Sonne woke with cotton mouth and eyes that burned like she’d been cutting onions. She focused her blurry vision and ignored discomfort until she picked out metal walls and heard tires on road. She was in the back of a van with metal bars running along the inside of its walls. Duct tape tied her hands around one of the bars on the driver’s side.
The man sitting against the van’s other wall had dark skin beneath his purple ski-mask, and he held a rifle right out of StrikeForceGo. He wouldn’t be carrying that rifle if he couldn’t use it, which made him a closed or loose circuit. He grinned when she noticed him, and it wasn’t the good kind of grin. It was creepy as fuck.
Sonne felt relieved when she noticed Cowan nearby, unconscious, with his hands duct-taped to the bar, and then guilty for feeling relieved. He didn’t deserve this. Past Cowan, another man sat against the van’s windowless back doors. He wore a green ski-mask and had a linkline snaking from his head into a small black “Party Box”: a wireless router that anonymized Sim connections.
Sonne imagined shelves hooked to the bars on the walls and pegged this van as a gutted UPX transport, brown and common as flies. A humble mail truck would be completely anonymous among hundreds now on the road, and it had no windows. This was bad.
The man in the purple mask was still staring at her. Really staring at her. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Can I help you, asshole?”
Purple snorted. “Here I was, enjoying the view, and you had to open your potty mouth.” He showed her his rifle’s stock. “Shut up before I knock out those lovely teeth.”
They hadn’t stripped her — she still had her clingy green dress — and Sonne was distinctly aware of the heel tucked into her underwear. She’d shoved it through the open dress diamond at the small of her back as that grenade spewed thick white gas, using Cowan’s dramatic hero dive to conceal her motion from the autocar’s cameras.
A review of tonight’s tumultuous events suggested these men were after her, not Cowan. If they wanted him, they’d have hacked his autocar before it picked her up. So who would go to all this trouble to abduct her? Her stomach lurched as she considered.
Oleg Vasser came to mind first, but there were other sex traffickers who had a hard on for her and Kate. Lee Chang. El Zorro Plateado. A dozen other small time pimps. Given her name was actually floating above her waifu parlor, she wasn’t exactly hiding.
Yet this was about their efforts to free sex trafficking victims. Only an organized criminal enterprise with a shitload of money could smuggle a group closed circuit mercenaries into San Diego. Traffickers made a disgusting amount of money.
Sonne should have chartered a secured autocar directly from Kate, but she’d been so busy with her latest pleasurebox that she’d ignored the danger. The average mobster couldn’t get near Kate — Lucy would take these men out long before they even pulled their guns — but they could go after Kate’s allies. Her family. As they had done tonight.
Sonne had to get Cowan out of this, and then she had to get herself out, too. She wouldn’t be trafficked. After Cowan was safe, she’d escape … one way, or the other.
So who had she pissed off most recently? Oleg Vasser? Fine. She’d start by playing a hunch and testing their loyalty. “How much is Vasser paying you?”
Purple raised his rifle stock. “Teeth, pretty.” Yet his intake of breath suggested she’d just guessed his employer, which was a bit of luck. Purple wasn’t the brains of this operation.
“If you were going to clock me with that thing,” Sonne added, “you’d have tried it already. I know what Vasser guarantees. No marks on the merchandise.”
“You’re right,” Purple said. “I can’t hit you.” He crossed the truck, raised his rifle stock, and smashed it into Cowan’s side.
Cowan urked and flopped awake, arms thrashing against the tape. His eyes went wide with pain. Instinct caused Sonne to block Purple’s access to Cowan, but she couldn’t reach him. She couldn’t reach anything with her bound hands taped around the bar.
“Stop that!” Sonne shouted. “You stupid shit!”
“I’m stupid?” Purple slammed his stock into Cowan’s ribs again. “You like seeing your boy black and blue?”
Sonne’s next lunge nearly wrenched her arms out of their sockets, but she scarcely noticed. “Stop hurting him! You pigfucker!”
“Sonne!” Cowan coughed with each word. “Stop … negotiating … for a second?”
Purple raised his rifle again, leering. How could she stop him? She had to stop him!
“Mister Purple.” Someone spoke clearly from the front of the van, at exactly the right volume to cut through road noise. “Please stop hitting Mister Soto.”
Purple lowered his rifle, and that told Sonne who was actually running the show. The man up front, in the passenger seat. He sounded way too calm for the situation.
“Now that you’re awake, Samantha,” the new voice said, “I can confirm your suspicions. We were hired by Oleg Vasser.”
The name he’d uttered set off every terror sensor in her brain. “Who the fuck is that?”
“Don’t play coy, dear. Vasser runs—”
“Samantha, you idiot. Who’s Samantha? My name’s Sonne.” No one knew her birth name but Kate. “You ruined our night because you were too lazy to run our names?”
“Samantha Frederick, wasn’t it, before your parents died in that tragic wreck? Killed in a vehicle collision with a closed circuit who’d had too much to drink?”
Sonne blinked rapidly as the smiling faces of the parents she’d buried fifteen years ago rose from their graves. The loss of her old family was why she’d changed her name, of course. Her old life hurt too much. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Cowan was listening now, not talking. Probably a good idea. She hoped Purple hadn’t broken any of his ribs.
“Here’s how this is going to work,” the man up front said. “You’re going to ride in the back of this van, quietly, until we reach the industrial marina below Point Loma. After we arrive, you’ll embark on a chartered boat and never see us again.”
“Where am I going?” Sonne tugged at her duct-taped hands. “Mother Russia?”
“Your destination is known only to Mister Vasser,” the voice said. “I could lie to you, but you seem a smart and rational woman. I won’t insult your intelligence.”
“What’s Vasser paying you?” These men were mercenaries, weren’t they? “Benzai Corporation will double it. Triple it.”
“That’s not how this works.” The voice held quiet reproach. “Now, while I have asked Mister Purple to stop assaulting your companion until I could explain the situation, I feel your situation is now perfectly clear. He will resume if you resist.”
Sonne said nothing.
“Would you like Mister Purple to hit Mister Soto again?”
“No,” Sonne said, as she pulled against the tape. No point in getting Cowan hurt more.
“Thank you,” the man said.
Purple glared at the front of the truck. “What the fuck, Gray? Why are you being so nice to them?”
So the man up front was Gray. Sonne took another look at the hacker in the green ski-mask — Mister Green? — and their colorful nicknames suddenly made sense. These men were a team of mercenaries thrown together for this abduction, not a trained unit. They didn’t know each other. If she could turn them against each other—
“Holy shit!” Mister Green tucked his Party Box against his side and crawled forward, linkline dangling. “Mister Gray!”
“Yes, Mister Green?”
“We have to get off the Five, like now! They’re checking traffic at the toll plaza four exits down. They’ve got synthcops doing full vehicle scans!”
“I see.” Gray went silent for a moment, as the truck’s tires rolled over asphalt. “Mister Yellow, if you would—”
“Shit!” Green shouted. “More checkpoints, a cordon! They’ve got us in a box!”
“Do you mean perimeter?”
“Yes! They’ve dropped checkpoints everywhere, along the Five, the Eight, and the 163!” He looked up, eyes wide. “They boxed us in. How did they box us in?”
“Likely a radius based on speed.” Mister Gray didn’t sound upset at all. “One of our guests must have found a way to alert the authorities to their abduction.” He went quiet for a moment, as if thinking. “Mister Yellow, reroute us to the safehouse bravo.”
Sonne winced as she felt the van cruising down an off-ramp, as momentum pulled at her hands. They didn’t stop Purple from slamming his rifle butt into Cowan’s side again. She couldn’t shield him, couldn’t help him. “Stop that!” Sonne shouted. “We’re cooperating!”
“You stupid fuck!” Purple shouted. “You called them!”
Cowan gasped against the wall. “I didn’t call anyone. I don’t know how they found you!”
Purple raised his weapon high, and Sonne was certain he was going to bash in Cowan’s head. She couldn’t reach him, couldn’t help him.
“Mister Purple!” Gray shouted. “Enough!” He had finally raised his voice.
Purple glared as Sonne stretched out with her legs, trying to shield Cowan with her calves. Her shoulders screamed with pain as her arms bent. Cowan started coughing again, against the floor, and Sonne ached for him. It felt like they were going slower now, so maybe they were on surface streets. Had Cowan really called the CID somehow?
“We have contingencies,” Gray said. “While I’d like you to ensure neither Miss Frederick or Mister Soto attempt anything rash, stop hitting them. When we’ve stopped the truck and evaded surveillance, we’ll discuss our next move.”
Gray’s disturbing calm was creeping Sonne out. It suggested he was either a highly experienced soldier or a genuine sociopath. Neither could be turned against the others, yet this perimeter gave her hope. The CID was looking for them, which meant Kate might be looking as well. Had Kate told the CID about the tracer in her artificial heart?
They had to be. All she had to do was survive, delay, and confuse. She was the reason Cowan was in this mess, the reason he was getting the snot beat out of him by some smug shithead with an assault rifle. Cowan had contacted the CID through the jamming, then dived across her body to save her from a grenade. He really was a decent guy.
A muscular man of average height strolled into the back of the moving truck, wearing black body armor with pockets holding who knew what. He drew a stunner from the holster across his chest. A gray ski-mask covered all but dark eyes and pale lips.
“I apologize, Samantha.” Gray pointed the weapon at her. “We need to have a short discussion, and that discussion doesn’t involve you.”
Sonne pressed against the wall. “Hold on. You don’t—”
Mister Gray fired his stunner.
* * *
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