Authors: Doranna Durgin
“I’m trying to help.” Selena nudged the cling-wrapped terrorist as he started to tilt; the man didn’t acknowledge her. To all appearances, his intense embarrassment had inspired him to pretend she wasn’t there at all. “That’s enough, don’t you think?”
Atif gave her a canny eye. “I’m not so sure. Over the centuries, many people have tried to
my country. The Russians, for instance. They almost helped my culture into oblivion, as I’m sure you’ve seen. And lately, there are many Westerners trying to help themselves to our oil.”
“Can’t argue with that.” Selena headed for the door, pulling back on the heavy lever as quietly as possible and then listening through the crack she’d made. “In this case, all I want to do is help myself right back home, and help these Kemenis into a nice strong cell. After that, it’s up to you.”
Atif nodded, short and dignified. “Then I think we can work together well. Bring me back more Kemenis, and I will entertain them with lectures on fillet methods.” He eyed his current prisoner. “I am prepared to provide a practical demonstration.”
After that, Selena simply had to take the time to find Atif’s fillet knife—and indeed, he appeared more imposing once he had it. Imposing and assured. So she left him that way, and took the stairs back to the fourth floor, heading for the opposing stairs in a series of forays with plenty of time to listen for Kemeni activity between movement. Back down the stairs she moved even more cautiously, and on the first floor she barely missed a patrolling Kemeni duo. Shortly after that she slipped back into Razidae’s office, closing the outside doors to both the waiting room and the admin’s office, so when she entered the office again, she had double doors on both sides.
She took a deep breath. Sat in Razidae’s chair. Listened.
Just watch out for that alluring sense of false security,
she told herself. That’s all it would take—one moment of carelessness. She was literally surrounded by the enemy, and the enemy had proven to be ruthless. For where, she wondered, were the capitol staff? She’d found none of the security personnel; none of the support personnel. None of the maids or maintenance people.
Maybe some had escaped—but why let them go and slaughter the kitchen staff?
She doubted any lingerers had been left alive. They didn’t have the leverage value of the chosen hostages, but they were too problematic to release. They’d have been able to give numbers and weaponry and any other tidbits they might have overheard.
The Kemenis’ own countrymen, innocent of any wrongdoing…slaughtered.
Maybe I’m wrong.
She didn’t think so. She took another breath and picked up the phone.
she thought at Cole. She might be mad at him, she might even not want to be married to him anymore, but she was definitely counting on him.
e there, be there, be there—
“Where else would I be?” he asked, playing off the relief in her voice. The distance made him sound a little tinny, albeit without the static of the cell phones.
“Leading your own rescue effort?” Selena took a deep mental breath, surprised by how much hearing his voice meant to her. She was here, she was tough, she was doing what needed to be done…but she was grateful for the emotional anchor all the same.
That’s not how you felt when you took this post.
As if she could afford to get tangled up in such thoughts just now.
“You all right?” he asked, and he didn’t sound quite as cool anymore.
“Just…distracted.” And far too acutely aware that this might be her only chance to get tangled up in such thoughts at all. “I’m in the PM’s office…I don’t think they’re hunting me yet.”
When they realized one of their men had gone missing, they might start taking her more seriously. She needed to finish her recon before then. “You ready for details?”
This time he was the one who sounded distracted. “Yeah…hold on…okay, shoot.”
“Let’s not use that phrase,” she said dryly. “Here’s what I’ve got so far—the hostages are in a function room east of the ballroom. They’ve got a whole busload of college students, their chaperones, a handful of diplomats…and they’ve got our ambassador.”
“That’s the one. And they’ve already made it clear they have Razidae. They’ve got bin Kuwaji, too.”
His voice suddenly held an odd distance. “And…?”
“You have something more important going on there?”
“Selena,” he responded, an understanding warmth beneath the response that meant
Then he added, “Is there a television in that office?”
“Here?” She glanced around the room, not expecting to find any such thing in this dignified place of historic decor and presence. And so she almost didn’t recognize it when her gaze swept past, a classy little flat screen tucked on the bookshelf between two rows of books. With the phone still tucked at her chin, she tugged the center desk drawer open, surprised when it yielded. No remote control, but she found it in the next drawer over. “So there is.”
“How’d you assess them?” Cole asked, his voice strangely flat.
“In terms of intent?” Selena hunted for the power button. “They left a cooler full of dead people who didn’t need to die. They had the lobby guards killed and the place full of tear gas in the time it took me to—”
Barf my guts out.
No, not that. Cole was no dummy. He’d start counting weeks, too. “I had water running in the bathroom. By the time I stuck my head out, it was all over. And Cole—I’ve seen their leader. Jonas White is there and there’s no way he didn’t have something to do with this, but this man is…he’s a hawk. I think it’s Tafiq Ashurbeyli.”
“Great,” Cole muttered. “He’ll kill them all just for having seen his face. You have that TV on yet?”
“Getting there.” Selena scowled at the strange little remote and started pressing buttons at random. The television powered up, the volume already low, the station already tuned to UBC’s ubiquitous international news.
Selena didn’t need volume to understand what was happening to bin Kuwaji. “Damn…they just took him from the ballroom. I
UBC’s live cameras showed bin Kuwaji standing in the dark cavern of the building’s main entry, gleaming white pillars on either side. He held himself with stiff dignity, and his expression showed not fear so much as acceptance.
Selena said. “It’s too soon! They just got here—no one’s had any time to respond to—”
Bin Kuwaji’s head exploded in a spray of blood and brain, and he crumpled.
Oh, my God.
Those fools. Berzhaan’s current Powers That Be would kill them all before they let the Kemenis go after this. From this isolated office, Selena had heard nothing. But right outside this very building, right this very moment, a man had died.
Making a point no one in the world would now doubt. The Kemenis were ruthless, and they wanted this government—this progressive warm and fuzzy, West-loving government—destroyed past reclamation.
“You saw.” Cole’s words came not as question so much as confirmation. “These are the people you’re dealing with, Lena. Be damned careful. If nothing else, we’ve got a conversation going unsaid between us…and I want the chance to have it.”
“Conversation…” Not the wittiest response, but Selena found herself unable to tear her eyes from the screen where a rebel had exposed himself just enough to nudge bin Kuwaji’s body the first step of a long roll down the capitol’s entry stairs. Arms flopping, body limp, the deputy prime minister landed at the base of the stairs and lay there. The UBC camera panned back, showing the barrier of police and military vehicles between the capitol and the law enforcement personnel, all of whom had made some initial move toward bin Kuwaji, only to hesitate at the thought of exposing themselves. Someone ran back behind the long line of uniforms and flashing lights, spurred to action on an unknown errand. An air of helplessness pervaded the scene.
“You ran,” he said. “From me. We need to talk about it. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to do that with an ocean and half a continent between us.”
“How—” Too much to take, all at once and from all sides. How did he know? And could she have saved bin Kuwaji, if she’d thought to follow him? She thought so, but at what price? Her silence, perhaps, if she’d been hurt or killed before passing along what she knew.
“Your note, among other things. A feeling. I know you, Selena.” Cole let the silence stand a moment. “Now’s not the time, but it’s foolish to pretend there’s nothing going on. Better to say it’s there and put it aside—as long as you believe I love you.
it, I mean.”
Believe? There was more to it than that. He could very well love her with all his heart, but that didn’t mean his idea of love was the same as hers. Some men had no problem loving more than one woman…but Selena wasn’t made that way. And yet Cole waited, and she couldn’t linger here, and now was indeed not the time because if they started talking about them, she’d never keep her silence about her recent fatigue and illness and what it might mean. “I do—”
With a click, the phone went dead. Selena toggled the flash button, hunting a dial tone.
Cut lines. Time to—
The door from the waiting room swung inward. The man she’d described as a hawk stood there with gun in hand. He looked so relaxed and self-assured she had no doubt he considered himself to be in full control.
And why not?
He didn’t say anything right away. He eyed her as she stood behind the desk, not foolish enough to make any sudden moves—just standing, trying to avoid the whole deer-in-the-headlights impersonation. He looked her over from head to toe and nodded, approving. Then he gestured at the phone. “Very nice, but did you really think we wouldn’t have people monitoring the lines from the security office?”
No point in lying; she responded in the Berzhaani language he’d used. “I didn’t think this line showed up there.”
He shrugged with one casual shoulder, as if to say
and you were wrong.
“Who did you call? Your embassy? They already know the situation here, of course.”
Along with the rest of the world. He’d made sure of that when he’d executed bin Kuwaji on the steps. And she still had no reason to lie. “My husband.”
His voice matched the rest of him—cultivated. Smooth. Offering a hint of darkness. He smiled, and didn’t look amused at all. “You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who goes running to her husband for help.”
She imitated his one-shouldered shrug. “You don’t strike me as the kind of man who does errands.”
amuse him; his deep-set eyes widened slightly with his whimsy, one brow quirking. “I saw you come in. When my men described a Western woman in a long black coat…well, you can imagine there aren’t many such here in the capitol. Very smooth, your work in the lobby.” He lifted the hand that wasn’t already occupied by his gun; her AC adaptor dangled from it. “A shame you had to give up all your weapons when you arrived.”
She made a scornful noise. “Says who?” She didn’t glance down. She knew the drawer was still open; she knew it held a thick sheaf of papers. Her fingers rested on them. Not your conventional weapon…
Then again, not your conventional situation. And while taking down Tafiq Ashurbeyli might be the perfect antidote to this crisis, right now she’d settle for getting out of this room unscathed—and unimprisoned.
He tossed the adaptor aside, a dismissive motion. “You have been valiant. I understand the desire to fight for your people—it is, after all, why
here—but you can accomplish nothing more. Come with me. Join the others. We will not take retribution for those things you have done…until now.”
In other words, if she made him work for it, their next encounter wouldn’t be quite so civilized. She looked him in the eye, her voice lowering. “I’ll make you the same offer. You’ll accomplish nothing here, no matter how many people you kill. Release the hostages. Come with me. I’ll make sure you’re not killed before you make it to the bottom of those same steps you covered with bin Kuwaji’s brains.”
“Ah. You saw that, then.” He nodded at the flat-panel television.
“I saw,” she said flatly. “I wasn’t impressed. If you’re worth anything, it’s only that you’re worth stopping.”
He laughed. He laughed, and she snatched the moment. She whipped the thick stack of paper at him edgewise; the pages separated and fluttered at him like manic birds on the attack. He flung up an arm to protect his face, off balance, and Selena dived beneath the line of his gun, rolling to come just beside him, snapping her leg around behind his knee.
Tafiq Ashurbeyli, Kemeni rebel leader, went sprawling. His gun skittered across the floor; he hit hard, grunting with the impact. The gun didn’t go far, not on the thick carpet. Papers settled around them, their susurrus the only sound in the room.
Both of them lay stretched out on the carpet; neither could reach the other. In that instant, they froze in place, hesitating in an uncanny moment of locked gazes—of mutual respect, equal determination and the acknowledgment of an enemy worth fighting.
But not for long. Selena’s gaze flicked to the gun and back to Ashurbeyli; it didn’t take a genius to see who was closer to the weapon and who would reach it first.
Selena scrambled to her feet as Ashurbeyli scrambled for the pistol, both of them slipping on loose papers, and she glanced over her shoulder just long enough to see him bringing the weapon to bear as she ducked around the door.
She thought he’d been smiling.
ow it’s personal.
Now he knew her face, and she knew his. Now each knew the mettle of the other. There was no going back from that…no changing it.
And it changed everything.
Except for what Selena did next: she hid. She crawled into the best hole she could imagine and, with the patience of a big cat stalking prey, she lay low. She nursed her rug burns, considered the apparently quiescent state of her stomach and floundered back and forth about the cause of its former rebellion.
Pregnant? Bad food choice? Pregnant…?
That quickly took her nowhere and she flushed the inner debate to instead contemplate what she knew of the capitol’s layout. Maintenance closets, kitchen supplies, laundry…
No, not yet. After bin Kuwaji’s death, the hostages were in more peril than ever. Not so long ago, not so far away, the Russians had gassed a theater full of innocents in pursuit of terrorists. Selena knew the mood of Berzhaan’s leadership…their need to take a stand. She was the only wild card factor standing between these innocents and another hostage disaster.
She turned her attention back to the situation at hand. The basement laundry was particularly easy to contemplate, surrounding her as it did. Silent machines with their round glass doors and mounds of partially processed sheets and tablecloths stood guard as she stretched out on a sturdy shelf behind stacks of freshly cleaned towels. Washcloths at this end, bath towels at the other, bound for the fanciest of the bathrooms and the abruptly unoccupied guest rooms. Should she be discovered, Selena was perfectly positioned to bring this tall set of heavy-duty shelves down on whoever found her—but only one rebel had come to look, and his eyes didn’t even hesitate on her.
So she relaxed, quiet and darned near to comfortable, pleased with the amount of space she had to herself.
Cole would fit here, too.
Right here. Right up against her, where he’d no doubt nibble her ear and clamp his hands firmly on her bottom and pull her close. Very close. Very…
She closed her eyes, adding in a big sigh. Tempting thoughts. Tempting to think about how well she and Cole suited one another in so many ways, now when she was forced to depend on him. It removed the doubts caused by that which he had no idea she’d seen. Him. The woman. The kissing. When he wasn’t even supposed to be in the country, for God’s sake.
Except that part didn’t matter. She could trust him to handle this situation. He’d make the right calls; he’d spread the information he had. And it was her job to keep feeding details to him. She had her cell phone; she hadn’t wanted to use it because of the hinky satellite connections and the insecure nature of the beast—some poor confused city woman might get an earful through her baby monitor. She had no doubt it would go dead at the worst possible moment. Didn’t they always?
So she wouldn’t call for a while. Not until she had information worth calling for. Her laundry hideout wasn’t it. Her generous collection of bleach didn’t do it, either. Nor would the ammonia-based products she hoped to find in the maintenance closets, the mop decoys, fire extinguishers…not newsworthy goodies. But useful, oh yes.
For now she didn’t plan to collect the material in a single spot. It’d be too obvious to anyone who saw it. But she’d bring it all within proximity of the kitchen.
In the kitchen, she planned to cook up trouble.
After forty-five minutes, the ruckus caused by her escape slowly faded. No more voices shouting along the hallways, no more running footsteps…they had enough to deal with, really, given the repercussions of bin Kuwaji’s death. Posturing, imparting ultimatums, perhaps brandishing a second, less valuable hostage as a reminder for the looming security forces to keep their distance. The busy, busy day of international terrorists at work.
They probably wouldn’t threaten Allori or Razidae just yet. Poor bin Kuwaji had been their sacrifice, just to show they meant business. Now they’d hold the other two back for more desperate moments.
Or so Selena thought. But Ashurbeyli was canny—canny enough to have escaped being photographed all these years. Canny enough to get into this high-security building and take out that security while rounding up hostages. So she wouldn’t underestimate him. She’d just…
She slipped down from the shelf, inspected her chosen gallons of bleach and made sure the lids to each moved freely. Good enough. She very much hoped to find ammonia in the maintenance closets, and from those two alone she could manufacture several types of mayhem. But she wasn’t ready to leave evidence of her plotting just yet, so she left the bleach where it was.
She knew where to find it.
The basement also yielded a lovely maintenance area. The cordless drill held promise, but someone hadn’t charged the battery pack. Selena plugged the thing in; it might yet be useful. Metal shelves, their lower legs rusting slightly on the clammy, unpainted concrete floor, held a variety of paints and shellacs. Selena acquired a hammer, hefting it lovingly. She tucked a pair of pliers away just on principle, and gathered several fire extinguishers for easy retrieval. A number of them already waited in the kitchen, but one could never have too many fire extinguishers. She hauled one along with her, and on her way past the kitchen collected a chunk of dry ice from a special storage freezer, dropping it into a towel sling along with the nearly empty giant mayo jar she’d put it in.
Selena moved past the first floor quickly, for the terrorists were most active here. On the third floor she raided a cleaning closet for ammonia and crept back down to the basement to store it with her bleach, tucking it thoughtfully away under a pile of dirty towels. She quietly sacked a few guest rooms and came away with a planter full of decorative marbles.
Sometimes the old tricks were still the best.
After stashing her remaining goods in the guest room she’d chosen, she spent some quiet time on each floor—observing the terrorist activity, confirming that they did only occasional sweeps through the upper floors, concentrating their firepower on the first floor. She heard a pair of men tromping up the stairs to the roof, and a moment later a second pair coming back down, relaxed and chattering about how the various women they’d used compared to the ones they hoped to marry.
So. They were watching the roof. She would expect no less from the man she’d encountered in Razidae’s office. He probably had at least one other pair of men up there, their watch schedule staggered with the ones who’d just changed shifts.
But for those floors between top and bottom…Selena had the impression those sweeps were just for her. They lacked urgency but the Kemenis seemed to be looking
something—someone—as opposed to simply walking their rounds.
They didn’t find her.
At least, not until she ventured back into the kitchen area.
There, a little rummaging in a back corner netted her a huge can of oven cleaner, and she was beginning to feel downright well equipped, and ready to check on Atif in the freezer. But she’d set her hammer down to do the rummaging, and when she looked up from the list of warnings and ingredients on the can, it was to discover a young man in dark olive and tan stopping short in shocked recognition of whom he’d encountered.
It could have been all over right then. The man—and young he was, barely any older than the college students he helped hold hostage—could have and should have shouted for help. He could have and should have shot Selena as she slowly rose to her feet.
Hammer out of reach. Distinctive Abakan rifle pointed this way. Best chance…fake it.
She gave him the slightest of shrugs, and a feeble sort of oh-well-you-caught-me smile, all the while thinking of the Abakans, and how so many of the Kemenis had what the Russians used only as an elite troops rifle—a rifle that was widely considered user-unfriendly, and effective only in the hands of an expert. The pistol grip was uncomfortable, the angle of the magazine awkward, and the operation of the thing was far from intuitive.
She doubted the young man before her truly knew how to use it—how to accommodate its odd recoil characteristics, especially when in two-round-burst mode. On the other hand, she didn’t really want to find out. Not at point-blank range, and not when even a wide miss would draw the attention of every other Kemeni in the building. So she gave him the smile, and when he hesitated, she said clearly in his own language, “Please don’t shoot.”
He absorbed her use of his language easily. He might have even been prepared for it. He lifted his chin, looked down along his nose at her as though he just might possibly be taller than she was—wishful thinking, at that—and said, “Ashurbeyli wants you.”
“I’ll just bet he does.” He’d probably expected her to be flushed out in that first forty-five minutes of intensive searching—as much as he’d seen of her already, he probably still hadn’t thought she’d be able to hole up and hold her ground without breaking like a frightened rabbit the first time someone stomped into her hiding place and glared around. Now…every hour that passed, his resentment of her would build—because the longer it took to get her, the more obvious her challenge of him. Woman to man. Immodest Western woman to self-appointed manlier-than-thou terrorist leader.
The look on the young man’s face changed, becoming what he probably thought to be canny. “Alive, he said. But nothing more.” He eyed her from head to toe, a clumsy parody of the way Ashurbeyli had assessed her.
Selena refrained from rolling her eyes. So it had occurred to him that he could now taste a Western woman. It wouldn’t even count as brutality, because Selena herself had already been tainted and exposed by her bold and unacceptable ways. What an astonishing and unexpected development that this should enter his mind.
Looking at the way his pants scrunched up under the belt high on his waist and the rolled cuffs at the bottom, she thought she might be able to wear them. But the shirt was a better bet, oversize enough so that although she and the young man had about the same shoulders, there should be plenty of room for her breasts. And it was the olive-green color she coveted…after all, she’d need to ditch this coat soon. No doubt every one of them knew to look for it.
He frowned, an exaggerated scrunch of brow. He sensed her mind was elsewhere…and couldn’t fathom it. Selena ever-so-subtly lifted her chest, letting her breasts push against the fine fabric of her black turtleneck.
He took a step forward. He probably didn’t even realize it. His too-big pants bloomed with the evidence of his intent, and he probably realized
with much acuity.
Overconfidence. A wonderful thing. She let herself look trapped. She let herself look frightened, and took advantage of the chance to make her chest heave with her panicked breath. He’d quit watching her face at all. He took another step, and the Abakan’s muzzle with its oddly shaped self-cleaning muzzle brake drifted away from Selena.
She still didn’t want the rifle to go off. But she wouldn’t mind quite as much if it did.
As he hesitated on the verge of the step that would put him within range, she put deliberate revulsion into her voice. “You have no right to touch me.”
His expression flickered into empowered outrage. “You are in
country! You play your political games with
people! You should have stayed where you belonged!” He took those last few steps in a rush, eager with assumed victory.
Selena dropped into a balanced crouch, thrusting the oven cleaner in his face and spraying with steady aim. By the time she hit the crouch, his victory had turned to boyish cries of pain.
Only a youngster, at that.
It wasn’t hard to take him down, levering him around her hip as she bounced back up to her feet.
He landed hard, air knocked from his lungs with a grunt, cries of warning silenced—at least, until he caught his breath. She wrenched his rifle away and tossed it aside, and as the air whooped back into his lungs he rolled in pain, his hands clamped over the lye-infested chemicals she’d sprayed in his eyes, Selena targeted the nearest sink. She’d rinse his eyes, bundle him up, and stick him in—
Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement, and she had only enough time to think how stupid she’d been, that she should have been prepared for a second Kemeni. This one was bigger, heavier and wasted no time—he slammed into her hard, knocking her back against the gleaming tile wall. She groped for her pocket as he literally picked her up off her feet and flung her against the wall again. Her vision turned to sparks and darkness, and still she hunted her pocket. He backhanded her, knocking her aside; she crumpled to the floor.
But she found the pocket. And as he lifted her up to start all over again, she pulled the ice pick free and jammed it into his ribs, aiming for the heart.
He grunted when the wooden knob hit his ribs and twitched off the blow to shove her back against the wall, one hand pulling back to hit her again.
Incredulous, Selena withdrew the ice pick to try again, but suddenly understood—he was a big man, a huge man, and even if she’d hit his heart, even if she’d holed his lungs…the holes were very small indeed. He could do plenty of damage before keeling over, and he might well cause enough ruckus to bring others—and enough damage to Selena that she could no longer continue this self-appointed mission.
With a snarl, she took his next blow, another to her already burning cheek and brow. This time she rolled with it, though it stunned her all the same.
She drove the ice pick home at the base of his skull.
He stiffened. Selena squirmed, still trapped, her vision prickling back to show her the stunned astonishment on his face and the already dead look in his eyes. She wiggled the ice pick around just to be sure. He spasmed and went utterly limp, collapsing so suddenly she had no chance to find her feet; she went down with him. But she bounced back up, staggering and mad about it.
Shake it off.