As soon as Sam opened the door, the strong smell of smoke mixing with flat beer reached her nostrils and she winced. She should have expected a place like this when the shop owner in the little town had told her she’d have to walk two hours into the forest to reach the bar.
It was the only house for miles. Not exactly a place that welcomed ordinary customers. Her stomach clenched as she entered.
Men with grim faces scrutinized her and went about their own business again. Most of them at least. She scanned the room. Old oak tables and chairs and a rotten looking counter. Just the kind of establishment the Aschen were so keen on banning, a haven for smugglers, dealers and other criminals.
Two nights ago, she had overheard two men in a town bar talking about the resistance. Her first real clue they actually existed.
The men had been arms dealers who regularly provided the resistance with weapons—that much she’d gathered from the conversation. They’d mentioned one of the resistance leaders was in town, and that the best place to meet him was Thursday night in this forest bar. After weeks of searching, fate had been kind to her.
Sam kept the hood of her cape in place as she walked up to the counter. An obese bartender in his fifties was cleaning glasses—or attempting to. Her stomach turned when she saw the brown water he dipped the glasses into before he dried them.
“Hi.” She sat down on one of the barstools and looked around. Fourteen people, all male, including the bartender. All far enough away that she’d be able to make it to the exit door in less than five steps.
Somehow, it had become part of her routine to carefully scan her surroundings and map out an escape route in case of an emergency. Especially if there was only males around her.
A filthy looking man with greasy blonde hair ogled her from a table close by. He gave her a sly grin and two gold teeth blinked in the dim light. Sam turned back to the bartender.
“I am looking for someone.”
“Uh huh.” The man put a toothpick between his teeth without interest, and put down his dirty towel. “I’m a bartender, not an info booth.”
“Alright.” Sam pulled a silver coin out of her pocket. “I’ll take a beer, please.”
He looked at her suspiciously, still chewing on the toothpick in the corner of his mouth. “I don’t think so, lad, you’re still in your teens judging from your voice.”
Sam sighed and contemplated her choices. Revealing herself as a woman in an establishment like this wasn’t wise. On the other hand, this was her first real clue to the resistance, and she didn’t want to give up that easily.
Her eyes narrowed, she pulled the hood back and lifted her chin. The bartender’s eyes grew wide, his gaze taking in her hair, scanning her face. He cleared his throat and leaned over the counter towards her.
“Lady, I don’t think it’s wise for you to be in a place like this alone. Unless you’re looking to earn quick silver, if you know what I mean. My customers are not the honorable kind, and I make it a policy not to interfere with their business. If you get into trouble—“
“I can take care of myself.” That sounded braver than she felt, even to her own ears. “Since we’re already chatting, maybe you can answer my question. I’m looking for a contact from the resistance here. Where can I find him?”
The man scrutinized her through narrowed eyes, then straightened out and went back to drying his glasses. “I can’t help you.”
“The sooner I get what I’m here for, the sooner I’ll leave.” His face darkened and Sam winced. Okay, so maybe trying to badger a man like this wasn’t a wise plan. She was running out of choices, though.
“I advise you to leave. Don’t get involved with things you know nothing about.”
Would it help if she bribed him? She didn’t have much silver left, but maybe it would be worth the investment. Her eyes locked with the bartender’s gaze. Nope, not a chance. The man was apparently bent on not talking, and she doubted a bribe would change his mind. Maybe one of the other customers would be able to help. She glanced around the bar again.
Several gazes locked on her with interest. No wonder. She had to make quite an impression: blonde short-cropped hair, tight pants, and the rather loose black shirt from her brother reaching to her thighs. And a woman in a place like this.
She had to be careful around these guys. Their leering left little to the imagination. She knew exactly what was going through their minds.
Then her gaze fell on a man sitting in a darkened corner alone. Something about him was different, though she couldn’t pinpoint what. His dark eyes scrutinized her with an intensity that made her swallow. He leaned forward. Grey flecked his dark hair at the temples. His face was neatly shaven and clean. Overall, he looked like an honorable person, but appearances could be deceiving.
Her cheeks grew warm when he lifted his glass towards her with the hint of a smirk around his mouth. Sam averted her gaze. Great. She really had to be careful. No need to encourage anybody with gestures that might be mistaken as flirtatious.
The bartender put a glass of beer in front of her. The cleansing properties of the alcohol would probably take care of the questionable hygiene. She needed a drink.
She picked up the glass to take a sip, and her stomach turned. Some kind of indefinable lumps floated around in her beer. Flies, mold, worse? She didn’t want to know.
She leaned over the counter. “Excuse me.” The bartender turned with raised eyebrows. “Could I have another beer that doesn’t have things floating around in it?”
The man’s jaw clenched and he pulled the toothpick from between his teeth. “If you don’t like the beverage, I suggest you leave.”
“I will leave.” She fixated him with her gaze. “As soon as I get what I came for. Since you’re unwilling to help me, I’ll extent my stay for as long as necessary.”
The man threw the towel down on the counter. “Listen, Miss.” His palm slammed down on the wooden surface as a voice interrupted them.
“What’s going on?”
She turned her head. The guy from the shadowy corner stood behind her. He was almost half a head taller than her, a lot more than she’d estimated. Normally she could see eye to eye with the people she met.
“This lady refuses to take no for an answer.”
“I requested a new beer since mine is spoiled. This man doesn’t seem to care for his customer’s complaints.” Sam eyed the stranger as he raised his eyebrows. His lips turned into another smirk.
“You heard the lady, O’Brian. Get her a new one.”
To Sam’s surprise, O’Brian turned and filled a new glass with fresh beer. He mumbled something into his beard. Who the hell was this stranger?
“You have to excuse his manners.” The stranger sat next to Sam with a smile, a flirtatious glint in his eyes. “He’s not used to ordinary customers. Most people are already so drunk when they enter, they don’t even notice if their beer’s spoiled.”
She nodded dismissively and turned her head away. Appearing too friendly, or worse, inexperienced, was dangerous, and she didn’t want to give this guy the impression she was an easy victim.
He didn’t have an Irish accent. He spoke a very standardized dialect, generally only heard from people who lived in areas consisting of a heavy Aschen population.
Sam turned her head and looked down at the hand the man held out to her. Her gaze shot up to his face.
After a moment he withdrew his hand. “And you are…?”
“Someone who’s not interested.”
He winced. “Ouch.” He waved at O’Brian, apparently a signal for the bartender to give him another beer. “Not even a name?”
She was probably being unnecessarily rude. This man was trying to be nice and he’d helped her with O’Brian. Her face softened. “I know what you think. Actually, I know what most of those guys over there think. I can’t be bought, persuaded, or otherwise enticed to have sex with you in any way, shape, or form. It’s not why I came, and it’s not going to be how I leave. Understood?”
His gaze bore into her, and Sam resisted the urge to shift nervously under the intensity of his stare. Finally, he lifted his beer towards her. “Crystal clear.” They fell silent.
Sam wanted to take a sip of her beer. More floaties. Great. With a sigh she dropped the glass without touching it. Today wasn’t her lucky day.
“What are you here for?”
Oh boy. Sam rolled her eyes. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? “None of your concern.” Her tone would have prevented any further conversation from other people she knew.
“Okay, just thought I might be of help to you.”
“I gotta say, you sure stand your ground.” He smirked at the dark glance she shot at him, and shook his head. “You’re sure something. Let me to buy you a beer that isn’t spoiled. I promise to leave you alone.”
“If you think he’ll give you a better one.”
“He will.” He chuckled and she noticed the soft wrinkles around his eyes.
Warmth flooded her body and her throat turned dry. Confused, she turned away from him. “Fine, if you insist.”
Who was she to judge how the man spent his silver. From the corner of her eye, she studied him. He seemed to be well mannered, even honorable. Maybe she wasn’t doing him justice by dismissing him.
O’Brian vanished into the back. When he returned a minute later he was carrying a clean glass with fresh, sparkling beer. Sam’s mood lifted. She looked down into the clear yellow liquid. Floaty free. She took a sip. Bitter and cold, just as beer should be.
Next to her, O’Neill got up and lifted his glass towards her.
“Well, stranger. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Jack.” He stopped in his tracks and raised his eyebrows. Sam smiled faintly. “Thanks for the drink.”
“Pleasure.” He held her gaze, and then went back to his corner. Even from a distance, Sam felt his eyes linger on her.
Every now and then, she turned her head and their gazes met. Who was this guy? There was something in his eyes that made her cautious. Something relentless. Something that could be dangerous.
She turned back to O’Brian. Would she get away with asking about the resistance again? Considering his stern face and the way he seemed bent at ignoring her, not likely.
Great. All this way for nothing. Her first real clue to making contact with the resistance, and she’d failed miserably.
Sam picked up the glass and downed the contents at once. Now she’d have to start from scratch again, with sixteen silver coins in her pocket. Damn.
She slammed the empty glass down on the table. O’Brian turned his head to her, one of his eyebrows cocked up.
“Sorry.” Sam gave him a sardonic smile. “Thanks for your help.”
What now? Giving up was out of the question. She’d have never imagined making contact with the resistance would prove to be such an impossible task.
She slid down the chair to leave... and swayed. Her legs buckled under her, and the room spun slightly. Well, this was odd. She couldn’t be drunk. Not from one beer, anyway.
Her hands gripped the counter and she inhaled deeply. Bad idea to show any kind of weakness in the company she was in. If she passed out, it was a safe bet one of the scoundrels would take advantage of her, if not all of them. She shuddered and her stomach clenched.
Out. She needed to get out. Certainly, the cool night air would bring her back to her senses. She straightened and tried walking to the door. Only a few meters. It wasn’t far. Her breath hitched when her body hit the wall. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. This could not be happening. She tried to steady herself, but the room spun faster.
Strong arms gripped her around her waist, holding her up.
“Come on, just a few more steps.” A deep voice rasped next to her ear. It sounded familiar. Sam turned her head. Jack O’Neill.
“I’m not feeling so good. I think, I’m gonna…” …pass out. Oh yeah. Definitely passing out. Her mouth and tongue wouldn’t obey her anymore.
She heard the bell sound as the door opened, then cool night air hit her face. Sam gasped for air, her lungs fighting for oxygen. Her vision cleared, but only partly. This wasn’t alcohol or oxygen deprivation. If it were, she would have started feeling better already. No, this was something stronger. Oh God.
“I was drugged.” She tried to push the man away from her, but the instant she’d lost his steadying grip, she dropped to the forest floor. “Something was… in the beer. What did you do?”
She rolled onto her back, her stomach turning. The crowns of the trees above spun in a bizarre circle that reminded her of one of the carrousels at the fairs she’d visited with her dad as a child.
“Calm down. You’ll be fine.”
A warm palm rested on her belly, and she tried to push it away. Then her surroundings tumbled as somebody picked her up on his arms.
“No.” She tried to hit his shoulders, tried to move her limbs. Darkness crept in until blackness swallowed everything.