They stared at each other in the gloom, more words unnecessary.
Two other women had disappeared in the days they'd spent in this hell; neither woman had returned.
She gave him an abrupt nod and commenced the torturous climb. The muscles in her shoulders and wrists burned hotter with each rung. She'd begun to think she wouldn't make it to the top when rough hands closed around her arms. The men cursed her smell and grunted under the weight of her soaking clothing as they lifted her into the blazing sunshine.
A scarred, unshaven face was pushed up against hers. "You fix captain." Sarah reeled back from the alcohol fumes and stench of rotting teeth, noticeable even after the horrid smell of the hold. She would have fallen had he not given her arm a vicious yank and dragged her down a short flight of steps into a dim, narrow corridor.
They led her to the last door, and the leader rapped. "Kapiten!"
A much softer answer came from behind the handsome mahogany and brass door, and her captor wrenched it open. He muttered something in Dutch before thrusting Sarah inside and slamming the door behind her.
Sarah's first glimpse of the captain was both a shock and a relief. He was young, perhaps five-and-twenty. His build was slight—almost delicate—and he was very fair, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the angels in her father's religious books.
But the thing that left her weak with relief was the fact he was ill—far too ill to have even the slightest amorous glint in his watery blue eyes.
He stood and gestured to a chair across from him. "Please have a seat," he said in almost unaccented English.
Sarah moved past him, and he covered his mouth, his nostrils quivering as the smell hit him. She dropped into the chair and crossed her arms.
"Thank you so much for joining me."
His smile wavered at the rude noise. "I am Mies Graaf; my family owns the Blue Bird. My men tell me you are a medical person and—" A ferocious bout of coughing doubled him over.
Grim satisfaction trickled through Sarah as she watched his suffering; it was only fair that this architect of human misery should receive his own share of pain.
An image of her father's kind, worn face appeared in Sarah's mind and froze her smile. Reverend Michael Fisher would have argued that a man depraved enough to deal in human flesh deserved her pity rather than scorn.
Always remember we are not on Earth to judge, Sarah.
The memory of her father's words drove the vengeful thoughts from her head and left shame in their wake. She was behaving like a fool. Instead of letting rage consume her, she needed to harness her anger and use it to figure out a way to get the doors to the hold open.
She eyed the sick man. He was all she had to work with, and there was no point antagonizing him.
The Dutchman's coughing diminished, and he straightened in his chair, his movements slow and deliberate, like those of a very old man. "I apologize, Miss, er—"
"Fisher. Sarah Fisher."
He frowned at whatever he saw on her face. "I was not aware of your presence in the hold until a short time ago. I am sorry you have been subjected to such indignity. You will be given a cabin and treated as my guest."
"What of the others?"
His handsome brow wrinkled. "Excuse me?"
"The other people in your hold—what about them?"
He flinched back from the violence in her tone, his eyes flickering about the room, as if searching for answers, a dark red stain creeping over his already flushed cheeks. "Ah...that. Buying these people was not my doing—nor was it my intention to—" His voice broke, and, when he drew in a ragged breath to speak, he was wracked by more coughing.