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PURCHASE LINKS - U.S.
PURCHASE LINKS - EBOOKS
PURCHASE LINKS - INT'L
A free 8,800 word ebook
Lara Adrian, LLC
Available December 20, 2012
First published in 2010 as part of the Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance 2.
** NOTE: This original short story is not part of the Midnight Breed world. **
In a dark, post-apocalyptic world, a tough mercenary known as Nisha the Heartless is hired to transport mysterious cargo arrived from exotic New Asia to a well-paying client. But things are never what they seem in a dark world now populated by humans and the Strange: shapeshifters and telepaths, nymphs and hobgoblins. It is a lesson Nisha learns all too soon--one that puts her on a journey with a dangerously sexy, enigmatic man who will force her to confront the nightmares of her past, and risk her heart for a future she never dreamed could be hers....
People are strange.
A twentieth-century philosopher once said that, or so I've been told. As I drove my rig through the rain and sludge toward the docks in Port Phoenix, I couldn't help thinking how apt the observation was. Especially now, some three hundred years after Earth hiccupped on its axis in 2066 and brought about all manner of changes to the world mankind once knew.
The waters rose in many places; vanished in others. Land masses shifted, ripped apart by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, or drowned by mudslides several stories deep. Once-great cities toppled, technology and infrastructure swept away overnight.
Kingdoms and governments, corporations and institutions were all rendered impotent with the sudden, irreparable, global financial crash. Survivors of the planet's changes--a population estimated to be only in the tens of millions--fled across borders that no longer existed to rebuild their lives and form new communities.
And, after some long millennia of hiding, living in the safety of the shadows, a small number of other survivors came out of the dust and rubble of this altered new world.
They are the Strange.
Shapeshifters and telepaths, nymphs and hobgoblins.
Goddamned freaks of nature, I thought to myself as I rolled to a stop at the dockyard entrance and glanced through the box-truck's window at a pair of gray-skinned gargoyles squatting atop the tall pillars of the gate. I stared for a long moment, if only to let them know that I had no fear of them. The disdain between the Strange and me is well-known, and definitely mutual. As I rolled down the glass, one of the hideous creatures perched overhead sneered down at me through the dark and drizzle of the cold summer night.
"Nisha the Merc," he hissed, obviously recognizing me while I reached out and pulled the rope on a copper bell, then waited for the guard on duty to come over and let me inside. Above me, the beast crouched lower, dropping his voice to a gravelly whisper. "Nisha, the cold-hearted bitch."
Amused, the other gargoyle chuckled quietly and shifted on his taloned feet, rattling the heavy iron manacles that ensured he and his companion remained at their posts. Even if they weren't shackled in place, these two Strange beasts couldn't touch me and they knew it. Harming a human was punishable by death.
But they could hate me.
They could despise that I made my living as a mercenary, although I've always preferred to think of myself as a facilitator. Generally speaking--and for the right price--I was a problem-solver. When something needed to get done quickly and quietly, no questions asked, folks with the money and the means usually turned to me to make it happen.
Tonight's job was no different. I had been hired to pick up and transport a cargo shipment for someone who preferred to keep his business at the seedy Port Phoenix dockyard confidential. Not that any of the lowlife humans working the yard, or the even lowlier Strange enslaved there as laborers, would give a damn what was coming or going from the supply freighters that arrived from all parts of the globe.
Still, my client had his reasons, I supposed, and that was good enough for me. I didn't need to know who he was or what I was moving. All that mattered was the two rough-cut diamonds currently tucked into the fur lining of my boot and the three that would be given to me after I'd delivered tonight's cargo to its destination.
The big human guard humped out of his shack near the gate, a long black rifle slung across his body from a wide leather shoulder strap. I leaned out and he peered at me through the rusted iron bars, recognition lifting the heavy brow that visored small, avid eyes that made my skin crawl. "Back so soon, eh, Nisha?" He grunted, leering now. "You sure are a woman in high demand these days. Not that I'm complaining about that, of course."
I gave him a smile that a smarter man might have recognized as loathing. "What can I say? Business is booming."
He grinned as he unlocked the gate and let me drive through. "Which slip is it tonight?"
"3-East," I said out the open window, the designation indicating the docks where cargo from New Asia arrived. When the guard hopped up onto the truck's running board alongside me, I gave him a flat look. "I know the way."
He dropped back down with a scowl. "That freighter just came in about an hour ago. They're still unloading. Could be a while before they're done, so if you need to get out of the cold, you come on up and I'll let you sit with me in the guard house."
I waved him off without looking back. The icy rain was turning to sleet, pelting the windshield like tiny pebbles. Burrowing deeper into the hood of my parka, I drove toward the deep-water port that had long ago been desertlands and city skyscrapers--before the planet's shift had cracked a wide saltwater chasm between the island of Mexitexas and the shrunken coastal borders of North America. As I neared the enormous ship moored at the slip marked 3E, the stench of brine and steel and belching exhaust fumes blew into the open window, clinging to my throat and stinging my eyes.
I slowed to a stop near the loading ramp, where four big, tusked trolls were carrying a tarp-covered crate across the plank to the dock. They shivered in the bad weather, their clothing sodden, long braided beards dripping water with each lumbering step. The workhorses of the Strange, trolls were built like tanks and able to labor tirelessly in all kinds of climates. These four walked gingerly with the large rectangular container--almost reverently--one of them on each corner, taking great care with it. A human supervisor waited at the end of the ramp, closely monitoring their progress.
"Be careful with that, you brainless clods!" he barked. "One slip and I'll have your bloody hides!"
I got out of my rig and walked over to the dock boss. "I take it this one's mine?"
He grunted in acknowledgment and wiped the back of his filthy hand under his runny nose. That same hand then reached out to me, palm up. "I'll have my payment now, Nisha."
I dug into the pocket of my coat, withdrew a chip of cloudy pink stone and dropped it into his waiting hand. "There you go. One quarter-carat raw ruby, same as always."
His greedy fingers closed around the paltry gemstone that represented a fortune to him. The little rock disappeared an instant later, and I didn't follow his hand to see where he'd stuffed it. "Whatever's in that thing, it's got my laborers spooked," he told me, staring through the sleet as the container neared the end of the ramp. "What the hell are you picking up tonight?"
"Don't know, and don't care," I said. "I don't get paid to care."
He scoffed. "No, I reckon you don't. Most folks say you'd sell your own mother if the price was right."
"Harsh," I replied, wholly unfazed. The insult was based on reputation, more than fact. All of which served me just fine.
As for my mother . . . it was harder to remain unaffected by the thought of her. She was killed years ago, when I was just a young girl. The nightmare of that day still haunted me, sometimes even when I was awake. Her death had haunted my father too, until his heartbreak had finally claimed him.
The dock boss said nothing more, watching with me as the trolls carefully brought the crate off the ramp and set it down in front of us. The contents shifted slightly as the box came to rest on the ground, something metal clacking quietly from within. Whatever was inside must have been heavy--not to mention valuable, given that it was protected from the elements in an enormous sheet of rare, extremely expensive plastic.
Guns, I guessed, having transported a fair share of munitions in my line of work. I stepped up to the corner of the crate to check the bindings on the plastic tarp. Although they looked secure, I wanted to be certain before I gave the okay for the trolls to load the container into the back of my rig.
As I reached out to test the straps, something growled and began to move inside the box.
Something mired by what sounded to be heavy chains and shackles, but something very much alive.
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