Page 16 of Beta (Alpha 2)

“I’m here.”

“I know. But…how do I say this without sounding insulting? I was an Army Ranger.”

“And I’m just…what? What am I?” Now that the question was aired, I realized it had been percolating inside me for a long time.

Harris glanced at me. “I didn’t mean to incite an existential crisis, Miss St. Claire.”

“You didn’t. It’s been happening all along, I’m finally just talking about it, I guess.”

“I understand.” He sighed. “You know, I joined the Army as an eighteen year-old kid. I was bored. I came from a totally normal family. Had a mom and a dad and two sisters. No drama, nothing interesting. But I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I graduated, and spent six months just…literally fucking around. That was all I did. Went to parties and hooked up. But even that got boring. So, one day, I happened to walk by a recruiter’s office. He was standing outside, smoking a cigarette. I bummed one off him, and we started talking. Damned good salesman that he was, he had me signing up by the time I was done with my smoke.” Harris laughed. “I hated the Army for the first two years. But then I got into an off-base brawl with a couple of Rangers and got my ass handed to me. The same guys who beat the shit out of me ended up buying me beer and convinced me to try out for Ranger school. After months of work I got in, and that was the beginning of things for me. I had something I wanted, suddenly. It provided the motivation to try.”

It was odd to think about Harris as anything other than the buttoned-up and endlessly capable man I’d come to know.

I looked at him again. He was over six feet tall, but just barely, and was slender in a whipcord, razor-blade sort of way. He had short, dark brown hair and vivid, intelligent green eyes that could be either friendly and warm as summer grass, or as cold and frightening as chips of ancient jade. He wasn’t classically handsome; his features were too rugged for that. He was striking, but not so much that he’d stand out in a crowd. He was intense, exuding competence and power. He moved with an easy grace, the kind of predatory prowl of someone capable of extreme violence, someone who is intensely fit, athletic, his body honed to a razor edge. Looking at him, it was impossible to determine how old he was. Over thirty, for sure, and certainly less than fifty.

Silence descended, and stayed for a long time. I sat in the chair beside Harris and watched the stars prick and poke the blackness with points of silver, multiplying from thousands to millions to quintillions to an innumerable multitude. The boat ascended gentle rolling waves and slid down into the troughs, tilted and rolled, bucked and bobbled, churning through the waves and the darkness, and only the unpredictable motion of the sea kept the journey from hypnotizing sameness. There was nothing to see but the ever-moving sea and the sky, black with shaken-salt stars.

I nodded off and was woken by the low rumble of the boat’s engine cutting out and the lapping of bay waves. I rubbed my eyes and stretched as Harris docked the boat, tied the moor line, and returned to the cabin.

“We’ll sleep on the boat,” he said. “There are two cabins. Lock yours, and sleep with the gun close by. I don’t expect trouble here, but it pays to be ready.”

I nodded and followed him below, then entered one of the bedrooms. I locked the door, crawled onto the bed fully clothed, and tried not to think about how much I missed Valentine.

* * *

I woke up to the shrill caw of seagulls and the gentle lap of waves against the hull, the gentle hum of the engine revving up, voices in the distance. I rose and ascended to the wheelhouse, took my seat beside Harris, squinting at the blinding sunlight scintillating off diamond-and-blue waves.

“Good morning, Miss St. Claire,” Harris said.

He twisted the wheel, bringing the bow of the boat about, pushed the throttle lever, and the craft moved forward. He handed me a green Thermos. I twisted the silver top off and poured a measure of thick black coffee, sipped it gratefully.

“You could’ve slept longer, you know.”

I shrugged, sipped. “It’s fine. We’re restocked and everything?”

Harris nodded. “Refueled, some food, and a few other things.”

Something in his voice alerted me. “A few other things, huh?”

Harris shrugged. “I’m developing a plan. I’m hoping I’ll be able to work things out without involving you, but I’m afraid I may not have much choice. There are just…too many variables. I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“I only know the Karahalios family by reputation and from what little Mr. Roth has told me. They’re brutal, thorough, and have essentially endless resources.” He guided the boat out of the bay and into open water, then fiddled with the GPS and autopilot, setting our next destination. “What I’ve heard is that Vitaly is the kind of kingpin the Greek government is wary to tangle with because, in the current economic and political situation, he has too much influence.”

“And he has Valentine?”

“I’m not sure Vitaly himself actually has him. I think it’s his daughter, Roth’s former girlfriend. That doesn’t make her any safer to mess with, since, as far as I know, she has her father’s resources at her disposal, as well as her own.”

I swallowed hard. “And we, you and me, are going to—what? Just walk up, knock on the door, and ask for him back? Walk in and shoot her?”

Harris did a shrug-and-nod thing. “Basically, yeah. Although I’m going to try to divert some attention elsewhere first, and hope it buys us enough time to get Mr. Roth and get out.”

“And then? If these people are as scary as you’re saying, what chance do we have of actually getting away?”

Harris let out a breath. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I wish I had something comforting to say to you, but I just don’t. Would you rather turn around and go home? Just leave him?”

I shot him a glare. “Of course not.”

“Okay, then. We’ll just have to wing it and hope. It’s not like I can just muster some army of henchmen or something.”

I watched the waves dance and gyrate, trying desperately not to think about what Valentine was going through. “I’ll tell you this much, Harris: I’m not going to be sitting in some hotel room or in the cabin of this boat waiting with my thumb up my ass, okay? Whatever happens, I’m going with you. I know I don’t have your training, but…Valentine is the man I love, and I can’t just sit around, hoping and waiting.”