Page 9 of Beta (Alpha 2)

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

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

“I can tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

Ships or boats or whatever were something I knew nothing about. This one wasn’t a sailboat, but rather a smaller version of the massive yachts visible elsewhere in the bay. It didn’t look particularly impressive, or new. Usually, if something belonged to Roth, it was the best available. Not necessarily the biggest or most ostentatious, but just the highest quality. This boat looked…understated, and that was putting it nicely. It was the kind of thing that wouldn’t stand out in any way, no matter where we were. Which, it occurred to me, may have been the intention.

As if reading my mind, Harris sent me an apologetic grin. “Not what you’re used to with Mr. Roth, I imagine, but this was the best I could do on short notice. It’ll do the job, though.”

“How’d you get it?”

“Traded the Aston for it, plus some cash.” He stepped aboard and held his hand out, helping me across and onto the yacht. “It’s on the older side, but it’s got a few things most boats like it don’t have.”

“Like what?”

Harris didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he untied the lines keeping the boat moored to the dock, and then led the way to the wheelhouse. He took a seat, and I sat nearby, waiting. Harris put the boat in reverse and expertly backed out of the slip, angling the bow toward open water, then pushed the throttle forward.

“Well, anonymity, for one thing. The slip itself was…borrowed, and the boat’s papers are untraceable. It just means anyone looking for us—Vitaly’s men, for example—will have a harder time finding us. I didn’t think about your cell phone soon enough, which is the only reason they were able to track us to Marseilles. Stupid of me, honestly. Good thing Henri is the ‘shoot first and don’t ask any questions’ type.”

“Who is Henri?”

Harris shrugged. “That’s a tricky question to answer.” He glanced at me. “Mr. Roth used to run in some shady circles. I think you know that. And even now he still retains contact with some old…friends and acquaintances. Henri is one of those. Honestly, I don’t know much about him myself, just that he’s tough as nails, cold as ice, and loyal as hell. As long as he’s on your side. And he’s very much on Mr. Roth’s side.”

“He said something about owing Valentine his life,” I said.

Harris checked behind us, and then returned his attention to navigating past the breakwater and out into the trackless azure expanse of the Mediterranean. “Yeah, that’s a story I don’t know. Henri was a smuggler, I think. My guess is that he and Mr. Roth got into a tight spot, and Roth got them out.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “When Roth told me about his old life, he made it sound like he was just a businessman. Like he just…handed over some boxes and took some cash, and that was it. Like it wasn’t…dangerous.”

Harris chuckled. “He would say that. And that’s how it was, mostly. Not even that, really. Arms dealing is just another business, in some ways. The deals happen in a hotel bar, or in some corner of a nightclub. Prices and goods are discussed over some drinks, the parties shake on it, and that’s about it. Lackeys do the rest. But Valentine didn’t have employees back then. He did it all himself. Acquired goods, negotiated the deals, did the delivery. That’s where it got dangerous. The types of people who deal in weapons aren’t always the nicest sorts, obviously. And sometimes they’re notably lacking in what you might call…scruples. Meaning, they’ll try to take what they want and find a way to not pay for it. Especially when dealing with some twenty-year-old kid doing business on his own, with no firepower backup, no one standing behind him as a presence, you know? Tells you how good he was that he never got killed doing what he did, the way he did it. I think he came close a few times—more than he’d ever admit to, though. Like with Henri. He’s a wily old cat, Henri is. Not the kind of guy who is easily backed into a corner. And not the type of guy who would lightly, or easily, admit to owing someone his life. What he did today, taking out those guys? That was a big deal for him. He’s in semi-retirement, you could say. Doesn’t really do business anymore. Tries to keep a low profile.” Harris pushed the throttle open, and the bow skimmed over the water, barely touching down. Harris set our destination in the GPS unit and then returned his attention to our conversation. “So, offing three of Vitaly’s goons? That could open him up to retaliation.”