The cop took a step forward and the lawyer-looking guy shook his head and shifted nervously. Goddard blinked rapidly and opened his mouth like he was going to say something when suddenly, the entire world turned upside down.
Everyone let out a startled sound as the metal container jerked and lurched with an ear-splitting noise. The concrete below the metal wailed in protest as something heavy and hard hit the outside with enough force to send the entire container careening to the side. The light swung wildly from the ceiling. The chair went flying. The dirty cop was flung sideways as the Mayor and the skinny, older man tumbled over one another. The guy with the beard, my savior and current hero, was also tossed heavily through the air. I was thrown around like a rag doll. My banged-up body protesting when the container finally stopped moving and rested on its rusted side. The single light had long since gone out and everything was pitch black. My head was bleeding even more now and the ringing between my ears was loud enough to drown out any other sound.
There was shouting coming from somewhere outside the container and loud pops that were likely gunshots. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I could see a faint light at the end of the tunnel and I was going to run for it. Today was not the day I was going to die.
Clutching the switchblade in my hand, I scrambled to my feet and took off for the far end of the container toward the door. I had no idea if it opened from the inside or not, but I was about to find out.
The Mayor was pointing at me and shouting from where he was lying half under the older man who had helped keep me captive. I was scrambling, slipping and sliding my way to the door, when I was tackled from behind. I knew those hands and I fucking hated them. I didn’t even pause before taking the knife and driving it right into the back of one of those grabbing, clutching hands. I heard the cop scream and swear and I took a sick kind of satisfaction in the pain I caused. He let me go like I was made of fire, and in that moment, I wished I could burn him to nothing more than ash.
There was a grunt and the sound of fists hitting flesh, but I didn’t stop to see who was fighting whom. All I cared about was getting free. I would throw myself against the door over and over again until I got through or died trying. There was as much yelling and noise happening on the inside of the metal shipping container as there was on the outside. Voices were yelling and there was a distinct pop that rattled off the walls. Someone had a gun and they had fired it at either me or the bearded man who had come to rescue me. I didn’t want him to die. I owed him my life, but his heroics wouldn’t be worth anything if neither one of us made it out of this oversized tin can.
Head down and frantically feeling my way in the dark, fingers scraping across rough metal and cutting open on unseen hazards, I managed to make it to the sideways door. There was still a commotion going on behind me, and it was technically three against one, but my money was on the guy with the beard. He looked like he could handle himself, and I hoped against hope he could handle the dirty cop and the Mayor, as well.
I tried to find my way out. I pulled and tugged. I pounded and screamed. I couldn’t find any kind of lever or latch, and I wasn’t sure anyone could hear me on the outside. It sounded like I was banging on the inside of a steel drum; the noise was making my head pound. I was collecting my breath to keep screaming my damn head off but I let it go in a rush when the cock-eyed door suddenly wrenched open. I tumbled out ungracefully and not sure if I was falling into the arms of the enemy or not.
Luckily, as soon as everything stopped spinning and the world finally ended up the right way, I recognized the behemoth of a man who caught me before I landed face first on the concrete. Another bruiser with dark hair, haunted eyes, and a wicked scar that indicated he’d angered some very bad people in his time. Noah Booker worked for Nassir and was no doubt behind the chaos that was currently taking place on the docks. I could see bodies on the ground. I could see blood and spent bullets. I lived a rough life, but this was all new to me, and I could swear I smelled death lingering in the air all around me.
“I got you.” His voice was nothing more than a harsh growl.
I let him haul me to my feet and cast a look at the overturned container. “The guy with the beard is still in there. Someone has a gun.” I didn’t know if they were friends or maybe coworkers of some kind, but I thought he might want to know.
He gave his dark head a shake and the scar that bisected one entire side of his face twitched as he frowned.
“He’s on his own. If he makes it out of there in one piece, he gets his life back. He’s got a lot on the line so don’t worry about him. He’s really fucking hard to kill, believe me. Worry about you.”
It was good advice and I was going to take it. I pulled my arm free of his hold and shook my head. “Who sent you? Why are you here? Why did you do all of this?” I swept an arm out to indicate the carnage he was walking through like it was a field of flowers. “How did you know where I was?”
He looked like he wanted to strangle me. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best time for twenty questions, but I’d had enough of being jerked around and manhandled. I wanted control back. I wanted my power back.
“I go where Nassir tells me to go and I do whatever he needs done.” It was said blandly, like laying waste to an entire armed security detail was all in a day’s work.
“Why would Nassir care about me? How did he even know the Mayor snatched me up off the street?” I’d met Nassir one time, completely unwillingly on my part. He made it clear he had no use for me beyond the information he wanted at the time, and I couldn’t get away from him and his ostentatious office fast enough.
The brute of a man who had just pulled me from certain death cocked his head to the side and considered me silently. His lips twitched and that scar pulled in a way that was oddly endearing. “How do you think Nassir knew you were missing? Who do you know who would be willing to sign his life away in order to get you back?”
I blinked up at him like an owl, sure the gash in my head and the lack of food for the last couple weeks had finally gotten to me. “Stark?” The word squeaked out and once again, the world seemed to spin sickeningly around me.
I asked him for help and he told me no.
It couldn’t be.
“The boy genius sent us after you and told us not to come back if you weren’t with us. I’ve never seen him so worked up about anything. Minus the time you cleaned him out. I wasn’t sure he knew how to react like a normal human when shit went down.”
I blinked again and started to tilt forward. Everything was going fuzzy on the edges and I could hardly hear him over the rushing in my ears. I wasn’t sure why I could no longer stand, or why, after everything I’d just been through, it was the knowledge that Snowden Stark did indeed give a shit if I lived or died that took me out.
The last thing I saw was the big, dark man move toward me, swearing and muttering my name, as everything went black.
She looked so small and pale lying against the black sheets that covered Noah Booker’s bed. I knew it was irrational and unwarranted to be pissed off at the fact she was unconscious in his bed and not mine, but everything inside of me was struggling against the need to pick her up and carry her off. That’s why I hated emotions and feelings. There was no logic in any of it. None of it made any sense.
Booker’s place was close to the docks, practically sitting on the water, so it was an obvious choice to bring Noe here when she blacked out on him. It was written on her face and across her skin that the last couple of weeks had not been kind to her. The doctor Nassir blackmailed in order to have him on call had assured both Booker and myself that her wounds were superficial. She had a mild concussion, was extremely dehydrated, and malnourished. Her shoulder was sprained and the cuts at her wrists were infected. She had a couple of bruised ribs and an assortment of injuries that covered her body from head to toe. The physician had asked if we wanted him to do a sexual assault examination, but I couldn’t bear the idea of making that call without asking her permission first. She’d been stripped of so much; I couldn’t be the guy who took even more from her when she had no voice.
The doctor warned that the longer Noe waited, the worse the consequences could be if she had been assaulted, and it turned my stomach. I wanted to touch her, to smooth her dirty hair back into some semblance of order, and rub my fingers over the purple and blue bruises that covered the entire left side of her face. I wanted to trace the outline of her full but battered and chapped lips. I wanted to crawl up next to her in Booker’s black bed and hold her while I promised her that nothing and no one would ever hurt her again.
I didn’t do any of it because none of it made any sense. She was safe now and Goddard wasn’t going to get anywhere near her again. The guilt that had been eating me alive should have eased, releasing its hold on me, but I was still caught up in the clutches of emotion. There was no reason for me to feel this way, or feel anything other than relief, but I was. I hated that I couldn’t bury those foreign feelings with all the other ones I’d fought to bury over the years.
Instead, I paced back and forth at the end of the bed like a caged animal while Booker showed the doctor out and paid him his fee. When he came back to the bedroom, he had changed out of the long-sleeved black thermal he had worn to the docks into a faded band t-shirt that was torn at the collar and had a hole on the side. Booker was usually dressed to the nines like all the guys on Nassir’s payroll. I couldn’t remember a time when I saw him in anything other than Armani or Tom Ford. Dressed down, with exhaustion and irritation pulling at his normally stony face, he looked more human and a lot older than he typically did. Bullets didn’t stop the man, so most of us believed he was invincible. Apparently not.