Dangerous Connections – Sidney Bristol

Wednesday. Hotel, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Silas Herrera was never doing anyone another favor for as long as he lived. Hell, he should have learned his lesson after the last favor he’d done for his best friend had them tromping through hip high savanna grass hunting people that liked to shoot at other people. This time he was learning that lesson. This was a mistake he would not repeat. Ever. No. More. Favors. He scrubbed a hand over his face. At least this job was simply tedious. There were small things to be thankful for. No one shot at them. He got to stay in nice hotels.

Nothing exploded. His meals had been decent. There hadn’t been any deaths. Though he was about ready for a change of pace. If he had to watch one more emergency make-up situation, he might just stab his own eyes out. He glanced at his watch again. If his asset waited much longer, he’d have to insist she hold tight while he scouted the route to the meeting room again. Did he dare tell her to get her ass in gear? Not in those words. Silas cleared his throat and took a calming breath. Only then did he dare speak to her.

“Are you ready to go?” “Not… quite… yet…” Her voice was sensual and throaty, the sound amplified by the tile bathroom. No doubt she was doing some last minute touch-ups to her already perfect face. Silas leaned against the entry and grit his teeth. Deep breath. Just a few more days. This job wasn’t that bad. It really wasn’t the asset. Sure, she could be difficult, but all people were. The problem was him and he knew it. Silas had been off-balance ever since the South Africa trip last summer.

His best friend and partner had fallen head over heels in love with a prickly bridesmaid and left Silas in the dust. Sure, they still worked together and rented a room in the same house and nothing would change the fact that they had a friendship forged through trials many hadn’t survived. But they weren’t walking this new path together. For the first time since Silas’ divorce and joining the Marines he was alone and he didn’t like it. “There.” The woman’s voice broke into the moment, rescuing him from his thoughts. “About damn time,” he muttered under his breath, then mentally kicked himself. Normally he held his tongue in the field, but this woman got under his skin. Ekko Kaur stepped out of the bathroom, tossed her silky, blue-black hair over one shoulder and posed with one hand on her hip. She locked eyes with him and smiled.

Today’s outfit was another skin-tight tank top with some brand name plastered over her chest. The same brand name was printed on one thigh of her yoga-style pants that molded to her toned legs. Add to that the picture perfect face and boobs he’d gladly let suffocate him, and she living proof she as doing her job well. She was a walking, talking billboard. Five days ago that smile had just about cut him off at the knees, stolen his breath and made him want to worship her. Too bad he’d gotten to know the woman under the shiny veneer. Sometimes it didn’t matter how good the packaging looked, the insides were simply rotten. “All set,” she announced. “You know, it’s totally unnecessary to escort me around the hotel?” “We all have our job to do, ma’am.” He drawled his words, drawing on his Texas roots.

Ekko’s eyes narrowed slightly. Either she didn’t like her implied command ignored or being called ma’am. He hadn’t puzzled it out yet. Silas turned away from the beautiful woman and opened the suite door. He’d feel better if he could scout their path once more, but he didn’t think she’d stay put and wait for him. The hall was empty save for a trio of people he knew to be part of the United Nations team. They were likely headed to the same place as Ekko. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder. Ekko sighed and he knew she rolled her eyes, but she wanted in front of the cameras more than she wanted to annoy him. He pulled her room door shut then tried the lock to ensure it was secure.

Satisfied they were leaving things as safe as he could they set off for the elevators. “You know people are starting to talk about you?” Ekko fell into step beside him. Silas didn’t acknowledge her words. He was too busy paying attention to the hall, the sounds from the rooms. Just because the job had been easy didn’t mean it would continue to be so. He was there for a reason after all. She sighed heavily again. “Are you going to pull that stick out of your ass and actually have fun?” Then what would you have to look at? Silas bit his tongue. Normally he didn’t have such a difficult time with people. He’d actually prided himself on being easy to get along with, charming even.

And then he’d met her. It had been abundantly clear to him from the moment he met her that Ekko did not want a bodyguard. Maybe if she’d been more flexible this working relationship wouldn’t have soured quite so fast. But it had and now they alternated who was annoying who any given moment. Yeah, he was done doing favors. They reached the elevator landing and he pressed the button then turned to stare behind them. “You do not have to be my constant shadow all the time.” Ekko pulled her phone out of a slim pocket on her thigh. Was she going to start her broadcast right here? God, he hoped not. “Just doing my job, ma’am.

” This time she spared him a momentary glare. Was it the ma’am? The elevator dinged. Silas’ hand was at his hip before the doors slid open. “Keep protecting me from nothing.” Ekko sauntered into the empty elevator and jabbed the button for the first floor. Silas held his tongue and followed her in. Neither spoke during the short descent. With luck she was done needling him for the evening. By the time she finished in the main hall she’d be too tired to spare him more than a few words before falling into bed. Or so he hoped.

She could always surprise him. The lower floors of the old hotel clung to the grandeur in which it had been built. There were polished marble floors, gold gilding on the walls, oil paintings. Everything he could have wanted from a European hotel. Except they weren’t in Europe. Being in the Marines and then working with Aegis Group took him all over the globe. Still, there were places he hadn’t expected he’d get to see. Mongolia was the top of that list. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected of the hotel, but opulence hadn’t been it. Ekko strode along, forcing Silas to match her pace.

She wasn’t a tall woman, but those little legs of hers carried her along quickly. He grit his teeth and did his best to watch for threats from all sides. Privately he thought Ekko was really only in danger when it came to internet trolls, but he wasn’t about to slack on the job. A pair of hotel security guards posted at the main hall eyed them. Silas produced their credentials and glanced over his shoulder at the hotel patrons. No red flags yet. Could this job really be this easy? They were admitted to the hall without further inquiry. No pat downs. Nothing more than a glance at some paper. Silas ushered Ekko through the doors and into the event space.

It had been transformed from a banquet type area. Tape sectioned off areas, allotting each news crew an equal amount of floor space while also leaving some room for onlookers. “Try to have some fun,” Ekko said over her shoulder. She hadn’t gone ten feet before a journalist swooped in. The man said something that had Ekko tossing her head back in laughter. It had that fake, plastic sound to it. Silas shook his head. Hardly anything about the woman was authentic. Her eyes sparkled and she tilted her head, every bit of her attention on the man guiding her toward the cameras and lights, but even that was an act. Silas edged along the wall, keeping her in sight.

He didn’t want to get in the way, but this was his job. He’d never heard of Ekko Kaur before his boss’ wife had mentioned her. She was some sort of internet video game celebrity. One of the reasons Silas had been their pick for this job was because he never put much stock in famous people. They were just people after all. Ekko didn’t seem to know that though. The moment he’d laid eyes on her he’d been momentarily taken with her beauty. She had the caramel skin tones unique to the mixed ethnicity common in her home country of Dauria. Her eyes were large and a bit almond shaped. With the colored contacts she favored she almost looked like a cartoon character.

One of those anime girls or whatever they were called. If she wasn’t nearly so full of herself, he might call her beautiful, but the way she walked around with her nose in the air and always in front of a camera really put him off. She couldn’t even pause her non-stop live streaming to meet him or act like she cared if she had a bodyguard. Hell, Silas was half certain Ekko didn’t actually want him there. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the people behind her sponsors were the driving force for his presence. Silas crossed his arms over his chest and frowned around the room. The space had seemed large when they were shown to it late last night, but now there were five different news sets and an area for crew to lounge. Since there wasn’t much to do around the hotel most of the United Nations team was there, too. And almost all of them were watching Ekko. At this rate Silas’ job would be more about scaring off the love struck guys than anything else.

The whole job was strange. Though in the beginning when Zain had called him into their new, temporary offices it had sounded fairly normal. There was a woman traveling to an area where she might be threatened because of her notoriety. Obviously she needed a bodyguard. But Zain always did know how to present a job in the best way possible. Silas should have known that having the boss’ wife there was significant but truth was they were all still reeling from the attack on their offices to begin with. He’d been unprepared for the job pitch. At least Zain had been up front that this was a favor to Andrea, his wife, and the video game company she worked for. Andrea was one of the lead programmers for the Drudge video games. Drudge was one of the most popular, multi-platform video games on the market.

Even Silas had played it. And Ekko Kaur was a prominent on-line celebrity connected to the game. The way Silas understood it, people subscribed to Ekko’s on-line accounts to watch her play and talk about the games. She was even a sponsored celebrity with endorsements from the game, her computer manufacturer, even down to the make-up and clothes she wore while on camera. And so far it seemed like she lived on camera. If they weren’t in the air, she found something to talk about, be it to her phone that posted to her own channels, or discussing the trip with one of the news crews accompanying the team. The only reason why Ekko would need a bodyguard to begin with that made sense had to tie back to why they were accompanying the United Nations team to the border of Dauria. According to Ekko’s file she and her family had fled Dauria years ago. And who could blame them? Everything Silas had heard made it seem like a circle of hell. Tucked between Russia, Mongolia and China, Daria was a small, land-locked country that barely registered with most people.

Silas knew about it, but only because of Dauria’s close relationship with China and to a lesser extent Russia. It was well believed that many people disappeared into Dauria and were never seen again. If people thought the Chinese had an iron grip on their people, they had nothing on the so-called President of Dauria. The man had been in power since his mid-thirties and had to be pushing nearly seventy now. The only reason most people were unaware of Dauria was because the country had a relatively weak military. Otherwise they’d be another North Korea with the way the government tried to control its people. There might as well be a ten mile high wall all the way around the small country. Nothing went in or out that wasn’t approved, be it movies, books, and don’t even get started on the internet. And now Dauria wanted a seat at the United Nations. With both China and Russia backing them, they had a better chance than Silas wanted to admit of making that happen.

Silas had listened to Ekko talk at the cameras enough to understand that she was against any kind of international support for Dauria. It was the one thing she’d said they could agree on. Too bad she seemed to be here for the sole purpose of self-promotion. After they went to the border and the United Nations team went in to do a tour of the country’s interior he had no doubt she’d be camped out in front of whatever camera would point her way. He wasn’t looking forward to that week. If he was lucky, she’d get bored and want to go home. Too bad his luck was shit lately. He grimaced and glanced around the room. Nearly every man was staring at Ekko. And why not? She was a beautiful woman.

If only the insides matched the outside. WEDNESDAY. HOTEL, ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia. Ekko’s face hurt from smiling and she was fairly certain she could taste the journalist’s cologne. She was so ready to be done with this and back home. Being on camera and talking to her regular viewers was nothing like this circus. But if she wanted to stay alive, the best thing for her to do was make sure the cameras were rolling. She was playing with her life being this close to Dauria. Dauria was a messed up hell hole hiding behind a curtain of national pride. She was eternally grateful her parents had made it out and that they’d enjoyed freedoms the people of Dauria didn’t dare dream about.

“And that’s a wrap.” The journalist on Ekko’s left turned toward her. His gaze dipped to her chest. Normally she only wore tops that came up to her collarbone for this reason. She ground her teeth together, hating the need to put up with this. Now, where was that bodyguard of hers? Was it too much to ask that the man stop watching her for thirty seconds? The journalist leaned toward her, his messy blond hair falling forward over his brow. “You doing anything after this? Want to grab a drink?” She considered the offer for a moment. Ever since she’d woken up that morning she’d tried to slip away from Silas. The man might as well be glued to her. Was there any chance she could use this offer of a drink to lose her bodyguard? No, Silas would plant himself one stool over and glare at anyone who came near her.

Ekko hated how much she liked having Silas close to her. He had the scary guy glare down and he just seemed so capable. There was no way a DSS agent could get close to her with him watching. On the other hand, she couldn’t exactly sneak around with him always on her tail and she had things to do. The journalist leaned in closer. “What do you say?” She caught sight of Silas. His head was turned as he spoke to one of the hotel security guards. This might be her only shot. “Sorry, can’t. Almost time to stream for my regulars.

” She wiggled her fingers and hopped off the tall chair. Ekko darted between people, aiming for the thickest knots to slip around. Her scalp tingled and she held her breath as the red Exit sign drew her forward. Had he seen her? Was he following? She glanced over her shoulder, taking in the familiar faces she’d been traveling with for the last five days. Silas was nowhere to be seen. Ekko darted out a narrow door into a hall. Across from her the kitchens sat empty and dark, save for the red sign beckoning her onward. Except she couldn’t run out wearing her branded streaming gear. She’d stick out, and if anyone was trying to get to her, she’d make an easy target. She tiptoed into the kitchen, peering around for something she could wear.

A few pegs were mounted on the wall in one corner. There were three jackets, a few hats and other odds and ends. It would have to do. She picked the bulkiest coat then slid a knit hat over hear head. With luck she’d be hard to pick out as female much less identify herself so long as she kept her hair covered. Satisfied with her makeshift disguise she headed toward the real exit. She placed her hand on the door and spared one last glance behind her at the hall. No Silas. Every now and then she got lucky. Real lucky.

That luck wouldn’t hold if she kept standing here waiting for Silas to come find her. She ducked out of the door and pushed it shut behind her. No need to leave a trail. Her heart beat a little faster. The cool evening air seeped into her. The aroma of onions followed her and she wasn’t sure if it was the jacket or the hat. She licked her lips and glanced around. Despite telling herself she didn’t need Silas she felt exposed without her shadow. Logically it didn’t make sense that someone would be watching her. This exit wasn’t planned, she’d just taken the first opportunity that came her way to get out.

That knowledge did nothing for the itch between her shoulder blades. “The faster I get this done the faster I’ll be back inside,” she muttered to herself. She plunged her hands into the coat pockets, hunched her shoulders and headed toward the main street. The initial plan she’d made for today had been amended the moment Silas became a factor. She couldn’t exactly pick up forged documents with a bodyguard trailing along behind her. If she’d hired him, it would be one thing, but she couldn’t risk Silas telling anyone what she was doing. At least not until it was done. One whisper to the wrong person and— No. She couldn’t think about that. It wasn’t going to happen.

Ekko paused at the corner, peering up and down the street. There was plenty of foot traffic. She’d blend right in. Here goes… Ekko turned and began walking with the flow of people to the corner light. It was a pity she wasn’t going to get to see much of the city or the country on this trip. She knew it wasn’t safe and a part of her hated that fact. Just because her family had made it out of Dauria didn’t mean they were truly free. They never would be. Not until there was a complete regime change. Not until everyone was free.

And there was a good chance that wouldn’t happen during her lifetime. Her spine straightened and she felt her resolve click into place. Growing up she’d been aware of the mark on their lives, but she’d lived in blissful ignorance up until the day her brother was executed. That was when she woke up to the reality of this world. Freedom wasn’t really free and there were always strings. The walk light flashed. She stepped off the curb and headed toward the park that stretched along the road. Brick and wrought iron formed a fence around the lush greenery. She’d requested her room specifically so she could study the park from her fifth-floor window. In her mind she knew the best route in and out.

Just to be safe she went up the eastern side to an entrance. The park was well-tended. The lawns looked more like a plush carpet than grass. There were topiaries trimmed into fanciful animals. Lights lit the main paths and more were strung up in trees. Crowded and well-lit. That was about as safe as Ekko was going to get. At the center of the park was a fountain. Around that were two street cafes, some shops and a carousel. She’d only seen pictures and a short video someone had posted online, but it had been enough so she could move with confidence toward the drop site.

Every dozen or so yards she glanced over her shoulder, but no one stuck out to her and she didn’t see Silas. The man was going to be unbearable when she returned to the hotel. Chances were he knew she was gone already. Invisible fingers trailed across her shoulder. She shivered and hugged the coat around her tighter. After this she’d very likely welcome Silas’ constant shadowing. Ekko finally reached the center of the park. Ideally this would have been done on a Friday or Saturday night so there were lots of people there. She’d take the fifty or so couples and groups milling around enjoying the cool evening. She scanned the area.

Her package should be left in a potted topiary to one side of the café cart. There. In movies, the dashing spy was always confident. She was just a normal girl in an extraordinary circumstance. There wasn’t inherently anything dangerous in what she was about to do. Simply picking up a package left for her by an acquaintance. What she intended to do with that package, however, could be called criminal or heroic depending on the perspective. Ekko swallowed down her nerves and skirted the fountain headed toward the cart with its topiary decorations. There was no way for Ekko to avoid being on the Daurian Special Service’s radar. The covert department monitored everything said about the country and the movements of the former nationals.

It was the DSS who’d pulled strings and forced her parents to change professions once they’d escaped. The DSS had even tried to get Ekko’s gaming streams shut down, but thankfully her platforms didn’t rely on the support of Daurian allies, namely China and Russia. In that regard she was lucky. Many who’d fled hadn’t been as lucky, and like her parents had to completely restart their lives. All of which meant that being in Mongolia was a risk. Mongolia was technically neutral territory, but if anyone believed that they were ignorant of the realities of the world. Much of Dauria shared history with Mongolia, right down to the root of their language. Daurian was just a more cultivated dialect of the old Mongolian language. She expected DSS operatives to be here, which meant that if she were deemed enough of a threat an execution order could very likely be handed down for her. Of course it would look like an accident.

Dauria couldn’t go around executing people whenever they liked unless it was behind the protective barrier of the country’s border. Someone—a woman from the sound of it—shouted something. Ekko froze, feeling as though a spotlight were shining on her. She didn’t understand the words, but that was a tone she knew well. Fear. Panic. Ekko lengthened her stride and focused on the planter. Five feet. People were staring in the woman’s direction now. Three feet.

A man was shouting something. What was going on? Ekko spied the brown envelope partially covered with soil. She went to a knee, pretending to tie her shoe. The people standing at the café cart took a few steps toward the noise, their eyes wide. Ekko had a bad feeling about this. She grabbed the envelope out from the planter and shoved it in her pocket. It was time for her to get back to the relative safety of the hotel. It took everything in her to pause and stare toward the noise like everyone else. She had to be just one of the crowed. Nothing more or less.

An average person out in the evening who had a shoe to tie. A group of people clustered behind a group of large bushes. “What’s going on? Will you ask them what’s going on?” an American woman demanded of the man whose arm she clutched. “Someone died,” the man said with a frown. “Someone was killed? I’m not sure.” Ekko swallowed. Once more those fingers trailed over her shoulders. Someone was dead in the park across from her hotel. What were the chances? This close to Dauria? Could someone outside their small circle know? She wasn’t going to wait around to find out. Ekko abandoned her plan of heading straight for the hotel.

While she wanted to bolt and make a run for it, wasn’t that what bad guys lurking in the shadows would expect? If there were any. She didn’t know for certain. Her hands shook in her pockets as she turned away from the hotel. There was a path that would take her to the west park exit and from there she could cross the street and make her way to the side entrance of the hotel. It was a solid plan. She wasn’t panicking. She couldn’t afford to. A couple dozen yards from the fountain she realized her mistake. The noise was drawing everyone in the park south. Away from where she was going.

It was silent here. Peaceful even, if she weren’t jumping at shadows. Her feet crunched on the gravel. Was it her imagination or did the lights seem dimmer? The hedges and trees nearly blocked out the city, making her feel alone in this big, scary world. Gravel crunched behind her. The sound was so sudden she whirled and watched a man step out from between the hedges. He was tall, with wide shoulders and wore dark clothing with a baseball cap pulled low on face. It was the knife in his hand that made her heart stop beating. She didn’t freeze and she didn’t panic. Ekko pivoted and threw herself forward.

She’d always been a good sprinter and speed was on her side. Or it was before arms wrapped around her and lifted her off her feet. “You should have kept quiet, little bird,” the man holding her said in Daurian. Her blood went cold and she stared at the man walking toward her with the knife. After everything she’d said, all the plans she’d made, this was how it would end?

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