Severed Ties by Kayla Nelson

The following is an excerpt from my novel Severed Ties

Chapter One

                Sliding my leather satchel from my shoulder, I left the shop and placed my payment cards in among my other treasures; being careful not to let any of the passers-by see what I was handling. Suddenly, something hard and blunt jabbed into my lower back. I stiffened, and held my breath. “Move,” a man’s voice growled behind me. “Don’t turn around. Walk,” I glanced at my side. My hand hovered by the hilt of my knife held snug in the sheath built into my pant leg. If I can just draw my knife –

“Forget it, boy,” Before I could move, the man’s weathered hand grasped the hilt and drew the knife.  My fingers twitched. “Stay to the side of the road,” he said, “Turn left after that brick building.  Don’t make eye contact.”

Keeping my eyes on the street, I tucked my satchel under my arm and decided to obey. As we walked, I listened to the crunch of gravel under the man’s boots behind me. Men, women and children crowded the street, there was barely enough room to move more than a few feet at a time. It doesn’t matter how fast I move; I can’t out run a bullet. And if I try, there’s no telling who might get hurt. At seventeen, I began working in this area and had quickly learned the rules of the desert; that was almost a year ago and I had never had a man jump me in broad daylight.

“You are going to give me what I want. If you don’t, I’ll kill you.” The man jabbed the object into my back again. The thought of a gun pressed to my spine made me feel cold. Even with my ragged, white-linen cloak and the hot summer dusk, I shivered.

“Who is this guy?” I thought, “What do I have that he might want?”

As we turned the corner, my eyes shifted and I caught a glimpse of my captor. He was easily twice my size, had a sun-burnt face and weathered hands, and he wore a dark grey uniform “A Committee Assassin!” I quickly scanned the front of his shirt. Garnet red stitching of bullets across his chest showed the number of missions he had completed. I looked back at the road; there were at least twenty bullets, possibly more. My mind raced. How did they find me?!

As I continued towards the outskirts of town, the sounds of the market receded behind us, and the streets changed from packed dirt to loose sand. My gaze shifted from the road in front of me to the shadows of the buildings around us; dark lines that resembled prison bars cut across our path.  The buildings were older, constructed of mud-brick instead of the newer cement. As we walked the structures became more and more run down until we reached the outer-edge of the town. A feeling of decay clung to the buildings and alley-ways.

“Keep moving.” He shoved me forward to hide in my blind spot. I swallowed. I’ve got to get out of here before-.

A low hum sounded from above us. I looked up and froze. A police probe at roof level slowly scanned the roof of the buildings around us. A little larger than a basketball and shaped like a flattened submarine, its dull blue casing stood out against the red of the building’s bricks. Inside the rugged, titanium casing housed a collection of scanners, camera’s, recorders, and a specialized gun.  Like the phasers from an old Star Trek episode, it could stun or kill, depending on the situation and who was at the controls, I had seen one before and never wanted to encounter one again.  The probe lowered itself to the second story and scanned the buildings again. Sunburn swore under his breath, grabbed the back of my shirt, and yanked me just inside the narrow doorway of a building on our left. He shoved me against the rotting wooden doorframe and stood behind me, using me as a human shield.  His hot breath plastered my black hair to the back of my neck. The smell of spices and cheap mints assaulted my nose. Together we watched the probe in nervous silence.

Is it searching for him or for me? I tightened my grip on my bag. The probe finished scanning the second story. I could see its lights blinking as it processed the information. Satisfied, it began to lower itself to the first story. It doesn’t matter who it’s after, I gritted my teeth, If it finds us, we’re both in trouble.  I quietly reached into my satchel and felt around. Sunburn seized the back of my neck, pressing my face against the doorframe and speared his gun into my side. “Don’t,” he hissed.

“Relax,” I withdrew my hand so he could see the devise I held. Oblong in shape and small enough to rest in the palm of my hand, the screen displayed a miniature map of the street with the probe marked by a blue dot. I lightly tapped the dot with my thumb. The probe wobbled in the air. I tapped the screen again and swiped my thumb across it. Nothing happened for a moment. And then the probe’s lights blinked again.  It turned and floated down the street, rising to the roofs of the next buildings and continued its search.

Sunburn sighed in relief and released my neck. “Nice work, China-man.” He sneered.

“Japanese,” I muttered. “I’m Japanese-American. Not Chinese.”

“I don’t care.” Sunburn pulled me back out onto the street and pushed me ahead of him, “Where did you get that?”

“Found it.” I slid the remote back into my bag. The bag yanked behind me. I spun around, clutching the leather. Sunburn held the strap and side of my bag. We glared at each other for a minute, his gun a few feet from my chest, my bag dangling between us. “Don’t touch my bag,” I said.

“You won’t need it.”  Sunburn said, “I’ll hold onto it for now.” He pulled again. I dug my nails into the cloth. Sunburn glared, eyes sharp and mean; I forced myself to look at him. “Let go,” he ordered.

I clenched my teeth. What if it goes off? What if he finds it? Slowly, I released my grip. Don’t give him a reason to look and pray it doesn’t ring, I watched Sunburn slid the strap over his shoulder.

Sunburn motioned with his gun. “Move.” I turned and continued down the road.

“The last building on the street,” Sunburn said. I studied the building. Tall and narrow, it appeared to have been a house at one point. Plywood covered most of the windows; black scorch marks served as evidence of a fire years ago.

“Get in.” Sunburn steered me through the narrow doorway. Dust and sand blanketed everything. He pushed me up a flight of stairs. The wooden beams, railings, and baseboards were charred and worn in places. Nails stuck up from the steps where carpets once lay. Once at the top, cold tiles spread out along the floor and a metal door opened into a room. The walls were made of metal sheets that could be easily torn down and taken elsewhere.  An easy way to block the probe scanners.   Footprints ran along the sand coated floor near the wall where people had walked. Those prints are fresh.

From behind a sheet on our left, an array of voices cascaded towards us. Another room? I swallowed. Sunburn pushed me against a wall. “Don’t move.” Then he called over his shoulder, “One of you get in here and help me with this!” There were footsteps and a screeching as the metal door opened. Sunburn tossed my bag to someone out of my line of sight. “See what he’s got.” There was a clatter as my things were dumped onto the floor.

“What do you want?”  My voice did not betray my fear.

“Information.” Said Sunburn, “Who are you? Who do you work for?”

“Around here, I’m Laban.”

“Your name, not your alias!”

So they know about that, I swallowed again, what else do they know? I could hear someone tossing my equipment to one side. I turned my head to look at Sunburn.

“I’m a trader. I work alone.”

“A trader of stolen goods, maybe. We know you’ve been raiding our headquarters for six months straight. Every time a shipment of weapons and explosives is scheduled to arrive, it disappears without a trace; even a load of Temporary Invasive Computers  has gone missing. But no No one can do that without help.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied. “I told you. I found that.”

“Listen here, half-breed.” Sunburn grabbed my shoulder and spun me around so that I was looking into the barrel of his gun. “My orders are really simple.  Get the information. If you co-operate and give us what we want, we might let you live. If you don’t, we’ll kill you. Now which will it be?”

I can’t tell them about Kael. I glanced behind Sunburn.  Another man wearing the uniform of an Assassin rummaged through my bag.   His eyes, dark like a fox’s, sifted through my things with an irritated glare. After examining an item, he tossed it aside.  He felt around the inside of my bag. I hope the stitching holds. The look on Fox-eye’s expression changed from annoyance to curiosity. Darn it!

Sunburn smirked. “Who do you work for?”

“I don’t know his name. We’ve never actually met.” I watched Fox-eyes over Sunburn’s shoulder. He pulled out a stack of papers from inside the lining and flipped through them, scanning the maps, aerial shots, lists of times, dates and passcodes with growing interest.

“How does he contact you?” Sunburn asked. “How do you know about the supply-trains?”

“There’s a drop-point. He leaves the information there, and I do as I’m instructed. I don’t know how he knows about your supply schedules.”

The metal door screeched open and a third guard entered. He wore a dun colored shirt and dark jeans. A side holster held his gun in place. “The kid finally hacked into their computer,” he glanced at me with disinterest. “The lead marauder around here is Kael.”

“Kael?” Sunburn said in surprise, “He’s here?”

The man nodded.

“What’s he doing in this dump?”

“Who knows,” The man said. “But your job just got harder. Lady Dawn wants you to off Kael right after you’re finished with him.” He motioned to me and left.

Sunburn glared at me for a minute. “I think you’re lying. I think you know exactly who it is you work for, and you’re just trying to cover for him.”

I held my tongue to the roof of my mouth.

Fox-eyes started laughing. My stomach somersaulted.

“What’d you find?” Sunburn sidestepped so he could see his friend without turning away from me.

Fox-eyes looked up and grinned. “Well, this explains everything. The kid’s Arashee Hara.” He looked at me. “So Kael found you and convinced you to do his dirty work, did he? Did he tell you what would happen if we caught you?” I did not answer.

Sunburn pressed the gun harder against my temple. “No wonder you didn’t want to give me the bag.”

Getting to his feet, Fox-eyes held up a small photograph. It was the photo of my family. “If you wanted to hide, you shouldn’t have kept this lying around.” He tore the photo in half. I dug my nails into my palm. “So what else is in here?” Fox-eyes dangled the bag in front of me. I remained silent. “Nothing?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter, “Then maybe I should get rid of it. You won’t need it anymore.” He lit the lighter and held the bag over the flame.

“Stop,” my voice wavered, “don’t burn it.”

“Why not?”

I hesitated. “It was my dad’s.”

Sunburn laughed. Fox-eyes snorted in disgust. “Fine. Keep your daddy’s precious bag.” He threw it at me. I caught it. Good, so he didn’t find it.

“Kael can’t be too far away,” Sunburn said, “Are you going to be a good little boy and tell us where he is, or will we have to beat it out of you?”

A computer shrieked in the other room followed by a stream of curses. Sunburn looked at the door, “What was that?!”

I knocked the gun away and sprang at Sunburn. Two punches to the stomach, one to the face; Sunburn hit the floor in less than five seconds. I turned to the second guard. He held a knife as long as my forearm; a red dragon decorated the blade. That’s Dad’s tanto! Fox-eyes swung it at me. I caught his wrist and jerked him to the floor, stomping on his shoulder. He yelled and released the tanto. An elbow to the back of his neck left him dazed.

I seized the dragon tanto’s sheath and ripped it from his belt. Scooping up the knife and the torn photo, I sprinted for the stairs. Gun shots; pain blazed through my arm. Tucking my head I rolled down the stairs. Once at the bottom, I scrambled to my feet and ran for the door. Men shouted behind me. There was another barrage of gunfire. I charged out the door and onto the street, racing back towards the marketplace. More shouts; more gunfire. An alley appeared on my right; I slid into it, keeping close to the buildings for cover.

The alley turned a corner. Hurtling around it, I skidded to a stop. A large fence blocked the alleyway. “I can make that,” I panted. Sheathing the tanto, I, quickly calculated the height of my jump and backed up.

“He’s over there!”

I surged forward, gaining speed as I neared the fence. Now! I jumped. Grabbing the top of the fence, I heaved myself over. The alley continued for a few more feet before connecting with another street. I stopped to listen.  Faint voices and music drifted along the street.  Sprinting, I followed the sounds back to the market.

The crowds were thick, shoppers moved from one kiosk to another, bartering with the owners over the price of their items. I moved quickly through the crowds. Even with my sun-tanned skin, I was much lighter in color than anyone else. A fact I often dreaded. My apartment overlooked the market along the harbor. Reaching my door, I hastily unlocked it, slipped inside and closed the door, locked it and placed the bolt.

Calm down, I told myself, Calm down and think. They know about you, and they know about Kael. They’ll come looking for you soon. You have to get out of here before they find you. I peered through the peep-hole into the street. I did not see any of the guards. Good, I lost them.

A hand gripped my shoulder. “There you are.”

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