“They’re going to kill me, Shay. I need your help.” Haunted, Shahara Dagan replayed her sister’s desperate voice mail message over and over again as she sat alone at her kitchen counter.
She’d stupidly thought it’d been a joke. What with Tessa’s flair for exaggeration and her melodrama, as well as the number of times she’d cried her death was eminent over nothing more than a hangnail, how was she supposed to know that this time the cry for help had been real?
Shahara wanted to scream, to curse, to tear her house apart—to do anything other than wait for the loaners who would return and finish off her sister.
Dammit, Tess, at least go to loaners I can make suffer when they hurt you.
But no. Her sister had gone to “legitimate,” government-backed loaners who could take whatever steps they needed to, to collect their funds.
Even kill the debtor as an example to others.
She growled in frustration. How many more times would Tessa borrow money from scum to invest in stupid schemes or just throw away on gambling? And how many more times would Tessa run to her when the balance came due?
Like she could just snap her fingers and get it.
But then she’d trained her sister from an early age that she would always make everything okay. Whatever Tessa asked, she gave.
No questions asked.
Shahara hung her head in her hands. Never once in the past had Tessa been hurt. And she cursed herself that she hadn’t been quicker this time. She’d gathered as much as she could as fast as she could, but it hadn’t been enough.
There never seemed to be enough.
She sighed in disgust.
Why hadn’t Tessa come to her sooner? Maybe then she could have sold something to pay off her sister’s latest debt.
She gave a bitter laugh as she looked around the threadbare furniture she’d recovered from landfills and her rundown, one-room, economy condo. Sell what? Thanks to her siblings, she didn’t own anything of real value. Not even her rusty, dilapidated fighter would bring enough money from an auction to pay half of what Tessa owed.
“I swear, Tess, one day I’m going to kill you.”
If only their father hadn’t been such a dreamer, maybe then he could have left them something more than a mountain of debts that she still, fifteen years later, hadn’t paid the full balance on.
If only Tessa hadn’t inherited their father’s useless idealism.
The landlink buzzed.
Shahara stared at it, her throat tightening to the point she couldn’t breathe. It had to be the doctor. She’d been waiting half the night for this call and now she was too terrified to answer.
Please don’t let Tessa be dead . . .
She should never have left the hospital, but after waiting alone for three hours, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Too many memories of her mother’s final days had tormented her. Closing her eyes, she tried to blot out the images of whispered conversations from dispassionate health-care workers. The smell of antiseptics. Their collective curled lips as they looked down on her family for not having enough money to pay for treatments.
Most of all the sight of the doctor covering her mother’s lifeless body with a sheet. His emotionless tone still rang in her ears, “Too bad you didn’t bring her in sooner. We might have saved her if we’d had more time.”
And more money.
Her father hadn’t been able to afford a lengthy hospital stay or even the medications her mother had needed. Poverty had crippled her mother, then killed her. Too many members of her family had died and she couldn’t stand to lose Tessa, too.
I’ll do anything to get the money. Please, just let her live.
With a shaking hand, she opened the channel. The screen brightened to show her the doctor staring at her with dark, unsympathetic eyes. Shahara’s stomach twisted into a cold lump of fear and, for a moment, she thought she’d be sick as she waited for news she didn’t want to hear.
“Seax Dagan,” he said, addressing her with her professional title, “your sister is out of surgery and in recovery. She’ll be fine . . . in time, but the voucher she used for the hospital cost was returned with a denial. I’m afraid without proper medical attention, your sister won’t last for more than a few hours.”
Shahara closed her eyes, relief washing over her.
Tessa would make it.
“Fria Dagan, did you hear me?” he asked, reverting to the ordinary form of address for a woman—and a term letting her know that he thought she wasn’t worthy of the title Seax. After all, a Seax worth her salt wouldn’t be impoverished.
If only the bastard knew the truth. It wasn’t her lack of skills that kept her poor, it was her family obligations, and unlike others of her ilk, she would never abandon her family.
Even if they were stupid when it came to money . . .
“We’re going to have to turn her out unless we can get a valid voucher.”
The knot in her stomach twisted even harder and she clenched her fists. Shahara was so tired of being poor, so tired of the people who looked down their snobby noses at her and demanded their money as if all she had to do was grab it off the nearest shelf. People who had no idea just how precious every credit was.
Every bead of sweat came with a hefty price tag . . .
She opened her eyes and forced her anger and hatred aside. “I heard you, Doctor. I’ll get the money for you in cash. If you’ll give me three days.”
His sympathetic stare turned to doubt. She’d seen that look too many times in her life and she despised it.
She added coldly, “I’ll sign over the deed to my ship as collateral.”
He nodded. “Very well. We’ll keep her here for the duration.” He cut the transmission.
Wanting to flip off the doctor for his condescension, she stared at the blank screen. “You’re lucky I’m almost a lady.”
For the briefest instant, she considered asking her brother, Caillen, or sister, Kasen, for the money, but she knew they didn’t possess it any more than she did.
Because of Kasen’s necessary medical treatments and meds, she was always behind on her debts and asking Shahara and Caillen for money.
Caillen, like her, would have plenty if Kasen and Tess could ever learn to manage theirs. And if he wasn’t helping her make the payments on their father’s leftover debts.
Shahara sighed. Even if she asked, her brother and sister would have to borrow it, and the type of people they ran with were even worse than the ones after Tessa. The last thing she wanted was to see them hurt.
It was all she’d had growing up an orphan on the streets. It was all anyone could ever depend on. After the death of their parents, she and her siblings had pulled together to survive. They watched one another’s backs. Now Tessa needed her and nothing and no one would keep her from saving her sister’s life.
No matter what, she couldn’t afford to let Caillen know what’d happened. Reckless and hotheaded to the extreme, he’d go after those responsible, and she couldn’t stand the thought of him lying next to Tessa in the hospital.
Or worse, being arrested for it.
Not to mention, that was the last thing they could afford.
She was the oldest and it was her responsibility to settle this.
With a determined hand, she pulled her holstered blaster across the counter, clutching it until her knuckles blanched. Maybe she didn’t have the best occupation in the universe, but it kept her fed.
Her stomach rumbled a denial.
I don’t need to hear it from you, too. Everyone wanted to give her attitude today.
Grabbing her weapon, she stood up and moved to her bedroom in the corner, where she could change out of her only dress and into her work clothes. She pulled her tight, black battlesuit on, the armor creaking as she fastened the front and collar. It was old and out of fashion, but Armstitch cost too much for her to buy a new one.
One day, though, she’d have the money to go buy another.
One day . . .
Yeah, you’ve been saying that for years.
Ignoring the inner voice she was sure was there only to aggravate her, she stared at herself in the chipped, broken mirror. Her hollow, golden eyes were dull and ringed with dark circles from a night spent worrying over her sister.
She touched her face, seeing so much of her mother on the outside, but knowing the similarity went no deeper. All she’d ever wanted was to be the same kind, loving, gentle woman her mother had been.
Unlike her mother, she didn’t believe in the innate goodness of others. Growing up responsible for the welfare of three younger siblings had taught her early on the necessity of having a hard edge.
Life was harsh and people were worthless and mean to their bitter cores. They only used and betrayed. That was the only code she believed in.
Trisa. That’s what Caillen called her. She was just like the small, spiked animal that shot its poisoned quills at its enemies. Better to strike first than be victimized.
Besides, she refused to make apologies. She’d always done what she had to, to keep her family together and safe. And no one, absolutely no one, would ever jeopardize what she’d struggled so hard to maintain.
Her soul charged by her conviction, she pulled her small reserve blaster out of its box and checked the charge level before fastening it inside her right boot. Then she strapped the other blaster to her right hip and slid her daggers into the custom sheaths that were hidden throughout her clothes.
It was time to do business.
She walked the two feet to the kitchen where her father’s old laptop rested on her counter.
There were only two legal ways for an uneducated woman to get the kind of money she needed—prostitution and bounty hunting. She refused to sell her body, and at least as a free-tracer, she was able to uphold her oath as a Seax while she cleaned some of the filth from the cities. The same type of filth that fed off people like Tessa.
Those who tried to feed off her.
With that thought in mind, she brought up her computer and typed in her tracer’s code. The outstanding bounty sheets refreshed. Eager to get on with the hunt, she looked over the worst criminals in existence—rapists, murderers, pedophiles, terrorists, and those who were all four combined.
Shahara flipped through them quickly, scanning for an appropriate target whose bounty could pay off most of what she owed.
All of a sudden she found it.
Her blood began to race with the thrill of a seriously high-profile target who’d just been reattached to the list.
“C.I. Syn wanted dead by the Gourish president for the kidnaping, rape, and suspected murder of his daughter Kiara Zamir. Wanted alive,” for three times the Gourish bounty which was staggering, “by the Ritadarion government for filching, murder, treason, and prison escape.” The amount being offered for him by the Ritadarions would pay off Tessa’s debts, the hospital bill, the liens on her ship, and she’d have a little left over to live on for awhile.
Provided her sister behaved.
Not to mention, she wouldn’t have to decapitate him for the Ritadarions. She shuddered as she read over the death contract. President Zamir wanted Syn delivered in pieces and while she didn’t mind killing a criminal, she never wanted to dissect one to collect her bounty.
Gah, what had Syn done to Kiara Zamir to warrant that kind of hatred?
“You are an evil bastard . . .”
Neither dead nor alive would be easy—which was why the bounty on him was so high.
Shahara bit her lip in indecision. Syn’s name was more than well known and more than well feared. He’d made his reputation for being the best computer hacker and file filch in the known universe. And before he’d left his mid teens he’d been imprisoned by the Ritadarions.
Rumors of his cruelty circulated within the small group of tracers she associated with. To her knowledge, no other free-tracer had ever tried to bring him in, which in and of itself spoke volumes about his dangerous reputation.
Bound-tracers who were sent in after him almost never returned.
The tiny handful of ones lucky enough to return were never fully intact.
It didn’t matter. She pushed her doubt and uncertainty away. She’d never failed a mission before. Tessa’s life depended on her success and she wouldn’t fail this time.
Signing her name on the screen and swiping her index finger imprint, she accepted the contract.
Hell had many interpretations. Syn knew that better than anyone. In his life, he’d managed to live through most of the common variations and discover a multitude of new ones.
Why was it every time he thought he had life tamed, the treacherous beast turned around and bit him on the ass?
Cocking his head, he detected the sound of footsteps on the wet pavement behind him as he walked toward the bay where he’d docked his fighter. Anger scorched him. He slid his hand closer to his concealed weapons. He’d been stalked enough times in his life to recognize the sound of someone trailing him while trying to remain inconspicuous.
Tonight, he just wasn’t in the mood to deal with it.