Authors: Anthony Bidulka
By Anthony Bidulka
Copyright © 2016 by Anthony Bidulka
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Kelly Nichols
Edited by Roxanne Alcorn, BCAI, Word Superb
Also by the author
The Adam Saint Books:
The Women of Skawa Island
When the Saints Go Marching In
The Russell Quant Mysteries:
Flight of Aquavit
Tapas on the Ramblas
Stain of the Berry
Aloha, Candy Hearts
Date With a Sheesha
For me, Set Free represents embracing new opportunities, turning dark into light, seizing control, and reasserting my love for the craft of writing. None of this would have been possible without the support of numerous people, friends, family and colleagues, too numerous to mention by name even though I would dearly love to. Thank you.
Certain specific aspects of this book would have been lesser than without the help of these people: Roxanne Alcorn, Kelly Nichols, Mary Clark, Rhonda Sage, Neil Plakcy and, most of all, Herb McFaull. I also want to say thank you to the great many people who participated in an online poll several months ago, voting on a title for this book. I valued your input and exuberant interest. Although the winning title was
Book of Lies
, I hope that once you read this book you’ll see why I settled on
As always, I am indebted to booksellers, book reviewers, supportive media and most of all, my readers. You have made life as a writer more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.
I would have packed less if I knew I was going to die.
Travel-worn, I waited for my ride, carry-on and small, battered suitcase at my feet. The atmosphere was chaotic, the air stifling. Marrakech airport is not the kind of place you loiter for long. Not unlike an ant hill, if you aren’t scurrying about, you either need assistance or you’re dead. You either haul ass or someone is going to do it for you. Familiar with the drill, I gamely accepted being harassed by an endless parade of locals, all of them anxious to do something for me—anything at all—for a hastily negotiated, wildly inflated price.
After failing to see my name—or anything vaguely resembling it—on any of the placards being waved in the air by a throng of waiting chauffeurs-for-hire, I settled on a reasonable wait time. Forty minutes seemed just right. It was long enough to give the driver I’d arranged for a chance to show up if he’d been unexpectedly delayed, but short enough for me to maintain a semblance of patience. If he never showed, half an hour was a bit on the chintzy side, whereas three-quarters of an hour was playing the fool.
At minute forty-one I gave up. No one was coming to meet me. I grabbed my luggage and headed for the exit.
“I can help with your hotel.” The voice belonged to a pleasant-looking young man, Arabic. At first he’d tried French, but quickly converted to near-flawless English when he saw the dumb look on my face. He was wearing a typical costume for Moroccan men: lightweight white djellaba, with a matching pillbox-style hat (I’m guessing he wouldn’t have appreciated the description) and a pair of well-worn black leather babouche slippers.
I pulled out a slip of paper on which I’d written the name and address of my riad and handed it to him.
“Yes,” he said with a confident nod, at the same time reaching down for my suitcase. “Riad Hadika Maria. Derb Zemrane Hart Soura. I know it. Come with me.” He carried the bag instead of using the rollers.
It happened that easily. Nothing about the man—a boy really—hinted that something wasn’t quite right.
The things I love most about visiting new places—the mystery, the unfamiliarity—are the very same things that can make it exceedingly dangerous. Everything you trust about the world is suddenly in question. How was I to know I wasn’t being taken to my hotel? How was I to know that, instead, I was simply being taken?
I’d left home at 8:00 p.m. By 6:30 the next morning I was in London. From there, Air Portugal took me to Lisbon, then Marrakech. In less than twenty-four hours, I’d left behind one world and begun my adventure in another. My plan was to be in Morocco for sixteen days: ten for work, the rest pleasure. I didn’t know about the other plan. The one made by someone else. The one that would bring my life to an end.
The official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Berber. Oh shit, right? The unofficial third language is French. Better—sort of.
Despite my life as a traveler, I’m a steadfast, uni-linguist American who figures I’ll somehow get by. And usually I do. In preparation for the trip, I’d boned up on as many key francophone expressions as I could stuff into my head and loaded my iPhone with a killer translation app. I’d done this kind of thing before. From Amsterdam to Zanzibar, I’ve proven to be exceptionally skilled at combining phrase book jargon, a friendly smile, and hand gestures to get me pretty much anything I want.
Landing in Menara Airport that day was a happy reminder of why my love affair with travel had endured. It’s the heady rush of finding yourself somewhere completely new. The dizzying unfamiliarity. The euphoria of being on foreign soil. It’s like voluntarily ingesting a mind-altering, body-shuddering elixir you can never get enough of.
That first step off an aircraft is beyond thrilling to me. I may as well be a space traveler making first contact with an alien planet. My brain sizzles with stimulation. Accomplishment and heady delight overcome me before I’ve even had a single experience. It’s as if I’ve won first place in the game of life, and my prize is about to reveal itself.
I dutifully made my way through customs and security, surrendered to the aggressive jostling of the luggage carousel hordes, and finally inched my way into the arrivals area. Every fiber of my being was thrumming with anticipation. Not until that very moment did I allow myself to acknowledge the truth. I’d grown desperately thirsty over my lengthy, self-imposed dry spell without travel. Even with all that had happened back home, everything I’d left behind, I had to admit something: I was over-the-moon, idiot-grinning happy.
I’d forgotten about happy.
Given my extensive experience, people often seek my guidance on travel to foreign destinations. The best piece of advice I can give is this: slow down, stay in the moment, bask. By far, the easier choice is to become overwhelmed. But why waste energy trying to escape the unknown? Embrace it.
As I pushed my way through the swarming airport, pretty much every sense jumped into hyper drive. Smell was the first to detonate. Must and dry mold. Spice. The tannic scent of unrelenting heat. The pungency of travelers thrown together from every corner of the world, mixed into a heady stew of humanity. The unmistakable fragrance of ancient civilization, of a place where lives have been lived—some well, some not-so-well—for centuries. Of generations briefly colliding, then moving on, one disappearing to make room for the next, each bound by fate and circumstance to leave behind a residue, like motes of dust from a beaten carpet.
The sights, sounds, even the way the air tasted on my tongue, was a tonic. Discovering old ways of life inspires new life within me. In an instant, I’d gone from being a passenger on a commercial aircraft to an explorer navigating a grand adventure in a mysterious land.
The icing on the cake? No one knew who I was. In recent years, anonymity had become a rare luxury. Here, in Morocco, I was awash in it. I could finally revel in the simple pleasure of being left alone.
As a boy, I’d been fascinated by ant farms, doggedly intent on constructing one of my own. Several ill-fated attempts later, I mastered the craft, using an extra-large mason jar. There are two key elements to remember when creating an ant colony. First, it’s a good idea to place a soda can in the center of the jar. The can acts as an obstruction so the ants don't dig their tunnels in the middle and lamentably out of sight. Second, while holes in the jar’s lid are important, it’s vital they be smaller than the actual ants.
On mother’s orders, I kept the glass-sided realm in my bedroom. I spent countless hours mesmerized by the deceptively haphazard, seemingly disorganized miniature world moving at triple speed. Marrakech airport was just like that: a million scrambling bodies, each intent on their own purpose and oblivious to yours. If you weren’t careful, the tide would grab on, swallow you whole, and take you places you didn’t want to go.
I knew where I wanted to go. A moderately-priced B&B I’d found on Expedia called Riad Hadika Maria. It was very near the Medina, the walled old part of the city where I’d planned to spend most of my time. Before I’d left home I’d arranged for an airport pickup. Not that I’m incapable of navigating my own way around a strange city—I was simply following the second piece of advice I give would-be travelers. How do you guarantee a positive start to your trip? Have the first big decision—getting to your hotel—already taken care of. A bit of what I like to call “peace-of-mind insurance.”
But, as we all know, insurance doesn’t always pay off.
The plan was a good one. After all, where better to find an American hostage than an airport? And as far as someone to grab, I was a pretty fine choice. Alone. Traveling light. Even though I’m a big guy in good shape, I generally give off a non-threatening vibe. And I’m easily engaged, a trait I’ve had to cultivate because of what I do. If given the choice, I prefer blending into the background, but that hadn’t been possible for me in a long while.
I’d studied a simple map of Marrakech, mainly the zone immediately surrounding the Medina. I’d thought myself generally acquainted with the area, yet within five minutes of leaving the airport, I barely knew up from down.
I like maps. Simple, old-fashioned, impossible-to-refold paper maps. The kind with a North-South indicator, red and black squiggles for roads, green blotches for forests, blue ones for water. They provide a sense of familiarity with a place without stealing away the thrill of being there for the first time. Nowadays, online maps can show you your neighbor’s backyard swimming pool, the location of every Starbucks within walking distance, and pretty much every bump in the road between here and there. I can see how these kinds of maps, with their absurdly high level of detail and information, offer comfort and introduce ease—but for me, they destroy the ecstasy of discovery and surprise.
“How far to the hotel?” I asked the driver in what I felt was a conversational tone.
Despite his earlier affability, once we were in the car—him and my suitcase in the front seat, me in the rear—the young man who’d solicited me in the airport had fallen into determined silence.
“Not far,” he finally mumbled.
“How long will it take to get there?”
Approaching an impressive structure of red brick and stone, I tried again. “What’s that place?”
Silence. I guessed he wasn’t into playing tour guide.
I waited several seconds before making another attempt. “Are those the walls of
?” I thought I’d win him over with my worldly knowledge of local landmarks.
And there it was.
Only two words. But they told me plenty.
I was in danger.