Keep running. Don’t look back, Gabriella repeated to herself as she raced through the dark, wet streets without a flashlight, a weapon, or any idea where to hide. She’d tossed her backpack with all her supplies. It had been a strategic maneuver she now regretted given that she hadn’t taken out her knife first.
At least the people chasing her were human, which meant she had a good chance of getting away. No more aliens with their blasters or super sense of smell tipping the scales in their favor. Just good ol’ humans. Men from the Brotherhood, to be precise. Not that she could discount them. In many ways, they were more cut-throat than the aliens who’d left when the Coalition abandoned Earth. It was a shame the aliens didn’t take the traitorous humans with them.
Gabriella squeezed behind a dumpster in an alley. She needed a minute to think. Running without a plan was dangerous.
“I’m going to find you, bitch,” a man shouted nearby. He sounded less than twenty feet away.
Gabriella struggled to control her breathing as the man kicked garbage out of his path, getting closer with each heavy footstep. “Then I’ll have some real fun with you. And when I’m done fucking you, I’m going to cut you. Make you scream as you lose one finger at a time. From each hand.”
His footsteps grew louder, then stopped.
“Find her, Wes?” a man shouted from the other end of the alley.
“No, but she’s close. I can feel it.”
“Pierce just commed me. Says he found her pack three streets over. You coming?”
“Fucking bitch. I’m gonna take my time with this one when I find her.”
Gabriella leaned back against the brick wall and swallowed hard when the man jogged down the alley, away from her. Her entire body was shaking. That had been close, too close. Throwing her pack away had saved her, but she wished she’d had the chance to grab her knife first.
She checked her pockets to see what she had on her. Her customized set of lock picks, hidden in a rather plain looking rectangular onyx pendant, still hung between her breasts from a silver chain. No one ever suspected her necklace was anything more than decorative. Inside her pocket, she had half a protein bar, and. . . Fuck. She felt the piece of paper she’d stuffed next to it.
A huge keenta had slipped her the note back at the warehouse on the loading dock. She hadn’t taken the time to look at it, mainly because she was in the middle of a Brotherhood stronghold at the time. In a cell, to be precise, waiting for an opportunity to pick the lock. The men had been watching her constantly. Then the keenta left.
Within seconds of his departure, an explosion outside rocked the warehouse, the distraction she’d needed. The half-dozen men of the Brotherhood had run outside. Less than a minute later, she had picked the lock, slid out of the cell, grabbed her backpack from the nearby table, and scurried through a window high above a stack of crates.
She opened the note. It was in Common, though she wondered how the keenta knew she could read. Most women on Earth couldn’t, thanks to the Coalition rules against educating females. The Coalition had left nearly two years now, and it was a new world now. Mostly. The Brotherhood still held too much power.
339 East Lawson Street. If you want to live.
Cryptic, and yet to the point. It wasn’t like she had a lot of options, and she suspected the keenta had caused that explosion, giving her the opportunity to escape. She quite possibly had an ally.
Lawson Street was only a few blocks away. She hoped this wasn’t another twisted Brotherhood game. She’d done worse than steal from them this time. She knew how they taunted some of their victims, make them believe they were free so they’d lead them to family and friends, innocents the Brotherhood would then beat up, rape, or kill. Keentas weren’t known to be part of the Coalition, and there were only a handful of alien embassies located here in Los Angeles. Her instincts said to give this alien a chance.
The address was another warehouse, with a broken light above the door. Gabriella wrapped her fingers around a metal pipe she found in a pile of garbage outside the entrance. As she pushed open the door, a hand slammed over her mouth from behind and another grabbed the pipe before she could swing.
“I’m not going to harm you, but this location has been compromised. I need to take you to another building, a few blocks from here,” the male said as he slowly released her.
She spun around and her head tipped upward to a tall blue male with black horns. A zyanthan. She’d seen one before, but never up close. His clothing, black pants, shirt, and jacket, made him look like the Brotherhood, but when he handed her the pipe, she knew he wasn’t. Or rather, she hoped he wasn’t.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“My name is Zirkov. Come, Gabriella. I will explain everything when we reach our destination. Human males are hunting you for blocks in each direction.”
“Can you follow me without making much noise?”
“I’ll be quiet as a church mouse.”
“Mice on your world squeak. Be quieter,” he said as he headed down the alley, leaving her to follow.
Quiet, she could do. It was how she’d made it to thirty despite her less than legal activities. She fell in step behind Zirkov, halting when he held up his hand. He moved like he’d been military at one time. That gave her some confidence that he knew what he was doing. She still didn’t know what he wanted with her, or why he tried to keep the Brotherhood from taking her.
Within twenty minutes of evasively maneuvering through moonlit alleys away from the docks at the Port of Los Angeles, Zirkov motioned her through the door of yet another abandoned warehouse. Tarps covered the windows. There was no way she was walking into a dark, unknown space without a weapon in her hands.
Zirkov turned and eyed the pipe she held. “Keep your weapon if you want, but enter quickly. Time is short. We haven’t lost your pursuers, only bought ourselves a few minutes.”
She entered. As soon as the door closed behind her, a light flickered on. Beside the light switch stood the keenta from earlier. Broad with horns and bright red skin, the male could intimidate the best of fighters.
Beside him stood another woman, small in comparison, and smiling as if she didn’t have a worry in the world. With her hazel eyes and dark hair pulled into a ponytail, it was like looking in a mirror.
“You guys have a type, I see,” Gabriella said to the aliens.
“It’s not what you think,” the other woman said. “I’m your decoy.”
“Hi, I’m Kaci,” she waved, cute and perky, complimenting her smile perfectly. The type of woman the Brotherhood would eat alive. She probably grew up privileged, with a large family of brothers who treated her like a queen and protected her from the world.
“The aliens hired me to lead the men chasing you away while you escape,” Kaci said.
“Escape to where? What precisely is going on here?” Gabriella asked.
“We’re from GI7, Galactic Intelligence, Sector 7,” Zirkov said as he crossed the empty space to stand before her. The male was huge and imposing, but Gabriella held her position and lifted her head high with confidence, like her dad had taught her.
“Never heard of it,” she said.
“Galactic Intelligence is a network of military personnel sharing information on the Coalition and other hostile forces,” the zyanthan explained. “I head Sector 7 which is newly created with the express purpose of protecting people who are in danger because they’ve helped combat or hold information that is detrimental to those hostile forces. Earth has only recently joined the alliance that includes my homeworld, Zyan. Dal, Tunzen, and a few other worlds are part of the alliance. Konnitch.” He pointed to the keenta standing beside Kaci. “He’s one of my marshals.”
“You rigged the explosion outside where I was being held, didn’t you?” she asked the red male.
“I find explosives quite handy,” Konnitch said.
“Handy? Huh! You’re lucky you still have two hands,” Kaci said. “Dangerous stuff to fool with.”
“I don’t fool with explosives, female,” Konnitch said, his horns rising quite high.
“Strip,” Zirkov ordered Gabriella.
Gabriella backed up. “No.”
He tossed a bag to her. “If we’re going to get you away from here undetected, Kaci needs to change into your clothes.”
Inside the bag, Gabriella found a pair of jeans with a dark navy hoodie and sneakers. It was a good trade, less conspicuous than the flashy gold sequined dress she’d worn to get into the nightclub last night before she’d been kidnapped. Damn foolish going there in the first place, but she’d been determined to procure the medicine she needed for her client’s little girl, who needed stronger antibiotics to fight off an infection.
“Turn around,” she said.
“I’ve seen naked females before,” Zirkov said.
“Not this female. Turn around,” Gabriella insisted.
Both males diverted their attention to the windows and doors while Kaci approached. “No shoes?”
“I kicked off my heels when I escaped.”
“I’m gonna have to run barefoot? Great.”
“Sorry,” Gabriella said as she slipped out of the dress and handed it to Kaci. “Are you sure you want to be a decoy? There are a lot of men hunting me out there.”
“I’ve got this,” Kaci said. “I’m a fast runner, even compared to most men.”
“Can you outrun a bullet?” Gabriella said.
Kaci’s face paled for a moment and then that confident smile reappeared. “Konnitch said they don’t want you dead, so pretending to be you while I lead them away will be easy money.”
Gabriella wasn’t sure about that, but she dressed quickly. These aliens seemed to know their shit. And Kaci didn’t look the least bit worried, though she should. She was going up against the Brotherhood. Underestimating them could prove deadly. Which was why she had to take a chance with Zirkov and GI7.
“What did you do to get the Brotherhood so mad at you?” Kaci asked as she shed her running outfit and stepped into the dress.
“Let’s just say I saw something I shouldn’t have.”
“Forget I asked. I’m safer not knowing.”
The woman was smarter than she seemed at first glance.
Kaci sauntered over to Konnitch. “Zip me up, big guy.”
The keenta looked a little flustered as he stared at her bare back. Kaci wiggled her ass. “No need to memorize my freckles back there, just zip me up.”
Gabriella held in a chuckle as Konnitch gingerly held the tiny zipper in two meaty fingers as he zipped up the back of her dress. The big male looked like he was afraid he might crush her by touching her.
“Now what, Zirkov?” Gabriella asked, once she and Kaci were fully dressed. Zirkov looked them over. “Remove the hairband, Kaci.”
“Darn, I was hoping to keep that. It’s my favorite one,” she said as she tossed a simple black elastic hairband to Gabriella.
“Gabriella, give Kaci your necklace.”
“No.” Gabriella held up her hand before he could say anything more. “They’re not going to notice that she’s not wearing my necklace. They’ll assume I lost it. I’m not giving it up. And if you push me on this, Marshal, then I’ll walk away and take my chances on my own.”
“All for a necklace?”
She folded her arms over her chest. “I have my reasons.”
“Your Earth females are all stubborn. It’s time to go, Kaci.”
“I’ll owe you,” Gabriella said, hugging the woman. “I don’t know you, but thank you for saving me.”
“Glad to help,” Kaci said, flashing a beautiful smile. “Though in all honesty, I’m getting paid. Need the money, you know? And this is better than selling myself.”
Konnitch growled at that.
Kaci squeezed his upper arm. “That’s sweet, big guy, but let’s face the facts here. I’m nothing to you more than someone you need to solve a problem. Let’s get this show on the road. When do I go, big guy?”
Konnitch checked the comm on his wrist. “As soon as Ri’Nom gives the signal.”
“I hope you have an actual escape plan for Kaci and you’re not just counting on her outrunning the Brotherhood,” Gabriella said to Zirkov.
“We have a route for Kaci to run to ensure her safety while leading the humans away from here. The Brotherhood will catch the make and model of the car she leaves in. They’ll be a switch in a tunnel. She’ll switch to the trunk of another car driven by one of my marshals while another drives her car and abandons it for the Brotherhood to find a few hundred miles from here. All while I take you to my ship.”
“Where precisely are we going?” she asked, not sure she liked the idea of getting on an alien’s ship where she’d be completely vulnerable.
“The best way of keeping you safe from the Brotherhood until the humans need you to testify is to take you away from Earth.”
Fear shot through her, no longer at the prospect of leaving Earth, but of confronting the Brotherhood in court. “I can’t testify. They’ll kill me.”
“Gabriella, they already plan to kill you.”
“Kaci just said—”
“She doesn’t know everything that’s happened, only what we need her to know,” Zirkov whispered as Kaci spoke to Konnitch by the door. “We intercepted communications about the murder you witnessed. You were spotted and a huge reward was offered to whoever brings you in.”
Fuck! They knew she’d seen the murder.
I’m so dead. . .
Unless she could convince the Brotherhood that she wouldn’t rat them out.
“Okay, so I avoid the Brotherhood for a few months until the police can arrest and prosecute them.”
“That communication went out to all known criminal organizations. Not only men of the Brotherhood. They sent your picture over every illegal communication channel. I’m sorry, Gabriella, but you’re wanted, dead or alive.”
“And Zirkov intends to keep you alive,” Konnitch said. He glanced at his comm again. “That’s the signal. Kaci, go!” Konnitch opened the door and Kaci ran out, her long brown hair bouncing behind her. Konnitch slipped through the door after her, leaving Zirkov with Gabriella.
Gabriella blew out a breath. She hadn’t realized just how deep in shit she was. “Okay. For now, I’ll do it your way. Where are we going?”
“I’ll fill you in on the way. Konnitch has a friend on a planet that’s rather isolated.”
“I get it. Some place so out of the way where no one has a connection to Earth. You really think the Brotherhood will track me down to another planet?”
“They will try. I know my job, Gabriella, and I guarantee if you stay here, you’ll be dead within a week.”