The city basked in the gloom on the morning of Abundance. Vendors were still setting up after three hours of their arrival, and by the looks of it, there were many pretty things to be claimed by the common thief. That said, today was my lucky day.
I assessed the scene before me, and grew more confident in my future heist. If it weren’t for the humidity, the high temperature, and the constant rain we’ve been having as of late, I would not have taken the chance. The guards, however, were weak and weary, and there weren’t many people out this early in the day. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. What was even more exceptional was the fact that these fools had no idea how much their loot was worth. Years of working in my trade provided me with the knowledge suitable for making a living off petty thievery. For one thing, I knew how important it was to have many outlets, or fences, to buy, sell, and trade stolen goods. It was also important to be aware of everyone around you. For instance, the man across the city square caught my eye. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his sleek, black jacket, and with a calm yet unsettling gaze, he watched me. My palms broke out in a thin film of perspiration as his piercing eyes cut through me like a white-hot blade into cheese. I forced myself to look away, cursing under my breath. Of course, just when everything had seemed so perfect, there had to be something to screw it all up.
Even though the fun had not yet begun, I decided it was time to leave, assuring myself that Abundance was a week-long event and that it would be wiser to exercise patience that grant myself instant gratification. With measured speed, I gathered myself and stood from my perch on the edge of the bank’s steps. Then, with no sudden movements, I ambled down the pavement with my hands in my pockets, kicking at pebbles so as not to raise any suspicion. As I turned a corner down Pickering Street, I saw more people come out of their houses, making their way along to the sidewalk where treasures awaited them—treasures I would be deprived of. With that man out there staring at me like that, it was going to be nearly impossible to carry out my plan. I could be paranoid, but with matters like this, it was best to be on the safe side. If I were to be caught in front of the masses, I would need to run away again, and that was something I was not willing to do.
With itching palms, I kept my head down as I walked in the opposite direction of the crowd, scuffing my boots on the pavement in spite of my sudden somber mood. By assumption, I guessed that, whoever that man was, he had to have been undercover officer. He was tall, built, and inconspicuous. Tricky, too. I hadn’t seen him until the last minute, which was strange for me, considering I had held a sharp eye for those things. How had he dodged my senses? I ended up wondering too deeply on the matter—so deeply that I was caught completely off guard.
A pair of footsteps fell softly behind me. From what I could tell, it was a man of exceptional agility skills, but I couldn’t be sure until I took a quick peek over my shoulder. When I did, I grit my teeth and faced forward again. It was him, the undercover officer. He looked bigger up close, but I, of course, was naturally short. If I could build up enough adrenaline, though, I could probably cripple him to make a speedy escape. As I contemplated this, I flinched as a hefty raindrop splattered on the bridge of my nose. Like opening a floodgate, several other drops followed after, painting the ground a darker color than normal. Usually I enjoyed the rain, but in these circumstances, it made it nearly impossible to listen to the sound of his footsteps, which in turn diminished my ability to estimate how close he was.
Wyler Road came into view after a few minutes of mindlessly walking through the neighborhood, and at the sight of it, the tension in my chest eased. Living in this city was like living in a pattern-based maze. Knowing this, I could rely on the fact that after this turn around the corner, an alleyway would be there waiting for me. Sure enough, as I turned sharply down the road, a gap small enough to be ignored by a regular passerby, and suddenly it became as vital to me on this planet as the air I breathed. I ducked inside and waited for him to pass. If he so much as hesitated by the opening, I would take him down, no matter the cost. I braced myself as several seconds slowly faded away. I waited a full minute before I took the chance and glanced down the street I had come from. To my utter surprise, there was no one there—not a single soul to be seen.
I took several deep breaths to calm myself, and the second my heartbeat returned to normal, someone grabbed my upper arm firmly, pulling me back into the shadows. My back hit the solid frame of a body, and I had no doubt to believe it was the man from the market. I felt the warmth of his breath in my ear as he leaned down and said to me in a low tone, “Don’t move, don’t scream, and don’t try to run. If you do so, I’m afraid you’ll have drawn your last breath. Am I clear?”
A horrible shudder racked my body at the sound of his strangely dark, accented voice. Without any hesitation, I elbowed him in the gut and flung my head back into his nose as hard as I could. The moment his grip loosened on me, I broke into a sprint down the street. I ran—faster than I had ever run before. Looking back wasn’t even necessary at this point, for I knew he was already tailing close behind me. I didn’t know where to go, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan. All I knew was that I needed to get away.
He grunted over the sound of the heavy rain as his foot kicked the back of my knee. My leg buckled from underneath me as I fell forwards, smashing my head into the sidewalk. For a moment, my vision flickered out like a candle. When I regained my wits, everything was out of focus. He fisted his hand in my hair as he drug me through puddles and mud to another nearby alley. I tried to scream, but it only made my head hurt worse.
Shrouded by darkness, he lifted me up and threw me against the side of the building so that I faced him. My vision was still spotted from the fall, but I could make out his clear, aqua-blue eyes. His grip on my wrists hurt as he tightened his long, ghostly fingers around them, rendering me powerless. For a fleeting moment, I accepted my fate.
“I told you not to run,” he said in his alien accent. “I even told you there would be consequences if you did. Yet here we are after a quick, and despicably easy, chase. How tedious.”
As I struggled to slow my breathing, I noted that his comment was a strange, unprofessional thing for an officer to say. I gave him a once over before meeting his cold, guarded gaze again. My eyes struggled to stay open as another wave of excruciating pain echoed inside my head.
“Listen to me very carefully,” he said, now barely loud enough to hear over the storm. “You’re going to provide sanctuary for me. There will be no resistance. There will be no fighting, manipulating, lying, or anything of the sort, for they will only prove as petty attempts at avoiding the inevitable. Is that understood?”
I don’t know what possessed me to nod my head in agreement, but I did. Maybe it was because I was slowly slipping into unconsciousness and wasn’t thinking straight, or maybe it was the authority in his voice that kept me from saying otherwise. Either way, my compliance pleased him as he smirked with twisted satisfaction. He was clearly no officer. In fact, I had every reason to believe he was a fugitive like me. Who else would ask a homeless person for sanctuary? A lunatic, I thought, or worse...
At that thought, I began to struggle against him, my old, worn out boots slipping on the cobblestone helplessly. I never did get a good grip on myself before he pushed me harder into the wall. I gasped when my feet dangled lifelessly a couple feet above the ground. Still, I could feel some fight left in me and I used my last bit of strength to kick at his shins. It only made my situation worse. He responded by pulling back one of my fingers and started twisting.
“You will cooperate,” he growled as I choked out an agonized cry. “There will be no warning next time. If you do not—”
“Okay, okay,” I said quickly, tears now blurring my vision. “Please stop!”
“Now, do I have your full attention?” he asked, subtly arching a brow.
“Jianna!” I blurted.
I sighed in relief when he released my finger.
“What?” he spat, his face contorting with confusion.
Before explaining, I took a deep breath and said, “My name is Jianna.”
He blinked, staring at me as if he were waiting for an explanation.
“No one knows my name,” I continued, still hanging from his grasp. “Not here, anyway. But if you talk to the right people, my name can be used against me. If I don’t comply with what you ask of me, you can use my name. In return, I ask that, so long as I uphold my end of the bargain, you will not harm me in any way.”
It was cowardly thing to say, but I didn’t care. He arched his brow at me.
“This is pointless seeing as you will be helping me no matter the cost.”
“Yes,” I replied for the sake of agreeing, “but I won’t struggle. I won’t try to anything so long as you don’t hurt me.”
He chuckled deviously. “And what exactly will you do if I harm you anyway?”
I hadn’t anticipated that response. Hell, I hadn’t even planned to say anything at all, much less my name, but I did. Whoever he was, he was dangerous. At this point, I was almost willing to say anything in order to save myself.
“You won’t,” I said.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because you would have proven otherwise by now to make a point.”
“Hmm,” he hummed. “Not necessarily. I could still break every bone in your body if I wanted to—right here, right now.”
I swallowed hard as I watched his pupils dilate as he spoke.
“I’ll kill you before you even lay a hand on me,” I said, though I didn’t sound so confident.
He laughed. “You’re already in a hopeless situation. However, you are correct. If I cripple you now, how will you show me to your little hideout?” That relieved some of the tension in my stomach, but not much. “I will obey your conditions so long as you are willing to uphold mine. But you should know that I do not need your name to make you keep your promises. I alone will be the worst thing that has ever happened to you should you fail to uphold your end of the bargain.”
I almost wanted to laugh—and I would have had he been anyone else. Seeing as he literally had me backed in a corner, I couldn’t do much to defend myself. It was hardly a bargain if he couldn’t be punished for breaking his end of the deal. Who was he anyway, and what made him think he was so invincible? Surely, I had the right to say no…right?
“Do we have a deal?” he said.
“Yes or no?”
Idiotically, I nodded my head.
“Good,” he purred. “Now, if you don’t mind…show me only your greatest hospitality, and lead the way.”