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Authors: Joe Hart

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The Final Trade

BOOK: The Final Trade
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The River Is Dark

The Waiting

Widow Town

Cruel World

The Last Girl

The Night Is Deep


Leave the Living

The Exorcism of Sara May


Midnight Paths: A Collection of Dark Horror


“The Line Unseen”

“The Edge of Life”


“And The Sea Called Her Name”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 Joe Hart

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503936799

ISBN-10: 1503936791

Cover design by M.S. Corley

To my son, who reminds me daily to never give up.

Righteous fire burns both the wicked and the innocent.


BEFORE . . .

She ran with the newborn pressed tightly against her chest as another explosion roared somewhere behind her.

The ground, muddy from days of rain, yielded to each of her steps, slowing her, holding her back as she struggled to distance herself from the onslaught of whining bullets and the screams of the dying. A plane streaked overhead close enough to make her eardrums flutter, and she ducked involuntarily, shielding the child with her body.

Her feet slipped in the mud and she began to fall, but a strong hand caught her. She looked into the face of the man beside her, eyes steady and unwavering as his grip.

“Come on!” he shouted over another blast of explosives. “We have to get over the hill!”

They ran.

A stray bullet zipped past, tugging up a spray of mud and water only feet to their left.

The baby began to cry.

The sound of a helicopter carried over the tumult but she couldn’t make out from which direction it came. Hard to think. Impossible to decide what to do. There was only the baby along with the fear and weakness invading her body.

They reached the crest of the hill and paused, the man glancing back the way they’d come. He’d lost his gun somewhere during their flight, and now he had only the knife on his hip for protection. Not enough if they were cornered. Through the rolling smoke, the outline of a building emerged.

He gripped her arm harder and turned toward the structure. “Inside.”

The building’s south wall was partially blown away, an errant bomb having carved steel and concrete so that the fighting was clearly visible from this higher vantage point. They moved past a twisted mass of smoldering iron that might’ve once been a truck and found an alcove of reinforced concrete block.

She slid down against the wall, legs finally giving out. The baby let out another stuttering cry as heavy artillery pounded out a cadence of death across the plain. The man stood watching at the gap in the wall, his back heaving.

“We can’t stay here,” he said.

“I know, but I have to rest,” she said, rocking from side to side. The infant’s cries became more muted, less frequent. “You’re okay,” she whispered. “You’re safe.”

The man came away from the hole in the wall and sat beside them, his callused hand brushing so gently at the top of the baby’s head.

“They’ll try to take her if they find us,” she said, looking into his sweat- and soot-smeared face.

“They won’t find us. We’re going to be okay.”

The woman looked down at the child, still rocking her. She was nearly asleep, tiny eyelids halfway closed.

“We’ll never let you go, Zoey. Never,” she whispered, as the fighting raged on outside their sanctuary.

AFTER . . .



Zoey’s feet dig hard into the loose silt and rock of the rising embankment a hundred feet above the highway. The sun is a bright disc behind a voluminous cloudbank coasting across the sky, shoved by a wind that tastes of dust as she sprints upward.


The man above her throws a look over his shoulder, eyes going wide at seeing that she’s gained on him. He’s dressed in dingy work pants and a faded red vest that flaps behind him like bloody wings. His hair is shaggy and dark, hanging down nearly to his shoulders. Zoey can smell him, smell the panic in his sweat, and she knows he’s out of ammunition and time.

He reaches the summit of the sloping canyon wall and doesn’t look back again as he disappears over the ridge of red, shattered rock. Zoey is barely winded as she scrambles up the last dozen feet and leaps onto the shelf. Merrill yells something from far below, but she doesn’t stop to listen. She knows he’s telling her to wait.

She grits her teeth. It would be easy to kill the spy, so simple to pull the trigger, but he might be able to tell them something useful. So instead she chases, waiting for the right time to strike.

The man scrambles up and over the top of the rise, layered in wide steps of blasted rock, as Zoey climbs into view.

Their eyes meet and then he is running again, parallel to the slope now.

Zoey zigs to the side, holstering the nine-millimeter Heckler & Koch handgun. She’s so familiar with the weapon now, she doesn’t need to look at the pressure holster to know it’s secure. Her legs burn but feel strong. They’re no longer weak and wasted as they were four months ago when she took her first unassisted steps. Weeks upon weeks of rehabilitation and strength training have brought them back to a lean and muscular state, and the rest of her body has followed suit.

She has never been this powerful. Never this fast.

The man eyes her again as she comes even with him on the lower stepped level. Without slowing he bends, snags a fist-sized rock and spins, hurling it at her head.

Zoey ducks, the rock snagging a tuft of hair from her ponytail before it falls out of sight.

He dodges left behind a monolithic boulder that’s eroding at a ninety-degree angle. She takes the opportunity to leap up, thrusting herself with one hand, onto the next step.

Whipping the gun out of its holster, she covers the rock, moving around its opposite side. He isn’t waiting for her as she’d hoped. A shadow flows across the rock beside her and she flinches, thinking somehow he’s flanked her. But it is only a buzzard coasting high overhead, ragged wings motionless, riding the air currents.

Rocks clack together beyond the boulder and she moves forward, feet finding solid footholds as she descends.

The opposite side of the bluff is as sheer as its front is sloped. Here is the evidence of violent change done by millennia of ice that once moved through the area. The rock drops away in a dizzying openness for hundreds of feet before rolling out to a sandy floor strewn with fallen chunks of stone.

Her quarry runs along the edge toward a gap between their bluff and the next. Beyond that the upthrust stone gradually slants back into the desert like a spine into malnourished flesh. She follows, wind tearing at her like an enemy.

The man doesn’t slow as he reaches the gap.

Zoey can see it’s too wide. He’ll never make it. She curses and skids to a stop, raising the gun.

Takes a second to breathe.

Kill him.

She starts to squeeze the trigger.

Her aim comes up. Centers on his back.

The gunshot shocks her and for a moment she thinks she’s fired, that she’s given in to the impulse to simply end him. But in that split second, she realizes she’s taken her finger off the trigger.

One of the others.

The bullet hits his right hamstring as he begins his leap.

He pitches headfirst into the gully, a scream trailing up through the dry air for a moment before silence rushes back in. She curses and hurries to the edge.

The NOA spy lies on his back twenty feet below in a narrow ravine of broken slate. He stares up at her, blood coating his lips and staining the rock around his leg. Zoey glances around the drop, calculating quickly. Holsters the gun, then jumps.

She hits the first outcropping eight feet down on the opposite side of the gap and springs from it immediately, landing on another jutting lip of stone that breaks off. She falls the last ten feet to where the man lies.

When she meets the ground all feeling goes out of her legs.

Her knees fold and she crumples to all fours, gravel biting through her pants. Dust puffs into her face, blinding, choking. She gasps.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. All that work and now you’ve ruined yourself again.
She tries to rotate her ankles and after a terrifying moment of zero response, her feet begin to move.

Slowly the feeling returns, first in her lower back, then in her thighs, and finally her toes. It seeps in like warm water in a cold bath, and she grits her teeth, wobbling upright.

The man coughs out a mouthful of crimson, and she stumbles to his side, ripping the belt from around her waist. Arterial blood jets from a ragged exit wound on the front of his thigh. He coughs again except this time she realizes he’s laughing.

“Was it worth it, bitch?” he breathes. “Hope so.”

“You’re going to make it worth it,” Zoey says, snugging the belt around his thigh above the wound. She cinches it tight and the man grunts with pain, eyes going blank for a beat before his breath wheezes out. The flow diminishes.

“Where were you coming from?” she asks. When he only smiles at her, she picks up a long, thin piece of slate, and before she can stop herself, jams it into his wound. The man bellows.

“Town called Hellings,” he sputters, and she pulls the rock out of his leg. He blinks rapidly and she knows there isn’t much time.

“What were you doing there?”

“Looking for you. Looking for more women.”

“Did you find any?”

“No. Between NOA and the Fae Trade they’re pretty scarce.”

Zoey clenches her teeth and resists stabbing him with the slate again.
Fae Trade.
The name never ceases to make her stomach turn. A traveling auction dealing in slaves, both women and men. Somewhere on the other side of the V between the two bluffs, Merrill is yelling her name, coming closer. “Records of the women that were held at the ARC, they have all of their history, right?”


“Like family, where NOA took them from, where they lived before that?”


“Where are the records?”

“Secure. In the ARC.” He smiles again and she does stab him this time. His scream is choked, as though he’s gargling glass.

“Are there copies anywhere else?”

He closes his eyes for a long time until Zoey slaps him awake. There is a soft gurgle in his chest and above it comes the sound of footsteps approaching the gap in the rock nearby. “Copies,” Zoey says again. “Are there any outside of the ARC?”



“Zoey,” Merrill says, climbing through the space between the two bluffs. Behind him are Tia and Eli, guns drawn and ready.

“Where are they?” she asks the man again.

He sputters, blood foaming on his lips. “Riverbend. Missile,” he manages before his eyelids flutter and close. Zoey tries to shake him awake but he’s out.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Merrill asks, stopping on the opposite side of the spy’s body. Merrill’s right pant leg is hiked up, caught on the head of a small bolt protruding from the shiny aluminum of the prosthetic leg that extends from his knee.

“He was going to get away.”

“We could have headed him off. The four of us. It’s a good thing Eli hit him. You could’ve gotten yourself killed.”

“I didn’t.”

“But he’s dead. And that does us zero good,” Tia says, spitting beside the man’s head.

“No he’s not. Not yet.”

She looks up at them. Tia meets her gaze and frowns, while Eli stares down at the bloody ground.

Merrill sighs and shifts on the slate. “Did you get anything out of him?”

“They’re looking for me. When I asked him if copies of the women’s information were stored anywhere else he said ‘riverbend missile.’ Does that mean anything to you guys?”

Eli and Tia shake their heads, but Merrill’s gaze is steady on her. “Riverbend was a government missile installation in southern Idaho. Friends of mine did some training there when we were in the army.”

Zoey stands. The records are what she’s longed for, some link to her past, something to tether her to who she really is. And she’s wanted it not only for herself, but for Rita and Sherell and all the girls she couldn’t save. “You know where it is?”

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean he’s telling the truth.”

“He wasn’t lying.”

“Regardless,” Eli says, “we should get going. We’re only sixty miles south of the ARC and they have at least one helicopter up and running. They could be here in a few minutes if that truck he and his friends were driving had a tracking device on it.”

The man groans quietly as his eyes come half open. One arm rakes the ground weakly.

“We can’t take him with us,” Tia says.

“No, we can’t.” Merrill seems to grapple with something, then glances at Zoey. “Go ahead out to the road.” He draws his handgun. “I’ll be there in a second.”

Zoey puts a hand on his arm recalling the lack of remorse in the man’s eyes. “You don’t have to.” She crouches beside the spy. “Can you hear me?” After a long moment he nods. “You’re bleeding internally and it looks like your leg’s broken. When you’re ready, take that tourniquet off.”

She stands and walks with the rest of the group in the direction of the vehicle, and she doesn’t look back when the man’s pleading voice echoes out of the canyon.

BOOK: The Final Trade
12.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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