Fortune’s Hero

a Soldiers of Fortune book by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jenna Bennett

Quinn Conlan had it all: a fast ship, a great crew, a gorgeous girlfriend, money, and adventure around every bend. That was before he agreed to ferry a shipload of weapons to the besieged planet Marica. Now he’s stuck in the prison colony on Marica-3, enduring weekly sessions with the camp’s “medical team,” and praying for a quick death before he breaks under the torture and spills everything he knows about the Marican resistance.

When opportunity strikes, Quinn takes Elsa, a Rhenian med tech, hostage and heads into the inhospitable interior of the small moon where he formulates a plan for getting his crew out of prison, his ship out of impound, and everyone out of orbit. But when Elsa professes her love, can Quinn take the beautiful doctor at her word, or will trusting her—and his heart—condemn him and his crew to an eternity on Marica-3?
 

Information:

Title: Fortune’s Hero (Soldiers of Fortune, #1)
Author: Jenna Bennett
Genre: Sci-Fi Romance
Length: 352 pages
Release Date: November 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-62061-078-7
Print ISBN: 978-1-62061-077-0
 

 
 
 

Excerpt:

© 2012 Jenna Bennett
 

Chapter One

Quinn Conlan was bleeding to death.

Slowly, steadily, one drop at a time. One big-ass drop. He could feel the mechanism at his wrist working, opening and closing the artery to let the blood ebb and flow. At this rate, he calculated, it would take him about an hour to bleed out.

Down on the floor, a few of the drops turned into a trickle, and he watched as it made its slow way to the big drain in the middle of the room. And down it went, soon to be followed by others. Many others.

He put his head back and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t a bad way to go. It wouldn’t be quick, but it was mostly painless. A slight burn in his wrist every time the mechanism opened to let another few minutes of his life hit the floor. But compared to the other things that had been done to him in this room, it was nothing. The med tech had made sure of that. They weren’t trying to hurt him. Not this time. By now, they must have realized that pain wouldn’t make him talk. Been there, done that. Kept his mouth shut. So they’d decided to let him sit here instead, perfectly still, perfectly conscious, perfectly unable to move, as he watched his life drain away, drop by drop by drop. An hour from now, when his limbs were weak and darkness started to descend over his eyes, they’d expect him to call for help. That he’d start babbling, and tell them what they wanted to know.

Fat chance.

They’d brought him within a hairsbreadth of death before and revived him each time. Always their choice, never his. And this time would be no different. He wouldn’t call for help, and they’d wait until it was almost too late to save him—almost, but not quite—and then they’d bring him back. Again.

Damn Rhenians. Never satisfied.

Quinn never thought there’d come a day when he’d welcome death. Always figured he’d fight to the bitter end. Beat death, or die trying. But when it came down to it, it hadn’t taken long. Just a few months in the prison camp on Marica-3, and weekly sessions with the camp’s medical team—the best in the galaxy, both when it came to bringing a prisoner to death’s door and to making sure he didn’t walk through it—and here he was, ready and willing to die.

Hell, scratch ready and willing. Try eager. He’d die now, this hour, this very minute, if he could cheat them out of being able to revive him again. If he could will himself stone dead right now, he’d do it.

A sound at the door brought his head up. The exsanguination must be happening more quickly than he thought, because it was already a little harder to move, and a little more difficult to make his eyes focus.

“Good afternoon, Captain Conlan.”

A woman. They’d sent him a fucking woman.

And not just any woman. He recognized this one. She’d been at his earlier sessions, standing in the background taking notes while the doctor injected him with something that made him feel like he was being boiled alive. She’d watched out of those cool, green eyes as he writhed in pain and screamed until his voice was gone. Writing on her goddamn clipboard. With not a flicker of emotion on that perfect alabaster face.

Ice bitch.

Quinn wet his lips and cajoled his rusty vocal chords into cooperating. “Come to watch the big finish, sweetheart?”

Her eyes flicked to his, the clear green of glacier ice under brows the shape of bird wings. “It doesn’t have to end this way.”

Her voice was lovely, as cool and clear as those eyes. And as devoid of emotion. If he’d had the strength, Quinn would have laughed. As it was, all he could manage was a smile, and a weak one at that. “Sure it does.”

She monitored the progress of the blood flow from his wrist between glances at his face. “You could tell them what they want to know.”

Them. Like she wasn’t part of the same unholy alliance.

Quinn shook his head. “Sorry, sweetheart. Not gonna happen.”

One of those exquisite eyebrows raised. “You would rather take the whereabouts of the rebels to the grave with you? I’m not so sure they would return the favor. Are you certain you aren’t sacrificing yourself for nothing?”

It would be almost laughable if he wasn’t twenty minutes from bleeding to death.

“I think we both know that ain’t gonna happen, sweetheart. Ten minutes from now, just when I think it might be too late to revive me, someone’s gonna run in here and pump me full of synthetic blood. And next week I’ll be back in this room with high and mighty Doctor Sterling and his toys again. We both know it, so let’s just stop pretending.”

He looked away. Down to the floor in time to see another sizable trickle of blood head down the drain.

For a second, nothing happened. Then he heard her heels click on the floor, a quick, angry rhythm. At the door, she turned for a final salvo. “You think you’re so smart, Captain Conlan. But we’re smarter. You’ll see.”

The door opened and shut with a slam.

“Yeah, yeah,” Quinn said, and closed his eyes again to wait for the darkness. With any luck, he’d be unconscious for a day or two before he woke up and realized he was back in hell. Again.

He was the luckiest son of a bitch in the universe. He had everything he’d ever wanted. The Good Fortune, the ship of his dreams; a solid little freighter with power boosters that let her outrun any but the most powerful of Rhenish destroyers. The best crew any captain could ask for. Excitement and adventure on every run. More money than he’d dared dream of when he first set himself up in the galactic smuggling trade six years ago.

And Josie. The most beautiful woman in the world, here in his bed.

She was smiling up at him, dark eyes shining and those perfect lips swollen from his kisses. Her legs were wrapped around his waist, he was buried to the hilt inside her, trying with everything that was in him to hold on, to take her with him when he went over the edge, and she knew it, knew he was teetering on the brink and reveling in the power she had over him…and then he exploded, and felt her body arch up to meet his as her laughter trickled over his heated skin. And darkness descended, and he floated in utter bliss, safe in the cocoon of Josie’s arms.

Quinn rose up to the surface of consciousness and forced his gluey eyes open. Blinking at the too-bright light, he realized he must have overslept. His mouth felt awful, full of cotton—had he been on a bender last night? That’d explain the pounding in his temples, and the way he could hardly lift his head from the pillow…

And then reality slammed back into focus as he recognized the five-by-seven cell he was in and remembered that he’d died a few days ago—again—and had been revived, again.

He’d been right. They’d waited until he was almost sure it was too late, and then they’d rushed into the room and unhooked the damned contraption on his wrist and filled him up with synthetic blood. They’d left him alone after that to recover. Here in this little room that had been his home since he was taken off the Fortune. This cell and the big laboratory with the tile floor had been his whole world since he arrived on this barren, inhospitable moon on the outer edge of the galaxy.

That was a while ago now. Months, maybe a year.

Or maybe not. It felt like an eternity, but maybe it had only been a few weeks.

There was just no way to know. No window to the outside, and the lights were always on. No way of telling day from night. They’d work on him until there was no life left, trying to break him, and then they’d let him recover until they could do it again. Sometimes he was pretty sure he’d slept for what must have been days.

Quinn shifted on the thin cot, wincing as the still tender scars on his back stretched uncomfortably. Those were from a couple sessions ago. There’d been the fingernails, and the burns, and the beatings and whippings, and then the injections. Plus some other things he’d rather not think about along the way.

The last thing they’d tried was the exsanguination. Now they’d probably go back to the thumbscrews again. And he didn’t feel too awful at the moment, so that probably meant it would be soon. They always seemed to know when he’d recovered enough that they could come back for more.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard the vacuum seal on the outer door hiss. It was almost as if he’d conjured it. For an insane moment he wondered whether they could read his thoughts, whether they’d implanted him with some sort of device during one of the many times he’d been temporarily dead—and then he realized the unlikelihood of such a thing. The Rhenians weren’t that sophisticated; just look at the torture methods they favored. It was good old-fashioned thuggery, with whips and chains and brass knuckles. And besides, if they could read his mind, they’d stop trying to force the information out of him.

But just in case, maybe he’d better not think about anything important.

Carefully sitting up on the edge of the cot, he waited for the hiss of the inner door to follow the outer. After a moment it did, and two people stepped through. The door slid back in place, leaving them all sealed inside the small chamber.

Quinn dismissed the first of his visitors—one of the prison guards—after the first brief glance and felt his eyes narrow and bile rise in his throat at the sight of the second.

It was her. Doctor Sterling’s assistant. The ice bitch His Highness kept around to take notes and to check how Quinn was holding up under the torture. To determine how much life was left in him and how much further they could go before he ran out.

This was the first time he’d had the opportunity for a good look at her when he wasn’t in the process of dying or his brain wasn’t fogged by pain, and he took his time, looking her up and down.

By Rhenish standards she was beautiful. By Quinn’s standards…

Hell, maybe she was beautiful there, too. But not in the way Josie had been beautiful, with her flashing dark eyes and flowing black hair and red lips. Josie had been heat and passion personified. Love and laughter and life. The perfect temptation.

Until she sent him and his entire crew up the river.

But this woman…if she’d ever come apart in a man’s arms, it hadn’t been in recent history.

Not that she was old. Younger than Quinn, at a guess. Maybe thirty, maybe just above or below.

What she was was stone. A statue carved in marble, pale and perfect and devoid of life. Her face was stunning, but there was no warmth in it. Her hair would probably be lovely if left to its own devices, but it was scraped back from her face with ruthless determination and braided into a tight flaxen rope coiled at her nape in the Rhenish style. She was tall, at least half a foot taller than the tiny Josie, close to Quinn’s own height, and she had none of Josie’s warm, inviting curves. Her posture was ramrod straight, as if she had an imploder lance stuffed up her ass, and the tilt of her head was arrogant, balanced on top of that long, slender neck. Long legs, a little too skinny. Narrow hips. Not much of a waist. Not much in the way of breasts, either. Nothing for a man to enjoy. The shapeless gray sack she had on under the white lab coat did nothing for her complexion or her figure, and on her feet were the ugliest pair of lace-up shoes Quinn had ever laid eyes on.

Oh, yeah, she was Rhenian, all right. Tight-assed, militant, and frigid.

And perhaps not entirely made of stone, because he could swear he saw a blush stain those high cheekbones. His low opinion must have shown in his eyes.

He grinned wolfishly. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? Been a while since you had a man?”

Something shifted in her eyes, but that was all he had time to see before the guard’s fist connected with his chin and knocked him back against the wall. The impact of his head against the concrete had him seeing stars.

The guard let out a string of invective in guttural Rhenish. Between the knock on the head and a disinclination to languages, Quinn understood less than half.

He understood enough, though. He’d insulted the lady, and the guard took offense.

Interesting.

Observing through half-closed eyes, as he pretended to be more hurt than he was, he watched as the bitch stepped in front of the guard and kept him from hitting Quinn again. He supposed he should be grateful; another blow might have knocked him unconscious. Lucky him—it seemed Doctor Sterling wanted him awake and aware.

The prison guards all looked the same. They were all young, some not even out of their teens yet. The Rhenians liked to start military indoctrination early. All were tall and fair, in gray uniforms with tall, spit-polished boots and Old Earth military headgear that shaded their faces. There was no need for protective armor; no one here could hurt them. The prison population on Marica-3 was all like Quinn: weak, defeated, and wishing for death.

The guards were armed, though. The Rhenians hadn’t gotten where they were by taking foolish chances. And besides, it made the wet-behind-the-ears recruits feel powerful. Gave them the proper crush-all-obstacles attitude, starting with the boots, with their lead-enforced tips. They carried laser pistols in holsters at their waists and good old-fashioned batons. Quinn had gotten a rap over the knuckles with a baton a few times, and it hurt.

At the moment, he was more interested in the pistol. The med tech was standing in front of the guard reasoning with him. The guard looked down at her, into that stunningly beautiful face, and Quinn could read the young man’s thoughts as easily as if they had been spelled out in a thought bubble above his head. It took one to know one, after all; he’d been in the same situation plenty through the years.

Not that the ice bitch inspired those kinds of thoughts in Quinn. No, thanks. He’d rather kiss a Marican water snake. Just as pleasant, and a faster death afterwards.

The cell was small. If he moved fast, he’d have surprise on his side. And the med tech had put herself with her back to him, providing something of a shield. Considerate of her.

He lurched to his feet. And gritted his teeth as his various injuries screamed in protest. His back spasmed, his lungs rebelled, his stomach twisted, and one of his legs threatened to give out. So much for moving fast. He was lucky he could keep on his feet at all.

Shit.

Eschewing stealth for speed, he took a few stumbling steps forward, fetching up against the lovely med tech’s back and knocking her forward into the guard. The guard’s arms came up automatically to catch her. At least the big bastard was predictable.

As they danced, Quinn slid an arm around her from the other side, twisting his body, ignoring the complaints from his back and shoulder—just another centimeter…and yes!—he felt the handle of the guard’s laser pistol under his hand. It was the work of a few seconds to pull the pistol out, twist it sideways, and burn a hole through the guard’s ribs directly into his heart.

 

Chapter Two

The sizzle caught Elsa off guard.

One second she was standing there arguing with young Olaus about why he shouldn’t hit the prisoner again—Doctor Sterling wanted Captain Conlan conscious for today’s session, and besides, she didn’t care how disrespectfully he spoke to her—and the next she was clutching a corpse which was sinking to the floor and pulling her down with it.

Stunned, she let Olaus go and watched as he crumpled to the concrete. His hat fell off and rolled, exposing cropped fair hair and wide blue eyes, fixed and staring. His face was surprised and very, very young. There was a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, and more blood flowed out of a hole in his side onto the concrete. Her right sleeve was soaked with it, clinging wetly to her arm. The smell of burned flesh stung her nostrils; mixed with the metallic tang of the blood, it made her stomach heave. Doctor Sterling always said she was too squeamish—

“Turn around.”

The gravelly voice came from behind, and with the sound, the events of the past minute realigned themselves. It was as if someone had shaken a kaleidoscope, and suddenly she could see the picture clearly.

“I’ve never shot anyone in the back,” the prisoner continued, “and I don’t aim to start now.” His voice hardened. “Turn around!”

The command lashed like a whip, laced with the authority of a man used to giving orders and having them followed. Instinct and training had her obeying without a thought when, amazingly, she found herself hesitating.

He had gray eyes, she knew, as cold and hard as Old Earth gunmetal, and when he looked at her earlier, they had been full of disdain. Did she really want those eyes to be the last thing she saw before she died?

“Now!”

She’d expected it, but she still jumped. And this time there was no denying the compulsion. She turned on legs that were stiff with reluctance and fear.

The prisoner was standing a few feet away, with the laser pistol in a two-handed grip, his knuckles white and his jaw clenched. Some of it may have been bravado, including the crack about never shooting anyone in the back, but some was sheer willpower as well. Elsa could see the beads of sweat on his forehead, and she knew just what effort it took for him to remain upright and in control. He shouldn’t have been able to stand at all, let alone fight. Four days ago, they’d bled him dry. Two weeks before, they’d whipped the skin off his back. The week before that—

“I can help you.”

She had no idea why she said it. The words just fell out of her mouth. And she knew she should be ashamed to have uttered them. She wasn’t supposed to bargain for her life. Especially not with a two-bit smuggler and collaborator like this one.

But looking into the muzzle of that laser pistol, after seeing the damage it could do, all she could think was that she didn’t want to die. Not today. Not like this.

Those gray eyes narrowed. “How?”

“You’ll need help finding your way out of the camp. It’s big. With many corridors. You could walk around for hours.”

And sooner or later someone would see him. Someone who’d either kill him on sight or capture him again, and then bring him back here.

But that wouldn’t help her. She’d still be dead. And while she’d been taught to face death with the bravery befitting a Rhenian woman, a descendant of the pioneers who had gone out from Old Earth a thousand years ago and begun the quest for dominance in the nexus, she wasn’t ready to end her life on the floor of this cell. He had no reason to spare her life, and every reason not to want to…but surely there had to be something that would sway him.

Grasping for something—anything—that might tip the scales in her favor, she had an inspiration. “You’re hurt. You’ll need medical attention. I’m a doctor.”

That got a reaction, but not the one she wanted. His face darkened. “You goddamn bitch. Now you’re offering to nurse me through the damage you and your precious Doctor Sterling did?”

Elsa blinked. When he put it like that, there wasn’t anything she could say.

“Listen, sweetheart.” His voice was a little less gravelly now but no less vicious. “The only way I’ll let you touch me is if my body is cold and dead and beyond anything you can do to it.” He leveled the gun.

“Please!”

The word burst from her lips, and Elsa cringed as it echoed in the tiny room.

He hesitated. “How do I know you won’t lead me straight to high and mighty Doctor Sterling’s lab when we walk outta here?”

“Because then you’d kill him, too,” Elsa said.

She cursed her stupidity the second the words escaped her lips. Now he would surely ask her to do just that. Then he would murder both her and Doctor Sterling, and it would be her fault. Every man, woman, and child in the empire worshipped Doctor Sterling. The medical discoveries he had made and the resulting improvements in people’s lives had made him a hero to millions of Rhenians.

Much better if the prisoner just killed her now. Not that she could muster up much excitement for the idea. Between living and dying, she’d much rather live, even if that meant she was a bad Rhenian, unwilling to die for country and glory.

“…undressed,” the prisoner said, and Elsa’s eyes flew to his face in shock, even as her subconscious recognized the absurdity in thinking of him as “the prisoner” when he was the one holding the pistol. If she succeeded in convincing him to take her with him, she’d be his prisoner.

When she didn’t immediately obey, he reiterated the order, using different words this time, and enunciating clearly, as if she might be hard of hearing or perhaps a slow thinker. “Take his clothes off.”

Oh. His clothes. Not hers.

Relief made her tongue loose. “Why?”

“Can’t walk outta here like this, can I?” He indicated the white prison-issue jumpsuit. “And my hands are a little busy. If you’ll oblige?”

Elsa turned to Olaus’s body, steeling herself for the task even as she told herself that it could have been worse. She would much rather remove Olaus’s clothing than her own.

Starting with his boots, she tugged one off, then the other, and set them aside. Next, she crawled up Olaus’s body to unfasten his trousers, taking care not to kneel in the pool of blood on the floor. As she fumbled with button and zipper, she could feel her cheeks flush and wondered if the prisoner—if Captain Conlan—noticed.

He’d been right in his earlier, crude assumption: it had been a while since she’d had the pleasure of a man’s company. She’d been on Marica-3 for a year, and in that time, there had been no one who had enticed her to abandon her morals. The guards were all too young; an affair with one of them would be beneath her position, not to mention her dignity. Doctor Sterling was too old and seemed not to need or desire human contact. As he was the closest thing she had to a father figure, that was just as well.

Major Lamb had indicated an interest, but he was approaching courtship in the old-fashioned way: decorously and properly. He assured her he valued her for her accomplishments and her loyalty and service to the regime. And yes, she knew he admired her looks, but they didn’t seem to inspire him to flights of passion.

As a result, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d performed such an intimate act as undressing a man. Her hands were unsteady, but eventually she got Olaus’s pants off and handed them to the prisoner, who began pulling them on over his overalls.

“The coat.”

His voice was strained as he tried to pull the pants up while juggling the pistol and keeping an eye on her movements all at the same time. Elsa watched him, wondering if she dared go for the gun in an attempt to gain the upper hand…and then she decided she didn’t. The comfort with which he held the weapon bespoke of long familiarity; he’d have it up and pointed before she could move more than a few feet.

She turned back to the corpse and went to work unbuckling the weapons belt and then unbuttoning the gray uniform jacket. As her hands fumbled over the rough fabric, she patted the pockets surreptitiously, making sure her body blocked her actions from Captain Conlan.

All the guards were armed with baton and laser pistol. Captain Conlan had the pistol, and the baton would do her no good against it. But some of the young men carried other weapons as well. Unofficial weapons: small and often deadly, concealed in their clothing. A knife or perhaps a throwing star. She had hoped she might find something when she pulled Olaus’s boots off—Major Lamb kept a dagger in the top of his boot, she knew—but such had not been the case.

Now she was forced to face the possibility that young Olaus might have been too straitlaced to carry an unsanctioned weapon, and her heart sank. If she survived the next few minutes, and the prisoner actually took her with him past the prison walls and into the barren interior of the moon, a sharp knife would be a useful tool. Captain Conlan had been without a woman for more than four months; who knew what thoughts might enter his head once they were alone together? Unlike Major Lamb, there was nothing courtly or decorous about the prisoner.

Not that he seemed likely to want to ravish her, Elsa admitted, at least judging from the expression in his eyes earlier. It had been total disdain, not only for her as a woman but also as a person. They were not the eyes of a man who couldn’t control his baser urges. But should he choose to try to take advantage, a knife would allow her to defend herself against him. And it would also afford her protection from the many deadly creatures that lived in the area beyond the prison walls. The venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, and flesh-eating worms Marica-3 was known for.

She had just about given up hope of finding anything useful when her hand slid over something that wasn’t part of Olaus’s physique. Turning her head slightly, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure the prisoner was still occupied with his new clothes. He was, balancing on one foot while he tried to insert the other into one of Olaus’s boots.

Turning back to the corpse, she slipped her prize out of its inside breast pocket and inspected it, taking care that her body blocked Captain Conlan’s view of what she was doing.

It was a knife. An Old Earth flick knife, small but sharp, the blade made from rare and precious steel. Carefully Elsa slid it into the pocket of her dress and returned to struggling with Olaus’s jacket and its bloody, sodden fabric.

When she got it off and handed it to the prisoner, he grunted something that might almost have been a thank-you. Or maybe not. “The hat.”

She crawled to where it had rolled, and turned, holding it out. Making sure to stay on her knees on the floor, non-threatening. It chafed to debase herself in front of him—one of the prisoners, and a common collaborator—but she had survived thus far; now wasn’t the time to do anything stupid.

From her vantage point, she watched as Captain Conlan took the hat out of her hand and put it on his head, pulling it down to shade his face, completing the transformation from prisoner to prison guard.

He was shorter than Olaus by several inches, but with the uniform pants tucked into the tops of the high boots, nobody would be able to tell that they were too long. The bottom of the belted jacket hit too low on his hips, but it fit his shoulders well. Olaus had been too young to have filled out completely. Captain Conlan was considerably thinner now than he’d been when he first arrived in the prison colony, but his shoulders were still broad. And hunched, she noticed. He stooped, as if trying to protect his soft center from blows.

Elsa had been on Marica-3 when he arrived, and she could still remember the first time she’d seen him, coming off the transport shuttle. He hadn’t looked like this then. His hair had been thick and dark, falling over his forehead, and he’d been tanned and healthy, with eyes that flashed and lips that smiled. He’d moved easily, in spite of the restraints around his wrists and ankles.

Now he looked like a different person. Thin and pale, the dark hair just a memory. The stubble covering his head held a hint of gray, at least at the temples. There were scars all over his body—she couldn’t see them now, but she knew they were there—and his face was drawn, with lines of pain bracketing his mouth and nose and radiating out from his eyes. He walked like an old man, hunched and slow, as if moving was painful.

Elsa had watched the change happen gradually over months of questioning. He’d become paler, thinner, and weaker as the weeks dragged by, yet at the same time, perversely, he’d become stronger and more stubborn. Most prisoners would have broken long ago. Instead, he’d survived everything Doctor Sterling threw at him.

Or maybe survived wasn’t the right term. They had brought him to the brink of death over and over and had lost days, sometimes weeks, of interrogation time to his recovery. He’d have been dead many times over if they’d only let him die. But Major Lamb had been adamant. Captain Conlan knew the whereabouts of the rebels, knew how to contact them, knew who was in charge of the Marican resistance and what their plans were…and the Rhenians needed that information to crush the rebellion, which had proven to be much more stubborn than anyone had anticipated. So Captain Conlan was revived and allowed to recover, while Doctor Sterling spent the downtime coming up with new and more ingenious methods of extracting information, trying them out on other prisoners first. He’d thrown all of his tricks and toys at Captain Conlan over the past four months, and the prisoner still hadn’t told him what he wanted to know. Elsa didn’t know whether to be amazed at the man’s strength or annoyed at his stubbornness.

Didn’t he realize that as soon as he talked, they’d stop hurting him?

It wasn’t like Dr. Sterling enjoyed torturing prisoners. Was it?

“Up.” Captain Conlan gestured with the laser pistol, and Elsa scrambled to her feet. Face to face, she was almost as tall as he was. All it took was a tilt of her chin to look directly into his eyes.

She didn’t. Instead, after the first quick glance, she lowered her eyes and her head. Look submissive. Don’t give him another reason to kill you. He already wants to—he must—so don’t give him another reason.

Her heart was beating so hard she thought it must show outside her clothing. Here it was, the moment of truth. Now she’d either join Olaus on the floor of the cell, or he’d take her with him, and she’d live to see another day. Or another few hours, at any rate.

“When we walk out—”

The rush of relief was so great that Elsa missed the next few words and only came back to herself when the prisoner snapped, “Listen! I’m not gonna say this again. Are you listening?”

She nodded, heart skipping. She was alive, at least for now.

“If you do anything to signal distress, or anything to clue someone in on what’s going on, you’ll be the first to die.”

“I won’t.”

His eyes drilled into hers, the truth in his voice unmistakable. “I ain’t afraid of dying. There’ve been times lately I’ve prayed I wouldn’t wake up. So if they kill me, ain’t no big deal. But I’ll take you with me if I go. Remember that.”

“I will,” Elsa said.

He glanced at the door. “Open it. And remember, stay on my left.”

She must have missed that the first time he said it. She wouldn’t forget again.

The inner door slid back with a hydraulic hiss, followed a few seconds later by the outer.

“Check the hallway.”

His voice was strained, and when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw he had the laser pistol trained on her back. Heart beating, she leaned through the door and looked right, then left, then right again. “It’s empty.”

“Then let’s go.” He tugged the hat another inch down over his face and pushed her ahead of him. Behind them, the cell doors hissed back into place.

“Which way?”

“Right.” She hesitated before she added, “There are cameras. And listening equipment. It’s better not to talk.”

He shot her a look but didn’t say anything, just took her arm and guided her down the corridor on the right.