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NO REMORSE: EXTRACT
Lee McCloud ached to kill the five men in the valley below. But he couldn’t. Not yet. He ignored the sharp piece of rubble under his ribs and eased the sniper rifle into the familiar position, butt firmly against his shoulder, hand cupping the grip, finger resting on the trigger guard. Like spooning with a woman, Mac reflected, though he hadn’t done that in a while.
He watched the Ford Explorer, with Bob at the wheel, racing towards the meeting point up through the barren hills surrounding the El Carrizo dam. He switched his view back to the five men standing around a van and a Land Cruiser. Checking the laser range finder, he adjusted the Hensoldt scope. Six hundred yards. As close as he and his men would dare go. They couldn’t risk stirring the loose rubble to get closer. As it was, they’d only just made it into position before the Mexicans showed.
He wouldn’t admit it in a psych evaluation, but he enjoyed the feeling of having an enemy in the crosshairs. For a few seconds he had God-like control. All he had to do was squeeze. But right now they needed confirmation that Sophia and Danni were in the van before he could give the order.
The exchange was taking place a few miles outside Tijuana. Desert country, scarred with boulders and littered with caves and patchy grass that reminded him of an area northeast of Kandahar, where four years ago his unit had freed a six-person UNAMA team held by Taliban insurgents. But not before they had raped the two women and castrated the team leader.
A gust of wind blew grit in his weathered face. Swallowing several times to suppress the urge to cough, Mac put a small pebble in his mouth, sucking on it to relieve the irritation. He could hear the click of the digital SLR behind him as Termite took photos of the kidnappers and their vehicles through the zoom lens, in case they needed evidence later.
He pressed his radio’s talk button. “Sierra One, this is Sierra Six. Notify when you are in position. Over.”
He shifted his aim to the skinny one with the bowlegs, who he assumed was the leader by the way he was ordering the others about. All of them wore gray uniforms with Atlantic blue caps and a Mexican flag patch on their left shoulder. The uniform of the Federales, the Mexican National Police. From the nonchalant way they were standing around, he decided they probably were real cops. If anything, this made him angrier. They were kidnappers. Taking advantage of their position to earn a corrupt living. Way he figured it, killing these creeps would do both countries a favor.
All the same, if they had to let the bastards go or forfeit the ransom money, he wouldn’t care, so long as they got Sophia and Danni back safely. The three volunteers he’d recruited from his Delta unit knew that freeing the girls was their one and only priority.
“We’re good to go, Sierra Six. Over.” Scotty’s voice was as mellow as a tenor’s. After six months away from combat operations, Scotty was hungry for action and had been the first to volunteer for the unauthorized mission.
Mac shifted the crosshairs of his scope to the thickset Federale with the pockmarked face and dull eyes. This guy reeked of thug—he was spinning a long-bladed knife as though it was a juggler’s club, had a tattoo of a skull on his neck, and when he laughed his lips pulled to one side in a sneer, as though he’d been cut and sewn back together by a surgeon with Parkinson’s disease. All of these guys would kill without hesitation, Mac was sure of it.
Scotty and Freckle were tucked away somewhere in shadows on the next hill. Two firing positions gave them better observation capability and a broader perimeter of fire.
After the call from Bob telling him the sixteen-year-old best friends, Sophia and Danni, had been snatched off the street in Tijuana, he’d had just enough time to grab three volunteers, hunt down some kit from the Delta store, and hitch four seats on the shuttle from Fort Bragg to San Diego. With luck, they’d be back on base before anybody noticed. But if the shit hit the fan, they were on their own.
“Sierra One, I’ll take the guy with the knife and the leader with the pistol. Scotty, you take the two with the AK-47s. Freckle, you stop the van going anywhere.”
“Affirmative,” Scotty said.
Bob’s dusky silver Explorer bounced along the rutted gravel track past the ruins of an adobe hut and pulled up near the kidnappers’ Land Cruiser. It was close enough now that he could hear the two fathers in the Explorer talking through the transmitter disguised in Bob’s belt.
The kidnappers’ leader flicked his cigarette onto the barren ground and hacked up a gob of spit as the two men got out of the Explorer. None of the kidnappers made any attempt to adopt a defensive position.
That was when Mac realized something wasn’t right.
The girls’ fathers, Bob and Marvin, each carried a briefcase full of cash with a tiny GPS tracker hidden in a false bottom. They were both taller than the kidnappers, and through the scope Mac could read the pain on Bob’s face. The behavior of the kidnappers was still bothering him, but there was nothing he could do except watch. The leader held out his palm and waved his pistol like it was a flag. He addressed the fathers in accented English.
“You’re late. We think perhaps you do not want your daughters back, eh?”
“Sorry,” Bob said, his breathing short and sharp. “We took a wrong turn coming into the dam. The signs were confusing.”
The man grunted and glanced at the one with the knife. “Check them.”
Knife Man patted them down, searched their pockets, nodded the all clear.
“You have our money?”
“Of course.” Bob’s voice came through deep and confident in his earpiece, although the armpits of his shirt betrayed his anxiety. Be courteous but strong, Mac had advised him, otherwise they won’t respect you. Being a basketball coach undoubtedly helped. “And you have our daughters,” Bob said. A statement, not a question. He held out the briefcase. “Here’s the money. We didn’t contact the police.”
Several kidnappers gave a hearty laugh.
The leader smirked. “We wouldn’t be here if you had, gringo. But your daughters would be. With bullets in their heads.” He gestured to a kidnapper wearing a red bandana around his neck. “Abrirlos,” he ordered, and the man took both briefcases and unclipped the locks.
“It’s all there. Two hundred thousand dollars.” With his palms open and his bulky gut, Marvin looked like a preacher calling for the collection plate.
“Ah, my friend Benjamin Franklin.” The gaunt-faced leader grinned at the piles of hundreds. He turned to the man with the bandana. “Count it. Transfer it to our bag.”
Mac’s earpiece crackled and Freckle’s voice said, “Sierra Six, we’ll lose the trackers if they transfer the cash.”
“Roger that. So long as we get the girls out safe,” Mac replied.
Down at the rendezvous, Marvin turned toward the van. “Now, will you please give us our daughters.” He phrased it as a statement, an expectation.
After an arrogant pause, the leader gestured at Knife Man, who opened the rear door and pulled two girls out, their mouths taped and hands bound in front.
Mac froze. The breath choked in his throat. He closed his eyes for just a moment to suppress the memories, bitter and hard, and took deep breaths to clear the stabbing pain in his heart. He forced the memories back to the dark place he kept them hidden, even from himself.
When he opened his eyes he could see it wasn’t Sophia and Danni they had dumped on the ground. These girls were Latinas, probably no more than twelve or thirteen. That’s why the bastards were so confident. They’d kept Sophia and Danni, and now they could take the cash without being tracked. And they would demand more, he was certain. But why bring these other girls along? What was the point?
He twisted his head slightly and said to Termite, “Get photos of the girls. It might be important. This could all be some kind of weird performance.”
Marvin turned to face the leader. “There’s some mistake. What do you—?”
Knife Man stepped forward and punched him square in the face, knocking him to the ground. Then he grabbed the shorter of the girls and pressed the knife at her throat. Through the scope, Mac could see the terror on her tiny face, eyes widening in fear, tears streaming down her cheeks. Knife Man’s yellow teeth formed a warped grin.
The van door was open, but from this angle Mac couldn’t see inside. “Freckle, Scotty, you guys spot Sophia or Danni?”
“Negative, Mac. There are no other girls in the van.”
Marvin struggled to his feet, tentatively touching his nose. Blood streamed down his face onto the sand.
The leader gestured with the pistol again. “A mistake? Huevos.” He turned to his men and waved his arms.
“Pendejo! Perhaps the gringos, they don’t like spic chicks, eh?” said Knife Man, waving his blade. It flashed in the sun.
Bob took a step forward, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Come on. We’ve paid you the two hundred thousand you asked for. Surely you can understand we’d like our own daughters back?”
A licorice scent flared in Mac’s nostrils, a sign of his inner fear that he’d learned to read over the years. A sudden chill flowed through his veins as the blood pumped through him. His inner rage and fear were warning him that he needed to do something, and fast. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he said on the radio. “When I give the word, take them down.” He kept his voice steady, gritting his teeth to try and shove the brewing storm back where it belonged.
“You think your daughters are worth only two hundred thousand? These putas are what you get for that.”
“Si. Others pay much more,” Knife Man said, twisting the hair of the girl he was holding. She cried out and stopped moving.
The leader rounded on him, pointing his pistol. “Shut up, vato loco!”
Bob held out an arm, pleading with the leader. “Please. Tell him not to hurt the girl.”
The leader muttered something unintelligible in Spanish and Knife Man laughed.
“Please understand,” said Bob. “We’re not wealthy men. But we love our daughters. Please—”
“It’s you who choose not to understand, yanqui. We too have to feed our families. It costs much to keep your girls safe. You are certain you no want these girls? They do anything you want…”
“No, goddamn it!” yelled Marvin, flinging his arms around. “We want our daughters, okay? Not them. We had a deal.”
“Okay.” The leader shrugged and glanced sideways.
Knife Man grinned and sliced his blade across the girl’s throat. Bright syrupy blood spurted across the sand, spraying Bob and Marvin. The kidnappers laughed as Knife Man released the girl’s hair and she collapsed to the ground, her head almost severed from her tiny neck.
At the same time, the leader fired at the other girl, who fell to the ground, where he shot her again.
“Holy fucking Christ!” Termite exploded, his voice still a whisper.
Mac felt like a great claw was ripping apart his stomach. He’d waited too long to give the order. But there’d been nothing to suggest they would harm the girls. Regardless, he now realized he’d fucked up. Even so, killing the kidnappers now wouldn’t get Sophia and Danni back, and that was the objective. He spat out the pebble and said, “Hold your fire.”
“They’ll kill the fathers, Mac,” Scotty said over the radio.
“Hold. We have to give them one more chance to find out where the girls are.”
“No! God Almighty!” Marvin was screaming over and over. “Oh my God!”
Bob stood paralyzed for a moment, as though unable to comprehend what he’d just witnessed, then sank to his knees and covered his face with his hands.
The kidnapper with the bandana was doubled over, laughing at the fathers’ reaction. Knife Man just stood there, watching them.
“And now, yanquis, you get to dig their graves,” the leader said. “And while you are doing this, you will think about what will happen to your pretties if you don’t bring us another two hundred thousand in seven days. We call the Stewmaker.”
“No! We’ll get more money. Just show us that our daughters are all right,” Bob said. “We just need to know they’re okay. Let us speak to them on the phone.”
The man with the bandana was running from the car yelling, holding up a small device.
“Found one of the trackers,” Termite said.
Fuck. “Stand by to fire,” Mac said on the radio, his voice calm and detached. He switched aim, placing the leader’s head in the crosshairs. “We need one of them alive. The least threat is the guy in the van.”
“Affirmative.” This from Scotty.
The leader ran to the van and grabbed binoculars. Scanned the surrounding hills. Then turned to Marvin and held up the GPS, his face contorted with rage. “What is this? You take us for fools? You think you can play this game?”
“No! Of course not. We just—” Marvin spluttered.
“You tried to deceive us. Now you lose.” He started to raise his pistol.
“Execute.” Mac spoke the word calmly, then squeezed the trigger. Felt a satisfying buck in his shoulder. The leader’s head exploded. His body was still dropping to the ground as Mac put two rounds in Knife Man, who crumpled like a blown out bag.
Running towards the meeting point, Mac could see that Scotty had shot the man leaning against the Land Cruiser and wounded the one with the bandana, who was writhing on the ground, screaming from a bullet in his gut. Freckle had blown out the front and back tires of one side of the van. The terrified driver had bolted, with Bob running after him firing the leader’s pistol in the air. The man stopped and raised his arms. Bob marched him back and handed him over to Termite.
“Nothing to indicate where they’ve taken the others,” Scotty said. “Sick fucking bastards. My daughter’s not much younger than those little girls.”
Mac took off his sunglasses and held Bob’s arms, fixing him with a resolute gaze. “We’ll get them back. I swear to God, Bob, we will find them. The two kidnappers still alive will know something.” As he said this, he realized he owed Bob that much at least, for saving him from the slippery slope he had been on after his father died. His own peace of mind would depend on finding Sophia.
Bob nodded, then bent over to vomit. Over by the van, Marvin was sitting down on a rock, face in his hands.
Striding over to the wounded kidnapper writhing on the ground, Mac grabbed his hair and leaned close. “Where are the other girls?”
The dying man opened his eyes and spat blood in Mac’s face. Closed his eyes and groaned. No joy there.
Glancing over to where Termite had cuffed the young driver and sat him on the ground, he could see the kid was terrified. Would he have balls and clam up too? Mac pulled out his pistol and spoke at the wounded man, loud enough so the kid would overhear. “You’ve got five seconds to tell me where you’re keeping them. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.” He fired two rounds into the man’s head and then turned to the kid and snarled. “You’re next, kid.”
“I do nothing! I only drive the van that my uncle asks! Now you kill him!”
“Yeah, I did. What’s your name, kid?”
“Mamexi, you have five seconds. Where are the girls being held?”
Mamexi looked over at the dead man and shook his head. “I don’t know.”
He held the pistol against the youth’s left ear. “One, two…” For a moment, he thought the kid was going to stay clammed up. It was one thing shooting a dying man, another killing an unarmed teenager, even in these circumstances. There were other options he could try first…
“Okay! They sold them.”
“Where are they?”
“They kill me if I say. They have important connections.”
Freckle scratched his rather large ear. “Christ! The Cartels. Let’s just fucking shoot the bastard.” He took out his pistol, playing along.
Mac glared at the kid. “We don’t give a fuck about anyone’s connections.”
Mamexi said nothing, but shook his head.
Mac detected a hint of a smile. That needed to be dealt with quickly and firmly. “You think I’m bluffing?”
The smile turned to a smirk. “You American. Not allowed shoot unarmed kids.”
This was a situation they had encountered in the ‘Stan and Iraq, and they had developed numerous creative ways to counter such an attitude. Giving Mamexi a severe stare, Mac went over to a pile of boulders and dislodged a rock about the size of a human head. A black scorpion underneath scuttled away to find another place to hide. He lugged the rock back. “Hold him,” he said.
Scotty grabbed the kid’s feet and Termite held his arms so he was stretched out on his back.
“Mamexi, this rock weighs about fifty pounds. When I smash it onto your kneecap, it’ll cause at least as much damage as a bullet fired from my pistol.”
The kid’s eyes bulged. “You wouldn’t—”
He slammed the rock down, crushing the kneecap into a mash of ligament and tendon. Mamexi blacked out. His knee swelled to four times its normal size. Bob turned away, a strangled sound coming from his throat. When the kid came around, he screamed so loudly they had to move away until he’d recovered a semblance of normality.
Mac spoke in a calm voice. “Now, Mamexi, if you’re smart you’ll believe me when I say I will do the same to your other knee.” He stooped to pick up the rock. “Maybe the Cartel will find you. Then again, the wild dogs and Gila monsters might finish you first.”
Mamexi leaned over and retched up a foul-smelling muck, groaning.
Mac raised the rock above his other knee.
“No! Please! In God’s name! I tell you, señor! All what I know…” He took a short breath, groaning from the pain. “They take them in a truck to Juarez. They fly them out. I not know where. Please… That is all I know.”
“Who did they sell them to? Who?” He wiggled the rock, about to drop it.
“Wait!” Mamexi screamed. “I…I hear them talk about a gringo. ‘The Frenchman’, they call him. No name. Just ‘The Frenchman’.”
“Please… no,” Sophia sobbed, all of her energy drained.
The man ignored her.
She felt like she was going to be sick again, but there was nothing left to retch up. She tried to pray, tried to take her mind away from the restraints binding her arms and legs, from the fact that she was naked and vulnerable to the man who was now inserting a cold metal instrument inside her.
“Please, God…” Sophia had tried to convince him she was a virgin, but he had insisted on violating her to check for himself. He’d undertaken more intrusive tests, too, including drawing blood. He was old, with gray hair, and he’d told her in English that his name was Dr. Gammal.
She glanced at the olive-skinned man in white shorts and a golf shirt who stood by the door staring, occasionally growling words she couldn’t understand. Another shiver rocked her body as the instrument was withdrawn. The dark, beady eyes and cold smile reminded her of a shark. So devoid of humanity, so cruel, looking at her like she was an animal, or worse.
The long journey had been a nightmare, bouncing along in trucks and noisy cargo planes. First, they had thrown Sophia and Danni into the back of a truck filled with crates of vegetables, barely enough room to move, struggling to breathe in air that reeked like steamed cabbage. Crammed in with them were two others, Jeanette from Toronto, and Erika, from Sweden, who explained in stilted English that she was an exchange student, taken in Mexico City. Jeanette cried as she told them three men grabbed her as she was walking through the grounds of her hotel to the pool. The two bottles of water they’d been given were soon empty, and they sucked water from the lettuce leaves in one of the crates. Sophia tried to reassure the others, to talk her own confidence up. Air trickling in through a small ventilation grill couldn’t disperse the heat and fumes, and after a while Jeanette began to retch. The stench was revolting, and soon all four of them had emptied their stomachs into a plastic bucket they found in the corner.
“I’m so sorry, Sophe.” Danni said, as the truck lumbered along. “I wish I’d never suggested we go shopping by ourselves.”
Sophia shook her head and held Danni close and said words she was not so sure of herself. “They’ll get us back, I’m sure of it.” Still, she cursed herself for nagging their parents to let her and Danni go shopping. It should have been safe, only ten minutes from their hotel. But it wasn’t. She’d read enough to know about pedophile networks and sex slavery, and the haunted faces of the other girls, visible in the rays of light coming through the ventilation grill, filled Sophia with dread.
Jeanette stopped crying, and her voice took on a resigned, stoic tone: “We’re all girls… Even if they intend to ransom us, they’ll probably rape us. Lock us up somewhere, maybe torture us… They might never let us go.”
“Please,” Sophia said. “Let’s try to stay positive. We have to survive this journey. Help each other.”
“Who are these people? How can they treat us like this, worse than animals?” Danni said.
“I think maybe it is the drug gangs,” Erika said.
“How were you taken?” Jeanette asked Sophia.
“Just walking along the street back from the Plaza Mall in Tijuana. Two cops in a car stopped us. Made out we had drugs in our bags, and arrested us. They drove us out of town and dumped us in this truck.”
Jeanette shook her head. “Oh my God. Cops? Even the freaking cops can’t be trusted here? What hope have we got, then?”
After what seemed like a lifetime, the truck stopped to refuel. They cried out for help, for water. The rear door opened. Two men stood there, holding guns.
Sophia pulled Danni close, determined not to be separated from her. “Try to stay together, okay? No matter what happens,” she whispered.
Jeanette yelled: “Hey! I’m a diabetic! I need insulin!”
Sophia added, “She needs medicine. Please…” She tried to speak calmly. “You understand?”
The two men spoke briefly in Spanish. The one with a moustache said: “I understand.” He threw four bottles of water at them, then slammed and locked the door. The truck took off again. Gradually, the sulphury smell of diesel filled the compartment. Despite their attempts to keep her awake, Jeanette lapsed into unconsciousness, heaving labored breaths. The droning of the engine and the fumes made Sophia drowsy, and at some point she passed out. She awoke to Danni shaking her, whispering her name. The truck had stopped. She could hardly turn her head because of the thumping, shooting pain inside her skull.
After a few minutes the truck’s rear door was opened. Warm, fresh air flooded in. Sophia breathed deeply and squinted at the daylight outside. It looked like they were inside an old aircraft hangar. The distant roar of an aircraft taking off echoed off the walls and seemed to reverberate inside her head. The hangar door was closed, and two armed men stood guard.
Four smelly, unshaved men jumped up into the truck and roughly pulled the girls out. The hangar had several holes in its roof so she could see the blue sky, and even the brief glimpse of freedom was enough to give her a little heart. The men here were not dressed as police, like those who had kidnapped them, but they spoke Spanish. They must still be in Mexico.
They watched as Jeanette’s limp form was laid on the floor of the hangar. Sophia went to go to help her but was pushed back by a short man with fat hands. Danni and Erika were sobbing inconsolably. Two of the men shouted and waved their arms, apparently in an argument about what had happened. As the girls stared in horror, the two men carried Jeanette’s body to the back of the hangar and threw her into a dumpster.
The short man ordered them to strip, in plain sight of the leering men, then turned a fire hose on them as the men laughed at the spectacle. They whimpered as the hard, cold water pummeled them. Sophia closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself back home, safe in her room, but the force of the water knocked her off her feet and sent her reeling on the concrete.
When the dousing was finished, another older, balding man tossed them some grubby towels and cotton robes, and once they had dressed, he handcuffed them to a chain. They sat on the floor and waited, wondering what would happen next. After a while, the balding man brought some tortillas and water. Exhausted, the three girls finally fell asleep, huddled together on the concrete floor. During the night, two more trucks arrived, each carrying kids, one who looked only about seven or eight. In all, ten girls and three boys were loaded onto a cargo plane that took off, heading east. On board, the terrified captives spoke in whispers, speculating about their destination and their fate.
“Do you think our parents have been contacted by the kidnappers? Danni asked.
Sophia shrugged. “I just hope they don’t end up dealing with the cops who snatched us.”
“Do you think they’d have taken us if our brothers had been with us?”
“Probably. They were cops. And Wade and Franklin are only fourteen, like that boy over there. They’d have probably taken them, too. Thank God Maddie decided to stay at college for Spring Break.”
After a long flight, the aircraft landed in the dark, on a brightly lit runway, and armed men hustled them onto another plane, this time a smaller, fat-bodied one with propellers. The noise was deafening, and nobody spoke for the three hours or so it took to reach the next stop. Here, they were pushed into a truck and driven through a dirty, half-destroyed city that looked like it had been through a war. Sophia thought she could hear distant gunshots as they drove. Danni agreed that they must be somewhere in Africa. The air was steamy and clouds of mosquitoes inside the truck feasted on the captives in the dawn humidity. Finally, they arrived at a port, where they were joined by another group of thirteen captive teenagers from European countries. Armed soldiers supervised their transfer to a motorboat that took them out on a slow rolling ocean and tied up alongside an enormous vessel that looked like a cruise ship. A gold plate halfway up the side displayed the name PRINCESS ALIYA. Way above them, Sophia could see several men with skin the color of burnt caramel, dressed in flowing white robes. The knot in her stomach tightened. Maybe they had been sold to an Arab sheik’s harem?
Crewmen from the vessel herded the captives below decks and into cells that held four people on bunk beds, with a shared toilet and washbasin. Sophia and Danni were put in a cell with Erika and a tiny eight-year-old named Carmel, who’d been separated from her brother Gregory and sobbed quietly in Sophia’s arms. Soon after the ship got underway, crewmen brought them food and drinks, and watched while they ate.
“Where are they taking us now, I wonder?” Danni said.
Sophia tried to get Carmel to eat. “Come on, you have to eat, baby, so your mom and dad will see how strong you’ve become.”
“Some men shot my mommy and daddy,” Carmel replied, shaking her head. “Now they’ve taken Greg away, too.”
A short time after she had finished eating, Sophia had drifted off. She had slept soundly until she had found herself on the examination table, with Dr. Gammal bending over her.
Now, as Sophia lay on the examining table trying to block the horrible scenarios swirling through her mind, she heard the doctor mention her name several times as he completed his report to the shark-eyed man. He grinned and left, apparently satisfied, although Sophia couldn’t understand what they had been discussing.
After the man had left, she breathed a little easier. Dr. Gammal seemed excited as he told her they would soon be arriving at a beautiful island. He studied her for a few moments and smiled, as if to reassure her that everything would be all right. Then he said, as he fiddled with his clothing, “Now, my girl, you will open your pretty mouth.”
After stubbing out his cigarette on the solid gold ashtray, Ziad took off his shoes and entered the expansive suite on the upper deck of the Princess Aliya, continuing through to the covered deck outside where Sheik Khalid Yubani lay prone on a massage table. He looked fit and muscle-toned, having lost a good twenty pounds since the Egyptian girl, Sheriti, had started as his personal trainer. Khalid’s sister, Rubi, sat beside the massage table, wet hair wrapped in a towel, jotting notes as he dictated instructions.
Sheriti, wearing a lycra micro bikini that revealed tan lines across her buttocks and around her breasts, knelt astride Khalid’s back and dug her thumbs into the muscles on either side of his spine. Her skin glistened and, as Ziad watched, a bead of sweat drizzled off her collarbone onto the swell of a breast. Holding his cell phone unobtrusively against his chest, he pressed the video button. He would enjoy watching her again later, back in his cabin. He adjusted his crotch to hide the discomfort and waited until Khalid had finished his instructions to Rubi.
“Good morning, Highness,” he said eventually, “I have a few matters to report.”
Ziad switched from Arabic to French. Sheriti didn’t speak French. “We’ve completed unloading the weapons for Al Shabaab and we’ve taken on board the orphans. We’ll be leaving Mogadishu within the hour. Rubi, could you please generate an invoice for Sheik Taldari, for the Al Shabaab consignment? One point two million euros. We also need to invoice Al Qaeda for the explosives we unloaded off Yemen yesterday. Two million US dollars.”
“Make it four million,” Khalid said. “Sheik Abidi is paying on behalf of Al Qaeda, through the Hunnafite Orphan Foundation.” He chuckled.
“Yes, brother.” Rubi jotted down the details.
“On second thoughts, make it six.”
“Abidi would not accept six,” Rubi said. “He may accept five.”
“Ah! It is like a mosquito bite to him.”
“You know he doesn’t like to be overcharged, brother.”
Khalid grunted as Sheriti dug her elbow into his back. “Five it shall be, then.”
Ziad moved closer to take in Sheriti’s scent—a heady fragrance of floral and sweet citrus, with a hint of musk. He licked his lips, his eyes addicted to the hypnotic movement of her slim, toned body. As if to further provoke him, she glanced back and smiled, her full, dark lips revealing a mouth of perfect, white teeth.
She had joined them eight months earlier after Khalid had met her working at the Grand Hyatt in Cairo. Ziad’s contacts in Egyptian Security reported her clean: she was an only child, her parents had been killed by Israeli bombs in Beirut, and her only close relative was an old aunt in Cairo.
Enjoy it while it lasts, pretty Sheriti. Ziad knew Khalid would eventually tire of her, as he had with his last two personal trainers, and when he did, Sheriti would be his… until he too grew bored with her. When eventually they dumped her overboard, she wouldn’t be missed.
“I have good news, Highness,” he said excitedly. “We may have located a suitable donor for your father. She has the same rare blood type, AB negative. We have a few more tests to undertake, but Dr. Gammal is hopeful she will be a serotype suitable for your father. She could be the one in a million. An American girl, from the shipment supplied by the Frenchman. We have her aboard now.”
Khalid raised his head for a moment. “Wonderful news. It is Allah’s will. We must take good care of her, Ziad.”
“Yes, Highness. Do you wish to see her?”
“Why would I? She is a pair of lungs. I will see them when they are harvested and put into my father’s chest.”
“She is very pretty, Highness. I thought you might—”
“Then you will be responsible for ensuring that she doesn’t come to any harm from the crew. Is the construction on Andaran ready for handover?”
“The resort and the fortress will be ready for your final inspection after the banquet. Although we may have one remaining problem. Bill Fanning.” Ziad moved slightly further behind Sheriti, who had raised her buttocks provocatively as she rubbed Khalid’s back with her forearms. Ziad wanted to ensure he captured everything on his phone videocam. “Sergei has been monitoring Fanning’s emails. He has sent copies of the plans to his office in Dubai, in defiance of the secrecy requirements.”
Khalid made a clicking sound with his tongue. “We must have the ability to maintain the facilities without him. We have discussed what must be done.”
“But Highness, we cannot dispose of him yet. Not until—”
“Do I have to spell it out? Find the wife! Once we have her, we will get everything he stole and be able to rid ourselves of all the loose ends. Now, you may both leave us.”
Ziad followed Rubi out and closed the glass sliding door. They both turned and watched as Sheriti slipped off her bikini and lay on Khalid’s back, sliding against him in a slow, circular motion. Ziad felt his arousal intensify. He could sense the lightheadedness that told him he would need release soon.
Rubi had a superior smirk as she put her face close to his. “You think Sheriti will be yours, Ziad, like the last two? I think perhaps this time it will not happen. I believe that my brother is intending to marry Sheriti.”
He stepped back and frowned. “Surely this can’t be true. She’s not of his clan.”
“No, she’s not.” Rubi nodded at his cell phone. “And make me a copy of the video.”
The Suburban had been following Mac for two blocks now. As he continued through the pain of his first morning run after almost two weeks of confinement at the prison at Fort Bragg, he was more curious than afraid. Who were these guys? And why were they following him?
Two weeks ago, shortly after returning to Fort Bragg, he and his team had been arrested and placed on suspension pending formal charges. Scotty had been packed off back to Hereford in the United Kingdom to face a disciplinary hearing in front of his SAS Commanding Officer. Termite and Freckle were still waiting on charges to be laid.
Mac had had the book thrown at him. Rumor had it his case had become embroiled in some sort of power play between two Generals at the Pentagon, one of whom was trying to curb the influence and budget allocation of the Special Operations Command. Mac had been charged with two counts of negligent homicide relating to the deaths of the two girls killed by the kidnappers, and one count of aggravated assault on the youth Mamexi, who apparently had lost a leg. Mac’s attorney had advised him that it was certain he would face a full court-martial, which would mean another year or more on suspension from Delta, then a trial. He was prepared to accept that he had fucked up, allowing the two young Mexican girls to be killed. It would stay on his conscience for the rest of his life. But negligent homicide? That was crazy.
His biggest fear was that they would lose the trail, that Sophia and Danni would vanish forever, denied justice. If that happened, it wouldn’t matter what the court-martial found. During Mac’s confinement he had kept in touch with Bob, who’d continued to follow up leads with limited assistance from the FBI, which apologized that it was fully occupied stopping terrorists and curbing the Mexican drug cartels. He was only sorry he couldn’t help Bob more actively. Last he’d heard, Bob was following up leads from a list of flights out of Ciudad Juarez, which Marvin had somehow obtained from an FBI source, an investor in one of Marvin’s condos in southern Baja.
Mac jogged across the road to the old Confederate cemetery where he stopped to recover, his face flushed with thumping blood. The freshly mown grass had a minty scent and the early morning dew caused clippings to cling to his sneakers. He found a dry area and started doing sit-ups. The Suburban pulled over and the two men inside sat watching. Maybe they were just there to make sure he didn’t skip town before tomorrow’s Article Thirty-Two hearing.
In darker moments of his confinement over the past two weeks, Mac had reflected on how some guys in a similar situation might eat the barrel of a pistol. But taking the easy way out wasn’t him. In the bathroom mirror one morning, he’d been jolted by the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes and the furry tongue. He was determined to expunge the crap that had been filling his mind and his time in custody. He’d had it with accepting what the politicians at the Pentagon were dishing out. Time to fight. He would tough it out. Whatever he had to do, he was prepared. Any deal, so long as it enabled him to continue the search for Sophia and Danni.
He had made the call to his Commanding Officer, Colonel Matheson.
Back on his feet, he jogged off along the track into a thicket of trees. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the men step out of the vehicle and begin to walk quickly after him. An average-height moon face in uniform, early thirties, and a tall suit, late forties, shiny scalp, John Lennon glasses, trimmed graying goatee. He doubted they were here to kill him. A minute later, after they hurried past where he was hiding, he stepped out onto the track.
“Looking for me?” he said, jogging on the spot.
The two men swung around. The tall one with glasses moved his hand towards his waist, then relaxed. He was carrying. But if someone wanted to eliminate the problem called Lee McCloud, there were plenty of better ways to do it. He sized them up. They both had the physiques of office workers. No contest.
“Sergeant Lee McCloud? I’m Captain Bryce Taylor from JAG. This is Derek Wisebaum.”
“A Confederate cemetery’s a hell of a place to offer a plea bargain.”
Taylor brushed aside a low hanging limb. “As you’re aware, Sergeant, your case has created some difficulties in Washington…”
Mac held up his hand. “Guys, I don’t want to hear this bullshit, all right? My lawyer told me someone wanted my scalp for a career hump. Whatever, I don’t care.”
“You’ll want to listen to our offer,” Wisebaum said coolly, “if you care at all about your buddies.”
“Excuse me?” Mac’s muscles tensed at the implied threat. Wisebaum was a player—it was obvious from his eyes. That ruthless glint. Probably a spook, he decided, or some General’s shit cleaner. Mac made it plain by the set of his jaw, the narrowing of his eyes and the hands on his hips that he did not take kindly to threats.
Taylor spread his palms in a peace gesture and shot a disapproving look at Wisebaum. “Perhaps you’d be so good as to give us five minutes to explain, so we can all stop the posturing.”
“You have two,” he said. He took a swig from his water bottle. “And do us all a favor. Tell it like it is.”
Taylor swatted at one of the plentiful early morning mosquitoes. “All right. If tomorrow’s hearing goes as expected, you’ll face a general court-martial in a year’s time, at which you’ll be found guilty of the two charges of negligent homicide relating to the girls. You’ll be sentenced to two to five years’ incarceration, loss of rank and dishonorable discharge.”
“You can’t possibly know that. You’d have to own the jury and the judge.”
Wisebaum took off his glasses and shook his head.
“It’s politics, Sergeant.” Taylor continued: “Let’s say I’m wrong and you’re found not guilty. The powers in Washington will bring a murder charge for the four Mexican national police you killed or ordered to be killed.”
“You can’t do that. This isn’t fucking Mexico.”
Wisebaum rolled his eyes. “They can. And they will. Certain people want to make your case last.”
“And certain other people need the case to go away.” Despite the isolation of their surroundings, Taylor had lowered his voice. He smacked another mosquito. “We believe we have a solution. We can abort the court-martial today. You walk, with an unblemished record. And Sergeant Tucker and Sergeant Franks—Termite and Freckle—will also be off the hook.”
Mac laughed. These two expected him to trust their word? “But…?”
Taylor seemed to sense his skepticism. “But, you would have to plead guilty to the charges of AWOL and unauthorized use of weapons. You’d receive an Article Fifteen slap on the wrist and a standard discharge from the Army. No black marks. Full pension rights.”
“Leave the Army? What do I get out of that? I’ve got nothing to fall back on. No house. Not much saved. A soldier’s skillset…”
“You’d do some work for Mr. Wisebaum as part of the deal. A well-paid contract, as I understand it, doing the sort of work you’re good at.”
Mac studied Wisebaum’s eyes. “You with Blackwater XE? DynCorp? CIA?”
“All in good time,” Wisebaum said, putting on his glasses.
“I’m not leaving the Army–”
“The choices, McCloud,” Wisebaum interrupted, “are jail time with a dishonorable discharge, or the plea bargain and work with my agency. Your poison, bud.”
“Fuck, I don’t even know you guys!”
Wisebaum shrugged and gestured at Taylor. “Call him, Bryce.”
Taylor dialed a number and passed Mac the cell phone. It rang for a moment.
“Colonel? It’s Sergeant Lee McCloud. Sorry to—”
“Quite all right, Sergeant. You with Captain Taylor and Mr. Wisebaum?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you for—”
“I know you’re a team player, Mac. It’s unfortunate you’ve ended up in the middle of this. Your own fault, of course. But we obviously need this disposed of quickly, and quietly, just as you want your freedom. I understand Mr. Wisebaum has an important mission for you that I understand will give you the scope you need in that regard.”
“Yes, sir. But—”
“Your record will be unblemished. Mac, I want to extend my gratitude for your outstanding service with SFOD-Delta. Your actions during your time with us saved many lives. I know that’s not enough, but you guys are used to that. There it is. Whatever you decide, good luck, soldier.”
“Thank you, sir. I—”
Matheson had hung up.
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me you’d been speaking with Matheson?” Mac held out his hand. “Give me the document.”
He quickly read the plea bargain agreement and signed the three copies with the pen Taylor offered.
“I’ll be in touch,” Wisebaum said, and he and Taylor turned and strode away towards their car.
Mac stared at his copy and his vision blurred. He felt numb. He knew he should be pleased the matter had been settled. But he hadn’t expected the outcome to require him to leave the Army. The Army was his life. His family. His friends. His profession for the last sixteen years. Whatever Wisebaum had in mind for him, it could never replace the times he’d spent with his Delta buddies.
He jogged back to the house and called Freckle and Termite to tell them the news. Eventually, he noticed the messages on the screen and checked them. There was a voice mail from Jogesh Khoury, his contact in Paris, telling him there was no news yet on The Frenchman, but that he would keep digging. There were also four missed calls from Bob’s cell phone, but no messages. He returned Bob’s call. At least he’d have a few days to help with the search before he’d be Wisebaum’s boy.
Bob’s wife, Elena answered. “Mac! Thank God you’ve called. We’re in Martinique following a lead. Bob’s been shot.”
“Just take it easy, Austin. You don’t understand.” Tally Francis said as she stood with her weight on her toes in the hallway of her house, ready to react if he attacked.
Austin Shephard was unshaved and reeked of beer and sweat. His shirt was wrinkled and buttoned wrong. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was ex-Army who’d done it tough in Afghanistan, and being from Nebraska he’d been raised on beef seven days a week. Quick on his feet too—at least when he was sober. Tally was expecting the confrontation to end in violence like the last time, two weeks ago. She was still bruised and sore from then.
But this time she was better prepared.
She cursed herself for not bothering to check the security viewer before opening the door. But it had been natural for her to assume the buzzer was Rosco forgetting something; after all he’d only left a couple minutes earlier. Austin must have been watching, waiting for him to leave.
Austin’s nostrils flared. He started jabbing his finger like he was stabbing a knife. “No, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. I come here to apologize and you shove it right in my face. That’s what’s not right. What is it now, two weeks? And already you’re fucking other guys! You think I don’t know? Jesus, I’ve seen the look on your face after a good fuck. The cheeks, the eyes. Look at yourself! You know what you are? You’re a disgrace, you know that? A fucking, whoring disgrace!”
She crossed her arms defiantly, refusing to be drawn into an argument, but remaining alert in case she had to move fast. This time she wasn’t going to let him get the jump on her. It was difficult to maintain a calm voice, and inside she felt like churning concrete. She had to get him out the door before he lost it. Her two-story house backed onto bush in the Montreal suburb of Laval, and neighbors would not be rushing to her aid any time soon.
“It was only Rosco from work,” she said. “I’d hardly be rushing into another relationship after us. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“How convenient.” Austin said, as his demeanor continued to darken. “Clearly, I was standing in the way.”
“Rosco’s gay, for God’s sake! Surely you knew that. He makes no—”
“Oh, sure! He comes around for an intimate little meal and doesn’t leave till two a.m. You used to kick me out before that, and that was after we’d had sex!”
“Rosco cooked. And he likes to talk. And you kicked me once too often.”
“One time. I kicked you one time…”
“As I said. Once too often. And now I think you should leave.”
“Look, I said I was sorry. How many times do I have to fucking apologize?”
“Do you want me to call your mother? You obviously can’t drive.”
An aggressive laugh. Austin glared at her. He looked like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
“You fucking deserved it. You think you’re so smart, don’t you, in your nice, cushy office overlooking the lake. Looking down on people like me who have to do the dirty work in the field.”
“Just go, Austin. You need help. The Army will—”
“Don’t make this about the Army!” he yelled, jabbing the finger again. “I know what you think of the Army. This is about you, you skanky bitch. You and your whoring.” Suddenly his expression turned morose. “How can you treat me like this? After what I’ve been through…”
He began to cry.
Tally lowered her voice. “I think you should leave.”
He whimpered as the tears ran down his cheeks. Tally didn’t move any closer. She knew better. That was how he’d surprised her last time. Austin sniffled and his face twitched, as though he was trying to decide what to do. He ran his fingers through scraggy hair that was graying prematurely, and began to dawdle to the door.
Keeping her distance, looking for objects she could grab if he lashed out, Tally followed. Usually, once he started to cry, Austin would become morose and introspective. Their boss, Derek Wisebaum, had tried to help, but in the end, cutting him loose was their only option. Even then, Derek was worried he would try to hurt her. Derek told her he was trying to get Austin into treatment.
“You want me to call a cab?”
He turned to her, his eyes full of shame. “God, I’m sorry, Tal. I’m so fucked up, aren’t I? So. Fucked. Up. Oh, God, let me stay. Please… just tonight.”
The hairs prickled on the back of her neck at the thought of Austin prowling around while she slept. “No. Come on, I’ll—”
“I’ll sleep here, downstairs. On the couch. I’m sooo tired.”
“You’re afraid of me, aren’t you? Scared I’ll sneak up and rape you? Slit your throat or something? You know, you are one fucking gutless bitch!”
“I’m not afraid of you, Austin.” Keeping her voice steady was difficult.
“Hah, you think that Aikido crap would save you? No chance! Wanna know how many men I’ve killed with a knife? Eight. You’d be easy fillet.”
She lifted the phone handset on her grandmother’s antique cherry dresser she kept in the hall.
“What are you doing?” His expression changed again, his eyes narrowing, a dark frown appearing above his nose.
“Calling your mom.”
“The fuck you are. You’re fuckin’ calling the cops, aren’t you, you lying cunt.”
That was when she knew. When he used that word. She spun around and ran, just as he lashed out. He tackled her, slapping the handset away. It flew across the floor as he rammed her against the wall. His fist pounded against her cheek and the blinding flash made her miss seeing his second punch, into her gut. She backed away with her hands covering her face as his fists landed like rocks. She tried to stay on her feet to avoid his kicks but lost her balance and fell to the floor, trying not to make any sound. That would only provoke him more. If he grabbed her around the neck with those hands….
He kicked. Somehow the blow missed her head and connected with her shoulder. He laughed and said something Tally couldn’t make out, then grabbed her hair and began dragging her towards the kitchen.
“I’m going to kill you! Then I’ll tell the world about the slick little operation you guys have going at the agency. The media’ll pay a fortune for that story…”
The sickly smell of his body odor wafted over her. She felt a sharp pain in her chest and wondered whether it was a pulled muscle or broken rib, or if she was having a heart attack. Her face was throbbing. Her scalp stung and she glimpsed a clump of her hair on the floor. A thought flashed that these might be her last moments of life; that she’d be found cold and alone, stabbed and gutted.
No! She wouldn’t let it happen. She mustn’t let Austin reach the kitchen where the long knives were primed in the block. He kept yanking her like he was pulling up an anchor chain. A few more feet. She had to move.
With both hands, she reached up and grabbed the hand holding her hair. As she had anticipated, Austin reacted by raising his fist to punch her again. But she was ready. She drew her knees up and released the full force of her legs in an upward kick into his crotch. She missed, but the unexpected attack stunned him long enough for her to follow up with two quick punches to his crotch that struck home. He uttered a string of expletives as he doubled up, coughing and collapsed to the floor, grunting from the crippling pain.
Struggling to her feet, she kicked her bare heel into his face. Again and again. Blood spurted from his broken nose and mouth, but he was far from done. He got a punch to her ribs, and as she staggered with the pain, he scrambled backwards into the kitchen. Cursing her, spitting blood.
She reached behind the dresser and pulled out the Glock she had taped there, just as he reappeared with a carving knife. If he saw the gun he ignored it in his rage.
“You are so fucking dead, bitch.”
He charged forward, the knife raised.
She fired three times. Center of chest. No taking chances.
He fell, still gripping the knife. The tip of the blade slammed down into a floorboard just in front of her. She scrambled away from the pooling blood and took a few minutes to get back her self-control, before finding her cell phone.
The voice was croaky, woken from a deep sleep. “Wisebaum.”
She spoke in short breaths, trying to ignore the shooting pain in her side. “Austin’s dead. You were right, Derek. He came after me with a knife. Blamed me for everything. I tried to…. He left me no choice.”
“Drive over here if you can manage it. Leave your garage remote under the mat. I’ll arrange a cleanup team.”
“Thanks. Now can we forget about having a soldier on the team?”
“They’re not all like Austin, Tal. We must have a soldier. The director has mandated it. And anyway, I’ve already recruited a replacement. Judging by his track record, this guy’ll be perfect.”
The Princess Aliya was berthed four hundred yards out to avoid a coral reef. From the upper deck, Ziad inhaled from his cigarette as he watched the helicopter Khalid was flying turn towards the Yubani Resort. Ignoring the men moving supplies along the jetty to the maintenance compound, he switched his gaze to the movement on the deck below, where a photo shoot was underway. He was always intrigued by the ability of the models to smile with a seemingly genuine warmth. Because when Ziad smiled, he felt nothing.
Bill Fanning joined him on deck, adjusting his cap against the burning mid-morning sun. “Strange how Sheik Khalid loves the helicopter, but hates the submarine,” he said as the machine passed over the crater ridge out of sight.
“Not so, Bill, when you understand the bad experience that His Highness has had. I doubt he’d even have this ship, except that his father signed it over to him six years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware. You wanted to see me, Ziad?”
“Yes, Bill. I thought you could use a distraction now that your hard work is finished. Marianne is magnificent, is she not?” he said, leaning over for a better view.
On the deck below, Marianne was on her hands and knees, wearing nothing but her smile. Her face, with its Snow White complexion and brilliant blue eyes, was turned back over her shoulder towards the camera.
“Oh, well, of course. I… I’ve never seen a redhead from this angle before,” Fanning said. “But… she seems so… young.”
“Ah, perhaps because she has been shaved, Bill. But surely, with a Thai wife who looks about twelve, you would understand that young meat is the most tender?” He ignored Fanning’s horrified glance and sputtered protests. “That’s why Sheik Khalid has half a million subscribers paying thirty dollars a month on his website. Anyway, all our girls sign a form that says they’re eighteen. Keeps the American censors happy.” He gestured at the other models lounging by the pool, where three assistants were busy brushing hair, applying makeup and touching up areas the photographer wanted smoothed of hair. “Which one would you like, Bill? Any except Marianne, of course. The one you choose will remain with you while His Highness is entertaining his guests. As with previous banquets, you are required to stay on board the Princess Aliya.”
“You’re very kind as always, Ziad, but I’ll be seeing Mai soon enough.”
“What, you didn’t enjoy the model from the last photo shoot? As I recall, you were smiling for days…”
Fanning turned away but said nothing.
“That must have been two months ago, at least. Two months without a woman? I couldn’t last two weeks. You know, Bill, I haven’t been home to Karachi to see my two wives in almost a year…”
Fanning turned to face him. “Oh. You must miss them.”
Ziad shrugged, then laughed. “It’s no wonder they’re still both without child. But now I’m more concerned about you, Bill. You must exercise all your muscles. I insist! These girls are just playthings to indulge our fantasies. What we do with them is of no consequence.” The ship’s cat, Fez, was rubbing itself against his leg, meowing for attention. Ziad picked it up and stroked it until it proved its independence by wriggling out of his arms. He liked cats. They never cowed to anyone, and were clever at manipulating people to get what they wanted. That was a characteristic worthy of respect.
“Once we do the final inspection and sign off, I’ll be out of your hair,” Fanning said. “I trust His Highness is looking forward to the handover?”
“He inspected the resort and the operating theatres with Dr. Xi yesterday. He’s happy to sign off on the resort itself, which leaves only the fortress. You will lead the inspection.” Ziad flicked the remains of the cigarette into the sea.
“Excellent!” Fanning looked pleased. “It’s been almost six months since His Highness has been underground. And he has never entered the fortress through the sea tunnel in the submarine. I would recommend that His Highness be able to operate the sub in an emergency, just as you have done.”
Ziad chuckled and ran his fingers through his hair. “His Highness prays for Allah’s grace. Captain Jergah has trained him on the submarine. Do not concern yourself about that, Bill…”
“You were saying that he had a bad experience?” Fanning said.
Ziad leaned forward for a better view of Marianne. She ignored him as she demonstrated her creativity with a jewel-encrusted khanjar, the dagger’s handle enveloped by the folds of her womanhood. “Bitch. See how she pretends not to see me. She’s a tease.” He would give her a lesson in respect later. “The Americans waterboarded him, Bill. Years ago, when he was living in Qatar after he’d been exiled. A mistake. They were after someone else. But they did not even apologize. His Highness does not forget. In the eleven years I have worked for him, he does not forget anyone who has done wrong by him.”
“Goodness. How awful.” Fanning put his hands on the rail and stretched. Shook his head and was silent for a moment. “Certainly, I understand.”
“So Bill, now you must choose a girl. I’m sure she will make a pleasurable confinement.”
Picketing strikers were blocking the way when McCloud drove through Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique. From their placards it appeared they were protesting stringent economic cuts impacting on social services in Martinique and other French overseas départments. Mac detoured through narrow streets that were like the movie set of a ramshackle French village. The Creole influence was evident in the street vendors, the spicy food, the peeling gaudy paintwork, and mismatching architecture, all of which gave the place a sort of New Orleans feel. He parked the Peugeot in the hospital car park, below a sign advertising Bière Lorraine, the “Beer of the Caribbean.” The girl holding a bottle to her mouth had a mischievous smile.
The hospital was long corridors of featureless concrete and white tiles with dozens of patients occupying gurneys parked end to end. A pretty orderly flirted with him in French as she showed him to a patient garden flourishing with lush ginger and colorful hibiscus, a sharp contrast to the concrete buildings surrounding it. Patients wandered about or sat in wheelchairs, and many seemed to have bad coughs. Six nurses were enjoying a smoke break behind a clump of bamboo.
He spotted Bob in a wheelchair, his left leg supported by a frame. It wasn’t plastered, which was a good sign. Elena, sitting next to him, gave Mac a weary smile. The strain of the last two weeks showed on her face and in her bloodshot eyes. She was an attractive woman of Italian heritage, and Sophia had inherited her dark hair, almond-shaped hazel eyes, olive skin and full lips. Elena and Bob raised their three children as good Catholics, and whenever Mac was invited to dinner one of the kids would always say grace before the meal. El’s cannelloni, made to her grandmother’s recipe, was Mac’s favorite. Sophia, Wade and Maddie were all respectful and faithful, but even though Mac was Sophia’s godfather, his experience fighting terrorists had hardened his cynicism about religion. Sometimes he even wondered whether there could be a God at all, the things people did in the name of their faith.
Being a midwife, Elena would probably want to get Bob out of hospital and home as soon as possible, so she could give him her own brand of TLC. She was Bob’s rock, and Mac had seen her maintain a calm demeanor in even the roughest weather. He removed his sunglasses and leaned down to kiss her cheek.
“Hello, Mac,” she said softly, taking his hands. “Thanks for coming. This must be hard on you, too.”
He almost lost it at that point. El was such a kind, loving human being that even with her daughter abducted, she was worried about how he felt. That was beyond anything he could comprehend. His voice cracked. “She’s been like a baby sister to me. It’s like losing Cynthia all over again.” He shook his head, unable to meet her gaze. “Sorry… This is not about me.”
Elena reached up and put her arms around him. They hugged for a long time. When they separated, both had tears in their eyes. Mac turned to Bob. “And how’s the patient?”
“Fine. I’m fine, Mac,” Bob muttered, waving his hand dismissively. “You sure got here fast. What happened at the hearing?”
“I’ve left the Army.”
“Oh, Mac, I’m so sorry,” said Elena. “Or is that what you wanted?”
Bob growled: “Course it’s not, El. Did your lawyer cut a deal, Mac?”
“More or less. Look, don’t worry about me. Let’s focus on finding Sophia.”
“You’ll keep.” Bob eyeballed him for a moment.
“How are Wade and Maddie coping?”
Elena gazed up at the sky and took a deep breath. “Not well. Nonna is staying with them. Maddie’s taken a few days from college, but she needs to be busy. Wade’s not coping at all well. He’s the same age you were when Cynthia was taken, so you can understand how he’s feeling.” She ignored the tears rolling down her cheeks and put a hand on Bob’s leg. “Mac, we need to get him home, where I can look after him. This place is full of dengue fever and flu. The staff are barely able to cope. Marvin thinks Bob should stop playing amateur detective, and I have to agree. You’re a teacher, Bob. We have two other children… You want them to lose their papa, as well as their sister?”
“Jesus, you think I don’t care about that?” Bob said, turning to face Mac. “The FBI’s not moving fast enough. It’s just not a priority for them. And Sophia could be…” He choked on his words. “Look, Mac, the guy is here,” he said. “I’m sure of it. I’ve found the Frenchman. The bastard who took the girls.”
Mac crouched down. “Just hold on a second, Bob. First up, how about you tell me what happened. Then we’ll discuss what we do next. I have a few days before I start my new job.”
“The Gendarmerie want us to leave,” Elena said, taking Bob’s hand. “It was a mugging gone wrong, they believe.”
“Bullshit!” Bob said, pulling his hand away. “Let me tell him. I was in Juarez following up leads, right, when a mechanic at the airport tells me about this incident, two days after those assholes grabbed Sophia and Danni. He was on night shift, but there was no work. He was just sitting around, reading. Some time after midnight, he sees an unmarked 737 fly in and taxi to the hangar next door. Next thing, he hears some screaming or crying or something. So, he decides he’s getting out of there, right? Figures it’s drugs or something. But as he’s leaving, out of curiosity he peers through a crack and sees guys with guns hustling young kids onto the plane. I show him a photo of Sophia, and guess what. He crosses himself. Starts crying. He’ll never forget her face, he says.”
That sounded a little suspicious. “He must have been close to get such a good look.”
“Apparently the lights in the hangars are very bright. Like daylight. Have to be.”
“Figures. Okay, so…”
“So, I traced the flight and it led here. Asked around at the airport. There’s a pilot who lives here, name of Jean-Baptiste Bernase. A freelancer. Lives over the other side of the island, overlooking the sea. The house is isolated, at the end of a long gravel track. Wire fence around the house. He refused to answer my questions, even after I explained I wasn’t a cop. Why would he do that if he had nothing to hide? This guy’s French. He’s got to be The Frenchman.”
“Maybe. What other evidence have you got?”
Bob gave a snort. “Anyway, the night after I spoke to him, as I was walking along the esplanade after dinner, I heard a crack and felt something slam into the back of my leg. First I thought someone had thrown a rock. Then I felt the blood.”
Bob handed the slug to him. It was a .22. Mac figured the guy was just warning him off. Mac rolled it in his fingers.
“Did the Gendarmerie interview him?”
“Briefly. He admitted to piloting the charter, but said he was just ferrying an empty plane for the owners. He voluntarily showed them inside the house, apparently. They found nothing.”
“Without a warrant, they probably didn’t look too hard.”
“There was something else. When I first drove up to his house, I saw three young girls playing outside. They ran inside when they saw my car.”
“There’s no wife, according to the cops. And these girls looked like they could be Latinas. Sophia and Danni could well be locked up inside that house.”
Sophia was trying to forget their troubles by playing volleyball on the beach with seven of the other teenagers, supervised by the guards who demanded they all took regular exercise. About two weeks earlier, the Princess Aliya had berthed at this place their guards referred to as the Yubani Resort, on the island of Andaran, and the kids had been herded off the boat along the long jetty to this camp, a fenced compound of wooden cabins and maintenance buildings with a razor-wire-topped chain-link fence on two sides, sheer cliffs to the east, and the sea to the north. Armed guards who spoke very little English patrolled day and night. There was no escape. The guards provided food and ordered them to shower at the same time after breakfast every morning. Cleanliness was apparently important to these people, whoever they were.
After a few days, the captives had settled into the routine. But there was always the unknown, hanging over their heads like a sword. They were fed well and treated kindly enough by their dark-skinned guards, except for one occasion when one of the boys, Greg, had gone for a swim and the guards had apparently thought he’d been attempting to escape. They had beaten him with bamboo sticks, with the other children crying, pleading with them to stop, until he lay on the sand bloody and bruised.
Nobody went swimming after that.
Greg spiked the ball over the net into the sand. Erika called out the score: twenty–eighteen. As Sophia stomped through the sand to fetch the ball, she glimpsed four guards striding through the gate that divided their prison from the maintenance buildings. She felt her skin go cold and called a warning to Danni, who was a little way down the beach making a sandcastle with Carmel. The little eight-year-old had adopted her and Danni as substitute mothers. Danni grabbed Carmel’s hand and they hurried over towards the group.
Two of the guards were carrying some fresh robes. The leading guard waved at them, pointed at the shower hut. “Shower! Shower!”
Sophia heard another sound and turned towards the ocean. A launch had appeared around the headland and was headed towards the beach. She sensed that something was about to happen. And they were being cleaned and prepared for the occasion, like lambs to the slaughter.
Around at the resort itself, Khalid smiled at his sister as they watched from an observation room above the operating theatre. On one table, a metal retractor held the recipient’s chest open like a clamshell, exposing the withered, blackened lungs of a sixty-two year old man who’d smoked every day for the last fifty years. On the other table, Dr. Xi was removing the lungs from the donor’s exposed chest.
“…And so the risks are significantly reduced because we are using lungs from a live donor,” Dr. Xi explained as he made delicate incisions inside the recipient’s chest cavity. “More importantly, in this case the donor has the same blood type and a compatible serotype as the recipient. This reduces the risk of organ rejection and the need for immune-suppression drugs, which often have serious side effects, including cancer and infections. And it is much better not to use anesthetic drugs, of course, so as not to weaken the transplant organ.”
“Excellent. Please continue, Dr. Xi,” said Khalid. He turned to Rubi. “This is the solution we have been seeking for our father.”
Rubi took his hand and squeezed it, and nodded, without taking her eyes off the operation below.
Dr. Xi continued his description of the operation. “As you know, the donor we are using today is a healthy fourteen-year-old Australian boy. Since we severed the spinal cord, he can feel nothing below the neck, although he is still fully conscious. He is listening to music while the ventilator assists his breathing. Now that we have extracted his lungs, we simply switch off the ventilator. He will die peacefully within seconds.”