Chadwick Thorpe glares at me throughout my presentation. I don’t blame him; what I’ve uncovered pisses me off, too. Still, his icy, unblinking stare makes me tug at my maroon skirt and stutter slightly as I speak.
“As you can see, these bank accounts have been drawing millions from the company for the last fifteen years,” I explain. “It’s escaped notice so far, and whoever hid the accounts was thorough in making them nearly untraceable. I was lucky to see the pattern.”
Thorpe nods as he studies each slide. Hundreds of millions have been siphoned off from the company, and even though it makes billions each year, theft of this magnitude can’t go unpunished.
This is it; this is the break I’ve been waiting for. I’ve worked here since graduating college early, at twenty-one; for three years, my manager took all the credit for my work, but today I’m finally going to get what I’m due. Breathing easier, I conclude my breakdown of the embezzlement with confidence. This is only my second time meeting Thorpe in person, the first coming at a Christmas party six months ago. If I didn’t make an impression then, I’m sure I have now.
Clicking off the slideshow brings the lights back on in the room; the curtains part, revealing a lush overview of Central Park.
I give Thorpe a moment to digest what I’ve said. Finally, he asks, “So, have you any idea who is responsible for this?”
Shit. I had hoped he wouldn’t ask.
“No, sir. Nothing concrete. Given enough time I could probably find out, but as this point it’s my recommendation that we contact the authorities.” I’d considered holding back my report until I had all the answers, but it could have taken several months to dig deep enough, and I’d decided not to wait any longer.
“Law enforcement will have access to information I don’t,” I add. “Using my investigation as a jumping off point, I expect they can have this resolved quickly.”
Thorpe’s glare dissolves like a switch has been flipped, and his lips rise sharply, producing a savage smile.
“Thank you, Haley. This is excellent work,” he says, rising to his feet. “Really, quite stunning.”
Blood should be rushing to my face, but instead my hairs are standing on end. My heart pounds in my chest. “If you want, I can c-contact the SEC with my findings for you,” I offer, my stutter returning. “It would save you the time, and I don’t-don’t mind explaining this all again.”
“No,” he replies, head shaking. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Oh. Sure, okay. It’s just that there’s a lot of information to go through…” I’d gone on for more than an hour, from start to finish, with only a single break for a sip of water. Chadwick Thorpe is a brilliant businessman, but there’s no way he could have absorbed everything I said—could he?
“I said I’ll take care of it, Haley,” he says, getting out his cell. Chills run up my spine; the edge in his voice could cut rebar.
“Yeah. Yes. Yes, Mr. Thorpe,” I say at last, backing out of the conference room. He follows me with his gaze until I’m through the door, which I shut behind me. I feel those steely blue eyes boring between my shoulder blades as I descend four flights of stairs.
I’m probably just being paranoid, but Thorpe’s smile… after I told him I didn’t know who stole the money…
Replaying our meeting in my mind, I grab my black purse from my desk and head for the elevator, telling myself I could use an iced latte to calm my nerves, though really I just want to get out of the building.
What if it’s Thorpe?
The embezzlement has been going on for such a long time, it would have to be somebody who has been with the company since nearly the beginning, and knows its operations top to bottom. But why steal from his own company? Sure, moving all that money to off-shore accounts would save him millions in taxes, but…
I’m halfway to the elevator bank when I see three security officers following behind me. All male, all armed, faces rigid with determination, they look singularly focused on their task.
“Haley Feyn, if you would come with us,” one says, reaching for the Taser hooked to his belt.
I don’t wait another second: I break into a full sprint for the elevators, weaving through my confused coworkers. They seem to be moving in slow motion as I barrel past.
“Stop!” the men shout, giving chase, but I refuse. I’ve done nothing wrong; whatever they want from me, it’s nothing good.
Reaching the central corridor, hurtling toward the elevator bank, I see the stainless steel doors closing on one of the express cars. I practically fly, leaping between the shutting metal slabs just in time.
My momentum carries me into the throng of people already heading down, spilling the drinks in their hands, knocking briefcases to the floor and mashing a few into the wall.
Recovering quickly, adrenaline electrifying my entire body, I slam a fist against the button to close the doors, which had reopened as I passed through. The rushing security guards disappear from view as the elevator finally seals and begins its descent.
“Sorry, everyone,” I mutter, turning to see that they’re all looking at me with anger and consternation. In their position, I’d do the same.
“I need your help,” I say. “I’ve uncovered years of embezzling, and it was Thorpe. I’m pretty sure he just tried to have me detained. I need to get out of here immediately.”
“Are you sure he’s on to you?” one of the men asks. “How would he know what you’ve discovered?”
“That’s a great question, but there’s no time to answer,” I say quickly, suppressing my sheepishness. “Will you help?”
The men and women around me in the elevator look away as I try to make eye contact with them, facing their feet. “No?”
They line the walls of the car with their bodies, leaving me stranded in the middle. Silent and still, they could be statues.
Seeing the digital display tick off the floors, I realize security will no doubt radio the lobby to tell them not to let me through. I need a plan.
I could try to get off a floor before the lobby, but they’ll probably block the stairwells too. I could pull a fire alarm, try to get out in the confusion, but I don’t see a way to do that without stopping the elevator. My fists curl into balls, as I realize I may not be able to just run; I may have to fight, too. But the only option for a weapon I see in the elevator is a fire extinguisher. Hardly useful when the security officers have Tasers and guns.
When the car glides to a stop at the lobby and the elevator doors start to slide apart, a cloud of white flame-retardant chemicals billows outward as I spray the extinguisher without looking. While a pair of men cough, engulfed in the fog, I sprint past them, my face covered with a handkerchief. Feeling like a bandit, I scramble across the marble floors of the lobby, continuing to spray the extinguisher in my wake. The canister runs out as I reach the revolving doors, but by then I’m out of the building and onto the streets.
I run, heels sounding off the cement sidewalks with each step. Sweat stains my pits and wets my long hazel locks, but I don’t care. Racing down each block, I only stop at the crosswalks to check for traffic. After a few streets, I reach a subway station, swipe my Metro card, and hop on a downtown train to Brooklyn. They’re probably expecting me to head uptown, to go home. They won’t find me there.
It’s only after I’ve found a wall to lean against that the adrenaline wears off, leaving me tired and angry. Those fucking assholes!
Thorpe, his goons, the cowards on the elevator.
What a bunch of shits!
“I don’t want to live on this planet anymore,” I mumble to myself, shaking my head.
“Is that so?” says a man standing across from me.
I look up, noticing him for the first time, though I’m not sure how I missed him before. Towering over me, he must be nearly seven feet tall; the fine, tailored suit he wears covers his body, but the bulge of his chest, arms, and legs scream the presence of thick cords of muscle. Chiseled features and a bright smile momentarily make me forget my fury, but it rears back quickly. Before they passed, my parents taught me not to trust a handsome face. If only I’d remembered that with Thorpe.
“Mind your own business,” I snap at the stranger.
He laughs, a soft, musical sound that fits the mirth on his gorgeous face. Bright gray eyes shine like I’ve never seen before. I try not to stare, but he looks physically perfect, as though he were designed in a lab.
“I could help you,” he says, his voice deep and smooth. Deeply accented, his speech plays back and forth in my head. I can’t nail down the accent, which is odd: I’m not only well traveled; I’m fluent in Italian, Mandarin, Arabic, and Swedish, in addition to English.
“You can help me get off the planet?” I reply. “Sure, man. You got a shuttle parked somewhere?”
“I do,” he says. “I’m heading there right now.”
“Uh huh.” I roll my eyes as the train slows for the station. “Say hi to Marvin the Martian for me then.”
I get off the train and head for the exit, but turn to see if the man stays behind. He doesn’t; though he busies himself with his phone, he moves in my direction.
That’s just what I need: more men coming after me. Does he work for Thorpe? That’s impossible, isn’t it? But if not, then who is he, and why is he following me?
Clearly, this is just not my day.
Heading toward Flatbush, I keep checking over my shoulder; each time, the tall, gorgeous man is somewhere in the periphery. He doesn’t get too close, but he doesn’t fall behind either.
I stop and turn; spotting the man, I head straight for him. Seeing me, he stops and plants his hands at his hips, waiting.
“What do you want?” I say, brandishing the fire extinguisher I’m still carrying. “Are you with Thorpe?”
He laughs. “Definitely not.”
That’s a relief, at least. “Just back off, okay?”
“Sure, pet,” he replies with an affectionate curl of his lip, eliciting a soft aching from between my thighs. I’ve never been called ‘pet’ before.
I brush past him, marching away. When I turn to look, he’s still standing in place, not moving; I keep glancing back, seeing him shrink as I put some distance between us.
My heartbeat starts to return to normal after a few blocks without seeing the tall man, and my mind turns to my next move: I should call the police, tell them what I’ve uncovered. Then I should phone a friend and make arrangements to stay somewhere safe for the next few days.
Except, I don’t really have any friends I know well enough to call.
A hotel it is.
Getting out my phone to look up a cheap room, a gnawing spreads through my gut. I flip around just as a pair of men grab me by the shoulders and pull me into a nearby alley. Though they wear black suits instead of security uniforms, I have no doubt they’re Thorpe’s men.
“Found you,” says the shorter one, prying the phone out of my hand. “Issued by the company, remember?” he adds, snapping it in half.
The other goon pushes me against a brick wall, covering my mouth with his hand and gripping my throat with the other.
“Don’t make a sound,” warns the short one as he pulls a handgun from a holster concealed in his suit jacket. “Tell me who else you’ve told about your report, and I promise this will be quick.”
The goon’s partner lets go of me, and when he pulls his hand from my face, they find I’m smiling. They must think I’m insane—maybe I am. I should probably be pissing my panties right now, sinking to the ground in fear or begging for my life. But all I can think about is the elevator, and the group of men and women I told. I don’t even know their names. Is Thorpe going to kill all of them? Considering their refusal to help me, I’m having trouble caring one way or another.
The gunman reaches again into his jacket, this time retrieving a long metal cylinder, which he screws onto the barrel of his weapon; a silencer. “I’ll start with the kneecaps. You don’t want to find out where it goes from there.”
I stare at him, not knowing what to say. My head swims as a strange calm floods through me, a wave of inescapable certainty.
Lips parting to take a last breath and utter my last words, I’m not prepared for what happens next: a beam of light flashes through the air, and then the gun is gone.
Processing exactly what I saw takes me a second, because it wasn’t just the gun that dropped.
The goon’s hand fell too.
A smoking stump still hangs in the air, pointed at me like an accusation, and then the goon screams. Cutting the howl short, another beam lances through the air, punching through the man’s chest. He falls, and behind him I see a scorch mark on the wall.
The second goon turns to the source of the beams, reaching into his jacket for his own gun, but he’s too late: one last beam sizzles through the alley, catching the man between the eyes.
As his body slumps and topples, I see their attacker at the mouth of the alley: the tall man from the subway.
“What the fuck!” I shout at him as he lurches toward me. “You… you… you! You killed them! They’re dead!”
“I saved your life,” he says, nonplussed.
“How did you… what was that… how?”
“Quiet, Haley,” he says. “Someone will hear.”
No way. I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid before, but seeing two men killed by… by I don’t know what… has robbed me of my calm. Whatever just happened, it can’t be real.
“Help!” I shout, panicked. Stepping back from the bodies, I forget that I’m trapped in the alley. “Please! Call the police!”
“Haley, don’t. I’m not going to hurt you…”
The tall man shakes his head, then points at me. A ring-shaped device on his finger lights up before my eyes, and then everything goes dark.
I wake up in a haze of warmth and peace that’s settled over me like a blanket. Blinking a few times brings the world back into focus. I’m not sure where I am, but I’m probably not dead, so that’s a relief. On my left, I see hospital equipment monitoring my vital signs; to my right, a view of the city. I can’t move, but I’m lying in bed, comfortably.
Then I see him: the man from the alley, dressed in a white lab coat and tan slacks. He’s watching me, and smiles beautifully when he sees I’m awake.
“Haley, how do you feel?”
“Who are you?” I ask, ignoring his question. “Why am I paralyzed?”
“My name is Kest. Just relax. You’re safe now.” He sets his hand on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze, but I don’t find it very comforting.
Hearing his name, I’m reminded of his strange accent. “Kest? What kind of name is that? Where are you from?”
As I speak, my memory starts to clear: the alley, Thorpe’s men, the guns. The smell of burning. “What happened back there? Are you some kind of spy, or something?”
He winks. “Don’t worry about that. Just relax.”
“I don’t like being told to relax,” I gripe. “I want answers.”
Kest chuckles. “You’ll get them. Be patient.”
I nod, thinking about the goons and how close I came to getting shot. “You saved my life,” I murmur as the reality hits me. “Thank you.”
Frowning, Kest turns away from me and gazes out the window. “Don’t thank me just yet. You’re not going to like what comes next.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
He ignores the question and, after a moment, the world begins to blur.
“Oh, God,” I gasp. I’m hallucinating.
My surroundings ripple and change shape, as does Kest. Though his face remains in place, its color takes on a silvery hue to match his eyes. At the same time, his outfit darkens and tightens until the white lab coat is gone, replaced by a black jumpsuit that reminds me of something astronauts might wear on a space station.
The changes don’t end there, either. Once Kest’s appearance becomes stable, the rippling effect spreads outward, engulfing the room entirely. Walls, floors, furniture, the window—all of it shimmers and dissolves, reforming into an almost entirely different place. The room expands slightly, lengthening and taking shape. I’m surrounded by metallic bulkheads, glowing holographic displays, and banks of equipment I don’t recognize. The interior resembles a small laboratory, except for the windows at the far end: considering the instrumentation consoles beneath them, I’m guessing it’s a cockpit.
Finally, the process ends at my bed, which blurs around me until it’s become a table and a series of long metal restraints. I try wiggling my fingers, resulting in a slight movement that gets better the more I work at it. At least I’m not paralyzed.
“What are you going to do to me?” I ask. Stay calm, I tell myself, exhaling slowly. If I want to escape, I can’t afford to panic. I need to get him talking, and to learning everything I can: who is he, where are we going, and what are his intentions?
“For now, I’m going to let you recover from the effects of the stun.”
“I thought you said you would help me.”
He looks at me curiously, cocking his head. “I did. Those men were going to kill you.”
I sigh, not wanting to admit he’s right. “Thank you. Now, wherever this is,” I say, scanning my eyes back and forth, “I need to go.”
Kest shakes his head. “I’m really sorry, Haley, but no. I can’t let you leave.”
Instead of answering, he sits down in a reclining seat by the windows. A holographic display of the stars appears in the air, and begins to move, seemingly zooming in on one region after another. Kest mumbles to himself in a language I don’t understand until one planet has been singled out in the hologram. The computer chirps and an electric churning shakes the room.
“What were you saying?” I ask. “What’s going on?”
Like his accent, I’m dumbfounded not to at least recognize the language he’s speaking. It sounds nothing like any I’ve ever heard—not even close.
“Talk to me, Kest. Where are you from?”
Still he ignores me. That’s fine. I’m not even close to being done.
“What kind of a name is ‘Kest’ anyway? Is that short for something? Is it your last name or first?”
He turns to look at me and raises his finger up to his lips for quiet.
Not gonna happen. “What was that weapon you used? Do you work for the government? Are you a spy or something? Were you investigating Thorpe, like me?”
Kest grunts, getting up and marching toward me. “You wouldn’t know the language, I’m from somewhere far away, Kest is my full name and it was an energy weapon. I work for a government, but not yours, and I don’t know your Thorpe. Now let me make something clear, Haley: when I ask you to be quiet, don’t test my patience. I’ve been wanting to punish a cute little human for a very long time. I’ll spank your ass so red, the heat signature will register for a week.”
A shiver creeps through my body; I try to bury it away, but blood rushes to my cheeks before I am able.
Kest grins, possibly sensing my distraction, but doesn’t say anything else. I realize his threat has, at last, left me speechless.
He takes his seat again and presses his palm to a polished black surface at the end of the chair’s shoulder rest. The room shudders slightly, and then I feel it: a soft sense of lifting. Out the window I see rows of building’s windows descending and ending, revealing blue skies and pillowy white clouds.
Oh, my God, we’re flying.
“This is crazy! Kest, please let me go.”
Layers of clouds disappear beneath us; we’re ascending faster than any plane I’ve ever ridden.
“It’s so fast. Is this a… Is this a private jet?”
Kest laughs, shaking his head.
“Where are we going? Where are you taking me?” I practically scream. “I demand you set us down now!”
Struggling against my restraints, I try to free my wrists, but the bands are too tight. I feel glued to the table; all I can do is wiggle my fingers and toes, and twist my neck. My wrists, ankles, and body aren’t going anywhere. Cursing under my breath, I keep trying anyway, despite the futility of the effort.
After several minutes of straining and fighting, I blink rapidly, refusing to let there be any tears. Yet, with nothing else to do, I can’t help feeling my spirit fall. This day has gone from bad to worse: even with Thorpe’s goons chasing me, I felt grounded. I could make a plan and follow it. Now I have no idea what to do.
Making matters worse, I almost feel as though Kest has drugged me, because the arousal burning between my legs hasn’t gone away. Fighting against my restraints has only made it worse. What’s wrong with me?
Don’t cry, I tell myself. I was strong in the face of certain death back in that alley, I’m not going to give up now. I’ll find a way out of this.
“I know you’re scared, Haley,” says Kest, walking over to me slowly. “If it helps, this wasn’t my plan. I wasn’t going to leave yet, but I don’t have a choice.”
“What does that all mean?” I ask, my despair forgotten.
“You’ll find out soon. You’re going to be safe with me, I promise. Certainly safer than you’d be if I left you behind, with those men after you.”
Maybe he was right. There’s nowhere I’d really be safe from Thorpe, at least not in the immediate future: he’s too powerful and his reach is truly global. I doubt Witness Protection would even be enough. And that assumes I don’t get blamed for the deaths of those two thugs, which I might. “It would have been kinda hard to explain how they died,” I say, finding the idea morbidly funny.
Kest chuckles too. “That’s the spirit.” He pats my head, brushing back a few hairs that had fallen across my eyes and cheek. “Now hang on, pet.”
Sitting back down, Kest again places his hand on the black panel. I don’t know how the device works—it doesn’t light up or appear to have a screen, but somehow he’s controlling the vehicle. Despite the sudden acceleration, I feel next to nothing.
“Is this some kind of spy plane?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” Kest replies. “By Earth standards, I guess it would be. It does have a cloaking device.”
I’m still wondering what that means when the craft lifts higher in the air and the sky changes, darkening. Then I see the stars.
“Are we in fucking space?”
“No, stop telling me to relax! We’ve left the planet! We’re in orbit!”
Kest sighs. “We’re in space, yes, but not in orbit.”
“What’s the difference?” I snarl.
“Well, when you’re in orbit, you’re going around something. We’re not going around Earth, we’re leaving it.”
Ice surges through my veins, and my stomach pulls into a knot. “Take me back, Kest. Take me back take me back takemebaaaaaack!”
Something inside the ship hums to life, powering up. I feel a lurching motion, and then the stars merge together, streaking by.
“This isn’t real,” I mumble. “It’s not real, I’m dreaming. Or hallucinating.”
“It’s real,” says Kest. “Very real.”
I don’t respond, letting his words echo in my head.
If that’s true, then I’m in very, very deep trouble.