Fabric scraped Lee’s nose. A moment later, he squeezed his eyes shut at the bright light and gulped air into his heaving lungs. The Dark Hopians had found him, taken him prisoner.
How could he escape? They’d stuffed him in a ship, an air ship. The hum of the engines disappeared under the thrum of his blood shunting through his veins. His mouth dried. He couldn’t be tortured. Not again. His bladder burned, threatened to discharge.
“Sit, Neville.” A blond-haired, blue-eyed giant shoved him into a molded plastic chair. A metal folding table leaned against the wall near a sink tucked into the corner. Nothing else filled up the square room.
Probably didn’t want to get it bloody.
Lee’s butt thudded against the curved bottom. His sore privates throbbed from the abuse. The hood he’d worn only seconds ago puddled to the ground. Out the window of the small room he spied black sky. How far did they sail above the ground? Would they push him out a door to his death?
“Not so brave are you now, old man?” Blondie grasped Lee’s arms and twisted them behind his back.
Sharp plastic bit into Lee’s wrists, bound his hands together. He licked the sweat from his upper lip. Pain settled into his old bones. He wouldn’t waste his energy blabbing to Blondie. He wasn’t the man in charge, couldn’t give him a reprieve.
The door opened on silent hinges. A broad-shouldered man strode inside, clutching a rolled up bag in his hand. Steel-gray hair bristled from his square head. Smooth skin stretched tightly across his bull-dog features. “All comfy?”
This was the leader then. Lee twisted and tugged at his bonds. Damn. Not a speck of give. Sweat stung his eyes.
Blondie squared his shoulders. “The prisoner is secure.”
The leader bared his even, white teeth in a feral smile. “Leave us.”
“Sir?” Blondie fidgeted. “Regulations clearly state that two persons must be present during an interrogation.”
“Two people will be present.” A thin woman blew into the room. Shorn white hair curled softly around her head. Faded scars covered her neck and face. She plunked down a thin, folding steel table and set it up. She did not smile.
The leader flicked his wrist and the bag unrolled across the metal surface. Thin blades, filleting knives and pliers gleamed in their assigned slots. Selecting a knife, he touched the tip of the blade to his thumb. Blood beaded before running a crimson line down the curved edge.
“Sir.” Blondie’s eyes widened. “Regulations clearly state that the two people be Security men.”
The woman pulled a pair of pliers from the pouch and clacked the pinchers together. “Dark Hope Security doesn’t teach the same skill set that living twenty years with the ‘Viders provide.”
Blondie paled. Raspberry freckles pitted his chalky skin. “Sir.”
You go, kid. Lee wanted to hear more of these regulations. Especially as they seemed designed to keep his ass in one piece and stop the torture.
“Mayfair, you have a bright future ahead of you.” The leader cleaned the blade on his sleeve before returning it to its proper slot. “If you stay here, you’ll lose that future.”
Blond Mayfair itched toward the door. “Sir. The prisoner is secure. You don’t—”
“Don’t I?” The leader snatched the pliers from the woman and snapped them together. “This slug’s ancestors tried to bury my great, great-grandparents alive. I think it’s time for a little payback.”
The woman set her hand on Mayfair’s arm and guided him to the door. “Dawson is willing to do what needs to be done to keep Dark Hope safe. You do your bit.”
She shut the door in Mayfair’s face and threw the bolt.
Dawson? Lee tugged on his bonds. Fuck. Their illustrious ancestors had tried to kill each other. Guess the latest generation planned to finish the job. Lee used his toes to push against the floor. The chair didn’t budge. “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“And if I want you to scream?”
“What?” His stomach cramped.
“That’s what I thought.” Dawson opened and closed the pliers. “Say ahh.”
Lee shook his head, clamped his lips together.
Dawson rolled his blue eyes, reached out and pinched Lee’s nose shut. “Wasn’t his ancestors’ actors?”
“Obviously, he lacks the dramatic flair.” The woman smiled. The white of her teeth nearly blinded him. Reaching down, she opened the pants pocket on her right thigh and pulled out two large syringes.
Blood pounded in Lee’s head. His lungs burned and his eyes watered. Dammit. He’d never tortured his subjects this way, and he’d always killed them mercifully quick after he learned what he needed. Any cosmic debts should have been paid in full after what he’d suffered in His Honor’s dungeons.
Dawson frowned. “Just open up. It’s no fun pulling teeth if you’re not conscious to enjoy it.”
A tear leaked from Lee’s eye. His jaw dropped and he sucked in air.
“There. Isn’t that better?” Dawson released Lee’s nose to grip his jaw, holding his mouth open. The pliers dove inside. “Hmmm, there’s the cavity. Could account for your rancid breath.”
Lee jerked his head back. The pliers touched his tooth. Pain blitzed his skull, drew his skin painfully tight across bone. He screamed.
Dawson turned to the woman. “He gone?”
She nodded and ripped the packaging of one syringe. “We need to work fast.”
“Alright, Neville. I need to know everything about Sanctuary. And I need to know it now.” Dawson handed her the pliers. Stepping back, he tugged white packets from his pocket and set them on the tray table.
Lee’s teeth clicked together. What tactic was this?
The woman jabbed the needle into a vial she’d pulled from her breast pocket and filled the syringe. Freeing the needle, she flicked the barrel then pushed on the plunger. Liquid shot out of the top, arched onto the floor. “Don’t you want to enjoy the spotlight?”
They wanted to see a Neville act. Lee would show them. “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
“Christ. He’s quoting Dickens.” Dawson clamped his hands on Lee’s shoulder. “Let me break this down for you into three acts. You and your granddaughter—”
“Sammy.” Lee jumped in his seat. “As God is my witness—”
“Spare me your show tunes.” Dawson shoved his bull-dog face into Lee’s. “Samantha Lee is safe. She’s being monitored twenty-four-seven by folks I know will make certain she gets the care she deserves.”
Lee slammed his back against the chair. No, not his granddaughter. “She doesn’t deserve to be tortured. She’s innocent.”
“I don’t torture people, you two bit ham. Your granddaughter is very sick.” Dawson’s right eye twitched. “We’re doing all we can to heal her and protect her from your name sake’s legacy. Not everyone in Dark Hope gives a shit about your ancient hack ancestor. But enough do, so we’re not taking any chances.”
Sammy was safe. Sammy was safe. Nothing else mattered. Lee sagged in his chair. “If I cooperate, will you heal her, see that she grows up right?”
Dawson rubbed his forehead. “I just said my people were protecting her. As for her growing up right, you’ll be around to see to that. Provided you don’t do anything stupid.”
The woman shifted closer, aimed the needle at his mouth. “Now open up. That tooth has to come out.”
Turning his head away from her, Lee leaned back in his chair. He just said he’d cooperate, why did they want to torture him?
She shook her head. “That rotten tooth needs to be pulled. It’s poisoning your system and, since you can’t be under medical supervision, this is the best we can do to get you healthy.”
Lee shook his head. “Why do you want me healthy? I’m your mortal enemy.”
Dawson swore under his breath. “You’re the last in line. A long line.”
She laughed. “Your people didn’t even believe Dark Hope existed until we dropped in on them.”
“But he knew.” Dawson’s fingers dug into Lee’s shoulders. “How did you know? How did you know to bring your granddaughter to us?”
Lee slouched down in his chair, but couldn’t escape the grip. “From time to time, visitors would show up in Sanctuary. They’d be…isolated from the general population and questioned. Many of them were on their way to Dark Hope. For the cure.”
“If that’s so, why did everyone in town think that no one existed outside of your valley?” Holding his jaw, the woman poked the needle into Lee’s gum. “If they didn’t stay, then they would have left and spread word about your town.”
The prick of pain quickly faded. Lee’s tongue probed his cavity. Even that didn’t hurt so much.
“You’re forgetting option three.” Dawson eased up his grip. “Death. It explains the shit-sandwich Karma’s force-feeding him.”
Setting the needle down, she formed pink gloves around her fingers. Her dark eyes met his. “Did you kill them?”
Lee raised his chin. “Sanctuary had to be protected.”
She shrugged then picked up the pliers. “Try not to drown in your own blood. It’s a nasty way to die.”
“Why are you helping me?” And why did he believe they weren’t going to kill him? Because they hadn’t smashed him into walls, tripped him when he wore the hood? He had only their word that his granddaughter was safe.
The woman tilted her head. “You’ll feel a tug but not much pain until the Novocain wears off.”
But they had helped him when he needed it without asking for anything. Despite the blood-thirsty cheers when the pictures displayed Sanctuary being attacked, no one had ever asked for anything. Even after he’d admitted to killing people, the woman didn’t have judgment in her eyes, only acceptance.
He opened his mouth.
“Hold him.” Natasha held his jaw in one hand and the pliers in the other. “Since he can’t talk for a while, why don’t you fill him in on our expectations.”
Ah ha, they did want something. That’s why they kept his granddaughter safe. Lee heard the pliers rasped against his tooth.
Natasha’s face scrunched in concentration. She braced her knee on his chest. Her arms shook as she pulled. “Joseph.”
Dawson kept Lee pinned to the chair. “Your timing sucks, Neville. You show up in Dark Hope just as someone drops a load of weapons near your town. Anyplace other than Sanctuary and I might have been able to convince the Cabinet the two were pure coincidence. But the legends of those first days live on, and so does that ancient threat of your ancestor.”
Warm liquid flooded Lee’s mouth. He tasted blood. His blood. What had she said about drowning?
The door knob rattled before someone rapped twice. “We’re beginning our final approach on Sanctuary, Sir.”
“Understood.” Dawson leaned forward. “Aren’t you done yet?”
Natasha glanced up. “The tooth doesn’t want to come out.”
“I thought you said you’d done this before.”
“I have.” Holding her tongue between her teeth, she wiggled her arm. “I was the ‘Viders medical and dental plan.”
Pressure built until it snapped. Lee heard a squish.
She stumbled back. Blood streaked the silver pliers. A black tooth hung between the tip, red roots jutted from it like crimson horns. She tossed it onto the tray then picked up the packets and ripped them open.
A metallic tide surged in Lee’s mouth. He gagged, spit on the floor.
Dawson released him. “We think someone set a fire to draw the ‘Viders attention to your village, hoping you’d all be wiped out.”
“Fire?” Lee’s tongue found the gap in his teeth and tried to plug the flow. It couldn’t be the one he set, could it?
“Yes, the ‘Viders saw a column of smoke rising from your village.” Rolling the gauze into a log, she stuffed it into his missing tooth hole. “Hold that tight with your teeth.”
Lee swallowed his blood and closed his eyes. Dawson had been wrong. Karma wasn’t serving him a shit sandwich, it was dishing up a seven-course buffet.
“Knife.” Dawson held his hand out. “The ‘Viders wiped out all your leaders. All of them except you.”
“What makes you think I didn’t arrange it?” Accidentally, but he was still responsible. The guild’s blood stained his hands.
“Did you?” Dawson crouched down, slipped the cold blade between the bonds binding Lee’s hands.
“I never heard of the ‘Viders.” Lee swallowed another mouthful of blood.
“Be thankful for that.” Natasha tucked a handful of white packets in his breast pocket. “Change the gauze every few hours until the bleeding stops and finish taking those antibiotics.”
Dawson sliced through the ties. “Unfortunately for you, more than the ‘Viders have heard of your town. Sanctuary has been mentioned in several secret communiques. You need to rally your people and alert me to any sign of trouble. We’ll do our best to protect you.”
Lee rubbed the red marks slashing his wrists. His fingers tingled. His ears popped and the humming changed to a higher pitch. “We don’t have anything compared to your city.”
Dawson tucked the knife back in his pack. “Is that what you told His Honor, the mayor of Abaddon, when he tortured you? Or did you tell him about vast stores of gold just so the pain would stop.”
“Shit.” Lee casted about his memory. What else had he said?
“Exactly.” Dawson swayed as the ship bucked.
Natasha slipped the pliers in place then rolled up the bag. “Let’s return the prodigal to his people.”
Lee pushed out of his chair. His legs wobbled but held. “How will I contact you if…”
“I’ll contact him.” She hooked her finger through the tie. “This is a humanitarian mission. We’ve brought food, blankets and medicine for your people.”
“I don’t know.” His people had never met a stranger. One from Dark Hope might be too much.
She fingered the scars at her throat. “Don’t worry, I’m very good at adapting to my surroundings. In no time, your people won’t even remember when I wasn’t one of you.”
Dawson’s hand stilled on the lock. “You’re sure you want to go back to the field?”
She picked at her cuticle. “I don’t think the city suits me anymore. I’ve seen…and done too much.”
Dawson jerked his head once. “Grab your gear while I escort the prodigal off the ship.”
Nodding, she held up his kit.
“Keep it. Others may need your medical and dental plan.” Dawson opened the door.
She slipped out, disappeared around the corner.
“Ready?” Dawson jerked his head toward the door.
Lee nodded and followed him into the hallway. Metal decking bounced under his footfalls. Standing nearly as tall as he, stacks of crates lined the aisles. All had Sanctuary stamped in black letters on their sides. “I’ll look after her.”
Dawson barked with laughter. “Natasha can take care of herself. In fact, she’ll probably look after you.”
He opened a door at the end of the cargo hold and lead Lee down a flight of stairs. The next door led to another hold. Cool air drifted inside from the open doors in the curved hull. Men in blue uniforms rolled crates across the floor and down the ramp.
Lee held his breath as they neared the exit. The ship hissed and sizzled around him. Would his people accept him?
Brow furrowed, Dawson paused. He raised a fist, set it on Lee’s chest. “Wait.”
Stars of light streaked across the opening. What marvel was this? Lee reached for one.
Dawson slapped his hand back “This is Dawson! We’re under attack. I repeat—”
Blue flashed in Lee’s peripheral vision.
Dawson arched his back. His body trembled then he collapsed.
Lee tried to catch him. Something slammed into his side. His muscles jerked. His hair crackled. Then darkness brought the curtain down.