So, cyberspace ate the files I sent to the formatter. I resent them again on Friday, Let’s hope he got them this time.
Sera rested her forehead against the compartment door. Under her feet, the Mag-Lev engines powered down. Voices drifted in through the open train doors. Outside, horses’ hooves clattered on the cobblestones of the station.
Harlan set his hand on the small of her back. “This is our stop, Peaches.”
She sagged into his touch for a minute before straightening. Mike was dead, and she’d done nothing to prevent it. She had to make it up to him. “I’m not getting off.”
“Security said we were free to go.” His fingers twitched.
“I need to tell Mike’s family.” Grief snagged her breath in the back of her throat and she squeezed her eyes closed. The image of him sagged in the chair, bound and helpless burned into her skull. “I need to let his parents know I’ll find whoever’s responsible for his murder.”
Harlan bent low. “You wanna tell them of his death.” His breath stirred the hair on her neck. “Or do you want to catch the murderer?”
“Both. I’ll use my contacts at Dark Hope coroner’s office to acquire a copy of the findings. Using my security clearance, I’ll compare the passengers on the train against those with access to the poison.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He cupped her elbow, pulled her away from the wall. “Just one problem. The body’s being off-loaded here in Abaddon.”
“What?” Sera’s attention flew to the window.
Leesa Holton-Evans pushed a cloth-draped gurney across the cobblestones. Her strawberry-blonde ponytail snaked down her back. Dressed in white, two orderlies from the Abaddon clinic stood next to a wagon.
Sera’s fingers curled. “No way. No flippin’ way.”
Shoving away from Harlan, she stormed down the aisle and stomped down the ramp. “Leesa. Leesa!”
The woman kept walking. In the bright station lights, dozens of passengers shuffled for the train. Farmers removed goods from wagons, handcarts and the backs of horses. Green uniformed dockworkers unloaded freight from the box cars.
“This could work to our advantage.” Harlan kept pace beside Sera. “Leesa is a doctor at the clinic. She’ll tell me what she finds and you—”
“Seriously?” Sera smacked his arm. Had that chocolate cake dulled his wits? “She was on the train. She’s a suspect.”
And as a doctor, she had access to all kinds of poison. Sera would have to keep him away from other women’s cakes if it compromised his intelligence. She needed the keen-eyed raider, not a feted celebrity.
The traitor from Dark Hope had graduated to murder.
“Of course she would. Anyone would to keep their secrets.” Especially if those secrets would result in a prison stint or banishment. Sera dodged a haggard couple, sack bundles strapped to their backs, trudging for the west-bound train.
“In that case.” Pressing two fingers to his mouth, Harlan whistled.
Sera’s ears rang from the piercing shriek.
Passengers stopped to stare at him. Farmers set their baskets of produce on the ground. Dock workers paused with their hands on their crates. In the towers, posted at three corners of the station, the guards aimed bows and arrows into the courtyard.
Her lungs seized. “Uh, Harlan.”
“You can thank me later.”
If there was a later. “If we don’t get shot.”
“Leesa!” Harlan waved his arm. “Wait up.”
The red-head turned and caught sight of Sera. Her lips thinned. Ignoring Sera, Leesa stared at Harlan. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you a ride into town.”
The two orderlies collapsed the gurney before lifting it and sliding it into the wagon bed. Throughout the station, people returned to their business.
Stopping on the tips of her toes, Sera faced the doctor. “Why are you taking Mike into town? He deserves to be returned to his family.”
“He’ll be returned after his autopsy.” Leesa smoothed her tunic over her flat stomach and crept toward the wagon bed.
Sera folded her arms. “The autopsy should be done in Dark Hope. Our facilities are better. They’ll be able to detect the poison that killed him.”
The orderlies froze, their hands on the straps used to secure the gurney.
Leesa paled and scuttled forward. She latched onto Sera’s arm and held tight. Her gaze darted left then right. “Then you know that several poisons can breakdown in a very short time. I need to take blood samples and process them right away.”
She was hiding something. The air practically stunk of lies. Sera pried her fingers off and rubbed her tingling skin. “Then take your samples and load him back on the Mag-Lev. I’m sure his parents will want to see him after I tell them about his death.”
Leesa choked. “You can’t tell his parents.”
“It isn’t your job. Your uncle won’t let you.” After wiping sweat from her temple, Leesa scrambled into the wagon bed. “You’re here to spread good news and make the Security Forces look good. If you talk, tell people about this, your uncle will be blamed. Is that what you want?”
The nerve of the woman. Sera closed the distance between them. “Are you threatening me?”
Leesa slammed the wagon gate and rammed the metal pins in. She pushed the orderlies into the driver’s bench before checking the straps.
Sera gripped the wood, felt splinters bite into her palm. “I don’t take threats well.”
Leesa slapped the seat back. “Drive. Now.”
The wagon lurched forward. Still holding onto the gate, Sera ran after it. “Did you hear me?”
Leesa tucked the sheet around the body.
Dammit. Sera was tired of being ignored. “I—”
An arm cut across her stomach, forcing the air from her lungs. The gate was ripped from her hold and pain burned her palms as splinters dug into her flesh. “Hey!”
Leesa glanced up. A small smile lifted her lips.
Oooh. The rat fink was supposed to be Sera’s ally. When her feet touched the cobblestones, she rammed her elbow backward and collided with air.
Harlan tightened his hold, curved his body around hers. “Alright, Peaches, you’ve proved your point. Now put your elbows and heels away.”
“I’m going to put them somewhere.” Sera lifted her foot to mule-kick him in the knee. Little Miss Leesa would be sure to fix him up. Sera set her foot down. “I thought you were supposed to be on my side. Not be all cake and ice cream with the enemy.”
The sound echoed in her chest.
“Leesa wasn’t talkin’. And when she’s made up her mind not to do something, there’s no forcing her to.”
Sera raised her chin. “I could have made her talk. And don’t bother denying it, she knows something.”
He agreed with her? What had she missed? “Then why did you stop me?”
“Rule number one.”
Sera resisted the urge to slam the back of her head into his nose. Now was not the time for games. “Which rule number one is that?”
“You catch more hummingbirds with sugar than vinegar.” His hold loosened.
Pushing out of his arms, she turned. “Everyone knows that rule. But it might not work in this case. She and I aren’t exactly friends.”
“Princess Peaches actually pissed someone off?”
“Don’t call me Princess.” Sera’s cheeks heated. Maybe her tactics during the election for president of the Divergent Society hadn’t been particularly ethical or nice. It had been her darkest moment, not that it excused her behavior. But it certainly made it harder to stomach the innuendoes and insulting videos produced by her opponent.
Harlan squeezed her for a moment before stepping back. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ll find out what Leesa’s hiding.”
Sera just bet he would. She rubbed the goosebumps from her arm. “Make sure you eat your fill of her cake since you won’t be getting any of mine.”
His eyes narrowed.
The train’s horn cried mournfully through the night.
“Come on.” She stepped away from him and slammed into a mountain of muscle.
Arms closed around her, kept her on her feet. “Pardon me.”
Sera looked up and up. Her stomach cramped. Square chin, just a hint of whiskers, regal nose and chocolate brown eyes. First the candidate, now her ruthless campaign manager. “Minos? Minos Charon?”
The man blinked. His hold tightened before he yanked his hands away. “Sera? Sera Tahoma? Who let you out of Dark Hope?”
Let her out? She wasn’t penned up. She bit the inside of her mouth. Minos loved to twist everything in horrible, horrible ways. “I’m doing a documentary on the Outlands and its people. You know, to raise awareness of their living conditions and maybe suggest ways to help.”
“I—I see.” He blinked and swallowed hard.
The train blew its horn, two sharp toots. Final boarding call.
Harlan brushed his shoulder against hers, placed himself a smidgen in front.
Where had he been when she was seventeen and in need of a champion? She pushed aside the self-pity. Nothing Minos could do would hurt her anymore. “I thought you were planting Ponderosas in the Sierra Madres. What are you doing in Abaddon?”
The train doors eased closed.
Minos rubbed the back of his neck. “I got leave. My wife is sick. Cancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Nausea burned Sera’s throat. She wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Ever. “I remember being told that our generation would be the ones to wipe out cancer once and for all.”
She’d gotten her diagnosis the same year and nearly died from the irony.
Minos cleared his throat. “Guess they didn’t figure on the magnetic poles realigning and solar radiation sponsoring cancer’s big comeback.”
Harlan watched the train glide from the station before cutting his attention to Minos. “Come from Dark Hope, did you?”
“Huh?” Minos shook his head. “I just arrived. I—I’m sorry I don’t believe we’ve met. Minos Charon, Doctor of Forestry Genetics and Repropagation.” He offered his hand.
Harlan stared at it. His hands hung loosely at his sides.
Great. Obviously someone had spiked his cake with testosterone and a side of Neanderthal. Sera jabbed him in the ribs. “This is my friend, Harlan Westminster.”
Harlan bared his teeth but finally shook hands. “Harlan Westminster, murderer of cannibals and raider of goods. I also buy women when I need them with gold, not cake.”
Sera slapped her palm over her eyes. Where was a sink hole to drop her to the other side of the planet when she needed it?
Minos laughed. The sound was metal sliding down a grater. “You always knew how to pick them, Sera. You will need at least a year to civilize this one.”
“Do you know why men began to shake hands?” Harlan held on when Minos tried to pull free. “So they knew their opponent was unarmed.”
Minos arched a brow. “Is that a mark of civilization, being unarmed?”
“No. It’s a mark of stupidity to think that just because one hand is empty, the other doesn’t have a weapon.” A knife glinted from Harlan’s free hand.
“Okay.” Sera patted Harlan’s arm. Muscle bunched under her touch. “We have to be going now. We have important work to do.”
“Yeah, we do.” Harlan released Minos and stepped back.
Adjusting his cuffs, Minos flexed his fingers. “Please tell me you at least have him house-trained.”
“Oh, yeah.” Harlan wrapped his arm around her shoulder and hauled her against his side. “She’s got all the right moves.”
He wanted moves; she’d show him moves. She grabbed hold of his shirt front, made sure she had some chest hairs and tugged.
He hissed through clenched teeth.
“Sera?” Minos gripped his satchel until his knuckles flashed white. “Maybe you’ve bitten off a little more than you can handle.”
“I’m fine. See you later.” She ground her heel into Harlan’s toes before she aimed for the gate leading to Dark Hope’s embassy.
He held her tight as they exited. Steering her to the right, he kept moving between the puddles of light cast by the street lamps. Their ghostly reflection floated across the darkened storefronts. The knife remained in his hands.
Fabric rustled in the darkness.
“Do you mind telling me what that was about?”
“Eeny-meeny-miney-moe there wasn’t just arriving. He was trying to leave.”
“He never said if he was arriving or leaving.” Her teeth clicked together. Why was she defending Minos? She owed him nothing, less than nothing after that video of her puking went viral. He’d grafted the image onto an old-time beer commercial. And she hadn’t the nerve to stand up and admit to her chemotherapy.
“But he implied he’d just arrived.”
“True.” He had implied it. But Minos always implied things. The second time she’d been caught throwing-up, she’d starred in a prenatal care campaign. Sera blinked to clear her vision. She’d almost quit then. She drew a ragged breath. Only Mike had convinced her to stay on.
“And he wore a gold bracelet.”
“Gold? No. He wouldn’t.” Would he? She racked her memory. Nope, she hadn’t seen any gold.
Harlan flicked his wrist and the knife sailed through the air. A squeak and a thunk followed. After kissing her ear, he released her and bent to retrieve the knife. Shaking the rat off his blade, he frowned. “Something is seriously fucked up.”
Small hands reached out of the darkness, scooped up the rat and disappeared again.
Had he known about the child? Sera tucked the hair behind her tingling ear and glanced over her shoulder. Obviously, the weird sex and threat games had a purpose. “What have you seen?”
“More like what I haven’t seen. Three towers by the station. Only one guard in each.”
“Maybe they were napping?”
“They don’t nap until around midnight, one o’clock.” He wiped the blood on his trousers. “And no one is following us. Absolutely no one.”
She jogged to catch up with him as they turned the corner. Lights bathed the embassy’s immaculate lawn and rippled across the canal lapping at the side. Only two lights shone in the three-story concrete building. “Why would anyone follow us? It’s clear that neither of us have gold.”
“Everyone always has gold.” He flashed her a palm full of chains. “Of course, they’d take it but the real prize would be you. They’d probably take you as a breeder and make a small fortune before you get worn out and some poor schmuck ponies up a dowry.”
She shook his head. “That will not happen.”
“I know you have a whole can of whoop-ass in you, but few would suspect it. So why hasn’t anyone tried to take you?”
“Maybe because I have I’ll-kick-your-ass written all over me.” Sera set her hand on the black box near the pedestrian entrance. The gate clicked open.
Harlan snorted, holding the gate as she slipped inside. “If you think that, you’ve been hanging out with Meeny-miney-moe too long.”
He secured the gate before following her up the walk leading to the stoop. Motion-activated cameras tracked their progress. When they were two meters away from the entry, the foyer lights clicked on.
“I am dangerous.” Sera rested her hand on the door knob. Green light flickered around her as her prints were checked against the list of authorized personnel. Three clicks indicated the throwing of the deadbolts, and a small hum signaled the retracting of the reinforced steel rods.
Harlan held the knob, allowing the mainframe to scan his fingers. “You hear me arguing? I was kinda looking forward to you tossing someone else on their ass for a change.”
“Now why would I want to do that?” Smiling, she entered the foyer. Even though he’d only been here once before, he’d remembered the drill. The machine guns disappeared into the ceiling.
He shut the door, threw the bolt. The back-up locks deployed. “You think the kitchen is still open?”
“The kitchen is always open if you don’t mind the prepackaged stuff.” Turning right, she led him down the hallway. Lights blinked on as they passed the office doors.
At the end of the passageway, the space opened onto a common room. Kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, oven and dishwasher formed an L-shape on one side. A chrome and glass dinette separated it from the living area. Red chairs and couches sat in groups of three. From the center of the room, the holographic projector shot a pixelated screen at eye-level.
“Do you want anything?” Harlan shrugged out of his pack and set it by the door.
“Sure. Whatever you find.” Sera plopped onto the nearest sofa and propped her feet up on the glass and chrome coffee table.
“This is a breaking report.” Blue streaked the reporter’s black hair. “While we’re not able to confirm the contents of the video you are about to see, we have verified that Security Chief Joseph Dawson ordered the dirigible Ironside to touch down at Sanctuary. The home of Gavin Neville’s descendants.”
Sera combed her fingers through her hair. “I think Uncle Joseph has a leak in his department. No one was supposed to know about a Neville being in Dark Hope.”
Harlan opened and closed a few drawers before pulling out two bags. “Chicken and dumplings or chicken and dumplings?”
“How about chicken and dumplings?” She toed off her boots.
“Chief Dawson has been a strong proponent of arming our embassy, fearing an imminent threat from unidentified enemies.” The reporter frowned. “I must warn you. The following contains images some viewers may find disturbing.”
“Unidentified enemies?” He slammed a door. “Did they miss my speech on the ‘Viders?”
Sera carefully set her feet on the floor. Her fingers dug into the cushion as she leaned forward.
The reporter disappeared and the cigar shape of the dirigible appeared. The airship’s lights bathed the surroundings. The image focused on the exit. Two men moved crates out.
“This is… Dawson… Attack.” Two men stepped from the airship. She recognized her uncle’s rigid posture and steel-gray hair. “I repeat… attack.”
Sera’s mouth dropped open. “No. He wouldn’t.”
The camera cut again. Men in groups of four, wearing Security Forces black, roamed the streets. Light streaked in front of them. Civilians dropped, flopped in the dust.
Harlan picked up her pack and strode to the door. “Grab your boots.”
“He wouldn’t do that.” Numbly, she pinched her boots between her forefinger and thumb. “Uncle Joseph wouldn’t attack civilians.”
“We need to leave.” Harlan peeked into the hall. “Let’s go.”
Sera stumbled on clay feet. Why would anyone think that of Uncle Joseph? Why?
The screen flicked off and red strobed the room.
“All security personnel and embassies are on lockdown until the Cabinet can investigate how deep the treachery and betrayal runs through the Security Forces.” The mechanical voice drifted through the Public Address system.
“Oh shit! Run!” She lurched forward, tripping over her feet.
Harlan caught her before she planted her face in the tile.
The hall lights changed to red. A strange grinding filled the air. Four machine guns dropped from the ceiling. All pointed at her and Harlan.
“All Security personnel are confined to their rooms until further notice Cabinet approved personnel arrive to take them into custody.”
A metal plate slid over the doors in the hallway. The path to their staircase leading upstairs remained lit.
“You have one minute to comply.”
Harlan froze. His fingers twitched by the scabbard holding his knife.
“Failure to comply will be met with extreme prejudice.”
“Don’t.” She set her hand over his. “You may take out one, but three more are aimed at us.”
“So what do we do?”
“We go to our assigned rooms.” With her hand on his back, she pushed him down the hall to the stairs.
“Fuck that. We’re sticking together.”
She nodded. It may be breaking protocol, but at least there were no guns in her bedroom ceiling to enforce their separation. “Thank you.”
Harlan walked up the stairs by her side. “No need to thank me. Just share your goodies.”