Authors: Cindy Gerard
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
Thank God they stopped much sooner in the day to make camp. Watching but unable to hear their conversations, Darcy got the impression that this was a predetermined spot. Like they'd planned on stopping here for a reason.
And something about that conclusion added an additional element of unease. Were they meeting someone here? Or was this where they planned to kill her and bury the body?
She shook off the thought and concentrated on the good news.
She was bug bitten, bruised, cut, and hungry—but she was alive. Her captors suffered the same fate. While they were more acclimated to the jungle heat and better dressed in long-sleeve shirts and pants to combat the sting of the jungle, they had to be as exhausted as she was. From what she could tell, they had little food, less water. The only thing that was abundant was the tension. And it was mud thick.
While she couldn't hear what they were saying at the moment, she'd kept an ear open through the laborious march. Verbal spats had broken out with too frequent intervals among the terrorists. Apparently "thick as thieves" didn't hold any weight with these guys. The only thing that tied them together was their extremist doctrine of hate. Right now that hate was focused on her—the cause of their infighting.
While they were fluent in English—if necessary, they growled orders to her in English—most of the men conversed in Tagalog. At times they reverted to the local dialect—Chavacano, a bastardization of Spanish and English—apparently thinking that she couldn't understand them.
They were wrong. Darcy had held her current post in Manila for close to two years. As she had with her other posts in Lima and Tel Aviv, she'd familiarized herself with the local languages. In the case of the Philippines there were many, but she'd concentrated on the two most widely used in the area—Tagalog and Chavacano.
Her efforts were serving her well now as they made camp amid renewed arguments and vicious glares in her direction.
As she'd done from the onset, she continued with a low profile. She sat in silence. She didn't make eye contact. She didn't complain. She did what she was told and prayed that Ben—Rahimulla—could keep the younger warriors at bay.
But as she drew her knees to her chest and gauged the mood, she feared that some of the younger, angrier members of the group would eventually hold the most sway. They still wanted to rape her. And then they wanted her dead.
Can't have it both ways, boys,
she thought, for once in her life understanding the true meaning of gallows humor.
The terrorists constantly challenged the wisdom of capturing a hostage associated with the U.S. Embassy. They feared American reprisal if it was proven they were responsible for her abduction and argued that they had nothing to lose by killing her, withdrawing to Basilan Island, and joining a greater force of their Abu Sayyaf brothers.
A small faction, led by Rahimulla, held out for holding her for more ransom—no doubt his attempt at keeping her alive. It also confirmed her original conclusion that they'd already been paid by someone to abduct her. And thinking about who had most likely paid them, she realized that was the biggest betrayal of all.
She couldn't think about that now. Instead, she prayed that they would keep listening to Rahimulla, go for more money than they'd already received. At least then she had a chance of being released. Provided, of course, someone would cough up the ransom demand. It wouldn't be the U.S. government. She understood that. They didn't negotiate with terrorists. But her parents would. Or Ethan.
She let out a deep breath. Who was she kidding? Her folks didn't have any money. And Ethan. Ethan didn't negotiate. Ethan acted.
Please, God, let him be acting now.
In the meantime, she had Rahimulla. Bless him. Whenever the chance arose, she thanked him with a look for his efforts.
But Rahimulla was losing momentum. His arguments were holding less and less water. He was losing support by the hour. Which meant she was losing, too.
And knowing that, for the first time since this started, she thought about the possibility of dying here.
What happened next had her wondering if maybe dying was such a horrible fate after all.
The men arrived with much fanfare—albeit quiet fanfare.
If Darcy hadn't seen a flurry of movement on the far side of the camp—which was only about fifteen yards in diameter—she wouldn't have noticed the arrival of another terrorist band.
Her heart sank as she counted at least a dozen new men and boys.
"It just had to get worse, didn't it?" she whispered skyward.
No one seemed particularly surprised to have met up with the other men. No one but her—and the woman who suddenly appeared, bound and battered, as they dragged her behind them.
. . .
. . .
Darcy's stomach twisted in sympathy and horror as she got a good look at the hostage.
She was a mass of bruises and cuts, her skin sunburned and peeling. Her long hair was a matted straggly blond that hadn't seen a brush or shampoo in— Darcy's heart clenched—how long had the woman been captive?
Darcy decided with a sinking sensation in her chest.
Very, very long.
The woman stood there, weaving on her bare and battered feet. Her hands were bound in front of her and tied to a rope like she was a head of livestock. Her head was bowed, her shoulders hunched beneath a filthy and ragged camo T-shirt. Baggy green shorts hung on her thin hips. Bruises in varying colors and cuts in different degrees of healing or infection covered her emaciated frame.
She looked beyond exhausted. She looked beyond defeat. Beyond, perhaps, sanity.
Her body was here—but Darcy wondered if her mind had gone somewhere else.
Darcy wanted to go to her, prop her up. Hold her close. Shelter and protect her from what must have been barbaric sins committed against her.
Darcy hadn't even known she'd risen and leaned toward the hostage when Rahimulla's hand on her arm stopped her. A quick shake of his head begged her to stay put.
For the longest moment, she held his gaze, fighting with the urge to disobey him. But Rahimulla was the only thing standing between her and possibly the same fate as this poor woman. And Darcy wouldn't be any good to either one of them if she ended up dead for her efforts.
So she stayed where she was. Mouth shut. Fingers clenched so deep into her palms, she felt the sting from her ragged nails.
And she watched with an aching heart.
The woman could have been anywhere from twenty to sixty. Darcy couldn't see her face beneath the fall of snarled hair. Couldn't see her eyes. But Darcy was aware suddenly that she could hear her.
She'd thought she'd imagined it at first. But the sound became increasingly clear.
Soft continuous moans.
Keening little cries.
So low and so tortured, Darcy knew the woman wasn't even aware she was emitting them.
Darcy's heart clenched tighter—so tight it physically hurt.
In the midst of all that agony, the hair went up on the back of her neck and suddenly Darcy realized she wasn't the only one doing the watching. She tore her gaze away from the woman and directly into the face of what appeared to be the leader of this new contingent of rejects from the human race.
From the beginning, he'd seemed to command an inordinate amount of respect from all of the terrorists. Heads bowed all around when he spoke. Boys and men alike hopped to when he issued a quiet order.
And when she met his eyes—cave black, deep-set, and filled with disdain and judgment—she knew that her fate had just shifted to another set of hands.
He stalked toward her in his jungle fatigues, dragging the woman by the rope. He was tall and rail thin, his posture erect. His beard was ragged and unkempt, shot through with bits of gray. When Rahimulla filled him in on who Darcy was and why she was still alive, the slow, disgusted sneer curling his thin lips revealed broken, yellowed teeth.
There was no mistaking his opinion of Rahimulla's decision. Just like there was no mistaking that not only had the leader board changed, but her life expectancy had changed as well.
"Shut her up." His voice was whisper soft yet as deadly as the AK-47 he held in his scarred hand. "Or you both die today."
With a hard tug, he pulled the woman toward Darcy.
The woman stumbled, went down hard on all fours. Before Darcy could get to her she rolled to her side and curled into a fetal position, protecting her head with her arms.
As she must have tried to protect herself from being beaten and kicked many times in the past.
"Sick son of a bitch," Darcy muttered under her breath, and walked on her knees to get to the fallen woman.
The butt of an assault rifle punched Darcy hard between her breasts and brought her up short.
The impact made her gasp and lose her balance. Steadying herself, she looked up and into the eyes of pure evil.
"You dare speak?"
She held his gaze defiantly.
"You do not speak, American infidel." He gave the rifle a hard shove that sent Darcy sprawling on her back, her sternum exploding with knifelike pain. "Shut her up," he repeated.
Darcy was still sprawled on her back, trying to catch her breath, when he walked away.
Gritting through the pain, she worked herself slowly to a sitting position. Rahimulla had turned his back to her.
Darcy understood. He was completely submissive to this new leader. She couldn't think about what that meant. She could only deal with the moment.
Back on her knees, she moved to the woman's side.
"Shhh," Darcy murmured gently, approaching her like she would a wounded animal. "Let me help you.
"Can you hear me?" she asked softly, leaning over the woman, who was little more than skin and bones. "I'm Darcy. I'm not going to hurt you. You're not alone anymore."
Darcy reached out, touched her hand to a frail shoulder. The woman flinched so violently that Darcy drew back, startled. And the keening grew louder.
"It's okay," Darcy said after a nervous glance toward the leader showed he was quickly losing patience. "I'm not going to hurt you," she repeated. "I'm not one of them. I'm an American. From Ohio," she added, thinking the more details she could provide, the better chance she had of reaching her. "What about you? American? German?" Darcy speculated, seeing up close that the woman's hair was a golden blond beneath the snarls and dirt.
And still she made those horrible sounds of despair.
Darcy looked across the camp where the terrorist leader now sat cross-legged in front of a group that had gathered around him. They had scared up some food and water for him. He drank and ate and talked, all the while sending threatening looks her way.
It was do-or-die, Darcy decided, looking back to the woman. She had to quiet her down or it was all over for both of them.
Gathering her breath and her courage, Darcy looped her bound wrists over the woman's head, then clamped her arms tightly around her slim figure.
The woman immediately flinched and fought to pull away. Darcy held on tight. In the end, the woman didn't have much fight in her. Less strength. Making soothing sounds, Darcy eased her painfully fragile body to a sitting position and held her close; held the woman's face against her breasts as she would a child, absorbing her almost inhuman sounds of pain.