There were few things left in this universe that could rattle Gabriel. He’d seen it all, heard it all, and worse. But the sight of Dr. Amelia Chase, warm and wet from her bath, wearing nothing but a towel, yelling at him and calling him names just about rocked his world right out of orbit.
He’d seen her in pictures around this apartment, mostly in a suit or lab coat, with someone or another shaking her hand and posing for the camera. He’d thought she was beautiful in them.
The woman had skin like silk. All peaches and cream, smelling like jasmine and heaven. Seeing her in her green towel and those ridiculous slippers, Gabriel had forgotten to breathe. Higher thought? Shit, putting a sentence together had almost been beyond him. All he could think was getting that towel off her and those smooth legs around him.
Gabriel leashed the thought in an instant. The woman was already terrified enough as it was. But how interesting that in her fear she fought instead of cowering. She was back in her room now, but his fingers still curled to tug that damn towel off her. His mouth was dry, wanting to lick every single drop from her skin.
Too long without a woman.
Yeah, way too fucking long. But it was better than the alternative.
He pushed to his feet and brushed the rest of the feathers off his torso and out of his hair. The woman had attacked him with a pillow. A freaking pillow. Though, he’d bet if she’d had the baseball bat he’d found earlier closer at hand, she’d have bashed him with it instead.
He pulled a clean shirt on over his head and sat back down, hoping she wouldn’t come out of hiding until morning. Silently willing her to come back out without that towel.
And then she did, and he just prevented himself from shooting to his feet and startling her again.
She was dressed in loose slacks and a baggy shirt, something a woman would steal from her boyfriend. Did she have one? He hadn’t seen any pictures of her with a man. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder until now. She lived here alone, he knew that much.
She came to the table more subdued than before, but her spine was stick straight, and a pair of glasses sat on her pert nose. She looked like a kid playing dress up. So much innocence, Gabriel felt like he was tainting it by being in her presence.
The doc cleared her throat. “In light of the unusual circumstances,”—her tone said just how much of an understatement that was—“I am willing to put aside what happened earlier, for now. I believe it is … not impossible … for us to have a rational conversation. After which, of course, I will expect you to leave.”
It would have sounded almost professional if he didn’t keep picturing her naked. “Fair enough,” he managed. “Please, sit.”
She hesitated, but finally sat, leaving plenty of room for herself, in case she had to bolt. He really hoped she wouldn’t. If he had to chase her down again, he might be tempted to do something stupid. “Who are you?” she asked, for the third time.
He answered only because she looked like she might actually hear him this time. “My name is Gabriel Connors.”
“Do we know each other?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
Where to begin? “Have you ever heard of the Romans, Dr. Chase?”
For a moment her gaze met his and he could see her wondering how crazy he really was. Then it was gone and she answered as if it had been a perfectly legitimate question. “Of course. Who hasn’t? But my work centers around the future, Mr. Connors, not the ancient past.”
So innocent. “I’m not talking about the past, doc. The Romans are … a society.” And he used that term lightly. “A bunch of rich fucks with an archaic fetish.” She hardly winced at his language, so he continued, keeping the information light, without the gory details. “They recruit promising talents out of college to cast them into their fantasy world. And I’m talking slaves, whores, and gladiators.”
She frowned. “What?”
“It’s like an elaborate game of make believe. They have an entire city built according to plans from ancient Rome, and they live and breathe that life. How many rich people do you know who like to pretend they’re slaves?”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? Okay?”
She shrugged. “I spent the last few months on Torrey.” As if that explained something. When he clearly didn’t get what she was driving at, she waved it aside. “What do you mean by gladiators?”
Clever little scientist, getting straight to the heart of the issue. “Think of it as cock fights, but with humans. Sometimes animals. And humans who qualify for animals.”
“Okay.” This time she said it with a little less confidence.
“These people, the Patricians, they go all out on their sick games. When I say slaves, whores, and gladiators, it’s not pretend. That’s very real. Slaves get treated worse than dogs. Haven’t seen a whore who hadn’t gotten beaten or raped at least once a month.”
“And the gladiators?”
“Fight to the death.”
She nodded. A detached observer, taking in the facts. Gabriel was curious about what she might be thinking. Her face betrayed nothing.
“The system is merit-based. A whore who does her job well can be promoted to … I guess you’d call it companion status. Still doing what she was hired for, but exclusive to one man. Sometimes passed down to the son like a possession. But at least as a companion, she has some small income of her own, jewels and such to look pretty on someone’s arm. Slaves can only get promoted to gladiator status.”
“To fight to the death.”
“Why would anyone do this?”
He shrugged easily, despite the arrow of old pain stabbing through his chest. “To prove something. Or maybe because they’re desperate. With no other prospects, on some shithole planet, if the choice is street rat in the cold or street rat in ancient Rome … many don’t even look at the fine print.” It was never that simple. Rome had a way of burrowing itself under your skin. Yes, the desperate flocked there without a second thought. But there were those who walked into the great city despite being fully informed. Because of it.
But the doc didn’t need to know that. It muddied waters already murky enough for her to wade through.
“What does this have to do with me?” she asked.
“We’re getting to that, doc,” he said.
She waved him on. “At your leisure, then.”
This might get tricky. “Gladiators,” he said, “also have ranks. The best, the crowd pleasers, can ascend to champion status. They get paid well to fight in front of a crowd. Money, women, anything they want. All they have to do is spill some blood. They say a gladiator can fight his way to freedom. But I haven’t heard of it ever happening. Probably a rumor they spread to keep the morale up. Keep them fighting.”
“Fascinating. I still don’t see what I have to do with any of this.”
Gabriel sat back, stretched his legs and crossed his ankles. She was close enough that his legs almost touched her, and she shifted the slightest bit to the side to evade him. “There is another rumor among the gladiators, doc. And this one I am tempted to believe.”
She rolled her eyes, clearly humoring him now, and not with good grace. “Oh? Why is that?”
“Because the man spreading it was a half crazy ex-con from New Alaska.”
The good doctor blanched. The first true show of emotion since she sat down.
“After a few weeks, he racked up some kills, got drunk, and let his mouth run about some kind of experiments. Said the highest security prison known to man was some kind of cesspool of mad scientists messing with people’s chemistry. Kept going on and on about people who never slept, and people who died in their sleep and were found disfigured beyond recognition. The most fucked up son of a bitch I ever met, kind of guy you’d cross the galaxy to avoid, and he was more afraid of the doctors than the mass murderer sleeping in the bunk above him.”
Gabriel watched her reaction carefully, but aside from a nervous swallow, she said nothing. Her self-control was impressive. Just for that, he decided to prod her a little. “Care to comment on that, doc?”
“What’s there to comment on?”
Interesting. “This same guy,” he continued, “told me one man survived. By the time they transferred him out, he was unrecognizable. With streaked hair and a creepy half animal face, and his skin striped like a tiger. Feel free to jump in any time.”
Dr. Chase shrugged.
“Your name came up in this particular story,” he said. “The face of an angel, and the Devil’s hand on her shoulder. His words.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, which pushed her plump breasts together and up. Gabriel almost went slack-jawed at the simple gesture, so without artifice or subterfuge it caught him off guard. “How did you happen to hear all this?”
He had to search for his voice again. “I’m a gladiator. I thought that was obvious.”
“I thought you said no one ever won their freedom.”
Clever, clever scientist. “They don’t. But they do get vacations. I got about three weeks free time before I have to get back.”
“Or they track me, and drag me back. Already wasted a week here waiting for you.”
“Yes, and why did you, again?”
“Because, doc, you’re going to help me.”
“To do what, exactly?”
He pulled a folded picture out of his pocket. It was almost falling apart. He’d folded and refolded it so many times the color had faded to white in the creases. It had gotten wet a while back and one corner was torn off. But the subject was still recognizable. He slid it across the table to her.
Amelia held his gaze a moment longer, but he didn’t blink. So relaxed, telling her all this, feeding her some crap about slaves and gladiators, while her heart was racing and her composure was starting to crack.
Finally, she made herself reach for the piece of paper, dreading what she would find. Her heart sank when she carefully unfolded it. A picture torn from some ancient magazine. There were still remnants of writing in one corner, but it was no longer legible. No one wasted paper like this anymore. Everything in the universe was created and stored in computers. Paper was precious, and that made it all the more sacrilegious for him to have torn a piece of it like this. “A panther?” The shiny black Big Cat snarled at the camera, its mouth open wide, giant fangs gleaming.
“Did some digging while I was here,” he said. That didn’t bode well. “You covered your tracks pretty well, but there were some random notes here and there. I connected the dots, found out it was all true, and here we are.”
“I want you to do to me whatever you did to the tiger guy.”
Her heart sank more. How could he possibly know? There were no random notes; she’d scoured the place clean after what Hailey…
Would her sister never stop messing up her life? Amelia had wiped her own notes years ago, moved them to a different system, with only a secure uplink cleverly disguised as a bookkeeping file on her lab computer to connect to it. But she hadn’t touched Hailey’s initial work before she left for Torrey, wanting to preserve everything as her sister had left it, in case she needed it one day to, oh, save her own life.
What do I do? What do I do?
Play dumb. Not her strong point, but she could pretend with the best of them. “I’m afraid you’ll have to explain.”
“Naturally,” he said. “Because you have no idea what I’m talking about, right?”
“God, what did you find in my notes?”
He hitched a shoulder in a shrug. “Just random words, really. Double DNA, successfully infected, despite low survival rate, things like that.”
Amelia folded the picture back up, buying herself time to think of something. “No,” she finally said, and gave him the picture back.
“No,” he repeated. “Just like that?”
“That about sums it up.”
He drew his legs back and leaned his elbows on the table. “You’ll reconsider.”
“That confident, are you?”
“I got a few aces up my sleeve.”
Oh, yes, how could she forget? “You think if you hold a gun to my head, I will do whatever half-baked insanity you come up with?”
He scowled. “You saw yourself the gun wasn’t loaded.”
“Well, I have nothing else to say to you. Good bye.” She pushed to her feet and turned to get the door for him.
Something dropped on the table. “Ever heard of ferric diamonds? Fascinating stones. Diamonds that can conduct electricity and shimmer like fairy dust. Before they’re polished.”
Do not turn around. Do not turn around. Amelia turned. In the middle of the table lay a small round stone that glittered like gold-sheened crystal. She could see the iron in it, but despite common sense, the carbon, the diamond, that encased it was completely unblemished by it. In all her years of study, Amelia had never seen one.
“One carat of raw ferric diamond sells for about one hundred thousand to the highest end retailers on Earth and any major colony,” Connors continued in that deep mesmerizing voice of his. “That little bit there is about eight carats. Keep it as a down payment. I’ll give you two more, even bigger, to do this. One when you finish, and one more if I survive.”
Amelia shook herself. “I have no need for more money.”
He grinned. “Ah, doc. A scientist like you, research is like an obsession. And after you cut all ties to the government … all the equipment downstairs can’t be cheap.”
Government employment wasn’t exactly a matter of public records, but at least she had a fairly good idea about where he’d found out about it. In her lab. Her unsecured notes. As far as he knew, Amelia was currently unemployed and quickly burning through her reserves to power this place. He had no idea about her commercial contracts and patents.
“You’re trying to pay me to kill you? An expensive way to commit suicide. And quite painful.”
“No, I don’t want to die. Just need an advantage before they chase me down.”
“Why don’t you sell the stones and use the money to disappear?”
Fury darkened his features. “I want to show you something.” He came around the table, leaving the precious stone there, grabbed her hand and dragged her along to the front door. The suitcase was in his way. He sent it skidding with one solid kick. Amelia wished she could have done that herself. He took her down to the lab, making his way around her equipment in the dark, as if he’d done it so many times already he no longer needed the light.
At the main console, he released her and turned on the computer. He slipped a ring she hadn’t noticed before off his finger, flattened it, and then he inserted the disc into a media slot. The holographic video played almost instantly. Like a scanned image, the disc created a scene in the middle of the room, and in the darkness, Amelia felt like she was there.
Everything was fuzzy; the recorder must have been covered by some kind of veil. An arena appeared in front of her, where three men in ancient armor battled with swords and shields. As she watched, one of them drew blood.
The wounded man dropped to the ground. It wasn’t a fatal injury, but it was serious enough that blood stained the sand. As he struggled to his feet, a lion charged out of one of the darkened archways. It launched itself at the injured man while the others fell away. Blood sprayed as the man was torn apart. The other two fighters immediately teamed up to slay the beast, before they turned on each other.
The entire battle took less than five minutes, but it was enough to give Amelia nightmares for weeks to come. Finally, one man fell, and the other pressed the tip of his sword to his throat. But he stopped. Breathing hard, he looked over his shoulder up into the crowds.
“Right there,” Connors said. “That man in the middle of the balcony. That’s the Caesar. All he needs to do is indicate his wish with a look, and it is done. If he sees a woman he favors, she is his. If someone wears a robe he likes, the person is stripped of it, willing or not. He only has to wave his finger, and a man dies.”
Just then, the Caesar gave a signal and, without looking at his opponent, the gladiator stabbed through the loser’s throat. The man on the ground struggled, but he could not budge the sword. It had stabbed into the ground and pinned him there.
“Caesar so loves to wave his finger,” Connors said bitterly.
“Why are you showing me this?”
“Evidence,” he said. “I need you to believe me when I tell you this is happening right now. I got a short reprieve, but there are countless others still trapped there. I plan to get them out.”
Her tired mind picked up on something that didn’t quite ring true. Amelia didn’t know what it was but she didn’t have to. He had to realize how idiotic he sounded. “By yourself?”
“It only takes one man to show the others what they’re capable of. All the money in the world can’t stop a raging warrior from slaying his jailer. But that warrior has to know he can do it.”
Had he rehearsed that little speech in front of her mirror? “Like I said, suicide.”
He shook his head. “Not if you help me. Not if I can take out Caesar.”
Ah, and there was the core of it.
“You’re my one hope here, Amelia.”
She flinched at the use of her name.
“If you don’t help me, and I fail, I won’t just die. Caesar will have me punished. Along with everyone I associated with, just to prove a point.”
“Oh, so it’s not suicide you want to hire me for,” she said. “It’s aiding a murder. Well, that changes everything. Get out.”
He blew out a breath in frustration. “The Caesar is the center of it all. Cut the head off a snake—”
“And two more grow back in its place.” She knew this better than anyone. New Alaska had started out with one warden. There’d been five, one for each block, by the time she’d left.
And each had been worse than the guy before. There were nights when she still woke up from nightmares of prisoners breaking out in a riot and wondered how someone like her had survived there.
It never took long to answer herself. She’d been too valuable, her research too precious to risk. She’d been guarded day and night, watched every second to make certain she was safe. Safe, and doing what they wanted her to do.
“I can do this, doc,” Connors said. “But not without your help.”
She reached past him to turn off the projector. “I really don’t see myself caring.”
He caught her arm before she pulled away. “Of course you care,” he said softly. He was staring into her eyes, as if he could see her soul. His gaze was sharp, but somehow still hot. His fervor was evident. He needed her to do this. “I can see it clear as day.”
“Then you see what you want to see,” she countered.
He half smiled, but it wasn’t with amusement. “You hide your feelings; push them deep down so no one can touch you. But you do it to protect your heart, not deaden it. Because if you let yourself, you care too much. And it hurts.”