The plip of water, annoying as it may be, beside his head was the ongoing reminder he still lived. The radiating pain coursing through him was the other aide-mémoire he breathed. It was excruciating to complete the simple task. Calling his situation ‘alive’ fell into the ‘it’s a stretch’ category.
Ethan Jackson had gone and gotten himself into one hell of a situation.
Rats crawled along his feet and up his legs, biting when and where they chose. He didn’t move. There was no point in expending his limited energy in a major attempt to knock the vermin off when they’d just climb back on. Time had long since lost all meaning for him. Other than pain, pretty much everything had. He struggled to remember the faces of his sister and cousin. And his own name.
Heavy footsteps clomped along the damp concrete hall. Every few paces—three—the foot splashed into a puddle. He tensed—either he was losing more time or they were coming back to torture him once more.
Muffled voices reached him as the footsteps stopped. He waited for the door to open, anxious for the tiniest shaft of grimy light to penetrate his world of darkness. After a period of his own warring uncertainty, he noted the footsteps move on. He closed his eyes and attempted to get more rest.
He’d seen the rows of doors each time they’d dragged him to a better-lit room to torture him. He was unsure, however, if there were actual people behind them. Screams—other than his—came occasionally but he’d yet to see another who was being treated in the same vein as him and hadn’t given in to the belief there were more prisoners here.
Wherever the fuck I am.
All he recalled with positive clarity was Virginia had been his last definitive location. However, again, that was where the time issue came back into play. He had no knowledge of how long he’d been a prisoner. His struggle to remain alert and strong was more than enough of a challenge. With the rotten food and putrid water, there wasn’t much in the way to sustain mental acuity or physical prowess.
The footsteps returned and he forced himself to remain still and not tense.
He opened his eyes in time to see Hitler’s poster boys standing over him and one deliver a powerful kick to his ribs. Movement was slow—no one wanted to hurry to their next bout of torture.
Ethan didn’t help much, aware they would drag him up and out of the tiny cell. Sure, his knees got the brunt of it but he conserved energy. True to form, they swore at him in German before yanking him up by his armpits.
All y’all are going to die. I will not die in this cesspool. I’ll escape and kill each of you for what you’ve done to me. His mantra played on a continuous loop in his mind. It offered the slightest bit of hope to his situation.
They dragged him from the cell, his legs sliding over water and other substances he didn’t want to think about. He eyed the heavy black boots the two men had, wishing they were on his feet. His own shoes were long gone.
A stone door opened and they entered. Squinting from the light, he gazed around the room. Ethan recognized the man who implemented the torture. His gray linen suit perfectly pressed. Then again, it always was…at the start.
This time there was another in the room. Thin and clad in torn clothing, a black girl stood there holding a tray of something he couldn’t see. Not that he wanted to know what it held.
“Mr. Jackson,” the man said in a quiet authoritative tone, sliding off his suit coat. “This is going to be our last meeting.” He unbuttoned and rolled up his sleeves, the gray vest perfect against his crisp white shirt. “You have been a most amazing volunteer. Your ability to withhold your cries of pain has made you somewhat of a legend.”
He pulled on the bottom of his vest. “I wonder if your sister will last as long once she’s in my chair. Will her screams be full-bodied or sharp and high? I want to find out. I shudder with anticipation.” He grinned. “I will leave you to them. They want to inflict pain on you and we have so few joys out here in the rainforest.”
Ethan’s blood turned to ice at the mention of his sister. Rage poured into him as if someone had opened the floodgates. He struggled to remain impassive. Internally, however, he killed the German he knew only as Rolf, very meticulous and slow, not to mention with excruciating pain.
He lifted his gaze and focused on the female. She held his gaze, dropping hers to stare at the floor. I’m in the rainforest.
“Put him in the chair.” The order was barked in German.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee shoved him in the chair then held his arms. He glared at the man who neared, memorizing him so he would be able to find him in the future and kill him. An alarm blared and Rolf pivoted.
“Goddamn locals!” He ran to the door, the two goons following, slammed it shut, locking Ethan in with the woman.
Ethan held himself immobile for a tense moment. Was it a trick? He darted his gaze to her. She continued to stand in the far corner, eyes still on the floor, as if trying to make herself as small as she could or invisible.
He pushed up from the wooden chair, his attention split between her—who appeared a bit older than he’d first believed—and the door. Now that he was upright, he saw some syringes on the tray.
One step toward her then the door crashed open, allowing the Hitler poster boy to barrel into the small cell. Ethan didn’t hesitate, just lunged at him and brought him down, digging his ragged nails into the man’s eye sockets. While it took him longer than it should have to overpower and kill him, he soon stood, victorious. Blood dripped from his fingers.
He peeked back to the woman on the side. She hadn’t moved.
“Come here,” he snapped, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand before he patted down the dead man.
She didn’t move.
He ordered her again in German. She lifted her head and sighed softly then shuffled toward him. Her steps were slow, as if she bore some unseen shackles on her thin legs, but her speed—little that it was—remained constant. Ethan took the syringes, checked to make sure they were capped and put them in his pocket. Then he removed the boots and socks of his jailer.
The entire time, alarms blared and she stood like a statue.
“Come,” he barked in German.
Again, she listened but he noted her hesitation. He yanked the tray from her hands and tossed it away. Her body jerked and trembled.
What kind of man leaves a woman in with a prisoner? Either she’s expendable or the racist fuck trusts her.
He snaked his arm around her neck, grateful his fingers were around the man’s assault rifle. He held the side arm in the hand by her throat. “You’re my ticket out. Where’s the exit? And I will kill you first if you lead me to a trap.”
Her body never stopped trembling as she pointed down the darkened passageway. In the back of his mind, he could hear his grandmother’s mental reprimand about how wrong it was to treat women in such a fashion. He pressed the muzzle against the junction of her neck and shoulder.
“Don’t test me,” he commanded in guttural German.
His prisoner never spoke a word as she pointed him to his freedom. Tense, exhausted, he remained alert when they came to a dead end.
He growled under his breath. “I warned you.”
She pointed up and he followed with his gaze. A hatch along the wall with a rough ladder built into it.
Ethan pushed his exhaustion to the back of his mind. “We’re about to get all kinds of personal. Same rules apply.” He shouldered the rifle, pushed her toward the ladder. Shoving the handgun in the front of his nearly destroyed pants, he pressed against her. “You climb with me. Don’t be stupid.”
Still nothing verbal from her. She reached out and began to climb. He mimicked her, keeping her tight between him and the ladder. At the top, she halted and he reached over her to open the hatch, inch by inch.
Blue sky dotted with white clouds had him squinting as tears sprang to his eyes. After months of near darkness, this sliver of real light bordered on painful. He nudged her up one more step. It wasn’t pretty but he got them out.
One hand around her mouth, he closed the door, his gaze darting around. Backing away, toward the thick waiting rainforest, he moved them from the groomed area of the compound.
Voices had him dropping flat to the ground, eyes locked with his hostage, the barrel of the Desert Eagle by her chest between her breasts. No anger was in her eyes, only acceptance of whatever he decided to mete out to her. It rubbed him wrong.
She held his gaze and barely blinked as two men passed by. Perhaps she’s not working with them. He had a hard time believing these arrogant replicas of the Third Reich would employ—much less trust—a black woman. He moved without delay as the men continued on. Not very thorough with alarms going off.
Ethan breathed easier when the rainforest swallowed him up. At least now he had a chance. More alarms blared and he realized his escape had been noted.
A feral grin crossed his face. Time for some payback. He turned to the woman. He ran his gaze over her then around. Stepping away, he took hold of some vines.
“Against the tree.”
She didn’t argue and he roped her tight with as much speed as he could. Patting his pocket to ensure the syringes were there, he met her gaze. “Keep quiet and I’ll come back and cut you free. I have no designs to hurt you if you follow what I say. You help them and I’ll kill you as well.”
Again, not so much as a sigh. She’d resigned herself to her fate. There went that damn niggling again. He tapped the gun against his cheek as he backed away. He had some men to kill then a home with a life to return to.
* * * *
“Wake up, Mino.”
“This better be a damn good reason for you to be in my bedroom, Beauregard.”
He kicked her bed frame with one booted foot as he turned on a light. “Come on.”
“You breaking into my home is a bit much, don’t you think?”
“It wasn’t hard. Your security system sucks.” Beau stared at the woman glaring at him. Her gaze raked over him before it narrowed.
“You’d better not be bleeding on my floor.”
He didn’t pause or look to his newest injury. “I need you to take out a bullet.”
She tossed back the blankets and slid from her double bed. “They have hospitals, you know. Places where trained people wait to do those kinds of things.” She planted her hands on her hips clad in Wonder Woman images and symbols. Never knew she was into Wonder Woman.
She yawned. “They even have the proper equipment. Then you wouldn’t have sauntered into my dreams.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
She held out a hand and waved it at him. “Not what I meant, because I wasn’t indicating you were in my dreams. I meant because you interrupted my dreams and—oh, never mind. Let’s get this over with so I can go back to sleep.”
He trailed her into the small bathroom where he sat on her counter then drew off his shirt.
“You know I’m not a doctor.” She removed her eye mask and wasted no time putting her hair up in a ponytail.
“You were in med school.” Her gaze snapped to him. “I checked you out. You did three years before—shit!” He jerked his head to where she’d poked his injury. “That hurt.”
“My personal life is off limits.”
You don’t have a personal life. You were sleeping alone on a Friday night. He kept that to himself as she poked and prodded to get out the bullet.
“If you look like this, what do the others look like?”
She grunted. “I won’t lie to Masters when he asks.”
“I’ll be gone by then.”
She paused, moving back to peer at him. “You have word on Ethan?”
He stared in her eyes. “Yes.”
Mino held his gaze then returned to his injury. “Where is he?”
“Venezuela.” Aside from a select few, he’d not shared that with anyone. Mino was one of theirs. Personal secretary to his boss. Someone who had no problem helping them out. But she answered to Masters.
“When do you leave?”
She turned and walked to her bedroom, removing the gloves as she did so. He hopped off and followed, hand over his still-open wound. She was shoving items in a bag.
“What are you doing? I need you to finish this.”
She tugged a sweatshirt on then removed the blue cami she’d been wearing, tossing it into a wicker hamper in the corner. “Packing.”
“I gathered that,” he drawled. “Why?”
After putting on a bra, she shucked her shorts, exchanging them for some hot pink lounge pants. “To go.”
“Hell no. You’re not coming.”
She snorted and grabbed another pack that she checked before nodding sharply. “Let’s go. I’ll patch you up on the flight.”
He took her upper arm as she tried to move by him, one bag over her shoulder and a duffel in the other. “You’re not going.”
“Yes. I am. Let’s go.” Defiance sparked in her light-brown eyes.
“I’m not taking care of you in the rainforest.”
“May not even recognize me.”
“He may not but chances are he will most likely need medical attention. What were you planning on doing, taking him to the local hospital?” She jerked free of his touch and left the room. She cleaned up her bathroom and waited for him by the door.
Damn. She was right.