Sera’s sigh fogged the train window. Outside, the dirigible puttered over the stubby vegetation into the twilight. Left behind. Again. If her uncle/boss persisted in pigeon-holing her in public relations, they should at least allow her to do her job. Drumming her fingers, she swayed as the Mag-lev picked up speed.
“You gonna sit down, Peaches?”
Peaches. Another label to marginalize her. Nails digging in her palms, Sera turned away from the window. Cool air circulated from the vent over the compartment’s door where a security officer’s back blocked the window. Two long benches stretched the length of the private room. Her tattered backpack and Harlan’s oversized one lay on the silver racks running overhead.
Hands hooked behind his head, Harlan sprawled across one bench. Ebony tattoos climbed from his exposed wrist, up his covered arm to reemerge from his collar and decorate his neck and jaw. Bits of grass dropped from his boot heels and littered the maroon cushion. A rectangular case balanced on his flat stomach. Heavy lids hung at half-mast over his eyes.
Reaching out, she pinched the toe of his boot and swept his feet off the cushion.
His feet landed with a thump on the metal floor, and he cocked an eyebrow.
“What?” Sera brushed the dirt and grass from the seat then plopped down. “You wanted me to sit. I’m sitting.”
Harlan’s lips twitched. “And you do it so well. I especially love the way you cross your arms and push up your chest.”
“Oooh.” She raised her hand to smack the pig out of him.
His blue eyes glinted as he focused on her palm.
Sera forced her arm down. The jerk would probably hit her back. She blew her bangs out of her eyes. Besides, it wasn’t his fault and he didn’t deserve her anger.
“Go ahead. I can take it.” He patted his flat stomach. “Right here. Violence and sex are the best ways to get out that bottled up aggression. Since you’re not interested in negotiating…”
Really, she was surprised the man actually spoke words instead of oinked. Tension released her shoulders and her head lolled against the cushion. “It’s not aggression; it’s frustration.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Stop acting like a hayseed Outlander. You know the difference.”
He winked. “Rule number one—it’s better to act stupid and be smart than the opposite. Being underestimated provides an edge.”
He had a point and a way of cutting through the bull. Sera’s lips curled. “Unfortunately, I’m not being underestimated; I’m being given busy work to keep me out of the way. Safe.”
She hated that four letter word.
“You don’t think showing the Outlanders as people is important?” His eyes narrowed.
“Of course I do. Everyone matters. Outlanders. People from Dark Hope. Even folks from Sanctuary and the Neville’s descendants.”
“Lots of your kind would disagree, Peaches. Some folks matter more. Just a fact.”
“That’s because the Nevilles have become some sort of boogeyman in Dark Hope. But did you see him?” She pointed to the window. The dirigible hung like a silver dot on the purple sky. “He’s an old man. Beat up and sickly. He’s hardly a threat. Hardly worth everyone in the city getting their panties in a twist.”
Harlan fingered the case. “Things aren’t always as they appear. Sometimes the most innocent looking things are the deadliest.”
She knew that. She didn’t have to be born in the Outlands to possess a modicum of common sense. “My job as Security Forces mouthpiece is to let everyone know how dangerous things are. But I can’t do my job when I can’t interview Neville. Uncle Joseph won’t even give me photos so I can show how pathetic the prisoner is.”
She could spin the story, downplay his ancestor’s past and focus on their commonalities. Easy. Except she sat on the train heading toward Abaddon, and Neville was locked aboard the airship, awaiting questioning.
Harlan sat up, grasped the tabs holding the case closed. “Well, now, if it’s pictures you want…” Reaching inside, he pulled out two silver balls, held them in his palm.
Heart pounding, she turned the spheres. Delicate flaps folded against the curved sides but didn’t obscure the one inch lens. Tiny holes on the top recorded sound.
“It’s a camera.” And not just any camera. The spheres could deploy their fins and fly across terrain into the enemy’s camp. Last she’d heard, the cameras were under development. “Where did you get them?”
“Your uncle. Guess he figured I’d make a good cameraman. ‘Course, he probably didn’t think I’d put one of these inside the interrogation room and turn it on.”
Light exploded inside her chest. “You’re spying on my uncle?” She could actually see the interview? Gather evidence, photos and transmit the story of the century.
“Oh, I could kiss you!”
“Kiss?” He jerked his head up then tapped his puckered lips. “Right here works.”
Sera blinked and leapt from her seat. “It’s a figure of speech.” Milking her fingers, she pulled out the restlessness eating at her.
Harlan carefully set the cameras in the case.
“I’ll have to figure out a way to retrieve the camera.” Pacing, she avoided glancing at him. He already had enough lascivious ideas; she didn’t need to add to them with a few careless words. “Actually, that’s the easy part. Uncle Saldana commands the ship. He’ll return the camera, but he’ll want to know why it was left behind. Especially in the interrogation room.”
“Blame me,” Harlan growled. “Tell him I broke it and one of your fans promised to fix it.”
Sera stopped in front of him. His large boots bracketed her smaller ones. “I’m not going to blame you. But I will say the camera was malfunctioning and one of the guys offered to fix it.”
Harlan glanced up. His attention focused on her lips.
Lowering her head, she hid behind her curtain of hair before plucking the camera case from his lap. “How many cameras did Uncle Joseph give you?”
The two balls rolled across the electronic control pad. Sera checked the depth of the bag against the shallow inside. Why had he been given such a big bag? Lifting the pad, she peered underneath and caught her breath. A shiny Tesla stun-gun lay on a nest of cartridges. Solar cells created pools of blue on the finger-sized barrel.
Harlan eased the bag from her hands, removed the loaded gun and two clips, then dropped the case onto the seat. “Your uncle wanted me prepared in case you run into trouble.”
“Me? You’re the trouble magnet.” Her palms itched to hold the sleek new stun-gun, to fire it. “How am I supposed to save your sorry butt since we only have one weapon?”
His gaze traveled from her head to her toes, lingered on a few places before returning to look her in the eye. “You got moves ain’t nobody can match, Peaches.”
Heat simmered deep in her belly. Knock it off. This was a business arrangement. Nothing more. She opened her mouth.
He set his finger on her lips. “Since you bested me two outta three, I’m thinking you can take out a few bad guys.” With his callused pad, he traced her bottom lip. “Just remember rule one.”
Tingles raced across her skin, sowing goosebumps. She cleared her throat and stepped back. She’d think about what just happened later. Much later. “Which rule one? You have about sixty of them.”
“The most important one.” Harlan slid the clip into place then tucked the extra into his pants pocket. Turning his back, he lifted his pack and untied the flaps over the main compartment. “Outlanders don’t fight fair. They fight to win.”
“That one I’m not liable to forget.”
After tucking the gun into his waistband, Harlan shoved aside wads of clothing then crammed the bag inside and buried it under the fabric.
“I don’t suppose you placed a camera in Mike’s cell?” Her old friend couldn’t be the traitor smuggling advanced weapons out of Dark Hope.
“Nope.” Harlan jerked on the flap ties and secured his pack.
She sighed. Harlan had already done so much. Still… “I could prove Mike has been framed if I could just talk to him, get his side of the story.”
“In that case.”
Hands closed around her shoulders. She slammed into the wall of Harlan’s chest. “Wha—”
His lips settled on hers. Firm. Strong. Warm.
She opened her eyes. What had just happened?
He grinned down at her. “Don’t want you too much in my debt. Rule number one of the Outlands.”
“How do I owe you?” She ran her tongue over her bottom lip. He tasted like chocolate. Where had he gotten the chocolate? And when?
He handed her the blue backpack. “Stands to reason, if dropping a camera into an interrogation room is worth a kiss, then taking you to Ohmson is worth a whole lotta kisses.”
Metal carabiners clinked together as she stuffed her hands through the harness and clipped it under her breasts. “How will you get me on the airship to see Mike?”
“I’m not.” Harlan yanked open the door.
The guard stumbled backward into their compartment.
Harlan swung, clipping the man on the jaw.
The guard’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed.
Crouching, Sera set her finger against his neck. He still had a pulse. Harlan hadn’t killed the man.
Sucking on his bleeding knuckle, Harlan stepped over the body and ducked into the hall. He checked left then right. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” She tiptoed around the guard and rolled him against the bench so he wouldn’t be hit by the door. “We’re on a train going about seven hundred kilometers an hour. We can’t go anywhere.”
“In ten minutes we’ll be in Abaddon. You wanna see Mike or not?” Harlan grabbed her forearm and tugged.
She stumbled a few steps. Her shoulder hit the doorframe and pain radiated from the scrape. She ignored it. Finally, her chance to do some good, to make a difference. “Mike is here? On the train?”
“Yep.” Harlan released her arm in favor of her hand. He pulled her toward the cargo containers.
Wait a minute. “How do you know Mike’s here?”
“Leesa told me when she brought me a piece of cake.”
Leesa? Who was Leesa? Sera clamped her lips together and marched past empty compartments. She wouldn’t ask. It wasn’t relevant who brought him cake. “How do you know you can trust this Leesa? Haven’t you ever heard of Greeks bearing gifts.”
“Nope, but I do know Leesa and cake.” Harlan smacked his lips. “Chocolate’s good, but I prefer the spicy one you’re partial to.”
Right about now, Sera was partial to kicking him in the shin, or some other place that would make him forget about Leesa and her cake — at least until time and an ice pack worked its magic.
He opened the airlock between the two cars. Rows of seats, three on each side, bordered the narrow aisle running down the center. A man snored in the center.
“How do you know Leesa?” A tick started in Sera’s left eye.
“She patched me up when I had a run-in with his honor, the mayor of Abaddon. Since then I visit her whenever I need her expertise.”
“And just how often is that?” Sera tapped her toe against the floor while he opened the next airlock.
Harlan leaned against the sliding door, waited for her to enter first. “Sometimes months can go by. Other times, I need her weekly.”
“And does she take gold in exchange? Give you cake?” Sera stomped passed him, jogged to the right. A wall of doors lined the aisle. More private compartments.
“Yep. And she’s worth every ounce.” Harlan reeled Sera back.
She slammed against him, clutched his chest to keep from falling. “What—”
Dipping his head, he whispered, “There should be a guard at Ohmson’s door.”
She checked the aisle. No guard in sight.
The barrel of the TSG flickered in Harlan’s hand. “Stay behind me.”
“No.” Pushing against him, she worked her way to the front. “I’ll go first, lure the guard out, then you shoot him.”
“Rule number one. My world, my rules.” She strolled down the aisle, rolling her shoulders to break the tension.
Harlan dogged her heels.
She ignored him, worked on her excuse for being in a secure compartment. Just saying hello. Just saying hello. Real casual. Pay no attention to the man with the gun. She neared the middle of the car and swore. Crap. She’d forgotten to ask which compartment contained Mike.
Before she could turn, something in the compartment window caught her attention. She stepped closer, pressed her face to the glass.
Arms bound behind his back, Makepeace ‘Mike’ Ohmson slumped in his chair. Unseeing eyes stared at her.
“Nooo.” She ripped open the door and stumbled inside. Rubber fingers pressed against his throat. Again and again and again, but she couldn’t find a pulse. The faint aroma of almonds clung to Mike’s pale lips.
Harlan slipped inside.
“Mike’s been poisoned.”