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Free Hostage by S. Ann Cole (1)


New York City

“Be quiet, Timber!”

“Sorry,” I whisper. “But I just stepped on a dead rat! This is going to give me nightmares. These shoes are most definitely going in the garbage. I’m no girly-girl, but bloody hell, why is New York so filthy? I mean, with almost nine million people crammed onto this little island, you would think—”

Shush!” my partner in crime—literal partner in crime—hisses at me.

I shush, moving as lightly as possible along the dirty, piss-scented brick wall, my mind still troubled by the dead rat. Might sound crazy, but it’s almost as if I can feel a germy hole burning through the bottom of my shoe. I have to get it off.

I have to get it off.

Yet I know if I stop, Melanie will snap and get pissy with me. And I hate it when she does that. Because I don’t have enough anger in me to snap and get pissy right back.

Not that she’d be wrong. That would be anyone’s reaction right now if I dared stop to throw a “grossed-out” fit over a dead rat. Considering we are, at current, on a risky mission: returning the Blue Promise to a museum we didn’t steal it from.

It is told—in cursive writing on aged parchment paper in a museum in London—that in 1532, when King Henry VIII relentlessly pursued Anne Boleyn while still married to Catherine of Aragon, Boleyn had made it clear she would never give herself to him unless she were his wife. King Henry, driven mad with lust, desire, and passion for Boleyn, gave her a necklace to seal his promise that he would divorce Catherine of Aragon and make Anne his wife. Which he did.

This necklace was later dubbed the Blue Promise, a breathtaking heart-shaped sapphire-and-diamond necklace of 385.76 carats, valued at approximately 6.5 million British pounds today.

And we stole it. Two years ago at an exhibit in London. Just to prove we could.

We’ve stolen innumerable valuables from all over the world, in fact. But now that we’re settling in New York for a while, we’ve decided to return all our stolen treasures, one by one. To return each piece of history to their respective countries, however, would mean thousands in plane tickets and weeks in traveling.

So, each week we break into a random museum and leave a piece of treasure there, then sit back and watch its discovery blow up all over the news.

Why do we do it? Because we can. Also, because we’re bored. The world is boring. And stupid. Melanie is convinced we don’t belong here. On Earth, that is.

It’s possible, she has theorized, there is a planet of geniuses that NASA has not yet picked up on—because they’re stupid, too—and that’s where we truly belong. Some of our ancestors were captured during a space battle, brought to Earth to dwell among imbeciles as punishment, and our people never bothered to come and save us, deeming it too great a risk. But they will, she wholeheartedly believes.

“We are few,” she claims, “but there is one of us in every five hundred thousand idiots, and once we meet them, we will know.”

My Melanie. Melanie Tahira. Do you believe her? I have to. She’s my best friend. British, like me. Also, she’s smarter than me. She dutifully reminds me of this fact every day.

I adore her to pieces.

We crab-walk down the dark, dirty, and deserted alley, which leads to the side door of our targeted museum. The earth is wet from an earlier fifteen minutes and nine seconds of torrential downpour, and there are big, inconvenient puddles to jump over every couple of feet.

I, personally, would not have chosen the Castellos Museum to plant the Blue Promise. But Melanie argued, quite vehemently, that planting it there instead of the Guggenheim would bring the Castellos some much needed publicity. Therefore, tonight we are Robin Hoods—or Robin Hers. Whatever.

Yesterday, we scoped Castellos. This morning we plotted. This afternoon we tested, twice. And now we officially do.

At 11:57 p.m., here we are, moving as light as panthers through the stinky darkness of the alley and up the metal stairs to Castellos’s side-door emergency exit.

The sensor light does not expose us as we make it up the stairs. That’s because I swapped it with a bad bulb on our second visit this afternoon while Melanie distracted the jiggly, perverted security guard.

Castellos is a small museum, housing very few valuables that are worth the risk of breaking in and getting caught, so its security system is not exactly what one would call top-notch. To break in and out of this place is a walk in the park. For us, at least.

“Keep watch,” Melanie tells me as she retrieves a weightless chip-on-film it took me eighteen months and sixty-three tries to successfully create. I call it T63, simply because it gave me a fist-pumping breakthrough on the sixty-third try. One of our best inventions to date.

T63 can hack any—and I mean any—electronic security system requiring a digit code, an eye scan, or a fingerprint scan for access.

Castellos is digit code access, the easiest to crack.

From the pocket of my black hoodie, I get out my small lock-picking kit and hand it to Melanie.

With a diamond hook and prier, she cajoles the tight crease at the side of the access monitor just wide enough to gingerly steal in the chip.

Once the chip makes contact, the access monitor beeps. A second later, the film glows neon blue. We wait. Thirty seconds later, the monitor flashes green with the words, Access Granted.

“Oh, how I love you, T63,” Melanie whispers with a proud grin. She looks back over her shoulder at me. “Okie Loki, the hard part is ov— Whoa!”

“What the—”


Confused by the sudden commotion, I take swift action and hurl the pouch with the Blue Promise necklace over the staircase. It falls without struggle, the weight of the sapphire helpless against gravity, and lands with a faint hffftdn in an overflowing garbage bin. I lean over the railing and stare down. Six million pounds sitting atop a pile of garbage.

Oh well.

I whip back around to find Melanie facing off with two towering male figures in all black. One has a velvet-covered red box tucked under his arm. They are wearing masks, so all I see are glaring eyes and snarling lips.

“Who’re you two nerds?” the one with bulkier muscles demands.

Melanie, who hasn’t a craven bone in her body, glares straight at him through her spectacles and slings the question right back. “Who the bloody hell are you two buggers?”

No longer frightened now that I can see the men aren’t security guards, I step up behind Melanie. Except I’m not glaring with irritation as she is, I’m just…staring, with intrigue. At the bloke who’s not as bulky as the other one, but average, with greater height…and colder eyes.

Blue irises. Frosty ice blue. Against the dark of the night and his attire, they stand out with bold brilliance. Remarkable.

These are eyes I’ll never forget.

And not just because I have an eidetic memory, but because…I have the pressing and inexplicable urge to climb through them like windows, blow a hot kiss, and warm them from the inside. Melt all that frost away.

I’m in love. With his eyes, that is.

Eyes that are fixed on me.

“Step aside, and nobody gets hurt,” he says. His voice is nothing like I expect it to be, considering it has issued a threat. It’s a stark contrast to the coldness of his eyes. Quiet, and soft. Like a love song. No sharp edges or scratches. Hypnotizing, almost.

“No,” Melanie says in defiance, not even a wee bit affected by his voice. She points at the red box tucked under his arm. “Not until you put that back. My dad owns this place.”

“Adrian Castellos owns this place,” Bulkier Muscles says with a derisive chuckle. “You’re obviously Indian, with a British accent. Care to explain how Castellos is your father?”

Melanie growls and lunges forward, but quick as a fox, the one with the cold eyes—let’s just call him Frosty—has both her wrists locked in one of his fists. “Easy, Little Black Riding Hood.” He lowers his head, moving in just an inch. “I only enjoy making women come, not cry.”

Melanie stops moving for a second and her eyes glaze over, her lips parting as she gazes up at him. Then she snaps out of it and mutters, “You filthy American sod!”

Frosty’s gaze flicks over Melanie’s head to stare at me some more. And even more. Almost as if he wants me to never forget his eyes. Or is it he who’s memorizing me? After all, I’m not masked, all my features are out in the open. Nothing is hidden. Not even my curiosity.

In a split, off-guard second, he shoves Melanie backward so she crashes into me and we both collide into the railing.

With the path clear of us, they descend the stairs as soundlessly as black panthers in the night. On cue, a black SUV squeals up at the mouth of the alley. They bolt toward it.

With an abrupt halt, Frosty U-turns and begins sprinting back toward us—or rather, toward the overflowing garbage bin. Once there, he reaches in and snatches up the pouch I tossed earlier.

Oh no. The Blue Promise!

He glances up and throws a winning wink at me before taking off again, with the pouch.

No. No. No!

Summoning my inner bravado, I shriek, “Wanker!” My feet jerk into action and I make haste down the stairs. “You give that back right now!”

Of course, he doesn’t stop. He adjusts the red box under his arm while waving the pouch in the air as if to taunt me.

A glint of something falls to the ground. He’s not aware of it. “Hey! Come back here!”

He dives into the waiting vehicle, and it speeds off before the door is even closed.

Giving up the chase, I double over and press my hands to my knees, accepting defeat. Okay, so I’m not in the best shape. Usually, putting things back does not involve sprinting.

“Well, wasn’t this a damp squib,” Melanie calls out from behind me. “Guess we should’ve gone to the Guggenheim after all, yeah?”

I’m too busy catching my breath to think of a comeback.

From a small rain puddle, a glint of something all coiled in on itself winks up at me. I crouch down and pick it up.

A necklace.

One I’ve seen before, behind a well-protected display box in a museum in France. Another piece of another country’s history that’s got no business being here in New York.

This must be what fell from Frosty while he ran. A golden necklace about fourteen inches long with a crescent pendant.

A necklace that is not just a necklace, but also a key.

I allow the wet, cold jewelry to dangle from my fingers as I examine it, smirking to myself.

Melanie comes up beside me. There’s a beat of silence. “Is that—”

“Yep,” I answer. “The key to Marie Antoinette’s music box.”

“Whoa,” she whispers. “Did you see the music box at Castellos today? Because I didn’t.”

I shake my head. “Those two guys were probably cloaking it there. Smuggling, or something. Who knows?”

“Well, they’re screwed.” She sounds triumphant. “Because there’s no opening the box without that key. Not without destroying the box altogether. Serves them right.”

Fair game. He has our necklace—our stolen necklace. Not that losing the necklace is any loss for us. We were returning it, after all.

But I’m positive this key is a colossal loss for Frosty Blue Eyes.

I’m a nice girl. I could be a decent citizen and make sure the lost item is returned to its rightful—well, not so rightful—owner.

Fisting the necklace, I straighten up and shove it in the pocket of my hoodie, smiling to myself.

Ha. Too bad he was wearing a mask.


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