Footsteps echoed off the close walls and low-hanging rooftops of Thieves' Square. Wynn St. Jyles stopped in an alcove and listened as the footfalls came closer to her hiding place. She held her breath, afraid her pursuer would hear her labored respirations in the darkness.
Full night had fallen while she'd searched Maseco Calura's shop for the amulet rumored to be the key to unlocking the Gamma, Delta and Epsilon dimensions. It was her mission to ensure the artifact did not fall into the hands of the bloodthirsty Muloons. That was if she lived long enough to liberate the damn thing from the tiny island of Cordona, located in the Beta dimension off the coast of the Alterrian Royal Islands.
So far, paradise had shown nothing but its dark underbelly. It was a fact Wynn St. Jyles was very intimately acquainted with.
Her heart rate accelerated as the steps neared. She pushed back to the dark recesses of the alcove. It wasn't like her to hide, but she had no idea who followed her or what they were willing to do to get information. She didn't dare even hit the communicator she wore as a direct link to her auditory implant in her partially deaf ear, for fear her voice would carry and give away her location.
Surely Cash and the others already knew where she was and had dispatched the troops. If not, she was one dead Jumper.
She lifted the hem of her lightweight tunic, easing the stunner off her hip. The footsteps stopped in front of her hiding place. A dark silhouette stood in relief against the low lighting from the cross street at the mouth of the alley.
Wynn watched as the man--there was no doubt it was a man--moved away from her. Relief was short-lived as he returned only moments later to stand in front of the alcove.
Real fear for her life spread throughout her body like a charge from a snapped power line. She'd been so careful when she broke into the shop. No one had seen her. She'd disconnected both the overt and silent alarms. Her surveillance equipment hadn't revealed any other means of security. Had someone else been watching the shop besides the Jumpers?
Most likely. If the Muloons already had a bead on the amulet, it was likely they'd had an agent in the area to do the exact same thing Wynn had been sent to do.
Move along will you?
He didn't hear her silent plea.
Shit, what was she supposed to do--wait in the corner until someone else came along and her skulking pursuer decided to give up, or wait until morning when there were too many people around to make it worth his while to kill her?
Oh God. Who was she kidding? In this part of Cordona, no one would even blink an eye at some man dragging a woman off to only the sea knew where. Human trafficking was as much a part of the trade on the islands as tacky tourist trinkets. Only the former was illegal and the latter should have been.
The bitch of the situation was that if she died now, it would be for nothing. She hadn't found what she was looking for, or a clue to point her in the right direction. In other words, she'd die in vain.
Not bloody likely.
The man started into the alcove. Wynn raised the stunner. Her thumb slid over the power control, ramping the voltage to full. If he wasn't going to fuck around, neither was she.
He raised his arm. A light shone in her eyes, blinding her momentarily. As yellow spots clouded her vision, she let her finger hit the pulse trigger and heard his grunt and then the thump as his body hit the ground.
She bent over his supine form, feeling his pockets for identification. He had none. Not surprising. Whoever hired him wouldn't want his identity known should he fall to an assassin. Too bad she didn't have the luxury of killing him at this point. If she killed him, there would be no way to know who had sent him. Discovering the man's employer was paramount.
She tapped the communicator disguised as jewelry clipped to her ear. "Cash, I need a body pickup."
The reply that came through was a groan. "Is it dead?"
"No, just very knocked out. Can you get a bead on my location?"
"That's affirmative." There was a brief pause. "Take off your locator and put it on the body. Then get the hell out of there. Our contacts tell us the polantaria are on their way."
"Copy that." Wynn pulled the bracelet locator off her wrist and threw it onto the body. She lifted the cowl of her tunic over her head and left the safety of her hiding place.
The low whistle of the polantaria vehicles sounded in the distance. Cash hadn't been kidding.
The polantaria were the island equivalent of the royal security forces and they didn't suffer fools and murderers lightly. The old belief of an eye for an eye was alive and well and living under King Cadson's rule. Actually, they made the old German Gestapo look like a band of Boy Scouts. It was amazing how they tended to look the other way when enough credits were put in their outstretched hands.
Payments the U.S. Jumpers were known to make on occasion, if it suited their purposes. At this time, it didn't. The less the security forces knew about the plans to take the amulet, the better off for all.
The Amulet of Skia was believed to be a myth. Rumors began circulating about the time the Muloons threw in their lot with the exiled Vice Chancellor Rehelm of Didan that the amulet not only was real but had been discovered. No one in a place of authority had authenticated the tales, but that hadn't stopped treasure hunters from both dimensions crossing over to try their luck at finding it.
For the Jumpers it was a matter of dimensional security. The Muloons must not get that amulet.
The sounds of the polantaria came closer. What had tipped them off? Was it just a coincidence, or had they discovered the shop had been hit?
Wynn headed south out of the market district and then turned west along the residential section where large white stone buildings were built six stories into the air as low-cost housing. Most of the inhabitants were workers from the docks, fisheries and marketplace. Their lot would never change.
In Cordona, there was very little room for advancement. It reminded her of the U.K. in the Regency and Victorian Eras--except with more sunshine. But the class systems that were in place were well and truly engrained and dictated by the auspices of the Alterrian royal family.
She continued to walk, moving from the main straightaway to the back alleys until she came to the upscale business district where her hotel was located. Her feet burned, the soles numb and tingling in her flat little sandals. The pain of working in a principality of Alterrian was that one had to dress the part. Her uniform would make her stand out like a rhino on the space shuttle. Which wasn't always a bad thing.
She looked over her shoulder as she hurried into the hotel lobby and started for the bank of turbo-elevators. An arm reached out from a freestanding telecom station and wrapped around her throat, cutting off her scream.
Jigsawing her body back and forth, she tried to break her assailant's hold. The hold only tightened as he moved her into a dark room and closed the door.
Strange, exotic scents assaulted her senses. Images waved before her eyes. Oh God, she was going under. They were using some kind of hypnotic hallucinogenic incense to drug her.
She'd heard of this technique before. It was how the flesh traders were able to bind their victims and get them to ports all over the planet without the person even realizing they'd been abducted.
She raised her hand to her communicator, only to have it smacked away.
"Do not even pretend to call anyone."
Hands moved over her ear, snatching the jewelry from the mooring. She let out a yelp of pain when he tore the junction from her implant. It was like trying to rip her eardrum out by way of her frontal sinuses. The artificial equilibrium provided by the implant failed. Instant and debilitating nausea doubled her over onto the floor.
This was no time to be incapacitated.
She fought down the dry heaves. Cold sweat broke out on her forehead and back. Her shirt stuck to her skin. She thought she moaned.
A fierce Alterrian curse shot out like a cannon blast. Lights came on, sending Wynn into another spiral of agony. Why didn't he just fucking kill her and put her out of her misery?
Someone bent down beside her. She dared not open her eyes to look.
Warm, calloused hands cradled her head. "Wynn? Wynn?"
She tried to open her eyes, but when she did the vertigo hadn't receded. Who would know her name here?
"I am awake." Speaking caused the dry heaves to return. Her captor turned her over before the first wave of retching began.
He started to lift her.
"No! Don't move me."
He placed her back on the ground. A strong hand gripped her shoulder. "What is wrong?" The words were spoken in soft Alterrian Standard.
Did she recognize that voice?
Oh God, it couldn't be.
It wasn't possible. The last time she saw him, he'd left her in a pool of her own blood, her eardrum shattered by the blast of a terrorist attack on the main island.
But in the funhouse world of the equilibrium impaired, it was difficult to focus on details. Between her agony, the incense and the fear, it was really hard to tell. To top it off, Cash didn't even know how to locate her without her bracelet, and her communicator was probably broken, which would make that locator ineffective too.
"Tell me what to do to help you."
"You can start by killing me if you're going to."
"I'm not going to kill you."
"Then what do you want? You already have my name."
That hand stroked her face again. "Let me at least move you somewhere comfortable."
"I was headed somewhere comfortable when you attacked me."
He was silent, but scooped her up into his arms despite her protests. Each step he took jarred her body, which in turn made her head spin worse.
She clenched her teeth to keep the building moan at bay. No sense in giving him the satisfaction of feeding off her pain more than he already had.
He set her down on what she thought must be the bed. Futon was a better description of the Alterrian sleeping furniture. It could be folded or unfolded depending on how much space was needed. She could have told him that she didn't need much. She didn't plan to move out of the spot he'd placed her.
Damn, she hated being dependent on others, especially when she didn't know if she could trust the other in question.
She laid her arm over her eyes. "Do I even know you?"
His hip rested against hers as he leaned over her body. His right arm supported him on her left side. "You know me."
The tone was low and intimate.
She swallowed hard.
He'd left her for dead.
She turned her face away from him. "What do you want from me, Kade?"
"To protect you."
If she hadn't felt like death on the rocks, she would have laughed in his face. "If you wanted to protect me, you would have followed me to Thieves' Square tonight instead of ambushing me at my own hotel."
She felt the tension in his body. The same blunt curse filled the air. "You were in Thieves' Square?"
"Yeah, and almost got myself killed once already tonight." She lifted her arm from her eyes and tried to look at him. It was hard to focus when her head still spun. He looked as if he sat dead center of a kaleidoscope. "How did you even know I'd returned to the islands?"
He was quiet for a moment. "I knew."
"Did you think that by ripping my communicator from my implant, you'd get my cooperation for something sinister? For your information, the only thing you managed to do was render me useless. And if you want to ransom me off, my government doesn't negotiate with terrorists."
"You know me. I'm not a terrorist."
No, just a fucking coward who ran and left me for others to care for when I was bleeding to death.
"Look, I'd love to discuss the good old days with you, Kade, but right now I don't feel up to a trip down memory lane. Not to mention, our version of events might be vastly different."
He let out a frustrated sigh then said, "You mentioned an implant before. What do you mean by that?"
"Oh no. You aren't getting me to divulge any more information than you already have." She started to push up on the bed to try to stagger away.
Bad idea. The worst. She fell back down to the bed.
"I could really use a medic."
She thought she felt the press of lips on her forehead before he moved away from her. "Rest. I'll see what I can do."