Red Zone Chapter One

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Fourteen hours, thirty-six minutes, and ten seconds after Friday Jones injected herself with a lethal dose of Interferan-X, she stood in front of the most notorious smuggler in the Northern Territory and asked him to save her.

“Now why would I want to do that, chère?”

Friday knew her face showed none of the surprise she felt at discovering Striker’s accent was twenty-first century Cajun, an accent she’d only ever heard in historical documentaries because it was thought to be extinct.

“I’ll pay.” Don’t ask how much, don’t ask how much…

“How much?” It was a sexy purr.

She peered into the shadows of the dimly-lit bar where he slumped out of view. All she saw was bulk. Raw. Male. Bulk. It wasn’t reassuring.

Mentally crossing her fingers, she gave him the bad news. “Three thousand credits.”

“Chère, that’s an insult. I get ten times more doing a standard job, and what you’re asking sure ain’t standard.” There was a smile in his voice. “You need to do better if you want my…services.”

She blinked at him steadily for a moment. “Is that innuendo?”

“What it is, is boredom. If you’ve got nothing else to offer, I’m outta here.”

Flicking her tongue over her dry lips, she said the words she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to say. “I have information. You can have it. Auction it. It’s worth more than my credit stash.”

“Information?” There was interest in his tone. “What kind?”

“CommTECH.” Don’t ask for more details, don’t ask for more…

She heard his sharp inhale over the noise of a bar crowded with miners who’d come off nightshift eager to unwind. Unlike most bars in the big cities of Texas, this one in the border town of Munroe wasn’t entertaining its clientele with round-the-clock news. Instead, entertainment came in the form of one dais in the center of the room. It held one pole and one weary naked dancer. Friday knew her type. She’d grown up with women like her—underfed, glassy-eyed, and numb—working one of the only options available to the unenhanced. An option Friday would have had to consider if she hadn’t signed with CommTECH.

The air shifted in front of her as the shadows solidified. Large hands hit the tacky surface of the small round table. There were scars on the knuckles. Bare biceps bulged as he leaned forward onto his elbows. A black, sleeveless tank barely covered his wide, muscle-filled chest. His jaw came into the light first, stubble-covered, with a scar curving his chin. His cheekbones were sharp as honed flint. Skin the color of aged mahogany invited a person to touch as the dull light gleamed off his shaven head. His left eye was covered by a black flexi-patch. His right was the color of a smoky quartz pendant she’d once seen in a jewelry store window. From the warm wood tones of his skin to the sparkling gemstone eye, everything about the man called to her senses—which was purely a scientific observation.

Maybe.

She caught the amusement in that one good eye. “Like what you see, chère?”

Very much, but she focused on the logical explanation for her reaction to him. “Your features are astonishingly symmetrical. Well, apart from your eyepatch, obviously. Your shoulder muscles are strangely disconcerting. I can’t be the only person who’s distracted by them. You should probably cover them up to allow your clients to better focus on business. Also, you’re younger than I imagined. What are you? Thirty?”

His smile was lopsided. His shrug was Gallic, drawing attention back to those powerful shoulders. The movement made the head of the life-size Western Diamondback rattlesnake tattoo that curled up around the side of his neck nod in agreement. It was the same tattoo that gave the man his name—Striker. Nothing else. Just Striker. For a moment, Friday lost herself in her thoughts about the tattoo. The colors were incredibly vibrant. The only way that could have been achieved with his skin tone would be to bleach the epidermis before applying ink—a painful process.

“Don’t you worry none about age, chère. I’m older than I look. And I’m still the best.” His uncovered eye turned laser hard. “Now where’s this information you have on CommTECH? I need proof that you have it, and that it’s worth something, before we make any kind of deal.”

He just had to ask about the information. Friday knew her next words would either save her life or hasten her death. “You would need to mine for it. I’m a Passive Recorder.”

In an instant, the easy charm was gone. With a move too fast to follow, a gun appeared in his hand. It pointed at her chest. “You might have mentioned you were recording everything before I came into the light. See, now I have a dilemma. My pretty face is in your databank, waiting to be mined along with all the other information you’re holding in that head of yours. What do you think I should do about that?”

She wet her lips, grateful she wasn’t dead. Yet. “I went off-grid. Almost fifteen hours ago. No one knows where I am. No one can track me. No one can download the information stored in the chips in my brain. I have roughly four days until that changes.”

“Are you blackmailing me, chère? Sayin’ if I don’t help you, the authorities are gonna find out who I am?”

“No.” She held his cold, hard gaze. “I’m saying that in four days I’ll be dead, and no one will get access to the information in my head.” He arched a brow. “What makes you so sure you’ll be dead in four days?” “I took Interferan-X.”

“You poisoned yourself?” Did he look impressed? It was hard to tell.

“It was the logical thing to do. There are people after me. Interferan-X blocks all access to my implants and ensures I can’t be tracked. Right now, the information I hold is locked inside my head.”

“You plan on taking the antidote?”

“Not here. The clinics with the antidote are too closely monitored in the Territories. If I tried to get into one, the Enforcement agency would detain me in a heartbeat. My only option is to go to a clinic outside the Territories.” She stared at him. “That’s why I need you to take me to La Paz.”

He didn’t move. He just sat there considering her while pointing a gun at her heart.

“So you die if you don’t get to the middle of South America within the next four days.” It wasn’t a question, therefore didn’t require an answer. The noise of the bar was a quiet hum behind her as people waited to see if Striker would take his shot. “You want to tell me how you expect me to get you over the Northern Territory wall, through forty miles of poisonous Red Zone, and past an EMP barrier that will fry every circuit in your pretty body?” He shrugged again. “It can’t be done. You’re a dead woman walking. If the poison doesn’t get you, an escape from the Northern Territory sure as hell will.”

“I heard that you have a way over the wall and through the Red Zone. That you’ve done this before, many times. I heard you can get people past the barrier without it blowing their implanted tech and killing them.”

“You sure have heard a lot about me, chère. How is that exactly?”

She didn’t blink, and she didn’t answer. Her secrets were staying inside her head, whether he liked it or not. What was he going to do about her defiance? As he kindly pointed out, she was a dead woman walking no matter what she did.

He considered her for a moment, making her fight the urge to squirm. “What’s your job at CommTECH?”

This she could answer. “Research. Biotech.”

His jaw twitched, and his eye narrowed. “Science? Huh. Genetics?”

She nodded. Bioengineering was one of the most common areas of research. She was nothing special. Although Striker seemed to think so. If she thought she had his full attention before, she’d been mistaken. Now she felt as though she were being stripped naked by his gaze. Her cheeks heated.

“What information have you got stored in your pretty head that would make this worth my while?” She worked to hide the quiver when she exhaled.

“Honestly? I don’t know. I can tell you what I’ve been working on, but other than that, the information I have stored needs to be assessed to see if there’s anything of value. All I know for sure is that, as a Passive Recorder, everything I do, say, and see while inside CommTECH is stored in my data chips. I know I’ve recorded something someone didn’t want recorded. Whatever it is, it must be worth something.”

“That’s a lot of unknowns you got in there. A man can’t sell an unknown. What makes you think you saw something you shouldn’t have? Something worth my while?”

She resisted the urge to brush imaginary lint from her regulation black jumpsuit. “Someone wants access to whatever I saw, heard, or know. They want it badly enough to send Enforcement after me.” Although she tried hard, she couldn’t look him in the eye any longer. Couldn’t take the chance that her fears had slipped past her controlled facade. His muscles went taut.

“You were followed?”

“I lost them.”

His expression made it clear he didn’t think much of her covert skills. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Yep, he definitely didn’t believe her. “Are they still looking for you?”

She nodded. “There have been teams out searching, asking questions of friends and colleagues. A General Message has gone out on the public communication network, requesting information on my whereabouts.”

His lips twitched slightly, as though he were amused. “The cyber equivalent of a wanted poster.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Looks like you’re an outlaw, chère.” He sat quietly for a few moments, watching, the gun still pointed at her chest. “Let me get this straight. You’ve got Enforcement after you. CommTECH is pushing to find you. You think you slipped your tail. You somehow, mysteriously, knew how to track me down. And on top of all that—which I have to say, doesn’t reassure me, chère—you want me to smuggle you through the border, take you overland to Bolivia and make sure the Red Zone doesn’t kill you while we do it. In return for the risk, effort, and time involved in rescuing your ass, you’re offering barely enough credits to hire a shuttle. Or, I can get the unknown information stuck in your head that might be worth selling. I gotta tell you, bébé, you ain’t much of a negotiator, and that ain’t much of an offer.”

Friday fought the urge to let her shoulders droop. She wasn’t defeated yet. She’d known seeking him out was a long shot. Unfortunately, it was also her only shot. “I need to get out of here. I need to get to La Paz. Please help me. You’re my only hope.”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t go all Princess Leia on me.”

“Who?”

He gave her a look that implied she was the crazy one. “Star Wars? Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope. Ring a bell?”

She stared at him blankly.

“It’s an old movie.”

Movies? She didn’t think anyone still watched those.

“Never mind.” He waved the conversation away with the muzzle of the gun. “Unless you can up your payment offer, this discussion is over.”

“I don’t have anything else to offer you.” He stared at her for a few long minutes, considering. She refused to fidget. She was used to scrutiny. She wouldn’t crumble. At last he nodded slightly, as though coming to a decision. He leaned toward her.

“I wouldn’t say that.” His eye skimmed her body as he smiled, slow and knowing. “You do have one thing I want.”

She felt the color drain from her face as the room swayed. “You don’t mean…”

His expression was unreadable. “I want you, chère.”

***

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