Days of Iron Sample

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As Maddy and Dorac walked down the corridor towards room 1919, he placed a hand gently on her shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

Maddy didn’t feel fine. Nerves made a hard knot in her stomach. In fact, just before leaving their suite she had had to unceremoniously vomit into the toilet. Even now, she felt like she might do it again, and that would be a shame, because the light-blue maid’s uniform she wore was the only one they had. How Igil had obtained it, how he just happened to have it handy when needed, she could only guess at. It didn’t fit her, of course, having been made for a Helot. It was far too short and too tight under the arms. A matching headscarf encased her hair – Helot hair was an unrelieved black in all but the aged.

“This isn’t going to work,” she said. “I don’t look like a Helot.”

“It’ll work long enough to get us through the door,” said Dorac. “Think short.” He chuckled. At least he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Igil wasn’t with them. Not that Maddy was glad to be there herself, but she felt more secure with just Dorac. He would protect her. Dorac had sent Igil down with their luggage to the basement to prepare the car. Igil had protested loudly, saying that as the Helot of the party he should be the one to go with Dorac, but the Sirian was adamant. It was vital to make a fast getaway, he insisted, and Igil was clearly the best driver. It was also clear Igil didn’t believe him. But he went anyway.

They came to the Marchioness’s door. 1919 in large brass numerals. In the centre of the first 9, a dark spot: the room’s security camera. Dorac stood to one side, and nodded, slowly drawing both his dagger and his pistol.

Maddy gulped nervously, her mouth dry. She felt vulnerable, especially since she wasn’t carrying any weapons, just a tray with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. She raised her hand to knock, and paused.

This was it, this was the first time she was going to commit a premeditated criminal act. A kidnapping. An abduction of an otherwise innocent human being. An act of terrorism. This was the moment Maddy stepped across the threshold. Three breaths, and then I’ll knock, she told herself. My old life ends in three deep breaths.

Impatiently, Dorac rapped on the door. Maddy glared at him and then managed to set her face into neutrality again for the benefit of the security camera.

“Yes?” said a man’s voice from the speaker above the door.

“Hola,” said Maddy, remembering at the last instant to speak Spanish. “Cuarto servicio.” She stumbled only slightly over the pronunciation.

“We didn’t order any room service.”

“Please, señor.” She had already exhausted her vocabulary. “It is a present from the holovision station.”

They had decided that was the least unlikely reason anyone would have for sending the Marchioness champagne in a strange hotel.

“One moment.” The door opened ten centimetres and the guard’s face appeared, looking Maddy up and down.

“Her Ladyship is asleep,” he said. “Who sends anyone champagne at eleven pm anyway?”

“We do,” said Dorac, as he kicked the door in.

The guard was flung backwards as Dorac barged through, slapping the flat of his dagger against the man’s right hand just in case he was carrying a weapon. He wasn’t. The man howled and grabbed his hand. Dorac followed through, bringing the butt of his pistol down on the man’s head. He fell and remained still.

The suite was similar to theirs, but grander. There was a piano in one corner, thick rugs on the floor, a sunken conversation area. But it was messy. Dirty glasses and discarded clothing lay across the parquet flooring. Bottles of designer drugs were stacked on a shelf, some empty. Open packets of food lay scattered in the kitchen area.

“Search him for any weapons,” said Dorac. “And take off his fone. I’m going to find Her Ladyship.” He stepped towards the bedroom.

Maddy groped through the unconscious man’s clothing, trying to ignore the trickle of blood down his face. There was a small pistol in his right jacket pocket. Maddy tossed it aside and unclipped his fone from his wrist, holding his right arm as she did so.

Then the man had his left hand around her throat, squeezing. Maddy instinctively pulled back, but his grip was like iron. His eyes bored into hers, his face contorted in fierce concentration as he started to choke her. Maddy slapped ineffectually at his hands and then at his face. There was no air getting through to her lungs. In a moment she would black out, and if he chose to keep squeezing after that she might be either brain-damaged or dead, depending on his whims.

His fingernails dug hard into her throat. Spittle dripped from Maddy’s mouth as she struggled to breathe. Things were growing dark now, as the edges of her vision faded and she was looking down at him through a dark tunnel. His teeth were bared in a snarl, the last thing she would see, perhaps, as she died, this man straining with effort as he strangled her.

Then his grip was gone. Maddy rolled to one side, clutching her throat, sucking in huge gulps of air. Dorac was beside her, kneeling to pick her up in his arms. His face loomed close, staring at her worriedly.

“Maddy!” he shouted, but she couldn’t do anything more than gasp and swallow for a few minutes.

“Are you all right?”

“No,” she managed to wheeze eventually.

The guard lay on the floor, and there was more blood coming out of him now, from his chest where Dorac had stabbed him. He was quite dead, cleanly and quickly, his left hand clutched tightly as if still throttling her. Dorac wiped his dagger and sheathed it, then pointed with his pistol to the Marchioness, who was standing unsteadily in the doorway to the bedroom, her long hair loose now, a blank stare on her face.

“This is a bit inconvenient,” said Dorac. “He’s dead, she’s high, and we have to get both of them down to the car.”

It took a long time in the end. Packing the Marchioness’s – and the guard’s – luggage didn’t take so long. They were only here for a few days, so had removed relatively few clothes from their ship. But it took a while to make sure they had collected everything, all the drug bottles and the cosmetics scattered in the bathroom, and checked for lost items under the beds. Maddy was sent down with the bags to where Igil was waiting in the car. He listened while she told him what had happened, and accompanied her back up to the room, where Dorac had wrapped the dead guard in a sheet and the Marchioness had passed out on a chair.

Dorac and Igil struggled now with the body down to the car, leaving Maddy alone with the Marchioness. She was lying across the chair, snoring a little, her hair falling across the floor. Maddy looked closely at her. Thirty-five, perhaps, good-looking rather than beautiful, healthy and toned. Tall, confident. Maddy pushed a lock of hair back from the face, watched the rise and fall of her breathing. There was no way she could impersonate this woman, no way in the world. It was madness.

“Is she awake yet?” said Igil behind her. He was breathing heavily with the effort of lifting the guard.

“No,” said Maddy. “We’ll have to carry her down too.”

“Dumb bitch,” said Igil.