a fire. That’s a bonfire!” Lia laughed and tossed a piece of popcorn at me.

“It’s negative twenty degrees out there,” I told her. “I gotta keep you warm.”

“There are better ways to do that.” She tilted her head to one side and raised an eyebrow at me.

I looked into her eyes, smiled slightly, and pretended to contemplate.

“You need another blanket? Is that what you mean?”

More popcorn hit my chest, and I dove at her, spilling the contents of the bowl all over the floor. She giggled as I pushed her down on her back, spread her legs with one of mine, and pinned her to the floor. I rocked myself against her core.

“You looking for a little something?” I said into her ear as I pressed the tip of my cock against her opening. I nipped at her earlobe with my lips.

“That’s not a little something,” she stated.

“Sure it is,” I countered. “It’s your little buddy. He wants to play hide-and-seek.”

“He always hides in the same spot.”

“Not always.”

We quickly shed our clothing and rolled to the rug in front of the fire. With one quick thrust, I was buried inside of her. The heat from the flames warmed my skin as I held myself against her flesh and kissed down her neck. I felt her hands grabbing my ass and pulling me down against her and took my cue to start moving.

Slowly.

I kissed her softly, my tongue gliding over hers and savoring every taste of her. I let my hands roam over her body, feeling her twist and turn beneath me to produce more pressure. I knew her body so well. Every movement was natural, unhurried, safe.

She moaned into my mouth and bucked her hips up against me. I pushed down, keeping the pressure and rotating until I felt her tighten around me and then relax. With one hand on her hip, I quickened my pace and released inside of her.

I stayed right where I was, holding her body against mine and panting against her skin. The heat from the fire was nearly painful on my skin, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to move.

“I love you, Evan,” Lia whispered. “I love you so much.”

Without thinking, I swing my arm, and the piece of wood goes flying, smashing a hole in the drywall above the couch. It’s not enough. The next piece also flies through the air. Then the next and the next. When the stack is depleted, I grab the fireplace poker and start smashing the lamps in the room.

Every move is accompanied by a scream. Every crash is cathartic.

It’s still not enough.

I drop to my knees in the middle of the wreckage and press my palms into my eyes. I try to swallow, but it’s painful. I can’t take a deep breath, and my lungs burn when I try. Instead, I breathe in staccato gasps.

Every part of me aches. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve actually managed to hurt myself in my tirade or if it’s due to exhaustion. There’s a chill in my body that seeps through to my core, and I can’t stop shivering. I grasp blindly at the couch with my fingers to try to find the blanket Lia always kept there and wrap it around my shoulders. I’m warmer at least, but my fingers feel numb.

I drop to the floor on my bad shoulder, and as much as it hurts, I don’t move. My head is pounding. When I open my eyes, I can’t focus on anything, so I keep them closed. Pressure behind my eyes threatens to burst forth, but I hold my breath and keep it in.

I’m too late. She’s gone. She’s fucking gone.

I have no idea how long I lie there, trying to breathe and trying not to think. It doesn’t work. I keep running over everything in my head, trying to figure out where I went wrong. Did I pick the wrong escape route? If I had been here a couple of days earlier, would she still be here? Should I be packing a bag and jumping on the next flight to Arizona?

When I finally open my eyes, I’m looking at the Iraqi teen leaning against the sliding glass door to the porch. His arms are crossed, and he glares at me. As I watch, he approaches and drops to the floor. He sits cross-legged in front of my face and stares at me.

“You fucked it up.”

“I was going to fix everything,” I tell him.

“No you weren’t.”

“I just…I just need to explain. Tell her I couldn’t walk away before, but now it’s different.”

He raises an eyebrow at me.

“I could call her,” I whisper. “I could tell her it’s all okay now. I’ll promise not to do it anymore.”

“You’d be lying.”

“I mean it,” I say, trying to sound convincing. “No more contracts; no more hits. I’m done.”

“For how long?” he asks. “How long before the urge to kill brings you back to Rinaldo? How long before your loyalty to him outweighs your need for her?”

I have no answer.

The kid moves forward, and I flinch. He places his palms on the floor and leans his head down until we are face to face.

“You are a killer.”

I swallow. I open my mouth, wanting to protest, but I can’t.

“I’ll…I’ll change…” I don’t believe the words even as I say them. I gasp for air and try to sit up as my body shudders.

“You don’t deserve her.”

As I hear the words and recognize the truth of them, I release all the tightness in my body. I slump against the floor again, head buried in my arms. The air around me is so heavy, it’s oppressive. I can’t move.

I don’t have any reason to move.

I knew this day would come. Part of me has always known it. When we left Chicago to escape the life I had there, my intentions were pure. I had planned to get out of the business and live a quiet life with Lia.

I should have known better, but it’s what I had wanted at the time.

It wasn’t possible to stay away from that life. It had taken six months for Rinaldo to contact me after I left Chicago, but if I was to be honest with myself, I was glad when he did. Target shooting was never quite enough for me. I craved the real shot—the real kill. I took the odd jobs, escaped Lia with some lame excuse, and flew out to wherever I needed to go to take out whoever Rinaldo had assigned. At first it was just a couple of jobs, but they became more frequent.

But now he thinks I’m dead.

How long would it be before Rinaldo figured it out? How long would it be before my own desire to return to that life interfered with my time with Lia? Would I even last a year before I went searching for information on Rinaldo’s activities with thoughts of doing what I could to help him?

I can’t blame Lia for leaving. I want to, but I can’t.

My shoulders shake, and I don’t know if I’m sweating or crying. I squeeze my eyes shut, but I know if I open them, my persistent phantom will still be there. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to look into his eyes and know he’s right.

I can’t change.

I fall to my stomach, no longer able to control my sobs as images of Lia scroll through my head. My leg is pressed against something sharp. It might even be cut, but I don’t care. I squeeze my eyes shut, but I can’t close my mind. She’s everywhere inside of me.

I see her for the first time as she walks to my cabin in Arizona. I see her through the sights of my Barrett as I take shots randomly around the local park. I see her as she wraps her arms around me, tells me it will be all right, and runs her fingers through my hair.

It’s not all right. It’s never going to be all right.

Curling into a ball, I finally lose consciousness.

I wake up, screaming.





My eyes are dry and achy as I stare into nothingness, lost in my own thoughts. I’m not sure how long I’ve lain in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded by the shambles of my outburst. I know my stomach stopped growling at me long ago. I’m not even thirsty anymore.

A thump at the door startles me, and I look up. I can see through the window a thin outline of a man on the front porch. He crouches briefly and then stands again.

Instinct kicks in, and I roll myself away from the center of the room and take cover at the end of the couch. I don’t have a weapon on me. The closest gun is in the kitchen, still inside the backpack Eddie-boy handed me on the beach.

The shadow in the window moves, and I tense. Whoever it is turns and thumps down the steps to the driveway. I push myself to my feet and race to the kitchen to retrieve the Glock from the backpack and then head to the window in the front room.

Barely pushing the curtain aside, I watch a UPS truck pull away from the cabin.

On the porch is a long, brown package. The return address is a post office box in Thompson. When I squat down to pick up the parcel and carry it inside, it’s heavy. I’m wary, to say the least, as I place the box on the kitchen table and slice open the packing tape.

As I push the top half of the box away, I see my disassembled Barrett M82 sniper rifle.

I run my finger over the sleek metal. Near the trigger, the metal is darker with no scratches from wear and tear. It’s been repaired, and I have no doubt that it will work perfectly. When I lift the barrel from the box, I discover a small piece of paper.

Finish your business and return home.

Rinaldo had not been fooled. He had known exactly what I was doing the whole time. Home meant Chicago—there is no doubt in my head about that. I don’t know if I want to scream or cry.

I do neither. I laugh instead. The sound is empty and hollow in the deserted room.

In the back of the bedroom closet, there is a small safe. From it, I remove an old flip phone and select the only number entered into it. It only rings twice.

“Evan?” I close my eyes as I hear Rinaldo’s voice. I have to swallow before I answer.

“Yeah.”

“You got my package.” It’s not a question.

“Yes, sir.” I want to ask him how he had known I had survived, but I don’t. He probably wouldn’t tell me anyway.

“There are a lot of changes coming,” Rinaldo says. “I’m going to need your undivided attention.”

“You have it,” I say.

“Really?”

I take a deep breath, but I can’t quite bring myself to say the words.

“Evan?”

“She’s gone,” I finally say in a harsh whisper. “Finally had enough of my shit.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the phone.

“I’m sorry, son,” he says, “but it might be for the best.”

I can’t agree with him, so I say nothing.

“Take your time and do what you need to do,” he tells me.

“Yes, sir.”

“Keep in touch.”

The phone goes silent.

I pack a bag. The cabin looks like a tornado went through it, but I’m not cleaning it up. I doubt I will ever even return to it. As I take a last look around to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, the quarter on its chain beckons me.

I touch the coin, tracing its edge with my finger. Slowly, I drag it across the surface of the nightstand and hold the quarter in my palm. As I grip it, I can feel the metal warm from my body heat. I remember the day I did the same thing in a far more rustic cabin in the Arizona desert. I left her behind because I had nothing to offer her but apologies.

Just like now.

“Sorry,” I whisper as I drop the quarter onto the center of the bed.

I stare at it a moment, square my shoulders, and pick up my bag. Near the front door, the duffel with my Barrett sits underneath the coatrack. I bundle up against the cold, pick up all my gear, and lock the door behind me.

The cold wind is in sharp contrast to the heat I felt when I was leaving the Arizona cabin. The same feeling of my chest being ripped apart is glaringly present, but I have no canine companion to share it with this time.

I drive off.

Passenger side empty.

Completely alone.





EPILOGUE


Clear Shot

Cool mist dampens my face. I’m sure at some point it stops raining in Seattle, but I’ve never experienced a dry spell here. With a duffel bag over my shoulder, I scout out the security around the Space Needle and ultimately decide it would not be a good place to set up. It might have been fun, but there aren’t enough ways to get out, and the chances of being caught are too great.

I have two other options.

I jump a bus and head down to the pier near Pike’s Place Market. The area is fairly open in many places, and transportation is easy to find. My target shops here every Saturday. Once a month, he takes a dinner cruise from Tillicum Village. There are plenty of docks along the edge of the Puget Sound—lots of hiding places. Taking him out while he is on the water gives me maximum escape time, and he’s already scheduled his dinner for next weekend.

I don’t even bother checking out the third location. It is too close to his home—too close to his additional security. I walk back to my hotel, soak in the bathtub, and pretend to myself that I’ll get some sleep.

There’s no way. I’m too pumped up. By the time the sun is rising, I’ve slept maybe an hour or two. I shower, shave, and dress in workman’s overalls. I put a change of clothes, my binoculars, and a pair of gloves in my duffel bag before I head out to the pier.

There’s a catwalk above the entrance to the ferry. Two large air circulation units provide the perfect cover and a close-up view of the water. I walk casually around and watch various dock workers as they go through their morning routines. The ferry fills up with vehicles and pedestrians wanting to travel to Bainbridge Island. Kneeling near the ladder to the catwalk, I pull out my gloves and slide my hands inside them. There’s a ton of activity as the ferry prepares to take off, and I use the chaos to mask my quick ascendance of the ladder to the top of the platform.

It’s cool and breezy, but the view is perfect. I kneel down and listen closely, but I hear no one yelling out to me. I’m not surprised. They key to moving in restricted areas is simply to look like you know exactly where you are going. Few people will actually question you.

Taking out my binoculars, I get a better look at everything around me. Tourists mill about the shopping areas and the aquarium. The view is perfect, but there is an obvious problem—I’m too low to the ground. There are other walkways at my level, and I could be too easily spotted. The wind is going to make my shot difficult, and the trajectory is low. I need to be higher up, but there aren’t many tall buildings.

The building housing the fire department has a tower on it. I’m not sure if it’s functional or decorative, but it’s close to my location. There’s always the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but I’m not a fan of shooting from a roadway, and I can’t see any overpasses. On the other side of the viaduct, there’s a parking garage with several floors of office space above it. Beyond that, a federal building is the tallest and most obvious place for height, but there will be too much security there.

I decide to check out the office space instead.

The building looks like an ideal spot, and roof access isn’t difficult. There are security cameras, but those are easily dealt with from my end. There’s no outside fire escape from the roof, though. I’d have to make my way down from the inside.

I watch the building for the next two days. There aren’t any security guards, and the cameras are easy to locate. The main breaker is just inside the gated parking garage, and I see no signs of a backup generator.

Getting to the roof isn’t challenging. The back stairway leads to a service elevator, and there aren’t any cameras in that area. The service elevator requires a key code, which is laughably hackable—15951. I barely have to put any effort into it.

In the center, there’s a small rooftop park—trees and flowering plants are everywhere. People from the ad agency inside seem to like it as a place to eat their lunches. They don’t even make eye contact with me as I walk around carrying a watering hose and tend to the plants.

When the area empties, I discard the hose and head up a ladder to the very top of the building. There is a lot of wind coming off the sound, but I’m going to have that issue anywhere.

The stairway at the top of the building is locked but uses the same code as the elevator. Where the stairway exits is slightly higher than the rest of the roof and easily scaled. I climb up and sit there, watching the ferries come and go.

This is definitely my spot.

I watch the sun set over the water. The traffic noise keeps the area from being as peaceful as the scene implies, but it’s still nice. Shortly after the sun goes down, it starts to rain, and I make my way down the stairs and out of the building without running into a single soul, and it’s only just past six o’clock on a weeknight.

Perfect.

When the day arrives, I’m set up early in the morning. I’ve spent the past two days sitting up here and haven’t been noticed by anyone at all. I’m not sure if that’s a west coast mentality or what, but no one seems to care who I am. I disabled two cameras yesterday—the only ones that will have a view of my escape route—and no one has noticed that either.

I take out a dowel rod with a bit of cloth tied to it and place it at the corner of the rooftop. The little flag waves around, indicating wind speed and direction. From my duffel bag, I pull out the pieces of my rifle and start assembling it. Running my fingers over my Barrett is comforting. I know every inch of the metal. Every scratch on the surface is a memory. I feel at home and alive with the weapon in my hands.

She will never leave me.

I shake the thought away. I’m not going there, and I’m not thinking about that—about her. It’s done. It’s for the best. I don’t need anyone.

I position the Barrett’s bipod on the left side of the air intake unit on top of the stairwell and lay down on my stomach behind it. Taking out my binoculars, I scan the Puget Sound and the docks, taking it all in. It will be hours before Joseph Franks takes his final dinner cruise, but I have patience.

I watch some of the other dinner tours through my binoculars. It isn’t that far to the ship—only about four hundred meters at the optimum position—but the wind, sporadic rain, and the need for precision still make for a difficult shot. I wish I could shoot off a couple of practice rounds, but that obviously isn’t going to happen.

A black SUV pulls up to the pier, and two large men exit the vehicle. One of them opens the back door, shields the area with a large black umbrella, and Joseph Franks steps out under its cover.

I can feel the adrenalin pumping through me. With a bodyguard on either side of him, Franks putters around the pier, chatting and laughing into his phone. A shot now would be easy, but I don’t consider it. His bodyguards would be on me before I could get out of the building. For a while, he disappears into the shops around the pier, returning to the street. There’s a large shopping bag in his bodyguard’s hand.

I glance at my watch. It’s exactly five thirty-nine and time for Franks to board the ship for his six o’clock sunset cruise.

For the next thirty minutes, I see no sign of him. As the light rain diminishes to barely a mist, the ship fills up, but I can’t locate him on the deck. The passengers begin to take their seats inside, and I finally catch a glimpse of him at his usual table.

I switch from the binoculars to the scope of my Barrett. Twisting the knob at the side, I focus and aim. He’s standing sideways, and I don’t have a clear shot. The window will impact my aim if I go for his head, and I don’t want to risk him surviving a body shot.

He starts to sit, then stands again quickly. With purpose, he marches toward the back of the ship and out to the deck with both guards in tow. He grips the phone tightly in his hand, and his mouth moves quickly. He stalks the aft deck for a moment, then leans and grips the handrail.

The light from the setting sun flashes off the metal of his phone.

I set the crosshairs at his cheek as I take slow, steady breaths. I check the flag at the edge of the roof, adjust the scope a click, then aim again.

He turns toward me, and he moves his eyes in my direction. There is no way he could have sensed me, but it’s unnerving all the same. I inhale deeply, place the crosshairs at his left eye, and slowly breathe out.

As my lungs empty, I pull back on the trigger.

Franks drops.

His bodyguards begin to scramble, shouting loudly enough that I can almost make out their words. With weapons drawn, they look all around the deck, then rapidly around the docks. They have no idea where the shot originated.

With a slight smile, I push myself and my Barrett backwards along the rooftop until I’m completely concealed. Everything goes inside the duffel, and I jump off the far side of the staircase entrance, tap in the code, and make my way to the ground floor.

I leave the flag. Someone can find it later; I don’t care.

My rental car is parked just behind the building, and I slowly ease into traffic. I drive past Safeco Field, where the Mariner’s play, and park on the other side near the coast guard museum. I get out, light a cigarette, and take a short walk to the water.

The sun hasn’t completely disappeared yet, and the red and gold glow over the water is beautiful. I inhale deeply, blow out smoke, and pull a pre-paid cell phone out of my pocket. I tap in a memorized number.

“It’s done,” I say.

“Landon will be on the move,” Rinaldo replies.

“Undoubtedly. Do I go after him?”

“Not yet. Let Seattle flounder a while. That should help once Landon is out of the picture.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They’ll fall apart quickly.” Rinaldo continues his prediction. “Even if it does come back to us, it won’t matter. There won’t be enough of them left.”

“Agreed.”

“I think that’s enough,” Rinaldo tells me. “It’s time for you to come home, son.”

“Yes, sir.”

I end the call, rip the phone in half, and toss it into the water. I drive my rental car to Kings Street Station and buy a train ticket to San Francisco. I leave the station and walk several blocks to a limo service place I saw earlier in the week.

“Can I help you?” the clerk asks.

“Limo to Sea-Tac,” I respond.

“When did you want to book it?”

“Now.”

I lay a few hundreds on the counter, and after the clerk gets over his surprise, I’m escorted to a long, black limo and seated inside. I lean back in the seat and poke around at the contents of the bar. After selecting a whiskey, I put my feet up on the seat and look out the window.

It’s good to leave in style.

In a few hours, I will be back in my hometown—Chicago. Maybe I will even clean up my old apartment and live there again. It won’t be the same without a dog, but I’m hesitant to consider trying to replace Odin. Even Freyja, his offspring, was never quite the same. I’d be alone, but then again, I always am.

Always have been.

On my own.

Isolated.

It’s who I am.

It’s what I deserve.





THE END





END AUTHOR'S NOTES


Hey there! I hope you enjoyed Evan’s account of the tournament play in the arctic and his fulfilment of the deal he made with Bastian to escape. I actually wrote some of this while I was working on Bastian’s Storm, but ultimately decided it deserved its own novella. I know, I know—it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and is definitely not HEA. This is for a lot of reasons, which I’m sure it will be the topic of many threads in my stories group on Facebook—come and join in the discussions!

FACEBOOK GROUP

Please, please, please go leave your review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.! I crave your feedback!

So, what’s next?

Yes, there will definitely be another Evan Arden book by summer of 2015. He’s in my head a lot, and there is more to be told. I can’t say for sure just yet if this will be one additional book or if there will be enough material for two, but there will be more. I have a lot of projects planned for this year, and I hope you will enjoy them all!

Until next time!





Shay Savage





ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Shay Savage lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her family and a variety of household pets. She is an accomplished public speaker, and holds the rank of Distinguished Toastmaster from Toastmasters International. When not writing, she enjoys science fiction movies, masquerading as a zombie, is a HUGE Star Wars fan, and member of the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers. When the geek fun runs out, she also and loves soccer in any and all forms - especially the Columbus Crew, Arsenal and Bayern Munich. Savage holds a degree in psychology, and she brings a lot of that knowledge into the characters within her stories.





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OTHER SHAY SAVAGE TITLES


Surviving the Storm Series:

Surviving Raine

Bastian’s Storm





Evan Arden Series:

Otherwise Alone

Otherwise Occupied

Uncockblockable (a Nick Wolfe story)

Otherwise Unharmed





Stand Alone Novels:

Transcendence

Offside

Worth

Alarm





Anthologies

Bend (The Erotica Consortium)





Short Stories

Savaged