Authors: Kimberley Troutte
mber stuck to dark alleys and narrow streets. The sun had gone down and the moon was nothing more than a sliver of light. So far, she’d been lucky. She hadn’t been followed. Or at least she didn’t think so. Who killed Jacques? Her head pounded with questions.
It was a long way to the embassy. She needed to change her look so she couldn’t be easily spotted. She picked up her pace toward Mong Kok, the busiest district in the world. There she was buffeted by the humanity jamming up the sidewalks. As she tried to get lost in the crowds, she wished she’d listened to Jacques about cutting her hair, losing the nose ring, and wearing more traditional Chinese-style clothing. He’d told her that he wanted her to blend in with the workforce and change her look completely.
She’d punched him in the arm.
Nobody told her how to dress, or act. Nobody. How did he think she could blend in with the seven million Chinese who lived in Honk Kong? She had big blue eyes and freckles for crap’s sake! To spite him, she’d kept her hair long and dyed the ends pink.
Sometimes her wild, defiant streak got her into trouble. Like right now, when she didn’t blend in. At all.
She slipped into a shop that was a mishmash of tourist goods, Western drugs and Asian herbal medicine. Finding a long dark coat to cover her mini-skirt and partially hide her thigh high boots, she dropped her nose ring into the deep pocket. She ducked behind an aisle of toiletries and angled a hand-mirror to peek out the front window.
“You okay, miss?” A man said behind her.
She bit back a scream. It was only the store owner. “Um, yes. Do you sell baseball hats?”
“This way, please.”
She purchased the coat and a navy-blue baseball hat with the letters HK embroidered on it. Tucking her long hair into the hat, she waited in the store, studying the crowds. The owner watched her.
“Boyfriend problem, miss?”
Out of the blue, tears sprang to her eyes.
. She hadn’t loved him and was still furious at what he’d done, but part of her grieved his loss. Her emotions were a hot mess.
“There, there, miss.” He handed her a box of tissues.
She thanked him and left the store when a group of rowdy college students roared by. Amber did her best to become one of them as they weaved their way down
Fa Yuen Street
. The narrow sidewalk was choked by advertisement. Brightly colored red, yellow, and green signs displayed many familiar American brands with Chinese lettering beneath. Television screens, banners, and lights overhung the road, making it impossible to see the thin slice of the moon cresting over the multi-storied buildings. Commercialism at its finest.
She made it to one of her favorite haunts—the Ho King Shopping Centre. She’d spent countless hours on the second floor in the video section, studying the latest games, imagining how she would’ve made them better. A lot better. She was somewhat of a legend here. Everyone knew her successes in the gaming industry. The sales kids liked to pick her brain about backdoors and winning strategies for the latest video games.
Now, she needed to hang out in here for a few minutes and catch her breath. Her heart warmed when she saw Jimmy Chew heading her way.
“Amber!” He raised his hand for a high-five.
“Shhh.” She gently tapped his hand. “I’m undercover tonight.”
“I see that.” He studied her. “I adore the boots, but the baseball hat is butt-ugly. Not a touch of pink anywhere. And where’s the nose ring?”
She tried to smile but couldn’t hang onto it. “I’m in trouble, Jimmy. Someone might be after me.”
“Uh-oh. What did Jacques do this time? Hack into a bank or something?”
She swallowed hard. “You knew?”
“That the guy is a total loser and you deserve better? Like me, for instance.” He pressed his hand to his chest. “Everyone knows.”
“I didn’t. And now—” She bit her bottom lip together to keep it from trembling.
“His shit has rubbed off on you?”
All she could do was nod.
“What do you need? Should I send the triads after him? Break his knee caps?” He chuckled, having no idea that Jacques was dead.
“Let me hang out here for a while?” Her voice hitched up. “Please. I need to think.”
He smiled with his whole face. “You don’t have to ask. Stay as long as you’d like.”
“And if anyone comes looking for me…”
“I’ll scare them away. You’re safe here.” The hand he put on her shoulder was comforting.
“If someone comes, find out who they are and what they want, if you can. But don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Promise me.”
He frowned, sensing the real danger she was hiding. “Since when have I ever been a hero? Stay out of sight and I’ll grab you a soda. Damn, that Jacques. Someone needs to kick his ass.”
She slipped into the back and pretended to browse in the computer and video sections while keeping her eyes and ears open. Her boots were ready to run. Drinking the soda Jimmy gave her, she tried to unravel the complicated mess that was suddenly her life. Her breath froze in her chest when two men came off the escalator on the second floor. The place was packed with Chinese teenagers searching for cheap video games. The two men couldn’t have blended in if they’d tried.
They weren’t wearing uniforms, choosing plain white T-shirts and blue jeans to fatigues, but it didn’t take a genius to see they were military. Short haircuts, rippling biceps and broad chests were a dead give-away. American. The CIA couldn’t have sent them already. It didn’t make any sense.
The stockier of the two flashed a photo at Lilly, one of the cashiers. Lilly shook her head before she’d taken a good look. The stocky guy grabbed her by the top of her head and forced her head down to stare at the picture again.
They meant business.
Jimmy Chew caught her eye and motioned for her to stay back. “Excuse me! Excuse me! Can I help you?” He rushed forward to save poor Lilly.
The man let Lilly go. She scampered away with her face in her hands.
“We are looking for this lady,” Stocky said. “Have you seen her?”
Amber peeked through a rack of video games and hoped to God that they didn’t see her.
“Why? She rob a bank, mister policemens?” Jimmy laid his fake poor-English on thickly as he took the photo and turned it toward the light for a better look at it.
“Answer the question,” Stocky snapped.
Who were they? She’d bet money they were one of the contacts Jacques had called, which meant only one thing—they wanted the memory stick in her pocket.
Jimmy tapped his chin. “Yes! I know this one. She came in here much times.”
Stocky gave the other man, a tall guy, a knowing glance. “I told you.”
“Not today. So sorry. Much, much sorry.” Intentionally messing up his “r” sounds, Jimmy sounded like a cartoon Chinaman.
Tall Guy growled. “What do you mean?”
Jimmy shrugged. “Me English no good. I have not seen this lady for…” He held up his thumb and two fingers. “…three weeks. She be with a man. Maybe they marry, have babies. They move away. All gone.”
“This man?” Stocky flashed another picture.
Jimmy scrunched his eyes, staring long and hard. “Yes. He calls his name Jackie. You know, Jackie Chan?”
“Jacques,” the tall man corrected. When he put his hand on Jimmy’s thin shoulder, Amanda saw a large tattoo on his bicep. “You wouldn’t be lying to us, would you?”
“Me? I no lie!” Jimmy acted properly offended.
Stocky took one long look around the place. “If you do see her, call this number.” He handed Jimmy a business card.
“Sure, Mr. Policeman. I call. I call very fast. Much sorry.”
Amber didn’t take a real breath until the two men had left.
When Jimmy came to her, his face was pale. Those guys had scared him almost as much as they scared her. She couldn’t put Jimmy in danger. This was her mess to fix.
“They’re gone. Here, do you want this?” Jimmy handed her the business card. It was plain, white, with no logo, and only a single name and number.
“John Smith,” she read. “Very original.”
“Yeah. Freaky shit. Poor Lilly is crying her eyes out over there.” He pointed at the cashier. “Jacques owes me and my staff a nice dinner after all of this.”
She bit her lip. “I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.”
“Why? Don’t tell me that loser took off and left you to deal with his crap.”
“Jacques is dead. But thank you, Jimmy. For everything.” She kissed his cheek. “I’d better leave before those creeps come back.”
His mouth was still hanging open as she opened the exit door to the back stairs.
Amber slinked in between two buildings and over a couple of blocks from the shopping center before she caught a taxi.
A wave of relief washed over her when the cab pulled up in front of the American Embassy. It felt like safety. Home. She’d tell the officials inside everything and hope they believed her. Someone with a good computer background would be able to follow the trail and verify her story. She wasn’t in Hong Kong when Jacques first started the hack. That should be enough proof to save her behind. Then she would tell them how to plug the security holes. She felt better and her hands hardly shook when she paid the driver.
Before she opened the door, she noticed a group of armed military men gathering by the embassy’s gate. Full alert? And then she saw
. Stocky, the guy from the Ho King Shopping Centre, had beaten her here. He was talking to the other guards, showing them a picture. Hers? It didn’t make any sense.
Why did he get to wander around in there giving orders? If he was the one who shot Jacques, would she be safe at the embassy? Would the memory card be in good hands?
She sank into the back seat and whispered to the taxi driver. “Change of plans. Get me out of here.”
“I don’t know yet. Just drive.” She dialed her Dad’s number. He answered on the first ring. “It’s me. I can’t go to the embassy. I saw bad guys there. Oh, God, Dad. I don’t know who to trust.”
He exhaled loudly. “I’ll send someone to get you out of there.”
She knew he could. Her father had contacts all over the world from guides to businessmen to government officials. “Be careful. Only send someone you know, okay? If the wrong people find out where I am, a lot of innocent Americans could be hurt. I’ll call you again when I can.”
“Who killed that man in your apartment?“ His voice was strained as if he struggling to hold himself together. “Who’s after you?”
Her lip quivered as much as her hand holding the cell phone. “I wish I knew. I’m scared, Dad.”
“I’ll find a way to get you out of there, I promise.”
“I love you.”
Sobs gripped her. No one had said those three little words to her in a very long time. She couldn’t remember a time when Dad said them at all. She hung up without saying good-bye.
“Stop here,” she told the taxi driver. She stepped out on a bridge and threw the phone into the South China Sea.
Alone, she fled.
“Babe, you awake?” Lieutenant Commander Mack Riley placed kisses along the delicate curve of his fiancé’s soft back. It was still dark outside his condo and most civilians on Coronado Island were blissfully snoring, but the Navy had pounded an internal alarm clock into him that he couldn’t shut off. Mack woke every morning ready to fight. Once a SEAL, always a SEAL.
He suspected Jenna’s father, Admiral Collins, woke at this hour too, ready to rain hell upon his teams. The man was a tough bastard. Mack swallowed hard. He was soon to be Mack’s tough bastard father-in-law. Shit. The thought caused his stomach to clench.
He tucked Jenna into his chest and held her in the dark. The urge to fight, kill, and strike the enemy became background noise when her heart beat next to his. The survivor’s guilt that roared through his brain eased back to a dull throb. Jenna’s tender light flooded the dark, dangerous places inside him. Her love was healing his warrior’s heart.
She liked to think she was in charge here. Hell, maybe she was.
A cell phone rang. Mack tensed until he realized it was hers.