All for love 3 series.., p.40
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       All for Love - 3 Series Starters, p.40

           Kris Pearson

  He grasped her elbows and pushed her up and out.

  “Careful,” he snapped, releasing her. She stepped unsteadily away, and turned to survey the rest of her surroundings. Nothing apart from the white van and the animal with the gun. What in the world were they planning? They could do anything to her in this unobserved place.

  The driver’s door swung open and the other occupant slid out, also dressed as roughly as the gunman—coarse-spun trousers tucked into heavy boots, the long shirt/coat garment all the local men wore, and a head-dress arranged to hide most of his features. This third man threw a few amused words in her direction and earned what sounded like a sharp rebuke from the one who’d pinned her down for the terrifying ride.

  A hand grasped her long tail of hair to prevent her moving further away and yanked her head back so she almost lost her balance. Another hand fastened about her upper arm and she was turned, very much against her will, to stand nearer to mattress-man.

  “Stay close,” he insisted, fixing her with intense black eyes.

  She managed a hopeless grim smile. “To you?”

  “Yes, if you value your life.”

  “You’ve made me feel really safe so far.” Tough if she offended him. How much worse could her situation possibly be?

  “I’m a better bet than the others.” His voice sank softly into her ear, and his warm breath stirred the tiny hairs on her neck. “Watch,” he added.

  And Laurel did watch—amazed—as the other two started to drag a sand colored cover aside to reveal steps down to a buried building.

  “How on earth do you find it?” she gasped.

  “I know it well,” came the enigmatic reply.

  Then she looked properly at his face for the first time. If she’d seen him in a foreign movie—or at a diplomatic reception, or perhaps a less formal social gathering—she’d have thought him a wildly exotic and handsome man.

  He was several inches taller than the other two. Laurel stood a bare five-four; he must be six-two, six-three? He moved with a flexible grace that put her in mind of a gymnast or professional dancer.

  Unlike the others he wore nothing over his face, unless you counted the short well kept black beard which lay close to his lean jaw. The other men appeared to have much bushier efforts just visible beneath the folds of their head-dresses.

  His hooded dark eyes bored into hers, inspecting with clinical coldness.

  Still a cruel face, she thought. Still primitive and proud and unyielding. The face of a hard disciplined soldier who would deal unswervingly with the task at hand.

  A soldier? Maybe not, but he was wearing khaki trousers with lots of pockets and zips, and well worn boots. He seemed somehow military, and right now she knew with bitter certainty she was his task at hand.

  “Fayez!” he called.

  One of his henchmen jumped to attention. A rapid stream of instructions followed. The man unloaded a box of supplies from the van and carried it down the steps and into the underground lair.

  “And now we go,” her captor insisted, steering her firmly by wrists and pony-tail toward the hidden prison.

  Laurel had no option but to obey. She stumbled down the rough steps to a low doorway, ducked her head when he tugged on her hair, and entered. A smelly lantern burned fitfully. Its light dispelled the gloom a little, but hardly made the bunker an attractive prison. She stared around, appalled. Spooky caverns in Indiana Jones movies came to mind.

  “Nazim!” More curt instructions were issued. The third man dragged the mattress down the stairs, forced it through the doorway, and stood there leering.

  Fayez and Nazim, she thought, trying to lodge the names in her memory in case she ever got free of this hell and had the chance to tell anyone. So who was he?

  “Rafiq,” he said, as though reading her mind. “I’ll see that as little harm as possible befalls you while you are here.”

  He pulled a hard wooden chair from under a rough table, set it close to the wall, and eased her down onto it. Apart from the mattress and a couple of crates, this seemed to be the bunker’s only furniture.

  Rafiq, she thought. Handsome vicious Rafiq. I won’t forget your face if I ever get out of here.

  He produced a smartphone from one of his many pockets and concentrated on the screen. It was the last thing she’d been expecting right out in the desert. Surely there was no reception?

  “Amazing the movies we can make on these little things,” he said, setting it down on the table.

  Pornography flashed through her brain, and then, more menacingly, snuff movies. Dear God, surely not.

  She sat there bewildered and terrified, held helpless by the handcuffs and desperate for a pee after the long bouncing trip on the van floor.

  “And now,” Rafiq said, “we will video our little American and see what she is worth.”

  “America!” echoed Nazim, spitting on the floor beside her feet.

  Laurel tensed at his vicious tone, and then her whirling brain registered what they were saying.

  “Not American,” she insisted. “Kiwi. New Zealand.”

  Rafiq took no notice. Simply pushed the red cap further back so her face was in view and kept recording. She glared first at the evil phone and then up at him.

  “I am not,” she repeated. “Who the hell do you think I am? Someone you can use to bargain with?”

  Rafiq stopped her by reaching out, tightening his hand around her jaw, and tipping her face back to the angle he wanted. “Quiet!” he roared.

  She would have continued arguing, but the man with the automatic weapon took up station beside her, pressed the muzzle against her head and began a hoarse taunt of “America, America,” for the benefit of the recording. She prickled all over as certain death looked her in the face, and time ground to a halt.

  “Good,” Rafiq said a few second later. He checked the picture and nodded.

  Laurel stayed speechless and frozen until the gun was removed.

  “I am not American,” she quavered. “I’m from New Zealand. I’m a nanny. I’m working for an American diplomatic family but I am not American.”

  “You are Madison Daniels.”

  “I’m Laurel de Courcey.”

  Rafiq shook his head, eyes icy. “Don’t lie.”

  “I’m Laurel de Courcey,” she insisted. Born in Wellington, New Zealand. I’m twenty-three. This is my first time overseas. I’m the nanny for the younger Daniels children.”

  “You are Madsion Daniels. Blue jeans, white shirt, long blonde hair, red baseball cap. You have been watched.”

  “I’m Laurel de Courcey!”

  There was no-one around to hear, but letting loose with more volume felt wonderful. “Blue jeans, white shirt, long blonde hair and Maddie’s baseball cap. She loaned it to me—my sunhat wouldn’t stay on in the wind.”

  They glared at each other. Rafiq reached over and twitched the Cincinnati Reds cap from her head. Her pony-tail slid easily through the hole in the cap’s back.

  “You are a western woman,” he snarled. “You will do.” He followed this pronouncement with a long and incomprehensible rant in the direction of one of the other men. Laurel wondered if he was being reprimanded for kidnapping the wrong woman.

  Whatever, Rafiq was not deterred. He pulled a rattling handful of chain from one of the crates and began to wind it around her wrists until the handcuffs were obscured. She flinched as the links pressed against bones. Then he reached behind her.

  She twisted, and saw he was unhooking a large clock from the wall, altering the time by several hours, and replacing it.

  “Take two,” he said with no apparent irony. He resumed his place and produced a second phone.

  “You have to believe me,” she insisted. “I am Laurel de Courcey.”

  “So you’re intent on talking? Tell us more.”

  “Pig!” she spat back. “I’ll tell you nothing if you’re too stupid to even kidnap the right woman.”

  Rafiq’s big hand clamped around her face agai
n. “Be careful who you insult, little one,” he said with silky menace. “It’s unwise to speak like that in your current position.”

  She sat there glaring at him, willing herself not to dissolve into tears.

  Again he checked his recording and looked satisfied. He barked an instruction and one of the other men took the clock down and altered the time.

  But it was Rafiq who busied himself with her hair, gently removing the elastic tie that held the long glistening strands together, and combing them through with his fingers to arrange it over her shoulders in a pale tousled waterfall. Laurel shivered as he touched her. Even here in the burning desert he sent cold tremors right down her spine.

  He unwound the heavy chain from her wrists and then unlocked the handcuffs. She chafed at her skin to bring some feeling back after the constriction of the chains. But her relief was short-lived. He crouched in front of her, unwound a length of bright orange polyester rope, and tied it around each of her wrists, leaving perhaps two feet of it between her hands.

  “Hold very still,” he instructed, producing a cigarette lighter from one of his trouser pockets, and proceeding to weld the knots together by melting the rope into unyielding lumps. Her relief at being freed ebbed away. The flame licked against her flesh, although he was careful not to burn her. He tied a much longer length to the first one and handed it to Fayez or Nazim—she still couldn’t tell them apart.

  “Forgive me this,” Rafiq said, brushing his fingers along the dusty floor and spreading grimy smears onto Laurel’s face and the front of her high-necked long-sleeved white shirt. His fingers felt hot through the thin cotton fabric, and she shrank away from his touch on her breasts.

  “We need to make it look as though several days have gone by. As though you are now dirty and desperate. Fayez?”

  Fayez grasped the rope in one brown hand as though she was a poor sad mongrel on a lead and stood impassively beside her.

  Rafiq produced yet another phone and began recording again. Then he muttered something. Suddenly Laurel’s head was dragged backward and a huge curved knife pressed against her throat. She screamed in total terror.

  “No, please! Please don’t! I’m not who you think I am!” At last she burst into the tears that had never been far away.

  “America...” Fayez sneered as he allowed her to slump forward in a sobbing heap.

  “Good, it’s all done,” Rafiq confirmed in a businesslike tone, checking his work and setting the final phone aside. He let her cry for several more minutes and then asked, “Are you thirsty? We have Coca Cola or orange juice, both quite cold.”

  She raised her ruined face and stared at him in disbelief. “You think you can put me through that and then act all hospitable?”

  He shrugged. “It’s hot. You need to drink.”

  “You’re a maniac. You’re all maniacs. What the hell was that filming charade all about?”

  “Dear young lady—whoever you are—you are the currency we will bargain with. The first recording will let the authorities know we have you, safe and alive. The second, which they will receive in a few days’ time, will show them you are still alive but in grave danger. The third—that your plight is now desperate.” He shrugged again. “It’s the way we achieve what we need.”

  “Is this religious or political?”

  “One is tied so closely to the other.”

  “In this part of the world, yes,” she sneered. “I thought it would be exotic and beautiful and cultural when Mrs. Daniels said they’d been posted to Al Sounam.”

  “We are undoubtedly exotic and beautiful and cultural, as you say.”

  “Not from where I’m looking.” She stared around the bunker in panic. One wall appeared to be made of huge boulders. She assumed it was disguised as a rocky outcrop on the outside.

  Slivers of light shone through in places, so at least she wouldn’t run out of fresh air. “How long are you keeping me here?”

  “For as long as it takes for certain people to see sense.”

  “But what about... plumbing,” she asked in a very small voice, feeling the blush spread up her neck and over her face.

  “We have that most admirable invention, the Porta Pottie.” He pointed to the far corner and she suddenly realized what the other boxy object was.

  “And decadent American Coca Cola,” she muttered.

  “As you say.”

  She was almost certain there was a tiny quirk at one end of his stern mouth.

  Rafiq tied the longer piece of tough orange rope around one of the heavy table legs so she was tethered, dissolved the knot together, and motioned the other men to leave. “We will give you some privacy for a few minutes. We have important things to arrange outside.”

  She stayed sitting, acutely embarrassed, until his long legs disappeared from view, then she crept across to the corner.

  Minutes later, she knew she was never going to be able to unpick the melted-together knots. She’d worried at them unceasingly since the men had retreated outside, and all she’d achieved were very sore fingertips and one broken nail. Finally she gave in, fixed her hair back into its pony-tail again, and reclaimed the red cap.

  She heaved a deep sigh. Almost anything would be better than this. She’d settle for the noisy hostel, or her dump of a flat, or even the Gorridge’s awful foster home in preference to her current situation. If life had seemed bad before, it was infinitely worse now.

  Snatches of conversation drifted down the steps. She had no idea what was being discussed because her grasp of the local language was restricted to the most basic words yet.

  The wind still sounded high. It whistled over the dunes and sent a sifting of sand down the stairs. She heard the van engine fire up, and then the vehicle ground away, leaving eerie silence. She trembled with fear and disbelief. Surely they hadn’t abandoned her here, albeit with toilet facilities, Coca Cola, orange juice, and possibly some sort of food if there was drink? There was no way she could bear to be confined in the dismal bunker all alone for heaven knows how many days. She eyed the foam mattress warily. It seemed a very real possibility.

  And then terror engulfed her again as she detected footsteps on the stairs, followed by one masculine silhouette against the rectangle of daylight. Which of them had returned?

  It was the pig.

  Chapter Two — Blood in the Desert

  “Up,” Rafiq urged, grasping her wrists and helping her to stand on trembling legs. He produced small clippers from one of his pockets and severed the tough rope. Laurel rubbed at her sore skin and watched numbly as he fashioned new loops to make it look as though she’d somehow slipped free.

  “Quickly.” He grabbed two bottles of orange juice in one big hand and her arm in the other and hustled her up the stairs.

  “The wind should shift enough sand to cover our tracks before they get back from delivering the first recording. Walk exactly in my footprints so it looks like one person’s feet, just in case.”

  The sudden turn of events confused her so thoroughly that Laurel became like a mechanical toy. She followed without protest, fitting her sneakers into the dents made by his boots, plodding across the endless sand in the whistling, stinging wind.

  “Are you okay?” he called back after a time.

  “Yes!” she yelled, panting hard. He’d set a blistering pace.

  After twenty mind-numbing minutes they reached a deep hidden gully. Rafiq picked his way down the crumbling side, turning to offer his hand so she could negotiate the steepest parts. She trembled as she touched him, but knew she was likely to fall if she spurned his help. She still felt his fingers in her hair, on her neck, on her breasts. She burned with confusion and fear, but resigned herself to following him and hoping for better than the hideous bunker.

  It was more sheltered on the gully floor, and a tiny unexpected trickling stream ran through amongst large stones and rocks. He retrieved the original piece of rope from his pocket, heaved one of the rocks up, and concealed the rope beneath it. Then
he quickly scooped up a few handfuls of water and drank.

  “You must take this,” he said, wiping his hands roughly on his trousers and producing a pen and notepad. He wrote instructions to someone unknown, and Laurel watched, mesmerized, as the pen raced over the paper in a strange curling script. He handed her the little page, then ripped several more off as well, tore them into small shreds and set them to float away in the water before returning the pad to his pocket.

  “Walk only on the stones so you leave no prints. An hour’s walk from here you’ll find a house and servants. Give this to the woman.”

  “Why?” she asked, still confused and in shock.

  “Because you were not safe with Fayez and Nazim. They are thugs and murderers.”

  “And you’re not?”

  “Not as they are,” he said grimly. He glanced at his watch and thrust the bottles of orange juice towards her. “Start moving. I need to get back and make arrangements.”

  And as lithely as a cat he spun about and ascended the near vertical cliff face.

  Laurel stood stunned, paper in one hand, bottles of juice held against her overheated body by the other. At least the gully was out of the stinging sandy wind, but that meant the temperature seemed even higher.

  She squinted up as he deserted her. He climbed with deceptive ease, hauling himself from one hand-hold to the next. She had no idea how she’d managed to scramble down the steep, barely formed track. From here it looked impossible.

  As he gained the top, he turned and stared down at her. “Drink!” he commanded, and stood with his hands on his hips until she stowed the precious note in her jeans pocket and wrenched the top off one of the bottles of juice. He waited a few more moments until he was satisfied she’d obeyed, then disappeared.



  She picked her way from stone to rock to boulder, being careful to leave no footprints on the sand between. Her breathing calmed as she walked. Progress was much slower here. Another hour of this? Could she walk for so long? She tipped the bottle up again, savoring the tart golden juice. Nothing had ever tasted as good. She swished it around her teeth to moisten her dry mouth, and then let it trickle over her tongue and down her parched throat.

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