“That’s him.” O’Neill’s gaze fixated on a man in a suit coming towards them. Three men followed him, all of them wearing guns at their belts.
Sam swallowed hard and checked the gun at her own belt. She’d seen the kind of guys they were dealing with in the month before she’d joined the resistance. Their motives were rarely honorable. Better to be prepared for anything.
O’Neill raised his eyebrows at her. “You okay?”
“Yes, sir. They just don’t look like trustworthy people.”
He gave her a smirk and nudged her with his shoulder. “They’re not. Which is why I’m taking you as backup.”
“Just relax. Raymond Reddington’s as honorable as they come. His syndicate has supplied us with weapons for almost five years now. Unless you wanna screw him over, there’s nothing to worry about.” He leaned in. “Still, keep an eye on him. And I need you to check the goods. Ya know, make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to.”
“Oh.” Sam nodded. Was that why Sheppard had spent all of yesterday briefing her about how to determine the quality of a handgun?
“And don’t mention the resistance. To them we’re just another local crime syndicate dealing in weapons and technology.”
“Yes, sir.” Okay, don’t mention the resistance, keep an eye on them, check the goods. Shouldn’t be that hard to accomplish. Her fingers trembled. She folded her hands behind her back to hide it as they approached the criminals.
O’Neill’s face became a hardened mask. He and the criminal greeted each other with false smiles and empty words.
“How’s life down here?”
“Good. How is your wife?”
“Lizzie? She’s very well, and as lovely as ever. Newest acquisition?” The man took off his hat and eyed Sam with obvious curiosity.
“My associate. I see you’ve replaced some of yours?” O’Neill looked at the men behind Reddington.
“Well, sometimes you have to clear the rotten fruit from the apple basket before they spoil the rest.” Reddington laughed. The men shook hands. “Your goods are on my boat, if you want to take a look at them.”
“Great. Carter’ll check them if you don’t mind?”
Sam glanced at Reddington. It had to be clear to him O’Neill wasn’t really asking a question. Still, it seemed part of a well-perfected routine.
“The woman is a weapons expert?”
Reddington raised his eyebrows and smiled at her. He looked almost friendly, but she knew better than to fall for appearances.
“A woman versed in sciences and weapons? Intriguing. Not to mention advantageous in covert operations. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to sell her to me?”
She held her breath and looked at O’Neill. His face remained blank, but something in his eyes darkened. “She’s not my property, Ray. She’s an associate. I advise you and your men treat her as such if you want us to keep doing business in the future.”
Reddington nodded, signaling the way to the boat. “As you wish. This way.”
O’Neill indicated for her to follow him. Sam cautiously fell into step behind him as the men led them along the pier. Every instinct told her following the men onto their ship wasn’t a good idea, but O’Neill looked calm and controlled. She trusted his instinct.
He’d completed these transactions before. Surely he knew what he was doing, and how to deal with criminals.
The cargo hold of the middle-sized boat wasn’t overly big. In the dim light of a petroleum lamp, Sam recognized about a dozen boxes, all standing in a row.
“You had quite an extensive order this time.” Raymond signaled one of his men to open the first box. “It wasn’t easy to acquire some of the parts. Especially the grenades. Since the new Aschen laws prevent humans from manufacturing or assembling explosives, I had to be very creative.”
O’Neill turned. “Our customer’s willing to pay a ten percent bonus to cover any additional expenses.” His smile looked controlled, dangerous. He had to have expected the raise in price. “Provided they meet the quality requirements. Carter?”
Right. This was her cue. With a glance at the criminals, she walked up to O’Neill. Two of Reddington’s men followed suit. Their proximity made her fidget, and she swallowed hard as she stopped next to her commanding officer.
He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. She picked up one of the grenades from the open box and examined it. Well crafted. Heavy, which meant metal instead of cheap plastic parts. She gave the pin a little tug. It loosened easily.
“Genuine, and well crafted, sir.”
“Of course they are.” Reddington gave them a false smile.
They stepped over to the second box. P-90s. She took one out and held it in front of her. Good handle. Normal weight, not too light or heavy.
O’Neill handed her a magazine and she thrust it in, then lifted the weapon and fired. Nothing. The trigger blocked. Brows raised, she repeated her steps. Same result.
Calmly she put the weapon back and took another one from the shipment. Again it wouldn’t fire. Probably poorly manufactured triggers.
“These aren’t any good, sir. I might be able to fix them, but it would require additional resources and time. Our customer doesn’t have use for them the way they’re now.”
“Ray, I’m disappointed.” O’Neill folded his arms, mock-reproach in his voice. Contrary to his words, he must have expected something like this. Why else would he have taken her to check the shipment?
“I don’t know how this happened. I assure you my supplier insisted they were top quality weapons.” Reddington shook his head.
“I’m sure he did. But these won’t do. If you can supply a batch of working ones, I’ll be happy to offer you a good price for the next shipment.”
He refused to pay for the weapons? The hair at the back of her neck stood as the two men eyed each other darkly. Her muscles tensed. Reddington wasn’t going to do something stupid, was he?
Then the criminal relaxed and laughed. “Of course. I’ll be happy to give you the next batch with a twenty percent discount.”
“I have another list of things we need, so I expect the replacement with the next shipment. I can go over the details with you while my associate checks the rest of the boxes.” O’Neill pulled a piece of paper out of his back pocket.
Reddington nodded. “Very well.”
Sam gave him a faint smile, indicating she was going to be okay. “Yes, sir.”
The two men stepped aside to negotiate the details of the next shipment. Sam walked to another box to go through the rest of the weapons.
She opened each box and examined the weapons and gadgets inside. One of Reddington’s watchdogs followed her every step. A tall, unpleasant-looking man in his mid-forties who exuded a rotten smell. He didn’t let her leave his sight. As though she’d be able to steal something or break things on purpose.
“So… you a scientist?” A sly grin played around his mouth.
Sam glanced at him with a curt nod. “Yes. Physicist.”
She wasn’t in the mood to start a conversation with him, so she remained focused on the task. Handguns. She picked one up and cocked it. Easy handling, well crafted. She unhooked the empty magazine. It slid out immediately, and fastened with a click when she pushed it back in. Perfect craftsmanship.
She bent down and put the weapon back into its slot in the box. Then she froze.
A warm hand trailed across the cheeks of her buttocks. The bastard was touching her. Rage welled up inside her. When the gangster hummed with appreciation, she closed her eyes. She didn’t care who he was or how many guns he had, he had no right to touch her like this.
“Take your hand off me.” Her voice was a mere hiss as she straightened and stepped away from him.
He grinned insolently, baring a row of blackened teeth. He leered, his gaze raking over her body. “How does a pretty thing like you end up in a job like this?” He stepped closer, reaching out to touch her arm.
Sam took a step back and slid around the container to the next row of boxes she had yet to check. “I’m not interested in you, and I don’t do small talk.”
“You think you’re too good for someone like me?”
Suddenly he moved in behind her and pulled her hard against his body. She caught her breath. Disgust overwhelmed her when his free hand grazed her stomach, then trailed up to squeeze one of her breasts through her shirt.
Her elbow crashed against the man’s ribcage and he released her with a groan. She spun around and glared at him. “I said, don’t touch me.”
He grinned darkly. “A sassy one. Oh, I’d have so much fun taming you.”
Taming her? Her eyes narrowed. When he took a step towards her again, she snapped her fist up and hit the man’s nose.
Ouch. Damn, that hurt. She winced, satisfied when the man tumbled backwards with a grunt and held his nose.
The gangster’s face registered shock and confusion for a split second, but then his eyes blazed. Before she could blink, he’d drawn his handgun. The cold muzzle pressed against her forehead, the safety unlocking with a soft click. She froze.
“You little bitch!”
Ice poured into her veins. Crap. One look in his eyes told her he wasn’t kidding around. “I… I…” Her voice trembled.
The gangster ran his hand over the corner of his mouth, scowling at her. Then he tensed visibly when another gun clicked right next to his ear.
“Drop it.” O’Neill’s voice was a dark rumble. Sam’s eyes shifted. She didn’t dare breathe.
Jaw clenched, O’Neill glowered at the gangster as he held his gun with a steady hand. The darkness in his eyes sent a chill through her.
“Red, I’m disappointed. Is this how you treat associates of long-term customers?”
Reddington strolled up the cargo hold to stand next to him.
An air of violent darkness surrounded O’Neill. For a moment, Sam could imagine him as one of these gangsters. Dark. Dangerous. Deadly. Like the man she’d first met in the barn in Ireland.
“She hit me.” The gangster released a growl. “Seems you don’t have your associates under control.”
She managed a glare. “I wouldn’t have hit you if you hadn’t touched me.” If only her voice didn’t shake so much. She turned her head and stared directly into the barrel of his gun. If he pulled the trigger now, she’d die so quickly she wouldn’t even realize what had happened. Cold fear numbed her muscles, and the blood drained from her face.
“Drop. It.” O’Neill didn’t move. “You got five seconds.”
Oh God, he was capable of killing the guy. His relentlessness was terrifying—and fascinating at the same time. She looked at the gangster in front of her. “Listen, I didn’t…”
Bang. The gunshot echoed hollow through the metal walls of the cargo hold.
Warm drops hit her face. It’s over. She waited for the pain, numbness, cold darkness. Nothing happened. She stared into the gangster’s widening eyes, then at the dark red circle at the side of his head.
Mortified disbelief flashing across his face, the man crashed to the ground. A head shot, well aimed and coldly executed. That couldn’t be. O’Neill hadn’t just…
Slowly she lifted her head to stare at O’Neill who dropped his gun. Oh God. But then he turned to Reddington. She followed his gaze.
The gangster lowered his revolver and holstered it at his belt. “Sorry about that.” He gave Sam a nonchalant smile as though incidences like these were everyday occurrences for him.
Face blank, O’Neill lowered his gun. Sam wiped her palm across her forehead and nose. Blood. Her breath hitched. She had drops of the man’s blood on her face. How the hell could O’Neill act as though nothing had happened? There was a dead body on the ground. A man had been shot right before his eyes.
And Reddington? He apparently killed people on a daily basis. What the hell had she gotten herself into?
“You better make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.” O’Neill glared at Reddington. “I don’t like people threatening my associates. And I don’t appreciate having to deal with your mess and the incompetence of your subordinates.”
Mess? Did he really refer to a man getting killed as a mess?
“You okay?” Her gaze snapped when he grabbed her arm. “Carter.”
She stared at him. Instantly, his grip loosened and his expression gentled. He reached into his pocket and handed her a tissue. She took it, and wiped across her face. The metallic smell of blood mixing with the residue of gunpowder was beginning to make her nauseous.
“Finish the inspection of the goods.” His voice had a soft edge.
“What about…” Sam’s gaze drifted down to the body. He placed his fingers under her chin and tipped her head up, forcing her to meet his eyes.
“He’s not our problem. Be glad it’s him lying there and not you.” He leaned in to her ear. “Finish the job. We’ll talk about this later.”
With those words he released her and walked back to Reddington. Shakily, Sam forced her attention back on the remaining boxes. She had a job to finish.
The instant they stepped out of the damp cargo hold, Sam inhaled the fresh, salty sea air. Thank God they were finally out. She checked her watch. Only half an hour? It had felt much longer to her. Especially with the body on the ground, his empty eyes staring at her.
The gangster had died because of her. Because of a misunderstanding… How crude and violent to just shoot a subordinate like that. How could O’Neill just brush it off and act as though nothing was wrong?
She watched as the men exchanged another round of meaningless pleasantries. Reddington’s remaining two men carried the boxes out of the ship’s cargo hold onto the pier. She checked to make sure they delivered all of the right boxes, and then sat down on one of them, while the men said their goodbyes.
Her gaze drifted out to the horizon, the endless ocean. The sun stood low already. Waves lapped calmly at the pier.
She turned her head when O’Neill sat down next to her.
“You did well.” The hint of a smile played around his mouth.
“If you consider being responsible for a man’s death doing well.” Maybe she shouldn’t be so snippy. And maybe he shouldn’t be so damn indifferent considering what happened.
His smile faded. “He should’ve kept his hands to himself. I expected something like this to happen.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “You expected it? How about giving me a heads-up. Maybe I would have handled the situation differently to avoid such an outcome.”
“These guys are criminals, Carter. You can’t play nice with them. If they sense fear or hesitation in you, they won’t respect you as an equal business partner. You reacted the right way and ascertained credibility. His men will never disrespect you again.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. A man had died, just so O’Neill could make sure she showed her muscles?
“I disagree, sir. It was entirely unnecessary.” She scoffed. “A man just died. Because of me.”
“No.” His voice was hard and he frowned at her. “He died because he didn’t treat Reddington’s business partner with respect.”
She frowned at him, then turned her head to look at the ocean again.
“Carter, with those people it’s either you or them. Deal with it.” His voice gentled. “This won’t be the last time you’ll see something like this. I know, you’ve never been trained to kill.”
She remained quiet. She’d been trained as a soldier, but this was different. In the field she never shot to kill. She shot to defend herself. What she’d just witnessed wasn’t self-defense. It was cold-blooded murder.
“And you have?” Her gaze locked with his.
“I have what?”
“You’ve been trained to kill?”
Just yes? She just stared at him slack jawed. His face remained blank.
“I guess I forgot…” She swallowed hard. Of course he hadn’t become commander of a resistance cell by playing it nice with people. “You’ve shot people like that, haven’t you?”
He held her gaze. “Close range? Yes, I have.”
There wasn’t even remorse in his voice. She closed her eyes. “Oh God.”
“I’m not gonna apologize for it, if that’s what you are hoping for. It’s part of the job. I don’t like it, but sometimes it’s necessary.”
She stared at the water. Sunlight reflected off the waves. Somewhere above them seagulls screeched.
It had been naïve of her to think O’Neill hadn’t killed before. He’d made it all the way to camp commander after all. She’d always been able to push the thought aside. During the time she had worked with him, he had never displayed the kind of darkness she’d witnessed now. The relentlessness in his eyes, the determination.
Perhaps over the marriage debacle, the off-world missions and their banter, she’d become a little sidetracked.
“Hey.” O’Neill nudged her with his shoulder. “I wasn’t the one who shot the guy.”
She studied him. “No, sir, but you were ready to. I saw it in your eyes.”
He nodded. “He was threatening to kill you. I’d rather have him dead than you.”
Warmth washed through her and she shifted. Why on Earth did his statement make her feel fuzzy? This was inappropriate. She folded her arms. “I’m sure he wouldn’t have shot me.” Was she, though? The criminal had looked pretty damn determined.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” O’Neill leaned against the box behind him with a sigh. “I don’t like killing, Carter. I avoid it whenever possible.”
“Reddington apparently doesn’t.” She leaned back as well, her arm brushing his.
“Reddington doesn’t interfere in the way I handle my subordinates, and I don’t tell him how to deal with his. Live and let live, that’s how the business works. We can’t be picky about the men we do business with. Reddington’s reliable and trustworthy in his deals. Besides, his subordinates aren’t innocent people. The man he shot was probably engaged in prostitution, slave trade, and weapons smuggling.”
“I know that.” Sam studied the reflections of sunlight on the waves in the distance. “I guess I even expected that kind of behavior from them. But you… You were so cold, as if taking a life was completely meaningless. For a moment in there you were one of them.”
She felt his gaze rest on her and didn’t dare turn her head.
“Sam.” She held her breath at the gentleness in his voice. “I’d never hurt you. Or anyone at camp. It’s my responsibility to protect my people. Sometimes that’s not a pretty job. If I had the choice, I’d opt for another way. I can’t change the way it is. I don’t enjoy killing. But if there’s no other way, it doesn’t come hard to me.”
She released a breath.
“Do you think that’s something you can live with?” He sounded seriously concerned. Sam shifted and inhaled deeply. His question was almost too intimate, targeting something beyond their professional relationship. Tingles fluttered through her stomach.
It wasn’t his fault his job required drastic measures. He’d made clear to her during boot camp training that their work in the resistance came with sacrifices. She knew he could be a dangerous, relentless soldier if he wanted to be.
He was still the same man. It had just been a new situation. And something about his darkness thrilled her, stirred something inside of her that made her tremble with excitement.
At last, she nodded. “Yes, I can.”
His mouth twitched into a smirk and he squeezed her arm gently. Then he moved to get up.
“Sir.” She stopped him in his tracks. “Why did you take me with you today? You know weapons aren’t my specialty. Colonel Mitchell or Colonel Sheppard are a lot more qualified to handle these things. And they usually do. So why me?”
He brushed some dust off his black khakis. “If you wanna get into command someday, you’ll need to learn to handle these things. You gotta be able to do things you don’t like, and deal with shady people.”
She straightened. “Command?”
“You said you’re interested in giving orders someday.”
“Yes, but I didn’t think you were serious when you…” She shook her head, baffled. “I’m a woman, and besides, I thought…” She locked her gaze with his. “I assumed you shared my father’s opinion regarding my position in the resistance, given the fact that we’re…” Great. The dreaded subject of their marriage again. She winced.
O’Neill sighed. “Carter, I thought you’d know me better than that. I made my opinion on that matter clear. You’re qualified and you’re interested in command, end of story. Putting you in a low-ranking position just to keep you out of harm’s way would be a waste of your talents.”
Heat flooded her at his smile. He really supported her command efforts? Maybe she’d been wrong about him.
He shrugged. “It’ll be a few years until I can give you your own Stargate team, but the earlier we start preparing you, the better.”
“Thank you… sir.”
He raised his eyebrows. “For what?”
“For the opportunity.”
He smiled. “I’m gonna radio Sheppard and the rest so we can start carrying this stuff into town. Can you label the boxes according to their contents?” He threw a roll of labels at her.
She caught it. “Yes, sir.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Roughly an hour later, all the boxes were loaded onto two donkey-drawn carriages standing in the market place, ready for transportation to camp. Mitchell went through the cargo list while Sheppard fed a carrot to one of the donkey’s and patted its head.
As Sam got ready to walk up to camp behind the carriage, O’Neill gave her a gentle nudge and signaled her to step aside. Brows raised, Sam followed him to the side of the road. “Sir?”
“Thank you, sir.”
He cleared his throat and looked around the marketplace. “So… lunch?” He concentrated too hard on folding up the transport papers.
She held her breath. Did he just ask her out? “Um, sir?”
“I’m starving. And today’s Steak Day at O’Malley’s. The best, juiciest steaks you’ve ever had.”
“What about the shipment?” Sam looked at the carriage, now slowly moving down the street. Sheppard and Mitchell walked next to the donkeys.
“They’ll handle it.” He rearranged his base cap.
“Well, what about Sheppard and Mitchell? Shouldn’t we have invited them too?”
“They already had lunch at O’Malley’s while we were making the transfer.”
“Oh.” She glanced at him. Lunch alone with him wasn’t a good idea. Not with everything that had happened between them. It would bring up the marriage contract again. “I don’t know, sir. I have a lot of work at camp, and I promised Daniel—”
“Oh, fer crying out loud, Carter. Will you relax?”
She stared at him.
“You work harder than anybody at camp. You deserve a little downtime. Or at least a steak. You haven’t eaten anything since breakfast this morning.” He held her gaze, then his face gentled. “It’s just steak.”
She released a breath and winced. “I don’t… I’m not really hungry, sir.” Damn, she was starving.
He held her gaze for a long moment, then he finally shrugged, resigned. “Alright. I’ll see you later on at camp then.”
He tipped his cap up and turned to walk toward O’Malley’s at the other side of the marketplace.
Sam watched him leave, stomach growling. Steak. She hadn’t had a steak in ages. All they ever got up at camp were sandwiches and rice, and even that was strictly rationed. The way back to camp would take at least three hours with the carriages.
It was just steak after all.
“Sir!” She hurried to follow him. He stopped and turned when she reached him.
She tilted her head to one side and smiled at him. “Actually, steak sounds great, sir.”
His mouth tugged into a gentle lopsided smirk. “Good. Let’s go then.”